Sokran and the Twin Mad Monks
by Jay Stevol
A cry cut through the night. Sokran reined in his steed and scanned about. To all sides rose dank mildewed trees and rotting graves. He frowned.
“I don’t like the sound of that, Stubby. Not one bit.”
His steed snorted in reply.
“Not one bit,” repeated Sokran. He looked back along the trail he’d come, fingering the pommel of his saber.
“Then again,” he mused, “perhaps it’s someone in danger, and I’m no callous cur to ignore a soul in danger.”
He reined about and began to follow the sound of the cry. It had not reoccurred. He rode on for a bit, his eyes fixed on the blackness ahead. The trees clustered thickly now, brushing his face and arms and legs. Above him the moon was a pale white ball.
Sokran had been making his way to Kara Khotan when he had lost his way. A steppe nomad, he found civilized lands confounding, with their endless roads and ditches and paddyfields, and by dusk he had found himself in a strange graveyard, in the shadow of mountains. Never a superstitious man, he had pressed on, hoping to reach an inn by nightfall. It had not happened, and now he was tired and cold and hungry, and heeding strange cries in the dark.
A branch flew down and hit him in the face.
“The hell with this!” he spluttered, and made to turn back. At that moment a light appeared to his right, pale blue and wavering.
“What now?” he said.
The light grew brighter and stabilized. Sokran watched it for a moment, his stomach vying for control of his better judgment. Finally he leant down and patted his horse on the neck.
“What say you, Stubby? Shall we chance it?”
“Aye, aye,” he replied. “I remember the last time. Still, where there’s light, there’s warmth. And, maybe, food!”
He eased his mount onward. Within a few paces the trees thinned out into a clearing. In the middle of it stood a temple. It was an ancient place, black and seemingly deserted save for the lone light that shone from its topmost window. As Sokran looked, a moon-white face appeared at the window.
“Hoi, sir!” came a man’s voice.
“Monk,” called Sokran. “Was it you who cried out?”
“Indeed it was.”
“Then what is your problem?”
“A giant,” said the monk. “It came down from the hills last night and has made its home in the courtyard. I’ve locked myself in, but I fear that when it wakes it’ll get me.”
“When it wakes?”
“Yes. It drank all the rice-wine and fell asleep.”
“That is unfortunate. But what do you want me to do?
“You look like a soldier. Perhaps you could slay it for me.”
Sokran shook his head. “I’ll not slay a sleeping man, or giant, whatever it may be. It’s not right. Come to the doorway, and I’ll take you to safety.”
“I’m too scared.”
“Then climb down from the window.”
“I’m too scared for that, also.”
Sokran grunted. “Stay there then.”
“I know a trickster when I see one. Your bandit friends can go to hell, or whoever it is you really have in there with you.”
He turned to leave.
“Wait... there’s loot in it for you.”
The monk moved away from the window, and a moment later returned with a pendant that gleamed like jade.
“Throw it down.”
It dropped at his feet. He dismounted and picked it up.
“There’s more,” said the monk. “Much more.”
“As much as you like.”
“Very well,” said Sokran as his belly gurgled. He dismounted and tethered his steed to a nearby tree.
Warily, he went to the door. The moonlight shone into the courtyard beyond. Sokran strained his eyes, but the place appeared empty. He inched forward.
A clunk made him whirl about. The door had closed.
“Damn!” he said, drawing his saber. He rattled the handle and pushed, but it wouldn’t budge.
A chilling laugh sounded behind him. The monk had somehow appeared in the courtyard. He was dressed in an orange robe and his feet hovered off the ground.
“What manner of man are you?” said Sokran.
“A hungry one,” replied the monk, bearing his fangs. “Now if you don’t mind, I’ll have your blood!”
He opened his mouth, which yawned to reveal a gaping blackness. Sokran instantly felt his bones turn to jelly, his lifeforce draining from him...
“The pendant!” came a faraway voice. “Throw the pendant in its face!”
Sokran fumbled in his coat and drew it out, his muscles shivering with the strain. Then with a jerk he flung it forward. There was a flash, an unholy screech, and then nothing.
A moment later, the monk reappeared in the courtyard.
“Damn again!” said Sokran. “I thought I killed you.”
“You killed my twin brother. Or at least dispelled his body. He was already dead, you see.”
“As are you.”
The monk nodded. “He tried to murder me in life, but I took him with me into the afterworld. There, we became trapped in this crumbling temple, which has become our tomb.”
“And what of the pendant?”
“It is the only thing that will send him back to the grave. But he has an irritating habit of not staying there.”
Sokran shook his head. “You could have warned me of all this beforehand.”
“And risk you riding off? Not many people pass through here. The last was a hundred years ago.”
“Well,” he said. “I don’t think much of your timing.”
The monk shrugged. “I didn’t know he would attack so fast. He must have grown hungry since the last time.”
“Which reminds me...”
A sudden wind swirled about the courtyard. A strange titter carried on the air.
“Ai!” said the monk. “My brother returns! Hurry, you must lead me out of here!”
A strange, dark shape was materializing in the shadows. Sokran went to the door and pushed. It juddered open. When he turned back, two monks stood where there was one.
“Quickly!” said the first.
“Hurry!” said the second.
“This is all most confusing,” said Sokran. “Perhaps I should leave you both here.”
“No!” said the first. “You can’t let him win so easily. Take me away.”
“Don’t listen to him!” said the second. “He is the killer. If you let him go you’ll be destroyed.”
Sokran looked about for the pendant, saw it lying a little way beyond both monks.
“If I’m correct,” he said, “only one of you will be able to pick up that holy object and return it to me. Do so, and I’ll let you leave.”
“Well? Are you both just going to hover there?”
“If I turn to pick it up,” said the first, “I’m afraid my murderous brother will attack me.”
“If I turn to pick it up...”
“Yes, yes!” said Sokran. “Neither of you will do it. Devil’s kidneys, all I wanted was a roof over my head, and some food in my belly, and I get involved with you two idiotic spirits instead. As far as I’m concerned you can both stay where you stay, cowards and murderers the pair of you.”
He slammed the door, mounted his steed, and rode away.
Behind him he heard a cry. Then two cries. Then silence.
Copyright © 2009 by Jay Stevol