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Book One: Discovery

Chapter 1: IKE

The Himalayas, Tibet Autonomous Region 1988

In the beginning was the word.

Or words.

Whatever these were.

They kept their lights turned off. The exhausted trekkers huddled in the dark cave and faced the peculiar writing. Scrawled with a twig, possibly, dipped in liquid radium or some other radioactive paint, the fluorescent pictographs floated in the black recesses. Ike let them savor the distraction. None of them seemed quite ready to focus on the storm beating against the mountainside outside.

With night descending and the trail erased by snow and wind and their yak herders in mutinous flight with most of the gear and food, Ike was relieved to have shelter of any kind. He was still pretending for them that this was part of their trip. In fact they were off the map. He'd never heard of this hole-in-the-wall hideout. Nor seen glow-in-the-dark caveman graffiti.

"Runes," gushed a knowing female voice. "Sacred runes left by a wandering monk."

The alien calligraphy glowed with soft violet light in the cave's cold bowels. The luminous hieroglyphics reminded Ike of his old dorm wall with its black-light posters. All he needed was a lash of Hendrix plundering Dylan's anthem, say, and a whiff of plump Hawaiian red sinsemilla. Anything to vanquish the howl of awful wind. Outside in the cold distance, a wildcat did
growl. . . .

"Those are no runes," said a man. "It's Bonpo." A Brooklyn beat, the accent meant Owen. Ike had nine clients here, only two of them male. They were easy to keep straight.

"Bonpo!" one of the women barked at Owen. The coven seemed to take collective delight in savaging Owen and Bernard, the other man. Ike had been spared so far. They treated him as a harmless Himalayan hillbilly. Fine with him.

"But the Bonpo were pre-Buddhist," the woman expounded.

The women were mostly Buddhist students from a New Age university. These things mattered very much to them.

Their goal was -- or had been -- Mount Kailash, the pyramidal giant just east of the Indian border. "A Canterbury Tale for the World Pilgrim" was how he'd advertised the trip. A kor -- a Tibetan walkabout -- to and around the holiest mountain in the world. Eight thousand per head, incense included. The problem was, somewhere along the trail he'd managed to misplace the mountain. It galled him. They were lost. Beginning at dawn today, the sky had changed from blue to milky gray. The herders had quietly bolted with the yaks. He had yet to announce that their tents and food were history. The first sloppy snowflakes had started kissing their Gore-Tex hoods just an hour ago, and Ike had taken this cave for shelter. It was a good call. He was the only one who knew it, but they were now about to get sodomized by an old-fashioned Himalayan tempest.

Ike felt his jacket being tugged to one side, and knew it would be Kora, wanting a private word. "How bad is it?" she whispered. Depending on the hour and day, Kora was his lover, base-camp shotgun, or business associate. Of late, it was a challenge estimating which came first for her, the business of adventure or the adventure of business. Either way, their little trekking company was no longer charming to her.

Ike saw no reason to front-load it with negatives. "We've got a great cave," he said.

"Gee."

"We're still in the black, head-count-wise."

"The itinerary's in ruins. We were behind as it was."

"We're fine. We'll take it out of the Siddhartha's Birthplace segment." He kept the worry out of his voice, but for once his sixth sense, or whatever it was, had come up short, and that bothered him. "Besides, getting a little lost will give them bragging rights."

"They don't want bragging rights. They want schedule. You don't know these people. They're not your friends. We'll get sued if they don't make their Thai Air flight on the nineteenth."

"These are the mountains," said Ike. "They'll understand." People forgot. Up here, it was a mistake to take even your next breath for granted.

"No, Ike. They won't understand. They have real jobs. Real obligations. Families." That was the rub. Again. Kora wanted more from life. She wanted more from her pathless Pathfinder.

"I'm doing the best I can," Ike said.

Outside, the storm went on horsewhipping the cave mouth. Barely May, it wasn't supposed to be this way. There should have been plenty of time to get his bunch to, around, and back from Kailash. The bane of mountaineers, the monsoon normally didn't spill across the mountains this far north. But as a former Everester himself, Ike should have known better than to believe in rain shadows or in schedules. Or in luck. They were in for it this time. The snow would seal their pass shut until late August. That meant he was going to have to buy space on a Chinese truck and shuttle them home via Lhasa -- and that came out of his land costs. He tried calculating in his head, but their quarrel overcame him.

"You do know what I mean by Bonpo," a woman said. Nineteen days into the trip, and Ike still couldn't link their spirit nicknames with the names in their passports. One woman, was it Ethel or Winifred, now preferred Green Tara, mother deity of Tibet. A pert Doris Day look-alike swore she was special friends with the Dalai Lama. For weeks now Ike had been listening to them celebrate the life of cavewomen. Well, he thought, here's your cave, ladies. Slum away.

They were sure his name -- Dwight David Crockett -- was an invention like their own. Nothing could convince them he wasn't one of them, a dabbler in past lives. One evening around a campfire in northern Nepal, he'd regaled them with tales of Andrew Jackson, pirates on the Mississippi, and his own legendary death at the Alamo. He'd meant it as a joke, but only Kora got it.

"You should know perfectly well," the woman went on, "there was no written language in Tibet before the late fifth century."

"No written language that we know about," Owen said.

"Next you'll be saying this is Yeti language."

It had been like this for days. You'd think they'd run out of air. But the higher they went, the more they argued.

"This is what we get for pandering to civilians," Kora muttered to Ike.

Civilians was her catch-all: eco-tourists, pantheist charlatans, trust funders, the overeducated. She was a street girl at heart.

"They're not so bad," he said. "They're just looking for a way into Oz, same as us."

"Civilians."

Ike sighed. At times like this, he questioned his self-imposed exile. Living apart from the world was not easy. There was a price to be paid for choosing the less-traveled road. Little things, bigger ones. He was no longer that rosy-cheeked lad who had come with the Peace Corps. He still had the cheekbones and cowled brow and careless mane. But a dermatologist on one of his treks had advised him to stay out of the high-altitude sun before his face turned to boot leather. Ike had never considered himself God's gift to women, but he saw no reason to trash what looks he still had. He'd lost two of his back molars to Nepal's dearth of dentists,and another tooth to a falling rock on the backside of Everest. And not so long ago, in his Johnnie Walker Black and Camels days, he'd taken to serious self-abuse, even flirting with the lethal west face of Makalu. He'd quit the smoke and booze cold when some British nurse told him his voice sounded like a Rudyard Kipling punchline. Makalu still needed slaying, of course. Though many mornings he even wondered about that.

Exile went deeper than the cosmetics or even prime health, of course. Self-doubt came with the territory, a wondering about what might have been, had he stayed the course back in Jackson. Rig work. Stone masonry. Maybe mountain guiding in the Tetons, or outfitting for hunters. No telling. He'd spent the last eight years in Nepal and Tibet watching himself slowly devolve from the Golden Boy of the Himalayas into one more forgotten surrogate of the American empire. He'd grown old inside. Even now there were days when Ike felt eighty. Next week was his thirty-first birthday.

"Would you look at this?" rose a cry. "What kind of mandala is that? The lines are all twisty."

Ike looked at the circle. It was hanging on the wall like a luminous moon. Mandalas were meditation aids, blueprints for divinity's palaces. Normally they consisted of circles within circles containing squared lines. By visualizing it just so, a 3-D architecture was supposed to appear above the mandala's flat surface. This one, though, looked like scrambled snakes.

Ike turned on his light. End of mystery, he congratulated himself.

Even he was stunned by the sight.

"My God," said Kora.

Where, a moment before, the fluorescent words had hung in magical suspense, a nude corpse stood rigidly propped upon a stone shelf along the back wall. The words weren't written on stone. They were written on him. The mandala was separate, painted on the wall to his right side.

A set of rocks formed a crude stairway up to his stage, and various passersby had attached katas -- long white prayer scarves -- to cracks in the stone ceiling. The katas sucked back and forth in the draft like gently disturbed ghosts. The man's grimace was slightly bucktoothed from mummification, and his eyes were calcified to chalky blue marbles. Otherwise the extreme cold and high altitude had left him perfectly preserved. Under the harsh beam of Ike's headlamp, the lettering was faint and red upon his emaciated limbs and belly and chest.

That he was a traveler was self-evident. In these regions, everyone was a pilgrim or a nomad or a salt trader or a refugee. But, judging from his scars and unhealed wounds and a metal collar around his neck and a warped, badly mended broken left arm, this particular Marco Polo had endured a journey beyond imagination. If flesh is memory, his body cried out a whole history of abuse and enslavement.

They stood beneath the shelf and goggled at the suffering. Three of the women -- and Owen -- began weeping. Ike alone approached. Probing here and there with his light beam, he reached out to touch one shin with his ice ax: hard as fossil wood.

Of all the obvious insults, the one that stood out most was his partial castration. One of the man's testicles had been yanked away, not cut, not even bitten -- the edges of the tear were too ragged -- and the wound had been cauterized with fire. The burn scars radiated out from his groin in a hairless keloid starburst. Ike couldn't get over the raw scorn of it. Man's tenderest part, mutilated, then doctored with a torch.

"Look," someone whimpered. "What did they do to his nose?"

Midcenter on the battered face was a ring unlike anything he'd ever seen before. This was no silvery Gen-X body piercing. The ring, three inches across and crusted with blood, was plugged deep in his septum, almost up into the skull. It hung to his bottom lip, as black as his beard. It was, thought Ike, utilitarian, large enough to control cattle.

Then he got a little closer and his repulsion altered. The ring was brutal. Blood and smoke and filth had coated it almost black, but Ike could plainly see the dull gleam of solid gold.

Ike turned to his people and saw nine pairs of frightened eyes beseeching him from beneath hoods and visors. Everyone had their lights on now. No one was arguing.

"Why?" wept one of the women.

A couple of the Buddhists had reverted to Christianity and were on their knees, crossing themselves. Owen was rocking from side to side, murmuring Kaddish. Kora came close. "You beautiful bastard." She giggled. Ike started. She was talking to the corpse.

"What did you say?"

"We're off the hook. They're not going to hit us up for refunds after all. We don't have to provide their holy mountain anymore. They've got something better."

"Let up, Kora. Give them some credit. They're not ghouls."

"No? Look around, Ike."

Sure enough, cameras were stealing into view in ones and twos. There was a flash, then another. Their shock gave way to tabloid voyeurism.

In no time the entire cast was blazing away with eight-hundred-dollar point-and-shoots. Motor drives made an insect hum. The lifeless flesh flared in their artificial lightning. Ike moved out of frame, and welcomed the corpse like a savior. It was unbelievable. Famished, cold, and lost, they couldn't have been happier.

One of the women had climbed the stepping-stones and was kneeling to one side of the nude, her head tilted sideways.

She looked down at them. "But he's one of us," she said.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Us. You and me. A white man."

Someone else framed it in less vulgar terms. "A Caucasian male?"

"That's crazy," someone objected. "Here? In the middle of nowhere?"

Ike knew she was right. The white flesh, the hair on its forearms and chest, the blue eyes, the cheekbones so obviously non-Mongoloid. But the woman wasn't pointing to his hairy arms or blue eyes or slender cheekbones. She was pointing at the hieroglyphics painted on his thigh. Ike aimed his light at the other thigh. And froze.

The text was in English. Modern English. Only upside down.

It came to him. The body hadn't been written upon after death. The man had written upon himself in life. He'd used his own body as a blank page. Upside down. He'd inscribed his journal notes on the only parchment guaranteed to travel with him. Now Ike saw how the lettering wasn't just painted on, but crudely tattooed.

Wherever he could reach, the man had jotted bits of testimony. Abrasions and filth obscured some of the writing, particularly below the knees and around his ankles. The rest of it could easily have been dismissed as random and lunatic. Numbers mixed with words and phrases, especially on the outer edges of each thigh, where he'd apparently decided there was extra room for new entries. The clearest passage lay across his lower stomach.

" 'All the world will be in love with night,' " Ike read aloud, " 'and pay no worship to the garish sun.' "

"Gibberish," snapped Owen, badly spooked.

"Bible talk," Ike sympathized.

"No, it's not," piped up Kora. "That's not from the Bible. It's Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet."

Ike felt the group's repugnance. Indeed, why would this tortured creature choose for his obituary the most famous love story ever written? A story about opposing clans. A tale of love transcending violence. The poor stiff had been out of his gourd on thin air and solitude. It was no coincidence that in the highest monasteries on earth, men endlessly obsessed about delusion. Hallucinations were a given up here. Even the Dalai Lama joked about it.

"And so," Ike said, "he's white. He knew his Shakespeare. That makes him no older than two or three hundred years."

It was becoming a parlor game. Their fear was shifting to morbid delight. Forensics as recreation.

"Who is this guy?" one woman asked.

"A slave?"

"An escaped prisoner?"

Ike said nothing. He went nose-to-nose with the gaunt face, hunting for clues. Tell your journey, he thought. Speak your escape. Who shackled you with gold? Nothing. The marble eyes ignored their curiosity. The grimace enjoyed its voiceless riddles.

Owen had joined them on the shelf, reading from the opposite shoulder. "RAF." Sure enough, the left deltoid bore a tattoo with the letters RAF beneath an eagle. It was right side up and of commercial quality. Ike grasped the cold arm.

"Royal Air Force," he translated.

The puzzle assembled. It even half-explained the Shakespeare, if not the chosen lines.

"He was a pilot?" asked the Paris bob. She seemed charmed.

"Pilot. Navigator. Bombardier." Ike shrugged. "Who knows?"

Like a cryptographer, he bent to inspect the words and numbers twining the flesh. Line after line, he traced each clue to its dead end. Here and there he punctuated complete thoughts with a jab of his fingertip. The trekkers backed away, letting him work through the cyphers. He seemed to know what he was doing.

Ike circled back and tried a string in reverse. It made sense this time. Yet it made no sense. He got out his topographical map of the Himalayan chain and found the longitude and latitude, but snorted at their nexus. No way, he thought, and lifted his gaze across the wreckage of a human body. He looked back at the map. Could it be?

"Have some." The smell of French-pressed gourmet coffee made him blink. A plastic mug slid into view. Ike glanced up. Kora's blue eyes were forgiving. That warmed him more than the coffee. He took the cup with murmured thanks and realized he had a terrific headache. Hours had passed. Shadows lay pooled in the deeper cave like wet sewage.

Ike saw a small group squatting Neanderthal-style around a small Bluet gas stove, melting snow and brewing joe. The clearest proof of their miracle was that Owen had broken down and was actually sharing his private stock of coffee. There was one hand-grinding the beans in a plastic machine, another squeezing the filter press, yet another grating a bit of cinnamon on top of each cupful. They were actually cooperating. For the first time in a month, Ike almost liked them.

"You okay?" Kora asked.

"Me?" It sounded strange, someone asking after his well-being. Especially her.

As if he needed any more to ponder, Ike suspected Kora was going to leave him. Before setting off from Kathmandu, she'd announced this was her final trek for the company. And since Himalayan High Journeys was nothing more than her and him, it implied a larger dissatisfaction. He would have minded less if her reason was another man, another country, better profits, or higher risks. But her reason was him. Ike had broken her heart because he was Ike, full of dreams and childlike naivete. A drifter on life's stream. What had attracted her to him in the first place now disturbed her, his lone wolf/high mountains way. She thought he knew nothing about the way people really worked, like this notion of a lawsuit, and maybe there was some truth to that. He'd been hoping the trek would somehow bridge their gap, that it would draw her back to the magic that drew him. Over the past two years she'd grown weary, though. Storms and bankruptcy no longer spelled magic for her.

"I've been studying this mandala," she said, indicating the painted circle filled with squirming lines. In the darkness, its colors had been brilliant and alive. In their light, the drawing was bland. "I've seen hundreds of mandalas, but I can't make heads or tails out of this one. It looks like chaos, all those lines and squiggles. It does seem to have a center, though." She glanced up at the mummy, then at Ike's notes. "How about you? Getting anywhere?"

He'd drawn the oddest sketch, pinning words and text in cartoon balloons to different positions on the body and linking them with a mess of arrows and lines. Ike sipped at the coffee. Where to begin? The flesh declared a maze, both in the way it told the story and in the story it told. The man had written his evidence as it occurred to him, apparently, adding and revising and contradicting himself, wandering with his truths. He was like a shipwrecked diarist who had suddenly found a pen and couldn't quit filling in old details.

"First of all," he began, "his name was Isaac."

"Isaac?" asked Darlene from the assembly line of coffee makers. They had stopped what they were doing to listen to him.

Ike ran his finger from nipple to nipple. The declaration was clear. Partially clear. I am Isaac, it said, followed by In my exile / In my agony of Light.

"See these numbers?" said Ike. "I figure this must be a serial number. And 10/03/23 could be his birthday, right?"

"Nineteen twenty-three?" someone asked. Their disappointment verged on childlike. Seventy-five years old evidently didn't qualify as a genuine antique.

"Sorry," he said, then continued. "See this other date here?" He brushed aside what remained of the pubic patch. "4/7/44. The day of his shoot-down, I'm guessing."

"Shoot-down?"

"Or crash."

They were bewildered. He started over, this time telling them the story he was piecing together. "Look at him. Once upon a time, he was a kid. Twenty-one years old. World War II was on. He signed up or got drafted. That's the RAF tattoo. They sent him to India. His job was to fly the Hump."

"Hump?" someone echoed. It was Bernard. He was furiously tapping the news into his laptop.

"That's what pilots called it when they flew supplies to bases in Tibet and China," Ike said. "The Himalayan chain. Back then, this whole region was part of an Oriental Western Front. It was a rough go. Every now and then a plane went down. The crews rarely survived."

"A fallen angel," sighed Owen. He wasn't alone. They were all becoming infatuated.

"I don't see how you've drawn all that from a couple of strands of numbers," said Bernard. He aimed his pencil at Ike's latter set of numbers. "You call that the date of his shoot-down. Why not the date of his marriage, or his graduation from Oxford, or the date he lost his virginity? What I mean is, this guy's no kid. He looks forty. If you ask me, he wandered away from some scientific or mountain-climbing expedition within the last couple years. He sure as snow didn't die in 1944 at the age of twenty-one."

"I agree," Ike said, and Bernard looked instantly deflated. "He refers to a period of captivity. A long stretch. Darkness. Starvation. Hard labor." The sacred deep.

"A prisoner of war. Of the Japanese?"

"I don't know about that," Ike said.

"Chinese Communists, maybe?"

"Russians?" someone else tried.

"Nazis?"

"Drug lords?"

"Tibetan bandits!"

The guesses weren't so wild. Tibet had long been a chessboard for the Great Game.

"We saw you checking the map. You were looking for something."

"Origins," Ike said. "A starting point."

"And?"

With both hands, Ike smoothed down the thigh hair and exposed another set of numbers. "These are map coordinates."

"For where he got shot down. It makes perfect sense." Bernard was with him now.

"You mean his airplane might be somewhere close?"

Mount Kailash was forgotten. The prospect of a crash site thrilled them.

"Not exactly," Ike said.

"Spit it out, man. Where did he go down?"

Here's where it got a little fantastic. Mildly, Ike said, "East of here."

"How far east?"

"Just above Burma."

"Burma!" Bernard and Cleopatra registered the incredibility. The rest sat mute, perplexed within their own ignorance.

"On the north side of the range," said Ike, "slightly inside Tibet."

"But that's over a thousand miles away."

"I know."

It was well past midnight. Between their cafe lattes and adrenaline, sleep was unlikely for hours to come. They sat erect or stood in the cave while the enormity of this character's journey sank in.

"How did he get here?"

"I don't know."

"I thought you said he was a prisoner."

Ike exhaled cautiously. "Something like that."

"Something?"

"Well." He cleared his throat softly. "More like a pet."

"What!"

"I don't know. It's a phrase he uses, right here: 'favored cosset.' That's a pet calf or something, isn't it?"

"Ah, get out, Ike. If you don't know, don't make it up."

He hunched. It sounded like crazed drivel to him, too.

"Actually it's a French term," a voice interjected. It was Cleo, the librarian. "Cosset means lamb, not calf. Ike's right, though. It does refer to a pet. One that is fondled and enjoyed."

"Lamb?" someone objected, as if Cleo -- or the dead man, or both -- were insulting their pooled intelligence.

"Yes," Cleo answered, "lamb. But that bothers me less than the other word, 'favored.' That's a pretty provocative term, don't you think?"

By the group's silence, they clearly had not thought about it.

"This?" she asked them, and almost touched the body with her fingers. "This is favored? Favored over what others? And above all, favored by whom? In my mind, anyway, it suggests some sort of master."

"You're inventing," a woman said. They didn't want it to be true.

"I wish I were," said Cleo. "But there is this, too."

Ike had to squint at the faint lettering where she was pointing. Corvée, it said.

"What's that?"

"More of the same," she answered. "Subjugation. Maybe he was a prisoner of the Japanese. It sounds like The Bridge on the River Kwai or something."

"Except I never heard of the Japanese putting nose rings in their prisoners," Ike said.

"The history of domination is complex."

"But nose rings?"

"All kinds of unspeakable things have been done."

Ike made it more emphatic. "Gold nose rings?"

"Gold?" She blinked as he played his light on the dull gleam.

"You said it yourself. A favored lamb. And you asked the question, Who favored this lamb?"

"You know?"

"Put it this way. He thought he did. See this?" Ike pushed at one ice-cold leg. It was a single word almost hidden on the left quadricep.

"Satan," she lip-read to herself.

"There's more," he said, and gently rotated the skin.

Exists, it said.

"This is part of it, too." He showed her. It was assembled on the flesh like a prayer or a poem. Bone of my bones / flesh of my flesh. "From Genesis, right? The Garden of Eden."

He could sense Kora struggling to orchestrate some sort of rebuttal. "He was a prisoner," she tried. "He was writing about evil. In general. It's nothing. He hated his captors. He called them Satan. The worst name he knew."

"You're doing what I did," Ike said. "You're fighting the evidence."

"I don't think so."

"What happened to him was evil. But he didn't hate it."

"Of course he did."

"And yet there's something here," Ike said.

"I'm not so sure," Kora said.

"It's in between the words. A tone. Don't you feel it?"

Kora did -- her frown was clear -- but she refused to admit it. Her wariness seemed more than academic.

"There are no warnings here," Ike said. "No 'Beware.' No 'Keep Out.' "

"What's your point."

"Doesn't it bother you that he quotes Romeo and Juliet? And talks about Satan the way Adam talked about Eve?"

Kora winced.

"He didn't mind the slavery."

"How can you say that?" she whispered.

"Kora." She looked at him. A tear was starting in one eye. "He was grateful. It was written all over his body."

She shook her head in denial.

"You know it's true."

"No, I don't know what you're talking about."

"Yes, you do," Ike said. "He was in love."

*******************

Cabin fever set in.

On the second morning, Ike found that the snow had drifted to basketball-rim heights outside the cave's entryway. By then the tattooed corpse had lost its novelty, and the group was getting dangerous in its boredom. One by one, the batteries of their Walkmans winked out, leaving them bereft of the music and words of angels, dragons, earth drums, and spiritual surgeons. Then the gas stove ran out of fuel, meaning several addicts went into caffeine withdrawal. It did not help matters when the supply of toilet paper ran out.

Ike did what he could. As possibly the only kid in Wyoming to take classical flute lessons, he'd scorned his mother's assurances that someday it would come in handy. Now she was proved right. He had a plastic recorder, and the notes were quite beautiful in the cave. At the end of some Mozart snatches, they applauded, then petered off into their earlier moroseness.

On the morning of the third day, Owen went missing. Ike was not surprised. He'd seen mountain expeditions get high-centered on storms just like this, and knew how twisted the dynamics could get. Chances were Owen had wandered off to get exactly this kind of attention. Kora thought so, too.

"He's faking it," she said. She was lying in his arms, their sleeping bags zipped together. Even the weeks of sweat had not worn away the smell of her coconut shampoo. At his recommendation, most of the others had buddied up for warmth, too, even Bernard. Owen was the one who had apparently gotten left out in the cold.

"He must have been heading for the front door," Ike said. "I'll go take a look." Reluctantly he unzipped his and Kora's paired bags and felt their body heat vanish into the chill air.

He looked around the cave's chamber. It was dark and freezing. The naked corpse towering above them made the cave feel like a crypt. On his feet now, blood moving again, Ike didn't like the look of their entropy. It was too soon to be lying around dying.

"I'll come with you," Kora said.

It took them three minutes to reach the entranceway.

"I don't hear the wind anymore," Kora said. "Maybe the storm's stopped."

But the entry was plugged by a ten-foot-high drift, complete with a wicked cornice curling in at the crown. It allowed no light or sound from the outer world. "I don't believe it," Kora said.

Ike kick-stepped his boot toes into the hard crust and climbed to where his head bumped the ceiling. With one hand he karate-chopped the snow and managed a thin view. The light was gray out there, and hurricane-force winds were skinning the surface with a freight-train roar. Even as he watched, his little opening sealed shut again. They were bottled up. He slid back to the base of the snow. For the moment he forgot about the missing client.

"Now what?" Kora asked behind him.

Her faith in him was a gift. Ike took it. She -- they -- needed him to be strong.

"One thing's certain," he said. "Our missing man didn't come this way. No footprints, and he couldn't have gotten out through that snow anyway."

"But where could he have gone?"

"There might be some other exit." Firmly he added, "We may need one."

He had suspected the existence of a secondary feeder tunnel. Their dead RAF pilot had written about being reborn from a "mineral womb" and climbing into an "agony of light." On the one hand, Isaac could have been describing every ascetic's reentry into reality after prolonged meditation. But Ike was beginning to think the words were more than spiritual metaphor. Isaac had been a warrior, after all, trained for hardship. Everything about him declared the literal physical world. At any rate, Ike wanted to believe that the dead man might have been talking about some subterranean passage. If he could escape through it to here, maybe they could escape through it to there, wherever that might be.

Back in the central chamber, he prodded the group to life. "Folks," he announced, "we could use a hand."

A camper's groan emitted from one cluster of Gore-Tex and fiberfill. "Don't tell me," someone complained, "we have to go save him."

"If he found a way out of here," Ike retorted, "then he's saved us. But first we have to find him."

Grumbling, they rose. Bags unzipped. By the light of his headlamp, Ike watched their pockets of body heat drift off in vaporous bursts, like souls. From here on, it was imperative to keep them on their feet. He led them to the back of the cave. There were a dozen portals honeycombing the chamber's walls, though only two were man-sized. With all the authority he could muster, Ike formed two teams: them all together, and him. Alone. "This way we can cover twice the distance," he explained.

"He's leaving us," Cleo despaired. "He's saving himself."

"You don't know Ike," Kora said.

"You won't leave us?" Cleo asked him.

Ike looked at her, hard. "I won't."

Their relief showed in long streams of exhaled frost.

"You need to stick together," he instructed them solemnly. "Move slowly. Stay in flashlight range at all times. Take no chances. I don't want any sprained ankles. If you get tired and need to sit down for a while, make sure a buddy stays with you. Questions? None? Good. Now let's synchronize watches. . . ."

He gave the group three plastic "candles," six-inch tubes of luminescent chemicals that could be activated with a twist. The green glow didn't light much space and only lasted two or three hours. But they would serve as beacons every few hundred yards: crumbs upon the forest floor.

"Let me go with you," Kora murmured to him. Her yearning surprised him.

"You're the only one I trust with them," he said. "You take the right tunnel, I'll take the left. Meet me back here in an hour." He turned to go. But they didn't move.

He realized they weren't just watching him and Kora, but waiting for his blessing. "Vaya con Dios," he said gruffly.

Then, in full view of the others, he kissed Kora. One from the heart, broad, a breath-taker. For a moment, Kora held on tight, and he knew things were going to be all right between them, they were going to find a way.

Ike had never had much stomach for caving. The enclosure made him claustrophobic. Just the same, he had good instincts for it.On the face of it, ascending a mountain was the exact reverse of descending into a cave. A mountain gave freedoms that could be equally horrifying and liberating. In Ike's experience, caves took away freedom in the same proportions. Their darkness and sheer gravity were tyrants. They compressed the imagination and deformed the spirit. And yet both mountains and caves involved climbing. And when you came right down to it, there was no difference between ascent and descent. It was all the same circle. And so he made swift progress.

Five minutes deep, he heard a sound and paused. "Owen?"

His senses were in flux, not just heightened by the darkness and silence, but also subtly changed. It was hard to put words to, the clean dry scent of dust rendered by mountains still in birth, the scaly touch of lichen that had never seen sunshine. The visuals were not completely trustworthy. You saw like this on very dark nights on a mountain, a headlight view of the world,one beam wide, truncated, partial.

A muffled voice reached him. He wanted it to be Owen so the search could be over and he could return to Kora. But the tunnels apparently shared a common wall. Ike put his head against the stone -- chill, but not bitterly cold -- and could hear Bernard calling for Owen.

Farther on, Ike's tunnel became a slot at shoulder height. "Hello?" he called into the slot. For some reason, he felt his animal core bristle. It was like standing at the mouth of a deep, dark alleyway. Nothing was out of place. Yet the very ordinariness of the walls and empty stone seemed to promise menace.

Ike shone his headlamp through the slot. As he stood peering into the depths at a tube of fractured limestone identical to the one he was already occupying, he saw nothing in itself to fear. Yet the air was so . . . inhuman. The smells were so faint and unadulterated that they verged on no smell, Zen-like, clear as water. It was almost refreshing. That made him more afraid.

The corridor extended in a straight line into darkness. He checked his watch: thirty-two minutes had passed. It was time to backtrack and meet the group. That was the arrangement, one hour, round trip. But then, at the far edge of his light beam, something glittered.

Ike couldn't resist. It was like a tiny fallen star in there. And if he was quick, the whole exercise wouldn't last more than a minute. He found a foothold and pulled himself in. The slot was just big enough to squeeze through, feet first.

On the other side of the wall, nothing had changed. This part of the tunnel looked no different from the other. His light ahead picked out the same gleam twinkling in the far darkness.

Slowly he brought his light down to his feet. Beside one boot, he found another reflection identical to the one glinting in the distance. It gave the same dull gleam.

He lifted his boot.

It was a gold coin.

Carefully, blood knocking through his veins, Ike stopped. A tiny voice warned him not to pick it up. But there was no way . . .

The coin's antiquity was sensuous. Its lettering had worn away long ago, and the shape was asymmetrical, nothing stamped by any machine. Only a vague, amorphous bust of some king or deity still showed.

Ike shone his light down the tunnel. Past the next coin he saw a third one winking in the blackness. Could it be? The naked Isaac had fled from some precious underground reserve, even dropping his pilfered fortune along the way.

The coins blinked like feral eyes. Otherwise the stone throat lay bare, too bright in the foreground, too dark in the back. Too neatly appointed with one coin, then another.

What if the coins had not been dropped? What if they'd been placed? The thought knifed him. Like bait.

He slugged his back against the cold stone.

The coins were a trap.

He swallowed hard, forced himself to think it through.

The coin was cold as ice. With one fingernail he scraped away a veneer of encrusted glacier dust. It had been lying here for years, even decades or centuries. The more he thought about it, the more his horror mounted.

The trap was nothing personal. It had nothing to do with drawing him, Ike Crockett, into the depths. To the contrary, this was just random opportunism. Time was not a consideration. Even patience had nothing to do with it. The way trash fishermen did, someone was chumming the occasional traveler. You threw down a handful of scraps and maybe something came, and maybe it didn't. But who came here? That was easy. People like him: monks, traders, lost souls. But why lure them? To where?

His bait analogy evolved. This was less like trash fishing than bearbaiting. Ike's dad used to do it in the Wind River Range for Texans who paid to sit in a blind and "hunt" browns and blacks. All the outfitters did it, standard operating procedure, like working cattle. You cultivated a garbage heap maybe ten minutes by horse from the cabins, so that the bears got used to regular feeding. As the season neared, you started putting out tastier tidbits. In an effort at making them feel included, Ike and his sister were called upon each Easter to surrender their marshmallow bunnies. As he neared ten, Ike was required to accompany his father, and that was when he saw where his candy went.

The images cascaded. A child's pink candy left in the silent woods. Dead bears hanging in the autumn light, skins falling heavily as by magic where the knives traced lines. And underneath, bodies like men almost, as slick as swimmers.

Out, thought Ike. Get out.

Not daring to take his light off the inner mountain, Ike climbed back through the slot, cursing his loud jacket, cursing the rocks that shifted underfoot, cursing his greed. He heard noises that he knew didn't exist. Jumped at shadows, he cast himself. The dread wouldn't leave him. All he could think of was exit.

He got back to the main chamber out of breath, skin still crawling. His return couldn't have taken more than fifteen minutes. Without checking his watch, he guessed his round trip at less than an hour.

The chamber was pitch black. He was alone. He stopped to listen as his heartbeat slowed, and there was not a sound, not a shuffle. He could see the fluorescent writing hovering at the far edge of the chamber. It entwined the dark corpse like some lovely exotic serpent. He lashed his light across the chamber.

The gold nose ring glinted. And something else. As if returning to a thought, he pulled his light back to the face.

The dead man was smiling.

Ike wiggled his light, jimmied the shadows. It had to be an optical trick, that or his memory was failing. He remembered a tight grimace, nothing like this wild smile. Where before he'd seen only the tips of a few teeth, joy -- open glee -- now played in his light. Get a grip, Crockett.

His mind wouldn't quit racing. What if the corpse itself was bait? Suddenly the text took on a grotesque clarity. I am Isaac. The son who gave himself to sacrifice. For love of the Father. In exile. In my agony of Light. But what could this all mean?

He'd done his share of hardcore rescues and knew the drill -- not that there was much of a drill for this one. Ike grabbed his coil of 9-mm rope and stuffed his last four AA batteries into a pocket, then looked around. What else? Two protein bars, a Velcro ankle brace, his med kit. It seemed as if there should have been more to carry. The cupboard was pretty much bare, though.

Just before departing the main chamber, Ike cast his light across the room. Sleeping bags lay scattered on the floor like empty cocoons. He entered the right-hand tunnel. The passage snaked downward at an even pitch, left, then right, then became steeper. What a mistake, sending them off, even all together. Ike couldn't believe he'd put his little flock at this kind of risk. For that matter, he couldn't believe the risk they'd taken. But of course they'd taken it. They didn't know better.

"Hello!" he called. His guilt deepened by the vertical foot. Was it his fault they'd put their faith in a counterculture buccaneer?

The going slowed. The walls and ceiling grew corrupt with long sheets of delaminating rock. Pull the wrong piece, and the whole mass might slide. Ike pendulumed from admiration to resentment. His pilgrims were brave. His pilgrims were foolhardy. And he was in danger.

If not for Kora, he would have talked himself out of further descent. In a sense, she became a scapegoat for his courage. He wanted to turn around and flee. The same foreboding that had paralyzed him in the other tunnel flared up again. His very bones seemed ready to lock in rebellion, limb by limb, joint by joint. He forced himself deeper.

At last he reached a plunging shaft and came to a halt. Like an invisible waterfall, a column of freezing air streamed past from reaches too high for his flashlight beam. He held his hand out, and the cold current poured through his fingers.

At the very edge of the precipice, Ike looked down around his feet and found one of his six-inch chemical candles. The green glow was so faint he had almost missed it.

He lifted the plastic tube by one end and turned off his headlamp, trying to judge how long ago they had activated the mixture. More than three hours, less than six. Time was racing out of his control. On the off-chance, he sniffed the plastic. Impossibly, it seemed to hold a trace of her coconut scent.

"Kora!" he bellowed into the tube of air.

Where outcrops disturbed the flow of wind, a tiny symphony of whistles and sirens and bird cries answered back, a music of stone. Ike stuffed the candle into one pocket.

The air smelled fresh, like the outside of a mountain. Ike filled his lungs with it. A rush of instincts collided in what could only be called heartache. In that instant, he wanted what he had never really missed. He wanted the sun.

He searched the sides of the shaft with his light -- up and down -- for signs that his group had gone this way. Here and there he spotted a possible handhold or a shelf to rest upon, though no one -- not even Ike in his prime -- could have climbed down into the shaft and survived.

The shaft's difficulties exceeded even his group's talent for blind faith. They must have turned around and gone some other way. Ike started out.

A hundred meters farther back, he found their detour.

He had walked right past the opening on his way down. On the return, the hole was practically blatant -- especially the green glow ebbing from its canted throat. He had to take his pack off in order to get through the small aperture. Just inside lay the second of his chemical candles.

By comparing the two candles -- this one was much brighter -- Ike fixed the group's chronology. Here indeed was their deviation. He tried to imagine which pioneer spirit had piloted the group into this side tunnel, and knew it could only have been one person.

"Kora," he whispered. She would not have left Owen for dead any more than he. It was she who would be insisting on probing deeper and deeper into the tunnel system.

The detour led to others. Ike followed the side tunnel to one fork, then another, then another. The unfolding network horrified him. Kora had unwittingly led them -- him, too -- deep into an underground maze.

"Wait!" he shouted.

At first the group had taken the time to mark their choices. Some of the branches were marked with a simple arrow arranged with rocks. A few showed the right way or the left way with a big X scratched on the wall. But soon the marks ended. No doubt emboldened by their progress, the group had quit blazing its path. Ike had few clues other than a black scuff mark or a fresh patch of rock where someone had pulled loose a handhold.

Second-guessing their choices devoured the time. Ike checked his watch. Well past midnight. He'd been hunting Kora and the lost pilgrims for over nine hours now. That meant they were desperately lost.

His head hurt. He was tired. The adrenaline was long gone. The air no longer had the smell of summits or jetstream. This was an interior scent, the inside of the mountain's lungs, the smell of darkness. He made himself chew and swallow a protein bar. Ike wasn't sure he could find his way out again.

Yet he kept his mountaineer's presence of mind. Thousands of physical details clamored for his attention. Some he absorbed, most he simply passed between. The trick was to see simply.

He came upon a glory hole, a huge, unlikely void within the mountain. His light beam withered in the depths and towering height of it.

Even worn down, he was awed. Great columns of buttery limestone dangled from the arched ceiling. A huge Om had been carved into one wall. And dozens, maybe hundreds, of suits of ancient Mongolian armor hung from rawhide thongs knotted to knobs and outcrops. It looked like an entire army of ghosts. A vanquished army.

The wheat-colored stone was gorgeous in his headlamp. The armor twisted in a slight breeze and fractured the light into a million points.

Ike admired the soft leather thangka paintings pinned to the walls, then lifted a fringed corner and discovered that the fringe was made of human fingers. He dropped it, horrified. The leather was flayed human skins. He backed away, counting the thangkas. Fifty at least. Could they have belonged to the Mongolian horde?

He looked down. His boots had tracked halfway across yet another mandala, this one twenty feet across and made of colored sand. He'd seen some of these in Tibetan monasteries before, but never so large. Like the one beside Isaac in the cave chamber, it held details that looked less architectural than like organic worms. His were not the only footprints spoiling the artwork. Others had trampled it, and recently. Kora and the gang had come this way.

At one junction he ran out of signs altogether. Ike faced the branching tunnels and, from somewhere in his childhood, remembered the answer to all labyrinths: consistency. Go to your left or to your right, but always stay true. This being Tibet -- the land of clockwise circumambulation around sacred temples and mountains -- he chose left. It was the correct choice. He found the first of them ten minutes later.

Ike had entered a stratum of limestone so pure and slick it practically swallowed the shadows. The walls curved without angles. There were no cracks or ledging in the rock, only rugosities and gentle waves. Nothing caught at the light, nothing cast darkness. The result was unadulterated light. Wherever Ike turned his lamp beam, he was surrounded by radiance the color of milk.

Cleopatra was there. Ike rounded the wing and her light joined with his. She was sitting in a lotus position in the center of the luminous passage. With ten gold coins spread

before her, she could have been a beggar.

"Are you hurt?" Ike asked her.

"Just my ankle," Cleo replied, smiling. Her eyes had that holy gleam they all aspired to, part wisdom, part soul. Ike wasn't fooled.

"Let's go," he ordered.

"You go ahead," Cleo breathed with her angel voice. "I'll stay a bit longer."

Some people can handle solitude. Most just think they can. Ike had seen its victims in the mountains and monasteries, and once in a jail. Sometimes it was the isolation that undid them. Sometimes it was the cold or famine or even amateur meditation. With Cleo it was a little of all of the above. Ike checked his watch: 3:00 a.m. "What about the rest of you? Where did they go?"

"Not much farther," she said. Good news. And bad news. "They went to find you."

"Find me?"

"You kept calling for help. We weren't going to leave you alone."

"But I didn't call for help."

She patted his leg. "All for one," she assured him.

Ike picked up one of the coins. "Where'd you find these?"

"Everywhere," she said. "More and more, the deeper we got. Isn't it wonderful?"

"I'm going for the others. Then we'll all come back for you," Ike said. He changed the fading batteries in his headlamp while he talked, replacing them with the last of his new ones. "Promise you won't move from here."

"I like it here very much."

He left Cleo in a sea of alabaster radiance.

The limestone tube sped him deeper. The decline was even, the footing uncomplicated. Ike jogged, sure he could catch them. The air took on a coppery tang, nameless, yet distantly familiar. Not much farther, Cleo had said.

The blood streaks started at 3:47 a.m.

Because they first appeared as several dozen crimson handprints upon the white stone, and because the stone was so porous that it practically inhaled the liquid, Ike mistook them for primitive art. He should have known better.

Ike slowed. The effect was lovely in its playful randomness. Ike liked his image: slap-happy cavemen.

Then his foot hit a puddle not yet absorbed into the stone. The dark liquid splashed up. It sluiced in bright streaks across the wall, red on white. Blood, he realized.

"God!" he yelled, and vaulted wide in instant evasion. A tiptoe, then the same bloody sole landed again, skidded, torqued sideways. The momentum drove him facefirst into the wall and then sent him tumbling around the bend.

His headlamp flew off. The light blinked out. He came to a halt against cold stone.

It was like being clubbed unconscious. The blackness stopped all control, all motion, all place in the world. Ike even quit breathing. As much as he wanted to hide from consciousness, he was wide awake.

Abruptly the thought of lying still became unbearable. He rolled away from the wall and let gravity guide him onto his hands and knees. Hands bare, he felt about for the headlamp in widening circles, torn between disgust and terror at the viscous curd layering the floor. He could even taste the stuff, cold upon his teeth.

He pressed his lips shut, but the smell was gamy, and there was no game in here, only his people. It was a monstrous thought.

At last he snagged the headlamp by its connecting wire, rocked back onto his heels, fumbled with the switch. There was a sound, distant or near, he couldn't tell. "Hey?" he challenged. He paused, listened, heard nothing.

Laboring against his own panic, Ike flipped the switch on and off and on. It was like trying to spark a fire with wolves closing in. The sound again. He caught it this time. Nails scratching rock? Rats? The blood scent surged. What was going on here?

He muttered a curse at the dead light. With his fingertips he stroked the lens, searching for cracks. Gently he shook it, dreading the rattle of a shattered lightbulb. Nothing.

Was blind, but now I see. . . . The words drifted into his consciousness, and he was uncertain whether they were a song or his memory of it. The sound came more distinctly. 'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear. It washed in from far away, a woman's lush voice singing "Amazing Grace." Something about its brave syllables suggested less a hymn than an anthem. A last stand.

It was Kora's voice. She had never sung for him. But this was she. Singing for them all, it seemed.

Her presence, even in the far depths, steadied him. "Kora," he called. On his knees, eyes wide in the utter blackness, Ike disciplined himself. If it wasn't the switch or the bulb . . . he tried the wire. Tight at the ends, no lacerations. He opened the battery case, wiped his fingers clean and dry, and carefully removed each slender battery, counting in a whisper, "One, two, three, four." One at a time, he cleaned the tips against his T-shirt, then swabbed each contact in the case and replaced the batteries. Head up, head down, up, down. There was an order to things. He obeyed.

He snapped the plate back onto the case, drew gently at the wire, palmed the lamp. And flicked the switch.

Nothing.

The scratch-scratch noise rose louder. It seemed very close. He wanted to bolt away, any direction, any cost, just flee.

"Stick," he instructed himself. He said it out loud. It was something like a mantra, his own, something he told himself when the walls got steep or the holds thin or the storms mean. Stick, as in hang. As in no surrender.

Ike clenched his teeth. He slowed his lungs. Again he removed the batteries. This time he replaced them with the batch of nearly dead batteries in his pocket.

He flipped the switch.

Light. Sweet light.

He breathed it in.

In an abattoir of white stone.

The image of butchery lasted one instant. Then his light flickered out.

"No!" he cried in the darkness, and shook the headlamp.

The light came on again, what little there was of it. The bulb glowed rusty orange, grew weaker, then suddenly brightened, relatively speaking. It was less than a quarter-strength. More than enough. Ike took his eyes from the little bulb and dared to look around once more.

The passageway was a horror.

In his small circle of jaundiced light, Ike stood up. He was very careful. All around, the walls were zebra-striped with crimson streaks. The bodies had been arranged in a row.

You don't spend years in Asia without seeing a fair share of the dead. Many times, Ike had sat by the burning ghats at Pashaputanath, watching the fires peel flesh from bone. And no one climbed the South Col of Everest these days without passing a certain South African dreamer, or on the north side a French gentleman sitting silently by the trail at 28,000 feet. And then there had been that time the king's army opened fire on Social Democrats revolting in the streets of Kathmandu and Ike had gone to Bir Hospital to identify the body of a BBC cameraman and seen the corpses hastily lined side by side on the tile floor. This reminded him of that.

It rose in him again, the silence of birds. And how, for days afterward, the dogs had limped about from bits of glass broken out of windows. And above all else, how, in being dragged, a human body gets undressed.

They lay before him, his people. He had viewed them in life as fools. In death, half-naked, they were pathetic. Not foolishly so. Just terribly. The smell of opened bowels and raw meat was nearly enough to panic him.

Their wounds . . . Ike could not see at first without seeing past the horrible wounds. He focused on their undress. He felt ashamed for these poor people and for himself. It seemed like sin itself to see their jumble of pubic patches and lolling thighs and randomly exposed breasts and stomachs that could no longer be held in or chests held high. In his shock, Ike stood above them, and the details swarmed up: here a faint tattoo of a rose, there a cesarean scar, the marks of surgeries and accidents, the edges of a bikini tan scribed upon a Mexican beach. Some of this was meant to be hidden, even to lovers, some to be revealed. None of it was meant to be seen this way.

Ike made himself get on with it. There were five of them, one male, Bernard. He started to identify the women, but with a rush of fatigue he suddenly forgot their names altogether. At the moment, only one of them mattered to him, and she was not here.

The snapped ends of very white bone stood from lawnmower-like gashes. Body cavities gaped empty. Some fingers were crooked, some missing at the root. Bitten off? A woman's head had been crushed to a thick, panlike sac. Even her hair was anonymous with gore, but the pubis was blond. She was, poor creature, thank God, not Kora.

That familiarity one reaches with victims began. Ike put one hand to the ache behind his eyes, then started over again. His light was failing. The massacre had no answer. Whatever had happened to them could happen to him.

"Stick, Crockett," he commanded.

First things first. He counted on his fingers: six here, Cleo up the tunnel, Kora somewhere. That left Owen still at large.

Ike stepped among the bodies, searching for clues. He had little experience with such extremes of trauma, but there were a few things he could tell. Judging by the blood trails, it looked like an ambush. And it had been done without a gun.

There were no bullet holes. Ordinary knives were out of the question, too. The lacerations were much too deep and massed so strangely, here upon the upper body, there at the backs of the legs, that Ike could only imagine a pack of men with machetes. It looked more like an attack by wild animals, especially the way a thigh had been stripped to the bone.

But what animal lived miles inside a mountain? What animal collected its prey in a neat row? What animal showed this kind of savagery, then conformity? Such frenzy, then such method. The extremes were psychotic. All too human.

Maybe one man could have done all this, but Owen? He was smaller than most of these women. And slower. Yet these poor people had all been caught and mutilated within a few meters of one another. Ike tried to imagine himself as the killer, to conceive the speed and strength necessary to commit such an act.

There were more mysteries. Only now did Ike notice the gold coins scattered like confetti around them. It looked almost like a payoff, he now recognized, an exchange for the theft of their wealth. For the dead were missing rings and bracelets and necklaces and watches. Everything was gone. Wrists, fingers,and throats were bare. Earrings had been torn from lobes. Bernard's eyebrow ring had been plucked away.

The jewelry had been little more than baubles and crystals and cheap knickknacks; Ike had specifically instructed the trekkers to leave their valuables in the States or in the hotel safe. But someone had gone to the trouble of pilfering the stuff. And then to pay for it in gold coins worth a thousand times what had been taken.

It made no sense. It made even less sense to stand here and try to make it make sense. He was not normally the type who couldn't think what to do, and so his confusion now was all the more intense. His code said Stay, like a sea captain, stay to sort through the crime and bring back, if not his wayfarers, then at least a full accounting of their demise. The economy of fear said Run. Save what life could be saved. But run which way and save which life? That was the excruciating choice. Cleopatra waited in one direction in her lotus position and white light. Kora waited in the other, perhaps not as surely. But hadn't he just heard her song?

His light ebbed to brown. Ike forced himself to rifle the pockets of his dead passengers. Surely someone had batteries or another flashlight or some food.

But the pockets had been slashed and emptied.

The frenzy of it struck him. Why shred the pockets and even the flesh beneath them? This was no ordinary robbery. Stopping down his loathing, he tried to summarize the incident: a crime of rage, to judge by the mutilations, yet a crime of want, to judge by the thievery. Again it made no sense.

His light blinked out and the blackness jumped up around him. The weight of the mountain seemed to press down. A breeze Ike had not felt before brought to mind vast mineral respiration, as if a juggernaut were waking. It carried an undertone of gases, not noxious but rare, distant.

And then his imagination became unnecessary. That scratching sound of nails on stone returned. This time there was no question of its reality. It was approaching from the upper passageway. And this time Kora's voice was part of the mix.

She sounded in ecstasy, very near to orgasm. Or like his sister that time, in that instant just as her infant daughter came out of her womb. That, Ike conceded, or this was a sound of agony so deep it verged on the forbidden. The moan or low or animal petition, whatever it was, begged for an ending.

He almost called to her. But that other sound kept him mute. The climber in him had registered it as fingernails scraping for purchase, but the torn flesh lying in the darkness now evoked claws or talons. He resisted the logic, then embraced it in a hurry. Fine. Claws. A beast. Yeti. This was it. What now?

The dreadful opera of woman and beast drew closer.

Fight or flight? Ike asked himself.

Neither. Both were futile. He did what he had to do, the survivor's trick. He hid in plain sight. Like a mountain man pulling himself into a womb of warm buffalo meat, Ike lay down among the bodies on the cold floor and dragged the dead upon him.

It was an act so heinous it was sin. In lying down between the corpses in utter blackness and in bringing a smooth naked thigh across his and draping a cold arm across his chest, Ike felt the weight of damnation. In disguising himself as dead, he let go part of his soul. Fully sane, he gave up all aspects of his life in order to preserve it. His one anchor to believing this was happening to him was that he could not believe it was happening to him. "Dear God," he whispered.

The sounds became louder.

There was only one last choice to make: to keep open or to close his eyes to sights he could not see anyway. He closed them.

Kora's smell reached him upon that subterranean breeze. He heard her groan.

Ike held his breath. He'd never been afraid like this, and his cowardice was a revelation.

They -- Kora and her captor -- came around the corner. Her breathing was tortured. She was dying. Her pain was epic, beyond words.

Ike felt tears running down his face. He was weeping for her. Weeping for her pain. Weeping, too, for his lost courage. To lie unmoving and not give aid. He was no different from those climbers who had left him for dead once upon a mountain. Even as he inhaled and exhaled in tiny beadlike drops and listened to his heart's hammering pump and felt the dead close him in their embrace, he was giving Kora up for himself. Moment by moment he was forsaking her.

Damned, he was damned.

Ike blinked at his tears, despised them, reviled his self-pity. Then he opened his eyes to take it like a man. And almost choked on his surprise.

The blackness was full, but no longer infinite. There were words written in the darkness. They were fluorescent and coiled like snakes and they moved.

It was him.

Isaac had resurrected.

**************************

Excerpted from The Descent by Jeff Long. Copyright (c) 1999 by Jeff Long. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

 

 
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