Vine draped idols, engraved doorways, and towering temple-like buildings. That was what we discovered before Joe disappeared.
It was sunset. The mountains were donning on the deepest shades of violet as the sun hid behind them. I was following Joe up a staircase towards one of the towers, when he stopped and turned to me with an incredulous face.
“Of course,” he said. “Of course, Mae, I know where the entrance is.”
And then he was gone. My brain tripped over itself trying to make peace with his sudden goneness. It tried to tell me that he hadn’t been there at all but the scent of the grease that he used on his hair still lingered behind, too real to be a dream.
“Get ahold of yourself. This is a dream,” I said, taking off my flying goggles. I went up to the tower and counted the stars as they twinkled into existence one by one. Then I fell asleep.
It would have been logical to assume that when I woke up, if I woke up, I’d be back in reality but I wasn’t. I was still surrounded by the same crumbling bricks and murmuring shrubs. And I was parched like a California desert.
Impossible. It was impossible. This could not be real. Joe could not have actually disappeared. Shambhala could not have actually materialized out of an old scripture.
I buried my head in my hands, letting the reality of my situation sink in until I came to a startling conclusion. We were probably dead and this was the afterlife.
But if I was dead, then why was I thirsty?
“I don’t know, Mae, I don’t know,” I replied. My voice sounded like a croaky old thing.
To keep my sanity, I made finding water my only priority. I climbed the stairs and made for one of the waterfalls. My hair hung limply in the absence of the wind. The sky shimmered in brilliant hues of blue. The clouds sailed over my head, like strands of wispy hair. Cirrus.
This way, something whispered. I whirled around.
There was nobody for miles.
Again I felt like this place was haunted. Like a busted speakeasy I’ve gone to in my younger years, before everyone I loved either died or left for Paris.
It sounded like Joe.
Maybe, since he had somehow figured out the secrets of this place, he was trying to help me.
I listened to the voice. It brought me to a conglomeration of emerald domed palaces. There was a garden here with flowers made of precious jewels and in the middle of all this lavishness stood a pool of clear water. Not even a ripple marred its mirror-like surface.
I approached it eagerly.
Drink, the voice said.
I kneeled down at its bank. I looked like a ragdoll with a cloud of puffy hair but it didn’t really matter when nobody was around to see it.
I cupped my hand and scooped the water into it. Immediately, the liquid turned golden. If I hadn’t been so mesmerized by this magic, I would have seen a black shadow float up from the depths of the pool, I would have seen it reach for me, I would have gotten away. But it was too late to regret my foolishness as I was dragged into the water.
All around me golden flecks appeared and swirled up, up, up, as I sank down, down, down.
Below me were hundreds of stone statues with coral reefs growing over their rigid bodies. I tried to swim away but my efforts were nothing against the force that was pulling me down.
Drink, drink, drink.
Now the voice didn’t sound like Joe but more like the sound of a hissing fire or an ill-omened whisper after dusk.
And then something floated up from the depths. I was never known to be afraid of monsters or ominous camp fire stories. I was an airmail pilot, I was an orphan, I was a girl. I’ve faced scarier things. Or so I thought until I made out what the creature looked like. It was a mutant made of two halves of two people sewn together with thirteen bloody arms stretching around its head like a gory tangle of hair.
I opened my mouth and screamed but even that was swallowed up by the water.
Golden flakes continued drifting up as I slowly descended towards my death.
Part 4 of 5 coming up tomorrow, so don’t forget to subscribe and join the club.