Chapter 49

Mandala

Within the stony heart of the cliff, Oliver and Jeanne crept down the passageway that had been revealed behind the enlivened statue. They moved slowly, their progress hampered both by Oliver’s instance on pausing every few feet to check the floor and ceiling ahead for any sign of traps, and by the incredible display of artistry carved into the walls on all sides. Men and women, creatures both natural and fantastical, scenes of nature, farming, daily life, and worship, all carved into the stone of the tunnel walls with the same patient attention to detail as the carving of the woman who had guarded the door. The carvings were not contained to the walls. The ceiling of the tunnel, which was generally about two feet above Oliver’s head, was likewise decorated with entwining patterns of beasts, hunters, and women, their bodies glinting at irregular intervals with inset crystals of blue and white.

“I think they’re stars,” Oliver said as he stood, snapping photos of the intricate patterns on the ceiling.

Jeanne raised her own flashlight and ran the beam along the ceiling, causing the stones to wink and glitter in response. “Stars?”

“The constellations. Look here. And here.” Oliver traced lines between several of the stones with his flashlight. “That looks a lot like Orion.”

“But it’s not a hunter,” Jeanne said. “See, the carving that surrounds the gems looks more like a woman.”

“A crying woman, if I’m not mistaken. See how the star that would be Orion’s club is a teardrop in her eye? If I remember correctly, in Hindu mythology the star Betelgeuse is associated with despair and tears.”

“But the rest of these carvings don’t remind me of the Hindu pantheon,” Jeanne said, drawing the beam of her flashlight across the walls and ceiling.

Oliver shrugged and turned back town the tunnel, eager to see where it might lead. “That makes them all the more fascinating. I wouldn’t be surprised if these symbols are all part of an early offshoot of the religion, perhaps something from as far back as the fifth century BCE.”

“I don’t know, Oliver. That seems like a really long time for the diamond to go unclaimed by anyone before Tavernier bought it and took it back to France.”

“A long time from a human perspective, sure, but from the standpoint of historical movements, cultural ascent and collapse, the development and spread of religions, two thousand years is about the amount of time that you need.”

“But what could have happened to the di…” Jeanne dropped her flashlight and whipped around, her breath catching mid-word and transforming into a shriek.

Oliver spun, the beam of his light cutting through the faint haze of dust kicked up by their passage as he searched for whatever had attacked Jeanne. He saw only Jeanne, her face twisted in horror and eyes wide as she clutched a hand to her chest and fumbled at her belt for the knife that hung there.

“What is it?” he said, slipping a hand into the hidden pocket at the back of his vest to grasp the gun that he had taken from the guard in the catacombs.