Happy Veteran’s Day. Thanks to all those who have served, in whatever capacity, at home or abroad.
On with the next installment…
### Part Two ###
When my beloved came to me, she appeared as she had in the days of our happier youth, before this latest Vietnam War. She beckoned me, curling one finger like she had the first time she urged me to slip from my home to accompany her on a nocturnal adventure. We had enjoyed many such rendezvous over the years. Our latest had proven to be our last, outside of the realm of dreams anyway.
Hot tears rolled down my cheeks. There had been no time to mourn her earlier. Now, I could not help myself. I bawled like a babe in its mother’s arms. I ached to rest my head on her chest and let her heartbeat lull me to blissful sleep.
Wordlessly, Lien led me through the temple, gliding with ease across its rubble-strewn floor. We traversed a series of oddly proportioned hallways and antechambers until at last we emerged into a grand chamber beneath a high-peaked ceiling. She paused in the center of the room to turn, raise her arms to the heavens, and stick out her tongue, as she was wont to do as a mischievous child.
Lien’s pose reminded me of icons of the Hindu gods depicted in Cham temples on the city’s outskirts. Spinning away like a top, she crossed to the far side of the room, stopped at a set of stairs leading below, and glanced back at me. A sad smile touched her lips before she slipped through the portal. Though she had disappeared from sight, her angelic voice sang in my brain, “To ascend, you must first descend. But be forewarned, my love, those burdened by too much sin will never see home again.”
Thunder rolled as if to punctuate her warning. It faded to a dull roar that did not stop, even after I returned from the land of dreams. Blinking back tears, I forced myself to focus on my surroundings. The harsh light of day stabbed at my sensitive orbs, which turned the ache in my head to a fire in my brain. I stared up at a shaft of sunlight. Streaming through a natural skylight in the domed ceiling, the narrow opening served as the cavern’s sole source of illumination.
I stifled a scream as my gaze fell upon a multi-armed elephantine beast seated on a raised dais in the center of a pool of water. My heart slowed once I realized it was a statue and not some otherworldly beast. Despite its monstrous appearance, the statue’s face was serene. Its eyes were closed, and two of its arms were poised as if in a meditative state. In stark contrast, its lower set of arms held grisly items. A human heart of polished obsidian rested in a dish in its upturned left hand. The right held aloft an axe with a shiny blade.
Bangles and jewels adorning the bloated figure sparkled in the single ray of sunlight. The largest of them was a fist-sized ruby inset into the handle of a golden kila, a ritual dagger common throughout Southeast Asia. The position of the kila gave the god the appearance of having a stake through its heart. A series of smaller rubies around the entry wound trailed downward toward the its distended belly in a grotesque albeit glittering representation of flowing blood.
As I scrambled backward from the horrid icon, unseen hands grabbed me from the darkness beyond the circle of light. My scream shattered the quiet and echoed back to me. I struggled against my unknown attackers, only to be slapped across the mouth with enough force to stop my screaming.
“Keep quiet, you fool,” Thanh hissed in my ear. “There could be a patrol up there.”
“If you get us caught,” Quan said, “I’ll chuck you into the abyss myself.”
“The same goes for you,” the sergeant warned the bully. “So shut it.”
As my eyes adjusted to the dimness, I saw an array of familiar faces. By some miracle, Lieutenant Minh and mud-covered Hien had survived the temple’s collapse along with the scout and the thief. My panic waned. At least I wasn’t alone in the dark with that thing.
“Abyss?” I asked, unable to decipher Quan’s threat.
“That’s why we grabbed you, fool,” he replied, “to keep you from pitching over the side of the platform.”
The private thumbed the stud on his Soviet-style signal light. I gasped when I saw how close I’d come to plummeting to my demise. The wan beam of light diffused a dozen or so meters below our precarious position on the island of stone in the center of the cavern. Never a fan of heights, I scrambled away from the pit’s edge and collided with the sergeant. He grabbed me by the collar and shook me.
“Take it easy on the corporal,” Minh cautioned him. Addressing me, the lieutenant said, “You were out for a while. Have you ever had seizures before?”
“Seizures? Not to my knowledge. Why do you ask?”
“You convulsed for several minutes and then started snoring. You might have a concussion or a skull fracture.”
“Maybe both,” Thanh interjected. “Too bad we lost our medic back at the radio station. We bound the wound on your scalp the best we could before carrying you down.”
“Ba will be fine,” Hien interjected. “He’s as thick-headed as a water buffalo and twice as tough, only without the grace and good looks.”
“Thanks,” I replied with a weak grin. “At least, we didn’t lose you or your sense of humor when the walls came crashing down.”
“The war effort would never recover,” the joker retorted, laughing at his own comeback. “Corporals are a dozen for a dong, but good comedians are as worth as much as the shiny on that statue!”
“Speaking of that monstrosity,” I said, “what is it? And where are we? Last thing I remember was rushing into the temple and then darkness. Well, that and Lien.”
“You must have a concussion,” Quan concluded. “Lien’s dead. Don’t you remember knifing her in the sewers?”
I winced as I recalled the light dying in her eyes. But I had seen her in the temple. Had it been a dream? It had seemed too real. And what of her warning?
“All too well,” I replied. “I guess I confused my dreams with reality. In them, she led me to a barred door in a room filled with shrines. She said I had to descend to ascend, but if I had too much sin, I wouldn’t make it home again.”
Now, it was Thanh’s turn to laugh. However, his menacing chuckle sounded shrill, even inhuman. Shaking his head, the scout sergeant said, “You must have overheard our conversation in the shrine room. We found a door behind one of the idols, an icon of Kali, the Dark Mother of the Cham. The base of her statue contained a similar inscription. Once we unbarred the door, we found a set of stairs. They led to this cavern, a temple of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god known as the Remover of Obstacles. Trust in him; he’ll aid our escape.”
The sergeant’s eyes blazed with an intensity I’d not seen in them before he mentioned the ancient Cham deities.
“How do you know all of this?” I asked, frightened by the idea of placing my trust in anyone other than Buddha.
“Long before the Cham brought their Hindu gods to what came to be known as Vietnam,” Thanh said, “my people lived at the base of these mountains, fished in the primordial sea, and enjoyed a peace few know.
“Nothing would be the same after the arrival of these invaders and their alien gods. We tried to coexist and adopt their ways as our own, but my tribe was persecuted and driven inland to eke out a living in the highlands. Some of us came to pay homage to their deities; after all, they served the Cham better than our gods protected us.”
“Enough superstitious nonsense, Sergeant,” Minh ordered. “Fairy tales won’t help us find a way back to the surface.”
“But they aren’t fairy tales.”
“Bullshit is more like it,” Quan added as he drew his bayonet. “The only thing this statue is good for is filling my pockets with a small fortune.”
“Don’t you dare!” Thanh barked. “You’ll get us killed if you defile it.”
“The sergeant is right,” Minh seconded. “It’s liable to be booby-trapped. You might end up bringing the ceiling down.”
“Again,” Thanh added with a grimace.
“I wasn’t the one who shot down the Huey,” Quan whined, “or led us to this hellhole.”
“No, but you set the wheel of dharma into motion,” I ventured as I struggled to stand. “From now on, you follow the orders of your superiors or risk the consequences of insubordination and court martial.”
“Look whose balls dropped,” Quan quipped. “If all it took was a good lick to the head, I’d have volunteered to administer it ages ago.”
“Shut it!” I barked. And for once, the bully listened.
Taking advantage of the silence, Thanh said, “Lieutenant, with your permission, we should split up and look for another exit.”
“If there is one,” Quan muttered.
“There’s bound to be some kind of way out of here,” I said. “I doubt the laborers who built this complex used a single staircase.”
“Now, you’re thinking,” the sergeant said, clapping me on the back hard enough to send my head spinning. I took two drunken steps before I had to sit.
“Maybe I’ll wait here and catch my breath.”
Minh agreed it a wise decision and volunteered to stay behind with me. I had reservations about sending Thanh and Quan into the darkness with only Hien to keep them from each other’s throats. Then again, if the troublemakers killed one another, I wouldn’t have to listen to them bicker like roosters vying for the sole hen in the coop.
So, I agreed with their plan of action and steeled myself for an extended fight with exhaustion. The cool, dark confines of the cavern lulled me to the edge of sleep. I wanted to heed its silence call to slumber, hoping that I’d see Lien again.
### To Be Continued ###
This story was written by Jeremy Hicks. It is his original content and cannot be used anywhere else without his expressed written consent. However, this blog may be shared, reblogged, etc. on social media for the purposes of promoting the author, his blog, and his other creative works.
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