“There’s something weird about these skulls.” Dane had been examining stones set in the matching crowns on the two skulls and the odd phenomenon of the internal lights continued. “The lights are still here and they’re getting brighter.”
Bones glanced over from the driver’s seat. “They’ve been kept in the dark for who knows how long. Maybe they’re absorbing the light.”
“Maybe,” Dane said doubtfully, “but they get brighter when they’re closer together.”
“Let’s see,” Jade said from the back seat.
Dane held the skulls up and slowly moved them apart, then together again. Sure enough, the light dimmed as they moved away from each other and glowed brighter as they came back together. Dane set his jaw. “There’s something else, though. You know how we noticed the light looked sort of like an arrow? Well, they both look like that and, get this, no matter how you turn them, the arrow always points in the exact same direction. He demonstrated, first with one skull, then with two held side-by-side.
“Are they like compasses?” Angel asked.
“They seem to work that way, but which way are they pointing?”
“Bethlehem.” Bones expression was serious. “Maybe the star the Wise Men followed wasn’t literal.”
“I swear I’ve heard a legend of a compass stone,” Jade mused.
“The Vikings supposedly had one.” Dane had always enjoyed reading about early sailors and expeditions, and the Vikings had been among his favorites. “They called it a sunstone because it pointed the way to the sun on a cloudy day.”
“But these stones aren’t pointing toward the sun.” Bones took another quick glance at the skulls. “Looks like they’re pointing south to me. My vote is either Bethlehem or a reverse compass pointing to the South Pole.”
“Or we’re reading them backward and they’re just plain old compasses. That would be the simplest explanation.” Jade took one of the skulls from Dane so she and Angel could have a closer look.
“Yeah, but simplest isn’t funnest,” Bones griped.
“Funnest? Bones, do you even know what you sound like?” Angel sounded exasperated but her amused smile told a different story.
“I sound like a guy who doesn’t have a stick up his butt.”
Dane had to laugh. Bones and Angel were definitely the brother and sister he never had and wasn’t completely sure he wanted, but they were fun.
“All right, let’s put the skulls away. We’re there.”
The Catholic University of Eichstatt-Igolstadt was the only Catholic university in the German-speaking world. Its history dated back to a sixteenth-century seminary, and some digging had produced the name of one of their faculty members, August Adler, as an expert on local Magi lore. They hoped he might be able to provide them with some clues that weren’t easily found through an internet search.
“Call me nuts,” Angel said, looking out the window, “but even with this crazy mystery, this place sort of puts me in the Christmas spirit.”
Indeed, the snow-covered forests and mountains of Bavaria were some of the most beautiful Dane had seen, and the traditional Alpine-style architecture was everywhere. It almost made him want to forsake the search and settle down in a warm pub in front of a cheery fire and let the holiday spirit wash over him. Almost.
“I know this isn’t the Christmas trip you guys signed up for.” Jade bit her lip.
“Nope, this is better.” Bones looked as happy as he ever had. Though he loved a relaxing good time as much as the next guy, like Dane, he was happiest when on the trail of something lost, be it a shipwreck, a treasure, or an artifact.
“I’m cool with it,” Angel added. “I’m starting to see why you guys let yourselves get hooked up in these sorts of things. I feel so... alive.”
“Facing death does that to you,” Dane said, admiring the campus, now almost empty with students on holiday. “It makes you appreciate the little things.” Out of the corner of his eye he caught Jade gazing at him with a strange expression on her face. There would be plenty of time later to figure out what was on her mind. Right now, they had an appointment to keep.
August Adler was a short, stocky man with wavy white hair and a bushy salt and pepper mustache. He reminded Dane of Mark Twain, if Twain were an aging German professor of theology. He ushered them into his office, where dark wooden shelves sagged under the weight of books stacked double.
“I understand you are all archaeologists?” He settled into his chair and placed his folded hands on his cluttered desk.
“Three of us are,” Jade said, not adding that Dane and Bones were marine archaeologists.
“Odd man out.” Angel waved. “I’m just along for the ride.”
“Very good.” August nodded. “Tell me how I can be of help.”
“We are interested in legends surrounding the Magi,” Jade said.
Adler frowned. His bushy eyebrows looked like two aging caterpillars performing calisthenics. “I assume you have heard about the theft of the bones from the Shrine of the Magi at Kölner Dom.” A note of suspicion rang in his words.
“We did.” Jade nodded gravely and the others followed suit. “That was terrible.”
“What is your interest in the Magi?”
“It’s really for me. I’m researching the connection between the Three Wise Men and the three hares symbol.”
“Aha!” Adler relaxed visibly and leaned back in his chair. “A very interesting subject, but only to me. I assume you have read my paper on the subject.”
“I just learned that the paper existed, which is how we found you. Since we were in the area, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to meet you, though I would love to read your work.” Jade flashed her smile, just warm enough to melt a man’s heart like butter.
“I will give you a copy before you leave.” Adler took a deep breath and looked up at the ceiling, collecting his thoughts. “The connections between the hares and the Magi are speculative. The hare has long been associated with mythology and imagery of the divine. It symbolizes fertility, renewal, and new birth. The rabbit was adopted as a symbol of Easter due to its connection with a pagan fertility goddess of the same name whose festival was celebrated in the spring. The three hares are a pagan symbol, though the church adopted it, like so many other pagan symbols, as an emblem of the Trinity. Like the Magi, the origins of the symbol are unknown, but they have been found across Europe and the Far East.”
“The Magi came from the east,” Dane commented.
“So it is believed.” Adler nodded and went on. “Little is known about the Magi and, to be honest, scholars take little interest in them compared to other figures in the Bible. They appear only in a single gospel. Consequently, many consider them to be a fabrication inserted by the author in order to make the Nativity story better fit Old Testament prophecy. For that reason, a scholar is left to gather rumors and legends about them, nothing more.”
“Could you tell us about them?” Jade asked, scooting closer to his desk. “We’re interested even in the far-fetched stories.”
“The more mundane legends hold that they returned to their lives in the east, or wherever they supposedly hailed from. The most unusual legend I uncovered is actually one I grew up with in the small village in Upper Bavaria where I was born and raised. The legend holds that the Magi were not kings, but pagan Magicians, and they left the Holy Land on a sacred task set before them by God Almighty.”
“What kind of task?” Bones interjected.
“It depends on who is telling the story.” Adler grinned. “Some say the three gifts to the Christ child were actually items of great power that had to be hidden from humankind. The gift of gold represented alchemy. Frankincense has been called everything from Magic dust to the dust from which mankind was created. Myrrh was an embalming oil, so it has been rumored to grant the power of resurrection. Other legends are less specific, but all agree they were hiding a great power, perhaps to preserve it until the end of days.” He rolled his eyes. “This is where the legend of the Magi crosses paths with the three hares. If the legend is to be believed, the Magi hid their secrets somewhere in the Alps, and the three hares became the symbol of the cult of the Magi. Three Magicians, three hares...” He shrugged.
“What about the story of the Wise Men following the star? Any legends surrounding that, or is it taken at face value?” Dane was thinking about the compass-like stones.
“The serious scholars have always tried to connect it to an astronomical event– a convergence of planets and stars. The legends have suggested that the star was actually a light the wise men carried that shone toward Bethlehem. Another story is that the star was a jewel that pointed the way.”
“Like a compass stone?” Angel asked.
“Very much so.” Adler nodded. “You did ask for the most far-fetched stories. Those hold that the star was taken away from Bethlehem and hidden away. One story claims that the star is hidden in a cavern deep below the Arabian Desert and can be identified by the smoke that pours up from the ground. The local version, of course, places the star in a cavern in the mountains.”
“In my research, I uncovered a riddle that I believe is connected to the Cult of the Magi.” Jade looked uncertain, probably hoping he would not ask where she found the riddle. Dane wasn’t worried. Jade was good at thinking on her feet. “Can you think of any place this might be referring to? It would be a place connected with the three hares or the Magi. Probably both.” She recited a passage from their clue. “into the depths of the well. The kings point the way to the falling ice...”
Adler stiffened. “Are you perhaps playing a joke on me?”
“Not at all.” Jade’s voice was soft and reassuring. “I take it this means something to you.”
Adler’s eyes bored into hers and she looked him in the eye. He stared at her for the span of five heartbeats before appearing to make his mind up about something.
“Forgive me. The words were unexpected.” He swiveled around and plucked a book off the shelf. Its cover was worn with age, but Dane could read the title stamped on the cover in faded gold letters.
“My home,” Adler explained. “Its coat of arms is a triskelion– three connected legs. This was not always the case. Historically, the coat of arms was the three hares.” It was as if a veil of sadness was suddenly drawn across his face. “The Nazis changed that when they came to power. The swastika became the new symbol until after the war.”
“Why didn’t they go back to the three hares?” Bones asked.
Adler took a deep breath. “My village is deep in the mountains. Even today they are a superstitious lot and undercurrents of paganism run strong among its people. The leaders viewed a return to three hares symbol as a return to the backward ways of the old world. The current symbol is more... common.” He looked up at them and his face brightened. “I see a connection to your riddle for a few reasons. There is an ancient stone engraved with the three hares. It now stands beside the town hall but, prior to the rise of the Nazis, it was part of the old village well, and had been for centuries.” He leaned forward and his voice fell, as if what he was about to tell them was a secret.
“As I told you earlier, Magi lore is strong in my village. The name, Drekonhas, contains parts of three words: Dreis, konig, hasen. The three king hares.” He swallowed hard. “Also, there is the eisbruch.”
“I’m sorry?” Jade frowned.
“Icefall.” Adler explained.
“An icefall is almost like a waterfall of ice,” Dane explained. “They don’t move like water, but they move faster than a glacier. They can be climbed, but they form crevasses and are filled with fractures, making them potentially deadly for climbers.”
“Exactly.” Adler nodded. “Drekonhas is nestled in the mountains near Sternspitze– one of the tallest peaks in Germany. Below and all around it is karst.” He looked up at the ceiling and tapped his cheek with his forefinger. “How would you say it? Soft stone... no...” He shook his head. “It is filled with caves. You know limestone caves?” They all nodded. “Legend tells us that a cave beneath Sternspitze is the final resting place of the Magi’s secret, and the path that leads there lies beneath the icefall.”
“Has anyone tried to find it?” Dane’s heart was pounding. The idea of climbing an icefall was as exciting as it was foolish. One look at Bones told him his friend was as eager to climb as Dane was.
“A few. All have failed. Some have lost their lives on the icefall. Others returned having found nothing remarkable. Others still have sought a way in through some of the caves in the karst, but that has proved deadlier.” He grimaced. “The caves go on forever, they say. They are like a warren, which is fitting, I suppose. In some places the way grows too narrow to pass. In others, the ceiling or floor is weak and will give way under pressure. So many have failed to return that few venture there at all anymore, and those who do restrict themselves to the outermost passages.” He lapsed into a brooding silence.
“I get the feeling there’s more to the story,” Jade said.
“Only more foolishness.” Adler barked a laugh and turned to stare out the window. “It is said the caves are guarded by Krampus.”
“The Christmas guy?” Jade laughed. She saw the puzzled expressions on the others’ faces. “According to Alpine tradition, Krampus is a partner to Saint Nicholas. Saint Nick rewards the good children while Krampus warns or punishes the bad.”
“The Anti-Santa?” Angel laughed. “What is he? A fat dude in black suit? Deliverer of coal and fruitcake?”
“No, he’s a hairy, horned man...” Jade fell silent, her face ashen.
“Are you all right?” Adler reached out and took her hand. “It must be the heat in here. Open a window, young man.” He nodded at Bones and inclined his head toward the window.
Dane felt poleaxed. None of the earlier revelations had been much of a surprise, but having seen the horned skulls with his own eyes, he knew Adler’s story held a kernel of truth.
“Do you believe in, like, the Yeti and stuff?” Bones asked, his awkward question an attempt to jump-start the stalled conversation.
“I do not know.” Adler shrugged. “But, though I would not admit it to most people, I believe in Krampus for one very good reason.”
“What is that?” Dane’s heart was hammering his ribs like a blacksmith at the forge.
“I saw him.” Adler paused as if waiting for them to scoff. When they remained silent, he went on. “When I was a young man, young enough to believe in the impossible, but old enough to be a skeptic, I ventured deep into the caves below Sternspitze. The way was perilous. With every step you are in danger of the very rock falling out from under you, or the ceiling coming down on your head. I could have died, but something made me turn back.” He paled and his voice grew suddenly hoarse. “Something peered around a corner and looked at me just as I am looking at you. A hairy man with horns.”
“Could you have been mistaken?” Angel asked. She seemed to be searching for a reason not to believe the skulls came from actual, living creatures. “A shadow on an oddly-shaped rock or something?”
“Does a rock have glowing eyes that reflect a flashlight beam? I know what I saw, and I have never gone back.” Adler’s gaze turned flinty, and his countenance grew cold. “I fear that is all I can tell you. I hope you will exercise caution if you investigate the subject any further.”
They thanked him for his help, and he assured them it was no problem. He spared a minute to print out a copy of his paper on the Magi cult and then saw them out.
Dane could not stop thinking about the mountain, the icefall, and the mysterious caves below. “Professor Adler, does Sternspitze have a meaning?”
Adler gave him a wry smile. “As a matter of fact it does. It means Starspike.”
Ubel Karsch heard footsteps on the other side of the door. He hurried across the hall, slipped inside his office, and peered out through the small window set in his door. He watched as Adler saw his visitors out, and what a group they were: two men, one of them the biggest American Indian he had ever seen, the other a blond man whose serene face stood at odds with the danger he exuded with every step. Both of them had a military bearing about them, though the big Indian tried to hide it with his ridiculous motorcycle jacket and juvenile t-shirt. The women were unusual too– one American Indian and one Asian.
It was not the strange visitors he cared about, though. It was the story Adler had told them. In the seven years they had worked together, Ubel had probed him on many occasions for stories about the Magi, and the old fool had never told him the legends surrounding his own home town.
He grimaced. How would his news be received? Would he be praised for finally ferreting out this new information, or would he be treated as a failure for having taken so long to uncover it? It made no difference. There was nothing he could do now except make the call and hope for the best.
He looked up and down the hallway, making certain no one was about. He turned on the radio and turned it toward the door. “We Three Kings” wafted from the speakers. Fitting.
Heart pounding and throat tight, he punched up the number. When someone picked up on the other end, he spoke the two words that would gain him immediate access to his Elder.