In a far-off dimension that lies beyond mortal comprehension, there is a small haven that exists at the very edge of Space and Time.
It is home to a man (if such we may call him) called Sibi, and from its edge he can see nearly all of Creation, countless worlds orbiting billions of stars dusted across the ever-expanding heavens.
Sibi is a teller of stories, for no tale is lived in the worlds in his sight without him knowing of it. The endless reaches of his memory are forever crowded with recollections of stories short and long, joyous and tragic. Stories that conclude, and stories that are destined to never find an end.
A teller of stories must have listeners, and so does Sibi. At the centre of his little haven is a flat-topped little hillock, where there burns eternally a little fire. Its soft, white flames blaze with the warmth of memory, and around it sit the Listeners.
Today there sit three Listeners around the fire, three of Sibi’s favourites. Their eager, curious faces show an undisguised hunger for a new story. Sibi smiles to himself, wrinkles creasing the skin around his eyes and his lips. His white, pupil-less eyes shine in the endless heavenly night. He walks to the fire and sits across it from them. The little flames are reflected in his white eyes, shape-shifting pupils created for the duration of the tale.
He starts his story in a low whisper, a sound that sweeps through the senses like a breeze in a primeval forest, where after long years of isolation, a solitary traveller finally makes his way.
They will love this story, he thinks. Most of all because they have never heard it.
In the countless eons of his existence, this is the one story he has always kept close to his heart.
It begins in a town called Shergah on Kynat, the Blessed Continent, on a world that shall remain unnamed, for now. The Listeners are quiet, their faces rapt with attention. Sibi takes one deep breath before he launches into the tale.
In the rugged snow and pine-covered forests that lie on the slopes of Kynat, the Blessed Continent, there is a hierarchy of great antiquity that is perennially at play. It begins when the eagle, King of birds, is successful in its hunt, and starts to devour its quarry, worrying past the fur and hide and ripping out the flesh in bloody strips.
Every bird and beast in the vicinity keeps away at this time, for the eagle will brook no questioning of its privilege.
Except the vultures. The eagle reveres its wiser, older cousins, who in their search for carrion learn more about the world and its ways than a hunting bird ever could. For where the eagle hunts fresh kill, the vultures fly far and wide in search of that which follows death: decay. They fly over the ruins of great civilizations, over the carnage of vast battlefields. They seek out the bodily remnants of battles, earthquakes, avalanches, famines and plagues; the relics of ambition, self-defence, justice, disaster, disease and despair, and consume what flesh they find, each meal an eye-opener into a different story. The eagle knows this about them, and respects them for it. As they begin their descent from over the horizon, the eagle makes quick its meal and departs, powerful wing-beats lifting it swiftly into the heavens.
The vultures descend without delay, squabbling among themselves for the best gobbets of flesh, dancing the carrion-eater’s dance. They live the ultimate contradiction: grace and majesty to make the heart ache when airborne, all of it disappearing as soon as they touch firm ground. In the immediate interests of feeding themselves, all wisdom is forgotten.
But though the eagle defers to them, the vultures themselves answer to a higher power. A power that flies in just as they reduce the eagle’s prey to bare bone. A bird larger than them, its wings stretched out in an orange cascade of splendour.
The Lammergeyer. That is what the men of the northlands call it. The bearded vulture in common speech. The lammergeyer feeds only on the marrow of a dead animal’s bones, which it gets by dropping the bones from great heights onto bare rock below. Powdered bone litters its feeding sites.
The eagle makes war. It conquers. The lesser vultures feed off the remnants of hunts, tragedies and battles, even though the lessons they learn give them unbounded sorrow. The lammergeyer comes at the end, to tie loose ends, to know and remember every tale in the sad and beautiful history of a sad and beautiful world.
What the lammergeyer sees lies beyond the lesser vultures. For, you see, the lammergeyer is immortal, and each one is joined to all its other brethren by a common thread of memory, conscious of the past and the present of the world like no other living creature.
The lammergeyer, my friends, is the emperor of the sky.
“Are you sure you want to take the baby there? He is only a few days old.”
“I have no choice. The King has asked all of us to go on the expedition. There will be no one to take care of him here.”
“Wrap him well, then. I see stormclouds coming.”
Black, billowing stormclouds marched across the sky, darkening a thickly-forested mountainous landscape. Thunderbolts flashed across the sky, occasionally falling on hilltops and setting trees ablaze. The odd flash of lighting also struck a beautiful golden spire of a citadel nestled atop one of the hills. Well-earthed against the impact of these storms, the spire absorbed the lighting, as though fed and sustained by it.
Prithvi, the King of Shergarh, looked down from the palace turrets as his subjects scurried for cover against the oncoming rain. Vendors pushed their hand-carts across the streets while the shopkeepers and smiths pulled in their awnings. Men and women hurried home, their work interrupted mid-afternoon. Children pattered down the hill from the maidan near the summit. Soldiers walked up and down the street, helping the elderly and the bearers of heavy loads.
At the gates of Shergarh a thousand feet below, little specks trickled in as soldiers stood guard on the turrets. Hunters, foragers, wood-cutters and travelling tradesmen, just in from the outlying villages. Prithvi hoped no one was stranded on the treacherous mountain paths when the storm began.
His eyes went to a small group of people walking out of the gate. The Ruswas, heading out to retrieve the sacred rajpushp flowers for the crown prince Agni, born just five days ago. Shergarhi tradition demanded that newborn royals be anointed with the petals of this little red flower, within a fortnight of their births. The lowest caste in the Shergarhi varna system, the Ruswas did the tasks none of the other members of the community were willing to do. About a thousand Ruswas lived in a little settlement right next to the walls at the bottom of the citadel. They worked as manual scavengers, leatherworkers, water-carriers. When there was a birth in the royal household, the Ruswas also made the customary expedition outside the city walls for the sacred rajpushp, braving the tough terrain, the uncertain weather, wild animals and the magic-wielding, shape-shifting immortals who were Shergarh’s oldest and greatest enemies.
The sound of soft breathing next to him alerted Prithvi. Noiselessly joining him on the turrets, his queen Padma stood next to him, their sleeping baby Agni cradled in her arms.
“Go inside, my love. This weather isn’t safe for the baby.”
Padma cooed to the prince as he moved in her arms. She turned sad eyes towards Prithvi.
“I tried to stay indoors, my love, but I couldn’t. I cannot bear the thought of those Ruswas going out at a time when everyone else in the city is seeking the warmth and shelter of their homes. Can they not get the rajpushp tomorrow?”
“I have told you this before, my queen. We need the rajpushp before Agni is a fortnight old. In conditions as hard as ours, with enemies so powerful, we cannot take the blessings of the gods lightly. We must appease them every way we can. Our traditions make us who we are. When we follow them to the letter, they keep us safe.”
“A fine tradition, King, that allows you to worry about a little rain falling on your child, when your greatest warrior Bikram risks his life on a whim of yours, taking his lover and their newborn child out into the elements.”
“I will speak no more of this. Go Inside.”
The queen walked off in a huff, as the clouds completely blackened the sky, and the first fat drops of rain began to descend.
Prithvi moved to a little gazebo, watching Shergarh from under its canopy. Most of the city’s residents had moved themselves to safety, the last few stragglers hurrying to their doorsteps. He didn’t give them a thought, though. All he could think of were Padma’s sharp words in parting.
Shergarhi tradition put Ruswas at the bottom of their society. Descended from a tribe that was weakest at war, hunting and trade, tradition granted them little by way of rights and entitlements from their ruler. The Ruswas had to earn their right to the King’s protection by performing tasks as he saw fit. Whether or not their efforts were found sufficient also depended entirely on the King’s discretion. Unfair though this system was, the Shergarhi Kings were sticklers for tradition.
Prithvi was decidedly more hostile towards the Ruswas at the moment, his bitterness stronger than the joy at the birth of the crown prince, an event that the entire town was celebrating. The focus of his bitterness was Devi, the lover of his greatest warrior, Bikram.
Bile mounting in his throat, his thoughts strayed to the grudge he held against the woman, when he was brought back to the present by a long, sharp blast of a battle-horn. His keen ears told him that the sound came from a mile away.
Bikram and the Ruswas! They have spotted danger!
The length of the horn-call meant only one thing.
A Rakshas attack.
The first call was followed by shorter blasts, alerting the guards about the number of the raiding immortals. Not waiting to count, the King hurried indoors to prepare for battle.
The Ruswas of Shergarh hurried to their homes as the bloodthirsty roars of hunting rakshasas sounded across the valley. They slipped and stumbled in the heavy rain, nearly falling to their deaths as they navigated the rocky, treacherous path that snaked up to the solitary gate in the high walls encircling the town. The rain fell mercilessly, as though it colluded with their foes. In a fading twilight further darkened by an immovable shroud of black rainclouds, the rolling thunder lent greater terror to the rakshasas’ roars.
At the tail of the fugitives’ procession, a young couple made the desperate walk to safety. The woman carried an infant, who was crying uncontrollably. On the verge of tears, she looked up at the child’s father.
“Bikram, they are too close behind us. We will never make it to the gate in time!”
The man looked at her and smiled reassuringly. “The gate is not far, Devi. We will be safe. If they do catch up, the guards will hold them off. I will hold them off.”
The man was tall, dressed as a traveller but with the bearing of a Shergarhi soldier. A sword and a short spear were slung across his shoulders, and a hunting knife was sheathed at his waist. He had been out with his lover and their newborn child, as she and her brethren looked for the sacred red trefoil, the rajpushp. The town had been making preparations to celebrate the birth of the crown prince Agni, and as tradition demanded, Devi’s caste, the Ruswas of Shergarh, earned the right to the king’s protection by trekking into rakshas-infested territory to retrieve the sacred flowers.
Prithvi did not approve of Bikram’s relationship with Devi, for they were not married and that offended the strict traditions of Shergarhi society. Devi was a Ruswa, socially dispossessed like others of her caste, forced by tradition to live in a cramped, shabby settlement near the city gates.
Bikram was a warrior of unknown origin, but seemingly noble heritage and bearing, who roamed the wildernesses of Mahataru, the Great Forest, helping protect human villages from the wrath of the immortal rakshasas. He claimed to be the son of warrior parents in a remote village destroyed by the rakshasas. His skill at battle and luck in hard times was legendary. He had walked into Prithvi’s durbar a day after the latter’s coronation, a fine young warrior with fire in his eyes, their pupils a deep crimson, laying down his sword and pleading for a chance to defend the city against rakshas attacks. The young King had been suspicious at first, but Bikram had impressed him with woodcraft, especially his ability to predict an imminent attack long before the king’s own men could. There was no escaping death during a rakshas attack, but on Bikram’s watch the casualties reduced and the soldiers fought with greater spirit.
Bikram had made himself indispensable to the King of Shergarh, who had therefore been unable to stop him from travelling to the smaller villages in the vicinity, to help them as best as he could, though he would have preferred that the great warrior serve him and him alone. Bikram was now a warrior of great renown, and as a gesture of respect, the common people had nicknamed him after the bearded vulture, the most revered bird in the sky. The Lammergeyer, the bird that sages said represented order and peace on Kynat, the Blessed Continent.
A massive thunderclap sent shockwaves through the valley. Flashes of lightning intermittently illuminated the jagged, rocky surfaces, shimmering off the foaming Chhoti Nadi, far below.
The Lammergeyer’s keen eyes saw the rakshasas through the pouring rain, less than a mile away. The weather hampered their movements as well, and they had chosen not to shape-shift and attack instead in their natural form. Swarthy, hard-muscled and dressed in skins, the rakshasas were barefoot and unarmed. They stood on either side of the narrow, frothing river, looking up at their quarry. There were twelve of them, which worried Bikram. A solitary rakshas, or two or three, would be content attacking a small village or a group of people who had foolishly ventured outside their barricaded settlements. This was a group big enough to engage all of Shergarh’s three thousand soldiers.
Up close, they inspired even greater terror. An untransformed rakshas stood about seven feet tall, with long, matted hair that was either black or a deep brown. Not much unlike the strongest human wrestlers, barring their fangs and the magic that they wielded. This magic, whose essence seemed to rest in their black, bloodshot eyes, was the true source of their terror. It was also the source of their immense strength. A rakshas in fury had no individual match in battle.
Rakshasas also had keener eyes than humans, and Bikram felt the raiders’ collective glare rest on him. He turned to Devi.
“Walk faster,” he said over the baby’s cries, “This will be closer than I thought.”
They rounded a bend and the path became steeper. At its summit stood the gate to Shergarh, an imposing, iron-bound portal set in a massively fortified wall. Torch-bearing guards patrolled the turrets, armed to the teeth.
Bikram waved to them and shouted his warning.
“Alert the men! Inform the King! There are a dozen rakshasas headed for Shergarh, less than a mile away! Let us in and mount the defence!”
They ran, covering the last stretch to the gate in a few moments. The massive city gates swung outwards slowly, revealing soldiers massed in their ranks, ready to fight. Nearly out of breath, Bikram and the Ruswas hobbled in, holding aloft the copper disks strung around their necks which marked them as residents of Shergarh. The guards let them in and they turned right towards their own quarters. Devi turned to Bikram.
“Good luck, my love. Come back from this battle alive. We have a child to raise.”
Bikram looked at his lover and their child, his heart full of regret. I was wrong, he thought. I cannot give her the happy homestead of her dreams. And today of all days, my luck could run out.
“I want you to understand,” he whispered, “I have never fought a rakshas raid this big, and my luck may run out today. Don’t cry,” he said as Devi’s eyes welled up with tears, “You are stronger than I am. Far, far stronger. Just one thing. If I survive today, we will leave this city that condemns you as a Ruswa, and start a new life with our boy. Let us name him Uday. May he be the dawn of a new hope in our lives.”
“But what if you don’t come back?”
“You will raise him well, Devi, that I know. But take care. Protect our child.” He may grow up better in my absence. I have made a huge mistake.
A war-horn sounded, and a herald called all soldiers to arms. The rain poured worse than ever as Bikram kissed his lover and child one last time. Then he raced up to the turrets and was lost to sight.
Surrounded by a hundred men of his elite personal guard, Prithvi marched out, dressed for battle, onto the widest of the palace turrets. A soldier held a canopy above Prithvi to shield him from the rain. The King cut an admirable figure with his armour and weapons, a true warrior. Lithe and powerful, he towered over his men, moving with the slow, self-assured agility of a tiger on the hunt. From his vantage point, Prithvi could see the citadel gate and the road that led out of Shergarh. His trained eyes spied man-forms running up the road. The immortals were charging in for battle.
The rakshas-roars were clearly audible over the sound of thunder. Prithvi could also hear the answering battle-cries of his soldiers as they built morale.
The storm grew more vicious, a relentless torrent pounding the mountainous landscape. Streaks of lightning struck hilltops, starting short-lived fires quickly doused by the rain. The palace spire protected Shergarh, drawing lightning towards itself when it fell towards the town.
As the King’s column stood guard, a messenger came running. Breaking formation, Prithvi came to the front.
“Your report. Quick.”
“The scorpions and archers are keeping them at bay, sire. We are alternating rounds so the rakshasas don’t move forward too quickly. But it’s the biggest raid we’ve seen. A dozen rakshasas. We could run out of scorpion bolts and arrows soon.”
“Are the oil-vats ready?”
“On the boil, sire. We will burn any of the monsters who venture too close.”
“Good. Where is Bikram?”
“At the gate, sire. His presence lifts our spirits.”
“Enough. Go back to your station.”
Prithvi ground his teeth. My finest warrior, instead of protecting me, plays to the gallery at the gates! Not unlike other rulers, the King of Shergarh was wary of a widely popular warrior in his ranks.
Using an old scout trick, he cupped his hands to make a tube and observed the melee below. He did not see flashes of flame, which meant that the archers still had arrows. He waited for the victory horns that would sound with the death of each rakshas.
His guards waited patiently around him. A raiding party of twelve rakshasas would inevitably breach the gates. Prithvi hoped most of them would be killed. Soldiers lined the citadel walls and the lower streets, armed to the teeth. Victory was certain against the raid, but the cost was yet unknown.
A victory horn, low and powerful, sounded at the gate. One rakshas down!
A second horn sounded. Two! Through the thunder came the sounds of his men cheering.
Another scout ran up to the terrace. Prithvi, wound taut as a bowstring, ran forward to intercept him.
“Your report, man. Quick!”
“Two rakshasas down. They evaded most of the arrows and scorpion bolts, but Bikram marshalled some perfect blows to their hearts and eyes. We struck home!”
“Are they all attacking the gate?”
“Five were, of whom we killed two. The others are scrabbling along the citadel wall, but the soldiers aren’t letting them climb.”
“Why don’t they use magic? They can transform into wild birds and beasts. That should let them fly or jump in.”
“Bikram says transformation drains their strength. They could do that fighting against a small posse of fifty, but it will be suicide to attempt that against an army of three thousand.”
“Thank the gods for small mercies.”
A flash of flame billowed at the gate and at different points on the bottom wall of the citadel. Boiling oil had been cast upon the rakshasas, and flaming brands dropped upon them. Another loud cheer rose from the soldiers, followed shortly by three horn-calls.
Prithvi clenched his fist in triumph. Five dead!
There still remained seven, though.
Abruptly, the rain stopped. The clouds changed to a lighter, less oppressive shade of grey, the thunder and lightning growing softer with it as well. The improved visibility made it easier for Prithvi and his men to survey the fighting below. They could also hear the sounds of the fighting better.
Prithvi saw five rakshasas finally scale the walls and begin close combat with his men. Sabres drawn, the men of Shergarh charged at their immortal foes.
These monsters have no parallel.
The rakshasas fought with incredible speed, no weapons on their person. They swatted soldiers aside as though they were insects, smashing and ripping into them like so many rag dolls. Many died in the battle. Prithvi was so absorbed in watching the fighting that he did not see the two remaining rakshasas, undoubtedly using their magic, jump clear above the walls and atop a watch-tower. They looked down at their comrades, and then looked up.
Even at that distance, Prithvi knew perfectly well that they were looking at him.
They’re coming for me.
He addressed his men. “Ten of you, run down the streets and call all the able-bodied men in the city out of their homes! We must stop these monsters at all costs!”
As his men ran down the steps, he saw the rakshasas leap from building to building, slowly and surely making their way up the hill. A few soldiers gave chase, but their arrows were swiftly and easily dodged.
Prithvi stood in the centre of the ninety soldiers remaining on the terrace, all of whom had drawn a sword and a throwing-knife each. Arrows would be useless here. Ninety-one men against two rakshasas was nearly an even match. Dreading the slaughter that would ensue once the rakshasas finally arrived, Prithvi stood tall, ready to give a fierce fight.
The men around him cheered all of a sudden, and he saw the sight that was responsible for it. Nearly matching the rakshasas’ pace, Bikram followed them close behind, jumping from roof to roof and drawing closer. Down at the walls, two horn-calls sounded in quick succession.
Seven dead. We can win this.
The rakshasas finally reached the summit of the hill. A large square separated the buildings they were on from the palace. Jumping lightly to the ground, they threw their heads back and roared.
Then they charged.
The line of Prithvi’s elite guard stood at the turrets, confident at the advantage provided to them by the higher ground. They saw Bikram chasing the rakshasas, matching their pace, though he was fifty paces behind them.
When the rakshasas were within twenty yards, ninety throwing-knives were cast in three rounds of thirty each, aimed squarely at them.
The rakshasas were quick. But one got a knife, beautifully aimed, right in his throat. Screaming a blood-curdling death-roar, he toppled and died lying on his face. The other rakshas, bearing no more than a few grazes, reached the bottom of the palace and leaped.
He was interrupted mid-leap by a knife that buried itself in his right calf. Crashing into the wall, he slid down, as Bikram came up close behind him.
Prithvi rushed to the turret, equal parts angry and joyous.
“Bikram, you fool, well done! You should have come sooner!”
Bikram bowed and went to inspect the two prone immortals. He blew a sharp blast on his horn, followed moments later by three more from the gates.
Eleven, Prithvi thought. This is nearly over! He saw a detachment of soldiers break away from the walls and rush up the main street to offer aid to the King.
Bikram walked to the other rakshas slumped against the palace wall. No sooner did he get close than the rakshas threw him off his feet with a savage kick. Standing with difficulty, the rakshas pulled Bikram’s knife out of his leg.
The rakshas looked up at the King’s guards atop the terrace, and grinned a cold, cruel grin, his bloodshot eyes gleaming with malice.
“Your King goes today,” he said. Tapping into his raw, elemental magic, he struck the wall, causing cracks to run down it from top to bottom.
The rakshas braced for another shot as the soldiers began to herd the king inwards from the damaged section of the building. He was decapitated in one stroke of Bikram’s sword, the warrior recovering spectacularly from the kick he had taken.
But not before he had struck the building a second time, bringing the walls and crashing down, Prithvi and his guards with it. At that moment the soldiers from the gate arrived at the other end of the square, hurrying to organize the rescue from amid the rubble.
Bikram ran in, coughing dust as he gravitated towards dozens of fearful, pained and urgent voices calling for help.
He heard Prithvi’s voice loudest and most painful of all.
“Help me! I’ve crushed my leg!”
A group of soldiers, relatively uninjured, pulled the King out of the rubble. Bikram looked around, watching more men run up the hill, the procession led by Vishnusen, warrior Prime Minister to a warrior King. Bikram made a decision.
This will only get worse. I have to get out of Shergarh and find a way to stop this.
“Vishnusen! I am going outside. I need to scout the surrounding forests for more rakshasas. These raids will only get bigger unless we do something to prevent them.”
The wiry, pinched face of the minister, usually not very expressive, betrayed shock.
“Alone? Are you mad? Those monsters killed at least two hundred men today!”
“Don’t worry. I will be back in a week.”
So saying, Bikram sprinted away from the ruins of the palace and down the hill. The carnage over, people ventured out of their homes, hurrying to help those injured in the fighting. The air was rent with screams as messengers gave grim news to the families of dead soldiers.
Not far from the gate, Bikram rounded a bend and saw the little whitewashed settlement of the Ruswas. Less than twenty yards away, he saw the house he shared with Devi, its windows slightly ajar. He fished in one of his pockets, retrieved a small leather bag bound with a drawstring, and threw it at the window.
Devi sat inside the house with her back to the window, nestling a crying Uday in her lap. The boy had cried incessantly during the fighting and was only now beginning to calm down. Bikram’s perfect aim sent the little bag flying in through the gap in the window, flying over her head and striking the far wall. Placing the baby on the mat she was sitting on, she picked up the bag and opened it. Inside it was a little silver trefoil on a string and a small scroll. She unrolled it and read it in the light of a solitary oil lamp burning in a niche.
She wept quietly for a long moment, and then went back to her child.