"How old would you guess I am?" she asked, gently stroking the luminous blue feathers on her kingfisher dæmon's back.
In truth, it wasn't all that easy to deduce, in spite of her long, ash-grey hair and the deep lines around her eyes, for her face was still somehow ageless.
"I was just five when I first came to these parts, following the Oregon Trail with my family and others like us," she continued when no answer came to her question. "Unfortunately, our timing was poor and our guide inexperienced. He chose a little used route across the Cascades, called Three Lynx Pass, and we were caught by an early blizzard. Our guide could not find the trail in the snow, and so we remained trapped in the pass for weeks and weeks. As you might imagine, we went through all our supplies, then our horses and oxen, then even our dogs, those which had survived."
"By the end of that winter only a handful of us were still alive and to stay alive… terrible things had been done. Abominable things, that I did not question, being a child and desperate, like the rest of them, with hunger."
"It was our fellow Witches who found us, to our great misfortune, for they knew immediately what we had done. For breaking that taboo we were shunned by all our own kind, from that day on. Those who survived lived out their lives as outcasts, rejected and childless. I alone live still, and came here many decades ago to dwell peacefully in the solitude to which I'd been condemned."
"But you must have saved many lives, like mine, in all those years?"
"I have, that is true," she replied. "But you are the first fellow Witch to see and speak to me in over a century."
Napoleon watched his partner disappear over the edge of the crevasse with a sense of panic that was almost immediately followed by a sense of chilling numbness. His partner was either dead or he wasn't, but that was out of Napoleon's hands. His duty lay with his own survival now, and that duty demanded all of his focus.
Saphina sat beside him on the seat, aquiver with rage and ready to attack, but Errol's gun was pointed at him once again, and Napoleon's hands and feet were still bound. She settled at his quelling gaze.
"We won't be telling father about that, naturally," Errol said. "And of course, you won't be telling anyone anything shortly."
Napoleon knew they wouldn't let their guard down again as they made the rest of the journey to the mine shaft. He sat peacefully in the back of the jouncing snowmobile, let his eyes close and mind go blank, feeling the comforting weight of Saphina at his side. He carefully did not think of Illya's face, eyes wide with alarm, as he slipped over the edge of the crevasse. Napoleon roused himself when he felt the snowmobile slow and stop, taking in the surroundings with a cold, strategic eye.
A scattering of rusting, snow-covered mining equipment was illuminated in the snowmobile's headlights, and in the middle of it lay the mine entrance into the hillside, covered with a rusted iron door. It was Kent who exited the snowmobile to unlock the padlock securing the mine entrance. He swung the heavy door back on its hinges which creaked rustily as they moved. Neither Kent's flashlight nor the headlamps from the snowmobile penetrated in the least into the sepulchral darkness that lay beyond them.
"It's about a six story drop to the bottom," Errol explained nonchalantly as Kent came around to grasp Napoleon by the collar and drag him up out of his seat. "The fall will probably kill you, but if you want to be sure I can always shoot you first."
Napoleon glanced down at his dæmon, giving the slightest nod. This signalled their most desperate ploy, where Napoleon would resist passively, going limp in his captor's grasp, while Saphina would lung for the gunman's weapon. The odds for success were slim to none, but they were out of better options.
Napoleon drew a breath, then let his knees buckle so that he collapsed suddenly, dragging Kent part of the way down with him. Even as he felt his legs sink into the cold snow, however, Napoleon heard in inexplicable sound penetrating the snowbound dark. It was the shrill cry of a hunting bird, and it distracted all three of the men in front of the mine and their dæmons. They all looked up, except for Kent, who was still trying to drag Napoleon back to his feet, so that he was utterly blindsided by the impact of a stooping kestrel, striking him full in the face, claws extended.
He dropped Napoleon with a shriek, hands flying to his eyes, and Saphina seized that moment to leap directly at Errol, screaming as she did. Napoleon heard the gun fire, but the shot went wide and Saphina went for Errol Abernathy's throat with lethal skill. Errol's possum dæmon hurled itself at Saphina's face, biting and clawing, but she dislodged him with a careless swipe of one big paw.
When he saw Kent fall onto the snow beside him, futilely trying to protect his face while fending off the attacking raptor, Napoleon maneuvered himself to kick him hard in the crotch. It was almost amusing to see the big man curled up and whimpering in the blood stained snow, but Napoleon spent no time savoring the moment. He could see that Errol was dead, slumped half out of the snowmobile with the blood from his torn throat staining the snow, his dæmon vanished. Saphina turned to regard Kent where he lay helpless, but Napoleon shook his head. Kent's stoat dæmon bristled and snarled in Saphina's direction, but slunk back to her human's side at Saphina's baleful glare.
"Help me out of these ropes," he said, knowing that her sharp claws and teeth would serve as well as any knife. "I'll keep an eye on Kent, though I don't think he's going anywhere."
As if in confirmation, the kestrel, now perched on the side of the snowmobile, screeched and mantled her wings. Both Napoleon and Saphina paused to take a closer look at their rescuer.
"Kyree?!" she asked, incredulous.
Kyree peeped in affirmation, fluffing her feathers proudly.
"But…" Napoleon shook his head in astonishment. "That means that April is alive?"
Kyree peeped twice, craning her head around to look back up the mountain.
"Saphina!" Napoleon cried, wrapping his newly freed arms around his dæmon. "April's alive!"
Saphina nuzzled him under the chin in reply, then murmured, "But what about Mark?"
"And Illya," Napoleon murmured back. "What about Mark?" he addressed April's kestrel.
She shook herself, making only a quiet grumble. "They don't know," translated Saphina.
Once Napoleon had his hands and feet free, he applied the remains of his bonds to Kent, who he hauled into the back of the snowmobile and left under Kyree's watchful eye. He threw the guns and Errol's body into the mine shaft and closed the doors, but did not bother to lock them.
"Kent!" Napoleon called back to his prisoner before he started up the snowmobile. "When is the earthquake supposed to happen? When does your machine set it off?"
"I ain't sayin' nothing, UNCLE man," was Kent's first retort, but Kyree's screech changed his tune. "I wasn't mixed up in any of that science crap," he finally said. "All I know is that Errol and me was gonna head out to Mt Hood after we'd dropped you off, and meet Pop and Dr Emerson there just before sunrise."
"Leaving their girlfriends and the Wongs behind as innocent victims," Saphina muttered darkly. "Isn't that just like Thrush."
"We've got to get back to the lodge then," Napoleon said, putting the snowmobile in gear and turning it around. "Get the Wongs out of there first, and then see if we can't stop that machine."
And Illya? Napoleon knew he'd be passing the place where he'd gone over into the crevasse as they headed back, but he could not get side tracked in a rescue mission now. He had a mission to complete, and he was on the clock.
The steep sides of the crevasse offered zero opportunities for handholds or any other means of stopping his fall, but the abundance of new fallen snow everywhere did serve to slow Illya's descent somewhat. It did not cushion him from the various ice outcroppings he bounced against on the way down, though they also slowed him, as well as bruising his ribs and wrenching his shoulder.
All in all, it could have been much worse, Illya thought to himself, once he had come to a stop at the bottom of the crevasse and was able to assess the damage. Something was badly amiss with his left shoulder—possibly a broken collar bone. And okay, maybe a couple of those ribs were cracked, rather than bruised, but he was still ambulatory, for what it was worth.
"I don't think we're going to climb out of this," Pasha remarked, glancing up the steep slope to the dim stars gleaming far above.
"No, but there are other directions we can go," Illya said, extracting a mini torch from his pants pocket. Kent and Errol had divested them of their guns and communicators, but hadn't bothered to look for anything else. As a result, Ilya still had this light, a couple of knives, a garrote, two protein bars and a set of lock picks.
He used one of the knives to cut his feet free, then had a look around. The light of the torch showed Illya that the crack in the glacier into which they'd fallen extended in both directions, but gave no clue as to which way might lead to rescue or freedom.
"Heading this way might take us to the edge of the glacier," Illya mused as Pasha scouted ahead a few yards in that direction.
"It might," Pasha answered after a moment, "but it also looks as if it gets deeper and narrower up ahead. We could get trapped."
Illya nodded and swung the light around in the other direction. "On the other hand, the crack looks like it may be getting shallower up the other way," he said. "It might take us to where we could climb out." He waited while Pasha returned to him and then tried the other direction. Illya watched him till he passed just out of the range of the torch's light.
"It may be getting shallower this way," Pasha sounded dubious about this. "But I can smell something from this direction… something warm, and sulphury."
"I like the warm part," Illya said, setting out in the direction he'd sent Pasha. It was slow going from the start, as the footing at the bottom of the crevasse was treacherous at best, he dared not use his left arm to balance himself, and Illya's ribs complained with every step. Missteps could be excruciating, and furthermore, Illya was dressed for infiltration, not an arctic expedition. He knew he had to keep moving, but he did not know how long he would be able to continue doing so.
Steadying himself against the crevasse walls, Illya pushed forward—some steps landing in knee deep snow, others on slippery ice boulders which might shift under foot. One such had him falling to land on his side with the probably cracked ribs, and for a moment he could barely breath at all, until the pain subsided. He lay in the cold snow for some minutes afterward, recovering his strength and breath as Pasha licked his face and quietly urged him up.
As the time passed, Illya's hopes that this end of the crevasse would lead him to the surface began to fade, and any notions of the 'warmth' Pasha had smelled seemed little more than a mirage. He felt himself growing sleepy, and knew what it meant, but could do nothing to allay it.
"No, no, we mustn't rest!" Pasha urged him and Illya realized that he had stopped, but didn't remember deciding to do so.
"We may be in trouble, lyubov," Illya said after a few more stumbling steps. "I… don't know how much longer I can keep going."
"But we have to!" Pasha urged. "Napoleon is counting on us!"
Thoughts of his partner, of the stricken look on his face as he'd seen Illya disappear into the crevasse, kept Illya going for several more minutes, but when he floundered into a patch of waist deep snow, Illya felt his reserves come to an end. He struggled to push himself up one handed, straining the muscles passing over his cracked rib, and collapsed with a cry.
"I can't, Pasha, I'm sorry," he gasped. "I can't go further. I've got nothing left."
"You've got a couple of protein bars, right?" Pasha insisted. "Eat on of those, get your strength back, and stay awake! I'll go on ahead and find what the warm smell is. We are getting closer, I'm sure of it!"
"Pasha…" Illya pulled his dæmon close, fondling his ears, then let him go.
"I'll come back for you," Pasha promised. "I will!"
"I know you will," Illya said. "Just don't be too long." He watched his silver furred dæmon scurry ahead until he disappeared into the darkness, then did as he'd been instructed and fetched the protein bar out of his pocket. It was cold and unappetizing as usual, but it did serve to refuel Illya's exhausted body and keep the urge to sleep at bay for a little while. He passed the time by slowly extracting himself from the deep snow he'd fallen into, and climbing onto an ice boulder to sit. Once there, he sang patriotic Soviet songs to move his hands and legs to the martial rhythm, remembering the long, tedious verses to keep his mind focused and awake.
Even so, when he heard what sounded like voices in the distance in the break between songs, he was sure he was hallucinating. Pasha's voice was among them, but his dæmon seemed to be talking to someone else. He paused in his singing and strained his ears to hear who it might be. When he did identify the voice, it so astonished him that he actually stood, on shaking legs, and stumbled a step of two in that direction, because he could not possibly wait even a second to see if that really was…
"Mark!? Mark Slate?!"
"Illya, you old sod," came the familiar British accented voice. "If you aren't a bloody sight for sore eyes!"
Without Mark's help, Illya could never have made the ten minute clamber along more of the bottom of the crevasse, to the place where Mark had been surviving the last few days. It was another 'bubble' chamber inside the ancient lava flow that made up the whole ridge upon which Abernathy's lodge had been built. This chamber connected several lava tube passages, one of which lead to one end of the crevasse, and another of which lead down to a hot springs.
"The water in the spring is undrinkable," Mark explained as he settled Illya on a patch of warm, dry floor. "But I can use the heat to melt snow in my canteen." So saying he handed his canteen—warm as any hot-water-bottle—to Illya.
Drinking a few mouth-fulls warmed Illya from the inside, then he tucked the canteen into his sweater. "You're a real life saver, friend," Illya said as his fellow agent wrapped him in his ski jacket.
"We're over the moon to see you, too!" said Lyssa, Mark's ferret dæmon. "Especially you, Pasha. You have to see this passage here and where leads," she indicated one of the many leading from this room.
"Where does it lead?" Pasha asked, giving the air down that way a sniff and catching something out of place.
"It could lead to escape, if only we were as skinny as Lyssa here," Mark said.
"And I can fit, but I can't go far with Mark stuck back here," Lyssa explained.
"But I would have no such limitations!" Pasha got it immediately. "Show me this passage, please!"
"You all right on your own, mate?" Mark asked Illya before he turned to go with the two dæmons. "It's just a little way."
Illya waved him on, beginning to feel warm at last with the hot canteen under his sweater and wrapped in Mark's parka. He took a few more sips of warm water while he waited, thinking that it might finally be safe for him to doze off, but before his eyes had closed altogether, he heard the sound of his friends' return.
Pasha emerged first, claws clicking and skittering on the basalt floor of the lava tube, and he ran right into Illya's arms, jumping in his lap like a puppy.
"Oh Illya, Illya, you'll never guess where the passage leads!" he yipped. "I could hardly believe it myself, but I ran right out and looked around. No one was even there!"
"And where did you find yourself?" Illya asked, trying to hold his wriggling dæmon still in his arms.
"It's the Thrush lab under Abernathy's lodge!" Pasha cried. "We're practically right next door!"