The monk plummeted. His robes looked like a bat’s flapping wings. Even from a distance, the expression on his face was clear; he appeared serene, with his neck tilted, slanted eyes open and staring, and jaw slack. His falling body passed behind a row of trees and disappeared.
Johnny Pazarelli watched him descend, intrigued. He did not feel shocked by the sight; Johnny was a man who’d seen much in his forty years on earth, every sort of atrocity one man could inflict on himself or others. It wasn’t uncommon in his line of work.
He heard a rustling in the rainforest. Johnny stepped out of his Jeep and approached the trees. He took out his knife, pushed aside a tangle of vines, and peered through. Someone approached from the shadows. The figure walked like an individual at peace with all around him; feet dancing lightly on the ground, head held high, arms loosely dangling. He entered the light.
It was the monk.
Johnny stepped back and allowed the man to exit the brush. The monk stood at least a foot shorter than he and appeared to be in his early thirties. His flawless skin and shaved head gleamed in the sunlight. After falling at least two hundred feet, he had not a mark on his body. He offered a bow when he stepped onto the dirt path and then turned away. His red and yellow robes swished behind him. Johnny watched him leave and shook his head.
There could have been many explanations for what he’d just seen. Only three years prior he had watched the puddle jumpers of Puerto Rico in action. These odd men leapt from fifty-foot cliffs into shallow pools only inches deep. They would bend their backs and strike the water, skim across the surface, and land on their feet on the other side. It was a remarkable feat, one he was sure a version of which these particular monks perfected. He assumed that were he to follow the path the monk had just emerged from, he would find a similar setup – shallow water, curved, smooth rocks, and a pocket of jetting carbon.
There was no time to find out for sure, however, for Johnny Pazarelli was on the job, and the job always came first.
Johnny found people. It’s what he was good at. Folks would show up at his office in Chicago with a picture of a child, spouse, or friend, tell their sob story, hand over the relevant information, and then he’d be off. He always found his quarry, sometimes still alive, many times not. This seemingly preternatural ability to fit together pieces of a puzzle most folks would think unrelated made him a very rich man. He didn’t understand his ability, didn’t comprehend the voices that whispered in his head or his brain’s compass that always pointed the way towards the missing, but that was okay. He took pride in his successes, and relished the fact he was the only one that could pull them off.
All of which made his current case all the more maddening.
Two months ago a man named Albert Mueller approached him. Albert, an investment banker from Germany, said his sixteen-year-old son Julius had run off with a religious cult. He’d been trying to track the boy for the better part of six months, and now Johnny was his last hope. The grieving father handed over the prerequisite box full of pictures, ticket stubs, credit card receipts, journal entries, and other items possibly meaningful to the investigation. (“Bring everything, because you never know” had been Johnny’s motto for years; in fact, they were the first words printed on his website.) Then he told the man goodbye and booked a flight to Hamburg, the last known whereabouts of Julius Mueller.
From there, Johnny trekked halfway around the world and back again, from Sweden to Zaire to Australia to Bali. Every lead was a dead end. His internal compass swiveled around and around, trying to gain direction but never coming close to doing so. It seemed those who abducted young Julius – a group calling themselves the Homun Jan – either never existed or dropped from the face of the earth. For the first time in his life, Johnny was ready to give up.
Thankfully, while standing in a rinky-dink airport in Tanzania, he caught a break.
A woman named Zeta Lumberger, a long-time associate of the Mueller family, stopped him from boarding the plane. She told him she’d traveled from Austria, hoping to reach him before he left for home.
“There is news,” she said.
“What kind of news?”
“A package arrived.”
She handed him a yellow envelope. It was addressed to the Mueller Estate, with no return address and Chinese postage. He tore it open, tipped it over, and into his hand fell a small medallion. It was made of copper, oval, the size of a half-dollar coin. On its face were raised markings shaped like a crescent moon and on its rear, engraved sunrays. The medallion itself was nothing much to look at – he’d seen more intricate designs on cereal boxes – but the feel of it, the way its surface trembled against his skin…
His internal compass kicked into high gear and Johnny changed his flight plans. He knew exactly where he had to go.
Johnny sighed and climbed back into his jeep. The sun was high in the sky. Sweat poured off him in buckets. He turned the key. The rickety motor slowly kicked into gear. Proceeding with caution, he followed behind the monk, keeping him a hazy stick figure in the distance. He didn’t want to get too close, didn’t want to spook the man. He had no clue who the man was, nor what religious order he belonged to. The customs out here, at least a hundred miles from civilization, were a mystery. From what he could gather, none of the locals even knew of the place. All he did know was this road had been impossibly hard to find and the tingling in his head told him Julius Mueller was close. He had to proceed with caution, because if that were the case, the Homun Jan wouldn’t be far behind.
The monk stepped off the dirt road after an hour of steady, no-breaks walking, turned to face him, nodded, and entered the trees. Johnny stepped on the gas. When he reached the area he thought the man had disappeared through, he jumped out of the driver’s seat and hit the ground running. There was something about the nature of the man’s nod that seemed strange, as if he were trying to let him in on a secret. His heart picked up its pace and the buzzing in his head intensified. It was a sensation he felt often, and it signaled the approaching end of his journey.
He leapt through the brush and followed not the monk, but the internal compass he so greatly relied on.
Before long the rainforest opened up. He stood in a clearing. At the rear of the clearing was the base of another rocky outcropping. At the base of this cliff was a stone temple. He stepped cautiously forward, searching for signs of humanity. The monk seemed to have disappeared – either that or he’d run at a dead sprint and taken up refuge in the temple. Johnny didn’t think that to be likely, though in his line of work he’d learned to never say never.
The temple appeared to be in fantastic shape, despite its obvious age. The archway over the entrance had crumbled slightly, but other than that, and the thick layer of moss covering the stones, it was immaculate. He stepped inside and reached for his gun.
He entered a huge room. Torches blazed, lighting the space. There was a throne opposite him, a face carved into the rock behind it. He walked to the center of the room and gazed up. On the ceiling was the only other decoration the place had to offer – a monstrous, unblinking eye. Getting nervous, he removed his gun from its holster and held it with both hands.
“Nice to see you’ve made it, Mr. Pazarelli.”
Johnny wheeled around. His heart leapt into his throat. In front of the entrance, silhouetted by the sun’s rays, were twenty monks. How they’d gotten in without him hearing, he didn’t know. They all stood with hands clasped and heads down, chanting. From behind them walked a man – a white man.
“What…” began Johnny, but the lump in his throat wouldn’t allow any more.
The distinguished German businessman approached him. One of the monks – the young one he’d seen jump from the cliff – followed. When they stood only a few feet away they stopped. Albert didn’t reach out to greet him. Instead, he rolled a large gold coin between his fingers.
“I see you have found Julius,” Albert said.
Johnny stared straight ahead, dumbfounded. He shook his head.
Albert laughed. “Yes, you are right. There is no Julius. I am sorry to have deceived you, Mr. Pazarelli. I needed to have you as exhausted as possible, to test your abilities, to see if you could find this place with only the slightest of clues.”
Finally, Johnny’s throat responded to his demands. “And what place is this?” he asked.
Albert spread out his arms and twirled around. “The home of the Homun Jan.”
Johnny stepped back. He lifted the gun and pointed it at Albert. The older man didn’t cower from him, however; he simply kept twirling that damned coin between his fingers.
“What’s going on here?” he asked. “And what kind of organization is this, anyway?”
Albert laughed. It sounded heartfelt, without malice. “The Homun Jan is not an organization. It is a man.” He jabbed his thumb behind him, at the young monk. “He is the Homun Jan.”
“Then who are the guys by the door?”
“I suppose you could say they are his…protectors.”
“Protectors? Protecting him from what?”
“From his nature. From his duty. From himself.”
Again, Albert laughed. “I am nothing. Simply a liaison. I find things for them.”
Johnny pulled back the hammer. “And where do I fit into this, Albert?”
The older man started pacing. “Well, it seems our friend here is tired. Believe it or not, he has been caring for his responsibility for almost three hundred years. He wishes to be released from his responsibility. In order to do so, we needed to find a replacement. One with certain…talents. And that is you, Mr. Pazarelli. Only those endowed with ti-chan can fill the roll of Homun Jan. These are gifts you possess.”
“What? I have no gifts. Clients pay me to find people, and that’s it. You got the wrong guy.”
“No,” said Albert, shaking his head. “You proved it by finding the temple. Very few can discern its location. One or two a century, at most.”
Anger brewed in his gut. “And what if I don’t want this ‘gift’?”
“Unfortunately,” the man said with a grimace, “the choice is not yours. Some things in this world are more important than your personal freedom. One man might not be able to save the world, after all, but one man is certainly able to protect it.”
At that, Albert stepped aside. The young monk walked forward. Johnny backed up, his eyes bulging from their sockets. He pulled the trigger and emptied three rounds into the monk’s chest. The slugs pierced his robes, but he didn’t go down.
Instead, he opened his mouth.
The monk’s neck bulged and streams of viscous fluid erupted in a geyser, followed by pinkish, fleshy tubes. These tubes crawled from the young man’s throat like worms, expanding and contracting as their numbers, and their length, grew. They climbed upwards toward the ceiling, gathering into a cloud of living, writhing matter. The sounds of voices filled the air; thousands of them, or millions, begging, pleading, screaming.
Johnny couldn’t understand what was happening. His mind went blank with panic. He tried to drop the gun and scurry away, but his feet were frozen to the ground. He couldn’t take his eyes off the squirming mass above his head. The sight disgusted and enthralled him at the same time.
Albert’s voice rose above the clatter.
“Over time, the barriers between worlds have thinned,” he said. “The dimensions of man and the those of chaos are perilously close to one another, as they have been for centuries. It is up to one man, to the Homun Jan, to keep these barriers strong. Inside this man is the ability to mend, to find order in the chaos and weave it into a web of living intellect. Through this our world, and the others, remain safe. That man is you, Johnny. It is an honor. You can live forever if you like, or you can pass the mantle to your successor, should your lieges find one. However, you may never leave this mountain. Otherwise, the covenant is broken and all is lost.”
Johnny dropped his gaze. Albert stared at him, his eyes glimmering with compassion. The young monk who had vomited the twisting swarm of flesh was gone; in his place, a dusty pile of bones.
“I can’t do this!” he screamed. He still couldn’t move his feet. “I have a life of my own! I have my rights!”
Albert shook his head. “Unfortunately, they don’t matter now,” he said.
The cloud descended on Johnny. The fleshy tubes became tentacles that reached out for him, prying his mouth open. He choked on them as they slithered down his throat. He tried to grasp them, to pull them out, but his hands slipped from their greasy hides. His air cut off, he felt close to passing out. His vision grew hazy.
“Do not fight it!” he heard Albert scream. “You will pass from the realm of man into the realm of legend! You will no longer be bound by place, bound by time! You will be as a god, the gatekeeper, able to access all worlds at once!”
Johnny choked on the entities invading his body. They kept on coming, miles of them, as if they’d never end. He started to fall backward. Albert and the other monks rushed forward. They clasped his arms, supported his back, kept him upright.
“Just give in,” Albert whispered into his ear. “It will all be worth it.”
“When the worlds open up to you,” said a voice in his head, “there will be no end to what you can see...”
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