Days later the covert expedition made its way into China undetected by the ever-vigilant Chinese military. Benefitting from Evan’s early planning and well-placed connections, their caravan of antiquated cargo trucks was soon throwing up an impressive cloud of dust as they raced across the high .
The mighty once reigned over the isolated domain casting its watchful eye on all that passed. But this day the approaching interlopers found it deposed, its once enveloped in a poisonous shroud, enslaved to an occupying force of darkness.
Still, the ominous cast of an angry heaven could not diminish the breathtaking expanse of the vast plain nor obscure the austere beauty of the world-above-the-world. Across the mountain-hemmed rooftop of the earth, the captive kingdom shimmered with life. Evidence of life’s enduring triumph could be seen in the clamoring hoofs of wild donkeys that raced beside the caravan, the centuries-old monasteries that clung to the distant cliff tops and the glimmering turquoise waves of .
In the lead truck, peered from a tightly wound scarf of coarse wool. His eyes scanned the horizon as he reflected on what historians would write of that day. He could imagine how proud his father would be to see him succeed where the many and over the centuries had failed. And like the gold coin spinning through his fingers, his mind churned with plans only he could fully know.
At Evan’s right hand, monitored a radar screen relayed from the UN to his satellite-linked tablet. Simmering with the pent-up ferment of a soldier hungry for battle, he watched intently for signs of military traffic. And at every side soldiers and communed in the rattling truck bed, each one finding a different taste in the shared experience: one mind racing with anticipation, another harkening back to home.
stood at the helm of the truck bed, his face taut and dry, his lips cracked, the crisp wind whipping through his graying hair.
Far from the cloistered life of his quiet bookshop, the experience of the open road stoked his relic-hunting instincts. His dormant senses began to stir. The dullness began to part. He could feel the shift, a current of energy pulsing through his torpid body. His latent muscles began to flex with strength. His lungs expanded with renewed breath. The sounds of the caravan, as muted as the brittle tone of an AM radio, blossomed into an unrestrained rhapsody that wrapped around Sheridan like a marching band.
In the firm grip of his hand, holding fast to a makeshift railing of two-inch pipe, the dimpled metal’s paint and rust read like Shakespeare in Braille.
Sheridan pulled his leather jacket tight, his wind-chilled fingers fumbling with the top button. He turned a closed mind to the sensory overload, retiring to his preferred haunt of solitude. Withdrawing deeper still to a familiar retreat of unlit grief, he entered a private dungeon where unanswered questions sustained an inescapable longing.
And there, in that secluded darkness, it appeared. It was tiny, infinitesimal really, no more than a spark, like the intermittent flicker of a firefly. But in a black cesspool of misery it shown like a lighthouse on a distant shore. It had been the last presence to forsake him and one he had swore he would never welcome again. He had once longed to be visited by the captivating light but in his darkest hour he had grown to distrust its counsel and resent its company. Yet there it was once again – the glimmering ember of hope.
Sheridan knew why it had suddenly chosen to make its appearance; it was always the ready companion of a dream. But for Sheridan this expedition bore none of the illusions of a dream. It was a Hail-Mary pass, a last ditch effort, Sheridan’s last stand. For dreams required faith and carried a price he no longer could afford.
Sheridan began to think on these things when, from the depths of his emptiness, a melody arose to accompany his poignant reflection:
I feel the heat, I see the sun’s rising,
Could this be a dream, Is this a new beginning
No more night, no more pain
No more tears, no more crying
The oasis awaits, a mirage never arriving
How long, must we wait
How long, this wandering
How much, must be paid
To the shadow of the dream?
Sheridan’s dance with disenchantment came to an end when he realized the song had no ending, just the endless loop of a disappointing refrain. He tried to settle back into his private asylum when he was distracted by the memory of his conversation with .
“There’s a dream I keep having,“ Sheridan whispered into the telephone. “The dream has always been the same—until tonight.”
“And what happened tonight?” asked Lil’ John.
Sheridan hesitated, his words stumbling out in tentative phrases: “The man in my dream . . . he spoke to me for the first time . . . he told me of a sacred gift that had been lost . . . a gift that could save the world.”
“Your dream,” John urged gently. “Is the gods conspiring to give you freedom, just like the elders sang that night in the Sundance ceremony:”
When worlds collide there sounds a tolling
A call to rise and seize the moment
The gods conspire to give us freedom
When worlds collide the journey has begun
Sheridan pulled at the collar of his t-shirt, Lil’ John’s words suffocating him. Pushing back from the precipice of dread, Sheridan strained to speak, his husky words weak and staggering: “What are you saying?”
“Your search for the sacred gift has already begun . . .”
Murmuring whispers cut short his brooding as he felt the crush of men pressing in. Sheridan raised his steel-blue eyes. On the distant horizon, calling them as a beacon of destiny, an immense shaft of sunlight cut through a breach in the endless ceiling of gray. Defying the assault of unending darkness, a snow-capped pillar of black rock rose to meet the sun—it was .
Buddhists believe it is the “navel of the world.” Its four sheer walls stand as true as the cardinal points of the compass with four great rivers flowing from its foundation. The sacred mountain, with wisps of windblown snow circling its peak like a crown of white, left no doubt about why four major religions revere it, and why the Tibetans called it Lari, the Soul Mountain, believing it imbued with the .
But to their covert operation that day, mighty Mount Kailash appeared simply as the gate to .
“My God.” Evan said, bracing himself with a firm grip on Sheridan’s shoulder. “It’s like a castle under seige.”
Sheridan gave a bitter wince.
At the base of the sacred mountain the entourage swiftly disembarked the dust-covered trucks while local Sherpas in their sheepskin chupas began loading up pack animals with gear and supplies.
As expected, they were greeted by a small group of led by an old and diminutive figure whose fragile appearance belied his lively disposition. It was Abbot Rabten, chief abbot of the secretive Wangdak monastery that had stood watch over Mount Kailash for centuries. Indeed, he was the same abbot who, just five years before, had been reluctant to confirm Sheridan’s research on the . It puzzled Sheridan. In those days the abbot was a closed book on the city of Shambhala’s exact location. But for this expedition, despite the short notice and considerable risk, the abbot was quick to offer his help. When asked about his sudden change of mind, Abbot Rabten offered only a cryptic reply: “It is time to face yourself again.”
Despite the frailty of the old man’s reedy voice, his words resonated with mystical authority. He motioned to a smooth-headed young monk wearing a red monastic robe.
“I offer you . He will be your guide.”
Kunchen was a striking young man with a peaceful countenance and eyes that smiled even when his face didn’t. Although he stood head and shoulders above the other monks, he walked with such fluid movements that Sheridan was reminded of stories of Buddhist lamas adept in , a training that allowed them to accomplish supernatural feats of physical endurance.
And Sheridan noticed something else, something familiar in his eyes.
After the equipment and provisions were loaded onto their beasts of burden, Kunchen glanced back at Sheridan, giving a subtle nod.
They were ready.
Sheridan took his donkey’s lead rope and gazed into the eyes of the tired-looking animal. Feeling a connection with the donkey’s weary gaze, he scratched her between the eyes as she rocked her head in delight. It struck Sheridan that the seasoned animal knew more than he did of the difficult climb that lay ahead and still she stood ready. He borrowed from her willingness.
Taking a great breath, his eyes narrowed with resolve, Sheridan turned toward the mountain, gave the rope a tug, and followed Kunchen up the mountain trail.
For the next two days Kunchen led them through snow-blown mountain passes that wound across precarious trails and scaled rocky crags in a route so circuitous it was certain they would never find their way back on their own. Even Evan’s effort to map their course with GPS tracking was ineffective; the mysteries of Shambhala seemed protected by Mount Kailash itself.
When their expedition stretched along an unassuming path that threaded tightly between the mountain and the icy shores of an unmarked river, the tortuous terrain and thin air began to take its toll on even the best conditioned of Evan’s men. His back bent with exhaustion, Sheridan carefully placed tender feet on rocks that teetered and shifted with every step. A mask of ice framed deep-set eyes where pitch-black pupils brimmed with faithless determination. Pulling alongside a course of the river where the water swirled in a violent whirlpool, Kunchen came to a stop.
Wondering what the young monk saw in the thrashing water, Sheridan’s face creased with anxiety as he eased up beside Kunchen.
“This is the way to the city of Shambhala,” Kunchen said. ”It’s a sort of . . . a back door between dimensions.”
“It had to be through the damn water.” Sheridan muttered through cracked lips.
“Do not curse the water; you will need it to reach Shambhala.”
Shoving his hands into fur-lined pockets, Evan pushed past the ice-glazed donkeys, warmed only by their heavy loads, and through a huddle of skittish Sherpas nervously trading signs of premonitions. He quickly joined Sheridan and Kunchen where the white foam of the whirlpool lapped the river’s shore. Kunchen raised an open palm. “Only one may enter.”
Evan cinched his parka hood tight as he studied the spiraling current. “You’re the expert; I’ll wait for you here.” Then, shoving his index finger in Sheridan’s face, he began to rock it back and forth. “Just remember . . . tick-tock.”
“Tick-tock?” Sheridan asked, knocking away Evan’s hand. His face pulled taunt as he struggled to rein in his sudden rage behind gritted teeth. “I got a lot more to worry about than your schedule!” he said raising his voice and gesturing to the twisting passageway. “ . . . Like surviving that deadly whirlpool and facing God knows what in the bowels of this mountain. We’ll come back . . . when we can . . . “ His voice softened, his eyes lowered, the tension suddenly sapped from his body. “If we can.”
Evan jutted out his jaw. Their icy eyes locked like the cold steel blades of two seasoned champions.
“Just make sure you’re back by tomorrow. This is not one of your scholarly expeditions. We’re on a mission that could determine the future of this planet . . . failure is not an option!”
The two stood toe-to-toe, neither one willing to back down first.
“Fate will decide.” Kunchen said calmly, easing between the two. “But first, we have to prepare.”
Evan took a step back, a long draw of air filling his chest as he held Sheridan held in his simmering gaze.
“It’s all yours.”
Displaying a magician’s deft sleight of hand, Kunchen reached into a supply bag and pulled out two unsightly animal-skin suits with small hoods shaped like swim caps. He handed one to Sheridan.
Holding at arm’s length what looked like an unsightly patchwork of road-kill, Sheridan crinkled his nose with disgust as he tried to imagine climbing inside.
“It will protect you from the freezing water.” he said. Then, handing him a set of head-mounting lamps and a battery-pack-belt, he added: “And this will help you find the way.”
Sheridan’s eyes fell to the watery gateway as he begrudgingly donned the novel wetsuit and pulled on the crown of arc lamps. Following Kunchen’s lead, he cinched it tightly around his waist, feet, and neck. And all the while his eyes returned to the turbulent portal.
Kunchen took notice.
“This whirlpool is like the mighty river of life.” Kunchen said.
Sheridan watched as Kunchen dipped his right hand into a shallow pool of ice-crusted water, scooping up the pristine liquid in his cupped fingers. He submitted the handful of water to Sheridan. With the gentle tilt of his right hand he poured it out, watching it trickle into his left hand.
With unerring kindness in his eyes, Kunchen became the teacher and Sheridan the pupil: “Observe the water. It is soft, easily bending and transforming to its circumstance.”
He poured the water from his left hand. It fell into the writhing water and disappeared in an instant.
“But when it joins with the force of the whirlpool it becomes powerful and unstoppable. You must be flexible like the water, feeling the flow of life, tapping into its current.
“This is the only way.”
Like an anxious thoroughbred, Sheridan bucked his head with flippant disregard.
Without flourish, Kunchen stepped into the pounding vortex, his bag of supplies in tow.
Sheridan hesitated before slowly following Kunchen’s lead. He watched Kunchen sink deeper into the water as the maelstrom wrapped itself around him like an anaconda. Then, in an instant of boundless fury, the powerful grip of the Water Spirits wrenched Kunchen below the boiling surface!
Sheridan lunged for Kunchen, plunging headfirst into the whirlpool.
Sheridan began to flail about, wrestling against the current that pulled him deeper. His anger mounted as he battled to control his dive into the liquid blackness while bone-numbing cold pressed in and pitch darkness swallowed him whole.
Plummeting into the unfathomable depths, his hand fumbled with the fixture on his head. Then, finding what felt like a toggle switch, he turned on the lamps.
A brilliant halo burst from the top of his head forming a sphere of opaque light that pushed back the tenebrous underwater world. He scanned the murky depths for a way out of the swirling wormhole when something caught his eye: a photograph in a wooden frame whipping through the unyielding current. He lunged through the impetuous deluge, swimming against the flow to reach the listing image. Overcoming the urge to take a breath, Sheridan fought his way to the passing debris, snatching it from the watery grave.
Pulling it close, he was taken aback to see an image that chronicled one of the happiest days of his life–his wedding photograph! Graciela was a stunning bride in a dress of ivory lace and a bright-faced version of Sheridan beamed in a black tuxedo. The painfully blissful image roused a burning bitterness.
He tried to wrap his head around the improbable coincidence:
How does a photo that was once displayed on my living room mantle, suddenly appear in this hell-hole?
Then he saw another remnant of his former life twisting in the subterranean stream.
Ignoring the oxygen cravings that clawed at his chest, he rushed to the personal relic, battling against the steady pull of the river, refusing to relent to its demands. He scooped up the trophy and confirmed his suspicions: it was a conductor’s baton. He looked at it with equal parts joy and horror. It was the same gold baton that had brought so many ancient manuscripts to life; the prestigious symbol, engraved with his name, that the Vatican had brutally stripped away.
What is happening?
He looked back into the fathomless deep, cringing when he saw it: the flash of vivid red in the shape of a small book.
My first bible.
In defiance of the angry whirlpool and the hunger for air that stabbed at his gut, he willed his way to the floating refuse. Taking hold of the childhood bible, he remembered the faith it once symbolized and the loss of innocence it had come to represent.
Then, looking up from the bible’s water-soaked pages, he found himself encircled by the lost treasures of his hard-fought life. In a spree of desperate resolution, Sheridan reclaimed the mementos from the coursing water: the magazine cover that gave him worldwide recognition; the diary in which he divulged his deepest aspirations and the keys to his new dream house. He wrapped his arms wrapped around the collection of keepsakes holding them tightly against his breast.
Finally, drunk with oxygen deprivation, he grasped a photograph, freeing it from the river’s grasp. It was the photo of a twelve-year-old boy sporting a Yankees baseball cap. The pain that struck his heart at the sight of it was too much to bear. Desperate to put an end to the torment, he was struck with a morbid irony.
One deep breath and I can rejoin my old life forever.
Before he could commit to the final act, Sheridan began to turn, round and round, twisting at the merciless hand of the revolving wormhole. With his arms loaded down he had no way to maneuver and no rudder with which to set his course. As he spun out of control, the hard-won trophies began to slip from his grasp, ejecting from his clenches one by one to be returned back into the abyss. Straining to hold on to one last memory, he reached overhead with both hands—when instantly the spinning stopped. With his arms extended in the international sign of surrender, he found himself riding the coursing waterway.
At that moment, in the thrashing silo of the wormhole, Sheridan’s body weak from a long fought battle, his lungs burning for air, something extraordinary happened—he heard music.
Gentle strings joined a tender piano, the whisper of a melody growing with every beat. He heard it all, not with his ears, but coming from somewhere deep within his own unexplored depths. The music washed away the pain and exhaustion that clung to every cell of his being leaving him with nothing but the quiet bliss of pure peace. Then, in the midst of complete abandon, Sheridan heard a voice singing:
The music retreated to its source when a distant light began to burn through the nightmarish abyss.
Sheridan felt himself racing toward the heavenly radiance, when like a rocket bursting from an underwater silo, he burst from his watery tomb into an enormous cave.
Gasping for air, he looked across the cavern to where a stunning luminescent waterfall cascaded hundreds of feet downward to the shore of a lake. The light from the waterfall shone across the lake and to the edge of a ruined city.
The City of Shambhala!
It was a startling sight. There, just beyond the lake’s gleaming waves, stood an abandoned heaven, at once beautiful and desolate, horrifying and awe-inspiring: a supernatural light captive to an eternal darkness. A kinship of sadness struck Sheridan’s heart at the sight of the lost Eden.
Cobblestone sidewalks fed between ancient buildings of stone and timber that led into the massive cave. And there, on the lake’s shore, with an open bag at his feet and a lantern in each hand, stood Kunchen.
“Welcome to Shambhala!”
With battle-weary arms, Sheridan slugged his way across the luminous waves sending light-filled droplets splashing into the air like Fourth of July sparklers.
Stumbling onto the lake’s rocky banks, he clawed desperately at the animal skin suit, yanking at the fastenings and peeling back the suffocating shroud in a fitful temper tantrum. He collapsed onto the glitter washed shore, his chest heaving, his forehead pulsing with pumped up veins.
“I see your hands are empty.” Kunchen said.
Sheridan let out an aching grunt as he pulled himself to his knees. He held out open hands, studying the worn lines and stout fingers. Then, taking a heavy breath, he looked up at Kunchen, anger simmering in his eyes.
“Why wouldn’t they be?”
“Letting go is painful . . . sometimes too painful.”
“And if they weren’t . . . empty?”
“I would be standing alone.”
With a great breath his shoulders slumped, the fire in his eyes dimmed. “If it were up to you me . . . you would be.”
Kunchen reached out his hand, pulling Sheridan to his feet. He held on tightly as Sheridan steadied himself, the rise and fall of his chest easing into regular breaths.
“All suffering comes bearing a gift.” Kunchen spoke, gently as a whisper. ”Every is a portal. You must look at the hand of your suffering to see the gift it offers and peer into your pain to see where it may lead.”
Sheridan wanted to argue with the young monk, to scold him for his naiveté and warn him of the unbearable abuses of an angry god. But something had happened in the wormhole . . . something he could not deny. So he held his tongue and followed Kunchen into the city.