I free my Benchmade from my pants and pop the blade open.
‘Leonhard, Lupin, what’s going on?’ I ask.
The wolf materializes before me. ‘Intruders!’
A full-throated leonine roar fills my head.
I burst out the bathroom, knife by my hip, and hit the lights.
A wind chime lay by the window next to my bed. I approach the window carefully, looking for threats.
The wind chime was a simple device, eight metal bars suspended from a small wooden circle, with a traditional Chinese coin hanging from a longer string at the center of the circle. It wasn’t broken, but the hook it was mounted to had fallen from the window frame. A 3M Command adhesive-backed hook, meant to hold strongly against a dry flat surface.
There’s no wind.
And my wards are broken.
The air shifts. A malign presence fills my home. Swarms of biting things flash into existence, gnawing at my skin.
I sidestep and spin around, arms whirling. Steel flashes through smoke. A huge presence towers over me, a serpentine monstrosity with a half-dozen arms, every hand holding a blade.
Lupin leaps from the floor, capturing a hand in his jaws. Leonhard pounces on the naga’s back, ripping and tearing. The monster screams in pain.
I crash in and stab.
There is no art in killing. I stab and stab and stab, thrusting high, thrusting low, carving through his neck and belly, feeling the creature disintegrate before the steel.
With a final wounded cry, it vanishes in a flash of light.
The swarm still engulfs me, biting and ripping, trying to penetrate my shields. I run my blade over my body, cutting them loose, and fill the world with White Light. The purifying energies rile them up, dislodging them from me, and force them to retreat.
When the last of the lesser entities are gone, I scan, both physically and astrally. No more threats.
“Is everyone okay?” I ask.
‘I’m okay,’ Lupin reports.
Leonhard curls up in a corner, licking his left hindleg. Dark fluids burst from an ugly wound.
‘No,’ he says.
‘Do you need help?’
“Don’t worry about me,’ he growls. ‘I know a healer. But the naga isn’t dead, merely wounded. You must finish the fight.’
‘It could be an ambush.’
‘It could be an ambush.’
‘If you don’t finish him, he will come back again. Nagas are vengeful beings.’
‘I will go with you,’ Lupin says.
‘Thank you,’ I say.
‘But be warned,’ Lupin continues. ‘His kin are surely on the lookout for intruders. Do not approach them with violence in your heart. Merely openness, and a spirit of peace. Seek not to conquer, only to resolve your differences, lest they attack you on sight.’
‘And if they treat me with hostility?’
He bares his teeth. ‘If they violate the laws of hospitality, escalation may be necessary.’
I cleanse my room again, put the wind chime back up, and erect new shields. Multiple layers of shields, concealed under an outer camouflage layer. Then I return to the bathroom and shower off once more, scrubbing off the negativity the naga had left in me, willing my body to calm down. Once dry, I lay out my cushion on the floor, turn off the lights, and sink into a lotus position on the cushion.
Half-closing my eyes, I breathe, and focus.
Energy. All of Creation brims with subtle energies, invisible to the naked eye and to most of what science was pleased to call detectors and sensors. This energy is a living force, and indeed it could well be the wellspring of life and consciousness itself. I fill my body with it, filling my chakras and energy channels to the brim, feeling streams of pleasant warmth flow and hum through me.
When I reach my full capacity, I shut my eyes and visualize a rope. A rope growing from the center of my chest, reaching up into infinity. I see myself grabbing the rope, and climb.
Up and up and up I climb. My fingers and feet tingle. My temples buzz. Electricity crackles and swirls and gathers in my chest. I keep ascending, breathing deep. The sensations grow stronger and stronger, my chest overflowing with energy. A ball of light gathers in my heart, growing larger and larger, until it reaches supercritical mass.
The ball erupts with a massive BANG.
Suddenly I am free. I rise above my physical body, floating to the ceiling.
Lots of people believe astral projection involves the soul leaving the soul. The truth was far stranger. The body generates a clone of itself made from pure energy, infused with your consciousness—and both your physical and your astral selves are intertwined and sentient, sharing the same soul.
Lupin swims up to me. A predatory glint fills his eyes.
“Are you ready?” he asks.
“Let’s go,” I say.
Lupin cocks his head, gesturing at a shimmering yellow thread hanging from the ceiling. The greater naga was sloppy; he had left behind a trace we could follow.
Or maybe he’s leading us into an ambush.
In for a penny, in for a pound. Whatever comes, we’ll deal with it.
Passing through the borders of the material world, we fly higher and higher, punching through the barriers between realms, following the yellow cord. Wonderlands of vivid colours and strange sounds flash by. Sense-impressions fill me: a realm where the air is a deep shade in between fuchsia and magenta; trees melting and reforming into crystals and clocks and other surreal shapes; an unseen choir singing praises to a divine power, their voices clear as crystal and ringing like bells; a strange odour that registers as thick saffron, somehow reminding me of a sutra.
“Here we are,” Lupin says.
I float above a grassy plain beneath a cloudless yellow sky. Framed against distant mountains, three suns shine down on me, bright but not blinding. The air is pleasantly cool, and a gentle breeze carries a subtle floral fragrance from the forest before me. Wordlessly, Lupin and I descend to the ground.
An army of nagas boil forth from the forest ahead, so many they block out the treeline. Some two pairs of arms, others have one, still more have many more pairs. Polearms and swords and shields glitter under the suns. They are all male, dressed in resplendent gold-laced tunics. They array themselves before me, forming a phalanx, and advance.
I stand my ground and watch them come.
They halt half a football field away. Suddenly they take a single step to the side, opening a passage through their ranks. A huge naga, a giant among giants, slithers through the opening. This one is unarmed, but atop his head is a crown embedded with precious gems.
The naga king approaches me, completely unperturbed. His aura washes over me, an aura of majesty and power and authority and pure killing intent.
I stand my ground and let him come.
He halts six arms’ lengths away from me and sneers down at my face.
“Human!” he barks. “This land is forbidden to you! Leave at once!”
“A naga attacked me while I was at home,” I say. “I am come to seek redress.”
“Redress?” He spits out the word like a curse. “It is I who should seek redress from you.”
“Are you the ruler of this land?”
“Indeed. I hold the power of life and death here, and all you see in this realm falls under my authority.”
“Very well. State your case, Your Majesty.”
“I sent my son abroad on a mission of vital import. He and his retinue returned bearing many grievous wounds caused by cold steel. He spoke of a human magician who hurt him so, a human named Michael Chang.” The king’s eyes narrowed. “You are he.”
“Yes,” I say calmly. “Did you authorise them to invade my home?”
“I gave my son broad license to act he sees fit to execute his mission. If he attacked you, then you must have interfered with his mission.”
“I do not know of his mission. I know only that nagas harmed my client. I banished them and healed my client, and when I returned, the same nagas stormed my home. I used cold steel to defend myself and my guides. I require answers.”
“Your son wounded my friend,” Lupin added. “He has much to answer for.”
“This is not your land,” the naga king says. “You do not tell us what to do.”
“You know my name,” I say. “You know who I represent, and what I have done. What I am perfectly willing to do again. I’m certain we do not wish to come to blows. It is best we resolve this peacefully.”
“‘Peacefully’, you say. Had you left my son and his retinue well alone, this would not have happened.”
“Nonetheless, it is my duty to protect and heal all sentient beings, including and especially humans,” I say. “All I saw in that moment was a naga who had laid a curse on my client, and the nagas who stood by him. Was that his mission?”
“Aye. By ritual, prayer and offering, we are bound to carry out the requests of those who petition us for aid.”
“Does that include cursing people?”
“It includes hindering those they declare as their enemies, yes.”
“My client did no wrong.”
“We have our ways. We care not for your human norms.” The king folded his arms. “I may even say that she offended us.”
“She bumbled into a ritual as clumsy as an elephant and departed just as gracelessly. She observed a secret prayer and offered no compensation. She must be punished.”
“Then by your laws, she has offended you?”
“I see. On behalf of my client, I offer my most sincere apologies.”
“Apologies are not enough.”
“What do you desire?”
“Dedicate to us prayers, fruit and water for a month. Do this and we shall forgive you for harming my son and his subordinates.”
“What about my client?”
“As I said, we have been charged with carrying out the desires of a petitioner. Nothing shall sway us from our mission.”
“I hear many of your kind are followers of the Buddha,” I say.
“We follow his teachings, yes,” the king replies guardedly.
“We are all his followers. Perhaps we can come to an agreement—”
The army laughs with him.
“What’s so funny?” Lupin demands.
“You have turned your face from the faith of your fathers,” the king replies. “You abandoned the teachings for another creed, and you do not walk the Middle Way. Who are you to count yourself among the Sangha?”
He’s right, but only partially. Like most Singaporeans, religion to my parents was little more than a series of rituals and prayers, to be performed at proscribed times and dates, but little more. I sought the truth of reality.
But there’s no sense arguing that point here. It’s merely a distraction, and to show weakness before such a powerful being in his home plane is to court death, and fates worse than death.
“I honour the Buddha and the gods, and though I do not call myself a Buddhist anymore, I still study his teachings,” I reply.
“You are but a dabbler. You lack the discipline and the faith to commit to the teachings. Begone, liar and infidel, lest we visit the punishment of the heavens upon you.”
“I speak for my client, and she is a believer also. If you will not compromise for me, surely you can do so for her.”
“I have my mission. I shall carry them out. No mortal may stop us.”
“It appears we are at an impasse,” I say.
“Indeed. And before you think of escalating, know this: I know of you have done in the infernal realms. Such behaviour shall not be tolerated here. Know this: he who harms so much as a single hair on the head of any of my subjects shall face the wrath of my army.”
The soldier nagas roar as one, raising their weapons to catch the light. Lupin scratches his nose and tilts his head away.
“I have not come all this way to fight you,” I say.
“I have not come all this way to fight you,” I say.
“An excellent decision.”
“I do, however, have a question for you.”
“Suppose the original petitioner rescinds his request. Would that discharge you from your duties?”
“Yes. But know this: we have covenanted with the petitioner to protect him. Should you use violence against him, we shall return it a thousandfold, and we shall ignore any request you may coerce from him.”
“Very well. Allow me to take my leave.”
“This visit changes nothing. We will brook no interference in our mission. Should you continue to aid your client, we shall continue to remain at odds.”
“Then let’s hope for an amicable solution.”
Returning to Earth is easy. Backing away from the nagas, I look up and see a silver cord stretching from my body to the skies. I lift off from the plains, Lupin in tow, and follow the silver cord home.
With a thunderous CRACK, I awake in my body.
I blink. Massage my eyes. Stretch. Slowly, gently, I stand back up, head to the kitchen and pour a glass of water.
That wasn’t an ideal outcome. But any good out of body experience is one you return from. Especially without making war on more threats than you could handle at once.
My phone vibrates on my desk. I finish my drink, saunter over, and check the phone. WhatsApp message from Diana.
Phra Somchai’s followers are harassing me. I need help.
If magic, sci fi and martial arts is up your alley, check out my latest novel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES. Please nominate HAMMER OF THE WITCHES for the Dragon Awards here.
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