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Sunday, July 23, 2006
Blood Buddha

For a day Hathiel floated above the sole survivor of the storm, but he did not die. With his arms locked around what had been the mast of his ship, the man survived until he was washed onto the shore by the tide on the following night. Upon hitting land, the man awoke and scrambled further up the coast, out of reach of the waves, before wearily collapsing on the ground and falling asleep.

Once again, Hathiel marvelled at the man's spectacular talent for survival. However, Hathiel was also troubled, for it was written in the Book that the storm would kill all who had been on board the ship, and in all her millennia of existence, Hathiel had never known the Book to be wrong. She hovered closer and studied the man. He appeared young, in his early twenties, perhaps. He was of average height, and his frame was lean but powerful, with slim hips, long legs, and broad shoulders. Hathiel guessed that he would be athletic.

His face was neither handsome nor ugly, as she had noticed before, and his features were refined. The fierce tattoo on his face, however, belied his scholarly features, as did the power of his gaze that Hathiel recalled from before. His shirt, trousers and boots were all black, and by his side hung a lacquered black sheath for a short sword. The sword had been lost in the storm.

Hathiel reflected on all these things, but the appearance of a man told one little of the man himself, she knew. Furthermore, Hathiel had never been interested in humans and their history before now, so she did not know the significance of the tattoo, nor could she deduce anything from the man's clothing. For a while, Hathiel deliberated her next action. In the end, she decided that her duty called for a greater understanding of this man who had seemingly defied his fate.

Drawing upon the power of the Source, Hathiel shaped and changed the particles of air and earth. They swirled up from the ground and from the air, spiraling towards the center of her luminescent being. Brighter and brighter she glowed, and when the glow died away, Hathiel stood before the man as a slim, young mortal woman with ivory skin and white hair. She drew in her first breath and gave a low chuckle at the sensuous pleasure of it. The sand felt exquisite beneath her unclad feet. The moon appeared at once further away and yet more real. The stars twinkled. The wind from the sea carressed her slender frame and she enjoyed it at first, but then shivered and frowned. She was cold. Once again, she shaped the particles around her, but this time, into a white robe wrapped around herself.

Hathiel strode towards the man and sat on the sand beside him. Her hands stroked his face lightly, enjoying the warm sensation of skin on skin. Then, she placed her fingers on his temples, took a deep breath, and Merged . . .

Aten was his name, and he was dreaming. Hathiel/Aten was sitting at a campfire. A man with the head of a snarling tiger tattooed above his left brow sat with him. He was tall, a head taller than Aten, and massive. He radiated pure physical power, but to Hathiel, his eyes showed something more . . . a hunger, perhaps. A hunger for all things. A hunger that could never know satisfaction. A name came to Hathiel . . . Hugo. His eyes were cold, but he was smiling warmly at Aten.

"Be wary at the home of Girish, my young friend," Hugo advised. "He is the most ruthless warrior of our time, and is perhaps the best general besides us Guardians. His friends call him Buddha in jest now, because of his apparently perpetual good humour and his seeming compassion for the peasants, but this 'Buddha' has a blood-drenched past. His actions during the civil war 11 years ago have resulted in the deaths of countless numbers of his own countrymen and he put the current Rajah on the throne."

"But I have heard it said that he is a man of peace now, hence this request for a diplomatic convention." Aten argued.

Hugo's eyes narrowed, but his smile stayed in place. "That is the common perception, but examine the evidence, Aten. His own armies number perhaps 40 thousand. The combined armies of the rest of Hindustan number perhaps four times that. Have there been any wars in the area within the last 10 years? No. Why, then, is this 'man of peace' maintaining such a large army and urging the rest of his country to do likewise? Tataristan to the west poses no threat. What other enemies could there be for him to fight? Think on that, young Hawk!"

With that, the Tiger strode from the campfire back to his own tent, while Aten sat, staring at the stars, alone with his thoughts.

The dream shifted and blurred, then cleared. Aten was seated in a great hall, on one side of a long aisle. At the head of the aisle sat a powerfully-built dark-skinned man with a thick moustache and long, curly hair. He was richly dressed in the robes and jewellery of a Hindustani lord. It was a banquet, and they were feasting. The guests were some of the most powerful men from Hindustan and the Empire, as well as the land of the Tatars. There was even a fair-skinned ambassador from the far west. Performers came and went from the aisle. There were musicians and acrobats, magicians and sword-swallowers, dancers and firewalkers.

All in all, it was a magnificent and loud affair, the banquet, but Aten did not partake of the enjoyment. Instead, he spent his time covertly studying Lord Girish, the Blood Buddha, the man who was their host. In the days that they had been there, the Hawk General had observed much. He had observed that all the powerful men deferred to the Blood Buddha and spoke to him with the utmost respect. Even the normally arrogant Tiger General practically fawned on him.

The man himself raised Aten's hackles as no one had ever done before. This was strange, because Girish was unfailingly polite to everyone, including Aten. His movements were graceful with an unconscious arrogance, his stance at once poised yet relaxed. His gaze was strong and unwavering. Perhaps it was that Aten was a fighter of unparalleled skill in the Empire, and his instinct told him that here, at last, was a man who could just be a match for him and hence his warrior's soul longed to confront Girish blade to blade to see who was the better. Then again, perhaps it was just that the Tiger's words had registered within him deeper than he had supposed.

The dream shifted again.

The convention was over, and all the participants were preparing to take their leave of the Blood Buddha. Warm words and gifts had been exchanged, yet to Aten, it had seemed hollow, for no promises had been made, and no treaties of lasting peace signed. The Tiger and the Hawk met with Girish in his study. As the leader of the delegation from the Empire, Hugo spoke. "My Lord, the Emperor sends his gratitude for your gracious hospitality towards his servants. With your permission, we will now take our leave and return to our Emperor with our reports of this convention."

"Please, friend Hugo, we're both old soldiers here, so dispense with the formalities," Girish said with a dismissive wave of his hand. "Go in peace, my friend, and may the Gods bless your journey home. Now that the official business of the convention has been concluded, however, I would indulge a little in personal matters. It would please me greatly were young Aten to remain as my guest here for a while more, for his mentor Tannin, the old Hawk General, was a great friend of mine, and I would hear tidings of him."

The Tiger shrugged and smiled, though his eyes were wary. "Aten is my peer and not under my command. Hence, the decision lies with him, Lord Girish."

"I will stay," Aten said. "I, too, desire a chance to make your better acquaintance, Lord Girish, and if it is not too forward of me, your friendship as well."

"Agreed, then!" Girish declared. The Tiger bowed and took his leave. For a while, the two men remained silent. Then, the Blood Buddha rose from his seat and smiled at Aten. "Would you like to fence with me?"

Aten masked his surprise and grinned broadly. The Blood Buddha smiled back at him and nodded. "I have felt it too. Come then, my young friend. Let us put the question to rest. It will be a private duel with our own blades, so that none may witness either triumph or defeat, and it will end with first blood drawn."

"You are most considerate, my Lord." Aten replied, bowing.

And then they were fencing in a courtyard. Aten carried a short sword with a straight blade, while Girish wielded a talwar. The two swordsmen twisted and spun like dancers around each other to the discordant music of clashing blades. Their skill was astonishing. Both had lightning-fast reflexes and blistering speed, and their duel seemed more like a choreographed sword dance that they had both practised for years than an unrehearsed fight. There were no hesitations, no false starts. Each block and parry was followed smoothly by a lightning riposte. Their footwork was flawless, both of them constantly in perfect balance whether in retreat or attack.

Suddenly, Aten launched a blistering offensive, his sword slashing and hacking at the Blood Buddha. Girish retreated and defended desperately as his opponent's sword flashed towards him in a series of bewildering arcs too fast for the eye to catch. He could only depend on instinct and the movements of Aten's arms to block the attacks. It was an almost superhuman effort by Girish, but it was not enough, for at the last slash, Aten flicked his wrist and scored a shallow cut on his left thigh. The duel was over.

The men stepped back from each other and bowed. Girish grinned ruefully. "Time spares no man, young Hawk. Remember that. I can take nothing from your victory, however, for though I could perhaps have matched your speed eight years ago, I certainly did not have your skill then."

"You are too kind, Lord Girish," Aten replied. "This proves nothing, for as we both know, only in a duel to the death can a true victor emerge."

Girish shook his head. "That I would never indulge in. Not to be immodest, but I am too important to my country to risk my life lightly. Besides, the best I could hope for in such a duel would be to take you with me as your killing stroke left you open. I have neither your speed nor your stamina, Aten.

"Now, on to more serious matters, if you please. I have sensed your animosity towards me these past few days, young Hawk, and I do not think it is merely a desire to test yourself against me. Tell me what it is."

Aten felt a touch of unaccustomed fear, for Girish was no longer smiling and his expression was stern. Aten knew he could best the older man in a fight, but suddenly, that was no longer relevant. Looking into the eyes of the Blood Buddha, Aten now understood why he was called that. There was a fierce and ruthless intelligence behind that steady gaze. There was an iron will that would not be turned from its course. Aten decided on honesty.

"Your army is too large, my Lord."

The Blood Buddha nodded and relaxed. His eyes, though still powerful, took on a tired look. "No doubt someone we both know brought your attention to this," Girish sighed. "As you grow older, my friend, you will realise that no matter how powerful a man becomes, he is still subject to the forces the world exerts against him. We can control our own desires, but we cannot control the desires of others. Only the Gods have such power, and sometimes I doubt even that.

"I am, in all modesty, an extraordinarily strong-willed man, but even I must bow to the forces of Fate and work with the tools that have been given to me. After the last civil wars in both our countries, we have been left with huge armies, powerful generals, warlike lords and unhappy peasants. The wars have taxed them harshly, and the young men, bred on militant propaganda, think of war as the only patriotic pursuit.

"I would like to see peace between our lands, Aten, but your emperor is weak and the Tiger is strong. The whispers I hear from your country tell more besides. They tell me that the Bear, the Dragon, the Serpent and the Hawk are all ruled by the Tiger. More importantly, the Tiger hungers for glory and he looks to the south constantly. Similarly, my Rajah fears your Empire's power and hence conscriptions continue. I see now that the Hawk rules himself, at least, but that is not sufficient."

Girish paused for a while and looked to the north. Then, he sighed and turned to Aten. "I fear that the coming war is inevitable, young Hawk. The Tiger will almost certainly attempt to invade my country when he feels strong enough or when he grows impatient enough. Already he is trying to stir up sentiments amongst the nobles of the Empire against us.

"I would advise you to stay out of the conflict, for if you do not, you would be under the Tiger's command, and I know his skills as a general. They are not sufficient. It is likely that I would crush his armies, and if that should happen, then the Rajah would probably seize the opportunity to attempt to conquer the Empire, or at least annex a large part of it. In the end, you could be the only force standing between us and the death of your Empire."

Aten weighed the Blood Buddha's words in his mind, and they held the ring of truth. "I thank you for your advice, my Lord, but I still have a question. Why would you give it? If you are so confident of your victory, surely it would run counter to your interests if I were to survive to oppose you?"

For a moment, the Blood Buddha's gaze wavered, and Aten felt he could see past the walls the man had erected against the world into the darkness of a personal hell within. Then the walls reappeared and the darkness was gone. "The Rajah may desire conquest, but I do not. I have no wish to see more babes impaled, nor do I wish to see good men become demons."

Suddenly, the lord grinned at Aten and added, "Besides, I liked old Tannin."

The dream shifted again, and Aten was standing before the bed of a sick old man. "So, at almost 40 years of age, Girish almost had you in a duel? What a man!" The old man cackled for a while, then went into an extended coughing fit.

"Beware the words of blood and steel, my boy. The hunger of the Tiger knows no bounds," Tannin whispered.

Then, Hathiel/Aten had a sudden sense of being watched. Tannin and the room he was in faded away. The dream itself faded away as they fought for consciousness. Then, Aten's eyes opened and Hathiel had the curious experience of seeing, through Aten's eyes, her own pale face staring down at herself. His alarm left him when he saw Hathiel. He smiled at her and he opened his mouth to utter a single word.

"Goddess . . ."

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100 marks!
Thanks dear.
You really should publish a collection of short stories. I'd buy them and recommend them to my friends.
Haha, perhaps you could recommend any publishers you know to this page. I'm open to any offers.
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