Evil spirits always do everything in their power to disguise themselves from human ken. Natives of the astral plane, they are invisible to everyone without the second sight, and they act through means so subtle most humans can’t connect the deed back to them. But sometimes, you just can’t ignore the elephant in the room.
Or, in this case, naga.
The creature looms over me, its enormous bulk reaching from the marble floor to the high ceiling. Its serpentine trunk and tail reaches from the living room to the dining table, his human torso and face easily double my size. Glaring at me with a stern expression, he crosses a pair of enormous arms over a herculean chest, while four more arms hold spears and swords.
‘Why are you here, human?’ he demands.
I sense his voice in my head, a low, threatening amber.
‘I’m here to help my client,’ I reply telepathically.
‘She has violated the rules!’ he booms. ‘You cannot—’
A deep growling interrupts him.
‘Easy, Lupin,’ I say.
The sleek gray wolf at my right goes silent, but his teeth are still bared, his hackles raised, his tail lowered.
‘There is no need for aggression,’ a fresh voice says languidly.
A scarlet lion materialises to my left, his magnificent mane brushing against my arm.
The animals do not have a material form, but they are no less sentient for it. They serve as my spirit guides, and have been with me since I started playing the mage’s game.
‘Leonhard is right,’ I say. ‘There is no need for violence today.’
‘She is a rulebreaker!’ the naga insists. ‘She will be punished!’
‘I’ll listen to your side of the story later,’ I say. ‘Until then, I’ll tend to my client.’
‘You dare ignore me?!’
Leonhard swats his tail back and forth. ‘Do forgive Michael. He has social deficiencies, and is unable to concentrate on more than a single conversation at a time.’
‘Hey,’ I say.
The naga chuffs. It almost sounds like laughter.
‘Do what you will, magician. Know that nothing you will do shall stay my wrath.’
I look away from it, turning to the two women seated at the sofa before me while keeping it in my peripheral vision. If it tried anything, I had a surprise for it.
“I guess that’s the naga who’s been troubling you,” I say out loud.
Diana Ho nods. A small, mousy woman, she slouches towards me, further shrinking her diminutive frame, and scratches idly at the crooks of both arms. Large scaly patches cover the bends and run down her forearm.
It’s been over five years since I last saw her. She’d lost a bit of weight since then, but her posture was still the same, and the skin disease was new. So were the deep eyebags.
Eleanor Wang pats her shoulder. Eleanor and I have been many things over the years. Best friends, confidants, partners. One of the vanishingly few people I knew who knew my world and had gifts similar to mine. Today, she was the middlewoman who introduced Diana to me.
“Can you tell me what this is all about?” I ask.
Diana massages her temples.
“It’s… it’s very complicated lah,” she replies, her voice diminished.
“We have time,” I say.
She sighs. “Six months ago, I started visiting a temple. It’s run by Somchai Saechao, a Buddhist monk. He trained with monks in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, then came to Singapore and opened his temple.
“He said he wanted to teach people how to take charge of their lives, how to meditate, how to perceive the truth, all that jazz. But he also said his teachings are strict, unorthodox and secret. He comes from the Vajrayana tradition, and the teachings are supposed to be transmitted directly from teacher to student to prevent outsiders from harming themselves.
“The first few weeks were okay. We performed prayers and pujas, we listened to lectures. But after that, he started…”
She shudders. Eleanor rubs her again.
“It’s okay,” Eleanor says. “He’s not here any more.”
“What did he do?” I ask.
“At first he said we can only learn from him. We cannot study under anybody else, especially those from other sects. Then he started asking for ‘donations’ to keep the temple running. He didn’t outright say we should pay him, but his senior followers said we should give him ‘gifts’ as gestures of respect. And then…
“I never actually saw or experienced it, you understand, but I heard… he told them women to…” she squirms. “Well, I heard he slept with them. To teach them tantra, you see.”
“Isn’t he a monk?” I ask.
"Well..." Diana squirms. "He says he's one."
The naga hisses. I glance at him, see him still glaring at me, and ignore him.
“He didn’t approach you?” I ask.
“No, never,” Diana replies.
Eleanor was pretty plain, but next to Diana, Eleanor was plainly pretty. Where women had curves, Diana was just plain deflated, and her face was riddled with acne scars. Every inch of her exposed skin—her face, her arms, her feet, is red and swollen and angry. She looks up at me, and in her eyes I see nothing but empty desperation, a constant clawing for something undefinable, just out of reach.
“What did you do next?” I ask.
‘She broke the rules!’ the naga howls.
Diana shudders. “What was that?”
“Nothing,” I said. “Go on.”
“Well, last week, after a puja, some of us stayed behind to clean up. When we were done, I went to look for Phra Somchai, to tell him we were leaving. But he wasn’t in the worship area or the kitchen. So I went upstairs and… I saw what he was worshiping.”
“What was it?” I ask.
She pointed at the naga. “That… thing.”
‘I am not a thing!’ the naga declares, resting his fists on his hips.
“The naga,” I say.
“Yes. He was praying to a statue of this… snake. This huge snake with many heads. He laid out offerings and incense for it on the floor and he was kowtowing and praying to it.
“Then he got up, saw me, and… started screaming at me.”
“Yes. He saying I shouldn’t be here, that this was forbidden, and I had to go immediately. I ran downstairs and left.”
“Did you go back?” I ask.
“Well…” she hangs her head. “Yeah.”
I suppress a sigh. Idiot.
“Why did you go back?” Eleanor asks.
“It was a scheduled lecture. I wanted to ask him about what I saw. But during the lecture, he stood up and started scolding me in front of everybody else. He told me I had broken the rules, I was practicing the wrong thing, I was condemned to hell, all kinds of horrible stuff.”
“It’s all lies, isn’t it?” I ask.
“Yeah, yeah. But he just kept screaming and shouting at me and…” she shakes her head. “The worst part of it is that his followers joined in.”
“They said the same thing. They agreed with him, they said I was damned, and when I tried to speak up they shouted me down.”
“What happened next?”
“I just… I don’t remember much. I just took my things and left.”
“But the next day… these patches showed up. All over my body. I went to a doctor and he gave me some creams but they don’t work.”
Eleanor nods sympathetically. “Yeah, creams don’t work for me also.”
Eleanor has full-body ezcema. Her skin is a desolated ruin of scars, dark pink patches and white flaps of dead skin. Yet seated next to Diana, Eleanor’s skin looks positively radiant.
‘It is punishment,’ the naga says. ‘And there is more.’
“Is that when you contacted Eleanor?” I ask.
“Yeah. It was so damn itchy and so painful I couldn’t do anything else. I couldn’t even sleep most of the night. When I finally fell asleep, I dreamed of this huge… snake. The naga. The same one I saw on the upper floor of the temple. When I woke up, I saw that naga over there.”
She points at the spirit. The naga sniffs contemptuously.
Most people couldn’t see astral beings, and would never see them. But Diana was different. In my crazy teenage days, when I had stumbled into magic and the occult and the hidden truths behind the veil of the material world, I’d experimented and trained and did all kinds of stupid things only stupid kids would do. I discovered Eleanor had psychic talent too, and so did a couple of others in my circles. Eventually we admitted Diana into our group, and we continued our explorations. One fateful evening, Diana said she could sense spirits.
That was over a decade ago. All of us had gone our separate ways, bearing our own scars, but apparently Diana had never quite left the metaphysical behind her.
“You couldn’t get rid of it?” I ask.
“It was too strong. Everything I did—banishing, prayers, magic—they didn’t work. I told Eleanor, and she told me to contact you. Can you help?”
“I’ll do my best.”
“And what does that mean? You have to help me. I can’t sleep, I keep itching all day, and—”
I hold up my hand. “I’ll do what I can, but I cannot guarantee results. There’s no such thing in this field. You should know that.”
She covers her face with her hand. “Fine. Just… What are you going to do?”
“Talk to the naga.”
I turn to the spirit. He coils and uncoils his tail restlessly, his torso undulating back and forth. Leonhard and Lupin continue watching the creature, ready to pounce at the drop of a hat.
‘It’s your turn,’ I say. ‘Did you set a curse on her?’
‘Of course!’ he boasts. ‘She tried to break it, so I’m here to finish the job.’
‘Why did you do it?’
‘She broke the rules. She violated the teacher's private sanctum, she betrayed the secrets of the teachings to outsiders, and she cast aspersions on his name. She has to be punished.’
‘You sound loyal to Somchai.’
‘He has treated us well, and we enjoy an excellent relationship with him.’
‘Our entire kingdom, of course. Surely you didn’t think he prays to a single naga.’
‘And you’re here to represent your kingdom.’
‘Yes. Our king decreed this punishment, and I am here to carry it out.’
Banishing a single stubborn spirit was difficult enough. But if I did that here, the naga’s king would simply send another minion, and another, and another ad infinitum.
“What’s wrong?” Eleanor asks.
The naga had restricted his telepathic conversation to me. I explain what he said to the women.
“This just got complicated,” I conclude.
‘Leave,’ the naga says. ‘Leave now, or you will make an enemy of all of us.’
His eyes glow like sparks. He draws himself to his full height, spreading his shoulders and scowling at me. He points his weapons at my face. Lupin growls a warning, while Leonhard quickly circles around the naga.
I stand. Rest my hands on my waistband. Meet the spirit’s gaze.
‘No. You leave.’
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