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Фантастика
Желязны Роджер
Lord of Light

I

  It is said that fifty-three years after his liberation he returned from the Golden Cloud,  to  take up once  again the gauntlet of Heaven, to oppose the Order of Life and  the gods who ordained it so. His followers had prayed for his return, though their prayers were sin. Prayer should not trouble one who  has gone on to Nirvana,  no matter what the circumstances of his going. The wearers  of the saffron robe prayed,  however,  that  He  of  the Sword, Manjusri, should  come  again among them,  The  Boddhisatva is  said to have heard. . .

  He whose desires have been throttled,

  who is independent of root,

  whose pasture is emptiness -

  signless and free -

  his path is as unknowable

  as that of birds across the heavens.

  Dhammapada (93)

  His followers called  him  Mahasamatman  and said  he  was  a  god.  He preferred to drop the Maha- and the -atman, however, and called himself Sam. He  never claimed to be a god. But  then, he never claimed  not to be a god. Circumstances  being what  they  were,  neither admission  could  be  of any benefit. Silence, though, could.

  Therefore, there was mystery about him.

  It was in the season of the rains . . .

  It was well into the time of the great wetness. . .

  It  was in the days of the  rains that their prayers went  up, not from the fingering of knotted  prayer cords or the spinning of prayer wheels, but from the great pray-machine in the monastery of Ratri, goddess of the Night

  The high-frequency prayers were  directed upward through the atmosphere and out beyond  it, passing into that golden cloud called  the Bridge of the Gods, which circles the entire world, is seen as  a bronze  rainbow at night and is the place where the red sun becomes orange at midday.

  Some  of the monks doubted the orthodoxy of  this prayer technique, but the machine  had been built and was operated  by Yama-Dharma, fallen, of the Celestial City; and, it was  told, he had ages ago  built the mighty thunder chariot of Lord  Shiva: that engine  that  fled across the  heavens belching gouts of fire in its wake.

  Despite his tall  from favor, Yama was  still  deemed  mightiest of the artificers,  though it was  not doubted that the Gods of the City would have him to die  the real death  were they to learn of the pray-machine. For that matter,  though, it was not doubted that they would have him to die the real death  without the  excuse of the pray-machine,  also,  were he to come into their custody. How he  would settle this matter with the Lords of Karma  was his own affair, though none doubted  that when the time came he would find a way. He was half as old as the Celestial  City itself, and not more than ten of the gods remembered the founding of that abode. He was known to  be wiser even than the Lord  Kubera in the ways of the Universal Fire. But these were his  lesser Attributes. He was best  known for another thing, though few men spoke of  it. Tall, but  not overly  so; big,  but not heavy; his movements, slow and fluent. He wore red and spoke little.

  He tended the  pray-machine, and  the giant metal lotus he had set atop the monastery roof turned and turned in its sockets.

  A light rain was falling upon the building, the lotus and the jungle at the foot  of the mountains. For six  days he  had offered  many kilowatts of prayer, but the static kept him from being heard On High. Under his  breath, he called  upon the more notable of  the current fertility deities, invoking them in terms of their most prominent Attributes.

  A  rumble  of  thunder  answered  his petition, and  the small  ape who assisted  him chuckled. "Your prayers and your curses come to the same. Lord Yama," commented the ape. "That is to say, nothing."

  "It has taken you seventeen incarnations to arrive at this truth?" said Yama. "I can see then why you are still doing time as an ape."

  "Not so,"  said  the  ape,  whose name was  Tak. "My  fall,  while less spectacular than your own, nevertheless involved elements of personal malice on the part of - "

  "Enough!" said Yama, turning his back to him.

  Tak realized then that he might  have touched upon  a  sore spot. In an attempt to find another subject for conversation, he crossed to the  window, leapt onto its wide sill and stared upward.

  "There is a break in the cloud cover, to the west," he said.

  Yama approached,  followed  the  direction of his  gaze,  frowned,  and nodded.

  "Aye," he said. "Stay where you are and advise me."

  He moved to a bank of controls.

  Overhead, the lotus halted in its turning, then faced the patch of bare sky.

  "Very good," he said. "We\'re getting something."

  His hand  moved  across  a separate control panel, throwing a series of switches and adjusting two dials.

  Below them, in the cavernous cellars of the monastery,  the signal  was received and other preparations were begun: the host was made ready.

  "The clouds are coming together again!" cried Tak.

  "No  matter, now,"  said  the  other.  "We\'ve  hooked our fish.  Out of Nirvana and into the lotus, he comes."

  There was more thunder, and the rain came down with a  sound like  hail upon  the  lotus.  Snakes  of  blue  lightning  coiled,  hissing, about  the mountaintops.

  Yama sealed a final circuit.

  "How do you think he will take to wearing the flesh again?" asked Tak.

  "Go peel bananas with your feet!"

  Tak chose  to  consider  this  a  dismissal  and departed the  chamber, leaving Yama to close down the machinery.  He made his way along a  corridor and down a wide flight  of stairs. He reached the landing,  and as he  stood there he heard the sound  of voices  and the shuffling  of sandals coming in his direction from out a side hall.

  Without  hesitating,  he  climbed  the wall, using a series  of  carved panthers and an opposing row of elephants as  handholds. Mounting a  rafter, he drew back into a well of shadow and waited, unmoving.

  Two dark-robed monks entered through the archway.

  "So why can she not clear the sky for them?" said the first.

  The  second, an older, more heavily  built man, shrugged. "I am no sage that I can  answer such questions. That she  is anxious  is obvious, or  she should never have granted them this sanctuary, nor Yama this usage. But  who can mark the limits of night?"

  "Or the moods of a woman,"  said the first. "I have heard that even the priests did not know of her coming."

  "That may be. Whatever the case, it would seem a good omen."

  "So it would seem."

  They passed through another archway, and  Tak listened to the sounds of their going until there was only silence.

  Still, he did not leave his perch.

  The "she"  referred to  by the  monks could only be  the  goddess Ratri herself, worshiped by the order that had given sanctuary to the followers of Great-Souled Sam, the Enlightened One.  Now,  Ratri, too, was to be numbered among those fallen from the Celestial City and wearing the skin of a mortal. She had  every reason  to be bitter  over the whole affair; and Tak realized the chance she  was taking in granting sanctuary, let alone being physically present during this undertaking. It could jeopardize any possibility of  her future reinstatement if word of it got out and  reached the proper ears. Tak recalled her as the dark-haired beauty with silver eyes, passing in her moon chariot of ebony and chromium, drawn by stallions black and white, tended by her guard, also black and white, passing  up  the Avenue of Heaven, rivaling even Sarasvati in her glory. His heart leapt within his hairy breast. He had to see her again. One night, long ago, in happier times and  better form, he had  danced with  her, on a balcony under  the stars. It had been for only a few moments. But he remembered; and it is a difficult thing to be an ape and to have such memories.

  He climbed down from the rafter.

  There was a tower,  a high tower rising from the northeast comer of the monastery. Within  that tower  was  a  chamber. It was  said to contain  the indwelling  presence of  the  goddess.  It  was  cleaned  daily, the  linens changed,  fresh  incense  burnt and  a votive  offering laid just within the door. That door was normally kept locked.

  There were, of  course, windows. The question as to whether a man could have  entered  by means of  any of these windows must  remain  academic. Tak proved that an ape could.

  Mounting the  monastery  roof,  he proceeded to scale the tower, moving from brick to  slippery brick, from projection to irregularity, the  heavens growling  doglike above him, until  finally  he clung to the wall just below the outer sill. A steady rain fell upon him. He heard a bird singing within. He saw the edge of a wet, blue scarf hanging over the sill.

  He caught hold  of the ledge  and raised  himself  until he could  peer inside.

  Her back was to him. She wore a dark blue sari, and she was seated on a small bench at the opposite end of the room.

  He clambered onto the sill and cleared his throat.

  She  turned  quickly.  She  wore a  veil,  so that  her  features  were indistinguishable. She regarded him through it,  then rose and  crossed  the chamber.

  He was dismayed.  Her figure, once lithe, was wide about the waist; her walk, once the swaying of boughs, was a waddle; her complexion was too dark; even through the veil the lines of her nose and jaw were too pronounced.

  He  bowed his  head. "\'And  so  you have drawn near to us, who  at your coming have come home," he sang, "\'as birds to their nest upon the tree.\'"

  She stood, still as her statue in the main hall below.

  "\'Guard us from the she-wolf and the wolf, and guard us from the thief, oh Night, and so be good for us to pass.\'"

  She reached out slowly and laid her hand upon his head.

  "You  have  my  blessing,  little   one,"  she  said,  after  a   time. "Unfortunately, that is  all I can give. I cannot offer protection or render beauty, who lack these luxuries myself. What is your name?"

  "Tak," he told her.

  She touched her brow. "I once  knew a Tak," she said, "in a bygone day, a distant place. . ."

  "I am that Tak, madam."

  She seated herself upon the sill. After a time, he  realized  that  she was weeping, within her veil.

  "Don\'t cry, goddess. Tak is here. Remember Tak, of the Archives? Of the Bright Spear? He stands yet ready to do thy bidding."

  "Tak. . ." she said. "Oh, Tak! You, too? I did not know, I never heard. . ."

  "Another turning of the wheel, madam, and who  knows? Things may yet be better than even once they were."

  Her shoulders shook. He reached out, drew back his hand.

  She turned and took it.

  After an age, she spoke: "Not  by the normal  course of events shall we be  restored or  matters settled, Tak of the Bright Spear. We must beat  our own path."

  "What mean you?" he inquired; then, "Sam?"

  She nodded.

  "He is  the one. He is our hope against Heaven, dear  Tak. If he can be recalled, we have a chance to live again."

  "This is why  you  have taken this chance,  why you yourself sit within the jaws of the tiger?"

  "Why else? When there is no real hope we must mint our own. If the coin be counterfeit it still may be passed."

  "Counterfeit? You do not believe he was the Buddha?"

  She  laughed, briefly. "Sam was the greatest charlatan in the memory of god  or  man. He was also the worthiest  opponent Trimurti ever faced. Don\'t look so shocked  at  my  saying  it.  Archivist! You  know that he stole the fabric   of  his  doctrine,  path  and  attainment,  the  whole  robe,  from prehistorical forbidden sources. It was a weapon, nothing more. His greatest strength was his insincerity. If we could have him back . . ."

  "Lady, saint or charlatan, he is returned."

  "Do not jest with me, Tak."

  "Goddess  and  Lady,  I  just  left  the Lord Yama  shutting  down  the pray-machine, frowning his frown of success."

  "The  venture was against such mighty odds.  .  . . Lord Agni once said that no such thing could ever be done."

  Tak stood.

  "Goddess Ratri," he said, "who, be he god or man,  or anything between, knows more of such matters than Yama?"

  "I have no answer for  that question,  Tak,  because there is none. But how can you say of a certainty that he has netted us our fish?"

  "Because he is Yama."

  "Then take my arm, Tak. Escort me again, as  once you did. Let  us view the sleeping Boddhisatva."

  He led her out the door, down the stairs, and into the chambers below.

  Light,  born  not of torches but of  the generators of Yama, filled the cavern. The bed, set  upon a platform,  was closed about on  three  sides by screens. Most of the machinery was also masked by screens  and hangings. The saffron-robed  monks  who were in attendance moved silently about the  great chamber. Yama, master artificer, stood at the bedside.

  As  they  approached, several of  the  well-disciplined,  imperturbable monks uttered brief exclamations. Tak then turned  to the woman at his  side and drew back a pace, his breath catching in his throat.

  She was no longer the dumpy little matron with whom he had spoken. Once again did he  stand  at the  side of  Night  Immortal, of whom  it has  been written, "The goddess has filled wide space, to its depths and  its heights. Her radiance drives out the dark."

  He looked but  a moment and covered his eyes. She still had this  trace of her distant Aspect about her.

  "Goddess. . ." he began.

  "To the sleeper," she stated. "He stirs."

  They advanced to the bedstead.

  Thereafter  to  be  portrayed  in  murals  at  the  ends  of  countless corridors, carved upon the walls of Temples and painted onto the ceilings of numerous  palaces, came  the  awakening of  he who  was variously  known  as Mahasamatman, Kalkin, Manjusri,  Siddhartha,  Tathagatha, Binder,  Maitreya, the Enlightened One, Buddha  and Sam. At  his left was the goddess of Night; to his right stood Death; Tak, the ape, was crouched at the foot of the bed, eternal comment upon the coexistence of the animal and the divine.

  He  wore  an  ordinary,  darkish  body  of medium  height and age;  his features  were regular and undistinguished; when his  eyes opened, they were dark.

  "Hail, Lord of Light!" It was Ratri who spoke these words.

  The eyes blinked.  They did not focus. Nowhere in the chamber was there any movement.

  "Hail, Mahasamatman - Buddha!" said Yama.

  The eyes stared ahead, unseeing.

  "Hello, Sam," said Tak.

  The forehead  creased slightly, the eyes squinted, fell upon Tak, moved on to the others.

  "Where . . . ?" he asked, in a whisper.

  "My monastery," answered Ratri.

  Without expression, he looked upon her beauty.

  Then he shut his eyes and held them tightly closed, wrinkles forming at their corners.  A grin of pain made his mouth a bow,  his teeth  the arrows, clenched.

  "Are you truly he whom we have named?" asked Yama.

  He did not answer.

  "Are you he who fought the army of Heaven to  a standstill on the banks of the Vedra?"

  The mouth slackened.

  "Are you he who loved the goddess of Death?"

  The eyes flickered. A faint smile came and went across the lips.

  "It is he," said Yama; then, "Who are you, man?"

  "I? I am nothing,"  replied  the other. "A leaf caught in a  whirlpool, perhaps. A feather in the wind. . ."

  "Too bad," said Yama, "for there are leaves and  feathers enough in the world for me to have labored so long only to increase their number. I wanted me a man, one who might continue a war  interrupted by his  absence - a man of  power  who  could oppose with that power the will of gods. I thought you were he."

  "I am"-  he  squinted again"- Sam.  I am Sam. Once- long ago . . . I did fight, didn\'t I? Many times . . ."

  "You were Great-Souled Sam, the Buddha. Do you remember?"

  "Maybe I was . . ." A slow fire was kindled in his eyes.

  "Yes," he  said then. "Yes, I was.  Humblest of the proud,  proudest of the humble.  I fought. I taught  the Way for a time. I fought again,  taught again, tried  politics,  magic, poison  . .  . I fought one great  battle so terrible the sun itself hid its face from the slaughter- with men and gods, with animals and  demons,  with  spirits of  the earth and air, of  fire and water, with slizzards and horses, swords and chariots- "

  "And you lost," said Yama.

  "Yes, I did, didn\'t I? But it was quite a showing we gave them,  wasn\'t it?  You, deathgod, were my charioteer. It all comes back to me now. We were taken prisoner  and the Lords of Karma  were  to be our judges. You  escaped them by the will-death and the Way of the Black Wheel. I could not."

  "That is correct. Your past was laid out before them. You were judged." Yama regarded the monks who now sat  upon the floor, their  heads bowed, and he lowered his voice. "To have you to die the real death would have made you a martyr. To have permitted you to walk  the world,  in any form, would have left the door open for your return. So, as you stole your teachings from the Gottama of another place and time,  did they  steal the tale  of the end  of that one\'s days among men. You were judged worthy of Nirvana. Your atman was projected, not into another  body, but into  the  great magnetic cloud  that encircles  this  planet.  That  was over  half a  century  ago. You  are now officially an avatar of  Vishnu, whose teachings were misinterpreted by some of his more zealous  followers.  You, personally, continued to exist only in the form of self-perpetuating wavelengths, which I succeeded in capturing."

  Sam closed his eyes.

  "And you dared to bring me back?"

  "That is correct."

  "I was aware of my condition the entire time."

  "I suspected as much."

  His eyes opened, blazing. "Yet you dared recall me from that?"

  "Yes."

  Sam bowed his head. "Rightly  are you called deathgod, Yama-Dharma. You have snatched away from me the ultimate experience. You have broken upon the dark stone of  your will that  which is beyond  all comprehension and mortal splendor. Why could you not have left me as I was, in the sea of being?"

  "Because  a  world  has need  of your humility,  your piety, your great teaching and your Machiavellian scheming."

  "Yama, I\'m old," he said. "I\'m as old as man upon this world. I was one of the  First, you know. One of the very  first to come here,  to  build, to settle. All of the others are dead  now, or are gods - dei ex  machini. . . The chance was mine also, but I let it go by. Many times. I never wanted  to be a god, Yama. Not  really. It was  only later,  only when I saw  what they were doing,  that I began to gather what  power I  could to me. It  was  too late, though. They were  too  strong. Now I just want  to sleep the sleep of ages,  to  know again the Great Rest, the perpetual bliss, to hear the songs the stars sing on the shores of the great sea."

  Ratri leaned forward and looked into his  eyes. "We need you, Sam," she said.

  "I  know, I  know," he  told her.  "It\'s the eternal recurrence of  the anecdote. You\'ve a willing horse, so flog him another  mile." But he  smiled as he said it, and she kissed his brow.

  Tak leaped into the air and bounced upon the bed.

  "Mankind rejoices," observed the Buddha.

  Yama handed him a robe and Ratri fitted him with slippers.

  Recovering  from the peace which passeth understanding takes time.  Sam slept. Sleeping, he  dreamed; dreaming,  he cried out, or just cried. He had no  appetite; but  Yama had found him  a body  both sturdy  and  in  perfect health,  one  well  able  to bear  the psychosomatic  conversion from divine withdrawal.

  But he would  sit  for an hour, unmoving, staring at a pebble or a seed or a leaf. And on these occasions, he could not be aroused. Yama saw in this a  danger, and he  spoke of  it with Ratri and Tak. "It is not  good that he withdraw from the world in this way, now," he said. "I have spoken with him, but it  is as if I addressed the  wind. He cannot recover that  which he has left behind. The very attempt is costing him his strength."

  "Perhaps you misread his efforts," said Tak.

  "What mean you?"

  "See how  he regards the  seed  he  has  set before him?  Consider  the wrinkling at the edges of his eyes."

  "Yes? What of it?"

  "He squints. Is his vision impaired?"

  "It is not."

  "Then why does he squint?"

  "To better study the seed."

  "Study? That is not the Way, as once he  taught it. Yet he  does study. He does not meditate, seeking within the object that which leads to  release of the subject. No."

  "What then does he do?"

  "The reverse."

  "The reverse?"

  "He  does study  the object, considering its ways, in an effort to bind himself. He  seeks within  it an excuse to live. He tries once more  to wrap himself within the fabric of Maya, the illusion of the world."

  "I believe you are right, Tak!" It  was Ratri who had spoken. "How  can we assist him in his efforts?"

  "I am not certain, mistress."

  Yama nodded, his dark hair glistening  in a bar of  sunlight  that fell across the narrow porch.

  "You  have  set  your  finger  upon  the  thing  I  could not see,"  he acknowledged. "He  has not yet fully returned, though he wears a body, walks upon human feet, talks as we do. His thought is still beyond our ken."

  "What then shall we do?" repeated Ratri.

  "Take him on long walks  through the countryside," said Yama. "Feed him delicacies.  Stir  his  soul with  poetry and song. Find him strong drink to drink- there is none here in the monastery.  Garb him in bright-hued silks. Fetch him a  courtesan  or  three. Submerge him in  living again. It is only thus that he may be freed from the  chains of God. Stupid of me  not to have seen it sooner . . ."

  "Not really, deathgod," said Tak.

  The flame that  is black  leapt within Yama\'s eyes, and then he smiled. "I am repaid,  little one,"  he  acknowledged, "for the comments  I, perhaps thoughtlessly, let fall  upon thy hairy ears. I apologize, ape-one. You  are truly a man, and one of wit and perception."

  Tak bowed before him.

  Ratri chuckled.

  "Tell  us, clever Tak- for mayhap we have been  gods too long, and  so lack the proper  angle of vision-  how shall  we  proceed in this matter of rehumanizing him, so as to best serve the ends we seek?"

  Tak bowed him then to Ratri.

  "As Yama has proposed," he stated. "Today, mistress, you take him for a walk in  the foothills.  Tomorrow, Lord Yama conducts him as far as the edge of the forest. The following day  I shall take him amidst the  trees and the grasses, the flowers and the vines. And we shall see. We shall."

  "So be it," said Yama, and so it was.

  In the  weeks that followed,  Sam came to  look  forward to these walks with what appeared at first a mild anticipation, then a moderate enthusiasm, and  finally a blazing eagerness.  He took  to going  off unaccompanied  for longer and longer stretches of time: at  first, it was for several  hours in the morning; then, morning  and  evening. Later, he stayed away all day, and on occasion a day and a night.

  At the end of the third week, Yama and Ratri discussed  it on the porch in the early hours of morning.

  "This thing I do not like," said Yama. "We cannot insult him by forcing our company upon him  now, when he does not wish it. But there is danger out there, especially for one born again such as he. I would that we knew how he spends his hours."

  "But whatever he  does,  it  is helping  him to  recover," said  Ratri, gulping a sweetmeat  and waving a  fleshy hand.  "He  is less  withdrawn. He speaks more, even jesting. He drinks of the wine we bring him.  His appetite is returning."

  "Yet, if  he should meet with an agent of  Trimurti, the final doom may come to pass."

  Ratri chewed  slowly.  "It  is not likely, though, that such should  be abroad in  this country,  in these days," she stated. "The  animals will see him as a child and will not harm him.  Men would consider him a holy hermit. The demons fear him of old, and so respect him."

  But Yama shook  his head.  "Lady,  it is not  so simple. Though I  have dismantled much of my machinery and hidden it hundreds of leagues from here, such  a massive  trafficking  of energies as I employed  cannot have  passed unnoticed. Sooner or later this place will  be visited.  I  used screens and baffling  devices, but this  general  area  must have  appeared  in  certain quarters as though the Universal Fire did a dance upon the map. Soon we must move on. I should prefer to wait until our charge is fully recovered, but. . ."

  "Could not certain natural forces have produced the same energy effects as your workings?"

  "Yes, and they do occur  in this vicinity, which is  why I  chose it as our base- so  it  may well be that nothing will come  of it. Still, I doubt this. My spies in the villages report no unusual  activities now. But on the day of his return, riding upon the crest of the storm, some say the  thunder chariot passed, hunting through the heavens and across the countryside. This was far from here, but I cannot believe that there was no connection."

  "Yet, it has not returned."

  "Not that we know of. But I fear . . ."

  "Then  let us depart at  once. I respect your forebodings too well. You have more of the  power upon you than any other among the Fallen. For me, it is  a  great  strain  even  to assume a  pleasing shape for more than  a few minutes . . ."

  "What powers  I  possess," said Yama, refilling her teacup, "are intact because they were not of the same order as yours."

  He smiled then, showing even rows of  long, brilliant teeth. This smile caught at the edge of a scar upon his left cheek and reached up to the comer of his eye. He winked to put a period to it and continued, "Much of my power is in the form of knowledge,  which  even the Lords of Karma could  not have wrested from me. The power of most  of the gods, however, is predicated upon a  special physiology, which they  lose in part when  incarnated into a  new body.  The mind, somehow remembering,  after  a time  alters any body  to  a certain extent,  engendering a new homeostasis, permitting  a gradual return of power. Mine does return quickly, though, and it is with me fully now. But even if it were not, I have my knowledge to use as  a weapon- and that is a power."

  Ratri sipped  her tea. "Whatever  its source, if your power  says move, then move we must. How soon?"

  Yama opened a pouch of tobacco  and rolled a cigarette as he spoke. His dark, supple fingers, she noted, always  had about then: movement that which was like the movements of one who played upon an instrument of music.

  "I should say let us not tarry here more than another week or ten days. We must wean him from this countryside by then."

  She nodded. "Where to then?"

  "Some  small  southern  kingdom,  perhaps,  where  we may  come  and go undisturbed."

  He lit the cigarette, breathed smoke.

  "I\'ve a  better idea," said she. "Know  that under  a  mortal name am I mistress of the Palace of Kama in Khaipur."

  "The Fornicatorium, madam?"

  She frowned. "As such is it often known to  the vulgar, and do not call me \'madam\' in the same breath- it smacks of an ancient jest. It is  a place of rest, pleasure, holiness and much of my revenue. There,  I feel, would be a good hiding place for our  charge while  he makes  his recovery and we our plans."

  Yama  slapped his  thigh. "Aye! Aye!  Who would think to  look  for the Buddha in a whorehouse? Good! Excellent! To Khaipur, then, dear goddess- to Khaipur and the Palace of Love!"

  She stood and stamped her sandal upon the flagstones. "I will not  have you speak that way of my establishment!"

  He dropped his  eyes, and with pain dropped the grin from his  face. He stood then and bowed. "I apologize, dear  Ratri, but  the revelation came so sudden- " He choked then and looked  away. When he looked back, he was full of  sobriety and  decorum.  He  continued, "That I was taken  aback  by  the apparent incongruity. Now, though, I do see the wisdom of the thing. It is a most  perfect cover-up, and  it  provides you both with wealth  and, what is more  important,  with a  source of privy information among  the  merchants, warriors and priests. It is an indispensable part of the community. It gives you  status and  a voice in civil affairs. Being a god is one of  the oldest professions in the world. It is only fitting, therefore, that we fallen ones take umbrage within the pale of another venerable tradition. I salute you. I give  thanks  for  your  wisdom  and  forethought.  I  do  not  slander  the enterprises of a benefactor and coconspirator.  In  fact, I look  forward to the visit."

  She smiled and seated  herself  once  more. "I accept  your  well-oiled apology, oh son of the serpent. In any event, it is too difficult to  remain angry with you. Pour me some more tea, please."

  They reclined, Ratri sipping  her tea, Yama smoking. In the distance, a storm front  drew a curtain across  half the prospect. The  sun still  shone upon them, however, and a cool breeze visited the porch.

  "You have seen the ring, the ring of iron which he wears?" asked Ratri, eating another sweetmeat.

  "Yes."

  "Know you where he obtained it?"

  "I do not."

  "Nor I. But I feel we should learn its origin."

  "Aye."

  "How shall we essay this thing?"

  "I have assigned the  chore to Tak, who is better suited to the ways of the forest than we. Even now he follows the trail."

  Ratri nodded. "Good," she said.

  "I have heard," said Yama, "that the gods  do  still occasionally visit the more notable palaces of Kama throughout the land, generally in disguise, but sometimes in full power. Is this true?"

  "Yes. But a  year  ago did Lord Indra come to Khaipur. Some three years back, the  false Krishna  made  a visit. Of all the Celestial party, Krishna the  Tireless  does  cause the  greatest consternation among  the  staff. He stayed for  a  month of riot, which  involved much broken furniture and  the services  of  many  physicians. He did  near empty the wine cellar  and  the larder.  He played then  upon his  pipes one  night, however, the hearing of which would have  been  enough  to gain the old Krishna forgiveness for near anything. But  it  was not the true magic we heard that night, for  there is only  one true Krishna- swart and  hairy, his eyes so red and blazing. This one  did  dance  upon  the  tables,  causing  much  havoc,  and his  musical accompaniment was insufficient."

  "Paid he for this carnage with other than a song?"

  She laughed.  "Come  now, Yama. Let there  be  no  rhetorical questions between us."

  He snorted smoke.

  "Surya,  the  sun, is now about to be encompassed," said Ratri, staring out  and upward, "and Indra slays the dragon. At any moment,  the rains will arrive."

  A  wave  of  grayness  covered  over  the  monastery. The  breeze  grew stronger, and  the  dance of  the waters began upon the walls. Like a beaded curtain, the rain covered that open end of the porch at which they stared.

  Yama poured more tea. Ratri ate another sweetmeat.

  Tak made his way through the forest. He moved from tree to tree, branch to branch, watching the trail below him. His fur  was moist, for  the leaves shook small showers  down upon him as he passed. Clouds mounted at his back, but the sun of early morning still shone in the  eastern sky and the  forest was a  swarm of colors in its red-gold light. About him, birds  were singing from within  the tangle  of branches, vines,  leaves and grasses that  stood like  a wall upon  either side  of  the trail. The birds made  their  music, insects hummed and occasionally there was a growl  or  bark. The foliage was stirred by the wind. Below him, the trail bent sharply, entering a clearing. Tak  dropped  to  the  ground,  proceeded on  foot. At the other side of the clearing he took to the  trees again. Now, he noticed, the trail was running parallel to the mountains, even inclining slightly back in  their direction. There was a distant rattle of thunder and after a time a new breeze came up, cool. He swung on,  breaking  through moist  spider webs,  frightening birds into shrieking flurries of bright plumage. The trail  continued to  move  in the direction of the mountains,  slowly doubling back upon itself. At times, it met with other hard-packed,  yellow trails,  dividing, crossing, parting. On these occasions,  he  descended  to the  ground and studied  the  surface markings.  Yes, Sam  had turned here; Sam had  stopped beside  this pool  to drink- here, where the orange  mushrooms grew taller  than a tall  man, and wide  enough  to shelter several from  the rains; now, Sam  had  taken  that branch of the  roadway; here, he had stopped to fix a sandal strap;  at this point,  he had  leaned upon  a tree, which showed indications  of housing  a dryad. . . .

  Tak moved on, about half  an hour behind  his quarry, as he judged it- so giving him plenty of time to get to wherever  he was  going  and to begin whatever activity  so  engaged  his enthusiasms. A  halo  of heat  lightning reached above the mountains he was now facing. There was  another rumble  of thunder.  The  trail  headed on  up into  the foothills,  where  the  forest thinned, and  Tak moved  on  all fours amid tall grasses. It headed steadily upward, and  rocky  outcroppings became  more and more prominent. Still, Sam had passed this way, so Tak followed.

  Overhead,  the pollen-colored Bridge of the Gods vanished as the clouds rolled  steadily  eastward. Lightning flashed, and now the  thunder followed quickly. The wind came faster here in the open; the grasses bent down before it; the temperature seemed suddenly to plummet.

  Tak felt  the first drops of rain and dashed for the  shelter of one of the  stands of stone. It ran like a narrow hedge,  slightly slanted  against the  rain. Tak moved along its base  as  the waters were unleashed and color deserted the world along with the last bit of blue in the sky.

  A sea of turbulent light  appeared  overhead, and three  times  spilled streams that rode crazy crescendo down to splash upon the stone fang curving blackly into the wind, about a quarter mile up the slope.

  When Tak\'s vision  cleared, he saw that which he did now understand. It was as though each bolt that had fallen had left a part of itself, standing, swaying in  the gray  air, pulsing  fires,  despite the  wetness  that  came steadily down upon the ground.

  Then Tak heard  the laughter- or was it a ghost sound left in his ears by the recent thunder?

  No, it was laughter- gigantic, unhuman!

  After a time, there came a  howl of rage. Then there was another flash, another rumble.

  Another funnel of fire swayed beside the stone fang.

  Tak lay  still for about five minutes. Then it  came again-  the howl, followed by three bright flashes and the crash.

  Now there were seven pillars of fire. Dared he approach, skirting these things, spying upon the fang peak from its opposite side?

  And if he did, and if-  as he  felt-  Sam was  somehow involved, what good  could  he do if  the  Enlightened  One  himself could  not  handle the situation?

  He had no answer,  but he found himself moving forward, crouched low in the damp grass, swinging far to his left.

  When he was halfway there it happened again,  and  ten  of  the  things towered, red and gold  and  yellow,  drifting  and  returning, drifting  and returning, as though their bases were rooted to the ground.

  He  crouched there wet and shivering, examined his courage and found it to be a  small thing indeed. Yet, he pushed  on until he was parallel to the strange place, then past it.

  He drew up  behind  it,  finding  himself  in the  midst  of many large stones. Grateful  for  their shelter  and the  cover  they  provided against observation from  below,  he inched forward, never taking his eyes from  the fang.

  He could  see now that it was partly hollow.  There  was a dry, shallow cave at its  base, and two figures knelt  within it. Holy men  at prayer? He wondered.

  Then it happened.  The  most frightful  flashing  he had ever seen came down upon  the stones-  not once, or for a  mere  instant. It  was  as if a fire-tongued beast licked and licked about the stone, growling as it did so, for perhaps a quarter of a minute.

  When Tak opened his eyes, he counted twenty of the blazing towers.

  One of  the holy men  leaned forward, gestured. The  other laughed. The sound carried to where Tak  lay, and the  words: "Eyes  of the serpent! Mine now!"

  "What is  the  quantity?"  asked the second, and Tak knew it to  be the voice of Great-Souled Sam.

  "Twice, or  none  at all!"  roared  the  other,  and he leaned forward, rocked back, then gestured as Sam had done.

  "Nina from  Srinagina!"  he chanted,  and leaned,  rocked, and gestured once more.

  "Sacred seven," Sam said softly.

  The other howled.

  Tak closed  his eyes and  covered  his ears,  expecting what might come after that howl.

  Nor was he mistaken.

  When the blaze and the tumult had passed, he looked down upon an eerily illuminated scene. He did not bother counting. It was apparent that forty of the  flame  like things now hung about the place, casting  their weird glow: their number had doubled.

  The  ritual continued. On the  left hand of the  Buddha,  the iron ring glowed with a pale, greenish light all its own.

  He heard the words "Twice, or none at all" repeated again, and he heard the Buddha say "Sacred seven" once more, in reply.

  This  time  he thought  the  mountainside would come apart beneath him. This time he thought the  brightness was  an afterimage,  tattooed upon  his retina through closed eyelids. But he was wrong.

  When  he  opened his  eyes  it  was  to look upon a veritable  army  of shifting thunderbolts. Their blaze jabbed  into his brain, and he shaded his eyes to stare down below.

  "Well, Raltariki?" asked Sam, and a  bright emerald light played  about his left hand.

  "One time again, Siddhartha. Twice, or not at all."

  The rains let up for a moment, and, in the great blaze from the host on the hillside, Tak saw that the one called Raltariki had the  head of a water buffalo and an extra pair of arms.

  He shivered.

  He covered his eyes  and ears and  clenched his teeth, waiting. After a time, it happened. It roared and blazed,  going  on and on until finally  he lost consciousness.

  When he recovered  his senses, there  was only a grayness and a  gentle rain between  himself and the sheltering rock.  At its base only one  figure sat, and  it did not  wear  horns or  appear to possess more  arms than  the customary two.

  Tak did not move. He waited.

  "This," said Yama, handing him an aerosol,  "is demon repellent. In the future, I  suggest you annoint  yourself thoroughly  if you intend venturing very  far from the monastery. I had thought this region free of the Rakasha, or I would have given it to you sooner."

  Tak accepted the container, placed it on the table before him.

  They sat  in Yama\'s  chambers,  having taken  a light meal  there. Yama leaned back in his  chair,  a glass of the Buddha\'s wine in his left hand, a half-filled decanter in his right.

  "Then the one called Raltariki is really a demon?" asked Tak.

  "Yes-  and  no," said  Yama,  "If  by  \'demon\'  you  mean  a  malefic, supernatural creature, possessed of great powers, life span and  the ability to temporarily assume virtually any  shape- then  the answer is no. This is the generally accepted definition, but it is untrue in one respect."

  "Oh? And what may that be?"

  "It is not a supernatural creature."

  "But it is all those other things?"

  "Yes."

  "Then I fail to see what difference it makes whether it be supernatural or not- so long as it is malefic, possesses great powers and life span  and has the ability to change its shape at will."

  "Ah, but  it  makes a great  deal of  difference, you  see.  It  is the difference between the  unknown  and  the  unknowable,  between  science and fantasy-  it  is a  matter  of  essence.  The four points of the compass be logic,  knowledge,  wisdom  and the unknown.  Some  do  bow  in  that  final direction. Others advance upon it. To bow before the one is to lose sight of the three. I may submit to the unknown, but never to the unknowable. The man who bows in  that final direction is either a saint or a fool. I have no use for either."

  Tak shrugged and sipped his wine. "But of the demons. . . ?"

  "Knowable. I did experiment with them  for many years, and I was one of the Four who descended into Hellwell,  if you recall, after Taraka fled Lord Agni at Palamaidsu. Are you not Tak of the Archives?"

  "I was."

  "Did you read then of the earliest recorded contacts with the Rakasha?"

  "I read the accounts of the days of their binding. . . "

  "Then you know that they are the native inhabitants of this world, that they were present here before the arrival of Man from vanished Urath."

  "Yes."

  "They are creatures of energy, rather than matter. Their own traditions have  it that  once  they  wore  bodies, lived in  cities.  Their  quest for personal  immortality, however, led  them along a  different  path from that which  Man  followed. They found  a way to perpetuate themselves  as  stable fields of energy. They abandoned their bodies to live forever as vortices of force.  But  pure intellect  they  are  not.  They carried  with them  their complete egos,  and born of matter they do ever lust after the flesh. Though they can  assume  its  appearance for  a  time,  they cannot  return  to  it unassisted.  For ages  they did drift  aimlessly about this world. Then  the arrival of Man  stirred them from their quiescence. They took  on the shapes of his nightmares  to devil  him. This is why  they had  to be  defeated and bound, far beneath the  Ratnagaris. We could  not destroy them all. We could not  permit  them to  continue  their attempts  to  possess the machines  of incarnation and  the bodies of  men. So  they were trapped and  contained in great magnetic bottles."

  "Yet Sam freed many to do his will," said Tak.

  "Aye. He made and kept a nightmare  pact, so that some of them do still walk the world.  Of all men, they respect  perhaps only Siddhartha. And with all men do they share one great vice."

  "That being. . .?"

  "They do  dearly  love  to gamble.  . .  . They will make game for  any stakes, and  gambling debts are their only point of honor. This must  be so, or they would  not hold the  confidence of other gamesters and would so lose that  which is perhaps their only  pleasure. Their powers being  great, even princes will make  game with them,  hoping  to win their  services. Kingdoms have been lost in this fashion."

  "If," said Tak, "as you feel, Sam was playing one of the  ancient games with Raltariki, what could the stakes have been?"

  Yama  finished his wine, refilled the glass. "Sam  is a fool. No, he is not. He  is a gambler. There is a difference. The Rakasha  do control lesser orders of energy beings. Sam, through that ring he wears, does now command a guard of  fire elementals, which he  won  from Raltariki. These  are deadly, mindless creatures- and each bears the force of a thunderbolt."

  Tak finished his  wine. "But what stakes  could Sam have brought to the game?"

  Yama sighed. "All my work, all our efforts for over half a century."

  "You mean- his body?"

  Yama nodded. "A human body is the highest inducement any demon might be offered."

  "Why should Sam risk such a venture?"

  Yama stared at Tak, not seeing him. "It must have been  the only way he could call upon his life-will, to bind him again to his task

  - by placing himself in  jeopardy, by casting his very  existence with each roll of the dice."

  Tak  poured  himself  another glass  of wine and  gulped  it. "That  is unknowable to me," he said.

  But  Yama  shook  his head.  "Unknown, only," he  told him. "Sam is not quite a saint, nor is he a fool."

  "Almost, though,"  Yama  decided,  and  that  night  he squirted  demon repellent about the monastery.

  The following morning, a small  man approached the monastery and seated himself before its  front entrance, placing  a begging bowl on the ground at his feet. He wore a single, threadbare garment of coarse, brown cloth, which reached to his ankles. A black patch covered his  left eye. What remained of his  hair was dark and very long. His sharp nose, small chin, and high, flat ears gave to  his face  a foxlike appearance. His skin  was tight-drawn  and well-weathered. His single, green eye seemed never to blink.

  He  sat there  for  perhaps twenty  minutes before  one  of Sam\'s monks noticed him and mentioned the fact to one of Ratri\'s dark-robed Order.  This monk located a priest and passed the information to him. The priest, anxious to  impress the goddess  with the  virtues of  her  followers,  sent for the beggar to  be brought in and fed, offered  new garments and given a cell  in which to sleep for as long as he chose to remain.

  The  beggar  accepted  the food  with  the courtesies of a Brahmin, but declined to eat anything other than bread  and fruit.  He accepted, too, the dark  garment  of Ratri\'s Order,  casting aside his begrimed smock. Then  he looked upon the cell and the fresh sleeping mat that had been laid for him.

  "I do thank you, worthy priest," he said, in a voice rich and resonant, and altogether  larger  than his  person. "I do  thank  you,  and pray  your goddess smile upon you for your kindness and generosity in her name."

  The  priest smiled at this himself,  and still hoped that  Ratri  might pass  along  the hall at that moment, to witness his kindness and generosity in  her name. She did not, however. Few of her Order had actually  seen her, even on the night when she put on her power and  walked among them: for only those of the saffron robe had attended Sam\'s  awakening and  were certain as to his identity. She generally moved about the monastery while her followers were at prayer or after they  had retired for the  evening. She slept mainly during the  day;  when  she did  cross their sight she was  well-muffled and cloaked; her  wishes and orders she communicated directly  to  Gandhiji, the head of the Order, who  was ninety-three years old this cycle, and more than half blind.

  Consequently, both  her monks and those of the saffron robe wondered as to her appearance and sought to gain possible favor in her eyes. It was said that  her blessing  would  ensure one\'s being incarnated as  a Brahmin. Only Gandhiji did not care, for he had accepted the way of the real death.

  Since she did not pass along  the hall as they stood  there, the priest prolonged the conversation, "I am Balarma," he stated. "May I inquire  as to your name, good sir, and perhaps your destination?"

  "I am  Aram,"  said the beggar, "who has taken upon himself  a ten-year vow  of poverty,  and  of silence for seven.  Fortunately,  the  seven  have elapsed,  that  I may  now  speak to  thank my benefactors and answer  their questions. I am heading up into the mountains to find  me a cave where I may meditate  and pray. I may, perhaps, accept your kindly hospitality for a few days, before proceeding on with my journey."

  "Indeed," said Balarma, "we should be honored if a holy one were to see fit  to bless our monastery with his presence. We will make  you welcome. If there is anything you wish to assist you along your path, and we may be able to grant this thing, please name it to us."

  Aram fixed him with his unblinking green eye  and said, "The  monk  who first observed me did not wear  the robe of your Order." He touched the dark garment  as he said it. "Instead, I  believe  my poor  eye did behold one of another color."

  "Yes," said  Balarma, "for  the followers of the Buddha do shelter here among us, resting awhile from their wanderings."

  "That  is truly  interesting," said Aram, "for I should like  to  speak with them and perhaps learn more of their Way."

  "You should have ample opportunity if you choose to remain among us for a time."

  "This then shall I do. For how long will they remain?"

  "I do not know."

  Aram nodded. "When might I speak with them?"

  "This  evening there  will be an  hour when  all the monks are gathered together and free to speak as they would, save for those who have taken vows of silence."

  "I  shall pass  the interval till then in  prayer," said  Aram.  "Thank you."

  Each bowed slightly, and Aram entered his room.

  That  evening, Aram attended the community  hour of the monks. Those of both Orders did mingle at this time  and engage in conversation. Sam did not attend it himself, nor did Tak; and Yama never attended it in person.

  Aram seated  himself at the long  table  in the refectory, across  from several  of  the  Buddha\'s  monks.  He  talked  for  some  time with  these, discoursing  on  doctrine and  practice, caste  and creed,  weather  and the affairs of the day.

  "It seems strange," he said  after a  while,  "that those of your Order have come so far to the south and the west so suddenly."

  "We are a wandering Order," replied the monk to whom he had spoken. "We follow the wind. We follow our hearts."

  "To the  land of rusted  soil  in  the season  of  lightnings? Is there perhaps some revelation to occur hereabout, which  might be  enlarging to my spirit were I to behold it?"

  "The  entire universe is  a revelation," said  the  monk.  "All  things change, yet all things remain. Day follows night. . . each day is different, yet  each is day.  Much  of  the world is illusion, yet the  forms  of  that illusion follow a pattern which is a part of divine reality."

  "Yes,  yes," said  Aram.  "In the  ways  of illusion  and reality am  I well-versed, but by  my  inquiry  I did mean  to know whether  perhaps a new teacher had arisen in  this vicinity, or some old one returned,  or mayhap a divine  manifestation, the presence of which it might profit  my soul  to be aware."

  As  he spoke,  the  beggar  brushed from  the table before him  a  red, crawling beetle, the size of a thumbnail, and he moved his sandal  as  if to crush it.

  "Pray, brother, do not harm it," said the monk. "But they are  all over the place, and the Masters of Karma have stated that a man cannot be made to return as an insect, and the killing of an insect is a karmically inoperative act."

  "Nevertheless,"  said the monk,  "all life being one, in this monastery all do practice the doctrine of ahimsa and refrain from taking  life  of any sort."

  "Yet," said Aram, "Patanjali does state that it is the intention rather than the act  which governs.  Therefore, if I killed  with  love rather than malice, it would be as if I had not killed. I confess that this was not  the case and  that malice was present- therefore, even if I did not  kill  I do bear the burden of the guilt because of the presence of that intention. So I could step  upon it  now  and be none  the  worse for it, according  to  the principle of ahimsa. Since I am  a  guest,  however, I of course respect the practice and do not do this thing." With this, he moved his sandal away from the insect, which stood immobile, reddish antennae pricked upward.

  "Indeed, he is a scholar," said one of the Order of Ratri.

  Aram smiled.  "Thank you, but it is  not so," he  stated.  "I am only a humble  seeker of truth, and on occasion in  the past have I been privileged to  overhear  the  discourses  of  the learned.  Would  that  I  might be so privileged  again! If  there  were some  great  teacher  or  scholar  in the vicinity, then I would most surely walk across a  bed of hot coals to sit at his feet and to hear his words or observe his example. If- "

  He stopped then, for all  eyes had suddenly turned upon the doorway  at his  back. He did not move  his head, but reached out to crush a beetle that stood near his hand. The tip of a small crystal and two tiny wires protruded through the broken chitin of its back.

  Then he turned, his green eye sweeping across the  row  of monks seated between himself and the doorway, and he looked upon Yama, who wore breeches, boots, shirt, sash, cloak and  gloves all of red, and about whose  head  was twisted a turban the color of blood.

  "\'If?\'" said  Yama. "You  were saying \'if\'? If some sage or some avatar of the godhead  resided in  the  vicinity,  you  should  like  to  make  his acquaintance? Is that what you were saying, stranger?"

  The beggar  rose from the table. He bowed.  "I  am Aram," he stated, "a fellow seeker and traveler with all who wish enlightenment."

  Yama did not return the salute. "Why  do you spell your name  backward, Lord of Illusion, when all your words and actions herald it before you?"

  The beggar shrugged. "I do not understand what you say."

  But the smile came again to his lips.  "I am one who seeks the Path and the Right," he added.

  "I  find that  hard  to believe, after  witnessing at  least a thousand years of your treachery."

  "You speak of the lifetime of gods."

  "Unfortunately, I do. You have made a serious mistake, Mara."

  "What may that be?"

  "You feel that you must be permitted to leave here alive."

  "I admit that I anticipate doing so."

  "Not  considering  the numerous accidents  which  might befall  a  lone traveler in this wild region."

  "I have been a lone traveler for many years. Accidents always happen to other people."

  "You might believe that  even if your  body were  destroyed here,  your atman  would  be transferred remotely to another  body located  elsewhere. I understand  that someone has  deciphered  my notes,  and  the  trick is  now possible."

  The  beggar\'s  brows  moved  a  quarter  of an  inch  lower and  closer together.

  "You do  not  realize the forces  which even now contain this building, defending against any such transfer."

  The beggar stepped to  the center of the  room. "Yama," he stated, "you are a fool if  you  think to match your puny  fallen powers against those of the Dreamer."

  "Perhaps this is so. Lord Mara," Yama  replied, "but  I have waited too long  for this  opportunity  to postpone it further. Remember  my promise at Keenset? If you wish to  continue your chain of existence  you  will have to pass through this, the only door to this room,  which I  bar. Nothing beyond this room can help you now."

  Mara then raised his hands, and the fires were born.

  Everything was flaming. Flames leapt from the stone walls,  the tables, the robes of the monks. Smoke billowed and curled about the room. Yama stood in the midst of a conflagration, but he did not move.

  "Is that the best you can do?"  he asked. "Your flames  are everywhere, but nothing burns."

  Mara clapped his hands and the flames vanished.

  In their place,  its swaying  head held at almost twice the height of a man,  its silver  hood fanned, the  mechobra  drew  into its S-shaped strike position.

  Yama ignored it, his shadowy gaze reaching now like the probe of a dark insect, boring into Mara\'s single eye.

  The mechobra faded in mid-strike. Yama strode forward.

  Mara fell back a pace.

  They stood  thus for perhaps  three heartbeats, then Yama moved forward two paces farther and Mara backed away  again.  Perspiration blistered  upon both their brows.

  The beggar now stood  taller and his hair was heavier;  he was  thicker about the  waist  and  broader  across  the  shoulders. A certain grace, not previously apparent, accompanied all his movements.

  He fell back another step.

  "Yes,  Mara, there is a  deathgod,"  said  Yama between clenched teeth. "Fallen or no, the real  death dwells in my eyes. You must  meet  them. When you reach the wall you can back no farther. Feel the strength go out of your limbs. Feel the coldness begin in your hands and your feet."

  Mara\'s teeth bared in a snarl.  His neck  was as thick as a bull\'s. His biceps  were  as big about  as a man\'s thighs. His  chest was  a  barrel  of strength and his legs were like great trees of the forest.

  "Coldness?"  he  asked, extending his arms. "I can  break a  giant with these hands, Yama. What  are you but a  banished carrion god? Your frown may claim the aged and the infirm. Your eyes may chill dumb animals and those of the  lower classes of men.  I stand as high above you  as a  star above  the ocean\'s bottom."

  Yama\'s  red-gloved  hands fell like a pair  of cobras upon his  throat. "Then try  that strength which you so mock. Dreamer. You have taken  on  the appearance of power. Use it! Best me not with words!"

  His cheeks and forehead bloomed scarlet  as Yama\'s hands tightened upon his throat. His eye seemed to leap, a green search-light sweeping the world.

  Mara fell to his knees. "Enough, Lord  Yama!" he  gasped. "Wouldst slay thyself?"

  He  changed. His features  flowed,  as  though he  lay beneath restless waters.

  Yama looked down upon his own face, saw his own  red  hands plucking at his wrists.

  "You grow  desperate  now, Mara, as the life leaves you. But Yama is no child, that he fears breaking the mirror you have become.  Try your last, or die like a man, it is all the same in the end."

  But once more there was a flowing and a change.

  This time Yama hesitated, breaking his strength.

  Her  bronze  hair fell upon his hands. Her pale eyes  pleaded with him. Caught about her throat was  a necklace of  ivory skulls, but slightly paler than her flesh. Her sari was the color of  blood.  Her hands rested upon his own, almost caressing. . .

  "Goddess!" he hissed.

  "You would not slay Kali . . . ? Durga . . . ?" she choked.

  "Wrong again, Mara," he  whispered.  "Did  you not know  that each  man kills  the thing he loved?" and with this his hands twisted, and there was a sound of breaking bones.

  "Tenfold be  your damnation," he said, his eyes tightly closed.  "There shall be no rebirth."

  His  hands came open then. A  tall, nobly proportioned man lay upon the floor at his feet, his head resting upon his right shoulder.

  His eye had finally closed.

  Yama turned the corpse with the toe of his boot. "Build a pyre and burn this body," he  said to the monks, not turning toward them. "Spare  none  of the rites. One of the highest has died this day."

  Then he  removed his eyes  from this work of his hands, turned upon his heel and left the room.

  That evening  the lightnings fled across the  skies and the  rain  came down like bullets from Heaven.

  The four of them sat  in the chamber in  the high tower that rose  from the northeast corner of the monastery.

  Yama paced the room, stopping at the window each time he came to it.

  The others sat watching him, listening.

  "They suspect," he  told them, "but  they do not know.  They  would not ravage the  monastery of a fellow god, displaying before men the division of their ranks- not  unless they were certain. They were not  certain, so they investigated. This means that time is still with us."

  They nodded.

  "A Brahmin who  renounced the world to find his soul  passed  this way, suffered an accident,  died here the real death.  His body was burnt and his ashes cast into the river that leads to the sea. This is what  occurred. . . . The wandering monks of the Enlightened One were visiting at the time. They moved on shortly after this occurrence. Who knows where they went?"

  Tak stood as nearly erect as he could.

  "Lord  Yama," he stated,  "while it  may  hold  for a week,  a month - possibly even longer- this story will come apart in the hands of the Master to judge the first of any of those here present in this  monastery who  pass within the  Halls of Karma.  Under the circumstances, I believe some of them may achieve early judgment for just this reason. What then?"

  Yama rolled a cigarette  with care and precision. "It  must be arranged that what I said is what actually occurred."

  "How can  that  be? When a man\'s brain is subject to karmic  play-back, all the events he has witnessed in  his most recent  cycle of life  are laid out before his judge and the machine, like a scroll."

  "That is correct," said Yama. "And have you. Tak of the Archives, never heard of a  palimpsest-  a scroll which has been used previously,  cleaned, and then used again?"

  "Of course, but the mind is not a scroll."

  "No?" Yama smiled. "Well, it was your simile  to begin with,  not mine. What\'s truth, anyway? Truth is what you make it."

  He  lit  his  cigarette.  "These  monks  have witnessed a  strange  and terrible  thing," he continued. "They  saw me take on my Aspect and wield an Attribute. They saw Mara do the same- here, in this monastery where we have revived  the  principle  of ahimsa. They are  aware that  a god may do  such things  without  karmic burden, but the  shock was great  and the impression vivid. And the final  burning is still to come. By the time of that burning, the tale I have told you must be true in their minds."

  "How?" asked Ratri.

  "This very night, this very hour," he said, "while the image of the act flames  within their consciousness and  their thoughts are troubled, the new truth will be forged and nailed  into place. . . . Sam, you have rested long enough. This thing is  now  yours to  do. You must preach them a sermon. You must call forth within them those nobler sentiments and higher qualities  of spirit which  make men  subject to divine meddling.  Ratri  and I will  then combine our powers and a new truth will be born."

  Sam shifted and dropped his eyes. "I don\'t know  if I can  do it.  It\'s been so long. . ."

  "Once  a  Buddha, always  a Buddha,  Sam.  Dust  off some  of  your old parables. You have about fifteen minutes."

  Sam held out his hand. "Give me some tobacco and a paper."

  He  accepted the  package,  rolled himself a cigarette. "Light?  . .  . Thanks."

  He drew in  deeply, exhaled, coughed. "I\'m tired  of lying to them," he finally said. "I guess that\'s what it really is."

  "Lying?"  asked Yama. "Who asked you to lie about anything? Quote  them the Sermon  on the Mount,  if you want. Or something from  the Popul Voh, or the Iliad.  I don\'t  care what you say. Just stir them a bit, soothe them  a little. That\'s all I ask."

  "Then what?"

  "Then? Then I shall proceed to save them- and us!"

  Sam nodded slowly. "When you put it that way . . . but I\'m a little out of shape when  it comes to this sort  of thing. Sure,  I\'ll find me a couple truths and throw in a few pieties- but make it twenty minutes."

  "Twenty  minutes,  then.  And afterward we pack. Tomorrow we  leave for Khaipur."

  "So soon?" asked Tak.

  Yama shook his head. "So late," he said.

  The  monks were seated upon the  floor of the refectory. The tables had been moved  back against the  walls. The insects had vanished. Outside,  the rain continued to fall.

  Great-Souled  Sam, the  Enlightened  One, entered  and  seated  himself before them.

  Ratri came in dressed as a Buddhist nun, and veiled.

  Yama and Ratri moved to the back of  the room and settled to the floor. Somewhere, Tak too, was listening.

  Sam sat with his eyes closed for several minutes, then said softly:

  "I have  many  names, and none  of  them matter."  He opened  his  eyes slightly  then, but  he did not move his  head.  He  looked  upon nothing in particular.

  "Names are not important," he said. "To speak is to  name names, but to speak is not important. A thing happens once that has never happened before. Seeing it, a man looks upon reality. He cannot tell others what he has seen. Others wish to know, however, so they question him saying, \'What is it like, this thing you have seen?\' So he tries to tell them. Perhaps he has seen the very  first fire in the  world. He tells them, \'It is red, like a poppy, but through  it dance  other  colors.  It  has  no  form,  like  water,  flowing everywhere. It is warm, like the sun of summer, only warmer. It exists for a time  upon  a piece of wood, and  then the  wood is gone, as though it  were eaten, leaving behind that which is black and can  be sifted like sand. When the wood is gone, it too is gone.\' Therefore, the hearers must think reality is  like  a  poppy,  like water,  like  the sun, like that  which  eats  and excretes. They think it is like to anything that they are told it is like by the man who has known it.  But they have not  looked  upon fire. They cannot really know  it.  They  can only know of it.  But fire  comes again into the world, many times. More men look upon fire. After a time, fire is  as common as grass and  clouds and the  air they breathe. They see  that, while  it is like a poppy, it  is not a  poppy, while it is like water, it is not  water, while it is like the sun, it is not the sun, and while it is like that which eats and passes wastes,  it  is not  that which  eats and passes wastes, but something different from each  of  these apart or all of  these together. So they look upon this new thing and they make a new word to call it. They call it \'fire.\'

  "If they come upon one who  still has not seen it and they speak to him of fire, he does  not know what they mean.  So they, in turn, fall back upon telling him  what fire  is like. As they do  so, they  know  from  their own experience that what they are telling him is  not the truth, but only a part of it. They know  that  this  man will never  know reality from their words, though all the words in the world are theirs to use. He must  look upon  the fire, smell of  it,  warm  his hands by it, stare into its  heart, or remain forever  ignorant. Therefore, \'fire\' does not  matter, \'earth\' and \'air\' and \'water\' do not matter. \'I\' do not  matter. No  word matters. But man forgets reality and remembers words.  The more words  he remembers, the cleverer  do his fellows  esteem him.  He  looks  upon the  great  transformations of the world,  but  he does  not see them as they  were seen when man  looked  upon reality for the first time. Their names come to his lips and he smiles as he tastes them, thinking he knows them in the naming.  The thing that has never happened before is still happening. It is still a miracle. The great burning blossom squats, flowing,  upon the  limb  of the world, excreting the ash of the world, and being none of these things I  have named and at the same time all of them, and this is reality- the Nameless.

  "Therefore,  I charge you- forget the names you bear, forget the words I speak  as soon as they are uttered. Look, rather, upon the Nameless within yourselves, which arises as I address it. It hearkens not to  my  words, but to the reality within me,  of which  it  is part.  This is the  atman, which hears me rather than my words. All else is unreal. To define is to lose. The essence of  all things is the Nameless. The Nameless is unknowable, mightier even than Brahma. Things pass, but  the essence remains. You sit, therefore, in the midst of a dream.

  "Essence  dreams it a  dream  of  form.  Forms  pass,  but  the essence remains, dreaming new dreams.  Man  names these  dreams and thinks  to  have captured the essence, not knowing that  he invokes the unreal. These stones, these walls, these bodies you see seated about you are poppies and water and the sun. They are the dreams of the Nameless. They are fire, if you like.

  "Occasionally, there  may come  a dreamer  who  is  aware  that  he  is dreaming. He  may control something of  the dream-stuff, bending  it to  his will, or  he may awaken into greater self-knowledge. If he chooses  the path of self-knowledge, his glory is great and he shall be for all ages like unto a star. If he chooses instead  the way of the Tantras, combining Samsara and Nirvana, comprehending the world and continuing to live  in it, this one  is mighty among dreamers. He may be mighty for good or for ill, as we look upon him-  though these terms, too,  are meaningless,  outside of the namings of Samsara.

  "To dwell within Samsara, however,  is to  be subject  to the  works of those  who are  mighty among dreamers. If they be  mighty for good, it  is a golden time. If they be mighty for ill, it  is a time of darkness. The dream may turn to nightmare.

  "It is written that  to live is  to suffer. This is  so, say the sages, for man must work off his burden of Karma if he is to achieve enlightenment. For this reason, say the sages, what does it profit a man to struggle within a dream against that which  is his lot, which is the path he must follow  to attain  liberation?  In the light  of eternal  values,  say the  sages,  the suffering is as nothing; in the terms of Samsara, say the sages, it leads to that which is good. What justification,  then, has a man to struggle against those who be mighty for ill?"

  He paused for a moment, raised his head higher.

  "This  night the Lord of Illusion passed among you- Mara, mighty among dreamers- mighty for ill. He  did come upon another who  may  work with the stuff of dreams in a different way. He did meet with Dharma, who may expel a dreamer from his dream. They did struggle, and the Lord Mara is no more. Why did  they struggle, deathgod against  illusionist?  You say  their ways  are incomprehensible, being the ways of gods. This is not the answer.

  "The answer, the justification, is  the same for men as it is for gods. Good or ill, say the sages, mean nothing for they are of Samsara. Agree with the  sages, who have taught our people for  as far as the  memory of man may reach. Agree,  but  consider also a thing of  which the sages do  not speak. This thing  is  \'beauty,\' which is  a  word- but look  behind the  word and consider the Way of the Nameless. And what is the way of the Nameless? It is the Way of  Dream. And  why does the Nameless dream? This thing is not known to any dweller within Samsara. So ask, rather, what does the Nameless dream?

  "The Nameless, of which we are all a part, does dream form. And what is the  highest attribute  any form  may possess? It  is beauty. The  Nameless, then, is an artist. The problem, therefore, is not one of good or evil,  but one of esthetics. To  struggle against  those who are  mighty among dreamers and are mighty for ill,  or ugliness, is not to struggle for that  which the sages have taught us to be  meaningless in terms of Samsara or  Nirvana, but rather it is to struggle for the symmetrical dreaming  of a dream,  in terms of the rhythm  and the point, the balance and the antithesis which will make it a  thing  of  beauty. Of this, the  sages say  nothing. This truth  is so simple  that they have obviously overlooked it.  For this reason, I am bound by the esthetics of the  situation to call it to your attention. To struggle against the dreamers who dream ugliness, be  they men or gods, cannot but be the will  of the Nameless. This  struggle will also  bear suffering, and  so one\'s  karmic  burden  will  be lightened thereby,  just as  it  would be by enduring the ugliness; but this  suffering is  productive of a higher end in the light of the eternal values of which the sages so often speak.

  "Therefore,  I  say unto you, the esthetics of what  you have witnessed this evening were of a high order. You may ask me,  then, \'How  am I to know that  which  is  beautiful  and  that  which is ugly,  and  be moved  to act thereby?\' This question, I say, you  must answer for yourself.  To do  this, first forget what I have spoken, for I have said nothing. Dwell now upon the Nameless." He raised his right hand and bowed his head.

  Yama stood, Ratri stood, Tak appeared upon a table.

  The  four of  them left together,  knowing the  machineries of Karma to have been defeated for a time.

  They  walked through the jagged  brilliance of the morning, beneath the Bridge of the  Gods. Tall fronds, still wet with the night\'s rain, glistened at the sides of  the trail. The tops of  trees and the peaks of the  distant mountains rippled beyond the rising vapors. The day was cloudless. The faint breezes of morning still bore a trace  of the night\'s cold. The clicking and buzzing and chirping of the jungle accompanied the monks as they walked. The monastery from  which  they had departed was only  partly visible  above the upper reaches  of the treetops; high in the air above it, a twisting line of smoke endorsed the heavens.

  Ratri\'s servitors bore her  litter in the midst of  the moving party of monks,  servants and her small guard  of warriors. Sam and Yama  walked near the head of  the band. Silent  overhead, Tak  followed, passing among leaves and branches, unseen.

  "The pyre still blazes," said Yama.

  "Yes."

  "They burn the wanderer who suffered a heart attack as he took his rest among them."

  "This is true."

  "For a spur of the moment thing,  you  came  up with  a fairly engaging sermon."

  "Thanks."

  "Do you really believe what you preached?"

  Sam  laughed.  "I\'m  very  gullible  when it comes to my  own words.  I believe everything I say, though I know I\'m a liar."

  Yama snorted. "The rod of Trimurti still falls upon  the backs of  men. Nirriti stirs within his dark lair; he harasses the seaways of the south. Do you plan on spending another lifetime indulging in metaphysics- to find new justification for opposing your enemies? Your talk last  night sounded as if you have reverted to considering why again, rather than how."

  "No," said Sam,  "I just wanted to try another line on the audience. It is  difficult  to stir rebellion  among those to whom all things  are  good. There is no room for evil  in their minds, despite the fact that they suffer it  constantly.  The slave  upon  the  rack who  knows that he  will be born again- perhaps as a  fat merchant -  if he suffers willingly- his outlook is  not the  same as that of a man with but one life to live.  He  can  bear anything, knowing that great as his present pain may be, his future pleasure will rise higher. If such a one does not choose to believe in good or  evil, perhaps then  beauty and ugliness can be made to serve him as well. Only the names have been changed."

  "This, then, is the new, official party line?" asked Yama.

  "It is," said Sam.

  Yama\'s  hand  passed through an invisible slit  in his robe and emerged with a dagger, which he raised in salute.

  "To beauty," he said. "Down with ugliness!"

  A wave  of silence passed  across the jungle. All the life-sounds about them ceased.

  Yama raised  one  hand, returning the dagger to its hidden  sheath with the other.

  "Halt!" he cried out.

  He looked upward, squinting against the sun, head cocked to his right.

  "Off the trail! Into the brush!" he called.

  They moved. Saffron-cloaked bodies flashed from off the  trail. Ratri\'s litter was borne in among the trees. She now stood at Yama\'s side.

  "What is it?" she asked.

  "Listen!"

  It came then, riding down the sky on a blast of sound. It flashed above the peaks of the mountains,  crossed over the monastery, whipping the smokes into  invisibility.  Explosions  of sound trumpeted its coming, and the  air quaked as it cut its way through the wind and the light.

  It was a great-looped tau cross, a tail of fire streaming behind it.

  "Destroyer come a-hunting," said Yama.

  "Thunder chariot!" cried one of the mercenaries, making a sign with his hand.

  "Shiva passes," said a monk, eyes wide with fear. "The Destroyer . . ."

  "Had I known at the time how well I wrought," said Yama,  "I might have numbered its days intentionally. Occasionally, do I regret my genius."

  It passed beneath the Bridge of  the Gods, swung above the jungle, fell away to  the south.  Its roar gradually diminished  as  it departed in  that direction. Then there was silence.

  A bird  made a brief piping  noise. Another replied to it. Then all the sounds of life began again and the travelers returned to their trail.

  "He will  be back," said Yama, and  this was  true. Twice more that day did  they have to leave the trail as the thunder chariot  passed above their heads.  On the  last occasion, it circled the monastery,  possibly observing the  funeral rites being conducted there. Then it crossed over the mountains and was gone.

  That night they made camp under the stars, and on the second night they did the same.

  The third day brought them to  the river  Deeva and the small port city of Koona. It was there that  they found  the transportation they wished, and they set  forth that same evening,  heading south by bark to where the Deeva joined with the mighty Vedra, and  then proceeded onward to pass at last the wharves of Khaipur, their destination.

  As they flowed  with the river, Sam listened  to  its sounds. He  stood upon the dark deck, his hands resting on  the rail. He stared out across the waters where the bright heavens  rose and fell, star bending back upon star. It  was  then  that the  night  addressed him  in  the voice of Ratri,  from somewhere nearby.

  "You have passed this way before, Tathagatha."

  "Many times," he  replied.  "The Deeva  is a thing of beauty under  the stars, in its rippling and its folding."

  "Indeed."

  "We go now to Khaipur and the Palace of Kama. What will you do  when we arrive?"

  "I will spend some time in meditation, goddess."

  "Upon what shall you meditate?"

  "Upon my past lives and the mistakes they each contained. I must review my own tactics as well as those of the enemy."

  "Yama thinks the Golden Cloud to have changed you."

  "Perhaps it has."

  "He  believes it  to have softened you,  weakened  you. You have always posed  as a mystic, but now he believes you have become one  - to your  own undoing, to our undoing."

  He shook his head, turned around.  But  he did not see  her.  Stood she there  invisible,  or  had  she  withdrawn?  He  spoke  softly  and  without inflection:

  "I  shall tear  these stars from out the heavens," he stated, "and hurl them in the faces of the gods, if  this be necessary. I  shall  blaspheme in every Temple throughout  the land.  I shall take lives  as a fisherman takes fish, by  the net, if this be necessary.  I  shall mount me  again up to the Celestial City, though every step be a flame or a naked sword and the way be guarded by tigers. One day will  the gods  look down from Heaven and  see me upon the stair, bringing them the gift they fear most. That day will the new Yuga begin.

  "But first I must meditate for a time," he finished.

  He turned back again and stared out over the waters.

  A shooting star burnt  its way across the heavens.  The ship moved  on. The night sighed about him.

  Sam stared ahead, remembering.  

II

  One time a minor rajah from a minor  principality came with his retinue into Mahartha,  the city  that is called Gateway of the South and Capital of the Dawn, there to purchase him a  new  body.  This was in the days when the thread of destiny might yet be plucked from out a gutter, the gods were less formal, the demons still bound, and the Celestial City yet occasionally open to men. This is  the story of how the prince did bait the one-armed receiver of devotions before the Temple,  incurring  the  disfavor of  Heaven for his presumption. . .

  Few are the beings born again among men; more

  numerous are those born again elsewhere.

  Anguttara-nikaya (I, 35)

  Riding into the capital  of dawn at mid-afternoon, the  prince, mounted upon a white  mare,  passed  up  the  broad  avenue  of Surya,  his  hundred retainers  massed  at  his back,  his adviser Strake  at his left  hand, his scimitar in his sash, and  a  portion  of his  wealth  in the  bags his pack horses bore.

  The heat crashed  down upon the turbans  of  the men, washed past them, came up again from the roadway.

  A chariot moved slowly by, headed in the opposite direction, its driver squinting up at the banner the chief retainer bore; a courtesan stood at the gateway to her pavilion, studying  the traffic; and a pack  of mongrel  dogs followed at the heels of the horses, barking.

  The prince was  tall, and his  mustaches were  the color  of smoke. His hands, dark as coffee,  were  marked  with  the stiff  ridges  of his veins. Still, his posture was erect, and  his eyes were like the eyes of an ancient bird, electric and clear.

  Ahead, a crowd gathered to watch the passing troop. Horses  were ridden only by those who could afford them, and few were that wealthy. The slizzard was the common mount- a scaled  creature with snakelike  neck, many  teeth, dubious lineage, brief life span and a vicious  temperament; the horse,  for some reason, having grown barren in recent generations.

  The prince rode on, into the capital of dawn, the watchers watching.

  Passing, they turned off the avenue of the sun and headed up a narrower thoroughfare. They moved by the low  buildings of  commerce, the great shops of the great merchants, the banks, the Temples, the inns, the brothels. They passed on, until at the fringe of  the  business district they came upon the princely  hostel of  Hawkana, the  Most  Perfect Host. They drew rein at the gate,  for  Hawkana  himself  stood   outside  the  walls,  simply  dressed, fashionably corpulent and  smiling, waiting  to personally conduct the white mare within.

  "Welcome,  Lord Siddhartha!"  he  called in a loud voice,  so that  all within earshot  might  know  the  identity  of his guest.  "Welcome to  this well-nightingaled vicinity, and  to the perfumed gardens and marble halls of this humble establishment!  To your  riders welcome also,  who have ridden a goodly ride with you and no doubt seek subtle refreshment and dignified ease as well as  yourself. Within,  you will  find all  things to  your liking, I trust, as you have upon the many occasions in the past when you have tarried within  these  halls in the company  of  other  princely  guests  and  noble visitors, too numerous to mention, such as - "

  "And a good afternoon  to you also, Hawkana!" cried the prince, for the day was hot and the innkeeper\'s  speeches, like rivers, always threatened to flow on forever. "Let us enter quickly within your walls, where, among their other virtues too numerous to mention, it is also cool."

  Hawkana  nodded briskly,  and taking  the  mare by the  bridle  led her through the gateway and into his courtyard; there, he held the stirrup while the prince dismounted, then gave  the horses  into the keeping of his stable hands and  dispatched a small boy through the  gateway to clean  the  street where they had waited.

  Within the hostel, the  men were  bathed,  standing  in the marble bath hall while servants poured water over their shoulders. Then did they annoint themselves after the custom of the warrior caste, put  on fresh garments and passed into the hall of dining.

  The meal lasted the  entire afternoon, until the warriors lost count of the  courses. At the right hand of the  prince,  who  sat at the head of the long,  low, serving board, three dancers wove their way through an intricate pattern, finger  cymbals clicking, faces  bearing the proper expressions for the  proper moments  of  the dance, as  four  veiled  musicians  played  the traditional music of the hours.  The table was covered with a  richly  woven tapestry of blue, brown, yellow, red and green, wherein was worked  a series of hunting and battle scenes: riders  mounted on slizzard and horse met with lance  and bow the charges of  feather-panda, fire-rooster and  jewel-podded command plant; green  apes  wrestled in the tops  of trees; the Garuda  Bird clutched a sky demon in its talons, assailing it with beak and pinions; from the depths  of  the sea crawled an army of  horned fish, clutching spikes of pink coral in their jointed  fins, facing  a row of kirtled and helmeted men who bore lances and torches to oppose their way upon the land.

  The prince ate but sparingly.  He  toyed with his food, listened to the music, laughed  occasionally at the jesting of one  of his men. He  sipped a sherbet, his rings clicking against the sides of the glass.

  Hawkana  appeared  beside  him.  "Goes  all  well  with  you, Lord?" he inquired.

  "Yes, good Hawkana, all is well," he replied.

  "You do not eat as do your men. Does the meal displease you?"

  "It is not the food, which is excellent, nor  its preparation, which is faultless,  worthy  Hawkana. Rather, it is my appetite,  which has  not been high of late."

  "Ah!" said Hawkana, knowingly.  "I have the thing, the very thing! Only one such as yourself may truly appreciate  it. Long has it rested  upon  the special shelf of my cellar. The god Krishna had somehow preserved it against the  ages. He gave  it to me many years ago because the  accommodations here did not displease him. I shall fetch it for you."

  He bowed then, and backed from the hall.

  When he returned he bore a bottle.  Before he  saw the  paper upon  its side, the prince recognized the shape of that bottle.

  "Burgundy!" he exclaimed.

  "Just so," said Hawkana. "Brought from vanished Uratha, long ago."

  He sniffed at  it  and smiled. Then he poured  a small quantity  into a pear-shaped goblet and set it before his guest.

  The prince raised it and inhaled of its bouquet. He took a slow sip. He closed his eyes.

  There was a silence in the room, in respect of his pleasure.

  Then he  lowered the  glass, and Hawkana poured  into it once again the product of the pinot noir grape, which could not be cultivated in this land.

  The  prince did  not  touch the glass.  Instead, he  turned to Hawkana, saying, "Who is the oldest musician in this house?"

  "Mankara, here," said his  host, gesturing toward  the white-haired man who took his rest at the serving table in the comer.

  "Old not in body, but in years," said the prince.

  "Oh, that  would be Dele,"  said Hawkana, "if he  is to be counted as a musician at all. He says that once he was such a one."

  "Dele?"

  "The boy who keeps the stables."

  "Ah, I see. . ..  Send for him." Hawkana clapped his hands and  ordered the  servant  who appeared  to  go  into  the  stables,  make the  horse-boy presentable and fetch him with dispatch into the presence of the diners.

  "Pray, do  not  bother  making him  presentable,  but simply  bring him here," said the prince.

  He leaned back and waited then, his eyes closed.

  When the horse-boy stood before him, he asked:

  "Tell me. Dele, what music do you play?"

  "That which no longer finds favor in the hearing of Brahmins," said the boy.

  "What was your instrument?"

  "Piano," said Dele.

  "Can you play upon any of these?" He gestured at those instruments that stood, unused now, upon the small platform beside the wall.

  The  boy cocked  his head  at them. "I suppose  I could  manage on  the flute, if I had to."

  "Do you know any waltzes?"

  "Yes."

  "Will you play me \'The Blue Danube\'?"

  The  boy\'s  sullen  expression  vanished,  to  be  replaced by  one  of uneasiness. He cast a quick glance back at Hawkana, who nodded.

  "Siddhartha is a  prince  among men,  being of the  First," stated  the host.

  "\'The Blue Danube,\' on one of these flutes?"

  "If you please."

  The boy shrugged, "I\'ll try," he said. "It\'s been an awfully long time. . .. Bear with me."

  He crossed to  where the instruments lay and muttered something to  the owner of the flute he selected.  The man nodded his head.  Then he raised it to his  lips and blew a few tentative notes. He  paused, repeated the trial, then turned about.

  He raised it once  more and  began the quivering movement of the waltz. As he played, the prince sipped his wine.

  When  he  paused for breath, the  prince motioned  him  to continue. He played  tune  after  forbidden  tune, and  the  professional  musicians  put professional expressions of scorn upon their faces; but  beneath their table several feet were tapping in slow time with the music.

  Finally, the prince had finished his wine. Evening was near to the city of Mahartha.  He tossed the  boy  a purse of coins and did not look into his tears as he departed from the hall. He rose then and stretched, smothering a yawn with the back of his hand.

  "I retire to my chambers," he said to his men. "Do not gamble away your inheritances in my absence."

  They laughed then and bade him good night, calling for strong drink and salted biscuits. He heard the rattle of dice as he departed.

  The prince retired early  so  that  he might arise  before daybreak. He instructed a servant to remain outside his door all the following day and to refuse admission to any who sought it, saying that he was indisposed.

  Before the first flowers had opened to the first insects of morning, he had  gone  from the hostel,  only  an  ancient green  parrot witnessing  his departure. Not in  silks  sewn with pearls did he go, but in tatters, as was his  custom  on these occasions. Not preceded by conch and drum did he move, but  by  silence, as  he passed along  the dim  streets  of  the city. These streets were deserted, save for an occasional doctor or prostitute returning from a late call. A stray dog followed him as he passed through the business district, heading in the direction of the harbor.

  He seated himself upon a crate  at the foot of a pier. The dawn came to lift the darkness from the world; and he watched the ships stirring with the tide,  empty  of  sail,  webbed  with  cables, prows carved with monster  or maiden. His every visit to  Mahartha brought  him again to the harbor for  a little while.

  Morning\'s pink parasol opened above the tangled hair of the clouds, and cool breezes crossed the docks. Scavenger birds uttered hoarse cries as they darted  about loop-windowed towers,  then swooped  across  the waters of the bay.

  He watched a ship put out to sea,  tentlike vanes of  canvas growing to high peaks and swelling in the salt air. Aboard other ships, secure in their anchorage, there was  movement now,  as crews made ready to  load or  unload cargoes of incense, coral, oil and all kinds of fabrics, as  well as metals, cattle, hardwoods and spices. He smelled the smells of commerce and listened to the cursing of the sailors, both  of which  he admired: the former, as it reeked of wealth, and the latter  because  it combined  his two  other chief preoccupations, these being theology and anatomy.

  After  a time, he spoke with a foreign sea captain who had overseen the unloading of sacks  of grain,  and  now  took his  rest in the  shade of the crates.

  "Good  morning,"  he  said. "May  your passages  be  free of  storm and shipwreck, and the  gods grant you  safe  harbor and a good market for  your cargoes."

  The other nodded, seated himself  upon  a crate and proceeded to fill a small clay pipe.

  "Thank you, old  one,"  he said. "Though I do  pray to the gods of  the Temples of my own choosing, I accept the blessings  of any and all.  One can always use blessings, especially a seaman."

  "Had you a difficult voyage?"

  "Less  difficult than it might have been," said the sea  captain. "That smoldering sea mountain, the Cannon of Nirriti, discharges its bolts against heaven once again."

  "Ah, you sailed from the southwest!"

  "Yes. Chatisthan, from Ispar-by-the-Sea. The  winds  are good  in  this season of  the year, but for  this reason they also  carried the  ash of the Cannon much farther  than any would think. For six days this black snow fell upon us, and the odors of the underworld pursued us, fouling food and water, making the eyes to weep and the throat to burn. We offered much thanksgiving when we finally outran it. See how the hull is smeared? You should have seen the sails - black as the hair of Ratri!"

  The prince leaned forward to better  regard the vessel. "But the waters were not especially troubled?" he asked.

  The sailor shook his head. "We  hailed a cruiser near the Isle of Salt, and we learned  of it that  we had missed by six days the worst dischargings of the Cannon. At that time, it  burnt  the clouds and  raised great  waves, sinking two ships the cruiser did know of, and possibly a third." The sailor leaned back,  stoking  his  pipe.  "So,  as I say, a  seaman can  always use blessings."

  "I seek a man of the sea," said the prince. "A captain. His name is Jan Olvegg, or perhaps he is now known as Olvagga. Do you know him?"

  "I knew him," said the other, "but it has been long since he sailed."

  "Oh? What has become of him?"

  The  sailor turned his head to better study  him. "Who are you to ask?" he finally inquired.

  "My name is Sam. Jan is a very old friend of mine."

  "How old is \'very old\'?"

  "Many, many years ago, in another place, I knew him when he was captain of a ship which did not sail these oceans."

  The sea captain leaned forward suddenly and picked up a piece  of wood, which he hurled at the dog who had rounded a piling at the other side of the pier.  It yelped once  and dashed off toward the shelter  of a warehouse. It was the same dog who had followed the prince from the hostel of Hawkana.

  "Beware  the  hounds of hell,"  said the  captain. "There are dogs  and there are dogs- and there are dogs. Three different kinds, and in this port drive them all from your presence." Then he appraised the other  once again. "Your  hands,"  he said, gesturing with  his  pipe, "have recently worn many rings. Their impressions yet remain."

  Sam glanced  at his hands and smiled. "Your eyes miss nothing, sailor," he replied. "So I admit to the obvious. I have recently worn rings."

  "So,  like the dogs,  you are not what you appear to be- and  you come asking after Olvagga, by his most ancient  name. Your name, you say, is Sam. Are you, perchance, one of the First?"

  Sam did not reply immediately, but studied the  other as though waiting for him to say more.

  Perhaps realizing  this, the captain  continued: "Olvagga, I  know, was numbered among  the  First, though he  never spoke of it.  Whether  you  are yourself among the First, or are one of the Masters, you  are aware of this. So I do not betray him by so speaking. I do  wish to know whether I speak to a friend or an enemy, however."

  Sam  frowned. "Jan was never known for the making of enemies," he said. "You speak as if he has them now, among those whom you call the Masters."

  The  seaman  continued to  stare  at him. "You  are not a  Master,"  he finally said, "and you come from afar."

  "You are correct," said Sam, "but tell me how you know these things."

  "First," said the other, "you are an old man. A Master, too, could have upon him an old body, but he would not- any more than he would remain a dog for very  long. His fear of dying the real death, suddenly, in the manner of the old, would be too great. So  he would not remain so long as to leave the marks of rings  deeply imprinted  upon  the  fingers. The wealthy are  never despoiled of  their bodies. If they  are refused rebirth, they live out  the full span  of their days. The Masters would fear a  rising  up in arms among the  followers  of  such a  one, were  he to meet with  other than a natural passing. So a  body such as yours could  not be  obtained in this  manner. A body from the life tanks would not have marked fingers either.

  "Therefore," he concluded, "I take you to be a  man of importance other than  a Master. If you knew  Olvagga of old, then you are  also one  of  the Firstlings, such as he. Because of the sort of information which you seek, I take you  to be one  from afar. Were you a man of Mahartha you would know of the Masters, and knowing  of the  Masters you  would know why Olvagga cannot sail."

  "Your knowledge of matters in Mahartha seems greater than my own - oh, newly arrived sailor."

  "I, too, come from a distant place,"  acknowledged the captain, smiling faintly, "but  in  the  space of a dozen months I  may visit twice  as  many ports. I hear news- news and gossip  and tales  from  all over-  from more than  a double  dozen ports. I hear of the  intrigues of the palace and  the affairs of the Temple. I hear the secrets  whispered at night to  the golden girls beneath the  sugar-cane bow of Kama. I hear  of  the campaigns of  the Khshatriya and the  dealings of the great merchants in the futures of grains and  spices, jewels and  silk. I drink  with the bards  and the astrologers, with the  actors and the servants, the coachmen and the  tailors. Sometimes, perhaps, I may strike the port where freebooters  have haven and learn there the  faring of those they hold to ransom. So do not think it strange that I, who  come  from afar,  may know  more of Mahartha than you,  who  may  dwell perhaps a week\'s faring hence. Occasionally,  I may even hear of the  doings of the gods."

  "Then  you can tell me of  the Masters, and why they are to be numbered as enemies?" asked Sam.

  "I can tell  you something of  them,"  replied the captain,  "since you should not  go unwarned.  The  body merchants  are now the Masters of Karma. Their individual names are now kept secret, after the manner of the gods, so that  they  seem  as  impersonal  as  the  Great Wheel,  which they claim to represent. They are no longer merely body merchants, but are allied with the Temples. These, too, are changed,  for your kinsmen of the First who are now gods do commune with them from Heaven. If you are  indeed of the First, Sam, your  way must lead you either to  deification or extinction,  when you face these new Masters of Karma."

  "How?" asked Sam.

  "Details  you must seek elsewhere," said the other. "I do not  know the processes  whereby  these  things  are  achieved.  Ask  after  Jannaveg  the sailmaker on the Street of the Weavers."

  "This is how Jan is now known?"

  The other nodded. "And beware the dogs," he said, "or, for that matter, anything else which is alive and may harbor intelligence."

  "What is your name, captain?" asked Sam.

  "In this  port, I have no  name  at all or a  false one, and  I  see no reason for lying to you. Good day, Sam."

  "Good day, captain. Thank you for your words."

  Sam rose  and departed  the harbor,  heading  back toward  the business district and the streets of the trades.

  The sun was a red discus in the heavens, rising to  meet the Bridge  of the Gods. The prince walked  through  the awakened  city, threading  his way among the stalls displaying the  skills of the workmen in  the small crafts. Hawkers of  unguents  and  powders, perfumes  and  oils,  moved  about  him. Florists  waved  their  garlands  and  corsages  at the passer-by;  and  the vintners said  nothing,  sitting  with their  wineskins  on  rows of  shaded benches, waiting for their customers to come to them as they always did. The morning  smelled  of cooking food, musk, flesh, excrement, oils and  incense all churned up together and turned loose to wander like an invisible cloud.

  Dressed as a  beggar himself, it  did not seem out of place for him  to stop and speak to the hunchback with the begging bowl.

  "Greetings, brother,"  he  stated.  "I  am far from  my quarter  on  an errand. Can you direct me to the Street of the Weavers?"

  The hunchback nodded and shook his bowl suggestively.

  He withdrew a small coin from  the pouch concealed beneath his tattered garments. He dropped it into the hunchback\'s bowl and it quickly vanished.

  "That way."  The man gestured with his head. "The third street you come upon, turn there to the left. Then follow it past two streets more,  and you will be at the Circle of the Fountain before  the Temple of  Varuna.  Coming into that  Circle,  the Street of the Weavers  is marked by the  Sign of the Awl."

  He nodded to the hunchback, patted his hump and continued on his way.

  When he reached  the Circle of the Fountain, the prince halted. Several dozen  people  stood  in a  shifting line before  the Temple of Varuna, most stern and  august  of all the deities. These  people  were not  preparing to enter the  Temple, but rather were engaged in  some occupation that required waiting  and taking turns. He  heard the rattling  of coins and he  wandered nearer.

  It was a machine, gleaming and metallic, before which they moved.

  A man  inserted a coin  into the  mouth  of a  steel tiger. The machine began to purr.  He  pressed  buttons  cast  in the likenesses of animals and demons. There came then a flashing of lights along the lengths of the Nagas, the two holy serpents who twisted about the transparent face of the machine.

  He edged closer.

  The man drew down upon the lever that grew from the side of the machine cast in the likeness of the tail of a fish.

  A holy blue  light filled the  interior of the  machine;  the  serpents pulsed redly; and there, in the midst of the light and a soft music that had begun  to  play, a  prayer wheel  swung  into view  and began spinning at  a furious pace.

  The man wore a beatific expression.  After several minutes, the machine shut  itself off. He  inserted another coin and pulled the  lever once more, causing several of  those nearer to the end of the line to  grumble audibly, remarking  to the effect  that that was his seventh coin, it was a warm day, there were other people waiting  to get some praying done and why did he not go  inside and render such a large donation directly to the priests? Someone replied  that the little  man obviously had much  atoning to do. There  then began some speculation  as  to  the  possible nature of  his  sins. This was accompanied by considerable laughter.

  Seeing that there were several beggars  waiting their turn in line, the prince moved to its end and stood there.

  As the line  advanced, he  noted that, while some  of those who  passed before the  machine pushed its buttons, others merely inserted a  flat metal disc into the mouth of the second tiger on the opposite side of the chassis. After  the machine  had ceased to function, the disc fell into a cup and was retrieved by its owner. The prince decided to venture an inquiry.

  He addressed the man who stood before him in line:

  "Why is it," he asked, "that some men do have discs of their own?"

  "It is because they have  registered," said the other,  without turning his head.

  "In the Temple?"

  "Yes."

  "Oh."

  He  waited half a  minute, then inquired, "Those who  are unregistered, and wish to use it- they push the buttons?"

  "Yes," said  the  other, "spelling  out  their  name,  occupation,  and address."

  "Supposing one be a visitor here, such as myself?"

  "You should add the name of your city."

  "Supposing one is unlettered, such as myself- what then?"

  The other turned to him.  "Perhaps  \'\'twere better," he said, "that you make prayer in the old way, and give the donation directly into the hands of the priests. Or else register and obtain a disc of your own."

  "I  see," said  the prince. "Yes, you are right. I  must  think of this more. Thank you."

  He left the line and circled  the fountain to where the Sign of the Awl hung upon a pillar. He moved up the Street of the Weavers.

  Three times did he ask after Janagga the sailmaker, the third time of a short woman with powerful arms and  a small  mustache, who sat cross-legged, plaiting a  rug, in her  stall beneath the  low eave of what once might have been a stable and still smelled as if it were.

  She growled him directions, after raking him upward and down again with oddly  lovely brown-velvet eyes. He  followed her directions, taking his way up a zigzagging alley and down an outer stair, which ran along the wall of a five-story building, ending at a door that opened  upon  a basement hallway. It was damp and dark within.

  He knocked upon the third door to his left, and after a time it opened.

  The man stared at him. "Yes?"

  "May I come in? It is a matter of some urgency . . ."

  The man hesitated a moment, then nodded abruptly and stepped aside.

  The prince moved past him and into his chamber. A great sheet of canvas was spread out over the floor,  before the stool upon which the man reseated himself. He motioned the prince into the only other chair in the room.

  He was short and big in the shoulders; his hair was pure white, and the pupils of his eyes bore the smoky beginnings of cataract invasion. His hands were brown and hard, the joints of his fingers knotted.

  "Yes?" he repeated.

  "Jan Olvegg," said the other.

  "The old man\'s eyes widened, then narrowed to slits.

  He weighed a pair of scissors in his hand.

  "\'It\'s a long way to Tipperary,\' " said the prince.

  The  man stared, then smiled suddenly. "\'If your heart\'s not here,\'" he said, placing the scissors on his workstand. "How long has it been, Sam?" he asked.

  "I\'ve lost count of the years."

  "Me  too.  But it must be  forty - forty-five?- since  I\'ve seen you. Much beer over the damn dam since then, I daresay?"

  Sam nodded.

  "I don\'t really know where to begin . . ." said the man.

  "For a start, tell me- why \'Janagga\'?"

  "Why  not?" asked  the other.  "It has a certain earnest, working-class sound about it. How about yourself? Still in the prince business?"

  "I\'m still  me," said Sam, "and they still call me Siddhartha when they come to call."

  The  other chuckled.  "And \'Binder  of the Demons,\'" he recited.  "Very good. I take it, then, since your fortunes do not match your  garb, that you are casing the scene, as is your wont."

  Sam nodded. "And I have come upon much which I do not understand."

  "Aye," sighed Jan. "Aye.  How shall  I begin?  How? I shall tell you of myself, that\'s how. . . . I have accumulated too much bad karma to warrant a current transfer."

  "What?"

  "Bad  karma,  that\'s what I said. The old  religion  is  not  only  the religion-  it  is the  revealed, enforced  and  frighteningly  demonstrable religion. But don\'t think that last part too loudly. About a dozen years ago the  Council  authorized the  use of psych-probes on  those who were up  for renewal. This was right after  the  Accelerationist-Deicrat split, when  the Holy Coalition squeezed out the tech  boys and kept right on squeezing.  The simplest solution was to outlive  the problem. The Temple crowd then  made a deal with the body sellers, customers were brain-probed and Accelerationists were refused  renewal, or . . . well  . . . simple as that. There aren\'t too many Accelerationists now.  But  that was only the beginning. The god  party was  quick to realize that therein lay the  way of power. Having your brains scanned has  become a standard procedure, just prior to a transfer. The body merchants are  become  the  Masters of  Karma,  and a  part  of  the  Temple structure. They read over  your  past  life, weigh the karma, and  determine your life  that is yet to come. It\'s a perfect  way of maintaining the caste system  and  ensuring  Deicratic control.  By  the  way,  most  of  our  old acquaintances are in it up to their halos."

  "God!" said Sam.

  "Plural,"  Jan corrected.  "They\'ve always  been considered gods,  with their  Aspects and Attributes, but they\'ve made it awfully official now. And anyone who  happens  to  be among  the First had bloody well better be  sure whether he wants quick deification or  the pyre when he walks into the  Hall of Karma these days.

  "When\'s your appointment?" he finished.

  "Tomorrow,"  said Sam,  "in the afternoon. . .  .  Why  are  you  still walking around, if you don\'t have a halo or a handful of thunderbolts?"

  "Because I do have a couple friends, both  of whom suggested I continue living- quietly- rather than face the  probe.  I took their sage advice to heart and consequently am still around  to mend  sails and  raise occasional hell in  the local bistros. Else"- he raised a callused hand,  snapped  his fingers- "else, if not the real death, then  perhaps  a body shot full with cancer, or the interesting life of a gelded water buffalo, or . . ."

  "A dog?" asked Sam.

  "Just so," Jan replied.

  Jan filled the silence and two glasses with a splashing of alcohol.

  "Thanks."

  "Happy hellfire." He replaced the bottle on his workstand.

  "On an empty stomach yet. . . . You make that yourself?"

  "Yep. Got a still in the next room."

  "Congratulations, I guess.  If I had  any bad  karma, it should all  be dissolved by now."

  "The definition of bad  karma is anything  our  friends the  gods don\'t like."

  "What made you think you had some?"

  "I wanted to start passing out machines among our descendants here. Got batted down  at  Council for  it. Recanted,  and hoped  they\'d  forget.  But Accelerationism is so far out now that it\'ll never make it back in during my lifetime.  Pity, too. I\'d like to lift sail again, head  off toward  another horizon. Or lift ship. . ."

  "The probe is actually sensitive enough to spot something as intangible as an Accelerationist attitude?"

  "The  probe," said Jan, "is sensitive enough  to tell what you  had for breakfast eleven years ago yesterday and where you cut yourself shaving that morning, while humming the Andorran national anthem."

  "They were  experimental things when we left  home," said Sam. "The two we brought  along  were  very  basic brain-wave  translators. When  did  the breakthrough occur?"

  "Hear me, country cousin," said Jan. "Do you remember a snot-nosed brat of dubious parentage,  third generation, named  Yama? The kid who was always souping  up generators, until one day one blew and he  was  so  badly burned that he got his second  body- one over  fifty years old- when  he was only sixteen?  The  kid  who  loved weapons? The fellow who  anesthetized  one of everything that moves  out there and dissected it,  taking such pleasure  in his studies that we called him deathgod?"

  "Yes, I recall him. Is he still alive?"

  "If you want to call it that. He now is deathgod- not by nickname, but by  title. He perfected  the probe about forty years  ago,  but the Deicrats kept it under wraps until fairly recently. I hear he\'s dreamed up some other little jewels, too, to serve the will of the  gods . .  .  like a mechanical cobra capable  of  registering encephalogram readings from a mile away, when it rears and spreads its fan. It can pick one man out of a crowd, regardless of  the  body  he wears. There is  no  known antidote  for  its venom.  Four seconds, no more. . . . Or the fire wand, which is said  to  have scored the surfaces  of all  three moons while Lord  Agni stood upon the  seashore  and waved it. And I understand that he is  designing some sort  of jet-propelled juggernaut for Lord Shiva at this moment. . . things like that."

  "Oh," said Sam.

  "Will you pass the probe?" Jan asked.

  "I\'m  afraid not," he replied. "Tell  me, I saw a  machine this morning which I think may best be described as a pray-o-mat- are they very common?"

  "Yes," said  Jan. "They appeared  about  two  years ago- dreamed up by young Leonardo over a short glass of soma one night. Now that the karma idea has caught  on, the  things  are  better  than tax  collectors.  When mister citizen  presents himself  at  the clinic of the  god  of the church of  his choice  on the eve of his sixtieth  year,  his prayer account is said to  be considered along with his sin account, in deciding the caste he will enter- as well as the age, sex and health of the body he will receive. Nice. Neat."

  "I  will  not pass  the probe," said Sam, "even if I build up  a mighty prayer account. They\'ll snare me when it comes to sin."

  "What sort of sin?"

  "Sins I have yet to commit, but which are being written in my mind as I consider them now."

  "You plan to oppose the gods?"

  "Yes."

  "How?"

  "I do not yet know. I shall  begin, however, by contacting them. Who is their chief?"

  "I  can name you no one. Trimurti rules- that is, Brahma,  Vishnu  and Shiva. Which of these three  be chiefest at any one time, I cannot say. Some say Brahma- "

  "Who are they- really?" asked Sam.

  Jan shook his head. "I do not know. They all wear different bodies than they did a generation ago. They all use god names."

  Sam stood. "I will return later, or send for you."

  "I hope so. . . . Another drink?"

  Sam shook his head.  "I go to become Siddhartha once more,  to break my fast at the hostel  of Hawkana and  announce  there my  intent  to visit the Temples. If  our  friends are  now gods then they  must  commune with  their priests. Siddhartha goes to pray."

  "Then  put  in no  words for me," said Jan,  as  he  poured out another drink. "I do not know whether I would live through a divine visitation."

  Sam smiled. "They are not omnipotent."

  "I sincerely hope not," replied the other, "but I fear  that day is not far off."

  "Good sailing, Jan."

  "Skaal."

  Prince Siddhartha stopped on the  Street of the Smiths, on his  way  to the Temple of Brahma. Half an hour later he emerged from a shop, accompanied by  Strake and three of his retainers. Smiling, as though he  had received a vision of what was to come, he passed through the center of Mahartha, coming at last to the high, wide Temple of the Creator.

  Ignoring  the  stares  of  those  who stood before  the pray-o-mat,  he mounted the long, shallow stairway, meeting at the Temple entrance  with the high priest, whom he had advised earlier of his coming.

  Siddhartha  and his men entered the  Temple, disarming  themselves  and paying preliminary obeisances  toward its central chamber  before addressing the priest.

  Strake  and the others drew  back a  respectful  distance as the prince placed a heavy purse in the priest\'s hands and said, in a low voice:

  "I\'d like to speak with God."

  The priest studied his face as he replied,  "The Temple is open to all. Lord Siddhartha,  where  one may  commune  with  Heaven for  so long  as one wishes."

  "That is not exactly  what  I had  in mind,"  said Siddhartha.  "I  was thinking of something more personal than a sacrifice and a long litany."

  "I do not quite follow you . . ."

  "But you understand the weight of that purse, do  you  not? It contains silver. Another which I bear is filled with gold- payable upon delivery.  I want to use your telephone."

  "Tele . . . ?"

  "Communication system. If you were  of the First, such  as I, you would understand my reference."

  "I do not . . ."

  "I assure you my call will not reflect  adversely upon your  wardenship here. I am aware of these matters and my discretion has always been a byword among the First. Call First Base yourself and inquire, if it will put you at ease.  I\'ll  wait here in the outer chamber.  Tell them Sam would have words with Trimurti. They will take the call."

  "I do not know. . ."

  Sam withdrew the second purse and weighed  it in the palm of his  hand. The priest\'s eyes fell upon it and he licked his lips.

  "Wait  here," he ordered,  and he  turned  on his  heel  and  left  the chamber.

  Ili, the fifth note of the harp, buzzed within the Garden of the Purple Lotus.

  Brahma loafed upon the  edge  of the heated pool, where  he bathed with his harem. His eyes appeared closed, as he leaned there upon his elbows, his feet dangling in the water.

  But  he stared out  from beneath his long  lashes, watching  the  dozen girls at sport in the pool, hoping to see one or  more cast an  appreciative glance upon the dark,  heavily muscled length of his body. Black upon brown, his mustaches glistened in moist disarray and his hair was a black wing upon his back. He smiled a bright smile in the filtered sunlight.

  But none of them  appeared to notice,  so he refolded his smile and put it away. All  their attention lay with the  game of water polo in which they were engaged.

  Ili,  the bell of communication, buzzed  once  more,  as  an artificial breeze  waited the  odor of  garden jasmine  to his nostrils. He  sighed. He wanted so for them  to worship him-  his  powerful physique, his  carefully molded features. To worship him as a man, not as a god.

  But though his special and improved  body permitted feats no mortal man could  duplicate,  still he felt uneasy  in the presence of an old war horse like  Lord Shiva-  who, despite his  adherence to the normal  body  matrix, seemed to hold far more attraction for women. It was almost as if sex were a thing that transcended biology; and  no matter how hard he tried to suppress the  memory and destroy that segment of spirit, Brahma had been born a woman and somehow was woman still. Hating this thing, he had  elected to incarnate time  after  time as  an eminently  masculine  man, did so,  and still  felt somehow inadequate, as though the mark of his true sex were branded upon his brow. It made him want to stamp his foot and grimace.

  He  rose and stalked  off toward his pavilion, past stunted  trees that twisted with a  certain grotesque beauty, past trellises  woven with morning glory, pools of blue water lilies, strings of pearls swinging from rings all wrought of white gold, past lamps shaped like girls, tripods wherein pungent incenses burnt and  an eight-armed statue of a blue  goddess who played upon the veena when properly addressed.

  Brahma entered the pavilion and crossed to the screen of crystal, about which a  bronze  Naga  twisted, tail in  teeth. He  activated the  answering mechanism.

  There was a static snowfall, and then he  faced the high priest of  his Temple in Mahartha. The  priest  dropped to his knees and  touched his caste mark three times upon the floor.

  "Of  the four  orders  of  gods  and the  eighteen  hosts  of Paradise, mightiest is Brahma," said the priest. "Creator of all. Lord of high  Heaven and everything beneath it. A lotus springs forth from your navel, your hands churn the oceans, in three  strides  your feet encompass all the worlds. The drum  of your glory strikes terror in the hearts of your  enemies. Upon your right hand is the wheel of the law.  You tether  catastrophes, using a snake for rope. Hail! See  fit to accept the  prayer of your priest. Bless me  and hear me, Brahma!\'

  "Arise  .  .  . priest," said Brahma, having forgotten his name.  "What thing of mighty importance moved you to call me thus?"

  The priest arose, cast a quick glance upon Brahma\'s dripping person and looked away again.

  "Lord," said the  priest,  "I  did not mean to  call while you  were at bath, but there is one  among your worshipers here now  who would speak with you, on a matter which I take to be of mighty importance."

  "One of my  worshipers! Tell him that all-hearing Brahma hears all, and direct him to pray to me in the ordinary manner, in the Temple proper!"

  Brahma\'s hand moved toward the shutoff switch, then paused.  "How  came he  to  know of the Temple-to-Heaven line?" he inquired. "And of  the direct communion of saints and gods?"

  "He  says," replied the priest,  "that he is of  the First, and that  I should relay the message that Sam would have words with Trimurti."

  "Sam?" said Brahma. "Sam? Surely it cannot be . . . that Sam?"

  "He is the one known hereabouts as Siddhartha, Binder of the Demons."

  "Await  my  pleasure,"   said   Brahma,  "singing   the  while  various appropriate verses from the Vedas."

  "I hear, my Lord," said the priest, and he commenced singing.

  Brahma  moved to  another part of the pavilion and  stood awhile before his wardrobe, deciding what to wear.

  The  prince, hearing his name called, turned from the contemplation  of the Temple\'s interior. The priest, whose name he had forgotten, beckoned him along  a corridor. He  followed, and the passage led into a storage chamber. The priest rumbled after  a  hidden catch, then drew  upon a  row of shelves that opened outward, doorlike.

  The prince passed  through this  doorway. He  found  himself  within  a richly  decorated   shrine.   A   glowing   view-screen   hung   above   its altar/control-panel,  encircled by a bronze Naga, which held its tail in its teeth.

  The priest bowed three times.

  "Hail, ruler of the universe, mightiest  of the four orders of gods and the eighteen hosts of paradise.  From your  navel  springs forth the  lotus, your hands churn the oceans, in three strides - "

  "I acknowledge the truth  of what  you  say," replied Brahma. "You  are blessed and heard. You may leave us now."

"?"

  "That is correct. Sam is doubtless paying you for a private line, is he not?"

  "Lord . . . !"

  "Enough! Depart!"

  The priest bowed quickly and left, closing the shelves behind him.

  Brahma studied  Sam, who was wearing dark jodhpurs, a sky-blue khameez, the blue-green turban of Urath and an  empty scabbard  upon a  chain belt of dark iron.

  Sam, in turn, studied the  other, who stood with blackness at his back, wearing  a feather cloak  over a suit of  light mail.  It was  caught at the throat with a clasp of fire opal.  Brahma wore a purple crown, studded  with pulsating amethysts, and he bore in his right  hand a  scepter mounted  with the nine auspicious gems. His eyes were two dark stains upon  his dark face. The gentle strumming of a veena occurred about him.

  "Sam?" he said.

  Sam nodded.

  "I am trying to guess your true identity. Lord Brahma. I confess that I cannot."

  "This is as it should be," said Brahma, "if one is to be a god who was, is and always shall be."

  "Fine garments, those you wear," said Sam. "Quite fetching."

  "Thank you. I find it hard to believe that you still exist. Checking, I note that you have not sought  a new body for half a century. That is taking quite a chance."

  Sam shrugged. "Life is full of chances, gambles, uncertainties. . ."

  "True," said Brahma. "Pray, draw up a chair and sit down. Make yourself comfortable."

  Sam did this,  and when  he looked up again, Brahma was  seated upon  a high throne carved of red marble, with a matching parasol flared above it.

  "That looks a bit uncomfortable," he remarked.

  "Foam-rubber cushion," replied the god, smiling. "You may smoke, if you wish."

  "Thanks."  Sam  drew his  pipe from the  pouch at his belt, filled  it, tamped it carefully and struck it to fire.

  "What have you  been doing all  this time,"  asked the  god, "since you left the roost of Heaven?"

  "Cultivating my own gardens," said Sam.

  "We  could  have  used  you here,"  said  Brahma,  "in  our hydroponics section. For  that matter, perhaps we still could. Tell me more of your stay among men."

  "Tiger hunts, border disputes with neighboring kingdoms, keeping up the morale of the harem, a bit of botanical  research- things  like  that- the stuff of life,"  said Sam. "Now my powers slacken, and  I seek  once more my youth. But to obtain it again,  I  understand that I  must  have  my  brains strained. Is that true?"

  "After a fashion," said Brahma.

  "To what end, may I ask?"

  "That wrong shall fail and right prevail," said the god, smiling.

  "Supposing I\'m wrong," asked Sam, "how shall I fail?"

  "You  shall be required to  work off  your  karmic  burden  in a lesser form."

  "Have you  any  figures readily  available  as to  the percentage  that fails, vis-á-vis that which prevails?"

  "Think not less of me in my omniscience," said  Brahma, stifling a yawn with  his scepter,  "if I admit  to having, for  the moment, forgotten these figures."

  Sam chuckled.  "You  say  you  have need of a  gardener  there  in  the Celestial City?"

  "Yes," said Brahma. "Would you like to apply for the job?"

  "I don\'t know," said Sam. "Perhaps."

  "And then again, perhaps not?" said the other.

  "Perhaps not,  also," he acknowledged. "In the old days there was  none of this shillyshallying  with  a  man\'s  mind. If  one  of the  First sought renewal, he paid the body price and was served."

  "We no longer dwell in the old days, Sam. The new age is at hand."

  "One would almost think that you sought the removal of all of the First who are not marshaled at your back."

  "A pantheon has room for  many, Sam. There is a  niche  for you, if you choose to claim it."

  "If I do not?"

  "Then inquire in the Hall of Karma after your body."

  "And if I elect godhood?"

  "Your brains will  not be probed.  The Masters will be advised to serve you quickly  and well.  A flying machine will be dispatched to convey you to Heaven."

  "It bears a bit of thinking," said Sam. "I\'m  quite fond of this world, though it wallows in  an age  of darkness. On the other hand, such  fondness will not serve me to enjoy the things I desire, if it is decreed that  I die the  real death or take on the form of an ape and wander about the  jungles. But I am not overly fond of artificial perfection either, such as existed in Heaven when last I visited there. Bide with me a moment while I meditate."

  "I  consider such indecision presumptuous," said Brahma, "when  one has just been made such an offer."

  "I know, and perhaps I should also, were our positions reversed. But if I were God and you were me, I do believe I would extend a moment\'s  merciful silence while a man makes a major decision regarding his life."

  "Sam, you  are an impossible haggler! Who else  would keep  me  waiting while his  immortality  hangs  in the  balance?  Surely you  do not  seek to bargain with me?"

  "Well, I do come from a  long line  of slizzard traders- and I do very badly want something."

  "And what may that be?"

  "Answers to a few questions which have plagued me for a while now."

  "These being . . . ?"

  "As you are aware, I stopped attending the  old Council meetings over a century  ago, for  they had become  lengthy  sessions calculated to postpone decision-making, and were primarily an excuse  for a Festival  of the First. Now, I have nothing against  festivals. In fact, for  a century and a half I went  to them only to  drink good Earth booze once more. But, I felt that we should be doing something about the passengers, as well as the  offspring of our many bodies, rather than letting them wander a  vicious world, reverting to savagery. I felt that we of the  crew should be assisting  them, granting them the benefits of  the technology we  had preserved, rather than building ourselves an impregnable paradise and  treating  the world as a  combination game preserve and whorehouse. So, I  have  wondered long why this  thing was not done. It would seem a fair and equitable way to run a world."

  "I take it from this that you are an Accelerationist?"

  "No," said Sam, "simply an inquirer.  I am curious, that\'s  all, as  to the reasons."

  "Then, to answer your questions,"  said Brahma, "it is because they are not ready for it. Had we acted immediately- yes, this thing could have been done.  But  we were indifferent at first. Then,  when the question arose, we were divided. Too much time passed. They are not ready,  and will not be for many centuries. If they were to be exposed to an advanced technology at this point, the  wars which  would  ensue would result  in the destruction of the beginnings  they have already made.  They have come far.  They have begun  a civilization  after  the manner of their fathers  of old. But they are still children, and like children  would they play with our gifts and  be burnt by them. They  are our children, by our long-dead First bodies, and second, and third  and many after-  and so, ours is the parents\' responsibility  toward them.  We  must  not  permit  them  to  be  accelerated into  an  industrial revolution  and  so destroy  the first  stable society  on this planet.  Our parental functions can best be performed by  guiding them as we do,  through the Temples. Gods and goddesses are basically parent  figures, so what could be truer and  more just  than  that  we  assume these  roles and  play  them thoroughly?"

  "Why then  do  you destroy their own  infant technology?  The  printing press  has  been rediscovered  on three occasions that  I  can remember, and suppressed each time."

  "This  was done for the same reason- they were  not yet ready for  it. And  it was not truly  discovered,  but rather it  was remembered. It  was a thing out of legend which  someone set about duplicating. If  a thing  is to come, it must come as a result of  factors already  present in  the culture, and not be pulled from out of the past like a rabbit from a hat."

  "It seems you are drawing  a mighty fine line at that  point, Brahma. I take it  from this that your  minions go to and fro in the world, destroying all signs of progress they come upon?"

  "This is not true," said the god. "You talk as if we desire perpetually this  burden of godhood, as if  we seek to maintain a dark  age that  we may know forever the wearisome condition of our enforced divinity!"

  "In a word," said Sam, "yes. What of the pray-o-mat which squats before this very Temple? Is it on par, culturally, with a chariot?"

  "That  is different,"  said  Brahma. "As a divine manifestation, it  is held in awe by the citizens and is not questioned, for religious reasons. It is hardly the same as if gunpowder were to be introduced."

  "Supposing  some local  atheist hijacks one  and  picks it  apart?  And supposing he happens to be a Thomas Edison? What then?"

  "They  have tricky combination locks on them. If  anyone other  than  a priest opens one, it will blow up and take him along with it."

  "And I notice you were unable to suppress the rediscovery of the still, though you tried. So you slapped on an alcohol tax, payable to the Temples."

  "Mankind has always sought release through drink," said Brahma. "It has generally  figured  in  somewhere in his  religious  ceremonies.  Less guilt involved that  way. True,  we tried suppressing  it at first, but we quickly saw  we could not. So, in return for  our tax, they receive here  a blessing upon their  booze. Less guilt, less of a hangover, fewer recriminations- it is psychosomatic, you know - and the tax isn\'t that high."

  "Funny, though, how many prefer the profane brew."

  "You  came to pray and you are  staying to scoff,  is  that what you\'re saying, Sam? I offered to answer your questions, not debate Deicrat policies with you. Have you made up your mind yet regarding my offer?"

  "Yes, Madeleine," said  Sam, "and did anyone  ever  tell you how lovely you are when you\'re angry?"

  Brahma sprang forward off  the  throne. "How could you?  How  could you tell?" screamed the god.

  "I couldn\'t, really," said Sam. "Until now. It  was just a guess, based upon some of  your mannerisms of speech and gesture  which I  remembered. So you\'ve  finally achieved your lifelong ambition, eh? I\'ll  bet  you\'ve got a harem, too. What\'s it feel like, madam, to be a  real stud after having been a gal to start out with? Bet every Lizzie in the world would envy you if she knew. Congratulations."

  Brahma drew himself up  to full height  and glared.  The throne  was  a flame  at his  back. The veena  thrummed on,  dispassionately. He raised his scepter then and spoke:

  "Prepare yourself to receive the curse of Brahma . . ." he began.

  "Whatever for?"  asked Sam. "Because  I guessed your secret? If I am to be a  god, what  difference does  it make? Others must  know of it.  Are you angry because the only way I  could learn  your true identity was by baiting you  a  little?  I  had  assumed  you  would appreciate me  the  more  if  I demonstrated  my  worth by displaying  my  wit in this  manner.  If  I  have offended you, I do apologize."

  "It is not because you guessed- or even because of the manner in which you guessed- but because you mocked me, that I curse you."

  "Mocked you?" said Sam. "I do not understand. I intended no disrespect. I was always  on good terms with you in the old days. If  you will but think back over  them, you will recall that this is true.  Why should I jeopardize my position by mocking you now?"

  "Because you  said  what you  thought  too  quickly, without thinking a second time."

  "Nay, my  Lord. I did  but  jest with  you as  any one  man  might with another when discussing these matters. I am sorry if you took it amiss. I\'ll warrant you\'ve a harem I\'d envy, and which I\'ll doubtless try to sneak  into some night. If you\'d curse me for being surprised, then curse away." He drew upon his pipe and wreathed his grin in smoke.

  Finally,  Brahma  chuckled.  "I\'m a bit quick-tempered,  \'tis true," he explained,  "and  perhaps too  touchy about my  past. Of course, I\'ve  often jested so with other men. You are forgiven. I withdraw my beginning curse.

  "And your decision, I take it, is to accept my offer?" he inquired.

  "That is correct," said Sam.

  "Good.  I\'ve  always  felt a  brotherly affection  for you.  Go now and summon my priest,  that I may instruct him concerning your incarnation. I\'ll see you soon."

  "Sure  thing. Lord Brahma."  Sam nodded and raised his  pipe.  Then  he pushed back  the row of shelves and sought the priest in  the  hall without. Various thoughts passed  through his mind,  but this time he let them remain unspoken.

  That  evening, the prince held council with those of his  retainers who had visited kinsmen and friends within Mahartha, and with those who had gone about through the town obtaining news and gossip. From these he learned that there were only  ten Masters  of Karma in  Mahartha and that they kept their lodgings in  a palace on the southeastern slopes above  the  city. They made scheduled visits to the clinics, or reading rooms, of the Temples, where the citizens  presented  themselves  for judgment when they applied for renewal. The Hall of Karma itself was a massive black  structure within the courtyard of  their palace, where a person applied shortly after judgment to have  his transfer made into his  new  body. Strake, along  with two  of his advisers, departed  while  daylight  yet  remained  to  make  sketches  of  the palace fortifications. Two of the prince\'s courtiers were dispatched across town to deliver an  invitation to  late dining and revelry to the Shan of Irabek, an old  man  and distant neighbor of Siddhartha\'s with whom he had fought three bloody  border skirmishes  and  occasionally  hunted  tiger.  The  Shan  was visiting with relatives  while  waiting his  appointment with the Masters of Karma. Another  man was sent to the Street of the Smiths, where he requested of the metal workers that they double the  prince\'s order and  have it ready by   early  morning.  He  took  along   additional  money  to  ensure  their cooperation.

  Later, the Shan of Irabek arrived at the Hostel of Hawkana, accompanied by six of his relatives, who were of the merchant caste but came armed as if they were warriors. Seeing that the hostel was  a peaceable  abode, however, and  that none of the  other  guests or  visitors bore  arms, they put aside their weapons and  seated  themselves near the head of the table, beside the prince.

  The Shan was a tall  man,  but his posture was considerably hunched. He wore maroon  robes  and  a dark turban  reaching  down almost  to his great, caterpillar-like eyebrows, which were the  color of milk.  His beard  was  a snowy bush, his teeth  shown as  dark  stumps when he laughed and his  lower eyelids jutted  redly,  as  though  sore  and  weary after so  many years of holding  back his bloodshot orbs in their obvious attempt to push themselves forward out of  their sockets.  He laughed a  phlegmy laugh and pounded  the table, repeating, "Elephants are  too expensive these days, and no damn good at  all in mud!"  for  the  sixth  time;  this being in  reference to  their conversation as to the best time of year  to fight a war. Only  one very new in the business  would be so  boorish as to insult  a neighbor\'s  ambassador during the rainy season, it was decided, and  that one would  thereafter  be marked as a nouveau roi.

  As the evening wore on, the prince\'s physician excused himself so as to superintend the preparation of the dessert and introduce a narcotic into the sweetcakes being served  up  to  the Shan.  As the  evening wore further on, subsequent to the dessert, the Shan grew more and more inclined to close his eyes and let his head slump  forward for longer  and longer periods of time. "Good  party," he muttered,  between snores,  and finally, "Elephants are no damn good at all. . ." and so passed to sleep and could not be awakened. His kinsmen did not see fit to escort him home at this time, because of the fact that the  prince\'s  physician had added chloral  hydrate to their  wine, and they  were at  that  moment  sprawled  upon the floor, snoring. The prince\'s chief courtier arranged with Hawkana for  their  accommodation, and the Shan himself was taken to Siddhartha\'s suite, where he was shortly visited by the physician, who loosened his garments and spoke to him in  a soft, persuasive voice:

  "Tomorrow afternoon," he was saying, "you will be Prince Siddhartha and these will be your retainers. You will  report to the Hall of Karma in their company, to claim there the  body which Brahma has  promised you without the necessity of  prior  judgment  You  will  remain Siddhartha  throughout  the transfer, and  you will  return here in the company of your retainers, to be examined by me. Do you understand?"

  "Yes," whispered the Shan.

  "Then repeat what I have told you."

  \'Tomorrow afternoon,"  said the Shan, "I will be Siddhartha, commanding these retainers. . ."

  Bright bloomed the morning,  and debts were settled beneath it. Half of the prince\'s men rode out of the city, heading north.  When they were out of sight  of Mahartha  they began circling to the southeast,  working their way through the hills, stopping only to don their battle gear.

  Half  a  dozen men were dispatched to the Street of the  Smiths, whence they returned bearing heavy canvas bags, the contents of which  were divided into the pouches  of three dozen men  who departed  after breakfast into the city.

  The prince took counsel with his physician,  Narada, saying, "If I have misjudged the clemency of Heaven, then am I cursed indeed."

  But the doctor smiled and replied, "I doubt you misjudged."

  And so they passed from morning into the still center of day, the Ridge of the Gods golden above them.

  When  their  charges awakened, they ministered to  their hangovers. The Shan was given a posthypnotic and sent with six of Siddhartha\'s retainers to the  Palace  of the  Masters.  His kinsmen  were  assured  that  he remained sleeping in the prince\'s quarters.

  "Our major risk at this point," said the physician,  "is the Shan. Will he be recognized? The factors in our favor are that he is a minor  potentate from a distant kingdom, he has only been in town for a short period of time, has spent  most of that time  with his kinsmen and he has not  yet presented himself  for judgment.  The  Masters should  still  be unaware of  your  own physical appearance - "

  "Unless I have been  described to  them by Brahma or his  priest," said the prince. "For all I know,  my communication may  have been  taped and the tape relayed to them for identification purposes."

  "Why,  though,  should  this have  been  done?"  inquired Narada. "They should hardly expect stealth and elaborate precautions  of one for whom they are doing  a favor. No, I  think we should be able to pull it off. The  Shan would not  be able  to pass  a probe, of course, but he should pass  surface scrutiny,  accompanied as he is  by your  retainers. At the moment,  he does believe he is Siddhartha, and he could pass any simple lie-detection test in that regard- which I feel is the most serious obstacle he might encounter."

  So  they  waited, and the  three dozen men returned with empty pouches, gathered their belongings, mounted their horses and one  by one  drifted off through  the town, as  though  in  search of  revelry, but actually drifting slowly in a southeasterly direction.

  "Good-bye, good Hawkana," said the prince, as the  remainder of his men packed  and mounted. "I shalt bear, as  always, good report of your lodgings to all whom I  meet about the land. I  regret that my stay here  must  be so unexpectedly  terminated, but  I  must ride  to put down an uprising in  the provinces as soon as  I leave the Hall of Karma. You are aware of how  these things spring  up the moment  a ruler\'s  back is turned. So,  while I should have  liked to  spend  another  week beneath  your roof,  I  fear  that this pleasure must be postponed until another  time.  If any  ask after  me, tell them to seek me in Hades."

  "Hades, my Lord?"

  "It  is  the  southernmost  province  of  my  kingdom,  noted  for  its excessively  warm weather. Be sure to  phrase it just  so, especially to the priests of Brahma, who may become concerned as to my whereabouts in days  to come."

  "I\'ll do that, my Lord."

  "And  take especial  care  of the boy  Dele.  I expect to hear him play again on my next visit."

  Hawkana bowed low  and  was about to  begin a  speech,  so  the  prince decided upon  that moment to toss him the final  bag  of coins  and make  an additional comment  as to the  wines of Urath-  before mounting quickly and shouting orders to his men,  in such a manner as  to drown out  any  further conversation.

  Then  they rode through the gateway and were gone,  leaving behind only the physician and three warriors, whom he was to treat an additional day for an  obscure condition having to  do with the change  of climate, before they rode on to catch up with the others.

  They passed through the town, using side streets, and came after a time to the  roadway  that  led up toward the Palace of the  Masters of Karma. As they passed along its  length, Siddhartha  exchanged secret signs with those three dozen of  his warriors who lay in hiding at various points off  in the woods.

  When they had gone half the distance to the palace, the prince and  the eight men who  accompanied him drew rein and made as if to rest, waiting the while for the others to move  abreast of them, passing  carefully  among the trees.

  Before  long,  however,  they  saw  movement on  the trail ahead. Seven riders were advancing on horseback,  and the prince guessed them to  be  his six lancers and the  Shan.  When  they  came within  hailing distance,  they advanced to meet them.

  "Who  are you?" inquired the tall,  sharp-eyed  rider mounted  upon the white mare. "Who  are you that dares block the passage of Prince Siddhartha, Binder of Demons?"

  The prince looked upon him-  muscular and tanned, in his mid-twenties, possessed  of  hawklike  features  and  a  powerful  bearing - and he  felt suddenly that his doubts had been unfounded and that he bad betrayed himself by his  suspicion and mistrust. It appeared from the lithe physical specimen seated  upon  his  own  mount that  Brahma  had  bargained  in  good  faith, authorizing  for  his  use  an  excellent and sturdy  body,  which  was  now possessed by the ancient Shan.

  "Lord Siddhartha," said his man, who had ridden at the side of the Lord of  Irabek, "it  appears  that  they dealt fairly. I  see naught amiss about him."

  "Siddhartha!" cried  the  Shan. "Who  is this one you dare address with the name of  your master? I am Siddhartha,  Binder of- " With that he threw his head back and his words gurgled in his throat.

  Then the fit hit the Shan. He stiffened, lost his seating and fell from the saddle. Siddhartha ran to his  side. There were little flecks of foam at the corners of his mouth, and his eyes were rolled upward.

  "Epileptic!" cried the prince. "They meant me to have a brain which had been damaged."

  The others gathered  around and helped the prince minister to  the Shan until the seizure passed and his wits had returned to his body.

  "Wh-what happened?" he asked.

  "Treachery," said  Siddhartha. "Treachery, oh Shan of Irabek! One of my men will convey you now  to my personal physician, for an examination. After you have rested, I suggest  you lodge a protest at Brahma\'s reading room. My physician will treat you  at  Hawkana\'s, and then you will be released. I am sorry this  thing  happened. It  will probably  be set  aright. But if  not, remember the last siege  of Kapil and  consider us  even on all scores. Good afternoon, brother prince." He bowed to  the  other, and his men  helped the Shan to mount Hawkana\'s bay, which Siddhartha had borrowed earlier.

  Mounting the  mare, the prince observed their departure, then turned to the men who stood about him, and he spoke in a voice sufficiently loud to be heard by those who waited off the road:

  "The  nine of us will enter. Two  blasts upon the  horn, and you others follow. If they resist, make them wish they had been more prudent, for three more blasts upon the horn will bring the fifty lancers down from the  hills, if they be  needed.  It  is a  palace of ease,  and not a fort where battles would be fought. Take the Masters prisoner. Do not harm their machineries or allow others to do  so. If they do not resist us, all well and good. If they do, we shall walk through the Palace and Hall of the Masters of Karma like a small boy across an extensive and excessively elaborate ant hill. Good luck. No gods be with you!"

  And turning his  horse,  he  headed on up the  road, the eight  lancers singing softly at his back.

  The  prince  rode  through the wide double gate, which stood  open  and unguarded. He set  immediately to wondering  concerning secret defenses that Strake might have missed.

  The courtyard was  landscaped and partly paved. In a large garden area, servants were at work pruning, trimming and  cultivating.  The prince sought after  weapon  emplacements and  saw  none. The  servants glanced  up  as he entered, but did not halt their labors.

  At the far end of the courtyard was  the black  stone Hall. He advanced in  that direction,  his horsemen  following, until he  was hailed  from the steps of the palace itself, which lay to his right.

  He drew rein and turned to look in that direction. The  man  wore black livery, a yellow circle on his breast, and he carried an ebony staff. He was tall, heavy and muffled to  the eyes.  He did not repeat his salutation, but stood waiting.

  The  prince guided his mount to  the foot of the wide stairway. "I must speak to the Masters of Karma," he stated.

  "Have you an appointment?" inquired the man.

  "No," said the prince, "but it is a matter of importance."

  "Then I regret that  you have made this trip for nothing," replied  the other. "An appointment is necessary. You may make arrangements at any Temple in Mahartha."

  He then struck upon the stair with his staff, turned his back and began to move away.

  "Uproot that  garden,"  said the prince  to his men, "cut  down  yonder trees, heap everything together and set a torch to it."

  The man in black halted, turned again.

  Only the prince  waited  at the foot of the stair. His men were already moving off in the direction of the garden.

  "You can\'t do that," said the man.

  The prince smiled.

  His men dismounted and began hacking at the shrubbery, kicking they way through the flower beds.

  "Tell them to stop!"

  "Why should I? I have come to speak with the  Masters of Karma, and you tell me that I cannot. I tell you that I can, and will.  Let us see which of us is correct."

  "Order  them to stop," said the other, "and I will bear your message to the Masters."

  "Halt!" cried the prince. "But be ready to begin again."

  The man in black  mounted  the stairs,  vanished into the  palace.  The prince fingered the horn that hung on a cord about his neck.

  In a short while there was movement, and armed men began to emerge from the doorway. The prince raised his horn and gave wind to it twice.

  The  men wore  leather armor-  some still  buckling  it  hastily  into place- and caps of the same material. Their sword arms  were padded to  the elbow, and they wore small, oval-shaped metal shields, bearing  as  device a yellow wheel  upon  a  black field. They  carried long, curved  blades. They filled the stairway completely and stood as if waiting orders.

  The man in black emerged again, and he stood at the head  of the stair. "Very well," he stated, "if you have a message for the Masters, say it!"

  "Are you a Master?" inquired the prince.

  "I am."

  "Then must your rank be lowest of them all, it you must also do duty as doorman. Let me speak to the Master in charge here."

  "Your insolence will be repaid both now and in  a  life yet  to  come," observed the Master.

  Then three dozen  lancers rode through the gate and arrayed  themselves at the sides of the prince.  The eight who  had begun the deflowering of the garden  remounted their horses and moved to join  the formation, blades laid bare across their laps.

  "Must we enter your palace on horseback?" inquired the prince. "Or will you now summon the other Masters, with whom I wish to hold conversation?"

  Close to eighty men  stood upon the stair facing them, blades in  hand. The Master seemed to weigh the balance  of forces.  He decided in  favor  of maintaining things as they were.

  "Do  nothing  rash," he stated, "for my men will defend themselves in a particularly  vicious  fashion. Wait upon  my return.  I  shall  summon  the others."

  The prince filled his pipe and lit it. His men sat like statues, lances ready. Perspiration was most evident upon the faces of the foot soldiers who held the first rank on the stairway.

  The prince, to pass the time, observed to his lancers, "Do not think to display your skill as you did at the last siege of Kapil. Make target of the breast, rather than the head.

  "Also," he continued,  "think not to engage in the customary mutilation of  the wounded and  the slain- for this is a holy place and  should not be profaned in such a manner.

  "On the  other hand,"  he added, "I shall take it as a personal affront if  there  are  not  ten  prisoners for  sacrifice to Nirriti  the Black, my personal patron- outside these  walls,  of course,  where observance of the Dark Feast will not be held so heavily against us . . ."

  There  was  a  clatter  to  the  right, as a foot soldier who  had been staring up the length of Strake\'s lance  passed out and fell from the bottom stair.

  "Stop!"  cried  the  figure in  black,  who emerged  with six others - similarly garbed- at  the head of the stairway.  "Do not profane the Palace of Karma with bloodshed. Already that fallen warrior\'s blood is- "

  "Rising to his cheeks," finished the prince, "if he be conscious - for he is not slain."

  "What is it you want?" The figure in black who  was addressing  him was of medium height, but of enormous  girth. He stood like a huge, dark barrel, his staff a sable thunderbolt.

  "I count  seven," replied the  prince.  "I understand that ten  Masters reside here. Where are the other three?"

  "Those  others are presently  in attendance at  three reading  rooms in Mahartha. What is it you want of us?"

  "You are in charge here?"

  "Only the Great Wheel of the Law is in charge here."

  "Are you  the  senior  representative of the Great  Wheel within  these walls?"

  "I am."

  "Very well. I wish to speak with you in private- over there," said the prince, gesturing toward the black Hall.

  "Impossible!"

  The prince knocked his pipe empty  against his  heel, scraped its  bowl with the  point of  his dagger, replaced it in his pouch. Then he  sat  very erect upon the white mare and clasped the horn  in his left hand. He met the Master\'s eyes.

  "Are you absolutely certain of that?" he asked.

  The Master\'s mouth, small and bright,  twisted around  words he did not speak. Then:

  "As you say," he finally acknowledged.  "Make way for me here!" and  he passed down  through the ranks of  the warriors and stood  before the  white mare.

  The  prince  guided  the  horse  with  his  knees, turning her  in  the direction of the dark Hall.

  "Hold ranks, for now!" called out the Master.

  "The same applies," said the prince to his men.

  The two of them crossed the courtyard, and the prince dismounted before the Hall.

  "You owe me a body," he said in a soft voice.

  "What talk is this?" said the Master.

  "I am Prince Siddhartha of Kapil, Binder of Demons."

  "Siddhartha has already been served," said the other.

  "So  you think," said the prince,  "served up as an epileptic, by order of Brahma. This is not so, however. The man you treated earlier today was an unwilling impostor. I am the real Siddhartha, oh nameless priest, and I have come  to claim my  body- one that is whole and strong,  and  without hidden disease. You will serve me in  this matter.  You will  serve me willingly or unwillingly, but you will serve me."

  "You think so?"

  "I think so," replied the prince.

  "Attack!" cried the Master, and he swung his dark staff at the prince\'s head.

  The prince ducked the blow and retreated, drawing his  blade. Twice, he parried the staff. Then  it  fell  upon his shoulder,  a  glancing blow, but sufficient to stagger  him. He circled around the white mare, pursued by the Master.  Dodging,  keeping  the horse between himself and  his  opponent, he raised the horn to his lips and sounded it three tunes. Its notes rose above the fierce noises of the combat on the  palace stair. Panting, he turned and raised his guard in time  to ward  off  a temple blow that would surely have slain him had it landed.

  "It is written," said  the Master, almost  sobbing out the words, "that he who gives  orders without having the power to enforce them, that man is a fool."

  "Even ten  years  ago," panted the  prince, "you\'d never have laid that staff on me."

  He hacked at it, hoping to split the wood, but the other always managed to turn the edge of his blade, so that while he  nicked it and shaved it  in places, the grain held and the staff remained of a piece.

  Using it  as a singlestick,  the  Master laid  a solid  blow across the prince\'s left side, and he felt his ribs break within him. . . . He fell.

  It was not by design that it happened, for the blade spun  from out his hands as he collapsed; but the weapon caught the Master across the shins and he dropped to his knees, howling.

  "We\'re evenly  matched, at that," gasped the  prince.  "My age  against your fat . . ."

  He drew  his dagger as he lay there, but could not hold  it  steady. He rested his elbow on the ground. The Master,  tears in his eyes, attempted to rise and fell again to his knees.

  There came the sound of many hooves.

  "I am  not a  fool,"  said the prince,  "and  now I  have  the power to enforce my orders."

  "What is happening?"

  "The rest of my lancers are arrived. Had I entered in full force, you\'d have holed up like  a gekk in  a woodpile, and  it  might have taken days to pull your palace apart  and fetch you out. Now I have you  in the palm of my hand."

  The Master raised his staff.

  The prince drew back his arm.

  "Lower it,"  he said, "or I\'ll throw  the dagger. I don\'t  know  myself whether I\'ll  miss  or hit, but I  may hit.  You\'re not  anxious  to  gamble against the real death, are you?"

  The Master lowered his staff.

  "You  will know the real death," said the Master,  "when the wardens of Karma have made dog meat of your horse soldiers."

  The  prince coughed, stared disinterestedly at his bloody spittle.  "In the meantime, let\'s discuss politics," he suggested.

  After  the sounds of battle had ended, it was Strake- tall, dusty, his hair  near matching  the  gore that  dried  on his blade - Strake, who  was nuzzled by the white mare as he saluted his prince and said, "It is over."

  "Do  you hear that, Master of  Karma?" asked  the prince. "Your wardens are dog meat."

  The Master did not answer.

  "Serve me now  and you may have your life," said  the  prince. "Refuse, and I\'ll have it."

  "I will serve you," said the Master.

  "Strake,"  ordered the prince, "send two men  down into the town - one to fetch back Narada, my physician, and the other to go to the Street of the Weavers  and  bring  here  Jannaveg the  sailmaker. Of the three lancers who remain at Hawkana\'s, leave but one to hold the Shan  of Irabek till sundown. He is then to bind him and leave him, joining us here himself."

  Strake smiled and saluted.

  "Now bring men to bear me within the Hall, and to keep  an eye on  this Master."

  He burned  his old  body,  along with all  the  others. The wardens  of Karma, to  a man, had passed in  battle. Of the seven nameless Masters, only the  one who had been fat survived.  While the  banks of sperm  and ova, the growth  tanks  and  the body lockers could not be transported,  the transfer equipment itself was dismantled  under the direction of Dr.  Narada, and its components were loaded  onto the  horses of  those  who  had fallen  in  the battle. The  young prince sat upon  the white mare and  watched the  jaws of flame close upon the bodies. Eight pyres blazed against the predawn sky. The one  who had been a sailmaker turned his eyes to the pyre nearest the gate- the  last  to  be ignited, its flames were only  just  now reaching the top, where lay the gross bulk of one who wore a robe of black, a circle of yellow on the breast. When the flames touched it and the robe began to smolder, the dog who cowered in the ruined garden raised his head in a howl that was near to a sob.

  "This  day  your  sin  account  is  filled  to overflowing,"  said  the sailmaker.

  "But, ah, my prayer account!" replied  the  prince. "I\'ll stand on that for the time being. Future theologians will have to make the final decision, though, as  to  the acceptability of all those slugs in the pray-o-mats. Let Heaven wonder now what happened here this  day-  where  I  am, if I am, and who. The time has come to ride, my captain. Into  the mountains for a while, and  then our separate ways, for safety\'s sake. I am not sure as to the road I will follow, save that it leads to Heaven\'s gate and I must go armed."

  "Binder of Demons," said the other, and he smiled.

  The  lancer  chief  approached. The  prince  nodded  him.  Orders  were shouted.

  The columns of mounted men moved forward, passed out through the  gates of the Palace of Karma, turned  off the roadway and headed up the slope that lay to the southeast of the city of Mahartha, comrades blazing like the dawn at their back.  

III

  It is said that, when the Teacher appeared, those of all castes went to hear  his  teachings, as well as animals,  gods  and an occasional saint, to come  away  improved  and  uplifted.  It was  generally conceded that he had received enlightenment,  except  by those who believed  him to  be  a fraud, sinner, criminal or  practical  joker. These  latter ones were not all to be numbered as his enemies;  but,  on the other hand, not all of those improved and  uplifted could be counted  as his friends and supporters. His followers called him Mahasamatman and  some said he was  a god. So,  after it was seen that he  had been accepted as  a  teacher, was looked upon with respect, had many  of the wealthy  numbered as his supporters and had gained a reputation reaching  far across the  land, he was referred to as Tathagatha, meaning He Who  Has Achieved.  It must  be noted that while the goddess Kali (sometimes known as Durga  in her softer moments) never voiced a formal  opinion as  to his buddhahood, she  did render  him the singular honor  of  dispatching her holy executioner to pay him her tribute, rather  than a mere hired assassin. . . .

  There is no disappearing of the true Dhamma

  until a false Dhamma arises in the world.

  When the false Dhamma arises, he makes the

  true Dhamma to disappear.

  Samyutta-nikaya (II, 224)

  Near the city of Alundil there was  a  rich grove of blue-barked trees, having purple foliage  like  feathers.  It was famous for its beauty and the shrinelike peace of its shade. It had been the property of the merchant Vasu until  his  conversion,  at which  time  he had presented it to the  teacher variously known as Mahasamatman, Tathagatha and the Enlightened One. In that wood did this teacher abide with his followers, and when they  walked  forth into the town at midday their begging bowls never went unfilled.

  There  was always a  large  number  of  pilgrims about  the grove.  The believers, the curious and those who preyed upon the others  were constantly passing through it. They came by horseback,  they came by boat, they came on foot.

  Alundil was not an overly  large  city. It  had its  share  of thatched huts, as well as  wooden bungalows; its main roadway was unpaved and rutted; it  had  two large bazaars and many  small ones;  there were wide fields  of grain, owned by the Vaisyas, tended by the Sudras, which flowed and rippled, blue-green, about the city;  it had many hostels (though none so fine as the legendary  hostel of  Hawkana, in  far  Mahartha), because  of  the constant passage  of travelers; it had its holy men and  its storytellers; and it had its Temple.

  The Temple was  located on a low hill near the center of town, enormous gates on each of its four sides. These gates, and the walls about them, were filled with layer upon layer of decorative  carvings, showing  musicians and dancers,  warriors and  demons,  gods and  goddesses,  animals and  artists, lovemakers and  half-people, guardians  and devas. These gates led into  the first courtyard, which held  more walls and more gates, leading in turn into the second courtyard. The first courtyard contained  a  little bazaar, where offerings to the  gods  were  sold.  It also housed  numerous  small shrines dedicated to the lesser deities. There were begging beggars, meditating holy men,  laughing  children, gossiping women, burning incenses, singing  birds, gurgling purification tanks and  humming  pray-o-mats  to  be found in  this courtyard at any hour of the day.

  The inner courtyard, though, with its  massive shrines dedicated to the major  deities, was a focal point of religious intensity.  People chanted or shouted  prayers, mumbled verses from the Vedas, or stood,  or knelt, or lay prostrate  before  huge stone images, which  often were so heavily garlanded with flowers,  smeared with  red  kumkum paste and  surrounded  by  heaps of offerings that it was impossible  to  tell which deity  was so  immersed  in tangible adoration. Periodically, the horns of  the Temple were blown, there was a moment\'s hushed appraisal of their echo and the clamor began again.

  And none would dispute the fact that Kali was queen of this Temple. Her tall,  white-stone statue,  within its gigantic shrine, dominated  the inner courtyard. Her faint smile, perhaps contemptuous of the other gods and their worshipers, was, in its way, as arresting as the chained grins of the skulls she  wore  for a  necklace.  She held daggers in  her hands; and  poised  in mid-step she stood, as though deciding whether to dance before or slay those who came  to her  shrine. Her lips were full,  her  eyes were  wide. Seen by torchlight, she seemed to move.

  It was fitting, therefore, that her shrine faced upon that of Yama, god of  Death.  It had  been  decided, logically  enough,  by  the  priests  and architects, that he was best suited of all the deities to spend every minute of the day facing her, matching his  unfaltering death-gaze against her own, returning  her  half  smile  with  his  twisted  one.  Even the  most devout generally made a detour rather than pass between  the two shrines; and after dark their  section of  the  courtyard  was always the abode  of silence and stillness, being untroubled by late worshipers.

  From out  of the north, as  the winds of spring blew  across the  land, there came the one  called Rild. A small  man, whose hair was white,  though his years were few- Rild, who  wore  the dark  trappings of a pilgrim,  but about  whose forearm, when they found him lying in  a ditch with  the fever, was wound the crimson strangling cord of his true profession: Rild.

  Rild came in the spring, at festival-time, to Alundil of the blue-green fields, of the thatched huts and  the bungalows of wood, of unpaved roadways and many hostels, of  bazaars and  holy men and storytellers,  of  the great religious revival and its  Teacher,  whose reputation had spread  far across the land- to Alundil of the Temple, where his patron goddess was queen.

  Festival-time.

  Twenty  years  earlier, Alundil\'s  small festival  had  been  an almost exclusively  local  affair.  Now,  though,  with  the passage  of  countless travelers, caused by the presence of the Enlightened One, who taught the Way of the Eightfold  Path,  the Festival of  Alundil attracted so many pilgrims that local accommodations  were filled to  overflowing.  Those who possessed tents  could charge a high fee for their rental. Stables were rented out for human occupancy. Even bare pieces of land were let as camping sites.

  Alundil loved its Buddha. Many other towns had tried to entice him away from  his purple grove: Shengodu. Flower of the Mountains, had offered him a palace  and  harem  to  come bring  his  teaching  to  the slopes.  But  the Enlightened One did not  go to  the mountain. Kannaka, of the Serpent River, had offered him  elephants and ships, a  town  house and  a  country  villa, horses  and  servants,  to  come  and  preach  from  its  wharves.  But  the Enlightened One did not go to the river.

  The Buddha  remained in his grove and all things came to him.  With the passage  of years the festival grew larger and  longer  and  more elaborate, like a well-fed dragon, scales  all a-shimmer.  The  local Brahmins  did not approve  of  the  antiritualistic  teachings of the Buddha, but his presence filled their coffers to overflowing; so  they learned to  live in his  squat shadow, never voicing the word tirthika- heretic.

  So  the  Buddha remained  in  his grove and  all  things  came  to him, including Rild.

  Festival-time.

  The drums began in the evening on the third day. On the third day,  the massive drums of the kathakali began their rapid thunder. The miles-striding staccato  of the  drums carried  across the fields  to the  town, across the town, across the  purple grove and across the wastes of  marshland that  lay behind it. The drummers, wearing white mundus, bare to the waist, their dark flesh  glistening with perspiration, worked in  shifts, so strenuous was the mighty beating they set up; and  never was the flow of sound broken, even as the new relay of drummers moved into position before the  tightly  stretched heads of the instruments.

  As darkness arrived  in the world, the  travelers and townsmen  who had begun walking as soon as they heard the chatter of the drums began to arrive at the  festival  field,  large as a  battlefield  of old.  There they found places  and  waited for the night to deepen  and the drama to begin, sipping the sweet-smelling tea that they purchased at the stalls beneath the trees.

  A great brass bowl of oil, tall  as  a man, wicks hanging down over its edges,  stood in the  center  of  the field. These wicks  were  lighted, and torches flickered beside the tents of the actors.

  The drumming, at dose  range, was deafening and  hypnotic, the  rhythms complicated, syncopated, insidious. As  midnight approached,  the devotional chanting began, rising and falling with  the  drumbeat, working a net  about the senses.

  There was a brief  lull as the Enlightened One and  his  monks arrived, their yellow robes near-orange in the flamelight. But  they threw back their cowls and seated themselves  cross-legged upon the ground. After  a time, it was only the chanting and the voices of the drums that  filled  the minds of the spectators.

  When  the  actors  appeared,  gigantic  in  their  makeup,  ankle bells jangling as their  feet beat the  ground, there was no  applause,  only rapt attention. The  kathakali dancers  were famous,  trained from their youth in acrobatics as well as the ages-old patterns of the classical  dance, knowing the nine distinct movements of the neck and of the eyeballs and the hundreds of hand positions required to re-enact the ancient epics of love and battle, of the  encounters  of  gods  and  demons, of the valiant fights  and bloody treacheries of tradition. The musicians shouted out the words of the stories as the actors, who never spoke, portrayed  the awesome exploits of Rama  and of the Pandava brothers. Wearing makeup of green and red, or black and stark white,  they   stalked   across   the   field,   skirts   billowing,   their mirror-sprinkled halos glittering in the light of the lamp.

  Occasionally, the  lamp  would  flare  or sputter, and it  was  as if a nimbus  of holy or unholy light played about their  heads, erasing  entirely the sense  of the  event,  causing the spectators to feel for a moment  that they themselves  were the illusion, and that the great-bodied figures of the cyclopean dance were the only real things in the world.

  The dance would continue until daybreak, to end with the rising  of the sun. Before  daybreak,  however, one of  the wearers  of  the  saffron  robe arrived from the direction of town, made his way through the crowd and spoke into the ear of the Enlightened One.

  The Buddha  began to rise, appeared  to think better of it and reseated himself. He  gave  a message to the  monk, who  nodded and departed from the field of the festival.

  The Buddha, looking imperturbable, returned his attention to the drama. A monk seated nearby noted that he was  tapping his fingers upon the ground, and  he decided  that the  Enlightened  One  must be keeping  time with  the drumbeats,  for it was  common  knowledge that he was  above  such things as impatience.

  When the drama had ended and Surya  the sun pinked the skirts of Heaven above the eastern rim of the world, it was as  if the night just passed  had held the  crowd prisoner within  a tense and frightening  dream, from  which they were just now released, weary, to wander this day.

  The  Buddha and his  followers  set  off  walking  immediately, in  the direction of the town. They did not pause to  rest along the way, but passed through Alundil at a rapid but dignified gait.

  When  they  came  again  to  the  purple  grove,  the  Enlightened  One instructed  his monks to take rest, and  he moved off in the  direction of a small pavilion located deep within the wood.

  The monk  who had brought the message during the drama  sat within  the pavilion. There he tended the fever of the traveler he had come  upon in the marshes, where he  walked often to better meditate upon the putrid condition his body would assume after death.

  Tathagatha studied the man who lay upon the sleeping mat. His lips were thin and pale;  he had a high forehead,  high  cheekbones,  frosty eyebrows, pointed  ears; and Tathagatha guessed that when those eyelids rose, the eyes revealed  would be  of  a  faded blue  or  gray.  There  was a  quality of- translucency?- fragility perhaps, about his unconscious form,  which  might have been caused  partly by the fevers that racked his body, but which could not be  attributed  entirely  to  them.  The  small  man did  not  give  the impression of being one who would bear the thing that Tathagatha now  raised in his hands. Rather, on first viewing, he might seem to  be a very old man. If one granted him a second look, and realized then that his colorless  hair and his slight frame did not signify advanced age, one might then be  struck by  something  childlike about  his  appearance. From the condition  of  his complexion,  Tathagatha doubted that  he  need shave  very often. Perhaps  a slightly mischievous pucker was now hidden somewhere  between his cheeks and the corners of his mouth. Perhaps not, also.

  The Buddha raised the crimson  strangling cord, which was a thing borne only by the holy executioners  of the goddess Kali.  He fingered  its silken length, and it passed like a serpent through his hand, clinging slightly. He did not  doubt but that it was intended to move in such  a manner  about his throat.  Almost unconsciously,  he held it and twisted his hands through the necessary movements.

  Then he looked up at the wide-eyed monk who had watched him, smiled his imperturbable  smile and  laid the cord aside. With  a damp cloth, the  monk wiped the perspiration from the pale brow.

  The man on the sleeping  mat shuddered at  the  contact,  and  his eyes snapped open. The  madness  of the fever was in them and they did  not truly see, but Tathagatha felt a sudden jolt at their contact.

  Dark, so dark they were almost jet, and it was impossible to tell where the pupil ended and the iris began. There was something extremely unsettling about eyes of such power in a body so frail and effete.

  He reached out and stroked the man\'s hands, and it  was  like  touching steel, cold and impervious. He  drew his fingernail sharply across the  back of  the right hand. No scratch  or  indentation marked  its passage, and his nail  fairly slid,  as though across a pane of glass. He squeezed the  man\'s thumbnail and released it. There was  no sudden change of color.  It was  as though these hands were dead or mechanical things.

  He  continued  his examination. The phenomenon ended somewhat above the wrists, occurred again in other places. His hands, breast, abdomen, neck and portions of  his back had soaked  within  the  death bath, which  gave  this special  unyielding power.  Total  immersion would, of  course,  have proved fatal; but as it was, the man had traded some of his tactile sensitivity for the equivalent of invisible gauntlets, breastplate, neckpiece and back armor of steel. He was indeed one of the select assassins of the terrible goddess.

  "Who else knows of this man?" asked the Buddha.

  "The monk Simha," replied the other, "who helped me bear him here."

  "Did he  see"- Tathagatha gestured  with his  eyes  toward the crimson cord- that?" he inquired.

  The monk nodded.

  "Then go fetch him. Bring him to me at once. Do not mention anything of this to anyone, other than  that a  pilgrim was taken ill and we are tending him here. I will personally take over his care and minister to his illness."

  "Yes, Illustrious One."

  The monk hurried forth from the pavilion.

  Tathagatha seated himself beside the sleeping mat and waited.

  It was  two  days before the  fever broke and intelligence  returned to those dark  eyes.  But  during  those two  days, anyone  who  passed by  the pavilion  might have heard  the voice of the Enlightened One droning  on and on,  as  though  he  addressed his  sleeping  charge. Occasionally,  the man himself mumbled and spoke loudly, as those in a fever often do.

  On  the second day, the man opened his eyes suddenly and stared upward. Then he frowned and turned his bead.

  "Good morning, Rild," said Tathagatha.

  "You are . . . ?" asked the other, in an unexpected baritone.

  "One who teaches the way of liberation," he replied.

  "The Buddha?"

  "I have been called such."

  "Tathagatha?"

  "This name, too, have I been given."

  The other  attempted to rise, failed, settled back. His eyes never left the placid countenance. "How is it that you know my name?" he finally asked.

  "In your fever you spoke considerably."

  "Yes,  I was very sick, and doubtless babbling. It  was in  that cursed swamp that I took the chill."

  Tathagatha smiled. "One of the disadvantages of traveling alone is that when you fall there is none to assist you."

  "True," acknowledged  the other,  and his eyes closed once more and his breathing deepened.

  Tathagatha remained in the lotus posture, waiting.

  When Rild awakened again, it was evening. "Thirsty," he said.

  Tathagatha gave him water. "Hungry?" he asked.

  "No, not yet. My stomach would rebel."

  He raised himself up onto his elbows and stared at his attendant.  Then he sank back upon the mat. "You are the one," he announced.

  "Yes," replied the other.

  "What are you going to do?"

  "Feed you, when you say you are hungry."

  "I mean, after that."

  "Watch as you sleep, lest you lapse again into the fever."

  "That is not what I meant."

  "I know."

  "After I have eaten and rested and recovered my strength- what then?"

  Tathagatha smiled as he drew the silken cord from somewhere beneath his robe. "Nothing," he replied, "nothing at all," and he draped the cord across Rild\'s shoulder and withdrew his hand.

  The other  shook his head  and leaned back. He  reached up and fingered the length  of crimson.  He twined it about his fingers  and then  about his wrist. He stroked it.

  "It is holy," he said, after a time.

  "So it would seem."

  "You know its use, and its purpose?"

  "Of course."

  "Why then will you do nothing at all?"

  "I have no need to move or to  act. All things come  to me. If anything is to be done, it is you who will do it."

  "I do not understand."

  "I know that, too."

  The man stared into the shadows overhead.  "I will attempt to eat now," he announced.

  Tathagatha  gave him  broth  and bread, which he managed to  keep down. Then he drank more water, and when he had finished he was breathing heavily.

  "You have offended Heaven," he stated.

  "Of that, I am aware."

  "And you have  detracted  from the glory of a goddess,  whose supremacy here has always been undisputed."

  "I know."

  "But I owe you my life, and I have eaten your bread."

  There was no reply.

  "Because  of this,  I must break a  most holy  vow,"  finished Rild. "I cannot kill you, Tathagatha."

  "Then I  owe my life to the fact that you owe me yours. Let us consider the life-owing balanced."

  Rild uttered a short chuckle. "So be it," he said.

  "What will you do, now that you have abandoned your mission?"

  "I do not know. My sin is too great to permit me to return. Now I, too, have  offended against Heaven, and the goddess will turn away her  face from my prayers. I have failed her."

  "Such being  the case, remain here. You will  at least  have company in damnation."

  "Very well," agreed Rild. "There is nothing else left to me."

  He slept once again, and the Buddha smiled.

  In the days that followed, as the festival wore on, the Enlightened One preached to the crowds who passed through the purple  grove. He spoke of the unity of all things, great and small, of the law of cause,  of becoming  and dying, of  the illusion  of the world, of the spark of the atman, of the way of  salvation through renunciation of the self and union  with the whole; he spoke  of  realization  and  enlightenment, of the  meaninglessness  of  the Brahmins\' rituals, comparing their  forms  to vessels empty of content. Many listened, a few heard  and some  remained in the purple grove to take up the saffron robe of the seeker.

  And each time  he  taught,  the man  Rild sat nearby, wearing his black garments  and  leather   harness,  his  strange  dark  eyes  ever  upon  the Enlightened One.

  Two weeks after his recovery, Rild  came upon the teacher  as he walked through the  grove in meditation. He fell  into step beside him, and after a time he spoke.

  "Enlightened  One,  I  have  listened  to  your teachings, and  I  have listened well. Much have I thought upon your words."

  The other nodded.

  "I have always been a religious man,"  he stated, "or I  would not have been selected  for  the post I once occupied. After it became impossible for me to fulfill my mission, I felt a great emptiness. I had failed my goddess, and life was without meaning for me."

  The other listened, silently.

  "But I have heard your words," he said, "and they have filled me with a kind of joy. They have shown me another way to salvation, a way which I feel to be superior to the one I previously followed."

  The Buddha studied his face as he spoke.

  "Your way of renunciation is a strict one, which I feel  to be good. It suits  my  needs. Therefore, I  request  permission to  be  taken into  your community of seekers, and to follow your path."

  "Are  you  certain," asked  the Enlightened One, "that you do  not seek merely to punish yourself for what has been weighing upon your conscience as a failure, or a sin?"

  "Of that I am certain," said Rild.  "I have held your  words within  me and felt the truth which  they contain. In the service of the goddess have I slain  more men than purple fronds upon yonder bough. I am not even counting women and children. So I am  not easily taken  in by words, having heard too many, voiced in all tones of speech- words pleading, arguing, cursing.  But your words move me, and  they are superior to the teachings of the Brahmins. Gladly would I  become your  executioner, dispatching for you  your  enemies with a  saffron cord- or with a  blade, or pike, or with my hands, for I am proficient  with  all  weapons, having spent three lifetimes learning  their use- but I  know  that such is not your way. Death and life  are  as one to you,  and you  do  not  seek the  destruction of your enemies. So  I request entrance to your Order. For me, it is not so difficult  a thing as  it would be  for another. One  must  renounce home and family, origin and property. I lack these things. One  must renounce one\'s  own will, which I have  already done. All I need now is the yellow robe."

  "It is yours," said Tathagatha, "with my blessing."

  Rild  donned  the  robe  of  a buddhist  monk and  took to fasting  and meditating. After  a  week, when the  festival was  near to  its  close,  he departed  into the town with his begging  bowl, in the company of  the other monks.  He did not return with them, however. The  day wore on into evening, the  evening into darkness. The horns of the Temple had  already sounded the last notes of  the nagaswaram,  and many of the travelers had since departed the festival.

  For  a long  while,  the Enlightened One walked  the woods, meditating. Then he, too, vanished.

  Down from the grove, with the  marshes  at its back, toward the town of Alundil,  above  which lurked the  hills of rock  and around  which  lay the blue-green  fields, into the town  of Alundil,  still  astir with travelers, many  of  them  at the height of their  revelry, up the  streets  of Alundil toward the hill with its Temple, walked the Buddha.

  He  entered the first  courtyard, and it was quiet  there. The dogs and children  and  beggars  had  gone  away.  The  priests  slept. One  drowsing attendant  sat behind a bench at  the bazaar. Many  of  the shrines were now empty, the statues having been borne  within. Before several  of the others, worshipers knelt in late prayer.

  He entered the  inner courtyard. An ascetic was seated on a prayer  mat before the statue of Ganesha. He, too, seemed to qualify as a statue, making no visible movements. Four oil lamps flickered about the yard, their dancing light serving primarily to accentuate the  shadows that lay upon most of the shrines. Small votive  lights  cast  a  faint illumination upon some  of the statues.

  Tathagatha  crossed the yard  and stood facing  the  towering figure of Kali, at whose feet  a tiny lamp blinked.  Her smile seemed  a  plastic  and moving thing, as she regarded the man before her.

  Draped across her outstretched hand, looped once about the point of her dagger, lay a crimson strangling cord.

  Tathagatha smiled back at her, and she seemed  almost to frown at  that moment.

  "It is a resignation, my dear," he stated. "You have lost this round."

  She seemed to nod in agreement.

  "I am pleased to have achieved such a height of recognition in so short a period of  time," he continued. "But even if you had succeeded, old  girl, it would  have  done you little good. It  is too late now.  I  have  started something which  you cannot undo. Too many have heard the ancient words. You had thought  they were lost, and  so  did  I. But we  were  both  wrong. The religion by which  you rule is very ancient, goddess, but my protest is also that of a venerable tradition. So call me a protestant, and remember- now I am more than a man. Good night."

  He left the Temple and the shrine of Kali, where the eyes  of Yama  had been fixed upon his back.

  It was many months before the miracle occurred, and when it did, it did not seem a miracle, for it had grown up slowly about them.

  Rild, who had come out of the north  as the winds of spring blew across the land, wearing  death upon his arm and the black  fire  within his eyes- Rild, of the  white brows and pointed ears-  spoke one afternoon, after the spring had passed, when the long days of summer hung warm beneath the Bridge of the  Gods. He  spoke,  in that unexpected baritone, to answer  a question asked him by a traveler.

  The man asked him a second question, and then a third.

  He continued to speak, and some of the other monks and several pilgrims gathered about him. The answers following the questions, which now came from all of  them,  grew longer  and  longer, for they became parables, examples, allegories.

  Then they  were seated  at his feet, and his  dark eyes became  strange pools, and his voice came down as from  Heaven,  clear and soft, melodic and persuasive.

  They listened, and then the travelers went their way.  But they met and spoke with other  travelers  upon the road,  so that, before  the summer had passed,  pilgrims  coming  to  the  purple grove were asking  to  meet  this disciple of the Buddha\'s, and to hear his words also.

  Tathagatha shared  the preaching with him. Together, they taught of the Way of the Eightfold  Path, the glory of Nirvana, the illusion of  the world and the chains that the world lays upon a man.

  And then there were times when even the soft-spoken Tathagatha listened to  the words  of his  disciple,  who had digested all of the things he  had preached, had  meditated long and fully upon them and now, as though  he had found entrance to  a secret sea, dipped with his steel-hard hand into places of hidden waters, and then  sprinkled  a thing of truth  and beauty upon the heads of the hearers.

  Summer passed.  There  was  no  doubt now  that there were two  who had received enlightenment: Tathagatha and his  small disciple, whom they called Sugata. It  was even said that  Sugata was a  healer, and that when his eyes shone  strangely and the icy touch of  his hands came upon  a  twisted limb, that  limb  grew straight again. It was said that  a blind man\'s  vision had suddenly returned to him during one of Sugata\'s sermons.

  There  were two things in  which  Sugata believed: the Way of Salvation and Tathagatha, the Buddha.

  "Illustrious One," he said to him one day, "my life was empty until you revealed to  me the True Path. When you  received your enlightenment, before you began your teaching, was it like a rush of fire and the roaring of water and you everywhere and  a part of everything- the clouds and the trees, the animals in the forest, all people, the snow on the mountaintop and the bones in the field?"

  "Yes," said Tathagatha.

  "I, also, know the joy of all things," said Sugata.

  "Yes, I know," said Tathagatha.

  "I see  now why once  you said that  all things  come to  you. To  have brought  such a  doctrine  into  the  world- I can  see  why  the gods were envious. Poor  gods!  They  are to  be  pitied.  But you know. You  know all things."

  Tathagatha did not reply.

  When the  winds of spring blew  again across the land,  the year having gone full cycle since the arrival of the second Buddha,  there  came one day from out of the heavens a fearful shrieking.

  The  citizens of Alundil turned out  into their streets to stare  up at the sky. The Sudras  in  the fields put by  their work and looked upward. In the great Temple on the hill there was a sudden silence. In the purple grove beyond the town, the monks turned their heads.

  It paced the heavens, the one who was born to rule the wind. . . . From out of the north it came- green  and red, yellow and brown. . . . Its glide was a dance, its way was the air. . . .

  There came another shriek, and then the beating of mighty pinions as it climbed past clouds to become a tiny dot of black.

  And then it fell, like a meteor, bursting into flame, all of its colors blazing and  burning bright,  as it  grew and  grew, beyond all belief  that anything could live at that size, that pace, that magnificence. . . .

  Half spirit, half bird, legend darkening the sky.

  Mount of Vishnu, whose beak smashes chariots.

  The Garuda Bird circled above Alundil.

  Circled,  and  passed beyond the hills of  rock that  stood behind  the city.

  "Garuda!"  The word ran through the  town, the fields, the Temple,  the grove.

  If  he did not fly  alone;  it was known that only a  god could use the Garuda Bird for a mount.

  There was silence.  After those shrieks  and  that  thunder of pinions, voices seemed naturally to drop to a whisper.

  The Enlightened One stood  upon  the  road before the grove,  his monks moving about him, facing in the direction of the hills of rock.

  Sugata came to  his side  and stood there. "It was but a spring ago . . ." he said.

  Tathagatha nodded.

  "Rild failed," said Sugata. "What new thing comes from Heaven?"

  The Buddha shrugged.

  "I fear for you,  my teacher," he  said. "In all my lifetimes, you have been my only  friend. Your  teaching has given me peace.  Why can  they  not leave you alone?  You are the  most harmless  of men, and your doctrine  the gentlest. What ill could you possibly bear them?"

  The other turned away.

  At that moment, with a mighty beating of the air  and a jagged cry from its opened beak, the  Garuda Bird rose once more above the hills. This time, it  did  not  circle over  the  town,  but climbed to  a great height in the heavens and swept off to the north. Such was the  speed  of its passing that it was gone in a matter of moments.

  "Its passenger has dismounted and remains behind," suggested Sugata.

  The Buddha walked within the purple grove.

  He came from beyond the hills of  stone, walking. He came to  a passing place  through  stone, and  he  followed this trail, his red  leather  boots silent on the rocky path.

  Ahead, there was  a sound  of running  water, from where a small stream cut  across  his  way.  Shrugging  his  blood-bright  cloak  back  over  his shoulders,  he advanced  upon  a bend in  the  trail, the  ruby head  of his scimitar gleaming in his crimson sash.

  Rounding a comer of stone, he came to a halt.

  One waited ahead, standing beside the log that led across the stream.

  His eyes narrowed for an instant, then he moved forward again.

  It was a  small man  who stood there, wearing the  dark  garments  of a pilgrim, caught about  with  a leather harness  from which was  suspended  a short, curved blade of  bright  steel. This man\'s  head was closely  shaven, save for a small lock of white hair. His eyebrows were white above eyes that were dark, and his skin was pale; his ears appeared to be pointed.

  The traveler raised  his  hand and spoke  to  this  man,  saying, "Good afternoon, pilgrim."

  The man did not  reply,  but moved  to bar his way, positioning himself before the log that led across the stream.

  "Pardon  me,  good pilgrim, but I  am about to  cross here and you  are making my passage difficult," he stated.

  "You are mistaken, Lord Yama, if you think you are about to pass here," replied the other.

  The One in Red smiled, showing  a long row of even, white teeth. "It is always  a  pleasure to  be recognized," he acknowledged,  "even by  one  who conveys misinformation concerning other matters."

  "I do not fence with words," said the man in black.

  "Oh?" The  other raised his eyebrows  in  an expression  of exaggerated inquiry. "With what  then do you fence, sir?  Surely not that piece  of bent metal you bear."

  "None other."

  "I took it for some barbarous prayer-stick at first. I  understand that this  is  a  region fraught  with strange cults  and primitive sects. For  a moment, I took you to be a devotee of some such superstition. But if, as you say, it is indeed a weapon, then I trust you are familiar with its use?"

  "Somewhat," replied the man in black.

  "Good, then," said Yama, "for I dislike having to kill a  man who  does not know what he  is  about. I feel  obligated to point out to you, however, that when you stand before the Highest for judgment, you will be accounted a suicide."

  The other smiled faintly.

  "Any time that you  are ready,  deathgod, I will facilitate the passage of your spirit from out its fleshy envelope."

  "One more item only,  then," said Yama, "and I shall put a quick end to conversation.  Give me a name to tell the  priests, so that  they shall know for whom they offer the rites."

  "I renounced my final name but a short while back," answered the other. "For  this  reason,  Kali\'s  consort  must  take  his death  of  one  who is nameless."

  "Rild, you are a fool," said Yama, and drew his blade.

  The man in black drew his.

  "And it is fitting that you  go unnamed to your doom. You betrayed your goddess."

  "Life is full of  betrayals," replied the other, before he struck,  "By opposing you now and in  this manner, I also betray the teachings  of my new master. But  I must follow the dictates of my heart. Neither my old name nor my new do therefore fit me, nor are they deserved- so call me by no name!"

  Then his blade was fire, leaping everywhere, clicking, blazing.

  Yama  fell  back  before  this onslaught,  giving ground  foot by foot, moving only his wrist as he parried the blows that fell about him.

  Then, after  he had retreated ten paces, he stood his ground  and would not  be moved.  His  parries  widened slightly, but his ripostes became more sudden now, and were interspersed with feints and unexpected attacks.

  They  swaggered blades till their perspiration fell upon  the ground in showers;  and  then Yama  began  to  press the  attack,  slowly, forcing his opponent into  a retreat. Step  by step,  he  recovered the ten paces he had given.

  When  they stood  again upon  the ground where the first blow had  been struck,  Yama acknowledged,  over  the  clashing  of  steel, "Well have  you learned   your   lessons,  Rild!   Better   even   than   I   had   thought! Congratulations!"

  As  he  spoke,  his opponent wove his blade through an elaborate double feint and scored a light touch  that  cut  his shoulder, drawing blood  that immediately merged with the color of his garment.

  At  this,  Yama  sprang  forward, beating down  the other\'s guard,  and delivered a blow to the side of his neck that might have decapitated him.

  The man  in black raised his  guard, shaking his head, parried  another attack and thrust forward, to be parried again himself.

  "So,  the death  bath  collars  your  throat,"  said  Yama. "I\'ll  seek entrance elsewhere, then," and his blade sang a faster song, as he tried for a low-line thrust.

  Yama unleashed the full fury of that blade, backed by the centuries and the masters of many ages. Yet, the other met his attacks, parrying wider and wider, retreating faster and faster now, but still managing to hold him  off as he backed away, counterthrusting as he went.

  He  retreated  until his back was to the  stream.  Then Yama slowed and made comment:

  "Half a  century  ago," he stated, "when  you were my pupil for a brief time, I said to  myself, \'This  one has within him the makings of a master.\' Nor was I wrong, Rild. You are perhaps the  greatest swordsman raised  up in all  the ages I can remember. I can almost  forgive apostasy  when I witness your skill. It is indeed a pity. . ."

  He feinted then a  chest cut, and at the last instant moved  around the parry so that he lay the edge of his weapon high upon the other\'s wrist.

  Leaping backward, parrying wildly and cutting  at Yama\'s  head, the man in black came into a position at  the  head of  the log  that lay  above the crevice that led down to the stream.

  "Your  hand,  too,  Rild!  Indeed,  the  goddess  is  lavish  with  her protection. Try this!"

  The steel  screeched as he caught it in  a  bind,  nicking  the other\'s bicep as he passed about the blade.

  "Aha! There\'s a place she missed!" he cried. "Let\'s try for another!"

  Their blades bound and disengaged, feinted, thrust, parried, riposted.

  Yama met an elaborate attack with a stop-thrust, his longer blade again drawing blood from his opponent\'s upper arm.

  The man in black stepped up upon the log, swinging  a vicious head cut, which Yama beat away. Pressing  the attack then even harder, Yama forced him to back out upon the log and then he kicked at its side.

  The other jumped backward, landing upon  the opposite bank. As soon  as his feet touched ground, he, too, kicked out, causing the log to move.

  It rolled,  before Yama  could mount it,  slipping free  of  the banks, crashing  down  into  the stream,  bobbing  about  for  a  moment, and  then following the water trail westward.

  "I\'d say it is only a seven- or eight-foot jump, Yama! Come on across!" cried the other.

  The deathgod smiled. "Catch your breath quickly now, while you may," he stated. "Breath is the least  appreciated gift of the gods. None  sing hymns to it, praising the good  air, breathed  by king and beggar,  master and dog alike. But, oh to be without  it! Appreciate each breath, Rild, as though it were your last- for that one, too, is near at hand!"

  "You are said  to be wise in these matters, Yama," said the one who had been  called Rild  and  Sugata. "You are said to be a god, whose kingdom  is death  and whose  knowledge  extends  beyond  the  ken  of  mortals. I would question you, therefore, while we are standing idle."

  Yama did not smile his mocking smile, as he had  to  all his opponent\'s previous statements. This one had a touch of ritual about it.

  "What  is  it  that you wish to know? I  grant you the death-boon of  a question."

  Then, in the ancient words of the Katha Upanishad, the one who had been called Rild and Sugata chanted:

  "\'There is doubt concerning  a man when  he  is dead. Some say he still exists. Others say he does not. This thing I should like to know, taught  by you.\' "

  Yama replied with the ancient  words,  "\'On  this subject even the gods have their doubts. It is not easy to understand, for the nature of the atman is a subtle thing. Ask me another question. Release me from this boon!\'"

  "\'Forgive me  if  it is  foremost in  my mind, oh  Death,  but  another teacher such as yourself cannot  be found, and surely there is no other boon which I crave more at this moment.\'"

  "\'Keep your life and go your way,\'" said Yama, plunging his blade again into  his  sash. "\'I release you from your doom. Choose  sons and grandsons; choose elephants, horses,  herds of cattle and gold. Choose any other boon- fair  maidens, chariots, musical instruments. I shall give them unto you and they shall wait upon you. But ask me not of death.\'"

  "\'Oh Death,\' " sang the other, "\'these endure only  till tomorrow. Keep your maidens, horses, dances and  songs for yourself.  No boon will I accept but the  one which  I have  asked- tell  me, oh Death, of  that  which lies beyond life, of which men and the gods have their doubts.\'"

  Yama stood  very still and he did  not continue the  poem. "Very  well, Rild," he said, his eyes  locking with the other\'s, "but it is not a kingdom subject to words. I must show you."

  They  stood,  so, for a moment;  and then the  man in  black swayed. He threw his arm across his face, covering  his eyes, and  a single sob escaped his throat.

  When this occurred, Yama drew his cloak from his  shoulders and cast it like a net across the stream.

  Weighted  at the hems  for such a maneuver, it fell, netlike,  upon his opponent.

  As he struggled to free himself, the man in black heard rapid footfalls and then  a  crash,  as Yama\'s blood-red boots struck upon  his side  of the stream. Casting aside the cloak and raising his guard, he parried Yama\'s new attack. The ground  behind  him  sloped  upward, and he  backed  farther and farther, to  where it steepened, so that  Yama\'s head was no higher than his belt. He  then struck down  at  his  opponent.  Yama  slowly  fought his way uphill.

  "Deathgod,  deathgod," he chanted, "forgive  my presumptuous  question, and tell me you did not lie."

  "Soon you shall know," said Yama, cutting at his legs.

  Yama struck a blow that would have run  another  man through,  cleaving his heart. But it glanced off his opponent\'s breast.

  When  he  came  to a place where the ground was broken,  the small  man kicked, again and again,  sending showers of dirt  and gravel down upon  his opponent. Yama shielded his eyes with his left hand, but then  larger pieces of stone began to rain down upon  him. These  rolled on  the ground, and, as several  came  beneath  his boots,  he  lost  his footing and fell, slipping backward  down the  slope.  The other  kicked  at  heavy  rocks  then,  even dislodging a boulder and following it downhill, his blade held high.

  Unable to gain his footing  in time to meet the attack, Yama rolled and slid back toward the stream. He  managed to brake himself at the edge of the crevice,  but  he saw the boulder coming  and tried to draw back  out of its way. As he  pushed at  the ground with both  hands, his blade  fell into the waters below.

  With his dagger, which he drew as he sprang into a stumbling crouch, he managed to parry the high cut of  the other\'s  blade.  The  boulder splashed into the stream.

  Then his left hand shot  forward, seizing the wrist that had guided the blade. He slashed upward with the dagger and felt his own wrist taken.

  They stood then, locking their strength, until Yama sat down and rolled to his side, thrusting the other from him.

  Still,  both locks held,  and they  continued to roll from the force of that  thrust. Then the edge of the  crevice was beside  them,  beneath them, above them.  He felt the blade  go out of his  hand as it struck the  stream bed.

  When  they  came  again  above the  surface  of the  water, gasping for breath, each held only water in his hands.

  "Time  for  the final baptism,"  said Yama, and he lashed out with  his left hand.

  The other blocked the punch, throwing one of his own.

  They moved to  the left  with the waters, until their feet struck  upon rock and they fought, wading, along the length of the stream.

  It  widened  and  grew  more  shallow as  they moved, until  the waters swirled about their waists. In  places, the banks began  to  fall nearer the surface of the water.

  Yama landed blow after blow, both with his fists and  the  edges of his hands; but  it was  as  if he assailed  a  statue, for the one  who had been Kali\'s holy executioner took each blow without  changing his expression, and he returned them with twisting punches of bone-breaking force. Most of these blows  were  slowed by the water or  blocked by Yama\'s guard, but one landed between  his rib cage and  hipbone and another glanced  on his left shoulder and rebounded from his cheek.

  Yama cast himself into a backstroke and made for shallower water.

  The other followed and sprang  upon him, to be caught in his impervious midsection by a red boot, as the front of his garment was jerked forward and down. He continued on, passing over  Yama\'s head, to land upon his back on a section of shale.

  Yama rose to his knees  and turned, as the other found  his footing and drew a dagger from his belt. His face was still impassive as he dropped into a crouch.

  For a moment their eyes met, but the other did not waver this time.

  "Now can I meet  your death-gaze, Yama," he stated, "and not be stopped by it. You have taught me too well!"

  And as he lunged, Yama\'s hands came  away from  his waist, snapping his wet sash like a whip about the other\'s thighs.

  He caught  him  and locked him  to him as he fell forward, dropping the blade; and with a kick he bore them both back into deeper water.

  "None sing hymns to breath," said Yama. "But, oh to be without it!"

  Then  he  plunged downward, bearing  the other with  him, his arms like steel loops about his body.

  Later, much later, as the  wet figure stood beside the stream, he spoke softly and his breath came in gasps:

  "You were- the greatest- to be raised up against me- in all the ages I can remember. . . . It is indeed a pity . . ."

  Then, having crossed the stream,  he continued on his  way  through the hills of stone, walking.

  Entering the town of Alundil, the traveler stopped at the first inn  he came to.  He  took a  room and  ordered a  tub of water. He  bathed while  a servant cleaned his garments.

  Before he had  his dinner, he moved to  the window and looked down into the street. The smell of slizzard was strong upon the air, and the babble of many voices arose from below.

  People  were   leaving  the  town.  In  the  courtyard   at  his  back, preparations  for the departure of  a morning caravan were being made.  This night  marked the  end  of  the spring  festival. Below him in  the  street, businessmen were still trading,  mothers were  soothing tired children and a local prince  was  returning with his  men from the  hunt, two fire-roosters strapped to the back of a skittering slizzard. He watched a tired prostitute discussing something with a priest, who appeared to  be even more  tired, as he kept shaking  his head and finally walked away. One moon was already high in the heavens-  seen  as golden through the Bridge  of the  Gods -  and a second, smaller moon had just  appeared above the horizon.  There was a cool tingle in the evening air, bearing to him, above the smells of the city, the scents of the  growing  things of spring:  the  small shoots and  the tender grasses, the clean  smell of the blue-green spring wheat, the  moist ground, the roiling  freshet. Leaning forward, he could see the  Temple  that  stood upon the hill.

  He summoned a servant  to bring his  dinner in his chamber and  to send for a local merchant.

  He ate slowly, not paying  especial attention to  his food, and when he had finished, the merchant was shown in.

  The  man bore a cloak full of samples,  and of these he finally decided upon a long,  curved  blade and a short,  straight dagger,  both of which he thrust into his sash.

  Then  he  went out  into the evening and  walked along the rutted  main street  of the town. Lovers  embraced  in  doorways. He passed a house where mourners  were wailing for  one dead. A beggar  limped after him for  half a block, until  he turned and glanced  into his  eyes,  saying,  "You  are not lame," and then the man hurried  away,  losing himself in  a crowd  that was passing. Overhead,  the  fireworks began  to burst  against the sky, sending long, cherry-colored streamers  down toward the ground. From the Temple came the sound  of the gourd horns playing the  nagaswaram  music. A man stumbled from out a doorway, brushing against him, and he broke the man\'s wrist as he felt  his hand fall upon his purse. The man uttered a curse and  called  for help, but he pushed him into the drainage  ditch and walked on, turning away his two companions with one dark look.

  At last, he came to the Temple, hesitated a moment and passed within.

  He entered the inner courtyard behind  a priest  who was  carrying in a small statue from an outer niche.

  He surveyed the courtyard,  then quickly moved to the place occupied by the statue of the goddess Kali. He studied her for a long while, drawing his blade  and placing it at her  feet. When he picked it up and turned away, he saw that the  priest was watching him. He nodded to the man, who immediately approached and bade him a good evening.

  "Good evening, priest," he replied.

  "May Kali sanctify your blade, warrior."

  "Thank you. She has."

  The priest smiled. "You speak as if you knew that for certain."

  "And that is presumptuous of me, eh?"

  "Well, it may not be in the best of taste."

  "Nevertheless,  I  felt  her  power  come  over  me as I gazed upon her shrine."

  The  priest shuddered.  "Despite  my  office,"  he  stated, "that is  a feeling of power I can do without."

  "You fear her power?"

  "Let us  say,"  said the priest, "that  despite its  magnificence,  the shrine  of Kali is  not so  frequently  visited as  are  those  of  Lakshmi, Sarasvati, Shakti, Sitala, Ratri and the other less awesome goddesses."

  "But she is greater than any of these."

  "And more terrible."

  "So? Despite her strength, she is not an unjust goddess."

  The priest  smiled. "What man who has lived  for more  than a score  of years desires  justice, warrior? For  my part, I find mercy infinitely  more attractive. Give me a forgiving deity any day."

  "Well taken," said the  other, "but I am, as you say, a warrior. My own nature  is close to hers. We think  alike,  the  goddess and I. We generally agree on most matters. When we do not, I remember that she is also a woman."

  "I live here," said the priest, "and I  do not speak that intimately of my charges, the gods."

  "In public, that is," said the  other.  "Tell me not of priests. I have drunk with  many of  you, and know you to be  as blasphemous as the  rest of mankind."

  "There is a time and  place  for everything," said the priest, glancing back at Kali\'s statue.

  "Aye, aye. Now  tell me  why the  base  of Yama\'s  shrine has not  been scrubbed recently. It is dusty."

  "It was cleaned but yesterday, but so many have  passed before it since then that it has felt considerable usage."

  The other smiled. "Why then are there no offerings laid at his feet, no remains of sacrifices?"

  "No one  gives flowers to  Death," said  the priest. "They just come to look and go  away. We priests have always felt  the  two statues to  be well situated. They make a terrible pair, do they not? Death, and the mistress of destruction?"

  "A mighty team," said the other. "But do you  mean to  tell me  that no one makes sacrifice to Yama? No one at all?"\'

  "Other than we priests, when the calendar of devotions requires it, and an occasional townsman, when  a loved one is upon the death-bed and has been refused  direct  incarnation-  other  than these,  no, I  have  never  seen sacrifice made to Yama, simply, sincerely, with good will or affection."

  "He must feel offended."

  "Not  so,  warrior.  For  are  not all  living  things,  in themselves, sacrifices to Death?"

  "Indeed, you  speak truly. What  need  has he for  their  good will  or affection? Gifts are unnecessary, for he takes what he wants."

  "Like Kali," acknowledged the priest. "And in the cases of both deities have I often  sought justification for atheism. Unfortunately, they manifest themselves  too  strongly  in the world  for  their  existence to be  denied effectively. Pity."

  The  warrior laughed.  "A  priest who  is an unwilling believer! I like that. It tickles  my funny bone! Here, buy  yourself a barrel of soma-  for sacrificial purposes."

  "Thank you, warrior. I shall. Join me in a small libation now - on the Temple?"

  "By Kali, I will!" said the other. "But a small one only."

  He accompanied the  priest into the  central building and down a flight of stairs into the cellar, where a barrel of soma was tapped and two beakers drawn.

  "To your health and long life," he said, raising it.

  "To your morbid patrons- Yama and Kali," said the priest.

  "Thank you."

  They gulped the  potent brew, and  the priest drew  two more.  "To warm your throat against the night."

  "Very good."

  "It is a good thing  to see some of these travelers  depart,"  said the priest. "Their devotions have enriched the Temple, but  they have also tired the staff considerably."

  "To the departure of the pilgrims!"

  "To the departure of the pilgrims!"

  They drank again.

  "I thought that most of them came to see the Buddha," said Yama.

  "That is true," replied  the priest,  "but on the  other hand, they are not anxious to antagonize the gods by this. So, before they visit the purple grove, they generally make sacrifice or donate to the Temple for prayers."

  "What do you know of the one called Tathagatha, and of his teachings?"

  The  other looked away.  "I am a priest  of  the  gods  and  a Brahmin, warrior. I do not wish to speak of this one."

  "So, he has gotten to you, too?"

  "Enough!  I  have made my wishes known to you.  It is  not a subject on which I will discourse."

  "It matters not- and will matter less shortly. Thank you for the soma. Good evening, priest."

  "Good evening, warrior. May the gods smile upon your path."

  "And yours also."

  Mounting  the  stairs, he departed the Temple and continued on his  way through the city, walking.

  When  he  came  to  the  purple  grove,  there were three  moons in the heavens, small camplights behind the trees, pale blossoms of fire in the sky above  the town, and  a breeze with  a certain  dampness in  it stirring the growth about him.

  He moved silently ahead, entering the grove.

  When he came into  the lighted area, he was faced with row  upon row of motionless, seated figures. Each wore a yellow robe with a yellow cowl drawn over the head. Hundreds of them were seated so, and not one uttered a sound.

  He approached the one nearest him. "I have come  to see Tathagatha, the Buddha," he said.

  The man did not seem to hear him.

  "Where is he?"

  The man did not reply.

  He  bent  forward and  stared into the  monk\'s half-closed  eyes. For a moment, he glared into them, but it was  as though the other was asleep, for the eyes did not even meet with his.

  Then he raised his voice, so  that all within the grove might hear him: "I have come to see Tathagatha, the Buddha," he said. "Where is he?"

  It was as though he addressed a  field of stones. "Do you think to hide him in this manner?" he called out. "Do you think that because you are many, and all dressed alike, and  because  you will not answer  me, that for these reasons I cannot find him among you?"

  There  was only the sighing of the wind,  passing through from the back of the grove. The light flickered and the purple fronds stirred.

  He laughed.  "In this, you may be right," he  admitted.  "But  you must move sometime, if you intend to go on living- and I can wait as long as any man."

  Then he seated himself upon the ground,  his back against the blue bark of a tall  tree, his blade across his knees. Immediately, he was seized with drowsiness. His head  nodded and  jerked upward several times. Then his chin came to rest upon his breast and he snored.

  Was  walking, across  a  blue-green plain, the  grasses bending down to form a pathway before him. At the end of this pathway was a massive tree,  a tree such as did not grow upon the world, but rather held the world together with its roots, and with its branches  reached up  to utter leaves among the stars.

  At  its base sat a  man, cross-legged, a faint smile upon his lips.  He knew this man to be the Buddha, and he approached and stood before him.

  "Greetings, oh  Death," said the seated one,  crowned with a  rose-hued aureole that was bright in the shadow of the tree.

  Yama did not reply, but drew his blade.

  The Buddha continued to  smile, and as Yama  moved  forward  he heard a sound like distant music.

  He halted and looked about him, his blade still upraised.

  They came from all quarters, the four  Regents of the world, come  down from  Mount  Sumernu:  the Master of the  North  advanced,  followed by  his Yakshas, all in gold, mounted on yellow horses,  bearing shields that blazed with golden light; the Angel of  the South came  on, followed by his  hosts, the Kumbhandas, mounted upon blue steeds and bearing sapphire shields;  from the East rode the  Regent whose horsemen carry shields of pearl, and who are clad all in silver; and from the West there came the One whose Nagas mounted blood-red  horses, were clad all in  red and  held before  them  shields  of coral. Their hooves did not appear to touch the grasses, and  the only sound in the air was the music, which grew louder.

  "Why do the Regents of the world approach?" Yama found himself saying.

  "They come to bear my bones away," replied the Buddha, still smiling.

  The four Regents drew rein, their hordes at their backs, and Yama faced them.

  "You come to  bear his bones away,"  said Yama, "but who  will come for yours?"

  The Regents dismounted.

  "You may not have this man, oh Death," said the Master  of  the  North, "for he belongs to the world, and we of the world will defend him."

  "Hear me, Regents who dwell upon Sumernu," said Yama, taking his Aspect upon  him.  "Into your hands  is given the keeping of  the world, but  Death takes whom  he will from out the world, and whenever he chooses.  It is  not given to you to dispute my Attributes, or the ways of their working."

  The four Regents moved to a position between Yama and Tathagatha.

  "We do dispute your way  with this one. Lord Yama. For in his  hands he holds  the  destiny of our world.  You  may  touch  him  only  after  having overthrown the four Powers."

  "So be it," said Yama. "Which among you will be first to oppose me?"

  "I will," said the speaker, drawing his golden blade.

  Yama, his Aspect  upon him, sheared through  the soft metal like butter and laid  the flat  of  his  scimitar along  the Regent\'s head,  sending him sprawling upon the ground.

  A  great cry came up  from the  ranks  of the Yakshas, and  two of  the golden horsemen came forward  to  bear away their  leader. Then they  turned their mounts and rode back into the North;

  "Who is next?"

  The  Regent  of the East  came before  him, bearing a straight blade of silver and a net woven of moonbeams. "I," he said, and he cast with the net.

  Yama set  his foot upon it, caught  it in his fingers, jerked the other off  balance.  As the  Regent  stumbled forward, he reversed his  blade  and struck him in the jaw with its pommel.

  Two  silver  warriors  glared at him, then dropped  their eyes, as they bore their Master away  to the  East, a discordant  music  trailing in their wake.

  "Next!" said Yama.

  Then  there  came before him the burly  leader of the  Nagas, who threw down  his weapons and stripped off his tunic, saying, "I  will  wrestle with you, deathgod."

  Yama laid his weapons aside and removed his upper garments.

  All the  while  this was happening, the Buddha sat in the shade of  the great tree, smiling, as though the passage of arms meant nothing to him.

  The Chief of the Nagas  caught Yama behind the neck with his left hand, pulling his head forward.  Yama did the same to him;  and the other did then twist his body, casting his  right arm over  Yama\'s left shoulder and behind his neck, locking it then tight about his head, which he now drew down  hard against his hip, turning his body as he dragged the other forward.

  Reaching up behind the Naga Chief\'s back, Yama caught his left shoulder in his left hand and then moved his right hand behind the Regent\'s knees, so that he lifted both  his legs off the  ground while  drawing back  upon  his shoulder.

  For a  moment he held this one cradled  in  his arms like a child, then raised him up to shoulder level and dropped away his arms.

  When the Regent struck  the ground, Yama fell  upon him with his  knees and rose again. The other did not.

  When the riders  of the West had departed, only the Angel of the South, clad all in blue, stood before the Buddha.

  "And you?" asked the deathgod, raising his weapons again.

  "I  will not  take up weapons of steel  or leather or stone, as a child takes up toys,  to face you, god of death. Nor will  I match the strength of my  body against yours," said the  Angel. "I know I  will be bested if  I do these things, for none may dispute you with arms."

  "Then climb back upon your blue stallion and ride away," said Yama, "if you will not fight."

  The Angel  did not answer,  but cast his  blue shield into the  air, so that  it spun like a wheel of sapphire, growing larger and larger as it hung above them.

  Then it  fell to the ground and began to sink into it, without a sound, still growing as it vanished from sight, the grasses  coming  together again above the spot where it had struck.

  "And what does that signify?" asked Yama.

  "I  do not actively contest. I merely  defend.  Mine  is  the power  of passive  opposition. Mine is the  power  of life, as  yours is  the power of death. While you can destroy anything I send against you, you cannot destroy everything,  oh Death. Mine is  the power  of the shield, but not the sword. Life will oppose you, Lord Yama, to defend your victim."

  The  Blue  One turned then,  mounted his blue steed and  rode  into the South,  the  Kumbhandas at  his back. The sound of the music did not go with him, but remained in the air he had occupied.

  Yama advanced once more, his  blade in his hand. "Their efforts came to naught," he said. "Your time is come."

  He struck forward with his blade.

  The  blow  did not  land, however, as a branch from the great tree fell between them and struck the scimitar from his grasp.

  He reached for  it  and  the grasses  bent to  cover it  over,  weaving themselves into a tight, unbreakable net.

  Cursing, he drew his dagger and struck again.

  One mighty branch bent down, came  swaying  before his target, so  that his  blade  was imbedded deeply in its  fibers. Then the branch lashed again skyward, carrying the weapon with it, high out of reach.

  The Buddha\'s eyes were closed in meditation and his halo glowed  in the shadows.

  Yama  took a step forward, raising  his hands,  and the grasses knotted themselves about his ankles, holding him where he stood.

  He  struggled  for a moment, tugging at their unyielding roots. Then he stopped  and raised both  hands  high, throwing his  head  far  back,  death leaping from his eyes.

  "Hear me, oh Powers!" he  cried. "From this  moment  forward, this spot shall bear  the curse  of Yama! No  living thing shall  ever stir again upon this ground! No bird shall sing, nor snake slither  here! It shall be barren and stark, a  place  of rocks and shifting sand! Not a spear of grass  shall ever be upraised from here against the sky! I speak this curse and lay  this doom upon the defenders of my enemy!"

  The  grasses began  to wither, but before they  had released him  there came a  great splintering,  cracking noise,  as  the  tree whose  roots held together the world and in whose branches the stars were caught, as fish in a net, swayed forward, splitting down its middle, its uppermost  limbs tearing apart the sky,  its  roots opening chasms in  the ground, its leaves falling like blue-green  rain  about  him. A massive section  of  its  trunk toppled toward him, casting before it a shadow dark as night.

  In  the distance, he  still saw  the Buddha,  seated in meditation,  as though unaware of the chaos that erupted about him.

  Then there was only blackness and a sound like the crashing of thunder.

  Yama jerked his head, his eyes springing open.

  He sat in the purple grove, his back  against the  bole of a blue tree, his blade across his knees.

  Nothing seemed to have changed.

  The rows of monks were seated, as in meditation, before him. The breeze was still cool and moist and the lights still flickered as it passed.

  Yama stood, knowing then, somehow, where  he must go to find that which he sought.

  He moved past the monks, following a well-beaten path that led far into the interior of the wood.

  He came upon a purple pavilion, but it was empty.

  He  moved  on, tracing  the path  back  to  where  the  wood  became  a wilderness. Here, the ground  was damp and a faint mist sprang up about him. But  the way  was still  clear  before him, illuminated by the light  of the three moons.

  The trail led downward, the blue  and purple  trees growing shorter and more twisted here than they did above. Small  pools of  water, with floating patches of leprous, silver scum, began to appear at the sides  of the trail. A  marshland  smell  came  to his nostrils,  and  the  wheezing  of  strange creatures came out of clumps of brush.

  He heard  the sound of  singing, coming  from far up behind him, and he realized that the monks he had left  were now awake  and  stirring about the grove. They had finished with the task of combining their thoughts to  force upon him  the vision  of  their leader\'s  invincibility. Their chanting  was probably a signal, reaching out to -

  There!  He  was  seated  upon a  rock  in  the middle  of a  field, the moonlight falling full upon him.

  Yama drew his blade and advanced.

  When he was about twenty paces away, the other turned his head.

  "Greetings, oh Death," he said.

  "Greetings, Tathagatha."

  "Tell me why you are here."

  "It has been decided that the Buddha must die."

  "That does not answer my question, however. Why have you come here?"

  "Are you not the Buddha?"

  "I have been called Buddha, and  Tathagatha,  and  the Enlightened One, and many  other things. But, in  answer to your  question, no, I am not  the Buddha. You have already succeeded in what  you  set out to do. You slew the real Buddha this day."

  "My memory  must  indeed be  growing weak, for I  confess that I do not remember doing this thing."

  "The  real  Buddha was named by us  Sugata," replied the other. "Before that, he was known as Rild."

  "Rild!" Yama chuckled. "You are trying to tell me that he was more than an executioner whom you talked out of doing his job?"

  "Many people  are executioners who have been talked  out of doing their jobs," replied the one on the rock.  "Rild gave up his mission willingly and became a follower  of the  Way. He was the only man  I ever  knew  to really achieve enlightenment."

  "Is  this  not  a  pacifistic  religion,  this  thing  you  have   been spreading?"

  "Yes."

  Yama threw  back his  head and laughed.  "Gods! Then it is well you are not preaching a militant one! Your foremost disciple, enlightenment and all, near had my head this afternoon!"

  A tired look  came over the Buddha\'s wide countenance. "Do you think he could actually have beaten you?"

  Yama was silent a moment, then, "No," he said.

  "Do you think he knew this?"

  "Perhaps," Yama replied.

  "Did you not know one another prior to this day\'s meeting? Have you not seen one another at practice?"

  "Yes," said Yama. "We were acquainted."

  "Then he knew your skill and realized the outcome of the encounter."

  Yama was silent.

  "He went willingly to his  martyrdom,  unknown to me at  the time. I do not feel that he went with real hope of beating you."

  "Why, then?"

  "To prove a point."

  "What point could he hope to prove in such a manner?"

  "I do  not know. I only know that it must be as I have said, for I knew him. I have  listened  too  often to his sermons, to his subtle parables, to believe that  he would do a thing such  as this without a purpose.  You have slain the true Buddha, deathgod. You know what I am."

  "Siddhartha," said Yama, "I know that  you are a fraud. I know that you are  not  an Enlightened One.  I realize that your doctrine is a thing which could  have  been remembered by any  among the First. You chose to resurrect it,  pretending to be its  originator. You decided to spread it, in hopes of raising an opposition to  the religion by which the true gods rule. I admire the  effort. It was cleverly planned and executed. But your biggest mistake, I feel, is that you picked a pacifistic creed with which to oppose an active one.  I  am curious  why you did  this  thing,  when there were so many more appropriate religions from which to choose."

  "Perhaps I  was just curious  to see how such  a  countercurrent  would flow," replied the other.

  "No, Sam, that is not it," answered Yama. "I feel it is  only part of a larger  plan you  have  laid,  and  that for  all these years  - while  you pretended  to  be  a saint and preached sermons  in which  you did not truly believe yourself- you  have  been making  other plans. An  army,  great  in space, may  offer opposition  in a brief  span  of time. One  man,  brief in space, must  spread his opposition across a period of many years if he is to have  a chance of succeeding. You are  aware  of this, and now that you have sown the seeds of this stolen creed, you are planning to move on  to another phase of opposition. You  are trying  to be a  one-man antithesis to Heaven, opposing the will of the gods across the years, in many ways and from behind many masks. But it will end here and now, false Buddha."

  "Why, Yama?" he asked.

  "It  was considered quite carefully,"  said Yama. "We did  not  want to make you a martyr, encouraging more than ever the growth  of  this thing you have been teaching.  On the other  hand,  if  you were not stopped, it would still continue to grow.  It was decided,  therefore, that you must meet your end at the hands of an agent  of Heaven- thus showing which religion is the stronger.  So,  martyr  or  no, Buddhism  will  be  a  second-rate  religion henceforth. That is why you must now die the real death."

  "When I asked \'Why?\' I meant something different. You have answered the wrong question. I meant, why have you come to do this thing, Yama? Why  have you, master of arms, master of sciences, come as lackey to a crew of drunken body-changers, who are not qualified to polish your blade  or wash out  your test  tubes? Why  do you, who might be  the freest spirit of us  all, demean yourself by serving your inferiors?"

  "For that, your death shall not be a clean one."

  "Why? I  did but  ask a question,  which  must  have  long since passed through more  minds than my own. I did not take offense when you called me a false Buddha. I know what I am. Who are you, deathgod?"

  Yama placed his blade within his sash and withdrew a pipe, which he had purchased at the inn earlier  in the day. He  filled its bowl  with tobacco, lit it, and smoked.

  "It is obvious that we must talk a little longer, if only to clear both our  minds of  questions," he stated, "so I may  as well be comfortable." He seated himself upon a low rock.  "First, a man  may in some ways be superior to his fellows and still serve them, if  together they serve a  common cause which is greater than any one man. I believe that I serve such a cause, or I would not be doing it. I take it that you feel the same way concerning  what you do, or you  would not put up with this  life of miserable  asceticism - though I note that  you are not so gaunt as your followers. You were offered godhood some  years  ago in  Mahartha,  as I recall, and you  mocked Brahma, raided the Palace of  Karma,  and filled all  the pray-machines of the  city with slugs . . ."

  The Buddha chuckled. Yama joined him  briefly and continued, "There are no Accelerationists remaining  in  the  world, other than  yourself. It is a dead issue, which should never have become an issue in the first place. I do have  a certain respect for the manner in which you  have acquitted yourself over the years. It  has  even  occurred to me that if you  could be  made to realize  the  hopelessness  of  your  present position,  you might still  be persuaded to join the hosts of Heaven. While I did come here to kill you, if you can be convinced of this now and give me your word upon it, promising to end your foolish fight, I will take it upon myself to vouch for you.  I will take you back to  the Celestial City with me, where you may now accept  that which you once refused. They will harken to me, because they need me."

  "No," said Sam, "for I am not convinced of the futility of my position, and I fully intend to continue the show."

  The chanting came down from the camp in the  purple  grove.  One of the moons disappeared beyond the treetops.

  "Why are your followers not beating the bushes, seeking to save you?"

  "They would come if I called, but I will not call. I do not need to."

  "Why did they cause me to dream that foolish dream?"

  The Buddha shrugged.

  "Why did they not arise and slay me as I slept?"

  "It is not their way."

  "You might  have, though, eh? If  you could  get away  with it? If none would know the Buddha did it?"

  "Perhaps,"  said the other. "As you know,  the  personal  strengths and weaknesses of a leader are no true indication of the merits of his cause."

  Yama drew upon his pipe. The smoke wreathed his head and eddied away to join the fogs, which were now becoming more heavy upon the land.

  "I know we are alone here, and you are unarmed," said Yama.

  "We  are  alone  here. My traveling  gear is  hidden farther  along  my route."

  "Your traveling gear?"

  "I  have  finished here. You guessed correctly. I have begun what I set out to begin. After we have finished our conversation, I will depart."

  Yama chuckled. "The optimism of  a revolutionary always gives rise to a sense of wonder. How do you propose to depart? On a magic carpet?"

  "I shall go as other men go."

  "That is rather condescending of you. Will the powers of the world rise up  to defend  you?  I see no great tree to  shelter  you with its branches. There is no clever grass to seize at my feet. Tell  me how you  will achieve your departure?"

  "I\'d rather surprise you."

  "What say we  fight? I do not like  to slaughter an unarmed man. If you actually do  have supplies cached somewhere nearby, go fetch your blade.  It is  better  than  no  chance at all.  I\'ve  even  heard  it  said that  Lord Siddhartha was, in his day, a formidable swordsman."

  "Thank you, no. Another time, perhaps. But not this time."

  Yama drew once more upon his pipe, stretched, and yawned. "I  can think of  no more questions then, which I  wish to ask you. It is futile  to argue with you. I have nothing more to say. Is there anything else  that you would care to add to the conversation?"

  "Yes," said Sam. "What\'s she like,  that bitch Kali? There are  so many different reports that I\'m beginning to believe she is all things to all men - "

  Yama  hurled  the  pipe, which  struck him upon the shoulder and sent a shower of sparks down his  arm. His scimitar  was  a bright flash about  his head as he leapt forward.

  When  he struck the  sandy stretch  before  the rock,  his  motion  was arrested.  He  almost  fell,  twisted  himself perpendicularly and  remained standing. He struggled, but could not move.

  "Some  quicksand,"   said  Sam,  "is   quicker  than  other  quicksand. Fortunately, you are  settling  into  that of the slower sort. So  you  have considerable time yet remaining  at  your  disposal. I would like to prolong the conversation, if I thought I had a chance of persuading you to join with me.  But I know that  I do not- no more than you could persuade me to go to Heaven."

  "I will get free," said Yama softly, not  struggling. "I will  get free somehow, and I will come after you again."

  "Yes," said Sam, "I feel this  to be true. In  fact, in a short while I will instruct you  how  to  go about it. For the  moment,  however,  you are something every  preacher longs for- a captive audience,  representing  the opposition. So, I have a brief sermon for you. Lord Yama."

  Yama hefted  his  blade, decided  against throwing it, thrust it  again into his sash.

  "Preach on," he said, and he succeeded in catching the other\'s eyes.

  Sam swayed where he sat, but he spoke again:

  "It  is amazing," he said, "how that mutant  brain of yours generated a mind capable  of  transferring its powers to  any  new  brain  you choose to occupy. It has been  years since I last exercised my one ability, as I am at this moment- but it, too, behaves in a  similar manner. No matter what body I inhabit, it appears that my power follows me into it also. I understand it is still that way with most of us. Sitala, I hear, can control  temperatures for  a  great distance  about her. When she  assumes  a new body,  the power accompanies her into her new nervous system, though it comes only weakly  at first. Agni, I know, can set fire to objects by staring at them for a period of time and willing that they burn. Now, take for example the death-gaze you are at this moment turning upon me. Is it not amazing how you keep this gift about you in all times and places, over the centuries? I have often wondered as to the  physiological basis  for the phenomenon. Have you ever researched the area?"

  "Yes," said Yama, his eyes burning beneath his dark brows.

  "And what is the explanation? A person is born  with an abnormal brain, his  psyche  is later  transferred  to a  normal  one  and  yet his abnormal abilities are not destroyed in the transfer. Why does this thing happen?"

  "Because you really have only one  body-image, which is  electrical  as well  as  chemical  in  nature. It begins  immediately  to  modify  its  new physiological environment. The  new  body has  much about it which it treats rather like a disease, attempting to cure it into being the old body. If the body which you  now  inhabit were to be made  physically  immortal, it would someday come to resemble your original body."

  "How interesting."

  "That is why the transferred power is weak at first, but grows stronger as you continue occupancy. That is why it is best to cultivate an Attribute, and perhaps to employ mechanical aids, also."

  "Well. That is something I have often wondered about. Thank you. By the way, keep trying with your  death-gaze- it is painful, you know. So that is something, anyway. Now, as to the sermon- a proud and arrogant man, such as yourself- with an  admittedly admirable quality of didacticism about  him- was  given  to doing  research  in  the area  of  a certain  disfiguring and degenerative disease. One day he contracted it himself. Since he had not yet developed  a cure for the condition, he  did take time out to regard himself in a  mirror and  say, \'But  on me it does look  good.\' You are such a  man, Yama. You will not attempt to fight your condition. Rather, you are proud of it. You betrayed yourself in  your fury, so I  know that  I speak  the truth when I say  that the  name of your disease is Kali. You would not give power into the hands of the unworthy if that woman  did not bid  you do it. I knew her of old, and  I am certain that  she  has not changed. She cannot love  a man.  She cares  only for those who bring  her  gifts of chaos. If ever  you cease to suit her purposes,  she will put  you aside, deathgod. I do not say this because  we  are  enemies, but rather as  one man to another.  I  know. Believe  me, I  do.  Perhaps it  is unfortunate  that  you were never really young, Yama, and did not know your first love in the days of spring. .  .  . The moral,  therefore, of  my sermon on this  small  mount is this- even  a mirror will not show you yourself, if you do not wish to see. Cross her once to try  the truth of my words,  even in a small  matter, and see how quickly she responds, and in what fashion. What will you do if  your own weapons are turned against you, Death?"

  "You have finished speaking now?" asked Yama.

  "That\'s about it. A sermon is a warning, and you have been warned."

  "Whatever  your  power, Sam,  I  see  that  it is at this moment  proof against my death-gaze. Consider yourself fortunate that I am weakened - "

  "I do indeed, for my head is about to split. Damn your eyes!"

  "One day I will try  your power  again, and even if it should still  be proof  against  my own,  you  will fall on that day. If not by my Attribute, then by my blade."

  "If that is a  challenge, I choose to defer  acceptance. I suggest that you do try my words before you attempt to make it good."

  At this point, the sand was halfway up Yama\'s thighs.

  Sam sighed and climbed down from his perch.

  "There is only one clear path to this rock, and I am about to follow it away from here. Now,  I will tell you how  to gain your life, if you are not too  proud. I have  instructed  the monks  to  come to my aid, here at  this place, if they hear a cry  for help. I told you earlier that I was not going to  call for  help, and that is true. If, however, you begin calling out for aid with  that powerful  voice of yours, they shall be here before  you sink too much farther. They will bring you safely to firm ground and will not try to harm you, for such is their way. I like the thought  of the god of  death being saved by the monks of Buddha. Good night, Yama, I\'m going to leave you now."

  Yama smiled. "There  will be another day, oh Buddha," he stated. "I can wait for it. Flee now  as far and as fast as you can. The world is not large enough to hide you from my wrath. I will follow you, and I will teach you of the enlightenment that is pure hellfire."

  "In the meantime," said Sam, "I suggest you solicit aid of my followers or learn the difficult art of mud-breathing."

  He picked his way across the field, Yama\'s eyes burning into his back.

  When he reached the trail, he turned. "And you may want to  mention  in Heaven," he said, "that I was called out of town on a business deal."

  Yama did not reply.

  "I think  I am going to  make  a deal for some  weapons," he  finished, "some rather special weapons.  So when  you  come after me,  bring your girl friend  along. If  she likes what she  sees, she may persuade you to  switch sides."

  Then he struck the  trail and moved away through  the night, whistling, beneath a moon that was white and a moon that was golden.  

IV

  It is told how the Lord of Light descended into the Well of the Demons, to make there  a bargain with the  chief of the Rakasha.  He dealt  in  good faith,  but  the  Rakasha are the Rakasha. That is to say, they are  malefic creatures, possessed of great  powers,  life-span and the ability to  assume nearly any shape. The Rakasha are almost indestructible. Their chiefest lack is a true body; their chiefest  virtue,  their  honor  toward their gambling debts. That the Lord of  Light went  to Hellwell  at all serves to show that perhaps he was somewhat distraught concerning the state of the world. . . .

  When the gods and the demons,  both offspring of  Prajapati, did battle with  one another, the  gods seized upon  the life-principle of the Udgitha, thinking that with this would they vanquish the demons.

  They meditated upon  the Udgitha which  functions through the nose, but the demons pierced  it through with  evil. Therefore, with  the  breath  one smells both that which is pleasant and that which  is  foul. Thus the breath is touched by evil.

  They  meditated upon  the Udgitha as  words, but the demons pierced  it through  with  evil.  Therefore, one speaks  both  truth and falsehood. Thus words are touched by evil.

  They  meditated upon the Udgitha which functions through the  eye,  but the demons pierced it through with evil. Therefore,  one  sees both  what is pleasing and what is ugly. Thus the eye is touched by evil.

  They  meditated upon  the Udgitha as hearing, but the demons pierced it through  with evil. Therefore, one hears both good things and bad.  Thus the ear is touched by evil.

  Then did they meditate  upon the Udgitha  as the  mind, but  the demons pierced it  through with evil. Therefore, one thinks what is  proper,  true, and  good,  and  what  is  improper, false,  and depraved. Thus the mind  is touched by evil.

  Chhandogya Upanishad (I, ii, 1-6)

  Hellwell lies at the top of the world and it leads down to its roots.

  It is probably as old as the world  itself; and if it is not, it should be, because it looks as if it were.

  It begins with  a  doorway.  There  is  a huge, burnished  metal  door, erected by the First,  that is heavy as sin, three times the height of a man and half that  distance  in width.  It  is  a full  cubit thick and  bears a head-sized  ring  of  brass,  a  complicated  pressure-plate  lock  and   an inscription that reads, roughly, "Go away. This is not a place to be. If you do  try to  enter  here,  you will  fail and also be cursed. If  somehow you succeed, then do  not complain that you entered unwarned, nor bother us with your deathbed prayers." Signed, "The Gods."

  It  is set near the peak of a very  high mountain named Channa, in  the midst  of  a region  of very high mountains  called the Ratnagaris.  In that place there is always snow upon the ground,  and rainbows  ride like  fur on the backs of icicles,  which sprout about the frozen caps of cliffs. The air is sharp as a sword. The sky is bright as the eye of a cat.

  Very few feet have ever trod the trail that leads to Hellwell. Of those who  visited,  most came only  to look, to see whether the great door really existed; and when  they returned home and told of having seen it,  they were generally mocked.

  Telltale scratches about the lock plate testify that some have actually sought entrance.  Equipment sufficient to force the great door could  not be transported  or properly  positioned,  however.  The  trail  that  leads  to Hellwell is less than ten inches in  width for the final three hundred  feet of its  ascent; and perhaps six men  could stand,  with  crowding, upon what remains of the once wide ledge that faces that door.

  It  is told that  Pannalal the  Sage, having  sharpened  his mind  with meditation and divers asceticisms, had divined the operation of the lock and entered Hellwell, spending  a  day and a night beneath the mountain. He  was thereafter known as Pannalal the Mad.

  The peak known  as  Channa, which holds the  great door, is removed  by five days\'  journey from a small  village.  This is within the  far northern kingdom  of  Malwa.  This  mountain  village nearest  to Channa  has no name itself, being  filled with  a  fierce  and independent  people  who  have no special  desire  that  their town  appeal on  the maps of  the  rajah\'s  tax collectors. Of  the  rajah, it is sufficient to  tell  that  he is of middle height and middle years, shrewd, slightly stout, neither pious nor more than usually notorious and fabulously wealthy.  He is  wealthy  because he levies high taxes  upon  his subjects.  When his  subjects begin to  complain,  and murmurs of revolt run through  the realm, he declares war upon a neighboring kingdom and  doubles the  taxes. If  the  war  does not go well, he executes several generals and has his Minister  of Peace negotiate  a treaty.  If, by some chance, it goes especially well,  he exacts tribute for whatever insult has caused the  entire affair. Usually, though, it ends  in a truce, souring his subjects on fighting and reconciling them to the high tax rate. His name is Videgha and he has  many children. He is fond of grak-birds, which can be taught  to  sing  bawdy  songs, of snakes,  to which  he  occasionally feeds grak-birds  who cannot carry a tune, and  of gaming  with dice. He does  not especially like children.

  Hellwell begins with  the  great doorway  high in the mountains  at the northernmost comer of  Videgha\'s  kingdom, beyond which there  are  no other kingdoms of men. It begins there,  and  it corkscrews down through the heart of the  mountain  Channa, breaking, like a corkscrew, into  vast  cavernways uncharted by men, extending  far beneath the  Ratnagari  range, the  deepest passageways pushing down toward the roots of the world.

  To this door came the traveler.

  He was simply  dressed, and he traveled  alone, and he seemed  to  know exactly where he was going and what he was doing.

  He climbed the trail up Channa, edging his way across its gaunt face.

  It  took him the better part of  the morning to reach  his destination, the door.

  When he  stood before  it,  he rested a moment, took a  drink from  his water bottle, wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, smiled.

  Then he sat down with his back against the door and ate his lunch. When he had finished, he threw the leaf  wrappings over the edge and watched them fall, drifting from side to side on the air currents, until they were out of sight. He lit his pipe then and smoked.

  After he had rested, he stood and faced the door once again.

  His hand fell upon the pressure plate, moved slowly through a series of gestures. There  was  a musical sound from within the  door as his hand left the plate.

  Then  he  seized upon  the  ring  and drew  back, his shoulder  muscles straining. The door moved, slowly at  first,  then more rapidly.  He stepped aside and it swung outward, passing beyond the ledge.

  There was another ring,  twin to the first, on the inner surface of the door. He caught at it as it passed  him, dragging his heels to keep it  from swinging so far as to place it beyond his reach.

  A rush of warm air emerged from the opening at his back.

  Drawing the door closed  again behind him, he paused only to light  one of  the many torches he bore. Then he advanced along a corridor that widened as he moved ahead.

  The  floor slanted abruptly, and after a hundred paces the  ceiling was so high as to be invisible.

  After two hundred paces, he stood upon the lip of the well.

  He was  now in the  midst  of a  vast blackness  shot  through with the flames of his torch. The walls had vanished, save for the one behind him and to the right. The floor ended a short distance before him.

  Beyond that edge was what appeared to be a bottomless pit. He could not see across it, but he knew it  to be roughly circular in shape; and he knew, too, that it widened in circumference as it descended.

  He made  his way down  along the trail that wound about  the well wall, and he could feel the rush of warm air  rising from out of  the depths. This trail was  artificial. One could  feel this, despite its steepness.  It  was precarious and  it was  narrow; it was cracked in many places, and  in spots rubble  had accumulated upon it. But  its steady, winding slant bespoke  the fact that there was purpose and pattern to its existence.

  He moved along this trail, carefully. To his left  was the wall. To his right there was nothing.

  After what seemed an age and a half, he sighted a tiny flicker of light far below him, hanging in midair.

  The curvature of the wall, however, gradually bent his way so that this light  no  longer hung in the distance, but  lay  below  and slightly to his right.

  Another twisting of the trail set it directly ahead of him.

  When he passed the  niche in the wall wherein the flame was cached,  he heard a voice within his mind cry out:

  "Free me, master, and I will lay the world at thy feet!"

  But  he  hurried  by, not even glancing at  the almost-face  within the opening.

  Floating upon the ocean  of black that lay beneath his feet, there were more lights now visible.

  The  well continued to widen. It was filled  with brightening glimmers, like  flame,  but  not flame;  filled  with  shapes, faces,  half-remembered images. From each there rose up a cry as he passed: "Free me! Free me!"

  But he did not halt.

  He  came to  the bottom of the well and moved across it, passing  among broken stones and over  fissures in the rocky floor.  At last he reached the opposite wall, wherein a great orange fire danced.

  It became cherry-red  as he approached, and when he stood before it, it was the blue of a sapphire\'s heart.

  It stood  to twice  his height, pulsing and twisting.  From  it, little flamelets licked out toward him, but they  drew back as if they fell against an invisible barrier.

  During his descent he had  passed so many flames that he had lost count of their  number. He knew, too, that more lay hidden within the caverns that open into the well bottom.

  Each flame  he had passed on the way down had addressed him,  using its own species of communication, so that  the words had sounded drumlike within his head: threatening words, and pleading, promising words. But  no  message came  to  him from this great blue  blaze, larger than any of the others. No forms turned or twisted, tantalizing, within its bright heart. Flame it was, and flame it remained.

  He kindled a fresh torch and wedged it between two rocks.

  "So, Hated One, you have returned!"

  The  words fell upon him  like whiplashes. Steadying  himself, he faced the blue flame then and replied:

  "You are called Taraka?"

  "He who bound  me here should know what I am called,"  came  the words. "Think not, oh Siddhartha, that because you wear a different body you go now unrecognized. I look upon  the flows of  energy which are  your real being- not the flesh that masks them."

  "I see," replied the other.

  "Do you come to mock me in my prison?"

  "Did I mock you in the days of the Binding?"

  "No, you did not."

  "I did that which had to be done, to  preserve my own species. Men were weak and few in number.  Your kind fell upon  them and would  have destroyed them."

  "You  stole  our  world,  Siddhartha.  You  chained  us here. What  new indignity would you lay upon us?"

  "Perhaps there is a way in which some reparation may be made."

  "What is it that you want?"

  "Allies."

  "You want us to take your part in a struggle?"

  "That is correct."

  "And when it is over, you will seek to bind us again."

  "Not if we can work out some sort of agreement beforehand."

  "Speak to me your terms," said the flame.

  "In the old  days your  people walked, visible and  invisible,  in  the streets of the Celestial City."

  "That is true."

  "It is better fortified now."

  "In what ways?"

  "Vishnu the Preserver  and Yama-Dharma, Lord of Death, have covered the whole of Heaven, rather than just the City- as it was in days of old- with what is said to be an impenetrable dome."

  "There is no such thing as an impenetrable dome."

  "I say only what I have heard."

  "There are many ways into a city. Lord Siddhartha."

  "You will find them all for me?"

  "That is to be the price of my freedom?"

  "Of your own freedom- yes."

  "What of the others of my kind?"

  "If they, too, are to be freed, you must all agree to help me lay siege to that City and take it."

  "Free us, and Heaven shall fall!"

  "You speak for the others?"

  "I am Taraka. I speak for all."

  "What assurance do you give, Taraka, that this bargain will be kept?"

  "My word? I shall be happy to swear by anything you care to name - "

  "A  facility  with  oaths  is  not  the  most reassuring  quality in  a bargainer. And your strength is also your weakness in any bargaining at all. You are so strong as to  be unable  to grant to another the power to control you. You have no gods  to  swear  by. The only thing you  will  honor  is  a gambling debt, and there are no grounds for gaming here."

  "You possess the power to control us."

  "Individually, perhaps. But not collectively."

  "It  is  a difficult problem," said  Taraka. "I  should give anything I have  to be  free-  but then, all that I  have is  power  - pure power, in essence uncommittable. A greater force might subdue it,  but that is not the answer. I do  not really know how to give you satisfactory assurance that my promise will be kept. If I were you, I certainly would not trust me."

  "It is something of a dilemma. So I will free you now- you alone-  to visit the Pole and scout out the defenses of Heaven. In your absence, I will consider the  problem further. Do you likewise, and perhaps upon your return an equitable arrangement can be made."

  "Accepted! Release me from this doom!"

  "Know  then my power,  Taraka," he said.  "As I  bind, so can I loose- thus!"

  The flame boiled forward out of the wall.

  It rolled into a ball of fire and  spun about the well like a comet; it burned like a small sun, lighting  up the darkness; it changed  colors as it fled about, so that the rocks shone both ghastly and pleasing.

  Then  it hovered above the head of the  one  called Siddhartha, sending down its throbbing words upon him:

  "You cannot know my pleasure to feel again my strength set free. I\'ve a mind to try your power once more."

  The man beneath him shrugged.

  The ball of flame coalesced. Shrinking, it grew brighter, and it slowly settled to the floor.

  It  lay  there quivering, like a petal fallen from some  titanic bloom; then it  drifted  slowly across the  floor  of  Hellwell and re-entered  the niche.

  "Are you satisfied?" asked Siddhartha.

  "Yes," came  the reply, after a time. "Your power is undimmed.  Binder. Free me once more."

  "I grow  tired of this sport, Taraka. Perhaps I\'d best leave you as you are and seek assistance elsewhere."

  "No! I gave you my promise! What more would you have?"

  "I would  have  an absence of  contention between us.  Either you  will serve me now in this matter, or you will not. That is all. Choose, and abide by your choice- and your word."

  "Very well. Free me, and I will visit Heaven upon its mountain of  ice, and report back to you of its weaknesses."

  "Then go!"

  This time, the flame emerged more slowly. It swayed before him, took on a roughly human outline.

  "What  is your power, Siddhartha? How do you do  what you do?" it asked him.

  "Call it electrodirection," said the other, "mind over energy. It is as good a term as any. But whatever you call it, do not seek to cross it again. I can kill you with  it, though no weapon formed  of matter may be laid upon you. Go now!"

  Taraka vanished, like a firebrand plunged  into a river, and Siddhartha stood among stones, his torch lighting the darkness about him.

  He rested,  and  a  babble  of  voices  filled  his  mind-  promising, tempting,  pleading. Visions of  wealth and of  splendor flowed  before  his eyes. Wondrous harems were paraded before him, and banquets were laid at his feet. Essences of musk and champac,  and the bluish haze of burning incenses drifted,  soothing his soul, about him. He walked among flowers, followed by bright-eyed girls  who bore his wine cups, smiling; a silver  voice  sang to him, and creatures not human danced upon the surface of a nearby lake. "Free us,  free us,"  they chanted. But  he smiled  and  watched and did  nothing. Gradually,  the prayers and the pleas and the promises turned to a chorus of curses and threats. Armored skeletons advanced upon him, babies impaled upon their blazing swords. There were pits all about  him, from which fires leapt up, smelling of brimstone. A serpent dangled  from a branch before his face, spitting venom. A rain of spiders and toads descended upon him.

  "Free us- or infinite will be thy agony!" cried the voices.

  "If you persist," he stated, "Siddhartha shall grow angry, and you will lose the one chance at freedom which you really do possess."

  Then all was still about him, and he emptied his mind, drowsing.

  He had two meals, there in the cavern, and then he slept again.

  Later, Taraka returned in the form of a great-taloned bird and reported to him:

  "Those of my kind may enter through the  air vents," he said,  "but men may not. There  are also many elevator shafts within the  mountain. Many men might  ride up the larger ones with  ease. Of course, these are guarded. But if the  guards  were slain and the alarms disconnected, this thing  might be accomplished.  Also,  there  are  times when the dome  itself  is  opened in various places, to permit flying craft to enter and to depart."

  "Very well," said  Siddhartha.  "I\'ve  a kingdom,  some  weeks\' journey hence, where I rule. A regent has  been  seated in my place for many  years, but  if  I return there I  can raise me  an army. A new  religion moves  now across the land. Men may now think less of the gods than once they did."

  "You wish to sack Heaven?"

  "Yes, I wish to lay open its treasures to the world."

  "This is to my liking. It  will not be easily won, but with an army  of men and an army of my kind we should be able to do it. Let us free my people now, that we may begin."

  "I believe I will simply have  to trust you," said Siddhartha. "So yes, let us begin," and  he moved across the  floor  of Hellwell toward the first deep tunnel beading downward.

  That day he  freed sixty-five  of them,  filling the caverns with their color and their  movement and their light. The air sounded with mighty cries of joy and the noise of their passage as they swept about Hellwell, changing shape constantly and exulting in their freedom.

  Without  warning, then,  one  took  upon itself  the  form  of a flying serpent and swept down toward him, talons outstretched and slashing.

  For a moment, his full attention lay upon it.

  It uttered a brief,  broken  cry, and then it came apart,  falling in a shower of blue-white sparks.

  Then these faded, and it was utterly vanished.

  There was  silence in  the caverns, and the lights  pulsed  and  dipped about the walls.

  Siddhartha  directed his attention toward  the largest  point of light, Taraka.

  "Did that one attack me in order to test my strength?" he inquired. "To see whether I can also kill, in the manner I told you I could?"

  Taraka approached, hovered before him. "It  was not  by my bidding that he  attacked,"  he  stated.  "I  feel  that  he  was  half crazed  from  his confinement."

  Siddhartha shrugged. "For a time now, disport yourselves as you would," he said. "I would  have rest from  this task,"  and he departed the  smaller cavern.

  He returned  to the bottom of  the  well,  where he lay down  upon  his blanket and dozed.

  There came a dream.

  He was running.

  His shadow lay before him, and, as he ran upon it, it grew.

  It grew  until it  was  no longer his  shadow but a  grotesque outline. Suddenly  he knew that his shadow had been overrun by  that  of his pursuer: overrun, overwhelmed, submerged and surmounted.

  Then  he  knew a  moment of terrible panic,  there upon the blind plain over which he fled.

  He knew that it was now his own shadow.

  The doom which had pursued him no longer lay at his back.

  He knew that he was his own doom.

  Knowing  that he had finally caught up with himself, he  laughed aloud, wanting really to scream.

  When he awoke again, he was walking.

  He was walking up the twisted wall-trail of Hellwell.

  As he walked, he passed the imprisoned flames.

  Again, each cried out to him as he went by:

  "Free us, masters!"

  And  slowly, about the edges  of the ice that was his mind, there was a thawing.

  Masters.

  Plural. Not singular.

  Masters, they had said.

  He knew then that he did not walk alone.

  None of the dancing, flickering shapes moved through the darkness about him, below him.

  The ones who had been imprisoned were still imprisoned. The ones he had freed were gone.

  Now he climbed  the high wall of Hellwell,  no  torch lighting his way. But still, he saw.

  He saw every feature of the rocky trail, as though by moonlight.

  He knew that his eyes were incapable of this feat.

  And he had been addressed in the plural.

  And his body was moving, but was not under the direction of his will.

  He made an effort to halt, to stand still.

  He continued to advance up the trail, and  it  was then  that  his lips moved, forming the words:

  "You have awakened, I see. Good morning."

  A question  formed  itself  in his  mind,  to  be answered  immediately through his own mouth:

  "Yes,  and how does it  feel to be bound yourself, Binder- in your own body?"

  Siddhartha formed another thought:

  "I  did  not  think  any  of your kind capable of  taking control of me against my will- even as I slept."

  "To  give  you an  honest answer," said  the other, "neither did I. But then, I had at my disposal the combined powers of many of my kind. It seemed to be worth the attempt."

  "And of the others? Where are they?"

  "Gone. To wander the world until I summon them."

  "And what of these others  who  remain  bound? Had  you waited, I would have freed them also."

  "What care I of these others? I am free now, and in a body  again! What else matters?"

  "I take it, then, that your promised assistance means nothing?"

  "Not so," replied the demon. "We shall return to this matter in, say, a lesser  moon or so. The idea does  appeal to me. I feel  that a war with the gods  would  be  a  very excellent  thing.  But  first  I  wish to enjoy the pleasures of the  flesh  for a  time. Why should  you begrudge me  a  little entertainment  after  the  centuries of  boredom and  imprisonment you  have wrought?"

  "I must admit, however, that I do begrudge you this use of my person."

  "Whatever  the case, you must, for a time,  put up with  it. You,  too, shall be  in a position to enjoy what  I enjoy, so why  not make the best of it?"

  "You state that you do intend to war against the gods?"

  "Yes  indeed. I  wish I  had thought of it  myself  in  the  old  days. Perhaps,  then, we  should never have been  bound.  Perhaps there  would  no longer be  men  or  gods upon  this world. We were never  much for concerted action,   though.   Independence  of   spirit   naturally   accompanies  our independence of person.  Each fought his own battles in the general conflict with mankind. I am  a  leader, true- by  virtue of the fact that I am older and stronger and  wiser than the others. They come  to  me for counsel, they serve me when I order them. But I have never ordered them all into battle. I shall, though, later. The novelty will do much to relieve the monotony."

  "I suggest you do not wait, for there will be no \'later\', Taraka."

  "Why not?"

  "I came to  Hellwell, the wrath  of the gods swarming and buzzing at my back. Now sixty-six demons are loose in the world. Very soon, your  presence will be felt. The gods will know who has done this thing, and they will take steps against us. The element of surprise will be lost."

  "We fought the gods in the days of old . . ."

  "And these are not the days of old, Taraka. The  gods are stronger now, much stronger. Long have you been bound, and their might has grown  over the ages. Even if you command the  first army of Rakasha in history, and backing them in  battle  I raise me up  a mighty army of men- even  then, will  the final  result  be a  thing uncertain.  To  delay now is  to throw everything away."

  "I  wish you would  not speak to  me  like this,  Siddhartha,  for  you trouble me."

  "I mean  to.  For all your powers,  if you meet the  One in Red he will drink your  life with his eyes. He will come here to the Ratnagaris,  for he follows me. The freedom of demons is as a signpost, directing him hither. He may  bring others with  him. You may find them  more than a match for all of you."

  The demon did not reply.  They  reached the top of the well, and Taraka advanced the two  hundred paces to the great  door, which now stood open. He stepped out onto the ledge and looked downward.

  "You  doubt  the power of the  Rakasha,  eh.  Binder?" he  asked. Then, "Behold!"

  He stepped outward, over the edge.

  They did not fall.

  They drifted, like the leaves he had dropped- how long ago?

  Downward.

  They landed upon the trail halfway down the mountain called Channa.

  "Not only do I contain your  nervous  system," said Taraka, "but I have permeated your entire body and wrapped it all about with the energies  of my being. So send  me your One in  Red, who drinks life with his eyes. I should like to meet him."

  "Though you can walk on air," said Siddhartha, "you  speak  rashly when you speak thus."

  "The Prince Videgha holds his court not  far from here, at Palamaidsu," said Taraka, "for  I visited there on my return from Heaven. I understand he is fond of gaming. Therefore, thither fare we."

  "And if the God of Death should come to join the game?"

  "Let him!" cried the other. "You cease to amuse me, Binder. Good night. Go back to sleep!"

  There was a small darkness and a great silence, growing and shrinking.

  The days that followed were bright fragments.

  There would  come  to him  snatches of conversation  or song,  colorful vistas  of  galleries,  chambers, gardens. And once he looked upon a dungeon where men were hung upon racks, and he heard himself laughing.

  Between these fragments there came to him dreams  and half dreams. They were  lighted  with fire, they  ran  with blood  and  tears. In a  darkened, endless  cathedral he rolled  dice that were suns and planets. Meteors broke fire above his head, and comets inscribed blazing arcs upon a vault of black glass. There came to him a joy shot through with fear,  and he knew it to be mainly that  of another, but it was partly his, too. The fear- that was all his.

  When Taraka drank too much  wine, or lay panting on his wide, low couch in the harem, then was his grip loosened somewhat, upon the body that he had stolen. But Siddhartha was still weak with the mind-bruise, and his body was drunk or fatigued; and he knew that the time had not yet come to contest the mastery of the demon-lord.

  There were times when he saw, not through the eyes of the body that had once been his, but saw as a demon saw, in all directions, and stripped flesh and bone from those  among whom he  passed, to  behold the  flames  of their beings, colored with the hues and shades of their passions,  flickering with avarice and lust and envy,  darting with  greed and hunger, smouldering with hate, waning with fear and pain. His hell was a many-colored place, somewhat mitigated only by the  cold blue  blaze of a  scholar\'s intellect, the white light of a dying monk, the rose halo of a noble lady who fled his sight, and the dancing, simple colors of children at play.

  He stalked  the high  halls and wide galleries of the  royal palace  at Palamaidsu, which were his winnings. The Prince Videgha lay in chains in his own  dungeon.  Throughout  the kingdom, his subjects were  not aware that  a demon now sat upon  the  throne.  Things seemed  to be the same as  they had always  been. Siddhartha had  visions  of riding through the  streets of the town on the  back of an elephant. All the women of the town had been ordered to stand before the doors  of their dwellings. Of these,  he chose those who pleased him and had them taken back  to his harem. Siddhartha realized, with a sudden shock, that he was assisting in the choosing, disputing with Taraka over the  virtues of this or that matron, maid or lady.  He had been touched by the lusts of the demon-lord, and  they  were becoming his own. With  this realization, he came into a greater  wakefulness, and it was  not always the hand of the demon which  raised  the  wine horn to his lips, or twitched the whip  in  the  dungeon. He came to be conscious for greater periods of time, and with a certain horror he knew that, within himself, as within every man, there lies a demon capable of responding to his own kind.

  Then, one day, he fought  the power that ruled  his  body and  bent his mind. He  had largely recovered, and  he coexisted  with Taraka  in  all his doings, both as silent watcher and active participant.

  They stood on the balcony above the garden, looking out across the day. Taraka had, with a single gesture,  turned all the flowers black. Lizardlike creatures  had  come  to dwell  in the trees  and  the  ponds,  croaking and flitting among the shadows. The incenses  and perfumes which filled  the air were thick and cloying. Dark smokes coiled like serpents along the ground.

  There had been three attempts upon  his life. The captain of the palace guard had been the last to try. But his blade had turned to a reptile in his hand and struck at his face, taking out  his eyes and filling his veins with a venom that had caused him to darken and swell,  to die  crying for a drink of water.

  Siddhartha  considered  the ways of  the demon,  and  in that moment he struck.

  His power had grown again, slowly, since that day in Hellwell when last he  had wielded it.  Oddly independent of the brain of his body, as Yama had once told  him, the power turned like a slow pinwheel at  the center  of the space that was himself.

  It spun again faster, and he hurled it against the force of the other.

  A  cry escaped Taraka,  and a counterthrust of pure energy came back at Siddhartha like a spear.

  Partly, he managed to deflect it, to absorb some of  its  force. Still, there  was pain and turmoil  within him as the brunt of the  attack  touched upon his being.

  He did not pause to consider  the pain, but struck again, as a spearman strikes into the darkened burrow of a fearsome beast.

  Again, he heard his lips cry out.

  Then the demon was building black walls against his power.

  But one by one, these walls fell before his onslaught.

  And as they fought, they spoke:

  "Oh  man  of many bodies," said  Taraka,  "why do you begrudge me a few days within this  one? It is not the body  you were born into, and you, too, do but borrow it for a time. Why then, do you feel my touch to be a thing of defilement? One day  you may wear another  body,  untouched by me. So why do you consider my presence a pollution, a disease? Is it because there is that within you which is like unto myself?  Is it because  you, too, know delight in the ways of  the Rakasha, tasting the  pain  you cause  like  a pleasure, working your will as you choose upon whatsoever you choose? Is it because of this?  Because you,  too, know and desire  these  things, but also bear that human curse called guilt? If it is, I mock you in your weakness, Binder. And I shall prevail against you."

  "It is  because I  am what  I am, demon,"  said Siddhartha, hurling his energies back  at him. "It is because I am a man who occasionally aspires to things  beyond the  belly  and  the  phallus. I  am not not  the  saint  the Buddhists think me to be, and I am not the hero out  of legend. I  am a  man who knows much fear, and who occasionally  feels guilt. Mainly, though, I am a  man who has set out to do a thing, and you are now blocking my  way. Thus you inherit my  curse- whether  I  win or whether I lose now,  Taraka, your destiny has already been altered. This is the curse of the Buddha- you will never again be the same as once you were."

  And all that  day they stood upon the  balcony, garments  drenched with perspiration. Like a statue they stood, until the sun  had  gone down out of the sky and  the golden  trail  divided the dark bowl of  the night. A  moon leapt up above the garden wall. Later, another joined it.

  "What is the curse  of the Buddha?"  Taraka  inquired,  over  and  over again. But Siddhartha did not reply.

  He had beaten down the final  wall, and they fenced  now  with energies like flights of blazing arrows.

  From  a Temple in the distance there came  the monotonous beating of  a drum, and  occasionally a garden creature  croaked,  a  bird  cried out or a swarm of insects settled upon them, fed, and swirled away.

  Then, like a shower of stars, they came, riding upon the night wind . . . the  Freed of Hellwell, the  other  demons  who had  been loosed upon  the world.

  They came in answer to  Taraka\'s summons,  adding  their powers  to his own.

  He became as a whirlwind, a tidal wave, a storm of lightnings.

  Siddhartha  felt  himself swept over by a titanic  avalanche,  crushed, smothered, buried.

  The last thing he knew was the laughter within his throat.

  How  long it was before  he recovered, he did not know. It  was a  slow thing this time, and it was in a palace where demons walked as servants that he woke up.

  When the last anesthetic  bonds of  mental fatigue fell away, there was strangeness about him. The  grotesque revelries continued. Parties were held in  the dungeons, where the  demons would animate  corpses to  pursue  their victims and  embrace  them. Dark miracles were wrought, such as the grove of twisted trees which sprang from the marble flags of the throne room itself- a grove wherein  men  slept  without awakening, crying out as old nightmares gave way to new. But a different strangeness had entered the palace.

  Taraka was no longer pleased.

  "What  is the curse  of  the  Buddha?"  he  inquired again, as  he felt Siddhartha\'s presence pressing once more upon his own.

  Siddhartha did not reply at once.

  The  other continued, "I feel that I will  give you back your body  one day  soon. I grow tired of this sport, of this palace. I grow  tired, and  I think perhaps the day draws near when we should make war with  Heaven.  What say you to this. Binder? I told you I would keep my word."

  Siddhartha did not answer him.

  "My pleasures diminish by the day! Do you know why this is, Siddhartha? Can  you  tell me  why strange feelings  now  come  over  me,  dampening  my strongest moments, weakening me and casting me down when I should be elated, when I should be filled with joy? Is this the curse of the Buddha?"

  "Yes," said Siddhartha.

  "Then lift your  curse, Binder, and I will depart this very day. I will give you back this cloak of flesh. I long again for the cold, clean winds of the heights! Will you free me now?"

  "It is  too late, oh chief of the Rakasha. You have brought  this thing upon yourself."

  "What thing? How have you bound me this time?"

  "Do you recall how, when we strove upon the balcony, you mocked me? You told me that I, too,  took pleasure  in the ways of the pain which you work. You were correct, for all men  have  within them both that which is dark and that which  is light.  A man is a thing of many divisions, not a pure, clear flame such as you once were. His intellect often wars with his emotions, his will with his desires . . . his ideals are at odds with his environment, and if he follows them, he knows keenly the  loss of that which was old- but if he does not  follow  them,  he  feels the pain of  having forsaken a new and noble dream. Whatever he does represents both a  gain and a loss, an arrival and a departure. Always he mourns that which is gone and  fears some part of that   which  is  new.  Reason  opposes   tradition.   Emotions  oppose  the restrictions his fellow men lay upon him. Always, from the friction of these things,  there  arises the thing  you  called the curse of man  and mocked- guilt!

  "Know then, that as we existed together in the same  body and I partook of your ways, not always unwillingly, the road we followed  was not one upon which all the traffic moved in a single direction. As you twisted my will to your workings, so was your will twisted, in turn, by my revulsion at some of your deeds. You have learned the thing called guilt, and it will  ever  fall as a shadow  across your meat and your drink. This is why your pleasure  has been broken. This is why you seek now to flee. But it will do you  no  good. It will follow you across the world. It will rise with  you into  the realms of  the cold, clean winds. It will pursue you  wherever you  go. This is the curse of the Buddha."

  Taraka covered his face with his hands. "So this is what it is  like to weep," he said, after a time.

  Siddhartha did not reply.

  "Curse  you, Siddhartha," he said. "You have bound me again, to an even more terrible prison than Hellwell."

  "You have bound yourself. It is you who broke our pact. I kept it."

  "Men suffer  when they break pacts  with demons," said Taraka,  "but no Rakasha has ever suffered so before."

  Siddhartha did not reply.

  On the following morning, as he sat to breakfast,  there came a banging upon the door of his chambers.

  "Who dares?"  he cried  out,  and  the  door  burst  inward, its hinges tearing free of the wall, its bar snapping like a dry stick.

  The head of  a horned tiger  upon the shoulders of an ape, great hooves for feet, talons for hands,  the Rakasha fell forward into  the  room, smoke emerging from his mouth as he became transparent for a moment,  returned  to full visibility, faded once more, returned again.  His talons  were dripping something  that was not blood and a wide burn lay across  his chest. The air was filled with the odor of singed hair and charred flesh.

  "Master!" it cried. "A stranger has come, asking audience of thee!"

  "And you did not succeed in convincing him that I was not available?"

  "Lord, a score of human guardsmen fell upon him, and he gestured. . . . He waved his hand at  them, and there was a  flash of light  so  bright that even the Rakasha might not look upon it. For an instant only it lasted- and they were all of them vanished, as if they had  never  existed. . . .  There was also a large hole  in the wall behind where they had stood.  . . . There was no rubble. Only a smooth, clean hole."

  "And then you fell upon him?"

  "Many of the Rakasha sprang for him- but there is that about him which repels us. He gestured again and three  of our own  kind were gone, vanished in  the light he hurls. . . . I did  not take the full force of  it, but was only grazed by his power. He sent me, therefore, to deliver his message. . . . I can no longer hold myself together- "

  With that he vanished, and a globe of fire hung  where the creature had lain.  Now his words came into the mind, rather than being spoken across the air.

  "He  bids you come to him without delay. Else, he says  he will destroy this palace."

  "Did the three whom he burnt also take on again their own forms?"

  "No," replied the Rakasha. "They are no more . . ."

  "Describe this stranger!" ordered Siddhartha, forcing the words through his own lips.

  "He stands very tall," said the demon, "and he wears black breeches and boots.  Above  the waist  he  has on him  a  strange  garment. It is like  a seamless white glove, upon his right hand only, which extends all the way up his arm and across  his  shoulders, wrapping his neck  and rising  tight and smooth  about his  entire  head. Only the lower part of his face is visible, for  he  wears over his eyes  large black lenses  which extend  half a  span outward from his face. At his belt he wears a short sheath of the same white material as  the garment- not  containing a dagger,  however,  but  a wand. Beneath the material  of his  garment,  where it  crosses his  shoulders and comes up upon his neck, there is a hump, as if he wears there a small pack."

  "Lord Agni!" said Siddhartha. "You have described the God of Fire!"

  "Aye,  this  must  be,"  said the Rakasha. "For as I looked beyond  his flesh, to see the colors  of his true being, I saw there  a blaze like  unto the heart of the sun. If there be a God of Fire, then this indeed is he."

  "Now must we flee," said Siddhartha, "for there is about to be a  great burning. We cannot fight with this one, so let us go quickly."

  "I do not fear  the gods," said  Taraka, "and I should like to try  the power of this one."

  "You cannot  prevail against the Lord of  Flame," said Siddhartha. "His fire wand is invincible. It was given him by the deathgod."

  "Then I shall wrest it from him and turn it against him."

  "None  may  wield  it  without being  blinded and losing a hand in  the process! This is  why he  wears that  strange garment. Let us  waste no more time here!"

  "I must see for myself," said Taraka. "I must."

  "Do  not  let  your  new  found guilt  force  you  into  flirting  with self-destruction."

  "Guilt?" said Taraka. "That puny, gnawing mind-rat of  which you taught me? No, it is not guilt, Binder. It is that,  where once I was supreme, save for yourself,  new powers have arisen in the world. The gods  were not  this strong  in the old days, and  if they have indeed grown  in power, then that power must  be tested- by myself! It is  of my  nature, which is  power, to fight every  new power  which arises,  and  to either triumph over it or  be bound by it. I must test the strength of Lord Agni, to win over him."

  "But we are two within this body!"

  "That is true. .  .. If this  body be  destroyed, then will I  bear you away with me,  I promise. Already have I strengthened your  flames after the manner of my own land. If  this body  dies, you will continue  to live  as a Rakasha.  Our  people  once  wore  bodies, too, and  I  remember the art  of strengthening the flames so that they may burn independent of the body. This has been done for you, so do not fear."

  "Thanks a lot."

  "Now let us confront the flame, and dampen it!"

  They  left the  royal  chambers  and descended the  stair.  Far  below, prisoner in his own dungeon. Prince Videgha whimpered in his sleep.

  They emerged from the door that  lay behind the hangings at the back of the throne.  When they pushed aside these hangings, they  saw that the great hall was empty, save for the sleepers  within the dark grove and the one who stood in the  middle of the floor, white arm  folded over bare arm, a silver wand caught between the fingers of his gloved hand.

  "See  how he  stands?" said Siddhartha. "He is  confident of his power, and  justly  so. He  is Agni of the Lokapalas.  He  can see  to the farthest unobstructed horizon, as though it lies at his fingertips. And  he can reach that far. He is said one night to have scored the moons themselves with that wand.  If  he  but touch  its base  against a  contact within his glove, the Universal Fire  will leap  forward with a  blinding brilliance, obliterating matter  and dispersing energies which lie in its  path. It is still not  too late to withdraw- "

  "Agni!" he heard his mouth  cry out. "You have requested audience  with the one who rules here?"

  The  black lenses turned toward him. Agni\'s  lips curled back to vanish into a smile which dissolved into words:

  "I  thought  I\'d   find  you  here,"  he  said,  his  voice  nasal  and penetrating. "All that holiness got to be too much and you had to cut loose, eh? Shall  I  call you Siddhartha,  or Tathagatha, or Mahasamatman- or just plain Sam?"

  "You  fool," he replied. "The one who was known to you as the Binder of Demons- by all or any of those  names- is bound now himself. You  have the privilege of addressing Taraka of the Rakasha, Lord of Hellwell!"

  There was a click, and the lenses became red.

  "Yes, I  perceive  the truth  of what  you say," answered the other. "I look  upon  a case of  demonic possession.  Interesting.  Doubtless cramped, also."  He shrugged, and  then added, "But I can  destroy two  as readily as one."

  "Think you so?" inquired Taraka, raising both arms before him.

  As he did, there was a rumbling and the black wood spread in an instant across  the floor, engulfing  the  one who stood  there,  its dark  branches writhing  about him. The rumbling  continued,  and the  floor  moved several inches  beneath  their feet. From overhead,  there came  a  creaking and the sound of snapping stone. Dust and gravel began to fall.

  Then  there was  a  blinding flash  of  light  and the trees were gone, leaving short stumps and blackened smudges upon the floor.

  With a groan and a mighty crash, the ceiling fell.

  As they stepped back through the  door that lay behind the throne, they saw the figure, which still stood in the  center of the hall, raise his wand directly above his head and move it in a tiny circle.

  A cone  of brilliance shot upward, dissolving everything it  touched. A smile still lay  upon  Agni\'s lips  as  the  great stones rained  down, none falling anywhere near him.

  The rumbling continued, and  the floor cracked  and the  walls began to sway.

  They slammed the door and Sam felt a rushing  giddiness as  the window, which  a moment before had lain at the far end of the corridor, flashed past him.

  They coursed  upward  and outward through  the heavens, and a tingling, bubbling feeling  filled  his  body,  as though he  were a  being of  liquid through whom an electrical current was passing.

  Looking back, with the sight of the demon who saw in all directions, he beheld  Palamaidsu, already  so distant  that  it could have been framed and hung  upon the wall as a painting.  On  the high  hill at the  center of the town, the palace of Videgha was falling in upon itself, and great streaks of brilliance, like reversed  lightning bolts, were leaping from  the ruin into the heavens.

  "That is your  answer, Taraka," he  said. "Shall we go back and try his power again?"

  "I had to find out," said the demon.

  "Now let me warn you  further.  I did not jest  when I said that he can see  to  the farthest  horizon. If  he should free himself soon and turn his glance  in  this direction, he will detect  us. I  do not think you can move faster than  light, so  I suggest you fly  lower and utilize the terrain for cover."

  "I have rendered us invisible, Sam."

  "The  eyes of Agni can see  deeper into the  red  and farther  into the violet ranges than can those of a man."

  They  lost altitude then, rapidly. Before Palamaidsu,  however, Sam saw that the only evidence  which remained of  the palace of Videgha was a cloud of dust upon a gray hillside.

  Moving like a whirlwind, they  sped far  into the north,  until at last the  Ratnagaris  lay beneath  them.  When they  came to  the mountain called Channa, they drifted down past its peak and came to a landing upon the ledge before the opened entrance to Hellwell.

  They stepped within and closed the door.

  "Pursuit  will  follow," said  Sam,  "and even  Hellwell will not stand against it."

  "How confident they are  of  their  power," said  Taraka, "to send only one!"

  "Do you feel that confidence to be unwarranted?"

  "No,"  said Taraka. "But what of the One in Red  of whom you spoke, who drinks  life with  his eyes? Did  you not think they would  send  Lord Yama, rather than Agni?"

  "Yes," said Sam, as they moved back toward the  well, "I  was sure that he would follow,  and I still feel that  he will.  When last  I  saw him,  I caused him some  distress. I  feel he would hunt me anywhere. Who knows,  he may even now be lying in ambush at the bottom of Hellwell itself."

  They came to the lip of the well and entered upon the trail.

  "He  does not  wait within,"  Taraka  announced. "I  would even now  be contacted by those who wait, bound, if any  but  the Rakasha had passed this way."

  "He will  come," said Sam, "and when  the Red One comes to Hellwell, he will not be stayed in his course."

  "But many will try," said Taraka. "There is the first."

  The first flame came into view, in its niche beside the trail.

  As they passed  by, Sam freed  it,  and it sprang into  the air  like a bright bird and spiraled down the well.

  Step by step they descended, and from each niche fire spilled forth and flowed outward. At Taraka\'s bidding, some rose and vanished over the edge of the well, departing through the mighty door which bore the words of the gods upon its outer face.

  When they  reached the  bottom of the well,  Taraka said, "Let  us free those who lie locked in the caverns, also."

  So  they made their way  through the passages and deep caverns, freeing the demons locked therein.

  Then, after a time- how much  time, he could never tell- they had all been freed.

  The  Rakasha  assembled  then  about  the  cavern,  standing  in  great phalanxes of  flame,  and  their cries  all came  together into one  steady, ringing note  which rolled and  rolled  and beat  within his head, until  he realized, startled at the thought, that they were singing.

  "Yes,"  said Taraka, "it  is the first time in ages that they have done so."

  Sam listened to the vibrations within his skull,  catching something of the meaning behind the hiss  and the blaze, the feelings that accompanied it falling into words and stresses that were more familiar to his own mind:

  We are the legions of Hellwell, damned,

  The banished ones of fallen flame.

  We are the race undone by man.

  So man we curse. Forget his name!

  This world was ours before the gods,

  In days before the race of men.

  And when the men and gods have gone,

  This world will then be ours again.

  The mountains fall, the seas dry out,

  The moons shall vanish from the sky.

  The Bridge of Gold will one day fall,

  And all that breathes must one day die.

  But we of Hellwell shall prevail,

  When fail the gods, when fail the men.

  The legions of the damned die not.

  We wait, we wait, to rise again!

  Sam shuddered  as  they  sang  on  and  on, recounting  their  vanished glories, confident of their ability to outlast any circumstance, to meet any force with the cosmic  judo of  a  push and a tug and a long  wait, watching anything  of which they disapproved turn its  strength upon itself and pass. Almost, in that moment, he believed that what  they sang was truth, and that one  day there  would be  none but  the  Rakasha, flitting  above the peeked landscape of a dead world.

  Then he turned his mind to other matters  and forced the mood from him. But in the days  that followed, and even,  on occasion,  years afterward, it returned to plague  his efforts and mock  his joys, to make him wonder, know guilt, feel sadness and so be humbled.

  After  a time, one of  the Rakasha who  had left earlier re-entered and descended the well. He hovered in the air and reported what he  had seen. As he spoke, his fires flowed into the shape of a tau cross.

  "This is  the form of that chariot," he said, "which blazed through the sky and then fell, coming to rest in the valley beyond Southpeak."

  "Binder, do you know this vessel?" asked Taraka.

  "I  have  heard  it  described before,"  said Sam. "It is  the  thunder chariot of Lord Shiva.

  "Describe its occupant," he said to the demon.

  "There were four. Lord."

  "Four?"

  "Yes.  There is the one you have described as Agni, Lord of the  Fires. With him is one  who wears  the horns of  a bull set upon a burnished helm- his armor shows like aged  bronze, but it is not  bronze; it is worked about with the  forms of  many serpents,  and it does not seem to burden him as he moves.  In his one hand he holds a gleaming trident, and  he bears no shield before his body."

  "This one is Shiva," said Sam.

  "And walking with these two there comes  one all in red,  whose gaze is dark. This one  does not speak, but occasionally his glances fall  upon  the woman  who walks  by  his  side, to his  left.  She  is  fair  of  hair  and complexion,  and her armor  matches his red. Her eyes  are like the sea, and she smiles  often with  lips the color of the blood of men. About her throat she wears  a  necklace of skulls.  She bears a  bow, and upon  her belt is a short  sword.  She holds in  her  hands  a strange  instrument, like a black scepter ending in a silver skull that is also a wheel."

  "These two be Yama and Kali," said Sam. "Now hear me, Taraka, mightiest of the Rakasha,  while I  tell you what moves against us. The  power of Agni you know full well, and of  the One in Red have  I already  spoken. Now, she who walks at the left hand of Death bears also the gaze that drinks the life it beholds. Her scepter-wheel screams like the trumpets that  signalize  the ending  of  the Yuga,  and all who come before its wailing are cast down and confused. She  is  as much to  be  feared as her Lord, who is  ruthless  and invincible. But the one with the trident is the Lord of Destruction himself. It is true that Yama is  King of the Dead and  Agni Lord  of the Flames, but the power of Shiva is  the power of chaos. His is the force which  separates atom from atom, breaking  down the forms of all  things upon  which he turns it.  Against these four, the freed might  of  Hellwell itself  cannot stand. Therefore, let us depart this place immediately, for they are most assuredly coming here."

  "Did I not promise you, Binder," said Taraka, "that I would help you to fight the gods?"

  "Yes, but that of which I spoke was to be a surprise attack. These have taken  upon  themselves  their  Aspects  now,  and  have  raised   up  their Attributes.  Had they  chosen,  without even  landing the  thunder  chariot, Channa would no longer exist, but in the place of this mountain there  would be  a  deep crater, here  in the midst  of the Ratnagaris. We  must flee, to fight them another day."

  "Do  you remember  the curse  of  the  Buddha?" asked Taraka.  "Do  you remember  how you  taught me of  guilt, Siddhartha? I remember, and I feel I owe you this  victory. I owe  you something for  your pains, and I will give these gods into your hands in payment."

  "No! If  you  would serve me  at all,  do it at another time than this! Serve me now by bearing me away from this place, far and fast!"

  "Are you afraid of this encounter. Lord Siddhartha?"

  "Yes,  yes I am!  For it is foolhardy! What of your song- \'We wait, we wait,  to rise again!\'? Where  is the patience  of the  Rakasha? You say you will wait for the  seas to dry and the mountains  to  fall, for the moons to vanish from the  sky- but you cannot  wait for me to  name the time and the battlefield! I know them far better than you, these gods, for once I was one of them. Do  not do this rash thing now. If you would serve me, save me from this meeting!"

  "Very  well. I hear you,  Siddhartha. Your words  move  me,  Sam. But I would try their strength. So I shall send some of the Rakasha  against them. But  we shall journey far, you  and I, far down to the roots  of  the world. There we will await  the report of victory.  If, somehow, the Rakasha should lose the encounter, then will I bear  you far away from here and restore  to you  your  body.  I would wear it a few hours  more,  however, to savor your passions in this fighting."

  Sam bowed his head.

  "Amen,"  he  said, and  with a tingling,  bubbling  sensation, he  felt himself  lifted from the  floor and borne along vast cavernways uncharted by men.

  As they sped  from chamber to  vaulted chamber, down tunnels and chasms and wells, through labyrinths and grottoes and corridors  of stone, Sam  set his  mind adrift, to  move down the ways of memory and back. He thought upon the days of his recent ministry,  when he had sought to graft the  teachings of Gotama upon the stock of  the religion by which the  world was  ruled, He thought upon the strange one, Sugata,  whose hands had  held  both death and benediction. Over the years, their names would  merge and their deeds  would be mingled. He had  lived too long not to know how  time stirred the pots of legend. There had been a real Buddha, he  knew that now. The teaching he had offered, no matter how spuriously,  had  attracted this true  believer, this one  who  had  somehow achieved enlightenment,  marked men\'s  minds with his sainthood,  and  then  gone  willingly  into  the hands  of  Death  himself. Tathagatha  and  Sugata  would  be  part of a single legend,  he  knew,  and Tathagatha  would shine in  the light shed  by  his  disciple.  Only the one Dhamma would  survive. Then  his mind went back to the battle at the Hall of Karma, and to the machinery  still cached in a secret place.  And he thought then  upon the countless transfers he had undergone before that time, of the battles he had fought, of the women he had loved across the ages; he thought upon  what a world  could be and what this world  was,  and why. Then he was taken again  with his rage against the gods. He thought upon the days when a handful of them had fought the Rakasha and the Nagas, the Gandharvas and the People-of-the-Sea,  the  Kataputna demons  and the Mothers of  the  Terrible Glow, the Dakshinis  and the  Pretas,  the Skandas and  the Pisakas, and had won, tearing a world loose from chaos and building its first city of men. He had seen  that city pass through all the  stages through  which  a city  can pass, until now  it was inhabited by those who  could spin their minds for a moment and transform  themselves into gods, taking upon them an Aspect  that strengthened their bodies and intensified their wills and extended the power of  their desires into Attributes, which fell with  a force  like magic upon those against whom they turned  them.  He thought  upon  this city and these gods,  and he knew of  its beauty and  its tightness,  its ugliness and  its wrongness. He  thought of its splendor and its color, in contrast to that of the rest of the  world, and he wept as he raged, for he  knew  that he could never  feel either wholly right or wholly wrong in opposing it. This was why he  had  waited as long as he had, doing nothing. Now, whatever he did would result in both  victory and defeat, a success and a failure; and whether the outcome of  all his actions  would be the passing or the  continuance of the dream of the city, the burden of the guilt would be his.

  They waited in darkness.

  For  a  long, silent while  they waited. Time  passed  like an old  man climbing a hill. They stood upon a ledge above a black pool, and waited.

  "Should we not have heard by now?"

  "Perhaps. Perhaps not."

  "What shall we do?"

  "What do you mean?"

  "If they do not come at all. How long shall we wait here?"

  "They will come, singing."

  "I hope so."

  But there came no singing, or movement. About them was the stillness of time that had no objects upon which to wear.

  "How long have we waited?"

  "I do not know. Long."

  "I feel that all is not well."

  "You may be right. Shall we rise a few levels and investigate, or shall I bear you to your freedom now?"

  "Let us wait awhile longer."

  "Very well."

  Again, there was silence. They paced within it.

  "What was that?"

  "What?"

  "A sound."

  "I heard nothing and we are using the same ears."

  "Not with the ears of the body- there it is again!"

  "I heard nothing, Taraka."

  "It continues. It is like a scream, but it does not end."

  "Far?"

  "Yes, quite distant. Listen my way."

  "Yes! I believe it is the scepter of Kali. The battle, then, goes on."

  "This long? Then the gods are stronger than I had supposed."

  "No, the Rakasha are stronger than I had supposed."

  "Whether we win or lose, Siddhartha, the gods are presently engaged. If we can get by them, their vessel may be unattended. Do you want it?"

  "Steal  the thunder chariot? That is a thought. . .  . It  is a  mighty weapon, as well as transportation. What might our chances be?"

  "I am certain  the Rakasha can hold them for as long  as is necessary- and  it is  a long climb up Hellwell. We  need not use  the trail ourself. I grow tired, but I can still bear us across the air."

  "Let us rise a few levels and investigate."

  They left their ledge by the black pool, and time beat again about them as they passed upward.

  As they advanced, a globe of light moved to meet them.  It settled upon the floor of the cavern and grew into a tree of green fire.

  "How goes the battle?" asked Taraka.

  "We hold them," it reported, "but we cannot close with them."

  "Why not?"

  "There is that about them which repels. I  do not know how  to call it, but we cannot draw too near."

  "How then do you fight?"

  "A steady  storm of rocks rages about them. We  hurl fire and water and great spinning winds, also."

  "And how do they respond to this?"

  "The trident of Shiva cuts a path through everything. But no matter how much he destroys, we  raise up more against him. So he stands like a statue, uncreating  storms  we will not let  end. Occasionally,  he swerves to kill, while the Lord of  Fires holds  back the attack. The scepter of  the goddess slows those who face upon it. Once slowed, they meet the trident or the hand or the eyes of Death."

  "And you have not succeeded in harming them?"

  "No."

  "Where do they stand?"

  "Part  way down the  well  wall. They are still near to the  top.  They descend slowly."

  "How many have we lost?"

  "Eighteen."

  "Then it  was a mistake  to end our  waiting to begin  this battle. The cost is too high and nothing is being gained. . .. Sam,  do  you want to try for the chariot?"

  "It is worth a risk. . .. Yes, let us try."

  "Go then,"  he  instructed  the Rakasha who branched and swayed  before him.  "Go, and we  shall  follow more slowly. We will rise along the side of the  wall opposite them.  When we  begin the  ascent, redouble your  attack. Occupy them entirely until we have passed. Hold them then to give us time in which  to  steal  their   chariot  from  the  valley.  When  this  has  been accomplished, I will return to you in my true form and  we can put an end to the fighting."

  "I  obey,"  replied the other, and he  fell upon the floor to become  a green serpent of light, and slithered off ahead of them.

  They rushed forward, running  part of the way, to conserve the strength of the demon  for the final necessary  thrust  against gravitation. They had journeyed a  great distance beneath  the  Ratnagaris,  and  the  return trip seemed endless.

  Finally,  though, they came upon  the floor  of  the well; and  it  was lighted sufficiently so that, even with the eyes of his body,  Sam could see clearly about him. The noise was deafening. If he and Taraka had had to rely upon speech for communication, there would have been no communication.

  Like some  fantastic  orchid upon an ebon bough, the  fire bloomed upon the wall  of the  well.  As  Agni  waved  his wand,  it  changed  its shape, writhing. In the  air, like  bright insects, danced the Rakasha. The rushing of  winds was one  loudness, and the  rattling of  many  stones was another. Above  it all was the  ululating  cry of the  silver skull-wheel, which Kali waved like a fan before  her  face; and this was even  more terrible when it rose beyond the range of hearing, but still screamed. Rocks split and melted and dissolved in midair,  their white-hot fragments leaping like sparks from a forge, out and downward. They bounced and rolled, and glowed redly in  the shadows  of Hellwell. The surrounding walls  of  the  well  were  pocked and gouged and scored in the places where the flame and the chaos had touched.

  "Now," said Taraka, "we go!"

  They rose  into the air and moved up the side of the well. The power of the  Rakasha\'s  attack  increased,  to  be  answered  with  an   intensified counterattack. Sam covered  his ears with  his hands,  but it  did  no  good against the burning needles  behind his  eyes, which  stirred  whenever  the silver skull swept in his direction.  A short distance to  his left, a whole section of rock vanished abruptly.

  "They have not detected us," said Taraka.

  "Yet," answered Sam. "That accursed Fire  god can look through a sea of ink to  spot a shifting grain of sand. If he turns in this direction, I hope you can dodge his- "

  "How was that?" asked  Taraka, as they were  suddenly forty feet higher and somewhat farther to the left.

  They sped  upward  now, and a line  of melting rock pursued them.  Then this was interrupted as the demons  set up a wailing and tore loose gigantic boulders,  which  they  hurled  upon  the  gods, with  the  accompaniment of hurricanes  and sheets of  fire.  They reached  the lip of the well,  passed above it and scurried back out of range.

  "We must  go all the way  around now, to reach the corridor which leads to the door."

  A Rakasha rose from out of the well and sped to their side.

  "They retreat!"  he cried.  "The  goddess has fallen.  The  One in  Red supports her as they flee!"

  "They do  not retreat," said Taraka. "They move  to cut us  off.  Block their way! Destroy the trail! Hurry!"

  The Rakasha dropped like a meteor back into the well.

  "Binder, I  grow tired. I do not  know whether I  can  bear us from the ledge outside all the way to the ground below."

  "Can you manage it part of the way?"

  "Yes."

  "That first three hundred feet or so where the trail is narrow?"

  "I think so."

  "Good!"

  They ran.

  As they fled along  the rim of  Hellwell,  another Rakasha rose  up and kept pace with them.

  "I report!"  he cried. "We have destroyed the trail  twice.  Each time, the Lord of Flames has burnt a new one!"

  "Then  naught  more can  be  done!  Stay  with us  now!  We  need  your assistance in another matter."

  It sped on ahead of them, a crimson wedge lighting their way.

  They rounded  the  well and raced  up the tunnel. When they reached its end, they hurled the door wide  and stepped out onto  the ledge. The Rakasha who had led the way slammed the door behind them, saying, "They pursue!"

  Sam stepped over the ledge. As he fell, the door glowed for an instant, then melted above him.

  With the help of the second Rakasha, they descended the entire distance to the base of Channa and moved up  a trail and around a bend. The foot of a mountain  now  shielded them from  the  gods. But this  rock was lashed with flame in an instant.

  The second Rakasha shot high into the air, wheeled and vanished.

  They ran  along  the  trail, heading  toward the valley  that held  the chariot. By the time they reached it, the Rakasha had returned.

  "Kali and Yama and  Agni  descend," he  stated.  "Shiva  stays  behind, holding  the  corridor. Agni leads the pursuit. The One  in  Red  helps  the goddess, who is limping."

  Before  them,  in  the  valley,  lay  the  thunder  chariot.  Slim  and unadorned, the color of bronze, though it  was not  bronze, it stood  upon a wide, grassy plain.  It looked like a fallen prayer tower or a giant\'s house key  or  some necessary part of  a celestial instrument  of music  that  had slipped free  of a starry constellation and dropped to the ground. It seemed to be somehow  incomplete, although the  eye  could not fault  its lines. It held  that special  beauty  that belongs  to the  highest orders of weapons, requiring function to make it complete.

  Sam moved to its side, found the hatch, entered.

  "You can  operate  this chariot.  Binder?" asked Taraka. "Make  it race through the heavens, spitting destruction across the land?"

  "I\'m  sure  Yama  would keep  the controls as  simple  as  possible. He streamlines whenever he can. I\'ve flown  the jets of Heaven before, and  I\'m banking that this is of the same order."

  He ducked into  the cabin, settled into the  control seat and stared at the panel before him.

  "Damn!" he announced, his hand starting forward and twitching back.

  The other  Rakasha appeared suddenly, passing through the metal wall of the ship and hovering above the console.

  "The gods move rapidly," he announced. "Particularly Agni."

  Sam snapped a series of  switches and pressed a  button. Lights came on all over the instrument panel and a humming sound began within it.

  "How far is he?" asked Taraka.

  "Almost halfway  down.  He  widened the trail with  his flames. He runs upon it  now, as if it were a roadway. He burn  obstacles.  He makes a clear path."

  Sam  drew back on a lever  and adjusted a dial,  reading the indicators before him. A shudder ran through the ship.

  "Are you ready?" asked Taraka.

  "I can\'t take off cold. It has to warm up. Also, this instrument  board is trickier than I\'d thought."

  "We run a close race."

  "Yes."

  From the distance,  there came the sounds of several  explosions rising above the growing growl of the chariot. Sam pulled the lever forward another notch, readjusted the dial.

  "I go to slow them," said the Rakasha, and vanished as he had come.

  Sam  drew  the lever  two  notches  farther,  and  somewhere  something sputtered and died. The ship stood silent once more.

  He pushed  the lever  back  into its  former position, spun  the  dial, pushed the button again.

  And  again a  shudder ran through the  chariot, and somewhere a purring began. Sam drew the lever one notch forward, adjusted the dial.

  After a moment, he repeated it, and the purr became a soft growl

  "Gone," said Taraka. "Dead."

  "Who? What?"

  "The one who went to stop the Lord of Flames. He failed."

  There were more explosions.

  "Hellwell is being destroyed," said Taraka.

  Perspiration upon his brow, Sam waited with his hand on the lever.

  "He comes now- Agni!"

  Sam looked through the long, slanted shield plate.

  The Lord of Flames came into the valley.

  "Good-bye, Siddhartha."

  "Not yet," said Sam.

  Agni looked at the chariot, raised his wand.

  Nothing happened.

  He stood, pointing the wand; and then he lowered it, shook it.

  He raised it once more.

  Again, no flame issued forth.

  He  reached  behind  his  neck  with  his  left  hand,  performed  some adjustment upon  his pack.  As he  did this, light streamed  from  the wand, burning a huge pit in the ground at his side.

  He pointed the wand again.

  Nothing.

  Then he began running toward the ship.

  "Electrodirection?" asked Taraka.

  "Yes."

  Sam drew back upon the lever, adjusted the dial farther. A huge roaring grew about  him. He pressed another button and there came a  crackling sound from  the rear of the  vessel. He moved another  dial  as  Agni  reached the hatch.

  There was a flash of flame and a metallic clanging.

  He rose from his seat and moved out of the cabin and into the corridor.

  Agni had entered, and he pointed the wand.

  "Do not move-  Sam! Demon!"  he cried, above the roar of  the engines; and as he spoke, his  lenses clicked red and he smiled. "Demon,"  he stated. "Do not move, or you and your host will burn together!"

  Sam sprang upon him.  Agni fell easily  when he struck, for  he had not believed that the other would reach him.

  "Short circuit, eh?" said Sam, and hit him across the throat.

  "Or sunspots?" and he struck him in the temple.

  Agni fell to his  side, and Sam hit  him a final blow with the edge  of his hand, just above the collarbone.

  He kicked the wand the length of the corridor, and as he moved to close the hatch he knew that it was too late.

  "Go now, Taraka," he  said.  "This is my fight from here on. You can do nothing more."

  "I promised my assistance."

  "You have none to give, now. Get out while still you can."

  "If such is your will. But I have a final thing to say to you - "

  "Save it! Next time I\'m in the neighborhood- "

  "Binder, it is this thing I learned of you- I am sorry. I - "

  There was a terrible twisting, wrenching  sensation within his body and mind, as the death-gaze of Yama fell upon him and struck deeper than his own being.

  Kali,  too,  looked into his  eyes; and  as she did so,  she raised her screaming scepter.

  It was as the lifting of one shadow and the falling of another.

  "Good-bye, Binder," came the words within his mind.

  Then the skull began its screaming.

  He felt himself falling.

  There was a throbbing.

  It was within his head. It was all about him.

  He was awakened  by  throbbing, and he felt himself covered with aches, as with bandages.

  There were chains upon his wrists and his ankles.

  He  was  half seated on the  floor of  a small  compartment. Beside the doorway sat the One in Red, smoking.

  Yama nodded, said nothing.

  "Why am I alive?" Sam asked him.

  "You live for purposes of keeping an appointment made many years ago in Mahartha,"  said  Yama.  "Brahma  is particularly  anxious  to see  you once again."

  "But I am not especially anxious to see Brahma."

  "Over the years, that has become somewhat apparent."

  "I see you got out of the mud all right."

  The other smiled. "You are a nasty man," he said.

  "I know. I practice."

  "I gather your business deal fell through?"

  "Unfortunately, yes."

  "Perhaps you can try recouping your losses. We\'re halfway to Heaven."

  "Think I\'d have a chance?"

  "You  just might. Times change. Brahma could  be  a  merciful god  this week."

  "My occupational therapist told me to specialize in lost causes."

  Yama shrugged.

  "What of the demon?" Sam asked. "The one who was with me?"

  "I touched it," said Yama, "hard. I don\'t know whether I finished it or just drove it away. But you needn\'t worry about it again. I doused you  with demon repellant.  If the creature still lives, it will be a long time before it recovers  from our contact. Maybe  never. How did  it happen in the first place? I thought you were the one man immune to demonic possession."

  "So did I. What\'s demon repellant?"

  "I  found a chemical agent, harmless to us,  which none  of the  energy beings can stand."

  "Handy item. Could\'ve used it in the days of the binding."

  "Yes. We wore it into Hellwell."

  "That was quite a battle, from what I saw of it."

  "Yes,"  said Yama. "What is it like- demonic possession?  What does it feel like to have another will overriding your own?"

  "It is strange,"  said Sam, "and frightening, and rather  educating  at the same time."

  "In what ways?"

  "It  was their  world first," said Sam. "We took it away from them. Why shouldn\'t they be  everything we hate them for being?  To them,  we  are the demons."

  "But what does it feel like?"

  "To have one\'s will overridden by that of another?

  You should know."

  Yama\'s smile vanished, then returned. "You would like me to strike you, wouldn\'t  you, Buddha? It would make you feel superior. Unfortunately, I\'m a sadist and will not do it."

  Sam laughed.

  "Touché, Death," he said.

  They sat in silence for a time.

  "Can you spare me a cigarette?"

  Yama passed him one, lit it.

  "What\'s First Base like these days?"

  "You\'ll hardly recognize the place," said Yama. "If everyone in it were to die  at this  moment, it would still be perfect ten thousand  years  from now.  The flowers  would still  bloom and  the  music  would  play  and  the fountains would ripple the length of the spectrum. Warm meals would still be laid within the garden pavilions. The City itself is immortal."

  "A fitting abode, I suppose, for those who call themselves gods."

  "Call themselves?"  asked  Yama. "You  are wrong,  Sam, Godhood is more than a name. It is a condition of being.  One  does not achieve it merely by being immortal,  for  even the lowliest  laborer in the  fields may  achieve continuity of existence.  Is it then the  conditioning of an Aspect? No. Any competent hypnotist can play games with the self-image. Is it the raising up of an Attribute? Of course not. I can design machines more powerful and more accurate than any faculty a man may cultivate. Being a god is the quality of being  able to be yourself to such an extent  that  your passions correspond with the forces of the universe, so  that those who look upon you know  this without hearing  your name spoken. Some ancient poet said that the world  is full of echoes and correspondences. Another wrote a long poem of an inferno, wherein each man suffered  a  torture  which coincided in nature  with those forces  which had  ruled his life.  Being a god is  being  able to recognize within  one\'s self these things  that are important, and then to  strike the single  note  that brings  them  into  alignment  with everything  else that exists. Then, beyond morals or logic or esthetics,  one is wind or fire, the sea, the mountains, rain,  the sun or the stars, the flight of an arrow, the end of a  day, the clasp of love. One  rules through one\'s ruling  passions. Those who look upon gods then say,  without even knowing their names, \'He is Fire. She is  Dance.  He is Destruction. She is Love.\' So, to reply to  your statement, they  do not call  themselves  gods. Everyone  else does, though, everyone who beholds them."

  "So they play that on their fascist banjos, eh?"

  "You choose the wrong adjective."

  "You\'ve already used up all the others."

  "It appears that our minds will never meet on this subject."

  "If someone asks you why you\'re oppressing a world and you reply with a lot of poetic crap, no. I guess there can\'t be a meeting of minds."

  "Then let us choose another subject for conversation."

  "I do look upon you, though, and say, \'He is Death.\'"

  Yama did not reply.

  "Odd ruling passion. I\'ve heard that you were old before you were young . . ."

  "You know that is true."

  "You were a  mechanical  prodigy  and a weapons  master.  You lost your boyhood in a burst of  flame,  and you became an old man  that same day. Did death  become your  ruling  passion in that  moment? Or  was it earlier?  Or later?"

  "It does not matter," said Yama.

  "Do you serve the gods because you  believe  what you have said to me- or because you hate the larger portion of humanity?"

  "I did not lie to you."

  "Then Death is an idealist. Amusing."

  "Not so."

  "Or  could it be. Lord  Yama, that neither guess is correct?  That your ruling passion- "

  "You\'ve mentioned her name  before,"  said Yama, "in  the  same  speech wherein  you likened her to a disease. You were wrong then and you are still wrong. I do not care to hear that  sermon over again, and  since I am not at the moment sinking in quicksand, I will not."

  "Peace," said  Sam.  "But tell me, do  the ruling passions of the  gods ever change?"

  Yama smiled. "The goddess of dance was once the god of war. So it would seem that anything can change."

  "When I have died the real death," said Sam,  "then  will I be changed. But until that moment  I will hate Heaven with every breath  that I draw. If Brahma has me burnt, I will spit into the flames. If he has  me strangled, I will attempt to  bite  the executioner\'s  hand. If my throat  is cut, may my blood rust the blade that does it. Is that a ruling passion?"

  "You are good god material," said Yama.

  "Good god!" said Sam.

  "Before whatever may happen  happens," said Yama,  "I have been assured that you will be permitted to attend the wedding."

  "Wedding? You and Kali? Soon?"

  "At the full of the  lesser moon," Yama  replied.  "So, whatever Brahma decides, at least I can buy you a drink before it occurs."

  "For  that   I  thank  you,  deathgod.   But  it  has  always  been  my understanding that weddings are not made in Heaven."

  "That tradition is about  to  be broken," said Yama.  "No tradition  is sacred."

  "Then good luck," said Sam.

  Yama nodded, yawned, lit another cigarette.

  "By  the  way,"  said  Sam, "what  is  the  latest  vogue  in celestial executions? I ask purely for informational purposes."

  "Executions are not held  in  Heaven," said Yama, opening a cabinet and removing a chessboard.  

V

  From Hellwell to Heaven he went,  there  to  commune with the gods. The Celestial  City holds many mysteries, including some of  the keys to his own past. Not all that transpired during the time he  dwelled there is known. It is known,  however,  that  he petitioned the gods  on  behalf  of the world, obtaining  the sympathy  of  some, the  enmity  of others. Had he  chosen to betray humanity and accept the proffers of the gods, it is said by some that he might  have  dwelled forever as a Lord of  the City and  not have met his death beneath the claws of the phantom cats of Kaniburrha. It is said by his detractors,  though,  that  he  did accept  these  proffers, but  was  later betrayed himself, so giving his sympathies back to suffering mankind for the rest of his days, which were few. . . .

  Girt about with lightnings, standard-bearer, armed with  the sword, the wheel, the bow,

  devourer,  sustainer.  Kali,  night of destruction  at  Worldsend,  who walketh the world by night,

  protectress, deceiver, serene  one, loved  and lovely, Brahmani, Mother of the Vedas, dweller in the silent and most secret places,

  well-omened, and  gentle,  all-knowing, swift  as  thought,  wearer  of skulls, possessed of power, the twilight, invincible leader, pitiful one,

  opener of the way before those  lost, granter of favors, teacher, valor in the form of woman,

  chameleon-hearted,  practitioner  of  austerities,   magician,  pariah, deathless and eternal. . ..

  Âryatârâbhattârikânâmâshtottarásatakastotra (36-40)

  Then, as so often in the past, her snowy fur was sleeked by the wind.

  She  walked  where the  lemon-colored  grasses  stirred. She  walked  a winding track under dark trees and jungle flowers, crags of jasper rising to her right, veins of milk-white rock, shot through with orange streaks,  open about her.

  Then,  as so often before, she moved on the great cushions of her feet, the wind sleeking her fur, white  as marble, and the ten thousand fragrances of the jungle and  the plain stirring about  her; there, in the  twilight of the place that only half existed.

  Alone, she followed the ageless trail through the  jungle that was part illusion.  The white tiger  is  a solitary  hunter. If others  moved along a similar course, none cared for company.

  Then, as  so often before, she looked up at the  smooth, gray shell  of the sky  and the stars that glistened there like shards of ice. Her crescent eyes widened, and she stopped and sat upon her haunches, staring upward.

  What was it she was hunting?

  A deep  sound, like a chuckle ending in  a cough, came from her throat. She sprang  then suddenly to  the top of a high rock, and sat there  licking her shoulders. When a  moon moved  into view,  she  watched it. She seemed a figure molded of unmelting snow, topaz flames gleaming beneath her brows.

  Then, as before,  she  wondered whether  this was  the true  jungle  of Kaniburrha in which she sat. She felt that she was still within the confines of the actual forest. But she could not really know.

  What was it she was hunting?

  Heaven exists upon a plateau that was once  a range of mountains. These mountains  were  fused and smoothed to  provide a  level base.  Topsoil  was transported from the verdant south, to give it the growth  that fleshed over this  bony  structure.  Cupping the  entire  area  is  a  transparent  dome, protecting it against the polar cold and anything else unwanted within.

  Heaven stands high and temperate  and enjoys a long twilight  and long, lazy days. Fresh airs,  warmed as they  are drawn within,  circulate through the City and the  forest. Within  the dome itself, clouds can  be generated. From within the clouds rains can be  called forth, to  fall  upon almost any area. A snowfall could even  be  brought  down in this manner, although this thing has never been done. It has always been summer in Heaven.

  Within the summer of Heaven stands the Celestial City.

  The Celestial City did not  grow up as the cities of men grow up, about a port or near to good farmland, pasturage, hunting country, trade routes or a  region rich in some natural resource  that  men  desired  and  so settled beside. The Celestial  City  sprang from  a conception in  the minds  of its first dwellers. Its growth  was  not  slow and  haphazard, a  building added here, a thoroughfare rerouted there, one structure torn down to make way for another, and all parts coming together into an irregular and unseemly whole. No. Every demand  of utility  was considered  and every inch of magnificence calculated by the first planners and the design-augmentation machines. These plans were  coordinated  and brought to fruition by an architectural  artist without peer. Vishnu, the Preserver, held  the entire  Celestial City within his mind, until the day he circled Milehigh Spire on  the back of the Garuda Bird, stared  downward  and  the City  was captured perfect  in  a  drop  of perspiration on his brow.

  So Heaven sprang from the mind of a  god, its  conception stimulated by the desires of his fellows. It was laid by choice, rather than necessity, in a wilderness  of ice and snow and rock, at the  timeless  Pole of the world, where only the mighty might make their home.

  (What was it she was hunting?)

  Beneath the dome of  Heaven there stood, beside the Celestial City, the great forest of Kaniburrha.  Vishnu, in his wisdom, had seen that there must be a balance between the metropolis and the wilderness. While wilderness can exist independent of cities, that  which dwells  within a city requires more than the tamed plants of  a pleasance. If  the world  were all city,  he had reasoned,  the  dwellers  within  it  would  turn  a portion of  it  into  a wilderness, for there is that within  them all which desires  that somewhere there be an end to order and a beginning of chaos. So, within his mind there had grown up a forest, pumping forth streams  and the smells  of growth  and decay, uttering the cries  of the uncitied  creatures who dwelled within its shadows, shrugging in the wind and glistening in the rain, falling down  and growing up again.

  The wilderness came  to  the  edge  of  the  City  and stopped. It  was forbidden to enter there, just as the City kept to its bounds.

  But  of  the  creatures  who  dwelled  within  the  forest,  some  were predators; these  knew  no boundaries of limits, coming and  going  as  they chose. Chief among these were the albino tigers.  So it  was written  by the gods that the phantom cats might not look upon the Celestial City; and so it was laid upon their  eyes, through the nervous systems that lay behind them, that there  was no City. Within their white-cat brains, the world  was  only the forest  of Kaniburrha. They walked the  streets of Heaven, and  it was a jungle  trail they trod. If the  gods  stroked their fur as they passed them by,  it was as the wind  laying hands  upon them. Should they climb a  broad stairway, it was a  rocky slope they mounted. The  buildings were cliffs and the statues were trees; the passers-by were invisible.

  Should one from the  City  enter the true  forest, however, cat and god then  dwelled  upon  the  same  plane  of  existence- the  wilderness,  the balancer.

  She  coughed again, as she had so  often before, and her snowy  fur was sleeked by the wind. She was a phantom cat, who for  three  days had stalked about the wilderness of Kaniburrha, slaying and eating the raw  red flesh of her kill, crying out her great-throated cat-challenge, licking her  fur with her broad, pink tongue,  feeling the rain  fall down upon her back, dripping from off the high,  hanging fronds, coming in torrents down from the clouds, which coalesced, miraculously, in the center of the sky; moving with fire in her loins, having mated the night before with an  avalanche of death-colored fur,  whose claws had raked her shoulders, the smell  of  the blood  driving them both into a great frenzy; purring,  as the cool twilight came over her, bringing with it the moons,  like the changing crescents of her eyes, golden and silver and dun.  She  sat upon the rock, licking  her paws and wondering what it was she had hunted.

  Lakshmi, in the Garden of the Lokapalas, lay with Kubera, fourth keeper of  the  world, upon a  scented  couch set  beside the  pool  in  which  the Apsarases played. The other three of the Lokapalas were absent this evening. . . . Giggling, the Apsarases splashed the perfumed waters toward the couch. Lord Krishna the Dark,  however, chose that  moment  to blow upon his pipes. The girls then turned  away from Kubera the Fat and  Lakshmi the  Lovely, to rest their elbows upon the edges of the pool and stare at him, there beneath the flowering tree where he lay sprawled amid  wineskins and the  remains of several meals.

  He ran  up and down the scale and produced  one long wailing note and a series  of  goatlike bleats. Guari  the Fair,  whom he  had  spent  an  hour undressing  and then had apparently forgotten,  rose up from his side,  dove into  the pool  and vanished  into one of  the  many  subaquaean  caves.  He hiccupped, began a tune, stopped, began another.

  "Is it true what they say about Kali?" asked Lakshmi.

  "What do they say?" grunted Kubera, reaching for a bowl of soma.

  She took the bowl from his hands, sipped at it, returned it to  him. He quaffed it, and a servant refilled it as he placed it back upon the tray.

  "That she wants a human sacrifice, to celebrate her wedding?"

  "Probably," said Kubera. "Wouldn\'t put it past her. Bloodthirsty bitch, that one.  Always  transmigrating into some vicious  animal for  a  holiday. Became a fire-hen once and clawed Sitala\'s face over something she\'d said."

  "When?"

  "Oh, ten- eleven  avatars back. Sitala wore a veil for a devilish long time, till her new body was ready."

  "A strange  pair," said Lakshmi  into  his  ear,  which she was biting. "Your friend Yama  is probably the only one would live  with  her. Supposing she grew  angry  with a lover and  cast her deadly look  upon him? Who  else could bear that gaze?"

  "Jest  not," said Kubera.  "Thus  did  we lose Kartikeya,  Lord  of the Battles."

  "Oh?"

  "Aye. She\'s a strange one. Like Yama, yet not like him. He is deathgod, true.  But his is the way of  the quick, clean kill.  Kali is rather like  a cat."

  "Does Yama ever speak of this fascination she holds for him?"

  "Did you come here to gather gossip or to become some?"

  "Both," she replied.

  At that  moment,  Krishna took  his  Aspect  upon  him, raising  up the Attribute of divine drunkenness. From his pipes there poured the bitter-dark sour-sweet melody contagious. The drunkenness within him expanded across the garden, in  alternating waves of joy  and sadness. He  rose upon his  lithe, dark legs  and  began to  dance. His flat features were  expressionless. His wet, dark hair lay in tight rings, like wire;  even his beard was so curled. As he moved, the Apsarases came forth from the pool to follow him. His pipes wandered  along  the trails of  the ancient melodies, growing  more and more frenzied  as  he  moved  faster and faster, until finally he broke  into the Rasa-lila, the Dance of Lust, and his retinue, hands on their hips, followed him with increasing speed through its gyrating movements.

  Kubera\'s grip upon Lakshmi tightened.

  "Now there is an Attribute," she said.

  Rudra the Grim bent his bow and sent an arrow flying. The arrow sped on and on and finally came to rest  in the center  of  a distant target. At his side. Lord Murugan chuckled and lowered his bow.

  "You win again," he said. "I can\'t beat that."

  They unbraced their bows and moved toward the target after the arrows.

  "Have you met him yet?" asked Murugan.

  "I knew him a long time ago," said Rudra.

  "Accelerationist?"

  "He  wasn\'t  then. Wasn\'t much of anything, politically. He was  one of the First, though, one of those who had looked upon Urath."

  "Oh?"

  "He distinguished himself in the wars against the People-of-the-Sea and against the  Mothers of the Terrible  Glow." Here,  Rudra made a sign in the air. "Later," he continued, "this was remembered, and he was given charge of the northern marches  in the wars against the demons. He was known as Kalkin in  those  days,  and  it was there  that he  came to be called  Binder.  He developed an  Attribute which he could use  against the demons. With  it, he destroyed most of  the  Yakshas and bound the Rakasha.  When Yama  and  Kali captured him at Hellwell in Malwa, he had already succeeded in freeing these latter. Thus, the Rakasha are again abroad in the world."

  "Why did he do this thing?"

  "Yama  and Agni say  that he had made  a pact with their  leader.  They suspect he offered this one a lease on his body in return for the promise of demon troops to war against us."

  "May we be attacked?"

  "I doubt it. The demons are not stupid. If they could  not  defeat four of us in Hellwell, I doubt they would attack us all here in Heaven. And even now, Yama is in the Vasty Hall of Death designing special weapons."

  "And where is his bride-to-be?"

  "Who knows?" said Rudra. "And who cares?"

  Murugan smiled.

  "I once thought you more than passing fond of her yourself."

  "Too cold, too mocking," said Rudra,

  "She repulsed you?"

  Rudra turned his dark face, which never  smiled, upon  the fair  god of youth.

  "You fertility  deities are worse  than Marxists,"  he said. "You think that\'s all that goes on between people. We were just friends for a time, but she is too hard on her friends and so loses them."

  "She did repulse you?"

  "I suppose so."

  "And  when she took Morgan, the poet of the  plains, as her lover - he who  one day  incarnated as  a jackbird and  flew  away-  you  then  hunted jackbirds, until inside  a month with  your arrows you had  slain near every one in Heaven."

  "And I still hunt jackbirds."

  "Why is that?"

  "I do not care for their singing."

  "She is too cold, too mocking," agreed Murugan.

  "I do  not like being mocked by anyone, youthgod. Could  you outrun the arrows of Rudra?"

  Murugan  smiled  again. "No,"  said  he,  "nor  could  my  friends  the Lokapalas- nor would they need to."

  "When I assume my Aspect," said Rudra, "and take up my great bow, which was  given  me by Death  himself,  then can  I  send  a heat-tracking  arrow whistling down the miles  to  pursue a moving  target  and strike it like  a thunderbolt, dead."

  "Let us then talk of other matters," said Murugan,  suddenly interested in the  target. "I gather that  our guest  mocked  Brahma some years  ago in Mahartha and did  violence in holy  places. I understand, though, that he is the same one who founded the religion of peace and enlightenment."

  "The same."

  "Interesting."

  "An understatement."

  "What will Brahma do."

  Rudra shrugged. "Brahma only knows," he replied.

  At the place  called Worldsend, where there is nothing beyond the  edge of  Heaven but  the distant flicker  of the dome  and, far below, the  blank ground,  hidden  beneath  a  smoke-white  mist, there stands the  open-sided Pavilion  of  Silence, upon whose round, gray roof the rains never fall, and across whose balconies and balustrades the fog  boils in the morning and the winds  walk at twilight, and within whose  airy  chambers,  seated upon  the stark, dark furniture, or pacing among the gray columns, are sometimes to be found the gods contemplative, the broken warriors or those injured  in love, who come to consider there all things hurtful or futile, beneath a  sky that is beyond the Bridge of the Gods, in the midst of a place of stone where the colors are few and the only sound is the wind - there, since slightly after the days of the First,  have sat the philosopher and the sorceress, the sage and  the magus, the  suicide, and  the ascetic freed  from  the  desire  for rebirth or  renewal; there, in the center  of renunciation and  abandonment, withdrawal and departure, are the five rooms named Memory, Fear, Heartbreak, Dust and Despair; and this place was built by Kubera  the Fat, who cared not a tittle for any of these sentiments,  but who, as a friend  of Lord Kalkin, had done  this construction  at the behest of  Candi  the Fierce,  sometimes known  as  Durga  and as Kali, for he  alone  of all the gods possessed  the Attribute of inanimate correspondence, whereby he could invest  the works of his hands with feelings and passions to be  experienced by those who dwelled among them.

  They sat in the room  called Heartbreak, and they drank of the soma but they were never drunken.

  It was  twilight all about the Pavilion of Silence,  and the winds that circled through Heaven flowed past them.

  They  sat within black robes upon the dark seats, and his hand lay atop hers, there  on the table that stood between them; and the horoscopes of all their  days  moved past  them on the  wall that separated  Heaven  from  the heavens;  and  they  were  silent  as they  considered  the  pages  of their centuries.

  "Sam," she finally said, "were they not good?"

  "Yes," he replied.

  "And in those ancient days, before you left Heaven to dwell among men- did you love me then?"

  "I do  not really remember," he said. "It was so very long ago. We were both different people  then-  different minds, different  bodies.  Probably those two, whoever they were, loved one another. I cannot remember."

  "But I recall the springtime of the world as though it were yesterday- those days when we rode together  to battle, and those nights when we  shook the  stars loose  from  the  fresh-painted  skies!  The world was so new and different then, with  a menace lurking within every flower and a bomb behind every  sunrise. Together we  beat  a  world, you  and I, for  nothing really wanted us here and everything  disputed our coming. We cut and burnt our way across the land and over the seas, and  we fought under the  seas and in the skies, until there was nothing left to  oppose  us. Then cities were  built, and kingdoms, and we raised up those whom we chose to rule over  them, until they ceased to amuse us  and  we cast them  down  again. What do the younger gods know of those days? How can they understand the power we knew, who were First?"

  "They cannot," he replied.

  "When we held court in our palace by the sea and I gave you  many sons, and our fleets  swept out to conquer  the  islands, were those days not fair and full of grace? And the nights things of fire and perfume and wine? . . . Did you not love me then?"

  "I believe those two loved one another, yes."

  "Those two? We are not that different. We are not  that changed. Though ages  slip  away, there are  some things within  one\'s  being which  do  not change, which do not alter, no matter how many bodies one puts upon oneself, no matter how many lovers one takes, no matter how many things of beauty and ugliness one looks upon or does, no matter how  many thoughts  one thinks or feelings  one feels.  One\'s  self  stands at  the center  of  all  this  and watches."

  "Open a  fruit and there is  a seed within it. Is that the center? Open the  seed and there is nothing within  it.  Is  that the center?  We are two different  persons  from the master and the mistress of battles. It was good to have known those two, but that is all."

  "Did you go to dwell outside of Heaven because you were tired of me?"

  "I wanted a change of perspective."

  "There have been long years over which I have  hated you for departing. Then there have been times when I sat in  the  room called Despair, but  was too much of a coward  to  walk beyond Worldsend. Then again, there have been times when I have  forgiven you and  invoked  the seven  Rishi to bring your image before me, so that  I looked upon  you as you went about your day, and it  was almost  as though we walked together  once again. Other times I have desired  your death, but you turned my executioner into a friend as you turn my wrath into forgiveness. Do you mean to say that you feel nothing for me?"

  "I mean to say that I no longer  love  you.  It would be nice  if there were some one  thing constant  and unchanging in the universe.  If there  is such a thing, then it is a thing which would have to be stronger  than love, and it is a thing which I do not know."

  "I have not changed, Sam."

  "Think carefully. Lady, over all  that you have said, over all that you have recalled for me this day. It is not really  the man whom you have  been remembering. It is the  days  of carnage  through which the two  of you rode together. The world is come into a tamer age now.  You long for the fire and the steel of  old. You think it is the man, but it is the destiny the two of you shared for  a time, the destiny which is past, that stirs your mind, and you call it love."

  "Whatever I call it, it has not changed! Its days are not past. It is a constant thing within the universe, and I call  you to come share it with me once again!"

  "What of Lord Yama?"

  "What  of  him? You have  dealt with those who would be numbered as his peers, did they still live."

  "I take it, then, that it is his Aspect for which you care?"

  She smiled, within the shadows and the wind.

  "Of course."

  "Lady, Lady,  Lady,  forget me! Go live with Yama and  be his love. Our days  are  past, and I do not wish to recall  them. They were good, but they are past.  As there is  a time for  everything, there is a time also for the end of anything. This is  an age for the consolidation of man\'s  gains  upon this world. This is a time for the sharing of knowledge, not the crossing of blades."

  "Would you fight Heaven for this  knowledge? Would you attempt to break the Celestial City, to open its vaults to the world?"

  "You know that I would."

  "Then we may yet have a common cause."

  "No, Lady, do  not deceive  yourself. Your allegiance lies with Heaven, not with the  world. You know that. If I  won my freedom and you joined with me and we fought, perhaps you would be happy for a time. But win or lose, in the end I fear you would be unhappier than before."

  "Hear me, soft-hearted saint of the purple grove.  It is quite  kind of you  to  anticipate my feelings, but  Kali  casts her allegiances where  she will,  owing nothing  to anyone, but as she chooses.  She  is  the mercenary goddess, remember that! Perhaps all that you have said is true, and she lies when she  tells  you  she loves you  still. Being  ruthless  and full of the battle lust, however, she  follows the  smell of blood.  I feel that she may yet become an Accelerationist."

  "Take care what you say, goddess. Who knows what may be listening?"

  "None  listens,"  said she,  "for  seldom are words  spoken within this place."

  "All the more reason for someone to be curious when they are."

  She sat for a time in silence, then, "None listens," she said.

  "Your powers have grown."

  "Yes. What of yours?"

  "About the same, I think."

  "Then  will you  accept  my  sword,  my  wheel,  my bow, in the name of Accelerationism?"

  "No."

  "Why not?"

  "You give your  promises too easily. You break  them as readily as  you make them, and because of this I can never trust you. If we fight and we win in the name of Accelerationism, it may also be the last great battle of this world. This is a thing you could not desire, nor permit to occur."

  "You are a fool to speak of last great battles, Sam, for the last great battle is always the next one. Shall I come to you in a more comely shape to convince you that I speak the truth? Shall I embrace you in a  body with the seal of virginity set upon it? Will this make you to trust my word?"

  "Doubt, Lady, is the chastity of  the mind, and I bear its seal upon my own."

  "Then  know that I did but bring you here to this place to torment you, and that you are correct-  I  spit upon  your Accelerationism,  and  I have already  numbered your  days. I sought to give you false hopes, that you may be cast  down  from  a greater height.  It is only your  stupidity  and your weakness that have saved you from this."

  "I am sorry. Kali- "

  "I do not want  your apology! I would have liked your love, though,  so that I might have used it  against you at the end of your days, to make them pass  the harder. But, as you say, we have changed too much- and you are no longer worth the trouble.  Do not think that I could  not have made you love me again, either,  with smiles and with  caresses as  of old. For I feel the heat within you, and it is an easy thing for me to fan it in a man. You  are not worth a mighty  death, however, falling from  the heights  of passion to the depths of despair.  I  do not have the time to  give  you  more than  my contempt."

  The stars wheeled about  them, frictionless and fiery, and her hand was gone from beneath his own, as she  poured two more cups of soma to warm them against the night.

  "Kali?"

  "Yes?"

  "If it will give you any satisfaction in the end, I still care for you. Either there is no such thing as love, or the word does not mean what I have thought it to mean on  many different occasions. It  is  a feeling without a name, really- better  to leave it at that.  So take it and go away and have your  fun with it. You know that we would both be at  one  another\'s throats again one day, as soon as we had run out of common enemies. We had many fine reconciliations, but  were they ever worth the pain that preceded them? Know that you  have  won and that you  are the  goddess I worship - for are  not worship and religious awe a combination of love and hate, desire and fear?"

  They drank their soma in the  room  called Heartbreak, and the spell of Kubera lay about them.

  Kali spoke:

  "Shall I fall upon you and kiss you now, saying that I lied when I said I lied- so that you may laugh and say you lied, to achieve a final revenge? Go to, Lord Siddhartha! Better one of us died in Hellwell,  for great is the pride of the First. We should not have come here- to this place."

  "No."

  "Shall we then depart?"

  "No."

  "In this, I agree. Let us sit here and worship one another for a time."

  Her hand fell upon his own, caressed it. "Sam?"

  "Yes?"

  "Would you like to make love to me?"

  "And so seal my doom? Of course."

  "Then  let us  go into  the room  called Despair, where the winds stand stilled and where there is a couch . . ."

  He followed her from Heartbreak to Despair, his pulse quickening in his throat, and when he had laid her bare on the couch and placed  his hand upon the  soft  whiteness  of  her  belly,  he  knew  that  Kubera was indeed the mightiest  of  the Lokapalas- for the feeling to which that  room had  been dedicated filled him, even  as his  desires mounted  within him and he  upon her- there came a loosening, a  tightening,  a sigh, and the ultimate tears burning to be shed.

  "What is it you wish, Mistress Maya?"

  "Tell me of Accelerationism, Tak of the Archives."

  Tak stretched his great lean frame and his chair adjusted backward with a creak.

  Behind him, the data banks were still, and  certain rare records filled the long, high bookshelves with their  colorful bindings and  the  air  with their musty smells.

  He  handled  the  lady before  him  with his eyes, smiled and shook his head.  She  wore  green, tightly, and an  impatient look;  her  hair was  an insolent red, and faint freckles flecked her nose and the hemispheres of her cheeks. Her  hips  and  shoulders  were  wide, and her narrow  waist tightly disciplined against this tendency.

  "Why do you shake your head? Everyone comes to you for information."

  "You are young, mistress.  Three avatars, if  I  am  not  mistaken. lie behind you.  At this  point in your career,  I  am certain that  you  do not really wish to have  your name placed upon the special list of those younger ones who seek this knowledge."

  "List?"

  "List."

  "Why should there be a list of such inquirers?"

  Tak shrugged. "Gods collect  the  strangest things,  and  certain among them save lists."

  "I  have  always heard  Accelerationism  mentioned as a completely dead issue."

  "So why this sudden interest in the dead?"

  She laughed, and her green eyes bored into his gray ones.

  The Archives exploded around him, and he stood  in the ballroom halfway up Milehigh  Spire. It was night, so late that it would soon  be morning.  A party had obviously been going on  for a  long  while; but  now the crowd in which  he stood had  come  together in  the  corner  of  the room. They were leaning,  and they were sitting and reclining, and all of  them listening to the short,  dark,  husky man who stood beside  the goddess Kali  and talked. This  was Great-Souled  Sam  the  Buddha,  who, with  his  warden,  had just arrived. He was talking of Buddhism and Accelerationism, and of  the days of the binding, and Hellwell,  and the blasphemies of  Lord Siddhartha  in  the city of  Mahartha by the sea. He was talking, and  his voice went on and on, hypnotic, and he radiated power and confidence and warmth, hypnotic, and his words went  on  and on and on, as the crowd slowly passed  out and fell down around him. All of the women were quite ugly,  except for Maya, who tittered then and clapped  her hands, bringing back  the Archives about them, and Tak again to his chair, his smile still upon his lips.

  "So why this sudden interest in the dead?" he repeated.

  "He is not dead, that one!"

  "No?" said Tak. "He isn\'t? . .  . Mistress Maya, he was dead the moment he set foot within the Celestial City. Forget him. Forget his  words. Let it be  as if he never existed. Leave no trace of him within your  mind. One day you will  seek  renewal- so know that the Masters  of Karma will seek after this one within every mind that passes  through their halls. The  Buddha and his words are an abomination in the eyes of the gods."

  "But why?"

  "He is a bomb-throwing anarchist, a  hairy-eyed revolutionary. He seeks to pull down  Heaven itself.  If you want  more scientific information, I\'ll have to  use  the machines to retrieve the data. Would you care  to  sign an authorization for this?"

  "No . . ."

  "Then put him out of your mind and lock the door."

  "He is really that bad?"

  "He\'s worse."

  "Then why do you smile as you say these things?"

  "Because  I\'m  not a very serious person. Character  has  nothing to do with my message, however. So heed it."

  "You seem  to know  all about it. Are archivists  themselves immune  to these lists?"

  "Hardly. My  name is first  upon it. But this is not  because  I am  an archivist. He is my father."

  "That one? Your father?"

  "Yes. You speak  as one quite  young, however. I doubt that  he is even aware  that he fathered me.  What is paternity  to the  gods, who  inhabit a succession of  bodies,  begetting scores of  offspring  by  others who  also change bodies  four or five times a century? I am the son of a body he  once inhabited,  born of another who also  passed  through many, and  I myself no longer live in the  same body I was born into. The relationship,  therefore, is quite  intangible,  and interesting  primarily  on levels  of speculative metaphysics. What is the  true father  of  a  man?  The  circumstances which brought together the two  bodies  which begat him? Was it the fact that, for some reason, at one moment in time, these two pleased one another beyond any possible alternatives? If so, why? Was it the simple hunger of the flesh, or was it curiosity, or  the will? Or was it something else?  Pity? Loneliness? The desire to dominate? What feeling, or what thought was father to the body in which I first came  into consciousness? I know that the man who inhabited that  particular  father-body  at  that  particular  instant  of  time is  a complicated and powerful personality. Chromosomes  mean  nothing  to us, not really. If we live,  we do not carry these hallmarks down through the  ages. We really inherit nothing at all, save for occasional endowments of property and cash. The  bodies  mean so little  in the long run that  it is  far more interesting to speculate as to  the mental processes  which plucked us forth from chaos. I am pleased that it was he who called me  to life, and  I often conjecture as to the  reasons.  I see that your face  is suddenly lacking in color, mistress.  I  did not mean  to upset  you with this talk,  simply  to satisfy  your  curiosity somewhat,  and to  lay  upon your mind some of  the thinking we old ones do upon these matters. One day you, too, will look upon it in  this  light,  I  am certain.  But  I am sorry  to  see you looking so distressed.  Pray sit down. Forgive  my  prattle. You  are the  Mistress  of Illusion. Are not  the things  of which I have spoken akin to the very stuff with which you work? I am certain that you can tell from the manner in which I speak why my name is first upon the list I mentioned. It is a case of hero worship, I suppose.  My  creator is quite distinguished.  .  . . Now you are looking somewhat  flushed.  Would you  care for  a cool drink?  Wait  here a moment. .  .  . There. Sip this.  Now then, about  Accelerationism- it is a simple  doctrine  of sharing.  It proposes that we of Heaven give unto those who  dwell below  of  our knowledge and  powers and  substance. This act  of charity would be directed to the end of raising their condition of existence to  a higher level, akin to that which we  ourselves occupy.  Then every man would be as a god, you  see. The result  of  this, of course, would be  that there would no longer be any gods, only men. We would give them knowledge of the sciences  and the arts,  which  we possess,  and  in so  doing we  would destroy their simple faith and remove all basis for their hoping that things will be  better- for the best way to destroy faith or hope  is to let it be realized.  Why  should  we  permit  men  to  suffer this  burden of  godhood collectively, as the Accelerationists wished, when we  do grant  it to  them individually when they come to deserve it? In his sixtieth year a man passes through the Halls of Karma. He is judged, and if he has done well, observing the  rules and  restrictions of his caste, paying the proper observances  to Heaven, advancing himself intellectually and morally, then  this man will be incarnated into  a  higher  caste,  eventually achieving godhood  itself and coming  to dwell  here  in the City. Each  man  eventually receives his just desserts-  barring  unfortunate accidents,  of  course- and  so  each man, rather than society as a sudden whole, may come into the divine  inheritance which  the  ambitious Accelerationists  wished  to  scatter wholesale before everyone,  even those who were unready. You can see  that this  attitude was dreadfully unfair and proletarian-oriented. What  they  really wanted to  do was  to  lower  the   requirements  for   godhood.  These  requirements  are necessarily strict.  Would you give the power of Shiva, of  Yama, or of Agni into  the hands of an  infant? Not  unless you are a fool, you wouldn\'t  Not unless you wished to wake up  one morning and  see that the  world no longer existed. This is  what the Accelerationists would have  wrought, though, and this is why they were stopped. Now you know all about Accelerationism. . . . My, you look awfully  warm. May I  hang your garment while I get you another drink? . . . Very good. . . . Now, where were we, Maya? Oh yes- the beetles in the pudding.  . . . Well, the  Accelerationists claimed that everything I have just said  would be true,  excepting  for the fact that the  system  is corrupt.  They  cast  aspersions upon  the probity  of  those who authorized incarnation. Some even dared claim that Heaven was comprised  of an immortal aristocracy  of  wilful hedonists who  played games  with  the world. Others dared to say that the best of men never achieve godhood, but meet ultimately with the real death or incarnation into a lower life form. Some others would even  say  that one  such as yourself had been  chosen for  deification only because your original  form  and attitude  struck the fancy of  some lustful divinity, rather than for your  other  obvious virtues,  my  dear. .. .  My, you\'re full of freckles, aren\'t you? .  . . Yes, these are  the things those thrice-damned   Accelerationists   preached.   These  are  the  things,  the accusations, that  the father of my spirit stands for, I  am ashamed to say. What can one do with such a  heritage but wonder at  it? He rides a cycle of mighty days,  and he represents  the last great schism among  the gods. Evil though he obviously is, he is a mighty figure, this father of my spirit, and I respect him as the  sons of old did the fathers of their bodies. . . . Are you  cold now?  Here, let me. . . .  There. .  . . There. . . . There. . . . Come, now weave us an  illusion, my lovely, where we walk in a world that is free of such foolishness. . . . This  way now. Turn here. . .. Now let there be a new Eden within this bunker, my moist-lipped one of the green eyes. . . . What is that? . . . What is it that is paramount within me at this instant of time? . . . Truth, my love-  and sincerity- and the desire to share . . ."

  Ganesha the god-maker walked with Shiva in the forest of Kaniburrha.

  "Lord  of Destruction,"  he said, "I understand that you  already  seek reprisal against those here  in the  City who mark the words  of  Siddhartha with more than a smirk of dismissal."

  "Of course," said Shiva.

  "By so doing, you destroy his effectiveness."

  "\'Effectiveness\'? Explain what you mean."

  "Kill me that green bird on yonder limb."

  Shiva gestured with his trident and the bird fell.

  "Now kill me its mate."

  "I do not see her."

  "Then kill me any other from among its flock."

  "I see none."

  "And  now that it lies dead, you will not. So,  if you wish,  strike at the first who harken to the words of Siddhartha."

  "I  gather your meaning,  Ganesha. He  shall walk  free, for a time. He shall."

  Ganesha the god-maker  regarded the jungle  about him. Though he walked through  the realm of the  phantom cats, he feared no evil. For  the Lord of Chaos walked by his side, and the Trident of Destruction comforted him.

  Vishnu  Vishnu Vishnu regarded regarded regarded Brahma Brahma Brahma . . .

  They sat in the Hall of Mirrors.

  Brahma  held  forth  upon the  Eightfold  Path and  the  glory that  is Nirvana.

  After the space of three cigarettes, Vishnu cleared his throat.

  "Yes, Lord?" asked Brahma.

  "Why, may I inquire, this Buddhist tract?"

  "Do you not find it fascinating?"

  "Not particularly."

  "That is indeed hypocritical of you."

  "What do you mean?"

  "A teacher  should  display at least a modicum of interest in  his  own lessons."

  "Teacher? Lessons?"

  "Of  course, Tathagatha. Why else in recent years would  the god Vishnu be  moved  to incarnate among  men, other  than  to  teach  them  the Way of Enlightenment?"

"I . . . ?"

  "Hail, reformer, who has  removed the fear of the real death from men\'s minds. Those who are not born again among men have now gone on to Nirvana."

  Vishnu smiled. "Better to incorporate than struggle to extirpate?"

  "Almost an epigram."

  Brahma stood, considered the mirrors, considered Vishnu.

  "So  after  we  have disposed of  Sam, you  will  have  been  the  real Tathagatha."

  "How shall we dispose of Sam?"

  "I have not yet decided, but I am open to suggestions."

  "Might I suggest that he be incarnated as a jackbird?"

  "You might. But then, someone  else  might desire that the  jackbird be reincarnated as a man. I feel that he is not without some supporters."

  "Well, we  do have time to consider the  problem. There is no hurry now that he is in  the  custody of Heaven. I  shall give  you my thoughts on the matter as soon as I have some."

  "That is sufficient, then, for now."

  They they they walked walked walked from the from the Hall, then.

  Vishnu passed from the Garden of Brahma\'s Joys; and as he departed, the Mistress of Death entered there.  She  addressed the eight-armed statue with the veena and it began to play upon it.

  Hearing the music, Brahma approached.

  "Kali! Lovely Lady . . ." he announced.

  "Mighty is Brahma," she replied.

  "Yes," Brahma agreed, "as  mighty  as might  be desired.  And it is  so seldom that you visit  here that I  am mightily  pleased. Come  walk with me among the flowered paths and we shall talk. Your dress is lovely."

  "Thank you."

  They walked among the flowered paths. "How go  the preparations for the wedding?"

  "Well."

  "Will you have honeymoon in Heaven?"

  "We plan to take it far from here."

  "Where, may I ask?" "We have not yet agreed as to where."

  "Time passes on the wings of  the jackbird, my  dear. If you wish,  you and the Lord Yama may dwell in my Garden of Joys for a time."

  "Thank  you.  Creator, but it  is too  splendid  a  place for  the  two destroyers to pass the time and feel at ease. We shall go forth, somewhere."

  "As you wish." He shrugged. "What else lies upon your thinking?"

  "What of the one called the Buddha?"

  "Sam?  Your  old lover?  What  of  him,  indeed?  What  would you  know concerning him?"

  "How shall he be- dealt with?"

  "I have not yet decided. Shiva has suggested we  wait for a time before doing anything. Thus, we may assess his effect upon the community of Heaven. I have decided  that Vishnu will have been  the  Buddha,  for historical and theological  purposes.  As  for Sam himself,  I  will  give  hearing  to any reasonable suggestion."

  "Did you not offer him godhood once?"

  "Yes. He did not accept it, however."

  "Supposing you did so again?"

  "Why?"

  "The  present  problem would  not exist  were  he  not a very  talented individual. His talents would make him a worthy addition to the pantheon."

  "This thought has occurred to me, also.  Now, however, he would  agree, whether he meant it or not. I am certain that he wishes to live."

  "Yet, there are ways in which one can be sure in these matters."

  "Such as?"

  "Psych-probe."

  "And if this shows a lack of commitment to Heaven- which it will . . . ?"

  "Could not his mind itself be altered- by one such as Lord Mara?"

  "I have never thought  you guilty of  sentiment, goddess.  But it would seem you are most anxious for him to continue existing, in any form."

  "Perhaps I am."

  "You know that he might be- very changed.  He  will not be the same if this thing is done to him. His \'talent\' may then be totally absent."

  "In  the  course of ages  all men change naturally- opinions, beliefs, convictions. Parts of the mind may sleep and other parts may awaken. Talent, I feel, is a difficult thing to destroy- as long as life itself remains. It is better to live than to die."

  "I might  be convinced of this, goddess-  if you have the  time,  most lovely one."

  "How much time?"

  "Say, three days."

  "Three days, then."

  "Then  let us  adjourn  to my  Pavilion of Joys and  discuss the matter fully."

  "Very well."

  "Where is Lord Yama now?"

  "He labors in his workshop."

  "A lengthy project, I trust."

  "At least three days."

  "Good. Yes, there  may be  some hope for Sam. It  is against  my better thinking, but then I can appreciate the notion. Yes, I can."

  The eight-armed  statue  of the  goddess who was blue played  upon  the veena, making  music to fall about them  as they walked in  the garden, that summer.

  Helba dwelled on the far side of  Heaven, near to the wilderness\' edge. So near  to the forest, in  fact,  was the  palace  called Plunder  that the animals stalked past the one transparent wall, brushing against it  as  they went. From the room called Rape, one could look out  upon  the shaded trails of the jungle.

  It was  within this room,  its walls hung with the stolen  treasures of lives past, that Helba entertained the one called Sam.

  Helba was the god/goddess of thieves.

  No one  knew Helba\'s true sex, for Helba\'s was the habit of alternating gender with each incarnation.

  Sam looked upon a lithe, dark-skinned woman who  wore a yellow sari and yellow veil. Her sandals and  nails were the color of cinnamon, and she wore a tiara that was golden upon her black hair.

  "You have," said Helba, in a voice soft and purring,  "my sympathy.  It is only during those seasons of  life when I incarnate as a man, Sam, that I wield my Attribute and engage in actual plunder."

  "You must be able to take on your Aspect now."

  "Of course."

  "And raise up your Attribute?"

  "Probably."

  "But you will not?"

  "Not  while I wear the  form of woman.  As a man, I  will undertake  to steal anything from anywhere. . ..  See there, upon the far wall, where some of  my  trophies  are hung?  The great blue-feather cloak belonged to  Srit, Chief  among  the  Kataputna demons. I  stole it from  out his cave  as  his hellhounds slept,  drugged by myself. The shape-changing jewel  I took  from the very Dome of  the Glow, climbing with suction  discs upon my  wrists and knees and toes, as the Mothers beneath me- "

  "Enough!"  said Sam.  "I know  all of these  tales, Helba, for you tell them constantly. It  has  been  so long  since you have undertaken  a daring theft,  as  of  old,  that  I  suppose  these glories long past must be  oft repeated. Else, even the Elder Gods  would forget  what once you were. I can see that I have come to the wrong place, and I shall try elsewhere."

  He stood, as to go.

  "Wait," said Helba, stirring.

  Sam paused. "Yes?"

  "You could at least tell me of the theft you are contemplating. Perhaps I can offer advice- "

  "What good would even your greatest advice be, Monarch of Thieves? I do not need words. I need actions."

  "Perhaps, even . . . tell me!"

  "All right,"  said Sam,  "though I  doubt you would be interested in  a task this difficult- "

  "You can skip over the child psychology and tell me what it is you want stolen."

  "In  the  Museum of  Heaven,  which is a  well-built  and  continuously guarded installation- "

  "And one that is always open. Go on."

  "In this building, within a computer-protected guard case - "

  "These can be beaten, by one of sufficient skill."

  "Within this case, upon a manikin, is hung a gray, scaled uniform. Many weapons lie about it."

  "Whose?"

  "This was the ancient habit of he who fought in the northern marches in the days of the wars against the demons."

  "Was this not yourself?"

  Sam tipped his smile forward and continued:

  "Unknown to  most, as a part of this display there is an item which was once known as the Talisman of the Binder. It may have lost all its virtue by now, but, on the other hand, it is possible that it has not. It served as  a focus for the Binder\'s special Attribute, and he finds that he needs it once again."

  "Which is the item you want stolen?"

  "The great wide belt  of shells which is clasped about the waist of the costume. It is pink  and yellow in color. It is also full of micro-miniature circuitry, which could probably not be duplicated today."

  "That is not so great a  theft. I just might consider it in this form- "

  "I would need it in a hurry, or not at all."

  "How soon?"

  "Within six days, I fear."

  "What would you be willing to pay me to deliver it into your hands?"

  "I would be willing to pay you anything, if I had anything."

  "Oh. You came to Heaven without a fortune?"

  "Yes."

  "Unfortunate."

  "If I make good my escape, you can name your price."

  "And if you do not, I receive nothing."

  "It appears that way."

  "Let me ponder. It may amuse  me to do  this thing  and have you owe me the favor."

  "Pray, do not ponder overlong."

  "Come  sit  by me. Binder of  Demons,  and tell  me of the days of your glory-  when you,  with  the immortal goddess, rode  abroad  in the  world, scattering chaos like seed."

  "It was long ago," said Sam.

  "Might those days come again if you win free?"

  "They may."

  "That is good to know. Yes . . ."

  "You will do this thing?" "Hail, Siddhartha! Unbinder!"

  "Hail?"

  "And lightning and thunder. May they come again!"

  "It is good."

  "Now  tell me of the days of  your  glory, and I  will  speak again  of mine."

  "Very well."

  Dashing  through  the forest,  clad  in  a  leather belt,  Lord Krishna pursued the  Lady  Ratri,  who had  declined to  couple  with  him after the rehearsal dinner. The day was clear  and fragrant,  but not half so fragrant as the midnight-blue sari he clutched in  his left hand. She ran on ahead of him, beneath the trees; and he followed, losing sight of her for a moment as she turned up a side trail that led out into the open.

  When he glimpsed  her  again,  she  stood upon a hillock, her bare arms upraised above her head, her fingertips touching. Her eyes were half closed, and her  only  garment, a long  black  veil,  stirred  about her  white  and gleaming form.

  He  realized then that she had taken on her Aspect, and  might be about to wield an Attribute.

  Panting, he raced up the hillside toward  her; and she opened her  eyes and smiled down upon him, lowering her arms.

  As he  reached  for her, she swirled her veil  in his face and he heard her laugh- somewhere within the immense night that covered him over.

  It was black and starless and moonless, without a glint, shimmer, spark or glow from anywhere. It was a nighttime  akin to blindness that had fallen upon him.

  He snorted, and the sari was torn from his fingers. He halted, shaking, and he heard her laughter ringing about him.

  "You have presumed too much. Lord Krishna," she told him, "and offended against the sanctity of Night. For this, I  shall punish you by leaving this darkness upon Heaven for a time."

  "I am not afraid of the dark, goddess," he replied, chuckling.

  "Then your brains are indeed in your gonads. Lord,  as hath often  been said before-  to stand  lost  and blinded in the midst of Kaniburrha, whose denizens need not  to strike-  and not to be afraid- I think this somewhat foolhardy. Good-bye, Dark One. Perhaps I\'ll see you at the wedding."

  "Wait, lovely lady! Will you accept my apology?"

  "Certainly, for I deserve it."

  "Then lift this night you have laid upon this place."

  "Another time, Krishna- when I am ready."

  "But what shall I do until then?"

  "It  is said, sir,  that by your piping you can charm the most fearsome of beasts. I suggest that if  this  be true  you take up your  pipes at this moment and begin your most  soothing melody, until such a time as I see  fit to let the light of day enter again into Heaven."

  "Lady, you are cruel," said Krishna.

  "Such is life. Lord of the Pipes," and she departed.

  He began to play, thinking dark thoughts.

  They came.  Out of the sky,  riding on the polar winds, across the seas and the land, over the burning snow, and under it and through it, they came. The shape-shifters drifted across the fields  of white,  and the sky-walkers fell down like leaves; trumpets sounded over the wastes, and the chariots of the snows thundered forward, light leaping like spears from  their burnished sides; cloaks of fur afire, white plumes of  massively breathed air trailing above  and  behind  them,   golden-gauntleted  and  sun-eyed,  clanking  and skidding,  rushing  and whirling, they came,  in  bright  baldric, wer-mask, fire-scarf,  devil-shoe, frost-greaves and power-helm, they came; and across the world that lay at their back,  there was  rejoicing in the Temples, with much singing  and  the  making of offerings,  and processions  and  prayers, sacrifices  and  dispensations,  pageantry and  color. For  the  much-feared goddess was to be wed with  Death, and it was hoped that this would serve to soften both their dispositions.  A festive spirit had also infected  Heaven, and  with the gathering  of  the  gods and the demigods, the heroes  and the nobles, the high  priests and the favored  rajahs and high-ranking Brahmins, this  spirit  obtained  force  and  momentum  and  spun  like an all-colored whirlwind, thundering in the heads of the First and latest alike.

  So  they  came  into  the  Celestial  City, riding on the backs  of the cousins of the Garuda Bird, spinning down in sky gondolas, rising up through arteries of  the  mountains,  blazing  across the  snow-soaked,  ice-tracked wastes, to make  Milehigh Spire to  ring with their song, to laugh through a spell of brief and inexplicable darkness that descended and dispersed again, shortly; and in the days and nights of their coming, it was said by the poet Adasay that they resembled at least six  different  things  (he  was  always lavish  with his similes):  a  migration  of birds,  bright birds, across  a waveless ocean of milk; a procession of  musical notes through the mind of a slightly mad composer; a school of those deep-swimming fish whose bodies are whorls and runnels of light, circling about some phosphorescent plant within a  cold  and sea-deep pit; the Spiral Nebula, suddenly  collapsing upon  its center; a  storm,  each  drop of which becomes a feather, songbird or jewel; and (and perhaps most cogent) a Temple full of terrible and highly decorated statues,  suddenly  animated and  singing, suddenly rushing forth across the world,  bright  banners playing in the wind,  shaking  palaces  and toppling towers, to meet at the center of everything, to kindle an enormous  fire and dance about it, with the ever-present possibility of either  the fire or the dance going completely out of control.

  They came.

  When the secret alarm rang in the Archives, Tak seized the Bright Spear from  out its case on the  wall.  At various times during the day, the alarm would alert various sentinels. Having a premonition as to its cause, Tak was grateful that  it did  not ring at another hour. He elevated to the level of the City and made for the Museum on the hill.

  It was already too late, though.

  Open  was  the  case  and  unconscious  the attendant. The  Museum  was otherwise unoccupied, because of the activity in the City.

  So near to the Archives was  the building  set, that Tak caught the two on their way down the opposite side of the hill.

  He waved the Bright Spear, afraid to use it. "Stop!" he cried.

  They turned to him.

  "You did trigger an  alarm!" accused the other. He hurried to clasp the belt about his waist.

  "Go on, get away!" he said. "I will deal with this one!"

  "I could not have tripped an alarm!" cried his companion.

  "Get out of here!"

  He faced  Tak, waiting.  His  companion continued  to retreat down  the hill. Tak saw that it was a woman.

  "Take it back," said Tak, panting.  "Whatever  you have taken,  take it back- and perhaps I can cover- "

  "No," said Sam. "It is too late. I am the equal of anyone here now, and this is my only chance to depart. I know you, Tak of the Archives, and I  do not wish to destroy you. Therefore, go - quickly!"

  "Yama will be here in a moment! And- "

  "I do not fear Yama. Attack me or leave me now!"

  "I cannot attack you."

  "Then good-bye," and, so saying, Sam rose into the air like a balloon.

  But as  he  drifted above the  ground, the  Lord Yama appeared upon the hillside with a weapon in his hands. It was a slender and gleaming tube that he held, with a small butt and a large trigger mechanism.

  He  raised  it  and  pointed.  "Your  last chance!"  he cried, but  Sam continued to rise.

  When he fired it, the dome was cracked, high overhead.

  "He has taken on his Aspect and raised up an Attribute," said Tak.  "He binds the energies of your weapon."

  "Why did you not stop him?" asked Yama.

  "I could not, Lord. I was taken by his Attribute."

  "It does  not  matter," said Yama.  "The third  sentinel will  overcome him."

  Binding gravitation to his will, he rose.

  As he fled, he grew conscious of a pursuing shadow.

  Somewhere just at the periphery of his vision, it lurked. No matter how he  turned  his head it  escaped his sight.  But it  was always  there,  and growing.

  Ahead, there was a lock. A gate to the outside hovered above and ahead. The Talisman could unbind that lock, could warm him  against the cold, could transport him anywhere in the world. . . .

  There came a sound of wings, beating.

  "Flee!"  the voice thundered in his head. "Increase your speed, Binder! Flee faster! Flee faster!"

  It was one of the strangest sensations he had ever experienced.

  He felt himself moving forward, racing onward.

  But nothing  changed.  The gate  was no  nearer. For all  his sense  of tremendous speed, he was not moving.

  "Faster, Binder!  Faster!" cried  the  wild,  booming  voice.  "Seek to emulate the wind and the lightning in your going!"

  He strove to halt the sense of motion that he felt.

  Then the winds  buffeted  him, the  mighty  winds that  circle  through Heaven.

  He fought them  down,  but  the voice sounded right next  to  him  now, though he saw nothing but shadow.

  "\'The senses are  horses and objects the roads they  travel,\'" said the voice.  "\'If the intellect is related to a mind that is distracted, it loses then its discrimination,\' " and Sam recognized the mighty words of the Katha Upanishad  roaring at his back. "\'In  this case,\' " the voice went on, "\'the senses then  become uncontrolled, like wild  and vicious horses  beneath the rein of a weak charioteer.\'"

  And the sky exploded with lightnings about him and the darkness wrapped him around.

  He  sought to  bind the  energies that assailed him,  but found nothing with which to grapple.

  "It is not real!" he cried out.

  "What is real and what is  not?" replied the voice. "Your horses escape you now."

  There  was a  moment of terrible  blackness, as  if he moved  through a vacuum of the senses. Then there was pain. Then nothing.

  It is difficult to be the oldest youthgod in the business.

  He entered the Hall of Karma, requested audience with a  representative of the Wheel, was shown into the presence of the Lord, who had had to forego probing him two days before.

  "Well?" he inquired.

  "I  am  sorry  for  the  delay. Lord  Murugan. Our personnel had become involved in the wedding preparations."

  "They are out reveling, when they should be preparing my new body?"

  "You should not  speak.  Lord, as though it is truly your body. It is a body loaned  you by the  Great  Wheel, in  response to  your  present karmic needs- "

  "And it is not ready because the staff is out reveling?"

  "It is not ready because the Great Wheel turns in a manner- - "

  "I want  it by tomorrow evening  at the latest. If it is not ready, the Great  Wheel  may become  as a juggernaut upon its ministers. Do you hear me and understand, Lord of Karma?"

  "I hear you, but your speech is out of place in this- "

  "Brahma recommended the transfer,  and  he would be pleased  for  me to appear at the wedding party at Milehigh Spire in my new form. Shall I inform him  that the Great Wheel is unable  to comply  with his  wishes because  it turns exceeding slow?"

  "No, Lord. It will be ready in time."

  "Very good."

  He turned and left.

  The Lord of Karma made an ancient and mystical sign behind his back.

  "Brahma."

  "Yes, goddess?"

  "Concerning my suggestion . . ."

  "It shall be done as you requested, madam."

  "I would have it otherwise."

  "Otherwise?"

  "Yea, Lord. I would have a human sacrifice."

  "Not. . ."

  "Yes."

  "You are indeed even more sentimental than I had thought."

  "Shall this thing be done, or shall it not?"

  "To speak plainly- in the  light of recent events, I should  prefer it this way."

  "Then it is resolved?"

  "It shall be as you wish. There was more power present in that one than I had thought. If the Lord of  Illusion had not been sentinel- well, I  had not  anticipated  that  one  who had been so quiet for so long could also be as- talented, as you have put it."

  "Will you give unto me the full disposition of this thing, Creator?"

  "Gladly."

  "And throw in the Monarch of Thieves, for dessert?"

  "Yes. Let it be so."

  "Thank you, mighty one."

  "It is nothing."

  "It will be. Good evening."

  "Good evening."

  It is said that on that day, that great  day, the Lord Vayu stopped the winds of Heaven and a stillness came upon the Celestial City and the wood of Kaniburrha. Citragupta, serving  man  to  Lord Yama,  built a mighty pyre at Worldsend,  out of  aromatic  woods,  gums,  incenses,  perfumes  and costly cloths; and upon the pyre he laid the Talisman of the Binder  and the  great blue-feather  cloak that  had belonged to  Srit,  chief among the  Kataputna demons; he  also placed there the shape-changing jewel of the Mothers,  from out the Dome of  the Glow, and a  robe  of  saffron from the purple grove of Alundil, which  was  said to  have  belonged to  Tathagatha  the Buddha. The silence  of  the morning after  the night of the Festival  of the First  was complete. There was no movement to be seen in Heaven. It is said that demons flitted  invisible  through  the upper  air, but feared  to  draw  near  the gathering of power. It is said  that there  had been many signs and portents signifying the fall of the mighty. It was  said, by the theologians and holy historians,  that  the one  called Sam had recanted  his heresy  and  thrown himself  upon  the mercy  of  Trimurti.  It is also  said  that the  goddess Parvati, who had been either his wife, his mother, his sister, his daughter, or  perhaps all of these, had fled Heaven,  to dwell in mourning  among  the witches of  the eastern continent, whom  she counted as kin.  With dawn, the great bird called Garuda, Mount of Vishnu, whose  beak smashes chariots, had stirred for  a moment  into wakefulness and had uttered a  single hoarse cry within his cage, a cry that rang through Heaven, stabbing glass into shards, echoing  across  the land, awakening the  soundest sleeper. Within the still summer of Heaven, the day of Love and Death began.

  The streets of Heaven were empty. The gods dwelled for  a time indoors, waiting. All the portals of Heaven had been secured.

  The  thief  and the  one  whose  followers had called  him Mahasamatman (thinking him a god) were released. The air was of a sudden chill, with  the laying of a weird.

  High,  high above  the Celestial City, on  a platform  at  the  top  of Milehigh Spire, stood  the Lord of  Illusion, Mara the Dreamer. He had  upon him his cloak of all colors.  His arms were raised, and the powers of others among the gods flowed through him, adding to his own.

  In his  mind,  a dream took shape. Then  he cast  his dream,  as a high wave-front casts waters across a beach.

  For all ages, since their fashioning by  Lord Vishnu,  the City and the wilderness  had  existed  side by side,  adjacent, yet not  really touching, accessible,  yet removed  from one  another by a great  distance within  the mind, rather  than by  a separation merely  spatial in nature. Vishnu, being the Preserver, had done this for a reason. Now, he did not wholly approve of the lifting of his barrier, even in a  temporary and limited way. He did not wish to see any of the wilderness enter  into the City, which,  in his mind, had grown into the perfect triumph of form over chaos.

  Yet, by the power of the Dreamer was it given unto the  phantom cats to look upon all of Heaven for a time.

  They stirred,  restlessly,  upon  the  dark and  ageless  trails of the jungle  that  was  part illusion.  There,  within  the place  that only half existed, a new seeing came into their eyes, and with it a restlessness and a summons to the hunt.

  It was rumored  among the  seafaring folk, those worldwide  gossips and carriers of tales,  who seem to know all things, that some among the phantom cats who hunted on that  day  were not really cats at all. They say  that it was told in the places of the  world where the gods passed later,  that some among the Celestial Party transmigrated on that day,  taking upon themselves the bodies of white  tigers  out of  Kaniburrha, to join in the hunt through the alleys of Heaven after the thief who had failed and the one who had been called Buddha.

  It is said that,  as  he wandered the streets  of the City,  an ancient jackbird  cycled  three  times  above  him, then  came  to  rest  upon Sam\'s shoulder, saying:

  "Are you not Maitreya, Lord of Light, for  whom the  world  has waited, lo, these many years- he whose coming I prophesyed long ago in a poem?"

  "No, my name is Sam," he replied, "and I  am about to depart the world, not enter into it Who are you?"

  "I am  a bird who was once a poet. All morning have I  flown, since the yawp of Garuda opened the day. I was flying about the ways of Heaven looking for Lord  Rudra,  hoping to  befoul him with my droppings,  when I felt  the power of a  weird come over the land. I have flown far, and I have seen many things, Lord of Light"

  "What things have you seen, bird who was a poet?"

  "I have  seen an unlit pyre  set  at  the end  of the world, with  fogs stirring all about it. I have seen the  gods  who come  late hurrying across the snows and rushing through the upper  airs, circling  outside the dome. I have seen the players upon the ranga and the nepathya, rehearsing the Masque of Blood, for the wedding  of Death  and  Destruction.  I have seen the Lord Vayu raise up his hand and stop the winds that circle through Heaven. I have seen all-colored Mara atop the spire of the highest tower, and I  have  felt the power of the weird he lays-  for I have seen the phantom  cats troubled within the wood, then hurrying in this direction. I have seen the tears of a man  and of a woman. I have heard the laughter of a goddess. I  have  seen a bright spear uplifted against the morning, and I have heard an  oath spoken. I have seen the Lord of Light at last, of whom I wrote, long ago:

  Always dying, never dead;

  Ever ending, never ended;

  Loathed in darkness,

  Clothed in light,

  He comes, to end a world,

  As morning ends the night.

  These lines were writ

  By Morgan, free,

  Who shall, the day he dies,

  See this prophecy."

  The bird ruffled his feathers then and was still.

  "I am pleased, bird, that you  have had  a chance to see many  things," said Sam, "and that within the fiction of your  metaphor you have achieved a certain satisfaction. Unfortunately,  poetic truth differs considerably from that which surrounds most of the business of life."

  "Hail,  Lord of Light!" said the bird, and sprang into  the  air. As he rose, he  was pierced through by an arrow shot from a nearby window  by  one who hated jackbirds.

  Sam hurried on.

  It  is said that the phantom  cat who had his life, and that of Helba a little later, was really a god or a goddess, which was quite possible.

  It is said,  also,  that  the phantom cat who  killed them was  not the first, or the second, to attempt this thing. Several tigers died beneath the Bright  Spear,  which  passed into  them, withdrew itself, vibrated clean of gore and returned then to the hand of its  thrower. Tak  of the Bright Spear fell himself, however, struck in the head by a chair thrown by Lord Ganesha, who had entered silently into the  room at his back. It is said by some that the Bright Spear  was later destroyed by Lord  Agni, but others say that  it was cast beyond Worldsend by the Lady Maya.

  Vishnu was not pleased, later being quoted as having said that the City should  not  have been  defiled  with  blood, and that  wherever chaos finds egress, it will one day return. But he was laughed at by the  younger of the gods, for he was accounted least among Trimurti, and his ideas were known to be somewhat  dated, he  being numbered  among  the First.  For this  reason, though, he disclaimed any part in the affair and retired into  his tower for a time.  Lord Varuna the Just turned away his face  from the proceedings and visited the  Pavilion of Silence at  Worldsend,  where he sat for a spell in the room named Fear.

  The Masque  of Blood was quite lovely, having been written by  the poet Adasay, who was noted for his elegant  language, being of the  anti-Morganic school.  It was  accompanied  by  powerful illusions  cast  by  the  Dreamer especially  for  the occasion. It  is  said  that Sam,  too,  had  walked in illusion on that  day; and that,  as a part of  the weird,  he had walked in partial  darkness,  amidst  awful odors,  through  regions  of  wailing  and shrieking, and  that he had seen once again every terror he had known in his life conjured  up  before him,  brilliant  or  swart, silent  or trumpeting, fresh-torn from the fabric of his memory and dripping  with the emotions  of their birth into his life, before it was over.

  What remained was taken in procession to the pyre  at Worldsend, placed there upon  it, burned  amidst chanting.  Lord Agni  had raised his goggles, stared for a time, and then the flames  had arisen. Lord Vayu  had lifted up his hand and a  wind had come to fan  the  fire.  When it was finished. Lord Shiva had blasted the ashes beyond the world with a twist of his trident.

  These things considered,  it was  thorough as  well  as impressive, the funeral.

  Long unrehearsed  in Heaven, the wedding  came on with all the power of tradition. Milehigh Spire glistened, blindingly, like  a  stalagmite of ice. The weird had been withdrawn, and the phantom cats walked the streets of the City, blinded once  more,  their fur sleeked as if by the  wind;  and should they  climb  a broad stairway,  it  was a  rocky  slope  they  mounted;  the buildings were  cliffs and the  statues were trees.  The winds  that circled through Heaven captured song and scattered it across the land. A sacred fire was kindled in the Square within the City\'s center Circle. Virgins, imported for the  occasion,  fed this fire  with a clean,  dry, aromatic  wood, which crackled  and burnt with very  little smoke,  save for  occasional puffs  of purest  white. Surya, the  sun, shone down with such brilliance that the day fairly  vibrated with clarity. The groom, attended  by a great procession of friends  and retainers decked all in red, was escorted  through  the City to the Pavilion of Kali,  where all were taken  within  by her servants and led into the great dining hall. There,  Lord Kubera served as host, seating  the scarlet  train,  which was  three hundred in number, in chairs of  black and chairs of  red,  alternating,  around the long black-wood tables, which were inlaid with bone. There, in  that  hall, were  they  all  given to drink  of madhuparka, which was of  honey and curds and  psychedelic powders; and this they  drank  in  the  company of  the blue-garbed  train of the bride, which entered the hall bearing double cups. The train of the bride  numbered three hundred also; and when  all were seated and all had drunk of the madhuparka, Kubera  did then speak for a time, jesting with them broadly and alternating his  speech with words of practical wisdom  and occasional references to the ancient scriptures. The legion of the groom then departed to the pavilion in the Square, and  that of the bride advanced upon it from another  direction. Yama and Kali entered this pavilion separately and  sat on either side of  a small curtain. There was much singing  of ancient songs  and the curtain was removed by Kubera, permitting the two to look upon one another for the first time that day. Kubera did speak then,  giving Kali into the care of  Yama in return for  the promises of  goodness, wealth and pleasure to be given  unto her. Then Lord Yama clasped her hand and Kali cast an offering of grain into the  fire, about which  Yama  led her,  their  garments having  been knotted together  by one of  her retainers. After this, Kali  trod upon a millstone, and  the two of them took seven steps together, Kali treading  upon a  small pile of rice with each  step. Then was a  light rain summoned down  from the sky for the space  of several heartbeats,  to sanctify the occasion with the blessing of water.  The retainers  and guests then  combined  into  a single procession  and moved  off through the  town  in the  direction  of the dark pavilion  of Yama, where great  feasting and revelry was held, and where the Masque of Blood was presented.

  As Sam had faced  his  final  tiger, it  had  nodded  its head  slowly, knowing what  it was hunting. There was no place for him to run, so he stood there,  waiting. The cat took its time also. A horde  of demons had tried to descend upon the City at that moment,  but the power of the weird  held them back. The goddess Ratri was seen to be weeping and her name was entered upon a list.  Tak  of  the Archives was incarcerated for a time  in  the dungeons beneath Heaven. The Lord Yama was heard  to say, "Life did  not rise up," as though he had almost expected that it would.

  All  things considered, it  was thorough  as  well as  impressive,  the death.

  The wedding party lasted for seven days, and the  Lord  Mara spun dream after dream about the revelers. As if by a carpet of magic,  he  transported them through the lands of illusion, raising up palaces of colored smoke upon pillars of water and of fire, escalating the benches at  which they sat down canyons  of  stardust, striving  with coral and  myrrh to bend their  senses beyond themselves,  bringing  onto them all their Aspects,  wherein  he held them, rotating about the archetypes upon  which they had based their powers, as Shiva danced  in a graveyard  the  Dance of Destruction and  the Dance of Time, celebrating the legend of his annihilation of the three flying  cities of  the Titans, and  Krishna the Dark moved through the Wrestler\'s  Dance in commemoration of his breaking of the black demon  Bana, while Lakshmi danced the Dance of  the Statue, and even Lord Vishnu was coerced into  celebrating again the steps of the Dance of the  Amphora, as Murugan,  in his new  body, laughed at the world clad in  all her  oceans,  and did his dance of triumph upon those waters as upon a stage, the dance that he had  danced  after  the slaying of Shura, who had taken refuge  in the depths of the sea.  When Mara gestured there was magic and color and music and wine. There  was poetry and gaming. There was song and laughter. There was sport, in which mighty trials of strength and skill took place. In all, it required  the  stamina of a god to bear the entire seven days of pleasure.

  These  things considered, it  was  thorough as well as  impressive, the wedding.

  When  it was over,  the bride  and the groom departed Heaven, to wander for  a time about the world, to take in the  pleasures of many places.  They went, without servants or retainers, to  wander free.  They did not announce the  order of their visitations, or  the length  of time they  would spend- which was to be expected, their fellows being the celestial practical jokers that they were.

  After their  going, there was  still  some revelry. Lord Rudra,  having consumed a magnificent quantity  of soma, stood up upon a table and began to deliver a speech concerning  the bride- a  speech with which, had Yama been present, he would doubtless have taken issue. Such being the case. Lord Agni slapped Rudra across the mouth  and was immediately challenged to a duel, in Aspect, across the length of Heaven.

  Agni was flown to a mountaintop beyond Kaniburrha,  and Lord Rudra took up  a  position near Worldsend.  When the signal was  given,  Rudra  sent  a heat-tracking arrow  whistling down  the  miles  in  the  direction  of  his opponent. From  fifteen miles away, however,  Lord Agni spotted the arrow as it sped  toward  him and burnt  it  from  out the  air with a blast  of  the Universal Fire, which same power  he then moved  like a  needle of light, to touch upon Rudra and burn him to ashes where he stood, also piercing through the dome at his back. Thus was the  honor of the Lokapalas upheld, and a new Rudra was raised up from the ranks  of the demigods to take the place of the old, who had fallen.

  One rajah and two high priests died of poisoning, quite colorfully, and pyres were built to accommodate their bluish remains. Lord Krishna raised up his Aspect and played a music after which there  is no music, and  Guari the Fair relented and came  to him once more, her  heart softened, after  he had finished. Sarasvati in  her  glory did the  Dance of Delight, and then  Lord Mara re-created the flight  of Helba  and the Buddha through the City.  This last dreaming troubled  many, however,  and more names were recorded at that time.  A demon then dared enter  into their midst,  with the body of a youth and  the  head  of a tiger, attacking Lord Agni with a terrible fury. He was repelled by the combined powers of Ratri  and of Vishnu, but he succeeded in escaping  into incorporeality before Agni could bring his  wand to bear upon him.

  In the days that followed, there were changes within Heaven.

  Tak  of  the Archives and  the Bright Spear was  judged by the Lords of Karma and was transmigrated into the body of an ape; and there was a warning set within his mind that wherever he presented himself for renewal he was to be given again into the  body of an ape, to wander the  world  in this  form until such a time as Heaven saw fit to extend its mercy  and  lift this doom from him. He was  then sent forth into  the  jungles of the south, and there released to work off his karmic burden.

  Lord  Varuna the  Just gathered his servants about him and departed the Celestial  City,  to  make  his home elsewhere  in the  world.  Some  of his detractors  likened  his departure  to  that  of Nirriti the Black,  god  of darkness and corruption, who had  left  Heaven filled with ill will  and the miasma of many a dark curse. The detractors of  Varuna were not so numerous, however, for  it was common  knowledge that  he deserved the title Just, and his condemnation could easily be construed to  reflect upon the worth of its speaker,  so  few  spoke of him beyond  the days immediately  following  his going.

  Much later, others  among the gods were exiled into  the world,  in the days of the  Heavenly  Purges.  Their  going, however, had its beginnings in these times, when Accelerationism entered again into Heaven.

  Brahma, mightiest of the four orders of gods and the eighteen  hosts of paradise.  Creator  of all.  Lord of High Heaven  and everything beneath it, from whose  navel  springs forth a lotus and whose hands churn  the oceans- he, who in three strides encompasses all the worlds, the drum of whose glory strikes terror into the hearts of  his enemies, upon whose right hand is the wheel of the law, who tethers catastrophes, using a snake for rope - Brahma was to feel more and more uncomfortable and distraught in the days that came to pass as a result of the promise rashly  given  to the Mistress of  Death. But then, it is quite likely that he would have proceeded in the same manner without her persuasions. The major effect of her actions, then, was probably that it gave him, for a brief time, someone  to  blame  his  later  troubles upon. He was also known as Brahma the Infallible.

  The  dome of Heaven  was  repaired in several places at the  end of the time of the revels.

  The  Museum of Heaven  was thereafter  provided with an armed guard who remained upon the premises at all times.

  Several demon-hunting  parties  were planned, but  never got beyond the planning stage.

  A  new Archivist was  appointed, one who had  no  knowledge  whatsoever concerning his parentage.

  The phantom cats of Kaniburrha  were granted symbolic representation in Temples throughout the land.

  On the  last  night of  the revels, a lone  god entered the Pavilion of Silence at Worldsend and dwelled for a long while in the room called Memory. Then he laughed long and returned to  the Celestial  City; and his  laughter was a thing of youth and beauty and strength and purity, and the  winds that circle through Heaven  caught it  up and bore  it far across the land, where all who heard it marveled at the strange and vibrant note of triumph that it contained.

  These things considered,  it was  thorough as well as  impressive,  the time of Love and Death, of Hate and Life, and of Folly.  

VI

  During the time that followed the death of Brahma,  there came upon the Celestial  City  a  period of turmoil.  Several  among the  gods  were  even expelled from Heaven. It was  a  time when just about everyone  feared being considered  an Accelerationist; and, as fate would have it, at some point or other   during   this  period,   just  about  everyone   was  considered  an Accelerationist.  Though Great-Souled Sam was  dead, his  spirit was said to live on, mocking. Then, in the days of disaffection and intrigue that led up to  the  Great Battle, it was rumored that  more  than his spirit might have lived on. . . .

  When the sun of suffering has set,

  there comes this peace,

  Lord of the quiet stars,

  this peace of creation,

  this place the mandala spins gray.

  The fool saith in his mind

  that his thoughts are only thoughts . . .

  Saraha (98-99)

  It was early morning. Near the pool of the  purple lotus, in the Garden of  Joys,  at the  foot  of the statue of the  blue goddess  with the veena, Brahma was located.

  The girl who  found him  first thought him to  be resting, for his eyes were  still  open.  After  a moment,  though,  she realized that  he was not breathing; and his face, so contorted, underwent no changes of expression.

  She trembled as she awaited the ending of the universe. God being dead, she understood that this normally followed. But  after a  time, she  decided that  the internal cohesiveness  of things might serve  to hold the universe together for  another hour or so; and  such being the  case,  she thought it advisable to bring  the  matter  of the  imminent  Yuga to the attention  of someone better suited to cope with it.

  She told Brahma\'s First Concubine, who went to see for  herself, agreed that her Lord was indeed dead, addressed the statue of the blue goddess, who immediately began playing upon  the veena, and then sent messages to  Vishnu and Shiva to come at once to the Pavilion.

  They did, bringing Lord Ganesha with them.

  These viewed the  remains,  agreed as to  their condition  and confined both women to their quarters against execution.

  Then they conferred.

  "We  need another creator in a hurry," said Vishnu. "The  floor is open for nominations."

  "I nominate Ganesha," said Shiva.

  "I decline," said Ganesha.

  "Why?"

  "I  do not like  being on the  scene.  I would much  rather remain  off somewhere behind it."

  "Then let us consider some alternative choices, quickly."

  "Might it  not  be wise," asked Vishnu, "to ascertain the cause of this occurrence before proceeding?"

  "No," said Ganesha. "The first order of business  must be the selection of his successor. Even the postmortem  must wait  on that. Heaven must never be without a Brahma."

  "What say you to one of the Lokapalas?"

  "Perhaps."

  "Yama?"

  "No.  He  is too serious,  too conscientious-  a  technician,  not  an administrator. Also, I think he\'s emotionally unstable."

  "Kubera?"

  "Too smart. I\'m afraid of Kubera."

  "Indra?"

  "Too headstrong."

  "Agni, then?"

  "Maybe. Maybe not."

  "Perhaps Krishna?"

  "Too frivolous, never sober."

  "Who would you suggest?"

  "What is our greatest problem at the present time?"

  "I  do not feel  that we have any great problems  at the present time," said Vishnu.

  "Then it might be wise  to have one just about  now," said  Ganesha. "I feel that our greatest problem is Accelerationism. Sam came  back, stirring, making clear waters muddy."

  "Yes," said Shiva.

  "Accelerationism? Why kick a dead dog?"

  "Ah, but it is not  dead. Not down among men. And it will also serve to direct  attention  away from  the  succession within Trimurti and  regain at least surface solidarity here  in the City.  Unless, of course, you\'d rather undertake a campaign against Nirriti and his zombies?"

  "No thanks."

  "Not now."

  "Mmm . . . yes,  then  Accelerationism  is our greatest  problem at the present time."

  "All right. Accelerationism is our greatest problem."

  "Who hates it more than anyone else?"

  "Yourself?"

  "Nonsense. Except me."

  "Tell us, Ganesha."

  "Kali."

  "I doubt this."

  "I do not. The twin beasts, Buddhism and Accelerationism, draw a single chariot.  The Buddha  scorned  her. She is  a woman. She will carry  on  the campaign."

  "It will mean renouncing her womanhood."

  "Speak to me not of trifles."

  "All right- Kali."

  "But what of Yama?"

  "What of him? Leave Yama to me."

  "I\'d rather."

  "I also."

  "Very  well.  Go you  then  forth across the world,  within the thunder chariot and upon  the back  of the  great bird Garuda.  Find Yama  and Kali. Return them to Heaven. I will wait upon your return and  consider the matter of Brahma\'s passing."

  "So be it."

  "Agreed."

  "Good morning."

  "Good merchant Vama, wait! I would have words with thee."

  "Yea, Kabada. What wouldst thou?"

  "It is difficult to find the words I would  have with thee. But they do concern a certain state of affairs which hath aroused considerable sentiment on the parts of thy various adjacent neighbors."

  "Oh? Speak on then."

  "Concerning the atmosphere . . ."

  "The atmosphere?"

  "The winds and breezes, perhaps . . ."

  "Winds? Breezes?"

  "And the things they bear."

  "Things? Such as. . . ?"

  "Odors, good Vama."

  "Odors? What odors?"

  "Odors of- well, odors of- of fecal matter."

  "Of . . . ? Oh! Yes. True. True  enough. There may be a few such. I had forgotten, having grown used to them."

  "Might I inquire as to their cause?"

  "They are caused by the product of defecation, Kabada."

  "Of  this  I am aware.  I  meant to  make  inquiry as to  why they  are present, rather than their source and nature."

  "They  are  present because of the buckets in my back  room, which  are filled with such - items."

  "Oh?"

  "Yes. I have been  saving  the products of my family  in this manner. I have been doing this for the past eight days."

  "Against what use, worthy Vama?"

  "Hast  thou not heard of  a thing, a wondrous thing, a thing into which these items are discharged- into water- and then a lever pulled, and then, with a mighty rushing sound,  these  things are borne away,  far beneath the ground?"

  "I have heard some talk of such .. ."

  "Oh, \'tis true, \'tis true. There is such  a thing. It has but  recently been invented by one whom I should not name, and it involves great pipes and a  seat without  a  bottom, or  a  top,  really. It is  the  most  wonderful discovery of the age- and I will have me one within a matter of moons!"

  "Thou? Such a thing?"

  "Yea.  It  shall be installed in  the small room I  have built onto the back of my home. I  may  even give a dinner that  night  and  permit  all my neighbors to take use of it."

  "This is indeed wondrous- and thou generous."

  "I feel so."

  "But- of the- smells. . . ?"

  "They are caused by the buckets of items, which I am preserving against the installation of this thing."

  "Why?"

  "I should rather have it on my karmic record  that this thing  was used for these items  beginning  with eight days ago, rather than  several  moons from now. It will show my rapid advancement in life."

  "Ah!  I see  now  the wisdom of thy ways,  Vama. I  did not wish  it to appear that we stood in  the way  of  any man who  seeks to  better himself. Forgive me if I gave this impression."

  "Thou art forgiven."

  "Thy neighbors do  love thee, smells and all. When thou art advanced to a higher state, please remember this."

  "Of course."

  "Such progress must be expensive."

  "Quite."

  "Worthy Vama, we  shall take delight in  the  atmosphere,  with all its pungent portents."

  "This is only my second lifetime, good Kabada,  but already I feel that destiny touches upon me."

  "And I, also. The winds of Time do shift, and they bear to mankind many wondrous things. The gods keep thee."

  "Thou also. But forget not the blessing of the Enlightened One, whom my second cousin Vasu sheltered in his purple grove."

  "How could I? Mahasamatman was a god also. Some say Vishnu."

  "They lie. He was the Buddha."

  "Add then his blessings."

  "Very good. Good day, Kabada."

  "Good day, worthy one."

  Yama and  Kali entered  into Heaven. They descended upon  the Celestial City on the back of the bird  called Garuda. In the company of Vishnu,  they entered into the City. They did not pause for any purpose, but went directly to the  Pavilion of Brahma. In the Garden  of  Joys they met with  Shiva and with Ganesha.

  "Hear me,  Death  and  Destruction," said Ganesha, "Brahma is  dead and only we five now know of it."

  "How did this thing come to pass?" asked Yama.

  "It appears that he was poisoned."

  "Has there been an autopsy?"

  "No."

  "Then I shall perform one."

  "Good. But now there is another matter, of even graver consideration."

  "Name it."

  "His successor."

  "Yes. Heaven cannot be without a Brahma."

  "Exactly. . . . Kali, tell me,  would you consider being Brahma, of the golden saddle and silver spurs?"

  "I don\'t know . . ."

  "Then begin thinking about it, and quickly. You are considered the best choice."

  "What of Lord Agni?"

  "Not   so   high  on   the  list.   It  does  not  appear   he  is   so anti-Accelerationist as Madam Kali."

  "I see."

  "And I."

  "Therefore, he is a good god, but not a great one."

  "Yes. Who might have killed Brahma?"

  "I have no idea. Have you?"

  "Not yet."

  "But you will find him, Lord Yama?"

  "Aye, with my Aspect upon me."

  "You two may wish to confer."

  "We do."

  "Then will we leave you now. An hour hence  we shall dine  together  in the Pavilion."

  "Yes."

  "Yes."

  "Till then. . ."

  "Till then."

  "Till then."

  "Lady?"

  "Yes?"

  "With  a changing of  bodies  one is automatically divorced,  unless  a continuation contract be signed."

  "Yes."

  "Brahma must needs be a man."

  "Yes."

  "Refuse it."

  "My Lord . . ."

  "You hesitate?"

  "It is all so sudden, Yama . . ."

  "You pause even to consider it?"

  "I must."

  "Kali, you distress me."

  "Such was not my intention."

  "And I bid you refuse the offer."

  "I am a goddess in my own right, as well as your wife, Lord Yama."

  "What does that mean?"

  "I make my own decisions."

  "If you accept. Kali, then all things are come to an end between us."

  "That is apparent."

  "What, in  the names of the Rishis, is Accelerationism but a storm over an ant hill? Why are they suddenly so against it?"

  "It must be that they feel a need to be against something."

  "Why choose you to head it?"

  "I do not know."

  "Unless   there   is   some   special    reason   for    you   to    be anti-Accelerationist, my dear?"

  "I do not know."

  "I am but young, as gods go, but I have heard it said that in the early days of  the world the hero with  whom you rode- Kalkin - was the  same as the one called Sam. If you had reason to hate your ancient Lord, and Sam was truly he,  then  could I see their  enlisting  you against this thing he had started. Might this be true?"

  "It might."

  "Then if you love me- and you are truly  my lady- then let another be Brahma."

  "Yama . . ."

  "They will want a decision within the hour."

  "And I will have one for them."

  "What will it be?"

  "I am sorry, Yama . . ."

  Yama departed the Garden of Joys before dinnertime. Though it seemed an unhealthy breach of  etiquette, Yama, among all the gods, was deemed hardest to  discipline and was aware of  this fact,  as well as the reasons that lay behind it. So he left the  Garden of Joys and  journeyed to  the place where Heaven stops.

  He dwelled that day  and that night  at Worldsend, nor was he disturbed by  any callers. He spent time in each of the five rooms in  the Pavilion of Silence.  His thoughts  being his own,  you leave  them  alone, too. In  the morning, he returned to the Celestial City.

  There, he learned of the death of Shiva.

  His  trident had  burnt another hole in the dome, but his head had been smashed in by means of a blunt instrument, as yet unlocated.

  Yama went to  his friend Kubera.  "Ganesha,  Vishnu and the  new Brahma have  already  approached Agni,  to  fill  the place of the Destroyer," said Kubera. "I believe he will accept."

  "Excellent, for Agni," said Yama. "Who killed God?"

  "I have thought much upon it," said Kubera, "and I believe that  in the case  of  Brahma  it  must have been someone with whom  he  was sufficiently familiar to have taken refreshment, and  in  the case of Shiva, someone well enough known to have surprised him. More than this deponent knoweth not."

  "The same person?"

  "I\'d bet money."

  "Could it be part of an Accelerationist plot?"

  "I find  this  difficult  to  believe.  Those  who  are sympathetic  to Accelerationism have  no real organization. Accelerationism  is returned too recently  to Heaven  for it to  amount to  more than that. A cabal, perhaps. Most likely a single individual did it, independent of backers."

  "What other reasons might be present?"

  "A vendetta.  Or some  minor deity out to become a major one.  Why does anybody kill anybody?"

  "Can you think of anyone in particular?"

  "The  biggest problem, Yama, will be  eliminating suspects, not finding them. Has the investigation been given into your hands?"

  "I  am  no longer certain. I think so.  But I will  find  who  did  it, whatever his station, and kill him."

  "Why?"

  "I have need of something to do, someone to. . ."

  "Kill?"

  "Yes."

  "I am sorry, my friend."

  "I, also. It is my privilege and my intention, however."

  "I wish  you had not spoken with me at all, concerning this  matter. It is obviously quite confidential."

  "I won\'t tell anyone if you won\'t."

  "I assure you I shan\'t"

  "And you  know I\'ll  take care of the  karmic  trackings,  against  the psych-probe."

  "That is why I mentioned it, and spoke of Shiva also. Let it be so."

  "Good day, my friend."

  "Good day, Yama."

  Yama departed the Pavilion of the Lokapalas. After a time,  the goddess Ratri entered there.

  "Hail, Kubera."

  "Hail, Ratri."

  "Why sit you there alone?"

  "Because I have none to make me unalone. Why come you here - alone?"

  "Because I had none to talk with, till now."

  "Seek you counsel, or conversation?"

  "Both."

  "Sit down."

  "Thank you. I am afraid."

  "Are you hungry, too?"

  "No."

  "Have a piece of fruit and a cup of soma."

  "All right."

  "What is it that you fear, and how may I help you?"

  "I saw Lord Yama leaving here . . ."

  "Yes."

  "I realized when I looked upon his face that there is a  god of  Death, and that there is a power which even gods might fear . . ."

  "Yama is strong, and he is my friend. Death is  mighty, and is no one\'s friend.  The  two exist together though,  and it  is strange. Agni is strong also, and is Fire. He  is my friend. Krishna could be  strong  if he wished. But he never wishes so. He  wears out bodies at a fantastic  rate. He drinks soma and makes music and women.  He hates  the past and the future. He is my friend. I am least among the Lokapalas, and I am not strong. Whatever body I wear goes quickly to fat. I am more father than brother to my three friends. Of  them, I can appreciate the  drunkenness and the music and the loving and the fire, for these are things of life, and so can I love my friends  as men or as gods. But the other Yama makes me  to be afraid, also, Ratri. For when he takes upon him  his Aspect  he is a  vacuum,  which  sets  this poor  fat a-tremble. Then he is no one\'s friend. So do not feel awkward if you fear my friend. You know  that when a  god  is troubled,  then his Aspect  rushes to comfort him, oh goddess of the Night, as even now it becomes twilight within this bower,  though the  day is  far  from  ended.  Know  that you passed  a troubled Yama."

  "He returned fairly suddenly."

  "Yes."

  "May I ask why?"

  "I am afraid the matter is confidential."

  "Does it concern Brahma?"

  "Why do you ask?"

  "I  believe  Brahma is dead. I fear that Yama was summoned to find  his slayer. I fear he will find me, though I  call down a century of  night upon Heaven. He will find me, and I cannot face the vacuum."

  "What do you know regarding this alleged slaying?"

  "I believe I was either the last  to see  Brahma alive or  the first to see him dead, depending upon what his twitching signified."

  "What were the circumstances?"

  "I had gone to his Pavilion early yesterday morning, to  intercede with him that he might lift  his wrath and permit the  return of  Lady Parvati. I was told to seek him in the Garden of His Joys, and I walked there- "

  "Told? Who told you?"

  "One of his women. I don\'t know her name."

  "Go ahead. What happened then?"

  "I found him at the foot of the blue statue which plays upon the veena. He was twitching. There was no breathing. Then he stopped twitching even and was still. There  was  no heartbeat and no  pulse  that  I could feel.  So I called back  a portion of  the night to cloak me in shadows and departed the Garden."

  "Why did you not  summon assistance? It  still might not have  been too late."

  "Because I wanted him to die, of course. I hated him for what he did to Sam, and for the driving away of Parvati and Varuna,  and for what he did to the Archivist, Tak, and for- "

  "Enough. One could go on all day thus. Did you depart directly from the Garden, or did you stop back at the Pavilion?"

  "I passed the Pavilion and saw the same  girl. I made myself visible to her and told her  that I could not locate Brahma and would return later. . . . He is dead, isn\'t he? What shall I do now?"

  "Have another piece of fruit and some more soma. Yes, he\'s dead."

  "Will Yama come after me?"

  "Of course. He will go after everyone who was seen anywhere near there. It was doubtless a reasonably quick-acting poison, and you were  there right near the time of death. So naturally he will go after you- and he will have you psych-probed, along with all the  others. This will reveal  that you did not do  it. So I suggest  you simply await being called into custody. Do not tell anyone else this story."

  "What shall I tell Yama?"

  "If he reaches you before I reach  him, tell him everything,  including the fact  that you have  spoken  with  me.  This is because  I  am not  even supposed to  know  that this thing has occurred.  The  passing of one  among Trimurti is always kept secret for as long  as possible, even at the expense of lives."

  "But the Lords of Karma  would read it  from your memory when you stood to a judgment."

  "Just so they do not read it from  your  memory today. The knowledge of Brahma\'s passing will be kept to as small a  group as  possible.  Since Yama may be conducting the official investigation and is also the designer of the psych-probe, I don\'t think any yellow wheel people will be dragged in to run the machines. Still, I must confirm  this fact with Yama- or  suggest it to him - immediately."

  "Before you go . . ."

  "Yes?"

  "You said that only a few may know of this thing, even if lives must be spent. Does this mean that I. . . ?"

  "No. You will live, because I will protect you."

  "Why will you?"

  "Because you are my friend."

  Yama operated  the machine that probes the mind. He probed thirty-seven subjects, all  of whom could  have had access to Brahma in his Garden during the  entire  day prior  to  the  deicide. Of  these,  eleven  were  gods  or goddesses, including Ratri,  Sarasvati, Vayu, Mara,  Lakshmi, Murugan,  Agni and Krishna.

  Of these thirty-seven, gods and men, none was found to be guilty.

  Kubera  the  artificer  stood at  Yama\'s  side,  and  he  regarded  the psych-tapes.

  "What now, Yama?"

  "I do not know."

  "Mayhap the killer was invisible."

  "Perhaps."

  "But you think not?"

  "I think not."

  "Supposing everybody in the City were made to stand the probe?"

  "There are many arrivals and departures  every day, via  many entrances and exits."

  "Have you given  thought to  the possibility of its having been one  of the Rakasha? They are again abroad in the world, as well you know- and they hate us."

  "The Rakasha  do not  poison their victims. Also, I  do not believe one could enter the Garden, because of the demon-repelling incense."

  "What now?"

  "I shall return to my laboratory, and think."

  "May I accompany you to the Vasty Hall of Death?"

  "If you wish."

  Kubera returned with Yama; and while Yama  thought,  Kubera perused his master-tapes index, which he  had set up  when experimenting  with the first probe-machines. They  were discarded, they  were incomplete, of course; only the  Lords  of Karma  kept up to  date life-record tapes  on everyone in the Celestial City. Kubera knew this, of course.

  The printing press was rediscovered  in a place called Keenset,  by the river Vedra. Experiments with  sophisticated plumbing were also going  on in this place. Two very fine Temple artists also  appeared on the scene, and an old  glasscutter  made  a  pair  of bifocals  and began  grinding  out more. Therefore,  indications were that one of  the city-states was  undergoing  a renaissance.

  Brahma decided it was time to move against Accelerationism.

  A war party was raised in Heaven, and the Temples of cities adjacent to Keenset sent out the call to the faithful to be ready for a holy war.

  Shiva the Destroyer bore only a token  trident, for  his real faith lay with the wand of fire that he wore at his side.

  Brahma, of the golden saddle  and  silver  spurs, bore a sword, a wheel and a bow.

  The new Rudra bore the bow and quiver of the old.

  Lord Mara wore a shimmering cloak, which changed colors constantly, and none could tell what manner of  weapons he  bore or what sort of  chariot he mounted.  For to stare upon  him  overlong  was to feel one\'s head swim, and things  changed their shapes about him,  save  for his horses,  whose mouths constantly dripped blood, which smoked where it fell.

  Then, from among the  demigods were  fifty chosen, still struggling  to discipline  erratic  Attributes, eager to strengthen Aspect  and  gain merit through battle.

  Krishna declined battle and went off to play his pipes in Kaniburrha.

  He found him lying  upon a grassy hillside beyond  the City, staring up into the star-filled sky.

  "Good evening."

  He turned his head and nodded.

  "How goes it with you, good Kubera?"

  "Well enough, Lord Kalkin. And yourself?"

  "Quite well. Have you a cigarette upon your most impressive person?"

  "I am never far from them."

  "Thank you."

  "Light?"

  "Yes."

  "Was that a jackbird that circled the Buddha before Madam Kali tore his guts out?"

  "Let us speak of pleasanter matters."

  "You killed a weak Brahma and a mighty one has replaced him."

  "Oh?"

  "You killed a strong Shiva, but an equal strength replaces his."

  "Life is full of changes."

  "What did you hope to gain? Revenge?"

  "Revenge is part of the illusion of self. How can a man kill that which neither lives  nor dies truly, but which  exists only as a reflection of the Absolute?"

  "You did a pretty good  job of it, though, even  if, as you say, it was only a rearrangement."

  "Thank you."

  "But why did you do it? . . . And I\'d prefer an answer to a tract."

  "I intended to wipe out the  entire hierarchy of  Heaven. It would seem now, though, that this must go the way of all good intentions."

  "Tell me why you did it."

  "If you\'ll tell me how you found me out. . ."

  "Fair enough. Tell me, why?"

  "I  decided that mankind could live better  without gods. If I disposed of them  all,  people could start having can openers and cans to open again, and things like that, without fearing the wrath of Heaven. We\'ve stepped  on these poor fools enough. I wanted to give them a chance to be free, to build what they wanted."

  "But they live, and they live and they live."

  "Sometimes, and sometimes not. So do the gods."

  "You were about the last Accelerationist left in the world, Sam. No one would have thought you were also the deadliest."

  "How did you find me out?"

  "It occurred to me that Sam would be the number one suspect, except for the fact that he was dead."

  "I had assumed that to be sufficient defense against detection."

  "So I asked myself  if  there  was any means  by which  Sam could  have escaped death. I could think  of none, other than a change of bodies. Who, I then asked myself, took upon him a new body the day Sam died? There was only Lord Murugan.  This did not seem  logical, however, because he  did it after Sam\'s  death,  not  before it.  I  dismissed that part  for  a moment. You- Murugan- having  been  among  the  thirty-seven  suspects,  were probed and passed  upon as innocent by Lord Yama. It  seemed I had  surely  taken to  a false trail then - until I thought of a very simple way to test the notion. Yama can beat the psych-probe himself, so why could not someone else be able to do it? I recalled at this point that Kalkin\'s Attribute had involved  the control of lightnings and electromagnetic phenomena. He could have sabotaged the machine  with his mind so that it saw there no evil. The  way of testing it, therefore, was not to consider what the machine had read, but rather how it had read it. Like the  prints of the palms and the  fingers of the hands, no  two minds register the same patterns;  But  from body to  body  one does retain  a  similar mind-matrix, despite  the fact  that a  different brain\'s involved. Regardless of the thoughts  passing through  the mind, the thought patterns record  themselves  unique to the  person. I compared  yours with a record of Murugan\'s which I  found in Yama\'s  laboratory. They  were not the same. I do not know how you accomplished the body-change, but I knew you for what you were."

  "Very  clever,  Kubera.  Who   else  is  familiar   with  this  strange reasoning?"

  "No one, yet. Yama, soon though, I fear. He always solves problems."

  "Why do you place your life in jeopardy by seeking me thus?"

  "One  does  not  generally achieve  your  age,  my  age,  without being somewhat reasonable. I knew you would at least listen to me before striking. I know, too, that since what I have to say is good no harm will come to me."

  "What do you propose?"

  "I am sufficiently sympathetic with what you have done to assist you in escaping from Heaven."

  "Thank you, no."

  "You would like to win this contest, would you not?"

  "Yes, and I\'ll do it in my own way."

  "How?"

  "I will  return to the City now and destroy as  many of them  as I  can before they stop me. If enough of  the great ones  fall, the others will not be able to hold this place together."

  "And if you  fall?  What then of the world,  and of the cause  you have championed? Will you be able to rise again to defend it?"

  "I do not know."

  "How did you manage the comeback?"

  "One time was I possessed  of a  demon. He rather took a liking  to me, and  he told me at a time when we were in peril that he had \'strengthened my flames,\' so that I could exist independent of my body. I had forgotten  this until I saw my mangled corpse lying beneath me upon the streets of Heaven. I knew of  only  one place  where  I might get me another body, that being the Pavilion  of the Gods  of Karma. Murugan was there demanding service. As you say,  my power is electrodirection. I learned there that it  works without a brain to back it, as  the circuits were momentarily  interrupted and I  went into Murugan\'s new body and Murugan went to hell."

  "The fact that  you  tell me all  of  this seems to  indicate  that you intend to send me after him."

  "I am sorry, good Kubera, for I like you. If you will give me your word that you  will  forget what you have learned and that you will wait for some other to discover it, then I will permit you to live and depart."

  "Risky."

  "I know  that you have never given your word and  broken it, though you are as old as the hills of Heaven."

  "Who is the first god you would slay?"

  "Lord Yama, of course, for he must be closest upon my heels."

  "Then  must you kill me, Sam,  for  he  is  a  brother Lokapala and  my friend."

  "I am sure we will both regret it if I have to kill you."

  "Then has your acquaintanceship with the Rakasha perhaps given you some of their taste for a wager?"

  "Of what sort?"

  "You win, and  you have my word  not to speak  of this. I win,  and you flee with me upon the back of Garuda."

  "And of the contest?"

  "Irish stand-down."

  "With you, fat Kubera? And me in my magnificent new body?"

  "Yes."

  "Then you may strike first."

  On a  dark hill on the far  side of Heaven, Sam and Kubera stood facing one another.

  Kubera drew back his right fist and sent it forward against Sam\'s jaw.

  Sam fell, lay still for a moment, rose slowly to his feet.

  Rubbing his jaw, he returned to the spot where he had stood.

  "You are stronger than you seem, Kubera," he said, and struck forward.

  Kubera lay upon the ground, sucking in air.

  He tried  to  rise,  thought better of  it, moaned once, then struggled back to his feet.

  "I didn\'t think you\'d get up," said Sam.

  Kubera moved to face him, a dark, moist line descending his chin.

  As he took his ground, Sam flinched.

  Kubera waited, still breathing deeply.

  Run down  the  gray night wall.  Flee! Beneath  a  rock. Hide! The fury turns  thy bowels to  water.  The friction of this crossing grates  upon thy spine. . . .

  "Strike!" said Sam, and Kubera smiled and hit him.

  He lay there  quivering, and  the  voices  of the night,  compounded of insect sounds and the wind and the sighing of grasses came to him.

  Tremble, like  the last loosening leaf of  the year. There is a lump of ice  in thy chest.  There are no words within thy brain, only  the colors of panic move there. . . .

  Sam shook his head and rose to his knees.

  Fall  again, curl thyself into a ball and weep.  For this  is  how  man began,  and this is how  he ends. The universe is a  black ball, rolling. It crusheth what it toucheth. It rolls to thee. Flee! Thou might a moment gain, an hour perhaps, before it comes upon thee. . . .

  He raised his  hands to his  face, lowered  them, glared up  at Kubera, stood.

  "You built the room called Fear," he said, "at the Pavilion of Silence. I remember now your power, old god. It is not sufficient."

  An invisible horse races through pastures of thy mind. Thou knowest him by his hoof marks, each of which is a wound. . . .

  Sam took his position, clenched his fist.

  The  sky creaks above thee. The ground may open beneath  thy  feet. And what is that tall, shadowlike thing that comes to stand at thy back?

  Sam\'s fist shook, but he drove it forward.

  Kubera rocked back upon his heels and his head snapped to the side, but he did not lose his footing.

  Sam  stood there trembling as Kubera drew  back his  right arm  for the final blow.

  "Old god, you cheat," he said.

  Kubera smiled through his blood, and his fist came forward like a black ball.

  Yama was talking to Ratri  when  the  cry of awakened Garuda broke  the night.

  "This thing has never happened before," he said.

  Slowly, the heavens began to open.

  "Perhaps Lord Vishnu goes forth. . ."

  "He has never done so at night. And when I  spoke with him a short time ago he said nothing of this."

  "Then some other god would dare his mount."

  "No! To the pens, Lady! Quickly! I may have need of thy powers."

  He dragged her forward with him, toward the steel aerie of the Bird.

  Garuda was  awake and untethered,  but  the  hood was  still  upon him. Kubera,  who had carried Sam to the pens, strapped him into the saddle seat, still unconscious.

  He climbed down to the  floor and activated a final control. The top of the cage rolled away. Then he took up the long metal pinion hook  and  moved back to the  rope  ladder.  The bird smell was overpowering. Garuda  shifted restlessly and ruffled feathers twice the size of a man.

  Slowly, he climbed.  As  he was strapping himself into place,  Yama and Ratri approached the cage.

  "Kubera! What madness is this?" cried Yama.  "You have never  been fond of the heights!"

  "Urgent business, Yama," he replied, "and it would take a day to finish servicing the thunder chariot."

  "What business, Kubera? And why not take a gondola?"

  "Garuda\'s faster. I\'ll tell you about it on my return."

  "Perhaps I can be of help."

  "No. Thank you."

  "But Lord Murugan can?"

  "In this case, yes."

  "You two were never on the best of terms."

  "Nor are we now. But I have need of his services."

  "Hail, Murugan!. . . Why does he not reply?"

  "He sleeps, Yama."

  "There is blood upon your face, brother."

  "I had a small accident earlier."

  "And Murugan appears somewhat mishandled also."

  "It was the same accident."

  "Something is amiss here, Kubera. Wait, I\'m coming into the cage."

  "Stay out, Yama!"

  "The Lokapalas do not order one another about. We are equals."

  "Stay out, Yama! I\'m raising Garuda\'s hood!"

  "Don\'t do it!"

  Yama\'s eyes suddenly flashed and he stood taller within his red.

  Kubera leaned forward with the hook and raised the hood from the Bird\'s high head. Garuda threw his head back and cried once more.

  "Ratri,"  said Yama, "lay shadows upon Garuda\'s  eyes,  that he may not see."

  Yama  moved  toward  the  entrance  of  the   cage.  Darkness,  like  a thundercloud, hid the head of the Bird.

  "Ratri!" said Kubera. "Lift this darkness and lay  it upon Yama, or all is lost!"

  Ratri hesitated only a moment, and this was done.

  "Come to me quickly!" he cried. "Come mount Garuda and ride with us! We need you, badly!"

  She entered the cage  and  was  lost  to sight, as  the  darkness  kept spreading and  spreading, like a pool of ink, Yama  groping his  way through it.

  The ladder jerked and swayed, and Ratri mounted Garuda.

  Garuda  screamed then  and  leapt into  the air,  for  Yama  had  moved forward, blade in hand, and had cut at the first thing he had felt.

  The night rushed about them and Heaven lay far below.

  When they reached a mighty height, the dome began to close.

  Garuda sped toward the gate, screaming again.

  They were through it before it closed, and Kubera prodded the Bird.

  "Where are we going?" asked Ratri.

  "To Keenset, by the river Vedra," he answered. "And this is Sam. He  is still alive."

  "What has happened?"

  "He is the one Yama seeks."

  "Will he seek him in Keenset?"

  "Doubtless, lady.  Doubtless.  But ere he finds him,  we may  be better prepared."

  In the  days  that preceded  the Great Battle,  the  defenders  came to Keenset. Kubera and Sam and Ratri  brought  the warning. Keenset was already aware of the  raising of its neighbors, but not of the heavenly avengers who were to come.

  Sam drilled the troops who would fight against gods, and Kubera drilled those who would fight against men.

  Black armor was forged for the  goddess of Night, of  whom  it has been said, "Guard us from the she-wolf and the wolf, and guard us from the thief, of Night."

  And on the third day there was a tower of fire before Sam\'s tent on the plane outside the city.

  "It is  the  Lord of Hellwell come to keep his promise, oh Siddhartha!" said the voice that rang within his head.

  "Taraka! How did you find me- recognize me?"

  "I look upon the flames, which are your true being, not the flesh which masks them. You know that."

  "I thought you dead."

  "I nearly was. Those two do drink life with  their  eyes! Even the life of one such as I."

  "I told you that. Do you bring your legions with you?"

  "Yes, I bring my legions."

  "It is good. The gods will move against this place soon."

  "I know. Many times have I visited Heaven atop its mountain of ice, and my spies remain  there yet. So I  know  that they make ready to come to this place. They  also  invite  humans to share in the battle. Though they do not feel they need the assistance of men, they think  it good  that they join in the destruction of the city Keenset."

  "Yes, that is understandable,"  said  Sam, studying the great vortex of yellow flame. "What other news have you?"

  "The One in Red comes."

  "I expected him."

  "To his death. I must defeat him."

  "He will have demon-repellant upon him."

  "Then I will find a way to  remove it, or kill him from  a distance. He will be here by nightfall."

  "How does he come?"

  "In a flying machine- not so large as  the chariot of thunder we tried to steal- but very fast. I could not attack it in flight."

  "Comes he alone?"

  "Yes- save for machines."

  "Machines?"

  "Many machines. His flying machine is filled with strange equipment."

  "This may bode ill."

  The tower spun orange.

  "But others come also."

  "You just said he comes alone."

  "This is true."

  "Then riddle me your true meaning."

  "The others do not come from Heaven."

  "Where, then?"

  "I have traveled  much  since  your departure  for Heaven, going up and down in the world and seeking  allies among those who also  hate the Gods of the City. By the way, in your  last  incarnation I did try  to save you from the cats out of Kaniburrha."

  "I know."

  "The gods are strong- stronger than they have ever been before."

  "But tell me who is coming to aid us."

  "Lord Nirriti the Black, who  hates all things,  hates the  Gods of the City most of all. So he is sending a thousand unliving ones to fight on  the plains beside the Vedra.  He said that,  after the battle, we of the Rakasha may take our choice from the bodies which yet remain among the mindless ones he has grown."

  "I do not relish aid from the Black  One, but  I am in  no position  to discriminate. How soon will these arrive?"

  "Tonight.  But Dalissa  will  be  here sooner. Even  now,  I  feel  her approaching."

  "Dalissa? Who . . . ?"

  "The last of the Mothers  of  the Terrible Glow. She alone escaped into the depths when Durga and Lord Kalkin  rode to the dome  by the sea. All her eggs were smashed and she can lay no more, but she bears within her body the burning power of the sea-glow."

  "And you think she would aid me?"

  "She would  aid  no other. She is the last of her  kind. She will  only assist a peer."

  "Then know that the one who was  known  as  Durga now wears the body of Brahma, chief among our enemies."

  "Yes, which makes both of you men. She might have taken the other side, had Kali remained a  woman. But  she has committed herself now. You were her choice."

  "That helps to even things a bit."

  "The  Rakasha herd elephants and slizzards and great cats at this time, to drive against our enemies."

  "Good."

  "And they summon fire elementals."

  "Very good."

  "Dalissa is near here now. She will wait at the bottom of the river, to rise up when she is needed."

  "Say hello to her for me," said Sam, turning to re-enter his tent.

  "I will."

  He dropped the flap behind him.

  When the God of Death came down out of  the sky  onto the plains beside the Vedra, Taraka of the Rakasha set upon him in the form of a great cat out of Kaniburrha.

  But  immediately  he fell back. The demon repellant lay  upon Yama, and Taraka could not close with him because of it.

  The Rakasha swirled  away, dropping  the  cat  form he  had assumed, to become a whirlwind of silver motes.

  "Deathgod!" the word exploded in Yama\'s head. "Remember Hellwell?"

  Immediately, rocks and  stones  and  sandy soil were sucked up into the vortex  and  hurled across the  air toward Yama,  who  swirled his cloak and muffled his eyes with its hem, but did not otherwise stir.

  After a time, the fury died.

  Yama had not moved.  The ground about him was strewn  with  debris, but none lay near him.

  Yama lowered his cloak and glared into the whirlwind.

  "What  sorcery is  this?"  came the words. "How is  it  you  manage  to stand?"

  Yama continued to stare at Taraka. "How  is it you manage to swirl?" he asked.

  "I am greatest among the Rakasha. I bore your death-gaze before."

  "And I am greatest among  the  gods. I stood against your entire legion at Hellwell."

  "You are a lackey to Trimurti."

  "You  are  wrong. I have  come here  to fight against  Heaven, in  this place, in  the  name  of  Accelerationism.  Great  is my hatred,  and I have brought weapons to be used against Trimurti."

  "Then I suppose I must forego  the pleasure of continuing our combat at this time . . ."

  "I should deem it advisable."

  "And you doubtless wish to be taken to our leader?"

  "I can find my own way."

  "Then, until we meet again. Lord Yama. . ."

  "Good-bye, Rakasha."

  Taraka shot  like a burning arrow into  the  heavens and was  gone from sight.

  Some say that  Yama  had solved his case as he stood there in the great birdcage,  amidst  the  darkness  and  the  droppings.  Others say  that  he duplicated  Kubera\'s reasoning  a short while later, using the tapes  in the Vasty  Hall of  Death. Whichever it  was, when he  entered the tent  on  the plains by the Vedra he greeted the man inside  with the  name Sam. This  man laid his hand upon his blade and faced him.

  "Death, you precede the battle," he said.

  "There has been a change," Yama replied.

  "What sort of change?"

  "Position. I have come here to oppose the will of Heaven."

  "In what way?"

  "Steel. Fire. Blood."

  "Why this change?"

  "Divorces are made in Heaven. And betrayals. And shamings. The lady has gone too far, and I know now the reason, Lord Kalkin. I neither embrace your Accelerationism  nor  do I reject  it. Its only mattering  to me is  that it represents the one force in  the world to oppose Heaven.  I  will  join you, with this understanding, if you will accept my blade."

  "I accept your blade. Lord Yama."

  "And I  will  raise it against any of the heavenly horde- saving  only Brahma himself, whom I will not face."

  "Agreed."

  "Then permit me to serve as your charioteer."

  "I would, only I have no chariot of battle."

  "I brought one, a very special one. For a long time have I labored upon it, and it is not yet complete. But it will suffice. I must assemble it this night, however, for the battle will commence tomorrow at dawn."

  "I  have felt that  it  might.  The  Rakasha have warned  me  as to the movement of troops near here."

  "Yes, I saw them as I passed overhead. The main attack should come from the northeast,  across  the plains. The gods  will  join in later. But there will  doubtless be parties coming  from all  directions,  including  up  the river."

  "We control the  river. Dalissa  of  the Glow waits at its bottom. When the  time  comes,  she can  raise  up  mighty  waves, making it  to boil and overflow its banks."

  "I had thought the Glow extinguished!"

  "Save for her, it is. She is the last."

  "I take it the Rakasha will be fighting with us?"

  "Yes, and others . . ."

  "What others?"

  "I  have accepted assistance- bodies without  minds-  a war  party of such- from Lord Nirriti."

  Yama\'s eyes narrowed and his nostrils flared.

  "This is  not good, Siddhartha.  Sooner or later,  he  will  have to be destroyed, and it is not good to be in the debt of such a one."

  "I know that, Yama, but I am desperate. They arrive tonight . . ."

  "If we win, Siddhartha, toppling  the Celestial  City, breaking the old religion,   freeing  man  for  industrial  progress,  still  will  there  be opposition. Nirriti, who has waited all these  centuries for  the passing of the gods,  will then have to be fought and beaten himself. It will either be this or the same thing all over  again - and at least the Gods  of the City have some measure of grace in their unfair doings."

  "I think he would have come to our assistance whether invited or not."

  "Yes,  but by inviting him, or  accepting  his  offer, you owe him this thing."

  "Then I will have to deal with that situation when it arises."

  "That\'s politics, I guess. But I like it not."

  Sam poured  them of the  sweet  dark wine of Keenset. "I  think  Kubera would like to see you later," he said, offering a goblet.

  "What is he  doing?" asked Yama, accepting it and  draining it off in a single swallow.

  "Drilling troops and  giving  classes on the internal combustion engine to all the local savants," said  Sam. "Even if we lose, some may live and go elsewhere."

  "If it is to be put to any use, they will need to know more than engine design . . ."

  "He\'s been talking himself hoarse for  days, and the scribes are taking it all down- geology, mining, metallurgy, petroleum chemistry . . ."

  "Had  we  more time, I would give my assistance.  As  it is, if ten per cent is retained it  may be sufficient.  Not tomorrow, or even the next day, but. . ."

  Sam  finished   his  wine,   refilled  the  goblets.  "To  the  morrow, charioteer!"

  "To the blood. Binder, to the blood and the killing!"

  "Some of the  blood may  be our  own, deathgod. But  so long as we take sufficient of the enemy with us. . ."

  "I cannot die, Siddhartha, save by my own choosing."

  "How can that be, Lord Yama?"

  "Let Death keep his  own small secrets. Binder. For I may choose not to exercise my option in this battle."

  "As you would, Lord."

  "To your health and long life!"

  "To yours."

  The  day  of  the  battle dawned  pink  as the fresh-bitten  thigh of a maiden.

  A  small  mist  drifted  in from  the river.  The  Bridge of  the  Gods glistened all of gold in the  east, reached back, darkening, into retreating night, divided the heavens like a burning equator.

  The warriors of  Keenset waited outside the city, upon the plain by the Vedra. Five thousand men, with blades and bows, pikes and slings, waited for the battle.  A thousand zombies stood in the front  ranks, led by the living sergeants  of the  Black  One, who guided all  their movements by  the drum, scarves of black silk curling in the breeze  like snakes of smoke upon their helms.

  Five hundred lancers were held to the rear.  The  silver  cyclones that were the  Rakasha hung in  the  middle air. Across  the  half-lit  world the occasional growl of a jungle  beast could be heard. Fire  elementals  glowed upon tree limb, lance and pennon pole.

  There  were  no clouds in the  heavens. The grasses  of the  plain were still moist and sparkling. The air was cool, the ground still soft enough to gather  footprints  readily. Gray  and green and yellow were the colors that smote the eye  beneath the  heavens; and the Vedra swirled within its banks, gathering  leaves  from  its escort of trees.  It  is  said  that  each  day recapitulates the history of the world, coming up out of  darkness  and cold into confused  light and  beginning warmth, consciousness blinking its  eyes somewhere  in  midmorning,  awakening  thoughts  a  jumble  of  illogic  and unattached emotion, and all  speeding together toward the order of noontide, the slow, poignant decline of dusk, the mystical vision of twilight, the end of entropy that is night once more.

  The day began.

  A dark line was visible at the far end of the field. A trumpet note cut the air and that line advanced.

  Sam stood  in his battle  chariot at the head of the formation, wearing burnished armor and holding a long, gray lance of death. He heard  the words of Death, who wore red and was his charioteer:

  "Their first wave is of slizzard cavalry."

  Sam squinted at the distant line.

  "It is," said his charioteer.

  "Very well."

  He gestured with his lance, and the Rakasha moved forward like  a tidal wave of white light. The zombies began their advance.

  When  the white wave  and the  dark  line  came  together there  was  a confusion of voices, hisses and the rattle of arms.

  The dark line halted, great gouts of dust fuming above it.

  Then came the sounds of  the aroused jungle  as  the gathered beasts of prey were driven upon the flank of the enemy.

  The zombies marched to a slow, steady drumbeat, and the fire elementals flowed on before them and the grasses withered where they passed.

  Sam nodded  to Death, and his chariot moved slowly forward, riding upon its  cushion  of  air. At his back, the army of Keenset stirred. Lord Kubera slept, drugged  to the  sleep  that is like unto death,  in  a  hidden vault beneath  the city. The  Lady Ratri  mounted  a black mare at the rear of the lancers\' formation.

  "Their charge has been broken," said Death.

  "Yes."

  "All their cavalry was cast down and the beasts still rage  among them. They  have  not  yet reformed their ranks. The Rakasha  hurl avalanches like rain from the heavens down upon their  heads.  Now  there comes  the flow of fire."

  "Yes."

  "We  will  destroy  them. Even now they  see  the mindless  minions  of Nirriti coming  upon  them  as a single man,  all in  step and without fear, their drums  keeping time,  perfect and agonizing,  and nothing behind their eyes, nothing at all. Looking above their heads  then, they  see  us here as within a thundercloud, and  they  see that Death drives your chariot. Within their hearts  there comes a quickening  and there  is a coldness  upon their biceps and their thighs. See how the beasts pass among them?"

  "Yes."

  "Let there be no bugles within our ranks, Siddhartha. For  this  is not battle, but slaughter."

  "Yes."

  The zombies slew everything  they passed, and when they fell  they went down without a  word, for it  was  all the same with them,  and  words  mean nothing to the unliving.

  They swept the field, and fresh waves of warriors came at them. But the cavalry  had  been broken. The  foot  soldiers  could not stand  before  the lancers and the Rakasha, the zombies and the infantry of Keenset.

  The razor-edged battle chariot driven by Death  cut through  the  enemy like  a  flame  through  a  field. Missiles  and  hurled  spears  turned  in mid-flight to  speed off at right angles before  they  could  touch upon the chariot or its occupants. Dark fires  danced  within the eyes of Death as he gripped  the twin rings  with which he  directed the course  of the vehicle. Again and again, he drove down without mercy upon the enemy, and Sam\'s lance darted like the tongue of a serpent as they passed through the ranks.

  From  somewhere, the  notes of a retreat were  sounded. But there  were very few who answered the call.

  "Wipe your eyes,  Siddhartha," said Death,  "and call  a new formation. The time has come to press the attack. Manjusri  of the Sword must  order  a charge."

  "Yes, Death, I know."

  "We hold the field, but not the day. The gods are watching, judging our strength."

  Sam raised his  lance in signal and there was fresh movement  among the troops. Then a new stillness  hung about them. Suddenly, there was  no wind, no sound. The sky  was blue. The  ground was  a gray-green  trampled  thing. Dust, like a specter hedge, hovered in the distance.

  Sam surveyed the ranks, moved his lance forward. At  that moment, there came a clap of thunder.

  "The gods will enter the field," said Death, looking upward.

  The thunder chariot passed overhead.  No rain of destruction descended, however.

  "Why are we still alive?" asked Sam.

  "I believe they would rather our defeat be more ignominious. Also, they may be afraid  to attempt to use the  thunder chariot against its  creator- justly afraid."

  "In that case . . ." said Sam, and he gave the signal for the troops to charge.

  The chariot  bore him  forward.  At his  back, the  forces  of  Keenset followed.

  They  cut down  the  stragglers.  They smashed through the  guard  that attempted  to delay them. In the midst of a storm of  arrows, they broke the archers.  Then  they faced the body of the holy crusaders who had  sworn  to level the city of Keenset.

  Then there came the notes of Heaven upon a trumpet.

  The opposing lines of human warriors parted.

  The fifty demigods rode forth.

  Sam raised his lance.

  "Siddhartha," said Death, "Lord Kalkin was never beaten in battle."

  "I know."

  "I have with me the Talisman  of  the Binder. That  which was destroyed upon the pyre  at Worldsend was a counterfeit.  I  retained  the original to study it. I  never had  the chance.  Hold but  a moment  and I will brace it about you."

  Sam raised his arms  and  Death clasped the belt of shells  around  his waist.

  He gave sign then to the forces of Keenset to halt.

  Death drove him forward, alone, to face the half-gods.

  About the heads of some there played the nimbus of early Aspect. Others bore strange weapons to focus their strange Attributes.  Fires came down and licked  about  the  chariot. Winds lashed at  it. Great smashing noises fell upon it. Sam  gestured with his lance and the first  three  of his opponents reeled and fell from the backs of their slizzards.

  Then Death drove his chariot among them.

  Its  edges are razors and  its speed  three times  that of a  horse and twice that of a slizzard.

  A mist  sprang up about him as he rode, a mist tinged with blood. Heavy missiles sped toward him and vanished to one side or  the  other. Ultrasonic screams assailed his ears, but somehow were partly deadened.

  His face expressionless, Sam raised his lance high above his head.

  A  look of sudden fury crossed  over his face, and the lightnings leapt from its tip.

  Slizzards and riders baked and crisped.

  The smell of charred flesh came to his nostrils.

  He laughed, and Death wheeled the chariot for another pass.

  "Are you watching me?" Sam screamed at the  heavens.  "Watch  on, then! And watch out! You just made a mistake!"

  "Don\'t!" said Death.  "It is too  soon!  Never  mock a god until  he is passed!"

  And the chariot swept through the ranks of the demigods once again, and none could touch upon it.

  Trumpet notes filled the air, and the  holy army  rushed  to succor its champions.

  The warriors of Keenset moved forward to engage them.

  Sam stood  in the chariot  and the missiles fell heavy about it, always missing. Death drove him through  the ranks of the enemy,  now like a wedge, now like a  rapier. He sang  as he moved, and his lance was the tongue of  a serpent, sometimes crackling as  it  fell with bright  flashes. The Talisman glowed with a pale fire about his waist.

  "We\'ll take them!" he said.

  "There are only demigods and men upon the field," said Death. "They are still testing our strength. There are very few  who  remember the full power of Kalkin."

  "The full power of Kalkin?" asked Sam. "That has  never been  released, oh Death. Not in all the ages of the world. Let them come against me now and the  heavens  will weep  upon  their bodies and  the Vedra run the  color of blood! .  . . Do you  hear me?  Do you  hear me, gods?  Come  against me!  I challenge you,  here upon this field! Meet me  with  your strength,  in this place!"

  "No!" said Death. "Not yet!"

  Overhead, the thunder chariot passed  once again. Sam  raised his lance and pyrotechnic hell broke loose about the passing vessel.

  "You should not have let them know you could do that! Not yet!"

  The voice of Taraka came to him then, across the din of  the battle and the song within his brain.

  "They come up the river now, oh Binder! And  another  party assails the gates of the city!"

  "Call then upon Dalissa to rise up and make the Vedra to boil with  the power  of the  Glow!  Take you of  the  Rakasha to  the gates of Keenset and destroy the invader!"

  "I hear, Binder!" and Taraka was gone.

  A beam of blinding light fell from  the thunder chariot and cut through the ranks of the defenders.

  "The time has come," said Death, and he waved his cloak in gesture.

  In the rearmost rank,  the Lady Ratri stood up  in the stirrups  of her mount,  the black mare. She raised  the black  veil  that she wore over  her armor.

  There  were screams from both sides  as  the  sun covered its  face and darkness descended upon the field. The stalk of light vanished from  beneath the thunder chariot and the burning ceased.

  Only  a  faint phosphorescence, with no apparent source, occurred about them. This happened as  the  Lord Mara swept onto  the field  in his  cloudy chariot of colors, drawn by the horses who vomited rivers of smoking blood.

  Sam  headed  toward  him,  but  a  great body  of  warriors  interposed themselves;  and before they won through, Mara had driven across the  field, slaying everyone in his path.

  Sam raise his  lance and scowled, but his target  blurred  and shifted; and the lightnings always fell behind or to the side.

  Then, in the distance,  within the river, a soft light began. It pulsed warmly, and something like  a tentacle seemed to wave for a moment above the surface of the waters.

  Sounds of fighting came from the  city. The air was full of demons. The ground seemed to move beneath the feet of the armies.

  Sam raised  his  lance  and a  jagged  line  of light ran  up into  the heavens, provoking a dozen more to descend upon the field.

  More beasts  growled,  coughed  and  wailed, racing through both ranks, killing as they passed those of both sides.

  The zombies  continued  to  slay,  beneath  the  prodding of  the  dark sergeants, to the steady  beating of the drums; and fire elementals clung to the breasts of the corpses, as though feeding.

  "We have broken the demigods," said Sam. "Let us try Lord Mara next."

  They  sought him across the field, amidst  screams and  wails, crossing over those who were soon to become corpses and those who already were.

  When they saw the colors of his chariot, they gave chase.

  He turned and faced them finally, in a corridor of darkness, the sounds of the battle dim and distant. Death drew rein also, and they stared  across the night into each other\'s glowing eyes.

  "Will you  stand  to battle, Mara?" cried Sam. "Or must we run you down like a dog?"

  "Speak  not to me of your kin,  the hound and the bitch, oh Binder!" he answered. "It is you, isn\'t it,  Kalkin? That\'s your belt. This is your sort of war. Those were your lightnings striking  friend and  foe alike.  You did live, somehow, eh?"

  "It is I," said Sam, leveling his lance.

  "And the carrion god to drive your wagon!"

  Death raised his left hand, palm forward.

  "I  promise  you death, Mara," he  said. "If not by the hand of Kalkin, then by my own. If  not today, then another day. But it is  between us also, now."

  To the left, the pulsing in the river became more and more frequent.

  Death leaned forward and the chariot sped toward Mara.

  The horses of the  Dreamer  reared  and blew  fire from their nostrils. They leapt ahead.

  The arrows of Rudra sought them in the dark, but these were also turned aside as they blazed toward Death and his chariot. They exploded upon either side, adding for a moment to the faint illumination.

  In the distance, elephants lumbered, raced and squealed, pursued by the Rakasha across the plains.

  There came a mighty roaring sound.

  Mara grew  into  a giant, and his chariot  was a  mountain.  His horses spanned eternities as they galloped  forward.  Lightning  leapt  from  Sam\'s lance,  like spray from a fountain.  A blizzard suddenly swirled  about him, and the cold of interstellar space itself entered into his bones.

  At the last  possible instant, Mara swerved his chariot and  leapt down from it.

  They struck it broadside and  there came a  grinding sound from beneath them as they settled slowly to the ground.

  By then the  roaring was  deafening  and the pulses  of light from  the river  had  grown into a steady glow. A wave of steaming water  swept across the field as the Vedra overflowed its banks.

  There were more screams, and the clash of  arms continued. Faintly, the drums of Nirriti  still  beat within the darkness,  and there came a strange sound from overhead as the thunder chariot sped toward the ground.

  "Where\'d he go?" cried Sam.

  "To hide," said Death. "But he cannot hide forever."

  "Damn it! Are we winning or losing?"

  "That\'s a good question. I don\'t know the answer, though."

  The waters foamed about the grounded chariot.

  "Can you get us moving again?"

  "Not in this darkness, with the water all around us."

  "Then what do we do now?"

  "Cultivate patience  and smoke cigarettes." He leaned back and struck a light.

  After a  time, one of the  Rakasha came  and hovered  in  the air above them.

  "Binder!" reported the  demon. "The new attackers of the city wear upon them that-which-repels!"

  Sam raised his lance and a line of lightning fled from its point.

  For one photoflash of an instant, the field was illuminated.

  The dead lay everywhere. Small groups of men huddled together. Some lay twisting in combat upon the ground. The  bodies of animals were strewn among them. A few large cats still wandered, feeding. The fire elementals had fled from the water, which had coated  the fallen with  mud and soaked  those who still could stand. Broken chariots and dead slizzards and horses made mounds upon  the  field. Across the  scene,  empty-eyed  and continuing  to  follow orders, the zombies wandered,  slaying anything  living  that  moved  before them.  In the distance, one drum still beat, with an occasional falter. From the city there came the sounds of continued battle.

  "Find  the lady in black," said Sam to the Rakasha, "and  tell  her  to break the darkness."

  "Yes," said the demon, and fled back toward the city.

  The sun shone again and Sam shielded his eyes against it.

  The carnage was even worse under the blue sky and the golden bridge.

  Across the field, the thunder chariot rested upon high ground.

  The zombies slew  the last of the men in sight. Then, as they turned to seek more life, the drumming ceased and they fell to the ground themselves.

  Sam  stood with Death within  the chariot. They looked  about  them for signs of life.

  "Nothing moves," said Sam. "Where are the gods?"

  "Perhaps in the thunder chariot."

  The Rakasha came to them once more.

  "The defenders cannot hold the city," he reported.

  "Have the gods joined in that assault?"

  "Rudra is there, and his arrows work much havoc."

  "The Lord Mara. Brahma, too, I think- and there are many others. There is much confusion. I hurried."

  "Where is the Lady Ratri?"

  "She entered into Keenset and abides there in her Temple."

  "Where are the rest of the gods?"

  "I do not know."

  "I will go on to the city," said Sam, "and aid in its defense."

  "And I  to  the thunder  chariot," said Death, "to take it  and use  it against the enemy- if it can still be used. If not, there is still Garuda."

  "Yes," said Sam, and levitated.

  Death sprang down from the chariot. "Fare thee well."

  "Thou also."

  They crossed the place of carnage, each in his own fashion.

  He climbed the small rise, his red leather boots soundless on the turf.

  He swept his scarlet  cloak back over his  right shoulder  and surveyed the thunder chariot.

  "It was damaged by the lightnings."

  "Yes," he agreed.

  He looked back toward the tail assembly, at the one who had spoken.

  His armor shone like bronze, but it was not bronze.

  It was worked about with the forms of many serpents.

  He wore the horns of a bull  upon his burnished helm,  and  in his left hand he held a gleaming trident.

  "Brother Agni, you have come up in the world."

  "I am no longer Agni, but Shiva, Lord of Destruction."

  "You wear his armor upon a new body and you carry his trident. But none could master the trident of Shiva so quickly. This is why you wear the white gauntlet on your right hand, and the goggles upon your brow."

  Shiva reached up and lowered the goggles over his eyes.

  "It is true, I know. Throw away your  trident, Agni. Give me your glove and your wand, your belt and your goggles."

  He shook his head.

  "I respect  your  power,  deathgod, your speed and your strength,  your skill. But you stand  too far  away for  any  of  these to aid you now.  You cannot  come at me but I will burn you before you reach me  here. Death, you shall die."

  He reached for the wand at his belt.

  "You seek to  turn  the gift of Death against its giver?" The blood-red scimitar came into his hand as he spoke.

  "Good-bye, Dharma. Your days are come to an end."

  He drew the wand.

  "In the name of a friendship which once existed," said  the one in red, "I will give you your life if you surrender to me."

  The wand wavered.

  "You killed Rudra to defend the name of my wife."

  "It was to preserve the honor  of the Lokapalas that I did it. Now I am God of Destruction, and one with the Trimurti!"

  He pointed  the  fire wand, and Death swirled his  scarlet cloak before him.

  There came a flash of  light  so  blinding that two miles away upon the walls of Keenset the defenders saw it and wondered.

  The invaders  had entered Keenset.  There were fires now,  screams, and the blows of metal upon wood, metal upon metal.

  The  Rakasha pushed down buildings  upon  the  invaders with whom  they could not  close. The invaders as well as the defenders were  few in number. The main bodies of both forces had perished upon the plains.

  Sam stood atop the highest tower of the Temple and stared down into the falling city.

  "I  could not  save  you,  Keenset," he  stated. "I tried, but was  not sufficient."

  Far below, in the street, Rudra strung his bow.

  Seeing him, Sam raised his lance.

  The lightnings fell upon Rudra and the arrow exploded in their midst.

  When the air  cleared, where Rudra  had been standing  there was now  a small crater in the center of a space of charred ground.

  Lord Vayu appeared upon a distant rooftop and called forth the winds to fan the flames. Sam raised his lance once more, but then a dozen Vayus stood upon a dozen rooftops.

  "Mara!" said Sam. "Show yourself. Dreamer! It you dare!"

  There was laughter all around him.

  "When I am ready, Kalkin," came the  voice,  out  of  the smoky air, "I will dare. The choice, though, is mine to make. . .. Are you not dizzy? What would happen  if you were to cast yourself down toward the ground? Would the Rakasha come to bear you up? Would your demons save you?"

  Lightnings fell upon all the  buildings near the Temple then, but above the noise came the laughter of  Mara. It faded  away  into the  distance  as fresh fires crackled.

  Sam seated himself  and watched the  city burn.  The sounds of fighting died down and ceased. There was only flame.

  A sharp pain came and went in his head. Then  it came and would not go. Then it racked his entire body, and he cried out.

  Brahma, Vayu, Mara and four demigods stood below in the street.

  He tried to raise his lance, but his hand shook so  that  it  fell from his grasp, rattled on brick, was gone.

  The scepter that is a skull and a wheel was pointed in his direction.

  "Come  down, Sam!"  said Brahma,  moving it slightly so that  the pains shifted and burned. "You and Ratri are the only ones left alive! You are the last! Surrender!"

  He struggled to his feet and clasped his hands upon his glowing belt.

  He swayed and said the words through clenched teeth:

  "Very well! I shall come down, as a bomb into your midst!"

  But then the sky was darkened, lightened, darkened.

  A mighty cry rose above the sound of the flames.

  "It is Garuda!" said Mara.

  "Why should Vishnu come- now?"

  "Garuda was stolen! Do you forget?"

  The great Bird dived upon the burning city, like a titan phoenix toward its flaming nest.

  Sam  twisted  his  head  upward and saw  the  hood  suddenly fall  over Garuda\'s eyes. The Bird fluttered his wings, then plummeted toward the gods, where they stood before the Temple.

  "Red!" cried Mara. "The rider! He wears red!"

  Brahma spun and  turned  the screaming  scepter,  holding  it with both hands toward the head of the diving Bird.

  Mara gestured, and Garuda\'s wings seemed to take fire.

  Vayu raised both arms, and  a wind like  a hurricane hammered the mount of Vishnu, whose beak smashes chariots.

  He cried once more, opening his wings, slowing his descent. The Rakasha then rushed about his head, urging  him downward with buffets and stings. He slowed, slowed, but could not stop.

  The gods scattered.

  Garuda struck the ground and the ground shuddered.

  From  among the feathers  of his back, Yama came forth,  blade in hand, took  three  steps, and  fell to  the  ground. Mara emerged  from a ruin and struck him across the back of his neck, twice, with the edge of his hand.

  Sam  sprang  before the second blow descended, but he did not reach the ground  in time. The  scepter screamed once  more and  everything spun about him. He fought to break his fall. He slowed.

  The ground was forty feet below him- thirty- twenty .  . . The ground was clouded by a blood-dimmed haze, then black.

  "Lord Kalkin has finally been beaten in battle," someone said softly.

  Brahma, Mara, and two demigods named Bora and Tikan were  the only ones who remained to bear Sam and Yama  from the  dying  city of  Keenset by  the river  Vedra. The Lady Ratri walked  before  them,  a cord looped about  her neck.

  They took  Sam and Yama  to the thunder chariot,  which  was  even more damaged than it had  been when they left it, having  a great  gaping hole in its  right  side and part of  its tail assembly missing. They  secured their prisoners  in chains,  removing  the Talisman of  the Binder and the crimson cloak  of Death. They sent a message then to Heaven,  and  after  a time sky gondolas came to return them to the Celestial City.

  "We have won," said Brahma. "Keenset is no more."

  "A costly victory, I think," said Mara.

  "But we have won!"

  "And the Black One stirs again."

  "He sought but to test our strength."

  "And what must he think of it?  We lost  an entire army? And even  gods have died this day."

  "We fought with Death, the Rakasha, Kalkin, Night and the Mother of the Glow.  Nirriti will  not  lift up  his hand  against us again,  not after  a winning such as this."

  "Mighty is Brahma," said Mara, and turned away.

  The Lords of Karma were called to stand in judgment of the captives.

  The  Lady Ratri was banished from  the City  and  sentenced to walk the world as a  mortal, always to be  incarnated into middle-aged bodies of more than usually plain appearance, bodies that could not bear  the full power of her Aspect or Attributes. She was shown this mercy because she was judged an incidental accomplice only, one misled by Kubera, whom she had trusted.

  When they sent after Lord Yama, to bring him to judgment,  he was found to be dead in his cell. Within his turban, there had been a small metal box. This box had exploded.

  The Lords of Karma performed an autopsy and conferred.

  "Why did he not take poison if he wished to die?" Brahma had asked. "It would be easier to conceal a pill than that box."

  "It  is  barely  possible,"  said one  of  the  Lords of  Karma,  "that somewhere  in  the  world  he  had  another  body,  and that  he  sought  to transmigrate by  means of a broadcast unit, which was set to  destroy itself after use."

  "Could this thing be done?"

  "No, of course  not.  Transfer equipment is  bulky and complicated. But Yama boasted he could do anything. He once tried to  convince me that such a device could be built. But the contact between the two bodies must be direct and by means  of many leads and cables.  And  no  unit that tiny could  have generated sufficient power."

  "Who built you the psych-probe?" asked Brahma.

  "Lord Yama."

  "And  Shiva, the  thunder chariot? And  Agni, the fire wand? Rudra, his terrible bow? The Trident? The Bright Spear?"

  "Yama."

  "I  should like to advise you then, that at approximately the same time as  that tiny box must have been operating, a great generator, as of its own accord,  turned itself on within the Vasty Hall of Death. It  functioned for less than five minutes, and then turned itself off again."

  "Broadcast power?"

  Brahma shrugged.

  "It is time to sentence Sam."

  This was done.  And since he had died once before, without much effect, it was decided that a sentence of death was not in order.

  Accordingly, he was transmigrated. Not into another body.

  A radio  tower was  erected,  Sam  was placed  under sedation, transfer leads were attached in the  proper manner, but there was no other body. They were attached to the tower\'s converter.

  His atman was  projected upward through the opened dome, into the great magnetic cloud that circled the entire planet  and was called  the Bridge of the Gods.

  Then he was given the unique  distinction of receiving a second funeral in  Heaven.  Lord Yama received  his first; and Brahma,  watching  the smoke arise from the pyres, wondered where he really was.

  "The  Buddha  has gone  to nirvana,"  said  Brahma. "Preach it  in  the Temples! Sing it in the streets\'.  Glorious was his passing! He has reformed the old religion, and we are better now  than ever before! Let all who would think otherwise remember Keenset!"

  This thing was done also.

  But they never found Lord Kubera.

  The demons were free.

  Nirriti was strong.

  And  elsewhere  in  the world there  were those who remembered  bifocal glasses  and  toilets   that   flushed,  petroleum  chemistry  and  internal combustion engines, and the day the sun had hidden its face from the justice of Heaven.

  Vishnu was  heard to say that the wilderness  had come into the City at last.  

VII

  Another name by  which he is sometimes called is Maitreya, meaning Lord of Light. After his return from the Golden Cloud, he journeyed to the Palace of Kama at Khaipur, where he planned and built his strength  against the Day of the Yuga. A sage once said that  one never sees  the Day of the Yuga, but only knows it when it is past. For it dawns like any other day and passes in the same wise, recapitulating the history of the world.

  He is sometimes called Maitreya, meaning Lord of Light. . .

  The world is a fire of sacrifice, the sun its fuel, sunbeams its smoke, the day its flames, the points  of  the compass its  cinders and  sparks. In this fire  the  gods offer faith as libation. Out of this offering King Moon is born.

  Rain, oh Gautama, is the fire, the year its fuel, the clouds its smoke, the lightning its flame, cinders,  sparks. In this fire the  gods offer King Moon as libation. Out of this offering the rain is born.

  The world, oh Gautama, is the fire, the earth its fuel, fire its smoke, the  night  its flame,  the moon its  cinders, the stars its sparks. In this fire the gods offer rain as libation. Out of this offering food is produced.

  Man, oh Gautama,  is the  fire, his open mouth its fuel, his breath its smoke,  his  speech its flame,  his eye its cinders, his ear its  sparks. In this fire the gods offer food as libation. Out of this offering the power of generation is born.

  Woman, oh Gautama, is the fire, her form its fuel, her hair its  smoke, her  organs  its flame, her pleasures its cinders  and  its sparks.  In this flame the  gods  offer  the  power of  generation  as libation. Out  of this offering a man is born. He lives for so long as he is to live.

  When a man dies, he is  carried  to  be offered in  the fire.  The fire becomes his fire,  the fuel his  fuel,  the smoke  his  smoke, the flame his flame, the cinders his cinders, the sparks his sparks. In this fire the gods offer the  man as libation. Out of  this offering the man emerges in radiant splendor.

  Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (VI, ii, 9-14)

  In a high, blue palace of slender spires and filigreed gates, where the tang of salt sea spray and the crying of  sea-wights came across the  bright air to season the senses with life and delight. Lord Nirriti the Black spoke with the man who had been brought to him.

  "Sea captain, what is your name?" he asked.

  "Olvagga, Lord,"  answered  the captain. "Why did you kill my  crew and let me live?"

  "Because I would question you, Captain Olvagga."

  "Regarding what?"

  "Many things. Things such as an old sea captain might know, through his travels. How stands my control of the southern sea lanes?"

  "Stronger than I thought, or you\'d not have me here."

  "Many others are afraid to venture out, are they not?"

  "Yes."

  Nirriti moved to a window overlooking the sea. He  turned his back upon his captive. After a time, he spoke again:

  "I hear there has been much scientific progress in the north since, oh, the battle of Keenset."

  "I, too,  have heard this. Also, I know it to  be true.  I  have seen a steam engine. The printing press  is now a part of life. Dead  slizzard legs are  made to  jump with galvanic currents. A  better grade of steel  is  now being forged. The microscope and the telescope have been rediscovered."

  Nirriti turned back to him, and they studied one another.

  Nirriti  was a small man, with a  twinkling eye,  a  facile smile, dark hair, restrained  by a  silver band, an upturned nose and eyes  the color of his palace. He wore black and lacked a suntan.

  "Why do the Gods of the City fail to stop this thing?"

  "I feel  it is because they are weakened, if  that is what you want  to hear, Lord. Since the disaster  by the Vedra they  have been somewhat afraid to squelch the progress  of  mechanism with violence. It has  also been said that there is internal strife  in the  City, between the  demigods and  what remains  of their elders. Then there is the matter of the new  religion. Men no  longer  fear Heaven  so much as  they used  to. They are more willing to defend themselves; and now that they are better equipped, the gods  are less willing to face them."

  "Then Sam is winning. Across the years, he is beating them."

  "Yes, Renfrew. I feel this to be true."

  Nirriti glanced at the two guards who flanked Olvagga.

  "Leave," he ordered. Then, when they had gone,

  "You know me?"

  "Yes, chaplin. For I am Jan Olvegg, captain of the Star of India."

  "Olvegg. That seems moderately impossible."

  "True, nevertheless. I received this now ancient body the day Sam broke the Lords of Karma at Mahartha. I was there."

  "One of the First, and- yes!- a Christian!"

  "Occasionally, when I run out of Hindi swear words."

  Nirriti placed  a hand on his shoulder. "Then your very being must ache at this blasphemy they have wrought!"

  "I\'m none too fond of them- nor they of me."

  "I  daresay.  But  of  Sam- he  did the  same thing- compounding this plurality of heresies- burying the true Word even deeper . . ."

  "A weapon, Renfrew,"  said Olvegg.  "Nothing  more.  I\'m sure he didn\'t want to be a god any more than you or I."

  "Perhaps. But I wish he had chosen a different weapon. If he wins their souls are still lost."

  Olvegg shrugged. "I\'m no theologian, such as yourself . . ."

  "But will you help me? Over the ages I  have built up a mighty force. I have men and I have machines. You say our  enemies are weakened. My soulless ones- born  not  of  man  or  woman-  they are  without fear.  I  have sky gondolas- many. I  can  reach  their City  at the Pole. I can destroy their Temples here in the world. I  think the time is at hand to cleanse the world of this abomination. The true faith must come again! Soon! It must be soon . . ."

  "As I said, I\'m no theologian. But I,  too,  would  see the City fall," said Olvegg. "I will help you, in any way I can."

  "Then we will  take a few of their cities  and defile their Temples, to see what action this provokes."

  Olvegg nodded.

  "You will advise me. You will provide moral support," said Nirriti, and bowed his head.

  "Join me in prayer," he ordered.

  The  old  man  stood  for a long while  outside  the  Palace of Kama in Khaipur, staring at its marble pillars. Finally, a girl took pity on him and brought him bread and milk. He ate the bread.

  "Drink  the  milk, too, grandfather.  It  is  nourishing and will  help sustain thy flesh."

  "Damn!" said the old man.  "Damn milk! And damn  my  flesh! My  spirit, also, for that matter!"

  The girl drew back. "That is hardly the proper reply  upon the  receipt of charity."

  "It is not your charity to which I object,  wench. It  is your taste in beverages.  Could you not spare me a  draught of the  foulest wine from  the kitchen? . . .  That  which the guests have disdained to order  and the cook will not even slop over  the cheapest pieces of meat? I crave the squeezings of grapes, not cows."

  "Perhaps I could bring you a menu? Depart! Before I summon a servant!"

  He stared into her eyes. "Take not offense, lady, I pray. Begging comes hard to me."

  She looked into his  pitch-dark eyes in the midst of a ruin of wrinkles and tan. His beard was  streaked with black.  The tiniest smile played about the corners of his lips.

  "Well. . . follow me around to the side. I\'ll take you into the kitchen and see what can be found. I don\'t really know why I should, though."

  His fingers  twitched  as she  turned, and  his  smile  widened  as  he followed, watching her walk.

  "Because I want you to," he said.

  Taraka of the Rakasha was uneasy. Flitting  above the clouds that moved through  the middle  of the day,  he thought  upon the ways of power. He had once been mightiest. In the  days before the binding there had been none who could stand against him. Then  Siddhartha the  Binder had come. He had known of him  earlier, known of  him  as Kalkin  and had known him  to  be strong. Sooner  or  later, he had realized,  they  would have to meet, that he might test the power of that  Attribute which  Kalkin was said  to have raised up. When they had come together, on that  mighty, gone day when the mountaintops had  flared with their fury, on  that  day the Binder had  won. And in their second encounter, ages afterward, he had somehow beaten him even more fully. But he had been the only one, and now he was gone from out the world. Of all creatures,  only the  Binder had bested the Lord of Hellwell.  Then the gods had come  to  challenge his power.  They  had  been puny in the  early days, struggling  to  discipline  their   mutant   powers  with  drugs,  hypnosis, meditation,  neurosurgery-  forging them into Attributes-  and across  the ages, those powers had grown. Four of them had entered Hellwell, only  four, and his legions had not been able to  repel them. The one  called  Shiva was strong,  but the  Binder had later  slain him. This was as it should be, for Taraka recognized the Binder as a peer. The woman he dismissed. She was only a woman, and she had  required assistance from Yama.  But  Lord Agni,  whose soul had been one bright, blinding flame- this one he had almost feared. He recalled the day Agni had walked  into the  palace at Palamaidsu, alone, and had challenged him. He  could not stop that one, though he had tried, and he had  seen the palace itself destroyed by the power of his fires. And nothing in  Hellwell could  stop him either. He had made a promise  then to  himself that he must test this power,  as he had that of Siddhartha, to defeat it or be  bound by it.  But he  never did. The  Lord of Fires had fallen  himself, before  the One  in Red-  who  had been  the fourth  in Hellwell-  who had somehow turned  his fires back upon him, that day beside  the  Vedra  in the battle for  Keenset. This meant  that he was the greatest. For  had not even the Binder warned him of Yama-Dharma, god of Death? Yes, the  one whose eyes drink  life  was  the mightiest yet  remaining in  the  world. He had almost fallen  to  his  strength within the  thunder  chariot. He  had tested  this strength once, briefly, but  had relented  because  they were allies in that fight. It was told that Yama had died afterward, in the City. Later, it  was told that he still walked the world. As Lord of the Dead it was said that he could not die  himself, save by his own choosing.  Taraka accepted this as a fact, knowing  what this acceptance meant. It  meant  that he, Taraka, would return to the south,  to the  island of  the blue palace,  where the Lord of Evil,  Nirriti the  Black,  awaited  his answer. He  would  give his assent. Starting at Mahartha and working  northward  from the sea, the Rakasha would add  their power to his dark own, destroying the Temples of the  six largest cities of the southwest,  one after  another, filling the  streets  of those cities with the  blood  of their citizens  and the nameless legions  of  the Black One- until the gods came to their defense, and so met their  doom. If the gods  failed  to  come,  then their true  weakness  would be  known. The Rakasha would then storm Heaven, and Nirriti would level the Celestial City; Milehigh Spire would fall, the dome would be shattered, the great white cats of Kaniburrha would look upon ruins, and the pavilions of  the  gods and the demigods would  be  covered with the snows of the Pole. And all of  this for one reason, really- aside from relieving the boredom, aside from  hastening the  final days  of gods and of men  in the world of the  Rakasha.  Whenever there is great fighting and the doing of  mighty deeds and bloody  deeds and flaming deeds- he comes, Taraka knew- the One in Red comes from somewhere, always, for his Aspect draws  him to the realm  that is his. Taraka knew  he would search, wait, do anything, for however long it took, until that day he stared into the black fires that burn behind the eyes of Death. . . .

  Brahma stared  at the map,  then looked  back to the screen of crystal, about which a bronze Naga twisted, tail in teeth.

  "Burning, oh priest?"

  "Burning, Brahma . . . the whole warehouse district!"

  "Order the people to quench the fires."

  "They are already doing so, Mighty One."

  "Then why trouble me with the matter?"

  "There is fear. Great One."

  "Fear? Fear of what?"

  "The  Black  One, whose name I may not  speak  in your  presence, whose strength  has grown steadily in  the south,  he  who controls the sea lanes, cutting off trade."

  "Why should you  be  afraid to speak the name  of Nirriti before  me? I know of the Black One. Do you feel he started the fires?"

  "Yes, Great One- or rather some accursed one in his pay did  it. There is much talk that he seeks  to cut us  off  from  the  rest of the world, to drain  our wealth,  destroy our  stores and weaken  our spirits,  because he plans- "

  "To invade you, of course."

  "You have said it. Potent One."

  "It may be true, my priest. So tell me, do you  feel your gods will not stand by you if the Lord of Evil attacks?"

  "There has never been any doubt. Most Puissant One. We simply wanted to remind you of the possibility and renew our perpetual supplication for mercy and divine protection."

  "You have made your point, priest. Fear not."

  Brahma ended the transmission. "He will attack."

  "Of course."

  "And how strong is he, I wonder? No one really knows how strong he  is, Ganesha. Do they?"

  "You ask me, my Lord? Your humble policy adviser?"

  "I  do not  see  anyone else present, humble godmaker. Do  you know  of anyone who might have information?"

  "No, Lord. I do not. Everyone avoids the foul one as though he were the real  death. Generally, he is.  As you are aware, the three  demigods I sent south did not return."

  "They  were strong,  too, whatever  their names, weren\'t they? How long ago was that?"

  "The last was a year ago, when we sent the new Agni."

  "Yes, he wasn\'t very good,  though- still used incendiary grenades . . . but strong."

  "Morally,  perhaps.  When  there  are fewer  gods  one must settle  for demigods."

  "In the old days, I would have taken the thunder chariot- "

  "In the old days there was no thunder chariot. Lord Yama- "

  "Silence! We have a thunder  chariot now. I think the tall man of smoke who wears a wide hat shall bend above Nirriti\'s palace."

  "Brahma, I think Nirriti can stop the thunder chariot."

  "Why so?"

  "From some firsthand  reports I\'ve  heard,  I believe that  he has used guided missiles against warships sent after his brigands."

  "Why did you not tell me of this sooner?"

  "They are very recent reports. This is the first  chance  I have had to broach the subject."

  "Then you do not feel we should attack?"

  "No. Wait. Let him move first, that we may judge his strength."

  "This would involve sacrificing Mahartha, would it not?"

  "So? Have you  never seen a city fall? . . . How will Mahartha  benefit him, by itself, and for a time? If we cannot reclaim it, then let the man of smoke nod his wide white hat- over Mahartha."

  "You are right.  It  will be worth it, to assess his power properly and to drain a portion of it away. In the meantime, we must prepare."

  "Yes. What will your order be?"

  "Alert all the powers in the City. Recall  Lord  Indra from the eastern continent, at once!"

  "Thy will be done."

  "And  alert  the other  five  cities of the  river - Lananda, Khaipur, Kilbar- "

  "Immediately."

  "Go then!"

  "I am already gone."

  Time like an ocean, space like its water, Sam in the  middle, standing, decided.

  "God of Death," he called out, "enumerate our strengths."

  Yama stretched and yawned,  then rose from the scarlet couch upon which he had been dozing, almost invisible. He crossed the room, stared into Sam\'s eyes. "Without raising Aspect, here is my Attribute."

  Sam met his gaze, held it. "This is in answer to my question?"

  "Partly," replied Yama, "but mainly it was to  test  your own power. It appears  to  be  returning. You bore my  death-gaze  longer than  any mortal could."

  "I know my power is returning. I can feel it. Many things are returning now.  During  the  weeks we  have dwelled  here  in Ratri\'s  palace  I  have meditated upon my past lives.  They were not  all failures, deathgod. I have decided this today. Though Heaven has beaten me at every turn,  each victory has cost them much."

  "Yes, it would seem you are  rather a man of destiny. They are actually weaker now than they were the day you challenged  their  power at  Mahartha. They are also relatively weaker.  This is because men are stronger. The gods broke Keenset, but they did not break  Acceleration. Then they tried to bury Buddhism within the known teachings, but they could not. I cannot really say whether your religion helped with the plot of this tale  you are writing, by encouraging Acceleration in  any way whatsoever, but  then none of the  gods could  say either. It  served  as a  good fog,  though-  it diverted  their attention from mischief they might have been doing, and since it did  happen to  take as a teaching,  their  efforts against  it  served  to  arouse some anti-Deicrat sentiment. You would seem inspired if you didn\'t seem shrewd."

  "Thank you. Do you want my blessing?"

  "No, do you want mine?"

  "Perhaps, Death, later. But you did not answer my question. Please tell me what strengths lie with us."

  "Very well. Lord Kubera will arrive shortly. . ."

  "Kubera? Where is he?"

  "He has dwelled in  hiding over the years, leaking scientific knowledge into the world."

  "Over  so many  years?  His body must be  ancient!  How could  he  have managed?"

  "Do you forget Narada?"

  "My old physician from Kapil?"

  "The  same.  When you  dispersed  your  lancers  after  your battle  in Mahartha, he retreated into  the backlands  with a service of retainers.  He packed with him all  the  equipment you had taken  from the Hall of Karma. I located him many  years  ago. Subsequent  to Keenset, after my  escape  from Heaven by the Way of the  Black Wheel,  I  brought Kubera out from his vault beneath that fallen city. He later allied himself with Narada, who  now runs a bootleg body shop in the hills. They work together. We have set up several others in various places, also."

  "And Kubera comes? Good!"

  "And Siddhartha is still  Prince of  Kapil. A call for troops from that principality would still be heard. We have sounded them out."

  "A handful, probably. But still good to know- yes."

  "And Lord Krishna."

  "Krishna? What is he doing on our side? Where is he?"

  "He was here. I found him the day we arrived. He had just moved in with one of the girls. Quite pathetic."

  "How so?"

  "Old.  Pitifully  old and weak, but still a drunken  lecher. His Aspect served  him  still, however, periodically summoning up some of  his  ancient charisma and a fraction of his colossal vitality.  He had been expelled from Heaven  after Keenset, but  because  he  would not fight against Kubera  and myself, as  did Agni. He has wandered the world  for  over half  a  century, drinking  and loving and playing his pipes  and growing  older. Kubera and I have tried several times to locate him, but he  did considerable  traveling. This is generally a requirement for renegade fertility deities."

  "What good will he be to us?"

  "I sent him to Narada for a new body on the day I found him. He will be riding in with Kubera. His powers always take to the transfer quickly, too."

  "But what good will he be to us?"

  "Do not forget that it was he who broke the black demon Bana, whom even Indra feared to  face. When he is sober he is one of the  deadliest fighting men alive. Yama, Kubera, Krishna, and if you\'re willing- Kalkin! We will be the new Lokapalas, and we will stand together."

  "I am willing."

  "So be it, then. Let them send a company of  their trainee gods against us!  I\'ve  been designing new weapons. It is a  shame that there  must be so many separate and exotic ones. It is quite a drain on my genius to make each a work  of art, rather than to mass-produce a particular species of offense. But the  plurality  of  the  paranormal dictates  it. Someone  always has an Attribute  to  stand against  any one weapon.  Let  them  face, though,  the Gehenna Gun and be fibrillated apart, or cross blades with the Electrosword, or stand before the Fountain Shield, with its spray of cyanide  and dimethyl sulfoxide, and they will know that it is the Lokapalas they face!"

  "I see now, Death, why it is that any god-  even Brahma- may pass and be succeeded by another- save for yourself."

  "Thank you. Have you a plan of any sort?"

  "Not yet.  I  will need more information as to  the strength within the City. Has Heaven demonstrated its power in recent years?"

  "No."

  "If there were some way of testing them without  showing our hand. . .. Perhaps the Rakasha ,.."

  "No, Sam. I do not trust them."

  "Nor I. But they can sometimes be dealt with."

  "As you dealt with them in Hellwell and Palamaidsu?"

  "Well  answered. Maybe you  are right.  I  will give it more thought. I wonder about Nirriti, though. How go things with the Black One?"

  "In recent years, he has come to dominate  the  seas. Rumor has it that his legions  grow, and that  he  builds  machines  of war.  I once told you, though, of my fears in this matter.  Let us stay as far away from Nirriti as possible. He has but  one thing in  common  with  us- the desire to  topple Heaven. Neither Accelerationist nor Deicrat, should he succeed he would  set up a Dark Age worse than the one we\'re beginning to come out of. Perhaps our best course of action  would be to provoke a battle between  Nirriti and the Gods of the City, lie low and then shoot at the winners."

  "You may be right, Yama. But how to do this?"

  "We  may not have to. It may happen of  its own accord- soon. Mahartha crouches, cowering back from the sea it faces. You are  the strategist, Sam. I\'m only a tactician. We brought you back to  tell us what to do. Pray think about it carefully, now that you are yourself once more."

  "You are always stressing those last words."

  "Yea, preacher.  For you have not  been battle-tested since your return from bliss. . . . Tell me, can you make the Buddhists fight?"

  "Probably,  but  I  might  have  to  assume  an  identity  I  now  find distasteful."

  "Well. . . perhaps not. Keep it in mind, in case we\'re  hard put. To be safe, though, practice every night in front of  a mirror with that esthetics lecture you gave back at Ratri\'s monastery."

  "I\'d rather not."

  "I know, but do it anyway."

  "Better I should practice with a blade. Fetch me  one and I\'ll give you a lesson."

  "Ho! Fair  enough!  Make it a good lesson  and  you\'ve  got yourself  a convert."

  "Then  let us  adjourn  to  the  courtyard, where  I  will  proceed  to enlighten you."

  As,  within  the  blue palace, Nirriti raised  his  arms,  the  rockets screamed skyward from the decks of his launch ships to arc above the city of Mahartha.

  As his black breastplate was buckled into  place, the rockets came down upon that city and the fires began.

  As he donned his boots, his fleet entered into the harbor.

  As his black  cloak  was  clasped about his throat and his black  steel helm placed  upon his head, his  sergeants began a soft drumbeat beneath the decks of his ships.

  As his sword belt was hung  about  his waist, the soulless ones stirred within the holds of the vessels.

  As  he  put on his gauntlets of leather and steel, his fleet, driven by winds fanned by the Rakasha, approached the port.

  As  he motioned to  his young steward, Olvagga, to  follow him into the courtyard, the  warriors who never spoke mounted the  decks of the ships and faced the burning harbor.

  As the  engines within  the  dark sky  gondola rumbled and the door was opened before them, the first of his ships dropped anchor.

  As they entered the gondola, the first of his troops entered Mahartha.

  When they reached Mahartha, the city had fallen.

  Birds sang  in the  high, green  places of the garden.  Fish,  like old coins, lay at the bottom of the blue  pool. The flowers in bloom were mainly red and big-petaled; but there were also occasional yellow wunlips about her jade  bench.  There was a white, wrought-iron back  to  it, upon  which  she rested  her  left hand while  she  regarded the flagstones across  which his boots scuffed as he moved in her direction.

  "Sir, this is  a private  garden," she  stated.  He  stopped before the bench and looked down at her. He  was beefy, tanned, dark of  eye and beard, expressionless until he smiled. He wore blue and leather.

  "Guests do not come  here," she added,  "but do use the gardens in  the other wing of the building. Go through yon archway- "

  "You were always welcome in my garden, Ratri," he said.

  "Your . . . ?"

  "Kubera."

  "Lord Kubera! You are not- "

  "Fat. I  know. New body,  and  it\'s been  working hard. Building Yama\'s weapons, transporting them. . ."/p>

  "When did you arrive?" "This minute. I brought Krishna back, along with a load of firepacks, grenades and antipersonnel mines. . ."

  "Gods! It\'s been so long , . ."

  "Yes. Very. But an apology is still due you, so I have come to give it. It has  bothered me these many  years.  I am sorry, Ratri, about that night, long ago, when I dragged you into this thing.  I needed your Attribute, so I drafted you. I do not like to use people so."

  "I would  have left the City soon, at any rate, Kubera.  So do not feel overly guilty. I should prefer a more comely form, though, than this which I now wear. This is not essential, however."

  "I\'ll get you another body, lady."

  "Another  day, Kubera. Pray  sit  down. Here. Are you  hungry? Are  you thirsty?"

  "Yes, and yes."

  "Here is fruit, and soma. Or would you prefer tea?"

  "Soma, thank you."

  "Yama says Sam is recovered from his sainthood."

  "Good, the need for him is growing. Has he made any plans yet - for us to act upon?"

  "Yama has not told me. But perhaps Sam has not told Yama."

  The  branches shook violently  in a nearby  tree and Tak dropped to the ground, landing  upon all fours. He crossed the  flagstones and stood beside the bench.

  "All  this talk  has  awakened me,"  he  growled. "Who is  this fellow, Ratri?"

  "Lord Kubera, Tak."

  "It thou beest he- then oh, how changed!" said Tak.

  "And the same  might be said of yourself,  Tak of the Archives. Why are you still an ape? Yama could transmigrate you."

  "I am more useful  as an ape,"  said Tak. "I am an excellent spy - far better than a  dog. I am stronger than a man. And who can tell one ape  from another? I will remain in this form until there is no longer any need for my special services."

  "Commendable. Has there been further news of Nirriti\'s movements?"

  "His  vessels  move nearer the large ports  than was their wont  in the past,"  said Tak. "There  appear  to  be more  of them, also.  Beyond  this, nothing. It would seem the gods fear him, for they do not destroy him."

  "Yes," said Kubera, "for now he is an unknown. I\'m inclined to think of him as  Ganesha\'s  mistake.  It was he who permitted  him  to  leave  Heaven unmolested,  and to take  what equipment he  did with him.  I think  Ganesha wanted someone available as an enemy of Heaven, should the need for one ever arise in a hurry. He must never  have dreamed  a nontechnical could have put the equipment to the uses he did, and build up the forces he now commands."

  "There is logic in what you  say,"  said Ratri. "Even I have heard that Ganesha often moves in such a manner. What will he do now?"

  "Give Nirriti  the first  city  he  attacks,  to observe  his means  of offense and assess his  strength- if he can  persuade Brahma to hold  back. Then strike at Nirriti. Mahartha must fall, and we must stand near. It would be interesting even to watch."

  "But you feel we will do more than watch?" asked Tak.

  "Indeed. Sam  knows  we  must be  on hand to  make more  pieces of  the pieces, and  then to  pick some up. We will have to move as soon  as someone else does, Tak, which may be soon."

  "At last," said Tak. "I have always wanted to go to battle at the  side of the Binder."

  "In the weeks to come,  I am certain that almost as many wishes will be granted as broken."

  "More soma? More fruit?"

  "Thank you, Ratri."

  "And you, Tak?"

  "A banana, perhaps."

  Within the  shadow of  the forest,  at the peak of  a high hill, Brahma sat, like a statue  of a god  mounted upon a gargoyle, staring downward into Mahartha.

  "They defile the Temple."

  "Yes,"  answered  Ganesha. "The Black One\'s feelings  have not  changed over the years."

  "In a way,  it is a pity. In another way, it is frightening. His troops had rifles and sidearms."

  "Yes. They are very strong. Let us return to the gondola."

  "In a moment."

  "I fear, Lord . . . they may be too strong- at this point."

  "What do you suggest?"

  "They cannot sail  up the river. If they would attack Lananda they must go overland."

  "True. Unless he has sufficient sky vessels."

  "And if they would attack Khaipur they must go even farther."

  "Aye! And  if they would attack Kilbar they must go farther yet! Get to your point! What are you trying to say?"

  "The farther they go,  the  greater their  logistic  problems, the more vulnerable they become to guerrilla tactics along the way - "

  "Are you proposing  I do nothing but harass them? That I let them march across  the  land,  taking   city  after  city?   They  will  dig  in  until reinforcements come to hold  what they have gained, then they will move  on. Only a fool would do otherwise. If we wait- "

  "Look down below!"

  "What? What is it?"

  "They are preparing to move out."

  "Impossible!"

  "Brahma,  you forget  that Nirriti is a  fanatic, a madman.  He doesn\'t want Mahartha, or Lananda or Khaipur either. He wants to destroy our Temples and  ourselves.  The  only other things he cares about in  those cities  are souls,  not bodies.  He will move across the land destroying every symbol of our religion that he comes upon, until we choose to carry the fight to  him. If we do nothing, he will probably then send in missionaries."

  "Well, we must do something!"

  "Then  weaken him as he moves. When he is weak enough, strike! Give him Lananda. Khaipur,  too, if necessary. Even Kilbar and Hamsa. When he is weak enough, smash him. We can  spare the  cities.  How many  have  we  destroyed ourselves? You cannot even remember!"

  "Thirty-six," said Brahma.  "Let us return to Heaven  while I  consider this thing. If I follow your advice and he  withdraws  before he becomes too weakened, then we have lost much."

  "I\'m willing to gamble that he won\'t."

  "The dice  are  not yours to cast, Ganesha,  but mine. And  see, he has those  cursed Rakasha  with him! Let us  depart  quickly, before they detect us."

  "Yes, quickly!"

  They turned their slizzards back toward the forest.

  Krishna put aside his pipes when the messenger was brought to him.

  "Yes?" he asked.

  "Mahartha has fallen . . ."

  Krishna stood.

  "And Nirriti prepares to march upon Lananda."

  "What have the gods done in defense?"

  "Nothing. Nothing at all."

  "Come with me. The Lokapalas are about to confer."

  Krishna left his pipes upon the table.

  That night, Sam  stood  upon the highest balcony of Ratri\'s palace. The rains fell about him, coming like cold nails through the wind. Upon his left hand, an iron ring glowed with an emerald radiance.

  The lightning fell and fell and fell, and remained.

  He raised his  hand and the thunders roared and roared, like the  death cries of all the dragons who might ever have lived, sometime, somewhere. . . .

  The night fell back  as the fire  elementals stood before the Palace of Kama.

  Sam  raised both  hands together,  and they climbed into the air as one and hovered high in the night.

  He gestured and  they moved above Khaipur, passing from one end of  the city to the other.

  Then they circled.

  Then they split apart and danced within the storm.

  He lowered his hands.

  They returned and stood once more before him.

  He did not move. He waited.

  After a hundred heartbeats, it came and spoke to him out of the night:

  "Who are you, to command the slaves of the Rakasha?"

  "Bring me Taraka," said Sam.

  "I take orders from no mortal."

  "Then  look upon the  flames of my  true being, ere I  bind you  to yon metal flagpole for so long as it shall stand."

  "Binder! You live!"

  "Bring me Taraka," he repeated.

  "Yes, Siddhartha. Thy will be done."

  Sam clapped his hands and  the  elementals leapt skyward  and the night was dark about him once more.

  The Lord of Hellwell took upon him a manlike form and entered  the room where Sam sat alone.

  "The  last ever I saw of you was upon the  day of the Great Battle," he stated. "Later, I heard that they had found a way of destroying you."

  "As you can see, they did not."

  "How came you into the world again?"

  "Lord Yama fetched me back- the One in Red."

  "His power is indeed great."

  "It proved sufficient. How go things with the Rakasha these days?"

  "Well. We continue your fight."

  "Really? In what ways?"

  "We  aid your old ally- the Black One, Lord Nirriti-  in his campaign against the gods."

  "I suspected this. It is the reason I have contacted you."

  "You wish to ride with him?"

  "I have thought it over carefully, and despite  my comrades\' objections I do wish to ride with  him- provided he will make an agreement with us.  I want you to carry my message to him."

  "What is the message, Siddhartha?"

  "The message is  that the Lokapalas- these being Yama, Krishna, Kubera and myself- will ride to battle with him against the gods, bringing all our supporters, powers, and machineries to  bear upon them, if he will agree not to war against the followers of either Buddhism or Hinduism as they exist in the world, for  purposes of converting them to his persuasion- and further, that he will not seek to suppress  Accelerationism,  as the gods have  done, should we prove victorious. Look upon his  flames  as he speaks  his answer, and tell me whether he speaks it true."

  "Do you think he will agree to this, Sam?"

  "I  do.  He knows that, if the gods  were no longer present  to enforce Hinduism as they do, then he would gain  converts. He can see this from what I managed  to do  with Buddhism, despite their opposition. He feels that his way is the only right way and  that it is destined to prevail in the face of competition. I  think he would agree  to  fair competition for  this reason. Take him this message and bring me his answer. All right?"

  Taraka wavered. His face and left arm became smoke.

  "Sam . . ."

  "What?"

  "Which one is the right way?"

  "Huh? You\'re asking me that? How should I know?"

  "Mortals call you Buddha."

  "That is only because they are afflicted with language and ignorance."

  "No. I have  looked upon your  flames  and name  you Lord of Light. You bind  them as you bound us,  you loose them as  you loosed us. Yours was the power to lay a belief upon them. You are what you claimed to be."

  "I lied. I never believed in it myself, and I still don\'t. I could just as  easily  have   chosen  another  way-  say,  Nirriti\'s  religion-  only crucifixion hurts. I might  have chosen one  called Islam,  only  I know too well how it mixes with Hinduism. My choice  was  based upon calculation, not inspiration, and I am nothing."

  "You are the Lord of Light."

  "Go deliver my message now. We can discuss religion another day."

  "The Lokapalas, you say, are Yama, Krishna, Kubera and yourself?"

  "Yes."

  "Then he  does live. Tell me,  Sam, before I go . . .  could you defeat Lord Yama in battle?"

  "I do not know. I don\'t think so, though. I don\'t think anybody could."

  "But could he defeat you?"

  "Probably, in a fair fight.  Whenever we met as enemies  in the past, I was sometimes  lucky and sometimes I managed  to trick him. I\'ve fenced with him recently  and he is without  peer. He is too versatile in  the  ways  of destruction."

  "I  see,"  said Taraka, his right arm and half his chest drifting away. "Then good night upon you, Siddhartha. I take your message with me."

  "Thank you, and good night upon yourself."

  Taraka became all smoke and fled forth into the storm.

  High above the world, spinning: Taraka. The  storm raged about him, but he took scant notice of its fury.

  The thunders fell and the rain came down and the Bridge of the Gods was invisible.  But none of these things bothered him.  For he was Taraka of the Rakasha, Lord of Hellwell. . .

  And he had  been  the mightiest  creature  in  the world, save for  the Binder.

  Now  the Binder had told him that  there was One  Greater. . . and they were to fight together, as before.

  How insolently he had stood in his Red  and  his Power! That day.  Over half a century ago. By the Vedra.

  To destroy Yama-Dharma, to defeat Death, would prove Taraka  supreme. . . .

  To prove Taraka supreme was more important than defeating the gods, who must one day pass, anyhow, for they were not of the Rakasha.

  Therefore, the  Binder\'s  message to  Nirriti- to  which  he had  said Nirriti would agree-  would be spoken only  to the storm,  and Taraka would look upon its flames and know that it spoke true.

  For the storm never lies . . . and it always says No!

  The dark sergeant brought him into camp. He had been resplendent in his armor, with  its bright  trappings,  and  he had not been  captured; he  had walked up to  him and stated  that  he had a message  for  Nirriti. For this reason, the  sergeant decided against  slaying him  immediately. He took his weapons, conducted him into the camp - there in the wood near Lananda- and left him under guard while he consulted his leader.

  Nirriti and Olvegg sat within a black tent. A map of Lananda was spread before them.

  When they permitted him  to bring  the prisoner into  the tent, Nirriti regarded him and dismissed the sergeant.

  "Who are you?" he asked.

  "Ganesha of  the City.  The  same who  aided  you  in  your flight from Heaven."

  Nirriti appeared to consider this.

  "Well  do I remember my one friend  from  the old days,"  he said. "Why have you come to me?"

  "Because the time is propitious to do so. You  have  finally undertaken the great crusade."

  "Yes."

  "I would hold privy counsel with you concerning it."

  "Speak then."

  "What of this fellow?"

  "To speak before Jan  Olvegg is to speak before me. Say what is on your mind."

  "Olvegg?"

  "Yes."

  "Just so. I have come  to tell you that the Gods of the City are  weak. Too weak, I feel, to defeat you."

  "I had felt this to be true."

  "But they are not so weak as to  be unable  to hurt  you immensely when they  do move. Things might  hang  in the  balance if they muster all  their forces at the proper moment."

  "I came to battle with this in mind, also."

  "Better  your  victory be  less  costly.  You  know  I  am a  Christian sympathizer."

  "What is it you have in mind?"

  "I  volunteered to lead some guerrilla fighting solely to tell you that Lananda is  yours. They will not defend  it. If you continue to move as  you have- not consolidating your gains- and you move upon Khaipur, Brahma will not defend it either. But when you come to Kilbar, your forces weakened from the  battles for the first three cities and from these, our raids along  the way, then will Brahma  strike with the full might of Heaven, that you may go down to  defeat before the walls of Kilbar. All the powers of  the Celestial City have been readied. They  wait  for you to dare  the gates of the fourth city of the river."

  "I see. That is good to know. Then they do fear that which I bear."

  "Of course. Will you bear it as far as Kilbar?"

  "Yes.  And I will win in  Kilbar, also. I  shall send for  my mightiest weapons before we attack that city. The powers which I have held back to use upon the Celestial City itself will  be unleashed upon my enemies when  they come to the defense of doomed Kilbar."

  "They, too, will bring mighty weapons."

  "Then, when we meet, the outcome will lie neither in their hands nor in my hands, really."

  "There is a way to tip the balance even further, Renfrew."

  "Oh? What else have you in mind?"

  "Many of the demigods are dissatisfied with the  situation in the City. They had wanted a prolonged campaign against Accelerationism and against the followers of Tathagatha. They were  disappointed  when  this did not  follow Keenset. Also,  Lord Indra has been  recalled  from  the  eastern continent, where he was  carrying the war against  the witches. Indra could be made  to appreciate the sentiments of the  demigods- and his followers will come hot from another battlefield."

  Ganesha adjusted his cloak.

  "Speak on," said Nirriti.

  "When they come to Kilbar," said Ganesha, "it may be that they will not fight in its defense."

  "I see. What will you gain from all this, Ganesha?"

  "Satisfaction."

  "Nothing more?"

  "I would that you recall one day that I made this visit."

  "So be it.  I  shall  not  forget,  and  you shall  have  reward  of me afterward. . . . Guard!"

  The  tent  flap  was opened,  and  the  one  who  had  brought  Ganesha re-entered the tent.

  "Escort  this man wherever  he  wants  to  be  taken,  and  release him unharmed," Nirriti ordered.

  "You would trust this one?" asked Olvegg, after he bad gone.

  "Yes," said Nirriti, "but I would give him his silver afterward."

  The Lokapalas sat to counsel within Sam\'s chamber at the Palace of Kama in Khaipur. Also present were Tak and Ratri.

  "Taraka tells me that Nirriti will not have us on our terms," said Sam.

  "Good," said Yama. "I half feared he would agree."

  "And in the morning  they attack  Lananda. Taraka feels they  will take the city.  It  will be a little  more difficult than Mahartha was, but he is certain they will win. I am too."

  "And I."

  "And I."

  "Then he  will move on to this city, Khaipur. Then Kilbar,  then Hamsa, then Gayatri.  Somewhere  along  this route,  he  knows the gods  will  move against him."

  "Of course."

  "So we  are in the middle  and  we  have  several choices before us. We could not make a deal with  Nirriti. Do you  think we could  make  one  with Heaven?"

  "No!" said Yama,  slamming his fist upon the table. "Which side are you on, Sam?"

  "Acceleration," he replied. "If it can be procured through negotiation, rather than unnecessary bloodshed, so much the better."

  "I\'d rather deal with Nirriti than Heaven!"

  "So  let  us vote upon  it  as  we  did  upon  making the  contact with Nirriti."

  "And you require only one assent to win."

  "Those were my terms upon entering the  Lokapalas. You asked me to lead you, so I  require the  power to break a tie.  Let me  explain my reasoning, though, before we talk of a vote."

  "Very well- talk!"

  "Heaven has, in recent  years, developed a more liberal attitude toward Acceleration,  as I  understand  it.  There  has been no official  change of position,  but no  steps  have  been  taken  against  Acceleration  either- presumably because of the beating they took at Keenset. Am I not correct?"

  "Essentially," said Kubera.

  "It seems that they have decided such actions would be too costly every time Science rears  its  ugly head.  There  were  people,  humans,  fighting against them in that battle. Against Heaven. And people, unlike our  selves, have  families, have ties which weaken them- and  they are bound  to keep a clean karmic record if they desire rebirth. Still, they fought. Accordingly, Heaven has been moved to greater lenience in recent years. Since this is the situation as it actually exists,  they have nothing to lose by acknowledging it. In fact, they  could make it show to their favor, as a benign gesture of divine  graciousness.  I  think that  they  would  be  willing to  make  the concessions Nirriti would not- "

  "I want to see Heaven fall," said Yama.

  "Of course. So do I. But think  carefully. Just with what  you\'ve given to humans over the  past half century- can Heaven hold  this  world in fief much  longer? Heaven  fell that day at  Keenset. Another generation, perhaps two,  and  its power over  mortals  will have  passed.  In  this battle with Nirriti  they will be  hurt  further, even in victory. Give them a  few more years  of  decadent glory.  They become  more and more impotent  with  every season. They have reached their peak. Their decline has set in."

  Yama lit a cigarette.

  "Is it that you want someone to kill Brahma for you?" asked Sam.

  Yama sat  silently,  drew upon the cigarette, exhaled. Then, "Perhaps," he said. "Perhaps that is it. I do not know. I don\'t like to think about it. It is probably true, though."

  "Would you like my guarantee that Brahma will die?"

  "No! If you try it, I\'ll kill you!"

  "You  feel that  you do not really know whether you want Brahma dead or alive.  Perhaps it is that you love  and hate simultaneously.  You  were old before you were young, Yama, and she was the only thing you ever cared  for. Am I right?"

  "Yes."

  "Then I have no answer  for you,  for  your own troubles, but you  must separate yourself this much from the problem at hand."

  "All  right,  Siddhartha.  I vote to stop Nirriti  here  at Khaipur, if Heaven will back us."

  "Does anybody have any objections to this?"

  There was silence.

  "Then let us  journey to the Temple  and commandeer  its communications unit."

  Yama put out his cigarette.

  "But I will not speak with Brahma," he said.

  "I\'ll do the talking," said Sam.

  Ili, the fifth note of the harp, buzzed within the Garden of the Purple Lotus.

  When Brahma activated the screen within his Pavilion, he saw  a man who wore the blue-green turban of Urath.

  "Where is the priest?" asked Brahma.

  "Tied up  outside. I can have him dragged in, if  you\'d like to  hear a prayer or two. . ."

  "Who are you that  wears the turban of the First and  goes armed in the Temple?"

  "I have a strange feeling of having been through all this once before," said the man.

  "Answer my questions!"

  "Do you want Nirriti  stopped. Lady?  Or do  you want  to  give him all these cities along the river?"

  "You try the patience of Heaven, mortal? You shall not leave the Temple alive."

  "Your  threats of death mean  nothing  to the  chief of the  Lokapalas, Kali."

  "The Lokapalas are no more, and they had no chief."

  "You look upon him, Durga."

  "Yama? Is that you?"

  "No, but he is here with me- as are Krishna, and Kubera."

  "Agni is dead. Every new Agni has died since. . ."

  "Keenset. I know, Candi. I was not  a member of the original team. Rild didn\'t kill  me. The phantom  cat who  shall remain nameless did a good job, but it  wasn\'t good enough. And now I\'ve crossed back over the Bridge of the Gods. The Lokapalas  have  chosen me as their leader. We will defend Khaipur and break Nirriti, if Heaven will help us."

  "Sam . . . it couldn\'t be you!"

  "Then call me Kalkin, or Siddhartha, or Tathagatha, or Mahasamatman, or Binder, or Buddha, or Maitreya. It\'s Sam,  though.  I have  come  to worship thee and make a bargain."

  "Name it."

  "Men have been able to live with Heaven, but Nirriti is another matter. Yama and Kubera have  brought weapons into the  city. We  can fortify it and whip up  a  good defense. If Heaven will add its  power  to our own, Nirriti will meet his  downfall at Khaipur. We will do this, if Heaven will sanction Acceleration  and  religious  freedom, and  end  the  reign of  the Lords of Karma."

  "That\'s quite a bit, Sam . . ."

  "The first two merely  amount to agreeing that something does exist and has a right to go  on.  The  third will come to pass whether you like  it or not, so I\'m giving you a chance to be graceful about it."

  "I\'ll have to think . . ."

  "Take a minute. I\'ll  wait. If the answer is no, though, we\'ll pull out and let Renfrew have this city, defile this Temple. After  he\'s  taken a few more, you\'ll  have to meet him. We won\'t  be around then, though. We\'ll wait till it\'s  all over. If you\'re  still in business then, you won\'t  be in any position to decide about those terms I just gave you. If you\'re not, I think we\'ll be able to take the Black One on and best him and what will be left of his  zombies. Either way, we get what we  want. This  way  is easier on you, though."

  "All right! I\'ll muster  the forces immediately. We will  ride together in this last battle, Kalkin. Nirriti dies at Khaipur! Keep someone there  in the comm-room, so we can stay in contact."

  "I\'ll make this my headquarters."

  "Now untie the priest and bring him here. He  is about to receive  some divine orders, and, shortly, a divine visitation."

  "Yes, Brahma."

  "Sam,  wait! After the battle, should we live, I would  talk with you- concerning mutual worship."

  "You wish to become a Buddhist?"

  "No, a woman again . . ."

  "There is a place and a moment for all things, and this is neither."

  "When the time and the moment occur, I will be there."

  "I\'ll get you your priest now. Hold the line."

  Now after the fall of Lananda, Nirriti held a service amid the ruins of that city,  praying for  victory over the  other  cities. His dark sergeants beat the  drums slowly and  the zombies fell to  their knees. Nirriti prayed until the perspiration covered  his face like a mask of glass and light, and it  ran down inside  his prosthetic armor,  which  gave  him the strength of many.  Then he lifted up his face  to the heavens, looked upon the Bridge of the Gods and said, "Amen."

  Then he turned and headed toward Khaipur, his army rising at his back.

  When Nirriti came to Khaipur, the gods were waiting.

  The troops from Kilbar were waiting, as well as those of Khaipur.

  And the demigods and the heroes and the nobles were waiting.

  And the high-ranking Brahmins and many of the followers of Mahasamatman were waiting. These latter having come in the name of the Divine Esthetic.

  Nirriti looked  across the  mined  field that  led to  the walls of the city,  and  he  saw the four horsemen who were the  Lokapalas waiting by the gate, the banners of Heaven flaring beside them in the wind.

  He lowered his visor and turned to Olvegg.

  "You were right. I wonder if Ganesha waits within?"

  "We will know soon enough."

  Nirriti continued his advance.

  This was the day  when the Lord of Light held the field. The minions of Nirriti never entered Khaipur. Ganesha fell beneath the blade of  Olvegg, as he  was attempting  to  backstab Brahma, who had closed with Nirriti  upon a hillock. Olvegg then fell, clutching his stomach, and began  crawling toward a rock.

  Brahma and the Black One then  faced one another on  foot and Ganesha\'s head rolled into a gully.

  "That one told me Kilbar," said Nirriti.

  "That one wanted Kilbar,"  said Brahma, "and tried to  make  it Kilbar. Now I know why."

  They  sprang together and Nirriti\'s  armor  fought  for  him  with  the strength of many.

  Yama spurred his horse toward  the rise and was enveloped in a swirling of dust and  sand. He raised his cloak to his eyes and  laughter  rang about him.

  "Where is your death-gaze now, Yama-Dharma?"

  "Rakasha!" he snarled.

  "Yes. It is I, Taraka!"

  And Yama  was suddenly  drenched with gallons of  water;  and his horse reared, falling over backward.

  He was  upon his  feet  with his blade  in his  hand, when the  flaming whirlwind coalesced into a manlike form.

  "I\'ve washed you clean of that-which-repels, deathgod. Now you shall go down to destruction at my band!"

  Yama lunged forward with his blade.

  He  cut through his gray  opponent from shoulder to thigh, but no blood came and there was no sign of the passage of his blade.

  "You cannot cut  me down as you would a  man, oh Death! But see  what I can do to you!"

  Taraka leapt upon him, pinning his arms to his sides and bearing him to the ground. A fountain of sparks arose.

  In the  distance,  Brahma  had  his  knee upon Nirriti\'s spine  and was bending his head backward, against the power  of the black  armor. This  was when Lord  Indra leapt down  from the back  of his  slizzard and raised  his sword Thunderbolt against Brahma. He heard Nirriti\'s neck break.

  "It is your cloak that protects you!"  Taraka cried out, from  where he wrestled on the ground; and then he looked into the eyes of Death. . . .

  Yama felt Taraka weaken sufficiently to push him away.

  He sprang to his feet and  raced toward Brahma without stopping to pick up his blade. There on the hill, Brahma parried Thunderbolt again and again, blood spurting from the stump of his  severed  left  arm and streaming  from wounds of the head and chest. Nirriti held his ankle in a grip of steel.

  Yama cried out as he charged, drawing his dagger.

  Indra  drew back,  out of  range of  Brahma\'s blade, and turned to face him.

  "A dagger against Thunderbolt, Red One?" he asked.

  "Aye," said Yama, striking with  his right hand and dropping the  blade into his left for the true strike.

  The point entered Indra\'s forearm.

  Indra dropped Thunderbolt and struck Yama in the jaw. Yama fell, but he swept Indra\'s legs out from under him, carrying him to the ground.

  His Aspect possessed him completely then, and as he glared Indra seemed to wither  beneath his gaze. Taraka leapt upon his back just  as Indra died. Yama tried  to  free himself, but it felt as if  a  mountain lay across  his shoulders.

  Brahma, who lay  beside Nirriti, tore off  his harness, which had  been soaked with demon repellant. With his right hand he cast it across the space that separated them, so that it fell beside Yama.

  Taraka withdrew, and Yama  turned and gazed upon him. Thunderbolt  then leapt up from where it had fallen  upon  the ground  and sped toward  Yama\'s breast.

  Yama seized the blade with both  hands,  its point inches away from his heart. It began to move forward and the blood dripped from the palms of  his hands and fell upon the ground.

  Brahma turned a death-gaze upon the  Lord of Hellwell, a gaze that drew now upon the force of life itself within him.

  The point touched Yama.

  Yama  threw  himself to  the side,  turning,  and  it  gouged him  from breastbone to shoulder as it passed.

  Then his  eyes were two spears,  and the Rakasha lost  his manlike form and became smoke. Brahma\'s head fell upon his breast.

  Taraka screamed as Siddhartha rode toward him  upon a white  horse, the air crackling and smelling of ozone:

  "No, Binder! Hold your power! My death belongs to Yama . . ."

  "Oh foolish demon!" said Sam. "It need not have been . . ."

  But Taraka was no more.

  Yama fell to his knees beside Brahma and tied  a tourniquet  about what remained of his left arm.

  "Kali!" he said. "Don\'t die! Talk to me. Kali!"

  Brahma gasped and his eyes flickered open, but closed again.

  "Too late," mumbled Nirriti. He turned his head and looked at Yama. "Or rather, just in time. You\'re Azrael, aren\'t you? The Angel of Death . . ."

  Yama  slapped  him, and  the blood  upon his  hand  was  smeared across Nirriti\'s face.

  "\'Blessed  are  the  poor  in spirit,  for  theirs  is  the  kingdom of heaven,\'"  said Nirriti.  "\'Blessed  are they that mourn, for  they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.\' "

  Yama slapped him again.

  "\'Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after  righteousness, for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. . . .\'"

  "\'And blessed are  the peacemakers,\'" said  Yama, "\'for they  shall  be called the children of God.\' How  do you fit  into  the picture. Black  One? Whose child are you, to have wrought as you have done?"

  Nirriti smiled and  said, "\'Blessed are  they  who  are persecuted  for righteousness\' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.\'"

  "You  are  mad," said  Yama,  "and I will not take your life  for  that reason. Give it away yourself, when you are ready, which should be soon."

  He lifted Brahma then in his  arms  and began  walking back toward  the city.

  "\'Blessed  are ye,  when men shall revile  you,\'"  said Nirriti,  "\'and persecute you, and say all manner of evil things against you falsely, for my sake. . . .\'"

  "Water?"  asked Sam, unstoppering  his canteen  and  raising  Nirriti\'s head.

  Nirriti  looked  at him, licked his lips,  nodded slightly. He trickled the water into his mouth.

  "Who are you?" he asked.

  "Sam."

  "You? You rose again?"

  "It doesn\'t count," said Sam. "I didn\'t do it the hard way."

  Tears filled  the Black  One\'s eyes. "It means you\'ll  win, though," he gasped. "I can\'t understand why He permitted it . . ."

  "This is only one world, Renfrew. Who knows what goes on elsewhere? And that  isn\'t  really the fight I wanted  to win,  anyhow. You know  that. I\'m sorry for you, and I\'m sorry about  the whole thing. I agree with everything you said to Yama, and so do the followers of the one they called the Buddha. I  don\'t recall any longer  whether I was really that one, or whether it was another.  But I am gone away  from  that one now. I shall  return to being a man, and  I  shall  let the people keep  the Buddha who is in  their hearts. Whatever the  source,  the message was  pure, believe me. That  is  the only reason it took root and grew."

  Renfrew swallowed another drink.

  "\'Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit,\'" he said. "It was a will greater than mine that  determined  I die in  the arms of the Buddha, that decided upon this  Way for this world. . . . Give me  your blessing, oh Gautama. I die now. . ."

  Sam bowed his head.

  "\'The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north. It whirleth about continually, and  the wind  returneth again according  to his circuits. All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full. Unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again. The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be, and  that which is done is that  which shall be done. There is no remembrance of former things, neither shall there be  any remembrance of things that  are to  come with those that  shall come after. . . .\'"

  Then he covered the Black One with his cloak of white, for he had died.

  Jan Olvegg was born  in a litter into the town. Sam sent for Kubera and for Narada to meet him at the  Hall of Karma,  for  it  was  apparent Olvegg would not be long alive in his present body.

  When  they entered the Hall, Kubera  stumbled over the dead man who lay within the archway.

  "Who . . . ?" he asked.

  "A Master."

  Three more wearers of the yellow wheel lay within the corridor that led to their transfer rooms. All of them bore arms.

  They found another near the machinery. The thrust of a blade had caught him precisely  in the  center of  his yellow  circle, and  he  looked like a well-used target. His  mouth  was  still opened  for the scream  he\'d  never screamed.

  "Could the townsmen have done this?"  asked  Narada.  "The Masters have grown more unpopular  in recent  years. Perhap they  took  advantage of  the battle frenzy. . ."

  "No," said Kubera, as he raised the stained sheet that covered the body upon the  operating table, looked beneath it, lowered it. "No, it wasn\'t the townsmen."

  "Who, then?"

  He glanced back at the table.

  "That\'s Brahma," he said.

  "Oh."

  "Someone must  have told  Yama he couldn\'t  use the machinery  to try a transfer."

  "Then where\'s Yama?"

  "I have no idea. But we\'d better work  fast if  we\'re going  to  manage Olvegg."

  "Yes. Move!"

  The  tall youth  strode  into  the Palace of Kama and  asked after Lord Kubera.  He bore a long, gleaming  spear across his shoulder, and  he  paced without pause as he waited.

  Kubera entered the chamber, glanced  at  the spear, at the youth,  said one word.

  "Yes, it is Tak," replied the spearman. "New spear, new Tak. No need to remain an ape any longer, so I didn\'t.  The time of departure  is near, so I came to say good-bye- to you and to Ratri. . . "

  "Where will you go, Tak?"

  "Td like to  see  the rest of  the world, Kubera, before  you manage to mechanize all the magic out of it."

  "That day is nowhere  near at hand, Tak.  Let me persuade you to stay a while longer. . ."

  "No, Kubera. Thank you, but Captain Olvegg is  anxious to get along. He and I are moving out together."

  "Where will you be going?"

  "East, west.  . . who  knows?  Whatever quarter beckons. . . . Tell me, Kubera, who owns the thunder chariot now?"

  "It belonged to Shiva  originally, of course. But there no  longer is a Shiva. Brahma used it for a long while."

  "But  there no longer is a Brahma. Heaven is without  one for the first time- as Vishnu rules, preserving. So . . ."

  "Yama built it. If it belongs to anyone, it belongs to him . . ."

  "And he has no use for it," finished Tak. "So I think Olvegg and I will borrow it for our journeying."

  "What mean  you he  has no use for it? No one has  seen him these three days since the battle- "

  "Hello,  Ratri,"  said Tak, and the goddess of Night  entered the room. "\'Guard us from the  she-wolf and the wolf, and guard us from the  thief, oh Night, and so be good for us to pass.\'"

  He bowed and she touched his head.

  Then he  looked  up into her  face,  and  for  one splendid  moment the goddess filled wide space, to its depths and its heights. Her radiance drove out the dark. . ..

  "I must go now," he said. "Thank you, thank you- for your blessing."

  He  turned quickly  and started from the chamber.  "Wait!" said Kubera. "You spoke of Yama. Where is he?"

  "Seek him at the Inn of the Three-Headed Fire-Hen," Tak said,  over his shoulder,  "if you  must  seek him, that is.  Perhaps \'twere better you wait till he seeks you, though."

  Then Tak was gone.

  As Sam approached  the Palace  of  Kama, he  saw  Tak hurrying down the stair.

  "Tak, a good  morning  to you!" he called, but Tak did not answer until he was almost upon him.  Then  he halted abruptly and  shielded his eyes, as against the sun.

  "Sir! Good morning."

  "Where hurry you, Tak?  Fresh from trying out your  new body and off to lunch?"

  Tak   chuckled.   "Aye,  Lord  Siddhartha.  I\'ve  an  appointment  with adventure."

  "So I\'ve heard.  I  spoke with Olvegg  last night. . . . Fare thee well upon thy journeying."

  "I wanted to tell you," said Tak, "that I knew you\'d win.  I knew you\'d find the answer."

  "It wasn\'t the answer,  but it was an answer, and it wasn\'t  much, Tak. It was just a small battle. They could have done as well without me."

  "I mean," said  Tak, "everything. You figured in everything that led up to it. You had to be there."

  "I suppose I  did . . . yes, I do suppose I did. . . . Something always manages to draw me near the tree that lightning is about to fall upon."

  "Destiny, sir."

  "Rather an accidental social conscience and  some right mistake-making, I fear."

  "What will you do now. Lord?"

  "I don\'t know, Tak. I haven\'t decided yet."

  "Come with Olvegg and me? Ride with us about the world?  Adventure with us?"

  "Thank you, no. I\'m  tired. Maybe I\'ll ask for your old job  and become Sam of the Archives."

  Tak chuckled once more.

  "I doubt it. I\'ll see you again. Lord. Good-bye now."

  "Good-bye. . .. There is something . . ."

  "What?"

  "Nothing. For a moment, something you did reminded me of someone I once knew. It was nothing. Good luck!"

  He clasped him on the shoulder and walked by. Tak hurried on.

  The innkeeper  told  Kubera  that they  did have a guest who  fit  that description, second  floor,  rear room, but that perhaps  he  should not  be disturbed.

  Kubera climbed to the second floor.

  No one answered his knocking, so he tried the door.

  It was bolted within, so he pounded upon it.

  Finally, he heard Yama\'s voice:

  "Who is it?"

  "Kubera."

  "Go away, Kubera."

  "No. Open up, or I\'ll wait here till you do."

  "Bide a moment, then."

  After a time, he heard a  bar lifted and the door  swung several inches inward.

  "No liquor on your breath, so I\'d say it\'s a wench," he stated.

  "No," said Yama, looking out at him. "What do you want?"

  "To find out what\'s wrong. To help you, if I can."

  "You can\'t, Kubera."

  "How do you  know? I,  too, am an artificer- of  a different  sort, of course."

  Yama  appeared  to  consider this, then he  opened the door and stepped aside. "Come in," he said.

  The girl sat on the  floor,  a heap of various  objects before her. She was scarcely more than a child, and she  hugged a brown and  white puppy and looked  at  Kubera  with wide, frightened eyes,  until  he gestured and  she smiled.

  "Kubera," said Yama.

  "Koo-bra," said the girl.

  "She is my daughter," said Yama. "Her name is Murga."

  "I never knew you had a daughter."

  "She is retarded. She suffered some brain damage."

  "Congenital, or transfer effect?" asked Kubera.

  "Transfer effect."

  "I see."

  "She is my daughter," repeated Yama, "Murga."

  "Yes," said Kubera.

  Yama dropped to his knees at her side and picked up a block.

  "Block," he said.

  "Block," said the girl.

  He held up a spoon. "Spoon," he said.

  "Spoon," said the girl.

  He picked up a ball and held it before her. "Ball," he said.

  "Ball," said the girl.

  He  picked  up the  block  and  held it before  her again. "Ball,"  she repeated.

  Yama dropped it.

  "Help me, Kubera," he said.

  "I will, Yama. If there is a way, we will find it."

  He sat down beside him and raised  his hands. The spoon came alive with spoon-ness  and the  ball with  ball-ness and the block with block-ness, and the girl laughed. Even the puppy seemed to study the objects.

  "The Lokapalas are never defeated," said Kubera, and the girl picked up the block and stared at it for a long time before she named it.

  Now it is known  that Lord Varuna returned to  the Celestial City after Khaipur. The promotion system within the ranks of Heaven began to break down at about this same time. The Lords of Karma were replaced  by the Wardens of Transfer, and their function was divorced  from the Temples. The bicycle was rediscovered. Seven Buddhist shrines were erected. Nirriti\'s Palace was made into an art gallery and Kama Pavilion. The Festival of Alundil continued  to be  held every year, and its  dancers  were  without equal. The purple grove still stands, tended by the faithful.

  Kubera remained with Ratri  in Khaipur. Tak departed with Olvegg in the thunder chariot, for an unknown destination. Vishnu ruled in Heaven.

  Those  who  prayed  to the seven Rishi thanked them for the bicycle and for the  timely avatar of the Buddha, whom they named Maitreya, meaning Lord of  Light, either because he could  wield lightnings or because he refrained from doing so. Others  continued to call him Mahasamatman and said he  was a god.  He  still preferred  to drop  the Maha- and  the -atman, however,  and continued to call himself Sam. He never  claimed to  be a  god. But then, of course, he never  claimed not  to  be a god.  Circumstances  being what they were, neither admission could be of  any  benefit.  Also, he did not  remain with his people for a sufficient period  of time to warrant much theological by-play. Several conflicting  stories  are told concerning  the  days of his passing.

  The one  thing  that is common to all the legends is  that a large  red bird with a tail thrice the length of its body came  to him  one day at dusk as he rode upon his horse beside the river.

  He  departed Khaipur before sunrise  the following day and was not seen again.

  Now  some  say  the occurrence of the bird was  coincidental  with  his departure, but in no way connected with  it. He  departed to seek  anonymous peace of a  saffron robe because  he had finished the task for which  he had returned, they say, and he  was already tired of the noise and  fame of  his victory.  Perhaps the bird reminded  him how quickly such brightness passes. Or perhaps it did not, if he had already made up his mind.

  Others say  that  he did  not take up the robe again, but that the bird was a messenger of the Powers Beyond Life, summoning him  back  again to the peace of Nirvana, to  know  forever the Great Rest, the perpetual bliss, and to hear the songs  the stars sing upon the shores of the great sea. They say he has crossed beyond the Bridge of the Gods. They say he will not return.

  Others say that he  took  upon him a new identity,  and  that  he walks among mankind  still, to guard and guide in the  days of strife,  to prevent the exploitation of the lower classes by those who come into power.

  Still others say that the  bird was a messenger, not of the next world, but of this one, and that the message it bore was not meant for him, but for the  wielder of Thunderbolt,  Lord Indra, who had looked into  the  eyes  of Death. Such a  bird as the red one had  never been seen before, though their kind is now known to exist upon the eastern  continent, where Indra had held battle  against the witches. If  the  bird bore  something like intelligence within its flaming  head, it might  have carried the message of some need in that far-off land. It must be remembered that the Lady Parvati, who had been either his wife, his mother, his  sister,  his  daughter, or perhaps all  of these to  Sam,  had fled to that  place  at the time the phantom cats looked upon Heaven, to  dwell there with the witches, whom she  counted as  kin. If the bird bore such a message, the tellers of this tale do not doubt but that he departed immediately for the eastern continent, to  effect  her  delivery from whatever peril was present.

  These are the four versions of Sam and the Red Bird Which Signalled His Departure, as  told  variously  by  the moralists, the  mystics,  the social reformers, and the romantics. One may, I  daresay,  select whichever version suits his fancy. He should, however, remember that such birds definitely are not found upon the western continent, but seem  to be quite prolific in  the east.

  Approximately a half year later, Yama-Dharma  departed Khaipur. Nothing specific is known of the  days  of the deathgod\'s going,  which most  people consider ample information. He left his daughter  Murga in the care of Ratri and Kubera and she  grew  into a  strikingly beautiful woman.  He  may  have ridden into the  east, possibly even crossing  over the sea. For  there is a legend in another place of how One in Red went up against the  power  of the Seven  Lords  of  Komlat in the land of  the witches. Of this, we cannot  be certain, any more than we can know the real end of the Lord of Light.

  But look around you . . .

  Death and Light are everywhere,  always,  and they begin, end,  strive, attend, into and upon  the Dream of the Nameless that is the world,  burning words within Samsara, perhaps to create a thing of beauty.

  As  the  wearers of the  saffron robe  still meditate upon the  Way  of Light, and  the  girl who is named Murga  visits the Temple daily, to  place before her dark one in his shrine the only devotion he receives, of flowers.

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