Beyond the peaks of the Himalayas, high above the ancient Silk Route, sheathed in perpetual cloud, is a land older than civilization. A land peopled by The Immortals. ~~~ Scroll One 1 DEATH AND AFTER TRAIN Tang knew he was going to die. He had been watching a movie in the darkened cabin of the plane when the image on the screen disappeared. The cabin lights flicked on and off, and the pilot's voice spoke urgently: "Please faster your seat belts. We are experiencing turbulence..." and then nothing more. The crew strapped themselves into their seats. Train glanced back along the aisle. Most of the passengers were still asleep, blankets over their bodies, unaware that anything might be wrong. But his instincts warned Train. Something was wrong, seriously wrong. Turbulence wouldn't cause the plane's electrical system to fail. Only sixteen, Train had chalked up thousands of miles flying to and from his home in Hong Kong. He knew the plane was somewhere to the south of China, perhaps approaching the South China Sea. He was bound for Bangkok to stay with his uncle for a week before school started again in Australia. The plane began to rock wildly. He heard a distant crash from one of the galleys. The plane seemed to be losing attitude, and Train's stomach clenched with fear. In his mind's eye, Train could visualize what was happening to the aircraft; a long silver tube, tossed around in a hostile sky, thousands of meters above mountainous, white-capped waves. Now cries of alarm echoed through the gloomy cabin. Voices shrieked, "What's happening?" "Why don't they do something?" When the cabin began to tilt, the cries rose to a screaming crescendo. A hand gripped his wrist. It was the sharp-faced woman in the seat beside him, her glasses on a chain around her neck, all traces of sleep replaced by sheer panic. "I don't want to die," she kept saying, as she squeezed tighter. "I don't want to die." The man beside her in the window seat leaned forward, rubbing his bleary eyes. "Be quiet! Don't say things like that!" Train's thoughts went to his parents, his friends, as the aircraft rolled, its nose tipping forward. The aisle became an avalanche of plastic cups, bottles of water, books, and shoes. Overhead lockers sprang open, their contents cascading onto the heads of startled passengers. Oxygen masks dropped and swung wildly beyond reach. Train's fingers clenched his seat belt. The woman next to him was fumbling in the seat pocket for an airsickness bag. Then the nose dropped straight down and the aircraft was vertical, shuddering in the grip of incredible stresses. Rivets snapped. Panels buckled and screeched as they sheared away from the fuselage. Screams burst out along the length of the plane. A passenger tried to stand and grab for an oxygen mask but went spilling over the seat in front of him. A steward was shouting above the din, "Please remain calm, everyone. Please remain in your seats..." But his voice was lost in a fresh chorus of screams as the gigantic aircraft entered its death throes. It began to spiral, spearing downward through the sky. Train felt the pressure of immense forces wedging him into his seat, crushing his stomach, his chest. For the flicker of a moment he wondered how he could help the terrified woman beside him. Then his brain went numb. And he remembered nothing more. ~~~ JEFFREY Hunter awoke again to the stench of sweat and human waste, to pathetic groans and defiant murmurs. He and his companions from the American State of Idaho had spent a week in the cave. Now a finger of light was inching its way inward from the entrance, broken occasionally by the shadow of a passing entry. As it always did, Jeffrey's mind went back to that morning when their excursion bus was ambushed in the foothills of Pakistan. The tribesmen had appeared from nowhere, their automatic weapons peppering the sides of the bus, killing two students instantly and wounding six others. The masked tribesmen ordered them out onto the road, a ribbon of gravel that curved in a lazy crescent through the forbidding wasteland of mountain peaks and valleys. Despite the blazing sun, the air was chilly, filled with pitiful cries and angry shouts. The bus driver was ordered to squat on the ground, his hands behind his head, his fingers laced together on the back of his neck. A tribesman stalked across to him, placed the barrel of his gun against the man's skull, and pulled the trigger. Girls screamed as the driver's lifeless body toppled forward and rolled over the edge of the precipice. The word "Taliban" was whispered by one of Jeffrey's teachers moments before a bullet had drilled a neat hole in his forehead and blown off the back of his head. Blood and tissue sprayed over the nearest students and they bent double, unable to stop themselves from vomiting. Mr Schwarz had been a kind and dedicated teacher, and staring at his crumpled corpse sent a chill through Jeffrey's own body. Nothing in Jeffrey's sixteen years of life had prepared him for a situation like this. There were fifty students in the group, touring through Pakistan and India, exploring the ancient cultural sites. At first, Jeffrey's parents had said the excursion was foolhardy, but the school assured them that the route was well clear of troubled Afghanistan. A tall bearded man appeared and spoke to them in English. Jeffrey sensed at once he was the leader of the guerilla band. He told the students to stand in a group before hoisting a video camera to his shoulder and recording their faces. He panned from the students to Mr Schwarz's body before switching off the camera. "Your television networks will be given those pictures," the bearded man explained. "If your country does not meet our demands, more of you will be executed." That had been a week ago. Now, as Jeffrey stretched his arms and legs in the foul-smelling cave, he heard the crunch of approaching footsteps. Moments later, a powerful flashlight was trained on the prisoners. When the blinding light came to rest on his face, Jeffrey held up a hand to shield his eyes. "You. Come with me," growled the voice of the guerilla leader. Jeffrey's intestines knotted with fear. He struggled to obey, still weak from lack of food, and a rough hand yanked him forward. Two tribesmen dragged him by his hair from the cave, his friends helplessly screaming his name behind him. He was forced across to a rocky ledge by the edge of the cliff, and the tribesmen stepped aside. "We have had our demands rejected," the bearded guerilla leader said. "It is time for us to be more persuasive." He hoisted the video camera and focused it on the young man before him. As the tribesmen raised their guns, Jeffrey stole a glance across the barren landscape. The early morning sun was bathing it in a golden glow, and snow-tipped peaks sparkled like jewels in the distance. He hadn't been to church for years, but dimly in his mind he remembered an old prayer he had learned as a child. What was the line? Something about forgiving those who trespass against us. It seemed the right thought to have. He turned to face the men with guns and opened his mouth to speak. When the bullets struck him, he dropped to the ground in silence. "A good clean death," mused one of the Pathans. "Indeed," agreed his companion. ~~~"MY NAME is Tamaryn," said the girl with the long hair as black as night and piercing, ice-blue eyes. Her skin was as white as snow, her cheekbones and nose finely sculpted in her oval face. Her body was clad in a pearl-colored tunic with long sleeves. Train lifted himself onto one elbow and stared at her in disbelief. His body was weak and sheathed in a tunic, too, only his appeared to be cut from a coarse cloth that had been dyed scarlet. Beside him, on another stretcher, a boy of his own age was stirring. In the dim light, Train could see that the boy was clad in a in a tunic similar to his own. "He will awake soon," the girl said. "His name is Jeffrey. Jeffrey Hunter. An American. Have you been to his country?" "No." Train shook his head, his eyes desperately scanning the darkened room, his mind frantically trying to determine whether he was alive or dead. "Your name is very unusual," Tamaryn commented. "Train." Train pressed his fingers against his forehead. Streaks of pain distorted his memory. Questions, urgent questions, tumbled from his lips. "How do you know who I am? Who are you? Where we we? What happened to the plane?" Tamaryn rose and crossed the room. She pushed open a wooden shutter, and the small chamber was flooded with dazzling light. The walls were stone, the floor bare timber. Train's gaze moved to his bed. It was a crudely built stretcher of some kind, with animal skins lashed to short wooden posts by twine. Beside the window, Tamaryn arched an eyebrow. "Everything must be very confusing for you," she said. "I remember when I first came here, how frightened I felt." She lifted a hand to brush a strand of hair from her forehead. The sleeve of her tunic fell back, revealing a strange tattoo on her forearm. "Who are you?" Train demanded groggily. "It would mean nothing if I told you. But since you asked, I am Celtic. I come from the land behind the thunder. It is called Wyrd." Train's stomach lurched as he struggled to stand. His body felt as though it were spinning, spiraling downward again in the doomed aircraft. He sank back onto the bed. "What happened to the plane?" he groaned. "The electrical systems failed, and then we were falling." Tamaryn stepped closer and knelt beside him. "I am not the one empowered to answer your questions. All you need to know for the present is that you are here." She reached out a hand and gently pushed up the sleeve of his tunic, her fingers icy against his skin. Train saw the tattoo on his forearm. "Where did that come from?" he gasped. Tamaryn's lips parted, and Train was certain he had never seen a more beautiful smile, yet her eyes remained veiled with mystery. "See?" she said softly. "You too have been marked. You are an Immortal." And then she was gone.