Hades’ Disciples: Chapter One
Jagged Himalayan crests lined the horizon like dragon’s teeth. Dawn dared to peek out between them; its light banished frigid darkness, burned through a haze of gray-white clouds, revealing a frozen world beneath. There were patches where thick snows had slipped down these slopes, exposing naked rock, creating splashes of bluish-gray color to dot the panorama, but overall, the vistas remained a vast, white, inhospitable territory; an alien landscape – a place man entered at his own peril.
Makalu’s summit lorded over these drifting snows, stabbing the blood-red sky. Even in the harsh light of day, it remained a place of darkness. Its name meant “Big Black,” and at 8,481 meters, it was quite large indeed. In fact, it held the distinction of being Earth’s fifth highest peak, living forever in the shadow of its taller brother, Everest. “Black” was also fitting, as the shadow of death often fell on those who dared to scale its ragged face. This deadly reputation had earned it another, more notable distinction: one of the least explored mountains in all the world. And it was this veil of mystery that now drew Dr. Walter Hannigan to make this climb in spite of the many dangers. That and those expensive Russian satellite photos – the ones which clearly showed the Ark. Hannigan found it hard to catch his breath. He stopped dead in his tracks, determined not to be the mountain’s next victim. No. He couldn’t die, not now. Not here. Not when he was so close to realizing his life-long dream.
He glanced up and saw the neon-yellow safety helmet and red mountaineering suit of his Sherpa, Pa-sang, silhouetted against the bright white void ahead. Hannigan watched as the man turned to look back at him. The wind whistled and roared, blowing clouds of snow between them. If not for the neon rope that bound them together, Hannigan knew he would be lost.
“I’m fine,” Hannigan shouted, though he doubted Pa-sang could hear him; the archeologist held up his gloved hand and gave the “OK” sign with his thumb and forefinger to make his message clear.
How much farther? Hannigan wondered, not knowing if he really wanted an answer. He breathed in more oxygen from his tank, then took another step forward. Got to go on … Must go on …
The satellite photos were safely tucked away inside his backpack, protected from the elements; taken over a month ago, they catalogued an increased rate of glacial melt on this, the world’s tallest mountain range. Ice formations shrank, thick snows melted, their forced retreat revealing features that had remained hidden from the world for centuries, perhaps millennia. And one of those features, poking out from the summit of Makalu as if waving for the camera lens high overhead, was a dark triangle – a triangle that, when magnified, appeared to be the bow of a great ship.
A man-made vessel, beached and buried beneath ancient ice, on a peak that just might have formed a link in a chain of islands during a vast, global deluge … What else could it be?
The dream of finding Noah’s Ark had smoldered in Walter Hannigan since childhood, but unlike most youthful fantasies whose embers darkened and died out over time, the longing to look upon the Ark, to actually touch it, had burned brighter with each passing year, and no amount of skepticism could ever hope to extinguish that flame. True, after fifty years of fruitless research, of countless political roadblocks and professional heckling from his fellow archeologists, Hannigan had begun to doubt that he would see it during his lifetime, but he never lost faith that it was out there, waiting. The only question was … where?
According to scripture, as the flood waters subsided, the great ship came to rest on Mount Ararat, in what was now the Şırnak Province, Southeastern Anatolia Region, of modern Turkey. But like most tales penned by men, the Book of Genesis was a product of the time in which it was written. The author simply wrote what he knew, and to him, Ararat was the tallest mountain on the face of the Earth.
But that legendary peak was dwarfed by the incredible heights of Makalu.
And you won’t get to the top just standing here, now will you? Hannigan nodded. He took another deep breath from his oxygen tank, then a determined step forward, followed by another, his boots eaten whole by the snow. When the rope grew slack once more, Pa-Sang moved on up the slope as well, the rifle he kept slung over his shoulder swinging in the wind.
“Protection,” the Sherpa had told him. “Just in case.”
Despite the exorbitant fee Hannigan had offered to pay for an experienced guide, Pa-sang was the only Sherpa who would agree to take him on this journey. The men had all seemed educated, and they’d spoken English well, but they’d been filled with superstitious fear. Crippled by it.
“What are they so frightened of?” Hannigan asked.
“Yeti,” Pa-sang replied; the cloud of breath that carried the word hung ominously in the chilly air between them.
Yeti? The so-called Abominable Snowman? Hannigan cleared his throat to kill a rising laugh.
The Sherpa’s face and voice remained deadly serious. “Spirits of the mountain,” he went on to explain. “Many have seen them. More and more with each climb. They gather here on Makalu for months. Now, no one will go up there.”
Hannigan had grown accustomed to guides using local legends as a negotiating tool, exploiting indigenous fears to up their price, especially when they knew that time was of the essence. And in this case, it most certainly was. Soon, summer would be over and the winter winds and driving snows would make this climb all but impossible. In this instance, however, Hannigan got the distinct impression that the Sherpas’ anxiety was quite real, that no matter how much he offered, they were not going to set foot on Makalu.
Sherpas worshiped the mountain as the embodiment of their vengeful deity, Shankar, and so it would indeed form a fitting home for the yeti.
A long time ago, so they said, yeti numbered in the hundreds, and they would attack humans without provocation, terrorizing entire villages. But according to legend, the elders of one such frightened village concocted a plan to finally rid themselves of the menacing yeti. They asked every man, woman, and child to gather in a high, green pasture, and for each to bring with them two things: a large kettle of the maize beer they called chāng, and some form of weaponry. The villagers complied, and when they were all together, when they were certain the yeti were watching them, they put on a show. First, they pretended to drink from their kettles, to get drunk on their chāng. Then, they picked up their weapons and staged inebriated fights with one another. Soon, the sun began to set, and the villagers laughed; they dropped their axes, their spears and their swords, and went home happy, leaving behind a large amount of chāng.
The yeti, who’d spent much of the day watching this mock battle from high in the mountains, thought what they had seen looked like great fun. They came down into the abandoned pasture, got drunk on the villagers’ remaining chāng, picked up the discarded weapons, and started fighting amongst themselves for real – stabbing and hacking at one another until most lay dead or dying. The few yeti who survived that day, the young and the less intoxicated, took their now-bloodied weapons and retreated to high mountain caves – dark, hidden places where they knew they would be safe – and there, they plotted their revenge against the humans who had tricked them.
Even now, centuries later, the people who made their home in these mountains lived in fear of the yeti’s revenge.
“But you will still go?” Hannigan asked. “You will take me to Makalu’s summit?”
Pa-sang nodded. “Yes. I will take you up the mountain.”
“Why you and no one else?”
The Sherpa shrugged, and when he spoke, his tone was one of resigned realism. “Always difficult work, this mountain. Cold, snow, ice, sheer cliffs, thinning air … If, indeed, there are yeti up there, they are just one more obstacle for us to overcome.” He began to walk away, then turned and added, “Besides, the money you offer is too good. Even if I wanted to, for the sake of my family, I cannot afford to say no.”
Now, they pressed onward, toward the summit, toward the Ark. A lifetime of dreams, finally realized. Photographic evidence was no longer enough in this age of Photoshop and digital trickery. When he had some scrapings from the hull, perhaps a piece of wood that had fallen off the frame … When they’d done chemical tests and carbon dating, then, and only then, would Hannigan be vindicated. They would have to believe him. They would have no choice but to accept his evidence, the Ark, as an undeniable fact. Even his own daughter could not deny him then.
Kari. How long has it been since I’ve spoken to my little girl?
Of course, she wasn’t so little anymore. Kari hoped her own work would be seen as legitimate science, and her father’s “crackpot obsession” with the Ark had not done her reputation any favors. She’d begged him to give up this quest more times than he could remember, but he never could, not even for her. Hannigan would find the great ship, or he would die trying.
Oh, Kari … If only you could see that this wasn’t all a fantasy, the– How had she put it? Oh yes!–“the crazy religious obsession of an old, naive fool.” If only you could …
A howl echoed down the mountainside, giving Hannigan a start. Just the wind, he thought, whistling through rocky crags up ahead. When it came again, however, he quickly reconsidered; an unnatural sound, predatory, disorientating, betraying nothing of its owner’s identity or location.
We’re not alone up here.
Pa-Sang heard it too. The Sherpa stopped, unslung his rifle, and pressed himself against the rocks ahead. His face, hidden behind a thick mask and goggles, was unreadable, and yet Hannigan clearly sensed the man’s fear.
Hannigan staggered forward through the deepening drifts. The metal crampons he’d strapped to his boots clawed and dug for purchase as he tried to reach Pa-Sang and the safety of the rocks. He scrambled and fell forward, somehow managing to catch himself before his face hit the snow.
Another howl, this time followed by the loud crack of a gunshot. Hannigan pushed himself upright to look at Pa-Sang, who had been standing near the blue-gray rocks above. The Sherpa had vanished, however, and the rocks had been painted a deep, dark red.
Something rolled across the snow, a yellow-red blur; it struck Hannigan’s leg like a soccer ball. Pa-Sang’s head. The Sherpa’s neon safety helmet was still strapped to his chin, making it top-heavy; it tipped so that the ragged stump pointed upward – still warm blood steaming in the frigid mountain air.
Before Hannigan could even scream, the thing that killed his Sherpa towered over him. It was nearly seven feet tall, covered from head to toe in white, matted fur that rendered it nearly invisible against the snowy terrain. In one clawed hand, it held a bloody axe.
Jade battle axe! The archeologist’s mind was as astonished as it was terrified. Fourth to third millennium B.C. So, so common from the Shang to Western Zhou period in China.
The creature lifted its weapon. Thick, rosy droplets formed along its blade and rained down onto the snow. And when it opened its mouth, revealing the jutting fangs and yellowed teeth of a thousand-pound gorilla, it actually spoke, “Kha-leh shu.”
It took Hannigan a moment to recognize the language, and as the beast brought its axe crashing down through his skull, he realized it was Tibetan for “good-bye.”
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