Climb High, Love Forever
Tina made a pact with the devil seven years ago. It’s time to pay the piper—or die.
A heavy weight jammed Tina McKenzie against her mattress. I’m dreaming, her sleep-saturated brain insisted. The pressure doubled and then tripled. Her eyes snapped open, but her bedroom was inky black. She couldn’t see a thing. Breathing became a struggle. Her physician-trained brain panicked. She writhed against an invisible mass lying on top of her. It pushed back.
A burnt odor with overtones of something dead and rotten invaded her nostrils. It smelled like the cadaver lab but without formalin. An insidious cold seeped into her bones. Whatever held her down was freezing her from the inside out. Her heart stuttered. Breath clogged in her throat, unable to move past her squashed larynx. How long could she live without oxygen before she sustained brain damage? A few minutes at best. Her mind shied away from what was happening. The thing in her bedroom wasn’t human. It couldn’t be; it wasn’t breathing. Shit. I’m going to die here.
Her body thrashed against her unseen assailant, but she couldn’t budge it more than an inch or so. No point wasting energy screaming. She lived so remotely, no one would hear her. She tried to raise her arms; they were pinned against her sides. A flickering white haze fractured her vision. People don’t die in dreams.
I’m not dreaming, another inner voice chimed in.
“No, you are not dreaming.” A guttural voice sounded deep in her mind. Accented, it reminded her of… Understanding slammed home and left her reeling. It wasn’t possible. Shivers cascaded down her body. Her blood turned to ice.
“Good,” the voice continued. “You remember me.”
“What?” she sputtered, struggling to get words out. “You can read my thoughts?”
“Of course.” A quiet chuckle. “You made me a promise, doctor. You had seven years. They are nearly expired. Consider yourself fortunate I was kind enough to remind you.”
“Y-you tracked me down?” Her teeth chattered uncontrollably.
The chuckle morphed into a laugh. “I have always known where to find you. Did you delude yourself you were invisible here in the United States? Blood for blood, doctor. You owe me.”
As quickly as it had come, the pressure on her body vanished. Tina shot to a sitting position and sucked air until her oxygen-starved body quit shrieking. She wanted to scream—to curl in a ball and howl—but she was afraid if she gave in to hysteria, she’d never get herself under control again.
Even though common sense told her the danger had passed, she couldn’t stop shaking. Once she thought her legs might support her, she tottered to the window, grasped the light-blocking drapes, and shoved them aside. Medical school and residency had destroyed her natural sleep-wake cycle. She’d installed the room-darkening shades in an attempt to normalize it, except it hadn’t worked. She still was awake until very late; most nights she struggled to get four hours of sleep.
She gazed out the window, frosted from cold. It must have frozen last night. The sky in the east had a pearlescent cast. Dawn. It would be a sunny autumn day in Leadville, Colorado. Too bad the sun wouldn’t percolate into her soul. Tina wrapped her arms around herself. She was so cold she wondered if she’d ever get warm again.
Think, she commanded herself. There’s got to be a way out of this.
Yeah, like what? Years had passed since she’d entered into what she’d always considered a pact with the devil. The further away she’d gotten from that nightmare in the Andes, the more certain she’d become she’d never have to keep her end of the bargain.
Tina walked slowly to her dresser. She tugged the ragged, sweat-soaked T-shirt that doubled as a nightshirt over her head and stood surveying her chilly bedroom. For once in her life she was unsure what to do. Gooseflesh rose, a visceral reminder of her nakedness. She pulled black sweatpants and a top out of a drawer and put them on, followed by half socks and her running shoes. She picked up her iPhone to consult its calendar and then dropped it back onto the top of the dresser. She knew what day it was: October 15th. In two months and ten days, her time would be up.
Adrenaline shot through her. Her stomach roiled. Bile burned the back of her throat. She strode down the hall and stopped in the kitchen long enough to pour water and beans into the coffee maker and set the timer. Tina let herself out the back door. Her jogging route was always the same: eight miles and two thousand feet of gain. It took a little less than ninety minutes. She did it every day she was home despite the weather. In winter it took longer because she used snowshoes.
Tina turned to glance at the buff-colored, turn-of-the-century, two-story farmhouse she called home. It had been in her family for ages. A few miles out of town, she’d always considered the location perfect because no one bothered her. Wind blew the last of the leaves off the aspen trees. She considered returning to fetch a hat, but didn’t want to go back inside. Her house wasn’t hers anymore. The thing—mountain spirit or shaman or whatever the fuck he was—had invaded her territory. It felt sullied. Unclean. I’m going to have to get over that.
Problem was she didn’t believe in the paranormal. She was a scientist, goddammit, trained to believe in what she could see and feel and touch, in what was illuminated under her microscope when she worked in an Emergency Room. Her experience nearly seven years before had been so surreal—she’d relegated it to high altitude hypoxia.
Tina ran hard. Sweat slicked her sides. Her breath came fast. She’d buried the memory of what happened in Bolivia. It came roaring back with a vengeance, almost as if it resented the hell out of the subterranean prison she’d confined it to at the very bottom of her psyche.
* * * *
Tina struggled against wind that wanted to flatten her, or worse, blow her off Illimani’s long summit ridgeline. She was by herself. Twenty-two hundred vertical feet separated her from her camp on the edge of the glacier. “At least I can still see,” she muttered. “And I got the summit.”
She glanced at her watch, illuminated in the beam of her headlamp. One in the morning. Normally, she would have waited until then to start climbing, but wind shrieking like a banshee had made it impossible to sleep. She’d set up her camp at eight p.m. and headed for the mountaintop without stopping to think too hard. She wanted Illimani’s summit. It was the second highest peak in Bolivia and a huge massif with five separate highpoints.
And now I’ve done it.
Careful, a different inner voice cautioned. Ninety percent of climbing accidents happen on the way down.
A vicious blast of wind buffeted her. Tina slammed one of her ice axes into the snow to anchor herself to the mountain. As if her inner voice had been prophetic, clouds descended, obliterating what had been a clear sky in a matter of minutes.
What the fuck? She peered through impenetrable muck. “Shit,” she spat. “I can’t see.” Surely the clouds were a momentary event. They’d pass by, especially in this wind. They had to. Minutes ticked by. Visibility eroded even further. She took a steadying breath and then another. No sat phone. No radio. No one even knew where she was. Yeah, I broke a bunch of really important rules.
This peak was supposed to be easy, one of her inner mavens whined.
Oh shut up.
“Got to pull myself together.” Tina spoke out loud to calm herself. She visualized where she’d been on the mile-long ridge. She’d passed the false summit so she had to be close to the lip that dropped off a fifty-degree cliff. Her heart thudded against her ribs. She panted from more than the twenty thousand foot altitude. She tried to swallow, but dry throat tissue grated against itself. Stooping, she gathered some snow in a glove, made a ball out of it, and placed it in her mouth.
Another blast of wind was so intense she planted her other axe. “Get going,” she instructed herself. “Now.”
Moving by feel, one painstaking step at a time, Tina worked out a rhythm. She probed the snow ahead with an axe. If it held, she moved down to it and stopped. To counteract the vertigo from navigating through thick fog, she counted steps. Her first guess was it wouldn’t take more than five hundred to reach the edge of the ridge. On three fifty-six, one of her axes punched through into open air. Tina threw her body backward, gasping. This was how climbers died. By getting cocky and making bad decisions.
She got to her feet; her legs shook. She shoved an axe into the snow and a chunk fell away. She moved a few degrees to the right; more snow flaked off. By the time she’d inscribed a forty-five degree arc, she knew she had to be at the end of the ridge. Tina fumbled at the hardware belt hanging from her waist and got an ice screw. She threaded it carefully into what felt like firm snow, clipped in a carabineer, and ran her rope through it. Next came a breaker bar attached to her harness so she could rappel down the steep part.
Her breath came fast. She moved more by feel than anything else. Her headlamp beam was weakening and she didn’t have fresh batteries. She tossed out a silent prayer to the god who took care of climbers, double-checked her rope and attachments, and turned to face the slope. Her ice axes dangled from her wrists; her crampon points bit into the snow. She backed down until she felt the slope steepen and then moved the hand that would control her descent out to the side. Her other one gripped the rope over her head to steady her descent.
The minute she put her full weight on her anchor, it ripped out of the snow. The rope, worthless now that it wasn’t attached to anything, hung through the breaker bar. An end whapped her in the face. Holy Christ. I’m falling…
She flailed her axes like a wild woman; one connected with something and held. Tina slammed in the other and her front points. She screamed. Wind ripped the sound away as soon as it left her throat. Fright balled her stomach into a burning knot. One of her crampon front points slipped.
Can’t stay put. Got to move down. No point in going up. Nothing solid to rap off of. Thoughts of falling to her death pounded through her head. To keep from going mad, she lectured herself.
“Move one thing at a time. Three solid points of attachment before I move anything. Test everything. Then test it again… Okay, let’s go.”
Finally, the angle of the slope eased. Her rope had been nothing but a pain in the ass, dangling from the breaker bar attached to her harness. She’d stabbed her front points through it time and time again. She let herself move a little faster. The edge of the glacier was the most welcome thing she’d ever found. She tugged the rope free and tried to coil it, but her hands shook so badly she couldn’t. Tina dropped the rope into the snow, sat on it, dropped her head into her hands, and cried. She was a long way from safety, but the sheer relief of being off the steep face was overwhelming.
The wind hadn’t let up at all. Though not as bad as it had been on the ridge, it was still gusting at forty or fifty miles an hour. She unbuckled her pack and forced herself to eat an energy bar, washed down with water from the bottle stashed in her parka to keep it from freezing. Her headlamp flickered. She shut it off.
Tina shivered. She was still a thousand feet above her camp and she had to cross a glacier riddled with crevasses. The transit would be child’s play on a sunny day; a night like this one, with near zero visibility, turned it into a deadly game of Russian roulette. If she’d brought a sleeping bag, she would have stayed put for what was left of the night.
She wasn’t even certain exactly where her camp was. She hadn’t thought to set wands to mark her route. She didn’t have a GPS with her. Tina struggled to her feet and buckled her pack into place. She’d made a series of neophyte climbing errors, beginning with assuming clear weather would last the next twenty-four hours. She’d badly underestimated Illimani. The mountain was laughing at her.
Tina thought about laughing back, but didn’t want to tempt fate. Besides, she didn’t feel much like laughing. She flicked her headlamp back on and checked her compass to make sure she wouldn’t descend the wrong side of the mountain. Back to counting steps, she contained her fear as best she could. The glacier wasn’t particularly steep, but…
A brutal chop of wind sent her sideways. She planted both axes; the snow beneath her gave way. Tina tumbled into blackness. Aw shit, it’s a crevasse, a crevasse, a crevasse, echoed in her mind. She crashed through two snow bridges. The third one held. She was afraid to breathe. Afraid to do anything to weaken her fragile hold on life. In the feeble beam of her headlamp, she glanced upward. Fifty feet. I fell fifty feet. Thank God nothing’s broken.
Snow bridges were always thicker at their ends. She moved ever so cautiously until she was right next to the smooth inner ice wall of her tomb. She slung an axe into the ice. It bounced off. She tried again. Same result. She kicked with her front points. After many attempts, she was sweating and panting. “Goddammit,” she shrieked. “Fuck.”
“Got to get hold of myself,” she muttered. “If I don’t, I’m as good as dead.”
Tina shut her eyes. If she couldn’t climb out with her tools, maybe she could pound in ice screws. They had threads. She wasn’t certain she had enough to make it all the way out, but she’d freeze to death if she didn’t keep moving. It was very cold in the crevasse. Colder than it had been out on the glacier.
It took a long time to twist the first ice screw in. The second one was easier. Using screws, carabineers, her rope, and jumars, she made it about twenty feet from the snow bridge when her headlamp died. “Shit.” She pounded impotently against the ice. “I can’t believe I was this stupid. Shit. Fuck. Damn it all to hell.”
I can curse all I want—I’m going to die here.
She hung limply in her harness. Her sweat-damp body shivered. The doctor part of her wondered how long it would take to die. Freezing to death was a lot like going to sleep. She wasn’t certain what time it was, but it couldn’t be much past four. Dawn was at least two hours away. Maybe she could hold on, but she didn’t think it likely.
A putrid smell filled her nostrils. It got even colder. “Human woman,” sounded deep in her mind in a strangely accented voice.
“Who said that?” Her neck twisted from side to side, but she couldn’t see a thing in the blackness.
“I offer you a chance to live.”
“How could you possibly do that?” Am I losing my mind? Hypoxia? Harness cutting off my wind?
“If I rescue you, you will return to me and live out your days with me in the Cordillera Real. You must give me your word.”
“Huh? What do you mean return? I’m already here.” Tina’s brain felt wrapped in cotton batting. None of this made sense. Maybe she was already dying and her mind was playing tricks on her.
“You will have seven years in your human world. Once it is over, you must return to me. Do you agree?”
What the hell? “Um, sure. If you can get me out of here, go for it.”
“Unlatch that thing holding you to the wall.”
Fear sluiced through her. Her hands tightened on the rope. “Not on your life.”
A macabre chuckle filled the icy hole under Illimani’s glacier. “No, doctor. It is not my life but yours.”
She started to ask how he knew she was a doctor when a high-pitched whistle bounced off the crevasse walls. The infernal screeching stabbed ice picks into her brain. Cold air closed around her. It smelled like a charnel pit, ripe with things dead long enough to rot. Her ice screw popped from the wall; she made a grab for the rope and closed her arms around it. Air currents jockeyed her upward and out onto the glacier.
Tina blinked. The thick cloud cover was gone. Between an almost full moon and a sky full of stars, she could see without her lamp. She started to coil the rope, but the same insistent air pushed her. “Okay, okay.” She held the mass of Perlon against her chest and staggered down the glacier. It was easy to avoid the crevasses now that she could see where they were.
Her mind rebelled at what just happened. Maybe she’d died in the crevasse or maybe she hadn’t fallen into one at all. Maybe she’d hit her head when she’d fallen off the ridge, had a seizure on the glacier, and this was a postictal state. She shook her head sharply, willing a return of rational thought.
“We are not done, doctor. Stop there.”
Tina tried to keep moving but her feet were mired in place. A glowing form took shape next to her. She stared up at it and gasped, surprised she had any adrenaline left to react. This isn’t possible. It can’t be happening. The thing was over seven feet tall; it shimmered so brightly, she couldn’t look directly at it.
An unseen force yanked one of her arms away from her body. The rope fell in a pile at her feet. Bright light descended; it cut through her jacket and the clothing beneath. She tried to twist her body away, but couldn’t. Blood welled and dripped onto the snow. Golden light enveloped her.
“What are you doing?” Terror skittered along her nerves; it made her shake uncontrollably.
“You made me a promise, doctor. I am sealing your word with a blood bond. Seven years. If you break your vow, I will kill you.”
Tina opened her mouth to protest, to tell the thing it hadn’t told her everything before she’d agreed, but the pulsating light vanished. She turned in a circle to make certain she was alone. Blood dripped from her arm, staining the snow crimson. Her tent shone pale yellow in the moonlight not a hundred yards away. She staggered to it, uncertain what had just happened to her.
I can’t think about this now. If I do, it will drive me mad. Inside her tent, she stripped off her jackets and long underwear. She flicked on a lighter and took a look at her arm. It needed stitches, but they’d have to wait. She was just too tired. As a stopgap, she doused her arm with Betadine, wrapped it with a pressure bandage, and fell into an exhausted sleep.
* * * *
Tina glanced around. It took a moment to orient herself. She was still about a mile-and-a-half from home. Colorado sunshine shone warmly on her, but she was chilled to her bones.
After leaving Bolivia, she’d returned to the rental house she shared with Craig Robson in Denver. He’d been guiding clients in Antarctica, so she had the house to herself. At first, she’d thought that was good, but the harder she tried to make sense out of what had happened to her on Illimani, the more tangled things got. She wondered if she were having a late schizophrenic break, or if she’d truly traded away her humanity in a pact with the devil.
Craig had blown through their front door one day in mid-January with a huge smile on his face and a ring in his pocket. Tina grimaced and forced herself to run faster. It was hard to think about the day Craig asked her to marry him. There’d been no way she could be his wife. She had no idea what she’d gotten herself into in Bolivia, no inkling of what the ramifications would be. The whole thing was too weird to even try to explain and she was frightened she’d put Craig at risk if she told him anything. Even without Bolivia, she’d had other reservations as well. She hadn’t been ready to marry anyone—not then, and not in the years since. The look on his face when she’d turned him down still haunted her.
She slammed into her house, blowing hard. Usually, she cooled down. Today she was too edgy, nerves jangling with tension. Maybe she should put in another few miles… Tina poured coffee into an oversized mug and slugged some back. It burned, but its bitterness tasted good. She savored it and waited for the blast of caffeine to hit.
Cup gripped in her hand, she forced herself into her study. No more running today. She had things to do. Reaching down, she booted up her computer. There was no getting around it. She had to go back to Bolivia. If she didn’t, she had no doubt the next supernatural visit would mean her death. Better to die on her feet in a direct confrontation than pinned to her mattress.
The Microsoft menu scrolled across the screen. She brought up the Internet and typed in the URL for Craig’s guiding service. If she got really lucky, he’d have a trip to Bolivia planned in the next couple of months. She wanted to see Craig one last time before she faced whatever had hauled her out of the crevasse and threatened her this morning in her bedroom. She’d signed on as team doctor for his expeditions over the last couple of years, but they’d never talked about anything personal. This time she’d gird her courage and apologize.
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