The forest air was moist and pungent, smelling strongly of the good, damp earth which underlay it. Above me droplets fell from dripping trees, glinting brightly in the sunlight of midmorning. A cool breeze swept between the conifers, rustling branches and sending shimmering waterfalls of light cascading to the ground. I felt it kiss my skin with tenderness no human being could ever match, and deep within me something stirred, awakening an ancient longing for the source.
Ahead of me the trail dissolved into a clearing. As I came up to it I caught a flash of color in the corner of my eye, a scrap of cloth snagged on a branch where it had torn free from its owner’s garment. I recognized it as the same pink that Sophia had been wearing, and wondered how she had managed to lose her hoodie. I cast an eye around, thinking she must have dropped it, then realized that her shirt had been visible with its longer hem. I tucked the scrap of fabric into the pocket of my cargoes.
The clearing was wide and broad, split in the center by a clear stream some two meters across and very shallow. Pebbles worn smooth by time unfathomable lay resting in their bed, unmoved by my or any other presence. I stepped across them carefully, finding in the riverbank opposite a sign of my quarry. Between the grassy meadow and the bubbling stream there lay a patch of treacherous mud, and I perceived that some large animal had slipped upon it, not quite falling. I followed flattened grass and a mud trail to the edge of the forest and perceived ahead of me a cave exposed above the litter of fallen needles and pine cones that composed the forest floor. Approaching it, I realized that this was probably where she had stayed last night. A smoking heap of ashes confirmed my theory and told me she could not be far ahead. I judged by the heat of the embers that she had been here less than an hour ago.
I continued onward, my pace swift and interrupted only by my stops to check a sign or marking along the trail. It was a game trail now I followed, and grassy weeds provided cover for my footfalls. The flattened stalks of larger plants told me I was gaining on her, and about midday I looked ahead and saw her on the crest of some small rise. I thought of shouting to her, then remembered the way she had run from me last night. Instead, I merely kept my pace, certain I would overtake her.
Cresting the rise myself, I perceived that she was still some fifty meters out in front of me. I slowed the rate at which I gained on her and soon drew to within thirty meters. The forest was young and thin here – the result I imagined of some vast conflagration – and so I was able to keep my distance without losing her. She gave no indication to suggest that she had noticed me.
As dusk approached we found ourselves upon the entrance of the doctor’s cave system. Pale, rosy hues reflected from the wind-weathered granite, and as she turned to look behind her, I reflected that the beauty of the nation and its people were not far removed. The chiseled marble of her stoic countenance hid pain and tenderness that even now would have passed me by had not I known their origin. I stood my ground.
“You’re persistent, you know that?”
“I know. Why do you think I make such a good private eye?”
She didn’t smile.
“I need to know why you’re in this. If you’re helping me because you think that I’m available, you need to know that I’m not interested.”
“You’ve been leading me on.”
I kept my tone neutral. Hers was matter-of-fact.
“Yes. I thought if I could pretend to be a woman in need of love, you would take an interest in me and try to help me out.”
I let a wry smile spread across my face.
“Must have worked right mightily to bring me this far. Why’d you stop?”
“I couldn’t keep it up any more. After you touched me in the woods I lost it. The dominance was the first thing, and you thinking that you know my pain was what pushed me over the edge. I’ve been through hell at the hands of men, and I’m not about to start building bridges now. I’m done with that. It doesn’t work, and it always comes back to bite you.”
I nodded slowly. She went on.
“If you’re here because you’re looking for power, I can give you that. The British Government has funds and influence. But you need to know that it’s just business.”
“I can live with that,” I said. “I am, after all, a businessman.”
I closed the gap between us to a couple meters. She turned away.
“Don’t touch me.”
“I wasn’t going to.”
We stepped inside the cave. A strong wind blew against us, and she raised her voice.
“I can offer you two million.”
“We’ll discuss my price when we both get out of this alive.” I said.
Ahead of us the ground opened up into a gaping hole, a straight shaft some hundred meters deep that spouted forth a rush of air that was neither hot nor cold. I was suddenly grateful that we had brought along the climbing gear.
Sinking a climbing anchor into the rock, I clipped in and began descending. There was little opportunity for conversation during the descent, but when we reached the bottom, she turned to me.
“Thanks for the help.”
“Of course. We’re a team, after all.”
“We’re not a team yet. This is the first time we’ve been doing anything together.”
“Maybe it doesn’t have to be the last. I hear the government is always looking for new talent.”
“You’re not even British.”
“I’m American, and so is Maria.”
“Well, then, I suggest you take it up with her. The two of you seemed to get along quite well.”
“Perhaps I should. I used to be special forces, you know.”
“Oh, please. I’m not going to tell anyone.”
“Except your superiors, you mean. Why do you think you weren’t told my combat role? They have no idea.”
“Now you’re just making stuff up.”
“You said yourself that I had served two tours in the middle east.”
“With the 133rd battalion. Not with special forces.”
“Cover story. I’ll tell you the real one when I can trust you not to squeal.”
The passage we were walking through opened out into a vast antechamber, vaulting high above our heads and plunging to hidden depths on either side of a hewn stone bridge. I raised my lantern and stepped ahead, amazement spreading through my body. The bridge was easily a hundred meters long, no more than two meters wide, and straight as an arrow. It must have taken years to carve, and for all my peering about I could make out no support. I thought for a moment that I perceived the figure of a man in the entry opposite, but as I swung my lantern it became clear that it was only shadow. A glimmer caught my eye and I looked up. Slowly, I felt my jaw drop. The chamber’s walls and roof were laced with veins of shining gold.
Sophia’s voice cut through the stillness.
“Let’s get moving. According to the doctor’s map, what we’re looking for isn’t deep.”
She strode past me.
“Wait.” I put a hand on her shoulder, unthinking, and quickly withdrew it. She remained stiff.
“You’d best have a helmet and a light source before we go any further.” I activated my own head-lamp and stowed the lantern. Her chin-strap clicked audibly in the vastness. I saw her beam come on and decided it was safe to advance. At one point the footing became slick, and I led the way on all fours. My light flashed across a river so far below I wasn’t sure how wide it was. The water was black, filled with bone-white things I dared not take a closer look at. Whatever they were, some of them were moving. I shuddered, calling Maria’s face to mind. I was doing this for her, I reminded myself. If I failed here I had no guarantee that the doctor would be true to his word. Somehow, I believed him, but I couldn’t take that chance. I had to succeed.
I became aware of a change as we neared the end of the bridge. Other than the ragged panting and rhythmic scraping from behind me which marked Sophia’s position, there was a new sound. It arose so gradually that at first I believed I was imagining it, but as it gained in intensity it became unmistakable. Somewhere ahead of us had to be a river or a waterfall. Standing, I cast my light forward. It glinted off the walls.
I heard a rustling behind me as Sophia stood up. I looked back in time to see her leaning against the wall, panting with exertion. She still hadn’t recovered from her injury, I gathered. We stopped for a moment to rest.
“I’m fine, John. I just need a minute.”
“Are you sure? You seem to be getting worse.”
“Nothing a good night’s sleep in a warm bed won’t fix. Maria is our priority.”
“I agree, but if I have to carry you out of here it will only slow us down. Are you sure you shouldn’t just stop here? I can probably make it alone.”
“No. We need to stay together. We’ll have a better chance of finding the gem that way.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that before we left the doctor told me that I had to stay with you the entire time we were in the caves or the deal was off.”
“Oh. That makes sense, then.”
We started up again and soon came to a waterfall that overlooked a large cavern with a central lake. Narrow, slippery paths led down both sides of the circular chamber at a shallow angle to meet at a door carved into the far wall. Even from a distance of some hundred meters, I could tell that the door was ornate. Rusted sockets revealed the memory of a bridge which had spanned the chasm, but the timbers which had occupied them had long since rotted and given way, leaving only the side paths as a means of descent. I started down the right-hand one with Sophia in tow.
We had barely gone halfway when suddenly, she slipped. I grabbed her arm and dragged her back, desperately scrabbling for some sort of footing on the narrow ledge. Somehow, I freed my pick and sank the tip into the rock, gaining just barely enough purchase to pull her upright. Our haggard breathing was the only sound that either of us made for several minutes. Then, slowly, we started toward the door again, more carefully this time.
When we reached the platform, I pulled the crowbar from my pack and leveraged it under the door. For some minutes, it refused to slide, but with Sophia’s effort added to my own eventually it gave, grating open and releasing a blast of rank-smelling air. Damp and decay pervaded everything down here, in this place never intended for human souls. A sudden flickering gave me a start. Somehow, as if by some unspoken magic, the lamps on either side of the door had lit. We were about to descend into the depths, and I had the most unsettling feeling that we were being watched.