The Judas Strain

Page 67

As they marched, Vigor reached out to one of the bridge's demon statues and placed a palm upon its head. "Concrete," he said. "The original heads were mostly stolen, though some remain in Cambodian museums."

"Let's hope what we're looking for wasn't stolen," Seichan said dourly, plainly still upset after the conversation in the van with Nasser.

Gray kept his distance from her. He wasn't sure which of the two Guild agents was the more dangerous.

Nasser's team of forty men spread ahead of them and behind, an escort in khaki and black berets. Nasser kept a yard behind them, continually searching around warily. Some of the tourists showed interest in their large group, but mostly their party was ignored. The ruins ahead held everyone's attention.

At the end of the causeway, thirty-foot-tall walls of laterite stone blocks enclosed the four square miles of the ancient city. Their goal—the Bayon— lay within the enclosure. Dense forest still enveloped the city ruins. Giant palm trees shaded the walls, shrouding the massive eighty-foot-tall gate. Four giant faces had been carved into the stone tower, facing each cardinal direction.

Gray studied the faces, painted in lichen, worn by cracks. Despite the corruption of age, there remained a certain peacefulness in their expressions: broad foreheads shadowed downcast eyes, while thick lips curved gently, as enigmatic as any Mona Lisa.

"The Smile of Angkor," Vigor said, noting his attention. "The face is that of Lokesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion."

Gray stared a breath longer, praying for that compassion to spread to Nasser. Gray checked his watch. Twenty-five minutes until the next hour mark, when Nasser would order another of his mother's fingers chopped off.

To stop that they needed some bit of progress to appease the bastard, to hold him off longer. But what?

Gray's breathing became more pained at this thought. His objectives tugged between two extremes: a desire to hurry forward and discover those clues that would stay Nasser's hand and an equally strong need to delay Nasser for as long as possible, to give Director Crowe more time to find his mother and father.

Stretched between the two, Gray fought for focus, for his center.

"Look. .. elephants!" Kowalski said, and pointed a bit too excitedly toward the massive gateway. He took a few hurried steps forward, his long duster jacket billowing out behind his legs.

Past the entrance, Gray spotted a pair of whitish-gray Indian elephants, trunks hanging slack to the stones, eyes smattered with flies. One of the tourists, burdened by a massive camera around his neck, was being helped to mount the great animal's back, where a teetering colorful saddle, called a how-dah, had been strapped. A hand-painted sign stood on a post cemented into a tire, announcing in a variety of languages: elephant rides to the Bayon.

"Only ten dollars," Kowalski read.

"1 think we'll be walking," Gray responded, disappointing the man.

"Yeah, straight through elephant shit. Before long, you'll be wishing we paid that ten bucks."

Gray rolled his eyes and waved Kowalski to follow the trail of Nasser's men through the gate and into Angkor Thom.

Past the wall, a paved walkway shot straight ahead, shaded by towering silk-cotton trees, whose twisted roots snaked under and over stone blocks. Seedpods from the trees littered the way, crunching underfoot.

The forest grew denser ahead, obscuring the view.

"How much farther?" Nasser asked, joining them, but keeping a yard away, a hand in the pocket of his jacket.

Vigor pointed ahead. "The Bayon temple lies a mile into the jungle."

Nasser checked his watch, then glanced significantly toward Gray, the threat plain.

One of the ubiquitous tuk-tuks buzzed past them, the main means of transportation, basically a rickshaw hooked to a two-stroke motorbike. A pair of tourists snapped pictures of their legion in black berets, chattering away in German. Then they vanished ahead.

Gray followed its trail of exhaust, picking up the pace.

Kowalski stared into the dense forest of palms and bamboo. His face pinched with suspicion.

Vigor spoke as they walked. "Over one hundred thousand people once lived here in Angkor Thom."

"Lived where?" Kowalski asked. "In tree houses?"

Vigor waved an arm toward the forest. "Most of the homes, even the royal palace, were made of bamboo and wood, so they rotted away. The jungle consumed them. Only the temples were made of stone. But this once used to be a bustling metropolis, with markets selling fish and rice, fruit and spices, with homes crowded with pigs and chickens. The city planners had engineered a great irrigation and canal system to support the populace. It even had a royal zoo, where elaborate circuses were performed. Angkor Thom was a vibrant city, colorful and boisterous. Fireworks filled the skies during celebrations. Musicians outnumbered the warriors, ringing out with cymbals, hand bells, and barrel drums, playing harps and lutes, blowing trumpets made of horns or conches."

"A regular orchestra," Kowalski groused, unimpressed.

Gray tried to picture such a city as he studied the dense forest.

"So what happened to all these people?" Kowalski asked.

Vigor rubbed his chin. "Despite what we know of daily life, much of Angkorian history remains a mystery, or at least remains purely hypothetical. Their writings were in sacred palm-leaf books called sastras. Which, like the homes here, did not survive. So Angkorian history was gathered piecemeal from studying the carved bas-reliefs on the temples. As a consequence, much of its history remains a mystery. Like what happened to the populace. Their true fate remains cloudy."

Gray kept pace with the monsignor. "I thought they were invaded by the Thai, who trampled the ancient Khmer civilization?"

"Yes, but many historians and archaeologists believe the Thai invasion was secondary, that the Khmer people had already been weakened in some manner. One theory is that the Khmer had become less militarized due to a religious conversion to a more peaceful form of Buddhism. Yet another theory holds that the massive irrigation and water-management system that sustained the empire fell into disrepair, silting up, weakening the city, leaving it susceptible to invasion. But there is also historical evidence of repeated and systematic outbreaks of plague."

Gray pictured Marco's City of the Dead. They were walking those same death fields, now overgrown with forest and jungle. Nature had returned, erasing the hand of man.

"We know that Angkor persisted after Marco," Vigor continued. "There is a brilliant account of the region by a Chinese explorer, Zhou Daguan, a full century after Marco passed through here. So the cure that was offered Marco must have eventually allowed the empire to survive, but the viral source must have persisted and continued in outbreaks of plague after plague, weakening the empire. Even the Thai invaders did not occupy Angkor. They left the vast infrastructure abandoned and fallow, letting the forest take it over. Makes you wonder why? Had they heard the stories? Had they purposefully shunned the region, believing it somehow cursed?"

Seichan had drawn closer during Vigor's account. "So you're suggesting that the source may still be here."

Vigor shrugged. "Answers await at the Bayon." He pointed through a break in the forest.

Ahead, framed by the jungle, a sandstone mountain appeared, climbing high, stippled by the morning sun into shining outcroppings of dew-damp rock and pockets of deep shadows. Smaller peaks surrounded it, clustered close, massed together into a single crag. The temple reminded Gray of something organic, like a termite mound, an ill-defined pile, as if the centuries of rain had melted the sandstone into this pocked and flowing mass.

Then a cloud passed over the sun, and shadows deepened, shifted. From out of the mass, giant stone faces appeared, pushing forth with their sphinxlike smiles, covering every surface, staring outward in all directions. The initial mass of peaks became discernible as scores of towers, rising in different levels, piled close and tight, each decorated with massive visages of Lokesvara.

Vigor mumbled, " 'Lit by the fullness of the moon, a great mountain towered above the forest, carved with a thousand faces of demons.'"

Gray's skin chilled. He recognized the words from Marco's text. It was where Polo's confessor, Friar Agreer, had last been seen heading, toward a mountain carved with faces. Gray was suddenly conscious of his own feet slowing with dread. He forced his pace back up.

They had followed Marco's trail here . . . now it was time to follow the last steps of Polo's confessor. But where did Friar Agreer go?

6:53 A.M.

As the temple grew before them, a heavy silence fell over the group. Most eyes were raised toward the ruins ahead, but Vigor took the moment to study his companions. Ever since they had arrived at Angkor Thom, he had sensed an unspoken tension between Gray and Seichan. While the two had never been bosom companions, there had always been a strained intimacy between them. And though their arguments had remained heated, the physical distance between the pair had diminished over the past day, a narrowing of personal space.

Vigor doubted either one was aware of it.

But since they'd stepped out of the vans here, it was as if some internal polarity had reversed inside them, repelling them far apart. Not only did they keep well away, he noted a heaviness to Gray's study of Seichan when her back was turned, and Seichan had grown harder again, her eyes tighter, her lips thinner.

Seichan kept closer to Vigor, as if needing some reassurance from him, but was unable to ask for it. Her gaze remained fixed on the ruins. They were close enough that the true breadth of the Bayon was now discernible.

Fifty-four towers clustered on three rising levels.

But the most striking feature was the number of carved faces.

Well over two hundred.

The morning light shifted with the clouds, creating the illusion that the faces were alive, moving, observing those who approached.

"Why so many?" Seichan finally mumbled at his side,

Vigor knew she was asking about the stone visages. "No one knows," he answered. "Some say they represent vigilance, faces staring out from a secret heart, guarding inner mysteries. It is also said that the Bayon's foundations were built upon an even earlier structure. Archaeologists have discovered walled up rooms, where more faces were hidden, forever locked in darkness."

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