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Traveller of Both
Time and Space: Episode 14
I’m going to die, Shamshir Talatra thought. Out of habit, he reached for where the Ebon Blade used to hang from his hip and found that it was, of course, gone. For what seemed to be thousandth time, he remembered that Chandramatie Bahl had taken it from him when she had assumed command. And then the rakshasa was upon him and Shamshir Talatra had no more time for thought.
Both hearts pounding, he tried to get to his feet, but staggered and fell, knocking over a long-extinguished brazier and crashing head first into the stone floor. Blood trickled into his mutant red eyes. Get up get up get up damn it, he told himself. Weary from old wounds and sleepless days of walking, his limbs struggled slowly—too slowly—to obey.
Something heavy slammed into his back and crushed him against the floor. I’m dead, he thought. I’m dead are you happy you whoreson you’ve killed me you’ve won.
“Get out of the way,” the rakshasa said.
A familiar growl answered. Panja, Shamshir Talatra realized. The great tiger stood over him and bared his fangs at the rakshasa.
“Don’t be stupid,” the daemon snorted. “Kumar said to bring him here, and now we know why,” the rakshasa said, indicating the eight-armed statue of Shiva. “I’ve fulfilled our task to the letter—the geas is lifted. But Kumar didn’t say what to do with him once we brought him here. And if you think that I’m going to eat any more of those tasteless Imperial rations, you’re gravely mistaken. Not when there’s something tastier right there at my feet.”
Panja roared, neck quivering, the fur on his back standing on end.
“I can kill you as easily as I can kill him,” the rakshasa said.
Panja’s panting was his only reply.
Suddenly, tiger and daemon screamed simultaneously and charged, Panja, ears flattened, rearing up on hind legs; the rakshasa drawing back its sword with both hands. Incense bowls on bronze stands fell over, small stone statues shattered, clay prayer wheels disintegrated into red powder as the two, flailing, toppled over, snarling and snapping, claws and fangs ripping and tearing.
Mokki this, Shamshir Talatra thought, hauling himself to his feet. He pulled his bolt pistol from his belt, aimed it at the two thrashing on the floor, and was not at all surprised to find that the weapon did not fire. “Sabeer” thought of everything, didn’t he? Shamshir Talatra asked himself.
He looked around for something to use as a weapon. The sword, he thought, grabbing the Scepter of Shiva from the statue. Something—as if an invisible hand—shoved against his chest, toppling him to the floor, below the statue’s feet. The shrine was suddenly lit by a green glow as seven tiger-headed beings—similar to but smaller than “Sabeer”—appeared.
Oh, gobara, he swore, struggling, but failing to stand. The creatures—rakshasas, he was sure—drew their swords.
“Whom have you called for us?” one of the growled, in High Ghuyarashtran.
What does that mean? Shamshir Talatra wondered. He glanced over at Panja and “Sabeer” fighting. “Him,” he said, pointing at “Sabeer.” “He’s the one.”
The smaller rakshasas charged, smashing things in their way. Panja leapt aside and “Sabeer” turned to face his new foes, lashing out his sword to decapitate one of them; the daemon vanished before its head hit the floor. But then the others were upon him, screeching like monkeys, slashing with sword and fang and claw. One severed “Sabeer’s” hand and his blade clattered to the floor. Snarling, he re-shaped the end of his limb into a wavy-bladed knife and stabbed his attacker through the eye—it too, vanished, like the one he had beheaded.
Five more arms sprouted from “Sabeer’s” chest as the great rakshasa dodged and parried blows and steadily advanced on Shamshir Talatra again, hacking down the smaller rakshasas. They can’t stop him, Shamshir Talatra realized, and hefted the sword again.
Panja leapt at “Sabeer” again, but this time, the rakshasa slashed his wavy-bladed knife across the great tiger’s side. Panja screamed—a piercing keening that sounded almost human—and crashed to the floor.
One last rakshasa stood between “Sabeer” and Shamshir Talatra. As the Marine struggled again to get back on his feet, the greater rakshasa broke down the smaller daemon’s guard and then sliced its throat, sending it back to whatever Vedic hell it had come from. As Shamshir Talatra was halfway up, “Sabeer’s” foot came crashing down on the back of his calf and he screamed and fell again.
“Sabeer” panted as he rested for a moment. “I think,” he gasped, “I’ll start…by tearing off…little pieces…of you…and eating those. Maybe a hand, first. Then a foot. Then, perhaps, your thighs. You Space Marines…are supposed to be tough. Let’s see how much of you…I can eat…before you finally die.”
“Sabeer” stepped forward to begin his feast and Shamshir Talatra reached up and snatched the tiger pelt from the statue’s stony hands. It fell on top of him, as heavy as a tapestry in the private chambers he used to have as a Fighting Tiger. “That was useful,” the rakshasa sneered, easily yanking the pelt from him and throwing it aside.
Suddenly, a tremendous snarl rent the air—then another snarl, then a roar. “Sabeer” turned to see three huge, spectral tigers—each much like Panja—emerge from the tiger pelt crumpled on the floor. Behind the ghostly tigers, Panja, growling, heaved himself to his feet, blood spurting from his belly wound.
“All right, then,” the rakshasa muttered, and the three spirit tigers, ears flattened, fangs bared—spread out, one side-stepping to “Sabeer’s” right, one to his left, the other slinking forward.
Mokki this, Shamshir Talatra thought. He jammed the tip of the Scepter of Shiva into the marble floor, then leaned on it and slowly rose, at last, to his feet. He staggered forward, sword raised. “Sabeer” saw him at the last instant, a taloned limb sprouting from his back, swiping at Shamshir Talatra’s throat. The Scepter flashed upward, slicing off “Sabeer’s” new arm, then burying its blade deep in the rakshasa’s side as he turned. Shrieking, “Sabeer” vanished.
Ears still flattened, the three ghost tigers took a few steps backward, then disappeared.
Shamshir Talatra’s strength finally
failed him. The last thing he saw before the world went dark was Panja
looming over him.
A fly was crawling on his face, its tiny feet tickling his cheek. Languidly, he brushed at it, and it buzzed away.
It was dim and cool in the shrine—it took him a moment to realize that though the sun was up, most of its light was blocked by the trees outside. Shamshir Talatra slowly sat up, his chest, back, arms, legs, and neck aching. Beside him was the carcass of a sangai—a deer, about the size of a large dog, that lived near rivers. Hundreds of flies buzzed about, landing on the carcass, tapping it with their mouthparts, taking off again.
A familiar rumble greeted him, and Panja padded out of the darkness. With his nose, he nudged the sangai towards Shamshir Talatra, the flies swarming into the air.
“Thanks,” Shamshir Talatra said. “I didn’t think I’d see you again. Actually,” he added, “I wasn’t sure if I was going to see anything ever again.” He peered at the great tiger’s belly, but saw no wound. “I though you were hurt,” he said.
Panja, of course, said nothing.
Using his combat knife, Shamshir Talatra skinned the deer and cut off hunks of it for him and Panja. Shamshir was too hungry to bother making a fire: he ate the venison raw, counting on his Marine constitution to kill any parasites or diseases the deer might have had. After he had eaten, he found a puddle of rainwater on the floor nearby, and he sucked it up, lapping up the last of it like the cat whose colors he wore.
“Thanks, again,” he told Panja. The tiger didn’t look up from his meal; his only reply was to snap one of the deer’s thigh bones with a single, tremendous bite of his jaws.
Shamshir Talatra stood up, a bit unsteady, but his strength was returning rapidly. He looked around and found the Scepter of Shiva and the Pelt of the Great Man-eater where they had fallen. He tottered across the room, gingerly bent down, and picked up the sword and the skin. Slowly, feeling every wound he had suffered of late, he stood up.
“Kumar said to bring him here, and now we know why,” the rakshasa that had been posing as Sabeer Ansari had said. To find these? Shamshir Talatra wondered. Has to be. Why else? And Panja—he serves Kumar, too, somehow.
“What are you?” Shamshir Talatra asked.
The tiger kept eating and paid him no mind.
Shamshir Talatra looked at the eight-armed statue of Shiva Nagordarika, the Fighting Tigers’ founder. Shiva had defeated the rakshasas that had plagued this world—and somehow, his sword, the Scepter of Shiva—seemed to have power over them. But how? he wondered.
He hefted the sword. It looked no different from any other Vedic blade. He thought back to what had happened right before the smaller rakshasas had appeared. Shamshir Talatra didn’t recall thinking about or doing anything special: he had just grabbed the sword, intent on fighting “Sabeer”—
A ghostly green light erupted in the shrine again, and suddenly, the rakshasa “Sabeer” appeared in front of him. Startled, Shamshir Talatra stumbled backwards, sword pointed at “Sabeer,” but the daemon merely bowed its head.
“I await your command.”
Shamshir Talatra pondered this for a moment. It certainly seemed like another trick—but why bother playing one? he wondered. In my state, he could take me down easily.
Finally, Shamshir Talatra said, “Tell me about this sword.”
“Shiva forged the Scepter after he defeated my kind and drove us back into the Dark,” the rakshasa said. “As part of our surrender, we were bound to the blade, to come when the bearer called. To do their bidding.”
“And there are different kinds of rakshasas?” Shamshir Talatra asked. “Bigger ones like you? Smaller ones, like the others that came when I first took the sword?”
“And how do I summon them?”
“Hold the Scepter and will it.”
“And how many can come when I do that?”
“As many as are nearby, in the Dark, and can answer your call.”
“What do you mean?”
“I can’t explain any better than that for you. You wouldn’t understand.”
Shamshir Talatra scowled. “Kumar sent you to bring me here—why?”
“Kumar called me out of the Dark,” the rakshasa admitted, “and bound me to bring you here, though he didn’t say why—or what was here.”
“But you tried to convince me not to go through the swamp, not to come here.”
“You’re foolish and easily misled,” the rakshasa grinned.
“You didn’t know the Scepter was here?”
“And if you had?”
“I would have killed you as soon as my task was done. As soon as we crossed the threshold.”
“I’m surprised that your kind can enter a holy place,” Shamshir Talatra said.
“It’s a shrine, not a temple,” the rakshasa replied. “It makes a difference. My kind can enter a shrine so long as we wear human form, if other factors are right. It’s complicated.”
“And him?” Shamshir Talatra demanded, pointing at Panja. The tiger looked up from the tongue bath he had been giving himself. “Is he one of you?”
“No,” the rakshasa replied. “He’s one of the Great Tygers that roamed this land before Shiva came down from the stars. Shiva bargained for their allegiance during his war against my people. They agreed to serve him forever, even after death. The Pelt can call their spirits, in much the same way as the Scepter calls my kind.”
“And Kumar sent him, too.”
The rakshasa nodded. “To guide you here. Through the Portals.”
“Those tunnels,” Shamshir Talatra said.
“Why? To get the Scepter and the Pelt?”
“Obviously. Why else?”
“So this really is Veda? And we really have traveled back in time? This isn’t just some trick of yours?”
“This really is Veda, about four hundred years in your past,” the rakshasa assured him.
“So why go back in time?” Shamshir Talatra asked. “Unless…some time between Sabeer’s time—the real Sabeer—and mine, something happens to the sword and the pelt.”
“You’ll have to ask Kumar,” the rakshasa said.
“I don’t know where he is,” Shamshir Talatra replied. “I don’t even know what to do next,” he admitted.
“The Pelt and the Scepter give you great power,” the rakshasa replied. “You now command the Great Tygers and my people: the natural, and the supernatural. Panja can lead you back to the Portals, back to your time, and you can resume your rightful role as Raja. Take back what’s yours. Rebuke those who deposed you. Better still, prove them wrong. Show them that you are strong, capable, wise. That you are fit to rule.”
“What you say makes a great deal of sense,” Shamshir Talatra said, as he admired the blade of the Scepter.
“Of course it does,” the rakshasa said. “Once you are Raja again, you can do much good. You can return to the planet where you were marooned, root out the rest of the Red Corsairs there, finish them off. You can avenge the death of your men—and the indignities inflicted on you—by waging war on the Tau. With my people at your command, the Fighting Tigers will rout any enemy.”
“Yes,” Shamshir Talatra agreed. “You’re right.”
“Of course I’m right. You will bring glory to yourself and to the Tigers. From one end of the galaxy to the other, every citizen will know of what you’ve accomplished. And who knows? Maybe it’s time again for a Maharaja to rule over all of Veda, as Shiva did.”
The rakshasa bowed his head. “This was undoubtedly why Kumar commanded Panja and me to bring you here. So that you would claim these items and lead Veda to a golden age, with you at the head of the Fighting Tigers, to claim victory after victory. Why else would he have wanted you to come?”
“Why else?” Shamshir Talatra asked. He’s right, he realized. It’s the only sensible thing to do. I’ve come so far, gone through so much, suffered so much. With the Scepter and the Pelt, I can make everything right again. For me. For Veda. For the Tigers. For the Emperor.
Suddenly, he recalled the vision?—dream?—he had had of Varman Kumar speaking with him. “You will, very soon, have a choice that may have substantial effect on you, your Chapter, and millions of lives,” Kumar had told him. “When it does occur, I’m counting on you to make the wrong decision….you must make the wrong choice.”
All right, then, Shamshir
Talatra told himself.
Posted November 2007
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