By a dark, somber day, they had gathered by the thousands, their light brown uniform bathed in the gold shine reflecting from the 36-meter statue of Buddha that towered above them. In the background, the eight pagodas stood defiantly, the circular chants of the monks twirling round the shafts before rising into the tempestuous heavens. They had come from all corners of the nation, fleeing as the dark forces advanced, and seeking guidance from the wheelchair-bound man who, his eyes closed in rapture, faced the crowd.
Master Hsing Yun, the controversial founder of the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist order, seemed dead to the world as he led his followers in the chants, a collection of rituals meant to ward off the shadows that were quickly closing in. If mighty Buddha, in this house of splendors, couldn’t save them, nothing would, he thought, his mind traveling to a remote corner of his brain as another side of his head carried on independently with the incantations.
The Master had had a strange, recurrent dream in the past days. In it, he was awakened in the middle of the night by a faint knock at the door, which once opened, gave unto an empty field with a lone basket in its heart. Each time he unwrapped the white silk. Each time a small figure, clad in the same monk’s robes, wailed at him, pulling strings of recognition deep inside his heart. Little Master, he’d utter, before the delicate little hands turned into blood-drenched claws, forcing him awake, his ageing heart pacing.
They’d been chanting, with nary an hour’s rest every 12 hours, for the past three days. Exhaustion was already taking its toll, and dozens of monks had had fainted, unattended, on the grounds. What were a few monks’ lives when 23 million souls were at stake?
In the late afternoon, as the chants gyrated into the portentous air, a black bird perched onto the golden globe at the top of one of the pagodas. A morsel of meat, whence it came one can only guess, protruded from its long beak. In the two round eyes, dark as night, barely blinking, strange forms were reflected, closing in like laden clouds before a tempest. The bird watched as the shapes, a landslide of human flesh, closed in on the chanting monks and started to gnaw, worm-like, at the outside edges of the gigantic brown fruit. Buddha, impervious, looked on as the chants became fainter and fainter. By evening, Master Hsing Yu, hearing but silence, opened his eyes and before him, thousands upon thousands of his followers, mutilated, dripping, swaying, stood, still in veneration. One of them, missing an arm, its face opened like an exploded persimmon, climbed the steps toward the master and, a meter away, kneeled.
“Master,” it said reverentially. “We have arrived.”
He closed his eyes again and smiled, a strange peace like chilled water trickling down his spine. “So have I,” he whispered as icy fingers closed round his neck.
* * *
Thus did the forces of the undead, until then guided by uncontrollable thirst and hunger alone, find the force that, in the days ahead, would become their spiritual master, directing their every movement through prayers — the chants replaced by guttural moans — broadcast all over the nation by means of the airwaves. Little by little, the Master became a single voice, a single face, on the nation’s radio and television stations, a rising media monopoly that had one purpose alone, to unite the walking dead in their struggle to eliminate every living being and turn them into one of them. Day and night, above the shrieks of horror as the living had their lives stolen from them, the Master’s voice ululated, adding a new layer of terror to this concert of the end of times. He droned on and on until the living, realizing the impact his otherworldly sermons was having on the dark masses, began targeting every TV set in sight, every radio box, for destruction. Among those who most ardently attacked TVs and radios were many who, not so long ago but in a very different world, had warned against the dangers of media monopoly; the platoons, smashing, firing at and disconnecting the apparatuses, were led by the familiar faces of the student leaders who’d stood up against a sickeningly wealthy (and equally greedy) businessman who — patience, patience, will soon make an appearance in this narrative.
The Master had a plan, a dark plan, and unbeknownst to all, he was moving cold bodies as on a chessboard. But there was hope. In this dark hour, as a wheelchair-bound prince of darkness emerged, so did heroes who would lead the resistance and attempt, once again, to turn the tide.