PROLOGUE: CYCLE OF DEATH & BIRTH
Year 967, Third Yuga
Fields of Prayag, Nam-Ehrilitaan, Northern borders of Nam Empire
The only good Andhaka is a dead Andhaka.
Fateh kept chanting this, his teeth chattering like crazy, the shivers racking his young body, the cold leaking through to his very bones. It seemed like an eternity, waiting knee deep in the river waters. This far South, the river was calm enough, but Fateh knew better. He knew that the ice up on the Hindu-Kush ranges could melt and turn these calm eddies into raging, frothing death traps that swept one away into oblivion within a moment’s notice. It wasn’t just the cold. It was also the fear—a nameless presence hovering just over his shoulders. After all, this was his first battle ever.
Not the best of the conditions when you‘re fighting your first major battle. Fateh looked over his shoulders; all around him, soldiers were moving forward, dragging leaden feet through muddy slush and a fast undercurrent that sucked at your boots and swirled all around you. Fateh thought that the man next to him could hear his own heart, hammering away in his chest. The cold only made it worse; it seemed to squeeze the heart to pump blood through his white frozen limbs. ‘How in the name of all the djinns of jahannum am I going to hold that sword properly when the time comes,’ he wondered, fingering the scabbard cinched to his belt.
First visit to the Void! The edge of the known world. Where the fluctuating boundaries of the Nam Empire vanished into nothingness. Excitement pulsed through him, tinged with fear and anxiety as all the rumours he heard about this place rushed through his mind. The Void! The end of the living world. Where traces of Maaya was still alive.
One man brushed past him, a great-axe slung casually over his shoulders, his scarred face split in a wide grin. The grin, if anything, made the man look worse, accentuating that brownish-red welt across his face.
“First battle, huh boy?”
“Y-y-y-y-yes!” The bloody cold made him sound like a sissy about to wet his pants. Graaki’s pox!
“You need to warm up, boy. Get that blood flowing … when those conches sound out and the Andhakas charge over the hill, you need it roaring hot. Like a forge. What happens when you dip that burning, flaming steel into cold water? It becomes stronger! You hear me, stronger! That’s what you need to become, boy—the flaming steel.”
“The f-f-f-flaming steel, yes, Captain. Got it!” Fateh stammered, a vision of red hot steel dipping, hissing and steaming into a channel of cold icy water stamping onto his brains.
He didn’t see the blow coming.
His teeth clattered, his cheeks exploded in a miasma of hot lancing pain and he fell. Gasping and spluttering, his head dunked under the water, limbs floundering in a bid to grasp onto something, anything. He came up, his boots slipping off moss-laden smooth round stones and he went down again.
“Did that warm you up enough, son? Come on, get back up here!”
From beneath the waters, the shout sounded muffled. His ears were ringing, the water rushing all around him. He clenched his teeth to keep them from chattering and roused himself up, straining against the weight of wet clothes and all that armour, his hands coming free. Dappled sunlight glinted from between the clouds, suddenly blinding him. “Arrrghhh!!” He gasped, taking in deep ragged breaths, heaving and coughing. Fateh felt his cheeks sting with the pain; the bastard had slugged him hard!
The anger set in slowly. Fateh had never been a hot-headed boy while growing up and he wasn’t about to start now. But this time he could feel the anger, a beast swelling through his mind, red and hot. A blinding red mist was starting to sway over his eyes. He growled and swung his sword—when did that clear the scabbard, he had no memory of that ever happening—a wild lunge, not a practiced smooth killer’s thrust. It clanged onto a wooden shield reinforced with steel and harmlessly clattered off. Fateh moved forward, a double-handed overhead cut, a strike of wrath aimed for the head, which the soldier neatly sidestepped. Before Fateh knew it, he was sandbagged and lifted clear off his feet, even with the water weighing down his boots and he fell back again, floundering into the river.
This time, when he got up, he stayed put. The water had cleared his head and doused that anger. Save your blood-thirst for the Andhakas. He shook his head, his helmet was off and water had dripped down into his underclothes. It was still cold enough to freeze his balls off, but he felt the suffusing warmth of blood rushing to his head. He felt alright.
“Good! Keep your head screwed on, son. Don’t strike out in anger. Keep it cold once you got that fire inside of you. Fire and ice. That’s what you need to be. Tempered steel and not a hot brittle blade, son. You with me?”
“Yes, Captain Humayun. And thank you, Captain.”
Humayun nodded once, the ghastly smile flickering once again. “Try and stay alive. Get that helmet back on, aim for the heart and thrust good. Andhakas are tough bastards, seeds of the demon. Abominations born of Maaya left over in this world, such that they eat the flesh of you and me. So don’t get yo’self killed, okay? The Agha has deemed it an honour that his son joins the fourteenth battalion. And that means my company. And I don’t want to be the one giving him the news of his son’s death. You follow, boy?”
“Yes, Captain Humayun.” Fateh wondered where his father was.
Commander Veer, ‘Agha’ to the famous fighting unit called the First of the Cohort. His inspiration and idol. His father. He must be just beyond that bank, huddled within the grey pine forest, waiting for the Andhakas. Fateh had always dreamed of this day, when he could fight alongside his father. The Nam Empire would be proud of them, the father-son duo, winning wars for the Empire and becoming war heroes. Songs of glory would be sung in all the taverns. Legends of the Empire, History would –
Water exploded somewhere behind him, jerking him back into the grim reality of their situation, shattering his dreams of grandeur. Roars broke out from all around. Men scrambling with their weapons drawn, snarls of rage, cries of pain. Meaningless howls stabbing the world around him. Another whoosh as a second missile fired overhead, a black shadow against the grey ripping clouds in the sky. Some of it landed right next to the group that Fateh was waiting with. Men hastened to get out of the way, as Fateh watched something sizzle and smoke. Chemicals!
Bombs stuffed with Ferro-chemicals that exploded when in contact with water, mostly studded with shreds of broken glass and metal.
His mind recalled lessons of warfare, even as he scrambled out of the water following others, arms floundering wildly, breath hissing in the cold air screaming meaningless words of rage as the world around him disintegrated into deafening explosions of white foaming water, the red of body parts blown beyond recognition against the brown earth. Jagged shrapnel cut into the two men right next to him on the bank, their faces contorted in surprise and pain, as metallic shards bit into their upper body, cutting them to bloody ribbons. Fateh threw himself down, as did many others who were lucky enough to have got out of the water. But for the rest, the water formed a churning foaming white coffin of death, washing over and taking their inert bodies down river.
Fateh’s ears were ringing. He thought he felt blood trickle down his face. The world around him was swaying in swirls of grey and black, shadows dancing in and out of his vision. After a brief moment of terrifying silence that seemed to squeeze in on him, the sounds came back. The furious clang of steel on steel, ringing clatter of shields shattering and above all, the throat-hum of men caught in the battle fever, growling and roaring in rage and frustration. Fateh rolled as he spied a curved scimitar coming his way. It bit into the soft river-bank, spraying brown slush around. The foot next to the scimitar was encased in brown leather, tied up with strips of dried vine. He looked up.
The face that peered down at him was probably the ugliest he had ever seen. Broad forehead, the colour of burnt sienna, a flat snout and a set of canines protruding from beneath, smallish red eyes glaring with unbridled fury as it looked back at him. Swathed in fur and rags, it reeked of blood and urine as it stood this close to him. ‘Somewhere between men and at some point on that tree of evolution, this is how an Andhaka looked,’ thought Fateh as he scrambled to get up. The steel in its hands though looked man-made alright, and it certainly knew how to use it. Fateh realised that in the mad hurry to get out of the waters, he had lost his sword. All he had was a small hand-dagger good for close-combat killing and useless against a scimitar. He scooped up the wet mud and threw it onto the face of the Andhaka. Blinded for the moment, the creature bellowed and flailed, striking blindly with the scimitar. Fateh stepped back, sickened and fascinated as a spear punched through the Andhaka’s chest, dark blood spraying out the front.
The only good Andhaka is a dead Andhaka.
One of the soldiers kicked the dead creature away and nodded once at Fateh. He turned back to join the melee that was unscrambling at the river bank. Fateh pieced together what had happened. The Andhakas had realised that one company was lying in wait for them beyond the killing fields of Rishikesh on the river Prayag, and had decided in turn to waylay them, taking them on with those Ferro-chemical bombs and rushing the confused group in an ambush.
God save us, the whole river bank was overrun by these accursed demons!
A terrific roar sounded over the din of the battle. Fateh looked up just in time to see one of the mahoganies come crashing down, the dense green branches striking out in all directions. The trap that Commander Veer had originally set for these bloodsuckers! All around him, the forest was coming down—trees, great and tall, to their right, to their left, all around them falling down. The very earth rumbled as the giants struck the ground. From beyond the woods, the cavalry was charging. Veer must have realised the fourteenth was ambushed. Fateh scrambled up the bank, slipping and groping about, leaping past fallen branches and slippery rocks, now slick with mud and blood. The ground sped underneath him as Fateh crashed through the fallen boughs, in an attempt to hit out for the open fields of Rishikesh.
All around him the world had disintegrated to shadows of brown fur and flashing steel, the clang of metal on shields, and the thud of iron against iron. Men cursing and shouting to be heard over the meaningless howls of the Andhakas, blood and gore flying fast all around him.
He saw Humayun hack down a gawping Andhaka with his great axe, dark blood spattering the air around, dark spots against a greyish sky. Fateh ducked below an oncoming swinging scimitar, his knees burying into the slushy mud, creating twin furrows as he slid past. He used the momentum to push himself off and leap onto the next shaggy shadow that loomed past him. The battle fever pulsating through his head like lightning, he jammed his hands into the eyes of the fur-clad Andhaka, all the while screaming incoherently. Digging one hand into its fetid mouth, Fateh yanked forwards hard. The creature howled in pain, and Fateh could feel his nails digging into one small red eye, hot blood surging over his fingers. He rolled off. Two arrows shot through the Andhaka’s chest, spouting red. Fateh stumbled and fell as he tried to get up. A shield smashed into him, knocking him back. His world was an epicentre of pain and wailing. Fateh tried to get back up on wobbly unsteady legs, only to have another fur-clad monster plough into him, full hilt. He flew back, moaning as he thumped against a grey stunted tree; the shadow loomed large, blocking out the weak rays of the sun. The sword whistled as it cut the air.
Slain in his first battle by an ugly Andhaka. Fateh Veer Sikandar, son of the most famous commander of the Nam Empire’s glorious First of the Cohort. Another useless martyr in the border wars against the rakshasas?
A sudden surge of survival instinct caused Fateh to duck and slide away from the tree he was slumped against. The sword sliced into the gnarled bole, the force causing the steel to sink half into the trunk. The tree shook, causing the rotten fruits, ripe and bursting, to rain down. Fateh rolled away, his body sticky with mud and fruit pulp. A boot lashed into his groin, sending shockwaves of pain and agony lancing through him. He curled up, immobile. Waiting for the deathblow—for the blade to come hacking down through his neck.
It never came.
A body slumped down next to him. The dank and fetid odour of flesh-eaters wormed its way into his nostril.
“I will not have my son wallowing in the mud for his first battle. Get up, you whelp!”
The voice cut through, causing him to jerk up. General Veer looked resplendent in his golden armour, splashed dark with blood, the last lights of the day falling in angled spokes behind him. He was sitting easy on his warhorse, the sword in his hand bloody and dripping. The bleeding cut through his forehead and the dishevelled rank hair—which had come undone from underneath a helmet that must have long fallen away—did nothing to take away his splendour. He tossed a sword down at Fateh, his lips curled back in a mocking leer.
“So, how do you like the feel of your first real battle, Fateh?”
Fateh pushed himself off the tree and leaned on the sword, breathing heavy.
“Da, all the stories you told me … this is better than all those. I don’t think I will ever regret my decision to join the First of the Cohort. I was born for this.” He raised his sword and uttered a whooping war cry.
Veer laughed, a deep booming sound, in sharp contrast to the snarling and wailing that filled the woods around them.
“It’s the devil that gets inside you. I saw you leap and gouge out the eyes of that bastardly abomination and I knew that I chose right by getting you into the Cohort. You, my son, have got the devil inside you! It’s the soul of Achintya that’s awake inside all of us, and I ain’t ashamed to admit it. I pray to the Gods of my fathers, the Ancient Nine that they give you nine lives and you outlive all of us.”
The Ancient Nine? Fateh shook his head to clear his eyes.
“I don’t understand, Da. I thought we pledged our lives to Circle when we took up the vow; to be a Sworn Elite.”
The Nine was just a myth, wasn’t it? A long forgotten faith of their ancestors? He prayed to the Great Pruksa. They all did. The Bountiful One, who had brought the entire Empire together, bound it in peace. Close to a thousand years of peace while the Empire expanded its borders. What was his father going on about some forgotten legends now?
There was weariness in his father’s voice as he replied. “Aye, we did, son. That we did—swear to protect the faith, being sworn to Zora’s Order, our masters. And make no mistake, I live and die for the Empire. But Fateh, the legacy of this world is not to be forgotten so fast. It continues to weigh down heavy on us. For now, just remember this: every time you feel that fire coursing through your body and the urge to kill burns in your mind, it’s a piece of an ancient God, Achintya, who’s alive in you. A soldier’s God. The God of Wrath. You follow?”
Fateh nodded mutely. The God of Wrath? Inside of me? He mentally made a note to ask his Da for the details about this myth later. From behind him, he heard a whisper in the wind, leather and iron whistling through the air.
“Da, watch out.”
An Andhaka came springing over the trees, like it had launched itself off an arbalest, snarling, fangs dripping, a black shape zipping through the air. The animal cries filling large in his ears, Fateh watched, too shocked to move. But Veer’s sword ripped into it, the force of the leap plunging the sword deep into its side, dark blood spraying out like a smashed water jug. Veer’s sword got stuck and the Andhaka’s hands were wrapped tight around his neck. They fell, crashing heavily onto the slushy mud. They rolled once, with Veer coming out on top. By the time Fateh ran to his father’s aid, Veer had already beaten its head to bloody pulp. He got up and stomped down once more on the bloody ruins of its hideous face. Another one came clambering up from the river, brown refuse sluicing down its body. More surfaced, rising up from the mist that was starting to form over the river bank. Like skyrims drawn to rotting meat.
The rest of the Cohort was busy in the fields, engaged with the enemy. Fateh looked around wildly. The fourteenth had more or less been decimated in the initial attacks by the Andhakas. The General’s own cavalry unit, the First battalion, was nowhere on the scene, busy fighting back hordes from the edges of the Rishikesh. It was left to Fateh and his father. Fateh realised with growing dread that it was just like in his dreams, except that in the dreams, they always made short work of the faceless enemies. Now rising up from the roiling clouds of fog, the enemy had a face—ugly, misshapen, scarred and leering. Uglier than his worst nightmares.
Veer didn’t wait.
Best way to get over your fears is to charge. That adrenaline coursing through your body is the best way to douse that rising dread. Works like nothing else.
Fateh watched his father wade right into the river. Hack snarl and chop. The steel was flying all around, singing its song of death accompanied by an orchestra of bestial screams and animalistic howls of pain and misery as Andhakas fell in scores around him. A spear whizzed past Fateh, missing him by a foot. Some had sighted him and were heading for him now from beyond the waters. Get moving.
Fateh fought off a double strike, two Andhakas having engaged him together. They weren’t skilled and lacked the finesse of a combatant, but they made up for it by brute strength. As Fateh was driven back, up the slippery bank, he realised it wasn’t like the tournament combats he had won during training. These things fought to kill, not to score. Here, you had only one chance to score. Score or get killed. Fateh ducked and pushed away against the first Andhaka, dipping his shoulders, trying to ram against its exposed sides while fighting off frenzied pounding by the other one. He slipped, the ground coming up fast to slam the wheezing breath out of him. The first one had sideswiped him and let him fall, his own force causing him to slip. Bloody seeds of Maaya! Scimitar flashed down and Fateh rolled away. The scimitar followed, hacking down. A brown boot squelched into the mud beside his face, splashing brown muck into his eyes.
Don’t you dare close your eyes, Fateh. Close your eyes and they will carve you worse than a Naming Day pumpkin.
Fateh pushed up hard, kicking out and warding off the scimitar pressing down. The Andhaka’s face was close, the fangs dripping saliva onto Fateh’s face. He released one hand and poked its eyes hard. It bellowed and dropped away. Fateh was up and running, screaming, as he made for the dark shapeless mass that was beginning to form in the middle of the still river. His father was there, trapped in the centre of that Andhaka pyramid, crushed in and fighting to get out.
“Here! You Graaki-damned abominations from Jahannum, take a bite of me now!”
Breath and wind rushing, Fateh charged down the muddy muck towards the frenzied fighting pyramid. He slipped and fell, his blade slashing as he slipped down the slope, chopping into the feet of the first Andhaka that faced him, the soft thud of iron slicing into skin and tendon, followed by the ear-splitting shriek of pain. His breath was roaring inside his head now, as he went down spinning, shouting and screaming, hacking into the fur-clad monsters that rushed him. All that mattered was to reach the river and help his father.
Suddenly the mist lifted away, and a new sound registered in Fateh’s ringing ears; a tiny gurgle that seemed to grow in intensity, slowly growing to form a deafening roar. It was the terrifying sound of water swelling up from beyond the mountain ranges. The ice had melted up on the Hindu-Kush!
Hissing and foaming, pushing crumbling blocks of stone and broken fragments of trees from up river, the roar of water as it sped down grew to fill Fateh’s world, a frightening transformation of the river Prayag. A white wall was forming high up on the mountains, looming large and growing bigger by the moment, blotting out the grey sky and the ripping clouds overhead, and all that mass was flowing straight down to where Veer was still fighting off the Andhakas, who recklessly kept throwing themselves onto him.
“Da, get out of there! The river’s going to flood! Get OUT of the river. NOW!”
The whoosh of swirling water as it surged down in full force registered on Veer’s ears. Fateh saw his father look in the direction of the churning, frothing wall of death as it sped down from the mountain. Then his father looked at him. Fateh saw triumph in those eyes; even in the face of death. Veer was hacking gleefully, chopping, swinging left and right, throwing off Andhakas. There was a whole horde of them, wading knee deep in the blood-filled waters to get to Veer, more slipping in, maddened by the rush of blood and battle-frenzy as they saw their comrades get sliced down and thrown away.
Fateh screamed again, but his voice drowned in the din of the oncoming rush of water as it filled up the space beyond the woods. The bank disappeared under the onslaught of rushing white water. Fateh scrambled up, slipping and screaming incoherently. The water slapped against the fallen tree trunks angrily, exploded against jagged rocks and blocks of crumbling stones, batting them away like flies. It came on, never stopping.
The Andhakas realised that it was futile and a few were now madly scrambling for the upper slopes of the bank. Some of them almost made it, but the river was not to be denied. It yanked them out and slammed them down into the water; into a seething twirling tornado of white water, directly heading for the horde in the middle and Veer, who was right in the centre of that horde.
Fateh was still screaming in frustration and howling with pain as the wall slammed into that mass. Andhakas flew, tumbling over and over, getting tossed around like meagre toys, broken and hurled away. Veer stood in the centre and the last thing Fateh saw was his father laughing like a madman, plunging his sword through the Andhaka before him.
Fateh kept screaming, his shrill voice drowned out by the larger roar of the furious river.
Where are the Gods when you need them? A soldier’s God? The God of Wrath? But even that didn’t count against the wrath of a greater God: Nature.