Immortal Youths: Shrine of Kra

Discussion in 'THREAD ARCHIVES' started by Flaremon, Apr 8, 2010.

  1. 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.
     
  2. 2
    DISCOVERIES



    ONE moment she was kneeling at his side, the next she was gone.
    Train examined the peculiar symbol on his arm. It appeared to be a word, but not in any language that he had ever seen. Someone had applied to it. Who...? And when...?

    A wave of nausea flooded his body as Train cased himself to the edge of his bed and stared around him. The room was nothing more than a cell, the two beds, a crude table, and stools by the door. He squinted against the light spilling through the window.

    On the other bed, the boy called Jeffrey Hunter seemed to have drifted back into a deep sleep. Train studied his shock of red hair. Whoever Jeffrey Hunter was, he looked to be a boy of his own age. Then, with a start, he noticed the strange marks on his face, one on the boy's right cheek, one on his left temple. They were scars, fresh scars by the look of them.

    Train took a deep breath and summoned his energy. He reached across the space between the beds and gently lifted the sleeve of the sleeping boy's tunic. He caught a glimpse of the tattoo on his companion's forearm before his hand was seized.

    "Who are you?" Jeffrey Hunter was awake, gripping Train's hand fiercely.

    Train recognized the boy's accent as American. He tried to pull his hand away, but Jeffrey's grip was too strong.

    "I said, who are you?" he snapped.

    Then Jeffrey's glance fell to the tattoo on his arm. Train saw the shock in his eyes. He reached across and pushed up Train's sleeve and saw an identical symbol.

    Their eyes locked.

    "You're Chinese, aren't you?" Jeffrey demanded. "Do you speak English?"

    Despite the fact that Jeffrey was shaking his arm wildly, Train laughed. Every American he had ever met in Hong Kong had been surprised to learn that someone Chinese could speak English! What was it with Americans, Train wondered.

    "Of course. My name is Train Tang. And I know yours. Jeffrey Hunter, right?"

    "How do you know?" growled the boy suspiciously.

    "The girl told me," Train replied. "Tamaryn."

    Jeffrey frowned, his grip tightening on Train's wrist. "I thought I heard voices. Then I thought I was dreaming." He flashed a glance around the room. "Where is she?"

    "Gone," Train told him, trying to pull his hand free. "She was here and then she just vanished."

    "What am I doing here?" Jeffrey asked. "Am I your prisoner?"

    Train managed at last to pull his hand away. "I was in a plane crash," he said, massaging his wrist. "Well, I passed out before it crashed. It went into a dive. Were you on the plane, too?"

    Jeffrey looked confused. "What plane? What are you talking about? Where did it go down?"

    Train shrugged, swinging his legs down onto the floor. "I was flying from Hong Kong to Bangkok. I think we were over the South China Sea."

    "But you're not sure?" Jeffrey's eyes narrowed.

    "How would I know?" Train retorted. "It all happened so quickly."

    "So where's your home?" Jeffrey asked.

    "Hong Kong. But I go to school in Australia. What about you?"

    "Idaho. My dad's the local dentist in a small town,"

    "My father's a banker," Train told him. "He's always so busy, I hardly ever see him. How old are you?"

    "Sixteen. I was supposed to turn seventeen in two months' time, but I guess that won't happen now."

    "I'm the same age. But you're older. My next birthday would have been six months away." Train's eyes returned to the scars on Jeffrey's face. "How did you get those?"

    For a moment, Jeffrey shot him a questioning look. Slowly, he raised a hand to his face and his fingers explored the marks on his skin. His eyes closed. When they opened, Train was startled to see tears.

    "Are we dead?" Jeffrey asked numbly.

    "According to that girl Tamaryn, we're immortal. Does that make sense to you?"

    Jeffrey stared at him. His fingers lingered over the two scars. "I was shot. Executed, I guess. I was on an excursion bus in the north of Pakistan. The Taliban ambushed us. They killed the driver and one of our teachers and kept us prisoners in a cave for a week. I was the first hostage they shot." He fixed his gaze on Train. "Train, we're supposed to be dead, aren't we? If you died in a plane crash and I was shot, what are we doing here?"

    Train raised a hand and let it drop. "I don't even know where 'here' is." He nodded toward the window. "Let's try to find out. Can you stand?"

    They helped each other to their feet, both boys aware of the weakness in their bodies. With their arms locked around each other for support, they shuffled to the windows and gazed out over an endless vista of snow-covered mountain peaks. The sun struck down on the snow, and the light was almost blinding. The peaks rose and fell in jagged majesty, the valleys between them lost in deep mist.

    "Where do you think we are?" Jeffrey speculated. "Tibet? Nepal?"

    Train clutched the windowsill. He gasped in the thin air, and his heart pounded against his ribs. "And how did we get here? I mean, we both know we died."

    "Maybe we didn't," was all Jeffrey could say. Silently, he took in the timeless landscape. When he turned to face Train, his voice was barely a whisper. "Someone has brought us here. We don't know why. We don't even know who they are. The question is, how do we leave?"

    "You mean... escape?" Train was stunned.

    "Well, we can't just stay here," Jeffrey argued. "I don't know about you, but I want my parents to know I'm alive." He hesitated, adding grimly, "That is, if I am alive."

    Train met Jeffrey's gaze. "We can't cross all those mountains. Not without help."

    "What about the girl? You've spoken to her. Would she help us?"

    "I don't know," Train admitted. "I think she's like us. She said she was brought here from a place called Wyrd."

    "Whatever," Jeffrey grunted. "If we can't trust her, we'll have to find some other way to get out. We need to get a telephone. That's the first thing."

    "But Tamaryn said we were immortal," Train said with a scowl. "That sounds like we're not part of the real world anymore."

    Jeffrey let out a skeptical laugh. "Those mountains look pretty real to me." He leaned out of the window and looked from side to side. "And so does this building we're in."

    "You are so determined to leave us?" inquired a voice.
     
  3. 3
    THE GURU APPEARS






    THE boys swung around, staggering back against the wall.
    A man studied them from the door way. He was clad in a purple tunic that reached to his sandaled feet, his shoulders covered with a shawl stitched from the coarse wool of a long-haired animal. His face was framed by long, flowing white hair. His features could have been Chinese or Indian, Train wasn't sure. His skin was the color of old leather, creased and wrinkled like ancient parchment. But it was his eyes that drew both boys' attention, black eyes that blazed with a strange inner power, eyes that seemed able to see into their souls.

    "Are you not thankful to have been chosen?" the stranger asked.

    "Who are you?" Jeffrey challenged.

    The man merely smiled. "Tamaryn said you would have questions. I will not answer them all, only some. As your enlightenment grows, you will be able to understand more fully."

    Train regarded him warily. "You talk about enlightenment, sir," he began. "Can't you tell us where we are and how we got here?"

    "You will call me Guru, for that is what I am. I am your guru, your teacher. Only when the pupil is ready does the guru appear. My name is not important. I am Tamaryn's guru as well."

    He approached and raised the palm of one hand in salute. As he did so, his sleeve fell back, revealing the peculiar symbol on his skin.

    "Now, as to the matter of your being. In our language, Sanskrit, you are a-mar, immortal, imperishable, undying."

    Jeffrey shook his head, bewildered. "But we died. So how can we be immortal?"

    "Every man has the capacity to be immortal," Guru explained. "The choice is his. In your case, Train Tang, in the moment of your death you were concerned about helping the passenger beside you. And you, Jeffrey Hunter, in your heart you had forgiveness for your executioners."

    "How do you know things like that?" Train gasped.

    "Immortality concerns us," Guru replied. "We have long sought those from every century, from every age, who qualify."

    "Qualify for what?" demanded Jeffrey.

    "You have been chosen to join the Immortals," the guru told them. "The decisions you make, the actions you take, will govern the destiny of the world for thousands of years. Nations shall shake and fall. Civilizations will pass into time. But your blood will run in the blood of millions; in the blood of millions of millions. All this will be in your hands. You will be our new young warriors. Our Immortal Youths."

    Jeffrey and Train exchanged a look of disbelief. Guru crossed the room and stood beside them at the window.

    "Those mountains are timeless," he said, tilting his head towards the sea of peaks. "They will never change. They will never grow old. Like them you will be timeless, imperishable, never changing, never growing older."

    "But that's impossible!" Jeffrey argued, making no attempt to conceal his skepticism. "Anyhow, I know I died. Those terrorists shot me. And Train died on that plane. So how can we be immortal?"

    "And you haven't told us where we are or how we got here, or whether we're alive in the way we used to be," Train reminded Guru.

    "You are in the Land of the Immortals, so of course you are alive. You were brought here at the moment of death and given your immortality." Guru sighed. "I am well aware that in the world from which you come, people like to have explanations for everything. If they can't see it, it doesn't exist. The people of your world have no time for the mystical, for the sacred. But let me tell you, all your logic and technology are nothing. The way you die decides your fate. If every man sought immortality, there would be no wasted people and no wasted things."

    For a moment, Jeffrey was deep in thought. "Are you immortal, too?" he asked.

    "Of course. I was one of the first chosen to live here."

    Train looked around nervously. "So what do you do in the Land of the Immortals?"

    Guru placed a hand on Train's shoulder. "We serve the universe."

    "Are there others here like us?" Jeffrey asked.

    "There are other Immortals, but none as young, none more ready to be warriors."

    "Warriors?" Train looked horrified. "We know nothing of war or fighting."

    "If we can make you Immortals," Guru replied, "we can make warriors out of you, too."

    "I don't see how," said Jeffrey.

    "That is because you can't see. You are like a frog in a well. You do not know how wide the sky really is."

    And he beckoned them to follow him.
     
  4. 4
    FROGS IN A WELL






    GURU led the way from the small cell into a broad stone-floored corridor lined with dozens of wooden door. Train found his strength returning, although Jeffrey still hobbled as he walked. Surprisingly, their bare feet were not cold, nor did they feel any pain walking on the rough, weathered surface.
    "Soon your physical powers will be restored," Guru promised, "then your warrior training will begin."

    "You can call us frogs or whatever, but the only experience in fighting I've ever had is in computer games," Jeffrey protested again.

    "Me, too," agreed Train. "Like MapleStory. That's my favorite."

    "I mean, if you're talking about teaching us kung-fu, that kind of stuff, don't we need to be really fit?" Jeffrey frowned.

    "The mind is the author of all works and the body the sufferer of all ills," Guru informed him bleakly. "Therefore, our immortal knowledge has taught us, 'It is better to pay attention to the mind than to the body'."

    Jeffrey took a step forward and winced with pain. "Are you sure? Right now I feel lousy."

    "This is why I am your guru," Guru said sharply. He turned, suddenly relenting, and placed a hand on Jeffrey's shoulder. "Jeffrey, you feel sick, but you must not become obsessed with your sickness for that would be a sickness in itself. It is a sickness to think only of feeling sick, just as it is a sickness to think only of showing off what you have learned, or thinking only of how much wealth you possess. When the mind dwells on anything obsessively, that is called sickness."

    Then he turned and walked on in silence. Jeffrey cast an angry look after him and followed.

    The corridor ended at a stout wooden door. Guru clapped his hands, and it opened.

    "Wow, what a neat trick." Jeffrey stared at the open door. "How did you do it?"

    "It was not a trick," Guru chided him quietly. "I will teach you all about such things. We call it having 'Skill in Means'. It is the use of the mind. Since your mind will be present wherever you need it, it makes the functions you need possible."

    They stepped outside into the still air. It was so chilly that Jeffrey could feel it sting his lungs with every breath he took. Not a sound was to be heard. With their gaze fixed ahead on the vastness of the snow-draped peaks, the boys and the man followed a short path to the edge of the precipice. When they looked down, they saw that the cliff plunged thousands of meters into the valley below.

    "Now, my young frogs," said Guru, "you are out of your well. Look behind you."

    When the boys turned, Train let out a gasp and Jeffrey's jaw dropped in disbelief.

    Towering above them, as though it were climbing the sheer face of the mountainside, rose an awesome structure. Its walls were constructed of stone. Hundreds of shuttered windows were set in tiers, row upon row of them. The vast building appeared to cling to the mountain, rising higher and higher until its rooftops were lost in cloud.

    "The Palace of the Immortals," Guru informed them.

    Train rubbed his eyes. The massive palace seemed suspended in space, standing guard over the peaks that surrounded it. Before he could speak, the boom of a gong echoed from the clouds that capped its roof.

    "Ah" — Guru smiled — "a very important summons. Are you hungry?"

    "I'd love a steak," Jeffrey replied with a grin.

    "Unfortunately, my young friend, this is not America. Our food is somewhat different."

    "What if I don't like it?" Jeffrey grumbled.

    Guru eyed him firmly. "You must forget America and all that was familiar in your former life. The mind that stays fixed in one place does not work freely. A wheel turns because it isn't fixed. If it is stuck in one place, it will not turn. Thus, the mind won't work either when it is fixed in one place."

    And with that, he led the way back into the palace.
     
  5. 5
    AMONG THE IMMORTALS


    THE corridor continued deep into the heart of the massive structure. From somewhere in the distance came a babble of voices.
    Jeffrey found it easier to walk, which surprised him, although his mind was seething. Guru had began to irritate him. He seemed to have an answer for everything. Minds and wheels, frogs in wells, skills in means; it wasn't the way he'd been brought up to look at life. He stared at Train, who was walking on ahead. His new friend seemed strangely at ease. Maybe that was because he was Chinese, he decided.

    Suddenly, he felt a presence beside him.

    "Jeffrey Hunter?"

    It was a girl of about his own age, with raven-colored hair and penetrating blue eyes, clad in a tunic the shade of polished pearl. She extended her hand. "I'm Tamaryn."

    He took her hand, instantly startled by its ice-cold touch. "Train told me about you," he blurted out. He glanced around. "Where did you come from? I thought we were alone."

    "It is a skill Guru taught me, the skill of appearing at will." She linked an arm through his. "You died a terrible yet noble death," she said. "But now you are immortal. You must be very happy."

    Train had heard her voice and turned to greet her. For a moment, jealousy surged through him at the sight of Tamaryn and Jeffrey together. As though she had read his mind, she linked her other arm through his.

    "Has Guru told you about our mission?" she asked.

    "No." Train shot her a curious look. "He just said something about serving the universe."

    "What did he mean, do you know?" Jeffrey probed.

    Tamaryn merely smiled. "He will tell you when he thinks you are ready."

    "He keeps talking in riddles," Jeffrey complained. "He called us frogs in a well."

    Tamaryn's laughter pealed loudly in the empty corridor. "He told me I was a frog, too. And I was. Once."

    "I don't understand half the things he says," Jeffrey went on. "I mean, when a frog looks up from the bottom of a well, it sees just a circle of sky. It doesn't see the whole sky, right? So why didn't he just say we were short-sighted or something?"

    "Guru wants us to be more perceptive," Tamaryn squeezed their arms.

    "Perceptive?" Jeffrey echoed. His eyebrows rose. "He's going a funny way about it."

    Several paces ahead, Guru had stopped at two double doors, their timbers studded with metal bolts. He clapped his hands.

    The doors swung open at once, revealing a hall filled with men and women in tunics seated on benches at long wooden tables. Jeffrey estimated there were at least two hundred people inside the vast chamber.

    "The community of Immortals," Guru informed him. "We always take our meals together."

    "I'll never remember all their names," Jeffrey grumbled.

    "In time you will," Guru assured him. "They all know who you are."

    The men were garbed in scarlet tunics, while the women's tunics, like Tamaryn's, were pearl-colored. Some of the community members wore coarse woolen shawls. Their conversation rose and fell like a tide.

    Guru escorted his three young charges into the hall, where no one paid them as much as a glance. He indicated where they should sit. Moments later, three small bowls of rice appeared on the table before them together with three sets of chopsticks.

    Train passed one pair to Tamaryn and the other to Jeffrey. "Do you know how to use them?"

    "Of course," Jeffrey scoffed. "We have some very good Chinese restaurants in Idaho." He stared into the bowl, seeing some small green leaves mixed with the rice. He plucked one of the leaves from the rice with his chopsticks and examined it critically. "What is it?" he asked Tamaryn.

    "It is a herb called hini," she stated with a shrug. "It is delicious. All the Immortals eat it."

    More bowls were set before them. Jeffrey stared quizzically at some mysterious small cubes.

    "That's a snack made of yak's blood," Tamaryn explained. "It's very nice with hot butter and sugar." When Jeffrey recoiled in horror, she pointed to the other items. "Barley soup is very nourishing. So is yak's milk yogurt. If you're thirsty, try the butter tea. They strain the tea through horsehair, then add yak butter. You drink it with salt, not sugar."

    A hand descended on Jeffrey's shoulder, and he looked up to see Guru watching him.

    "You are still thinking of steak?" Guru questioned him.

    "I know, I know," Jeffrey groaned. "My mind is fixed in one place. I'd make a lousy wheel." He raised his chopsticks and swallowed a leaf and some rice without chewing it. "It looks like I'll have to stop thinking," he observed dryly.

    "Ah, you are learning," Guru beamed, then cautioned him. "However, we also have another saying: 'To think you must not think means you are still thinking'."

    And before Jeffrey could say anything more, Guru vanished.
     
  6. 6
    TAMARYN'S STORY


    WHEN their meal was finished, Tamaryn rose to her feet. "Let me take you to a place where I often go. It is very peaceful."
    She held out her hands to the boys. Jeffrey grasped one, Train the other. Before they knew what had happened, they were standing on a patch of bare earth, the palace towering above them, the spectacular vista of snow-frosted peaks stretching as far as the eye could see.

    A single tree grew in the centre of the little scrap of ground. Like a child, Tamaryn ran across and touched it with reverence. "I love it so much, although I have no attachment to it. It makes me think of Yggdrasil, an ash tree that was holy. We called it the World Tree. It had three roots, and under each was a well."

    "You said your land was called Wyrd?" Train prompted, running a hand over the bark of the lone tree. "Where was it?"

    "In England, before history began. From the time I died in Wyrd to now were agone one thousand and five hundred winters." She threw back her head and laughed. "See, I am speaking in the old way. Yes, it was called Wyrd, a land beyond the thunder that decided the destiny of humans, determining their life and death. Your word 'weird' comes from the word Wyrd."

    Jeffrey found himself spellbound by this beautiful girl. Her piercing blue eyes were magnetic and her face captivating. When she sat at the foot of the tree, he joined her.

    "Every day, the Norns that dwelt at the Well of Wyrd sprinkled its waters onto the World Tree," she recalled. "That is why the tree's limbs never withered. It is also how the Norns brought back the deeds of the past to the present, whenever they watered the tree. The deeds of men were stored in the well, and always found their way back. The outcomes of new deeds were drawn from the outcomes of old deeds. That is how men met their dóm, their doom. They would have to go through a trial, an ordál, an ordeal, and use their past to show how virtuous they were in the present."

    "So, nothing much has changed," Jeffrey grunted. "Men have always been fighting and meeting their doom."

    Tamaryn's eyes were lit with excitement. "But what a wonder it is, Jeffrey, that all men share the same tongue. If all men can speak the same words, there is hope they can live in peace."

    Jeffrey arched an eyebrow scornfully. "You're joking! The world is full of different languages."

    Not wanting to be left out, Train agreed. "Just look at the Chinese. We have Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien, Teochew, Hakka, Shanghainese, Hainanese... all in the same country!"

    Tamaryn shook her head impatiently. "You are both being frogs again! Guru taught me that there is a family of languages that once united the speech of men from India, and on through Iran to Europe. He has studied these matters. He said that English is akin to his language, Sanskrit. Did you know that the English word 'do' is akin to the Sanskrit word ddhti? Guru said ddhti means 'to put or lay'. He said the 'do' and ddhti come from the same universal tongue, which no longer exists."

    Train had been pacing up and down, listening. Tamaryn reached up a hand and gently pulled him down to sit beside her. Jeffrey immediately became aware of how much he resented her attention.

    "Let me tell you of Wyrd. We had our gods," Tamaryn recalled. "There was Woden, Ingui, Thunor, Hengest, Tiw, Welund, Seaxneat, and Horsa. And goddesses, too... Helith, Freo, Eostre, Nerthus, Erce, Frigg, Hretha. The English took Eostre's name and changed it to Easter, because the festivals fell at the same time." She gazed out over the peaks. "Woden was the head of the gods, and he had his own day of the week, Woden's Day, in our language Wodnesdaeg, which became your word, 'Wednesday'. Thunor was the God of Thunder, though others called him Thor. And he gave his name to Thursday, Thunresdaeg, Thor's Day. They say the oak tree is his sacred tree because he struck it so often with his lightning. Friday was named after Frigg, the Goddess of Love, and Tiw was the War God, Father of the Sky. His day was Tiwesdaeg."

    "Tuesday!" Train snapped his fingers.

    "And the others?" Jeffrey scowled.

    "Hengest and Horsa were twin brothers, the horse gods."

    Jeffrey snapped his fingers. "So the word 'horse' came from Horsa's name, right?"

    When Tamaryn nodded, Jeffrey gave a grin of triumph.

    Train abruptly changed the subject. "Tamaryn, what happened to you all those years ago? How did you die?"

    "I was a princess of the Celtic people. One of the lords of Wyrd, one who served Woden, sought my hand in marriage."

    "You're too young to get married!" cried Jeffrey in alarm.

    "In those days, maidens married early," Tamaryn replied evenly. "Our orlög, our law, laid it down. I was betrothed to my lord and taken up to Wyrd. But then, our kingdom was attacked by the invading hordes, the Germanic and the Norse. I saw my people suffer, their armies crushed, their villages wiped out, their farms laid to waste. The invaders made their demands. They would leave my people in peace if a Celtic princess was offered in flames to their gods."

    "You mean, burned alive?" Train gasped in horror.

    Tamaryn met his gaze. "How could I ignore my people and think only of myself? So, I stepped down from Wyrd and offered myself as a sacrifice. I was burned at the stake, with all my people watching. I prayed for their happiness as I died, and found myself here, as you did."

    "Your death was far more noble than ours," Train told her, placing a hand on hers.

    It was Jeffrey's turn to change the subject. "Tamaryn, is Guru the leader of the Immortals? Or is there someone else?"

    "The council of leaders dwells in the upper chamber of the palace, unseen by all," Tamaryn replied. "Perhaps one day, we shall be called into their presence."

    A gong was struck high in the cloud, and Tamaryn leapt to her feet.

    "We must return to our rooms," she told the boys. "It is the hour of Wisdoming, when the Immortals must meditate on their duties...""
     
  7. 7
    THE WISDOM



    "YOUR faith can save you always. But should your faith waver," Guru warned his three young charges who were seated cross-legged on the floor before him, "should the qualities that marked you as an Immortal ever change, then you will cease to be one of us. And should your faith waver in battle, should you cease to act and think like an Immortal, you will become vulnerable to your opponent's weapon."
    It was the boys' second morning of immortality, the first of one hundred days of Wisdoming, the gaining of wisdom in preparation for the Arts of War. Guru had brought them to a windowless room. He called the chamber Satyameva Jayate, "Truth alone always triumphs".

    "The teaching I will give you will permeate your beings and your every action. Above all, you are not to commit evils, but do all that is good and to keep your thoughts pure," Guru said. "Since the beginningless past, Man has not known where his True Self is. He has become a slave to things and circumstances. Therefore, you must let your True Selves direct you in all your dealings with the world."

    "Does this mean we must seek the truth around us?" Jeffrey asked.

    Guru drew his shawl tighter around his shoulders.

    "We have to gatha, a poem, a hymn," he replied. "Remember it: 'There is nothing true anywhere, the truth is nowhere to be seen; If you say you see the true, this seeing is not the true one'."

    "Then how do we find the truth?" Jeffrey frowned. "And how do we know when we have found our True Selves?"

    "When that day comes, you will not have to ask the question."

    ~~~
    ON ANOTHER morning, Guru discussed Nabha Sparsham Diptam, "Touching the sky with glory".
    "There are two types of goodness," he began. "Contaminated goodness and uncontaminated goodness. What is done for your own sake, in hopes of reward and glory, is contaminated goodness. What is done without thought of self-gain is uncontaminated goodness."

    Then he asked them, "Who is your enemy?"

    "The one who does evil," suggested Tamaryn.

    "The one who is opposed to us," offered Train.

    "The guy with the gun," said Jeffrey grimly.

    "Who is your enemy?" Guru repeated his question.

    They lapsed into silence, Guru's eyes searching their faces. At length, he settled himself onto the floor beside them.

    "When others speak ill of you, you acquire the chance of gaining merit, for they are really your good friends."

    "We should love our enemies?" Jeffrey demanded.

    "But, Jeffrey, who are your enemies?" Guru smiled.

    ~~~
    ON YET another morning, Guru was seated before them with a bell. He asked Tamaryn to strike it.
    "What do you hear?" he asked them.

    "The bell," said Train.

    Guru ordered her to strike it again.

    "What do you hear?" he asked again.

    Jeffrey shrugged. "The bell."

    "You are wrong," Guru told them. "The essence is to be grasped, not the hearing, not the sound. If you think the sound is reality, your mind is confused."

    And then he taught them the Clear Seeing of a Clear Mind.

    "If you gaze at a single leaf on a single tree, you do not see the other leaves. Your mind will be preoccupied with one left. But if you face the tree with a clear mind and don't fix your eyes on a single left, you will see hundreds and thousands of leaves. This is the Clear Seeing of a Clear Mind. Your perception is clear, so you don't miss one out of ten thousand."

    ~~~
    "WHY do we have to learn the Arts of War?" Jeffrey asked one day. "We're Immortals, aren't we? We can't be killed, can be?"
    Guru smiled bleakly. "The opponents you will face will not be mortal opponents. They will have their own skills, their own supernatural cunning. They will be your equals."

    "But why do we have to learn so much about the mind?" he persisted. "What has the mind to do with fighting?"

    "Did you not learn the Clear Seeing of a Clear Mind?" Guru reminded him. "If you had one thousand hands, each holding one sword, yet your mind stayed on one hand holding one sword, the other nine hundred and ninety-nine hands and swords would be useless. Once you have wisdom and Clear Seeing, all thousand hands and swords will be in your service."

    ~~~
    IT TOOK thirty-one days for Guru to teach Jeffrey the Dark Art of Invisibility. Train required thirty-three days to master this secret.
    "There is neither Self nor Other," Guru patiently explained, over and over. "There is a void where nothing is left behind, nothing is retained. The mind is empty."

    Much to Tamaryn's amusement, the boys crashed into stone walls and heavy wooden doors as they attempted to transport themselves invisibly from one place to another.

    Guru chided her. "Tamaryn, have you forgotten your own clumsiness in this Art?"

    Tamaryn bowed her head and was still.

    ~~~
    WHEN the one hundred days had come to an end, Guru summoned his three pupils into his presence. He presented them each with a pair of sandals and a cloak sewn from rough wool.
    "You are ready for your mission, Immortal Youths," he informed them. "It will begin at first light. There is a path that leads to the sun in the morning. On that path you will find a small hut in the land behind the snows. The one who dwells within that hut will instruct you."

    "Who is that person?" Train asked.

    "The greatest of all the Immortal Warriors. He is the one called Lord Indra."

    "Will you come with us, Guru?" Tamaryn inquired.

    "I have taught you the secrets of the mind," Guru replied. "The Six Paths of Existence are no more than manifestations of your mind itself. You have come to the knowledge that they are all like the moon reflected in water. There is no reality other than your mind. It knows neither birth nor death. It has neither shape nor form. Try to grasp the mind in your thoughts and you cannot. Its boundaries are beyond measurement."

    He bowed and was gone.
     
  8. 8
    JEFFREY'S CONFESSION



    THAT night, the boys stood by the window of their room, gazing out across the moon-frosted mountains. Jeffrey's voice was hushed.
    "In the morning, we leave. We return to the outside world." His eyes seemed fixed on a point beyond the farthest peaks.

    Train studied his friend's face in profile. "Are you afraid?"

    Jeffrey's laugh sent a chill down Train's spine. "No. I'm glad. I've been waiting for this moment. Counting the hours."

    "Why? So you can go to war and fight?"

    "No." Jeffrey turned to face him squarely. "So I can escape."

    Train was shocked. "You can't escape. You're an Immortal."

    Jeffrey gripped his wrist. "Don't get me wrong, Train. I'm grateful to these people. And I understand everything Guru taught us. It's all kind of weird, but it works." His gaze returned to the majestic vista of silvery peaks. "But it's like this palace, it's not real. It's like some gigantic party trick."

    Train jerked his hand away. "How can you say things like that?"

    "Because it's the truth. It's what in my mind. Look, we haven't sworn any oaths of loyalty, have we? Once we leave here, we're quite free. What's to stop us going our own way? Going back to our time?"

    "Jeffrey," Train warned, "if you think like that, you'll stop being Immortal. You'll go back to being dead."

    "Will I?" He hesitated, his fingernail scratching at the wooden sill. "Look, Guru taught us about our minds. How powerful they are. If I put that power to work for myself, wouldn't that get me home?"

    "But that would be cheating him."

    Jeffrey shook his head defiantly. "How can I serve the universe? I'm a kid from Idaho. I just want to go home. I feel likr I'm living on another planet."

    "Guru said we shouldn't fix our minds on one thing or on one place," Train reminded him.

    "Guru, Guru, Guru..." Jeffrey's bitterness intensified. "I have a mind of my own, don't I? I don't need Guru to tell me how to think, what to think. My mind has been fixed on escape from the moment I got here. I don't feel Immortal. I feel I'm dying here. A living death!"

    His rebelliousness spent, he fell silent. When he spoke again, his voice was husky. "And then there's Tamaryn."

    "What about her?"

    "I've seen the way she looks at you."

    Train laughed. "I've seen the way she looks at you, too."

    "She's so beautiful. I hate the idea of sharing her. With you, or anyone else."

    "She's a warrior, like we're supposed to be," Train protested. "Who said anything about sharing her?"

    "But you don't deny she's beautiful?"

    "Of course not. She is."

    "And you're attracted to her?" Jeffrey probed.

    Train nodded. "Yes, of course I am. But, Jeffrey, whatever happens, whatever she does, it's her choice, isn't it?"

    ~~~
    LISTENING at the next window, Tamaryn let out a troubled sigh.

    End of Scroll One
     
  9. Scroll Two

    1
    THE PATH TO THE SUN






    THE first rays of light streaked the sky as Jeffrey, Train, and Tamaryn left the palace. The air was chilly, and they gazed in awe across the rooftop of the world. It seemed to Train that those snow-topped crests contained all the secrets of peace and humility. Against their majesty, who were they? Nothing.
    He turned and clapped his hands, and the stout wooden door closed behind them.

    "Another of the Dark Arts you have mastered," Tamaryn congratulated him with a nod of her head. Her raven-black hair swished from side to side. Without warning, she clapped her hands and her laughter tinkled as the door swung open again.

    Train met her mischievous eyes and clapped his hands loudly. The heavy door slammed shut with a resounding bang.

    Tamaryn laughed wickedly and clapped her hands again. The door opened on her command.

    Jeffrey shot her a sour look. "Can we get with the program, folks?" he snarled.

    Tamaryn turned away, clearly upset by his reprimand. Train, tempted to say something, remembered Jeffrey's confession of the night before and thought it wiser to remain silent.

    At a point several meters ahead, four paths began. One headed due east, illumined by the sun's early rays.

    "The path to the sun?" Jeffrey asked no one in particular.

    "If you say so," observed Tamaryn coldly.

    Wrapped in an uneasy silence, they set off down the rocky track, their sandals clattering on the loose stones. As the path entered a steep, shadowy pass, the palace and mountain peaks were lost to view.

    Jeffrey led the way, and Train eyed him with concern. All night, he had tossed and turned, worried that his friend would lose immortality. Why did Jeffrey have to be so aggressive, so impatient? Hadn't he learned anything from Guru?

    When the pass ended, a broad plateau opened before them. The path wound lazily across it. In the distance, huddled in a fold in the earth, they could see the dim outline of a small hut. It was nothing more than a shepherd's hut, built low to the ground to escape the winds that must howl from time to time across this barren place. What had Guru called it? Train tried to remember. The land behind the snows.

    Train had never seen a landscape more desolate. He was about to comment on the fact when a blinding flash scared the sky and a bolt of lightning struck the ground at their feet. A yawning crater opened. Chips of rock spewed into the air.

    Another bolt followed, shaking the ground and carving out another deep gash. A plume of debris flew high into the sky.

    Tamaryn leapt forward, her right arm outstretched, and the third bolt of lightning passed harmlessly by.

    "Is this Lord Indra's idea of a welcome?" Jeffrey sneered.

    "He is testing us," Tamaryn replied with a laugh.

    "Then let's not disappoint him," he growled.

    As Guru had taught him, Jeffrey drew the Dark Art of Invisibility from the depths of his mind. He concentrated on creating a void with a secret mantra, allowing his body to be absorbed into the voice, then vanished from human sight. Tamaryn and Train did the same.

    The three invisible figures sprinted down the path. Bolts of lightning exploded harmlessly behind them. At a signal from Jeffrey, they left the path and stole up to the hut. It appeared deserted.

    Suddenly, it burst into flames. Flames licked its ancient timbers and soared high into the air. Then, Jeffrey let out a shout. The fire was an illusion. It was not devouring the building.

    "Party tricks!" scoffed Jeffrey. "Is that all he can do?"

    The next moment, he was whipped into the air by a powerful, unseen force and held suspended above the tongues of flame.

    He looked down in horror at a gigantic man garbed in a tunic and woolen cloak standing in the heart of the inferno. The man stood three meters tall.

    "Party tricks?" bellowed the stranger.

    In that instant, the timber walls caught fire, crackling and spitting in the roaring blaze. The heat and smoke rose in a suffocating wave, and Jeffrey screamed. Moments later, the flames died and the hut was a blackened ruin.

    The mysterious force dropped Jeffrey to the ground, where the stranger looked down at him and laughed. "You are truly a beginner!"

    Jeffrey scrambled to his feet. His humiliation became anger. "You're a maniac. You have killed us!"

    "The beginner should never be given two arrows," the man explained, "because counting on the second arrow results in carelessness with the first. You should have settled the matter with the first arrow. What if I had not given you a second chance?"

    The giant offered his hand, but Jeffrey refused it.

    "You're speaking in riddles," Jeffrey accused him, brushing dust from his tunic.

    "I speak in truth. You made yourself invisible to evade the thunderbolts. That was your first arrow. But you were not on your guard when I started the fire. Where was your Clear Seeing? Where was your Skill in Means? You left yourself at my mercy."

    Train wanted to spare Jeffrey any further embarrassment. He stepped forward and shook the giant's hand.

    "We are all equally at fault," he stated. "You must be Lord Indra, the one we seek?"

    Beneath his cloak, the giant's muscular body was clad in a gray tunic that Train knew would meld into fog and mist. Like the mane of a lion, his iron-colored hair framed a gentle face, and his knowing eyes searched Train's soul. His forearms were as thick as the trunk of a small tree, his fingers as delicate as those of a woman's. A huge sword hung sheathed from his belt.

    "Come inside and we will talk of our mission," Indra invited them. "And because we will be serving together as equals, as Immortal Warriors, call me simply Indra."

    When they turned to follow him, they saw that the hut was untouched by fire.
     
  10. 2
    THE MISSION REVEALED








    THE hut was devoid of adornment. Four sturdy wooden stools stood in a circle. Indra chose one and waved his three guests to sit on the others.
    He regarded them in silence, as though he were calculating their worth. When he spoke at last, his voice was a deep, rolling cascade of words, reminding Train of a powerful river.

    "A sacred gateway to the Immortal World has been violated," Indra told them. "We are to go to the Shrine of Kra."

    Tamaryn gasped. "I have heard of it. It is the most sacred shrine of all."

    Jeffrey and Train exchanged a quick glance before Train asked, "Where is the shrine?"

    "Beyond the valley of the Han people, in the land of the Kush." Indra planted his hands on his broad knees and leaned forward. "The location of the shrine was determined by a sacred compass that sets the boundaries of the Immortal World. The shrine has been in the care of the Mighty Kush since time immemorial. It has been well protected by them in accordance with an ancient treaty. Alas, in recent weeks, the most terrible misfortunes have occurred."

    "What happened?" Tamaryn inquired.

    "A great evil has descended on the Kush. Many of their leaders have perished, and their civilization is threatened with extinction." Indra's tone became more somber. "The blood of the Kush flows in the veins of many Immortals. They are a noble race, a people upon whom we rely, and their suffering is grievous. They sent messengers to us. They have told us how the shrine was destroyed and the Scrolls of Kra seized and carried away."

    "Why are those Scrolls so important?" Jeffrey demanded.

    "The Scrolls of Kra record the greatest secrets of the Immortal World. In the wrong hands, this knowledge would unleash forces that even we could not stop, forces that would devastate life and change destinies for centuries to come. Whoever possesses the scrolls possesses power over the universe."

    Jeffrey let out a laugh. He arched an eyebrow cynically. "A few minutes ago, you said I was nothing but a beginner. So, why was I chosen for such a mission? And the same goes for Train and Tamaryn. We aren't warriors like you with a bag of magic tricks."

    Indra showed no offense. "But you have certain qualities upon which I cannot call," he explained. "You have knowledge of times and places that I do not possess."

    Jeffrey's eyes narrowed. "I don't get you?"

    "The adversary we must defeat is not an army, not even a band of warriors. He is one man who possesses great ability, great cunning."

    "Do you know him?" Tamaryn asked breathlessly.

    In reply, Indra rose, unsheathed his sword, and plunged it into the bare earthen floor. Immediately, blood streamed from the ground.

    "I have sworn to slaughter him. He is a man was once an Immortal, a man who was expelled from the Immortal World, and who now seeks to destroy everything we have built. He knows all our Arts of War, all our Dark Arts, too. I know his name and his face. At the same time, he can make himself nameless and faceless."

    "What does that mean?" Train asked, shuddering.

    "It means he is our equal, perhaps more than our equal." Indra hesitated, his eyes darkening beneath his bushy brows. "He is also a Time Leaper. He can move backward and forward through time, shifting from one guise to another, changing himself like a chameleon."

    "But what if we can't find him?" Jeffrey scowled.

    "He, my young friend, will find us. Once he knows we are in pursuit, determined to bring back the ancient scrolls, he will strike at us. His pride will demand it. He will want us to follow him, so he can trap us when we least expect it. Therefore, we must be wary." Indra gave a wry smile. "But every sword has two edges. Each time he strikes, he will reveal his position. So we must bait him, lure him, to his destruction. As the Art of War says, let your enemy first climb onto the roof, then take away the ladder."

    Fear hollowed Train's voice. "Tell me, Indra, about our immortality when facing such an enemy."

    "Immortality?" Indra snapped his fingers. "It will count for nothing against such a foe. For this man knows everything we know."

    Tamaryn shivered. "So we are defenseless?"

    "Victory will come by doing what he does not expect, by observing the rhythms of his actions, and by adapting such wisdom to the situations at hand. We must know his mind better than he does. Then, it will be possible to achieve certain victory with a Single Telling Blow."

    With those words, the air was filled with a sound like the humming of a thousand bees. Three silver swords descended through the roof and planted themselves in the bare earth before the three Immortal Youths.

    "These swords will sing for you. Our greatest sword makers crafted them. Like you, they are going into battle for the first time." And at that moment, Indra allowed himself a grim smile. "It is said that the most powerful weapon sometimes is Becoming New. New swords for new warriors who see things with new eyes."

    Jeffrey stood. His hands reaching to grasp his sword. He hesitated. "Indra, there is one thing you have not told us. The name of our enemy."

    Indra's eyes blazed. "Kra. He is the treacherous grandson of the Immortal who first built the shrine that bears his name. Kra is our enemy."
     
  11. 3
    THE SIGN OF THE TREES








    THE journey across the plateau took most of the morning. The track passed no other dwellings. No birds or other signs of life were present. The only sound was that of sandals scraping against stones.

    OO Train thought he detected a change in the weather. A wind had sprung up, steadily increasing in force. It lashed the dry earth, whipping up eddies of grit that stung the skin. Ahead, dark clouds rolled across the mountains.

    OO It was early afternoon when Indra stopped at the end of the plateau. The track led into a narrow pass between jagged boulders. Indra pointed to where a small pile of stones stood, an ancient pictograph daubed on its side.

    OO "This marks the border with the Han people," he announced. "The Chinese people."

    OO "Are they friendly?" Tamaryn asked.

    OO "They mind their own affairs," Indra advised. Suddenly he stiffened and stepped from the path, his gaze focused on a grove of stunted trees. Some had been split down the center, their branches blackened. "Kra was here," he informed them.

    OO "How do you know?" Jeffrey demanded. "I mean, they look to me as though they've been struck by lightning."

    OO Indra shook his head, looking around warily. "He has left them as a sign for us. The trees were not stricken by any natural force. Observe them carefully. Not every tree has been scorched, only some. Now, step back and use the Clear Seeing of a Clear Mind. Do not merely look at one tree, but see them all."

    OO Doing as he commanded, Tamaryn let out a gasp.

    OO "Indra, the blackened trees form a pattern," she said. "Is that what you wanted us to see?"

    OO Indra beamed. "Excellent. Now, tell me about the pattern."

    OO It looks like a symbol of some kind," Jeffrey said.

    OO "It's a word, isn't it?" Train squinted.

    OO "It's a word from a language more ancient than Sanskrit called Vedic Sanskrit, the language of the Vedas," Indra informed him. "It is a word taken from the Scrolls of Kra."

    OO "What does it mean?" Jeffrey demanded impatiently.

    OO "I know the word, but not perhaps its meaning," Indra intoned mysteriously. "The word means 'one'."

    OO "As in one, two, three?" Tamaryn frowned.

    OO Indra's hand rested lightly on the hilt of his sword. "Precisely, and perhaps that is all the message is meant to tell us, that this is the first sign of Kra having passed this way."

    OO "But it could also mean something else?" Train questioned.

    OO "In the Scrolls, the Immortal Secrets of Destruction were numbered. It is possible that Kra is telling us that the first secret has been unleashed upon the world."

    OO "What was the first secret?" Jeffrey wanted to know, but Indra did not reply.

    OO He held up a hand.

    OO "I have neglected my duty as a warrior," he said. "If Kra is this close, I must prepare you now."

    OO He commanded his three companions to draw their swords. Before they knew what was happening, Indra's sword was slashing at them with rapid strokes. Then he lowered it and was perfectly still.

    OO "When you face an enemy, where should your mind be set?" he asked.

    OO "On your enemy's sword, obviously," said Jeffrey.

    OO "But then your mind will be taken up by your enemy's sword. So, where should your mind be set?"

    OO "On your own sword," Train said.

    OO "But then your mind will be taken up by your own sword. So, where should your mind be set?"

    OO "On killing your enemy and saving yourself," Tamaryn said.

    OO "But then your mind will be taken up with the thought of killing your enemy and not being killed yourself. So, where should your mind be set?"

    OO Jeffrey broke into a grin. "Nowhere. Your mind should not be fixed anywhere."

    OO Indra laughed and placed a hand on his shoulder. "You are not a beginner, truly, if you understand that."

    OO "Yo!" Jeffrey raised a fist triumphantly, and Train was happy for his friend's success.

    OO Without warning, Indra's sword swept up and sent Jeffrey's weapon flying. "But if you let your attention linger, then your mind will be taken over by your opponent, and so will your sword."

    OO "That wasn't fair!" Jeffrey exploded.

    OO "Do you think Kra will be fair?" countered Indra. In the silence that followed, he stepped across to where Jeffrey's sword lay on the ground and retrieved it. "You must learn the value of Fluidity in Action," he explained. "When you clap your hand, a sound comes out immediately. There is no gap. When you strike a flint, the sparks fly at once. There in no gap. Therefore in combat, Jeffrey, there can be no gaps for the mind to stop and linger."

    OO He returned the sword to Jeffrey. Before Indra could react, Jeffrey swung it swiftly and sent Indra's sword spinning into the air.

    OO Tamaryn's face clouded with anger. "Jeffrey, you ought to be ashamed! A pupil should never insult his master."

    OO But Indra bellowed with laughter. "No, Jeffrey was right. His action did not falter, but mine did."

    OO Indra produced four small packets of rice and herbs from a pocket of his tunic. "And now that we have attended to our minds, let's not neglect our bodies."
     
  12. 4: In the Valley of the Han

    4
    IN THE VALLEY OF THE HAN








    THEY are in silence, Train sensing that Tamaryn was still furious with Jeffrey. Train himself had been disappointed by his friend's show of supremacy. Even though Indra had praised Jeffrey's swift response, Train believed his friend had seized the moment to settle a score rather than demonstrate his skill as a warrior. Nor had Train forgotten Jeffrey's vow to escape, and that troubled him even more.

    OO The narrow pass led them from the plateau to an endless succession of steep, shadowed hills. For four days they followed a network of trails that traversed the rugged ridges beneath the roof of the world. No vegetation survived in that rocky wasteland. The icy winds swept from distant snow-clad peaks, the utter silence more intense than anything Train had experienced. In her soul, Tamaryn yearned for the green glades and forests of her Celtic home, the oaks and yews, the tumbling brooks where fish leapt and the hedgerows heavy with singing birds.



    IT WAS late afternoon on the final day when they entered the valley of the Han. A steep trail had wound deeper into a boulder-strewn pass. In places, it was so narrow they were forced to walk in single file. Indra's towering figure led the way. His hand clutching the hilt of his sword, Jeffrey walked behind him. Train and Tamaryn followed.

    OO Jeffrey let out a sudden cry. Train, who had been helping Tamaryn clamber over a small landslide of rocks, looked up and saw that the pass had brought them to the head of a lush valley. Like a gigantic quilt, farmland stretched as far as the eye could see, dotted by clusters of small stone cottages. After the bare, barren mountain terrain, the sight took his breath away.

    OO "The valley of the Han," Indra announced, signaling a stop.

    OO No sooner had he uttered the words than several ragged men darted out from behind the cover of a massive boulder. They were armed with axes and long poles. One brandished a rusty sword. Train recognized their peasant clothing, he had seen such vests and trousers depicted in ancient Chinese paintings.

    OO "Stop!" ordered the man with the sword. "Who are you? Where are you from?"

    OO As the band of peasants advanced, Tamaryn and Train drew their swords, but Indra waved them back. An old man clutching a pole with both hands had pushed his way forward. His eyes squinted at Indra, his wizened face breaking into a toothless grin.

    OO "Hold, for they are peaceful," he called to his companions. "This is Lord Indra the Immortal."

    OO While he spoke, more peasants had slipped out from behind the boulder and formed a circle around the intruders.

    OO "I say they are spies!" accused the man with the sword. He watched warily as the old man lowered his pole and greeted Indra.

    OO "We can trust him. I have known him since I was a child," he said, beaming.

    OO Indra ignored the hostile peasants and bowed to the old man. "What he says is true. He is a farmer," he explained to Jeffrey, Train, and Tamaryn. "His name is Zhang. He is not our foe."

    OO He regarded the old man with curiosity, his head tilted to one side. "Zhang, my friend, why do you bear arms?"

    OO Zhang looked astonished. "You haven't heard? The tribes of the Han are at war."

    OO "With whom?"

    OO "With each other," Zhang cried out in rage.

    OO "But never in a thousand years has such a thing happened."

    OO "It happens now, Lord Indra the Immortal," Zhang told him. "Enemies are all about us. If you follow the valley, you will meet more like us. All we seek is to protect our homes."

    OO "But the Han have always been peaceful," Indra mused.

    OO "We were, until the Great Dispute," the old man spat.

    OO "Tell me of the occurrence," commanded Indra.

    OO Zhang rested on his pole, one leg crooked against the other. "A man has come among us, sowing seeds of jealousy and hatred. To one tribe he says, Why are your farms so small when your neighbors' farms are so big? And to their neighbor he says, Why are your crops so puny when others are so bountiful?"

    OO "And who is this man?"

    OO "I have not seen him, my lord Indra. I am too insignificant. He talks only to the tribal leaders, and to the mandarins in the emperor's court. He advocates war, so that one tribe may be dominant over all the others."

    OO "And they listen?"

    OO "Of course," Zhang replied softly. "It is human nature to do so."

    OO Tamaryn rested her hand on Indra's wrist. "Is this the work of Kra?"

    OO "I fear so. He creates discord where once there was harmony. The Han are the most peaceful of all the great races."

    OO "Lord Indra, can you stop this man before the whole of the Middle Kingdom is at war with itself?" pleaded the old peasant. "I am one impoverished farmer in one small valley, but I know that once such trouble starts, there are others in surrounding countries who will eye our lands."

    OO "I understand." Indra placed a consoling hand on old Zhang's bony shoulder. "My friend, we ourselves are on a mission to destroy this man of whom you speak. He has turned against the Immortals, too."

    OO Indra accepted Zhang's invitation to drink tea and share a meal. They crowded into his cottage, squatting on the bare floor where a handful of grandchildren watched them with startled eyes. When it was time to leave, Zhang said he had sent messengers on ahead.

    OO "The people are very frightened," he explained. "The war is getting closer. My men will ensure that you pass through our valley without threat or hindrance."

    OO As they trekked along the road, evening bore down on them. In village after village, the Han people lit lamps at their windows and offered the travelers bowls of rice.

    OO "Chinese takeaway," remarked Jeffrey, grinning.

    OO "You're mocking them." Tamaryn was indignant.

    OO "I'm not," Jeffrey snorted. "You just don't understand the context."

    OO Tamaryn averted her gaze. "I am sure there are many things I don't understand," she retorted. "About you..."

    OO Indra selected an abandoned cottage by the roadside. "We can rest her the night," he told them. "We will take turns to sleep. I will stand watch first."



    IN THE hour before dawn, when Tamaryn was seated on an old bench behind the crumbling wall of the cottage garden, a flash of light burst across the sky. Seconds later came the sound of an explosion.
     
  13. 5: The Black Powder

    5
    THE BLACK POWDER








    INDRA came storming through the door, his eyes scanning the sky as a second flash erupted. Jeffrey and Train loped after him.

    OO "Is this what Zhang told us about?" Tamaryn asked urgently.

    OO "I fear so." Indra gathered the many small packets of rice that he had left overnight on the sill of a window and stuffed them into his tunic. "We must leave."

    OO The next explosion was closer, and the ground vibrated. Jeffrey shot Train a glance. "It sounds like cannon fire."

    OO Indra ignored the moonlit road and cut across the ruined fields, with the others behind him. The uneven ground made running difficult, and their sandals caught on the twisted skeletons of scorched plants. Despite his size, Indra kept low and moved swiftly. He was heading toward a distant rise ringed by the remains of an orchard, its fruit trees gnarled and forlorn.

    OO As they climbed the steep slope, sounds of tumult carried in the crisp morning air. Gaining the summit, Indra led them to the ragged cover of an ancient tree.

    OO They gazed across into the next valley, where a scene of devastation was unfolding beneath the undying moon and the first streaky light of the rising sun. A dozen villages were ablaze, the road a winding ribbon clogged by the black shapes of people, wagons, and oxen. Two armies of the Han faced each other across the patchwork of farmland. One was encamped near the base of the hill, the other attacking from the north.

    OO As they watched, muzzle flashes lit the valley, followed by the boom of guns. Cannonballs soared over the horses marshaled at the foot of the hill.

    OO "We've always known the Chinese invented gunpowder," Train whispered to Jeffrey.

    OO Indra turned to him solemnly. "This is the work of Kra. He has given the Han people the first Immortal Secret of Destruction. The knowledge of the black powder was contained in the Scrolls of Kra." He reverted his gaze to the tide of battle in the valley. "So, now we understand the sign of the trees. The first Immortal Secret is now in the possession of mankind."

    OO A low gasp from Tamaryn alerted him to a new danger. She pointed to a series of shadows moving stealthily up the hill.

    OO "We have been seen," Indra nodded. "It is better we do not involve ourselves. The blood of the Han should not be on our hands."

    OO Crouching low, they retreated from the hilltop and took shelter in the orchard. Indra indicated a range of mountains to the west.

    OO "That is where we must go," he announced. "To the Kush."

    OO "But to reach those mountains we have to move between the two armies," Jeffrey reminded him. "We'll be sitting ducks."

    OO "What do you mean?" Tamaryn demanded. "Your words make no sense."

    OO "He means we will be easy targets for the soldiers," Train explained, and Tamaryn glowered at Jeffrey.

    OO "Then we must seek refuge in the Dark Art of Invisibility," Indra told them.