Imagine the usual disclaimers. With love for James Hilton and Rudyard Kipling.
Warning: I eat nonfiction, spit out fiction.
"In order that you may awaken to the supreme deliverance,
free from fear and grief,
turn your steps towards Knowledge!"
Dolma of the Universal Mother Tara, the female Buddha
After the end of the Galati affair, Methos was weary to his core, and the wish of his heart was to leave Paris. So he did. Without contacting Dawson or MacLeod, he closed up his apartment and arranged to have someone pick up the incriminating chronicles strewn all over his bedroom; he could get into serious trouble, leaving Watcher material unattended. After all this was dealt with, he locked his front door and walked away shouldering his old backpack. Just another student bumming his way across Europe.
That year, he was working on articles relating to Oriental languages. His duties at the University of Paris were negligible, because half his colleagues were Watchers; the faculties of ancient-language studies all over the world were riddled with busy Watchers. It was the feeblest disguise he had used for centuries, anyway. Typical of the Watchers, in Methos' opinion. Sometimes he wondered why every immortal didn't know about the Watchers.
The excuse he gave Watcher administration was simple. He was presently engaged in translating certain ancient Sanscrit documents. These related the deeds of a mythical Indian hero-king, who had been identified as a Methos identity; all he needed to say was that he had tracked down new references. The documents he needed to see were (naturally) as far away as possible.
And off Methos walked, bound for the ends of the earth. He knew just where he wanted to go. In an earlier age he would have taken ship to India and then made the pilgrim's trek up the Ganges river into the Himalayas - clad in rags, begging from a bowl. As he had done before, and perhaps would again. Or ridden the ancient Mongol highway, which ran all the way from Siberia to the Raj. Or found hire as a shepherd or a honey-hunter, and worked his way north from Nepal at leisure.
For the inhabitants of the land he sought were Buddhists so devout that they would not eat flesh, save that some foreigner slaughtered it for them; would not butcher their own flocks, but hired Nepalese to drive the sheep south to sell; would not so much as kill earthworms with a shovel. A land big as half Europe, yet so remote that until the 1950's, there had been no wheels save prayer wheels in it. The most backward nation on earth.
The country of Pod Yul, roof of the world.
The world changed. It had changed more in the past five hundred years than in three thousand years before that, and more in the past fifty years than in the whole previous five hundred. Methos traveled, now, by airplane. Flying through the skies! His flight went from Paris to Saudi Arabia, to Australia and then Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, he checked in at the organization's Asian headquarters.
He loitered around Hong Kong for a fortnight, while the necessary visas and permits and tickets were sent up from Shanghai. The Watcher organization straightened out his papers, put him up with colleagues while he waited, and then provided him with the means to smuggle his sword into China. Just like fate.
It was routine courier work, really. An immortal from the Bon people of Asia had recently been beheaded in Geneva. Before taking reassignment, his grieving Watcher had acted as per Watcher policy and diverted every bank account he could find into the organization's coffers - after all, secret global conspiracies need bankrolls too. The Watcher had also got hold of the immortal's mementos, which were now being sent home to their country of origin. Also as per Watcher policy, under the ten-year-old repatriation movement spearheaded by historians working on the Methos Project. And Methos, like a good boy, had volunteered to babysit the valuables along the last leg of their journey.
There was antique armor, a few holy relicts, and two Indian-made patta swords . . . which, by the time Methos got through with the official papers, became three swords. Two Indian, and one European. One of which would be shipped innocently along to its destination, and there vanish. Never to be seen again by mortal man.
Sometimes it was useful, being a Watcher.
He forged the papers. He stowed his sword safely away. Then, contraband and all, he flew - as per instructions - to Chengdu town, in Szechuan province. There - as per instructions! - he met another Watcher, and the two of them boarded a CAAC plane for Lhasa, Tibet.
Tibet had recently been invaded by China, something that seemed to rouse Western mortals to infinite indignation. But then, nobody remembered history these days. It was a pity: if they remembered history, they would know that China usually invaded Tibet; indeed, Methos recalled at least once when Tibet had invaded China. The world changed, yet always remained the same.
His companion's name was Mallison. "From New York," he confided, hunching closer to Methos as the plane taxied; they had adjoining seats. Mallison had a laptop, two textbooks, and a portfolio of antique manuscripts piled in his lap. He had a pink, chewed lower lip, and large long-lashed dark eyes.
"Connor MacLeod," Methos guessed.
"The Central Park whacker - you know, the unidentified one?"
"Seen 'em all." Mallison bit his lip with his overbite: it was a grin. "Ari al-Muzaiyin. Sarah of Antioch. Cassius Polonius?"
"Nope. I've been shut up in Paris for years now. Research section, I'm a historian. You?"
"I'm going into fieldwork. Stationed with the Tibet bureau." Mallison drew himself up, with tremendous pride; manuscripts cascaded to the floor, and he damned fretfully and snatched after them. "Just finished my internship and surveillance courses. Got sent to the Asian directory 'cause my grandparents came from Lhasa. So I look just like a Tibetan native, and I can already speak the language. They say once I perfect my accent, I'll be helping watch some of the oldest immortals in Asia."
"I'm going to work on, on Project--"
"You got that one!" Mallison beamed at Methos. "What about you, then?"
"Oh, I'm afraid it's very small beer compared to your job," said Methos. "I'm working on the Methos chronicle."
"Hard luck." Obviously no true-blue Watcher - in Mallison's opinion - would choose research over the glamor of fieldwork. But he was kind enough to pat Methos sympathetically on the arm. "Don't worry, I'm sure you'll be transferred soon. And at least you get to travel. After we get settled, maybe you and me can take in the sights together. Shop in Lhasa, climb a mountain. Have you heard about the latest from the Tibet bureau? They think they've discovered evidence of Tibetan immortals living in communities - not just right now, but for centuries. Living in peace, for hundreds of years! They say at the monastery communities at Sangnachos zong and Shigatze and Sanding nunnery, there are immortal mystics who can fly and tell the future."
"Do they? That's interesting."
"Apparently it has something to do with an immortal monk named Darius, who was here in the fifteenth century. Say, you might have heard about that! Didn't Darius spend his last few lifetimes in Paris?"
"I'm afraid I don't know much about any immortal except my own," said Methos meekly. The plane leaped into the air. He sat up straight, gazing out of the little window; though he had flown hundreds of times now, taking off always thrilled him.
"Well, we'll find out. I'm going to Sangnachos zong!"
Mallison was smoothing his hand proudly along the side of his laptop. Methos was distracted by the marks there: over a dozen bold black slashes in indelible ink. Intrigued, he pointed at them. "What are those for?"
"Oh, all the field Watchers in New York have those, I was just going along with the fad. It's my tally of sightings - you know, like a birdwatcher's life book? Just like that, only of course you aren't allowed to keep a list of names." He leaned over to breath into Methos' ear: "It's how many of them I've seen."
They landed at Gongu Airport, in Lhasa, and Methos knew immediately that he was in trouble.
It started on the walk from the plane to the Lhasa bus. All he had to carry was his old backpack. But after a mere ten steps his head was spinning and his heart pounding with stress; then a native Tibetan, grinning from ear to ear, swooped down upon him and relieved him of his burden. Amazed, Methos pressed a hand to his heart and thought: altitude sickness. Airplane flights. A modern malady. Of course! How high had they ascended, how quickly, during their brief flight from Chengdu? And now he felt as if he had scaled Everest without acclimatizing.
He felt almost too weak to lift a sword in his own defense. How could he had forgotten about this?
Mallison trotted up to him, wiping his brow. "Whew! And I thought I had a good ticker. I think I read somewhere they don't even let old people fly up into Tibet anymore - it's just too hard on them."
"Tell me about it," said the world's oldest immortal, grimly.
He hadn't been in Lhasa for a hundred years. But the city hadn't changed that much. There were Chinese trucks on the roads now, and Chinese buildings with dirty tin roofs everywhere - but the street of the rugs and the street of shawls and the streets of butter and of meat were, presumably, where they had always been. Potala palace, much run down, dominated the skyline as it always had. Lhasa sprawled across its plain, and beyond it the desert Methos remembered stretched away to a mountain range like a great white wall; at the foot of the mountains, Sera monastery lay serene with its white walls, its scarlet temples with the golden rooftops, and if the monastery was empty now and the paint and gilt were peeling, one could not see the damage for distance.
Native Tibetans with their Mongol faces still thronged the city. Pilgrims genuflected busily all the way to the Jo Khang temple, chalks held in their outstretched hands - marking the ground with each genuflection, and crawling forward a length only to genuflect again. Lovely girls with long thin noses, with blue-black hair and butter-brown skin, still skipped along giggling. Only the lamas were gone.
Mallison and Methos walked along a street. Hawkers sold traditional silverwork and scarves knitted from cashmere wool. A few Chinese jeeps and trucks inched forward, breasting a tide of foot traffic. Mallison was consulting a fax paper with instructions. "Now that we've dropped off the relicts, we're on our own. Looks like we can crash at the local safe house overnight, and tomorrow a car will pick us up and take us to a town called Tsawa. We meet our contact there. At the vulture stone, it says?"
Methos nodded, not listening; he was thinking of MacLeod. Really, he ought to be plugging into the computers at the local safe house, downloading some reports, checking on MacLeod's whereabouts. Just in case. When last heard from, Mac had been in Paris. But Methos was willing to bet he would be on his way to Seacouver by now.
". . . So I guess we can sight-see all day. Geez, I can hardly believe I'm here - I've been heard about this city all my life. And no canned tours of the local museums for us, either, Pierson. I'm going to show you the real Lhasa. You'll see! I'll steer you right."
"Good man . . ."
"Say, what's wrong? Cat's got your tongue?"
"Just thinking," Methos said softly. Indeed, MacLeod would like this city . . . if he didn't know it already. If he hadn't visited it on some wanderjahr through Asia unrecorded in his chronicles. If Darius hadn't already shown it to him-- But he had promised himself he wasn't going to think of MacLeod for a while.
"Here we go!" Mallison was saying. "Here's a real Tibetan teahouse. Look, not a single white face in there."
. . . from time to time he had to blink mentally and remind himself that he was young, not old; that he was Adam Pierson the Methos historian, who had never met a dead language he didn't like, who was more comfortable with books than with adventure. Who was mortal, and introverted. Someone who had little to hide . . . and who was definitely not obsessed with the welfare of a pig-stubborn, not-too-bright, thin-skinned Scotsman with infectious idealism.
Someone who knew who he was.
The native girl behind the teashop counter said pertly, "Oghyai!" and Methos answered without thinking, "Lags ma Kaa kyai la oghyai!" and then looked at the amazed faces around him.
"I read that in a book somewhere," he explained, letting his English accent flavor the words. He made his face shine with innocent honesty, and pointed at the display of soda pop. "May I have a Coke, please?"
"No way, man!" Mallison slapped him on the back. "Tea for both of us," he ordered, in New York Tibetan. Methos kept his head down, accepted the cup of tea he was offered, and trailed along behind Mallison as they went to a table. His mistake seemed to have been forgotten. And to dispel any last lingering suspicions, it was easy enough to take a healthy swig of tea and then spit it all over the tabletop.
"What the bloody hell's in that?!?" he exploded.
Mallison tasted his tea, and burst out laughing. "Just like Granny used to serve! They salt the tea around here, Adam. And that floating stuff? That's butter." He was enjoying himself thoroughly. "Yak butter."
"Salween River," Mallison reported, consulting his guidebook.
"Giamo nu chu," Methos murmured, walking slowly behind his companion. His heart hammered. He spoke too softly for Mallison to overhear.
Mountains towered above. The Giamo nu chu river coursed through its narrow gorge, about two hundred yards straight down. Mallison kicked a stone over the edge, and watched it ricochet to the bottom. He read from his guide: "'A region of gracious jungle lit with many happy orchid flowering plants. For many centuries pilgrims have crossed at Tsawa upon road to city of Lhasa. Horseback travel is advised from this point for reasons of road ending. With a picturesque cable bridges.'"
"Where are the orchids?"
"Right after the road ending, presumably. We should be able to rent horses in Tsawa. Hey, you!" To their driver, in Tibetan: "Is this the vulture rock?"
The driver looked blankly at them. He climbed back into his decrepit truck and revved the motor, reversing downhill to leave them stranded. Standing by the roadside with their baggage parked at their feet.
Mallison said, "I can't walk here. Look at that road! I'll have a coronary!"
The slopes above them were thick with tree-of-God firs and projecting tumbles of jagged rock; along the side of the road grew dense tangles of flowering rhododendrons and roses, red and red. The road was a rutted dirt track. None of the other traffic was wheeled: there were pilgrims on foot, and what seemed to be porters leading toiling ponies almost lost under huge panniers. One man was followed by a string of five sheep, each with a bundle strapped on its back. Methos looked at the grade of the road, calculated the weight of his pack and his sword, and began to chant to himself: Om mani padme hum. Om mani padme hum . . . aum Matriye salendu . . . Matris matria da dzu . . .
A party of Tibetans was walking up the road toward them. It was a whole family, right down to a wizened grandmother carried by two grandsons, who swung her in the chair of their linked arms. She rocked in her human chair, humming to herself - oblivious to the two men in Western clothes who stood watching her. Her face was shrunken all over into the likeness of a dried apple - barely human in appearance - and her toothless mouth grinned mindlessly. Just behind her, a strapping man in a butcher's apron toted a bundle of white cloth.
"Okay. Adam, you stay with the relicts - I'll fix things." Mallison fell in with the group, and began to talk to the hindmost. Moments later he returned to where Methos was dutifully waiting with their luggage. "Told you I'd fix it. Turns out they're going up to the vulture rock right now. We can tag along, and I hired two of their boys to haul our stuff. I gather it's some sort of a ceremonial shrine."
The vulture rock lay off the road, at the top of a footpath better described as a precipice with pretensions to civility. Mallison, panting like a dog with his tongue literally hanging out, flopped down on a stone and rested his head between his knees. Methos sat beside him; he felt much as Mallison looked. The Tibetans dumped the luggage onto the ground and strolled away, settling themselves at ease around a firepit to the left. Other Tibetans were already squatting there, smoking cigarettes. A kettle was boiling. Tea was served all around. One of the men, grinning, carried the kettle over to Methos and Mallison and extended it - tilting it so that a few drops, glistening with melted butter, spilled out onto the ground.
He waited. After a moment, grinning more widely, he held out his free hand and rubbed finger and thumb briskly together.
Mutely, Methos and Mallison each fished out a few Chinese coins, and passed them over. The Tibetan pocketed these and produced a pair of dented tin cups. He poured tea, and returned triumphantly to his family.
"I ought to see if I can buy some food too." Mallison drained his butter tea. "Wonder if they have tsampa? I ought to get us some tsampa. That's barley. Popped barley, ground into flour and mixed with butter tea. Hot buttered tea and tsampa porridge with momo dumplings - Granny used to make it for me every Sunday. Christ, I used to love her momo dumplings."
The Tibetan family conferred among themselves. A lama in the robes of the Yellow Cap sect had arrived, and was standing upon the vulture stone itself, which was broad, flat, and dimpled with natural hollows rather like empty bowls. And there were the vultures - dozens of vultures circling down to perch like tame pets along the slope on the far side of the stone. They crowded together, squabbling, and then sat wing to wing in feathery ranks, like a crowded audience at the opera. They were white-headed, their big bodies speckled tan and white . . . and Methos remembered them well. He set his dirty cup down on the ground, folded his hands, and scowled. This was a jhator ceremony: they were about to witness the giving of alms to the birds.
"Those birds are amazing," Mallison remarked. "Like ants on a picnic table. I wonder what--"
Two Tibetans had carried the bundle wrapped in white up onto the rock. They threw it down. The cloth fell open, and out tumbled a woman's soft rounded arm clad in a crimson cotton sleeve.
Mallison was silent, his mouth open.
Now a woman with tangled black hair lay, face-down, upon the white cloth. She appeared to be sleeping, or dead. The Tibetan in the butcher's apron squatted and stripped away the red dress she wore, leaving her naked back exposed. He then lifted a business-like cleaver, and brought it down on the woman's spine - chopping it open, so that the spine shone white and the ribs were laid bare, gleaming.
The family sat quietly watching: three generations of mortals, from the senile old granny to two solemn toddlers in trousers and aprons. One of the toddlers whined, and his mother gathered him to her and began to give him suck, to quiet him. The butcher on the rock chopped swiftly, bits of reddened flesh splattering as he did - making the swastika-shaped cuts which symbolized eternity. His companion, an American Player's Choice cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth, gathered up the pieces of flesh and began to pound them with a wooden hammer. He used one of the natural hollows in the rock for that purpose - as if using a bowl. He worked at it, never pausing, until the flesh had been reduced to bloody pulp.
It was hard work. In minutes both men began to pant heavily, sweat springing out on their foreheads. After the butcher finished stripping the back, he chopped off each arm in turn, hacking straight through the bone. It sounded like someone splitting wood. The family watched. The lama was yawning. The vultures all ruffled their wings, lifting briefly off the ground and settling again - hopping just a little bit nearer.
The sounds of grunting and puffing, the squish of flesh flattening and the snap of bones being pulverized rose toward Heaven. The vulture rock looked like a butcher's shambles now. Every few minutes, the vultures would shuffle closer. Mallison had both hands gripped together in his lap, and though his face was admirably composed, his cheeks were white as paper. But when the Tibetan with the cleaver severed the woman's neck, and several excited vultures rose circling into the air, he scrambled hastily to his feet and retreated down the path.
Methos decided what would be in character for Adam Pierson, and stood up to follow Mallison. Poor Mallison, who was getting his horizons rapidly broadened. This was a sky burial - the ceremony of devout Buddhists, who believed in giving back to nature that which, deprived of its soul, no longer held meaning or value. It was as it had been done in Pod Yul for over two thousand years . . . and it was the reason why Tibetan immortals lived in communities; a solitary immortal killed in an accident could be ritually beheaded before he knew it. Unless someone prevented the burial.
Several Chinese were coming up the steep path: tiny people compared to the Tibetans, most of them in grey suits and a few in Red Army uniforms. Stopping short, Methos backed away and hid himself behind the witnessing family, his breath coming fast. His head was now pounding. He was seriously worried, because one of the Chinese was an immortal.
That one. There. A woman in uniform, pinch-faced, looking like a female accountant in drab pyjamas. As he stole cautious looks at her, she was moving sideways and peering in his direction. Then she had seen him, and in a flash the most inscrutable of expressions fell over her face - transforming it into a mask devoid of emotion . . . and like magic, decades fell away from her and she was enigmatic, mysterious, youthful. Beautiful.
The meal was prepared. The lama was now intoning a final prayer, while the Chinese observers sat down unobtrusively to watch. Methos got himself out of there as fast as he could, and the woman in uniform turned openly to stare after him. She had recognized him, he was sure of it. But he was also sure he had never seen her in his life.
One last glance at her. As he did, one of the other Chinese leaned forward and gave him an unmistakable Watcher hand-signal.
And behind them all, hundreds of vultures rose fluttering into the sky, hovered for an instant, and descended - covering the burial rock in a solid, ravenous mass.
"She goes by the name of Ho Hsien Ku - Immortal Maiden," said Chang, the Watcher who had met them at the jhator rock; he was the senior Watcher in Tibet, presently assigned to one of the immortals at Sangnachos zong. He shrugged. "Comrade Immortal Maiden, if you please. Her first observed kill was in Okinawa, in the 'forties, and we have been shadowing her ever since." He lifted his teacup to his lips, and sipped. "I must say, Mr Pierson, how impressed I am that you spotted her. Are you sure that your career lies in research?"
"Flunked out of basic surveillance three times," Methos explained, embarrassed. "Too clumsy."
"Nonsense. You must try again."
"Oh, I doubt that. I thought my heart was going to come right out of my throat--"
"The rigors of altitude. You must both avoid exertion scrupulously for at several days - remember that you're seventeen hundred feet above sea level--"
"--and anyway, immortals make me nervous," Methos finished, well in character.
"There's a lot of that going around," Mallison remarked.
They were all silent for several minutes, thinking of the Paris massacre; every Watcher in the world had been briefed. Finally Chang said, his voice calm, "We shall not tax you, Adam. We are all living in interesting times."
They sat in the upper room of a sunny Tibetan house, built of fir logs after the Russian style. The tea, however, was pure Chinese - green jasmine tea, served without milk or sugar. A dish of tiny almond cookies was on the table between them. Also on the table were the two swords from Geneva, and the rest of the mementos. Mallison was running his fingertips along the blade of one of the swords, diplomatically; he was avoiding looking Methos in the face.
"As for Immortal Maiden, she first came to Tibet near the end of the cultural revolution, as part of the Red Guard. With them, she partook in the opening of seven monasteries--"
Mallison looked up. "You mean 'looting', don't you?"
For just an instant the Chinese Watcher and the Watcher descended from Tibetan refugees stared into each other's eyes. Then Chang said calmly, "Looting. When the impoverished and disadvantaged see treasure spread out before them, there is always looting. Though the youth of our own Red Guard were not motivated by greed--"
"Only by ignorance!"
"--not by greed, but by zeal for their cause. But that time is long behind us and they did not know what they destroyed. Comrade Immortal Maiden, however, was certainly motivated by greed. Most of what passed through her fingers vanished, only to resurface on the black market in Shanghai . . . And she knew the value of what she handled, for she consistently stole only the very best. She also used her position to hunt down and dispatch sixteen Tibetan immortals. She's been here ever since, moving around and switching identities. Then, about six years ago, she joined forces with Lobon Naro-Bonchung."
"And who the hell," Mallison inquired, "is Lobon Naro-Bonchung?"
"He's a Bon priest, one of the practitioners of the old religion supplanted by Buddhism. Like our unfortunate friend here, who lost his head in Geneva." Chang tapped the blade nearest him, and a pleasant chiming sound responded: there were jingling balls soldered into the hollow pommel of the hilt.
Methos stood, lifting his cup of tea, and warming his hands around it as he walked across the room. At the window overlooking the street, he stopped and gazed out, his back to the other two men.
He had known an immortal named Naro-Bonchung once.
Behind him, Mallison with his young callow voice was questioning the senior Watcher - avid for every detail he could get. "--the Black Bons are shamanists, aren't they? I think my grandma told me about them--"
"They are. Naro-Bonchung is an adept of tantric magic. More to the point, he is six foot seven inches tall, and enjoys fashioning ritual drinking vessels from the skulls of his enemies. The two of them work together. He cares for little save quickening; she cares for little save money. Together they can strip a victim faster than fifty vultures at a burial feast . . . But enough of them. You must be eager to hear about the lamasery?"
"Yes! When can we go up there?"
"In four or five days. Give your bodies time to adapt to the altitude! We shall donate these trinkets to them. You'll be my assistant, a young Tibetan student from Shigatze; say nothing, and you'll pass. Mr Pierson, you'll be just what you are - a visiting professor, from Paris University."
"And we're all working for--"
"For Project Shangri-la!" Chang laughed. "A very proper academic group, accredited with all the papers and permits to study the mystic arts of the lamas: yogic running and self-heating, sword-spiralling and magic zung chants. And the remarkable longevity of the most powerful lamas, each one a holy Incarnation of some past Buddhist saint, each one reputed to be immortal."
"And will we see my immortal? I mean - our immortal, our assignment." (You could all but hear the blush in the boy's voice. Sometimes Methos felt so old.) "What was her name - Sang Yum?"
"Yes. Sang Yum, 'Secret Mother', and she is the reverend female lama who founded Sangnachos zong: the 'fort of the doctrine of the secret spells'. Or sometimes it is also called the Fort of the Pure Spring. Unfortunately, there are no roads to the lamasery. It lies at the top of a pass, beyond eight cable bridges, and supplies are carried up to it on foot. This isolation saved it from sacking during the cultural revolution. It also saves it from modern comforts and conveniences, but no matter."
"But, but - will I see her?"
"No. She has been immured in solitary contemplation - walled into a cell hewed by her own hands from the living rock of the mountain - since before any of us were born."
Methos drank the last swallow of his tea. He thought of her - Sang Yum. And the magician, Naro-Bonchung.
Then he shut his eyes and let memory whirl him backward a hundred years.
". . . Who are you?" Ayesha demanded.
They trudged up toward the pinnacle of a pass in an immense wall of mountains: the Zaskar range of the Himalayan massif. Behind them lay two hundred miles of crooked valleys crawling upward through the Greater Himalaya range, following the pilgrim road toward the headwaters of the Ganges. Ganges, holiest of rivers; the sacred stream, which - heard of, desired, seen, touched, bathed in or even hymned - sanctified all beings. Indeed, even those who, at a distance of a hundred leagues, exclaimed its name, "Ganga, Ganga," atoned thus for all the sins committed during three previous lifetimes.
Low stone walls snaked along the slope of the pass, each wall formed entirely from heaped mani-stones; every stone left there by a pilgrim, inscribed with a spell or a prayer. Prayer-flags fluttered, stuck in these walls. Here and there, a prayer wheel rotated, creaking in the wind. Beyond the pass lay the center of the world: Meru, abode of Shiva.
Methos walked barefoot on the stony ground, his hair blowing like the prayer-flags. He wore the clout and robes of an Indian mystic. Ayesha his wife had amused herself by entering Tibet upon the back of an elephant - a cow elephant, six feet high and round as a ball of butter, and painted all over with lotuses and swastikas. Pink and green and yellow and blue paint, upon the wrinkled grey-pink skin of the elephant, which plodded obediently up the pass, flapping its tattered ears; to ward away the evil eye, Ayesha had pierced the beast's ears and hung them with long swags of blue beads. The mahout, naked save for a loincloth, walked along by the elephant's shoulder.
Ayesha herself had donned the garb of a Bedouin prince: a farwa lined with black lambskin, thaub and damir, and a kaffiya striped bright red and tied with a cord of scarlet and gold. Beside the elephant, her snow-white Arabian mare frisked along at the end of a leading rein. While Ayesha sat enthroned in her howdah like a goddess. Wherever she went, awed natives salaamed and called down blessings, and then they charged her twice the normal price for supplies. And she would browbeat them into submission, sometimes laying into them with her malacca cane. But then, in Ayesha's eyes the whole world's population were her servants.
"Who are you . . . ?" she repeated, swaying upon the elephant's back.
"Your lord and master," answered Methos, speaking Arabic. "And also a Frankish barbarian, beloved. Thus the disguise. Remember, Englishmen are forbidden to enter Tibet."
She leant forward, eyes flashing. "But if another immortal discovers you, he will attack you! He will try to take your head! And how will you defend yourself, if you refuse to carry your sword?"
"I can live without the sword, Ayesha."
"Bah. You? You have the heart of a boy, the meekness of a lamb. But do not fear. I will protect you."
"You're more likely to get us both bloody arrested and thrown into a Calcutta jail," Methos grumbled, and Ayesha burst out laughing.
"Where there are certainly no other immortals to challenge you. My prince, you cannot play at being a mortal. If you die, what will become of me? I am your wife: if you are helpless then I am helpless, if you are brave then I am invulnerable . . . If you die, I shall die also. But be the immortal you are, and I have sworn to live forever by your side!"
"Ayesha, you are not an immortal."
"No, but I am flesh of your flesh, and when I married you I took on your race and your nation, remember? I meant the vows I took. Your people are my people. Your gods are my gods."
A few steps onward, the top of the pass was marked by lapchas - cairns of mani-stones - some tall as the elephant. Prayer-wheels and silk banners crowned them. Here dozens of pilgrims trudged doggedly onward, chanting praises to Brahma and Buddha, to Shiva, to divine Parvati. Among them were practitioners of the old Bon faith, who came to make the ritual circuit of devotion around Mount Kailas; their religion instructed them to circle counterclockwise whilst all others went clockwise. And there were native Tibetans returning from India, who as they reached the summit all cried out loudly: "Lya gyalo! - the Gods win!" Ayesha's elephant plodded along, tiny eyes almost shut. Some of the pilgrims dropped coins in the bowl Methos held, or offered him dates and apricots.
Beyond the pass, a vast misty valley spread out like infinity. Immense mountains floated above it; glittering water showed through the haze - like a glimpse into paradise. Directly opposite, a pyramidal mountain rose covering half the sky; its sides glowed intense blue-purple, streaked with horizontal bands of shining snow. Down the southern slope - that which faced India - a great gorge extended thousands of feet, crossed by a rock band of horizontal strata. The combination formed a giant swastika.
This was Mount Kailas. Meru, the world-lotus, home of the gods. The lake at its feet was Manasarovar: 'formed in the mind of Brahma'. Here was the heart of the mandala, the centrepoint of the universe.
Methos gazed upon it; it seemed he had done so a thousand times before. And his heart filled with love for the world.
"And another thing," said Ayesha.
He blinked. ". . . what?"
"These people you've told me of: the Watchers. The ones who follow immortals around, yearning to be like them. You are like those Watchers. Except that you are immortal, yet yearn to be mortal."
"Ayesha, it's not like that!"
"Certainly it is. I know you too well. You shun your own kind - you, the oldest of all." Her eyes flashed; no doubt she was envisioning him on a throne, with her on a matching throne - queen of the world. "You should be their king!"
They began to walk again, down the long incline into the valley. "Alas," said Methos, "that I am merely your slave!"
"And don't think my life has no hardships. In every letter, my father asks when I will give him grandsons. How can I tell him that my own husband is fast becoming young enough to play the part? Bah! Enough of it." She clapped her hands imperiously, called out in Hindustani. "Nain Singh, thou son of a bandit! Fetch my carbine, saddle Wadduda! Let us see if there is any hunting to be found in this benighted wilderness-- What is it, Methos?"
Methos had halted. One of the pilgrims had just handed him a rupee. And in so doing, turned his wrist into the light and revealed the tattoo of a Watcher.
"Another immortal is here," he whispered.
. . . but that had been hundreds of miles from Sangnachos zong, decades in the past, and as for Ayesha, she had been murdered in Shanghai long, long ago.
In the present day, Sangnachos zong lamasery lay twelve miles from Tsawa - near the summit of a pass, at the wellspring of a tributary of the Giamo nu chu. It was no wonder that it had escaped looting or attack: to reach it, the three Watchers had to travel a sheer-sided gorge that seemed to climb forever into the Himalayas, along a path hewed from the mountain walls. It reminded Mallison, he said, of the Grand Canyon. When told that Sangnachos zong was provisioned by porters toting hundred-pound sacks on their backs, he wondered why there were no burros for the job. Or mules. Surely there were mules? After all, the Project Shangri-la party was accompanied not only by a guide, but by a flock of complaining sheep being driven up to the lamasery. The humans could have ridden burros, and saved their legs.
He stopped complaining after they crossed the first cable bridge. Here the path ended, resuming on the far side of the gorge; there was a tiny hut (on the far side) and a single leather cable strung loosely across the void - sagging almost fifteen feet at its lowest point. Beneath this point, the gorge plunged ninety yards straight down, into a boulder-studded torrent of water.
The sheep baaed, huddled on the brink of the abyss. The guide bellowed across the gorge. A squat native in a fur hat emerged from the hut, looked over in apparent disgust, and began to knot a rope around his waist. Then, towing this rope behind him, he crossed the cable. Sliding down halfway, and climbing hand-over-hand by main strength up the other half.
The travelers were hauled across in pairs, tied onto a wooden hook fixed to the cable. They slid down, and were hauled up again; it was better than a ride at Disneyworld. Mallison had to share his ride with an ewe trussed in a sack, its head and forelegs sticking out, and it bleated all the way across (he said afterward) as if bound for the depths of hell.
There were seven more such bridges to cross, before they reached the lamasery.
By then, the torrent had shrunk to a disappointing trickle. Both Methos and Mallison were dizzy, light-headed from the altitude - while the Tibetans hired to carry the baggage and relicts stepped along as lightly as if empty-handed. They walked up a final slope floored with granite rubble, and arrived at a plateau surrounded by snowy peaks. Against this beautiful backdrop, the lamasery buildings rose like peaks themselves -snowy white, each with a broad horizontal band of brilliant red encircling its upper walls. Atop the roof of the main temple with its blue-and-scarlet gates stood the Buddha's emblem, cast in solid gold: the eight-spoked Wheel of the Law, flanked by a brace of prick-eared deer.
The lamas wore the red and saffron of the Yellow-cap sect, Methos noticed - but there were a few Red-caps among them too, and they were female as well as male; just as at Sanding, which like this place was presided over by a woman. But the founder of Sangnachos zong was, of course, not available to visitors. Instead, an interim abbot met them at the doors: a tall fat-bellied Yellow-cap with bristling grey whiskers, avid for the tribute they brought. He welcomed them with open arms, and right there in the lamasery portico the sacks of antiques and armor were opened, with a dozen admiring lamas chanting prayers over them. In a trice, the gifts vanished. The abbot beamed and shook Methos heartily by the hand, uttering a stream of pleasantries. Methos bowed. Everyone bowed. Chang, who was evidently well known to the lamas, took Methos by the elbow and began to walk, talking as he did - translating the abbot's remarks. And Methos tuned out the abbot's voice, because after all Adam Pierson didn't speak Tibetan.
And as he passed into the main temple with its rows of prayer benches, he felt it all around him . . . like a chorus of bells, some near and some far, some ancient and some new: the echo of fellow immortals. Dozens of immortals.
"Notice the prayer wheels," Chang murmured. "The abbot asks you to spin one as you pass - it is inscribed with the holy phrase Om mani padme hum, repeated one hundred and eight times, and the act of spinning it is a holy rite, as if the phrase had been uttered aloud. Those side doors lead to rooms filled with prayer drums, each of which holds all one hundred and eight volumes of Buddhist holy scripture. When one spins them, one acquires just as much merit as if every volume had been read aloud."
"Don't mock such holy things," Methos said. He smiled at the abbot.
"The Tibetans dislike the Chinese, and we Chinese are admittedly xenophobic." Chang spread his hands, nodding. "The peasants brought to colonize the empty lands of Tibet are uneducated country folk, and there have been incidents. And yes, lamaseries have been sacked and desecrated. Are you going to repeat the usual Western sermon about imperialist invasion?"
"No. I was admiring the swords behind the abbot's throne."
The abbot, nodding, motioned to Methos to look more closely at these swords. There was a great jumble of them - scores of swords, perhaps a hundred or more. Every sword had been disabled. The blade of each had been bent into a spiral like an eccentric corkscrew.
"He says the spiraled swords are very holy and each one was bent by lama adepts, by tantric magic. He says that all over Tibet, such swords are treasured . . . but this lamasery has more of them than anywhere else."
Mallison was right behind them, obediently quiet, but peering keenly at the spiraled swords. Methos said, "I see a katana there, at the bottom of the pile. That one next to it looks like a Hungarian cavalry sabre. And there - isn't that an eighteenth-century Dutch naval cutlass?"
"Yes," Chang said. "We Watchers believe that these swords belonged to immortals."
They passed out of the main temple, and began to walk through a series of side chapels gaudily decorated with demonic images and their counterpart Bodhisattvas.
"The abbot says that after the distinguished guest from Paris has toured the lamasery, he would be pleased to invite us all to tea. This way . . . You know, up to the present century we Watchers barely troubled ourselves with Tibet, because there seemed to be no immortals at all here? Even those immortals originally from here appeared to leave as soon as possible. An empty country. Not worth our while."
"Then we began to hear rumors of immortal lamas - rumors so prevalent that they even passed into the realm of Western literature. And we found these three lamaseries. Each more than five hundred years old. Each housing, according to the monks, a complement of supreme adepts who cannot age or die."
With two junior monks still in attendance, they passed through a final chapel and out into sunlight. Here was the back terrace of the temple. It looked very old, far older than the rest. Against the side of a mountain, shoulder-high stone walls ran in either direction; the ground was slanting, uneven, covered with boulders and slabs of rock. The abbot gestured, spoke.
And now the presence of other immortals hung in the air like a babble of voices.
"He says that here, the monks immure themselves to meditate. This way. Mind your step. They wall themselves into cells cut in the mountainside - there's the first of them, behind that stone there. See it? Sometimes for a week, sometimes for six months, and some take vows and immure themselves for life. They are fed once a day by the other monks. Go this way. The abbot invites you to knock on one of the cell doors."
Methos shook his head. "I'll pass."
Chang translated. "The abbot understands you don't want to interrupt the holy men in their meditation. You've impressed him, by the way. Most visitors are eager to see the anchorites, though I don't recommend it myself. I've seen them fumble their stones back at the knock and grope out their hands to be fed . . . it's like looking on the living dead."
"They're not all immortals, then."
"No. Most of them are as mortal as you or I. Though the one behind the slab we're passing now - see it, Mallison? - that one is a Basque woman, born around the year fifteen-twelve. And she has been walled up there, according to the other lamas, for almost fifty years."
Mallison whispered, "How do they know she's still alive?"
"Shh . . . she still comes for food. Her name is Marguerite Buerguoys."
They walked in silence along the long row of cells. Ahead of them, the path rose a little and then ended at what was evidently a ceremonial place, decorated with banners strung on poles and stuck like flags in small cairns of stones. Some of the banners were faded almost white, tattered to shreds; they were decades old. The cairns were composed of heaped mani-stones, chiseled all over with Tibetan script.
The path terminated in the lintel and posts of a doorway carved into the mountainside. But where the door should be was only a slope composed of thousands of mani-stones, stacked higher than Methos' head. The doorway had been completely covered with these stones.
Here, they all halted. The monks trailing behind them broke into chanted prayers. The abbot pointed proudly to the doorway, delivering a long speech.
"Here lies the founder of Sangnachos zong. The great Incarnation. Sang Yum."
The monks chanted.
"She has been behind that door for ninety-nine years. Her faith is so purified that she no longer requires food or drink . . . Once a year, the interrim abbot is required by the lamasery's rules to rap three times on the stones, and three raps always respond from the other side. Once a year. The last time they checked was six months ago."
Methos stared at the doorway. There she was, walled up in the living rock. He could feel her there - the distinct signature of an elder immortal, like the notes of a familiar song. Little Sang Yum, the witch-woman. And he knew that she could recognize his presence. She would know who had come to visit her.
The abbot was still speaking. "The legend has it," Chang translated, "that an imperial Manchu princess traveled into Tibet on a pilgrimage of devotion. Accompanied by her personal guard, a suite of servants, and one hundred and eight yaks loaded with gold and jade, she arrived eventually at the world-lotus, the swastika mountain at whose feet lies holy Lake Manasarovar. The font of the four great rivers of India, which spiral eight times around the mountain before taking their course south: the lion-mouth river, the peacock-mouth river, the horse-mouth river and the elephant-mouth river . . . the Ganges, Indus, Sutlej and Brahmaputra. This mountain has long been identified as the Tise, the world-pillar, abode of Shiva himself; also called Kang Rinpoche: jewel of the snows! It is the modern Mount Kailas."
The abbot spoke on.
"Here, the princess gained merit by making perikarama, ritual circuits of the mountain: the twenty-one circuits demanded of a common pilgrim around the mountain's lower courses, eight circuits along the more perilous middle course - the pathway reserved for lamas and initiates - and finally a single perikarama along the uppermost course, at the end of which all her followers were dead of exhaustion and exposure, but she herself had attained the state of the Bodhisattvas, incarnated Buddhas who delay Nirvana in order to alleviate the world's ills . . . Then, taking all her treasure with her, she founded this very monastery, the Fortress of the Holy Spring, and here eventually retired to a hermit's cell, to meditate - never aging, never weary or hungry - until the day comes when she will emerge to save Tibet in its hour of greatest need."
The doorway lay before them, mute and blind.
Methos drew a deep breath, gazing at his feet. The abbot bowed and opened his mouth to continue. Then he broke off, his head turning.
A sharp rap had sounded from the cell.
Another rap. Another. The Watchers drew back instinctively, the monks rushed forward. They began to dig with their bare hands at the stacked mani-stones, which rolled away in a fusillade of clatters and clinks - over which sounded the steady rapping behind the doorway. Now the stone slab that sealed the cell was visible, carved all over with tantric symbols and script. The heads of the lamas bobbed with excitement as they unearthed the door. The rapping never halted. Methos retreated a step or two, Mallison shoved forward, Chang's mouth was speechlessly opening and shutting. Three-quarters of the door was now clear. All three lamas mopped their brows, overcome with emotion. They whispered to one another, and the abbot issued orders. The two junior monks worked their hands into the rough edges of the door-slab, and heaved.
The slab jarred forward, grating, screaming as it came. Then it fell on its face, and shattered in a dozen jagged pieces.
Beyond lay a black chasm.
The dust slowly settled. The junior monks clutched one another. The abbot was telling his rosary. Methos raised his eyes, and gazed into the darkness.
At ground level, a hand came groping out of the shadows. It was wrapped all over in tattered rags - even the fingers were crudely swathed - and the arm that followed was also wrapped like a mummy's, in coarse musty spider-grey cloth that began to shred and dissolve even as it met the chill high-country air. A long swath of material unwound and lay trailing across the stones. Another hand fumbled forward, clutching weakly at nothing; then a small figure swaddled all over lurched out into the light. There was a high frail cry like the piping of a bird.
The bandages were falling apart, breaking in rigid patches and puffs of tired dust . . . leaving glimpses of golden skin, firm and rounded and glowing with youth. At the shake of the mummy's head a whole section of wrappings fell, and out tumbled a flood of straight, silken, jet-black hair. She was kneeling on the mani-stones now, lifting her covered face instinctively to the bright sky. Shaking the grey dust out of her hair. And then a laugh like a cascade of golden bells sounded!
Sang Yum rose to her tiny feet, shrugging off the last fragments that covered her.
A naked Chinese woman, slitting her eyes, smiling at the kiss of the sun. She was as young as a new morning, as perfect as a freshly-opened flower. Mallison was trembling as if he was seeing a vision. And she was opening her eyes wide now, looking about her. Black eyes - their lashes like long fans with curling tips. Her mouth was a pale rose. Her cheeks were rosy pink.
She looked at them, and spoke.
"Ningma-ningma?" she asked, in Tibetan a hundred years out of date. "Ningma-ningma, most ancient of ancients . . . Has the Gathering arrived, then?"
TO BE CONTINUED . . .