Senjam blinked past noon sunlight at his benefactor, a wiry old woman dressed in pale silk worn shiny with use. Tufts of white hair jutted from her scalp, and the fingernails of her left hand had grown so long as to gnarl inwards. When she smiled, he saw a single yellow tooth amidst black gums.
“You are Senjam Singh,” she said, “the ascetic?”
He nodded. By habit, his eyes raked the market-goers pushing past the old woman. To be recognized always brought a measure of danger.
“No one means you any harm. I am called Natchaya. You’ve heard of me?”
Even in the steaming city of Anghkar, whose inhabitants numbered among the hundreds of thousands, Senjam had caught the name. “The witch-woman.”
“If you like. Your features make it clear you’re from the spiritual lands to the west. But rumors say you’re also skilled in the taking of lives.”
He frowned. “I have since found spiritual enlightenment.”
“Enlightenment doesn’t put rice in your belly.” She gestured towards his bowl, the sun flashing off the dull black yantra tattoos along her forearm. “There’s more silver, if you’re willing to listen.”
A stern-faced man in the violet robes of a soothsayer had appeared alongside Natchaya. Moments later a fat astrologer joined him, his profession evident by the star-charts clutched in one thick hand. Instinct told Senjam these new arrivals were no threat. They eyed him like they were appraising the value of a new rug, or a parcel of spices.
“I took up a collection,” Natchaya explained. “We three represent a larger group of fortune-tellers, seers, mediums, numerologists, dream-readers, dowsers, and street-magicians. Though we espouse different backgrounds, our trade is essentially the same: we glimpse the future. And our livelihoods are being threatened by the same man.”
“Ruang Sak,” the astrologer said, his full lips quivering with emotion.
Senjam glanced again at the pile of taels. “I don’t understand.”
Natchaya squatted down, reaching into the folds of her robe. “Divination no longer works in the city of Anghkar. Observe.” She withdrew a handful of polished river-stones and cast them on the tiles with a clatter. For a long moment she stared at the resulting meaningless pattern, her mouth working. She muttered something to the soothsayer, who nodded in agreement.
“All the oracles indicate the same thing,” she said. “‘Seek the answer in the tower of Ruang Sak.’”
“Even the stars agree,” the astrologer said.
Senjam shook his head. “I still don’t understand. You’re saying people’s fortunes all come out the same? Why don’t you just make something up, then?”
Natchaya’s eyes widened. She took a step back, while both the soothsayer and astrologer drew sharp breaths. “False counsel,” she said with deliberate slowness, “is punishable in Anghkar by death.”
Senjam bowed as low as his supple tendons would allow. “I did not mean to offend. I am ignorant of your ways.”
“Truly,” Natchaya said.
“My apologies, to all of you.”
“Rid us of Ruang Sak and you’ll be more than forgiven,” the soothsayer said.
Senjam did not immediately accept or decline. He had not practiced his art since finding enlightenment at the base of Mount Muhundyana, well over a year before. His primary concern had been to put as much distance between his former masters, the Grandfathers, and himself as possible, though this meant forsaking his homeland and traveling ever east.
Still, he had taken no formal vows against killing. And as Natchaya had observed, spiritual advancement did not guarantee regular meals. The amount of silver already in his bowl would satisfy all physical needs for some time--or speed his travel to further lands.
He gestured at the surrounding marketplace. “Is it possible we might discuss the matter somewhere . . . less public?”
Natchaya gave him her near-toothless smile. “I can see you’re already half convinced. Let’s retire to my house and I’ll tell you the rest.”
The witch-woman explained she lived just beyond the squat walls and earthen dykes protecting Anghkar. Coming from hilly, arid country, it struck Senjam as alien to build such a sprawling city in the middle of a flood plain, surrounded on two sides by swamp. But water seemed everywhere among these eastern lands, and with the seasonal rains the muddy rivers overflowed their banks. He wondered at times if his feet would ever feel dry again.
As they neared the southern gate, clattering hooves announced the approach of a mounted patrol. Senjam had to grab Natchaya’s robe and haul her back to avoid being trampled by a dozen water buffalos. The beasts’ riders bore lacquered bows and haughty expressions. Watching them, Senjam felt a pang of nostalgia for the armored elephants of his own country.
“Eh, there’s the old place now,” Natchaya said, after they had exited the gate. She pointed to a hut of unfinished teak, standing on tall posts to protect from floods and poisonous serpents. The latter would be a year-round danger, as a stretch of lush jungle grew nearby. Senjam followed the witch-woman up bamboo rungs into a single large room, covered with woven mats. Snakes, bats, frogs, fish, and enormous black rats, all carefully desiccated, hung by tethers suspended from the ceiling.
Natchaya introduced him to her niece, Preecha, a shy, slender young girl who bent immediately to the task of brewing tea. The witch insisted on eating before they talked business. She gave Senjam a platter of fried fish in rendered sauce, which he ate with dubious bites, eyeing the dried panoply hanging above. The tea was brackish-red and bitter.
“You’ll have to fill that belly a few times more,” she said, motioning towards his flat stomach, “before you brave Ruang’s tower.”
He noticed she took pains to keep a fair distance. “Are you afraid of touching me? Is it the death you know I carry from my past?”
“A shaman,” she said with tact, “must follow certain odd compulsions. What have you heard of Ruang Sak?”
“Beyond what you’ve told me, I know he’s a sorcerer better left alone. And he lives in an old tower surrounded by sacred macaques.”
“The Ling Pran Prasath--‘Thousand-Monkey Tower.’ It lies in a moat, fed by a river not far from here. When darkness comes I’ll take you out in my skiff to see it.”
“I’ve been given to understand these monkeys are dangerous.”
“Man-eaters.” Natchaya snatched up a fish and gummed its head. “Ruang feeds them human flesh. He likes his privacy, that one. Ten years ago the warlord who runs Anghkar wanted to dismantle the ancient tower and use the stones to build a fortress. Ruang cursed the surrounding rivers as a warning. The waters boiled with gray flukes--worms as long as a man’s arm. They devoured fish and infested the stomachs of anyone so foolish as to drink from the rivers. Within a fortnight, the warlord made formal apologies and the waters cleared. No one has dared bother Ruang since.”
Senjam set his plate down. “I doubt if killing such a person would be a blot on my karma.”
“Eh, it would be a service to humanity.”
“How do you know he’s responsible for the ban on divination?”
“He’s announced as much. Only he can see the future now, and all other consultations are useless. I’d give what’s left of my soul to learn how he accomplished it, but who can understand sorcery?”
Senjam drained his tea, unable to hide a grimace at the taste. “It would be far easier for me strike after he’s left the protection of his tower.”
“True. If he ever left. But no one’s seen Ruang for over a decade. He communicates through messenger birds.”
“In that case, how tall is the tower? Where are the entrances, and how many--”
Natchaya raised her long-nailed hand. “Better that I show you. Preecha, open a jar of the good plum wine. We have hours to kill before the sun goes down.”
A thunderstorm rumbled over by evening, darkening the sky prematurely as rain dumped in torrents. Water dripped through the hut’s sodden thatch. Quick as the clouds came they vanished, leaving behind a sunset the color of fresh blood. Natchaya, swaying a little from plum wine, led Senjam down to the banks of a rain-swollen river, where a small skiff lay moored.
At the witch-woman’s instruction, Senjam poled the little craft out until the sluggish current caught them. Darkened jungle slid by on one bank, cultivated rice fields on the other. The river joined another in a rippling confluence and the skiff’s speed increased. Despite this assistance, it was easily an hour of slapping mosquitoes and enduring Natchaya’s quiet flatulence until a stone tower appeared in the distance. Silhouetted by the newly-risen moon, it looked to Senjam like a reproachful finger pointing at the night sky.
Natchaya’s voice dropped to a whisper. “A little further, still, but don’t get too close.”
The river fed a black moat surrounding the tower and its grounds. Senjam gauged the structure’s height at two hundred feet. Its sides were far from sheer, covered by an ornate welter of bas reliefs and carvings, all the way to the conical top.
“This was once a temple complex,” Natchaya said, not without pride, “back when Anghkar was the seat of an empire, and not just a kingdom unto itself.”
Senjam’s eyes caught white-furred movement. What he had first taken to be statuary were stooped figures, flitting up the sides of the tower with great agility. These must be the feared macaques. Something about their scale, in relation to the tower’s many carvings, seemed off. He tried to pole for a closer look, but the water had grown too deep.
“Careful,” Natchaya said, handing over a paddle.
A few strokes brought the skiff sliding forward. Though moon-shadows and distance made it hard to be certain, Senjam could’ve sworn some of the macaques were man-sized, or larger. A result of their strange diet? “You said Ruang Sak feeds these creatures human flesh, but never leaves his tower.”
“The warlord has his men ferry over bodies. A city the size of Anghkar is never short of corpses.”
Senjam considered. “That’s my way in.”
“And Ruang’s magic? How will you circumvent that?”
“If I can manage to surprise him . . .”
“You’ll need my protection. I can counter sorcery, at least to a degree.”
“You have a talisman?”
The corners of Natchaya’s mouth curled upwards. “Something like that.”
Senjam glimpsed a silhouette leaning over a small balcony, near the tower’s apex. Not another monkey; the figure’s proportions suggested a man. Something glimmered atop its head. A helmet? Senjam motioned for Natchaya to look in the same direction. She drew a sharp breath, before grabbing the paddle from his hands. Several frantic strokes carried the skiff backwards.
“Was that Ruang Sak?” Senjam asked, peering behind him. The figure had vanished.
“Who else could it be? Use the pole now--it’s shallow enough. Hurry!”
Working their way back upstream took much more effort than traveling down. Senjam’s muscles were aflame by the time they reached Natchaya’s hut. He collapsed onto a woven mat and fell asleep at once.
Dawn roused him with the smell of boiling millet. He cracked an eyelid to see Preecha’s slender form stooped over the hearth. Around his mat, someone had poured a near-perfect circle of white ash. Natchaya was laying out several clay bowls and a selection of bamboo skewers.
“You mentioned something about magical protection last night,” he said.
“I did.” Natchaya dipped a skewer in one of the pots; it came out dripping ink.
“I thought you meant an amulet, or some kind of charm. It looks like you’re getting ready to tattoo me.”
She shook her head. “Oh no, no. Go and have your breakfast, but step over the circle carefully, please.”
He devoured a bowl of millet, followed by several cups of astringent tea. When he’d finished, Natchaya directed him to step back into the circle and lie on his stomach.
“You are going to tattoo me.”
“Don’t be foolish. I’d have to touch you, and there’s no telling what effects your death-contamination would have on my magic. Preecha’s going to do it.”
He could think of a hundred different objections, but in the end grit his teeth and submitted. Preecha began poking his shoulders with the sharp bamboo.
“I’ll have to mix snake venom with some of the ink,” Natchaya said. “It might sting a little, but the charm will be much more potent.”
“Venom doesn’t bother me.” Senjam had spent his youth ingesting different poisons, slowly building an immunity. He closed his eyes and uttered a mantra taught to him by the Grandfathers. After a few breaths all pain receded, and his third eye gradually opened. He was looking down at himself from among the rafters. Preecha’s lean arms worked at a furious pace, jabbing, while Natchaya directed. Intricate geometric patterns were taking shape across his shoulders, enclosing lines written in a crabbed script.
He stayed in the trance-state until the work was done. Natchaya placed four fat candles at cardinal points around him, wafting odorous smoke over his body. When the candles burned low she gave him a razor. He scraped all the hair from his scalp and face. Preecha burned the clippings in the hearth.
“Now,” Natchaya said, nodding with satisfaction, “you are ready.”
For two days and nights he hid under the foliage of a sprawling Tembusu tree, watching the tower with the patience of a spider. Between the throbbing of his new tattoos and the macaques screeching at all hours, he found it difficult to sleep. He tried meditation, but his mind insisted on pondering the decisions that had brought him to this point.
When he’d killed before, it had always been at the behest of the Grandfathers. To refuse, or fail, meant death. Now he’d agreed to kill for money. Did that make him a tradesman? Was he abandoning the spiritual path set before him, the night he beheld a vision at the base of Mount Muhundyana?
The rumble of approaching wheels on the third evening ended his debate. He peered out from the Tembusu’s branches to see a cart drawn by two water-buffalo. Great black clouds of flies hummed over corpses piled in the back. The driver was sullen-faced, likewise the three men clinging to the sides of the cart. None of them seemed to notice Senjam’s hiding place as they passed.
He tied a bag to his sash and followed, keeping to the foliage. The cart bumped along a trail until it stopped within a spear’s cast of the moat. The men got out. Grunting and cursing, they dragged a raft of lashed banyan logs from a clump of nearby brush and shoved it into the black water. They then began the slow task of transferring bodies from cart to raft, keeping an eye on the tower as the sun sank low behind it. When all the grisly cargo had been stacked aboard, the driver produced several paddles and long poles. The raft sank dangerously low as they pushed off.
Senjam slipped into the cool water after them, submerged up to his neck. The men seemed too intent on the tower to notice him swimming behind the raft. A few strokes and he could see a ring of outbuildings surrounding the tower’s base. Macaques swarmed atop the roofs; at sight of the raft and its contents they began a chorus of screeches. Some of the monkeys’ silhouettes bulked man-sized, or larger.
The raft drifted towards what looked like a stone dock jutting out into the moat. Only the biggest, fiercest monkeys crowded there, biting and cuffing at their smaller brethren to keep back. The men on the raft brandished their poles like spears. Senjam could’ve sworn the red-faced macaques were judging whether they could leap to the little craft.
But the raft stopped short of the dock. Working with haste, two men picked up a corpse between them and swung it back and forth. A grunt, and the body sailed through the air to land on the dock.
Senjam didn’t wait to watch the macaques pounce. He dove deep beneath the water with knifing strokes. All was murky blackness. After several minutes his lungs began to burn. He broke the surface, the raft and its crew now a bowshot off to his right. To his left loomed the wall of an outbuilding, dim in the failing light. He could make out the bas relief of an eight-armed goddess. Pausing first to make sure the bag was still secured to his sash, he went scrambling up the carving on nimble fingers and toes.
In moments he found himself hunched atop a section of roof. His hand went to the hilt of a kukri knife he kept in a hidden sheath, but there was no press of furred bodies or flashing canines. All the monkeys were clustered near the stone dock, intent on feeding. An excellent diversion.
He stole over the crest of the roof to get a better view. The space between the outbuildings and the tower formed a narrow courtyard. Bones, sucked clean of all gristle, lay everywhere. He had only to jump down and sprint a short distance to reach the tower, where undoubtedly some entrance lay hidden among the welter of carvings. But as he prepared to slip over the side of the roof, a huge macaque came scampering into the courtyard, clutching a pale object against its chest. The creature came to a stop almost directly below Senjam. It stole a furtive glance over one shoulder before holding up its prize; a human forearm, severed at the elbow. The macaque began to gnaw the fingers.
Cursing his luck, Senjam drew from the bag a noose made of finely-plaited bamboo fibers. With one expert cast he looped it around the monkey’s lowered head. The macaque shrieked; before Senjam could brace his feet properly, it grabbed the plaited rope and yanked with ferocious strength. Senjam went flying off the roof. He managed to land on the macaque’s broad back, wrapping both his wiry legs around its torso. His hands, meanwhile, seized the trailing noose and pulled.
The macaque’s howl came out as a muffled whistle. Frantic, it tried to reach behind its shoulders and throttle Senjam, who was already leaning back, away from its grasp. He pulled tighter. The macaque turned desperate circles, trying to break the stranglehold. If it blundered towards the rest of the pack, Senjam would have to throw himself off.
Instead, it bolted straight for the tower wall and started climbing.
Whether an attempt to escape its tormenter, or by sheer instinct, the macaque’s simian fingers found and grasped handholds with ease, hauling both of them up on rope-like muscles. The ground shot away. In moments, they were already too high for Senjam to safely dislodge himself. He eased off on the tension choking the huge monkey. A glance above showed the tower’s rim against purple sky, sprinkled with the first stars of evening.
The macaque vaulted higher. Now the tower’s conical walls began to taper inward. Senjam glimpsed a shadowed balcony approaching on his left. He waited until the monkey had drawn alongside and leapt from its back, reaching for the low stone railing. Both hands made contact. As he hauled himself over, he saw the macaque continuing its frantic ascent without him, the plaited noose dangling behind.
The balcony was scarcely large enough for two people to stand. He crouched there, catching his breath. Even at night, the surrounding view was formidable; leagues of lush, darkened jungle, with Anghkar’s thousand lamplights flickering in the distance. He reasoned he must be close to the top. Serendipity had fashioned an unconventional way into the tower--but one that might prove more effective than the ground floor.
A black archway gaped just behind the balcony. He waited for several moments, letting his eyes adjust to the dimness. From his sash he drew a chakram; a ring of razored steel slightly larger than his palm. He’d used the weapon to kill many a would-be assailant from a distance of twenty paces. Twirling the deadly circle around his finger, he crept through the arch.
Faint starlight filtered down from a hole in a great domed ceiling, some fifty feet overhead. Like the tower’s exterior, the walls crawled with hundreds of statues depicting gods and goddesses, heroes, asuras, clever nagas, and monkey-headed warriors; some locked in battle and others the throes of lovemaking, wielding fearsome weapons or brandishing lotus-blossoms. Senjam recognized the pantheon as belonging to his own people, and felt the ever-familiar twinge of loneliness for his homeland.
Something stirred in the shadows beneath a tusked deity. A tall man in yellow nankeen robes emerged, just as the chakram left Senjam’s hand. It traveled halfway across the chamber and passed through the figure, to clatter among the statues. Senjam fumbled out his kukri, though superstitious instinct warned him the knife would be useless.
The tall man came gliding forward. The hem of his robes didn’t quite touch the ground. He wore a placid expression edging on sadness, and a conical crown of beaten gold. Senjam could’ve sworn it was the same figure he’d glimpsed from Natchaya’s skiff, three nights before.
At ten paces the man halted. He pressed his palms together before his chest and curtly bowed his head.
“You are . . . Ruang Sak?” Senjam asked, finding the breath to speak.
The apparition answered in a clear voice. “I do not know that name. Men call me Thon Mongkut, or did, when I was alive.”
Senjam’s nape prickled. He had come here expecting a sorcerer, not a ghost.
“You are a foreigner,” the apparition observed. “Else you might have recognized your former king. During my reign I ruled three mighty cities, each as large as Anghkar. This tower was intended as a state temple while I ruled, and a tomb, after my death.”
Though his features did not seem entirely solid under the starlight, Senjam thought to notice faint tears running down the spirit’s cheeks. “If this place is your tomb, then why aren’t you at rest?”
Thon Mongkut’s voice dropped to a whisper. “I was betrayed by the royal advisor, Xuwicha. Instead of interring me within the tower, he had my body weighted down and cast secretly into the moat, for carp to nibble.”
At mention of this indignity, the ghost’s face began to turn pale and bloat. Small bits of flesh disappeared, while his eyes withered down to their sockets. In moments he was reduced to a talking skull. Whether the transformation was involuntary or meant as frightening, Senjam had to summon all his mental discipline to keep from fleeing the chamber.
“Xuwicha,” the skull-face continued, “drank the elixir intended to keep my remains from corrupting. He struck bargains with certain wicked asuras, and thereby achieved immortality. His foul presence has remained in this tower since.”
“But I was told only the sorcerer Ruang Sak lives here.”
“It is possible Xuwicha has taken another name over the years. He is duplicitous by nature.” Thon Mongkut pointed with skeletal fingers at the knife in Senjam’s hand. “Are you a thief, come to rob this place?”
“In a manner of speaking. I came to steal Ruang Sak’s life.”
“Then we have a mutual purpose. Let me show you something.”
The spirit drifted towards the center of the chamber, where a circular staircase wound down into darkness. Around the perimeter lay a ring of red rope, knotted with golden bells. “Xuwicha has barred me from the rest of tower with that,” he said, motioning towards the rope. “For a spirit, it represents an impenetrable barrier.”
“And you wish me to remove it?”
“If you would have me help you, yes. Alone, you are no match for Xuwicha.”
“A simple matter.” Senjam stooped and reached out to sever the rope with his kukri.
“Wait.” Thon Mongkut held up a bony palm. “Before you cut, you must also speak this charm, or the barrier remains intact: Kheapi Chan, Phi Na.”
“What does it mean?”
“An old charm, to ward evil. You must say it with the conviction of your soul.”
Something in the ghost’s voice made Senjam hesitate. An urgency. But Thon Mongkut had no face for him to try and read, so he cut the rope anyway, speaking the charm as instructed. His vision blurred for a moment. He felt a sudden pressure, as if water was rushing around his skull. Then nothing.
Thon Mongkut had disappeared.
For several heartbeats Senjam remained crouched beside the severed rope, waiting for the phantom to reappear. He had the vague feeling he had been tricked, somehow. Perhaps the ghost was simply an illusion, posted here by Ruang Sak to waylay intruders . . .
He could think of no answer but to move forward. The more time he delayed, the greater his chance of being discovered, spoiling any possibility of surprise. He descended the staircase, his bare feet making no sound against the worn stone. Down, through a chamber barely lit by clay lamps, stuffed from wall to wall with ancient, bronze-capped scrolls. Down past a room of gilded shrines, gleaming with tourmaline, pale green peridot, and bright moonstones, all heaped before the altars.
Then: a yellow glow appeared, beyond the curve of the stairwell. He thought to hear a hoarse voice, repeating a sing-song chant from somewhere below. His pulse quickened. Crouching almost double, the kukri tight in his fist, he padded down into a vast circular chamber. The yellow light came from a sea of candles. These covered but did not wholly obscure the chamber floor, which he at first took to be inlaid with broad veins of silver. Another few steps and he realized the bright metal was moving—a shining current of mercury, passing through runnels carved into the stone. These runnels formed a series of squares within concentric circles, the whole pattern making a giant mandala, or representation of the universe.
The hoarse voice broke off its chant. “Come down into the light, where I can see you.”
So much for surprise. Senjam considered bolting back up the stairs.
“Don’t be coy. I’ve known about your arrival for some time now. Come down and let’s be done with it.”
The voice had a compelling quality. Senjam couldn’t say if it was his own will making him descend, moving one foot over the other until he reached the last step. Now he found himself in the chamber’s center, amidst streams of sluggish-flowing quicksilver. Nearby, a gaunt man sat atop a pile of cushions, idly stirring the air with a lacquered fan. Aside from his spare frame, he might’ve appeared nondescript save for two features: his skin shone like porcelain, and his eyes were ringed with the purplish-black rouge of the sleepless.
“A foreigner, eh?” Ruang Sak’s gaze flicked over Senjam. “The portents didn’t tell me that. Then again, they never have been too specific.”
“I imagine those bone-tossers and entrails-readers from the city must have put you up to this. What futility, sending an assassin against a master of divination.” Ruang laughed; a dry sound, like leaves rustling. “Well, you’ll forgive my brusqueness, but I happen to know the manner of my death. And it’s not fated to come from you. As a matter of fact, I don’t see how it’s even possible. But such are prophecies . . .”
His voice drifted off. He glanced down at a length of parchment unrolled across his lap, as if the presence of an armed stranger was an afterthought. Senjam suddenly felt foolish. But he recalled Thon Mongkut’s words.
“I was told a man named Xuwicha once dwelled in this tower.”
Ruang Sak’s fan stopped moving. “And who told you that?”
“As a master of divination, you should already know.”
“So, that decrepit shade, Mongkut, still haunts the upper gallery. I thought I’d exorcised him properly.”
“He spoke of your betrayal.”
“Ah, that’s his interpretation.” Ruang shook his head. “I consider my actions the seizing of divine opportunity.”
“Significant reasons. Poor old Thon always imagined himself the spiritual type, you see. He had this tower built as a sort of causeway to Heaven. When he died, his soul was supposed to ascend directly from this chamber. But with typical shortsightedness, he refused to consider other, more far-reaching possibilities. A tower connecting to Heaven flows two ways. All the portents, the omens of Divine Will come descending through here--to be trapped within my mandala. It’s taken me centuries to construct, and a fortune in quicksilver, but now, only I can interpret the signs.”
Ruang gestured towards a section of the giant pattern, where mercury rippled as if disturbed by fish. “Look! A procession from the House of the Hare to the House of the Serpent. I’ll have to consult the codices on this . . .”
He reached over to a nearby pile of scrolls and began rummaging through them, muttering to himself. As he worked, the fingers of Senjam’s left hand crept beneath his sash. Crazy old man. He’s spent too much time down here, breathing in mercury vapor. Taking his eyes off me is his last mistake.
He slid the razored disc of a second chakram into his palm. With as little movement and as much force as possible, he hurled it at Ruang Sak.
The sorcerer’s gaze never left the scroll-pile. He thrust out his fan in a blur of motion and batted the chakram aside. “If you’re so intent on abusing my hospitality,” he said, voice rising in irritation, “then I can end our little parlor-chat right now.”
Ruang was on his feet before Senjam could object. He flicked the fan open to full extension, revealing a sinuous dragon painted across the vanes. A small motion of his wrist sent a hurricane gust roaring across the chamber, snuffing candles and hurling them to smash into waxen globs against the far wall. Senjam should’ve gone flying as well, but the tattoo across his shoulders burned with sudden pain. The wind immediately around him died to a gentle breeze.
“Some peasant decided to protect you, eh?” Ruang’s thin lips drew back from his teeth. “We do this the direct way, then. Look into my eyes.”
Senjam fought the sudden compulsion to obey. The tattoo continued to scorch; he smelled ink and snake-venom burning away in a foul cloud. As the charm dissipated, so did his will. He raised his eyes to Ruang Sak.
And fell into blackness.
Ruang’s voice echoed from somewhere inside his skull. “Step closer.”
As before, on the stair, Senjam felt his feet responding, though he could no longer see his surroundings.
“Not there,” Ruang’s voice said. “I don’t want you bleeding on that part of the mandala. Good. Lift that ridiculous-looking knife to your throat.”
Senjam’s right arm responded, floating up on its own accord. The kukri’s keen edge pressed against his neck.
Without hesitation, the blade bit across his carotids. But he did not draw deep as instructed. Something, not his own will, kept his muscles frozen.
“I said, cut your throat.”
Now he felt his fingers releasing their grip. The kukri clanged against the floor. A voice spoke from his mouth: “I do not need a knife for you, Xuwicha.”
“No. Step back. Back!”
Senjam’s body lunged forward. His hands hooked into claws and locked around soft flesh. A gurgling sound. Frantic pressure pulsed against his thumbs as they dug deep. “Your betrayal is now repaid,” Senjam heard himself say, though the voice belonged to Thon Mongkut. His vision came swimming back; he saw Ruang’s face, eyes bulging from their sockets, his chalk-white flesh turning gray. Senjam’s hands were choking the life from him. The sorcerer’s tongue protruded, lolled. After a long moment, Senjam released his grasp. Ruang Sak dropped to the floor, his limbs sending up a spray of quicksilver as he splashed across a section of mandala.
He no longer breathed.
Thon Mongkut shimmered into existence before Senjam. The king’s arms were folded, and his face, once again sheathed in flesh, looked serene. “I return your body to you, foreigner.”
Senjam flexed his hands. “When I spoke the charm . . .”
“A deception. My apologies. What you spoke was an invitation, allowing me to enter your body. With the rope cut, it was my one opportunity after centuries of waiting.”
Senjam glanced down at the sorcerer’s corpse. Quicksilver was rapidly welling against his robed stomach, flowing over the runnel’s sides and spilling across the floor. Candles hissed. “Ruang Sak said I wasn’t the one fated to kill him. His prophecy was wrong, after all.”
Thon Mongkut shook his crowned head. “The prophecy was correct. You were not the murderer.”
The ghost’s flesh was growing translucent. Senjam could see the amber halo of candlelight through his yellow robes. Within moments, the former king of Anghkar became a faint silhouette, until that too, faded from sight.
Senjam gazed up at the chamber’s high ceiling. Had Thon at last made his ascent? Or had his spirit, now void of purpose, dissipated into nothingness?
He might have meditated on these questions further, but from outside the tower’s walls rose a familiar screeching. The macaques were growing agitated, as if they somehow sensed the passing of their master.
“You’re giving the money back?” Natchaya said, her already-wrinkled brow furrowing in disbelief. She’d seemed surprised enough when Senjam returned to her hut at dawn, covered in scratches and bites. “Did you fail?”
He sat himself cross-legged on a mat. “Ruang Sak is dead. I’ll keep the silver you gave me in the marketplace, for my troubles. The remainder goes back to you and your fellow soothsayers.”
He told her of his possession by Thon Mongkut, the mandala, and Ruang Sak’s assassination. “I can’t take full credit for the slaying, since a spirit guided my hands.”
“A Phi Tai Hong,” Natchaya said, nodding. “The ghost’s desire for revenge was stronger than Ruang’s sorcery. Still, I should think you earned your coin. Eh—you’re bleeding.”
Senjam grimaced. “The macaques. Ruang Sak’s body allowed me a distraction, though I had to fight my way through some of the smaller ones.”
“I’ll have Preecha bind your wounds.”
“I want you to try something, first. Before I left the tower, I dammed the mandala in several places with candles, causing the quicksilver to overflow.”
“Trying to disrupt the pattern, were you? Well, there’s one way to see.” Natchaya drew a fistful of river-rocks from within her robes and cast them against the mat. For a tense moment she crouched over the stones, eyes narrowed. “It is as you say. The Divine portents are free once more. But the omens . . . they warn that your actions will draw attention, from the lands beyond Anghkar. Dangerous men will come seeking you here.”
“I need no fortunes to tell me that.”
Ignoring his hurts, Senjam left the witch-woman’s hut before the sun had fully risen.
© December, 2013 Garnett Elliott
Garnett Elliott has had previous stories published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, as well as numerous online and print journals dealing with the mystery and crime genre. He has also written briefly for Chaosium. His story, "Winter Exodus" appeared in the August 2013 issue of Swords & Sorcery.