Casket of Sighs

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T181, Kingdom of Prester John
A border lancer patrol, riding the high mountain trails in Tien Shan, rescued a party of Pure Realm priests that had attempted to scale the summit of Dotonghsa Juen, a mighty peak noted for the fierce storms that raged upon its flanks. Of the sixteen holy men that attempted to reach the peak, six were saved from a high saddle. Questioning by the Kochan troops soon revealed that the leader of the party, Gobodei, was high in the Pure Realm hierarchy. He would not say why he had risked his life so.

T182, Kingdom of Prester John
Again the border watch was loitering the deep woods at the foot of Dotonghsa Juen. Word had reached the regional commander that a party of Pure Realm monks, in disguise this time, and accompanied by many armed men, had purchased supplies at one of the high mountain villages before testing the icefields and storms of the mighty peak. For six days a massive storm had raged against the flanks of the Ice Throne. Lightning rumbled constantly, lighting the dark clouds with a sullen blue flame. At last the icy wind lifted and a pale sun glittered through. The Wolf patrol made its way up the rocky trails and finally reached the edge of the glacier.

There they found the last three monks, frozen solid in a shallow cave in a ravine. Clutched in the hand of the thinnest monk was a dark green scroll-case, ancient with verdigris. The Wolf-captain gingerly placed the aged metal tube into a fleece-lined pack and the entire party made great haste to leave the foul-mannered peak. Later the captain wondered, "how had they made the journey amid the ice without eyes?" The powers of the monks were strange.

T183, Kingdom of Prester John
On the fourth tier of the city, along the narrow streets that mark the district of the alchemists and astrologers, a throng of the townsfolk gathered to view the city guardsmen tearing the house of the scholar Igim apart. This Igim had recently attained a patron in the court, one that had set him the task of carefully disassembling an ancient and fragile artifact recovered from a distant peak. Igim, a careful man that had recieved training as a youth as a jeweler, was successful in taking the corroded scroll case apart, and within he found ( or so his housekeeper said ) a roll of parchments inked with gold and silver and lapis-lazuli. Unable to decipher the writing, Igim had searched for and found a monk in the markets of the first tier who professed some knowledge of ancient tongues. The alchemist and the monk had returned to the house on the fourth tier and had spent many days locked within, deep in study.

After nine days and nights of study, the housekeeper heard a shout of joy, and rushed to see what had transpired. She found Igim, unconcious upon the floor, and the monk nowhere to be found. Alarmed, she ran to get the city guards. By the time the guardsmen returned the alchemist had revived somwhat and it was discovered that the scrolls were gone as well. The patron at the court was not pleased at all.

T184, Kingdom of Prester John
The trade-town of Maclan lies in the shadow of the Karlik Shan, its houses and temples a low sprawl of white-washed two and three storey buildings in the dry curve of the Humul river. A thin winter sun glittered down on the icy rime in the eaves of the town as a Korean merchant named Roh slipped out of the eastern gate at first light. His breath came in misty puffs as he and his fellows struggled to mount their camels. Roh turned to look back in sadness as the bactrians lurched up and ambled south along the trail to Humul Gol; behind them, buried in a secret grave, lay the body of Jendu, who had done much good service for the order. Lying secure in one of Roh's saddle-bags rode an ancient case of corroded metal.

T184, Kingdom of Judah
While there has been no open state of hostilities between Divine Judah and the Pure Realm, tensions between the two ( due to other events in east asia ) have been high. Thus, when rumors surfaced that a special party of Realm priests were passing through Judean lands in disguise, the river police and customs officials were placed on high alert. Indeed, after some months of strict surveillance, a river inspector at Loyang noted the passage of a group of Korean merchants aboard the "Silver Pike" heading to Tanshui and the Western Dragon Gate. At Xian, the river barge was intercepted and a hundred Imperial Guardsmen swarmed aboard to arrest the spies. The net was tight and fine, but the fish had already slipped out of the water. Roh, the leader of the monks, watched from a narrow window above the port as the Imperial Guard tore the ship apart. Much later, at the Dragon Gate, the stout-bodied monk bowed low to his young benefactors and then rejoined the caravan heading west.

T184, The Pure Realm
Gobodei, who had recieved strange and unlooked for news from the west, issued a short statement: "The Pure Realm is weary of being assaulted on such a continuous basis. Please halt these attacks. We have proof of our good and peaceful intent. We will reveal the answers to our meditations soon. Be advised, what we bear is one of the last tokens against evil and chaos."

T184, Somewhere on the Roof of the World
Where once nine men had toiled, now only three fought their way through the whirlwind of hurlting ice and fog. Roh, his hands bandaged with heavy woolens and slathered with grease, led on the thin rope line. His feet, huge in mamluks and yards of cotton, crunched through the icy crust that covered the rocks. The wind howled like the very demons of the underworld of the Taoists, clutching and tearing at their packs and clothing. Behind the last monk, a tattered line flapped in the gusts. Blood stained the end of the rope.

Roh wedged an iron spike into the crack in the granite above him until it could bear his weight. The muscles in his arms, leaden with horrible and unceasing exhaustion, answered his iron will once more and the monk clambered up the last pitch and then fell into a narrow slot in the cliff-face beyond. The rope that tied him to Yueh rubbed across the splintered crease of the rock, fraying even more, before he could put his back to the weight and pull the next man over the lip.

Within the slot, protected from the wind, all three men lay for a long moment, their bodies begging for rest, for warmth, for food. There was none to give. Their last crumbs had been consumed the day before, in the camp at tree-line. The wood had vanished in the spume of hurltling rock and ice that had taken four of their fellows in the morning. Now, they had only to press ahead in the howling storm, hoping for salvation. The slot narrowed, and angled downwards into the depths of the mountain. Suddenly, as Roh inched ahead in the murky darkness, his hand fell upon a rounded surface carved with regular lines. He whispered to the others to come ahead while his fingers clumsily explored the rock face that now barred their progress.

At last they found a rectangular doorway, blocked with crumbling bricks. Weeping they leaned against it, hoarding the strength that they needed to pound upon the ancient work with stones carried from the crevice above. At last, after long hours of labor in the close, confining space, they broke through and crawled out onto a narrow, flagstoned, ledge. High above, the moon shone down through the scudding clouds. Below them, sleeping in the night, lay a broad deep valley, dotted with distant lights.

"Omphar!" breathed Roh, barely able to speak through his cracked and bloody lips.

T185, The Pure Realm
Though no word had been recieved from Roh in months, even a year, Gobodei continued to operate on faith - the crisis that divided the house of the Buddha would be resolved and peace would at last descend on the lands of the middle kingdom.

T185, Somewhere on the Roof of the World
Dyen staggered back from the black casket, his voice a high shriek of horror as the white flame consumed his hands and face. Roh rolled away across the tiled floor, his eyes wide in terror. The acolyte fell back, limbs in unholy motion, thrashing and clawing as the white flame clung to his flesh and burrowed into his eye sockets. At last, after a violent spasm, the flames burrowed into his chest and he died, obliterrated by the pale death. Roh, backed against one of the golden statues, flinched at the cold touch of the gemstones studding it.

Now only he remained, all of his companions having perished in their long trek; only he and now the nun Ayeta. She gave a soft whistle from the edge of the tiles - he turned to see what she intended. From beyond the fence of bones, she signed that the small black casket, smooth and polished obsidian, must not be touched. Roh bowed in acknowledgment and unwound the silken belt that bound his embroidered robe to his waist. With a practiced flip of his wrist the silk snaked into the dark recesses of the temple nave above his head and twined around the overreaching arms of the statue. Centering his ch'i, he sprang up, landing lightly on the smooth broad chest of the looming avatar. Bracing his feet, he cross-wound the rope and then leaned sideways and down to examine the sides of the casket. Seeing that there were recessed iron loops in the sides of the box, he gestured to Ayeta to toss him another rope.

The nun, her young face gleaming in the light of the innumerable candles, unwound her own sash and twirled it into a stiff rod. Tensing one leg, she sprang up onto the top of the fence of bone that protected the holy of holies. Balancing, she spun the sash to a point and then cast it to Roh. The monk caught the end of the sash and quickly reeled it in as it lost tension. Now with her sash, and studiously ignoring the momentary sight of her bare legs as she back-flipped off of the bone-fence, he cautiously threaded the silk down through the iron loops.

Now he adjusted his robe to cover his chest and ran Ayeta's sash around his shoulders and under his arms in a double-cross. Tying off the end of the sash to his left shoulder he grimaced in pain. His legs were like steel rods braced against the chest of the statue; his own rope now strained against the arm of the avatar above as he inched lower and lower over the casket, now almost upside-down. Roh adjusted the tension on the second rope until he was bent well down over the casket, only an inch separating his chest from the top of the obsidian box. Sweat dripped off of his forehead and sizzled as it struck the carved surface below him.

Beyond the tiled floor, Ayeta struggled to keep from crying out as the monk inched himself lower over the black box. Again he adjusted the tension and now the casket touched the silk of his robe and pressed into his chest. There was a sharp hissing sound as the heat of the casket seared Roh's chest. In the terrible quiet of the temple, Ayeta could barely make out the hiss of pain that escaped Roh's lips. Every muscle in his body stood out in sharp relief as he struggled to raise the casket from its ancient resting place. A long moment hung undecided and then there was a scraping sound and the obsidian casket tugged free of the recess on the altar-top. Roh slowly straightened against the statue until he stood at right angles to it, the casket cradled against his chest. Steam whirled up around his head from his sweat dribbling against the box.

Now the monk tightened the other end of the sash and looped it around to secure the casket. His eyes met Ayeta's across the tiled floor and he gave a sharp nod of his head. He readied himself and then reached behind to give his own sash a quick flip. The rope popped loose from the arm overhead and Roh sprang out into the space over the tiles, making a quick flip to land on the fence of bone. For a moment, he staggered there on the thin railing, seeking his balance then he found it and was able to drop to the floor beyond.

In that instant Ayeta was at his side, hugging him tightly. Exhausted, he sagged against her slim body, her tears of relief cold on his cheek. The casket cradled against his chest burned and hissed.

"Now," he croaked, "now we must flee."

T186, The Pure Realm
Long did Gobodei wait, his eyes ever turning to the west, awaiting the return of Roh and the precious cargo that, by all reports, he now carried. Chang-weng and Wo Tempo were summoned back to Holy Fusan and great preparations were made. Four great stupa were built, just off-line of the four cardinal directions around the center of Fusan. Ten thousand priests prayed day and night, their hearts leached of impurity, to speed Roh home in safety. The towers at the harbour entrances burned bright with lanterns throughout the long northern nights.

At last a ship came from the south, with a sea-green sail. On the fore-deck, two figures stood and as the merchantman passed under the vaulting gates of the sea-entrance, Roh raised high a dark casket and to the tens of thousands who lined the docks, and battlements and rooftops of the city, it seemed as though a great light filled the air and utter silence fell upon the bowl-shaped harbor.

Gobodei stood at the end of the long stone pier, his hands nestled in his robes for warmth. The merchantman slid up to the side of the quay and Roh helped a young woman of exotic aspect ashore. She bowed before the master of the city, then stood aside. Roh came forward, his head bowed.

"Here, master" he said, "this is what I sought and found. It is all that the scrolls said it would be, and more."

Gobodei felt faint, he raised his hand and tried to speak, but a strange tightness constricted his chest. He calmed himself and then spoke; "then right thought and deed will come to the world at last." He gestured for the two youths to enter the great gate into the city. They passed before the multitudes, heads held high.

Gobodei came after, his heart free of worry for the first time in a long age. The great gate, pushed by a hundred men on either side, closed slowly behind them.

T186, Mongol Chinese Empire
Hsi-Hu liked the appearance of a sombre embassy from Holy Fusan even less. Once relations had been cordial between the Pure Realm and the Mongol Empire - now they were strained and even hostile. Still, there was no open break yet, so Hsi-Hu gave the order to admit the priests. Three entered his chambers, the spokesman - he was startled to see - was a teacher from his boyhood in the Court. Old Tai bowed deeply before the Emperor.

"Greetings, Old Tai, we are pleased to see that you still live, though we find the policies of your master, Gobodei, less than desirable." Hsi-Hu was rather pleased with his opening remarks.

"Greetings unto you, Emperor, may your line increase and rule for a thousand years. I am sorry to hear that the good relations that once pertained between Fusan and Beijing have fallen into disrepair, but I bring you news that will lift these worries from your shoulders like gossamer." Tai bowed again, and gestured for a small dark obsidian casket to be brought forward by one of his companions. The Jade Sect priest at the Emperor's side stiffened.

"Long ago," began Old Tai, "a man came amongst men who percieved the true way. At first a dissolute prince, shielded from the travails of the world, he in time came to realize that through self-purification and meditation, he could transcend the illusions of this flesh and become 'clear of sight'. This man was Siddartha, prince of India. He became the Gautama Buddha and his word, spread by his disciples and travellers, has reached to all of the corners of the world. He became a beacon, lighting the seven-fold path to enlightenment.

Your ancestors, great lord, accepted the teachings of the Buddha and, by martial vigor, spread them from Hokkaido to Samarkhand, bringing enlightenment to millions. The power of Buddhist civilization never burned brighter than when in the custody of the Mongol Empire." Tai paused now, taking the casket into his own hands.

"Those times have passed now into darkness. The Empire was sundered long ago, the cradel of that civilization overrun by barbarians. Even amongst the priests of the seven-fold way, there is deciet and struggle and desire." Tai bowed slightly to the Jade Sect abbot, who struggled to restrain himself.

"The Pure Realm has sought to rekindle that beacon, to show the way to the multitudes, to push back this darkness that laps about us, rising ever higher against the dike of civilization. We have faced ignorance, and fear, and hatred at every turn. Our holy city has been destroyed by the barbarians, and it has been rebuilt. Half of our brothers have turned their backs upon us. Those kings and lords of the land that we have supported and fostered for long centuries have shut us out, cast us from our homes."

Now, in the dimness of the audience chamber, Tai seemed to loom upwards, his voice and shape filling the room. Hsi-Hu shrank back into the cold lacquer of the throne-chair.

"This time has come to an end," whispered Tai, "we sought in darkness for a sign, and lo, we found it. We prayed for deliverance, and lo, we have obtained it. From this day forward, there is but one faith, one Great Wheel, there is only one beacon in the darkness."

Tai slid back the cover of the obsidian casket and like a sun through morning mist, golden light filled the chamber. Each man stepped back, his face lit with joy. Tai, his face beatific, raised the casket high and within it, spun in gold and silver light, Hsi-Hu saw a spinning disk of a thousand arms, at its center a mote of light like no other. All fear fell away from him, all doubt, and he stumbled from the throne to prostrate himself upon the checkerboard tiles of the palace floor.

"Look!, Look," cried Tai, "upon the Bodaisattva! He is here, he is with us, the darkness cannot but fail against him!"

T186, Kingdom of Prester John
A party of men sent to the far south returned empty handed, though they now knew from rumors heard in the cities of the Chin where the missing scrolls had gone.

T186, Kingdom of Judah
An emissary from the nun Ayeta presents the (Catholic) Princes Yen and Yui of Judah with ???????

The Pure Realm recovered the corporeal body of the Bodaisattva (a Bhuddist holy artifact), and tokens were then sent to the Mongols, the Ming, and the Khemer to prove the rightness of their cause (gutting support for the rival Mongol backed Jade Sect), and reuniting the Bhuddist faith. Two special tokens were sent to the twin princes Yen and Yui of Christian Judea by the nun Ayeta, one of the two that found the casket. (T186).

Last updated: 3 February 2002 (T199 - 1728)

© 2002 Robert Pierce

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