A free serial story
by Siri Paulson
The city that Payut walked through was empty and not-empty at the same time. Its wide canals and narrow streets lay vacant, free of the chaotic bustle that flickered at the edges of his memory. The people had fled, driven away by the imbalance in the five elements that sickened the land. But he was not alone.
He would turn down a street where nothing moved, but the echo of large wings faded away ahead of him. Or he would catch motion out of the corner of his eye, but when he turned, only blank windows and closed doors met his gaze. Crossing a bridge over a canal, he saw something moving under the water, long and dark, bigger than the boat he had left at the city gate while getting past the guards. It paced him until he reached the far end of the bridge, then disappeared.
The streets twisted and turned, like the waterways where Payut peddled his charms, but he knew where the Grand Temple lay. After some time he realized that he was avoiding it, allowing himself to wander astray down the tiny alleys. Their familiarity hurt – braziers standing cold and empty of grilling meat, shuttered storefronts that had once held rows of statues for home shrines, low stone walls where gold-robed monks had sat with their begging bowls – but this hurt less than seeing the Grand Temple would.
At the end of a street sat a stall he recognized. His mouth began to water. Coconut-flavoured rice with fresh mango slices, or bananas cooked in coconut milk, or just plain coconuts with a reed stuck in them for drinking the sweet, refreshing water inside… The woman who owned the stall had slipped him a bit every now and then, even after he had entered the Temple. Monks did not eat sweets, but he had been only a boy missing his childhood treats.
There, he had done it. He had thought of the Temple without being overwhelmed by the waters in his mind. He was strong enough, after all.
The golden spires that topped the Temple were just visible behind the tangle of shops. At the next fork in the road, he turned towards them.
The road bent back in on itself. He took a shortcut down a tiny lane, the second storeys of the buildings almost touching overhead. This in turn led him to another narrow street. He turned onto it and stopped.
The hard-faced woman guard from the city wall blocked his path, her spear held upright and her eyes fixed on him.
“Let me pass,” said Payut.
“This is not a place for a man,” she said. “Have you not heard the storks, and seen the great naga in the canals? It is not safe here. This is a city for spirits.”
“I know. I’m trying to change that.” He took a cautious step forward.
Her spear came down crosswise, blocking the narrow street entirely. “Come no closer. The Grand Temple is protected by armed yakshas and hungry ghosts. If they catch you, they will eat you slowly, piece by piece, without bothering to kill you first. I have seen them do it.”
Stories to frighten children, he wanted to say, and I am no child. But he had seen the storks moving as no flock of birds should, and the dark thing in the canal that might have been the naga. In his mind, waters roiled. He struggled to calm them. “I am here to help.”
She laughed. “You? The city watch and the temple guard have fled. The monks, too. They could not defeat what lives in the Grand Temple.”
Payut swallowed. Dark waters swirled in his mind, but they would not pull him down. “What is in the Temple?”
The guardswoman gave him an odd look. “Do you not know?”
A massive golden statue with heavy-lidded eyes, one hand raised, reaching forward…
He flinched away and gasped, finding himself on his knees in the street. The guard had not moved, and seemed unsurprised. She did not offer to help him up. He rose on his own and stepped forward.
Her spear swung around to point at his chest.
“I grew up in the Temple,” said Payut. His voice sounded harsh in his own ears. “I was given to the monks as a boy. My…my parents gave me away.” A woman’s voice, singing a lullaby, her soft hands stroking his hair one last time before the monks cut it off and gave him a child-sized gold robe.
“That is nothing unusual,” said the guard, her eyes on him, unblinking. “What makes you think you are different?”
Crying himself to sleep every night at first, until he calmed enough to hear the other quiet sniffles around him. No, he had not been alone then, his misery shared and eased in the sharing. The boys had eaten and studied and prayed and chanted together. Never alone until–
“I ran away.” Payut was shouting and he did not care. “I fled the city, and I have come back to set things right, now let me pass!” He charged the spear, ducking to one side of the point. The guard did not try to stop him as he brushed past her.
Still he ran, his sandals slapping on the road. He dashed around a corner to the left, then the right. The bell-shaped reliquaries of the Grand Temple bobbed in and out of view. When he looked back and listened, he heard no footsteps in pursuit, but somewhere in the distance was a wet slithering noise.
He hurried on.
The streets grew wider. He turned a corner. Some distance ahead loomed the Grand Temple. From this vantage, its golden domes were almost hidden behind soaring white walls – something else he’d forgotten. Only inside they weren’t white, but covered with painted murals of the stories – demons and nagas and the Enlightened One before he had achieved enlightenment. The height of the walls, the shape of the points along the top – those things he remembered now, as clearly as if they were a part of his own body.
“Why are you here?”
Payut blinked. Before him stood a monk in a gold robe. It took him a moment to recognize the abbot from the jungle monastery, the place where he had always gone for charms to sell up and down the waterways.
“I should ask you the same,” said Payut, his confusion rising. “I left you behind, upriver, days ago.”
The abbot shook his head. “It was you who left us. You came in mystery and you left the same way. Even when you came back for your charms, every few years, you were never settled, never calm, despite all I taught you about the still waters of the mind.”
Payut bowed his head. “I tried, Older Brother. I worked hard to find the still waters. For years I thought I had mastered them. But eventually they failed. I failed.”
“Because you were hiding something,” said the abbot. “An old one in deep water will always rise to the surface sooner or later. It will not lie hidden forever.”
Old one? These were not words the abbot had ever used. They were words from a story, but he could not remember which. It hovered at the edge of his mind. “A…what?”
The abbot stepped closer. “What are you running from, Younger Brother? You have been running for a very long time. What is it you fear?”
Payut could not meet the old man’s eyes. “When I found your monastery,” he began, haltingly, “it felt like home. The monks, the routine, the plain living. You were kind to me. You taught me how to master my mind. There was nothing to be afraid of in…in your shrine.”
The abbot’s voice was intent. “Then you fear another shrine?”
Payut jerked away. “Being a monk,” he went on, his voice low, “was not for me. I knew I could not stay and take the vows. But I was grateful. You healed me.”
“I do not think so,” said the abbot.
Payut glanced up quickly. The abbot’s eyes looked strange, unnatural, flat like a snake’s. “What are you?” he said.
“I am only curious. Indulge me.” The voice was not the abbot’s any longer, but it held a note of imperious command. “Tell me what you fear.”
Another voice, long ago, raised in command. An adult, a monk, when he was only a novice. He had been helpless to disobey then, as he was helpless now. He closed his eyes and spoke the name that terrified him in his dreams even now. “The Golden Statue of the Enlightened One.”
A great hissing sound met his words, like a giant snake – or a naga – and the sound of many wings. He opened his eyes, flinging up his arms for protection. But nothing was there. Even the abbot had vanished.
A clear road to the Grand Temple lay ahead.
He took a step forward, then another. The sight of the wall made his body tremble. If the steps he took did not grow easier, at least they grew no harder. The golden spires seemed to sink behind the wall, but he could feel them hulking there, just out of sight. Waiting.
Payut paused before the wall. The splendidly decorated main gate lay to the right. To the left was the monks’ gate, narrow and unassuming. He opened his mind a crack and let a memory trickle through. He had gone in and out of this gate nearly every week. Begging outside the Temple was a welcome break from his studies and other duties inside. He had always thought of the monks’ gate as a joyful spot, a window to freedom.
But it was not the gate through which he had fled, all those years ago.
He turned right.
Outside the main gate had always stood pairs of statues, man-shaped and clad in armour, but taller than a man and with a fearsome face, each portraying a yaksha – a temple guardian. As he came near, something in their position struck him as different than he remembered.
Then the statues moved.
They turned stiffly and opened the doors of the gate before him. He stared at the statues dumbly. Beyond them, something else moved. A metallic glint made his heart pound – had the Golden Statue come to life? But the glint faded. Instead, walking towards him across the temple courtyard, came a slender figure, a boy in gold robes and a shaven head.
“Older Brother, the Golden Statue has woken. Is it time for the sacrifice?”
His own voice, clear as a chime. The ritual question he had asked, all those years ago.
“Yes,” the older monk had answered, not meeting his eyes. He had felt fear then, though he had not yet known why.
Payut turned, one thought flooding out all others: run. The yaksha blocked his way. He pummelled at them, but they only walked forward, pushing him back. He stumbled backwards, over the threshold of the Grand Temple courtyard. The doors clanged shut a handsbreadth before his nose.
Behind him, the boy repeated the ritual question.
Payut struggled to breathe as cold waters pulled him under.
That’s all for now, folks. Tune in a few months from now to read the fifth and final installment.