“They were definitely here.” Dane kicked at the chunks of ice that had been cleared away from the tunnel entrance. “Somebody’s hacked this up. You can tell by the marks.” He indicated the cuts in the frozen surface.
“Maybe it was Krampus.” Bones winked. “Relax, Maddock. We’re going to get her back.”
“I’m not tense; I’m focused.” Dane didn’t look at Bones. His friend would see the lie in his eyes. “Let’s move.”
The passageways beneath the Sternspitze icefall were just as Adler has described– a confusing, twisting, turning mess that was sure to baffle even the most skilled spelunker.
“It’s like walking through Swiss cheese,” Bones said, running his hand along the pale limestone walls.
“Well, we are in the Alps, though not in Switzerland.”
They each carried a skull and followed in the direction indicated. The stones had, so far, proved to be excellent compasses.
“Keep an eye out for holes,” Dane said. “This place doesn’t seem very solid.”
“Dude, I’m busy trying not to bash my head on the low ceiling. I can’t win.”
They picked their way through the eerie silence. Bones managed to avoid cracking his head, though he frequently complained about his sore back. Dane suspected the complaints were his friend’s way of keeping Dane’s mind off of Jade. It didn’t work but he appreciated the effort.
“Cover the stones. Quick!” Bones whispered.
The world was doused in black and Dane as Bones put their hands over the glowing compass stones. Dane looked all around, all his senses alive.
“What was it?”
“I saw a flash of light down that side passage. It’s gone now.” Bones exhaled slowly. “Think we should check it out?”
Dane frowned. He was sure Issachar had the other skull, which meant he was probably following its compass stone. He felt their best bet was to follow wherever the stones led. That was where he hoped to find Jade, and the truth behind this mystery. He explained his thinking to Bones, who grimaced.
“But what if they’ve already gotten there and are on their way back out.”
“They’d run into us, wouldn’t they?” Unless they made a wrong turn, he thought. “Fine, let’s check it out.”
They crept into the tunnel, each cupping a hand over their compass stone to permit only a minimum amount of light to come through. They moved forward like shadows, alert for any sound or sight that would alert them that someone– or something– approached.
And then Dane heard it. It was a clicking sound, like a deer skittering across pavement. They froze, dousing their lights. Dane’s heart pounded and he stood, nerves tingling, ready to draw his weapon and start shooting. The noise grew louder and then ceased. He caught a faint whiff of a musky, animal scent, and then the sound faded into the distance.
“What the hell was that?” Bones muttered.
“Maybe Adler really did see something.” Dane set his jaw. Whatever it was hadn’t tried to mess with them. That was a good sign.
“Go a little farther?” Bones asked.
“A little.” Dane glanced down at the compass stone on his skull, which was pointing back the way they had come. “Good thing this isn’t a talking GPS.”
“Make a U-turn now,” Bones mimicked. He looked like he was about to continue, but his features froze.
Footsteps were coming their way and moving fast. They covered their lights and drew their pistols. Up ahead, the bend in the passageway began to glow with a faint light that grew brighter as the sound of someone moving grew louder. Now Dane could hear the person breathing, like a runner at the end of a race. He tensed.
“Make sure Jade’s with him,” he whispered to Bones. If Issachar was alone, they’d have to try to overcome him without killing him– at least until they found out what happened to Jade.
But it was not Issachar.
“Jade!” Dane called out when she turned the corner.
Jade screamed and dropped the skull she was carrying. The bronze crown clanked when it hit the floor. She recovered her wits instantly.
“Maddock?” she breathed.
“And his better-looking amigo.” Bones uncovered his compass stone as Dane rushed forward and clutched Jade in a tight embrace.
“Are you all right?”
“Fine. Just banged up and worn out.” She pressed her cheek to his chest and he stroked her hair.
“He fell into a hole in the floor and got stuck. I took the skull and ran.” Her breath came in gasps. “Had to try and find a new way out. I’ve just been doing the opposite of what the stone told me to do.”
“You’re headed in the right direction, but it’s a long way back,” Bones said.
“I’m just glad you’re all right.” Dane didn’t want to let her go.
“Maddock, there’s a branch of the Dominion in Germany.”
“I know. You can fill me on the way out. Let’s go.” He took her hand and turned to lead her back up the tunnel and was surprised when she held him back.
“Are you kidding me?” She looked from Dane to Bones and Back to Dane, a disgusted look on her face. “I travel across Germany, get kidnapped, all to solve a stupid mystery and you don’t want to see it through to the end?”
“Don’t ‘Jade’ me. You two are here now. I’m safe. Let’s finish this.”
Dane hesitated. Of course he didn’t want to stop now.
“You do what you want,” Jade said. “Bones and I are going. Come on, Bones.” She brushed past Dane and headed down the tunnel.
“You attract the stubbornest chicks, Maddock.” Bones clapped him on the shoulder. “We might as well go with her.”
Shaking his head, Dane drew his gun and followed Jade.
As they went along, Jade recounted Issachar’s belief that he would find the Magi’s gift of myrrh, and that it could resurrect the dead. Dane remembered what Ulrich had told him about Heilig Herrschaft’s plan, and was about to fill her in when Jade came to a sudden stop. Right in front of her a deep hole barred their way.
“Good catch.” Dane put a protective hand on her arm. “Wouldn’t want to step into that.”
“He was here.” She knelt and shone her light into the hole. “This is where Issachar was stuck. I’m sure of it.”
Dane and Bones added their light to hers. All they could see was darkness.
“Nothing we can do about it now. We’ll just have to keep an eye out.” Dane stood and hoisted Jade to her feet. Now he was even more alert, he took the lead as they moved deeper into the labyrinthine tunnels.
With each step, the compass stones seemed to shine brighter, and the tunnel filled with a bluish-white glow.
“I don’t think it’s the compass stones doing this,” Dane said. The glow was coming from the end of the passageway. They turned the corner and stopped dead in their tracks.
Dane looked at his friends and then at the sight that lay before them.
“I don’t believe it.”