By Jay Requard
They walked in, dusty men in dusty black armor.
Deepti drew a sharp breath as one of the temple’s guard stepped in front of the pair of sellswords, asking for the weapons belted around their waists. They answered with quick and quiet nods, handing over their swords before resuming the march down the chamber’s long blue runner. Light from the great braziers in the center of the long floor cut their shadows onto the mural-walls, briefly obscuring chiseled scenes of devas at work in the world. Warrior gods fought demons as lotus-birthed goddesses carved rivers into the land, and that the center of these many panels raised one from the rest, a dark lady who held the moon and the stars in her hands.
“So here they are… bloody men who feed themselves on bloody money.” Preem sighed greatly on his cushion, the wrinkles on his face and body stark in the gentle light of the lamps set on their dining table. “What a world I live in.”
Seated at the low table, Deepti would have normally focused on the serenity of her deity as she ate, but tonight was different. The table had not been prepared yet and her attention was on the men walking her way. “We can only judge them based on what they do, Father, not how they look,” she reminded, an old axiom her mother used to bother her with. “Let’s let them eat and speak before a decision is made.”
“Just like your mother,” he replied with a forced smile. “I wish she was here now. She’d handle them better.”
Their chatter died when the two warriors approached the other side of the table. The shortest of the pair, a white man from the west with dull brown eyes and gray hair, pressed his hands together in the customary greeting of her people. “I bow to your forms.” he said in Suti, Deepti’s native tongue. “May we sit, uncle?”
Preem looked at the man, surprised by such deference. “Please do. Thank you for coming. I imagine you trip must have been long.”
“We heard the call in the market of Marthi and came quickly when we heard few wanted the job,” said the first man. “Opportunity are where opportunity offers themselves, after all.”
They plopped onto the cushions on the other side of the table, the iron parts of their armor clanking. It was in this blur of their movements that Deepti noticed something different about the second sellsword. Even in the dimness his skin was dark, a sandy brown color common to her people. His narrow face and aquiline nose defined a rugged handsomeness framed in a shag of black hair, the luster hidden beneath the grit of the road.
“Excuse me,” she called to him, keenly interested. “Sir, are you a Sutian?”
The man looked at her in surprise, as if he had not expected to be addressed. He checked with his superior, who gave a quick nod. “I am,” he said, clearing his throat.
Deepti turned to her father, a quick grin formed. “What a wonderful surprise.”
“Pardon me, young man, but of what caste are you?” Preem asked. “What’s your name?”
The young sellsword straightened on his seat. “My name is Jishnu. I am a Kshatri.”
“A Kshatri,” Preem said, impressed. “This does change things.”
“It’s a good thing I brought him then,” said his superior. “While I understand the need for introductions, could we perhaps do so while we eat? Thumbs and I are famished from the road, and unlike the rest of our company we have not had time to supper.”
“Please. We were waiting for you anyway,” said Deepti, waving for one of the temple’s servants. “And what is your name, sir?”
The white warrior bowed. “I’m the Captain of The Grinders Sellsword Company. That will do for now.”
Platters of steaming rice, roasted vegetables, and goat braised in hot spices were served alongside a fresh pot of black tea, a grand feast the four consumed in awkward quiet. Deepti studied the two as they ate, taking measure of their manners. Jishnu picked at his food while the Captain gorged himself, both supping fully but in a practice method allowing for them to remain clean. There was a discipline to them, a singular focus targeted to finishing the meal.
The Captain wiped his chin with the back of his hand minutes later. His shaggy white hair framed his face, a wide field populated by a broken nose and sunburnt cheeks. The rough whiskers of a mustache fed into a cruel scar on his upper lip. “You two seemed so surprised with Thumbs here. Why is that?”
“Why do you keep calling him that?” Preem asked. “Why not his name?”
The Captain nudged his subordinate in the arm. “Tell him, my son.”
“It’s a nickname,” Jishnu said simply, his head lowered at Preem in reverence. “All Grinders have nicknames, Preemji.”
“And how did you get yours?” Preem pressed.
Jishnu raised his right hand, his fingers splayed apart. Deepti stifled a gasp when she saw a smaller sixth digit grown on the outside of his natural thumb. Twisted, it connected to the original finger by a fork webbed in flesh. “A birth defect,” he explained.
“I am surprised I did not notice when we first met. Did you, Deepti?” he asked his daughter.
“No,” she said, puzzled that she had missed such a crucial detail. The surprise in her voice must have troubled Jishnu, who lowered his hand back beneath the table. “Does it hurt, sir?”
“No, lady,” he said, weary. “It is what it is.”
She cocked her head to the side, mouth opened before her father interrupted. “Pardon me for prying, but how does a man such as you fall into such a different profession? Surely you could have been a guard for your homeland’s king.”
“Indeed, I could have. My father is a guardsman for the king of Srijian while my grandfather is an elder of its capital, Shiri. They were sellswords first, however, and gained their education in warfare in other lands. I’m doing as they did.”
Preem sipped some tea. “Duty to the family, adherence to tradition? Not the most conventional way, but then it has never been a conventional world.”
“Thumbs is my very best.” The Captain clapped his second on the shoulder. “He is a credit to the people of the Sixteen Kingdoms.”
“And many more, I should think.” Preem set his teacup on the ground beside his cushion. “Gentlemen, perhaps it is time we spoke to the terms of your employment?” He looked to Deepti and nodded.
She lifted a black box onto her silken lap, the weight heavy. “Gentlemen,” she said, “This is the Mask of the Kravyads.”
The eyes of the two men roamed within the box as she opened the lid, and a change come over both of them. Deepti followed the Captain’s eyes first, disappointed by their lustful gleam. Jishnu, on the other hand, stared at the damnable object in curiosity, his brow furrowed in concern.
“Very pretty,” said The Captain, “but what is a kravyad, if I may ask?”
Preem spoke. “It’s a type of rakshasa, a spirit of the underworld. This mask allows one to view their realm through which the wearer learns secrets best left hidden. This temple has guarded this item since it was first brought here centuries ago, where our order guarded until a remedy could be found for its evil—until now.”
“What happened?” the Captain inquired. “The toll must be great for you to give up your duty.”
Deepti spoke before her father could answer. “Kravyads entered the temple.”
“Here?” Jishnu asked, aghast. “But they are beings of hell. The holiness of this place should hold them back.”
“That was our hope,” Preem answered, his age shown in a shuddering breath. “The Goddess Devi sees it differently.”
The Captain spoke. “So why have you not destroyed the mask already?”
“We tried.” Preem brushed one of his gray dreadlocks from his sunken cheek. “We had blacksmiths try to melt it in their crucibles, but the spirits claimed them in their forges. We tried throwing it into the river Vallabha, only to have its goddess spit it back out. We tried so many things–”
“And lost others who tried to stand against the mask’s power,” Deepti said. Her father placed a hand over hers. “The only choice we have now is to take it to the holy fire at the temple of Agni. Nothing burns hotter.”
“So you want us to run protection on the way down,” the Captain guessed.
“In essence,” Preem acknowledged in a slight nod. “But there is more. You must take a representative of the temple with you. It is the only way the rishis at Agni’s Temple will allow entrance to the fire.”
“Who will we be taking?” Jishnu asked.
“Me,” said Deepti.
“Absolutely not,” said Jishnu immediately.
Her question caught Jishnu. He dithered for a moment before continuing. “Captain, Preemji, this mission is no place for holy ones, especially a rishika. The dangers of the road–”
“Pardon me, sir.” The strength of her voice drew the men’s attention back to her. “I am well versed in contending with the kravyads. Just because I am a woman doesn’t mean I am weak.”
“This has nothing to do with it,” said Jishnu.
“Then what does?”
Jishnu gaped back at her, lost for words.
She pressed, not letting him find them. “No others in this temple are allowed to leave without breaking their vows of silence and meditation, or they are too old. I am neither. Think what you want, but I am quite able to take care of myself. So what reasons will you come up with now?”
The Captain snickered. “Well, Thumbs?”
Jishnu looked away, dejected. “Your orders, sir.”
The Captain patted his charge on the shoulder and looked to Preem. “We accept. Now, to our price.”
“Yes, of course.” Deepti nodded, satisfied with her victory. Yet as she observed Jishnu’s placid bearing, the satisfaction ebbed.
He was not angry. He was worried.
Wagon wheels ground to a halt, jerking Deepti slightly as the men around her broke in an explosion of motion. Before she had even risen to her feet the Grinders had flooded out of the cramped wooden rectangle and converged on the campsite. With the wagons drawn and the horses still set on the yokes in case they needed to flee, the tension of the ride slowly settled with the shrinking sunlight. Deepti followed along behind a few stragglers, thankful for the chance to stand on her own feet, though they offered little comfort. Her pack hung like a great stone from her bare shoulders, the weight of the mask and its box a constant burden.
One of the Grinders, a young man from the kingdoms of the faraway west, approached. “My lady, can I help you to a spot to set down?”
She offered a nervous smile. “Marl, yes? I think you were riding in the same wagon as I on the first day.”
“Yes, my lady,” he said, nodding his helmeted head. “The Captain assigned me to you for the night. Is there anything you need carried or…”
“No,” she said. “Just directions to where I should sleep.”
“Let’s go talk to the Captain about it.”
Deepti let him lead her through the camp. The sellswords had already gathered wood for a bonfire fire while others prepared salted meats for roasting. Some foraged for plants to eat and water to boil, and in the center of the ordered mess sat the Captain, who waited before the unlit fire with his hands in his lap. Jishnu sat next to him, striking a shard of flint against the iron blade of his sword.
“Evening, my lady,” greeted the Captain. “I wondered where you had gotten off to. Have you found your tent for the night?”
“Not yet,” she said. “I can sleep without one, if need be. You truly do not have to accommodate me more than you do your own men.”
“My men have weathered worse than the stars and the wind. And it might rain tonight,” The Captain said, glancing at the clouded skies. “We’ll see if one is willing to lend his lean-to again.”
“She can use mine,” Jishnu said. “I probably won’t sleep anyway.”
“I’ll take first watch too,” Marl volunteered. “No need for you to stay up alone, Thumbs.”
Jishnu grunted in reply, focused on the flint and the fuel before him.
“Well, that’s that then.” The Captain rubbed his hands together. “Time for supper. I’ll go see how Frog is doing with the meat.”
“Follow me, my lady,” Marl said to Deepti.
They stopped at an open spot near one of the wagons. The mask and its box struck the ground in a dull thud as Deepti let the bag slip from her shoulders. Lost in the sound of marching feet and foreign voices, she pulled the pins holding her long braid in its bun, allowing the long rope of hair to fall down her back.
“What’s wrong?” Marl asked.
She shrugged her shoulders and rolled her head about her neck, working out the day’s soreness. “Nothing. At least nothing worth talking about.”
“Oh, come now.” Marl lifted his helmet to free his flaxen hair. “You aren’t sure about us.” He walked to the mound of packs piled near the wagon’s rear wheel. “And that goes double for Thumbs. That is a pun, if I think too hard on it.”
She shook her head quickly. “A sellsword is no occupation for a man of his birth, no matter if he is of a low house or not. I venture I could say the same for all of you.”
“A big pronouncement for a girl who never lived in her own filth.” Marl pulled a large blanket and a loop of gathered twine attached to a wooden stake from a pack, most likely Jishnu’s. He tied one end of the line to one of the main tacks set in the rail of the wagon, stretching it until he found the spot where he hammered the stake into the earth. He hung the blanket over the line to finish the lean-to. “The world is very different. The real one outside of your walls, that is.”
She understood his point. “Still.”
Marl gathered his spear and shield. “In my country we don’t have this idea about predetermined duty. If a man wants to fight he fights, if he wants to farm he farms. I’ll tell you this, though—Grinders are very good at what they do.”
“I hope so.”
Deepti and the westerner talked until the call for supper. The sun sank hills of shadow and silence as the sellswords gathered around their bonfire to eat, shields and spears replaced with tin bowls and spoons. Boiled chicken and overcooked rice mixed with dandelions made their meal for a night, a chewy stew with too much salt and pepper for her test. She struggled through the meal, taking small sips of the broth at a time and listening to the conversations going on around her. Men of different hues and origins spoke to each other in a mishmash of languages. Civilized and intelligent, they did not behave in the ways her father had taught her to expect of hardened warriors. They were content, seemingly unburdened by whatever they had done in the past or the possibility death waited for them beyond the rise in the road. She sat there quietly, chin rested on her knees as she watched, intrigued and confounded.
Marl led her back to her tent after dinner as the Grinders went to their places for the night. Some guarded the wagons while others dozed in their small tents until their turn at watch. Deepti settled in her own little shelter, restless as she fought to find a comfortable position on the hard ground.
Her attention turned to the mask. Pulling the box out of her knapsack, she rested it on her stomach. Tapping the painted wood with her nails, the image of a woman wearing the mask played in the depths of her memory, held to a stone floor by a pair of shadows. The spirits ravaged their victim.
A laugh broke through the horror.
Jishnu’s shoulders bounced while Marl whispered to him as they tended to the bonfire. Deepti crawled off her blanket and stood, dusting the front of her blue sari. Marl saw her rise, waving her over to join them.
“Having trouble sleeping?” he asked when she approached.
“I’m not used to the ground,” Deepti said.
“It’s better to rest on your side than your back,” said Jishnu. “You can sit down, if you like.”
She knelt beside him. “Aren’t you two tired?”
“Never.” Jishnu poked at the fire’s base with the point of his sword. The skin of a burning log cracked into fissures. “No man affords it when his brothers trust him with their sleep.”
“Speak for yourself, braggart,” Marl said. “Just because there’s a pretty lady present doesn’t mean you have to spin lies.”
Jishnu shot Marl a dire glare, only to get a wink in return.
“Don’t worry about him,” Marl told Deepti. “A calf trying to be a bull.”
“You all puzzle me.” She motioned at the camp around them. “I don’t understand how men can live in such a manner. Marching, fighting, never home or in a place of peace—how do you sustain this?”
“We just do,” Marl replied. “I was a farmer’s son who wanted more, and Thumbs is doing as his father’s father did, preparing for his duty. What is hard to understand about that?”
“Forgive me,” said Deepti, “but in my temple we are taught that lives should be lived in accordance to dharma. If a man’s dharma makes him a soldier, he should be a soldier, just like if a woman is meant to be a rishi, she should go into the mountains and spend time in meditation. But this is not what my father taught me of sellswords.”
Jishnu cracked a smile, his teeth white. “What did he say? That we are savage men hungry for spoil?”
Deepti felt her face flush. “Well, yes.”
“We are, on our worst days,” Jishnu said, “But who isn’t? We suffer with homelessness and violence, but at least we have a family. And if what you learned in the temple was true then how do you know that the entire world isn’t a temple in itself? What if we are living our dharma?”
“But what if you aren’t?” she asked.
He brooded on the question. “To have lived these small moments of glory, joy, anger, love and hate, will be worthy to me. As for devas and dharma… that’s their business.”
A growl came from the woods.
Jishnu shot to his feet. “What was that?”
Deepti stared into the darkness on the other side of the flames, to a gap where two of the Grinder’s wagons backed right up to the edge of the forest. She rose up, her hands trembling. “They’re here.”
“Grinders, to me,” shouted Jishnu. Marl banged his spear’s shaft against the bronze face of his shield. Tents were torn to the side as men arose, armed as they ran toward the fire. They converged in a tight circle around the blaze, their shields joined together in an overlapping wall.
“Get Deepti in the center,” The Captain ordered, appearing out of the mass. “Spears-In-A-Diamond, eyes forward.”
The Grinders flowed from their loose ring into four uneven wedges connected at the corners. Deepti found herself gently pulled and pushed toward the center of their formation, near the fire and at the back of their numbers. She spotted Jishnu through the shifting bodies, himself set at the point facing the forest.
The growls in the darkness grew in volume, no longer one but two, and then three. Above the crackle of the fire, the wind in the trees, came a padding—a heavy, slow padding.
A great cat burst from the shadows, made of dull iron and striped with red light. Its maw opened in a bellowing roar, full of fire and smoke to match its horrid eyes. Powerful muscles twitched in its massive shoulders as the kravyad charged, a storm of claws and teeth. The Grinders held. Spears went out, stabbing the beast in the sides. The points knocked and skidded off the plating of its hips and neck, unable to pierce the seams.
A second kravyad bounded out of the shadows, made of black and brown granite. It stalked toward Deepti’s lean-to.
“The mask,” Deepti said. “Jishnu, the mask!”
The Captain called. “Thumbs, Break point!”
The Grinders around Jishnu, five men in total, stepped in perfect unison with him as he headed toward the tent, closed tight in an uneven shield wall.
“Form delta,” the Captain shouted.
The men closed the gap Jishnu’s detachment had created in time to accept another charge from the iron kravyad. The monster leapt high, forcing them to lift their shields. Deepti dodged to the side, narrowly missing the fire as the iron kravyad rolled atop the roof of domed bronze. The Grinders let the monster sink through a gap, stabbing and banging against its iron flanks. Startled, it squirmed to its feet and bolted back into the woods.
Deepti huddled between the sellswords and the fire. The screams of her mother emerged from the noisy chaos around her, no longer a faint echo recalled from the dark and dusty corners of her mind. Blood flowed down brown cheeks as broken nails probed past the eyeholes of a copper mask. She fought for breath. On instinct, she looked to her right.
A third kravyad, skinned in bronze, perched between two wagons. The beast watched Jishnu tear at Deepti’s lean-to in search of the box, finding it as he tossed the tent aside. His brothers guarded his right flank from the granite kravyad, who swiped at them with its claws.
The bronze kravyad closed the distance in the blink of an eye. Jishnu went down, pushing and stabbing to keep its jaws from his neck.
“Move to the wagons,” The Captain ordered. A few Grinders broke away from the main formation at some point in the fray, working to set the horses.
Deepti couldn’t believe her ears. They were going to leave him.
They were going to leave the mask.
Anger, cold and grim, rose from the place she kept the darkness of the past. Focus returned, and she went inside herself to find her atman, the quintessence the gods imbued in all things.
The bonfire flared high beside her, and above the blaze a wheel formed in her mind’s eye. A mandala made of three shifting rings ground in opposite directions. The center ring rolled clockwise while the next one went counter to it. The outermost ring bobbed back and forth.
The hum of her body drew the heat from the friction between those circles, and from the center emerged the fanged mouth of a dragon, his great tongue writhing in the air. Agni, the god of fire and sacrifice, breathed his power into Deepti.
“Move,” she bellowed in a voice both hers yet not hers either. The sellswords stopped in surprise at the order and stepped aside, compelled by something beyond mortal reckoning.
A grim mantra parted Deepti’s lips in a harsh whisper, repeating over and over again. The dragon’s flame at the center of the mandala rose in a white hot needle, its point narrowing and sharpening until it gleamed like a honed arrowhead.
The mantra ended.
Flames shot from the bonfire in a perfect stream, striking the bronze kravyad atop of Jishnu. It rolled away with a loud screech, its flank red hot and sagging. The two remaining kravyads darted for the woods as more fiery tentacles slithered from the bonfire to chase them. Deepti walked with her conjurings as they burnt lines into the trampled grass and dirt, her fingers pointed at the beasts to direct their destructions.
She reached Jishnu, who lay curled in a tight ball to protect himself from the flames. “Jishnu, get up,” she whispered, careful not to frighten him.
Jishnu looked up, squinting in the smoke. He took her offered hand, and a quick jerk lifted him to his feet. “You’re a mantrik,” he said through his coughing. He tucked the box under his arm.
“When I need to be.” Deepti pulled him to one of the five wagons ready to escape to the highway.
The convoy rumbled down the dirt highway at a brisk pace, the wheels clattering across the dips and pits in the road. Still armed with their spears and shields, the Grinders lined the sides of the wooden boxes, keeping watch for the dread beasts they knew prowled beyond the trees and brush. Morning arrived as the emerging sun brightened a cloudless sky from black to bronze. Seated in the corner beside Jishnu, Deepti leaned against their section of wall and watched the day arise.
“Why didn’t tell us you were a mantrik?” he asked.
She chewed the inside of her lip, searching for the right words. “My father and I thought it best not to say anything. I only use my power in the line of duty. I had hoped it would not be required.”
“I knew you were trouble the moment I laid my eyes on you.”
Deepti cracked a grin. “Scared of the little temple girl now?”
“What happened to your mother?” he asked, to the point.
The sudden question caught her. “What makes you think something happened?”
“I know sorrow, Deepti. I’ve seen enough of it to know its face.”
She sighed in resignation. “My mother was one of Sutia’s greatest mantriks, though no one knew save the kings and queens who called in secret. She liked her peace and quiet with my father. He was always better at helping others in alms and devotion. All she wanted to do in this life was neutralize the mask and turn it to good works.”
“She tried to destroy it,” Jishnu guessed.
“She tried everything. Every mantra and ritual she knew, but none of it worked. She put the mask on one day, thinking she could infect it from within with Devi’s holiness.” A tremor worked out of her chest, a breath of sadness. “That was the first time the kravyads entered the temple. People started dying that night.”
“And they took her first.” Jishnu looked to her, lips pressed in a line of sadness. “I’m sorry.”
“Hey, Thumbs,” called one of the Grinders, a short man with dark brown skin.
“What is it, Frog?” Jishnu asked.
“Look.” Frog pointed off behind Deepti and Jishnu. The two rose on the wagon bed and looked past the driver. Hills of green kusa lowered in gentle slopes to a white sand coast. At the edge of the ocean stood a sprawling city, its protective wall a long line of beige. The three towers of Karish’s royal palace gleamed like silver in the fresh morning, their spires rising from the peninsula they had been built upon in ancient times.
Further up the coast to the west lay a smaller structure overlooking the beach, a great stone beehive built on the top of a hillock. “That is Agni’s Temple,” said Deepti.
Jishnu patted the Grinder driving their wagon. “Did you hear her, Wood?”
“Aye, Thumbs,” said the driver.
Frog spoke again. “Looks like nobody dies to–” Cut off by a loud roar, the sellsword screamed as the iron kravyad climbed up the back of the wagon. It clamped its jaws on his shoulder and ripped him from the carriage. Before others could grab Frog’s feet he was already yards away, smothered beneath the bulk of his killer.
Jishnu ripped his sword from its scabbard. “Stop the wagon, Wood! Stop!”
“Look,” cried another of his comrades. Out of the wooded hills, where the forests met the plain, six more kravyads sprinted toward the convoy.
“By Naraka.” Jishnu squatted beside the wagon wall near Deepti, braced in the corner. “Wood, keep those horses moving! Someone signal the other wagons!”
One of the Grinders retrieved a horn from his pack and a clear note rang across the fields. The convoy broke their ordered line and went off the road, each aimed for the temple near the sea.
“Do you have another mantra?” Jishnu asked Deepti.
The wheels of the wagon thudded in a depression hidden in the grass, jolting her off balance. Somehow still on his feet, Jishnu grabbed her arm and lifted her to one of the wagon’s sides.
“I don’t have a torch,” she shouted, her bruised arms hooked on the wagon’s wall. Men scrambled for their weapons in a mess of bodies and limbs, the situation made worse by their crowding.
“Think of something,” Jishnu pleaded as someone passed him a spear.
A strange memory came to Deepti then, a mantra her father used to chant over her at bedtime after he told her stories. In one particular the war-god Asdra had saved Devi from a demon come to eat the everlasting twins in her belly, the children grew into the first man and woman. The mantra was the dancing song she had used to calm her wild husband.
She touched Jishnu’s shoulder. “Do you have a bow?” she asked.
Jishnu furrowed his brow. “Lucky, hand me Frog’s bow and quiver.” The sellsword next to them handed him a bamboo bow and a quiver filled with a handful of arrows. He slung the quiver over his shoulder. “What now?”
Deepti focused inward. She envisioned a mandala on the floor in the center of the wagon, its three cobalt rings smooth as glass and spinning together, unified and set. “Stand up, Jishnu, and defend us.” He did as he was told, an arrow nocked on his bowstring. In a moment she was gone from the physical world.
The mantra flowed from her mouth. The three rings slid along each other at different paces, never once dragging or slowing. Inside the center ring danced two figures, one armed with a sword and the other a scarf, a god and goddess. He swung his blade at unseen foes while she steadied the sway of his body with hers, two partners eased by each other’s steps in a dance that was not just a dance, but the cycle of the universe itself.
Deepti laid a hand on Jishnu’s ankle. Her fingers radiated a faint light.
Jishnu found his footing. His swayed with the shaking of the wagon, perfectly balanced. “How?”
She squeezed his ankle to reassure him. “Just fight.”
Jishnu raised the bow, drawing back the string with the pull of a skilled archer. “Keep the damned things from the flanks, men,” he said. He loosed a shaft when the granite kravyad climbed the back of their wagon. The iron arrow chipped its eye. The Grinders met it with their spears, thrusting at its face and neck until the kravyad screeched and bounded away.
Deepti looked to the other wagons. The two to her right remained un-harried, but the other pair to the left rattled down the slopes toward Agni’s temple, followed closely by five kravyads. In the nearest wagon stood one man, his spear out and his shield high. Though his words were lost on wind in her ears, she recognized the Captain.
She pulled on Jishnu, and without any words he twisted to his left. A kravyad made of wood jumped for the Captain, and his arrow met the side of its head. The beast fell in the grasses as its partner stayed alongside the far wagon-wheel, its body obscured.
“Captain!” Jishnu drew his third arrow. “Get down!”
The Captain stumbled forward in time to move out of the bronze kravyad’s ascent. The Grinders in the wagon used their shields to shovel the beast out.
“How far, Wood?” Jishnu shouted.
“Half a mile,” the wagon’s driver answered.
“Faster,” Jishnu said. His next shaft snapped out with a hard twang. The arrow went wide of the bronze kravyad squatted in the grass, and his balance faltered. Deepti ceased whispering, shouting the words of the mantra to stave off the burn racking every nerve of her body as she clung to his leg.
“Watch out,” screamed the driver. “To the left!”
The farthest wagon on the left flipped, spilling its occupants and shattering into a mass of splintered wood. Bodies littered the field alongside the dead draft horses, which were quickly pounced upon by the kravyads.
“Do we stop, Thumbs?” asked the driver.
Deepti glanced to Jishnu, and her mantra paused when she saw his hopeless stare.
He seethed as the wind whipped his black hair around his face. “How far?”
“Another minute,” said Wood.
The box holding the mask slid onto his foot when the wheels hit another bump, drawing away his attention. She wished in that moment she could have thrown the mask out of the wagon, let the damned kravyads have it, just to end his suffering—but she had her duty, her dharma, and he had his mission.
“Don’t stop,” Jishnu said. His cold expression failed to hide his despair. “Just keep going.”
Ornate columns held up the great dome of polished bronze, the underside stained black from centuries of smoke billowing off the ring of fire set in the chamber’s center. Amid the flames a polished effigy towered, a single piece of red agate shaped into a deva with the body of a serpent, four powerful arms, and the torso and head of a man. In his hands he held a torch, a conch shell, and a pair of golden axes. A five-tiered crown made of precious gems sparkled in the light of the blaze around him, and from the god’s back sprouted two great reptilian wings, webbed and glossy.
Deepti stared at the statue of Agni, the god of fire and sacrifice, hoping he was ready to end her misery. She clutched the box to her chest, lost in thoughts that drowned out the sound of the men behind her as they worked to bar the large double doors of the temple. The Grinders had set their line at the entrance, braced against the portal while the rishis and their scribes busied to find heavier objects to help blockade their home. Men heaved as they pressed their shields into the doors, holding back the kravyads scratching on the other side.
An older priest named Prasad approached. “We’re ready, Sree Deepti.”
She mustered a smile. “Of course.” The mask seemed to suck away the warmth of the room when she opened the box. The forged face of a tiger glimmered in a shade of dull, muddy orange. Deepti lifted it out of its container, surprised by its lightness as she laid the box at her feet. “No need for ceremony, Prasadji?”
“Such a foul thing deserves none,” he said.
Deepti stepped toward the ring of fire. A thunderous bang behind her broke her concentration. The doors cracked open and three heavy paws poked through the gap. Spears thrust at them as the Grinders pressed into each other to strengthen the shield wall.
“Quickly,” said Prasad, “Throw it into the fire!”
Deepti tossed the mask onto the bed of coals. The flames licked at the cheeks and forehead of the bestial face. From the mouth-hole passed a tongue of flame so high she thought it would melt the lips, but to no avail. The mask simply stared back, defiant on a sea of hot red.
Deepti turned to Prasad. “Why isn’t it melting?”
He shivered, voice trembling. “I-I don’t know. Agni’s holy flames should destroy such a foulness.”
The doors of the temple burst open, flung wide as the seven kravyads rolled atop each other into the holy sanctuary. Sellswords fell to the floor, their faces and breastplates sliced upon by rending claws.
The Captain called over the roars. “Cover the mask!”
From the din of battle rose Jishnu. His helmet torn away, blood sluiced from a cut on his shoulder. He shoved his way to Deepti, lips peeled back in a snarl, eyes set as if nothing—no man or beast—would stop him from getting to her and the mask.
“”You’re bleeding,” Deepti cried, horrified by the wound on his arm.
“No time.” He looked ahead to the fire, and Deepti followed his confused glare. The outer edges of the mask had sunken into the coals, making it seem as if the metal had started to melt.
Deepti knew better. “It’s not working.”
Snarling in defiance, Jishnu grabbed Prasad by the sacred cord hung around his body and jerked him close. “Well, rishi?”
“There’s still a way.” Prasad wrenched his vestment out of Jishnu’s hand and leapt over the fiery ring, a hand out to grab Agni’s arm that held the dragon-god’s holy torch. Hanging his entire body from the agate limb, he whined a prayer before a hidden joint in the statue loosed. The arm swung down, its hinge screeching. Stone panels around the statue’s base sank into a small staircase.
“Go,” he bade. “Agni’s True Flame waits below. If it can’t destroy the mask, nothing will!”
At that moment the iron kravyad appeared, charging for Jishnu. It collided with him, knocking him down the hidden stair. The mask fell off his blade, skipping down the steps with a series of loud pings. Deepti went after them both.
She reached the first landing on the stair and found Jishnu sprawled on the platform. Stone ground against stone above her, and the sound of the battle above them died as the entrance of the secret stair shut.
Deepti sat on the landing and fought to catch her breath, bathed in the warmth of the air and the silence. She listened for any sound from above, any indication of the battle and the fate of the men who had shepherded her to the temple.
“Jishnu?” she whispered. “Are you all right?”
“My shoulder stings.”
“Let me see,” she asked.
His arm fell across her lap. Deepti pressed her fingers on the cut on his shoulder. Squinting against the low light, she ran her finger across the shallow gully. A minor wound, she left it alone. “It’s really not that bad.”
“It doesn’t matter now.”
“What do you mean?” Deepti asked.
“My brothers,” he said. “They’re all upstairs, dead and done. All for that damned mask.”
She looked down the steps to where the mask rested, undamaged. Beyond the worry of destroying it, the weight of the profane object had never been heavier. The servants of the temple, The Grinders, her mother—so many taken, so many lost to its horrid evil. Deepti stood, brushed off the front of her ruined sari, and combed her disheveled hair from her ears.
“Then let’s finish it for them.” She went down a few steps and retrieved the mask. Jishnu came close behind, sticking his sword in his belt.
The heat below grew with every step until sweat plastered the thin cotton of Deepti’s dress to her body and chaffed the inside of her thighs. For a time it seemed the gloom might go on forever, but soon it ebbed against a light, one bright and orange-red. A square doorway opened at the bottom of the stair, carved from the black rock.
In the center of a great chamber stood a perfect dome of white marble, fitted with wooden stairs that started at its base and went around to a wide platform at the top. In the center of the platform lay a basin holding a great fire, brighter than any Deepti had ever seen. Almost pure white in color, the flames licked the ceiling.
“Amazing,” said Jishnu. “This must be Agni’s Flame.”
“My father told me stories of it when I was little,” Deepti said. The air, once warm and pleasant, now choked in a dry staleness. “Agni’s Flame was the first fire in the world, lit by the god’s tear after the floodwaters receded and life sprang from death again. We’re looking at something that was here at the beginning of this world, before the ages.”
“Do you believe that?” Jishnu asked.
Deepti held tight to the mask, fingers aching from the pressure. “I hope I do.”
The climb up the steps went quickly enough, though by the time Deepti ascended to the platform the heat had grown to an indescribable misery, as if she walked beneath the hot sun itself.
“Throw it in,” said Jishnu when they reached the holy flame. “Be done with it.”
Deepti raised the mask up to toss it into the inferno when she caught sight of something out of the corner of her eye. In the doorway of the chamber came a shadow.
“Look,” she said, pointing.
A miasma conquered the doorway. From the dark came the sound of heavy paws thudding on stone, but more than that, the gentle pat of bare feet. A hand broke the semi-solid membrane, sending ripples across the ebon surface.
A woman emerged, dressed in a tattered but familiar sari much like Deepti’s. Her pallid brown skin was ashen in the light, and the dark circles under her eyes were the color of charcoal. Unkempt black hair bordered broad face, which would have been considered beautiful if not for her flaming eyes. Evil infested those red irises, and her burnt lips parted to reveal a harsh glow within her mouth.
The iron and bronze kravyads followed behind this apparition, their faces scarred and marked from battle.
Deepti’s breath caught in her chest. Her legs went out from under her, leaving her hung on the wooden rail around the platform.
“What is this devilry?” Jishnu demanded to know, his sword drawn.
Deepti tried to pull herself to her feet. “It’s my mother.”
The apparition smiled, her broken teeth stained. “Deepti. Still so pretty.” She walked to the foot of the dome’s stair, her guards beside her. Her movements were too smooth for a human woman, sleek and supple like a feline.
“Damn you.” Deepti regained her balance as shock gave way to anger. “You dare take her form…”
“Of course I dare.” The apparition ran her nails across the thick necks of the kravyads at her flanks, and the three slowly made their way up the stairs. “But that doesn’t matter, my little love. What matters is the choice you make right now.”
“Be plain, demon,” Jishnu said.
“Warrior, be quiet right now and let the women talk.” She stared up with those eyes, hatred and lust in her gaze. “I want that mask, Deepti. My master needs it for what is to come in the next age.”
“You’ll not have it,” Deepti promised. She let the mask fall into Agni’s Tear. It clanged against the basin, and the fire erupted in a great roar. The force of the blast nearly blew her over the rail. The kravyads’ wails twisted her stomach, and inside her head a thousand shards of glass sliced at her mind. Her vision cleared in time to see the ruin the divine fire had wrought.
No longer resting at the bottom of the bowl, the mask floated in the midst of the inferno, spinning slowly on an unseen axis. One of the forged ears, once pointed and etched with chiseled stripes, had reduced to a bubbling mass of burnt copper. The edges of the jaw, once sharp and even, distended as the metal softened.
Hope sprang anew.
“It’s working,” Deepti cried.
“Then hope it works quickly!” Jishnu waited for the two kravyads still climbing the steps. Their claws tore ruts into the wooden stair, the smoke from their mouths sulfur-yellow.
Deepti grabbed her head, her sudden excitement replaced with fresh terror. Her focus resettled on the mask, and an idea entered. “Give me your sword.”
“I need it,” he said, crouched and ready to fight.
“Just give it to me!” She took his short blade and stuck it into the fire, a mantra on her lips. Worried the iron would melt before she finished, she forced the image of the three rings before they naturally came, letting them gain their own colors as they waited at the other end of the sword. Purples, blues, and gray mixed together in the swirling rings, which lay still until she urged them to move. The center ring spun fast while the middle and outer ring went at their own paces in opposite directions. The words came, and from the void in the mandala’s center flowed liquid gold. It blended into the sword’s edges and flats, snaking around like a serpent over rock.
“By Asdra,” said Jishnu.
The blade of his sword, once gray iron, shone with a golden luster. Deepti handed it to him and dropped to her knees, exhausted by her work. “Go,” she ordered, barely able to speak. “Stop them.”
The two kravyads met Jishnu as they bounded to the top of the steps. The iron kravyad dove for the sellsword, only to be met with a slash that ripped its jaw from its head. Black blood pulsed from the wound as the beast buckled in pain, its gore stinking of bile. Metal gave away and melted like wax.
Jishnu fought with the bronze kravyad, dodging away as the ferocious cat swiped at him. The two danced around each other, lashing out with paw and sword until Jishnu found himself in one of the tight corners of the platform’s fencing.
The bronze kravyad leapt. Jishnu ducked low, slashing upward across his enemy’s belly. Black blood sprayed as the spirit flew over the barricade.
“Very valiant.” The apparition of Deepti’s mother stood at the top of the stair. “But enough games.”
Bellowing, Jishnu charged at her. The apparition raised her hand up at him and flicked her fingers to the side, and suddenly he shot to the right. He collided with the wall on the far side of the chamber, falling like a fly swatted from the air.
Deepti crawled to the edge of the platform. Jishnu lay on floor, bloodied and concussed.
“It’s almost over, my little love.”
She rolled to her back and found the apparition standing over her, a slight frown on a ghoulish face.
“You fought so very well,” the apparition said. “You mortals try so hard.”
Deepti glared at the corruption of her mother’s form, and then past her to the mask floating above the basin. The ears had melted away, the edges burnt black, and the jaw distended until the mouth was a wide chasm. Copper dripped into the flame.
If only the mask was closer.
“This could have been easier,” the apparition continued. “My lord would have come for the mask at some point, entering your little temple without effort, no harm done. So much suffering could have been avoided.”
“It is my dharma to stop evil. That mask, you, your god—you deserve destruction.”
“That’s one way of looking at it, or maybe dharma swings both ways.” The apparition went for the mask. “Not that it matters.”
There were no mantras left, no warrior to save her, and as Deepti watched the apparition slowly reach for the mask reality set in:
If only the mask was closer.
“Not for us,” Deepti said, and she surged to her feet. Her arms wrapped around the apparition, the two fell on the mask, plunging it deeper into the fire. The ghost beneath her screamed, but Deepti didn’t hear it over her own wail. The flames burnt the flesh away from her arms and hands, exposing the bones as the world disappeared in a flash of white.