Monday, February 25, 2008

Champion of the Dead

(Tibetan, for "War Arts")

So, new day, new novel begun. I got a little literary, so it will be called Champion of the Dead, instead of Dead Man's Champion. A bit more passive voice, but since there are women involved, the former is more accurate. We do strive for accuracy.

There's an old saw in the fiction biz -- There are only two things worth writing about -- love and death. I'm a believer, and this one will be no exception.

And for the teaser, the Prologue:

Kane stood facing Yama, the Lord of Death, in a hell that seemed two parts fire and one part smoky limestone cave. It stank of rotten eggs and burned copper, but it wasn’t so bad as these places went. Sanjiva, maybe, or Kalasutra -- no worse than one of those.

The Death God looked up from his counting.

When you died, it was Yama who measured your karma, and decided what reward, or more likely, what punishment you merited. He was usually depicted as having three eyes, huge fangs, and a wide and stout body. In this instance, that was in the general vicinity, but not quite what Kane beheld. This version of Yama had three eyes, though the third one, in the middle of his forehead, was a pulsing red orb, no sign of a pupil. He wore the traditional crown of miniature skulls, his hair was jet, and long and flowing, but his naked and obviously-male form was that of a bodybuilder on steroids. Intricately patterned tattoos, all in dark red, pulsed and glowed against his blue skin from head to toes. You couldn’t risk looking at those patterns long -- they shifted, writhed, hypnotically drew you in, and if you didn’t pull your gaze away, you would be caught and paralyzed, to be harvested at Yama’s leisure. And he might wait a million years to get around to it as you stood frozen in place.

The smell of the oil on Yama’s glistening skin was patchouli and brimstone, sharp, musky, heady.

The Death God, who had been separating small black and white stones into two piles, counting the karma of some poor soul, glared at Kane. Then he smiled, and his fangs gleamed like old ivory. “Kane,” he said. “Ah ... ” It was the voice of a locomotive rolling full out, resonant, penetrating, filling the chamber.

Yama knew who he was.

Oh, shit ...

Kane was a martial arts expert, he carried a gleaming sword half his own height, and his spirit body here was young, strong, and fit. He had treked throught the bardo many times, fought and defeated many Wrathful Deities, from blood-drinkers to soul-renders, but -- Yama?

“Fuck this,” Kane said. He turned and ran.

He heard the laughter echoing all around him, the amused triumph of a malevolent god, and his only hope was that Yama didn’t feel like working up a sweat by chasing him. He hated to be interrupted in the middle of a stone-count, so the word had it, but maybe he would rather finish than have to start over.

Or, maybe not. What man could know the mind of a god?

Kane sprinted for all he was worth. Usually, there were rules, but a god of Yama’s stature could bend those if he wanted.

As hells went, this naraka was relatively mild. There were, in theory, as many hells as there were souls to experience them, but a lot of dead people either didn’t have much imagination or were willing to accept the standard models, of which there were sixteen -- eight cold and eight hot, and while these had been named and described pretty well in the Buddhist literature, there were a lot of small variations the scholars had missed even so. Things you found out when you got there.

Arbuda, for instance, was supposed to be so cold it raised blisters on the naked skin, and the amount of time you had to spend in it matched the time it took to empty a barrel of sesame by removing one seed every hundred years. But Kane had never met anybody in the place who had been there more than fifty or sixty years, local time. And it wasn’t that cold -- he’d never had a blister.

Time ran differently in the hells than it did on Earth. A year here could be a day there; now and again, time could more or less stop completely. You arrived, spent weeks shepherding a spirt through, toward his or her rebirth, and when you awoke, it was as if you had only blinked.

The other cold hells, in descending order of frigidity and the time you had to spend in them, were Nirarbuda, Atata, Hahava, Huhuva, Utpala, Padma, and Mahapadma. Mahapadma, that was cold. A pot of boiling lead thrown into the air would freeze solid before it hit the ground, and it took all of Kane’s tumo skill to stay warm in Mahapadma.

The eight hot hells, from a mere oven, to melting platinum, were Sanjiva, Kalasutra, Samghata, Raurava, Maharaurava, Tapana, Pratapana, and Avici. Those measured their stays in terms of trillions of years, too. Anybody having to serve the full stretch wouldn’t get to come back in this universe, but the next, or the one after.

Bad karma was a bitch to work off.

The only saving grace was that, eventually, you got to leave and be reincarnated, which made Buddhist hells somewhat better on the cosmic scale than the Christian hell. Eternity was something else.

Yama’s laughter faded behind him, and Kane slowed his run a little, to a fast jog. No point in wasting his energy. Yama wasn’t the only denizen down here, and he had a long trek before he could go home. If he was lucky.

Years back, in his wildest dreams, Kane would never have imagined himself doing what he was doing now. Jogging through a Buddhist hell, looking for a lost soul.

Life -- and death -- how very strange they were ...

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