I spend the following morning preparing for the inevitable.
When I wake up, I meditate and run through a panoply of deep breathing and energy exercises, leaving my body warm and humming. I lay out candles and water at my altar, dedicating them to the Buddha. I restrict myself to nuts and granola for breakfast, and I prepare vegetable stew with eggs for lunch.
Pure, but not too pure.
I layer on shield after shield on myself and my home, replenishing and reinforcing the ones expended during the encounters with the nagas. Then I take a piece of paper, a paint brush, and a set of watercolour tubes.
Magic is the art of impressing your will into the universe. The first step is to understand your will. I frame a statement of intent in my head, expanding and paring it down, until I’m satisfied. Then I translate it into a sigil, a visual representation of my intent.
I dip my brush in a pool of black ink, touch the brush to the paper, and draw. Sharp jagged lines flow into swooping curves and back again, zigzagging down the length of the paper before curling back up again. I lift my brush from the paper and feel the energy humming from the paper, waiting to be released.
The sigil is my backup plan. Just in case everything goes wrong.
I spend the rest of the day turning to secular affairs. Accounting, emails, appointments, inquiries and cryptocurrency investments. When I was a teenager I’d heard a little voice urging me to buy Bitcoin. I did, and promptly forgot about it until the crypto boom of recent years.
That money allowed me to live independently of my parents. If I’d wanted to, I had the capital to become a full-time crypto investor and trader. I still could.
But my soul demands a different way to live. My crypto earnings are simply for sustenance, to cover my expenses and to ensure I could continue doing what I do. Without magic, without spirit, without the ability to serve and protect in my own unique way, I’d be lost.
The hours crawl past, and the sun creeps slowly towards the horizon. When it was time, I packed my kit, folded up the paper and slipped it into my bag, dressed up appropriately, and hit the streets.
I arrive at Aljunied MRT station at 6.20 pm. No one had arrived yet. I set up next to the ticketing machines and waited.
Diana is the first to come. In her blue long-sleeved blouse and subdued grey pants, her rashes were almost completely covered up. But pink patches peeked out from her neck and spread to her face. The rashes hadn’t spread, but they weren’t getting better either.
Shun Tian arrives next. His faded white T-shirt hung loosely from his frame, and his baggy pants sagged past his ankles. On his left wrist he wore his watch, on his right a mala, a bracelet of twenty-one prayer beads. The mala was made of black onyx, meant to repel negative forces.
Last of all is Eleanor, dressed in a flowing red dress. She wore her EZ-Link card, Singapore’s contactless fare card, on a lanyard of alternating sky blue and rose pink quartz beads. As she approached, I saw red blooms on her joints and flecks of skin peeling from her face.
“Are you okay?” I ask.
“Had a flare-up today,” she said, scratching at her neck.
“How bad is it?”
“It’s okay. I have steroids.”
“They’ll harm your kidneys.”
“I need them. Just for today.”
“Any sign of nagas?” Shun Tian asks.
“No,” Eleanor replies. “This has nothing to do with them. I just… I think I ate some nuts.”
I sigh. “Really?”
“My colleagues offered me a biscuit. I didn’t know it had nuts until I ate it…”
Maybe it was mundane. Maybe it was nagas. Malign spirits have a habit of arranging ‘accidents’ and ‘coincidences’. But she survived, and there’s no time to waste.
Cutting through the empty field outside the MRT station, we head south. On the roof of the Geylang Chinese Methodist Church, a simple cross stands alone, gazing down on us as we enter the heart of Geylang.
Down the narrow streets, condominiums and offices sit side-by-side with two- and three-story shophouses. Patrons pack restaurants and eateries, indulging in everything from multi-course Chinese seafood dinners to Indian Muslim fare to Western delights. A modern bar offering grills and skewers coexists peacefully with a long-established coffee shop. Wide-screen televisions hanging from the ceilings broadcast the news in subtitled Mandarin. Old-timers gather in their groups and cliques, ordering the first of many beers for the night.
Other pleasures of the flesh await in Geylang. Tucked away in red-lit alleys, brothels welcome the first wave of customers for the night. Johns of all ages and races furtively sneak down cramped roads, anticipation and anxiety naked on their faces. Skinny women, and men resembling women, in scanty clothes and too-bright makeup prowl the streets, stationing themselves at their favorite corners and greeting their fellow night dwellers.
In this wasteland of hedonism, holy places stand like bulwarks against the dark, defying the devils that roam here. Our route takes us past the Coronation Baptist Church, and across the road, the lit windows of the Buddhist Library welcome all passers-by to enter. Heading down the street, I spot an old man seated on a plastic chair outside a tiny shophouse converted into a Buddhist shrine, puffing contentedly on a cigarette.
Down the road, a sharp turn to the right, and the atmosphere changes. The air grows heavier and damper, weighing my clothes down. Sweat gathers in my armpits. The women scratch away. Shun Tian pretends not to notice.
One last turn, and we head down a short side street. Two- and three-story semi-detached houses line the street. All of them are old and run-down. Paint peels from time-weathered walls, chainlink fences sag and rattle, Mandarin music from the seventies and eighties drift through open windows.
At the end of the road, Diana says, “It’s here.”
Once a two-storey semi-detached house, it is now a temple to the Buddha and stranger beings. A red banner with gold Thai script hangs from the porch, illuminated by a pair of red lanterns. A van sits idly in the driveway. Clouds of incense hang in the air. Through the front door, inside the living room, a statue of a Buddha scrutinizes our approach.
This is it, Lupin whispers in my mind.
Go ahead, Leonhard adds. We’ll cover you from above.
Diana hesitates at the gate, clutching her handbag to her side, scratching furiously at the crooks of her arms.
“I’m not sure we should be here…” she begins.
“We are here,” I say. “Let’s go.”
I enter the temple. The rest of the group follows. I leave my shoes by the door and enter.
Gold. A room filled with gold. Dozens, hundreds, of tiny golden statuettes sit in cubbyholes lining the walls. The chandelier basks the room in warm gold. At the far end of the room, the golden Buddha sits atop a golden altar, itself carved with sunken reliefs of row upon row of tiny seated Buddhas, arranged like a pyramid. Nine massive cobras fan out behind and above the main Buddha, their hoods fully extended, sheltering him like a living umbrella.
The Buddhas’ eyes are empty, but the eyes of the snakes meet mine.
By the door, a young woman mans the welcome desk. A logbook, a pair of pens, and stacks of brochures await our attention. A pair of elderly volunteers circulate throughout the room, tending to the figurines and chatting with devotees. A dozen people are seated on the floor, some on small cushions, others on the hard marble.
“Hello!” the woman says cheerily. “Are you here for tonight’s puja?”
“We’re here to see Phra Somchai,” I say.
“Please sign in here,” she says, indicating the logbook.
“That won’t be necessary,” I say. “We won’t be staying.”
“How come?” she asks. Looking over my shoulder, she blinks. “Diana? You’ve come back?”
“Um…” Diana says.
“What happened to you? Are you okay?”
I cut in. “We’re here to see Phra Somchai. We won’t be long.”
“What do you need to see him for?”
“A personal matter,” Diana replies. “We prefer to speak to him privately.”
“Uh… that will be a bit difficult. He is busy right now.”
“Busy with what?”
“Preparations for the puja. He asked not to be disturbed.”
“We only need a few minutes,” I say. “We can speak to him before starting the puja.”
“Um, it’s not—”
A ripple passes through the crowd. The people go silent. Looking over my shoulder, I see a man step through the door.
He’s a short man, coming up to my chest, wearing a pair of thin-framed glasses. Much of his hair is shorn, leaving a thin grey mat covering his head. Wrapped in resplendent yellow robes, he could almost be mistaken for a monk.
But there was no mistaking the powerful aura radiating from his frame.
“That’s him,” Diana says.
The devotees quiet. Standing tall, they press their palms at chest height and bow. Somchai mirrors the gesture and bows back.
“I think it’s a bit…” Diana begins.
I cut through the crowd.
“Phra Somchai Saechao?” I ask.
“Yes?” he replies.
“We need to speak with you about a private matter.”
“It can wait until later. We have puja now.”
He doesn’t speak so much as sing, his accent sending golden chords vibrating in my mind.
“It is about Diana Ho.”
His eyes widen. “Oh?”
I gesture the group forward. “Over here.”
Diana approaches the monk hesitatingly. Eleanor stays close to her. Shun Tian hangs back behind the women, checking his back.
Somchai’s face lights up. His lips smile but his eyes narrow.
“Diana! You’ve come back! And you brought friends!”
“No, I…” she says.
“Come, sit, sit. There’s always room for you and your friends. We can—”
“Phra Somchai, I don’t—”
“You have lots to talk about, I can tell, but you can wait—”
“No,” I say.
Somchai blinks. He turns to me, eyes barely hiding a cold fury.
“Who are you?” he asks bluntly.
“I’m here to ensure Diana tells you what she needs to say.”
“Phra Somchai,” Diana begins.
“What is it?” Somchai asks, the cheer draining from his face.
“I came here to cut ties with you.”
“You WHAT?!” he roars.
The women shy away. I stuff my fingers into my ears. He’d gone from zero to hundred in a heartbeat. I hadn’t seen this coming.
“You cut ties with ME?! How could you! I taught you so much, and this is you repay me! You cut me off, you will go to Avici for thousands of kulpas! You can’t—”
I slide up behind the monk and pat the small of his back. He startles, jumping up off the floor, and shouts something in Thai. It sounded like a curse. I sidestep away from him.
“We’re not here to argue with you,” I say. “We’re here to tell you not to disturb Diana again.”
“That’s right,” Shun Tian says. “We know what you’ve been doing. You—”
“What did I do? Huh?”
“You’ve been harassing her,” Eleanor says.
“You where got proof?”
“I reported everything to the police,” Diana says. “The phone calls, the emails, everything.”
“What calls? What emails?”
“Don’t lie to us,” I say. “Diana has identified the callers and mailers as members of your sect. And I know what else you’ve done.”
“What do you mean?”
I grin. “I see you like snakes. Or, should I say, nagas.”
His eyes narrow. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“That’s funny; the nagas were awfully talkative.”
“You talking rubbish!”
“So you’re saying the nagas are talking rubbish? Interesting.”
I hold up my hand. “You and I both know what I’m referring to. There will be no more of that, or you’ll soon discover you’re not the only one who can speak to the divine.”
“‘Ey, that’s enough!” someone shouts from the back.
“Yeah, leave Phra Somchai alone! You’re disturbing us!”
“All of you, get out now,” Somchai says.
“Sure, we’re going to leave,” I say, “but Diana is done with you. No more phone calls, no more emails, or the police will come for you. Am I clear?”
“This is between me and her. Not you. You, get out.”
Diana straightens. She holds her head high, her spine erect, her jaw set. In that moment I see a mouse becoming a woman.
“Phra Somchai, I no longer wish to follow you,” she says. “Your conduct is unbecoming of a monk, and the harassment I’ve suffered is not aligned with the Middle Way. From this day forward, we are done.”
Somchai scowls. “You dare talk back to me?”
He raises his hand, cocking it back. I step in and slap it down. He recoils from me, shouting something in Thai. I slide away, staying out of range.
“That’s enough,” I say. “We are—”
He bares his teeth. Puffs up his chest. Lunges in at me, grabbing for my chest.
Closing in, I swat his hand away with my left hand and ram my right palm into his shoulder. The shock arrests his arm and pushes him back against the altar. He catches himself with both hands.
“Enough,” I say. “We are leaving. You will not harass us. You will not disturb us. Stay where you are.”
“Oi, you dare to hurt Phra Somchai? Who do you think you are?”
A strapping young man barges past Eleanor, waving his finger like a club. In my mind’s ear, I hear the hissing of a thousand snakes.
“Who the fuck you think you are, huh? Some kind of gangster is it?” he continues, advancing on me, and pokes my chest. “You think you—”
I slap my chest, pinning his hand against me, and flick my fingers at his eyes. He recoils away. I grab his trapped finger and wrench it back and down.
He screams and swears, going down on his knee. I keep up the pressure, keeping him down, looking for more customers.
“You hurt him for what?” another man yells, stepping through the crowd. “Let him go!”
“Shun Tian!” I say.
As the new challenger approaches, Shun Tian intercepts him.
“Easy, easy,” Shun Tian says. “We don’t need to—”
The guy reaches up to grab Shun Tian’s shirt.
Shun Tian explodes into motion, stepping out and circling his left arm up and around the threat’s. Seizing the other man’s shoulder, Shun Tian sweeps his legs out from under him and dumps him on a cushion.
The ground shakes. The challenger yelps in pain.
“Sorry!” Shun Tian says.
“These people attacked us!” Somchai yells. “We can’t let them escape! Fight back!”
Eleanor grabs Diana and hustles her to my side. I release the man I grappled, shove him aside, and step back, bumping against the altar.
The devotees look at each other in confusion, but a couple of the men work their way through the crowd. Reaching down, I draw my Benchmade, hold it up to eye level, surge energy down my fingers and pop the blade open.
Bright white light flashes through the room.
The room freezes.
I hold up the knife, showing the flat to the crowd. In my second sight, White Light supercharges the blade, extending it to the length of a longsword. The mundane humans couldn’t see it, but they would surely feel the psychic pressure of the ethereal energies.
“There’s been enough fighting,” I say, waving the Benchmade about. “We are leaving. Step aside now. Attack us again and you will bleed.”
Passing through the crowd, I hold the knife high, glaring at everyone nearby. It’s the worst place to chamber and retain a knife, but this was intimidation, not combat.
The civilians retreat, backing up against the walls.
I stand by the door and wait until Shun Tian, Diana and Eleanor pass.
“We’re done here,” I say. “Diana is not coming back, and will never come back. Leave her alone and this will be the end of it. If you insist on harassing her, the police will come for you. All of you.”
I put the knife away and leave.
We hustle. Any second now, a swarm of angry nagas would come swarming down on us. The shields I’d cast would only buy us time; it wouldn’t stop a concerted attack.
At the end of the street, I call for a halt. Reaching into my backpack, I remove the folded up sigil paper. Unfurling it, I stuff it into a nearby storm drain and ignite it with a lighter.
“What’s that?” Diana asks.
“Confusion spell,” I say.
As I speak, the sigil activates. Rays of multicoloured astral light spray from the burning paper. A thick smokescreen blooms in higher and lower dimensions, shielding us from sight. Snakes hiss in outrage, and in my peripheral vision I see a throng of tiny dots streak crazily about, flashing in and out of this world.
“Let’s go,” I say.
We return to the MRT station in peace. No hostile nagas, no pursuing mobs and no angry demons chase us. We halt near the Geylang Chinese Methodist church and double up our shields. Just in case.
“Is it over?” Diana asks.
“I hope so,” I reply.
“The knife was dangerous!” Eleanor complains.
“Would you rather fight everybody else in the temple?” I ask.
“But you could be arrested.”
“Someone will have to lodge a complaint with the police first. When the police speaks to Diana, she’ll tell them all about their harassment campaign, and their cult. It’s not going to end well for them.”
“But the police will catch you too?” Diana says.
“Nobody died. Nobody went to hospital. It’s their word against ours.”
Diana looks aghast. “Are you saying we should lie to the police?”
“If they have no proof, they have no case against me. And besides, all of you were behind me when that happened. You were all looking at my back. How could you have seen what I had in my hand, if I did have anything at all?”
“Unbelievable…” Diana says.
“If the mata come for you, don’t come crying to us, okay?” Shun Tian says.
“They won’t,” I reply.
“How do you know?” Eleanor asks.
I smile. “Am I not a magician?”
We part ways at the train station. During the ride back, I war-game scenarios in my head, mapping likely police responses and my countermeasures.
I hadn’t killed anyone. All I did was cast a spell to make a pocketknife appear more threatening than it really was. Sure, using a knife that way was a crime, but it was infinitely preferable to getting tangled up in a multi-way melee. All of us got out safe, and no one died. That was the important part.
If I were arrested, I could live with the consequences.
And to prevent myself from getting arrested… I needed a new knife. Or maybe a different knife.
I sigh. Spending money was never a pleasure, and in truth I didn’t make enough money to be able to afford high-dollar expenses without months of preparation.
Then again, what’s done is done.
Back at my home, I allow myself to unwind. I open the window, set my backpack in the corner, set my kit down—
Powerful winds howl outside. The air chills rapidly. Trees rustle in the breeze. One window slams shut by itself. As I race to the other, the windchime falls off and clatters against the floor.
A huge wave of energy rushes through the room. The gust slams the other window closed. In my second sight, I look out and see…
The shields are down.
WARNING WARNING WARNING! Lupin screams. NAGAS INCOMING!
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