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The Wheel of Darkness
Read by Rene Auberjonois
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An ancient Tibetan box, its contents unknown, sealed with a terrifying warning…
An FBI agent destined to confront what he fears most–himself…
Table of Contents
More Preston and Child
In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the publisher constitute unlawful piracy and theft of the author's intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the publisher at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for your support of the author's rights.
Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child would like to express their great appreciation to the following people for their invaluable help: Jaime Levine, Jamie Raab, Eric Simonoff, Eadie Klemm, Evan Boorstyn, Jennifer Romanello, Kurt Rauscher, Claudia Rülke, and Laura Goeller. We also express our thanks to Captain Richard Halluska of ISM Solutions and to Videotel Marine International, UK.
This is a work of fiction. All characters, corporations, locales, events, vessels, and religious practices, rituals, and iconography described in these pages are fictitious or used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual events, ships, persons, religious establishments, government entities, or corporations is unintentional and coincidental. In particular, North Star Lines, the Britannia, and all who serve or sail aboard her are caprices of our imaginations.
THE ONLY THINGS MOVING IN THE VASTNESS OF THE LLÖLUNG VALley were two black specks, barely larger than the frost-split boulders that covered the valley floor, inching along a faint track. The valley was a desolate place, devoid of trees; the wind chuckled and whispered among the rocks, the cries of black eagles echoed from the cliffs. The figures, on horseback, were approaching an immense wall of granite, two thousand feet high, from which poured a slow plume of water—the source of the sacred Tsangpo River. The trail disappeared into the mouth of a gorge that split the rock face, reappeared at higher altitude as a cut angled into the sheer wall of rock, and finally topped out on a long ridge before disappearing once again into the jagged peaks and fissures beyond. Framing the scene, and forming a backdrop of stupendous power and majesty, stood the frozen immensity of three Himalayan mountains—Dhaulagiri, Annapurna, and Manaslu—trailing plumes of snow. Beyond them, a sea of stormclouds rose up, the color of iron.
The two figures rode up the valley, cowled against the chill wind. This was the last stage of a long journey, and despite the rising storm they rode at a slow pace, their horses on the verge of exhaustion. As they approached the mouth of the gorge, they crossed a rushing stream once, and then a second time. Slowly, the two entered the gorge and vanished.
Inside the gorge, they continued following the faint trail as it climbed above the roaring stream. Hollows of blue ice lay in the shadows where the rock wall met the boulder-strewn floor. Dark clouds scudded across the sky, pushed before a rising wind that moaned in the upper reaches of the gorge.
The trail changed abruptly at the base of the great rock wall, mounting upward through a steep and terrifying cut. An ancient guard station, built on a projecting tongue of rock, lay in ruins: four broken stone walls supporting nothing more than a row of blackbirds. At the very foot of the cut stood a huge mani stone, carved with a Tibetan prayer, rubbed and polished by thousands of hands of those wishing a blessing before attempting the dangerous journey to the top.
At the guard station, the two travelers dismounted. From here they were forced to proceed on foot, leading their horses up the narrow trail as the overhang was too low to admit a rider. In places, landslides had peeled away the sheer rock wall, taking the trail with it; these gaps had been bridged by rough planks and poles drilled into the rock, forming a series of narrow, creaking bridges without railings. Elsewhere, the trail was so steep that the travelers and their mounts were forced to climb steps carved into the rock, made slick and uneven by the passage of countless pilgrims and animals.
The wind shifted now, driving through the gorge with a booming sound, carrying flakes of snow with it. The stormshadow fell into the gorge, plunging it into a gloom as deep as night. Still the two figures pushed up the vertiginous trail, up the icy staircases and rock pitches. As they rose, the roar of the waterfall echoed strangely between the walls of stone, mingling with the rising wind like mysterious voices speaking in an unknown tongue.
When the travelers at last topped the ridge, the wind almost halted them in their tracks, whipping their robes and biting at their exposed skin. They hunched against it and, pulling their reluctant horses forward, continued along the spine of the ridge until they reached the remains of a ruined village. It was a bleak place, the houses thrown down by some ancient cataclysm, their timbers scattered and broken, the mud bricks dissolving back into the earth from which they had been formed.
In the center of the village, a pile of prayer stones rose, topped by a pole from which snapped dozens of tattered prayer flags. To one side lay an ancient cemetery whose retaining wall had collapsed, and now erosion had opened the graves, scattering bones and skulls down a long scree slope. As the two approached, a group of ravens flapped up in noisy protest from the wreckage, their scratchy cries rising toward the leaden clouds.
At the pile of stones, one of the travelers stopped and dismounted, gesturing for the other to wait. He bent down, picked up an old stone, and added it to the pile. Then he paused briefly in silent meditation, the wind lashing at his robes, before retaking the reins of his horse. They continued on.
Beyond the deserted village the trail narrowed sharply along a knife-edge ridge. Struggling against the violence of the wind, the two figures crept along it, arcing around the shoulder of a mountain—and then at last they could just begin to spy the battlements and pinnacles of a vast fortress, standing dully against the dark sky.
This was the monastery known as Gsalrig Chongg, a name that might be translated as "the Jewel of the Awareness of Emptiness." As the trail continued around the side of the mountain, the monastery came fully into view: massive red-washed walls and buttresses mounting the sides of a barren granite rock, ending in a complex of pinnacled roofs and towers that shone here and there with patches of gold leaf.
The Gsalrig Chongg monastery was one of very few in Tibet to have escaped the ravages of the Chinese invasion, in which soldiers drove out the Dalai Lama, killed thousands of monks, and destroyed countless monasteries and religious structures. Gsalrig Chongg was spared partly because of its extreme remoteness and its proximity to the disputed border with Nepal, but also due to a simple bureaucratic oversight: its very existence had somehow escaped official attention. Even today, maps of the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region do not locate this monastery, and the monks have taken great pains to keep it that way.
The trail passed by a steep scree slope, where a group of vultures picked away at some scattered bones.
"There appears to have been a recent death," the man murmured, nodding toward the heavy birds, which hopped about, utterly fearless.
"How so?" asked the second traveler.
"When a monk dies, his body is butchered and thrown to the wild animals. It is considered the highest honor, to have your mortal remains nourish and sustain other living things."
"A peculiar custom."
"On the contrary, the logic is impeccable. Our customs are peculiar."
The trail ended at a small gate in the massive encircling wall. The gate was open and a Buddhist monk stood there, wrapped in robes of scarlet and saffron, holding a burning torch, as if expecting them.
The two huddled travelers passed through the gate, still leading their horses. A second monk appeared and silently took the reins, leading the animals off to stables within the encircling wall.
The travelers stopped before the first monk, in the gathering darkness. He said nothing, but merely waited.
The first traveler pulled back his cowl—revealing the long, pale face, white-blond hair, marble features, and silvery eyes of Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The monk turned toward the other. The second figure removed its cowl with a tentative movement, brown hair spilling out into the wind, catching the swirling snowflakes. She stood, head slightly bowed, a young woman who appeared to be in her early twenties, with a delicate face, finely formed lips, and high cheekbones—Constance Greene, Pendergast's ward. Her penetrating violet eyes darted around, taking in everything quickly, before dropping again to the ground.
The monk stared at her for only a moment. Making no comment, he turned and gestured for them to follow him down a stone causeway toward the main complex.
Pendergast and his ward followed the monk in silence as he passed through a second gate and entered the dark confines of the monastery itself, the air laden with the scent of sandalwood and wax. The great ironbound doors boomed shut behind them, muffling the howling wind to a faint whisper. They continued down a long hallway, one side of which was lined with brass prayer cylinders, creaking and turning round and round, driven by some hidden mechanism. The hall forked, and turned again, driving deeper into the monastic depths. Another monk appeared in front of them carrying large candles in brass holders, their flickering light revealing a series of ancient frescoes lining both walls.
The mazelike turnings brought them at last into a large room. One end was dominated by a gold statue of Padmasambhava, the Tantric Buddha, illuminated by hundreds of candles. Unlike the contemplative, half-closed eyes of most depictions of the Buddha, the Tantric Buddha's eyes were wide open, alert and dancing with life, symbolizing the heightened awareness achieved by his study of the secret teachings of Dzogchen and the even more esoteric Chongg Ran.
The Gsalrig Chongg monastery was one of two repositories in the world preserving the discipline of Chongg Ran, the enigmatic teachings known to those few who were familiar with them as the Jewel of the Mind's Impermanence.
At the threshold to this inner sanctum, the two travelers paused. At the far end, a number of monks reposed in silence, sitting on tiered stone benches as if awaiting someone.
The uppermost tier was occupied by the abbot of the monastery. He was a peculiar-looking man, his ancient face wrinkled into a permanent expression of amusement, even mirth. His robes hung from his skeletal frame like laundry draped on a rack. Next to him sat a slightly younger monk, also known to Pendergast: Tsering, one of only very few of the monks who spoke English, who acted as the "manager" of the monastery. He was an exceptionally well-preserved man of perhaps sixty. Below them sat a row of twenty monks of all ages, some teenagers, others ancient and wizened.
Tsering rose and spoke in an English shot through with the strange, musical lilt of Tibetan. "Friend Pendergast, we welcome you back to monastery of Gsalrig Chongg, and we welcome your guest. Please sit down and take tea with us."
He gestured to a stone bench set with two silk–embroidered cushions—the only cushions in the room. The two sat, and moments later several monks appeared carrying brass trays loaded with cups of steaming buttered tea and tsampa. They drank the sweet tea in silence, and only when they had finished did Tsering speak again.
"What brings friend Pendergast back to Gsalrig Chongg?" he asked.
"Thank you, Tsering, for your welcome," he said quietly. "I'm glad to be back. I return to you in order to continue my journey of meditation and enlightenment. Let me introduce to you Miss Constance Greene, who also has come in hopes of study." He took her hand and she rose.
A long silence ensued. At last, Tsering rose. He walked over to Constance and stood before her, looking calmly into her face, and then reached up and touched her hair, fingering it delicately. Then, ever so gently, he reached out and touched the swell of her breasts, first one, then the other. She remained standing, unflinching.
"Are you a woman?" he asked.
"Surely you've seen a woman before," said Constance dryly.
"No," said Tsering. "I have not seen woman since I come here—at age of two."
Constance colored. "I'm very sorry. Yes, I am a woman."
Tsering turned to Pendergast. "This is first woman ever to come to Gsalrig Chongg. We never accept woman before as student. I am sorry to say it cannot be permitted. Especially now, in middle of funeral ceremonies for Venerable Ralang Rinpoche."
"The Rinpoche is dead?" Pendergast asked.
"I am sorry to hear of the death of the Most High Lama."
At this, Tsering smiled. "Is no loss. We will find his reincarnation—the nineteenth Rinpoche—and he will be with us again. It is I who am sorry to deny your request."
"She needs your help. I need your help. We are both… tired of the world. We have come a long way to find peace. Peace, and healing."
"I know how difficult journey you make. I know how much you hope. But Gsalrig Chongg exist for thousand year without female presence, and it cannot change. She must leave."
A long silence ensued. And then Pendergast raised his eyes to the ancient, unmoving figure occupying the highest seat. "Is this also the decision of the abbot?"
At first, there was no sign of movement. A visitor might have even mistaken the wizened figure for some kind of happy, senile idiot, grinning vacantly from his perch above the others. But then there was the merest flick of a desiccated finger, and one of the younger monks climbed up and bent over the abbot, placing his ear close to the man's toothless mouth. After a moment he straightened up and said something to Tsering in Tibetan.
Tsering translated. "The abbot asks woman to repeat name, please."
"I am Constance Greene," came the small but determined voice.
Tsering translated into Tibetan, having some difficulty over the name.
Another silence ensued, stretching into minutes.
Again the flick of the finger; again the ancient monk mumbled into the ear of the young monk, who repeated it in a louder voice.
Tsering said, "The abbot asks if this real name."
She nodded. "Yes, it is my real name."
Slowly the ancient lama raised a sticklike arm and pointed to a dim wall of the room with a fingernail that extended at least an inch from his finger. All eyes turned toward a temple painting hidden under a draped cloth, one of many hanging on the wall.
Tsering walked over and lifted the cloth, holding up a candle to it. The glow revealed a stunningly rich and complex image: a bright green female deity with eight arms, sitting on a white moon disk, with gods, demons, clouds, mountains, and gold filigree swirling about her, as if caught in a storm.
The old lama mumbled at length into the ear of the young monk, his toothless mouth working. Then he sat back and smiled while Tsering again translated.
"His Holiness ask to direct attention to thangka painting of Green Tara."
There was a murmuring and shuffling of the monks as they rose from their seats and respectfully stood in a circle around the painting, like students waiting for a lecture.
The old lama flapped a bony arm at Constance Greene to join the circle, which she hastily did, the monks shuffling aside to afford her space.
"This is picture of Green Tara," Tsering continued, still translating at one remove the mumbled words of the old monk. "She is mother of all Buddhas. She have constancy. Also wisdom, activity of mind, quick thinking, generosity, and fearlessness. His Holiness invite female to step closer and view mandala of Green Tara."
Constance stepped forward tentatively.
"His Holiness ask why student given name of Green Tara."
Constance looked around. "I don't know what you mean."
"Your name Constance Greene. This name contain two important attribute of Green Tara. His Holiness ask how you get name."
"Greene is my last name. It's a common English surname, but I've no idea of the origin. And my first name, Constance, was given to me by my mother. It was popular in… around the time I was born. Any resemblance of my name to the Green Tara is obviously a coincidence."
Now the abbot began to laugh, shakily, and struggled to stand with the help of two monks. In a few moments he was standing, but just barely, as if the slightest nudge would jostle him into a loose heap. He continued to laugh as he spoke again, a low, wheezy sound, displaying his pink gums, his bones almost rattling with mirth.
"Coincidence? No such thing. Student make funny joke," Tsering translated. "The abbot like good joke."
Constance glanced at Tsering to the abbot and back again. "Does that mean I'll be allowed to study here?"
"It mean your study is already begun," said Tsering, with a smile of his own.
IN ONE OF THE REMOTE PAVILIONS OF THE GSALRIG CHONGG monastery, Aloysius Pendergast rested on a bench beside Constance Greene. A row of stone windows looked out over the gorge of the Llölung to the great Himalayan peaks beyond, washed in a delicate pink alpenglow. From below came the faint roar of a waterfall at the head of the Llölung Valley. As the sun sank below the horizon, a dzung trumpet sounded a deep, drawn-out note that echoed among the ravines and mountains.
Almost two months had passed. July had come, and along with it spring in the high foothills of the Himalayas. The valley floors were greening, speckled with wildflowers, while a furze of pink wild roses flowered on the hillsides.
The two sat in silence. They had two weeks until the end of their stay.
The dzung sounded again as the fiery light died on the great triumvirate of mountains—Dhaulagiri, Annapurna, and Manaslu—three of the ten highest peaks in the world. Twilight came swiftly, invading the valleys like a flood of dark water.
Pendergast roused himself. "Your studies are going well. Extremely well. The abbot is pleased."
"Yes." Her voice was soft, almost detached.
He laid a hand on hers, his touch as light and airy as a leaf's. "We haven't spoken of this before, but I wanted to ask if… everything went well at the Feversham Clinic. If there were no complications to the, ah, procedure." Pendergast seemed uncharacteristically awkward and at a loss for words.
Constance's gaze remained aimed deep into the cold, snowy mountains.
Pendergast hesitated. "I wish you would have let me be with you."
She inclined her head, still remaining silent.
"Constance, I care for you very much. Perhaps I haven't expressed myself strongly enough on that point before. If I didn't, I apologize."
Constance bowed her head further, her face flushing. "Thank you." The detachment vanished from her voice, replaced by a faint tremor of emotion. She stood abruptly, looking away.
Pendergast rose as well.
"Excuse me, Aloysius, but I feel the need to be alone for a while."
"Of course." He watched her slim form move away from him until it vanished like a ghost into the stone corridors of the monastery. Then he turned his gaze to the mountainous landscape beyond the window, falling deep into thought.
As darkness filled the pavilion, the sounds of the dzung stopped, the last note sustained as a dying echo among the mountains for many long seconds. All was still, as if the coming of night had brought with it a kind of stasis. And then a figure materialized in the inky shadows at the foot of the pavilion: an old monk in a saffron robe. He gestured at Pendergast with a withered hand, using the peculiar Tibetan shake of the wrist that signified come.
Pendergast walked slowly toward the monk. The man turned and began to shuffle off into the darkness.
Pendergast followed, intrigued. The monk took him in an unexpected direction, down dim corridors toward the cell that held the famed immured anchorite: a monk who had voluntarily allowed himself to be bricked up in a room just large enough for a man to sit and meditate, walled up for his entire life, fed once a day with bread and water by means of moving a single loose brick.
The old monk paused before the cell, which was nothing more than a featureless dark wall. Its old stones had been polished by many thousands of hands: people who had come to ask this particular anchorite for wisdom. He was said to have been walled up at the age of twelve. Now he was nearly one hundred, an oracle famed for his unique gift of prophecy.
The monk tapped on the stone, twice, with his fingernail. They waited. After a minute, the one loose stone in the façade began to move, ever so slightly, scraping slowly over the joint. A withered hand appeared, white as snow, with translucent blue veins. It rotated the stone into a sideways position, leaving a small space.
The monk bent over to the hole and murmured something in a low voice. Then he turned to listen. Minutes passed, and Pendergast heard the faintest whisper from within. The monk straightened up, apparently satisfied, and gestured for Pendergast to step close. Pendergast did as requested, watching the stone slip back into position, guided by an unseen hand.
All of a sudden, a deep scraping sound seemed to come from within the rock next to the stone cell, and a seam opened up. It enlarged to become a stone door, which grated open on some unseen mechanism. A peculiar scent of some unknown incense wafted from within. The monk held out his hand in a gesture for Pendergast to enter, and when the agent had passed over the threshold, the door slid shut. The monk had not followed—Pendergast was alone.
Another monk appeared out of the gloom, holding a guttering candle. During the past seven weeks at Gsalrig Chongg, as well as in his previous visits, Pendergast had come to know the faces of all the monks—and yet this one was new. He realized he had just entered the inner monastery, whispered about but never confirmed—the hidden sanctum sanctorum. Such access—which, he'd understood, was absolutely forbidden—was apparently guarded by the immured anchorite. This was a monastery within the monastery, in which a half dozen cloistered monks passed their entire lives in the profoundest meditation and unceasing mental study, never seeing the outside world or even coming in direct contact with the monks of the outer monastery, guarded by the unseen anchorite. They had so withdrawn from the world, Pendergast once heard it said, that the light of the sun, should it fall upon their skin, would kill them.
He followed the strange monk down a narrow corridor, leading into the deepest parts of the monastic complex. The passages became rougher and he realized that they were tunnels cut out of the living rock itself: tunnels that had been plastered and frescoed a thousand years before, their paintings now almost obliterated by smoke, humidity, and time. The passage turned, and turned again, passing small stone cells containing Buddhas or thangka paintings, illuminated by candles and drifting with incense. They passed no one, saw no one—the warren of windowless rooms and tunnels felt hollow, damp, and deserted.
Finally, after what felt like an endless journey, they came to another door, this one bound in bands of oiled iron, riveted into thick plates. Another key was brandished, and with some effort the door was unlocked and opened.
The room beyond was small and dim, illuminated by a single butter lamp. The walls were lined in ancient, hand-rubbed wood, meticulously inlaid. Fragrant smoke drifted in the air, pungent and resinous. It took Pendergast's eyes a moment to adjust to the extraordinary fact that the chamber was packed full of treasure. Against the far wall sat dozens of caskets in heavy repoussé gold, their lids tightly locked; next to them stood stacks of leather bags, some of which had rotted and split, spilling their contents of heavy gold coins—everything from old English sovereigns and Greek staters to heavy gold mughals. Small wooden kegs were stacked around them, the staves swollen and rotted, spilling out raw and cut rubies, emeralds, sapphires, diamonds, turquoises, tourmalines, and peridots. Others seemed filled with small gold bars and oval Japanese kobans.
The wall to his right contained a different kind of treasure: shawms and kangling horns made of ebony, ivory, and gold, and encrusted with gems; dorje bells of silver and electrum; human skullcaps trimmed in precious metals and glowing with turquoise and coral inlay. In another area stood a crowd of statues in gold and silver, one adorned with hundreds of star sapphires; nearby, nestled in wooden crates and straw, he could see translucent bowls, figures, and plaques of the finest jade.
And to his immediate left, the greatest treasure of all: hundreds of cubbyholes stuffed with dusty scrolls, rolled thangkas, and bundles of parchment and vellum tied in silk cords.
So astonishing was the display of treasure that it took Pendergast a moment to realize a human being was sitting, cross-legged, on a cushion in the near corner.
The monk who had brought him now bowed, hands together, and withdrew, the iron door clanging behind him, the lock turning. The cross-legged monk gestured toward a cushion beside him. "Please sit down," he said in English.
Pendergast bowed and seated himself. "A most remarkable room," he replied. He paused a moment. "And a most unusual incense."
"We are the guardians of the monastery's treasures—the gold and silver and all other transitory things the world considers wealth." The man spoke in a measured and elegant English, with an Oxbridge accent. "We are also stewards of the library and the religious paintings. The 'incense' you note is the resin of the dorzhan-qing plant—burned ceaselessly to keep the worms at bay—ravenous woodworms indigenous to the high Himalayas that seek to destroy everything in this room made of wood, paper, or silk."
Pendergast nodded, taking the opportunity to examine the monk more closely. He was old, but wiry and astonishingly fit. His red-and-saffron robes were tightly wound, and his head was shaven. His feet were bare and almost black with dirt. His eyes gleamed in a smooth, ageless face that radiated intelligence, anxiousness, and grave concern.
"No doubt you're wondering who I am, and why I have asked you to come," the monk said. "I am Thubten. Welcome, Mr. Pendergast."
"We have no distinguishing titles here in the inner temple." The monk leaned toward him, peering closely at his face. "I understand that your business in life is to—I am not sure how to put it—to pry into the affairs of others, to put right what has been wronged? To solve riddles, shine light onto mystery and darkness?"
"I have never heard it put quite that way. But yes, you're correct."
The monk sat back, relief evident on his face. "That is good. I feared perhaps I was mistaken." Then his voice fell almost to a whisper. "There is a riddle here."
There was a long silence. Then Pendergast said, "Go on."
"The abbot cannot speak of this matter directly. That is why they have asked me to do so. Yet even though the situation is dire, I find it… difficult to talk about. "
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