"Another large door loomed before them, with gilt knockers carved into hideous faces…
Braxton Fitzroy rose unsteadily to his feet, the stone yard they had landed on had not been forgiving. The late March snow fell heavy and thick around five remaining members of a failed expedition and one Russian arms dealer, and the wind cut them to the bone surer than any monk’s sword. Their thick coats, tattered, bloodstained and sweat soaked now, offered only a little protection against the cold.
They found themselves in the deserted courtyard of the monastery, and they quickly picked themselves up and began to move swiftly away from the main hall, which now began to fold in on itself in earnest, with a noise that echoed and amplified in the surrounding mountains to deafening levels. The weather beaten and painted wood that had adorned the hall’s outer façade snapped and spun into the wind, forming deadly projectiles for any caught in their path, and all bolted for what cover they could find.
Stones toppled and the mountain shook as it claimed that tenuous manmade structure as it’s own, many supports tumbled down and out into the abyss that surrounded the jut of stone that much of the monastery defiantly clung to. Cacophony ruled as the work of centuries was undone in the space of minutes.
Many more passed.
Silence stole over the scene.
Only the wind filled their ears.
“It’s over,” breathed Lieutenant Baker.
“Not yet, sahib,” answered Chandra Singh, checking the remaining ammunition for his Martini-Henry.
“We are well on our way, Singh,” said Havildar Benny Fish, as he pulled the remaining rifle and bullet pouch from Zukharov’s shoulder, and checked to see that it was loaded.
“But we must stay on guard.”
“There are many doors, Havildar,” said the last Gurkha sepoy of the expedition, Kulbir Thapa, as he wiped his bloody kukri on the hem of his coat.
It was true. Doors studded the perimeter of the courtyard they found themselves in. Any one of them could lead to either freedom or uncertain doom back in the winding maze of the lower monastery. No doubt monks yet lived. The place was like a beehive, with innumerable passages and cells.
“Which one leads out, Zukharov?” asked Braxton.
The Russian moved to his side, pulling the pith helmet from his head and offering it to the man to whom it belonged. He dragged a dirty hand through the hair it had disheveled.
“This looks better on you, I believe. The door there, at the far end of the yard. That is our salvation. Beyond that we must flee down a long path, little better than a cattle trail. A covered bridge lies at the end, connecting two halves of a cleft in the mountain. Once we have passed that, we are free. There is a village not so terribly far from here…the monks often bartered with or extorted from the men there. From that place, we will be on our way…”
Chandra Singh fixed Zukharov with a gaze full of contempt and spoke.
“Sahib, I feigned sleep during our ascent to this place. The monks did not notice. I can also guide us from here.” He left out the implied, ‘We no longer need this dog.’
Braxton Fitzroy took the proffered helmet, poking a finger through the bullet hole in the crown and shooting a disapproving look at Zukharov and a nod to Singh before he jammed it back onto his head and secured the strap. Something seemed more complete about him to the men around him with that battered piece of pith back where it belonged.
“Then let us be rid of this place.”
Another rumble passed through the stones at their feet.
“And quickly now.”
They all moved to the door Zukharov had pointed out, and this one opened without ceremony, unlike the last one they had encountered. Beyond lay another decrepit passage, ancient and ornate prayer wheels were mounted along either side of the hall. They were defaced with the same symbols that decorated every monk they had met.
Baker stared at them with disgust as they moved.
“What the deuce do these symbols mean, Zukharov?”
“My skills as a linguist failed me when I inquired as to that same question. The Lama fell to discussing obscure Buddhist doctrine and I couldn’t follow him. This did not stop him from talking for at least an hour, I am afraid. The little I could glean from his babble was that they were some sort of charms, protections and spells. Mystical nonsense.”
“I’m not so sure about that last part now…”
Zukharov was oddly insistent.
“It is nonsense, I tell you. They are, rather, they were, mad, not magical. A bunch of lunatics…” It sounded as if the Russian was trying to convincehimself more than anyone else.
Braxton looked over his shoulder at the arms dealer with a knowing look before speaking.
“And yet you came here, even though you claim they are lunatics. You hired porters, secured everything that was asked of you and climbed to this place before the snows set in…”
“That is enough, old friend. I have no desire to discuss any of this further.”
Lieutenant Baker scowled, pushed the arms dealer against one of the prayer wheels and jabbed an accusing finger into his chest to emphasize his point.
“Now you listen here you damned fool. That is enough. You will address the man by his proper title and you will answer his bloody questions when he bloody well asks them. You might have saved our skins, but we lost good men back there because you took your sweet time coming to the rescue. Now this whole expedition has stunk to me from the minute we set out on it, and too much has happened for any of us to be able to just wave things off. Once we reach safety, you have explaining to do.”
Zukharov scowled back at Baker, and looked to Fitzroy.
“Your dog, Braxton,” he used his first name, looking pointedly at Byron, “you would do well to keep him on a shorter leash.”
“Lieutenant Baker must use his own initiative when he thinks it appropriate to do so. But for now, we must keep moving. Lieutenant, kindly act as Mr. Zukharov’s escort. Try not to be too gentle.”
“With pleasure, sir.”
Baker released Zukharov with a grunt, and jabbed him back into line with the point of his sword. They kept walking as the hall stretched on and the floor rumbled ominously once again. The lower levels must have still been collapsing.
“That bloody Lama did something to me back there. I had him. I had him. Then with a wave of his hand…” muttered Baker to himself.
“We have stories back home about the powers of Tibetan lamas, sahib. They are rumored to know many secrets, and can cast strange spells,” offered Kulbir Thapa. His Havildar shook his head.
“Those are children’s tales, Sepoy Thapa, and you would be doing well to forget them. What killed our comrades were not magicians, but men. And they died as men. And we will come back here, and with deepest respect to the burra Sahib Fitzroy who is dear to me, we will return with a pukka Colonel sahib at the head of a full expedition and we will finish this bloody job and deliver proper revenge for our comrades.”
Baker shook his head.
“Sepoy Thapa is right though, Havildar. Something happened. Something…”
They reached the end of the long hall. Another large door loomed before them, with gilt knockers carved into hideous faces. Buddhist prayers were carved into the stones surrounding it, benedictions and protections made foul with the ubiquitous profane symbols. Snow scudded under the bottom of the door and wind whistled through gaps in the wood. Everyone looked at one another, silently wondering if after all they had witnessed whether things might be this easy. But there was no time for contemplation.
Benny Fish took point with his rife, and pushed it open.
The land tumbled down and away from them beyond the door, and the greatest peaks on earth jutted up before them, fingers of stone and snow standing defiant against time and the elements.
The air was a thick whirl of powder and wind, and stole the heat from the men’s bones the moment they set foot in it. They flinched from the cold, clutching close what they wore.
All except for Fitzroy.
He stood for a moment in the wind, his boots crunching through the fresh snow, his blood caked Afghan coat and scarf snapping in the thin air, his eyes closed. He took in a stinging breath, a bellows breath, and what thoughts passed through his mind the others could not know, but when he turned to them, it was with a shadow of a grin, and as they picked their way down the treacherous path, something close to confidence passed again through their hearts.
Singh pointed out an enormous knuckle of stone that lay at the bottom of the path. It had been cloven in two millennia ago.
“Sahib, between the two stones…there is the bridge there we must cross.”
Zukharov spoke up as well, trying to keep up a usefulness he had gotten into the habit of outliving.
“It crosses the chasm between the two stones. Fortunately, this chasm is not great, and fortunately, this bridge is covered. Beyond…beyond we will be free.”
Singh kept him fixed with a look of contempt. They all did. Except for Braxton. He strode on, goat-like, over the impedimenta of the wild mountains.
The path there was indeed little better than a switchback cattle trail, as the Russian had promised. Poles with prayer flags bowed in the wind along either side of the path, marking it out even when it grew lost, and slowly over the course of a quarter of an hour they made their way down to the bridge.
The cracked knuckle of ancient stone loomed large, black and imposing before them, but they could not halt, would not halt. Freedom loomed too close to slow their steps now. A passageway through the stone made was soon seen by all, a natural gap widened with chisel and hammer to fit the size of two or three men walking side by side. They knew the promised bridge lay beyond.
“We are nearly there, Sahibs!” Sepoy Kulbir Thapa nearly ran to the passage, so eager was he to be rid of this terrible place where so many he had known had died. Havildar Benny Fish did not stop him. How could he after all that had happened? Kulbir’s boots carried him, crunching through the snow with a loping mountaineer’s gait over stone and jag, to that portal of stone that promised so much. The rest lagged behind as Kulbir disappeared through the entryway, reappearing briefly to wave them forward.
Fitzroy went first towards to stone tunnel, ignoring the wounds that brought an ache to his bones. There was someone he very much wished to see once this was all over. He was determined not to pause until he had.
“I made myself a promise to leave this Great Game to younger men who still lust for glory while I yet have my head. It’s high time to make good on that.”
Braxton let his mind wander for the briefest of moments, away from the wounds and the cold, across mountains and plains and deserts to the one place he wished he could be, to the one person he knew would be there.
The thought sustained him as he made his way to the passage, but it did not sustain him through what he saw next.
Kulbir Thapa stood silhouetted in the entryway, strangely stiff.
Something was wrong. The sound of the wind was deadened weirdly in the shadow of the enormous stone.
Blood trickled down from the corner of the Gurkha’s mouth. Fitzroy felt the cold once again.
He reached instinctively for where his Mauser would have been, but found no holster and no pistol. Hadn’t Zukharov retrieved their effects?
The sepoy fell forward with a sick thud into snow that was soon stained red.
A figure filled the space where he had stood, and an unnatural silence closed on all present, thick and heavy, a silence that was soon pierced by a single word.