I grab my flashlight and my knife. I click the light on, filling the room with faint white light, and flick the blade open. The metal snap reverberates in the tiny flat.
Lupin and Leonhard teleport into my room. Both of them are bleeding streams of multicolored light from a dozen wounds.
‘Are you guys okay?’ I ask.
‘Been better,’ Lupin mutters.
‘We bought you a bit of time,’ Leonhard says, ‘but there’s an army of nagas on the march. They’re forming up and coming here.’
‘Got it. You guys can go get a healer. I can take care of this.’
Lupin chuffs. “No. You can’t win this alone.’
‘I don’t plan to.’
I sweep up my phone, fire up Whatsapp, and send a group message.
Nagas incoming. Shields up NOW.
To Shun Tian, I send another.
Contingency plan now.
The moment I send the message, lightning strikes.
Thunder detonates in the room. The wind shrieks, carrying an undercurrent of vicious hissing. Swarms of black dots pour in through the windows and latch on to me. Thousands of tiny teeth bite and rend and tear, and down my arms and legs my skin itches as though bitten by a million mosquitoes. Blazing portals materialize around me, surrounding me, and through them I see vast numbers of snakes, preparing to invade this realm. My spirit guides take protective positions by my sides, teeth and claws bared.
I raise my knife above my head.
White Light blasts through me, through the knife, through the ceiling and up into realms barely known. In my mind’s eye, I see a warrior angel in gleaming white armour, wings spread wide, sword held high overhead. He nods grimly at me, and swoops down from the heavens. Behind him, an army of winged angels follow.
The snakes hesitate.
I slash the knife through a wide arc.
“By the holiest names of God, Agla, Adonai, Elohim, Yahweh, Eh-Heh-Yeh, I banish you! I banish all evil spirits from this place, and all spirits who wish to do me or my friends harm! Begone now, and never come back!”
I cut a pentagram through the air, timing every cut with the pronouncement of every name. Dark motes leap off. The portals close shut. The clangour of metal on metal fills my ears.
I reach for the celestial realms and call down a pillar of White Light, blasting away all impurities and chasing off the few unwanted beings that remain. My blade glows, my flashlight shines brighter. My physical eyes still see shadows, but my mind’s eye reports daylight.
A figure appears before me. A human dressed in a pure white lorica over a matching Roman tunic. Golden hair tousles down his neck. His lips are curled in a smile, but his blue eyes are filled with grim purpose, and in his right hand he holds a sword.
“Archangel Michael,” I say. “Thank you for coming.”
‘We came as soon as we could,’ he replies.
“Just in time.”
‘We will hold this space. Go forth and finish this.’
I switch the lights on and turn off the flashlight. The white light almost washes out the archangel’s presence, but I still feel him radiating peace and purpose. I ring my singing bowl and clear the room. Lay out a cushion on the floor, settle into a lotus position, and breathe.
Charging myself with energy, I climb out of my body. Up and up a silver rope, reaching up into the heavens. Faint whispers tug at my ears. Twisting, formless things gather at the edge of my second sight. I ignore them all, climbing, climbing, climbing—
I erupt from my body.
Floating near the ceiling, I inspect my home. The quick and dirty purification and banishing hadn’t completely cleared the place. In the corners and on the walls there are still faint smudges of dark wet slime, and spatters of astral blood cover the floor. Archangel Michael stands guard by my body, naked sword in hand, looking in every direction. A squadron of flashing white lights orbit the room, patrolling the points of entry.
Leonhard and Lupin pop into existence next to me. Their fur is rough and matted, but their wounds have closed over.
“Are you two all right?” I ask.
“Well enough,” Leonhard says, licking his flame-red fur. “Raphael the archangel cleaned and closed our wounds.”
“You two look tired.”
“Nonetheless, we have work to do.”
“We’ll be fine,” Lupin interjects. “Come. The nagas await.”
We race through the astral realms, hot on the nagas’ trail. They leave behind strands of glittering yellow energies, hot and wet like blood, pointing back to their homeland.
The nagas would be waiting for us. Natives of the astral realm, they knew that there was no hiding the energy trace of such a large-scale movement. Without the ability to conceal themselves against a threat who already knew where they come from, to defend themselves against the inevitable counterattack, they would prepare an ambush for us.
I’d learned that lesson in blood long ago. And they would know I knew that. Whatever form that ambush took, I had to defeat it.
Without starting a war with the nagas. Even I knew that was not a fight that could be won.
We arrive at the nagas’ realm. The three suns beat furiously down on us. Forests stretch out for miles in every direction, covering a range of undulating mountains in the distance.
No nagas in sight.
“Be careful,” Leonhard warned. “They would never leave their realm unguarded.”
I hold out my hand to the sky.
“May I have my sword and armour?”
A beam of white light cuts through the air and illuminates me. My clothing melts away, reshaping into a harness of steel plate and a hauberk of mail. More plates materialize on my limbs, bracers and vambracers and cuisses and greaves and gauntlets. A second beam of light condenses in my now-gauntleted hand and transforms into an arming sword. I grip the handle, testing the weapon’s weight.
Hisses of outrage fill the air.
“They’re coming,” Lupin warns.
The trees below transform. Leaves vanish, branches melt into each other, trunks sway sinuously. The bark transmutes into tough scales and tougher armor, arms grow from trunks, and eyes open on the branches.
Nagas. The trees were all nagas, a veritable living ocean of snake spirits, wriggling and writhing, issuing angry hisses and alarmed rattling.
Every single head, thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of them, turn to face us. Every eye glares at us. The snakes draw back, flaring their hoods, opening their jaws, throwing back their heads, gathering energy in their mouths—
“PEACE!” I shout.
With that word, I create an egg-shaped cocoon of brilliant white light, covering the three of us within. It’s a shield. But not the kind that would absorb attacks.
“You can see my shield!” I declare. “Attack me now and your attacks shall be reflected to you tenfold!”
The snakes freeze. Some hesitatingly close their jaws. Others glare at me, building up power, readying to blast through my shield.
“I am not here to make war on you,” I say. “I seek merely to speak with your king.”
“Here I am.”
The snakes slither away, clearing an open circle around a single individual. As they retreat, the naga grows larger and larger, looming over the others. They keep falling back, and he keeps growing, becoming a giant, a titan, a living skyscraper, so tall he looks at me in the eyes.
The naga has adopted his true form. Eight massive heads with blazing golden eyes, each wearing an enormous bejewelled crown, a colossal torso wrapped in royal gold cloth and heavy lamellar armour, an octet of massive arms and hands holding gigantic tridents and swords and spears. Before him, I am simply a fly.
“Greetings, Your Majesty,” I say. “I have come to discuss with you the recent invasion of my home.”
“There is nothing to discuss,” he says.
Every word is a thunderclap. I grit my teeth and say, “Why not?”
“You come here dressed for war, and you dare say you are here to ‘discuss’ something with me?”
“Your welcoming committee made such defensive measures necessary.”
“Nonsense! They are here to defend against your incursion.”
“Which was merely a response to your own.”
“I do not mean your home. I mean your invasion of my petitioner’s temple.”
“We went there merely to help Diana declare that she was cutting ties with Somchai and would no longer tolerate continued harassment. Somchai escalated, we responded, and no one died.”
“You came into the seat of my petitioner’s power and you made a mockery of him. Now you come here as a warrior, with sword in hand and powerful forces at your command. Such an insult cannot be ignored.”
“I do not mean to offer insult, but I shall defend myself and my friends and clients against those who will attack them.”
“‘Defend’,” he spits. “You who have slain kingdoms and nations of sentient beings at the bidding of your precious, precious Light. I cannot trust your words.”
“Trust this, then.”
I open my hand, and my sword dissolves into nothingness. The armor fades away, reverting to my T-shirt and pants. Lupin and Leonhard exchange glances with me, but say nothing.
“We do not have to fight,” I say. “Violence leads to bloodshed, and bloodshed over such a trivial matter is unbecoming of us.”
“You have destroyed empires for less.”
“As I said, I am not that man any more. I wish to keep my sword sheathed, if only—”
“Lies! We know you decimated the demons who preyed on your client last year.”
“I did not say I have given up the sword, only that I do not make war for trivial reasons.”
“Talk is cheap.”
“Indeed. But your realm is safe and prosperous, your people unharmed, and yourself intact. Had I truly wanted to destroy you, our circumstances would be far different, and our blades would be doing the talking.”
His eyes narrow. “You are truly here simply to speak to me?”
“Yes. We cannot go on cursing and counter-cursing each other. We must find a resolution.”
“You cast a confusion spell earlier, and in doing so addled the minds of many of my soldiers. We cannot overlook this.”
“The spell wasn’t aimed at nagas. Only at pursuers. Had they stayed their hands, they would have been fine.”
“By our laws, we cannot ignore any outsider who harms us or interferes with our business. Those who violate our laws shall be punished with every power we have at our disposal.”
“Are they dead or wounded?”
“It doesn’t matter. Your spell prevented them from carrying out their mission. Thus, you must pay. With pain and suffering.”
Pure saffron light flashed through the world. The naga recoils in surprise. I turn to look.
A portal opens above the forest of snakes. Through the portal floats a dark-skinned man in saffron robes, seated atop a huge pink lotus. The man’s earlobes droop down almost to his jaw; spirals of fine black hair cover his head, topped with a perfectly coiffed bun; and in his right hand he holds up a lotus lower. His face is perfectly serene, his eyes twinkling, and he regards us with a faint smile.
The nagas go quiet. All heads bow to him, touching the grass. The naga king shrinks before my eyes, reducing himself to his regular form in a heartbeat, and lowers his crowned heads also. Leonhard and Lupin hover attentively by my side. I drop my shield.
“Greetings, World Honoured One,” the naga king says, his many foreheads pressed against the ground. “Welcome to our humble domain.”
“Greetings,” the Buddha says calmly. “I am honoured by your warm welcome.”
“The honour is ours, Wold Honoured One.”
I nod to the Buddha. “Thank you for coming.”
“Well met, Michael Chang. I’m glad you’re doing well.”
The Buddha glances around. “I see many weapons and suits of armour in evidence.”
“We are merely defending ourselves against an external attack, World Honoured One,” the naga king replies.
“Oh? What kind of attack?” the Buddha asks.
“This… human invaded our realm.”
“Is that so?” Turning to me, the Buddha says, “Tell me your story.”
“My client was under a curse. I broke the curse, but these nagas retaliated. My client and I spoke to the man who bid the nagas to cast the curse, and warned him to cease and desist. The nagas took offense and attacked me in my home. I came here to resolve the situation.”
“Ah,” the Buddha says.
An ocean of sorrow tinges his voice.
“World Honoured One, why have you come?” the naga king asks.
“I have heard from Michael’s friend that your kingdom was preparing for war.”
The Buddha gestures. A new figure appears next to him. Kang Shun Tian. He waves at me, and I wave back.
This was my contingency plan: if everything fails, if cunning and magic and direct confrontation did not resolve the case, reach out to the one being the nagas would respect.
“The humans started this,” the naga king says. “I aim to finish this.”
“Understandable, but regrettable. Violence begets violence, bloodshed begets bloodshed, death begets death. By inflicting suffering on others, you inflict it also on yourself. The weight of your karma is heavier than mountains.”
“I am trying to end this cycle,” I say. “Non-violently.”
The Buddha frowns. “Non-violently?”
“Less violently,” I correct. “I haven’t killed anyone.”
“You lie!” the king shouts. “You have slain three of my soldiers with cold steel and White Light!”
“When did this occur?” I ask.
“Barely ten minutes ago.”
“When they attacked me at my home?”
Shun Tian shakes his head and holds up his hand. I sigh.
“What’s done is done,” I add. “I regret their deaths, and may they be reborn in a finer state of existence. For this, I am sorry.”
“It is little comfort to their parents and widows and children.”
“Nevertheless, he is apologetic,” the Buddha says, “and had you not sent the soldiers they would not have met this fate.”
“I have my duties to uphold,” the naga king replies.
“Yes, but as a king, your first duty is to your subjects. Yes?”
“Yes, World Honoured One,” he agrees.
“Consider: you have entered into a pact with a magician who borrows your power to oppress innocent beings who disagree with him. You fulfil this pact by ordering your subjects and your soldiers to carry out the magician’s wishes. In so doing, you and your subjects and soldiers incur a heavy karmic debt, one that will ripen into sorrow and suffering.
“Michael Chang’s presence is but one manifestation of this. It is well that he has mostly given up the way of the sword. Thus far he has kept his powers in check, but know that should he will it, the devastation of your kingdom would be complete. While he restrains himself, should you carry on this path, you will offend other beings more powerful than he, and far less inclined to mercy and dialogue.”
“I cannot abandon my covenants,” the naga king says.
“The magician who you have allied with has strayed from the Middle Way. He inflicts suffering on all around him. He claims to lead his students to enlightenment, but he merely drags them off it. For his crimes he shall suffer greatly. It would not be fitting for a personage as august as yourself to allow himself and all his subjects to be dragged down to hell with him.”
“He does not promulgate your teachings?”
“He never has.”
“He came to me in the guise of a monk and a teacher of the Way. If this is not so, then we have no reason to act for him any longer.”
“A wise choice,” the Buddha says, smiling. “As for you, Michael, you no longer have a reason to stay here.”
“Indeed,” I say. “I have no desire to continue this cycle of conflict. Should the nagas cease their behaviour towards me and my friends, so should I.”
“No more harm shall come to you and yours from us,” the naga king said. “By my word I guarantee it.”
The Buddha claps his hands. “Excellent! This matter has been resolved. Let us now return to our homes.”
“World Honoured One, thank you for gracing us with your presence,” the naga king says.
“Thank you for mediating this dispute,” I add.
“It is my pleasure. It is not meet for fellow believers to battle amongst themselves. Until we meet again, stay safe, and continue to walk the path.”
The Buddha opens a portal and steps through, returning to his native plane. Shun Tian and I follow the spirit guides back to my home.
The angels are gone. But they have cleaned up after themselves, and there are no longer any traces of hostile of foreign energies. Landing on the floor, I turn to Shun Tian.
“You spoke to the Buddha?” I ask.
“Of course. All nagas will listen to him. As would most of your enemies,” he adds reproachfully.
“I don’t think Somchai would recognize the Buddha if he appears before him,” I say. “We still need to do our work in the physical plane.”
“And risk harming more people?”
“The goal is not to avoid harm. It is to end it. Sometimes that may require the application of force.”
He sighs and shakes his head. “Very well. You do your thing. I’ll do mine.”
I nod. He was only a reluctant warrior at best. It was my fault for dragging him into my world. He had the wisdom to leave while he still could.
“Thanks for helping.”
I slip back into my body. Shun Tian and my spirit guides depart. I stretch, get up, and clean up after myself. The astral work may be done, but the physical work wasn’t over.
Over the following weeks, Diana updates me on her rashes. They retreat, slowly, responding to an aggressive course of medication and energy work, finally disappearing after three weeks. I helped the process along with healing magic of my own.
No more nagas disturbed us.
Six weeks after the case, a news article on TODAY catches my eye: Thai monk and followers arrested for harassment, criminal breach of trust.
Karma had finally caught up with Somchai Saechao. Acting on anonymous reports, the police arrested Somchai and three of his senior followers for abusing junior students, embezzling funds meant for the temple, and stalking people who tried to leave the temple.
I smile. The mad monk of Geylang was done. After serving his sentence, he would never be welcome in the Buddhist community here ever again. If he weren’t a permanent resident, he’d be deported. And if he did anything stupid, if he tried to use his powers to escape his fate and take revenge, I’d be ready for him.
Karma catches up with everyone sometime. Even me. Maybe Somchai would tell the police about me, about the knife I’d brandished. If they spoke to Diana, to Eleanor, I had no doubts they would crack under pressure. If the fruit of my karma ripens, if they come for me, there’s only thing I could do.
Face it head on.
But until then, I’ll keep walking my path. Whatever form it took, down wherever it may lead.
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