After reciting the Three Jewels and the forty-eight vows of the Sutra of Infinite Life, the elderly Manahhat meditated.
Jet threads rose from two lit tapers set on the stone tiles before him. The smoke from these met, to pool oddly above his head. The soft but insistent candlelight left all else in shadow, for the hour was late. Manahhat Bhrevita sat calmly hands on knees, eyes closed, and breathed his personal mantra into the still and quiet.
Before the folds of his orange robe, a prayer scroll lay upon the cold floor. There exists only one copy of this, and its keeping forever belonged to Manahhat. It was the chant of the eternal wheel, the paen of forever. Manahhat felt his muscles loosen, his senses open to the peace of cosmic unity that washed over him.
The monk attained jhana quickly. The deep meditative state realized, he began vipassana and flowed through realms of ultimate reality, to obtain the insights he searched for.
Unbidden, a smile turned his lips. The time of restoration comes.
Cole Drum twisted the unfortunate beggar's arm ruthlessly almost out of its socket, then pulled it behind the victim's scrawny unkempt back, pressing the man's head against a daub and straw wall. The screams were inelegant.
"I do not know, Sahib!" the victim sobbed. "I am not Buddhist! It was the Sabina, the Mrs. Coveny, something she said--about a temple dig!"
Cole grabbed the laborer by the neck, concentrating his will through his Uma, or third eye, but received no additional insight.
The drunken Taoist master Cole had kept in Saki as payment for training his third eye would have spat, to see the misuse. It was worth a try, he thinks. Cole shoved the near-naked Beluchi laborer away in disgust, tossing a few bright coins after him.
Don and Sarah Coveny, he mused. Minor project drones for the Society. They had shown up near some of his digs before, always on some saintly preservationist business. The husband was a surveyor, the wife an archaeologist of minor publication history. It was unlikely they quested for his scroll. Theirs would not be an independent effort, but some money-trap project structured by the Preservation Society to keep its donations flowing and its non-profit status assured.
Regardless, their proximity to what he felt certain to be the goal of his search, was discomfiting. The huge man's brow furled. He tried to think of what monuments or temple sites might be attracting the interest of the Society.
The area around Hingoli, part of the Rājasthān state, is rife with Buddhist, Jain, and Mughal ruins. It could be any one of them. The beggar overheard the information while standing in a hiring queue, and it might mean nothing at all. He should check the registrar's office in Jaipur, before sniffing after the pair directly. If a preservationist project had been sanctioned, the details would be recorded there.
The hot sun beat at him uncomfortably, and the telegraph office would at least be cooler.
Sarah groaned, knots twinging up her backside from too much sitting in ill-formed rattan chairs. She rolled her eyes up at Don, who was setting push-pins into a survey map tacked up on the small office's wall.
"That's it," she proclaimed. "Ten workers; more than we will need this time around. Why do we always pull the desert assignments?"
She rubbed at her forearms in irritation, noting they were beginning to show signs of exposure rash, which did not improve her disposition. Don continued to quietly inspect the map, but thought about it for a moment.
"I suppose it's a kind of type casting. You pull a couple in a row,they think you've acquired some expertise for them, and you go to the top of the list."
It was a map that currently placed them deep in the Great Indian Desert, just beyond the borders of Thar Desert National Park. The society had been concerned with the region since India held its 1974 nuclear testing there. Don wasn't looking forward to the job. a camel-back expedition, since there were no roads to the target site.
Still, the subject small ruin, though isolated, might prove important one day. Exactly the kind of site the Preservationist Society tended to specialize in.
"Wouldn't need so many animals if we could take the Rover," he noted with a shrug. "But all those sand dunes might kill the old thing. Is this, Gooja Khan guy you hired as our drover any good?"
"Oh, who the hell knows. Came recommended by the Society though. He used to shepherd tourist caravans through the park, our destination isn't far beyond that, so he should be okay. You can line them all up tomorrow and stare at them until you're cross-eyed, if you like."
"No thanks," Don snorted. "I need to get my equipment parceled up, then I'm quits till we get on site."
Both finished up preparations, retiring early in expectation of a morning start.
Drum reread the reply, a satisfied excitement in his eyes. The site was registered, as the remains of a Buddhist shrine, no less. His eyes bingoed one of the names mentioned as historically significant in relation to it. Manahhat, The Keeper of the Wheel. The exact named scholar whose legend he was chasing, attached finally to a particular shrine. Just what his last few months of research had looked for. He scratched a two day stubble in abstracted irritation, considering.
Best if I can bribe someone in their outfit to delay them, keep them away, to give me time to search for the scroll and get out. Fewer problems that way, if it's a dead end.
That could all be done by phone, and leave him the day's balance to make for the site.
Drum reached across the small apartment's bed, dragged a rifle by its blued steel barrel onto his lap, removed its clip, and began loading it.
There's the old ways, and the easy ways, he thought. Meanwhile, his mind traveled over other weapons, knowledge he had wrested from the earth in long years of tomb robbing, hack archaeology, and treasure hunting.
He had found, slowly, that the real wealth of the past lay not in artifacts, but in revelations. Scraps of arcane wisdom learned painfully by vanished civilizations in facing nature's unvarnished wrath.
It had been a profound revelation, one that changed him from digger to dedicated seeker. It even re-built his reputation, in a minor way, for others saw him turn from money, sensing a re-dedication in his thirst for the past. In truth, at core, it was still avarice that drove him. A will to power had simply replaced grasping for wealth alone. The scroll of Time's Wheel was his grail quest.
Manahhat's eyes focused beyond the walled monastery, and its carefully tended garden to the sanded hills beyond.
What would come was troubling, would cause difficulties, perhaps even alter the Karmic balance for some undeserving of it. He motioned to the nearby Dahl, an advanced pupil, or Sravaka, of his small Sangha. An apt student, Dhal was well along the path of enlightenment.
Dahl moved forward with an endearing lack of grace. Within his boyish gangling frame was a fine ordered mind, that whittled away at the obstructions of life, and was difficult to frustrate. All qualities that would serve Manahhat well right now. Dahl had come to temple uncalled. Likely, he had intuited some of the portents, interpreted some of the vibrations of the cosmic wheel in his own meditations. This cycle, time and motion were Dahl's subject of meditation.
"Visitors come, Dahl – from Hingoli. Go and smooth their path."
Dahl bowed. Thought, perhaps worry, minutely crossed his unlined features.
"They are to know the mysteries here, at the shrine..."
Manhhat raised his hand, interrupting the query. "It is not their present path. They are yet puthuijana, ordinary people, but they come with reverence for our shrine, a Dharma of a kind."
Dahl bowed once more. "Then, I go to walk the high path, Manahhat."
Sarah woke late, to the insistent prying of brilliant light beneath her lids. The bed was otherwise empty, but she had expected that. Don would have risen early to drag his instruments and their other gear to the office, where the pack animals would be loaded. She pulled herself together quickly, splashing off at the room's washing bowl, and cursing the lack of a shower.
Don rubbed road dust from his eyes, watching the hub-bub of swarthy porters busy moving the expedition supplies to street's curb. There was still no sign of the expected camels, which were late arriving. A shouting Gooja Kahn, seemed intent on a bald-headed pile of yellow robes that sat quietly cross-legged, fronting the office.
"No, no, no! Is Private Caravan, very! Do not to be pilgrim infestation, putting up with!"
The Drover turned quickly back to supervising the men. "You and you! Stack those bundles at the front, where the camels will stand. Find more rope." Finally he salaamed towards Don, saying, "Am regretful sorry, Sahib. The vendor has not come with the animals yet. All else is ready, am efficient Babu, very!"
Late as usual, Sarah finally made her appearance, just as a thin youth ran up waving a paper. The drover turned his attention to this new nuisance, and after a swift read, fell into a loud argument with the boy, who eventually threw his hands up and stalked off.
Gooja Kahn turned sadly toward Don. "The camel vendor says the animals redirected were. All go to Adiem's caravan. Is regretful, Sahib, what will we do now?"
The drover turned quickly again to the seated Buddhist, "Go! Go away!"
Don looked glum. More paperwork, more delay. "There's nothing we can do right away, then. Have the porters put the supplies back inside. Put in a new order, and we will try again tomorrow I guess. Try another vendor."
The monk looked up at Don. "If I can arrange for the camels you need today, you could still leave, and I might accompany the caravan?"
Don took real notice of the man at this. Used to the beggars, fakirs, priests and monks that plied every street of Hingoli, he had allowed the presence of the man to fade into the background, content to let the Drover order the workmen here as he would.
Spying Don's change of attention, Gooja blurted, "Sahib, do not..."
Don ignored this, cutting the drover off. "You can get thirteen camels, with tack, in the next two hours?"
The monk smiled. "Yes, if you wish it."
"Do it, and you got yourself a ride, gladly."
The monk unfolded, standing taller than Don would have guessed, and briskly bowed, setting off down the street with a skeleton's gait.
"Mr Kahn, if I can get some camels loaded up in the next two hours, it will save a day's pay to move all this gear off the street again. Keep the men working. I'll give the monk his two hours before I go through all that."
Gooja salaamed, returning to directing his crew.
Sarah eased her small backpack off, placing it next to Don. "What's all this about?"
Don shrugged, "The usual foo-bars. Camels not on time, locals trying to cadge rides," Don eyed his wife with his usual mix of appreciation and fear of her liquid temperament. "May work out though, a Buddhist monk wants to go along--thinks he can sort out the transportation problem for us, so we wait."
"Is that likely? I thought monks held to strict vows of poverty. If that one could arrange for a whole caravan so quickly, why was he looking to mooch a ride with us?"
"Depends on how extensive his Sangha, or community is here, how much authority they have. A monk's vows would preclude using influence to provide something like that for himself, but he might decide to use it to aid others. Worth a shot to see. What choice do we have?"
Sarah folded and sat on her pack, grinding back frustration. Snapping at Don would do no good. Some leakage of disappointment was unavoidable though.
"Two hours, Don?"
A remarkable twenty minutes later the yellow robed monk reappeared. Behind his marionette-like gait followed a train of dromedary steeds, one tethered to the next. The monk wore a face-splitting grin.
Goojah Kahn frowned, looking incredulous. "Where could you get these, so quickly? You are in league with Jain thieves...we are to be robbed and killed in the desert, eh? Sahib," the drover turned and begged, "not to trust this miracle, Sir. Better we wait, make new arrangements with trustworthy vendor. Not thieving Buddhist priest!"
It was Don's turn to frown. "Mr. Kahn, in my limited experience, Buddhist priest and thief rarely conjoin in the same sentence. Load the animals. The monk goes with us."
The drover drew in on himself and turned to shout importantly at the rest. Soon the camels stood facing the desert, bulking with brown tarp covered bundles and Beluchi laborers, save the last four saddle-fitted dromedaries. The drover had these kneel, and quickly mounted one, sweeping his outstretched hand at the other three, pointedly ignoring the Buddhist.
The monk grinned and bowed, lightly mounting one animal, while Don courteously aided his wife in her boarding.
Roping on a small bundle not entrusted to the packers, he took the last camel, and with hoots and clicks, the caravan moved off into the wastes.
Cole cursed under his breath, watching as the thin line of the caravan wended across the sands. Kahn, the drover, had sworn camels would not be available to the preserver expedition. Now, I will have to ride extra hours each day to stay safely ahead. He lowered his binoculars in thought, glancing at the carbine fitted behind the saddle.
Too close to Hingoli yet, he mused. Officials could still be bribed to come out and investigate, and that could be trouble. He slithered back down the dune and remounted. He could follow until they stopped, then try something in the dark, or just ride hard, to gain ground on them. Mental wheels turned, and in the end, he decided to press on.
It might, he mused, be better to join the caravan forthrightly. Perhaps a little socializing this evening was called for. The two archeologists could always be handled if they got in the way. He could walk the high path, the road between worlds, and wait for them at the distant gorge they were heading towards.
Drum closed his eyes, envisioning the rift. It had been years, but most traffic from town passed through it. Unlike the temple, he could resolve an image of the pass, having been there before. It wasn't a Hindu trick, rather something he had learned in Tibet.
Two years spinning prayer wheels and drinking buttered tea, melting ice for an old fool of a priest. Eating bird seed. His anger blurred the vision he was trying to build, so he cleared his mind, began again...
The rolling gait reminded Don of an Ab-machine workout. Horseback riding abused an entirely different set of muscles, so having experience with one did nothing to prepare the rider for the other. Kahn seemed aware of this, and kept the pace slow. Don's animal did not like Sarah's, so riding apart, he ended keeping closer to the monk. Dahl,was the name given, he remembered.
For a while both seemed satisfied to move along quietly. At the slow pace set by Kahn, the column stayed mostly staggered, sometimes riders bunched up for company, then drifting back into a sort of procession. Currently, the Monk's animal was nearly alongside. Dahl graced Don with one of his frequent smiles.
"Our temple is very old, far from Hingoli, and the donations of tourists. Strict, so few come for enlightenment. So," he shrugged, "the sand takes it. Yet, you come to save it. Why?"
It was a common question, given the nature of most preservationist projects. Don felt almost guilty spouting pat answers at the intense priest.
"There are always some who want to keep the past from fading away, who believe the future learns from the past, and wish it salvaged from the complacency of the present. We work to preserve many places like your Temple."
True also, but unsaid, was that many foundation members were only interested in the non-taxable deductions generated by the Preservation Society. This trip would survey the site, take some photos for the societies publication, and spray a clear polymer binder onto the exterior. It was a cheap fix, one that would never be considered on a more valuable building. The sands would still take it, in time.
"This is your personal reason, as well?"
Don furled brows at that. There was no pat answer for his own commitment. "It's funny, you know? I could do without the travel--It's hell on home life. But, there's something special about reaching out and helping save something. Field preservation is...not exactly like museum work, or exploration, either...it's like, being a fireman, or a Medic, I guess. Like pulling a cat out of a tree. I'd miss not doing it."
"We believe it is what remains inside one, that matters, yet also, preserving the teaching of the masters is important, so I can understand this diligence to save things. Though it is misguided effort, it speaks well of you, and your wife."
This amused Don. This string-bean had went to great lengths to start their expedition off, and make this journey to the shrine, yet seemed indifferent to the fate of it. As if nothing important existed that was material, regardless of the significance of the structures culturally.
"Is this a pilgrimage for you?"
"The temple is part of my Sangha, my community. I have studied there."
"Yet the thought of losing the temple to erosion and neglect doesn't seem to bother you much."
"All things have their time, and cost. The temple will falter, its energy will be recycled on the wheel, to be reborn greater in its next incarnation, aided by prayers, and the Karma its acolytes have collected. To morn the present, is to deny it evolution. Essence is what must remain. Preservation is stasis, at best, Don-ald.
The monk fell silent, as if listening to something, then added, "This animal is bored with your Camel's company, Don-ald. I will fall back. Have you some words for your wife?"
The statement might have been a thinly veiled insult, but the monk said it with such disarming forthrightness, that fault wouldn't stick to it. Instead, he felt tickled, laughing, "I'm bored with camels generally. Be glad to get off this one. Tell Sarah to give a shout if she gets sick of the ride, and I'll have Kahn stop for a stretch."
Dahl smoothed down the billowing saffron of his robe. "That Drover does not avoid evil. You should watch him closely, Don-ald." At this he slowed his animal, dropping back in the dusty straggle of the caravan.
A rocky divide offering at least some shade, prompted a stop. Several bright-colored blankets appeared like magic. These were soon populated with food, canteens, goat skin bladders, and dicing workers. Younger members, automatically detailed to caring for the desert mounts, shouted side-bets and generally aired discontents. Don helped Sarah down, and both walked off their sore backsides along the shadowed gorge.
An angry bellow from one of the populated blankets preceded a quickly trotting Dahl, who gangled up towards the two archaeologists, grinning and stuffing his winnings into a flopping handbag affair that served as pockets for his simple, if colorful, garb.
Sarah took in the monk, and the calls of upset from the workers. "What was all that about, Dahl?"
"Differences philosophic, on the nature of chance. Is just a turn of the wheel, Sabina Cor-veny." The monk cocked his head to one side, closing his eyes. "Someone else travels our way, Sabina. Perhaps, more workers?"
"Better not be...Don?"
Don shook his head. "We all left at the same time, I checked. You sure, Dahl? I don't see..."
Cole's figure appeared around a kink in the gorge, a westerly approach, that cast his slumped figure in shadow against the bright afternoon sky.
"Our traveler," Dahl announced, making a small gesture.
The rider seemed calm, and as the distance between Don and the shadow diminished, features came clear. Rugged, square jawed, western features that sparked some recognition in Sarah, who nudged Don in the side.
"I know this guy! Um, at least I've seem him around before this. The name escapes me, but he's a field worker for sure. Semi-pro, I think, or an Indep. Oh! Saw him at the digs in Peru. Cochran, or Cole, I think. Remember Don?"
Don nodded. "Okay, yeah. Cole Drum, an independent. Recognize the half bald thing. He had some problem about permits ... a small fracas with the locals. Turned out alright. A shake-down attempt for fees by a nearby village council claiming domain over the site. We were concerned it might spill over onto us, at the time. Wonder what he's doing out here?"
Sarah frowned. "There was something else, too. Can't get my hands on it, but the name rings bells somehow."
"Well, let's greet the man, and find out what's what."
Dahl became animated. "I would very much, to meet this person enjoy also. I will come too. A friend then?"
Don's look soured. "No. Just a professional acquaintance. He was scratching around near another site we serviced a while ago. Come to think of it, I have heard other comments about him in passing. Nothing good. A little disreputable, maybe."
"A man of experience then? Good stories he will have, could be."
"Could be. Lets find out."
Cole kept a mild expression as he dismounted, watching the approaching trio from the corners of his eyes.
Tack attended to, he turned bluffly toward Don, somewhat ignoring Sarah, completely ignoring Dahl. "Hot ride. Missed this gorge coming out, circled back to get some shade. You heading west? Cole Drum, here. I know you from somewhere...Peru, right? This your expedition?"
Don took Cole's proffered hand briefly. "I remember. The permit squabble, all that. Don Corveny, and this is my wife, Sarah, and Dahl, a monk traveling our way. You here on business, Mr. Drum?"
"Just Cole will do. Touring the Jain Shrines, mostly. Someone said there was an old Buddhist ruin out this way--put it on my itinerary. You heading there?"
Sarah huffed. "Seems a suddenly popular destination. Yes. The society donated a preservative spray job for it. Dahl here is on a pilgrimage, then there's you. The site isn't Jain, ...a bit of a march for some tourism, isn't it?"
"Well, business and pleasure, business and pleasure. You going to stay the night? It's a full days ride from here. Probably wouldn't make the next water well before sundown, if you go on, might even miss it."
Don pointed to the drover, still gaming cross legged on one of the blankets. "That's up to Gooja there. He's trail master on this hike."
Cole squinted where Don indicated. "The Swami in the red turban? Good enough, I'll go ask."
Dahl bobbed a series of bows at Cole, talking ceaselessly the while. "Most gratified, illustrious traveler Sahib, to meet you. Understand an adventurer of note you are. You must regale me with the wonders of your travels, the insights and marvels of your work. Your turn on this wheel must be exciting!"
Cole started at this, focusing on the monk for the first time. "Speak English then, do you? I suppose I've had my moments, come to think of it. You're familiar with this shrine, then?"
"Oh yes sir, very. Part of my Sangha. I would trade stories with you, gladly. Let us go to question the Caravaner now."
Cole hesitated. "Later. I am interested though. Hold that thought, I'll be right back."
Sarah made a slight face after Cole, as he went on towards the Drover's Blanket. "Humph. Just waltz in, and make yourself at home. Did he actually ask, at any point, to join our caravan, Don?"
"Strong headed sort, no doubt about it. Long as he feeds himself...it's a public area, Sarah. He has the right to travel where he wants. Guess we can stand him for a day. I can ask Cole to take off, If you want."
"No, I guess it's up to us to demonstrate professional courtesy. I don't have to like it though. Dahl seems pleased, at least."
The drover rose to talk with Cole, an unusual piece of courtesy on Gooja's part, Don thought. Immediately after, some clipped orders piped out of the drover, and further activity began on the part of the workers, many of whom left their blankets to pull other supplies from the camels. Cole returned.
"Your drover agrees. Looks like we'll both be camping here tonight. Say, you don't mind if I tag along till tomorrow do you? I'd like to take Dahl up on his offer, if you don't mind. It's always nice to have a local's background on an...attraction. That be okay?"
Don looked at Sarah, who shrugged. "Alright by us."
Cole grunted, turned, and began to unload his animal. Sarah gripped Don's arm as she caught sight of a rifle stock peeking out from the man's bedroll.
The late day sun soon vanished, replaced by cook fires and a few scattered lanterns.
Gooja and his crew removed the camel's saddles, and set two of them up as stools for Don and Sarah. Cole arranged a semi-separate campsite, and put on some coffee. A worker even brought some of it over for the two archeologists.
Dahl seemed to have become a Cole groupie, and followed him constantly around the camp, bending his ear at every opportunity. Eventually Cole drove him off, and stalked back towards Gooja's blanket. Dahl approached one clot of men who still gambled, but was waved away with hoots and calls.
Don looked after the monk thoughtfully. "We should talk to Dahl about Cole, he's been dogging the man since he showed up, maybe he learned something."
Sarah raised an eyebrow. "You mean, on purpose?"
"I mean there are three diggers here, and Dahl only seems interested in Cole. Both of them are odd ducks, but they paddle around in different ponds. I'm not worried about Dahl's motives, whatever they are. Cole bothers me."
"Cole's rifle bothers me. Why would he come armed like that, on a sightseeing tour?"
"We could ask Dahl. He must have gleaned something about the guy by now."
Sarah nodded, and beckoned to Dahl.
Dahl came forward with his usual skeleton's gait, smiling and baby faced.
Sarah hesitated a moment, considering her words. "You've spent some time with Mr. Drum; what do you make of our guest?"
"Ah, Sabina, a man well traveled, widely knowledgeable, possibly intemperate. A man of diverse skills, and old lore."
Sarah flashed a dead-pan look to Don. It was her frustrated expression. The one sometimes followed by breaking things, so Don hastily took on the burden of quizzing the monk.
"We noticed he came armed. Any reasoning given for that?"
"No, he did not say, but he is to traveling alone, and this area is rife with thieves and revolutionaries. He knows much of my sect. He has many questions that only one cognizant of my Sangha would know to ask. Even the name of our master. He has several tools of the path with him, contemplative aids useful only to an adept. He is a great bastard, I think. I shall very much enjoy introducing him to Manahhat."
Don looked perplexed at the mixed metaphor, but soldiered on.
"Manahhat is the spiritual leader of the shrine? Your teacher?"
"Cole seems very focused on this shrine of yours, then.
"Were you able to answer any of his questions?"
"Oh no, Sahib Don-ald. I am a student, not a teacher. Also, I do not like him. Is he not wonderful? It is my place to sit at his feet and learn from him."
"Is that some Buddhist saying?"
"It is my personal opinion only, Don-ald Sahib."
Don decided to quit while he was ahead. "We'll see you in the morning then."
Dahl bowed with his smile still in place. "Always happy to aid you on your path, Don-ald, Sabina Sarah. Good night to you both."
"Well," Sarah said crossly, "that was helpful. As it happens I half agree with Dahl. I think he's a bastard too, but I don't think Drum has anything to teach me."
Don nodded. "All this jogged my memory a little. I remember talk about pilfered artifacts involving Cole, from before the Peru thing. It bothers me that he understated his interest in the temple. He has some specific purpose in going there, obviously, and no intention of telling us what it is."
Both retired groggily to their bedrolls. Across the gorge, Drum sat cross legged before his campfire, swaying rhythmically. It seemed to Don's closing eyes, as if the fire's reflection somehow passed beneath Cole, as if he were levitated before it, some trick of the light...
Don awoke to muffled screams and squeals. Sarah! Don tried to pull himself up, and failed. There was pain in his wrists and ankles, and he felt woozy, sick.
Hog-tied inside my own bedroll! He squirmed around to face Sarah, who was also trussed, and currently bug-eyed. Both shouted into the echoing, and abandoned gorge.
The coffee, Don thought. The bastard drugged us, tied us up, and left us.
Two camels, with their personal gear mounted, were hobbled nearby. Must have been in too much of a hurry to bother with them. Drum, Gooja, and his crew had vanished. Even Dahl was gone. The sun was low in the west, almost dusk. Whatever they had been given, it had knocked them out for the day. His mouth was cotton dry. Were it not for the shade of the gorge, they might have died.
Might still, if I can't get loose.
He looked into the suffering eyes of his wife, and struggled more. The effort only desiccated him faster, leaving him further weakened and fuzzy.
Shadows deepened. A clatter came up the gorge, and both tried to call out in parched, thin cries. A camel with a thin silhouette astride it approached.
"Yes, that Drover does not avoid evil. You should have watched him more closely, Don-ald."
Dahl dismounted, and dragged a skin bag off the animal. "Water. Drink first, then I will cut the ropes. We must hurry, or we shall miss the great bastard Cole's meeting, Don-ald Sahib. Cole and Gooja Kahn hid you here; Gooja told the workers that Cole was going to complete the expedition, that you would follow later. Which you will. It was no fault of the men, they only took Gooja at his word. I left the caravan before all of this."
Dahl administered the life-giving water skin first to Sarah, then to Don. He pulled out a thin dart-like knife and sawed away their bonds.
Don reached for his wife as soon as the bonds were cut. Sarah lapsed crying into his half numb arms.
Dahl watched quietly for a time, but finally urged both to prepare for travel. "I will ready your camels. We must hurry."
The sick feeling and thirst abated, and Don shook his head, rubbing circulation back into his wrists. "Why? It's a days travel from here, and Cole's got a rifle. What good would that do? Get us back to Hingoli and a phone. I'll call the Society. Cole will get his. Whatever he intends to steal will be returned."
Dahl grinned. "But, I know a short-cut. You will be safe in only a few minutes."
Don helped his still disoriented wife to her feet, and both managed to get mounted.
"Only a short time, follow please."
Dahl remounted, and his swaying camel lead theirs to the center of the gorge. Dahl closed his eyes. His face took on a meditative calm. Colors around them seemed to fade, and a thinning of things began. The gorge faded away, and the three ridden camels reappeared at the edge of an irrigated plot before an old and crumbling monastery. Sunset shadows trailed behind the plot's rows of struggling greens, and beyond, a weathered wall, broken by a gated entrance, curved away into an early evening grey.
Sarah gasped. Where has the day gone? Did I pass out, while riding the trail?
The white plastered temple, splashed with yellow torchlight sat behind the distant wall. A Blackened bronze effigy of Shiva danced in torchlight at the entrance's right, a remnant of some prior incarnation of the temple's long history.
Donald felt dizzy. He cast about trying to recover his bearings. "Where..."
"No need to thank me, Sahib Don-ald." It will be fun, you are safe. Wait here, wait and see."
From the pairs vantage point, they could see shapes move within the sliding torch light, under the darkened portico of the shrine. Two cross-legged forms seemed to float within it. Don squinted expecting to discern supporting chairs, but there were none. The heavier-set man, youngest of the pair, raised a rifle, and a crack echoed across the courtyard. The rifle took on a blue glow and almost immediately dissolved, and faded into a haze.
The shooter waved the haze away, raised his hand, and a nimbus seemed to well up, to encompass the opposing figure. It brightened, and within its rosy glow, the second man, a wizened elder priest, cried out. A white glow immediately pushed out from within the elder, and that halo too, dissolved.
Sarah gasped, stunned and confused. Grabbing the saddle's horn, she leaned out to clench Don's shoulder. "Don, do you see what I'm seeing?"
Don tore his gaze reluctantly away from the spectacle to meet his wife's terrified eyes. "I don't know what I'm seeing. One of them...Is that Cole?"
The gate-side effigy of Shiva shuddered, lifting a drum in one hand and several swords in others. It ran through the gate, and attacked Cole. Its arms wove an abattoir of menacing steel with fatal intent, but before it closed, the younger man made several complicated hand movements. The statue seemed to dissolve, only to reappear many feet away, dissolving again, then reappearing further off, then closer, as if being redirected in some battle of wills. Then it too, was gone.
Cole pulled something from a pocket, a flute, which he played. The flute-notes were discordant, and hurt Don's ears, even at his distance from the pair. Winds rose, and swelled around the thin, older opponent. The gale built into a whirlwind, that appeared to beat at the elder, who howled. Flashes of blinding light beat back and forth between the two, and the sanctuary seemed to stutter. Reality seemed to flicker, like a badly framed film.
In one particularly bright flash, shaven headed men in orange robes, rank on rank of them, became visible seated and passive on the temple floor deep within.
The heavier man gestured with his left hand and shouted, while with his other, he made a catching motion. A searing bolt shot forth from him, and a small paper scroll seemed to levitate from the side of the opposing elder, to fly into the bolt-tossers grasp. The shout carried clearly to Don.
The older form dissipated, vanished. Scroll in hand, the stocky Cole descended to sit cross legged on the stone floor. He unrolled the scroll, and seemed to read from it. A blurring of Cole's distant and darkened figure began, a saffron color suffused it, his shoulders shrank, aging, somehow.
Don squinted to focus on the figure as Sarah gasped. It no longer resembled Cole, after all.
The scene stilled, the firelight steadied, and Dahl left Don's side to approach the figure in reverence, seating himself before the winner, then looked back with a smile and motioned them forward.
Hesitantly, numbly, they went.
Jet threads rose from two lit tapers set on the stone tiles before the man. The thin smoke seemed to twine above the figure's head, oddly pooling there. The candle light, soft but insistent, made all else black, for the hour was now late.
In place of Cole, Manahhat Bhrevita, once again sat calmly, hands on knees, eyes closed, and breathed his personal mantra into the still and quiet.
As Don and Sarah watched, the old man opened his eyes to gaze kindly at the pair.
"I welcome you to my Sangha, and the Temple of Times' Wheel. I trust Dahl provided sufficient guidance for you?"
Don looked quickly at the rows of Buddhists behind the Priest, at the seated Dahl, and to where a black bronze of something very like an effigy of Sheiva again decorated the entrance. There was no trace of Cole Drum, save for a slight hardness to the priest's eyes, that somehow reminded Don of the man. "We, there was a man, a Mr.Drum..."
The old Buddhist nodded. "Yes, there was. Some day, there will be again, but not for many turnings of the wheel, a long road. I am glad you were not harmed. Your workers are arrived. They, and your goods are behind the temple wall, outside-- I do not allow animals in the temple grounds. Tomorrow, you can start the...preservation process?"
Sarah looked bewildered, and for a change, speechless. Don swallowed. "I suppose so, sure. Tonight..."
Manasseh Bhrevita raised one hand from his lap.
"Was a ceremony of rejuvenation. Only repeated once each century. You need not worry,the celebrations are over."
"Yes. I will have fresh water drawn for your people. Go and rest, Don-ald and Sarah Coveny. Another day in the cycle will begin soon enough. We can talk more then, if you like."
Dhal rose from before the master, and grinned. "I will take you, Don-ald. Gooja Kahn will not be there, I am afraid. I will see you back to Hingoli when you are done here." Donald took Sarah's hand and followed, glancing over his shoulder at Manahhat Bhrevita.
Before his pooling orange robe, on the cold floor, lay the prayer scroll, the Eternal Wheel, the Chant of Forever. There exists only one copy of this, and its keeping forever belongs to Manahhat. Always Manahhat.
Bio: So, I write largely science fiction and fantasy, and fantasy/humor. I do novels, short stories, Serial short stories, Novellas, all that. If all goes well, I expect to be posting a good deal of both here. What else can I say? I like walks in the rain and ice cream? I sketch, play blues harp, have been known to program for fun. Gamer? Yeah, I'm a slacker. Ran Plotters of Dreams for writers before it was virtually shut down save in title by Yahoo cuts in service, for ten years and counting. Ive moderated other groups, and obviously, writing is a passion. -Want to make peoples day, send them on vacation, make them chuckle occasionally.