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Warning: this novel contains profanity and graphic violence.

Chapter Two

 

In one of the remote pavilions of the Gsalrig Chongg monastery, Aloysius Pendergast rested on a bench beside Constance Greene. A row of stone windows looked out over the gorge of the Llölung to the great Himalayan peaks beyond, washed in a delicate pink alpenglow. From below came the faint roar of a waterfall at the head of Llölung valley. As the sun sank below the horizon, a dzung trumpet sounded a deep, drawn-out note that echoed among the ravines and mountains.

Almost two months had passed. July had come, and along with it spring in the high foothills of the Himalaya. The valley floors were greening, speckled with wildflowers, while a furze of pink wild roses flowered on the hillsides.

The two sat in silence. They had two weeks until the end of their stay.

The dzung sounded again as the fiery light died on the great triumvirate of mountains—Dhaulagiri, Annapurna, and Manaslu—three of the ten highest peaks in the world. Twilight came swiftly, invading the valleys like a flood of dark water.

Pendergast roused himself. “Your studies are going well. Extremely well. The Abbot is pleased.”

“Yes.” Her voice was soft, almost detached.

He laid a hand on hers, his touch as light and airy as a leaf’s. “We haven’t spoken of this before, but I wanted to ask if… everything went well at the Feversham Clinic.” Pendergast seemed uncharacteristically awkward and at a loss for words.

Constance’s gaze remained aimed deep into the cold, snowy mountains.

Pendergast hesitated. “I wish you would have let me be with you.”

She inclined her head, still remaining silent.

“Constance, I care for you very much. Perhaps I haven’t expressed myself strongly enough on that point before. If I didn’t, I apologize.”

Constance bowed her head further, her face flushing. “Thank you.” The detachment vanished from her voice, replaced by a faint tremor of emotion. She stood abruptly, looking away.

Pendergast rose as well.

“Excuse me, Aloysius, but I feel the need to be alone for a while.”

“Of course.” He watched her slim form move away from him until it vanished like a ghost into the stone corridors of the monastery. Then he turned his gaze to the mountainous landscape beyond the window, falling deep into thought.

As darkness filled the pavilion, the sounds of the dzung stopped, the last note sustained as a dying echo among the mountains for many long seconds. All was still, as if the coming of night had brought with it a kind of stasis. And then a figure materialized in the inky shadows at the foot of the pavilion: an old monk in a saffron robe. He gestured at Pendergast with a withered hand, using the peculiar Tibetan shake of the wrist that signified, come.

Pendergast walked slowly toward the monk. The man turned and began to shuffle off into the darkness.

Pendergast followed, intrigued. He wondered if there would be some ceremony of departure, or if some prayer would be said. But instead of leading him to the gathering chamber, the monk took Pendergast in an unexpected direction, down dim corridors toward the strange row of cells that held the famed immured anchorite: a monk who had voluntarily allowed himself to be bricked up in a cell just large enough for a man to sit and meditate, walled up for his entire life, fed once a day with bread and water by means of moving a single loose brick.

The old monk paused before the cell, which was nothing more than a featureless dark wall. The old stones of the wall had been polished by many thousands of hands: people who had come to ask this particular anchorite for wisdom. He was said to have been walled up at the age of twelve. Now he was nearly one hundred, an oracle famed for his unique gift of prophecy.

The monk tapped on the stone, twice, with his fingernail. They waited. After a minute, the one loose stone in the façade began to move, ever so slightly, scraping slowly over the joint. A withered hand appeared, white as snow, with translucent blue veins. It rotated the stone into a sideways position, leaving a small space.

The monk bent over to the hole and murmured something in a low voice. Then he turned to listen. Minutes passed, and Pendergast heard the faintest whisper from within. The monk straightened up, apparently satisfied, and gestured for Pendergast to step close. Pendergast did as requested, watching the stone slip back into position, guided by an unseen hand.

All of a sudden, a deep scraping sound seemed to come from within the rock next to the stone cell, and a seam opened up. It enlarged to become a stone door, which grated open on some unseen mechanism. A peculiar scent of some unknown incense wafted from within. The monk held out his hand in a gesture for Pendergast to continue—and when the agent had passed over the threshold, the door slid shut. The monk had not followed—Pendergast was alone.

Another monk appeared out of the gloom, holding a guttering candle. During the past month at Gsalrig Chongg, as well as in his previous visits, Pendergast had come to know the faces of all the monks—and yet this one was new. He realized he had just entered the Inner Monastery, whispered about but never confirmed—the hidden Sanctum Sanctorum. Such entrance—which, he’d understood, was absolutely forbidden—was apparently guarded by the immured anchorite. This was a monastery within the monastery, in which a half-dozen cloistered monks passed their entire lives in the profoundest meditation and unceasing mental study, never seeing the outside world or even coming in direct contact with the monks of the outer monastery, guarded by the unseen anchorite. They had so withdrawn from the world, Pendergast once heard it said, that the light of the sun, should it fall upon their skin, would kill them.

He followed the strange monk down a narrow corridor, leading into the deepest parts of the monastic complex. The passages became rougher and he realized that they were tunnels cut out of the living rock itself: tunnels that had been plastered and frescoed a thousand years before, their paintings now almost obliterated by smoke, humidity, and time. The passage turned, and turned again, passing small stone cells containing Buddhas or T’angka paintings, illuminated by candles and drifting with incense. They passed no one, saw no one—the warren of windowless rooms and tunnels felt hollow, damp and deserted.

Finally, after what felt like an endless journey, they came to another door, this one bound in bands of oiled iron, riveted into thick plates. Another key was brandished, and with some effort the door was unlocked and opened.

The room beyond was small and dim, illuminated by a single butter lamp. The walls were lined in ancient, hand-rubbed wood, meticulously inlaid. Fragrant smoke drifted in the air, pungent and resinous. It took Pendergast’s eyes a moment to adjust to the extraordinary fact that the chamber was packed full of treasure. Against the far wall sat dozens of caskets in heavy repoussé gold, their lids tightly locked; next to them stood stacks of leather bags, some of which had rotted and split, spilling their contents of heavy gold coins—everything from old English sovereigns and Greek staters to heavy gold Mughals. Small wooden kegs were stacked around them, the staves swollen and rotted, spilling out raw and cut rubies, emeralds, sapphires, diamonds, turquoises, tourmalines, and peridots. Others seemed filled with small gold bars and oval Japanese kobans.

The wall to his right contained a different kind of treasure: shawms and kangling horns made of ebony, ivory and gold, and encrusted with gems; dorji bells of silver and electrum; human skullcaps trimmed in precious metals and glowing with turquoise and coral inlay. In another area stood a crowd of statues in gold and silver, one adorned with hundreds of star sapphires; nearby, nestled in wooden crates and straw, he could see translucent bowls, figures, and plaques of the finest jade.

And to his immediate left, the greatest treasure of all: hundreds of cubbyholes stuffed with dusty scrolls, rolled t’angkas, and bundles of parchment and vellum tied in silk cords.

So astonishing was the display of treasure that it took Pendergast a moment to realize a human being was sitting, cross-legged, on a cushion in the near corner.

The monk who had brought him now bowed, hands together, and withdrew, the iron door clanging behind him, the lock turning. The cross-legged monk gestured toward a cushion beside him. “Please sit down,” he said in English.

Pendergast bowed and seated himself. “A most remarkable room,” he replied. He paused a moment. “And a most unusual incense.”

“We are the guardians of the monastery’s treasures—the gold and silver and all other transitory things the world considers wealth.” The man spoke in a measured and elegant English, with an Oxbridge accent. “We are also stewards of the library and the religious paintings. The ‘incense’ you note is the resin of the dorzhan-qing plant—burned ceaselessly to keep the worms at bay—ravenous woodworms indigenous to the high Himalayas that seek to destroy everything in this room made of wood, paper, or silk.”

Pendergast nodded, taking the opportunity to examine the monk more closely. He was old, but wiry and astonishingly fit. His red and saffron robes were tightly wound, and his head was shaven. His feet were bare and almost black with dirt. His eyes gleamed in a smooth, ageless face that radiated intelligence, anxiousness, and grave concern.

“No doubt you’re wondering who I am, and why I have asked you to come,” the monk said. “I am Thubten. Welcome, Mr. Pendergast.”

“Lama Thubten?”

“We have no distinguishing titles here in the Inner Temple.” The monk leaned toward him, peering closely at his face. “I understand that your business in life is to—I am not sure how to put it—to pry into the affairs of others, to put right what has been wronged? To solve riddles, shine light onto mystery and darkness?”

“I have never heard it put quite that way. But yes, you’re correct.”

The monk sat back, relief evident on his face. “That is good. I feared perhaps I was mistaken.” Then his voice fell almost to a whisper. “There is a riddle here.”

There was a long silence. Then Pendergast said, “Go on.”

“The Abbot cannot speak of this matter directly. That is why they have asked me to do so. Yet even though the situation is dire, I find it… difficult to talk about. But now that you are going away, I can postpone no longer.”

“You have all been kind to me and my ward,” said Pendergast. “I welcome the opportunity to do something in return—if I can.”

“Thank you. The story I am about to tell you involves revealing some details of a secret nature.”

“You can count on my discretion.”

“First I will tell you a little of myself. I was born in the remote hill country of Lake Manosawar in Western Tibet. I was an only child, and my parents were killed in an avalanche before my first birthday. A pair of English naturalists—a husband and wife team doing an extensive survey of Manchuria, Nepal and Tibet—took pity on such a young orphan and informally adopted me. For ten years I stayed with them as they traveled the wilds, observing, sketching, and taking notes. Then one night a roving band of soldiers came upon our tent. They shot both the man and the woman, and burned them with all their possessions. I alone escaped.

“Losing two sets of parents—you can imagine my feelings. My lonely wanderings took me here, to Gsalrig Chongg. In time I took a vow and entered the Inner Monastery. We devote our lives to extreme mental and physical training. We occupy ourselves with the deepest, the most profound, and the most enigmatic aspects of existence. In your study of Chongg Ran, you have touched upon some of the truths that we plumb to an infinitely greater depth.”

Pendergast inclined his head.

“Here in the Inner Monastery, we are cut off from all existence. We are not permitted to look upon the outside word, to see the sky, to breathe fresh air. All is focused on turning within. It is a very great sacrifice to make, and that is why there are only six of us. We are guarded by the anchorite, not allowed to speak to an outside human being, and I have violated that sacred vow to speak with you now. That alone should help impress upon you the seriousness of the situation.”

“I understand,” Pendergast said.

“We have certain duties here as monks of the Inner Temple. In addition to being keepers of the monastery’s library, relics and treasure, we are also the keepers of… the Agozyen.”

“The Agozyen?”

“The most important object in the monastery, perhaps in all of Tibet. It is kept in a locked vault, over in that corner.” He pointed to a niche carved in the stone, sealed by a heavy iron door, which was hanging ajar. “All six monks gather here once a year to perform certain… rituals of warding over the vault of the Agozyen. When we performed this duty in May, a few days before you arrived, we found the Agozyen was no longer in its place.”

“Stolen?”

The monk nodded.

“Who has the key?”

“I do. The only one.”

“And the vault was locked?”

“Yes. Let me assure you, Mr. Pendergast, that it is quite impossible for one of our monks to have committed this crime.”

“Forgive me if I am skeptical of that assertion.”

“Skepticism is good.” He spoke with peculiar force and Pendergast did not reply. “The Agozyen is no longer at the monastery. If it was… we should know.”

“How?”

“That is not to be spoken of. Please believe me, Mr. Pendergast—we would know. None of the monks here have taken the item into their possession.”

“May I take a look?”

The monk nodded.

Pendergast rose and, taking a small flashlight from his pocket, went over to the vault and peered at the round keyhole of the lock. After a moment he examined it with a magnifying glass.

“The lock’s been picked,” he said, straightening up.

“I am sorry. Picked?”

“Coaxed open without the use of a key.” He glanced at the monk. “Forced, actually, by the looks of it. You say none of the monks could have stolen it. Have there been other visitors to the monastery?”

“Yes,” said the monk with a ghost of a smile. “In fact, we know who stole it.”

“Ah,” said Pendergast. “That makes things much simpler. Tell me about it.”

“A young man came to us in early May—a mountaineer. His was a strange arrival. He came from the east—from the mountains on the Nepalese border. He was half dead, a man in mental and physical collapse. He was a professional mountaineer, the lone survivor of an expedition up the unclimbed West Face of Dhaulagiri. An avalanche swept all to their deaths save him. He’d been forced to cross and descend the North Face, and from there make his way over the Tibetan frontier illegally, through no fault of his own. It took him three weeks of walking and finally crawling down glaciers and valleys to reach us. He survived by eating berry rats, which are quite nourishing if you catch one with a stomach full of berries. He was on the verge of death. We nursed him back to health. He is an American—his name is Jordan Ambrose.”

“Did he study with you?”

“He took little interest in Chongg Ran. It was strange—he certainly had the power of will and activity of mind to succeed, perhaps as much as any Westerner we have seen… besides the woman, that is. Constance.”

Pendergast nodded. “How do you know it was him?”

The monk did not answer directly. “We would like you to trace him, find the Agozyen, and bring it back to the monastery.”

Pendergast nodded. “This Jordan Ambrose—what did he look like?”

The monk reached into his robes and pulled out a tiny, scrolled parchment. He untied the strings binding it and unrolled it. “Our T’angka painter made a likeness of him at my request.”

Pendergast took the scroll and examined it. It showed a young, fit, and handsome man, in his late twenties, with long blond hair and blue eyes, and a look on his face of physical determination, moral casualness, and high intelligence. It was a remarkable likeness that seemed to capture both the outer and inner person.

“This will be very useful,” said Pendergast, tying it up and slipping it into his pocket.

“Do you need any more information to find the Agozyen?” the monk asked.

“Yes. Tell me exactly what the Agozyen is.”

The change that came over the monk was startling. His face grew guarded, almost frightened. “I cannot,” he said in a quavering voice pitched so low it was barely audible.

“It’s unavoidable. If I’m to recover it, I must know what it is.”

“You misunderstand me. I cannot tell you what it is because we don’t know what it is.”

Pendergast frowned. “How can that be?”

“The Agozyen has been sealed within a wooden box ever since it was received for safekeeping by our monastery a thousand years ago. We never opened it—it was strictly forbidden. It has been passed down, from Rinpoche to Rinpoche, always sealed.”

“What kind of box?”

The monk indicated with his hands the dimensions, about five inches by five inches by four feet.

“That’s an unusual shape. What do you think might have been stored in a box that shape?”

“It could be anything long and thin. A wand or sword. A scroll or rolled up painting. A set of seals, perhaps, or ropes with sacred knots.”

“What does the name Agozyen mean?”

The monk hesitated. “Darkness.”

“Why was opening it forbidden?”

“The founder of the monastery, the first Ralang Rinpoche, received it from a holy man in the east, from India. The holy man had carved a text on the side of the box which contained the warning. I have a copy of the text here, which I will translate.” He took out a tiny scroll, written with Tibetan characters, held it at arms length in his slightly trembling hands, and recited:

Lest into the Dharma you unchain
An uncleanness of evil and pain,
And darkness about darkness wheel,
The Agozyen you must not unseal.

“The ‘Dharma’ refers,” said Pendergast, “to the teachings of the Buddha?”

“In this context it implies something even larger—the entire world.”

“Obscure and alarming.”

“It is just as enigmatic in Tibetan. But the words used are very powerful. The warning is a strong one, Mr. Pendergast—very strong.”

Pendergast considered this for a moment. “How could an outsider know enough about this box to steal it? I spent a year here some time ago and never heard of it.”

“That is a great enigma. Surely none of our monks ever spoke of it. We are in the greatest dread of the object and never talk of it, even amongst ourselves.”

“This fellow, Ambrose, could have scooped up a million dollars worth of gemstones in one hand. Any ordinary thief would have taken the gold and jewels first.”

“Perhaps,” said the monk after a moment, “he is not an ordinary thief. Gold, gemstones… you speak of earthy treasures. Passing treasures. The Agozyen…”

“Yes?” Pendergast prompted.

But the old monk simply spread his hands, and returned Pendergast’s gaze with haunted eyes.

 

Copyright © 2007 by Splendide Mendax, Inc., and Lincoln Child

THE WHEEL OF DARKNESS is available in paperback from Grand Central Publishing, www.HachetteBookGroup.com.

© 2019 Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child