Amy turned to him. “We almost died, Dan. We really almost did this time.” She shook her head. “I thought all this … was over. Is it ever going to be over?”
Dan didn’t want to answer that question. Because they both knew the answer was no.
“We should call Fiske. But I don’t have a signal,” Amy said, snapping her phone closed. She scanned the area. “Casper Wyoming could be anywhere. Not to mention the other guy. We should get off the mountain. Didn’t that guy say a rescue worker would escort us down? That’s our best bet.”
Dan didn’t answer. He was studying the rescue worker who stood waiting patiently by the tram station. He was dressed in the same red jacket the other rescuers wore, his fleece cap pulled down to his eyebrows and a pair of goggles obscuring most of his face. Something about him was familiar, and not in a good way.
The worker patted his parka pocket for a minute. Like he was making sure something was there. Like a weapon.
He turned his back and spoke quickly to Amy. “Don’t look, but that rescue guy is our friend Casper. He’s waiting by the tram.”
Amy’s eyes widened. “What should we do? Should we tell someone?”
“Tell them what? That we’re protecting an ancient ring? Or that there’s this secret society called the Vespers?”
“I guess not. But we have to get down this mountain.” Amy glanced over at the skis. “And there’s only one way.”
Within minutes, they were schussing down the slope. The cloud cover was thicker, and the snow was falling more steadily now. Amy and Dan weren’t experts, but luckily the run wasn’t too steep … yet. They made good time down the mountain. Far below, they could see the lights of Zermatt beginning to twinkle on.
All they could hear was the schuss, schuss of their skis. Once in a while a skier would pass them, going down straight and fast.
Amy gave a quick glance behind. Her heart sank when she saw a skier in a red parka heading off from the hut. To her dismay, a skier clad in navy kept up the pace next to him. “Bad news — they’re both behind us,” she told Dan. “Bruno must have gotten away. And here’s the other bad news — they look like experienced skiers.”
“Apparently Casper is Outdoor Dude,” Dan said through gritted teeth.
“We have to go off the trail. They have the advantage if we go straight downhill. They’re much faster.”
“I’m right behind you,” Dan said.
Amy skied off the trail. The snow was icy and bumpy. She gripped her poles. It would be a disaster if one of them fell. She tried to forget the warnings she’d read about skiing off trails on this mountain — how treacherous crevasses could lie off the ski runs, ready to swallow up skiers. The wind bit at her cheeks, and she ducked her head slightly, trying to focus on the best pathway through the snow. At least the direction was easy — downhill.
They made better time now. The Vespers had longer skis, faster on the trail but not as maneuverable as their shorter skis. Their path snaked through large boulders, and crags and cliffs lay on either side.
Amy squinted through her borrowed goggles. She saw a problem ahead. There were two natural divisions on the route they were on. To the right was a small stand of trees. To the left, large boulders rose through the snow, and the terrain grew increasingly rocky, ending in what appeared to be a huge crag that would qualify as an Olympic ski jump.
She went right. She heard Dan struggling for breath next to her as they tracked back and forth, finding a path through the trees. It should have brought them ahead, but it didn’t. When they cleared the trees, she glanced behind. The two Vespers were right behind them. They would catch up in a few seconds.
She saw the inevitable end of this chase, and she pushed back against her panic.
Amy felt the ache in her legs and arms. Her muscles burned, and her chest hurt. She heard the sound she was dreading — Dan had started to wheeze. His breath was giving out.
Her muscles quivered. She gripped her poles and stared ahead fiercely, telling herself not to give up. When had she ever given up, even when she was exhausted and discouraged and sure she’d never succeed? That determination had kept her going. It had sustained them through the Clue hunt. Dan had it, too.
She glanced behind. The two skiers were moving so fast. They were close enough now that she could hear the schuss of their skis. They weren’t flailing like her and Dan. They were like machines.
Her leg muscles had gone past burning. They were shaking uncontrollably. The whole day had been too much, the lack of sleep, the shocks, the near-death experience. Amy felt tears well up and begin to fall.
They weren’t going to make it.
She’d made the wrong choice, coming off the main trail. With another quick glance behind her, she could see that the Vespers were almost on them now.
Looming ahead, she saw an outcropping of snow, a small cliff, and she cried out to Dan and turned to miss it. They’d never make it over without falling. They made the turn, avoiding the outcropping, but the maneuver had cost them. The Vespers caught up.
It was over.
The Vespers stopped in front of them, turning in a spray of snow. Amy and Dan were forced to pull up. The only sound was their labored breathing and the hiss of the wind. She noticed how dusky it was, how the lights of the village seemed so far below them. How alone they were. To the left was the crag she’d avoided earlier. To the right, more forest. The snow ahead was wide and empty, but the Vespers blocked them from it.
Casper spoke. “The ring. That’s all we want.”
Was he telling the truth? They were certainly willing to send them plummeting to their deaths just a little while ago.
Amy gripped her ski poles while her mind worked frantically. Had she reached a dead end? If she handed over the ring, would there be a chance for them? She couldn’t let anything happen to Dan. She was his older sister, his protector. He hated that, but it was true.
“Don’t even think about it,” Dan murmured to her. As usual, he knew what she was thinking — she would sacrifice the ring for him.
She felt the ring, snug on her thumb under her glove. Suddenly, in the midst of all this terror, she felt the shimmer of memories. One after the other, cascading down — Grace, her gaze so intent, handing her a new book in her library. Grace, lying on the window seat near the end, pain etched in every line on her face but turning to Amy and summoning up some inner light that somehow transformed her back into a vital person. Shielding Amy from her pain, shielding both of them from the terrible knowledge that death was in her bones and it was coming soon.
That was courage. That was strength.
How could she answer that with anything less?
“It’s stuck,” she told him. “I can’t get it off my finger.”
Casper withdrew a long, glittering knife. “Darling, that isn’t a problem.”
Suddenly, a dark shape appeared out of nowhere, flying so fast over the outcropping to their right that at first Amy thought it was a bird of prey instead of a skier.
Just as he hit the ground in a spray of snow, she felt movement to the other side. A snowboarder exploded off the rocky cliff to the left, twisting high in the air. He seemed to hang there for a long, extended moment. Casper nearly fell backward as he grabbed for his ski poles.
The snowboarder landed just inches away from Bruno, barreling into him and sending him airborne. Bruno landed on his back and began to slide.
“Whoa,” Dan breathed.
Wyoming dug in his poles and took off. The skier changed direction and flew after him. Amy saw gray hair sticking out from the close-fitting wool hat. The amazing skier was Fiske!
Meanwhile, ahead of Wyoming, Bruno kept sliding. He must have hit an icy patch of snow. The mystery snowboarder was bearing down on him when suddenly Bruno disappeared. He was there one moment … and then gone. The snowboarder immediately turned his board and stopped.
It was too late for Wyoming. He was flying so fast on the ice that he went airborne for a moment and then he, too, disappeared. Fiske pulled up, the snow pluming out from the edges of his skis. He stood a minute, looking down.
Amy blinked. What had happened?
Cautiously, Amy and Dan skied closer. Fiske held up a hand so they stopped a few inches away from him and the snowboarder.
The snowboarder turned and said just one word. “Crevasse.”
It was Erasmus.
They followed Erasmus and Fiske down the mountain, skiing slowly as the light faded. Amy’s muscles were so tired that she had to use all her concentration to get down the mountain without falling.
They skied directly to the back porch of the chalet. Amy’s fingers shook as she tried to get out of her ski boots. Fiske bent and gently helped her, then Dan, as Erasmus looked out over the twilight.
“Dude,” Dan said tiredly to Erasmus. “A seven-twenty McTwist, and you nailed it. Awesome.”
One corner of Erasmus’s mouth lifted in a small smile. “Thanks. Dude.”
Amy looked down at her uncle’s gray head. He took off the second boot and rested his hand on her stocking foot. When he looked up, she smiled her thanks. He smiled back, but the smile was full of worry. He knew how close they’d come to disaster, just as she did.
But behind the worry, she saw something deep and rock steady. Love.
She stood up at the same time as Fiske, and he gathered her into a hug. She felt the surprising strength of his arms around her. He put one hand on her head and held her against his chest.
Fiske looked over Amy’s head and extended an arm at Dan. To Amy’s surprise, her little brother didn’t shrug or make a joke. He walked right into the hug. They stood in a small knot for a moment.
Amy closed her eyes and breathed in the scent of night air, pines, and snow. She’d been waiting for this moment since they’d got back from the Clue hunt. Through Thanksgiving and Christmas and early mornings and late nights, but somehow, the feelings had just missed the mark.
Now, the moment was here, and it rang through her heart, crystalline and perfect. This is family.
“Let’s go inside and warm up,” Fiske said.
Amy turned to thank Erasmus, but he was gone.
“He’ll be watching the house tonight,” Fiske said. “Just in case. We’re taking the next train out, but we have time to rest before we go.”
A fire blazed in the hearth, and there was a thermos of hot chocolate and a plate of sandwiches waiting.
“How is Frau Weiser?” Amy asked.
“She’s already been released from the clinic,” he said. “A head wound and a slight concussion. She’ll be fine. Her daughter came up and did this for us.”
They drank mugs of hot chocolate and gobbled up the sandwiches. Night had fallen fast, and the snow whispered against the panes.
“I’ve been thinking,” Fiske said. “We’ve got to get rid of the ring. Maybe a London bank —”
“I’ve been thinking, too,” Amy interrupted. “No more banks. That’s what they’ll expect us to do.”
Fiske had already started shaking his head. “I know what you’re thinking. You can’t wear it, Amy. You’ll be a target.”