“I can’t make it.” Jade lay where she had fallen face-down, the warm, salty taste of blood in her mouth and her cheek stinging from its impact with the ice. Issachar had untied her ankles but left her hands tied behind her back. The icefall was difficult enough to traverse without the added handicap. Already they had slid back a dozen times on the glassy surface, and they never knew when the ice would give way beneath them.
“You’ll make it if I have to carry you,” Issachar growled.
She was Issachar’s canary in the coal mine. He made her walk in front so, if the ice gave way, she would be the one to fall. Considering he outweighed her by at least one hundred pounds, she held out hope that they’d cross a place where the ice would support her but not him. Then again, if he fell, she had no doubt he’d take her down with him.
“I need my hands free if I’m going to climb.”
“Not a chance. Now get up.”
“I’m lying face-down on the ice with my hands tied behind my back. How am I supposed to get up?” Fiery pain burst through her skull as Issachar hauled her to her feet by her hair. He pulled out a knife and she wondered if he was going to kill her right then and there but, instead, he sliced her bonds.
“Don’t try anything.” He spun her around and re-tied her hands in front of her. “That’s as good as it’s going to get. Now move it.”
Despite her warm clothing, the icy breeze cut through her and she found herself wishing for a quiet place to curl up and go to sleep. She dismissed the thought as a wish for hypothermia. She didn’t know what sinister plan Issachar had in store, but she was determined to find a way to escape before he put it into effect. To do that, she had to stay awake and alert.
The stone set in the Magi’s crown glowed brighter the higher they ascended. Following the direction the small arrow of light indicated, they found themselves at the base of an overhang. The moment they moved into its shelter, light exploded in the stone, and it shone like a tiny sun, the arrow pointing directly at the rock. Grinning, Issachar took an ice axe off his back and began hacking away at the frozen ground.
Jade wondered if she could get away now while he was down on his knees, focused on his task, but quickly dismissed the idea. He had a gun, a knife, an axe, and two free hands. Maybe she should try anyway. What other chance might she have?
Just then, Issachar broke through the ice, and warm air, at least warmer than the outside air, flowed up from the dark passageway that ran at an angle down into the mountain.
“You first.” He stood, grabbed her by the back of the neck, and pushed her toward the hole.
Dropping down onto her bottom, she slid into the passage and scooted forward until the way leveled out enough that she could get to her feet. Issachar followed behind. He held the skull, gazing down at the compass stone. The light in the stone pointed straight ahead. Issachar gave her a shove and she led the way.
The glow from the stone was sufficient to light their way for a good fifteen paces up ahead, allowing her to avoid several places where the floor had broken through. She glanced down at the blackness and wondered how far a person would fall should they slip.
As he had done on their trek across the ice, Issachar kept a few feet behind her in case she fell through. She considered running away but, assuming he didn’t shoot her immediately, she’d only make it forty feet or so before she’d find herself immersed in total darkness.
They picked their way through the warren of twisting tunnels that split, rejoined, and crossed one another until she was completely befuddled. Had it not been for the compass stone, they would have been lost within minutes. Each time they came to a fork, Issachar would consult the stone and tell her which way to go. They kept going, always another turn, another passageway, and always down.
It went on that way until she found herself wondering if they’d been fooled. What if there was no secret down here? What if they wandered these passageways without ever finding their way out? The thought of dying down here in the dark with no food or water was even more horrifying than her fear of Issachar.
“What do you think you’re going to find down here, anyway?” The darkness had seeped inside her and she longed for the sound of a human voice, even if it was her own... or Issachar’s.
“The treasures of the Magi. One in particular.”
“Gold? Magic dust? Embalming oil? What does the Dominion want with any of that?”
“Idiot! It’s much more than that.” He paused. “The Magi were true Magicians. They had power we can only dream of.”
“Such as?” She actually did want to know what Issachar believed waited for them, but she also wanted to occupy his mind as much as possible. Maybe he would make a mistake.
“The power to bring someone back to life.” His hushed voice rang with reverence and wonder. “How do you think Lazarus was brought back to life? Or Jesus?”
“I thought God did that.”
“It was myrrh. The little bit the Magi left as a gift was enough to resurrect two men, perhaps more! IMagine what I can do when I find their entire store!”
“What you can do?” She frowned. “What about the rest of your Heilig Herrschaft friends?”
“Heilig Herrschaft has its own plan for the myrrh, and it’s an idiotic one. I don’t think it would work for what they want to do and, even if it did, it’s a bad idea. It goes against what the Dominion stands for.”
“You’re nuts.” Jade meant it. She’d expected this mystery to reveal something unusual. She thought the compass stones might point toward a deposit of the stone from which they’d come, or something with at least some foundation in science, but an embalming oil that restored life?
“You had better hope I’m right.”
“What do I care if you’re right or not?” Up ahead, she spotted a sunken place about the width of a man. Cracks ran across it like cobwebs. Could this be her chance? She needed to keep him talking. “Take your oil and bring back whoever you like. Just let me go.”
Issachar laughed. “You still haven’t figured it out? I thought you were smart, Ihara.”
Ten more steps.
“I have to make sure the oil is going to work before I take it back to the Herrschaft.”
Jade missed a step. She turned and gaped at Issachar. He’d taken off his wraparound shades when they descended into the tunnel, and his scarred face was even more ghoulish in the glow of the compass stone.
“Look who finally caught up. I was going to used one of the two Herrschaft idiots, but it will be much more satisfying to choke the life out of you.” He grinned. “Look on the bright side. If it works, you’ll be the first person in two thousand years to be resurrected. Maybe you can start your own religion.” He gave her a shove to get her moving. “Then again, I might just kill you twice. Double your pleasure, double your fun.” He threw back his head and laughed.
Jade stepped as close as she dared to the edge of the depression, and then stepped across without breaking her stride. She closed her eyes and prayed. Please, please, please...
Issachar’s laughter cut off into a yelp of surprise as the limestone beneath his feet shattered.
Jade looked back, expecting to see a gaping hole in the floor, but instead she saw Issachar stuck up to his armpits in the hole. He was frantically trying to push himself up and out, but he was wedged in tight. He bellowed and thrashed about, but lapsed into silence when his movement caused him to slip a centimeter. He looked up at her, his eyes shining in bewilderment.
“Get me out of here.”
Now it was Jade’s turn to laugh. He had dropped the skull when he fell, and she scooped it up– an awkward task with her bound hands. She looked at the tunnel behind him. There was no way she could get past him, and even stuck as he was, he was strong enough to hurt her. She would have to find another way out.
“It’s been fun, Issachar, but I’ve got go. Don’t bother to write.”
“You help me, Ihara!” he cried. “Help me!”
Still too unnerved to laugh, she hurried down the passageway, his cries ringing in her ears.