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The Witch of Three Lynx Pass Affair

Chapter Text

The long drive from the Portland International Airport to Mt Hood was a scenic one, but the majestic mountain vistas rolling past their windows made no impression on the two agents and their dæmons, lost, as they were, in somber thoughts. The signs dictating the necessity of tire chains did, eventually register, and when they pulled off the road to attend to it, Napoleon took a moment to appreciate the snow laden surroundings.

"I suppose this is avalanche country," he commented as Illya got the chains out of the trunk.

"Don't tell me you think it was just an unfortunate coincidence," Illya said, closing the trunk and then pausing to watch his arctic fox dæmon, Pasha, in his element, romping in a snow drift. Napoleon could not help smiling at the sight, especially when his black panther dæmon, Saphina, joined him, absurdly visible in the pristine whiteness.

"Of course not," Napoleon answered. "But I'm at a loss to know how it was done."

"Hence our current mission," Illya said, laying the chains down behind the rear tires. "If Thrush has the means to invisibly trigger avalanches at will, no world leaders would ever feel safe attending a summit at some remote mountain resort ever again."

"It would be more conclusive if we knew for sure whether their cover had been blown," Napoleon said, getting into the driver's seat to roll the car onto the chains at Illya's cue. April and Mark's cover had been as ski instructors at the nearby Mt Hood ski resort, and they'd gotten as far as reporting suspicious activity at a privately owned lodge nearby before they'd disappeared. It would also be more conclusive if any bodies had been found, but the Oregon Ski Patrol had made their search and declared that it would be unlikely for anything to be found till the snows melted in the spring.

Napoleon did not speak of this, however. They would drink to their friends' memory when the mission was concluded and their murderers brought to justice. It would not be true to say that neither he nor Illya harboured thoughts of retribution. They were only human, after all, but they were also professionals.

"Smith and Carruthers are investigating their rooms at Mt Hood," Illya said, signalling Napoleon to ease the car back. "We're to stay well away, just in case they were suspected."

"April and Mark accomplished quite a lot, finding out what they did in such short time," Saphina said, coming up alongside the open driver's door to shake snow from her fur.

"And made this follow up mission possible," said Illya's Pasha, helping him lay out the chains for the front wheels, "providing us an 'in' with the housekeeper at the private lodge they were watching."

It had been April Dancer's keen eye that had spotted the Staff Wanted flyer for the very private lodge they had begun to suspect, and it had been Mark Slate's affable nature that had won over the head housekeeper there and convinced her to hire his two 'cousins', just before he and April had gone off the radar. UNCLE research had since done a thorough vetting of Mrs Alice Wong and found her to be nothing more than a well regarded cook and housekeeper with a resume full of very satisfied clients. If the lodge was being used by Thrush, the staff didn't appear to be part of the operation.

"How much farther to where we're meeting Mrs Wong?" Pasha asked once the chains were on and they were pulling onto the road again.

"It's actually her nephew George who will be meeting us," Illya explained. "Mrs Wong can drive the snowmobile, but she prefers not to. The car park is another six miles or so."
This time of year, the Cold Water Spring Lodge was only accessible by snowmobile. Guests and staff parked their cars on a small lot near the base of the mile-long private drive and either brought their own snowmobile or made arrangements to be picked up by the staff in theirs. As both their cover personas were down-on-their-luck types, Napoleon and Illya would be dependent on the lodge's transportation.

"I'm still a little worried about George," Saphna said. "Just because his aunt is on the up-and-up, doesn't mean that he couldn't have been brought under Thrush's sway. The UNCLE researchers could hardly find a thing about him."

"Well, he is only 22," Pasha replied. "All he has is high school transcripts."

"How about school clubs or activities?" Napoleon mused. "No membership in 'Future World Conquering Villains of America'?"

"Apparently not," said Illya drily, slowing the car as their journey's end came into sight.

"Still…" said Pasha seriously. "Young men of that age are perhaps the most easily swayed to join some extremist cause. Who knows what Thrush might offer him."

"Whatever he desires," Saphina replied darkly. "Regardless of whether they can actually deliver. It doesn't matter. If he has been suborned by Thrush then he is our enemy, and as much responsible for Mark and April's deaths as any of them."

"Easy there, girl," Napoleon said, stroking the ebony fur between his dæmon's ears. "We're here to finish what our fellow agents started, not to wreak vengeance. That's not how we work."

"Indeed," Illya agreed. "That is not our due. There can be no vengeance for spies, only the certainty that the mission will be completed, one way or another."
"And so we shall," said Pasha. "Or die trying."

Chapter Text

Crouched low for speed, he felt the wind like a wall at his face, all but pushing him back into the oncoming wall of white death behind him. He was not going to outrace it, no matter how close he hugged his poles to his body or how much he ducked his head. He looked up instead, seeking perhaps his last glimpse of the clear blue sky.

It was a shock to see something cutting across that sky: a streak of azure, limned with fire. It circled back to come around behind him, streaking past his head and off to the left.

"Follow him!" his dæmon cried, poking her head out from inside his jacket. "She's guiding us!"

With no time or reason to dispute this assertion, he did just that, and almost instantly found himself skiing on air. Then he was falling, down, into snow, into dark… but not into cold.

George and his snowmobile were waiting for them when they arrived. The snowmobile was a new, deluxe model and a big one, with more than enough room for the driver, two agents, their dæmons and their luggage. George himself was a gangly youth, skinny as a beanpole and a bit awkward. His manner, as he greeted them and loaded their bags, was utterly guileless and his smile disarming. He seemed, to Napoleon at least, to be a rather unlikely Thrush operative, and his chipmunk dæmon, perched unobtrusively on his shoulder, added to that impression.

"I dunno what your friends told you about this job," he said once they were under way. "But it's basically to do whatever my aunt or Mr Abernathy tell you to do."

"The notice said light housekeeping and maintenance, bartending and kitchen help," Illya commented. "Is there anything else we'll be expected to manage?"

"Well, Kent—that's Mr Abernathy's younger son—he wanted to know if Mr Kaminsky has any experience with bodybuilding," George said. "I know your resume says you do ski instruction…"

"I can do some basic fitness coaching, certainly," Illya said, laying his accent on a little more thickly as Pavel Kaminsky, disgraced, former Olympic skier.

"And Mr Iverson," George continued, steering the skimobile around a switchback. "Your resume says you have some bartending experience. Do you think you can tend bar at a private party Mr Abernathy is giving in a couple of days? He likes to invite a lot of really rich fat cats over, and they can be pretty demanding."

"Catering to demanding fat cats is my middle name," Napoleon declared affably. "But you can call me Grant—that's my first." Illya rolled his eyes, which was not out of character for his dour, embittered cover persona.

"I thought your middle name was 'will-sleep-with-rich-old-bats-for-Italian-shoes'," Illya quipped.

"I have a lot of middle names," Napoleon said without batting an eye.

The lodge soon came into view, standing above the snow covered hillside with rustic elegance. The broad, steeply sloped eaves extended out over a wide front porch, keeping it free of snow. George parked the snowmobile in front and ushered Napoleon and Illya in through the wide double doors into the lodge, following after them with their bags.

Napoleon glanced around the interior as Saphina padded ahead of him onto the tasteful shag carpet, finding everything one expects in a ski lodge, without any of the excesses too often found in such places. There were a couple of mounted elk heads on the walls, but that was it. The stone fireplace was grand, but not overstated, and the rough hewn log interior was not too dark or dingy, even up in the exposed rafters.

Saphina's body language, as she sniffed discreetly around the perimeter, told Napoleon that she'd encountered nothing suspicious. Illya and Pasha seemed likewise satisfied, so the four of them followed George across the main hall, down a corridor to the left, and into a dorm style room, with a quartet of bunk beds set up along the back wall.
Once they'd parked their bags, George led them back out to begin a tour of the premises, starting with the bathroom across the hall and the kitchenette next door. "You'll eat dinner with my aunt and me, in the dining hall, down this way," George explained, leading the way back towards the main hall. "And we'll provide lunch and breakfast too, but you'll have to arrange with her how you want those. I'll take you to meet her next."

George was just leading them across the main hall towards a corridor that lead off to the right when an imperious voice came down from the grand staircase at the back of the main hall, calling George to wait.

"Is that the new staff?" said the heavyset man descending the stairs. Napoleon did not see his bat dæmon until it fluttered up from where it had hung from the lapel of his charcoal grey suit jacket. "I'll take them from here. Your aunt needs you in the kitchen to help prepare dinner."

"Mr Abernathy, I presume," Napoleon smiled with polished charm. "Grant Iverson. I believe I'm really going to enjoy working here." Abernathy's handshake was clearly meant to dominate and Napoleon let him.

"And you must be Pavel Kaminsky," Abernathy said, turning to Illya.

"Pleased to meet you, sir," he answered as they shook hands.

"You've been shown your room already?" Abernathy asked, which Napoleon and Illya confirmed. "Then let me show you around the rest of the place, while I explain what's expected of you."

They began by going up the stairs to the second floor, where there was a large room for entertainment and four large bedrooms, two with an ensuite bath. There was a third bathroom off the hall, across from the entertainment space. This room had a an immense television on one wall, a large fireplace on the other, and a bar at the back.

"I'll be having a few people over on Saturday, and I want to offer full bar service," Abernathy said. "It should be fully stocked but you'll need to do an inventory by tomorrow, Iverson. Will that be a problem?"

"No sir," Napoleon said, watching Saphina prowl around the elegant burl-wood bar, taking in the many and varied bottles filling the shelves behind it. "It does look pretty well stocked, but I'll make sure it's not missing anything."

"During the day this floor belongs to my sons, and their young ladies," Abernathy explained further, leading them back to the staircase. "What they say goes here. The next floor is mine."

They ascended the stairs to the next level and emerged into a small library with bookshelves extending to the ceiling and a single study desk. Two doors led out of the library, on the left and right.

"You'll hardly ever be asked to serve up here," Abernathy explained, leading them through the library to the left side door. "George is occasionally asked to deliver food or firewood, so the only time you'd come here is when we have business dealings."

This room was a large comfortable study, with another fire place, a small dining table, and a broad and stately work desk. The bat fluttered up from where he had lain on Abernathy's shoulder, to hang from a bracket set on the wall just above the desk. Abernathy himself crossed to stand behind it, gesturing his two new hires to the two chairs in front of the desk. When he sat, they did as well, dæmons taking their places beside them.

"These are your contracts, gentlemen," Abernathy said, handing them each documents from a folder lying on his desk. "I believe you'll find that the pay is, as advertised, quite generous, and your duties clearly delineated. Failure to perform those duties will result in your immediate termination. Any questions?"

"No sir," said Napoleon, signing his persona's name with a flourish. Illya took the proffered pen and appended his own terse scribble at the bottom of his contract. Abernathy took them both and tucked them away in his file folder.

Napoleon stood to gaze out the tall windows taking up one wall. The view they encompassed of the surrounding mountains, the peak of Mt Hood predominating the whole scene, was more than impressive.

"Sure is a peach of a place you've got here, Mr Abernathy," he said. "This a family property?" In fact, Napoleon knew that Abernathy had come up from Arkansas sharecroppers, but was curious to know what the question might provoke from the man.

"Family," Abernathy muttered with a snort. "Certainly not. I won this little gem a couple of years ago for a song. Had an inside line on the situation for the previous owner. He was in need of some quick cash; I just happened to be looking into vacation property investments. This place had everything I was looking for, and it's nearly paid for itself already."

"How fortunate for you," Illya said blandly. Abernathy did not miss the barb.

"I'm not gonna hear any sort of Commie talk from you, am I, rooskie?" he warned.

"Certainly not, sir," Illya replied. "I am well aware how fortunate I am to be allowed to live in this great nation and not the land of my birth." Beside him, Pasha laid his ears down and stared ahead with narrowed eyes.

Abernathy nodded in approval. "You're both off duty for the rest of the evening, to get yourselves settled in and familiarize yourself with this." He now laid two phone directory sized manuals on his desk with a thump. "It's the first three chapters you'll need to know for your daily duties, but you'll need every chapter eventually, and the sooner the better. You're free to go."

The two UNCLE agents made their exit, dæmons obediently following at their heels. Before he closed the door behind him, Napoleon heard Abernathy calling down to the kitchen on an intercom, ordering the dinner that George would bring up in an hour. They descended the stairs to the social room on the second floor, then Pasha let out a sigh.

"That man positively reeks of the sort of small minded ambition, typical of Thrush stooges," he said with distaste.

"No, I'm not expecting any surprises from that one," Napoleon said as they descended the grand stairs back down to the main hall. As they turned down the last flight, both their dæmons lifted their heads to sniff the air, and a moment later Napoleon and Illya did the same. The delicious scents of cooking meat with onions and spices was emanating from the corridor opposite to the one which led to their quarters.

"This would seem to be the way to go," Napoleon said, heading down the corridor.

"I have a feeling I'm going to enjoy this mission," Illya said, striding ahead purposefully.

Their noses led them all to the kitchen and dining room which they found at the end of the corridor. George was there preparing the tray he would take to Abernathy and paused to introduce them to his aunt.

"Pleased to meet you, Mrs Wong," Napoleon stepped up first to take her hand. Her left still held a wooden spatula, and there was no nonsense in her grip, nor in her piercing gaze as she shook hands. "Grant Iverson, at your service."

"Pavel Kaminsky," Illya introduced himself. "I am very much looking forward to this meal, madam."

Mrs Wong planted her fists on her hips as she looked the two agents up and down, the badger dæmon at her feet doing the same. "You boys hungry?" she asked.

"Yes, ma'am," answered Napoleon as Illya nodded.

"Then you help get ready," she commanded. "Wash hands, get serving dishes, set table! Chop chop!"

Napoleon and Illya started in with a will, and their efforts became more productive once George showed them where to find things. Before long the four of them and their dæmons were gathered round one end of the long table in the staff dining room. Among the serving dishes arrayed on the table were two bowls of meat and vegetables in a garlicky smelling sauce. They looked the same to Napoleon.

"What's the difference?" he asked, spooning rice onto his plate.
"
The bowl by you is for regular staff," George explained. "Auntie makes it 'home style' for the two of us."

"Home style?" Illya asked.

"More spicy," explained Mrs Wong. "Too spicy for you, yankee boy."

"I am no yankee!" said Illya said with a glower.

"Your temper, Pavel," Pasha whispered from under his chair.

"I will try some of your 'home style', if you please," Illya said, ignoring his dæmon.

Napoleon rolled his eyes and watched as George gave a sigh and served a small portion from the 'home style' bowl onto the rice on Illya's plate. Fearlessly, Illya took a large bite, and all at the table watched as his fair complexion went from its usual wintery pale to beet red in seconds.

Napoleon hid his smirk as he tucked into his food—a garlicky, smoky and pleasantly spicy concoction which spoke well of the chef's skill. Illya finished his small portion of 'homestyle' with the aid of two glasses of water and half the rice on his plate.

"How can you even taste this?" Illya asked George accusingly as he served himself from the 'staff' bowl.

George shrugged. "Grew up with it," he said. "Our family's from the south of China, Sichuan province. A lot of the food is spicy like this."
"If it's all as delicious as this, it's sure to catch on in the US," Napoleon said, mouth not quite full. "If you tone down the spice."

"You're not the first person, Mr Kaminsky, to run afoul of Aunty Alice's 'home style' spicing," George said. "Some people can't seem to resist a dare."

"Some people indeed," hummed Saphina from beside Napoleon's chair.

Once dinner was done and Mrs Wong ensconced back in her own sitting room watching her favorite Chinese soap operas, George delivered Mr Abernathy's meal, then returned to the table with the two UNCLE agents, nibbling on Mrs Wong's delightful almond cookies and discussing the typical schedule and duties they'd commence tomorrow. After dessert, the three of them worked together to wash up and put away the kitchen. Then George showed them the last parts of the lodge they hadn't seen yet.

They began with the a door at the end of the hall they were on, which led to a large garage, with the one large snowmobile and another older, smaller model currently parked there, and spaces for two more.

"Those are for Kent and Errol's snowmobiles," George explained. "They're out at the night skiing at Mt Hood with their girlfriends, and they'll be back around eleven."

"Will we be expected to do anything for them tonight?" Napoleon asked, assessing the space for useful tools and supplies, or suspicious ones.

"Not tonight, no," George answered. "At most, Kent or one of the girls might ask for a hot toddy or something, but you're not officially on duty till tomorrow."

From the garage they headed back inside and back down the corridor to a door at the rear of the main hall which took them to the basement. Here George showed them the laundry room, the trash incinerator, a weight room where Illya would be working with Kent, and a game room, with billiards, a card table, a dart board and so forth. There was a mini bar here as well, but George said that the Abernathys seldom used it.

Behind the mini bar was another door, with a wooden plaque showing a picture of a wine bottle on it, but George did not open it. "It's always locked," he said, leading them back upstairs. "When Abernathy wants wine with dinner, he goes in there himself, and he locks it behind him when he comes out with the wine. He says there's some valuable bottles in there, and he doesn't trust his staff or his guests. I have seen him go in with his sons, and sometimes with his guests, but he's never taken me or Aunty."

Napoleon exchanged knowing glances. This seemed an obvious ingress to the secret Thrush facilities. "And if we want wine with our own dinners?" Napoleon asked as they headed back upstairs.

"You'll have to buy your own in Government Camp," George answered. "It's the nearest place with a liquor store."

Back in their room, Illya and Napoleon settled into neighboring bunks to read the required three chapters from their employee manuals. From this they learned that breakfast would be served at 7am, and they would be expected to be on call from 8:30. At nine, Illya would meet Kent Abernathy in the weight room for training, while Napoleon would begin his bar inventory so that any shortcomings could be remedied by George when he went out to do the shopping after lunch.

The rest of their time would be spent on various domestic chores and maintenance work, depending on the day of the week and the demands of the Abernathys and their guests. They would definitely be working for their wages from Abernathy, but not by any means too busy to carry out their duties for UNCLE.

"I recommend we start by bugging the heck out of the whole place," Napoleon said, setting his employee manual aside. They'd come prepared to do just that, with dozens of listening devices and several recorders with miles of recording tape.

"Agreed," said Illya. "And what about that wine cellar? It seems almost too obvious, but…"

"But we really have to give it a look," Napoleon said. "Let's wait until we've got a better idea of everyone's routines. Then we'll be able to chose the safest time to investigate."

They began the next day with a hearty (American style) breakfast from Mrs Wong. Then they were introduced to Abernathy's two sons, Errol, and his possum dæmon, and Kent, with his stoat dæmon.

Introductions made, Illya promptly followed Kent down to the weight room to spend two hours training with him, and Napoleon decamped to the social room to begin his inventory of the bar supplies. They left listening devices everywhere they went, though Napoleon had to be surreptitious in planting his. Errol spent much of his morning using the phone in the room where Napoleon worked, in the corner opposite the bar, doing various business deals, while his possum dæmon occupied herself with grooming and throwing suspicious glances in Napoleon's direction from time to time.

After lunch, Napoleon and Illya were put to work washing the windows—a task possibly intended as some sort of hazing, but which pleased the two agents no end. They'd wanted very much to place a bug in Abernathy's office but had no idea of how they would manage it. Now they could use some of their newest and best listening tech—a parabolic microphone that captured all the sounds in a room from the vibrations in a window pane.

The next day was Friday, one day before the Abernathys' soiree, so Illya and Napoleon spent the day vacuuming carpets and cleaning the bathrooms, which represented yet more opportunities to plant bugs in various strategic locations. Napoleon also got a look at the wine cellar door while vacuuming in the game room.

Their plans to investigate it that night were curtailed by a screaming row between Kent and his girlfriend, Ginny, which ranged over the whole house and lasted well into the early morning hours. George and Mrs Wong explained to them the next morning, as they sat, underslept and bleary-eyed around the kitchen table, that these were a semi regular occurrence, and that nothing would be said about it the next day.

"Aunty thinks it's something to do with the moon," George said. "I'm just afraid that one of these days one of them will kill the other and I'll be sent to clean up the blood and hide the body." Napoleon and Illya, and their dæmons, exchanged significant glances.

"Well, let's hope the party remains free of that kind of fireworks," Napoleon said. "I really prefer bartending to more civil clientele."

Chapter Text

he'd tried to do what you were supposed to do—create a space, a pocket of air in front of your face before the snow solidified around you. Her arms were thrust out in front of her when she stopped, however, and by the time she got even one free it was too late to do much. She could see a faint glow in the snow to the left of her face, so she knew she wasn't that deep, but that didn't mean she'd be easy to find, even with her dæmon circling above, crying out her distress.

 

Something had gone wrong with her knee, too, as the snow had tumbled her body like a careless ogre. While the cold had numbed it a little at the start, it was beginning to throb badly now. Shock, hypothermia, suffocation—one of those things was going to get her, long before any rescue. Those light flashes in her peripheral vision, surely that was from oxygen starvation…

 

Her dæmon's cries did seem closer now—not muffled by the deep snow between them—and more urgent. The icy cold, fresh air on her face came as such a shock that she could not parse its meaning, nor the gloved hands grasping her numbed limbs, nor the voice saying, "It's alright now; I've found you," nor the flash of azure and gold that crossed her vision before it faded altogether.



Having laid the groundwork with a dozen listening devices hooked up to no less than five different voice-activated recorders, the two UNCE agents prepared themselves for the Abernathys' soiree.

Napoleon's obsequious ne'er-do-well and Illya's embittered ex-Soviet were both variations on a well honed theme for them. Napoleon flattered and flirted with his bar patrons throughout the evening, and Illya fulfilled his coat taking and food fetching tasks with his usual Slavic stoicism all through the evening, until the last guest departed.

Abernathy had some quaint notions about keeping Sunday as a day of rest, which meant that his staff would not be expected to be on duty the day after the party until eleven. For the UNCLE agents, this meant that they could go right to work after the party, reviewing the contents of their tapes. Napoleon and Illya brewed themselves an immense pot of coffee to help stay awake as they worked late into the night.

The challenge of listening to hours of fatuous gossip and the privileged complaints of the wealthy was that important clues might be found in the midst of all this, like a gem in a sea of rubbish. Napoleon caught one in a conversation between Ginny and another woman, as her litany of complaints about how boring it was here, concluded with a comment about how they would be finished and allowed to leave before the end of the month.

"Finished with what?" Saphina asked.

"That is the question," Illya murmured. "I'm betting it has to do with that Dr Emerson fellow. I'm looking for conversations he's in."

"Oh that guy," Napoleon said, remembering the balding man with 'coke-bottle' spectacles and a black rat dæmon. "The one with the slimy smile. He spent a lot of time over by the tv. Try recorder number 3."

Illya moved his headphone jack to the recorder Napoleon recommended. "That's him," he said. "He's an… acoustical engineer? How does an acoustical engineer help Thrush achieve world domination?"

"I've got Abernathy working a potential investor over here… and they're talking about some... seismological report…?" Napoleon furrowed his brow under his headphones.

"Just a moment," Illya said with a shushing gesture. "I think he's trying to impress a young lady now…" Napoleon fell silent, watching his partner frown in concentration as he listened.

"He was starting to explain about his 'current project'," Illya summed up after a minute. "But it had something to do with infrasound and harmonic frequencies and I imagine the girl was starting to get bored, so he said to follow him upstairs and he would show her."

" Up stairs?" replied Napoleon. "What's the time mark? I can see what's on the upper landing bug."

Seizing on the spool of tape matching the time span Illya gave him, Napoleon wound it through to the proper minute and soon caught the passing bit of conversation between Dr Emerson and the girl.

"...girl like you shouldn't mind a bit of exercise," Napoleon heard from the older scientist. "I'm sure you can understand that precautions are needed, with such pioneering work as this."

"Where are they going?" Napoleon wondered aloud when it became clear that the doctor and his escort had passed out of the range of the bug on the landing. "There's no lab upstairs."

"We put a device in the library, yes?" Illya replied. "Let's see what it has."

Napoleon relayed the time, and Illya found the right spot on library tape. "Ah, here they are, our scientist going on about how he's the first to find a practical application for a certain theory… Wait… Where did they go?"

"What do you mean?" Napoleon asked. Saphina, supine on his feet all evening, suddenly sat up, alert.

"It cuts off in the middle of a sentence," Illya said, frowning. "Not the tape; it's still recording, and there's a ticking clock in the background. It doesn't stop."

"Maybe they went into Abernathy's office, or bedroom?" Napoleon asked, looking for the tapes from their parabolic window bugs. "What time do they get cut off?"

"Ten forty-three," Illya answered. "Abernathy's office bug shows no activity at that time."

"Neither does his bedroom," Napoleon added, perplexed.

"We need to listen to how they are cut off again," Pasha said from where he sat on the table among the spools of tape and players. "There must be some sound of a door closing or… something."

Illya held the headphones up to the keen ears of his fox dæmon, then ran the tape once more. "There is something," Pasha said after one listening. "The background ambience changes for a moment, and there's a very soft shushing sound, before and after that."

"There's a secret door in the library," Napoleon concluded. "And not in the wine cellar?"

"Maybe the wine cellar too," Illya speculated. "But it is too obvious, as we said ourselves. It might be used for emergencies, but for regular going and comings, they'd use this one."

"And if Abernathy, alone or with a guest, should happen to disappear into his private 'office' for hours…" Napoleon carried the thought forward.

"Where we've been expressly ordered not to bother him," Saphina continued.

"The staff would naturally think nothing of it," Pasha concluded. "How cleverly devious."

"As usual," Napoleon said. "And what about the scientist, Dr Emerson. Were you able to get any idea of what he was talking about before he disappeared?"

"Some, yes," Illya answered. "He was explaining about the work of another scientist, who'd developed a technique for determining the resonant frequency of various geological formations. He then said that he'd found some sort of practical application for this information—that he was the first ever to do so, and that's where we lost him."

"Could that practical application have been the causing of avalanches from a distance?" Napoleon asked.

"It's certainly possible," Illya said with a shrug. "It's a well known fact that sound can trigger an avalanche. The one that took out Mark and April might have been his proof of concept demonstration, or it might still have been a lucky break… for Thrush."

Dropping heavily onto Napoleon's feet, Saphina gave an unhappy huff. "We need to find that secret door and see for ourselves what Thrush is doing down there," Napoleon said.

"Abernathy will probably want us to do some post-party clean up tomorrow," Illya said. "Whoever is sent to vacuum in the library will have a little time to look over the place with a conveniently noisy cover."

"And assuming we figure out where the door is, we can do some exploration beyond it tomorrow after dinner," Napoleon agreed. "Let's call that the plan and call it a night."

 

Indeed, the first part of that plan went just as hoped, for Illya was sent to vacuum the library the next day, while Abernathy had the monthly menu planning and budget meeting with Mrs Wong in her kitchen. During their after lunch break, Illya got Napoleon aside to tell him that he'd found the hidden door and figured out how to open it with no trouble. They concluded their day's labours as usual, but went straight back to their room after dinner, to get a couple of hours sleep before getting up at 2am.

Dressed in black and equipped for spy's work, they encountered the first deviation from their plan at the base of the stairs leading up to the library.

"I just knew it!" George crowed in a hushed voice when he saw them approach. Given their appearance, including clearly visible sidearms, there was no possibility of convincing the young man that they were, say, just going out for a smoke.

"Are you guys G-men? Private dicks?" George continued as Napoleon, Illya and their dæmons exchanged dismayed glances.

"None of the above," Illya replied with a sigh. "We are agents of the U.N.C.L.E., and I must warn you that the Abernathys are working with a very dangerous international criminal organization which we are currently investigating."

"You checking out that secret passage in the library?" George asked.

"You… know about that?" Illya said, nonplussed.

"Sure," George replied. "I have lived here for more than a year. A guy gets bored. I'm pretty sure there's another secret passage somewhere in the wine cellar, 'cause he spends way too much time down there with certain people."

"Which people?" Napoleon pounced right away.

"That creepy old professor guy with the rat dæmon, for one," George answered. His own chipmunk dæmon gave a little shudder where he sat on George's shoulder at the mention of this character. "And one of his sons—the wimpy one, who doesn't even drink, so I know they're not down there drinking wine."

"An astute observation, young man," Napoleon said. "We appreciate it, but it's probably safer if you…"

"Yeah, I've got another 'astute observation' for you," George interrupted. "Old Man Abernathy shows up here at the oddest hours. I see him sometimes, 'cause I go to the library to read when Aunty is snoring too loud for me to sleep. I could do the same thing tonight, and warn you if he was coming."

"What does Mr Abernathy do when he finds you in the library in the middle of the night?" Illya asked with a frown.

"Pretends to go to the kitchen for a snack," George said. "I know for a fact he can't find so much as a fork in the kitchen, so that means…"

"He's just going down to the entrance in the wine cellar," Illya concluded. "It would give us a minute's warning to get out, but Pasha can be the one to run down and give us the warning. I don't want to take any chance that Abernathy could connect you with UNCLE."

"I agree," Napoleon said. "It's safer for you, and it may provide us with more options in the future.

George reluctantly agreed, and settled himself into one of the comfortable library chairs with a copy of Last of the Mohicans . They closed the moving bookshelf behind them upon entering, leaving Pasha on the top step where he could hear if Abernathy appeared in the library and give alarm. Using red tinted flashlights to light their way, Napoleon, Saphina and Illya descended four flights of stairs before reaching the stone floored basement.

They found themselves in a passage, all cut from the dark basalt of the mountain. It led a short way to where Napoleon could see an opening, with a few lights and machinery visible beyond it. The air smelled of subterranean damp, mixed slightly with machine oil and ozone. They let Saphina take point, nose lifted to scent the air as she went. Her dark fur made her almost invisible against the dark stone and she crept to the doorway first, nodding to the others to come forward once she'd seen it was clear.

The room they entered now had once been an immense gas bubble within a molten lava flow. The lava had cooled around it, leaving the irregular blob of a cavern they stood in now, with a massive crack at one end which descended deep into the earth. Plunging into that crack stood the fruit of Thrush's recent labours here: a vertical shaft, like in a oil or gas drilling rig, surrounded by augmenting or stabilizing apparatus, but without any obvious pumping mechanism.

Their path skirted the edge of the room along a narrow ledge, with only a minimal railing along the open side. Above and on the far side of the cavern they could see what looked like a control center, with a couple of mainframes and other panels of knobs, dials and readouts. There was no one else to be seen at the moment, but too much of the base could not be seen from their vantage point.

"Any idea what all this is meant to achieve?" Napoleon asked, looking up and down the full length of the mysterious shaft.

"Not in the least," said Illya, who'd extracted a miniature camera and was taking pictures of the apparatus and its surroundings. "I imagine the control center will tell us more."

Napoleon nodded for Saphina to take the lead again, pacing silently along the ledge ahead of them. The walls they hugged as they followed her were irregular and pockmarked with smaller bubbles and deformations. In spots the gaps included part of their path, which was bridged in those places with metal walkways.

They paused where their ledge joined a broad diamond-plate steel platform which extended out to the shaft itself at some kind of interface panel. Illya took more photos of this while Saphina stood alert in the center of the platform, ears swiveling this way and that.

"There's a strange, unnatural sound in here," she said at last. "Or a vibration. I can't pin it down, but it bothers me, like fingernails on a chalkboard."

"I can't hear a thing, though I do feel a little 'on edge'," Napoleon confessed. "High frequency sound?"

"Low frequency—infrasound," Illya corrected. "At least, that's what it looks like these controls are for."

"To what end?" Napoleon asked with a frown. "Mind control? Inciting riots?"

"Infrasound has been used to alter moods," Illya commented, putting the camera away again. "But that doesn't explain why they were consulting a seismologist, or how Emerson's work was connected with knowing the resonant frequency of geological formations."

"Stands to reason those frequencies would be pretty low, like infrasound, yes?" Napoleon speculated as they crept towards the stairs that led from the platform to the control center.

"Yes…" Illya said thoughtfully, then paused and gestured Napoleon to do likewise. "Pasha!" he whispered. "Abernathy's in the library, headed our way."

They reversed course back to the ledge immediately, but just as Illya was about to step onto one of the metal bridged gaps, it dropped away. Only Napoleon's hand on his shoulder prevented Illya from overbalancing and tumbling down into the abyss after it. A moment later there came the sound of Pasha's claws skittering over the stone floor as he galloped out of the passage and along the ledge towards the two agents.

Illya and Pasha could stand to be separated by far greater distance than most humans and their dæmons, due to the training he'd endured with Russian Imperial State Security. They still had their limits, however. The gap in the ledge was farther than the humans could safely jump, but Pasha had a good head of speed already.

"I can make it!" Pasha said, redoubling his speed as Illya crouched down to receive him. The little silver fox launched himself boldly from the far side of the gap and flew across it, right into Illya's arms. Napoleon and Saphina both let out a breath of relief, just as a loud voice called from the control center.

"Stop right where you are! We've got you covered."

"Here we go again," Illya said with a sigh.



"You must think we're stupid!" Errol Abernathy scolded his captive audience, several minutes later. "Do you think we don't keep an eye on all our new staff? Do you think we are such imbeciles as to let people like you wander our facility unobserved?"

They'd been ordered at gunpoint out of the cavernous base and through another doorway cut in the basalt, leading into the wine cellar. There they were bound to a pair of chairs and their dæmons were confined to a pair of cages. They were then subjected to ten minutes or so of meaningless, self-important ranting from Abernathy's younger son. The master of the house, along with professor Emerson, had appeared briefly, then gone back into the cavern to converse privately while the two UNCLE agents endured Errol's tirade. By the time Abernathy senior finally reappeared, even Illya was struggling not to do likewise when Saphina gave a huge, expressive yawn.

"It really is a pity," Roland Abernathy said with a sigh. "But I shouldn't have been surprised, I suppose, that the most competent staff I've ever managed to hire turn out to be UNCLE agents."

"Are we supposed to be flattered or insulted?" Napoleon quipped.

"You can take it however you like," Abernathy said dismissively. "As you are about to become entirely irrelevant. We are too close to our final demonstration here for me to be bothered with such details at the moment. Errol, go find Kent, and the two of you can drop these two unwanted guests down the old mine shaft, with the rest of our garbage."

"Why can't they just stay here?" Errol complained. "You said the more innocent victims the better."

"Because they aren't innocent victims, you dolt!" Abernathy barked. "They're UNCLE agents, and even their dead bodies on this site will cast suspicion on whether our earthquake is 'natural' or not."

Illya glanced down at Pasha, just as his dæmon glanced up. So the device in the next room manufactured earthquakes? That fit in with what they'd seen so far, and it certainly explained the avalanche that had killed Mark and April.

"Even without our bodies, Abernathy," Napoleon interjected. "Your faces, names, even your dæmons are already on file at UNCLE. Our failure to check in later time will only confirm the existence of your operation. You're done, Abernathy."

"We were already done here , UNCLE man," Abernathy scoffed with a shrug. "And when the Central Committee sees our results today, we'll be able to name our reward. Faces, names, even dæmons can be changed—or so I'm told. We're far from done; in fact, we've just begun. You, on the other hand, are shortly to be as done as it is possible to be on this earth."

 

Illya fervently hoped that George would not try any heroics when they were marched out of the wine cellar and up to the garage at gunpoint, but thankfully, there was no sign of him. Once Illya and Napoleon were secured in the back seat of the larger snowmobile, their dæmons were transferred to a cargo net which was bound to the luggage rack in the back. Then Kent and Errol and their dæmons took their places in the front, the garage door opened and they were roaring out into the cold and snowy night.

The chill wind in his face helped sharpen Illya's thoughts. It was not so much their approaching execution that focused them, but the many new opportunities for escape that their new circumstances offered. Illya was fairly sure that Saphina's claws would make short work of that cargo net any time she wanted, so she would be biding her time for now. If either Illya or Napoleon could get loose… That was when Illya's fingers found the odd, hard lump wedged into the seat behind him.

It was a box knife, with the blade retracted. Illya could not think of any reason for it to be there, unless George had planted it, and it was just what they needed. With deliberate care, Illya pushed the blade out, then maneuvered it around to cut the ropes binding his wrists. The jouncing, switch-backed progress of the snowmobile made the task tricky, but the blade was sharp, and cut the ropes quickly.

Illya glanced over his shoulder now to meet Saphina's gaze with his own, signalling her to be ready. Then he glanced forward, to see where their captors' attention was. It was Kent who was driving, while Errol was supposed to be keeping an eye—and a gun—on them. He seemed distracted by Kent's driving, however, and repeatedly looked away from his captives to point at some navigational hazard up ahead and and yell at Kent to look out for it.

Illya chose one of those moments to start cutting Napoleon's bindings, and only as he was turning around to do this realized that Kent's stoat dæmon was still watching them, with its beady little eyes peering out from between the front seats.

"They're loose!" he barked, causing both Kent and Errol to look back. Errol's possum dæmon was still looking out ahead, however, and a second later he squealed another warning.

"Crevasse!" he wailed. "Go left! Left!!!"

Without even looking, Kent grabbed the wheel and wrenched the snowmobile over as commanded, so suddenly that it nearly tipped over. Caught unprepared, Illya found himself being thrown from his seat before he could grab hold of anything. He heard Napoleon's alarmed cry, Saphina's scream of rage and Pasha's distressed yelp and then he saw what lay ahead. The very crevasse Kent had swerved to avoid was lying directly in Illya's path and he had no way to slow his trajectory.

He splayed his arms out wide to try and catch any handhold, but his feet were still bound and useless. He was going over. At the back of the retreating snowmobile he could see the cargo net burst open, Pasha exploding out and leaping towards him as  Saphina's black shadow scrambled into the vehicle. Illya's last sight was of Napoleon's face, pale above his dæmon, as he called out Illya's name once more. Illya answered, all his love and hope poured into his partner's name, then he was falling, plummeting, descending into the heart of a glacier.

Chapter Text

"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!"

 

Chapter Text

"Be my eyes," the ageless woman said to the bird resting in her cupped hands. "Fly to the thing that provokes the Earth so, and let me see it so we may determine how to defeat it. Fly now, and let none stand in your way!"

She opened her hands then, and the bird, her dæmon, rose and sped away, like a bejeweled arrow shot from a bow. April watched all this silently, glancing at her own Kyree, who had returned from her own mission a little while ago, with blood on her claws and a satisfied look in her eyes.

April had not been born among Witches, and she had not stayed to live the rest of her life among them once her initial training was complete, after she'd turned 17. She did not regret her decision to leave, though there was clearly more she might have learned had she stayed. She wished she knew what Kyree had seen and done, after she sent her dæmon off, on the suggestion from her rescuer that her friends were in trouble.

"Go! Find Napoleon and Illya!" was all the instruction she'd been able to give. "Find them and help them, if you can."

Upon her return, Kyree had informed April that she had seen Napoleon and hurt a bad man, and that Napoleon was safe now, but that was all. April's rescuer, it was clear, was able to actually see through her dæmon's eyes as she flew, and knew, somehow, that evil men had built a device which 'provoked the Earth', though she had never heard of Thrush or their terrible deeds.

"I know nothing about the world beyond," the ageless woman said. "But I know everything about this place, this mountain, and all that dwell here. The world beyond has shunned me, so I have divorced myself from it, but I am still a Witch, and I am still powerful to protect my own."

"I suppose," April said, "I am too, in my own way."

"That you are, little sister," the woman said. "That you are."

 

Two sets of tracks could be seen leading away from the Abernathy's garage when Napoleon pulled the snowmobile up to the front. Seeing as the Thrush cohorts had planned to meet before dawn at Mt Hood, naturally the birds must have flown already, and their mechanism might, therefore, go off at any minute.

Even so, Napoleon still had to manhandle Kent out of the snowmobile and into a broom closet before he could attend to the Thrush device. Fortunately the Wongs appeared as soon as they heard his approaching snowmobile, and presented themselves at the front door, eager to assist.

To Napoleon's great relief, not even Mrs Wong had a single question about why the bound, beaten and bloody Kent Abernathy should need to be secured thusly. She even offered additional rope. They also took quite seriously Napoleon's advice that they immediately evacuate the lodge, though George was reluctant on his part.

"Are you sure you couldn't use a second pair of hands?" he said, following Napoleon back to his room where there was a spare communicator.

"You need to get your aunt to safety, and don't forget Abernathy's still out there," Napoleon said, heading back towards the stairs as he uncapped the communicator and called for an open channel. He got Waverly almost immediately.

"The good news is that we have control of the local Thrush base, and I believe that Agent Dancer may still be with us," he reported as he walked. "The bad news is that I've lost Agent Kuryakin, and the machine which we think creates earthquakes is set to go off some time before dawn… which means any minute now, and I'm not sure I'm going be able to figure out how to turn it off in time. The local Thrushies have flown. Smith and Carruthers may be able to intercept them at Mt Hood, but they left here, what… an hour ago?" Napoleon directed the question to George, who was still nearby. So, it transpired, was Mrs Wong, standing in the hall as they approached.

"Abernathy and Dr Emerson leave forty five minute ago," she said. "Girls leave ten minutes after that, but they not getting to Mr Hood."

"Why not?" inquired Napoleon.

"I put maple syrup in snowmobile gas tanks," she said with a satisfied smile.

Once he'd stopped laughing, Napoleon informed Waverly of this new information, so that he could coordinate the ski patrol and police party who would find and apprehend the Abernathys. Then closed the channel.

"You've been of great service to UNCLE and your fellow citizens," he said to the Wongs. "But your primary duty now is to get yourselves to safety, yes?"

George reluctantly agreed, picking up the suitcases his aunt had packed and turning to go. "Good luck, Mr Iverson," he called as they headed to the garage. "I hope we meet again some day."

"We owe you," Napoleon acknowledged as he turned to go in the other direction. "We won't forget it!" He heard the snowmobile depart as he found the lockpicks in his pocket, and a moment later he was at the wine cellar door.

He had to carefully not think, as he worked, about the impending earthquake and avalanche that was due to erupt at any minute, but the lock on the wine cellar door was child's play to pick. Once in the wine cellar, he saw that Abernathy had been sloppy and simply left the door from the wine cellar to the base standing ajar. Napoleon entered carefully, sending Saphina to slink in ahead, but the whole place was empty and abandoned. She was standing in the middle of the control center, nose raised to sniff the air when Napoleon entered.

"Saphina?" he asked, watching her. She did not reply, but instead issued a short, inquiring yowl that echoed throughout the cavern. A moment later they both heard a distinctive yip answer back.

"Pasha?!" they both cried at once and then Saphina was off like a shot, down the short staircase to the lower platform with the mechanism interface. Now Napoleon could hear claws clicking across the metal decking and he hastened forward himself.

Saphina and Pasha were embroiled in a reunion tussle at the bottom of the stairs, but they sorted themselves immediately when Napoleon came into view.

"Napoleon! Napoleon! You have no idea how happy I am to see you," Pasha said, urging him in the direction of the interface, even as Napoleon gathered his partner's dæmon into his arms. "It's set to go off in ten minutes, and I know how to make it stop, but I can't reach it!"

It didn't even occur to Napoleon to ask Pasha how he knew what to do. He saw the long vertical slider on the upper part of the interface panel, attached to the side of immense, shaft-like earthquake machine, as well as the many scratch marks below it, showing where Pasha had tried to jump for it.

"Slide it down to zero," Pasha said as Napoleon let him down. "Then you'll be able to shut the power off back in the control area."

Napoleon felt the strange vibrations from the mechanism lessen in intensity as he pulled the slider down.

"Where's Illya?" Napoleon asked as he followed Pasha, dashing back and forth ahead of him, back up to the control center.

"There's another bit of lava tube cave back there," Pasha explained as he directed Napoleon to the correct panel. "And it's connected to this one by a thin crack. Illya couldn't fit. But oh! Mark and Lyssa are in there with him!"

Napoleon's head spun, hearing this news while trying to stay focused on the rather vital task at hand.

"Pasha!" he called. "Is it this lever here?" He pointed to the large and obvious knife switch predominating the panel.

"Yes, that's it!" Pasha confirmed. They all fell silent for a moment as Napoleon pulled the switch down. The lights flickered and then came up slightly brighter, and they all became aware that a steady, low thrumming, just below their ability to actually hear, had stopped at last.

Napoleon let out a long, relieved breath, just as Saphina burst out, "Mark's alive? But that's the best news, because April's alive too!"

"April!" Pasha said, leading them back down to the work platform and then to the narrow walkway. "Where is she?"

"We're not sure," Napoleon said, "but her Kyree saved our bacon out there tonight, just as we were about to get chucked down a mine shaft. Stands to reason she's alive and well somewhere. Say, Pasha, how did you and Illya know how to shut this thing off?"

"We didn't," Pasha said, "but when first I got into this base, she was here waiting and she showed me which controls to work."

Even as Pasha made this explanation, Napoleon heard a high, rattling bird cry, and a second later the author of the cry came swooping into center of the chamber. She was small, but as bright as a jewel, with iridescent blue feathers on her back and wings, and a chest and belly the color of molten gold. She circled swiftly around the room once, then disappeared with astonishing suddenness, into one of the irregularities in the cavern wall in front of them.

"That's the passage that leads back to Illya and Mark?"  Saphina asked and when Pasha nodded, said,. "And that bird, was that a european kingfisher?"

"It's a Witch's bird," Pasha said. "But she wouldn't say anything about who she was or what she was doing here."

"Typical," Napoleon muttered, gazing into the opening into which the bird had disappeared. "This little crack really goes through to another cave, Pasha?" he asked.

"Yes, exactly!" Pasha said. "It's only that narrow for a few feet or so, then it opens out into another lava tube. There's a hot springs below, that keeps the place warm."

Napoleon peered down the crack. "Illya!" he shouted. " Tovarish ! Are you down there? Can you hear me?"

After a moment Napoleon saw a glimmer of light, as if someone was shining a mini torch into the crack, then heard a much hoped for reply. "Napoleon!" came Illya's voice through the opening. "It's very good to hear you. I take it you've met up with Pasha?"

It was one thing to see Illya's Pasha and know Illya must be alive, but hearing his partner's voice was the thing that unravelled the last knot of anxiety lying in Napoleon's stomach.

"It's really good to hear your voice too, partner mine," Napoleon answered. "And yes I'm here with Pasha, and we got the Thrush earthquake machine shut down too. Do you know anything about the kingfisher dæmon that told Pasha how to do that?"

Illya was starting to say that he didn't know anything about that, when another voice interrupted his. "A kingfisher dæmon? Blue and gold colored?" Mark Slate's British accented words filtered down the crack.

"That's the one," Napoleon replied. "It's good to hear your voice too, Agent Slate."

"Likewise, mate," Mark said. "And that kingfisher dæmon saved my bloody life, she did. Led me down here with the avalanche right on my heels and me thinking I was done for. Haven't the faintest idea whose she is, though."

"Or if she managed to save April too," chimed in Lyssa, Mark's ferret dæmon.

"I'm guessing she did," Napoleon said, recounting his tale of how Kyree had saved them, much to Mark and Lyssa's joy.

"Kyree knew to find us when we were in trouble," Saphina mused. "I bet she'd know to find us now that the machine has been shut down. If we went out on the snowmobile, she could find us and lead us to where April is."

They all agreed that this seemed a sound plan, but a few loose ends needed to be tied up here first.

"If I send Pasha to you with the communicator," Napoleon proposed, "You can report in and tell them that the machine's been shut down, and they can use the communicator signal to find you and send a rescue team."

"A good plan," Illya agreed. "But can you also send down some kind of food supplies in small enough packages that Pasha and Lyssa can carry them through the crack to us? Mark hasn't eaten in days."

Luckily, a brief rummage through the kitchen produced two large bags filled with small boxes of raisins and little bags of peanuts. Napoleon carried these down to set them next to the crack opening, leaving their two dæmons the tedious job of ferrying the supplies through the narrow passage to their hungry humans on the other side.

"Where to next?" asked Saphina, loping alongside Napoleon as he headed back up and out of the Thrush base.

"Back to the snowmobile," he replied. "I think you're right about Kyree and April. They'll know the machine has been shut down and that it's time to call for a lift home."

Outside the sky was just lightening, with the pink glow of an impending sunrise outlining the mountain peaks on the eastern horizon. Napoleon could clearly see the pair of tracks from Abernathy and his guests' snowmobiles leading west, towards the ski resort, and the Wongs' more recent tracks, leading south, towards the road. Napoleon had his eye on a less well marked trail which should lead north and east, up to the ridge above the lodge, where he could get good view, and be seen easily as well.

The trail was not groomed, but it was not too hard to follow and only five minutes or so later, Napoleon arrived at the view point. He cut the engine on the snowmobile and got out, Saphina at his side, and looked out over the winter landscape all around him, lit golden by the long angled beams of the rising sun.

Directly below them was the lodge with its steep gables and snowmobile tracks leading away in three directions. Further down and to the west was the dark line of the crevasse Illya and Mark were trapped at the bottom of, and further down still, Napoleon could see Abernathy's abandoned snowmobiles. If he squinted, he thought he might even be able to see the four Thrush stooges, floundering through the snow on foot, just beyond the stalled vehicles. He wondered how it would go for Abernathy once the two women, who must have figured out by now that they were meant to be sacrifices, caught up with him.

This amusing train of thought was interrupted by a familiar, piercing cry from above.

"There she is!" said Saphina, sitting up and reaching out towards the dark speck circling in the sky above. Napoleon pulled off his knit cap and waved it in the air, and soon the speck in the sky became discernable as a bird, and then discernable as Kyree. Napoleon and Saphina leapt back into the snowmobile, turning it around to be ready to follow April's dæmon. She circled low over their heads once, then sped off towards the east, Napoleon and Saphina roaring after her.

Napoleon had never been so glad to have Saphina's extra pair of eyes, so that she could follow Kyree's course across the sky while he kept the snowmobile from crashing into trees and rocks or going off a cliff. She led them along the flank of the ridge, regardless of the terrain they had to cross, and just as Napoleon was starting to wonder if he shouldn't have checked the fuel levels before they'd set out, Saphina gave a hopeful shout.

"She's just circling now," Napoleon's dæmon said. "I think we must be close."

Slowing the snowmobile, Napoleon peered ahead to see a clearing on a rise, and there, in the center, someone wrapped in blankets sat on a boulder. At the sound of the approaching snowmobile she raised an arm to wave, but did not stand. There could be no doubt of the figure's identity, however, when Napoleon saw Kyree swoop down to land on her upraised fist.

He gunned the snowmobile's engine over the last stretch of open ground, then braked as he drew close, throwing up a shower of snow. She still remained seated as Napoleon and Saphina leapt out of the vehicle, but he saw immediately the reason. Her left leg was encased in a bulky but secure looking construction of wood splints and leather thong, undoubtedly meant to immobilize the injured limb. She reached out her arms to Napoleon as he came to stand before her, joyfully calling out his name.

"I knew you were coming," she said. "But I am so happy and relieved to see you at last!"

"Imagine how we feel!" Napoleon said, lifting her up to wrap his arms around her. "We feared the worst, I'll have you know—for both of you."

"And Mark?" she said as Napoleon helped her into the snowmobile. "She told me she'd saved him too, but…"

"He and Illya both ended up stuck in the bottom of the same crevasse," Napoleon answered, starting the snowmobile up again. "Which turns out to connect to a lava tube cave and a hot spring… and is also partially connected to the Thrush base under the lodge. You can read the reports on the way home, but we've stopped the infernal device and our avian friends are either stranded in the snow or in UNCLE custody already."

"UNCLE saves the day again," April said with a smile as the snowmobile sped back down towards the lodge.

"Couldn't have done it without the two of you," Napoleon said. "And boy are we glad we won't have to, any time soon."

"With luck," said Saphina seriously.

"With luck," April agreed, which Kyree punctuated with a definitive peep.



They brought Illya up out of the crevasse in a stretcher, which worried Napoleon until Pasha explained that with his cracked ribs and possibly broken collarbone, it was better to carry him this way than in a sling, as Mark Slate had come. Mark had a probable concussion and broken ankle and both men were taken immediately by helicopter to the nearest hospital in Bend, along with April, who was already in the helicopter, having been picked up from the lodge first.

Napoleon barely had a chance to clasp his partner's hand and tenderly brush a strand of hair away from his face before he was whisked away. "We'll be together soon enough," Saphina said as the two of them watched the chopper lift away. Napoleon sighed his assent and reached down to fondle her ears.

Napoleon, naturally, had to stay at the lodge to oversee UNCLE's mop up crew, and the initial on-site interrogation of Dr Emerson and the Abernathys, once they'd been brought in. Abernathy senior blustered and demanded to see his lawyer, and Kent only whined and claimed ignorance, which Napoleon suspected was largely true. The man was dumb as a rock.

Dr Emerson, however, proved susceptible to the slightest flattery and, under the misapprehension that UNCLE was looking to hire him on themselves, happily expounded at length on the genius of his 'Deep Crust Harmonic Stimulator', which UNCLE technicians were hard at work disassembling even now.

"UNCLE, Thrush, you're all after the same thing," he declared airily. "My device will enable UNCLE to enforce its laws anywhere in the world, and that's just the beginning of what I can do for you!"

"I regret to inform you," Napoleon said, without a trace of regret, as Agent Carruthers handcuffed the scientist in preparation for his trip to UNCLE's high security detention facility, "that you've taken a badly mistaken impression of UNCLE's mission. And we're not hiring."

"Not the likes of you, anyway," said Agent Smith as he helped escort the outraged Dr Emerson out. Napoleon and Saphina listened to his dismayed exhortations as he was led away and indulged in a moment's smug satisfaction. This man and his cohorts had not actually murdered Mark and April, but it wasn't for want of trying. Though there was no longer any call for vengeance, justice would still be served.

Chapter Text

With the Thrush personnel delivered to the various authorities and the disassembling of Dr Emerson's infernal device all but complete, Napoleon was now officially off duty. It was already late afternoon but, while he was free to remain at the lodge another night, there was somewhere else Napoleon was eager to be.

A snowmobile trip down to the parking lot from one of the mop up crew delivered him to their rental car, and a two hour plus drive from there took him out of the mountains, to the town of Bend. He did not even stop for dinner, but made his way directly to the hospital where Illya, April and Mark had been ensconced the last couple of days. He used the privilege of his UNCLE ID, as he did not often, to gain admittance after visiting hours. He was made to promise that he would not wake his partner if he was sleeping, before being given his room number.

Illya was dozing when he arrived, mainly out of boredom Napoleon suspected, but Pasha was not. His and Saphina's joyous reunion woke Illya. The floor nurse was less than pleased, but at the look on Illya's face when he saw his partner standing in the doorway, she kept her peace and left them their privacy.

Mindful of his partner's cracked ribs, Napoleon dropped to crouch beside the bed, carefully gathered Illya in his arms and held him close. Neither one spoke, for Napoleon's gentle caresses and Illya's answering embrace said everything that wanted to be said. After a moment Illya lifted his head to meet Napoleon's lips for a kiss. In this way only did they confess the terrible fear each had felt, the anxiety and hopelessness that had gripped them both for a time, and the relief that had come when Saphina and Pasha had found each other in the Thrush base.

When the kiss ended at last, and Napoleon sat back up, finding a chair to perch in, they did not say the things they might have liked to. There was no point in begging to 'never do that again', or  to confess, 'I can't lose you.' They were still UNCLE agents, after all, and likely would be till their dying day.

Instead Napoleon asked how many ribs Illya had cracked (two and a half), and Illya asked how the interrogation had gone. They discussed Illya's recuperation time and how and where they would pass that time, and they speculated about the reclusive Witch who'd saved all their lives.

"April said the woman blindfolded her when she took her on her sled to the place where I picked her up," Napoleon said. "She didn't want to be found by anyone, not even UNCLE officials who'd like to express their thanks."

"Speaking of expressions of gratitude," Illya said. "Did they find the Wongs?"

"That they did," Napoleon replied. "Agent Crenshaw tracked them down at a motel in Sandy. He told me that UNCLE offered Mrs Wong a position running any of the commissaries at any of the UNCLE stations in the world, but she turned them down. George took them up on the scholarship though. Seems he wants to learn hotel and restaurant management."

"I'd say he already has a good idea of the basics," Pasha said.

"What I wouldn't give for a bowl of his aunt's beef with orange sauce right now," Napoleon sighed, suddenly missing the dinner he hadn't eaten yet.

"Don't remind me," said Illya with a sigh of his own. "I've been eating hospital food for two days."

"They're springing all three of you tomorrow afternoon, right?" Napoleon suggested. "I'll find out the best Chinese place in town and we'll all go there for lunch."

"Yes please!" said Illya, and Pasha yipped her approval.

 

It was a curious tale that emerged as the four UNCLE agents pieced together their various experiences of the affair into one coherent narrative. It had begun conventionally enough, up to the point where Mark and April had gone skiing on the open slopes just behind the Thrush occupied lodge.

"She must have been watching us from the very beginning," April said, reaching across the table for the soy sauce. "Or she'd have never gotten her dæmon to help Mark in time."

"She may well have been sensitive to the very mechanism Thrush was testing," Illya speculated, helping himself to another crab rangoon. "If so, she'd have known when they activated it, and possibly even where it was focused and what its effects would be."

"I wouldn't put it past her," Mark said, manipulating a piece of sweet and sour pork onto his chopsticks. "That kingfisher of hers, I swear it must have broken the sound barrier to get to me so fast."

"And how did it know how to get into the Thrush facility?" Napoleon asked, pouring more green tea for Illya and himself. "Much less how to turn that machine off. Is any of that beyond a Witch, do you know, April?"

"None of that is, no," April said shaking her head, "but she's an even bigger mystery than we thought. While I was in the hospital, I made some inquiries, called around to local libraries and so forth, trying to find out about the wagon train she said she was part of, that got stranded someplace called 'Three Lynx Pass'."

"Did you find anything?" asked Lyssa, perched on the back of the booth, just above Mark's shoulder.

"Well, yes," April answered. "In a way. The Bend library and the local Historical Society both knew about the lost wagon train at Three Lynx Pass. It happened in 1849, and they tell me it was a small group of mainly scandinavian settlers—Danes and Finns—that were trapped in the pass that winter."

"Isn't that more or less what she told you?" Napoleon said.

"It is, but she also said that it was 'her people', unfortunately, that found them," April replied. "So I thought she meant other settlers like her—Witches. The Historical Society says it was a party of scouts who found them in the spring of 1850, one of whom might have been a Witch and, get this: they reported no survivors."

A shocked silence fell over the table and Napoleon felt a chill run down his spine.

"Well I'll tell you what, mate," Mark said finally. "Ghosts don't have dæmons. That's a fact."

"That's true," April said. "And it's also true that Witches can live very long lives—the more powerful the Witch, the longer. But I don't understand why no survivors were reported. She certainly gave the impression that there were other survivors besides herself, though they were probably all quite young."

"The young are often better equipped to survive such privation than their elders," Illya said, speaking from experience. "But I doubt that young children would have made it out of the mountains on their own. Someone had to have rescued them at some point."

Kyree, perched on the back of the booth next to April, now leaned forward to whistle softly into her ear. The others waited to hear if her dæmon's message was to be shared.

"Kyree thinks it was done out of kindness," April said after a moment, stroking her kestrel dæmon's feathers with a single finger.

"Kindness?" Napoleon asked, puzzled.

"I think I see the sense of it," April said. "No culture, Witches or otherwise, looks kindly on cannibalism. Imagine how it would be for an orphaned child, to have it be known that you had done such a thing, when no one knows anything else about you. The Witch who found those children would have known that none of their families would want to take them in, knowing what had happened. Wasn't it kinder, really, to let people believe that those who had committed those atrocities had died? It wouldn't have been hard to make up some other story for how the children had been orphaned when homes were found for them."

"True enough," Illya said.

"But the children knew," said Lyssa. "Your Witch said she knew what they'd done would be seen as taboo by other Witches, and that they'd be ostracized."

April nodded. "It would have been a secret the children kept among themselves," she said. "And never shared."

"What a terribly lonely life," Napoleon said. "Do you think she'd like someone to visit her, from time to time?"

"Definitely not," April said, shaking her head. "She'd see it as an act of pity. She made that quite clear to me when she left me for Napoleon to find."

"Still," Mark said wistfully. "One wants to offer some token of gratitude."

"There was one favor she asked of me," April said. "And I've sworn to her that I will see that it is done. She gave me one of her dæmon's feathers, so that I would know when she had died, and she could be given a Witch's last rites." She drew a single, iridescent blue feather from the pouch she always wore at her neck.

"She is a very powerful Witch, most likely from a prestigious family," she continued, gazing at the feather in the palm of her hand. "She's lived a very long life, even for a Witch of her stature, and I expect that I'll be called upon to fulfill this duty within a few years."

"Then let us wish her remaining years be kind to her," Napoleon said, lifting his tea cup. "To the Witch of Three Lynx Pass, may her Gods look favorably upon her."

The others followed suit, lifting their cups to drink solemnly. Watching April put the feather back into her Witch's pouch, Napoleon wondered if their solitary savior might know, through this token, of the gratitude they felt, and hoped, perhaps, that she might.

 

=FIN=

 

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