They followed a canal filled with luminescent water that wound its way through the city like a neon boulevard. The Tibetan influence on the city’s architecture could be seen in the roofs and frequent windows of the tall, whitewashed buildings. Vivid splashes of paint in red, blue, and green were still evident on their rafters and doors. The city spread across the subterranean floor in a series of geometric patterns that formed a Buddhist , with every building turned inward to face a dark tower that rose high above the city’s center.
“The King’s Tower!” Kunchen announced, pointing to the .
As they drew nearer the heart of the city, they could make out the spiral staircase that wrapped around the King’s Tower. It rose skyward till it reached the small temple that served as the tower’s lofty crown. Sheridan was immediately reminded of spoken of in the Bible, where the prophet Jacob believed he had found the very gate of heaven itself.
The mystic quiet of the legendary paradise was suddenly shredded by a chilling cry that rang from the shrouded recesses of the cavern’s soaring rafters. Scanning the ebony ceiling of the mammoth cave, a blur of color appeared high above, vanishing just as quickly as it had appeared.
“The ,” Kunchen warned.
Another blood-curdling cry cut through the city.
Kunchen glanced back at Sheridan, raising a calm hand. “We are safe for now.”
Bursting from the deep recesses of the cave’s lofty canopy, the Giant Parodarsh came into full view as it plunged toward the King’s Tower. With brightly colored feathers displayed on its huge wings and a glimmering red rooster’s comb, it was an odd spectacle to behold. Beneath its massive beak, an equally red wattle whipped through the wind like a royal scarf. The great bird’s beak and talons were open in a threatening display of formidable power. Swooping down and out of sight, the Parodarsh reappeared and circled the tower as it ascended to the heights of the murky ceiling.
“It looks like a rooster on steroids!”
“Fear not the cries of the Parodarsh. It is the crowing of the great cock that may portend death’s visit or herald a new day.”
Sheridan moved alongside Kunchen.
“Do you get the feeling we’re not welcome?” Sheridan quipped.
Kunchen’s mind was fixed on the task at hand: “The Giant Parodarsh is the protector of the King’s Tower. To look upon it is to look upon a mirror that reveals the true you.”
“From the look on his face, I’d say he’s already decided he doesn’t like me.”
“Let’s hope that’s not true,” Kunchen answered, raising his lantern high overhead. The light spread across the stone plaza that surrounded the great tower, revealing a scene so shocking it capsized Sheridan’s feigned detachment. Littered around the plaza were heaped the bones of hundreds of men, their armor and weapons lying beside them where they had fallen.
Kunchen stepped squarely in front of Sheridan.
“Many have come this far only to find they could not face the truth of who they had become,” he said. His eyes locked onto Sheridan’s as if peering into his soul to see what ugly secrets might condemn him to the same fate as those that had gone before him.
Sheridan felt the cold blade of doubt cut into the wound of his despair. He hadn’t hesitated to face the prospect of death in the grip of the whirlpool but the prospect of coming face to face with his true self gave him pause. He had his demons and could only imagine what sort of monster he had become.
Disengaging from Kunchen’s probing gaze, he forced himself to once again consider the imposing piles of bones. He closed his eyes. Withdrawing to the haunted hermitage of his mind, Sheridan visited the ghosts of painful memories. The pain steeled his resolve. Its fire cauterized the fresh wounds of fear. Then, with steadfast certainty, Sheridan raised his eyes to answer Kunchen’s challenge.
“Then you are ready.”
Sheridan approached the broad base of the King’s Tower. There he found an unusual spiral staircase; a concave stairway of crescent-shaped stairs scooped out of solid rock.
Adjusting to the odd-shaped steps, Sheridan carefully placed his right foot into the center of the hollowed-out tread. Then, balancing himself against the tower walls, he began to climb. He had just started to get a feel for the stairway’s unique tread when a violent shriek reverberated through the city. It was a reminder of the Giant Parodarsh’s ever-present vigil from high above the forbidding tower. The jagged cries of the giant bird rattled Sheridan, breaking his concentration. With one eye on the precarious stairway and the other tracking the great bird, Sheridan missed a step and stumbled to his knees. Clutching the stairs, he steadied himself, and rose up on his feet.
Tearing his gaze from the mountain-capped sky, Sheridan set his aim for the top of the tower, carefully appraised the next step, and continued on. As he scaled the rising staircase, the balancing act became more treacherous; a chilly updraft began to rock him like a seesaw. Bracing himself against the shifting wind, he forged ahead, leaning into the steps as he climbed. After another dozen painstaking steps, Sheridan stopped to gauge his progress. Slowly he eased toward the edge of the steps. Leaning over the threshold, he shot a glance at the city below. The dizzying view threw him off balance. He lurched back from the brink and pressed himself against the wall of hand-hewn rock. He fought the attack of vertigo, staggering back to his feet as he strained to find his equilibrium. With measured breath he took a wobbly step, willing himself up the next bowed stair.
Gritty determination carried him halfway up the spiral staircase when he placed his right foot on an unsteady step. He eased his weight onto it, testing its strength. Satisfied it would hold, Sheridan set down his right foot and lifted his left foot toward the next rung. Mid-step he heard it: a subtle click. All at once he heard the grinding crunch of stone as the right side of the shaky step gave way like the keys of a piano
Sheridan fell backward, his hands swinging wildly, his feet flying over his head, his spine crashing against the centuries-old stonework. In a tumble of tearing flesh and bone against rock he spilled off the staircase and into the midnight void. At the last moment his right hand latched onto the staircase, his fingers quickly gripping the curved edge of the concave step. In a fierce show of strength, he held on tight, breaking his fall in a painful jolt that slammed his face against the tower and nearly wrenched his arm from his shoulder.
“Awwwww!” His pained groans hung in the atmosphere like quick-drying paint.
With one arm he hung, swaying in the air, his face scraping against the coarse rock. Fearing he would lose his hold, he lunged for the sharp edge of the staircase with his left hand. His fingers dug into the rock. He repositioned the grip of his right hand. Then, swinging to his left, he threw his left foot over the edge of the staircase. Thrusting his foot into the hollow of the stair, he shimmied his leg back over the edge.
Far below, at the foot of the King’s Tower, Kunchen watched, egging Sheridan on with a whisper: “.”
Hugging the staircase with two arms and a leg, he had begun dragging his torso over the lip of the stairs when he sensed something. He froze in place, straining to feel it above the pounding of his own labored breath. He felt it again. It was something deep, a vibration that resonated in his chest. And something else: a muted noise, uninterrupted and regular. He knew that sound. He held his breath and listened. He could almost make it out.
Breathing deeply, he bent his head to look over his right shoulder. He hadn’t it noticed before. A great waterwheel turned at the edge of the plaza, lifting water out of the canal and into a network of aqueducts that spread across the city. The wheel’s heavy axle turned in a small house that sat on the plaza facing directly toward the King’s Tower. Sheridan timed the pulse of the wheel. He watched each paddle catch in the water’s current while he listened to the sound resonating from within the tower. They were in synch! Then he knew.
It’s the sound of .
In one swift motion Sheridan grabbed onto the edge of the step and pushed off the staircase. With nothing but his precarious grip to stop a fall to certain death, his legs dropped beneath him, leaving him hanging high above the bone-littered plaza. In that instant, as he dangled from the stairs, he heard a second, louder click.
Suddenly a roar erupted from the summit of the towering edifice. Sheridan’s eyes shot toward the sky as an explosion of luminescent water burst from beneath the tower’s crowning temple.
“Not more water.” Sheridan whimpered.
An unstoppable river rushed forth, its raging water coursing down the tower’s concave steps. Sheridan held on, tucking himself against the tower wall. He could hear it approaching, like a mighty rush of wind. Then it struck, a riot of gleaming waves crashing past with the force of a cannonball. Sheridan held tight, his hands secure, the surging water spilling over the side, soaking him in a rain of liquid glitter. He started to pull himself back onto the stairs when he thought of Kunchen standing in the path of the descending flood. When he opened his mouth to warn Kunchen, he realized he was too late. His mouth hung open as he watched Kunchen standing perfectly still. The runaway waves burst out of the staircase with Kunchen directly in their path. Then, in a supernatural moment that defied the laws of nature, the charging flood halted, mounting up like a tsunami wave ready to strike. Suddenly, with the wave of Kunchen’s hand, the churning column collapsed, washing across the plaza and back into the canal.
“What the . . .?”
Kunchen tilted up his head to confront Sheridan’s disbelieving stare.
The mystifying sight gave Sheridan pause.
Who is this guy?
Setting the conundrum aside, Sheridan hauled himself back onto the spiral staircase, the lingering beads of luminescence spilling off his shoulders and onto the flood-soaked steps. As he got to his feet, a searing pain struck at his left knee. Instinctively he stretched his hand toward his knee when he felt something warm. A red stain oozed from a rip in his pants. He pried his finger through the hole and touched the torn flesh. He could feel past the parted skin to the uncut muscle. Just a flesh wound—it would have to wait.
Wiping the blood on his pants leg, he set his course for the next bell-shaped step. Then he heard another click. His body suddenly tensed in anticipation, his senses coming to full alert. Then, with a sound like fingernails on a chalkboard, the collapsed step swept up and locked back into place. Sheridan let out a great sigh.
Shaking off the threat of a second booby-trap, Sheridan pushed upward. He had managed to work his way to within twenty steps of the temple when the ever-menacing Parodarsh began to wing its way towards the tower. Sheridan braced himself. The Giant Parodarsh swooped down with Sheridan directly in his flight path. Barreling towards Sheridan’s exposed berth, the ancient creature narrowly missed—the blast of air from his mighty wings nearly knocking Sheridan from his perch. The mighty cock let out a great shriek and ascended rapidly. He prepared for another pass.
Drawing from a deep-seated resolve, his eyes focused straight ahead, Sheridan continued to climb the stairs. The great bird initiated a full-speed dive. Out of the corner of his eye Sheridan saw the enormous beast coming straight at him. The Giant Parodarsh spread his wings, drew his mighty talons, and descended at breakneck speed. With the creature quickly bearing down on him, an instant of calm struck Sheridan. It was time to face his fears. He waited till the last second. Then, as the fearsome Parodarsh came within reach, Sheridan threw open his arms, facing the creature with an unflinching stare!
The cock of awakening came to a stop, talons drawn and wings flapping furiously. With a mighty roar, a ball of fire burst from his beak, enveloping Sheridan in a cocoon of flames.
Held captive within the bird’s fiery grasp, Sheridan could feel the blazing heat. For a moment, time stood still while the two were locked in a pose.
Suddenly the wingspan of the Giant Parodarsh became a great mirror. Sheridan was frozen in place, mesmerized by his own determined face looking back at him. Then, as if the dregs and dross of his long dark night were consumed by a smelter’s fire, the image melted away to reveal a young boy sitting high atop a windblown cottonwood tree, singing at the top of his lungs. With gleeful abandon the boy held onto a swinging branch as if he was riding the wind.
Could it be?
The image captivated Sheridan, calling up advice from Lil’ John that he had rejected out of hand just days earlier.
“What are you saying?” Sheridan asked his childhood friend.
, the sacred journey in search of the . But I must warn you; the Great Mystery does not reveal itself to the eyes of men, it can only be seen with the .”
“Your search for the sacred gift has already begun. It is your
The welling of tears began to blur Sheridan’s vision.
“I haven’t seen the world like that for a very long time.
Suddenly a roar erupted from the bird. The deafening crow shattered the boyhood apparition as the awesome Giant Parodarsh lifted away from the tower and into the dome of darkness.
Sheridan looked up toward the top of the tower. A sudden surge of energy pulsed through his body. With a quick thumbs-up to Kunchen, Sheridan resumed his climb.
Step after step Sheridan climbed till he slipped beneath the blue-tiled roof of the unadorned temple. Surrounded by red columns on every side, he eased toward a stone pedestal that rose up from the center of the temple like the wick of an ancient lamp. Upon the pedestal sat a golden vase covered with dust and cobwebs.
It’s a lighthouse.
Sheridan could imagine how, long ago, the light from the Chintamani Stone must have illuminated all of Shambhala. But with the divine spark exiled from the seat of dominion, centuries of sorrow had left their indelible mark leaving a skulking across the sacred lantern. From his roost atop the King’s Tower, Sheridan peered out over the city of Shambhala.
If this darkened city really is the soul of the earth, it’s no wonder such darkness has begun to spread across its surface.
He approached the pedestal reverently and gently brushed the cobwebs aside. Leaning over the ornate stand, he blew away the dust, revealing the glimmering gold of the vase. A circle of golden prongs rose from within the vase, arranged like the empty setting of a diamond ring. Slowly he reached for the shaft, grasping it firmly with both hands. It began to glow dimly, like a flashlight with bad batteries. Taking a deep breath, he pulled on the baton, his body tensing with the effort. But the baton wouldn’t budge.
He tried again, veins bulging across his forehead as he strained to release the baton from the unyielding vase. The metal flickered ever so slightly. Stepping back from the pedestal, he stretched his arms and torso like an athlete preparing for a sporting event. Then he stepped forward once again. Softly cradling the shaft in his hands, he leveraged his body against the base of the pedestal then arched his back until his face turned skyward. Suddenly a charge of electricity shot through the baton. With a jolt of convulsive power, the shock jerked his head back over the pedestal, face to face with the golden bloom that stemmed from the vase. Looking into the baton’s empty setting, Sheridan could feel the retinas of his eyes rapidly expand; his body locked with living rigor mortis.
Then the hooded figure appeared, his piercing eyes peering through the darkness, just as he had in his dreams so many times before. Dressed in the colorful adornment of some ancient attire, the androgynous features and dark skin of his face were masked by the shadow of his hood.
With the sonorous he began to speak:
“A sacred gift has been lost. You must find this gift and share it with the world.”
“What is this gift?” Sheridan asked.
“It is the Song of Shambhala,” he intoned. “A song that will unleash the greatest power ever known.”
The ageless sage reached inside his flowing garments revealing a beautiful three-sided baton of glimmering gold. Symbols adorned each side, and an azure flower, carved of stone, emerged from one end. The sage held the baton in both hands, displaying the lotus flower set within its golden prongs.
“This lotus, made of , has been broken into three stones. Find the stones and the Song of Shambhala will be revealed. But be mindful, with the Baton of Shambhala at your side, you will also hear the many Songs of the Awakening along your journey. It is up to you to write down each song, melody and verse, to serve as signal fires for those who come behind you.”
The sage raised his index finger.
“Now remember, you must share the Song of Shambhala with the world before the Last Sunset, the Final Chapter of this dying world.”
“It’s too late—there’s no more music . . . all I hear is dissonance . . . meaningless dissonance.” Sheridan protested.
“The melodies of the awakening will appear, drawn from the very fabric of life by the irresistible pull of your heart. They will possess you like demons rising from the depths of your fears and visit you on the breath of enlightenment like sacred spirits of the air. Wherever you find your greatest doubts and most painful sorrows, the music will meet you there, giving melody to your yearnings, voice to your tribulations, and songs to your desperate cries. Listen for the music and it will lead you, join in its refrain and it will carry you to the Song of Shambhala. Whatever you do, do not ignore the music or you will be abandoned once again to the tyranny of silence.”
The mysterious sage leaned toward Sheridan. “Find the Song of Shambhala, and you will hear the dissonance that has haunted you resolve in perfect harmony. But if you fail, the darkness that fills your heart will swallow the earth.”
Without uttering another word, the sage stepped back into the black void until only his glowing eyes could be seen floating in the darkness.
Sheridan started to regain his senses. His stiffened body began to slacken; his clenched eyes opened. A single fell from his eyes, then another, and another.
One by one they began to fall; down his face, off his chin, and onto the baton in his hands. With each tear the baton burned brighter, until all at once the baton slipped out of the golden vase. Caught off guard by its sudden release, Sheridan found the baton of his vision suddenly resting in his hands. Free from its fetters, the baton shone so brightly it illuminated the temple, casting an azure light across Sheridan’s face.
The enchanted glow of the baton entranced Sheridan. In all his years of encounters with sacred artifacts, many believed imbued with legendary powers, he had never experienced any of them becoming animated with such unexplainable energy. Not even Sheridan’s dark reservoir of cynicism could deny the evidence of its alchemy. He examined the baton, looking for clues to its creator.
Were you crafted in the ironworks of heaven to lead a mighty chorus, or in the humble realm of man to empower a local king?
Holding the torch of light high overhead, Sheridan made his way across the bare floor of the upraised temple to where it gave way to the rarified atmosphere. Standing at the temple’s edge, he caught sight of Kunchen watching him from the stone plaza far below. His display of quiet reserve struck Sheridan as a reaction more fitting for a seasoned observer than a young man.
What aren’t you telling me?