Chanda didn’t know they were asleep until they woke up. The car had just passed through a grove of ancient trees, and from the gnarly, massive collection of roots, they assumed it was a grove of Banyan trees. The mere thought of that name made Chanda hiccup quietly and turn away from the window.
Kamala didn’t acknowledge their movement, which both worried and annoyed them. They didn’t want her attention, but the quiet put them on edge. They had no clue what awaited them or how to prepare for it in turn. Rami remained at rest, curled as small as comfortably possible in his cage. Knowing that helped Chanda to be grounded.
Another ten minutes passed in silence, then Chanda was plunged into paradise. Dozens upon dozens of Banyans lined the sides of the road, small deep red fruits (too similar to blood for their tastes) nestled in the large leaves. The sunlight dappled through, making an interesting light play on any solid surface. In the distance, Chanda could make out a huge, abandoned-looking palace. Tucked deep into nature, it looked like an enticement, hiding a great danger in the beautiful, powerful ruins. For all intents and purposes, that was exactly true. Chanda tried to find signs of activity to match the nauseating feeling of being watched. They found none, and they again felt double-sided about it.
Kamala reached behind her ear and pressed, activating some hidden communication device or other. In hushed, purring Hindi, she spoke a few cryptic sentences and the ground dropped a few hundred meters in front of them. The harsh jostle at such a speed made Chanda jerk forward roughly. The seatbelt locked and choked them, and their knees hit the dashboard with a low thud before they were able to settle back.
Kamala snickered to herself. “Every newbie gets caught like that. Priceless,” she teased, earning a pout from Chanda. Chanda straightened up in their seat, taking note of this new road. The ground had opened up to reveal a tunnel, which stretched for quite a ways. It wasn’t pitch black, sunlight filtered through steel and glass panels cut into the soil.
“Were those always there?” They couldn’t help but ask, but they instantly went stiff. However, they didn’t suffer any pain or a lecture, just a nod.
“They’re well hidden, but yes. They go further back than this, but I only needed this section opened. This is a one-time trip for you, so take in the scenery while you can.” Kamala no longer seemed angry or annoyed with them, helping Chanda relax. They took her advice, admiring the architecture that didn’t overpower the natural beauty. The walls weren’t steel or concrete, but well-packed earth with thick steel rods placed in it at intervals. The road was smooth asphalt, giving them a feeling of flying. Wood and steel arches kept the ceiling intact, blending in so well they were almost invisible. The tunnel ride was short—just under 5 minutes—and the sudden light of the palace made Chanda blink quickly to recover.
It looked completely different inside than out, almost modernized. Any holes in the ceiling were sealed with the same ultra-strong glass that was in the tunnels. Chanda internally gave these assassins credit for their appreciation of natural lighting. The car stopped in an empty lot, overlooking the forest.
“Out,” Kamala ordered after shutting off the engine. Chanda was never so eager to get out a car. With a fluid rise, Chanda and Rami exited the car. To boot, they slammed the door with a vengeful smack. Kamala gave them a look, but they ignored it. While they weren’t a fighter, they were quite skilled in being a passive-aggressive shit. Tightening their grip on Rami’s cage, Chanda watched Kamala walk to the nearest wall and, oddly enough, punch it with full force. The smack of skin and bone on unyielding steel resounded in the empty space but she didn’t so much as wince. Nothing happened for 10 or so uncomfortable seconds, then an old, smooth voice boomed from hidden speakers.
“Lotus, was your task successful?” Kamala finally pulled back her hand, standing with a rigid back. “Yes, the sapling has been extracted.”
The voice rumbled with a pleased hum. “Excellent, I shall see you rewarded. Now, I believe it is time to meet our estranged son.” While Chanda was reeling from rampant confusion, the floor hissed and began to descend. They whipped their eyes to Kamala, who had a hand pressed to a glowing panel. Only when they realized that the floor was falling and that they were alone on the moving section did they panic.
“L-Lotus!” They called, but in vain. The floor moved faster now, whipping through story after story. Chanda laid flat on their stomach, eyes shut tight as they screamed through the rest of the ride. When it finally slowed to a hissing stop, Chanda felt Kamala pull them up. She kept her face smooth, but her eyes were laughing.
Standing up slowly, Chanda was steered towards a stage with a single podium. Someone took Rami away, instinctually Chanda tried to get him, but Kamala was firm in leading them along. Suddenly blinding, uncomfortably warm light overtook them. Blinking a few times, they stumbled out alone onto the stage, realizing they were in a giant auditorium.
Every seat was filled, the people watching Chanda with a mix of amusement and boredom. At the podium, an old man waited, standing tall and regal. He looked eerily like Chanda, spare his definitely masculine presence and the sharper jaw. His hands were clasped behind him, feet shoulder-width apart. He wore an all-black, form-fitting suit and combat boots.
Chanda felt even more inadequate and weak than with Kamala. “Come closer, Chanda. This is the easiest part,” the man said, putting a face to the smooth voice from before.
Chanda didn’t notice that they’d been standing and gawking like a fool until they were addressed. They finished crossing the stage, not going any faster or slower for all their hesitance. Chanda still hadn’t gotten over the fact that this ‘Project’ destroyed their life. Any of these people could’ve delivered the killing blow.
The man grinned, drawing their attention to his perfect teeth and the dimple on his left cheek. “It’s good to finally put a face to the name. Despite your delayed arrival, I have faith that you’ll catch up,” the man leaned forward at the waist. “I am Bhima. Your father.”
Chanda’s ears were ringing with the word ‘father’. “No—no, Mother said you were dead,” they replied in a small voice. Bhima snorted, then schooled his face into sculpted elegance.
“Well, the tables have turned on Jaya, haven’t they?” His comment made the audience chuckle. Chanda’s face went pale, and they shook their head vehemently against it.
“She’s dead because of you! Pinga is dead, too! How can you stand it?” They clenched their hands, trying to reign in every inch they on Bhima. The older seemed slightly put-off if that.
“Pinga? I don’t know who she is, but she was unfortunate ‘collateral’ at best. As for Jaya, she knew what was coming the minute she decided to keep you away. The fault is all hers, Chanda.” Chanda just about squawked, enraged.
“I won’t accept that I have any relation to you, to any of this—!” They swept an arm toward the crowd.
Bhima’s calm was distracting and dangerous. “You don’t have a choice. See, this is why Jaya shouldn’t have kept you, she’s delayed 7 years of training,” he huffed. “Damn woman.”
Chanda’s low growling earned a raised eyebrow. “I told Lotus, and now I’m telling you, I won’t be a part of this! You, her, and even Abbán can take all this and shove it!” They hissed, arms crossed, and eyes narrowed.
Bhima mirrored the look, looking twice as threatening. “You may be on a stage, but that’s no reason to make a scene and disrespect your father,” he scolded.
Chanda saw red. “Go straight to hell!” They shot a fist forward, but it never connected. The painful thud of skin on wood was Chanda’s face being smashed. Bhima, face bored and movements mockingly graceful, had his hand pressed harshly to the back of Chanda’s head. He also had Chanda’s arm pulled back just short of out of the socket.
“I am not the one to challenge, sapling. Next time I won’t hesitate to try my hand at dismemberment. Are you quite finished?”
Chanda squirmed, teeth digging into their cheek, but all the fire was put out. “For now.”
Pleased, Bhima released them, and with an eerily affectionate grin, helped them up. Chanda glowered at him, rubbing their arm. Their eyes stung with tears, but by willpower, those tears didn’t fall. Bhima cleared his throat and turned the still quiet audience. “We have our noble sapling. Despite his delay, you will treat him with respect and praise,” he announced, hands behind his back.
“Them,” Chanda mumbled. “Hm?”
“Them. I’m agender,” Chanda spoke a bit louder, chin up.
Bhima sneered. “You were agender. Now, you are my sapling son. You’ll earn your pronouns back when you fulfill your place among us. After all, you have 7 years to cover for, boy.” Chanda opened their mouth to protest, but Bhima’s sharp ‘ssht—!’ hushed them. “You don’t get to protest anymore.”
Chanda sneered back, “I’ll protest all I want, you pretentious, murdering ass! My pronouns are they, them, and theirs. I refuse to respond to anything else!” Their shouts echoed through the auditorium, carrying Chanda’s indignation and conviction.
Bhima moved with a purposeful slowness, facing Chanda. His fingers were twitching, and his grin showed too many teeth. “Sapling,” he tested, only to be ignored.
“Hm. I haven’t had the pleasure of an unruly child in many years,” His tone became venomous at the word ‘child’, “Lost pride is the best remedy for that. We’ll begin the treatment after your decision.”
Chanda couldn’t fight their shiver of fear. Just what did this sick man mean by ‘treatment’? They certainly didn’t want to find out.
Bhima cleared his throat and flicked his wrist. In practiced tandem, two servants came on stage. One carried a sapling Banyan, the other an ornate, thick dagger. Its edges glinted menacingly in the stage light. The sapling was placed at Chanda’s feet, and the knife in Bhima’s hand. Then, Bhima flicked his wrist again and Kamala walked onto the far side of the stage, Rami docile in her arms. Bhima stood between Chanda and their cat, expertly flipping and spinning the dagger between his fingers.
“You have two options, Chanda. A momentary sacrifice, or release—ah, not the nice ‘release’, mind you.”
Bhima offered the dagger to Chanda. “What sacrifice?” They asked, making and Bhima and the crowd laugh.
“Become one with our family tree. Your blood will sustain its growth.” Chanda recoiled, stomach dropping.
“You’re mad.” The crowd began to chant “blood, blood, blood” all around. They were quiet at first but began to swiftly crescendo so that Chanda could scarcely hear their own thoughts.
Bhima shrugged. “So, release, then. Your choice.” He pivoted around to face Rami, dagger primed for throwing.
“What are you doing?” Chanda’s voice rose an octave as fear iced their core.
Bhima cocked his arm back; Rami mewled once.
“No! no, please, I’ll do the sacrifice!” As if he wasn’t about to murder a cat, Bhima pivoted back to Chanda.
“Thought so.” With steps too quick to track, Bhima was behind Chanda, snatching their hand and forcing it open, palm up.
“Thank you for your sacrifice,” he purred, making his move. Then, all Chanda knew was the pain. The dagger went clean through, its sharp, curved tip gleaming as blood poured off of it. The deep red splashed and ran down the leaves of the sapling, the soft pitter-patters hidden by Chanda’s scream. The crowd hushed the instant the blade met skin, leaving nothing but the raw power of Chanda’s pain.
Chanda could only stare at their quivering hand in horror. The dagger was yanked out and sunk into the bloody soil. Gawking at the bloody hole in their hand, Chanda felt everything go numb.
Needless to say, they had passed out.