With the quiet unease of a negotiated peace, the two left the city of Shambhala the same way as they had entered. Diving into the calm lake at the city’s shore, they were shot back out at the river’s edge. The murky blanket of ashen clouds that greeted their arrival mimicked the mountain rooftop that blocked the sun from reaching the city of Shambhala. The sunless sky gave unnerving evidence of earth’s slide into the same sea of darkness that had claimed the sacred city.
The sight struck Sheridan with a heaviness that bent his shoulders and slowed his gait. The world was still on its deathbed.
“Will you tell Evan about what you saw?” Kunchen asked.
“He doesn’t want to hear about mystical experiences or apparitions, he just wants his alien technology.”
“So you’ll be going home?”
“As soon as you get us out of here.”
The crunch of their hurried steps on the trail alerted the guards to their arrival. Half a dozen tents of varying sizes were strewn along the uninviting course of rock and gravel that clung between the mountain and the river’s edge. The largest tent, where two soldiers stood guard, marked the base of operations. It was there they expected to find Evan.
“The package has arrived sir,” the soldier announced as he hustled them inside.
On one side of the tent Mitch stood shifting restlessly on the balls of his feet. A curl of steam floated above a mug on a makeshift desk where Evan sat making faces at his laptop.
“Damn backwoods country. Can’t get any kind of signal.”
His pale features bent in anger, he looked up from his computer, swiping at a lock of blond hair that had fallen across his face.
“Glad you could make it; we’re nearly out of time.”
Sheridan flinched at the comment.
“Well, did you get it?”
Sheridan reached into his leather satchel. Making contact with the baton’s cold metal, a supernatural glow repossessed the artifact. He pulled out the baton, laying it across both hands.
Evan was immediately transfixed. He stepped from behind his desk, moving silently toward Sheridan, his eyes set on the baton.
“Let me see it,” he said as he reached for the light-imbued artifact, yanking the baton from Sheridan’s hand.
The sizzle of burning flesh came first. Then came the cry of pain. Agony disfigured Evan’s face as he jerked back his hand. The baton hit the ground with the clang of metal on rock.
His body tensed with anticipation, Sheridan stepped back, eyeballing the fallen baton from a safe distance.
A young soldier rushed to Evan’s side only to be knocked back by the brunt of Evan’s fury. Evan lunged at his desk, snatching up a scarf and wrapping it around his hand’s smoldering skin. Mitch slid his hand over his revolver, eyeing Sheridan with a distrustful glare. Only Kunchen stood quietly unfazed.
Sheridan cast a watchful eye across the spooked room. Then he leaned towards the offending firebrand. With one finger he touched its surface. It was cold. Gingerly plucking the baton from the canvas floor, he stood erect, the baton once again becoming animated with azure light.
Evan turned to face the baton, his nostrils flaring in angry unison with his agitated breath. His eyes blazed with anger when he saw Sheridan holding the menacing relic with complete impunity. With his scarf-wrapped hand Evan lurched for the baton.
“Give it to me,” he snarled, snatching it from Sheridan’s grasp.
His wild swing threw him off balance. He stumbled back to gain his footing, his eyes glued to the incandescent baton. And all the while, his probing eyes watched as the baton’s azure glow began to fade.
He looked up at Sheridan, trying to read his face for an explanation. He shoved the baton into Sheridan’s hand and once again it lit up with an azure luminescence.
“For some reason,” he said through clenched teeth. “The baton seems to respond to you.”
Sheridan was intrigued: “I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
“But is it real?”
“I don’t know. We need to do some tests, figure out these markings . . . get a handle on its origins.”
Evan winced, chewing the inside of his cheek.
“I wish we had that kind of time.”
“This could just be a worthless trinket, some sort of magician’s wand used to weave a grand story of a people blessed by God,” Sheridan warned. “Wouldn’t be the first time.”
“Only one sure way to find out,” Evan said, tilting his head at Mitch. “Power it up with the Chintamani stone.”
Evan returned to his desk and began gathering up his things. It had been decided.
“It’s a dangerous game,” Sheridan thought aloud.
“God help us if the stone appears and the baton proves to be a fraud,” Evan countered dismissively.
“God help us if it is real—we have no idea what terror we might unleash.”
Evan turned from his packing and began to pull on his goose-down parka. “I’m afraid we have no choice”
A gust of cold air rushed into the tent, chased in by a member of Evan’s Special Forces. The man’s ducked head and restless hands were a sure sign he had bad news to deliver.
“What is it?” Evan snapped.“
“We’ve got visitors sir. Half a dozen soldiers heading up the same way we came.”
“They must have gotten wind of our little unregistered expedition.”
“There’s another way out,” Kunchen quickly volunteered. “It’s a bit longer, but there’s a monastery where can stay the night.”
“Let’s go!” Evan shouted. Instantly the camp erupted into organized chaos with tents dismantled, equipment packed up, and donkeys loaded down. In a matter of minutes the squad of undercover soldiers and Sherpas broke camp and they were on their way.
They struck out on a ragged trail that led into a series of minor mountains whose peaks and valleys created an interlacing maze of razor-sharp rock. The precarious route wound through rocky ravines, climbed over steep bluffs, and crept along intimidating cliffs. Following along a patchwork of lifeless shadows and uninviting terrain, the hidden path concealed the traveling party from all but an escort of vultures that attended them throughout the day. Kunchen and Sheridan set the pace at the front of the snaking band of travelers with Evan and Mitch preferring the vantage point provided at the middle of the column.
“What’s the status with China hosting the UN?” Evan asked Mitch, his fair skin turned scarlet from the strenuous climb.
“The Chinese embassy has given the go-ahead,” Mitch snapped, his dark five o’clock shadow matching his black gear.
“All the more reason we don’t need to be caught by the Chinese in their own backyard,” Evan said.
“They say they’re going to need proof before they go public.”
“Tell them we’ll have it. And the Qatar outpost?”
“Ready for the operation.”
Sheridan glanced back to see Evan and Mitch talking in conspiring whispers.
“Don’t know about those two,” Sheridan said offhand. “Can’t figure out their endgame.”
Kunchen glanced at Sheridan. “What does it matter? We all have different paths.”
“A man’s gotta know who he can trust,” Sheridan said looking on.
“And how do you know if you can trust a man?”
Sheridan chewed his words: “By his actions I suppose.”
With a tilt of his head and a crooked grin Kunchen asked: “If one were to believe your actions, they would think you are a bitter man trying to reclaim your reputation. But that’s not who you are.”
Sheridan shot Kunchen a curious glance then, without a word, returned his eyes to the path.
As night fell the entourage made camp in the hollow of a cliff beneath a cupola of protruding rock. Like champions of the gods turned to stone, a natural barrier of tall, upright rocks were staked in front of the campsite concealing them from the view of any unwanted observers.
Around the perimeter of the campsite the Tibetan members of the expedition nibbled on tsampa, a dough made of roasted barley flour and yak butter, while a dinner of reconstituted beef stew and freeze-dried coffee was prepared for Evan’s crew. As they tended to the aches of sore feet and weary muscles,the chill of night prodded the men closer to the warmth of the fire, the flames’ beguiling dance hypnotizing every man. Sheridan broke the enduring silence when the gold coin rolling through Evan’s fingers caught his eye again.
“That’s an expensive good luck charm.”
The coin came to a stop between Evan’s finger and thumb. His eyes lit up as he proffered it to Sheridan.
“Yeah . . . it looks to be an from 19 B.C. . . . the reign of Caesar Augustus”
“Very good. It was my dad’s,” Evan answered as held the coin in his gaze. “He used to carry it to remind him of the ideals that made Rome the greatest empire the world has ever known.”
“Curious choice. The symbolism on the back of the coin is very unusual.”
“Interesting you’d notice that,” Evan said turning the coin to examine the image of a butterfly snared in the claws of a crab. He put the coin in his pocket and shifted his attention to Kunchen.
“So tell me, Kunchen, what do you think is happening to this planet?”
Kunchen made a request of a Sherpa seated nearby. The Sherpa handed him a traditional Tibetan blanket. Kunchen displayed one end of the colorful work of art.
“See this blanket? It is tightly woven, making it beautiful and strong. If I pull one thread, it will still hold together,” He turned the blanket on end, showing where its artistic patterns had come apart in a multicolored frenzy of wool strings. “But if enough threads are broken, the blanket will begin to unravel.”
Kunchen engaged the eyes of every man as he spoke.
“There’s a sacred thread in each of our hearts that’s joined with the source of all things. But by giving ourselves over to a fearful mind, mankind has broken the thread and all the world has begun to unravel. When we use our words to slander or judge, we cut the thread. When we threaten our bond with nature, we cut the thread. When we refuse to forgive, we cut the thread. Without compassion . . .”
“Yeah, yeah, all we need is love,” Evan mocked. “You want to know what really creates change: the power of overwhelming force!”
Kunchen trained his eyes on Evan. “That’s the kind of thinking that’s brought us to the brink.”
Sheridan leaned in towards Kunchen as Evan rambled on like a congressional candidate.
“He’s right you know,” Sheridan confided to Kunchen.
His expression sobered.
“I remember when I was boy . . . a bully at my elementary school started a fight with me . . . never knew why for sure. It was during recess. I was doing my own thing when . . . for no obvious reason . . . he began to taunt me. His taunts quickly turned to raised fists. I didn’t know what pissed him off . . . but I knew I wasn’t going to run.”
Sheridan took a sip of lukewarm coffee, his eyes staring into the past.
“We began to circle each other . . . a group of his friends were egging him on. Throwing newspapers since I was eight had made me strong. So when he moved in to strike I just grabbed him and threw him to the ground. It was a pretty healthy dose of embarrassment for him. As for me . . . I slipped away as the little girls rushed to his side.”
Sheridan glanced up at Kunchen to see if he was following along.
“The next day I saw the same couple of girls floating around me during recess. I wondered what they were up to . . . when suddenly the bully from the day before came out of nowhere and threw himself onto my back. He started choking my neck . . . lunging back and forth to knock me off balance. I didn’t think much about it . . . instinct from having two older brothers I guess . . . I just flipped him over my back and onto the ground. But this time I didn’t walk away. I launched myself on top of him . . . pinned his shoulders and chest to the ground.”
Sheridan shook his head. “I remember the look of horror on his girlfriends faces. Then I began to grind his face into the ground . . . demanding his submission. When he finally promised to leave me alone . . . I let him up. With a mouth full dirt and a bruised ego, he skulked away under the escort of the two girls he had hoped to impress.”
As if awakening from a trance, Sheridan straightened himself up. He turned to face Kunchen. “No one ever picked a fight with me after that. I learned an important lesson that day—strength brings respect.”
Sheridan took a long sip before continuing.
“When I was much older the story repeated itself but this time with a much different ending. I was doing my own thing . . . when bullies came after me again. I thought my work had earned me their respect. Instead, the work that had once brought me accolades became a threat to their existence. So they went about destroying me. My reputation . . . all my good intentions. . . couldn’t stand up to the power they wielded.”
Sheridan’s eyes returned to the fire.
“This time the story didn’t have such a happy ending. When they were through . . . they kept their power and I . . . lost everything.”
Kunchen set his hand on Sheridan’s shoulder.
“Don’t you know? You haven’t seen the end of the story yet.”