I described the ward, the jungle, the flying palace, the ruins, the stone chariot with multiheaded driver, and the fight, with an occasional comment from Jim. She nodded, raised the corpse's front left arm to take a look at the back set, frowned . . .
"So who isn't supposed to know you're here?" I asked. Please don't be Curran, please don't be Curran . . .
"The Beast Lord," Jim said.
"Technically she's under house arrest."
"I went for a drive." Dali picked up the corpse's foot and studied the claws. "Nice and pliant.
No rigor mortis at all."
"He put you under house arrest because you went for a drive?"
"She slipped a roofie to her bodyguard, hot-wired a car, and went drag racing on Buzzard's Highway. In the dark." Jim's face held all the warmth of an iceberg.
"You're just upset that I made Theo look stupid." Dali dropped the hand. "It's not my fault that your lethal killing machine was so excited by the prospect of getting his hands on my tiny boy-breasts, he forgot to watch his drink. Quite frankly, I don't see what the big deal is."
"You're legally blind, you can't pass the exam to get a license, and you drive like shit." Jim's lip wrinkled in a silent snarl. "You're a menace."
"Drivers on Buzzard don't come there to be safe. They come there for thrills. If they knew I was legally blind, it would just make things more interesting for them. It's my body. I can do whatever I want with it. If I want to get in a wreck, then I should be able to do so."
"Yes, but you drove to Buzzard's Highway," I said. I really needed more coffee. "What if you wrecked on the way and hurt yourself, or worse, hurt somebody else, another driver or a pedestrian, a kid crossing the street?"
Dali blinked. "You know, that is precisely what Curran said. Almost word for word." She sighed. "Let's agree that, in retrospect, it wasn't one of my brightest moments. Do you have anything else besides the corpses?"
Jim handed her the rolled-up mural. She pulled the paper open and frowned. "Here, you hold this end, and, Jim, you hold this end. Okay, separate."
She actually wanted me to move. She must've been out of her mind. We walked apart until the paper was unrolled. She glanced at it for a second, nodded, and waved her hand. "You may let go. So, do you have any ideas as to what corner of mythology your friend belongs?"
I took a wild stab in the dark. "Hindu. First, we have a jungle, the ruins of what looked like a Dravidian temple to me, then a stone chariot drawn by elephants, and a humanoid with many arms and heads. We also have a tiger monster and he has four arms. Not that many mythologies feature extra sets of arms or that many extra heads in a humanoid. Several heads on dragons or giants, yes. Extra limbs and heads on a humanoid, no. Also, the girl called one of the Reapers 'Asaan.' I looked it up and it's a term for a guru or practitioner of Dravidian martial arts."
Dali looked at me for a long moment. "You're not stupid either."
"Yes, but that's all I got."
"I believe this is a rakshasa." She nudged the four-armed corpse with her toes. "And if I'm right, the two of you are in deep shit."
"AT FIRST THERE WAS VISHNU, EXCEPT AT THAT point he was Narayana, the embodiment of Supreme Divinity."
Dali sat on the floor next to the corpse.
"Narayana floated in endless waters, wrapped in a great albino serpent and having a marvelous time, until a lotus grew from his navel. Within the lotus, god Brahma, the creator of worlds, was reborn. Brahma looked around, saw Narayana being content to float, and for no apparent reason became obsessed that his water would get stolen. So he made four guardians, two couples. The first couple promised to worship the water, and they were yakshasas. The second couple promised to protect the water, and they were rakshasas."
"Talk strengths and weaknesses," Jim said.
"Rakshasas are born warriors. They were created for this purpose. According to legend, they are conceived and carried to term in a single day, and upon birth, they instantly grow to the age of their mother. They are carnivores and have no qualms about consuming human meat.
They come in a vast variety of shapes and sizes. They're excellent illusionists and magicians."
I sighed. This just got better and better. "For some reason I thought rakshasas were humanoid tigers, like a shapeshifter in a warrior form but with a tiger's head."
Dali nodded. "They are most often depicted as monsters resembling tigers, because a tiger is the scariest thing an Indian sculptor or artist could reasonably picture. Elephants are larger, but they are vegetarians and mostly keep to themselves, while tigers are silent, deadly, and actively hunt people."
A humanoid tiger, equipped with extra arms and human intelligence, would be the stuff of anyone's nightmares.
"Rakshasas realize that tigers are frightening and often adopt this form; however, legends say that they can be ugly or beautiful. Out of three rakshasa brothers, one could be lovely beyond description, one could be a giant, and one could sprout ten heads. It really varies. Some sources insist that one can never know the true form of a rakshasa; only the form they favor most at the moment."
"Anything else?" Jim asked softly.
"They can fly."
Delightful. "Ours didn't fly. They mostly jumped unnaturally high."
"That could be due to low magic, incorrect information, or an insufficient number of people believing in the myth. Or all three. Take your pick."
"Can these rakshasas do something that would stop you from shifting?" I asked.
Dali thought about it. "They're shapeshifters but not in the same way we are. They deal in illusion. You said they pulled their human skins off. Where are the skins? You brought his ripped clothes. I find it very hard to believe that between the two of you, you forgot to pick up torn human hide."
I concentrated, recalling the scene as we left the house. "The skins disappeared."
Dali nodded. "That's because technically there were no skins. Magic or no magic, you couldn't physically pack that" - she kicked the four-armed corpse again - "into a human hide.
Rakshasas don't actually flay a human and pull on his skin. They consume a human in some way, physically, mentally, or spiritually, or all of the above, and then they assume the shape."
Light dawned in my head. "The skin ripping was an illusion. An intimidation tactic."
"Exactly. They pretended to cast off human skins because they wanted to disturb you.