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Ararat
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Ararat

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Author: Christopher Golden
Publisher: St. Martin's Press, 2017
Headline Publishing Group, 2017
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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Horror
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Synopsis

Meryam and Adam take risks for a living. But neither is prepared for what lies in the legendary heights of Mount Ararat, Turkey.

First to reach a massive cave revealed by an avalanche, they discover the hole in the mountain's heart is really an ancient ship, buried in time. A relic that some fervently believe is Noah's Ark.

Deep in its recesses stands a coffin inscribed with mysterious symbols that no one in their team of scholars, archaeologists and filmmakers can identify. Inside is a twisted, horned cadaver. Outside a storm threatens to break.

As terror begins to infiltrate their every thought, is it the raging blizzard that chases them down the mountain - or something far worse?


Excerpt

ONE

Just past eight o'clock on the last morning of November, the mountain began to shake.

Feyiz froze, breath catching in his throat as he put his hands out to steady himself, waiting for the tremor to end. Instead it worsened. His clients shouted at him in German, a language he did not speak. One of the men panicked and began to scream at the others as if the devil himself were burrowing up through the heart of the mountain to reach them. They stood on the summit, vivid blue sky rolling out forever before them, the frigid air crisp and pure. An idyllic morning on Mount Ararat, if the world had not begun to tear itself apart.

"Down!" Feyiz shouted. "Get down!"

He dropped his trekking poles and sank to his knees on the icy snowpack. Grabbing the pick that hung at his hip, he sank it into the ice and wondered if the six men and three women in this group could even hear him over the throaty roar of the rumbling mountain.

The Germans mimicked his actions.

On his knees, holding on and hoping that the snowpack did not give way, Feyiz tried not to count the seconds. The Germans shouted at one another. One woman wore a wide grin, her eyes alight with a manic glee as she reveled in the terror of the moment.

A man grabbed his arm. Thin face, prominent cheekbones, eyes like the sky. "How long will it last?" he demanded in his thick accent.

As if this sort of thing happened all the time. As if a mountain guide could live to be thirty-two years old on a mountain that shook itself apart with predictable regularity. Feyiz only stared at him, then pressed his eyes closed and prayed, not only for his wife and their four sons down in the village of Hakob, but for anyone waiting in Camp Two. Here at the summit, all was snow and ice, but the terrain at Camp Two was nothing but piles of massive volcanic rock, and he did not want to think what might happen if a slide began.

"Twenty seconds!" one woman shouted in English, staring at Feyiz. "How much longer?"

He held his breath as the mountain bucked beneath him, the roar filling the sky. Eyes open now, he stared at the peak of Little Ararat in the distance. His heart thumped inside his chest as if it were suffering a quake of its own.

The ice popped and a massive fissure opened, the sound like a cannon.

One of the Germans began to pray loudly, as if his god needed him to shout to hear him over the thunder of the quake.

It stopped as suddenly as it had begun. Feyiz glanced around at his clients, the roar of the mountain still echoing across the sky, and shot to his feet. He forced himself to steady his breathing--he could not afford to hyperventilate up here in the thin air of the summit--and bent to retrieve his trekking poles.

"Come. We must descend now."

"No!" one client barked--the man who'd been praying. "What if there are aftershocks? Or ... there may be a quake worse than this one. Another on the way!"

Feyiz stared at him, watched his breath mist in the morning air. These men and women were not friends but workmates, all executives for the same technology firm in Munich. They knew one another but did not love one another. All save one were inexperienced climbers, dressed for the weather and equipped with quiet determination, but their lives had not prepared them for this moment.

"Listen carefully," Feyiz said, his lips brushing against the little bits of ice that had collected on the fringe of his mustache. "My wife and children are down the mountain. My cousins and their families are carrying packs and guiding horses even now, bringing climbers ... bringing tourists ... to this place. I must see to their safety. So how long will you wait here? If there are aftershocks, they may come in hours or even days. Will you climb down after nightfall? I am going now."

He turned, the crampons attached to his boots scraping ice and digging in as he began to trek back along the path they'd used on their ascension.

"Stop!" the praying man barked. "You have been paid to guide us! You must--"

Feyiz turned to glare at him. "Must what? Put your welfare above my family's? If you need a guide to get down, come along."

As he worked his way off the summit, he thought of the many hours ahead--hours in which his family would be just as worried about him as he was about them. Behind him, he heard Deirdre, whom he thought the most senior of the executives, snapping at the praying man. When Feyiz glanced back, he saw that they were following.

He had marched only another dozen steps when he heard the mountain begin to roar again.

"I told you!" the praying man shouted.

But Feyiz did not drop this time. Ararat did not shake beneath his feet, not the way it had bucked before. This time the sky trembled with the noise and he felt the tremor, but the sound had heft and direction. He turned toward the southeast ridge, and he knew the roar he heard was thousands of tons of ice and volcanic strata giving way.

Avalanche.

This late in the year, no one would be climbing the southeast face, but his village was at the base of the mountain's eastern edge, toward the sunrise. As he listened to the booming clamor of the ice and rock, he picked up speed, his clients forgotten. They would have to keep up or make their own way.

The mountain killed people. It always had.

Feyiz prayed that the mountain had not killed his people.

TWO

A light rain fell on the streets of London and nobody seemed to notice. Some of the people passing by on the King's Road had opened their umbrellas, but most just did up an additional button on their coats, unfussed about a bit of drizzle. Adam Holzer shoved his big hands deep into the pockets of his gray, woolen coat. Born and raised on Long Island in New York, Adam had spent plenty of gloomy November days cursing himself for not paying more attention to the weather forecast. Apparently, moving to London hadn't changed that about him any more than he expected the not-too-distant arrival of his thirtieth birthday would.

Thirty, he thought. Shit.

He'd climbed mountains all over the world--scaled Mount McKinley with his father at the age of seventeen--and now he would catch his death on the curb in front of his prospective venue because his fiancée was late again and he hadn't had the good sense to bring an umbrella.

He tugged his phone from his pocket and glanced at the time: 1:37 p.m. They'd been meant to meet at one o'clock. Granted, he'd made the appointment with the manager of the Bluebird for one thirty, anticipating that Meryam would be delayed as she always seemed to be of late, but soon he would have to go inside without her.

No texts from Meryam, either. He started to tap out another to her, saw the previous two he had sent, and changed his mind. She had either seen them and chosen to ignore them or she hadn't, and one more wasn't going to magically speed her arrival.

Adam glanced over at the front of the Bluebird, a low-slung white building completely out of place among the lovely brick and stone row houses around it. Most of them had shops on the first floor--he stared at the facade of the apothecary across the street. On a rainy day such places sold shitty umbrellas for five quid apiece.

But the manager of the Bluebird would be waiting. He tried to remember her name--Emily something--he'd written it down on a scrap of paper he kept in his wallet. The Bluebird had a wonderful reputation as a wedding venue, plenty of room inside for both the ceremony and reception. The pictures he had seen online showed a lot of silver and white and mirrored surfaces, happy people making toasts with fluted champagne glasses, and pretty little girls cascading flowers along a makeshift aisle. String quartets smiled in the pictures and the brides and grooms seemed very happy.

Perfectly lovely.

At this point, Adam would have gotten married at the statue of Admiral Nelson in Trafalgar Square with pigeon shit instead of rose petals, if only Meryam would agree to a venue. She wanted to be married in London, and he understood that. It was her hometown, after all. But a bit more guidance than just London would not have gone amiss.

Stuffing his phone back into his pocket, he started along the frontage fence, peering through the wrought iron, hoping Emily-something wouldn't be waiting for him at the door. A droplet of rain slid down inside his shirt and along his spine and he shivered, surrendering his mood to the gray of the day.

"Adam!"

He turned to see Meryam hustling toward him, her bright red umbrella bold as Lady Godiva out there in the mournful gray of that overcast day. The damp weather had turned her short brown hair into an unruly mop of curls and she wore a grin he knew all too well. It screamed a brand of mischievous glee that he found alternately terrifying and intoxicating.

"I started to think you weren't coming," he said.

Meryam tilted her head and the umbrella with it. "I wouldn't just leave you standing here, love."

"You mean like you did last Monday at Battersea Arts Centre?"

She swept up to him, sharing the cover of her red umbrella, and slid her right arm around him, yanking him in close for a kiss. Adam accepted the kiss, exhaling some of his annoyance, but he refused to let himself smile at her.

"I've apologized for that a dozen times," Meryam said. "You know what I'm like when I'm writing. I sit in Wilton's and lose all track of time."

The rain began to fall harder, fat drops whapping off the umbrella overhead. Its protection created an intimate space between them, as if the whole world had been shut out. The effect made it harder for him to maintain his gravitas, and after all, she was only ten minutes late.

Forty, he reminded himself. As far as she knows, she's forty minutes late. You told her one o'clock.

He had nearly forgiven her for last Monday, but only nearly. They were working on their third book together and taking it in turns, as they always did. Meryam certainly made a habit of losing herself in the work, so Adam could well imagine how easily she might have been sitting in the pub, drinking tea and tapping away on her laptop. Except it hadn't been the first time. He had proposed to her in Scotland at the beginning of May on the peak of Ben Nevis, which they'd climbed just to have a picnic. At first Meryam had seemed almost giddy with excitement, but ever since they had begun the actual planning of the wedding, that had changed. She'd been indecisive on everything from flowers to invitations to the venue and had been late for nearly every appointment.

Now she held him firmly against her. The umbrella swayed backward and a curtain of rain slid off the edge and splashed them.

"Stop it," she said.

"Stop what?"

"You know."

Adam kissed her forehead. They were equal in height--five foot ten--and sometimes she returned the gesture. Not today.

"Let's go inside," he said. "The manager will be waiting--"

"If she hasn't given up on us entirely," Meryam finished for him.

"Yes." Adam stared at her. "Look, I'm glad you're in such a splendid mood, but I haven't eaten anything but an apple today, so I'd like to get this over with. And we both know you don't have any patience for the whole process, so let's just move inside, out of the rain, and then you can reject this place like you have all the others and I'll go on looking while you try to figure out how to tell me you don't want to marry me after all."

Her grin faltered. Sadness flooded her eyes and she pushed him away, out into the rain, out of the intimate shelter of her red umbrella.

"That's not fair," she said quietly, words almost lost as a truck rumbled past. "And it's not true."

He exhaled, then shoved his hands into his jacket pockets again. "What am I supposed to think?"

"That I love you, and I've been distracted with this book and with organizing our adventures for next year, and I know you're going to say there's only one adventure that you're interested in right now, but one of us has to focus on how we make a living and right now that's me."

Adam felt his shoulders sag as he mentally surrendered. He couldn't argue the point. She might not have been paying enough attention to wedding planning, but he hadn't been focused enough on the long months they would spend in South America, rambling around the Andes and climbing Aconcagua, the highest mountain outside of Asia. Their explorations would form the basis of their fourth book.

"I'm standing in the rain," he said, finally allowing himself to smile, if a bit halfheartedly. "Can we go inside?"

Meryam's mischievous grin returned. "Afraid not, love. Appointment's canceled. In fact, all other appointments are canceled for the forseeable future."

"You just said--"

"I love you and I want you to be my husband, but could you shut up a moment?"

Adam pressed his lips together, asking the question with only his eyebrows.

Meryam nodded in satisfaction. "Excellent. Here's the thing. Cancel it all, because we're flying to Turkey tomorrow. I got a call from Feyiz. You remember him?"

Of course he did. The man had become a friend during their time on Mount Ararat, and he was the best guide they had ever worked with. Feyiz and Meryam had shared an instant rapport that might have made Adam jealous except for one vital fact.

"We're invited to Feyiz's wedding?" he said. "He's already married."

Meryam grabbed the lapel of his coat and pulled him toward her, back under the umbrella's protection, and he felt her hot breath on his cheek and saw the thrill in her eyes.

"Don't be daft. You saw the news about the earthquake a few days back. And the avalanche."

"Terrible," Adam said.

"It is that, but it's wonderful, too. The Turkish authorities won't let anyone up there, afraid of aftershocks and the like, but Feyiz and one of his cousins went up anyway. The guides need to know what damage has been done, scout the terrain, all of that."

Adam gave a skeptical sigh. "And I suppose they found Noah's ark."

Meryam gave that curious head tilt again. "They spotted a cavern up on the southeast face that wasn't there before. Big one. Geologically, it shouldn't exist."

He took his hands out of his pockets and matched her head tilt with his own, studying her eyes. Had it been anyone but Feyiz, he would have insisted on more information. Hell, confirmation.

"It's probably nothing," he said in a tone that wasn't convincing even to his own ears. "And you know damn well the elevation is too great for any flood to have risen that high."

"But."

He nodded slowly. "But what if it's something and we could be the first ones there? Feyiz loves us. Especially you. He could get all the gear we'd need, be point man for the team we'd need for this."

"I've already asked him. It's happening now."

Adam's grin matched Meryam's. "This is crazy. You said yourself the Turks aren't letting anyone up there. The Kurdish guides can scout around, sure, but we're foreigners. Even on an ordinary day, we'd have to go through the licensing process before we could climb."

Meryam held him close again, touched noses. "Let's just get there. Feyiz knows who to pay off. When they lift the ban, I want to be the first ones up the mountain."

"Aftershocks..."

"Oh, please, Mr. Holzer. I've seen you do the stupidest, most dangerous things--most of which could have killed you--and you're worried about aftershocks? This is the stuff we live for, and let's not forget how badly you want that television show you're always going on about. I want to see what's inside that cave, and I want to get there first. You try to tell me that you don't want the same and I will know that you are lying through your bloody teeth."

Adam laughed and shook his head at the insanity of it all.

Then he took her hand and together they hurried along the sidewalk, red umbrella bobbing overhead. But Adam didn't care about the rain anymore. By the time they reached Turkey it would be the first of December, and a little bit of chilly drizzle would be nothing compared to what awaited them on Mount Ararat.

THREE

In the summer, a newborn teacup monkey could climb Ararat. Or at least that was what Meryam had told Adam when they'd planned their first ascent three years earlier. In the warm weather the mountain presented no more challenge than a long, arduous hike until about forty-eight hundred meters, when the glacier began. Even then, a reasonably fit person needed only crampons strapped to her boots and an ice ax to make the climb, depending on the route.

In winter, however, the climb became complicated. The snow and wind whipped across the face of the mountain, the cold cutting through heavy clothing, sinking into your bones. In the dark or in the midst of a storm, temperatures could plummet to thirty below zero. Even so, neither of them had any interest in climbing Ararat in the summertime. The whole point of the climb had been to have a few thrilling chapters for their second book, Adam and Eve at the Top of the World. The series chronicled their exploits as a couple, the things they dared together that most people wouldn't dare alone, never mind have a mate to attempt with them. Which meant that climbing Mount Ararat in the summer would be boring as hell to their readers.

They weren't idiots, though. They'd made the climb in late October, not in February. Avalanches were not uncommon on Ararat in the winter months, and they only needed to make the climb seem slightly more challenging than the teacup-monkey version.

Of course they'd picked the mountain in the first place because of the ark.

Not that Meryam believed in the ark. She thought Adam might, but he had never outright admitted it to her. The story of the great flood had too much historical prevalence in disparate ancient cultures to be pure invention, but the biblical story could not possibly be true. To jump-start the human race--never mind all life on Earth--with only whatever animals you could fit on a single boat ... the idea that anyone could accept that concept made her want to bang her head against a wall.

So she thought the idea of the ark was hilarious.

But an ark? A guy who might have been named something like Noah, who'd built a huge, crude ship and loaded up his family and whatever animals he'd owned--donkeys and sheep, that sort of thing--she could wrap her brain around that. She had studied enough folklore, history, and theology to know most of the ancient stories were either crafted to teach a lesson or passed down through generations because they had a kernel of truth in them that scared the shit out of people. The lesson of the biblical tale of Noah's ark was a simple one, a refrain that echoed throughout the Old Testament: behave, or God will fuck you up.

Adam, for instance. She could see in his eyes that a part of him still believed the things he'd been taught growing up, the things he'd memorized before his bar mitzvah. His mother had died when he was young and his father had worked too many hours, leaving him to be raised by his grandmother Evie, whose grim mysticism had left him scarred by faith. The old woman had insisted that her father had been possessed by a dybbuk toward the end of his life. Adam claimed not to have believed her, but she still remembered the first time he had told her the story and the shadow that had fallen across his eyes. Adam didn't want to believe, but she knew he did.

For her part, Meryam didn't believe in dybbuks or spirits or angels, but then she didn't believe in much. She had been raised a Muslim and long ago decided that the main difference between their religions was the name of the god they were all afraid would punish them if they broke the rules the faith set out for them. Meryam still obeyed some of those fundamental rules out of reflex and caution, but it wasn't God whom she feared would punish her for breaking them. Allah wouldn't spit on her in the street, imprison her, gang rape, or murder her.

Only men would do that.

Men like Hakan Ceven.

"How long before the government gives us authorization to climb?" she asked him.

Hakan sat directly across the table from her, spine rigid against the back of his wooden chair. He turned to his left, addressing his response to Adam.

"It could be hours or it could be weeks." His voice rasped like stone on stone, thick with the accent of the region, but he spoke better English than she'd expected.

Meryam glanced at Feyiz, the fourth person at their table. Like his uncle, who had become the new head of the family in the wake of deaths the clan had incurred in the avalanche, Feyiz would not meet her gaze. But Meryam knew Feyiz avoided her eyes out of embarrassment rather than disdain. Kurds were not typically as antagonistic toward women as many other followers of Islam in the Middle East, but judging by Hakan's behavior, he was an exception.

"Is there anything we can do to speed this process?" Meryam asked.

Hakan stiffened further, chin raised and nostrils flared. His thick, graying beard could not hide the scowl on his lips. He let his gaze linger on Adam's, trying harder to get the message across.

"My cousin is there now, speaking to a friend in the minister's office. If bribes will help, we will offer them and simply add the cost to your bill. Until then--"

"Hakan," Adam interrupted, not hiding his irritation.

Feyiz gave a brisk shake of his head.

"--all we can do is wait with the rest of them," Hakan finished.

Meryam gritted her teeth and glanced around the massive, rustic dining room. Three other climbing teams were already assembled there but more would be on the way. Feyiz had spoken to the other guides and learned that all of them were larger parties, most awaiting reinforcements, and all three were financed or led by Arkologists--the people who believed the biblical version of the story of Noah's ark and had dedicated their lives to finding its resting place. Two of the groups had small documentary crews with them and the third had a crew on the way. Meryam had her fiancé.

"I'm sorry," Adam said, lowering his voice to be sure only the four of them--the little circle of distrust at their table--could hear. "But this is not going to work if you insist upon--"

Meryam tapped her fingers lightly on the table, drawing the attention of the three men. Anxiety spilled out of Feyiz's every pore. Adam clamped his mouth shut in frustration. Hakan kept his gaze averted.

"Firstly," she said quietly, "don't speak for me, Adam. Don't be the knight who takes up sword and shield to defend his love. That's not who we are and you know that."

Later, he might argue that the circumstances demanded he intervene, but that was for when they were alone together, not a conversation he would venture to have in front of others.

"Secondly ... Hakan, you can go on pretending I'm invisible, that the voice you hear comes from the Jew I'm going to marry, whom I guess you like only a little more than you like me. I imagine the concept of our marriage is an abomination in the eyes of a creature as ignorant and full of hatred as you are--"

Hakan snapped his head around to glare at her. His upper lip twitched and she could see the fury burning inside him that she would dare speak to him that way. He huffed several shaking breaths and then slowly turned to stare anew at Adam. A razor-thin smile parted his lips.

Meryam leaned over the table. "You're torn, I know. Lash out at me and you have to accept that I exist and that I am giving the orders here."

To Adam--always to Adam--Hakan replied, "And if I just quit? I could lead one of the Arkology groups. I could forbid my family and the other guides from helping you."

Night had brought a cold breeze and it slid along the floor like rising water. Laughter erupted at a corner table where a German climbing party was opening more bottles of wine. The crisp, dry air pulled all of the moisture from visitors' mouths, but there was always more wine to quench their thirst. Always more stories of the mountain, more dark-eyed guides with weather-lined faces, more prayers to a god who seemed so much closer here in the shadow of the mountains, and so much more callous in his disregard of those prayers.

"You could do any of those things," Meryam agreed.

Tired, she rubbed her eyes and cracked her neck. It had been a rush to get here, to gather supplies and ensconce themselves in this hotel carved out of a rocky hillside, each of its rooms practically a luxury cave. A fairy chimney, according to the Swiss hotel chain that had built it. Seen from the outside, in the dark, the golden lamplight illuminating the caves of its rooms in the face of the rocky hill, the place did have a bit of magic in it.

Hakan slid his chair back and stood. Meryam had let the argument hang in the air, a cloud of discontent that only grew heavier, and Hakan had chosen to flee. The forty-year-old guide had unexpectedly inherited his family's business without wanting the role or being suited for the compromises that naturally came along with it.

"You're making a mistake," Adam told him.

"If I am, this mistake is not the first of the evening," Hakan replied.

"You have your own ambitions," Adam said. "All due respect, Hakan, you're a mountain guide and your family--for all of their honored traditions--lives a life one step away from being nomads."

Hakan's fists clenched. "As it has always been."

"You're proud of the traditions," Adam said. "And you should be. But that doesn't mean you want to do this till you die, or that you want your sons to do it, or your daughters to marry men who may die in the next avalanche. You already supply the horses--or your cousins do--so why not own the hotels? Why not own the shops?"

"This isn't the life you want, Uncle," Feyiz said.

Hakan spoke to him in Kurmanji. Meryam understood the single word he said. Silence.

"We're paying you a great deal of money," Adam went on, his tone all business. Reasonable, where Meryam knew she would have been incapable of reason. "And you know damn well that once the climbing ban is lifted, we'll be the first ones up that mountain. It's just us. I've got my own camera and we're not waiting for anyone. The producer I'm working with is already talking to officials here who've checked our credentials and agreed that if we get there first and there's something to find--and we follow all established rules for an archaeological site in this country--the dig is ours."

Hakan rolled his eyes. "Without a monitor from the government? Never."

"If we find anything, they'll send someone."

The guide stroked his thick beard, lip still curled in distaste. "Without a guide, good luck to you."

This time he did look at Meryam, as if only now, putting the last nail in the coffin of her plans, would he acknowledge her.

"They have a guide," Feyiz said quietly.

Hakan shot him a withering glare. "You wouldn't dare."

Now it was Hakan's turn to be ignored. Feyiz refused to look at him.

Adam pushed Hakan's chair out a bit farther, a suggestion that he should return to his seat.

"We're going to climb," Adam said. "If there's nothing there, we'll have wasted a lot of time and money. But if there's anything worth finding, it'll be our dig and our documentary film. We'll need a project foreman who knows the mountain intimately and who doesn't mind being on camera, part of the film. Our backers will be funding the whole thing. If this is the ark, the interest level will be so high that money will rain from the sky."

Hakan held onto the back of the chair, the muscles in his shoulders relaxing, but he did not sit down. The wrinkle in his brow had turned from one of vexation to one of contemplation.

"There are many 'ifs,'" Hakan said.

Meryam exhaled. "You don't have to look at me when I speak to you. If your religious beliefs mean you must condemn me--and my relationship with Adam--in your heart, that's between you and God. But we are doing this, and it will be much easier for us and much more rewarding for you if we have the cooperation of the Ceven family."

Hakan glanced at her, locked eyes for a three count, then slipped back into his chair. He turned to his nephew, spoke in a low voice and in the language of their birth.

"Do you believe in the ark?" Hakan asked.

Adam frowned--he didn't know the language--but Meryam gave the tiniest shake of her head to indicate he should say nothing.

"If it's there, I'll believe in it," Feyiz replied.

"The cave seems too small to hold it," Hakan said.

Feyiz shrugged, but Meryam leaned over and spoke to the younger man, as if his uncle were not there. She could pretend as well as anyone, could play this game if it would ease their way.

"These others," she said in Turkish, with a slight nod toward the nearest table of Arkologists, "they're looking for a legend. Any measurements ever written down are symbolic. If the ark existed, nobody knows how big it really was. If it's up there on the mountain, we can measure it ourselves. We'll remake the legend."

Feyiz smiled. He had been in from the start--committed deeply enough to defy his uncle and anger the rest of his family. He had lost three relatives in the avalanche, but all of his children still lived. Feyiz wanted to keep it that way and knew that finding the ark could change his life.

"Are we in business or not?" Adam asked.

"Uncle?" Feyiz said.

Hakan hesitated and Meryam knew he would not agree. The climb would have to go on without him, which would make it much harder to get horses, to replenish their supplies, and to have the support they needed up on the mountain if they really did find something that warranted archaeological attention.

The German Arkologists erupted with another volley of laughter. One of them reared back and nearly spilled from his chair before righting himself, knocking his wineglass to the floor in the process. The glass shattered, spilling deep red liquid onto the wooden floor.

Hakan scowled in their direction, and then Meryam saw his brows knit, his eyes narrow. Meryam turned to find a young boy weaving through the dining room.

"Zeki," Feyiz muttered.

Meryam took Adam's hand, a flutter of excitement in her chest. She recognized the boy as Feyiz's eldest son. Slim and handsome, not yet twelve years old, Zeki would grow up to break women's hearts. Tonight his furtive speed suggested that he might have a very different future from his forebears.

The boy arrived beside his father, but when he produced a folded slip of paper, Feyiz indicated that he should hand it instead to Hakan.

Zeki obeyed. Hakan surveyed the room. Meryam knew others would be watching them, wondering about the presence of the boy, but there was nothing they could do about that now.

"Well?" Adam prodded.

Hakan opened the paper, scanned it quickly, and then grunted.

He looked up, straight at Meryam for once. "We must go."

"Now?" Feyiz asked. "It's an hour past dark."

Meryam grinned. "Which gives us all night to reach Camp One ... an excellent head start."

As they rose from the table, Meryam paused to drain the last red bliss from her wine in victory. She and Adam were going to be first to the cave.

First to lay eyes on whatever waited there.

* * *

Feyiz drove the van, their gear piled in the back, and they wended through the sleepy streets of Dogubeyazit. Adam grinned most of the way, suffused with a giddy exuberance he had rarely felt since childhood. Under starlight, they drove along badly paved roads to a tiny village called Eli, where the pavement came to an end and they arrived at a parking lot at the base of the mountain.

Here in Turkey he felt relatively safe, and yet the presence of the Iranian border only kilometers away made the sky in that direction seem laden with menace. On one hand it seemed silly to feel as if the whole nation held a personal animosity toward him, like a cloud of malice waiting for a shift in wind direction so that it could swallow him whole. On the other hand, if he crossed the border and was caught, he would be instantly arrested and imprisoned. Stupid to think about--he had no intention of entering Iran--but such were the things that lingered in his mind.

The trek toward Camp One was a hike rather than a climb. They spilled from the van, checked their gear one last time, and then slipped on their packs. Adam pulled on a wool hat, tugged down the earflaps, and shivered as his body began to adjust to the cold night air. This is foolish, he thought, glancing up at the mountain as the wind whipped around them. Then Meryam turned toward him and he saw the ecstatic glint in her eyes and the grin she wore, and he remembered that foolish was their stock in trade. The whole point of their books and their online videos was to help ordinary people overcome their fear of taking risks.

He retrieved his camera from the back of the van, sighted on Meryam, and began to record. "So, what are we going to call this one? Adam and Eve Find the Ark?"

"Let's actually find the ark before we start claiming we've done so," Meryam said with the smile that always broke his heart. That wasn't a smile he could ever refuse, and it was as good an opening line as he could have wished for.

She adjusted the pack on her shoulders and turned toward the mountain. Feyiz and Hakan had already started up the path, neither waiting for them nor offering to help. Feyiz knew they didn't need his help. Hakan simply didn't give a shit.

They trudged a half mile or so before Adam bothered with the camera again. The terrain looked ghostly in the starlight and he wanted to wait until they were far enough from the parking lot that none of the lights from the village or the road would interfere with the atmosphere he wanted to create. Normally they would have had horses, maybe a mule or two, but there were only four of them and their goal was to reach the cave first, establish their claim. They couldn't spare anyone to wait behind with the animals as they made their way from Camp Two over to the part of the southeast face that had calved off. There would be no safe way to reach the new cave, but the least dangerous option would be to cut across to a place above the opening and descend to it rather than try to climb all the loose rock and earth below it. Starting another avalanche might kill them all. Adam and Meryam were making careers out of calculated risks, but neither of them wanted to die from being stupid.

"Feyiz," he said, catching up to the guide and rolling the camera again, "we've done this with you before, but for viewers who aren't familiar, can you give us some details on what's ahead?"

The younger guide glanced warily at his uncle, who had stiffened. Hakan's lips pressed together in a tight line of disapproval, but he sneered quietly and picked up his pace, getting out in front of them. He wanted to find the ark as much as anyone, but had zero interest in documenting their efforts.

"We left the van in the village of Eli, which sits at about two thousand meters," Feyiz began. "The hike to Camp One is nine kilometers and should take less than four hours total. The terrain is not difficult for climbers who are physically fit--"

Meryam stepped into the frame, glancing back at the camera as she kept hiking. "Right now, Adam is wishing he hadn't eaten that massive portion of kunefe after dinner."

He groaned. "So true."

The trek continued in the same fashion, with Adam acting as cameraman and interviewer, Meryam as on-camera host and narrator, and Feyiz filling in the details. In quiet moments, when the on-camera banter lulled with the lateness of the hour, he glanced up at the mountain and felt a whisper of dread slide up his spine. Each time it dissipated before reaching his brain, the way dreams turned to mist and vanished in the first moments of wakefulness.

He shifted the weight of his pack and kept moving, watching his step. The next time he glanced up at the mountain he thought he could make out the gouge on its face where the avalanche had occurred, a fresh scar that had changed the shape of Ararat.

Meryam appeared at his side before he could even notice that she had dropped back to be with him.

"You okay?" she asked quietly, though in the dark silence of the mountain even a whisper could be heard. Feyiz and Hakan kept moving, ignoring them.

Adam nodded. "Sleepy, I guess."

"There won't be much sleep the next few days."

"If we're lucky, the next few months."

Meryam smiled, eyes alight. "From your lips to God's ears."

"God?" Adam asked, eyebrow raised.

"Whoever's listening," she corrected.

Adam took her hand. Holding his camera in his right and clasping her fingers with his left, he felt the balance of his life. These two elements were all he needed. Inspired and more awake, he released her and clicked the camera to record.

"What makes you so confident?" he asked Meryam. His boots crunched down on rough stone and brittle ice. "There are at least two competent teams of Arkologists in Dogubeyazit. They'll be on our heels."

Meryam shoved a mass of curls away from her eyes and frowned at him. At the camera.

"We've got a head start and we're traveling light," she said, more for the camera's benefit than for his. "If there are mysteries waiting up there, we're going to be the ones to solve them."

She grinned. Adam tapped the camera to stop the recording and returned her smile, but it felt like a mask. An uneasiness had settled into him like nothing he had ever experienced. It made his skin prickle and he thought of the scrutiny of hidden eyes. With every step, he felt as if he walked beneath the gaze of unknown enemies.

"You need sleep," Meryam said, concern etched on her face.

"Just a few hours when we get to Camp One," Adam replied. "Then we keep climbing."

Whatever had crept under his skin would burn off with the sunrise.

He was sure of it.

Copyright © 2017 by Christopher Golden


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