DASH & DARING

From the Highest Himalayas, to the Deepest Deserts, Tales of Grand Adventure!

Original art & text by Vincent Nappi
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A photo of Captain Braxton Fitzroy, dated 1893, taken somewhere along the extreme northeastern frontier of Kashmir.
As with much else regarding Captain Fitzroy, the specifics of his trip to this lawless region remain vague, but a recent letter has come to light that sheds at least a little light on the subject.
From a court advisor to Maharaja Pratap Singh to Indian Intelligence at Simla…
"…We deeply thank the English for putting a stop to that…which had grown embarrassing to us…and for creating circumstances favorable to the Maharaja and Her Majesty in the realms of trade in the eastern reaches of the Kingdom of Kashmir and Jammu…the Captain Fitzroy whom you sent was instrumental in these dealings…and once again proved his value through his bravery and initiative. We enclose with this letter our most sincere thanks to him…"
It runs on in much the same effulgent tone, and so I’ve decided to include only a fragment. 

A photo of Captain Braxton Fitzroy, dated 1893, taken somewhere along the extreme northeastern frontier of Kashmir.

As with much else regarding Captain Fitzroy, the specifics of his trip to this lawless region remain vague, but a recent letter has come to light that sheds at least a little light on the subject.

From a court advisor to Maharaja Pratap Singh to Indian Intelligence at Simla…

"…We deeply thank the English for putting a stop to that…which had grown embarrassing to us…and for creating circumstances favorable to the Maharaja and Her Majesty in the realms of trade in the eastern reaches of the Kingdom of Kashmir and Jammu…the Captain Fitzroy whom you sent was instrumental in these dealings…and once again proved his value through his bravery and initiative. We enclose with this letter our most sincere thanks to him…"

It runs on in much the same effulgent tone, and so I’ve decided to include only a fragment. 

The Daedalus Expedition - Old Friends

“Sahib! Down!” Braxton flung himself into the snow as Benny Fish cocked his rifle and began to fire at the red and black robed man that stood unmoving at the entrance to the bridge. His hands moved automatically, firing and reloading more swiftly that the eye could follow. But each shot went strange, twisting impossibly or stopping short. 

Lieutenant Baker ran to Fitzroy watching dumbstruck at what could not be.

 “Faith. Faith is more powerful than any bullet, English.”

The Lama moved forward, but his feet did not touch the earth. His robes fluttered in a wind that did not reach the others. 

Chandra Singh moved after Baker, he kept his rifle trained on the Lama, whose movements blasphemed against natural laws.

Zukharov adjusted his monocle, blinking hugely. The air seemed very thin to him suddenly, and he groped in his coat for something he had kept unused through all the fighting. His insurance.

Baker rushed to the Lama, swinging his sword with a savagery that would have cut any other man clean in two. He was carelessly tossed aside with a wave of the Lama’s hand, landing feet away in the snow. 

Singh began to fire now, moving closer and closer to the floating Lama, his mouth set in a hard scowl as the crack of gunfire died too quickly in the silence that enveloped them. The bullets all went wide. Benny Fish joined in the fusillade with his own dwindling ammunition. The Lama’s face twisted in a grimace. It was clear that whatever puissance he had called to his aid was not easy to maintain. He was exerting himself.

Baker picked himself up again, rushing to the Lama with a defiant cry. He was swatted away again, less far this time. The mad monk buckled slowly, sinking closer to the ground. He spoke, nearly pleading, and a twisted beneficence passed over his face.

“Can you not see that I only wish to save this world? Can you not see that I am salvation? I am here to break the endless cycle of violence. I am here as peace. I am here as love. Death brings new life, and I will bring death in order to bring life. To love all so deeply and not act, that is the crime!”

His words went without understanding to the ears of all save Zukharov, Fitzroy and Singh, and none of them were ready to accept such things.

Singh kept firing and reloading, and not a shot touched the man. This could not be.

Baker shook his head as blood trickled from his nose, and he rose unsteadily once more to his feet. He staggered to the Lama and swung again as Singh fired ineffectively. The Lama barked words that twisted and snaked through the air, flinging the pundit backwards against an exposed gnarl of stone, and as he did so, he stretched out a hand, catching Baker’s sword mid-swing and wrenched it from his grasp. With a yell, a blast of impossible air knocked the Lieutenant backwards, flat on his back.

Benny Fish fired one last shot before he tossed the spent rifle to the ground, drew his kukri and rushed this man who had killed his men, who had denied them a warrior’s death. He did not get far before he joined Chandra Singh, knocked out cold by the stone he had landed against. The world went dark for the Havildar.

Braxton Fitzroy stood cold in the silence that followed. Not a shot sounded, not a blade cut true, and the wind even had ceased to blow. He looked about. Baker lay collapsed in the snow, and Benny Fish and Chandra Singh had been knocked unconscious. It would be up to him. There was no fear in his mind. Only a rage moved through him as the Lama’s robes touched the snow. The monk spat blood. His magic had taken a toll. His small eyes caught Fitzroy’s own, and now the Englishman could see the weird glow that smoldered deep within them. He said something, a whisper. Fitzroy didn’t care. He was going to kill the man with his bare hands.

He took only a few steps when he realized that his feet would move no more. His boots had been stuck fast, ice clutched at him, rooting him to the mountain. 

The Lama labored for breath.

“Your time will come, English. But first…first…I must deal with those who would betray me…”

Zukharov had stayed at the rear of the fray throughout, his hand in his coat. He began to step backwards as the Lama moved to him, closing the distance with a shuffle that could not have carried him as quickly or as far as it did. He snatched the Russian’s collar, breathing heavily, his words slow with pain.

“I saved you, cur, and you have the…audacity…to dishonor me so… When I found you in Cairo you were a shell of a man… You were nothing… Riddled with vermin…wounded…impure with whore-gotten diseases…hiding with rats infested houses to avoid the men who wanted you dead… I bought your freedom. I had seen you in my visions, traitor… I knew you would be the one to bring guns to my monks, but I had not foreseen this…and for this, you will die.”

Zukharov twisted his hand inside his coat, and a shot rent the air.

The Lama looked incredulously downwards to the hole in the Russian’s jacket, and the hole in his own robes. 

“Insurance,” said Zukharov with a smirk, pulling out the smoking Mauser he had kept hidden there.

“Folly,” smiled the Lama.

Zukharov’s face fell. The Lama delivered a backhanded slap that send the arms dealer reeling, as he pulled from within his robes a dagger, and advanced with murderous intent. The Russian’s monocle popped from his eye as he tripped backwards into the snow, a desperate panic seizing him. His eyes flickered to all those who might have intervened. Only one still stood, pulling impotently at legs that would not move. Zukharov did not think about what he did next. Instinct guided him. The arms dealer gripped the Mauser by it’s searing barrel and threw it with all the strength and accuracy he could muster.

“FITZROY!”

The gun arced in near slow motion through the air, spinning in lazy circles as Braxton and the Lama both looked up. The Englishman over extended himself as he reached out his hand, his momentum causing him to fall forward and crack the ice that held him fast. He landed face first on the stones and snow. The Lama looked behind him with a snarl and turned once again to advance on the prone and helpless Zukharov.

“Your aim is as poor as your judgment, cur.”

Zukharov swallowed. Perhaps that had been a poor idea after all.

Down the way, Braxton smiled. 

He had caught his gun during the fall. The ice around his legs had snapped. He could move once again.

The Lama knelt on his betrayer’s chest, his old knees jutting hard from his robes, pushing the breath from the Russian’s lungs. Zukharov’s insurance had obviously had an effect though. The Lama’s movements and words were thick with fatigue and blood flecked his mouth.

“You destroyed my house… You betrayed my monks… You have thrown away salvation to lie with dogs… Perhaps I was the fool to think you could have been saved in the first place. But now it matters not. Goodbye, cur.” He raised his dagger for a killing stroke, when an unexpected crack rang out. 

The Lama arched his back in pain, his free hand flying to the new wound. He forgot his pain, rising from the Russian’s chest and began to move through the snow to his attacker.

Captain Braxton Fitzroy walked slowly towards him as he kept firing, his arm held straight, his aim true. 

Step, step

Fire

Step, step

Fire

Step, step

Fire

Step, step

Fire

Step, step

Fire

Step, step

Fire

The Lama staggered after each shot, but still he moved, still he advanced, and his eyes still burned with an unnatural light. Braxton did not stop. The two closed to yards, then feet, closer and closer and closer until only a few steps separated them.

Step

Fitzroy aimed at the Lama’s heart.

Step

The Lama faltered, but kept moving.

Step

Fitzroy sighted down the barrel of his gun.

Step

The Lama drew back his dagger to end this.

Fire.

The Lama looked curiously at Braxton. The Captain looked back. He had made himself a stone once more. The monk staggered, he moved his mouth to speak, but only managed two words.

“…Storm…crow…”

The monk collapsed forward against Braxton’s boots, slumping into the snow.

The wind began to blow again.

Fitzroy looked down at the dead mess of robes and wrinkled skin and fading sigils that lay pooled at his feet, stepped over them, and walked to Zukharov, who had begun to stand. 

“I knew you would get him, ol-…”

Braxton kicked Zukharov square in the gut, grabbed a handful of his coat as he doubled over, and brought the butt of his Mauser down onto the back of his head. The Russian curled up in the snow, coughing and sucking in air. He looked pleadingly at Fitzroy.

“Old friend…”

Fitzroy knelt and grabbed a fistful of his hair. 

“Old friend…”

He placed the barrel of the Mauser to Zukharov’s head.

“Braxton, please old friend, please…”

Zukharov smiled with a sickening desperation. All Fitzroy could see were his dead Gurkhas. The stone in his chest hardened.

He pulled the trigger.

…Nothing happened.

The Mauser was empty.

“I am not your friend.”

Fitzroy let go of the arms dealer’s hair, and stood.

*~*~*
       

The Daedalus Expedition, March 29th, 1897 - Descent

"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.

“Fools.”

*~*~*

 

The Daedalus Expedition, March 29th, 1897 - Cut & Run

Byron Baker fell forward beneath the weight of the monk who had collapsed on top of him, cursing loudly, when suddenly more shots and more yells rang out, mixing with the echoing din that surrounded him. 

He felt his bonds being cut and something metallic and cold was shoved into his hand…a Webley revolver.

“About bloody time!”

Baker rolled out from beneath the dead monk, trying to take in the entirety of the situation before the confusion cost him his life. 

The monks who had held him, Singh and Benny Fish were dead. The two remaining further down the line were quickly being dispatched by the Gurkhas they had once held captive. The Lama’s masked bodyguards closed around their master, and the two that had rifles began firing as their leader shouted into the noise.

“Fools! Imbeciles! What have you done? My visions! Can you see, my brave guards, how they defile our holy places? How they bring evil to this place? First here, and then the world!”

The executioner monk raised his sword in a white heat, chanting angrily as he prepared to kill Fitzroy and deny the rescue it’s leader, when his master halted him.

“No, the fool English is mine!”

So he instead grabbed Fitzroy by the collar of his shirt and prepared to drag the man into the protective circle of masked guards surrounding the Lama. A bullet to the head halted his progress, and Chandra Singh smiled for the first time in a long time beneath his wiry beard as he reloaded and cocked his rifle for a second shot. 

‘What good is their bloody faith now?’

It was truly pandemonium in that great hall as the pillars shook and centuries old wall paintings cracked and gunfire cut through the deep rumblings like knives. 

The four remaining Gurkhas, including Havildar Benny Fish rushed to cover on either side of the hall, kukris in hand, eyes gleaming with thoughts of revenge. To attempt a frontal attack on the circle of guards, four men against ten, would not be wise, especially with two enemy rifles covering the floor. They would flank them instead. There was no predetermined plan. Hard fighting along the frontier had made such tactics automatic, and Lieutenant Baker saw at once what needed doing. 

Chandra Singh flung himself down into a prone position behind the bodies of the two freshly dead monks that had guarded himself and Baker, and took aim on the gun wielding men guarding the Lama. Baker did the same, cocking his Webley and firing, providing cover for the Gurkhas. 

“This whole damned mountain will be coming down around our ears if we are not getting the hell out of here!” yelled Zukharov to the Lieutenant, as he hefted another dead monk as a human shield, emptying his remaining Derringer fruitlessly in the general direction of the monks. Fitzroy’s pith helmet poked incongruously above the red robes, and promptly had a hole put into it by a well-placed shot.

Braxton struggled with his bonds on the floor as it rumbled beneath him and bullets whistled above him, and he heard two cries echo out as each rifle-wielding monk met their fate. 

He heard the war cry of his Gurkhas and the sound of close combat ring around him as a familiar face filled his field of vision, and he felt his bonds being cut.

“Time to make good on my oath, eh old boy?”

“Baker!”

“No time for that, chap. This belongs to you, I believe?” Byron presented Braxton’s saber to him in a mock serious fashion.

“I believe it does.”

“Sir, permission to kill these self-righteous bastards?”

“Granted, Lieutenant.”

“Righto, sir. With gusto, sir. At once, sir.”

As Braxton leapt to his feet, Baker drew his own sword and fired off a hasty shot into the gut of one masked bodyguard who moved towards the two Englishmen. 

The English Captain moved purposefully into the fray, as his Gurkhas made deadly use of their kukris and Baker popped off another shot into the circle of bodyguards. One moved to intercept Fitzroy, and the Englishman rushed towards him, ducking under his swinging blade and standing up to grab a fistful of the monk’s robe. He pulled him forward and shoved his saber into the man’s belly, and felt the blood soak the robes he clenched in his fist. 

He kicked the dead man from his blade, and parried a blow from the left, jumping above a low swing and bringing his sword down in a savage arc through the red robes and past a monk’s collarbone. Another monk closed from the right and Fitzroy met him with steel, parrying left and right, moving into his guard, forgoing subtlety in his cold rage, driving a left hook into the man’s jaw, propelling one hobnailed boot into his groin and dropping one elbow onto his bowed neck. The monk dropped, and Fitzroy brought the heel of his boot down on the man’s throat. He twitched once before he stopped moving.  

He could see the Lama now through the whirl of fighting, clicking his prayer beads with a fevered intensity, his eyes closed, his lips mouthing prayers as the number of his bodyguards dwindled quickly.

Braxton walked to him, death in his eyes and his step quickened to a run. Before he could reach him though, something slammed into his chest, knocking the wind from his lungs and reminding him of every wound that had yet to heal.

A monk wearing a terrible devil’s head mask had kicked him to the ground, and Fitzroy found himself in the unenviable position of being flat on his back once more. His saber had flown from his hand at the impact, skittering away through the fighting. The huge man raised his bloody sword for a killing stroke when a compact form flew through the air, crashing into the monk with a bloodcurdling cry. It was Benny Fish! The Gurkha wrenched his kukri across the monk’s throat, screaming into the dead man’s mask as the life spilled from his body.

“AYO GORKHALI!”

The Gurkha havildar scrambled from the monk and helped Fitzroy to his feet as the walls cracked terribly. A pillar began to wobble, and toppled tremendously in the hall, sending a shower of dust and stone down upon the heads of all the men there. 

Monks began to trickle back, finding the lower levels beyond saving; they sought the guidance of the man who had taught them salvation lay with his words and his plan. What were they without their Lama? What they saw horrified them. Their captives were closing on their leader. They rushed into the fray as the ceiling began to drop down around their ears, tremendous blocks of stone and woodwork crashed to the floor, blocking many of the entrances and exits to the main hall.

Zukharov rushed forward to the fighting, his Derringers spent long ago, brandishing a monk’s sword. Fitzroy’s khaki dyed pith helmet rocking unsteadily on his head. His monocle dangled from it’s chain around his neck and his entire person was an image of absurdity far removed from the usual suavity he presented to the world.  

“Now would be a good time to be running, my old friend!”

“Not yet, Zukharov! He still stands.”

“You are going to get us all killed, you stubborn English fool! This mountain is coming down around our ears!”

“You promised a diversion, not that this entire mountain would collapse!”

“Then I miscalculated! This place is older than the hills, and honeycombed with passages! The lower levels must have collapsed. It is all coming down!”

Fitzroy looked about the surreal scene and saw one more of his Gurkhas fall to a monk’s blade as more stumbled back into the main hall. Byron had waded into the fray, laying about with his own sword, and Chandra Singh used his Martini-Henry like a club, fending off three monks at the same time. The Lama had been backing away all the while towards a statue of the Buddha at the rear of the hall, clicking his prayer beads and speaking prayers. His dark eyes were wide at what went on as his monastery crumbled about him. 

Baker dispatched the monk he was fighting, and turned towards the Lama, rushing at him with a furious cry. Something curious happened then, and it went nearly unnoticed in the surrounding chaos. The Lama gestured with his free hand, and Baker flew backwards, knocking into a pillar that shook dangerously. A chunk of masonry fell then, cutting off Fitzroy from the Lama and the rear of the hall.

“Baker!” Fitzroy rushed to his friend, helping him to his feet.

“We must go!”

“What the hell did he just do to me?”

“There’s no time, we’ll find out later!”

Braxton stood, and caught the eyes of his remaining men.

“We must cut our way out of here! We haven’t a moment to lose!”

They all began then to do just that, stumbling over falling stones and fighting their way through thin crowds of bewildered monks as they rushed towards the front of the hall, the large wooden doors there and salvation beyond. 

A loud grinding rumble shook the floor at their feet as they ran, and another large pillar fell to the floor, snapping into pieces, as one more Gurkha fell then at his Havildar’s side, crushed beneath a huge block of stone.

“Go!” the doomed man croaked beneath the weight, and Benny Fish saluted his soldier, his eyes tight as the now four remaining escapees rushed through the mayhem.

The doors loomed larger, and larger and larger still and all of them could nearly taste the cold air beyond as the last scattered groups of confused monks gave way. They all slammed into the huge wooden doors at nearly the same time, hoping beyond hope that a great heave would be all that was needed to break out to the beyond. The door barely budged. It was held shut through years of disuse and the sticky accretion of grease given off by the butter lamps that seemed to cover everything. 

“Damn it all!” cried Baker, “now what?”

Chandra Singh cried out and pushed Baker away as another pillar began to topple towards them. Providentially enough, it crashed into the doors, the top of the pillar blasting a hole in the wood. A rush of cold air flew into the hall, bringing with it the promise of escape. It leaned at an angle, but one not steep enough that they couldn’t make their way up the incline. Zukharov went first, pushing the others out of the way and disappearing up, over through the hole in the door. 

Benny Fish then ordered his remaining sepoy, Kulbir Thapa, up the pillar to escape beyond. Fitzroy grabbed Benny Fish, pushing him to the pillar, overriding his objections with a stern face and a barked order.

“Up, Benny Fish! Go!”

Baker then grabbed Fitzroy by the arm.

“You next old man. Get out of here! You’ve done quite enough. We’ll come back with a whole regiment and finish the job. That damned Lama can’t do anything more now.”
“What happened to a ‘kick in the balls and a bullet in the gut’ for every man here?”

“I can wait, old man.” Baker grinned, and winced, clutching his side. 

“You’re wounded, go, Baker, go! That’s an order.”

“We’re all wounded, old man,” protested the Lieutenant, but he climbed up and out regardless.

Braxton looked quickly behind him as the roof began to collapse in earnest. Monks fluttered through the destruction, crying out in despair and fear as their very home swallowed them up. He channeled every swift footed bazaar footpad he had ever seen as he half climbed, half ran up the pillar, flinging himself out and over the crack in the thick wooden door to a hard fall below.

*~*~*

The Daedalus Expedition, March 29th, 1897 - A Suitable Distraction

Zukharov made his way through the silent and empty halls at a jog. Time truly was short. In one hand he held the key to what would prove to be either their doom or their salvation. It was not encrusted with jewels, or special in any way. One of it’s kind could be gotten from nearly anywhere in the world for a pittance. This particular specimen had seen better days, so long had it been squashed in the pocket of the Russian’s coat. It was a matchbook, and Zukharov was about to put it’s contents to good use.

In the other hand he held a small keg. Within it was something rarely found this high in the Himalayas. The Lama had sought to use it to bring death to his enemies. Zukharov was about to see it brought death only to the Lama’s own men.

When he at last reached the long workroom where monks had previously toiled at work, crafting rifles and casting bullets, he found it empty and eerily silent. He made his way to the rear storage, to the stacked barrels powder stored there. 

He swiftly pulled the cork plug from his own keg, and carefully began to tip it’s contents in a pool at the foot of the barrels. It was more powder. He backed carefully, slowly from the room, making sure the trail was not too thick or too thin. He didn’t wish for it to burn too quickly, or to be interrupted by any ill placed crack in the floor. 

His plan was ridiculously simple. It had worked for him once in China and he prayed that it would work again. He had stopped being subtle weeks ago when he finally realized he was beast in a gilded cage in this place, with few options and little hope. What was needed was a blunt action, something to disrupt proceedings and offer suitable confusion and destruction to make an escape. An explosion would do that nicely. An explosion created by a roomful of powder, bullets and rifles would do that even better.

He wended his way from the room, back out into the hall and down it until the powder from his keg gave out.

He knelt at the termination of the trail, opened his last packet of matches, struck one against the bottom of his boot, took a deep breath and lit the trail. It sizzled off into the gloom of the hall and into the armory. 

Zukharov ran.

*~*~*  

Another Gurkha knelt where Gaje had, his knees wet with the pooled blood of his comrade. The chanting continued, rising higher and higher as the executioner monk again waved his sword in ritual arcs, droning a prayer. 

The monk raised the sword as the sepoy held the gaze of his Captain.

“Jai mahakali!” cried the Gurkha. 

The sword descended.

“Ayo gorkhakali!” called the remaining Gurkhas, as they finished the battle cry of their people.

  Lieutenant Baker bucked against his captor, letting loose an inarticulate growl of rage, frustration, and a stream of incomprehensible invectives. 

“You bloody insane red robed goat buggers, you’ll not survive the year when news of this reaches India! You’ll be blasted from these damned mountains by bigger things than rifles, and if I can’t give you all a bullet in the guts and a kick in the balls, you can bet your arses that the men who follow will!”

Fitzroy said nothing. He gave nothing away. He never did. He had made his career on a being able to make himself as cold as stone. He had faced death too often to let that stone warm now. Men under his command had died before. He never forgot their faces. To be made to stare them in the eye now though as they were ritually executed, that was growing to be too much. But to give in now would mean letting the Lama win. He was not about to let that happen. He and his men had one chance, but that chance grew less with every second that passed…until a rumble began to grow deep within the belly of the monastery.

*~*~*

Zukharov stumbled up the long, steep stairs that led to the main hall of the monastery, his coat stuffed with recovered arms. The prisoner’s effects had been left unguarded. He was sure to take all that he could carry. They would need it. 

Fitzroy’s pith helmet rocked unsteadily on his head. He thought the Englishman looked less without it somehow. Two swords, six kukris, two Webley revolvers, one Mauser, and two Martini-Henry rifles, one slung over each shoulder, jostled with every step as he rushed to the only men who might help him escape this place. He nearly pitched over the frail wooden bannister separating him from a deadly drop when the latest explosion rocked the stones of the structure. 

‘I suppose I hauled more powder up through these mountains than I thought.’

Another explosion knocked him forward, up the stairs.

‘Perhaps too much.’

The ceiling rained dust and chips of stone upon his head. He knew this place to be old. Just how old, he did not know. He just hoped that it did not disintegrate before he had a chance to watch the spectacle, preferably at a safe distance. 

A monk appeared at the doorway at the top of the stairs. He looked confused for a moment as he watched the Russian arms dealer struggle up the stairs with his preposterous load. The moment of confusion was all Zukharov needed as he shook a Derringer from his sleeve, took aim, and fired. The monk fell back through the doorway, and Zukharov scrambled over his quickly cooling corpse to the hall beyond. Chants reverberated from the nearby main hall. They were nearly as loudly as the roaring explosions that were quickly claiming the lower levels of the monastery. 

‘Well, it’s now or never Zukharov. Save the English, save your own damned hide. I never thought I’d live to see the day…’

*~*~*

The booms that reverberated through the hall were now beyond ignoring. Dust began to pour from the ceiling, and one of the wall paintings suddenly developed an alarming crack. Some of the monks halted their chanting, looking to their Lama for guidance. 

“Go, go, seek the cause of this and stop it! I shall finish the work we have started…”

Monks began to pour out of the hall, and the air was alive with nervous voices, the flutter of red robes and the ominous rumbling of stone. The Lama’s ritually masked bodyguards stayed where they were along either wall, the monks guarding the six remaining prisoners kept their charges firmly in hand, and the executioner kept a tight grip on his bloody sword.  

The Lama fixed his gaze on Fitzroy in the midst of the confusion and he closed with the Englishman, his robes fluttering like the feathers of a vulture.

“What is this? What have you done, English?!”

Captain Braxton Fitzroy, Political Officer of HM’s Indian Army, on indefinite leave of absence from the 3rd Sikhs of the Punjab Frontier Force, on extended loan to Indian Intelligence at Simla and the Foreign Office in London, at last broke his cold countenance. He smiled at the Lama. It was a smile without charm and without warmth. It promised one thing. It promised death. 

“I’ve just ended you.”

A strange figure stumbled unnoticed through one of many doorways to the main hall, pushing his way into the confusion, past the monks who had been sent off on a futile quest to stop what he had started. Rifles dangled from his shoulders and curved knives from his belt. He cast about through the sea of shaved and tattooed heads that bobbed before him, looking for the bodyguards of the Lama, the Lama himself and the men he came here to save. None took notice of him in the confusion. He continued his way through the crowd, making his way to the line of four remaining Gurkhas, one Sikh pundit and an English Lieutenant, and shook another Derringer loose from his other sleeve. He calmly made his way behind the monks guarding Lieutenant Baker and the Pundit Chandra Singh, placed the barrels of either gun behind the heads of either monk and pulled the triggers. 

Captain Braxton Fitzroy

Captain Braxton Fitzroy

The Daedalus Expedition, March 29th, 1897 - The Beginning of the End

A hotel room in Istanbul, 1884

  “I enjoy this arrangement we have,” said the countess to the solider, as they lay tangled among the sheets. “It is one simple thing in our vagabond lives.”

  He said nothing, the twist of his lips suggesting a smile as he trailed figure eights down the bare, warm skin of her stomach, further and further down.

She gasped when his fingers reached their destination, and she laughed into the pillows.

“Again? You are cruel to me.” 

“Very cruel,” he whispered into her ear. 

She looked into his eyes with a smile before she closed her own and bit her lip. The soldier kissed her there, and on her eyelids, and on her forehead, and on her cheeks, and down her long neck, slowly, softly, and with every kiss came a word…

“So very, very cruel…”

She moved onto him, moving her hips onto his knowing hand and her lips to his knowing mouth, as he held her and touched her, coaxing her higher and higher, whispering words in her ear that made her safe and made her his for that time in that place. With his left hand on her heart and his right hand between her thighs, she let herself go, as he brought her to her full again and again, a soft, warm and liquid yielding to pleasures only he could bring, he, her soldier, as her eyes filled with stars and there was nothing but his words, his hands, his lips, his hips, moving into her, over her, through her, again and again and again guiding her to every secret ecstasy and every long awaited release…

When they had stopped, she laid her head on his chest to listen to the beat of his heart and fell asleep to that sound in the arms of the one man who she could never truly have, her elusive constant, her soldier. 

*~*~*

“You are still a mystery.”

“Your entire sex is a mystery, Countess.”

“Oh, we both know that you understand us better than you let on.”

“Years of close observation.”

“I can only imagine.”

“I’m sure you can. You have quite the imagination.”

“In my imaginings I think of you, sometimes.”

“In the carriage rides between the opera and the theatre and all your wonderful old dukes and politicians.”

“You can’t possibly disapprove now.” She frowned.

“You know I never have. We all do what we must.” He contemplated the glow of her cheek in the candlelight as she spoke again.

“I wonder about your ‘close observations’ sometimes, and all your mysterious travels…” She trailed off, playing with the hair on his chest, trying to gather her words.

“Oh?”

“You have been everywhere. Whenever we meet there are Persian slippers or Chinese silks, sweets from Bokhara…and you can never talk about your work. It sounds silly, but your life is still so exotic to me, even after all this time. And I wonder…

“What do you wonder?”

She breathed an embarrassed laugh onto his chest, and Braxton smiled warmly at her, the show of vulnerability sparking a swell of affection. For the rest of the world she was the Countess de Rola, formidable, independent, an adventuress. But for him, she was no idealized thing. She was better. She was simply a woman. 

 “This is silly…”

“Go on. I want you to tell me.”

She laughed again, and began to speak.

“I…I wonder if you have ever loved princesses…or temple dancers…or if you have loved under the stars, or somewhere with the scent of blooming jasmine…or if you have loved in a tent, or in the jungle.”

He said nothing, gazing into her eyes.

“…I wonder if they are beautiful, and about the color of their skin…and I wonder how they touch you, and what they whisper to you in moments like this…and I wonder what you say in return, and if you say anything at all…In my mind, you never do.”

“Say something, just this once, Braxton. Tell me a lie if you must. Just this once. Just this once. Tell me lies…say something…”

*~*~*

“Well? Say something! Tell him lies before his life is ended. Tell him all will be well. Comfort your dog, Englishman. It is the least you can do for one of your slaves before he dies!” shrieked the mad Lama. His cries echoed throughout the long, cavernous columned hall where all had been gathered. 

Monks stood along either wall in silence. The walls glowed menacingly in the flickering glow of hundreds of rancid butter lamps. The ancient paintings on them had been defaced by the accretion of grease born from long years and more recent, stranger things…Harsh symbols scarred the centuries old paintings of Buddhas, saints and demons, the same symbols that had been inked onto the flesh of the monks of the monastery.

Braxton clenched his jaw and looked straight into the eyes of Gaje Ghale, the Gurkha who knelt before him. The two monks who had forced the man to the ground were impassive as he struggled in their grasp. Fitzroy could do nothing. He was himself restrained by two more monks. The remaining survivors of the expedition were held off at a distance, and looked on tensely. 

“Do not worry for me, Captain sahib!” Gaje spat in the face of one of the monks who held him and received a slap in return. The Gurkha smiled through a cracked lip and held the gaze of his Captain, the man who had led him here to this fate. 

“I am not afraid. If I die, I go to join Sahi and all my other comrades. I will live on!”

At a signal from the Lama, a hideously masked monk from the circle of onlookers stepped forward, raising a sword from the depths of his robes and began to intone a chant, one that was taken up by the monks surrounding them. Twin horns sounded somewhere from the depths of the hall, whining through the still air like wounded beasts, as ritual cymbals clashed. The sound was otherworldly.

The executioner monk stepped forward to the prostrate Gurkha as the Lama circled Fitzroy like a bird of prey.

 “You have nothing to say, English? No words? You English are usually so filled with words…with words you claim men and land, and seek to supplant high truths with base lies. I will take the words from your mouths and with your heads mounted on spikes, you shall be flown before my monks like banners as they spill over these mountains and over your armies.”

“You’ve twisted your own religion to serve your own madness, Lama,” said Fitzroy.

“No, I am saving my religion! I am saving us all.” 

The monk raised his sword, spinning it in ritual arcs, and Braxton knew that time grew short. He had to buy Zukharov as many minutes as he possibly could. He had to save his men. He kept talking.

“How? How does murder equal salvation?”

The Lama smiled beneficently as the sword continued to whirl, and began to tell his tale…

“I have foreseen what your kind would do…I have seen it all. For ten years, English, did I immure myself in silence in the deepest depths of this forgotten place. For ten years did I give myself to prayer and meditations in utter solitude, thinking thoughts of peace, thoughts of harmony, seeking, seeking, seeking enlightenment, an end, oneness with all…Ten years of utter solitude. Ten years. But what is ten years?” 

The twin horns blared once again as the chanting of the monks rose and fell and the Lama’s tale continued on…  

 “It is nothing, English. It is a succession of present moments. Time has no meaning but what we give it. And when my soul knew this as truth and not merely as doctrine, when the days and nights and moments ceased to hold meaning, I saw beyond it all.”

“The future. The past. Every life. Every death. Oneness. I saw and felt and knew, English. How can I explain such things to a heathen? I cannot. Language is a poor thing to express truths. It can only hint, intimate. It cannot lay bare before your eyes an infinity of experiences. It cannot lay bare the sorrow at the heart of all.”

“For above all, English, above all in the things I saw…above all was suffering. So much pain. So much sorrow. So much death. And this world, English? The bones of the world will bleed. They bleed now, but little. Soon, though, soon…”

“Men will butcher one another on a scale grander than has been seen in in thousands of years over trifles. And one butchery will lead to another, and another. Reprisal sparks reprisal again and again in the history of man that is yet to be written. I have seen it all. And I will end it all.”

“And how will you do this? How?” asked Braxton, the slightest hint of desperation creeping into his words as he watched the executioner’s sword spin.

“I will murder the world so that it might be saved. I will end humanity. I will end suffering. I will break the wheel. I will end it all it so that all might begin anew.”

“That is insanity. You can’t possibly carry this out. You would send, what? Two hundred of your monks against the whole world? You’ll be stopped the minute you set foot into India, rifles or not. If you truly gained any wisdom you’d know that.”

“My monks have more than rifles to aid them, fool English. They have faith. And faith is more powerful than any rifle.”

The Lama gestured sharply to the executioner spinning the sword. The blade cut true.

            

An artist’s representation of the Monastery as is reported to have appeared based on the scant first hand evidence gathered by the three surviving members of The Daedalus Expedition.  

An artist’s representation of the Monastery as is reported to have appeared based on the scant first hand evidence gathered by the three surviving members of The Daedalus Expedition.  

This is reputed to be a photograph of the mysterious Countess de Rola, taken at a masquerade ball somewhere in London, dated 1876. It was found among the remaining effects of Captain Braxton Fitzroy kept in a strongbox in a forgotten corner of the India Office Archives shortly before the Blitz.
The exact nature of the relationship between Captain Fitzroy and the Countess has been a source of intense speculation among the few scholars acquainted with his personal history. The validity of her noble title, her exact nationality, her age, are all open to question. It is known that she was one of the very few female correspondents Fitzroy kept throughout his life. Few letters have survived of the many that likely passed between them. Most have disappeared. The ones that remain pose more questions than answers. 

This is reputed to be a photograph of the mysterious Countess de Rola, taken at a masquerade ball somewhere in London, dated 1876. It was found among the remaining effects of Captain Braxton Fitzroy kept in a strongbox in a forgotten corner of the India Office Archives shortly before the Blitz.

The exact nature of the relationship between Captain Fitzroy and the Countess has been a source of intense speculation among the few scholars acquainted with his personal history. The validity of her noble title, her exact nationality, her age, are all open to question. It is known that she was one of the very few female correspondents Fitzroy kept throughout his life. Few letters have survived of the many that likely passed between them. Most have disappeared. The ones that remain pose more questions than answers. 

Captain Fitzroy on “shooting leave”, somewhere on the Northwest Frontier between Afghanistan and India, circa late 1880’s. 

Captain Fitzroy on “shooting leave”, somewhere on the Northwest Frontier between Afghanistan and India, circa late 1880’s.