Part II: The Serpent of Wallachia is My Name
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1904, The Himalayas
His guide stopped when they were in sight of the temple, and could not be persuaded to go further. He did not gibber or cower in fear, nor did he do any of the things that native guides in penny dreadfuls always seemed prone to do. He simply folded his arms, turned toward Christopher, and planted his feet. The man spoke almost no English, and Christopher spoke nothing of his language. They had communicated during the previous days through a code of body language and gestures, reading one another's faces and postures for signs of understanding or confusion. Now the man's posture spoke clearly: He intended to go no further. His seamed and leathery face showed no emotion, save for a patient obstinacy.
Christopher nodded, pointed to the sky, held up two fingers, and pointed at the man. Two days.
The man responded by holding up a single index finger. One day.
Christopher sighed. Nodded. He turned toward the ascending peak and shouldered his pack. The air was cold and dry and in his lungs. He had adapted to the high altitudes over the ensuing days, shrugging off the dizziness and shortness of breath like a cold, but the mountains still held him. Their icy winds whispered though his dreams, lingered on his face, on his dry, cracked lips. This was a height where living things seldom went, and the mountain peaks seemed alien; monoliths of another world, plowing through the clouds.
The temple could have been two miles away or twenty. It was impossible to tell in these breathless heights. During the long nights, he had imagined a building culled from a distillation of H. Rider Haggard and the ramblings of friends in the Golden Dawn. He had envisioned towers and walkways, domed vaults wreathed in shadow, and airy spires stretching up into the stark blue sky. In point of fact, the temple was little more than a low, square building of dark stone, one side caved in and open to the elements. It clung to the side of the peak like a barnacle, cradled in part by a few upthrust fingers of rock. Even in the misty distance, it appeared deserted.
He began the climb, picking his way along the cliff-edge, constantly aware in his periphery of the steep drops or long sliding falls that awaited a careless step. By mid-afternoon he was exhausted, sweating and red-faced despite the chill. The temple loomed ahead, still tantalizingly distant. He lowered his face, fixed his eyes on the path ahead, and continued upwards.
An hour later, he came upon a crude set of stairs cut into the rock. He looked up, and there at the apex of the steps was the temple, gray and forbidding in the fading day. He made his way up the steps, their edges worn smooth by the passage of years, and emerged into a courtyard of flat earth inlaid with ancient cobbles. In the center of this open area stood a broken statue, its remaining half belonging to a human figure of some kind, its top half blasted and shattered. The view from the hillside was obscured by the building he had pursued since the dawn, its inward-facing side collapsed and broken. The interior was empty, save for rubble and dust.
As he stood there, taking in the wreckage of what he had crossed half the world to find, he became aware of a figure standing behind him. He turned, and there at the edge of the square stood a little man in a bulky, oversized coat.
They stared at one another across the square.
"Um," Christopher said. His voice came out in a croak. He realized that he had not spoken for days. He cleared his throat and tried again. "Ah. Good day..." He stopped, disgusted with himself. Really, he thought. Have I become the sort of Englishman who speaks loudly in my own language to foreigners? Good God...
"Do you have a match?" The little man said, in perfect English. He held up a half-smoked dog-end. "I've run out."
Christopher gaped, well aware that this was becoming his signature expression for the day. His brain clicked into some sort of activity. "Er. Yes. Yes, sorry." He crossed the windy square to where the man stood, unshouldering his pack as he went. "I, er, I believe, somewhere in here..." He found the packet of matches deep in the pack and brought them out.
"Cheers," the man said. He took the packet and scratched one of the matches into life, cupping it close between his palms and touching it to the end of the battered cigarette. It flared into life, a red coal in the deepening twilight.
Christopher watched the man draw on the dog-end. He was very small, fully a head shorter than Christopher, and slight of frame, even inside his bulky clothes. What had appeared to be an oversized coat from a distance was actually several coats, worn one on top of another. The top of his head was bald, but his scraggly white moustaches extended down far past his chin. His exposed skin was leathery, burned brown by the sun. Christopher placed him as Asian in descent, but could make no better guess about him.
"Are you...?" He faltered. "Er. Do you live here?"
"No," the man said. "I am a traveler."
"Oh yes? Where have you come from?"
Christopher blinked. "Why, that's extraordinary. So have I. Have you been here long?"
"No," the man said. He took the cigarette, which had gone out again, from his lips and examined it. "I arrived only this day." He flipped the cigarette away into the square. "You would best come back to my shelter. Sun is going down. It will be cold out here soon."
"Yes. Thank you." Christopher regarded the horizon, where the sun had already set. The wind was growing icy. "It is close by?"
"Just around the mountain side." The little man hitched his many jackets up around his shoulders and neck. "I shall take you there."
"Yes, thank you. Er. I fear I didn't hear your na-"
But the little man was already setting off into the gloom.
Christopher snatched up his pack and hurried to follow after.
"Quit this world, quit the next world, quit quitting!" -Sufi proverb.