Master Moses stood in animal skin garments before the Utatezi council of Seven. Three red and three gray feathers lay before them on the marble tabletop. He read Cao Tzsu’s hesitation, making note of the contemplation reflected in the folds of his eyes, and hoped Cao’s vote would favor reason over tradition. But when the red feather dropped, Master Moses knew the brotherhood code would not change. His hands squeezed the grip of his staff. It was better to strangle it than the necks of the four men who just voted against him. Humbly, he thanked them and turned to walk away.
“Master Moses,” called Cao. His voice bounced from the walls inside the spacious room. Cao rose from his seat. Every movement caused an echo. “I’d like to speak with you, please.”
“Of course,” the butakah master cloaked his frustration with a timid smile. He watched the old man approach with careful steps. Master Moses anticipated an apology that he did not want to hear.
“Do you understand my vote?”
“No,” Master Moses pulled back his shoulders.
He stood head and shoulders over the elder. Still, he respected Trustee Cao’s legendary contributions to the order. They walked together, exiting the room through a door opposite the table. “I am sure you have good reasons for your choice.”
“No, I don’t.”
Moses turned to him. He was thunderstruck. “Was it not you who said tradition has its purpose, but must undergo constant scrutiny?”
“Yes, I said that.” The old man inhaled deeply. “How long has it been, four years since you became a butakah master?”
Cao nodded. “Your mentor, Grandmaster Yoshi, is just one year in the grave, and you’ve taken on his crusade. He, too, wished for a new code. We rejected him four times.”
“I respect the code,” Master Moses admitted, although his disappointment saturated his words. “But the council hasn’t seen what’s happening. They don’t know what the spirits are planning in the astral world. And the scroll –”
Cao interjected. “Without the other complimentary scrolls, it is unwise to make assumptions from what you’ve read.” He shifted his eyes to Moses and lifted an eyebrow. “Yes, I know you’ve read the scroll. I am impressed. Please remember, there are two others we don’t have.”
They walked to the end of the hallway and slipped into another room. Moses realized, from identifying the markings on the black floor, that they had entered a meditation chamber. He stood still as Cao found a red candle on a shelf adjacent to the door.
“You are much younger than Master Yoshi but just as strong willed. Strength and youth are powerful when put together – they are also dangerous.” Cao moved into a circle on the floor. It was inside of a square painted inside of a triangle. “Come show me what is in the astral world that compels you.”
Moses walked to Cao as he sat. “I’ve not prepared to cross over yet. I need to bathe properly and-“
Cao interrupted him again. “Bathing is part of the ritual. It symbolizes the cleaning of the soul and your intentions. If your intentions are good and the soul is already pure, there is another way.”
The butakah master was humbled at the trustee’s knowledge. He sat. Between them was a dome topped holder, adorned with glyphs and a metal tuning fork raising from it. Moses had read about this tool, but in the absence of seeing one, he doubted how effectively it would transfer his spiritual projections into the astral world. Seeing it, astonished him.
“Do you know what this is?” Cao asked.
“Yes,” Moses swallowed. “When the rod vibrates, it distorts the light from the candle. The vibration of sound and light opens a portal.”
Cao nodded. “Yes. When that happens, you must pour your consciousness into it – all at once. The window is open only as long as the sound lasts. If your intent is pure, you will cross. Are you ready?”
Moses folded his legs and narrowed his vision on the rod. Using a second rod, Cao struck, and the vibration captured the firelight. Moses felt the sound vibrating his ears. The candlelight distorted, and the young butakah saw the candlelight split into a rainbow of colors dancing in front of him. He poured his thoughts into the colors. For him, there was no life or death. Nothing existed save the colors. When he could see them no longer, he knew he was in the astral plane.
An orange sky gave way to dark shadows surrounding him. He moved forward onto a gravel path. Ahead of him were two buildings, one shaped like a tenth century home, the other a modern-day coffee shop. Moses thought he was alone until Cao grunted from behind him. Moses turned to see him. Cao wore a chest plate with markings of an ancient Chinese symbol and armored boots that clanked as he approached. Moses almost said Cao’s name, but the trustee, not so elderly in the astral plane, stopped him.
“Here, you must call me Kong.” He stepped forward and peered into the valley ahead of them. “If an astral world spirit learns your material world name, it gains access to a path leading to your mind.”
When it became evident that Moses had not named his projection, Kong assigned him one. “You will be Pkatch to me.”
Pkatch nodded and, without a word, led Kong toward the coffee shop. It had a glass door, but no handle. When Pkatch reached for it with an opened palm, it gave way to a shadow. Stepping into the shadow, Pkatch became aware of the energy drain commonly incurred when one steps through a portal. On the other side of the door was a road that resembled an eighteenth-century brick paved path. Pkatch turned to Kong and pointed.
“There, growing in that field, are thousands of stalks with bright bulbs. Can you hear the buzzing? That is the archon larva. They grow in the bulbs, and when they are ripe, they explode into flight. Wait, I warn you not to get close.”
Pkatch watched Kong step closer to the field. The buzzing grew louder, and when Kong was an arm’s reach of one, the buzz erupted into a wail. Kong stepped away, staggeringly. “They defend themselves well,” Pkatch explained.
“What happens when they take flight?”
Pkatch turned and pointed in the opposite direction. The brick-paved path divided two lines of human souls. Both lines stretched for miles. “When the larvae propel from the bulbs, they attach to the souls there and like parasites, grow on them.”
He led the way. They found no parasites on the first dozen souls, but soon spied a woman with dark hair. She looked upon them with soft, melancholic eyes that seemed to cry out. Glum abandonment and woeful lamentations radiated from her stare. The barely noticeable tail of a larva waved from her nostril. Pkatch observed an older man perturbed by his parasites. He reached to pull a pale, segmented maggot from his ear. Annoyed that its slimy body slipped through his finger, the soul grunted. He reached again, but the larva escaped into the ear. A second parasite dangled from his collar bone and a third slithered from underneath his armpit to bite into his nape.
Music from a violin rose into their ears. Pkatch glanced to the distance to see a ghostly spirit floating toward them. “We must go!” He ran, not turning to see if Kong followed until he reached the field. Kong was close behind. “This way.” Pkatch’s voice was desperate. They slipped between two boulders onto a narrow path. Once beyond the boulders, the trail widened and curved into an incline.
“That was a saudadi spirit,” Pkatch explained. “There are twelve such djinn of depression; the offspring of Purah and Beleth.” The path twisted around the side of a mountain before becoming steep.
“I’m sure you want an explanation,” Pkatch explained. One-third of the way up the mountain, they reached a cliff. “Irmana, can answer your questions better than me.”
Kong’s face was firm. Pkatch, impressed by the indifference in Kong’s eyes, stepped onto the cliff. When he did, someone called, “My friend are you there?” It was a light and sultry woman’s voice. Still Kong held his indifferent decorum.
Pkatch squatted to take a handful of dust and threw it over the cliff. Instead of falling on the surface beneath them, it settled on a transparent cage that hovered off the side of the cliff. With more dust sprinkled onto its topmost surface, the pen was in full view – its prisoner inside.
“You returned.” She had a canny smile. Hunter-green, scaly lips pulled into a satisfied smile that revealed tiny, ivory teeth. Her eyes, like a candle flame of tangerine fire, shifted to Kong, who cautiously approached. “You brought help. Does he have the key?”
“No,” Pkatch admitted. “I have not found the djinni you asked me to find. I apologize, there are rules in the material world that I must follow.”
“Have you betrayed me?” the spirit asked as her reptilian hands reached for the bars that entrapped her. “You promised to help.” She became paranoid. “I cannot stay here. I don’t know how long I can resist the saudadi sorrows.”
“I haven’t betrayed you,” Pkatch watched Irmana turn her ram-horned head. Pkatch tried to reassure the djinni. “I haven’t given up. I need you to speak to Kong. He can help us.”
Irmana stood. She attempted to open her wings, but the cage would not allow. She peered out at Kong, who now stood beside Pkatch.
“I will answer three questions. If you free me. I will endow you with knowledge beyond the capacity of your mortal mind.”
Kong did not answer right away. Pkatch watched the wise man look over the djinni from the horns that curved behind her ears, to the talons that scraped the cage floor. When it seemed that he had his fill of the spirit, he spoke. “Why are you condemned?”
Irmana reached out beyond the bars of the cage. A ball of pale light materialized into an archer’s bow. Flashes of energy swept from one end to the next. Where bowstring should have been were sparks of electric current darting from one tip to the next. “I was, just a moment in the third heaven, when to the anguish of Corat, the insensible Ophranim, I acquired this bow. The Ophranim condemned me to this cage and these cursed saudadis.”
Pkatch spoke more to Kong than to Irmana. “This mountain lies in the material and astral overlap.” He wanted to say more but assumed that Kong already knew of human authority to release things that angels bound in material realms. He also supposed there was no need to remind Kong that words and spells alone could not debunk an Ophranim’s containment spell. Quietly, he waited for Kong’s next question.
“If we free you from the angel’s prison, we may inherit its wrath.”
Irmana withdrew her hand, and the bow vanished. She backed away from the bars.
“If you took the bow, you may have taken, along with it, the air of the third heaven,” Kong continued. “What compelled you to take what was not yours?”
“What was not mine?” The djinni returned to the bars. A glowing orange emitted from her eyes. “Are we not made of the same energy? Are we not recycled from the same scattered particles?”
She continued. “One cannot own the energy that moves between the worlds. My crime is that I patronize a balanced scale. You fear an angel’s wrath. You walk what you deem a righteous path that favors the angels, but will they spare you when you stray from that path?” She chuckled. “You are a foolish breed. The angels know one path, and if you stray, you inherit their wrath. There is no mercy in them. As such, the reality of a static existence is, without balance, inevitable. My obligation to the equilibrium compelled me.”
Pkatch noticed the smoke rising from the djinni’s talons, filling the cage. For a moment, only her eyes were visible. Then suddenly, the fog departed. Her anger subdued, her gentle decorum regained.
“There is a key. You need the key to release me.” She spoke to Pkatch now. “When you find Krifla, he will confirm my suspicions that you have the key.”
“What suspicions?” Kong asked. Then to Moses. “Who is Krifla?”
Pkatch wasn’t sure that Kong meant to ask his last question. He spoke too suddenly. “Krifla is one of the aurai djinn – like Irmana.” Moses answered the question that Irmana would not. “One of every hundred aurai are male.”
Irmana interrupted. “There is a mortal who holds the key, and with it, the words written in the fire language. Those words will submit the wardens of Celestial Halls to your command. That key and those words will open any prison. My suspicion is that your father has the key.”
The mention of Moses’ father evoked an emotional reaction that Pkatch did not expect. He knew the ramifications of sudden emotional surges, but the wave came without warning. The energy from the physical body pulled at his spiritual power. Pkatch stumbled backwards. His mind faltered his understanding of a simultaneous existence in the astral and material world, his mental and physical struggle disorienting him. He became aware that his material body could panic or slip into a fit. As it pulled at him, his astral body weakened, making his knees buckle.
Kong called out to him. “Focus.”
Focusing was easier said than done. His mind from the material world recalled moments stored in Moses’ memory. It recalled the tragedy of his father’s death. Moses faintly heard his father reciting biblical verses and a group of numbers ahead of death’s cold hands.
Pkatch dropped to a knee.
“You must fight, Pkatch!” Kong yelled.
The commotion on the cliff did not go unnoticed by the saudadi spirits. The mountain surface warmed and streams of smoke rose from it. The white smoke encircled Pkatch like miniature tornados. He watched them take the shape of ghostly spirits dressed in silky white gowns. There were three in all, each with droopy eyes. They projected dull vibrations, draining, numbing, and paralyzing the traveler.
Pkatch gagged and looked for Kong. He was gone. In the place where Kong once stood, a sphere wobbled in midair. As it shook, it flickered, colors identical to those in the flames he saw in the material world.
One spirit floated above him. “What a pity,” she spoke with a sad, mournful voice. “Your father, did they kill him?”
“Did they cut him?” Another spirit asked. “Did they dig the dagger into him?”
Irmana yelled from the cage. “Do not listen, son of Adamu! Do not listen.”
Pkatch, on all four legs made for the sphere.
“How terrible were you, little Moses?” spoke the first. “You did nothing. You let them kill your father.”
Hearing the spirit call him by his material name, weakened him further. His arms gave way, and he fell flat on the hot mountain surface.
“Son of Adamu, you must use your power.” Irmana continued. “Your power. Your desire is what they want. You must use it to save yourself.”
Hearing those words, Pkatch understood the spirits’ primary purpose. He would not allow them to take away his will power. He refused to exist like the thousand souls on either side of the bricked road. They had stymied souls, drained of willpower by the larva. He understood that those souls marched to empty their desires into a stockpile of recycled human energy.
With the sphere as his focal point, and the desire to escape, the butakah sprung to his feet. His first step faltered. The second was firm and gave him a great push. One more step, and he leaped forward, his body parallel to the mountain surface.
When Moses’ consciousness returned to the material body, his head pounded. A high-pitched sound like a siren rung from the candle flame. His body collapsed, and he lay on his back. Just as he noticed that Cao held the rod in hand, he saw the flame from the candle double in size. It took the shape of a hand reaching for him. It grabbed thin air, and then the fire extinguished.
The sound dissipated, but Moses continued to hear the djinni’s voice in his mind. With her words were the sorrows of a thousand years. She raised within him the cries of a mother holding the remains of her child. Moses envisioned the mother stumbling through post war debris. She carried her bloody child and searched for the missing arm.
“Were you as sad as this mother when you let them kill your father?”
Moses rose to his feet. Reaching for his pounding head, he staggered. A new image invaded his thoughts. He saw a child embracing the legs of his father’s corpse swinging from a tree branch. Moses realized the image was his dad’s memory. He too saw his father’s murder.
Cao moved to light the candle. Then he lit another. “Fight it!” he called again.
Moses yelled some words in the ancient Hebrew language, and suddenly he saw the wall coming at him. When he hit it, he realized that something had thrown him into the wall. Then his back hit the floor. When his vision cleared, he saw that he had brought the saudadi spirit through the portal with him. Her body was enormous, and her vengeful eyes turned from him to Cao.
With the spirt pursuing Cao, Moses had time to stand. He could not hear what the djinni said to Cao. Her words silently penetrating his mind burdened him. When Moses reached his staff, he saw Cao doubled over. He cried aloud, “No. No. Please.” Then he shook his head.
The spirit was merciless.
Standing tall with his staff in hand, Moses knew that Cao would soon fall into a stupor. Only one solution came to mind. He needed to break the code and there was no time to ponder consequences. Assuming that his mentor would have done the same thing, Moses moved to the room’s entrance. Using the iron tip of his staff and whispering a spell, he carved in the wood a glyph made from the Hebrew letters Gimel and Dallet.
Somehow the saudadi knew what the Moses had done. She turned to face him. “You will not have our wills,” he said to her. He knew she understood him when her mouth gaped. Dark smoke poured from the glyph. The spirit lifted her skeleton hands in submission. The smoke brightened, and six figures took shape. Their stubby limbs and muscular build testified to the butakah’s mastery. He called from the depts a team of anatel warriors to his aid. Their weapons, battle axes, and swords waved as they encircled the saudadi. Her white aura disappeared in the black. Then the dark smoke returned into the opened gateway.
As suddenly as they entered, they departed. Moses rushed to the door to sketch another symbol on it. The spirits were gone, and the gateway closed. They left nothing behind other than the stomach-turning smell of sulfur and lime.
When the Moses turned to Cao, he saw the aged man rising to his feet quivering. Moses walked to Cao. “You should sit for a while.” He took Cao by the arm and helped him to sit, leaning against the wall.
“Are you alright?” Cao’s eyes were apologetic.
“A little beat up,” Moses admitted. With the excitement over, his knees pained pain him, and the burn shooting up his back was palpable. “I broke the code. I apologize.”
“You had good reason,” Cao mumbled. “Traditions must stay under scrutiny, right?”
Moses did not answer.
“I will reconvene with the counsel. There is much we must speak on.” He coughed. “Somewhere, people are reading the other scrolls, I am certain of this.” He inhaled deeply and released slowly. “We must take our oaths more seriously now. The spirits are reaching out to us. They understand that their fate is connected to ours. You were right. If we don’t forge some alliance, we may all suffer.”
“I would stay to speak with them, but I must return to the place of my youth. The place where my father was murdered.”
“I understand.” Cao nodded. “If a man cannot reconcile his past, his future remains uncertain.”