Dane took it slow, careful not to rush Jade and Angel who were not experienced climbers. A faint light blossomed down below. Bones was holding his latest favorite gadget- a combination ink pen, flashlight, and laser pointer that he frequently used to entertain cats and annoy everyone else. When he reached the bottom, he fished his own keychain flashlight out of his pocket and he and Bones shone their lights all around.
They were in a circular chamber, the stones fitted neatly together with expert craftsmanship. He saw no doorways, trapdoors, or anything that would indicate a means of egress.
“Dead end?” Angel looked around. “I sure don’t see anything here.”
“Places like this are never as they seem.” Dane hoped he wasn’t about to be made to look the fool. “The sign of the three hares is what got us down here, so I’d guess we’re looking for something similar.”
“You mean like what’s right next to your foot?” Jade too had taken out a small flashlight and directed the beam down at the floor where Dane stood. A manhole-sized disc carved with the three hare symbol was set in the floor.
“Why am I the only one with no flashlight?” Angel stood with her arms folded. “It’s not exactly an essential, yet you all have one?”
“We’re archaeologists,” Jade explained as she and Dane knelt down to give the disc a closer examination. “You never know when you’re going to find yourself crawling into a cave or a dark tunnel.” She held her flashlight in her teeth, grasped the disc with both hands, and tugged. It did not budge.
“Maybe it turns. Let’s get some extra muscle on it.” Dane found handholds on the raised portion of the carving and was surprised when Angel lent a hand.
“You want muscle? You want me, not Bones. He’s a wuss.” She flashed her brother an evil grin. He, in turn, flashed her an obscene gesture, which only elicited a laugh. “On three?”
Dane counted to three and they heaved. The stone circle held fast for a moment, then gave way so suddenly that Dane almost fell on his face. They continued rotating the stone until it came free, then slid it aside. Damp, musty air, warmed by the earth far below the frozen streets, rose up to meet them. It was a short drop to a narrow passageway down below.
Angel looked at him with questioning eyes.
“In for a penny, in for a pound.” Dane pocketed his light, dropped down into the tunnel, and stepped out of the way. The others followed in short order.
The passage in which they found themselves was scarcely wide enough for two people to walk abreast, and the ceiling was so low that it barely cleared the top of Bones’ head. It ran only about ten paces in each direction, each end terminating at a stone door flanked by Doric columns and surmounted by a Roman-style arch.
“So, do we take the left turn at Albuquerque?” Bones flicked his light back and forth, examining each door in turn. “Of course, I don’t see any rabbits in here.”
The figures of five women were carved in each door. The women on the left held containers and gazed out with expectant expressions on their faces. Dane marveled at the skill of the sculptor whose stonework could convey such emotion. The women in the carving to the right averted their faces, some looking down, and one even covering her face with the hem of her cloak.
“Weird.” Dane mulled their options. “I know which door I’m inclined to stay away from,” he indicated the women with downcast and averted faces, “but I’d like something more solid to go on.”
Jade narrowed her eyes and looked like she was about to say something when Angel chimed in.
“I know this story. These are the ten virgins!” She smiled punched Bones in the shoulder. “Dude! I remember it from vacation Bible school when we were kids.”
“I was going to say the same thing,” Jade agreed. “Not my specialty, but I felt pretty sure. Angel just confirmed it.”
“Ten virgins. Nice.” Bones grinned and danced out of the way before Angel could punch him again.
“So what’s the story?” It sounded familiar to Dane, but that was about it.
“It’s a parable, also known as the Wise and Foolish Virgins. Ten virgins waited late into the night for the bridegroom to arrive. The foolish virgins,” Jade pointed to the door on the right, “were unprepared and had no oil for their lamps. They are left out of the marriage feast. The wise virgins were prepared, so they were rewarded. It’s supposed to be a lesson to always be ready for the second coming. To always keep the light burning, so to speak.”
“Wise Virgins,” Dane looked to the door on the left, “and Wise Men.” He looked upward. “Can’t be a coincidence.”
“Let’s do it.” Bones strode to the door.
“Wait up!” Angel said, hurrying after him. “You guys have done crap like this before. I’ve never gotten to open a big, scary door.”
Bones stepped aside. “Be my guest.” He motioned with both hands, doorman-style, and shook his head like a bemused parent as she brushed past him.
What had looked like a single door was actually two. A fine line ran up the center, and an iron ring was set on each side. “Here we go. One for each of us.” Angel grabbed hold of one of the rings and indicated Bones should take the other. They heaved in unison, and the doors swung outward on unseen hinges. The space behind was pitch black. Angel put a hand out, as if the darkness itself had substance.
“Somebody with a flashlight can go first.”
Chuckling, Bones led the way. They entered a room twenty paces long and ten across. Columns lined the walls and arches rose up to support the vaulted ceiling. An altar of white marble stood in the center of the room. At the far end the figure of a nude man was carved into the wall. He held a cup in one hand and an ivy-wrapped staff in the other, and leaned against a stump wrapped in grape vines with bunches of grapes hanging from the top.
“Dionysus.” Bones said. “God of wine and hard-partying. That’s the man right there!”
“Bacchus, actually.” Jade shone her light on the figure. “He’s the Roman version of Dionysus. Subtle differences but, in essence, the same.”
“A temple to one of the old Roman gods down here underneath one of the best-known cathedrals in the world?” Dane shook his head. “This is crazy.”
“Maybe not. The Romans came here in 50 AD, long before Christianity took hold in their empire. There are plenty of Roman ruins in, and even under, Cologne. I’ll wager this place pre-dates the cathedral.” Jade played her light around the temple. “It’s interesting that the way down here was preserved, and that someone along the way didn’t destroy it. You’d think the church would consider this place blasphemous.”
Dane mulled that over as he approached the altar. The darkness in the room had hidden what lay atop it. It was a black figure of vaguely human shape. His first, terrible thought was of a badly burnt child, but when the beam of his light fell upon the crowned head, he knew it was something else entirely.
“Jade, do you see what I see?”
“It’s the Milan Madonna!” Jade hurried to the altar and leaned down for a closer look.” She glanced up at the confused faces all around her. “The Madonna upstairs is actually the second one. The old cathedral was destroyed by fire in 1248, and it was thought the original Madonna was destroyed as well, but apparently not, because here she is.”
“The priest must have wanted us to find her, but why?” Dane looked down at the blackened figure. Only the head was recognizable. The rest merely a scorched remnant of what had once been a classic work of art.
“I’ve got a crazy idea.” Bones moved around the altar and stood at the Madonna’s head. “You’ve got the three kings. Kings wear crowns.” With that, he placed a hand on the statue’s head, grasped the crown in the other, and twisted.
Dane winced, wondering if his friend was going to destroy a piece of history, but the crown came free in his hand.
“It’s hollow.” Jade reached inside and withdrew a stone disc about the width of a man’s hand. She held it up and shone her light on it. The three hares were carved on one side, and tiny writing was engraved in an ever-tightening spiral on the back. “It’s German,” she whispered, “an old form. We’ll need someone to translate this for us.”
Everyone jumped as the silence was broken by the sound of stone sliding on stone and a loud crash reverberated through the temple as the doors swung closed. Dane and Bones hurried over and pushed against them, but the doors did not budge. Jade and Angel joined them, and they searched for a release lever, but to no avail. They were trapped.