This is the last chapter in the Sword Series; the next that follows is called THE NARROW PATH, after the first Holmes-update earlier on in the chapter. It should make it a bit easier to keep track of...
In these strange mountains, he breathed dry cold air and watched as tea came from China, pressed into dense black bricks and carried in packs. The people moistened fine barley flour with the tea, and a little sugar, butter and curds for flavour. They ate the confection, tsamba, every day; bread did not bake in these higher elevations, where water boiled at an amazing 90-degrees Celsius. Cooking with water was impossible in the higher lands, where he frequently discovered his nose bled and his head throbbed at night until his bones finally settled inside his skull.
Here they made or did without. They grew their lamp-oil in the form of butter. Beef and mutton were almost all one ate at the highest part of the world; vegetables only existed in the lowlands of the mountains. He grew accustomed to ginger in the potato soup, and leaves of spinach when it grew. The meat air-dried, safe for consumption (they assured him).
In his first month, he was the guest and grew reluctantly resigned to being served the breast and ribs at meals—largess had never sat well with him, but a guest could not deny his position of honour. Their main utensils were in personal knives, used to cut the food away. But just like it was back home, they made four kinds of sausage: blood, meat, flour and liver. He drank fresh milk or yogurt, and gradually grew accustomed to the reddish white tea thickened with more of the same thick butter.
News collected in a strange way to this highest point. When the winds blew against the tents at night, and the meat rested in cool caves, they spoke of the things that interested them, or recited family histories before the tiniest of fires—so small it appeared to be made of smoke.
He wished often for John's presence. John would have listened to the old men explain their medical procedures. They could not cut into the body, but they knew what was inside it. Roots treated bones; bark treated muscles. Branches treated the nerves—themselves branchlike in shape and function. At times he wondered how far back was he viewing these concepts. But there was no particular sense of time that paralleled his own.
They understood disease, but his usual guide held that unclean spirits used disease as a doorway to enter the body. Overall they spoke of the three mind poisons, desire, hatred, and delusion, that led to illness.
Here there was no crime as he or John, or even Lestrade could have seen it. Witchcraft was the primary force of imbalance, for manipulation of outside forces had selfish motivations.
Here Time itself did not stop; it merely became internal. The dead were buried in the air, if they were ever found; caravans vanished off the face of the earth. Slides buried as much as it revealed. In a way it reminded him of his flight in the Alps. But while the small chalets and hamlets kept church records of avalanche victims of centuries past, these people merely spoke of mountain-rumbles that swallowed this person or that person, in their grandfather's grandfather's grandfather's time. Often he came across the dead, lying serenely in death as they dissolved into the dry soils and dryer winds…Wind, their word for breath, their word for the life force itself. What was their true concept of the afterlife, if it was not watching their loved ones return to the original forces that shaped the world? He did not know. Here the carrion-eaters had a purpose.
Here they painted their prayers on cloth flags. He stepped across a small place, a mound of rock and earth in the middle of nowhere, and was startled at the sight of the cluster of brightly-painted flags with words and Buddhist advice. The older flags were melting into the wind that never stilled. Air burial, he thought then. The prayers were buried in the air like the dead themselves. Here ghosts walked among the living, as vital to the world as the corporeal were.
The man who called himself Sigerson now, knew his own mind and body was out of balance; that one particular ghost pursued him. The dry mountain air was far from the Pleistocene chill of the Swiss Falls…but Moriarty's scream still echoed across the planet and hovered just out of his hearing.
You cannot give a ghost your life force, his guide said. Sigerson did not know how his problem was so transparent, perhaps it was because his gaze tended to linger a little longer in the dark corner of the tent where the wind whistled. Or how he watched, reluctantly mesmerized as a pale scrap of cloth broke free and danced off a cliff, its fibres the same tint of dead flesh.
The Hungry ghosts await.
He had thought it superstition, like the zealots of various fates he had encountered in the past. Little had he known, the harsh severity of this land had driven out such abilities in the humans who lived here.
But it was not superstition; it was permitting power to exist within your enemy, and little matter if that enemy was dead. If you allowed him to follow you in your mind, then it truly was the third Imbalance, Delusion.
A hungry ghost is the voice of undoing.
He knew that…now. Knew he was out of his depth at the top of the world. Knew he could not mend this rift inside his soul alone. With all of that torn soul he ached to speak to Watson. To a lesser extent, he wished his brother were able to listen, but he knew full well what his brother was, and to distract the Queen's government itself during such a troubled time was selfish beyond his sense of duty.
But Moriarty's voice was undoing him, thread by thread.
He had never killed anyone before. He had never imagined he would. At the edge of the Falls, he had not expected to survive—how could he? At the Edge of the World he had trouble remembering anything outside the scraped-raw details.
A hungry ghost has a belly as large as a mountain, but a mouth as small as the eye of a needle. A hungry ghost then, is a metaphor for those who try in vain to satisfy their physical desires. There are many ghosts in the world, many pretas.
With Moriarty, the physical desire had been power.
The pretas will frighten you, or haunt you, frighten you and disturb you. It will feed on the energy your fear produces.
With himself…his hunger had been knowledge, the key to understanding the human race. That hunger still rested within himself, but in a world without clocks, it was muted somehow. For how long? As long as he stayed here.
Wouldn't the people who knew him find it ironic that he, the brilliant, Great Detective, craved to understand the human equation? Yet he did. They said he was inhuman because he placed the mind before the body, but they were as opaque to his understanding as he was to them.
He settled himself against an anonymous stone the colour and tint of the mountain range itself. To the south was Bengal, and the Bay of Bangladesh. The eastern border of India. Watson had been there once. In a way, the land was a piece of Watson, for it had shaped the young soldier into the hardened and resolute lines he wore now.
This would be a good place to melt away…to dissolve. Here the hunters would never follow him. Moran would never come this far. John Clay's royal ties could never carry him even as far as…
Or did he even know? Had John Clay outgrown his ambitions by now? His nature was not well suited to control large amounts of people, but his arrogance demanded it. Such a conflict was venomous; he was a clever but weak point in the dead Moriarty's gang.
He sat there, by the cairn of stones, as small mammals scurried for cover. Eventually they bored with his presence and continued with collecting seeds. He did not know what these tiny things were, but here capture and dissection was revealed for the abomination it was. Something that was alive should be allowed to live.
Om mani padme hum.
The mantra of compassion in the Universe.
The world was, to his delight, far stranger, and richer, and complex than his greatest hopes and fears. He recognized his own hunger; that of his fellow man, his brother, his closest friend, the city that had stood stead for an entire world. He missed them the way he missed his Stradivarius, the way his tobacco curled in his hand when he packed his pipe, and he knew it was not a hunger to be dispelled and exorcised by a ceremonial meal. It would cure him no more than it would have cured Moriarty. By the reckoning of this ancient people, he and the Professor were both mentally ill, and incurable until they accepted their delusions as delusions.
But this land, kind though it was, would not hold him forever. He had no choice but to eventually return to the world he came from. A Tibetan would say that healing took priority. He could not say that. As soon as it was safe to return home, he would.
His fingers ached for the sight of a newspaper in a language he could fathom at a glance. English, French, Italian...
He found himself waiting for the caravans, looking for the papers they used to pack their wares.
Once in a load of pottery he found a single folded paper in Gallo French. In a load of smoked tea there was half a torn page in Russian. He understood a few of the words, enough to whet his need for more.
How did the Irish news-letter get packed inside a box of silk? The rounded letters stunned him like a blow between the eyes. Likewise, the Arabic papers in their delicate left-to-right script. He found Chinese, Mandarin, Nippon, Dutch trading words in the crumpled forests. After the Chinese languages, he saw the Arabic and Russian the most. For some reason the Arabic drew him like the others did not. Perhaps it was the sheer beauty of the script; or its reverse writing-direction? He did not know. It was the easiest language to be tutored in. His guides all knew some of the tongue, and were willing enough to teach him. A most hasty young man, they thought of him. Hasty if his family sent him money every six months! Very quick-moving and thinking. Did they ever stop to pause, and ponder the Universe around them?
The answer was yes. They did stop and ponder; quickly as they moved, they thought faster. But the world itself was moving at a frightening pace. And there was no choice but to keep moving.