Genevieve was already asleep by the time I braved opening the door to her room again that evening. Seb was thankfully nowhere to be found.
After quickly climbing into my bunk, I drew the covers over my face and closed my eyes, trying to fall asleep before I started obsessing over the kiss I’d shared with Eva. I knew if I started thinking about it, I wouldn’t get any sleep. And I wanted to be as prepared as possible for our rescue mission in the morning.
I was awoken several hours later by the insistent rattling of my bunk. I rolled over and glared through one eye at Seb.
“Let’s go,” he hissed. “Everyone’s already getting things ready.”
“Where’s Genevieve?” I mumbled, reluctantly sitting up and forcing myself to throw off the covers.
“Watching the adlet,” Seb replied. “Come on, get dressed.”
Instead of leaving like a normal person, Seb threw my clothes at me and stood there with his arms crossed while I put them on, clicking his tongue like Marisol would whenever I was running late for school.
“Do you mind?” I asked while struggling to yank on a pair of pants, but he just rolled his eyes.
“Done?” he said when I finished putting on my down jacket. I nodded. “Let’s go then.”
He led me down to the south wing which was opposite everyone’s bedrooms. It was the only section I’d never really explored. Near the end of the hall was a door that led into a dingy rec room. There were two raggedy sofas, a TV that looked like it might have been bought new half a century ago, and in a spindly wooden chair sat the adlet, still tied up as she’d been yesterday in the aid station.
I almost asked why they’d moved her, before remembering just in time that I wasn’t supposed to have known where they’d been keeping the adlet in the first place.
She glanced up at me and glared, but said nothing to betray the fact that we’d met previously.
Seb was glaring over at the TV. “Genevieve!” he barked, making me jump and the adlet’s ears perk up in interest, though she didn’t turn to look at him.
Genevieve’s head popped up from behind one of the couches. “What?” she demanded. She looked awful, her hair disheveled and her eyes red, like she’d just been crying.
“Just making sure you were still here,” Seb replied casually.
Genevieve replied with a derisive noise and turned away from us before getting up and moving over to the adlet. A growl rumbled in the creature’s throat as Genevieve carefully untied her from the chair, while still ensuring her hands were zip tied together. She hauled the adlet roughly to her feet and cast Seb a defiant glance.
“Ready?” Seb asked.
“Sure,” she said curtly. Neither acknowledged Genevieve’s tear-streaked cheeks or the hollow look in her eyes as she stared past Seb. She followed us back down the hall, leaving a considerable distance between me and the adlet, who was still emitting a low growl under her breath.
Seb put a hand on my shoulder and gave it a reassuring pat, noticing the nervous glances I kept shooting over my shoulder at the adlet like she might suddenly leap forward and attack me. “Don’t worry, Peaches,” he said in a patronizing tone. “You won’t be riding with us.”
Outside there were two trucks lined up in front of the gate at the end of the path. As we passed the pens where the wolves and other mammalian creatures were kept, the relative stillness of the clearing erupted into a cacophony of noise without warning. The adlet snarled furiously as she shook her head from side to side like she was trying to cow the other creatures into submission with just her presence.
Seb looked disturbed by her display and applied slightly more pressure to the hand on my shoulder, trying to hurry me along to where Tayo, Eva, and Cece were waiting by the trucks. Having never seen Cece wearing anything bulkier than a lab coat, it was a surprise to see her just as tightly bundled up in thick nylon as everyone else, her hair spilling out of a knit cap. She waved to me as we approached and then climbed into the driver’s seat of one of the trucks.
“Go with Eva and Tayo,” Seb instructed, before turning to watch as Genevieve and the adlet struggled to catch up.
I took a step toward Eva, then hesitated. I couldn’t just ignore Genevieve like Seb seemed determined to do.
“I saw you two,” I confessed to him, and Seb narrowed his eyes.
“She was crying,” I pointed out.
Seb rolled his eyes. “Mind your own fucking business, Peaches.”
Face burning like I’d been slapped, I turned and trotted over to the other truck. Tayo was staring interestedly at me, like he was about to ask what had just happened, but Eva gave him a warning look. She grabbed my hand easily and pulled me over to the passenger side.
“You’re going to have to squeeze into the middle,” she said, opening the door so I could clamber in. Tayo was already sitting behind the wheel, fumbling with his seatbelt while the door hung open. Eva climbed in after me, and the truck shuddered as the two of them slammed their doors shut in unison. I folded my hands in my lap and tried to make myself as small as possible, a near-impossible feat when you happen to be five-eight and more limb than anything else.
Through the thin crusting of snow on the windshield, I could see Genevieve pushing the adlet into the backseat of the larger truck. Seb was standing behind her looking on, and didn’t get into the passenger seat until he’d shut the door behind them.
“Are we following the others?” I asked, noticing that Tayo had turned the car on but was still idling in the snow.
“Yup,” he replied, fiddling with the dials for the heater. “We’re counting on the adlet to lead us there, which I’m still not a hundred-percent sold on, but it’s really our only option.”
“It’d be hard for her to lie about it,” Eva added unexpectedly.
“Why?” I asked.
Both of them looked suddenly uncomfortable. “Seb’s…pretty good at his job,” Tayo finally answered, looking relieved when the other vehicle finally pulled through the gates. “Here we go,” he said cheerily, throwing the truck into drive and trundling through the dirt after the others.
The truck swayed and rattled with every bumpy patch of gravel, and I was nauseous within minutes. I stared intently at the vehicle in front of us through the misty windshield, the frost quickly starting to melt now that the engine had been running for a few minutes.
Less than thirty seconds after we made the turn toward the southern mountain range, Eva bent down to rifle through a bright blue duffel bag at her feet.
“Put these on,” she commanded, handing me a pair of neon yellow hiking boots that had metal spikes on the bottom. I was tempted to poke one of the tips to see how sharp they were, but thought better of it.
I took the shoes from her and placed them in my lap, self-consciously pulling off my own boots and making the transfer as quickly as possible. I didn’t want the cab to stink of feet because of me. The new shoes were snug, but slipped on easily. The laces were the most difficult part.
After struggling for a minute or two, Eva finally reached over and impatiently pushed my hands out of the way, tying the laces into a secure knot in just a few deft movements.
Then she reached down again and pulled out some sort of complicated looking two-piece belt, decorated with a dozen or so metal hooks and clasps. She handed one end to me and started to loop the other around her waist, tugging on it to make sure it was secure before doing the same to me.
“What’s this for?” I asked.
“We have a bit of a hike ahead of us,” she told me, metal latches clicking into place with loud snaps that made me flinch. “Seb thinks we should take certain precautions, since you aren’t as familiar with this kind of environment.”
“Seb needs to chill out,” I mumbled irritably under my breath.
Eva smiled wryly. “To be perfectly honest, I actually agree with him this time. It’s the best way to make sure you don’t have an accident out on the mountain.”
That shut me up.
I watched Eva in subdued silence as she sorted through the rest of the gear in the duffel bag. I didn’t know what most of the stuff was, but I didn’t like the implication that our “hike” might necessitate using giant metal hooks for whatever reason.
She finished a few minutes later and turned to gaze out the window at the bleak snowy landscape instead, leaving me with nothing to distract myself from the carsickness I could feel starting to creep up on me.
I felt awkward and tense sitting squished between Tayo and Eva. After she’d kissed me, I hadn’t said anything to her about my misgivings, and I didn’t know if she thought we were like…an item now.
With everything that had happened to me in the last month, it didn’t seem like a good idea to get involved with anyone, let alone a woman who was already engaged, and who I probably wouldn’t see again once we wrapped up this rescue mission.
The journey into the mountains took longer than I expected. They had loomed large in the distance even from the lodge, making it hard to accurately judge how far the valley extended. I clenched my fists tight in my lap when we finally started the bumpy ascent. It felt like every rock we hit would be enough to flip us over.
Then just ahead of us, the truck Cece was driving made a sharp swerve. Tayo mirrored the action, and it wasn’t until we passed the obstacle that I could tell what it was.
Tayo whistled. “That looks nasty,” he said, remarking on the wreckage of the flipped over tractor-trailer lying on the ground, now covered almost entirely with snow.
A few minutes later we parked behind Cece at the foot of one of the mountains. Eva carefully extracted the both of us from the truck, trying to keep me from tripping now that I’d take us both down if I fell. I stared up at the immense mountain range, marveling at where the tallest peaks disappeared right into the clouds.
“Come on,” Eva said, pulling me toward the huddle the others had formed around the adlet. I stumbled through the thick snow, realizing that Seb and Eva had probably been right to make sure I had someone to keep me from falling every five feet.
Genevieve looked up as we approached them. “She says her boyfriend will trade us; her for the bird,” she told us.
Seb arched an eyebrow. “You believe that shit?”
She spared him a glare that barely lasted a second before turning to Tayo instead. “How do you want to do this?”
Tayo frowned. “I don’t like the idea of walking in there and hoping for the best, but I like the idea of trying to double-cross these guys even less. Eva?”
She nodded. “We’ll cover you.”
I assumed by ‘we’, she was referring to herself with me in tow. I didn’t know how much help we’d really be in that case.
Genevieve nudged the adlet with her elbow, and the girl scowled even more fiercely. “There’s only one accessible entrance,” she said balefully. “I can take you there.”
“Accessible entrance?” Eva asked interestedly. “But there’s more than one way in?”
“We underestimated the size of the thunderbird when we brought it back,” the adlet answered.
“Kidnapped,” Tayo corrected under his breath, but she pretended she hadn’t heard.
“We didn’t have many options for shelter after we wrecked,” she told them. “But we found a pit cave at the southern base of this mountain that connects with the main system. I can show you, if you untie me.”
Tayo, Eva, and Seb all exchanged uneasy looks, but Eva nodded and Genevieve quickly cut through the ties around the adlet’s hands with a switchblade from her pocket.
The adlet crouched down low to the ground, momentarily rubbing at the marks on her wrists, and then brushed away a layer of snow and started to trace lines in the dirt beneath. “We’re right here,” she said, pointing to an X she’d drawn next to the triangular shape of the mountain. “The primary entrance is toward the east, here. We realized that we couldn’t get the thunderbird through the tunnel because it narrows after about twenty meters. The section we’re using is a large cavern that connects directly to that entrance. One way in, one way out. Easy to monitor.”
“How’d you even get Charlie in?” Tayo asked. “Thunderbirds hate being underground.”
“We have a lukøje in our crew, Lars.” The adlet continued drawing as Seb nodded like he’d suddenly had a revelation. “He put her in a trance and rode on her back down through the pit entrance. We met him at the bottom and walked the bird through into the cavern.” She gestured toward the opposite side of the mountain from the X she’d drawn to represent our current position, where she’d illustrated a yawning circle.
Eva sighed, sounding resigned as she asked, “How deep is it?”
The adlet shrugged. “Twenty-five, thirty meters maybe?”
I did the math in my head. That was…a lot of feet. Too many. I was getting vertigo just imagining it.
“And how far from here?” Eva asked. “Do you have approximate coords?”
“About a mile,” the adlet replied before rattling off a string of numbers that meant little to me.
“We’ll have to take one of the cars,” Eva said, mostly to herself it seemed. “Tayo, you got everything under control here?”
He nodded. “Don’t do anything too risky unless we’re really in trouble, okay?”
She nodded, and turned to me. “Come on, let’s head back to the truck.”
My stomach sank. “We’re really jumping into a giant hole in the ground?”
Seb snorted a few feet away, but I ignored him.
“Scared of heights?” Eva asked.
Scared of everything unless I was running on a healthy dose of adrenaline, but I didn’t tell her that. I shrugged and followed her obediently back to the truck, standing next to the passenger door as Eva unhooked me from her belt. I felt like I was being unstrapped from a booster seat after a long road trip.
Once I was back inside the vehicle, I felt even worse than before. The anxiety over the death-defying feat I was about to perform was only compounded by the fact that even now, after everything that had happened, I was still letting myself be pushed around by people who were stronger than me, smarter than me, more in the know, better equipped, whatever. I’d only ever made a mess of things.
I couldn’t even kiss a pretty girl who was clearly interested in me without feeling stupidly guilty about it. Or put my foot down and demand Seb apologize to me and give a reasonable explanation for the way he’d been acting. Or just ditch Seb entirely. Or now that we were alone, finally tell Eva that the kiss had been a mistake.
“You okay?” she asked as if reading my mind. She turned the keys in the ignition and I clenched the sides of my seat hard as the engine rumbled.
“Fine,” I said, staring out the window at the others, who were still huddled together presumably planning their own approach.
The path we took to the other side of the mountain wasn’t so much a path at all as a conveniently wide enough gap between two mountain faces for the truck to slide and fishtail through as Eva slowly navigated a terrain slicked with ice and peppered with large rocks. My teeth chattered the whole way there, a combination of the nerves, the bumpy road, and the cold.
When we emerged on the other side of the ridge I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding. Eva turned the truck around, glancing between the mountain ahead and the satellite phone she held next to the steering wheel as she checked our coordinates.
I hopped out of the truck as soon as we stopped, clumsily tripping over a stray pebble and nearly face-planting into the snow.
“Careful,” Eva warned, quickly circling over to me to grab the back of my jacket before I’d even had a chance to fully regain my balance. “Not exactly the best place to take a dive.” She pointed toward the yawning chasm in the ground about ten feet away.
It wasn’t quite the image I’d conjured in my head, the word ‘pit’ bringing to mind a gaping sinkhole in the earth descending farther than the eye could see. This was more of a narrow crack at the base of the mountain, barely twenty feet across at its widest point and no more than fifty feet long.
I followed cautiously behind Eva and took a quick peek down into the hole. I was surprised to find that it didn’t actually seem all that deep either. Suddenly, I felt foolish for being so scared in the first place.
Eva crooked an eyebrow at the sight, clearly unimpressed.
“What?” I asked.
She shook her head. “Just surprised they managed to squeeze Charlie through here. Guess they didn’t really have much of a choice, but still.” She leaned forward even more and peered into the darkness below. There was a sheen at the bottom, like a pond or a large puddle, and for some reason the thought of being immersed in the grimy water at the bottom freaked me out more than the prospect of falling itself.
I glanced back at Eva, looking to her for guidance. She chewed thoughtfully on her bottom lip.
“Not too deep a pitch,” she muttered, “but….” She glanced over at me. “I’m gonna guess you’ve never gone caving before?”
I shook my head.
Eva sighed. “Well, after we’re done this, you’ll be able to answer yes to all three of those questions.”
I watched with fingers tapping against my bicep as Eva pulled her duffel out of the truck and expertly uncoiled a length of rope. She proceeded to walk back and forth from the edge of the chasm with it, securing it to the ground and double-checking to make sure it was fastened correctly. She gave me another assessing look.
“You should probably go first,” she said, not sounding nearly as confident as I would have liked.
Then again, I’d rather have her help as I descended rather than being left up here to my own devices with Eva already at the bottom. I quickly walked over to her, the metal attached to my belt jangling ominously with every step.
Joel totally would have loved this. He was an adrenaline junkie, but there weren’t many opportunities to go out and do extreme sports when you were two broke kids living in downtown Portland. I could probably rub this in his face later, provided I didn’t die on the way down.
Eva’s hands were sure and steady as she fastened the rope to my belt with some sort of intricate knot I’d never seen before. She yanked hard at the belt and then looked up at me with a serious expression.
“I’ll be holding onto while you go over the edge, but you have to trust me that you won’t fall when I let go, okay? I’m not going to let go of the rope until you’re at the bottom.”
I nodded, suddenly feeling very dizzy even though I wasn’t even close to the edge yet. Eva had to half-drag me over to the hole, and then she showed me the proper stance, helping me position myself until I was standing with half of my body hanging over the pit, the tautness of the rope the only thing keeping me from losing my balance and tumbling backwards over the edge.
“You just have to take the first step,” Eva said encouragingly. She pressed a warm palm to my cheek and I resisted the urge to flinch away from the touch. “Don’t jump like in the movies, just climb down slowly. Feed the rope through at a pace you feel comfortable with, okay?”
I nodded, and she moved her hands to the rope attached to my waist. Even with Eva standing right there, I didn’t feel remotely reassured as I fumbled around for a suitable foothold on the vertical wall of the shaft, testing the rock first to make sure it was really as solid as it looked. Slowly, painstakingly, I repeated the process, waiting to feed the rope through the device on my belt like Eva had shown me until I was completely sure of my footing.
When my feet finally hit the ground with a splash, I could barely believe it. I exhaled loudly, my breath a warm mist as it blew back into my face. I looked up at Eva, who I could just barely see peeking over the edge.
“I made it!” I yelled up at her, feeling exhilarated by my unexpected success.
Her laugh echoed down the shaft. “Can you unhook the belay?”
I struggled for a moment with the complicated metal device attached to my belt for a minute before finally freeing myself. I gave Eva a thumbs up and watched as she disappeared. A few minutes later, she reappeared over the edge and began to gracefully rappel down the side of the pit, taking less than a minute to fully descend.
“Haven’t done that in a long time,” she said breathlessly as she unhooked herself from the rope. Her cheeks were bright pink from exertion. I pulled my eyes away.
“How long?” I asked.
Her expression shuttered a bit. “College,” she replied shortly.
I remembered the explanation she’d offered for her own discovery of the supernatural: a camping trip in college that only she’d survived. I didn’t ask any more questions after that.
“We should get going,” she said, pulling her satellite phone back out of her coat and glancing down at the screen. “Come on.”
I took careful steps as I followed Eva, doing my best to imitate her path exactly as we struggled to walk through the water in our snow boots. The air quickly turned stale as we trekked further inside the cave, making me feel almost like I was slowly suffocating.
For light, Eva clipped a glowstick to her belt and held another one out in her hand. They didn’t offer much visibility, which made our surroundings all the more eerie. We continued through the large tunnel for what seemed like forever before Eva stopped short without warning.
I slammed into her back, nearly knocking both of us over in the process. The glowstick sailed out of Eva’s hand, landing on the cavern floor with a clatter and rolling another few feet before coming to a stop. Illuminated in the dull green glow were piles of bones scattered across the cave floor.
At the sight of them, Eva froze, and let out a harsh little gasp before just as quickly relaxing.
“What?” I demanded in a loud whisper. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. Fuck,” she hissed. “Nothing, it just startled me, that’s all. Be careful, okay?” Her soft features looked almost skeletal as she leaned down to pick up the fallen glowstick. She signaled for me to keep following her.
It wasn’t much longer before we could see light that wasn’t our own coming from further within the cave, and Eva discarded both glowsticks before taking my hand and steadily leading me forward.
The hideout inside the main cavern wasn’t quite what I’d imagined. It looked like a homeless encampment you might find under a freeway overpass, not the home base for a group of supernatural smugglers. As we got even closer, Eva pulled us over to one side of the cavern so that we could crouch behind a large stalagmite and observe the ragtag group unseen.
I could see at least four people huddled around a small campfire. Their tents, cheap nylon monstrosities that looked like they’d been purchased for less than fifty bucks at a department store, surrounded the pitiful source of warmth in a haphazard circle. Nearby, the captive thunderbird lay curled up in a defeated heap, its talons tethered to large metal stakes embedded into the cave floor.
Eva’s hand squeezed tighter around mine as she surveyed the scene. She hissed when she looked over at the thunderbird.
“Those wouldn’t hold her if she really wanted out,” she whispered to me. “She must be so confused by being underground that she won’t even try to escape.” I watched as the bird blinked sadly, its head tucked down onto its breast. “We need to get closer,” Eva told me, tugging me along behind her as she moved forward a few steps. “We should find out where they’re keeping Brother Barnes and then wait for the others.”
We crept further into the cave, sticking to the shadows that permeated the enormous space, until finally we were close enough to the group sitting around the fire to overhear bits and pieces of their conversation.
“…still need a male to…”
“…how do we even know if that’ll work when…”
“…Letuch won’t be happy if we…”
I felt like someone had submerged me in ice water at the mention of Letuch’s name. I glanced around frantically for any sign that he was lurking inside the cave with the kidnappers, but saw nothing to indicate his presence.
“What’s wrong?” Eva asked, but before I could answer, another light emerged at the opposite end of the cave, accompanied by the rumbling echo of familiar voices. The four people around the fire stood up quickly, adopting defensive stances. One of them, a man with slicked-back hair that shone like an oil slick in the firelight, let his right hand drift toward the back of his pants, where I could clearly see a knife sheath hanging from his belt.