August 15th, 1921 – Himalayan Mountains –
Digging his fingers in only made the pain in his shoulder worse, and any further strain on his back from the pack he’d put together might keep him from continuing up the mountain. There wasn’t any time for whining or complaining though, plus no one around him was likely to listen. Like some crazed animal, he kept digging his fingers into the rocky hillside, doing what he could to ignore the pain.
It had been months since he’d done any serious sort of climbing. Straight out of Brown he’d spent the summer months relaxing near Wittenberg Mountain preparing for this climb, which, in hindsight, hadn’t been good enough. Swinging his tall frame over the closest ledge, he rolled onto his side and inhaled a few deep breaths as his heart pounded in his chest.
The view from this ledge was just as spectacular as every other one that the Himalayas had offered the previous three thousand feet. The air was the cleanest he’d ever had the pleasure of inhaling and so much more pure than what he’d recently smelled in Delhi. The air was accented slightly by the lemongrass that was growing nearby, and filled his senses with memories of the tea brewed in the markets and houses he visited. The first house was a merchant – or vaisya – in the city who had steeped a pot of it for him after the long train ride that brought him to the city.
Sitting up, Julius took a few more breaths, trying to ease his heart before standing up. The vista still called for him to linger longer but his purpose here was clear. He had climbed for days, the rough and rocky paths that wound their way through the lower foothills and eventually gave way to climbing off the paths and onto the mountains themselves. The people in the last village he’d left – it was no bigger than twenty – warned him to find a sherpa for his first time up, but he would have to do without a guide this time. This journey was too critical to leave it up to sherpas that might question his motives or religious affiliation.
It had been a year of studying in the States after a curious note was dropped into his mailbox at Brown University. The note had mentioned that there was something yet still uncovered in the vast mountainside of the Himalayas: something ground breaking, something truly enlightening. At first he balked at the note; it must have been some sort of joke, or perhaps a fellow colleague was trying to play a game with him. As time passed, his curiosity had to be sated and he started spending his nights reading the history of India, everything from the Asian tribal invasions to the Ramayana epic.
Slowly the investigation took on a life of its own, and he began unearthing more about the tale. It seemed that parts of the record concerning the artifact had been purposely omitted in many of the books at Brown, and when he’d gone to the head librarian, he had no idea, but Julius was still able to piece parts of it together. Each time he found something that made the story more substantial, other pieces of evidence would be stripped away and make other parts simply too difficult to believe. It had remained like that for a few months until Professor MacDonald corresponded with him from France saying that he had found clues that might pique his interest. Their relationship had always been strained during his undergraduate studies, as MacDonald was known for being a man of precision when it came to how the text of a subject was followed. In post graduate life, Julius had come to grow fond of the older man, and considered him like a misunderstood uncle that came around once a year for the holidays.
Craning his neck back up the mountainside, Julius took a moment to carefully consider his next move. Climbing in the Catskills had taught him that starting out on the right foot was paramount. He had to visualize where he’d put his hands and feet in this next section of the climb, then make sure that he had his pack properly set so it wouldn’t unbalance him on the way up. Mountaineering reminded him a lot of outlining papers during his days at school; preparation was everything.
Working up his motivation was easy, the villagers he stayed with three days ago said the climb to the top was difficult, but once made, he’d be able to see the ruins he was looking for. They’d shared their food and drink with him and given him a place to sleep and wash up after his hard trek by horse. India was filled with all manner of exotic flavors for foreigners, from the local markets to the vast palaces that sprawled across the landscape. India was a secret garden of delights to be discovered; the scent of its flowers to be inhaled deeply. The people were warm and inviting and always seemed to give visitors a smile and help if they needed. He asked his questions carefully, trying hard not come across as another Western explorer looking to claim some of India’s vast riches. He explained to the villagers that he was exploring the world, had heard of the great Himalayas, and longed to see them.
Little did they know he was here for more than sightseeing.
That little paper note told of a great and powerful artifact from Polynesian myth: an idol of conjoined beings, one male and one female. Each being wore a great and colorful mask with many feathers adorning its head and broad, toothy grimaces. That was not the most striking part though. One of the figures was rumored to have the strong upper body of a man and genitals of a woman. The other figure was the opposite, with the breasts of a woman and phallus of a man. These two figures blended together at the torso and then separated out again below the waist and legs. The stories and legends said the villagers could use it to perfect their bodies and gain the ability to think with two minds.
As he moved up the mountainside, Julius made note of the sun in the sky and saw it was still shining brightly. It had moved quite a bit since he had set out, but he still had time left to make his way up the final peak. Hours passed and eventually his boots landed on the last plateau of the mountain. Julius made his way around to the north face and climbed into a position where he could get a better look at the valley.
Staring down the mountain side he could see the tiny village nestled in the valley below. By his count, the village had six large stone houses overgrown by thick moss and vines. They were all connected by little stone pathways that led to the center of town, where there seemed to be a large well. In these villages, the wells could be hot springs found amidst the mountainsides, serving as wellspring and bathhouse. The well area was either overgrown or covered by some type of dead fall. Whatever it was, it required a closer look.
Making his way back down the north face was more challenging. The rocks were much more worn and broken than the south facing side, so it made for slow going. Julius did his best to keep from sliding down too fast and tumbling head over heels towards the village, eventually getting down to an area outside the village proper.
The plantlife was very overgrown outside the village, obscuring even the sherpa paths that once led out of the center of the village. Julius picked his way slowly through the trees and tall grasses until he came to the outer edge of the village, which was marked by two stone pillars that arched over the remnants of a walkway. The archway was chipped and eroded from years of rain and weather, but Julius could tell that it was colorful at one time, with hues of blues and pinks.
The dirt road entering the village was a little overgrown with moss and long grasses, but it must have been well used at some point, as the path itself was dug in below the ground level of the surrounding area. The area was quiet and still, with only the faintest of breezes passing through the trees. He could see the well area just over the next hill, positioned between two smaller buildings. It was fairly easy to spot with the saffron-colored flags that fluttered in the light breeze. They were attached to rope lines from the two closer buildings to the well area, and as Julius made his way towards it, he began to see a most horrifying scene.
From the top of the northern face of the mountain he had stood on, the overgrown trees and branches had appeared as deadfall, but from ground level the truth was that it wasn’t branches or dried grasses that littered the area surrounding the well; it was corpses. Villagers were perfectly placed surrounding the well in a circular pattern, all laid back on their knees with their arms raised up over their heads. Each one near the well had fallen back on the one behind them and so on, like a game of dominos had been played by some strange deity.
As Julius crept closer, he used a scarf kept in his back pocket to cover his mouth, as the bodies were not yet completely decomposed. He found this strange as he moved closer into the area. The bodies should have been long since eroded by weather, insects or wild animals – yet these appeared untouched. Their skin had a glossy sheen on it, which appeared almost as a thin coating of wax, but where it had come from was still a mystery. He saw no wax containers or remains of candles that had been melted down to perform such a task..
The well itself was littered with flowers; Temple Magnolias and Bamboo Orchids had been thrown around the base of the well. Julius had read about a common blessing ritual the locals perform before important seasonal events. As his eyes were drawn deeper into the center of the stone well area, he caught sight of his passion. At first it was hidden among the shadows created by the well’s four stone archways, but after a closer look, he could see the jet black statue.
Standing slightly over a foot tall, the statute was much more tribal than he had envisioned in the months before coming to India. It truly was the deepest black he had ever seen and as he picked his way through the bodies around him, he kept his eyes trained on the statue. Julius was not willing to allow it to leave his eyesight for fear that it would disappear like a mirage.
The bodies were impossible to step around so he was forced to step on them, something which he only slightly regretted at this point, now so close to his prize. The dead were to be cherished and respected in many cultures but few more so than the primarily Hindu Himalayan tribes These dead had not been burned or wrapped in the traditional white linens and so they still polluted the area around the well, which could have led to the contamination of the well and poisoning of the villagers. This was not a concern now as they still laid still from whatever force killed them.
The idol stood on top of the well, the two strange sexed figures with their hands held high, each carrying one side of a shallow black dish. At the base of the statue, the feet of both figures seemed to meld into a rock form on which they stood. As Julius entered the well area itself, he let his pack slip off his shoulders and loosened the belts that kept it tied around his waist. The weight came off of his body with ease, but he almost didn’t notice it next to the sharpness of his focus on the idol. He stood face to face with it now and still it amazed him that it even existed. It did not keep him from turning back to his packs and withdrawing the thick velvet bag that he’d bought specifically for carrying such an item. Inside the bag was filled with soft down feathers and packing material – and given the importance of the idol – Julius hoped it would be enough.
He carefully opened the bag and reached out for the idol. Grasping it at its base, he lifted it up, amazed by the weight. Each time he’d come across some obscure text or translated legend, they had mentioned the idol weighed a considerable amount, made of hardened stone. As he lifted the idol it felt weightless. Julius could not tell if it was made out of stone or obsidian, but it didn’t matter; it was his now. His senses began to dilate out and he saw himself standing in front of the well surrounded by the flowers, rings of dead villagers, and the stone buildings beyond. He marveled at the experience and drank in each radical change as the sensations filled his mind and pushed the limits of believability.
As his senses flew around the village, Julius began to wonder if he had died. Perhaps the villagers had each come to the same unbreakable attraction he had. Conceivably, he could be doomed to spend eternity flying about this village seeing his body standing at the well, simply unable to pull himself back to it.
A loud thunderclap sounded and Julius snapped awake. He was standing at the well, looking down into its murky depths for the first time. His left hand still held the idol and his right the soft velvet bag. Taking a moment to look around, he could see that a great amount of time had passed. The sun had mostly set over the mountains but some light still remained, and he could still make out the faint outlines of the distant mountaintops he’d come across to get to the ruined village.
A strange sound pierced the evening air, cutting through the the silence that blanketed the village. At first it was hard to locate where the sound had come from, but after a moment his eyes locked with another pair of white orbs that sat in the brush. He could see from his position at the well that the figure was armed with a hunting bow and had nocked an arrow when Julius spotted him. The form shifted slightly, drawing the arrow back into the foliage of the village treeline and prepared to fire again.
In one swift motion, Julius plunged the idol into the velvet bag and ducked down near his pack, using the well itself to give him cover from whoever had decided to attack him. The arrow whistled through the air above his head, grazing the top of his scalp ever so slightly. Reaching out his left arm, he looped his pack onto his left shoulder and turned to make a run for his freedom.
Arrows began to fly all around him as he pushed his legs to continue his movement away from the well. He had to get out as fast as he could. It had been well documented throughout the years that nationalists in India had attacked and killed Westerners, and now they had come for him.
Julius pushed his way through the bodies that ringed the area outside the well and made for the archway that marked the edge of the inner part of the village. He could hear a strange chanting and animal-like hooting behind him as several more arrows bounced off the trees and stone houses nearby. He took a moment to steal a glance behind him and caught a glimpse of who was shooting at him
Their forms were generally short and somewhat squat, with brown rags worn about their waists and shoulders. The three males that he could see were bald and wore bits of bone in their ears. In their hands they carried well crafted mountain bows like that of the northern horseriders of Nepal. Julius turned his head back to the path in front of him and tried desperately to quicken his pace. He knew that if he could make it over the first hill that led back down the mountainside he’d have half a chance to get out his pistol and defend himself. The ground broke apart and buckled as he tried to make the first left turn out of the village, and it caused Julius to slip slightly and veer off course. A tree came rushing up in front of him and it took everything he had to push his left arm out in front of him to cushion his body from the coming impact. He pushed off the tree at nearly the same time he slammed into it, bouncing off and careening away into a small series of nearby saplings. His momentum continued to push him forward and he finally stumbled, falling down hard on his right shoulder. His right hand kept a death grip on the velvet bag containing the idol, so he could feel it was still safe.
From his position on the ground he could get a better look at his attackers. There were five or six of them, all dressed as tribal hunters carrying bows. He had seen their heads were shaved before, but it seemed that they lacked any body hair at all. At their hips they carried long knives made of steel with strangely shaped handles. In all his reading he’d never heard of tribesman that hunted this far up in the Himalayas. They had fanned out, moving slowly around the well area and made their way through the remains of the village. Julius took the opportunity to reach into his pack for pistol, a 1911 that he’d picked up before coming overseas. Its weathered brown grip and weight felt good in his hands as he lined up his first shot.
Steel slide bucked and fire belched from the barrel as Julius fired back into the center of the village, clipping one of the tribal hunters in the leg. The hunter screamed out in pain as others in the hunting party took cover. Julius was sure that these tribesman, no matter how native, knew what gunfire sounded like. The echo of the shot reverberated around the village ruins and mountainside; deadly silence followed it. Peeking out from behind the tree he’d nearly rammed into, Julius could see the hunter he’d shot lying on the ground gripping his leg to try to staunch the blood flow from the wound. The other hunters in the area looked out from behind their trees and stone walls and assessed the wounded hunter. The hunter closest to the wounded one swiftly pulled one of the knives at his belt and viciously slashed the throat of the wounded one, ending him quickly.
Julius was horrified. He’d never seen something so barbaric. The man had been wounded, but he was far from dead, and the hunters cast him away as quickly as one would a lame horse. The hunter that had done the killing turned with a steadfast purpose to stare down the hill in Julius’ direction, his blood spattered face twisted in a crazed rage. Bellowing loudly, he rushed down the hill towards the treeline that Julius had fallen into, his knife raised high over his head. Julius started to get to his feet hoping to use the tree as cover.
Making his first mistake.
As soon as he got to his feet, he saw the tribesman duck and roll into a thicket between the two of them. Julius leaned out from behind the tree to keep his aim on the tribesman and felt the stabbing pain of an arrow bite into his left shoulder. Fighting the pain, he rolled back into the cover the treeline gave him. He quickly pushed the velvet bag into the pack and snapped it closed. He could hear the tribesmen howling now, this time not in pain, but in feral joy as they knew they had wounded him. With his right arm free, Julius pulled the arrow carefully from his shoulder, doing his best to grit through the lancing pain that continued down his arm, discarding the arrow in disgust afterward.
The treeline Julius was hiding in split open as the knife wielding tribesman sprung through it, slashing down at his head. Julius ducked to the right, evading the first swing. Reaching down quickly into the dirt, he recovered his pistol and fired twice into the tribesman’s belly. He’d never done much in the way of direct fighting during the Great War, but he’d done what his country had asked him to do, so he was able to keep his wits about him. The tribesman fell out of the treeline and into the pathway that led up into the village, which brought about even more howls and roars from the remaining tribesman. Julius took a moment to pull the pack back onto his back and prepared to move out.
Hustling back down the dirt path, Julius continued to pick up the pace. He knew that if he could make it back to the cliff and put some distance between him and the savages he’d have a better chance of survival. His feet pounded on the uneven ground as he made his way past two larger trees that had served as his original sight markers. He knew that his rope would be just over the next hill.
Behind him, the cacophony of sound chased him like a tsunami, desperately seeking a way to swallow him up in a wave of chaos. The sound was a strange mix of hoots, chants, and yelling that bounced off the nearby hills and trees. The echos made the sounds multiply further so it was impossible for Julius to ascertain how many still followed him.
As he crested the top of the hill he could see his rope and climbing equipment still in place, giving him a glimmer of hope. His legs churned on, carrying him down the slight slope until his hands found the rope. Hefting his large frame up, Julius slowly began to climb the rope towards the upper ridge that surrounded the abandoned city, which was his second mistake.
As Julius climbed the rock face, the tribesman closed their distance and neared the top of the hill. The hooting and chaotic noise got louder and louder, until it abruptly stopped, only to be replaced by an intermittent whistling sound. The first of several arrows landed against the rock wall, plinking off the rock face as Julius struggled to keep moving. His breath had become labored and it was taking every bit of strength he had to focus on moving upward.
Moments later the first of several arrows to come found its mark. The arrowhead bit into the back of his thigh, just above the knee. Julius yelped in pain and gritted his teeth as he tried to keep his upward momentum. He stole a quick look back and saw the small tribesman had gathered themselves into a line and were taking their turns firing arrows at him as he climbed. Julius had never been in a situation like this, but he’d read about how the Himalayan hunters tracked and killed animals. At first they’d prepare a trap for it and lie in wait. After the trap was sprung, they’d carefully pick it off with precise strikes. Once the animal was wounded, it was only a matter of time until they tracked it down.
Julius saw the irony of his predicament.
The second arrow struck him in the back near his left shoulder, the same one that had been hit before. The pain nearly stopped him in his tracks as it robbed him of much of the strength that his left arm had. He struggled on pulling himself near the lip of the ridgeline. He was well over fifty feet off the ground now and he could feel the cold wind coming over the mountaintop. Summoning all his reserves, Julius flopped over the edge of the ridgeline as another volley of arrows passed over his head. Nearing exhaustion he stayed on his belly for a moment and took several massive inhales to stop the piercing pain that radiated out from his shoulder.
Peeling his backpack off, he realized that the arrow had pierced the pack and his shoulder, which concerned Julius. He prayed the idol was still safely wrapped inside the cushioned pocket he had made for it. A well placed arrow shot broke his concentration as he hunkered back down and pulled his back pack around to get at his rifle. While not as new as some of the other rifles that the local sherpa used, his Henry rifle would work just fine. Julius crawled to the edge of the ridgeline and, using his superior vantage point, drew aim on the first tribesman that he gazed upon. The Henry rifle was a .44 caliber rifle that had a history of use in the Civil War and, although it was not as widespread as the popular Spencer rifle, the level action was very pleasing when shooting. The first shot from the Henry split the skull of the lead tribesman like a fresh melon from a local Delhi market, causing the archer to fall back upon his fellow tribesmen.
Julius pushed the rifle’s trademark cocking lever forward, ejecting the spent shell casing and loading the next round at the same time. The Henry belched fire again, dropping another of the strange pigmy tribesmen. When the second tribesman fell, the rest of them began to notice that Julius was firing back. They scattered in every direction, which caused Julius to miss the third and fourth shot. One tribesman, who must have been caught up in the fury of battle charged the hilltop that Julius had climbed. Julius summoned the strength to stand and aim down the iron sights of the Henry. A moment later – and another blast from the Henry – the tribesman lay still.
Dropping the barrel of the rifle, Julius ducked back down and winced. The pain in his shoulder was starting to get worse. He knew that left in too long, the arrow wound would only get infected. Julius took a seat on the moss covered hill and reached his left arm back, as the pain arced through his body, and grabbed on to the arrow shaft. Julius took two quick, deep breaths and pulled, but the arrow would not come out.
Julius groaned in agony and fell over onto his side, twisting and writhing in pain. Julius gritted his teeth and pulled on the arrow shaft again, and this time it grudgingly came loose, but not without a slight popping sound. Pain gave way to a strange feverish feeling that rushed over him. Looking down at the arrow in his hand he could see the sharp stone arrowhead was covered in a black viscous fluid. Julius reached out for his backpack, and as he looked down, the whole world tipped on its axis.
Julius fell to his knees, but managed to get his backpack around his shoulders. He could still feel the Henry rifle in his hand, but his grip on everything else seemed fragile. His vision continued to swim and he could feel his stomach turn violently as he tried to brace himself against the rock wall. Julius found his feet under him as time passed and he crawled back towards the way he had come.
The sun was setting as he found a place to rest for a moment, calmly laying back against the rock wall that he had so easily climbed over hours previously. Every movement felt like a test of wills: Julius against his own body. The sun finally fell over the tips of the mountaintops and Julius began to sink into a deep slumber, his head slowly nodding off into blackness.