The Slopes of Shangri-la
by Christopher Bradley
Tzu Lung had lost track of time. The peaks and plateaus of the Shotoragal Mountains that separated Tsao Chao and Akivasha were endless, it seemed. He had no real place to go, nor anything to do that couldn't be done as well there as in any other place. The sun rose and set, the seasons passed, and if he concentrated on time he could make sense of it. He didn't bother. He had books that took time to understand and the will to understand them.
In particular, there was an ancient copy of the central text of Davana Buddhism to which Tzu Lung had been raised in monastery The Path of the Enlightened Devils and the equally obscene The Brutal Kiss of the Corpse.
Neither book was truly meant for humans. Neither book was written for humans. Tzu Lung had not gotten them from humans. But he sought wisdom and understanding. In his world, devils and the living dead were as real as the wind and earth. Any real attempt at wisdom had to regard them as much as it regarded humans, or the yao, or the naga.
Sometimes, he realized he was insane. Sometimes, he was near death for months at a time. The inhumanity of the ideas burned in him. The alien thoughts ate at his soul and he had to summon all the powers of his will and body to combat a degeneration that constantly sought to overwhelm him.
He was twenty-two years old when he went into the mountains with his books. Twenty-two! He moved with the hubris and arrogance of thoughtless youth. He simply did not know. If he had been older, wiser, more experienced he would have never locked himself amongst the snowy peaks, the ancient stands of trees, the vast plateaus of the Shotoragal Mountains with those obscene, alien books.
But, because he was not older and more experienced, because he had, still, some of the strange and wild wisdom of youth, he succeeded because he did not understand he was supposed to fail.
Tzu Lung lost track of time. The wandered amongst the caves and ruins of ancient civilizations that had once raised lofty towers on high peaks now all encrusted with ice and choked with snow. He watched the mountains of the yao and their smoky valleys where they lived and worked under the earth in places of little interest to humans. He watched the trade caravans struggling through the Kian Pass on their way to Selucia, Tsao Chao, Akivasha or the more distant lands to the far west. The days passed to seasons passed to years that flitted by Tzu Lung like a leaf trapped in the wind. He was heated by the ideas in his mind that writhed like fires in a glass furnace. He was preparing to leave the mountains and return to the world of men when he was sought out.
The man who did the seeking was one of the rakshasa a term referring to the shape changers of Akivasha of whom the tiger rakshasa were the kings. The rakshasa came to Tzu Lung as a human, and as a human the rakshasa looked Akivashan, roughly, with fierce dark eyes and a hawkish nose with a rough and cruel face.
In thickly accented Tsao Chaoan, the rakshasa said, "Are you Tzu Lung?"
Tzu Lung was standing in a pool of water under a high falls. The water was falling from a hundred feet up and pounding his body. Tzu Lung came forward, nude, his hair more wild than the beast-man, and said, "Yes."
"The Rajah of Kakala wants to see you."
"If I say no?"
The rakshasa shrugged. "You're coming if you want to or not."
Tzu Lung walked out of the pond. His skin was pale as alabaster. He was lean as a sapling but muscles moved under his smooth skin. He was broad shouldered and long limbed. He had big hands. He carefully put on what rags remained to him.
"Lead on, then," Tzu Lung said.
"You're supposed to have some books. You're supposed to bring them, too."
"No. My books are safe."
"The rajah was clear. You are to bring the books."
"No. The books are safe."
The rakshasa snarled. It wasn't a human noise. He said, "I'll tear you apart. Give me one reason not to feast on your flesh, mortal." His skin was already stretching as the change started to overtake him.
In a blink, Tzu Lung was standing in front of the rakshasa, standing very close, looking the rakshasa in the eyes. Tzu Lung said, "I'll give more than one reason. You were sent to retrieve me and my books. If you kill me, you'll fail at both, and your master who has many servants such as yourself will not be pleased. I do not know this Rajah of Kakala, since he employs such as you, he is unlikely to be a lenient man.
"Second, and probably of more immediate importance to you, is that if you were to attack me, I would destroy you. I would rip you limb from limb and leave you for whatever lairs in these woods to eat out your eyes before you died. I . . . find myself having to restrain myself from doing that right now, you see.
"Accept the failure of the books. I'll see to your rajah."
Tzu Lung took a step back. The rakshasa growled, but was fully human in shape. "Come with me. If you can keep up." The man started to run as speeds that would put a human to shame.
Tzu Lung wasn't precisely human anymore.
In those days, a rajah was any petty warlord who could hold a piece of land. They fought incessantly, and Akivasha was a shifting maze of alliances, treacheries and wars. Kakala was not a large place. It was a few valleys along the Kian Pass, settled by farmers who grew crops during the short and intense growing season and hunted at other times for meat and furs. Caravans moving north with goods from Akivasha and coming south with goods from Selucia and Tsao Chao made the small feudatory nestled in the rugged mountains an oddly cosmopolitan place.
The fortress of the rajah was settled on a steep and jagged hill. It was weathered with years but in excellent condition. It commanded the Kakala Valley that was a necessary part of the Kian Pass. From the fortress, not a single donkey would make it north or south save by the leave of the master of the fortress the Rajah of Kakala.
In Tzu Lung's hermitage, he had not heard of the Rajah of Kakala who had lived in his fortress for centuries. But the stamp of fear was on the little protectorate: the Rajah of Kakala was one of the Deathless called in the Akivashan tongue kaulitari who by magic had become ageless and of great power at the expense of his humanity. He levied a blood tax on his subjects and they paid. Sometimes in gold, sometimes in blood, but they always paid.
Tzu Lung and the rakshasa climbed the switchback trail to the fortress. They passed over a retractable bridge and through the stone walls into the bailey of the fortress. Tzu Lung was passed from the rakshasa to human servants who took him an apartment as luxurious as anything in the world, done in a style equally Tsao Chaoan and Akivashan. He bathed in hot water. A barber shaved his matted hair until Tzu Lung was bald as a monk, and shaved his face, too. Tzu Lung looked twenty, again. He was given clothes of silk in an Akivashan style flowing silk tunic with a vest over it, a sash for his waist, a turban of blue silk, loose pants and silk slippers. As he was nominally a Buddhist, Tzu Lung was served the finest vegetarian dishes in the Akivashan style using all the exotic spices of that land served with lentils, beans and rice.
So he was entertained until the sun set behind the bulk of the mountains, casting the valley into shadow, even though the sky shone blue.
The Rajah of Kakala sent for Tzu Lung.
The main hall of the fortress had thick silk carpets from Selucia and Akivashan tapestries hanging from the walls in glittering greens and gold showing scenes from Akivashan mythology. The pillars were in the style of Tsao Chao, as was the roof, itself. There was no unified architectural theme whatever worked for that time and place was used but everything had a restrained style.
The Rajah of Kakala looked neither young nor old. Time was slipping him by. He was not handsome he was intense. He was tending towards the tall. His skin was the color of bronze but almost seemed as if a thin, translucent layer of mother-of-pearl had been laid atop it. He was dressed elegantly as an Akivashan nobleman, his wardrobe glittering with jewels and pearls. He preferred black and red in his dress. He sat on a large, wide throne of beautiful hardwood heavily carved with motifs out of mythology with a focus on the ghastly.
The court itself was a study in low-key terror. Placed in the shadows were the kaulitari's servitors, called ghulam the bodies of humans who were dead kept alive through alchemy and surgical skill. After time, they were a patchwork of parts as wear and injury through the centuries took its toll on their preserved flesh. The lore of the kaulitari said that only those guilty of the gravest crimes would become such ghulams because in each piece of meat was a touch of the dead man's soul, and the soul would not be laid to rest for whatever fate awaited until all the pieces were no longer . . . used. It was a prison for souls for whom the kaulitari deemed no mortal punishment sufficient. The more skilled of the kaulitari alchemist-surgeons would create monsters of flesh, each body housing several souls suffering their agonies together and eternally. Tzu Lung could see them in the shadows.
In the foreground were the other servants of the kaulitari Rajah of Kakala. There were the rakshasa, all of them bestial save one woman of superhuman beauty that watched Tzu Lung with a tiger's eyes filled with ancient magic, dressed as an Akivashan queen. There were the human courtiers some with minds worn thin and stretched tight because of their ancient master's ways, others without much soul at all who did not mind the ghulams and rakshasa . . . not to mention the more hidden things lurking in the darkened halls of the fortress.
Tzu Lung bowed in a perfunctory fashion. A servant presented him to the lord of the hall.
The rajah said, "I have been told you refused to bring the books you possess."
"You were told correctly, majesty," Tzu Lung said.
"Certainly you realize they do not belong to you. That they were not meant for you."
"They belonged to no one when I found them. They were in a building long abandoned by humans and yao, in a land without naga or rakshasa. At one time, perhaps, the works belonged to the you-yo-ren, but that was ages ago."
"And before the you-yo-ren?"
"An academic question, at best, majesty."
The rajah rose and the whole room tensed. He walked down the throne, his step light and graceful, and the rajah took Tzu Lung by the elbow and guided him towards a balcony reached by an arch through the wall. The balcony was narrow and long, on the outer wall of the fortress. It was a steep drop straight down, more than five hundred feet to the talus slope below the hill. The sun was hidden by the bulk of the mountains, but it was not yet true dark the clouds were lit purple and orange.
The rajah looked at the clouds. He looked at Tzu Lung.
"The books are not meant for mortals," the rajah said. "Surely you know this with even a glancing look."
"Majesty," Tzu Lung said back, "there is no such thing as wisdom unfit for anyone."
"Then you have not read the books?"
"I have spent years meditating on them."
A pause. The rajah fixed his dark eyes on Tzu Lung in study. "You have not lost your mind or soul. I have trouble accepting this, Tzu Lung."
"It is a fact. You do not have to accept it, majesty."
"Is it arrogance to admit the truth?"
"If you're saying the truth, you have done what no mortal has managed. And not just once, but at least twice. I know the books you have."
"How did you come by this information?"
"The kaulitari, generally, possess great interest in such works. They lead to wickedness, Tzu Lung."
"The sort of wickedness that enables the kaulitari to survive."
A look of anger passed over the rajah's face. "You taunt me. The kaulitari possess honor, Tzu Lung. We only . . . ."
"Feed on. Eat. Devour."
"Yes. We only devour those mortals who are wicked."
"By your definition of wickedness."
"By any definition of wickedness. You might disagree that it is just and fair for us to devour them, but I would like to see you, even with your Buddhist training, try to say that our prey is not amongst the wicked."
Tzu Lung looked out over the darkened valley. The shadows held no secrets from him, now, though the world was painted in blues, black, silver and gray to his eyes. He said, looking out, "I believe you can see into the hearts of mortals."
"Tzu Lung, did you truly read and meditate upon The Brutal Kiss of the Corpse?"
"Yes. It almost killed me."
"Almost!" the rajah said, thumping the stone railing with his fist. "I have trouble believing you studied the book. It has existed for eons, Tzu Lung. Do you know its history?"
"No, only myths."
"The kaulitari have longer memories than humans. It started ten thousand years ago, give or take a few centuries. The greatest of our number, Me-Lha, wrote The Brutal Kiss of the Corpse to find a way to . . . create more of our number without our, ah, limitations. The mystics of our kind believe his ideas are true, but that no mortal has been of the proper combination of physical and spiritual fortitude to survive the study both sane and alive. You understand my reservations about believing your studies."
"Majesty," Tzu Lung said, turning to the kaulitari, "proving anything to you I feel to be completely irrelevant. It doesn't matter, not to me, whether you believe me or not."
"Ah, Tzu Lung," the rajah said, his teeth grit against welling anger, "but it matters to the kaulitari if you are telling the truth. If what you say is true, you are the culmination of Me-Lha's work. I'm sure, now, you understand why I will press this to the ends of the earth."
Tzu Lung considered. He considered the formidable kaulitari in front of him, the rakshasa behind him and the drop to the stones below. He said, "Tell me, rajah, what is it that you require of me?"
"You will be taken to Shangri-la and we will endeavor to awaken Me-Lha."
"And if I refuse?"
The rajah smiled and his teeth seemed razor blades. He said, "If not, then I must compel you. You are not my master, Tzu Lung. There would be futility and pain if you tested my power."
Though Tzu Lung resisted with all his strength, the rajah was right. There was only futility and pain. In the end, Tzu Lung submitted to the will of the kaulitari.
The Rajah of Kakala made the journey in a sarcophagus of carved basalt that was, itself, the size of a large wagon. Two elephants pulled it and its wheels were taller than any man. With the Rajah of Kakala were over a score of the rakshasa, most of them wearing the skins of wolves and wolfmen their leader was with them, and she had her own wagon pulled by a team of six horses. Additionally, there were over a century of mortal troops and another forty servants and supply men. Lastly, there were thirty slaves all criminals condemned to die. Further, where they traveled the clouds hung low and heavy in the sky so that day was nearly as dark as night. In the center of this was Tzu Lung.
The troop traveled away from the Kian Pass. The way was known to the rajah, but the way was slow going even in summertime.
The views were breathtaking and glorious. Tzu Lung saw ravines into which rivers poured and seemed to have no bottom, but only a silvery mist to eternity. He saw in the stormclouds, the crackling of the dragons of the air fighting with claw and thunder and lightning. He saw endless vales of trees with snowy mountains rearing overhead.
Slowly, the slaves dwindled in number.
Summer stretched late. The nights were frosty and the days were starting to carry some of the bitterness of cold that hinted at the very early winters at these altitudes.
They came to a permanent, though empty, fort. It was old and sat before a narrow ravine that leads between massive cliffs. At this height, there was already a light frosting of snow on the ground. The relief of the soldiers was palpable. By this time, Tzu Lung knew that the humans would stay in the fort during winter while Tzu Lung, the rajah and the rakshasa would go ahead through the narrow pass.
The great sarcophagus was fitted to be carried by the rakshasa no beast of burden could be made to enter the pass, or there was no compulsion known. In the half beast form, then, the rakshasa lifted the sarcophagus and moved into the ravine. Tzu Lung traveled with the rakshasa queen, Dahanshri. They had traveled together for seventy days and during that time she had not seen fit to speak to him but he often caught her watching him with a tiger's intensity.
The passage was hard for the rakshasa under their burden of stone; the ravine climbed upwards at a steep slope. Dahanshri still said nothing to Tzu Lung. Tzu Lung had been practicing silence for years and kept to his own thoughts.
It was two days to the top of the passage that lead to a plateau. In the center of the plateau was a mountain higher whose peaks were shrouded in the clouds.
Dahanshri said, "Behold Mount Shangri-la. We will soon see how mortal you are."
That night the rajah came from his resting place and cast up his hands. He drew in power and spoke it, his words carrying to the far mountain. He returned to his rest. Within hours there were two score of the ghulams these were monstrous things, sculpted from the flesh of humans into giants over nine feet tall, but bent and twisted, almost like apes, with hideous faces made terrible by their resemblance to human beings.
They took up the sarcophagus. There was a palanquin for Dahanshri and Tzu Lung. The other rakshasa took on their wolf skins and loped after.
The ghulams were tireless. What could have been a travel of three or four days, and a brutal climb up the mountain, was done in perhaps sixteen hours.
Thus it was that Tzu Lung came to Shangri-la.
The city, itself, was fascinating. Because of the unique inhabitants of the place, it was kept protected from the sun by thick, high banks of clouds. It had been eons since the last beam of sunlight fell on any of the winding streets and towers. The same terrible magic kept the peak warmer than it should be as the cold air from the outside intruded, it created terrible storms that often raged around the peak where wind and cold rain, squalls of ice and snow, competed.
But the city was surprisingly bright. Due to the lack of natural light, the people who called the city home made their own light, so when it was relatively clear save for the blankets of mist over everything, the city glittered like a million tiny fires underwater, or seen through gauze.
Of architecture, no mortal city could compare to the works that the tireless, deathless hands had raised in Shangri-la. There were towers that defied the terrible storms and domes under which whole villages could rest but it was inside where everything was most dramatic, with color and light compensating for the unrest of the weather. Terrace after terrace of magnificence reared itself on the mountain's peak.
But it was a city of the damned, for the damned, by the damned. Most of the inhabitants were human in the same way the blades of wheat outnumber the farmers. The dread kaulitari had their capital, of sorts, here. There was nothing of law or order to be made; to satisfy the stringent demands of kaulitari honor, the city had to be filled with criminals. Filled with their foodstuffs. Their food. So the city was designed to promote wickedness upon which the kaulitari could prey.
Worse, the eldest of the kaulitari were all formidable demonologists. Their hellish servants also roamed the streets.
The city was caught in despair a never ending horror show of human and inhuman corruption allowed to exist, to thrive, even encouraged to grow, to feed the elders of the kaulitari.
Tzu Lung admired the architecture, wondered at the storms, and loathed the reality of the place. Yet, he saw its utility, how this place was the center of kaulitari culture and politics down the ages. It was built to last.
Tzu Lung was brought to the pit. He was wearing, once more, the clothing of an Akivashan gentleman. He had been told he was going to visit the Grand Council of the Deathless perhaps they were there, in the stands. But Tzu Lung was in the pit and when he turned around his guides had literally vanished he wondered if they existed, at all.
The ghulams came out of other doors and the lights glittered on the edge of the pit, shining down a hard blue light. There was a grate twelve feet above Tzu Lung, else he would have just leapt from the pit. Tzu Lung hardened his face and threw off his long coat. He got in the stance of the Davana Buddhist's art, the Jade Lion Fang, with a sudden shift of direction to one side and a step forward, loose limbed and prepared for attack from any direction.
The ghulams were nine feet tall, but hunched down so they were shorter than they should have been. They were very broad in proportion to their height. Their eyes were clusters of irises and pupils set into their deformed, elongated heads and Tzu Lung wondered how many souls stared out from them. Such art had been wrought on the ghulams that in many places they seemed covered with thick scales, all over otherwise vital areas, but they were covered with a thick and scraggly hair as if they were more ape than anything ever human. Their hands were massive with knotted bone that could pound through a stone wall or crush a human frame with a single blow.
They had been unbound. The kaulitari had released the ghulams from their icy will the ghulams were free to act as they chose after their decades or centuries of undying torment.
Thus it came to him: study of The Brutal Kiss of the Corpse had created the techniques to make the ghulams but when Tzu Lung applied the philosophy to himself, using meditation to create the internal alchemy required, he had not lost his mind. He and the ghulams, though, were cousins, now.
By instinct they circled around Tzu Lung in different directions. Tzu Lung feinted left, shot right, under the ghulam's guard into a spinning side kick that struck the ghulam near the groin.
The effect was dramatic. Tzu Lung has shifted the powers of his ki (should he think of it as prana in Akivasha?) and it rippled out of his body: the blow struck not only body, but the flow and puddling of ki in the ghulam. The ghulam was hurled back into one of the walls while the other rushed with a roar, striking in a downward blow that would have crushed a horse to paste. But Tzu Lung blurred as he sidestepped, bringing up his foot into an ax kick that struck, and hopelessly shattered, the ghulam's wrist. Then he lashed out with a lion's fang strike a focused burst of ki that turned his hand into a steel barb that tore at the vital blood veins in the ghulam's throat. There was a burst of blood and the ghulam fell down, writhing in its death throes.
Tzu Lung turned to the first he had kicked its hipbone was broken, as Tzu Lung planned. The creature was clawing pathetically towards Tzu Lung, who ignored it.
There was a wave of motion that Tzu Lung could not stop and he was in a different place. It was a great and elaborate chamber done in a style closer to the Mon-Khymer lands than either Akivasha or Tsao-Chao elaborate with gold and statuary of warriors with heavy, curved swords. In a silk robe covered with gold thread and glittering with jewels in ostentatious display was a lord of the kaulitari who looked little more than a tall, gangly teenager and who radiated power that crackled against Tzu Lung's mind. The Rajah of Kakala was there, as well, dressed as normal, and the Dahanshri was at his side, looking at Tzu Lung with a beautiful amused expression.
The Rajah of Kakala said, "I present to you my maker, Thet-Say."
Human servants rushed up to Tzu Lung from the shadows and started to take off his bloody clothes with one hand while cleaning him with swift efficiency at the same time. They had clearly done this before.
While that happened, Thet-Say said, "Forgive me the deception, Tzu Lung, but I find the best observations occur during times of stress, particularly unexpected."
Bare chested, stepping out of his pants while a servant wrapped a glorious robe of green silk with dragons and tigers etched into it, Tzu Lung said, "Forgive me, Master Thet-Say, if I say I've been under considerable pressure since the Rajah of Kakala . . . ."
Thet-Say laughed. "His name is Kakala. Calling him the rajah of himself is a redundancy."
"Master Kakala, then, who is a rajah of a place that is now called after him, has had me under considerable stress for several months, now."
"You wouldn't tell to look at you," Thet-Say said, circling around Tzu Lung, who now wore the robe. The servants retreated as unobtrusively as they had come. "You have studied the book, though, and others. The book of the fiends, I saw that in you, and of course you have learned the Davana arts to a level of unusual perfection. You no longer fight with just your body and mind your soul has entered into it.
"You have survived The Brutal Kiss of the Corpse. Not in ten thousand years has a mortal been able to say that. Why you, Tzu Lung?"
Thet-Say moved to a chair and sat. In a couch sat Kakala with the long, lithe body of Dahanshri curled up against the rajah.
Tzu Lung moved to address them all, but did not sit, despite there being room enough. He said, "I have considered that. I think I didn't know to fail. Now I know I can succeed. I don't think it needs to be anything other than that but . . . you have said yourself that I didn't just study The Brutal Kiss of the Corpse. There is another important element."
It was Dahanshri who said, almost purring, "The Path of the Enlightened Devils. He's talking about that. I knew, I always knew."
Thet-Say looked over at Dahanshri and Tzu Lung felt the air crackle between them. Her eyes narrowed to feline slits, then she looked away and turning up her nose. But she had lost whatever contest there was between them.
Thet-Say looked at Tzu Lung, his face turning benevolent. "Explain, please."
"I think that . . . alone, either text would have destroyed me. But together . . . as the negative imbalances grew in me, I could create positive imbalances a could create a new balance at a higher level.
"I don't think I am what you seek, however, because the internal alchemy to contain both the wisdom of The Path of the Enlightened Devils and The Brutal Kiss of the Corpse has changed me, certainly, I feel that but has also each wisdom has created a change in the other. This is a necessity, of course."
Thet-Say said, "This was difficult for you?"
"Very much so. I was often on the edge of death and madness."
"Why did you continue?"
Tzu Lung shrugged with one shoulder. "It was wisdom. It was something no one else had, at least that I knew. It would make me special. Different. I was very young when I started."
"I have checked," Kakala said. "You repudiated your Buddhist youth."
"I did," Tzu Lung said with a nod of his head. "I had been my whole life, almost, in the monastery. I was aware I owed the monks my existence and education, but I felt I was a slave to the monastery. I wasn't there willingly. So I left. At first I believed that after a time about I would want to return to the monastery, but . . . ."
"That hasn't happened," Kakala said.
"No. I have found much in the way of wisdom in the world. Perhaps I am imperiling my future incarnations but did not Buddha himself go out into the world to learn before finding enlightenment?"
Thet-Say said, coolly, "I would rather not discuss the Buddhas."
Tzu Lung hesitated. Then he said, "It could be important as to why I survived."
Dahanshri had recovered, and said, smooth as silk, "It could be, yes, but the kaulitari don't like talking about the Buddha because, in comparison, they are nothing but living corpses kept alive by prana imbalances instead of the noble, justice-bearing aristocrats they tell themselves they are.
"And, no, Tzu Lung, none of the others who read The Brutal Kiss of the Corpse were trained in Buddhist, or Taoist for that matter, techniques of meditation and internal alchemy. Not in ten thousand years could they bring themselves to give their cursed book to one of the people who might survive it, might see what its doing to them and work to counterbalance the effects."
Thet-Say said, "You should silence your pet, Kakala, before I do."
She flowed to her feet and smirked. She said, "Kakala is my pet, if anything. You have an interest in The Brutal Kiss of the Corpse and why Tzu Lung survived it. I don't much care. But he also has a copy of The Path of the Enlightened Devils and that certainly does. It was written for my people."
Thet-Say stood up, too, and then Kakala.
She held Thet-Say's gaze, this time, and said, "This city is as much a place of the rakshasa and mairya as the kaulitari. And The Path of the Enlightened Devils is for us. And, unlike you, we do not balk at the study of Buddhism are not the Davana Buddhists proof of this? Davana Buddhism should be our Buddhism."
Thet-Say said something in a language that was like the ancient forms of Akivashan, but older than that. Dahanshri sniffed and replied in the same language. They locked eyes, again, but this time Dahanshri was wearing a small smile.
Thet-Say turned to Tzu Lung Thet-Say had tremendous savoir-faire, but Tzu Lung realized that this time he had lost to the wilder Dahanshri. Thet-Say said, "I fear we have aired a bit of our dirty laundry in your presence."
Tzu Lung said, "It is nothing, Master Thet-Say."
The servants came forward again. Thet-Say said, "We will speak again before we attempt to awaken the Great Old One."
The servants murmured that he should go with them. He went and was escorted back to his apartments.
Tzu Lung was on a balcony that was currently to the leeward side of the storm that raged on Shangri-la. His arms were in the sleeves of his gown, arms cross on his chest, in a typically Tsao Chaoan gesture, and he stood with his back ramrod straight. The city glowed an eerie mixing of pastel colors mostly green, blue and purple as the light snow fell down. Lightning cracked the sky in waves; the skies sounded at war.
He smelled Dahanshri enter her perfume was lavender. She came up to stand next to him. He noticed she was his own height.
She said, "I didn't believe you had the book until the fight with the ghulams." She stood very close to him, a little behind, very intimate, and whispered in his ear. "The rakshasa are not the same as the kaulitari. We are closer to the mairya."
"Unclean spirits," Tzu Lung said.
"That is a mortal distinction that has no meaning to those such as we are."
"I am not as you."
"You have The Path of the Enlightened Devils in you, Tzu Lung. You are a Davana Buddhist. Your whole life has been steeped in the lore of mairya, rakshasa and asura. You are as much one of us as a mortal can get."
"Am I also like the kaulitari?" he said, feeling scared, though he would not admit it. He was afraid of her femininity. That was an enemy one never learned about in monasteries and can't learn about from books.
She wrapped her arms around Tzu Lung's waist and pressed the lithe strength of her figure against him. She whispered in his ear, "No. You are a man." She pressed one hand against his belly, slipping it in his robe, going up to his chest. "You have the body of a man, a body of strength in the way of a man. I feel your prana, you ki, call it what you will. It crackles in you." The lightning flashed as she spoke. "You are a man."
Tzu Lung felt himself blushing, his ears hot, and he pulled himself away from her, tightening his robe.
"The Buddhists wanted to steal that from you. A good Buddhist is always sexless," she said as he momentarily slipped out of her grasp. "So, fundamentally, are the kaulitari. Because they always hunger, they seem to possess something of a human passion, but that is a lie. They merely want blood or meat. I prefer Hinduism, myself it allows one to be oneself or at least Taoism, which says the same."
"I'm thinking of letting you have the book so I can leave this place," he said, standing apart from her while looking at her. He tried not to notice how female she was she was right, after all. A good Buddhist is sexless. He told himself he wasn't a Buddhist, at least not a monk, anymore.
"Oh, were it up to me, that would be more than sufficient, Tzu Lung. But it isn't up to me. The kaulitari want more than just a wayward copy of their book they want what you have. They won't listen. They won't care that you survived because you were what they cannot become. You will never leave Shangri-la, Tzu Lung, because they consider you a step on their path rather than a divergence from it."
Tzu Lung considered this, looking out to the city of lights and lightning flashes in cracks and roars. It made a certain sense and he conceded that she knew more of the politics of Shangri-la than he knew.
He said, "I didn't realize fiends had religion."
"Of course we do, even if we find the word fiend to be a trifle trite. We have as much religion as mortals, perhaps more. Even the gods have religion and strive to increase their power whatever you take power to mean. Tranquility is often thought to be the greatest power at all."
"Because it puts you beyond the reach of all other powers," he said, trying to find tranquility. It was hard. Dahanshri was still too close. He found himself trying to separate her smell from the cold, snow-wet air. He could. It didn't make it any easier to focus himself.
"There is a possible flaw to that thinking," she said, going to the railing and leaning on it while the wind stirred her hair. "The flaw is that . . . why should we want to be put beyond all powers? There's no need to bore me with the Buddhist answer. I have studied these sophomoric philosophies before. You'll say it's to avoid or end suffering. Is that what The Path of the Enlightened Devils taught you, Tzu Lung?"
"No. It said that there was profound pleasure in suffering. That's a bad translation. There is a profound intensity in suffering that, in retrospect, becomes akin to pleasure."
"Go on," she whispered.
"That by increasing the intensity of emotions one reaches the state of release from the cycle of birth and death."
"There is your release not by denying your humanity but in the ultimate expressions of your humanity. All is permitted, Tzu Lung. You have survived The Path of the Enlightened Devils."
He looked at her, the way the light seemed to cradle her lines and curves of her form. He tried to ignore them. He said, "I have trouble accepting that."
"Doesn't that jibe with what Davana Buddhism says? That no actions are inherently wicked? That nothing is evil by nature? That everything, under the proper conditions, is permitted?
"Tzu Lung, the only way you can test your commitment to the principals of Davana Buddhism is by immersing yourself in the senses. How else can you rightly say you possess the discipline of your beliefs? You know this in your heart it is why you left the monastery. It is why you find such wisdom in the world. It is only by surviving its opposition in confrontation that it is possible to know you possess an ideal. Monasteries are lifeless, sexless, dead celibacy is achieved not through discipline but merely removing temptation. But discipline doesn't need isolation not if its real, Tzu Lung."
She turned towards him. She walked to him. She put her arms around his neck; he let her. She brushes her lips against his. Tzu Lung held himself very still, held himself in a strange paralysis of terror.
She said, "Smart men are so interesting to seduce. A dumb man would have thrown me on a bed and fucked me when I touched him. A smart man, a wise man, must be tricked, first." Then she kissed him and Tzu Lung wanted her too much to stop. He put his arms around her.
She kissed. She slipped her tongue inside his mouth. She teased his tongue into her mouth. She sucked on his tongue. He learned face. He sucked on her tongue. She bit his lower lip. He lifted her up. He carried her to the bed. He threw her on the silken sheets. He stripped off her clothes. She pulled off his robe. They kissed, they kissed, they kissed. Her body was lithe, her skin the color of bronze, her waist was narrow, her legs long and lean with muscle, her stomach tight with muscles, her breasts full and dark nippled, her arms lean and her fingernails were sharp and diamond hard. His body was all knotted muscles, his skin golden, his shoulders broad, his hands large. He studied her body.
Things felt for years, things untouched, welled up in him. He touched her. He touched her throat. He touched her breasts. She smiled at him, she rolled up at him. She whispered his name. He watched her muscles move. Her skin was beautiful. He touched it.
She touched him. She kissed his body. She raised his heat. She pushed him back. She straddled over him. She guided him into her. She closed her eyes. He thrust up. He sighed her name. He said, "More."
She did more. He lost himself in her flesh. He lost his mind all was her flesh, their flesh, touching together, inside of each other. The discipline of his life dropped away. When they were done, there was blood and the wet sheets and the air smelled of sex.
He stared up at the ceiling in the darkness. She was curled against him. She was asleep, but asleep lightly. He looked at the arabesques on the ceiling.
He was not a monk. Dahanshri had cured him of it. He didn't know what he was, anymore. He asked himself why he had gone into the wilds to read those books. Was it wisdom? He told himself he went into the world for wisdom, he said he found it there and he proved it by becoming a hermit studying ancient texts?
He turned and looked at Dahanshri next to him. Her face was half-smiling, even in sleep, and one of her arms was over his chest. He could see the curve of her breasts through a gap in the sheet. He wanted to touch her, again, with a sudden pain. If she had but opened his eyes he would have found himself lost, again.
She was right. Taking oneself away from the world was a petty discipline.
He looked at the ceiling. He thought of the monks in the monastery. Why were they there? Was it to honestly study Buddhism and seek enlightenment? With some of them, it was certainly the case. With others . . . it was merely a way to retreat from the world. It was cowardice. Seclusion was cowardice.
He didn't know what to do. He felt a terrible confusion and knew that is what Dahanshri had counted on. He closed his eyes and went to sleep.
When he awoke, Dahanshri was gone. Where she had been was only a warm spot on the bed.
He arose and put on the green robe he had been given. He could get servants to bring him other clothes while he was a prisoner, he was a very well treated one.
He walked out on the balcony. The city was as quiet as it could be. The clouds were black and dark gray and swirling it was daylight somewhere above him and there was a haze over the city that made the lights glow with surreal beauty above and below him on the mountain slope.
A servant brought in a tray of food. Hardly had he the same servant twice they were always different people. This one was a young man. He put the food on the table. He said, "Master, a bath is being prepared for when you are done with your food."
Tzu Lung nodded and said, "What is your name?"
"Have you ever left Shangri-la?"
There was a pause. "No."
"Where does the food come from, Suman?"
He raised his chin, defensively. "I don't know."
"What do you mean, you don't know? Do you know where food comes from at all? Where comes the fruits you eat fruits! In this place! What about the wine and wheat? The rice and sugar?"
"The masters of the city take care of such things. We all have food enough to eat."
"Do you know where it comes from, though?"
"Not at all."
Tzu Lung looked out at the city. Since he had arrived, he had not seen a single growing thing. The city was bare of them. The population never left. They had never seen a tree, or a field of wheat, or a cow.
Tzu Lung said, "Suman, you are to be my sole servant, if I must have a servant at all."
"That is decided by the masters."
"Tell them that if they keep changing my servants, I'll start to toss them out the window. It seems a fair drop to the stones below."
Suman shrugged. "I'll do as you say, master. Since it isn't my skin on the line, I'll warn you that the kaulitari might not care if you throw humans from the balcony. That is, they won't care until they need to feed and you might be immune to that. You're more important than any mortal I've ever seen to them."
"My name is Tzu Lung."
"Master Tzu Lung."
Tzu Lung turned and nodded. "Do you know what they have planned for today, Suman?"
"The gossip is that they are preparing to awaken the Great Old One. This has disturbed the rakshasa and mairya. Some say they are attempting to open the gates to bring in their ancient ones. You are the herald of interesting times, Master Tzu Lung."
Tzu Lung laughed, very briefly, at that. He said, "Are there dangers in waking these old ones, in bringing these ancients?"
"It has not happened in the memory of the oldest mortal in Shangri-la, but there are stories of civil wars between the three factions. It is terrible to be a mortal in such times, more terrible than is usual."
"Is it very bad to be a mortal in this city?"
"Very bad, Master Tzu Lung. We know that being born is a punishment and death is a release but many of us desire to be made kaulitari. We endure and hope."
"Why haven't you set up a . . . government, amongst yourselves?"
"In a place where one third of the rule is decided by the rakshasa? Where a second third is under the sway of the mairyas?"
"I take your point, Suman."
He walked over to the table and sat down to eat.
Suman came and summoned Tzu Lung with a pair of ghulams. He was escorted to a place underground with dead air and two bronze doors ten feet high. Two kaulitari guards opened the doors while Suman and the ghulams stayed.
Inside was a large chamber with a ceiling overhead that came to a pointed dome perhaps sixty feet above him. The air crackled, neither warm nor hot, lit by alchemical fires in glass domes. Other than Tzu Lung, everyone at liberty was kaulitari. Not simply the human ones, anymore, either, but the twisted and deformed ones with dessicated forms and the foul semi-cannibal flesh eaters that reeked of death far more than the likes of Kakala and Thet-Say. Yet they all wore ostentatious displays of wealth they were in their best clothes. The company glittered in silk and diamonds. Likewise, the room was hung with silk tapestries and filled with fine statuary. Across the chamber from the brass doors was a smaller door made of Akivashan iron that would not crumble with the ages: it was circular and set into basaltic moorings. It was covered with old, old languages now dead; a script Tzu Lung could not make out.
Laid out was a feast to make the stomach churn. The mritasya such as Kakala and Thet-Say fed on blood but the bhiti and maraya ate the flesh of mortals. There was enough laid out for a small army of these kaulitari. The mortals, men and women both, were all young and, Tzu Lung imagined, succulent to the tastes of the kaulitari. They were strapped to tables set at forty-five degree angles and bled by the droplet, or kaulitari chefs with obscene knives would cut and bind the flesh of living mortals for the tastes of the others, prepared with exotic spices, on warmed plates. The mortals looked drugged, but they trembled in pain, horror and . . . humiliation.
Tzu Lung found his own mind about this different than he imagined. He had expected to feel some sort of . . . disgust, at least. Moral loathing. But, instead, he just saw an ugliness, not an obscenity. That worried him, worried him at least as much as the too-powerful feelings that Dahanshri could evoke him him, seemingly at will.
Thet-Say and Kakala came up to him. The two elegant kaulitari flanked him.
Thet-Say said, "What do you think of our display?"
"It is merely ugly," Tzu Lung said with a slight sigh. "I think the moral obfuscation the kaulitari use to justify their feeding, at all, is the horror."
Kakala said, "Oh, so the little Buddhist is going to give us a lesson in morality?" His voice was cold as the grave.
Tzu Lung turned to Kakala, "Someone should. But the lesson doesn't need to be Buddhist. As any half-way educated legalist knows, a ruler's right to rule is dependent on them ruling well. A good ruler does not promote crime, but does what they can to prevent it you have turned Shangri-la into a maze of horrors so you can feed. There, then, is kaulitari honor, turning a blind eye to wicked systems of rule to justify feeding their hunger."
Kakala said, softly, "You overstep yourself."
Thet-Say interrupted, "There is only so far we can be pushed, Tzu Lung. You should not push us in this fashion."
Tzu Lung said, "Why? You err if you think I fear death."
Thet-Say said, "There are worse things than death."
"You brag, Master Thet-Say."
Thet-Say leveled his eyes on Tzu Lung. Tzu Lung felt as though his mind had been exposed to a freezing mountain wind. Tzu Lung felt the tremendous urge to turn away, to turn aside, and submit himself to the will of Thet-Say. Tzu Lung physically stiffened. He felt his breath go haywire and his heart start to pound. As the stare continued, Tzu Lung felt all the horror and fears of his soul start to come up; old memories were give new life to plague him, while as if under a powerful drug his ability to suppress them or understand those old memories was destroyed.
Tzu Lung did not look away. He called upon all the powers of his education and will. He stood and endured. He controlled his heart and breathing. The parts of his mind and soul that Thet-Say's glance reached, Tzu Lung ignored.
Thet-Say turned away. Tzu Lung could feel the anger coming from the kaulitari.
Kakala seemed to take some perverse pleasure in the humbling of Thet-Say's power. He said, "The supplication will begin, soon, to summon forth Me-Lha. You were the element that we did not have."
Thet-Say said, "You will witness something no mortal has witnessed and survived. Indeed, depending on the will of our master, you might not survive."
Kakala said, "You will stay here. To say anything could result in your soul being stripped from you. Master Thet-Say was no merely bragging when he said there were punishments worse than dead. Think of the ghulam."
Tzu Lung nodded. He stood by the wall, on the far side of the room from the iron door, still as a statue.
He watched the buzz and snacking of the kaulitari for several minutes more until one of their number called them to order in a language that Tzu Lung had never heard, before. The band of them gathered around the iron door in a semi-circle whose focus was the kaulitari one of the withered maraya who spoke to the door and the creature beyond.
Then they seemed to just be speaking to the door. They would bow to the ground, in unison. They would chant out the old one's name: Me-Lha. Then they would abase themselves. What age and power! What tremendous experience! And they abased themselves before not even the creature, but a door, hoping it would open.
Standing there, Tzu Lung got a flash of understanding. They were hungry for many things, these kaulitari. Flesh and blood was only a small part of their hunger. They craved power.
They were old and experienced. They had powers no mortal could possess, or at least possess easily. With so much skill, wit, power and experience, why did not the kaulitari rule the world? Why were they relegated to the charade of their "justice" to make their existence palatable to the mortal world and seizing power only in places remote from humanity?
They had weaknesses. Weaknesses Tzu Lung did not possess after reading The Brutal Kiss of the Corpse. Did he really possess their strengths? So far, it was taken for granted that was true.
He was not merely the fulfillment of one ancient kaulitari's work. He was the way for them to have real power to be fearless of the sun, to examine without horror Buddhism and Taoism, to gain access to all the mortal channels of power without loosing their own.
It was, fundamentally, about being able to throw off the charade they had hammered themselves into for endless centuries. It was about creating a world where they could be themselves without the all-too-difficult discipline that bound them.
Which is why the rakshasa and mairya were so worried. They were worried it might work and the kaulitari would get an advantage over them. The balance of power in Shangri-la and in some world of things inhuman that Tzu Lung scarcely understood would change with unforeseeable consequences.
The room became silent with the crack of a bolt. Then the door swung inwards. Tzu Lung smelled a foetid air boiling from the ancient crypt. Me-Lha stepped out.
Tzu Lung had gotten the impression that the kaulitari changed over time they grew in power. Kakala had four hundred years. Thet-Say, who was accounted very old amongst his people, had more than a thousand years. Me-Lha had ten times that number of years.
His form seemed that of a well dressed Mon-Khymer man not even very ostentatious, like the kaulitari around him, but stylish without being overbearing. He seemed tall and thin. He seemed handsome. He seemed to have long hair in a braid and a widow's peak. He seemed to have eyes as blue as any Westerners.
But Tzu Lung saw something else. It was like a pause-and-flicker across his eyes. He would see the man and then a flicker of an alien horror would crackle across his consciousness. He would see angles unmeasured, and extrusions to call them "tentacles" would be incorrect, though there was a passing resemblance and strange voids that made Tzu Lung's eyes ache in his head. Was he the only person to see it? Or was it polite not to notice what their master had become? Fear screamed in Tzu Lung's mind, and Tzu Lung's mind recoiled at the visions he saw; he fought for control. He fought for a profound stillness as being the only way he might live.
Me-Lha touched the ground. The ground seemed to shake with his weight. Tzu Lung thought he could feel it up from the soles of his slippers a vibration, an announcement that made the whole city ring like a bell: Me-Lha has arisen.
Me-Lha walked past the lesser kaulitari, who stood aside for him. Me-Lha touched a woman who was on one of the tables. His touch alone drew the blood from her. He raised his hand and her blood followed he led the trail of glistening scarlet to his mouth. He drank. She screamed, even the drugs unable to block out the agony as her body vibrated and seemed to boil with blood streaming into Me-Lha's mouth.
Then, without seeming to move at all, Me-Lha was at another person, and another, the blood following him as he leapt up on a table like an animal and started to tear at the flesh of a fourth with hands too suddenly like claws full of bloody meat he crammed in his mouth which expanded to take the gobs.
The more Me-Lha ate, the faster he seemed to go, blood and screams in his wake.
Tzu Lung stood very still. The kaulitari stood very still. There was only two mortals left when Me-Lha was done one man strapped to the wall and looking at the elder in terror and Tzu Lung standing with greater stillness.
And then Me-Lha turned his gaze on Tzu Lung. Me-Lha was soaked in gore. His hair was matted, his face was streaked, his hands smeared with it. Me-Lha smelled of an abattoir. His breath was full of shit and blood. But when he looked on Tzu Lung, Tzu Lung felt love. Tzu Lung fell on his knees and groveled. This was not something any meditation he knew could salve; it was not looking into the eyes of Thet-Say, where his soul was laid bare but some remnant of Tzu Lung remained. When Me-Lha looked at Tzu Lung, Tzu Lung temporarily ceased to be. What was left was only an extension of Me-Lha to be used and discarded.
Me-Lha came to stand before Tzu Lung, without movement. He looked down at Tzu Lung. He smiled a beatific smile.
Tzu Lung rose because it was Me-Lha's will. Me-Lha touched Tzu Lung's cheek.
Me-Lha turned his glance to the kaulitari. They were as helpless as Tzu Lung before the old one's will and they relished the feeling of being in the presence of their ultimate master. Later, Tzu Lung would know that Me-Lha was, really, the only person in any room he resided. All other "people" were absorbed into him; Me-Lha emptied them of all their experience and wisdom, all their knowledge and thought, and it was instantly his forever. By grace, he let the lesser shells keep it except when he did not.
So when Me-Lha turned his glance at the kaulitari, the leader of the circle fell down, clutching at his head. There was a short scream and then nothing at all the kaulitari crumbled slowly to dust.
It was the will of Me-Lha.
Then Me-Lha was gone and personality returned to the individuals. The link was broken, the old one gone.
Tzu Lung trembled. He cried, silently, with the violation of Me-Lha's presence created in him, and the shame of his loss of control burned in his stomach.
Outside the hall, Suman guided Tzu Lung back. The ghulams wandered off to wherever their orders told them; Tzu Lung had come and survived. They were no longer needed.
Tzu Lung was, visibly, in control, again. His face was a careful mask. He said, "I want to see Dahanshri."
Suman stopped in the darkened hallway. He said, "Tzu Lung, you jest! She is one of the rakshasa Inner Chamber and she's rakshasa." He was unnerved. "The rakshasa don't even pretend to the honor of the kaulitari. They'll cook you alive and let you live long enough so you can see them eating your balls or they'll nibble parts off of you and let you live, send you back to your family a blind cripple with a laugh. The kaulitari were, at least, once human. The rakshasa never have been, never want to be."
Tzu Lung fixed his gaze on Suman. Suman trembled and recoiled from it. Suman gasped in his throat.
"You're . . . kau--"
"No, I am something else. And whatever it is I am has taken a desire to see Dahanshri."
Suman looked down. He said, "I'll take you as far as I dare to go. I can give you instructions for the rest of the way."
"Acceptable." Then Tzu Lung relaxed and put a hand on Suman's shoulder. "You make me remember the distance between what I am and what I once wanted to be. Seeking enlightenment is a curse."
Suman looked up at Tzu Lung without comprehension.
Tzu Lung said, "Don't worry about my words. Take me to Dahanshri."
Suman guided Tzu Lung through the streets. The fear was an almost physical force down amongst the people it drove them to acts of madness and desperation. It had to be that way, to satisfy the "honor" of the kaulitari, to give the human deathless population of Shangri-la food on which to have their obscene feasts.
Me-Lha represented something older than the kaulitari, Tzu Lung's mind told him. Me-Lha was the deathless before their modern phase, when civilization was fragile as a butterfly's wing, and there was no need for dissembling. Their interest in Tzu Lung was to enable them to return to their own pre-civilized phase and discard all pretense.
Suman knew the ways. The rakshasa lived in their own quarter of the city. Having a more varied diet allowed them a greater concentration than the kaulitari the could certainly rule the city except they were too wild by nature. They did not play well amongst themselves, being highly territorial and ambitious in their souls.
They were also highly religious. Everywhere were Buddhist and Hindu temples and shrines, the flames of the Zoroastrians, Taoist and Legalist shrines. And they were being used with devotion by the rakshasa.
Tzu Lung's own Buddhism, Davana, he knew was based off, in part, the rakshasa. Walking through the rakshasa quarter and remembering the wild sexual abandon of Dahanshri, Tzu Lung knew the how the mortal Davana Buddhism was far afield of the raksasha Buddhism. Part of the central teaching of Davana Buddhism is that immoral behavior created a statement of intent about how the perpetrator believed the world ought to be run clearly, by behaving in that fashion, he accepted that in his world that behavior ought to be the norm. Thus, one would act in a like fashion against perpetrators without endangering one's own enlightenment or dharma.
Practically, the Davana Buddhists used this as a justification for killing in self-defense. Clearly a person who is trying to kill you to take your possessions has admitted that violence is a proper way, to him, to resolve disputes. Thus, killing an armed robber is merely returning to the robber that which the robber wished to give out: he lived in his world and he died in it. Likewise, the principle allowed Davana Buddhists to operate in the political sphere without threatening their dharma or enlightenment Davana moral principles, especially in Tsao Chao, were sufficiently akin to both Legalism and Confucianism make Davana monks and nuns welcome in halls of power.
The rakshasa took the Davana principles to a further extreme: they fully accepted that by behaving in a given way it allowed like behavior to be rendered to them, but that it did not damage their enlightenment or dharma. In public ceremonies, the rakshasa Buddhists engaged in horrific rapes and murders, consumed the flesh of humans, accepting that like behavior might befall them and they must accept it unquestioningly.
It was the lesson he learned, in print, from The Path of the Enlightened Devils and he saw in actual uses in the rakshasa quarter of Shangri-la.
Suman shuddered when they got to the noble section of the quarter. He told Tzu Lung the rest of the directions and then left with more care than he came.
Tzu Lung wended his way through the rest of the buildings. The magnificent architecture reared above him, lit by thousands of alchemical fires, while overhead lightning flickered and thunder roared. Rain came down in a thin drizzle. Everything glittered in the rain and with the harsh, alchemical lighting.
Tzu Lung came to Dahanshri's palace. It had gardens behind a wall guarded by two of the wolf rakshasa wearing armor in the Akivashan style enameled coats of chainmail with helmets shaped for their lupine heads holding massive swords on their shoulders. They stood more than a head above Tzu Lung's height, and Tzu Lung was a tall man.
He said, "I am Tzu Lung. I've come to speak to Dahanshri."
One growled, "Go home, kaulitari bait, before we rob them of their blood and meat."
Tzu Lung said, "What must I do to convince you to at least take my message to Dahanshri? I do not wish to create a scene."
The other laughed, "You heard him. Get out of here before we send you to hell."
"By hell do you mean the quarter of the mairya?"
They both laughed. The first said, "A more permanent hell than that."
"Ah. What would happen if I sent the two of you to that hell? I suppose I must recognize I'm dealing with rakshasa. Would that gain me a measure of respect and authority?"
"Fuck off," the first said.
Tzu Lung whipped around in a circular kick but the rakshasa were fast. The sword was off their shoulders and they were moving before Tzu Lung's kick hit. But it did hit the groin of the first even as Tzu Lung trapped the blade of the greatsword between his arms and shattered the fine Akivashan steel into useless fragments. The first rakshasa bent double as his the groin kick staggered him the rakshasa started puking blood and would have been amazed by the kick if he hadn't been in such pain.
The second one slashed at Tzu Lung twice, roaring at Tzu Lung, before Tzu Lung found an opening and passed by the rakshasa. The rakshasa didn't notice something was wrong until he has spun to follow Tzu Lung then his sword fell to the ground because Tzu Lung's fingers had pierced fur and skin in a fold of the creature's bicep, hooked through tendon and vein and torn a great rip from the inside of the elbow to shoulder. Blood sprayed from the wound as Tzu Lung moved in with two fists to the stomach, upwards driven by all the ki and physical strength of his body, to rupture organs and disrupt vital processes. So the second rakshasa fell, twitching, vomiting, shitting out the last of its life.
The first got up by that time as Tzu Lung turned to him. Tzu Lung wasn't sure he had done the right thing. But he felt this was a game not of rules but dominance.
Tzu Lung and the rakshasa locked eyes. The rakshasa almost instantly turned away and said, "I will tell Dahanshri that you are calling."
"Excellent," Tzu Lung said. "If you play me a fool and attempt treachery, I'll cripple you. I won't even kill you. I'll let your pack mates fine creative ways to vent their no doubt long standing frustrations on your body before you die."
The rakshasa barked a laugh. "Maybe you're not so bad for a human," he said, trotting inside the gate.
Some rat things came while Tzu Lung waited. They came out of the sewers, squeezing through the drain on the street. Tzu Lung watched as they tore the dead rakshasa apart and carried it off. He made no move to stop them, though they seemed skittish and wary of him. It only took seconds before there was no sign at all, save a few trails of blood being washed away by the rain, that anything had happened at all.
The wolf rakshasa returned. He came with another guard. They didn't seem to notice, or they expected, that the body would be gone. The rats worried Tzu Lung far more than the guards.
He was taken to a wonder. Dahanshri's palace was a huge dome inside, there was an enormous empty space a hundred paces across, filled with a terraced garden with floating alchemical fires in brass cages providing artificial sunlight for the exotic blooms. There was the wet heat of the jungle, and the air was fragrant and heavy. He felt like he was entering a slice of southern Akivasha magically transported this stormy, cold mountaintop. Scattered about were statues, tables, chairs, beds it was her living place, as well, everything absurdly rich, gold and glittering jewels, tons of silk and braiding.
Dahanshri was dressed in a silk dress so sheer one could see the darker brown of her nipples pressed against the cream colored cloth and the swish of her legs as she walked. Just seeing her made Tzu Lung's heart ache. The monastery, he reflected, hadn't taught him anything about control, really. There was much gold thread at her throat, cuffs and hem of the gown, but nothing to conceal her body. She was standing next to an artificial pond as human servants installed rocks to her specifications.
Tzu Lung was brought into her presence and the guards left. Dahanshri could defend herself. Tzu Lung said, "You miss home."
"That wasn't a question. But I'll answer it, anyway. Yes, I miss Akivasha. There are tigers in the Shotoragal Mountains, of course, and they are fierce but I come from a more southernly clime." She paused. "Me-Lha is awake. You survived. How did it feel?"
"In all my life, I have felt nothing worse."
"Me-Lha is a terror. Right now, he is out making a travesty of kaulitari honor. It is such a farce."
"I have come to the same conclusion."
"What do you want, then, Tzu Lung?" she said, touching the line of his jaw.
He shivered. He wanted her, wanted her body wrapped around him, with a pain verging on need. He said, "I don't want Me-Lha to . . . walk the earth like a mortal but with his power."
"He would bring the earth under his sway, yes."
"Which puts me in a precarious situation."
"You perceive it."
"The rakshasa want me dead, don't they?"
She smiled. "Yes."
"But you want to maintain peace with the kaulitari."
"And now Me-Lha is awake, which provokes you into doing certain acts. You're raising a contrary force, an opposition to Me-Lha. This will force the mairya to do the same."
"As I said, you perceive it. Before you were told, but now you perceive it with your own mind."
"I've decided I don't want to be ground to pieces between these opposing forces."
"Such is the danger to yourself."
"You seduced me so I would come to you when I had perceived what I now perceive. I have arrived, for I have seen."
"You are entirely too fast," she said, laughing, stepping close to him. She wore a perfume of jasmine. Her body brushed up against Tzu Lung. He held his breath in his throat and then forced himself to breath properly and he had once tricked himself into thinking he had truly mastered his breathing? He felt very warm. She continued, "I hope you do manage to survive. I enjoyed our night together. You're not quite mortal anymore and you have certainly learned much about controlling your prana. Mine, too. Very interesting."
"That strikes me as a frivolous compliment," he manages to say. "I am here because I am not ready for death, or whatever else Me-Lha ultimately has in store for me. I don't think we should . . . continue our relationship at all."
She smiled and Tzu Lung hurt somewhere inside of himself. She held his face in a cupped hand. She said, "Intelligent, strong-willed men, such as yourself, need a virtually constant seduction. You don't like it when you're not in control, but part of you craves the release of it. I suspect all humans have such traits on one hand wanting absolute power over themselves and others while, on the other hand, wanting to forget the cares and responsibilities of office and leave important decisions to others."
"You talk philosophy. I want to talk survival. Mine, specifically."
She lowered her hand with the same grace she raised it. She smiled, but something had gone hard in her eyes. She took a step back. She watched the workers work; they redoubled their efforts. Not looking at him, she said, "Have you noticed how much temporal power the Buddhas have? You were supposed to rise to my bait and mention the infamous Buddhist discipline but instead of talking about it, you managed to show it." She laughed, musical and cold as northern winds howling from mountain peaks.
Tzu Lung thought about it. He saw the connection. Akivasha, Tsao Chao, Dang Yan, Ikkiyu, the varied kingdoms of the Mon-Khymer, the Pratapravan archipelago and certainly other places: the sway of various forms of Buddhism was vast, and in all these places Buddhism was influential.
"Buddhism teaches Buddhists to use reason," she went on. "But my reason sees a movement as political and temporal as it is spiritual. How many princes and kings has Buddhism shaped? How many policies lived or died at the whim of an abbot in a monastery whose word was obeyed by thousands?
"Buddhism does teach discipline, and it teaches obedience to authority. To Buddhist authority, a higher authority. By being non-political, Buddhism has managed to become political."
"A lesson worthy for a Taoist," he said.
"There are a lot of rakshasa Buddhists. But we, even in our fantasies, have never come close to having a bodhisvatta." She turned to face him. She shrugged. "Perhaps we are not able. Perhaps we represent a state of development that necessarily requires an incarnation to a form able to become enlightened. Perhaps we simply can't lie to ourselves enough to convince ourselves that we're bodhisvatta material. Nevertheless, there is an . . . allure to enlightenment. So, we are often Buddhists without a bodhisvatta."
Tzu Lung thought for a moment. "Ah. What if I am a bodhisvatta? What would that do to the politics of the city?"
"Me-Lha is not invulnerable. We have an idea, those of us who rule amongst the rakshasa, that he isn't, really, very bright."
"Why does he need to be bright? You have seen him. You have been there, Tzu Lung. He uses you brightness, you see? You're brilliant so he doesn't have to be. Me-Lha isn't smart; he's powerful. Why does someone so powerful as Me-Lha have to develop intelligence?"
Tzu Lung laughed, his face brightening. He said, "Before I was sent to the monastery, I was the strongest of the children my age. I terribly teased the smart children. I bullied them and thought very little of education. The monks cured me of it, but I still remember it. How, being strong, I had scorn for learning. One would think in ten thousand years of experience . . . ."
"Ten thousand years to learn. Ten thousand years to become set in ones way. Make no mistake, Me-Lha is expert in the use of power. But his limitations have matched his experience as they do with all kaulitari. Remember the dread that Thet-Say and Kakala had at us even bringing up Buddhism . . . the kaulitari cannot achieve enlightenment, Tzu Lung. They have no balance; they are too cold. They are dead. They do not age for they do not, in many ways, change."
"You want to use me to rally the rakshasa . . . ."
"Always a difficult task. Unity doesn't come easily to us; independence does."
"You want me to rally your people by claiming to be a bodhisvatta. You believe, unified, the rakshasa can defeat the kaulitari. This is aided because the kaulitari fear Buddhism."
"You have it, now."
"Part of this depends on an idea you have that Me-Lha is, essentially, thoughtless."
"We've watched him for a long time. We have yet to see him do a single thoughtful thing."
"The person who wrote The Brutal Kiss of the Corpse was wise. Kakala believes that person was Me-Lha."
"Do you believe that?"
He thought a moment. "No. You're right. I don't. I did not see or feel a second of wisdom from Me-Lha." He didn't mention the intensity of his feelings of violation. He said, "How can this plan succeed, Dahanshri? The moment I face him, again, he will know."
"Then, Tzu Lung, contrive not to meet him or, meeting him, contrive to keep you mind and soul your own. It can be done. You have read, if I recall correctly, The Brutal Kiss of the Corpse. You have read The Path of the Enlightened Devils. You already possess the wisdom, if not the will or experience."
"Have you read them? They're about balances of energy in your body, about manipulating the energy around him. They are not . . . ." He stopped himself. He controlled his burst of anger.
Dahanshri smiled at him. "You should have kept going. You were not just controlling energy, you were creating it. Surely a Tsao Chaoan Buddhist knows there is no such things as bad energy, merely bad applications of energy.
"But you should go, Tzu Lung. If you stay, I'll just lure you into my bed, which will satisfy us for a while, but leave you more confused. You need to get your focus back, and keep it, even as you cultivate the passion in your belly."
He frowned, but the guards had returned, unsummoned, and he kept his brow furrowed in thought as he was lead out.
As he left the rakshasa quarter, he stopped at one of the Buddhist temples where a ceremony was going on. Rather than merely watching from the outside, through the open door, he walked up the stairs and went in, standing near the back.
Across from him, as in all Buddhist temples, was a statue of a Buddha the Buddha in this temple was like none he had ever seen. It was what they desired in a Buddha; a future Buddha; one of them. The Buddha had the features of an unidentifiable beast, but the same beautiful gaze.
The ceremony was alien to him. While there were rakshasa near the altar with prayer beads murmuring their mantras, in the open space in front of the altar were more savagely fucking. They were tied with wires that cut their skin; they were scarlet with blood. They were rakshasa; they had no one shape and they melted from form to form, the wires alternately loosening and tightening with the transformations. Tzu Lung didn't want to look, but he did; he felt the wild surges of passion in the bodies. He felt the discipline. He could not, under those conditions, have sex. He was sure. But they could; they did. They did it through a type of focus he did not understand, a focus he did not possess and that was repudiated by human Buddhists.
They weren't human. Did it matter? Not to a Buddhist, not ideally. But here, in the temple made hot with blood, sex and prayer, in the surging tides of prana and ki, he felt that enlightenment was, indeed, different than anything he might have imagined. That it might not be incompatible with the spirits-who-wear-many-skins, with blood, with sex.
He was noticed. He felt ashamed, as if he was watching something private. He went back outside, into the chill and mist. He was walking down the stairs when one of the rakshasa, wearing the skin of a human man, wrapped in a cloak stiff with dried blood from previous uses, came after him.
The rakshasa said, "Don't be afraid. There is nothing that is not willed going on."
The words of a Davana Buddhist! Tzu Lung felt his cheeks flush. He didn't need Dahanshri to distract him, anymore. He did it to himself. He flung off his center. He repudiated the ethos of the monastery, with its streamlined simplicity and easy-to-find moral absolutes. He chose the messy world. He was finding wisdom, wisdom in books he would never have read, in acts he would never have done, in scenes he would never have seen.
Tzu Lung turned to the rakshasa. Tzu Lung said, "You're right. I'm running because I'm scared."
He went with the rakshasa back to the temple. The woman he had been giving his primary attentions to was standing in a silver basin, pouring water over his skin. Blood and sex washed into the bowl at her feet. With the curious speed of the rakshasa her wounds were almost completely healed, now. She wore prayer beads around her neck, hanging between the swell of her dark breasts. The rakshasa tended to physiques lean and rangy, and she was no different; she had long, smooth muscles under a bronze skin. She wasn't beautiful, but she exuded energy and a confident lust that made her attractive. She smiled at Tzu Lung like she wanted to eat him.
The male rakshasa said, "I am Nagaja; I am one of the priests of his temple. Namaste." He put his hands together and bowed towards Tzu Lung.
Tzu Lung put his hands together and bowed in return. He said, "Namaste. I am Tzu Lung, formerly of the Monastery of the Seven Oaken Pillars in Tsao Chao."
"Ah, you're a mortal follower of Davana Buddhism! You must be surprised."
"There is a tremendous difference between reading something in a book and seeing it."
The woman came over, still nude. Muscles rippled as she moved, legs and belly. Tzu Lung watched. She said, "Nagaja, he doesn't seem fully mortal to me. He has too much prana for that."
"The flow of it is strange, too," Nagaja said.
Tzu Lung felt more embarrassment. They were not human. They were disciplined, they were seeking enlightenment, with all that meant. He swallowed and pasted on a smile. "I have read The Path of the Enlightened Devils."
Nagaja was taken aback by this. The woman, too. The man said, "And you've studied the Jade Lion Fang wu shu?"
"Yes," Tzu Lung said with a nod. That was absolutely true.
One of the people praying left their prayers and said, "He is the mortal brought by the kaulitari. He fulfills their prophecy. It is why Me-Lha has risen."
Tzu Lung said, "I am part of no prophesy of Me-Lha. I have my own wit and will, and I do not intend to be forced by them to do anything that would endanger my soul."
"Would you die to prevent it?"
"If I had to; I would prefer to be brave and live to prevent it," Tzu Lung said, looking at the man who spoke. Things were falling silent. The rakshasa were turning their eyes towards the scene unfolding.
Tzu Lung found himself rising up a bit, moving to his toes. It made him lighter on his feet, faster, and taller. It was Nagaja who turned to the small cluster of rakshasa who were there and said, "Remember yourselves! Tzu Lung is here because of the kaulitari, yes, but see with more than your eyes! Look at his prana! He is clearly not of them. He is closer to what we are, to us, and he has studied Davana Buddhism." He turned to Tzu Lung. "You were brought here under duress?"
"Very much so. Indeed, Dahanshri if the name has meaning, here helped in the duress."
Dahanshri's name did mean something. A few of them whispered amongst themselves.
"Then you were brought here by her, as well?" Nagaja said.
Tzu Lung: "Yes."
"There is something afoot, then. We know of Dahanshri, here." There was humor in his voice. He touched Tzu Lung on the shoulder in a friendly way; his hand was scarlet with blood. "Come to my chamber, with my companion" he indicated the lithe woman "and we can talk and drink wine."
Tzu Lung nodded and the three of them went through a door next to the altar into Nagaja's chamber. The worshipers half-followed them, but were stopped by a fierce glance from Nagaja. Tzu Lung remembered the guard at the gate and the way challenge was a constant part of living as a rakshasa. Did he give so many signs of being a human, even though as Buddhists they should be beyond that?
The room was not what one expected from a Buddhist. It was large and circular, with a dome above that was covered with beautiful paintings of Buddhists scenes but all the players were rakshasa in various forms. The walls had much golden gilt, and tapestries of Selucian silk covered the walls. There was the ubitiqious balcony that looked down on the glittering city and flashing lightning. Alchemical fires in brass cages against the walls provided a warm light. Cushions of silk and velvet covered the floors and there was a low table to one side, and a large bed to another; everything was very neat but the very faint smell of sex pervaded the air.
Nagaja said, "This is my companion, Kaladevi."
Kaladevi smiled and slipped into a light silken robe. She sat at the table, legs folded under her.
Tzu Lung said as she sat down, "Namaste, Kaladevi." She only smiled in return.
Nagaja got wine and glasses from a beautiful armoire and sat at the table. Tzu Lung joined them. Nagaja said, "I believe you don't drink wine, correct?"
Tzu Lung nodded. "That is true."
"Will you drink wine with us? You are Davana you have read the Path. Will you?"
He nodded. "I will."
Nagaja poured wine for them all. Tzu Lung sipped the wine; it was sweet and strong he was so unused to alcohol he could only sip it slowly. Kaladevi found it amusing as she and Nagaja drank.
Nagaja said, "It has always struck me as odd how much we owe to humans. In our lore, we had achieved the arts of civilization long before you upstart humans climbed the karmic chain to have the bodies of men and women at all. But it is from you, from humans, that we get the majority of our inspiration."
"I saw that," Tzu Lung said, "but I didn't think on it. Coming in, I saw shrines to Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, even Legalism but nothing I looked at and saw as being, well, your own. I saw it as a sort of proof human wisdom is the truest."
Kaladevi said, "You know the flaws in that as well as I do."
Tzu Lung nodded towards her. "I do, at that."
"Before Nagaja bores you too much with philosophy, why are you here? There are rumors about that the kaulitari have summoned up Me-Lha over the fate of a mortal."
"They have done that and it is because of me. I have read a sacred text of theirs without dying or going mad."
"The Brutal Kiss of the Corpse," Nagaja said. "I've read parts of it it creates a welling of cold prana in the body and spirit."
Tzu Lung nodded. "It seems that the kaulitari aren't able to meditate very well."
"The lot of them are Hindus and animists. They prefer religions that don't make many demands," Kaladevi said with scorn.
Nagaja nodded. "She's disrespectful, but she's right. But you've read it all?"
"I believe so," Tzu Lung said.
Nagaja: "Can it do what they want it to do?"
Tzu Lung: "No."
Kaladevi: "Why is that?"
Tzu Lung: "The way to keep alive and sane is to create a balance at a higher level."
Kaladevi: "The hot prana would destroy a kaulitari. They are too sensitive to it, too . . . opposed."
Tzu Lung: "I believe that to be the case. I don't believe that the kaulitari agree, that they think they can make themselves as I am but they are not. They weren't human at the beginning of the process."
Kaladevi: "And what can they learn from you that they don't know? That their problem is that they are creatures of the cold, dark and night and to be otherwise they have to acclimate themselves to the scarlet passions?" She laughed.
Nagaja: "They've waited ten thousand years to learn their sacred text is wrong?"
Tzu Lung: "Not wrong. Merely useless to them."
Nagaja: "I find that ironic.
Tzu Lung: "There is much to find ironic, there, yes."
Nagaja: "Do you know why Dahanshri also sponsors you?"
Tzu Lung shrugged. He sipped the wine and then said, "She wants to be part of the process, I believe. For political end. And it seems by reading The Path of the Enlightened Devils that I have achieved some status amongst the rakshasa as well."
Kaladevi: "If it is true."
Nagaja: "It is true. He doesn't have deep understanding of the emotional principles, but he has mastered the mind-body disciplines. Can't you see the prana boiling in him, black and scarlet?"
Kaladevi: "I'm just not so sure that means anything."
Nagaja: "Do you doubt Dahanshri, then?"
Kaladevi: "I know she lies when it suits her. It's not a matter of not trusting her. I do trust her. I just don't believe everything she tells to others. I think that's just smart, Nagaja."
Tzu Lung: "I think I agree with that. I don't trust her, but I know she is canny as a tiger."
The two of them looked at Tzu Lung. He smiled and shrugged, "Sorry about the pun."
The three of them laughed and drank more wine. Nagaja and Kaladevi refilled their glasses.
Tzu Lung said, "I think that Dahanshri wants to use me to unify the rakshasa using religion. She wants to present me as a sort of bodhisvatta."
Nagaja and Kaladevi absorbed this information in silence, seriously. They drank their wine.
Tzu Lung got the first, clearest demonstration of how much power Dahanshri's word carried in rakshasa circles. Nagaja said, "Is it true?"
Tzu Lung was taken slightly aback. He said, "I don't know what a bodhisvatta is, really. From what I've read, however, enlightenment is obvious once you've achieved it. But . . . all the sacred Buddhist texts are written by others than the enlightened one. They're all suspect when they describe enlightenment for, and about this they are clear, as are the words of the bodhis: enlightenment can't be written down."
Kaladevi: "Is it possible to be enlightened without knowing it?"
Tzu Lung shrugged. He said, "I don't feel wise, I don't feel enlightened. I feel knowledgeable. There's a difference, I think."
Nagaja: "Knowledgeable about what?"
Tzu Lung sighed. "I feel I can do tricks. I have learned how to balance prana at a higher level to survive what I increasingly view as an instruction guide, not a source of wisdom. I read The Brutal Kiss of the Corpse and what did I get out of it? I know nothing of the kaulitari. The same is true of The Path of the Enlightened Devils . I feel power in me, but it is purely a physical power. I can smash stones with my hands. What of it? That's not wisdom, that's just knowledge, no different than a smith or carpenter. Perhaps the simple-minded will confuse knowledge, simply because it's supernal in origin, with wisdom, but I'm not that foolish."
Kaladevi leaned close to him, looking at her with smoky eyes, and said, "Why did you stop here, Tzu Lung?"
He paused. He looked into his wine cup. He looked at her and said, "Because I was afraid of how you practiced Buddhism."
Nagaja said, "Most people wouldn't even call it Buddhism."
Tzu Lung shrugged. Originally, that charge had been leveled against Davana Buddhists, too, though the earliest days of the sect were lost in the mists of history; Tzu Lung suspected ancient Davana Buddhists were far different than their modern counterparts.
Tzu Lung said, "I am not most people, Master Nagaja. Am I enlightened? Perhaps your way is as valid as mine. Perhaps it is more valid. Simply because I do not understand something doesn't mean anything at all. And . . . if I was just dismissive, I might have followed that impulse. But I was scared. The rakshasa scare me with how you do things. When I'm with the kaulitari I might feel a purely visceral fear for my life, or disgust. I fear you, but not physically. I want to trace the root of this feeling."
Nagaja said to Kaladevi, "He could be."
She nodded. "He has accepted uncertainty and fear as the beginning of wisdom."
Nagaja said to Tzu Lung, "It is very hard to accept fear as the beginning of wisdom, Tzu Lung. I'm not sure I've mastered to do something you're afraid of doing because you're afraid of doing it, to kill fear, and to seek it as the obvious place one gets wisdom. We call it the Brutal Teacher, because it is only by confronting terror that we expand the limits of our wisdom and experience. But it is hard and kills more than it enlightens and many eventually loose their stomach for the Teacher."
Tzu Lung sighed. He looked at them. "Dahanshri is playing some of us as fools, isn't she?"
Kaladevi laughed. "That's her way, Tzu Lung. She is the wisest of us, however."
Nagaja: "If anyone is, she is the lover of the Brutal Teacher. She has survived what would destroy anyone I know and learns still."
Tzu Lung nodded. He finished his wine. He stood up. "I have much to think about. And . . . I do not even know how I will face Me-Lha when next we meet. He is . . . terror."
Kaladevi said, "Face him boldly, Tzu Lung."
Tzu Lung was brought before Thet-Say and Kakala in Thet-Say's rooms. Hail spaked against the windows and the wind was fierce, finding cracks into the room that was lit, and warmed, only by the tiny alchemical fires that glowed in their cages. Tzu Lung could see his breath in the air.
Kakala was seated to the right of Thet-Say, who was in a massive leather-bound chair. Kakala said, "We are not pleased you went to the quarter of the rakshasa."
"I wasn't aware I existed to please you," Tzu Lung said.
"We still hold your life in our hand," Thet-Say said.
Tzu Lung laughed. "You jest," he said. Then he walked forward and slapped Thet-Say on the face. The crack resounded through the room. "Then kill me."
Thet-Say was stunned. He rose, swiftly, and his mind crackled towards Tzu Lung's but compared to Me-Lha, Thet-Say's mind had no vigor at all. Tzu Lung's mind was, for a while, at least, inured to the petty horrors of Thet-Say.
So Tzu Lung slapped Thet-Say, again, this time knocking the kaulitari to the ground. Kakala was also up, then, trying to push Tzu Lung away but Tzu Lung took a couple of steps back. His heart was hammering in his chest like a dozen drums being struck all at once.
Tzu Lung said as Thet-Say stood, "If you're so confident that you hold my life in your hands, kill me, Thet-Say. Or we can find how much Kakala values his centuries, and those he has yet to live send him after me and we'll see if he can subdue me without having Dahanshri and her rakshasa at hand to help. Or the both of you." His heart roared so he had trouble hearing himself, but he went on. "And even if you tear me apart, well, I wonder what you'll see in Me-Lha's eyes before you're ash and bits of bone on the ground."
Thet-Say radiated hatred. Not the fury of the rakshasa, but something infinite cold: hatred. Centuries of it piled up and directed at Tzu Lung who ignored it, or found against his other fears and with his blood rushing through him that hatred was a minor thing. He was too hot.
But the two of the kaulitari stood there.
Tzu Lung said, "I trust you're beginning to understand the power that Me-Lha has invested in me. He wants me alive. If he wanted me at something other than my liberty, he would have prevented me from doing anything at all."
Tzu Lung then wondered: Why didn't he stop me? The answer suggested itself: He doesn't understand humans anymore, he doesn't understand threat, anymore.
Tzu Lung didn't miss a beat: "For the time being, I'm your masters because we all know that Me-Lha doesn't care about you or you." He indicated Thet-Say and Kakala. "Me-Lha knows that if you are destroyed there will be a thousand to take your place, who will do as well as you, and be as loyal. For the time being, I'm unique."
Tzu Lung sat down. The two stunned kaulitari stared at him.
Tzu Lung said, "Sit, please, no reason to be uncomfortable. What is it you had umbrage with, again, Master Thet-Say?"
It was Kakala that recovered first. Tzu Lung suspected it was because Kakala was less used to being in charge, thus he adapted faster to changes in power. He sat down, lazily, and said, "Master Tzu Lung, you seem to have adapted quickly to the realities of Shangri-la."
"I saw no point bemoaning my fate," Tzu Lung said. "What is, is. What will be is yet to be decided."
Thet-Say, standing like a pillar of ice, said, "Your fate is written, Tzu Lung. Perhaps not tonight or by my hand, but it is written."
"You're mistaking the map for the road," Tzu Lung said and he let the annoyance rise up in him and then cut it off when it started to cloud his reason. "But it doesn't matter for you, Thet-say. Sit, speak or leave."
Thet-Say took a step closer to Tzu Lung and said, "The master wants to see you, again."
Tzu Lung looked at Thet-Say and had a sudden urge to pity the kaulitari. Thet-Say was ignorant of why he gave the orders he did; Me-Lha ordered, Thet-Say obeyed with no more say in the matter as Tzu Lung's right arm when ordered to rise up. While Me-Lha was awake, Thet-Say, Kakala and the rest were but empty vessels of Me-Lha's will. No wonder they feared Buddhism! The first thing they would see is their chains.
"When and where?" Tzu Lung said.
"Now," Thet-Say replied. "The master is . . . eating."
"And you stopped to upbraid me, wasting Me-Lha's valuable time. I'm saying this, now, Thet-Say, so when your master empties my mind the thought might occur to him that you were derelict in your duty," Tzu Lung said, rising up. "But you have invoked the one name that, for now, gives me reason to obey you. Lead on, Thet-Say."
Tzu Lung, with the two kaulitari on either side, was taken to a hall. Even before the double doors were opened, Tzu Lung could smell the reek of death. When the doors opened, his senses were assaulted with it.
Death doesn't smell like blood, or only in part. The coppery taste is there, the dying honeysuckles over ripeness is there, but something else is, too, when the deaths are sudden, violent and filled with fear. Urine. Feces. The stink from ripped open bowels. The scents churn in the air altogether before the rot sets in. The scent was enough to cut with a knife.
Tzu Lung and the two kaulitari stepped into an abbatoir. There were at least a hundred bodies hanging up like cattle in a slaughterhouse in a hundred different states of dismemberment. A raised wooden path was set so no one would get the offal on their feet: the floor was covered with blood, bowels and chunks of flesh. A head, on a cross-section of the wooden path, still Me-Lha, turned away or the moment as terror stricken people were brought, herded like cattle by overseers armed with metal tipped whips, and prepared for the next bit of Me-Lha's feast. After centuries asleep, Me-Lha was ravenous.
Not a drop of the filth had touched Me-Lha, but Tzu Lung didn't trust his eyes around the kaulitari.
He looked down as the trio of them came to a stop, waiting for Me-Lha to turn his mind on them. Tzu Lung gathered himself. Tzu Lung prepared his mind and soul. The words of the rakshasa were in his mind. He tried to see The Path of the Enlightened Devils as more than a manual for manipulation of prana. It was a text full of emotional meaning, if he dared to master it.
Fear washed over him and he suppressed it. He fought the fear with all the tricks at his disposal; but it gnawed at him, chilling him, and he knew that played into the hands of the kaulitari.
Then he said, in his head, Fuck it.
He raised his head. Me-Lha turned around. Me-Lha turned his mind on them.
Tzu Lung let himself get angry as the kaulitari started his obscene plunder of Tzu Lung's soul. He let the anger boil up in him: white hot, burning with scarlet ki, moving it through the repositories of his soul that were active, intense.
Tzu Lung did not try to fight Me-Lha's psychic intrusion. Tzu Lung did not do nothing at all, which was the optimal thing for the kaulitari Tzu Lung actively welcomed Me-Lha into his mind. Tzu Lung thrust his mind upon Me-Lha. He mixed their consciousnesses together even as Tzu Lung poured a lifetime of suppressed rage into his heart and mind.
It was easy. It was too easy. Tzu Lung was horrified at the power of it at how much he had repressed within himself. The rakshasa were right, the Enlightened Devils were right! It was an impediment to enlightenment to simply repress one's urges; they grew in dark places, they festered, they grew cunning, they undercut good intentions with hidden, malicious agenda. Now, this lifetime of denial became a wellspring of fuel for his fire of anger and a flood of scarlet ki.
When Me-Lha understood what was going on their minds were mixed. Thet-Say and Kakala instantly knew something was wrong. They looked at each other, then looked at Me-Lha, who had a look of confusion on his face. Then confusion turned to a flickering of pain. Then that pain was shunted to Thet-Say and Kakala. It was shunted to the mortals.
Everyone but Tzu Lung and Me-Lha dropped to the ground, writhing it agony. Screams filled the air.
Me-Lha put his hands behind his back. He stood facing Tzu Lung four-square.
Tzu Lung stood with his feet shoulder width. He had his hands together in a typical Buddhist pose.
They faced each other. Me-Lha did not easily surrender even an inch of psychic ground inside of Tzu Lung's mind. Instead, he laid waste. He brought up Tzu Lung's worst memories and hurled them at Tzu Lung. Tzu Lung relived the death of his father, the terrors of being a child in a monastery, finding out about how his mother died of hunger, alone and unloved. Old wounds were relived a dozen times. His feelings of betray at leaving the monastery were replayed for him in an endless loop. Night terrors and the psychic abominations of reading his damned library were pushed against him, altogether. These things were hurled against Tzu Lung.
He accepted them. He let them hurt. He cried. He added fuel to the fire. He let Me-Lha's mind sizzle in the roaring of scarlet ki.
Me-Lha's agony was transmitted further. Throughout the kaulitari quarter, a bead of agony in the minds of the deathless grew into a raging fire. Me-Lha gave part of his pain to them, so he might endure more, longer. Closer at hand, Thet-Say, on his hands and knees, started to crackle. His skin started to smoke. His skin started to pucker like a baked eggplant's skin puckers. It started to split. Rot boiled out of the wounds. Thet-Say didn't even have a voice, anymore.
The nearby humans started to die. Their minds and bodies were not prepared for what was being sent against them.
Kakala got to his knees. He cried, "Master! Please! Stop!" Then he pitched forward, again, and merely screamed.
Still the psychic battle between Tzu Lung and Me-Lha raged.
At Tzu Lung's side, Thet-Say vomited up his bowels. His eyes burst and boiled in their sockets. His stomach split and his intestines smoking hot poured on the ground. Thet-Say fell to one side, slipped off the wooden platform and there died.
Kakala watched his hands shrivel up. He watches his wrists, his arms. He lost his voice. He felt the life draining out of him.
The humans died. Their minds ceased and with that complete cessation so went their hearts. They slumped, slack.
The death spread, too. The weaker kaulitari, attuned to Me-Lha but without the reserves of soul others possessed, started to die. They cracked. They crumbled into dust. They burst into rot.
The whole city felt pain. There was consternation. There was panic. No one knew what it meant, save a few, who did nothing to stop the violence that started.
Tzu Lung weakened. Me-Lha weakened. As the vessels around Me-Lha died or were rendered unable to absorb his agony, Me-Lha had to deal with it on his own. His own features began to show more distress. A flicker of eyebrow. A twitch of the mouth. Then a trickle of blood started running from Me-Lha's nose.
Tzu Lung said, "Get out of my mind. Get away from my soul."
Me-Lha touched the blood. He looked at it staining his fingertips in a sort of shock and horror. Then he withdrew from Tzu Lung's mind. Around Shangri-La, the pain started to fade.
Me-Lha licked the blood from his fingertips. He said, "I could destroy you, physically."
"But you would never learn from me."
Me-Lha smiled, very faintly. "You presume to be my master?"
"You are powerful, not wise, Me-Lha," Tzu Lung said. He carefully controlled the trembling in his muscles, the fray of his nerves.
"Wisdom? You still believe in that, Tzu Lung?"
Tzu Lung nodded. "I do. Nothing I've read, nothing I've seen or felt has done the least to make me doubt the value of it, either." Tzu Lung laughed, very lightly, as much as his strength would allow.
"I'm older than you. I have seen the moving of the cycles our world keeps, Tzu Lung. I have seen the rise of the elder things, and their fall, and the re-emergence of humans and Yao. They will fall and the elder things will once more be as they were, before their hubris destroys them, also, and humans and Yao return to throw them down from their strange cities and beneath the waves. The world is a futile cycle. You must know this by now."
Tzu Lung shrugs. "I don't see how the constitution of the world affects wisdom, which is not the world. Individuals have to take it on themselves to be happy and fulfilled, to find peace and enlightenment. That the world engages in a cycle of civilization is, well, it's irrelevant. The wisdom I speak of is as true for the elder things as it is for humans, or Yao, or rakshasa or . . . you. Your nihilism is poorly placed."
Me-Lha took a step towards Tzu Lung. He said, "You've had a few scant decades on this world and you lecture to me?"
"Because it is clear I have learned more in my scant decades than you have in your long eons. Me-Lha, you are ignorant. You are a titan; you could certainly control a great nation and the fate of millions. You can command the kaulitari to do your bidding. I know this is what you plan to return the world to some state it was in before humans became organized enough to do away with your power.
"For ten thousand years you've sought . . . temporal power? What a gargantuan waste of time! What a foul misuse of resource! Rather than doing the slightest thing to make you and your people happy with what they have which is considerable you nourish an insane power lust in them?
"If you do not see the futility in chasing power and how you use your faux nihilism to justify your greed, I think we have nothing more to say."
With that, Tzu Lung carefully turned around and walked from the room. Me-Lha did not try to stop him, but Tzu Lung could feel the kaulitari brooding. It was a weight on Tzu Lung's back.
Suman found Tzu Lung and guided Tzu Lung to his chambers. Tzu Lung was barely conscious when they arrived. Then he slept. His mind was full of the nightmares and horrors Me-Lha had put there, but he was too weak to waken. A delirium held him for more than two days while Suman nursed him.
© 2002-2003 by Christopher Bradley. A ne'er-do-well by profession and inclination, I write because I have trouble imagining not writing. I live in Bangor, Maine with my fiancée, a large-ish number of books, and other than sff I enjoy history, philosophy, anime, role-playing games and the martial arts-- some of which it is possible to deduce, I suspect, from me writing about philosopher martial artists.