Title: Dorje Drak
Written for Scrapbook's Halloween Challenge 2013
The sun slipped behind white-capped Chomolungma, highest of the Himalayas, Goddess Mother of the World, casting the frozen landscape into shadow. A few flakes of snow had begun to fall, swirling and tumbling in the bitter wind. In the distance, Illya could see vultures circling over the ravine where he and Napoleon had stood a few hours earlier, the ravine where Chow Fat and his team of THRUSH assassins now lay dead.
Better them than us, he thought without remorse. He leaned over, clutching his sides and trying without much success to catch his breath. The air is perilously thin up here, he realized. The sooner we get down off this mountain, the better.
Napoleon sank to the ground beside him, sucking in huge gulps of air, every muscle in his body protesting the effort it took just to breathe. His lungs felt like they were on fire, a condition he found ironic considering the plummeting temperature. He wished his head would stop pounding. “How much further to the border?” he gasped.
Illya turned in a circle, surveying the forbidding terrain. He pointed to the mountain. “That is Everest, there to the southeast, so we are somewhere on the south face of Shisha Pangma. However, it is impossible to know our precise location without a compass and our regional maps, and they are at the bottom of the ravine, along with three dead THRUSHbirds and – unfortunately – the bulk of our survival gear.”
“So, nothing we can't handle.”
Illya managed a tight smile.
Napoleon sighed as the bleak reality of their situation hit home. How could things have gone so wrong? The mission was a complete botch – Chow Fat's men had spotted them even before they left Katmandu. Waverly would be furious when he heard the embarrassing details – that is, assuming they survived to tell him. Their supplies, including their communicators, sleeping bags and the all-important thermal shelter, were lost in the ensuing gun battle. Fate had not been kind.
At least we're not the ones lying dead at the bottom of the ravine, he reminded himself. The thought cheered him.
Illya glanced at the sky. “The front is moving in. We need to find shelter before the storm breaks.”
“We could cut directly across the mountain,” Napoleon suggested. “The distance to the border would be considerably shorter.”
“Without climbing gear? In case you have forgotten, ours is at the bottom of the ravine.”
“We'll have to manage without it. Besides, we're too visible on the road. The Red Chinese Army patrols the area, and you know what they think of interlopers.”
After a moment, Illya nodded his assent.
They moved off, slipping and sliding their way down the mountain, thankful for the crampons on their climbing boots. Their sharp eyes searched the surrounding area for signs of human habitation, a village, a farm, a cave – any structure they could use as a shelter – but there was nothing. What little light remained was quickly fading to a dull gray gloom. The wind whipped and moaned around them, knives of frigid air slicing through the thick down of their parkas, penetrating to the bone.
Napoleon's teeth began to chatter. His hands and feet were numb with cold. “'Frosty enough to freeze the balls off a b-brass monkey,' as my f-father used to say.”
Illya snorted. “If you think this is cold, you should try living through a winter in Stalingrad.”
The last glimmer of daylight disappeared behind the mountains. Night fell, instantaneous, pitch black and impenetrable. Illya switched on their single flashlight, and swore as the light bloomed and faded. “Chyort! The batteries must be old.” He shook it several times and, to his relief, it resumed its dim and wavering glow.
They slowed to a walk. It was more vital than ever to keep their footing. In the darkness, a single misstep could prove fatal, sending them over a cliff to their deaths, or into one of the countless crevasses waiting to swallow them up. The temperature continued to drop.
“I don't suppose you b-brought another flashlight?” Napoleon shivered.
“Several. Unfortunately, they, like the bulk of our supplies, are –”
“– at the bottom of the ravine, I know.” He sighed. “I'd settle for a n-nice, roaring fire right about now.”
“Find a tree in this godforsaken wilderness, and I will build you a bonfire,” Illya replied with ill-concealed frustration. “Not even lichen grows at this altitude.” His gaze sharpened. “You do not look well, Napoleon.”
“Nothing a hot sh-shower wouldn't c-cure.”
“Drink some water, at least.” Illya held out his canteen.
“Drink it. You don't want to get dehydrated.”
Napoleon obediently drank. When he was satisfied, Illya replaced the cap, and they walked on. Another mile. Two. The moon rose over the eastern mountains, pale and cold, washing the landscape in an eerie blue brilliance. The snow crunched beneath their boots.
“At least now we can see where we're going,” Illya said.
Napoleon did not reply. His breathing was becoming labored, and he had started to cough, dry wheezing sounds that spoke of overworked lungs and constricted airways. His eyes were unfocused, bloodshot, his cheeks unnaturally pale.
Illya had been monitoring his own symptoms with growing concern for the past hour. He knew it was essential to rest, and yet they could not afford the luxury of stopping, not with their equipment gone and the temperature dropping into single digits. To stop was to die.
“Just a bit further,” he coaxed. “We are nearly there.”
Napoleon stared without comprehension. “Save th' good china, Mother...” He stumbled once, twice. Illya caught him as he fell.
The senior agent blinked dazedly. “S'mbody stole th' Delorean, t'varich,” he slurred. “Guess we'll have t' walk t' HQ...” He doubled over, retching and heaving into the snow.
Napoleon's pulse was racing. His face was badly swollen, and he had begun to bleed from the nose – all classic signs of altitude sickness. They had to find a way down the mountain, now.
Summoning what little strength remained, Illya lifted Napoleon onto his shoulders in a fireman's carry and set off, skidding down the slope at a breakneck pace. His oxygen-starved muscles burned with pain; spots danced before his eyes as his lungs struggled to function. His vision blurred. He fought to stay conscious, knowing that time was of the essence.
He never saw the burrow, or the fat rodent that inhabited it.
His foot plunged into the hole, and twisted inward on itself. Something snapped, and he cried out in pain. Suddenly he was falling, tumbling head over heels down the mountain, with Napoleon flopping like a rag doll at his side. Illya relaxed his body instinctively, doing his best to roll with the energy of the fall, but it was no use. Rocks and snow and flailing limbs jumbled wildly in his vision, mingling with moon and sky, mountains and stars. Abruptly, his head struck the corner of a rock ledge, and the world went dark.
When he regained consciousness, it was snowing. They had landed in a snowdrift at the edge of a crevasse and, by an incredible stretch of luck, had narrowly missed going over the edge. Illya's head throbbed and bled; his ankle was swollen to double its normal size. He knew it was probably broken. Beside him, Napoleon sprawled, unmoving, the sound of his breath little more than a shallow, rasping susurration. Snow fell gently upon his pale face.
Through the haze of his pain, he saw a huge, hulking shape looming toward them out of the darkness. He caught a blurred glimpse of shining black eyes and pale, luminescent fur as the creature bent down, lifting him in its hairy arms. He struggled, but to no avail; its grip was firm and solid.
Should have worn my yeti costume....
It was his last thought before the darkness took him a second time.
Illya woke. He felt warm, blissfully warm, and clean, as though his entire body had been soaked in hot water, and scrubbed until his skin was as pink and soft as a baby's.
Naked, he thought dreamily. I am naked. In a bed, a real bed with clean sheets. He inhaled the soft scent of juniper. It was like being wrapped in bunting, swaddled and safe forever. Reluctantly, he opened his eyes.
The room was large, with walls of rough hewn black rock; it appeared to have been carved directly into the face of the mountain. A massive statue of the Buddha dominated an ornate central altar, surrounded by colorful tapestries and murals depicting fierce mountain deities. A pair of carved jade snow lions guarded the entrance to the sanctuary, spiritual protection against intrusion from the outside world.
A Buddhist monastery.
He inhaled, and found that he could breathe again without stabbing pain. He took another breath, and another. Life-giving oxygen flooded his veins, rendering him almost drunk with its abundance.
Illya threw aside the covers and sat up. Once the initial dizziness had passed, he stretched his muscles, and was pleasantly surprised at how little pain he felt. His ankle had been bandaged; he turned it experimentally, this way and that. The joint moved freely, without discomfort. He inspected his chest and arms for bruises sustained in the fall down the mountain, but found none. Stranger and stranger.
Napoleon lay on an adjacent pallet, fast asleep under a blanket of thick white yak fur. His cheeks were pink, his breathing deep and reassuringly regular. A monk in a saffron-colored robe bent over him, applying some sort of salve to his hands.
The monk turned, smiling. “Ah, you're awake. Welcome to Dorje Drak Monastery. I am Tenzin, the rimpoche of this gompa.”
Illya blinked in surprise. “You speak English.”
“And you speak Russian, Mr. Kuryakin.”
His gaze sharpened. “How –?”
“You talk in your sleep.”
He wasn't sure which shocked him more – that here in the remote mountains of Tibet, they had been rescued by a Buddhist monk who spoke perfect English, or that he had, counter to all his years of training, talked in his sleep. “How is Napoleon?”
“Your friend was ill with climbing sickness,” the rimpoche smiled. “He is better now.”
Illya felt the tension in his muscles ease. “So it was your people who found us in the snow? Not a –?”
“– yeti? No,” the rimpoche's smile never dimmed. “You were hallucinating when the search party brought you in, and you had a concussion as well. Fortunately, your ankle was only sprained. I've applied a bandage, so you should be able to walk on it in a day or so. Good news, as I'm sure you're anxious to leave as soon as possible.” He pressed a bowl of steaming liquid into Illya's hands. “Yak butter tea. Please, nourish yourself.”
The aroma was not at all appealing, but Illya accepted the bowl with due courtesy. He took a tentative sip of the salty brew, but then his stomach rumbled, signaling its hunger. He drained the bowl, and accepted a second helping with murmured thanks.
Hunger satisfied for the moment, Illya examined his surroundings. They seemed to be in a central hall, from which corridors extended outward in all directions. Gorgeous tapestries depicting a dazzling array of local deities graced the walls, and a thick layer of carpets covered the ancient stone floor. A yak dung fire at the center of the room gave off a pleasant warmth. Butter lamps sizzled and spat in their alcoves, twisting the shadows into other-worldly shapes.
At the rear of the gompa, a group of monks prostrated themselves before a statue of the Maitreya Buddha, presenting the seven traditional offerings – three bowls of water, one of flowers, one of incense, one of herbs and one of yak butter. “Om mani padme hum,” they chanted. Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus.
A gong sounded. At the signal, the monks seated themselves upon rows of cushions. Fingering prayer beads of carnelian and precious amber, they began a series of mantras, chanting the one-hundred-thousand obeisances to The Compassionate Buddha.
The warmth, and the endless droning made Illya drowsy again. He rubbed his eyes, fighting the urge to sleep, but his body's needs were not to be denied. His eyelids grew heavy; he stifled a yawn.
The rimpoche watched him with intelligent, almond-hued eyes. He smiled. “Rest.”
Illya's eyes drifted shut.
When he woke again, Napoleon was sitting beside the fire, deep in conversation with the rimpoche. He appeared relaxed and alert, the very picture of health, with none of the awful pallor of the previous evening.
“About time you woke up, tovarisch!” the senior agent said. “The rimpoche here – he's sort of like the head abbot, I guess – has been explaining how we came to be at his monastery.”
“Ah.” Illya instantly recognized his partner's casual chatter for what it was – a diversion, to give them time to evaluate their host and his motives. “Yes. It was fortunate his men found us when they did.”
“I'll say. He claims you were babbling something about being captured by a yeti?”
Illya managed to look embarrassed. “Did he also mention that you tried to save your Mother's best china, or that you thought someone had stolen the DeLorean?”
Napoleon grinned sheepishly. “I guess we were both pretty far gone last night.” He turned to Tenzin. “We're very grateful for your help.”
The rimpoche folded his hands, waiting.
“Quite a coincidence, your people finding us out there in the middle of that storm. It's an awfully big mountain.”
Tenzin smiled. “'Returning to the source of Being, all things are known.'”
Illya recognized the quote. “Lao Tzu, isn't it?”
The abbot cocked his head. “Not many Westerners would recognize a passage from the Tao Te Ching. Have you studied the work?”
“I read it many years ago, at University.” He paused to pour himself another cup of butter tea. “I am curious –”
“Curiosity? How fortunate.”
Illya took a sip of the steaming brew. “The Red Chinese destroyed many of the old monasteries after the invasion of 1949. Many monks were killed. How is it that this gompa has managed to survive the purge?”
Tenzin smiled. “In any given moment, all things are possible.”
Lao Tzu again. “In theory, perhaps. However, I have found that, in life, some things are more possible than others. A flower cannot bloom if it has not first formed a bud.”
“A scholar and a philosopher?” Tenzin remarked cheerfully. “How refreshing. Tell me, Mr. Kuryakin, do you have the patience to wait until the mud settles, and the water is clear?”
More riddles. Illya sighed. “As my friend will tell you, I am not a patient man. I would not wait for the mud to settle – I would filter the mud from the water.”
Tenzin smiled. “Westerners are always in such a hurry.” He fingered the prayer beads at his waist. “There are many paths to the Truth. Who is to say whether one is better than another?”
Napoleon's head was swimming. “Not to be rude,” he interjected in an attempt to redirect the conversation, “but Illya makes a good point. How have your people managed to stay hidden all these years? With the Chinese government patrolling these mountains from the air, surely –”
“These are unimportant matters,” Tenzin laughed. “Do not trouble yourself.” He stood, smoothing his robe. “And now if you gentlemen will excuse me, it is time for evening meditation. We will talk again before you leave.”
Illya and Napoleon watched the abbot depart.
“Evasive, isn't he?” Napoleon remarked thoughtfully. “And he seems awfully anxious for us to leave.”
“Perhaps we interfere with his serenity. On the other hand, he could be hiding something.”
Illya shrugged. “Something he does not want discovered. A smuggling operation, for instance. The market for illicit antiquities is quite active in this part of the world.”
“Tenzin, a smuggler?” Napoleon laughed. “Sorry, Illya, but I don't see it. His answers may have been vague, but I don't sense evil in this place. Quite the opposite, in fact. It feels peaceful, serene. Light. No, Tenzin's people saved us on the mountain last night, and he's been a gracious host. Whatever his secrets may be, I don't believe he intends us harm.”
When they rose the following morning, they found their clothes and belongings neatly piled beside their pallets.
“Not in too much of a hurry to see us off, is he?” Illya observed drily.
They breakfasted with Tenzin, bowls of gruel-like tsampa and cups of the ubiquitous butter tea. The old monk was as courteous as ever. “When you are finished,” he said, “young Tashi here will take you down the goat trail to the village of Lonpo Gang.” He indicated a young man with wide brown eyes and a a ready smile. “From there, you can cross the border into Nepal unobserved.”
“Thank you for all you've done,” Napoleon said sincerely. “We owe our lives to you.”
“There is no debt upon your soul,” the rimpoche replied mildly. “In the end, life and death are but one thread, the same line viewed from different sides. Had you died upon the mountain, that death would not be oblivion, but merely the gateway to a different plane of existence.”
“Maybe so,” Napoleon replied with a chuckle, “but I believe I speak for both Illya and myself when I say that we're very grateful to be on this side of the aforementioned gateway.”
They gathered their belongings, and followed Tashi down the path to the trail head.
“It's been a strange chain of events,” Napoleon said as they set off down the mountain. “The botched mission, the ambush, the storm – each crisis pushing us toward Tenzin and his monastery. I swear, it's like the plot of a James Hilton novel.”
Illya scowled. “Pray, keep your dreams of Shangri La, Napoleon. I, too, have read Lost Horizon. Personally, I prefer a more solid version of reality.”
It was a bright, sunny morning. The storm was over, and they made good time. By noon, they had reached the outskirts of Lonpo Gang. Tashi bid them farewell at the crossroads, and began the long journey back to Dorje Drak.
As Illya and Napoleon debated which route to take to the border, a shepherd passed by, driving his sheep before him. He was an old man, very old indeed, with long black hair that wisped and curled about his head like a halo. His face was an ancient map of wrinkles, the memories of an entire lifetime carved into each exquisite rut and crevice. As he walked along, he sang, spinning his prayer wheel in his gnarled hands. Around him, the sheep milled and surged; it was a large, fat herd.
“Excuse me,” Illya said in what he hoped was a reasonable approximation of the local dialect. “We have come from Dorje Drak. How far to the border?”
The old man stared, slack-jawed. “Dorje Drak? Do you mean the monastery at the top of the mountain?”
“Yes. Dorje Drak. Rimpoche Tenzin is the abbot there.”
“Rimpoche...Tenzin, you say?”
Illya nodded. “His monks rescued us from the blizzard two nights ago.”
The shepherd's eyes grew large. “Strange things happen in those mountains,” he whispered. “No one goes up there anymore.”
“Strange things? What do you mean? I do not understand.”
But the old man turned aside, the prayer wheel wobbling unsteadily in his hands. “Go away!” he muttered. “Go away!”
Napoleon seized his partner's shoulder. “What's the matter?” he hissed urgently. “What did you say to make him so nervous?”
“Well, he's obviously frightened of something. See if you can find out what set him off.”
Illya nodded, and refocused his attention on the old man. “Please,” he asked gently, “is there something wrong at Dorje Drak? Are the monks in danger?”
“Danger?” The shepherd's hands stilled. His voice cracked. “Not anymore.”
“I don't – ?”
“Dorje Drak was destroyed nearly twenty years ago, burned to the ground by the Red Chinese Army.”
Illya thought that perhaps he had mistranslated. “You must be thinking of another gompa. We were at Dorje Drak just this morning.”
The old man shook his head. “Dorje Drak is gone. Gone forever.”
“But we were there. We saw the buildings, the tapestries and murals. The rugs on the floor. The gold Buddha. The jade lions in the entryway. We ate tsampa with the rimpoche; drank butter tea – ”
The old shepherd's eyes grew distant. “Ah, I remember those jade lions. I used to climb on them as a child, when no one was looking. My father was constantly scolding me for it.” A tear rolled down his ancient cheek. “I tell you, it is gone. There is nothing left standing up there. Not a wall, not a timber. Everything is gone.”
The words fell upon Illya's ears with shocking finality. “And the monks? Rimpoche Tenzin?”
“Executed. All gone.”
A wave of grief washed over him.
“You should not go back there,” the old shepherd warned as he gathered his sheep to him. “It is very bad luck.” He set his prayer wheel spinning once more. “Dorje Drak was a holy place once. Now it is filled with jungpo – ghosts.” He hurried off, driving his sheep before him.
“What was that all about?” Napoleon asked when the herd had passed them on the narrow trail. “What did the old man say to you?”
Illya shook his head. He stared back the way they had come, searching for signs of Dorje Drak, but the crown of the mountain was shrouded in mist.
“Another time,” he replied softly. “When the mud settles, and the water is clear.”
After a moment, Napoleon nodded. They stepped out of the shadow of the mountain, following the arc of the afternoon sun toward the Nepalese border, and home.