Lisa stood. She pictured the pile of limbs in the neighboring room. Had the madness triggered some post-traumatic shock, causing him to act out what horrified him the most?
Overhead another popping creak sounded.
All eyes turned upward.
She had forgotten what had drawn them all back here. Ang Gelu pointed to a steep narrow stair beside the draped doorway to the temple. She had missed it. It was more a ladder than a stair.
"I will go," he said.
"We all stick together," she argued. She crossed to her bag and preloaded another syringe of sedative. She kept it in her hand. "Just make sure Quick Draw McGraw over there keeps his finger off the trigger."
The soldier went up the ladder first. He scouted the immediate vicinity and waved them up. Lisa climbed and discovered an empty room. Stacks of thin pillows were piled in one corner. The room smelled of resin and the waft of incense from the temple room below.The soldier had his weapon trained on a wooden door on the far side. Flickering light leaked under the jam. Before anyone could move closer, a shadow passed across the bar of light.
Someone was in there.
Ang Gelu stepped forward and knocked.
The creaking halted.
He called through the door. Lisa didn't understand his words, but someone else did. A scrape of wood sounded. A latch was lifted. The door teetered slightly open—but no farther.
Ang Gelu put his palm on the door.
"Be careful," Lisa whispered, tightening her grip on her syringe, her only weapon.
Beside her, the soldier did the same with his rifle. Ang Gelu pushed the door the rest of the way open. The room beyond was no larger than a walk-in closet. A soiled bed stood in the corner. A small side table supported an oil lamp. The air was ripe with the fetid tang of urine and feces from an open chamber pot at the foot of the bed. Whoever had holed up here had not ventured out in days.
In a corner, an old man stood with his back to them. He wore the same red robe as Ang Gelu, but his clothes were ragged and stained. The owner had tied the lower folds around his upper thighs, exposing his bare legs. He worked on a project, writing on the wall. Fingerpainting, in fact.
With his own blood.
He carried a short dagger in his other hand. His bared legs were striped with deep cuts, the source of his ink. He continued to work, even as Ang Gelu entered.
"Lama Khemsar," Ang Gelu said, concern and wariness in his voice. Lisa entered behind him, syringe ready in her fingers. She nodded to Ang Gelu when he looked back at her. She also waved the soldier back. She didn't want a repeat of what had happened below.
Lama Khemsar turned. His face was slack, and his eyes appeared glassy and slightly milky, but the candlelight reflected brightly, too brightly, fever-bright.
"Ang Gelu," the old monk muttered, staring in a daze at the hundreds of lines of script painted across all four walls. A bloody finger raised, ready to continue the work.
Ang Gelu stepped toward him, plainly relieved. The man, master of the monastery, was not too far gone yet. Perhaps answers could be obtained. Ang Gelu spoke in their native tongue.
Lama Khemsar nodded, though he refused to be drawn from his opus in blood. Lisa studied the wall as Ang Gelu coaxed the old monk. Though she was not familiar with the script, she saw the work was merely the same grouping of symbols repeated over and over again. Sensing there must be some meaning here, Lisa reached to her bag and freed her camera with one hand. She aimed it at the wall from her hip and snapped a picture. She forgot about the flash.
The room burst with brilliance.
The old man cried out. He swung around, dagger in hand. He swiped through the air. Ang Gelu, startled, fell back. But Ang Gelu had not been the target. Lama Khemsar cried out a smattering of words in abject fear and drew the blade's edge across his own throat. A line of crimson became a pulsing downpour. The cut sliced deep into the trachea. Blood bubbled with the old monk's last breaths.
Ang Gelu lunged and knocked aside the blade. He caught Lama Khemsar and lowered him to the floor, cradling him. Blood soaked the robe and across Ang Gelu's arms and lap. Lisa dropped her camera and bag and hurried forward. Ang Gelu tried to put pressure on the wound, but it was futile.
"Help me get him to the floor," Lisa said. "I have to secure an airway…"
Ang Gelu shook his head. He knew it was hopeless. He simply rocked the old lama. The man's breathing, marked by the bubbling from the slash, had already stopped. Age, blood loss, and dehydration had already debilitated Lama Khemsar.
"I'm sorry," Lisa said. "I thought…" She waved an arm at the walls. "I thought it might be important."
Ang Gelu shook his head. "It's gibberish. A madman's scribblings."
Not knowing what else to do, Lisa freed her stethoscope and slipped it under the edge of the man's robe. She sought to mask her guilt with busywork. She listened in vain. No heartbeat. But she discovered odd scabbing across the man's ribs. Gently she peeled back the soaked front of his robe and bared the monk's chest. Ang Gelu stared down and exhaled sharply.
It seemed the walls were not the only medium upon which Lama Khemsar chose to work. A final symbol had been carved into the monk's chest, sliced by the same dagger, by the same hand most likely. Unlike the strange symbols on the walls, the twisted cross could not be mistaken.
Before they could react, the first explosion rocked the building.
9:55 a.m.He woke in a panic.
The rumble of thunder shook him out of a feverish darkness. Not thunder. An explosion. Plaster dusted down from the low ceiling. He sat up, disoriented, struggling to fix himself in time and place. The room spun a bit around him. He searched down, throwing back a soiled woolen blanket. He lay in a strange cot, wearing nothing but a linen breechclout. He lifted an arm. It trembled. His mouth tasted of warm paste, and though the room was shuttered against the light, his eyes ached. A paroxysmal bout of shivering shook through him.
He had no idea where or even when he was.
Shifting his legs off the cot, he attempted to stand. Bad idea. The world went black again. He slumped and would have slipped into oblivion, but a spat of gunfire centered him. Automatic fire. Close. The short burst died away.
He tried again, more determined. Memory returned as he lurched toward the only door, struck it, held himself up by his arms, and tried the knob.
"It was the helicopter," Ang Gelu said. "It's been destroyed."
Lisa stood to one side of the high window. Moments before, as the explosive blast echoed away, they had freed the window latches and shoved the shutters wide. The soldier had thought he'd seen movement in the courtyard below and strafed wildly.