He shook off that image as a fellow militant in dark camo crawled alongside and nudged his elbow.
"Looks clear in back," the man whispered.
"Okay, let's move in. Have Raj and Tagri hold position outside the entrance while we search inside."
The guerrilla nodded and relayed the message to a pair of gunmen in the shadows behind them. He followed as Ram rose to a crouch and moved to the monastery entrance.
No one knew how long the site had been deemed sacred, but the current monastery had been standing there for close to four hundred years. It was a modest structure, built at the base of the city's northern hills. Ram entered through open blood-red doors to find a large courtyard. Steps at the back led to chapels on either side, while an upper floor housed the resident monks.
A fire glowed yellow next to the left chapel, and the aroma of incense wafted through the air. Ram hugged the side wall and made his way toward the back steps. He detected a rustling from within and froze. A figure emerged onto the steps, unsteady on his feet.
It was a Chinese soldier, carrying a bolt-action rifle, which he waved in Ram's general direction. "Who's there?" he called in slurred Mandarin.
It was too dark for Ram to see the soldier's bloodshot eyes, but he was close enough to smell the alcohol on his breath. The .38 in his hand tilted upward, then spat two muffled bursts. The soldier's head snapped back, and he slumped to the ground, his rifle clattering onto the stone paving.
"Hide him," Ram whispered to his partner, who had hurried to his side.
Ram stepped toward the chapel and approached the small fire burning in a makeshift ring to keep the soldier warm. Its flames cast dancing shadows on the far end of the chapel, where an elevated altar was decorated with candles. The room appeared empty. Then a sliver of light appeared from a side stall. Ram raised his pistol and slipped behind a stone pillar as a figure approached. Ram waited until the man passed him, then jumped from behind and pressed his pistol into the intruder's back.
"Is there trouble?" the captive asked. He turned and faced Ram.
The light from his small candle revealed an elderly man with a shaved head, dressed in the red robe of a monk. Unusually broad-shouldered, he stared at Ram with calm, unblinking eyes.
Ram lowered his pistol and dropped his head in a slight bow of apology. "I seek the Nechung Oracle," he said in the monk's native Tibetan tongue.
"The Oracle is not here," the monk replied. "He went to the Potala Palace two days ago to meet with the Dalai Lama. He has not returned." The monk eyed the guerrilla's dark uniform. "You are here to help him?"
Ram nodded. "It is believed the Chinese intend to imprison the Dalai Lama and his advisors. We are here to help them escape."
The monk nodded. "The Oracle foretold of imminent danger."
A walkie-talkie on Ram's hip buzzed with a static-filled voice. "Red Deer, this is Snow Leopard. The target has departed ahead of our arrival. We are under fire. Heading to the elevator. I repeat, heading to the elevator."
"Red Deer reads affirmative," Ram replied. "We will be on our way."
Ram gritted his teeth. They were to have met up with an advance team that had parachuted in a day earlier, but they hadn't appeared at the rendezvous point.
It made sense now. Something had gone wrong. Maybe the Chinese were tipped off. The advance team had either been captured or had already shuttled the Dalai Lama out of Lhasa on foot. Ram glanced at the smoldering fire and prayed it was the latter. Either way, their own mission was now for naught.
Ram replaced the walkie-talkie and looked at the monk. "Have the Dalai Lama and the Oracle already fled Lhasa?"
The monk nodded. "I believe that to be a possibility."
"Who are you?"
"My name is Thupten Gungtsen. I am the khenpo for the monastery and assistant to the Oracle."
As the monastery's abbot and chief administrator, Gungtsen was a man at risk.