The following is an excerpt from my upcoming novel Stray Cats, about the adventures of a cat named Pimmi across nine worlds, one of which will be familiar to visitors to this site.
If you like 40K fiction (and/or cats), I think you'll like this, which incorporates a lot of Jungle lore, with adjustments made to avoid infringing on Games Workshop's intellectual property.
Like many other cats on this hot summer afternoon, Pimmi is napping in a patch of sun when the Kurindans come to end the world.
A shrill keening from high above jerks her awake. The kitten cringes, head tucked, ears flat, eyes following those of the thin boy sitting next to her on the cracked stone steps of the shrine, forgotten by almost all.
A silvery shimmer, streaming white smoke, screams from the empty blue sky, spinning a flawless spiral for a second or two. Then it smashes into the village in the shallow valley below, a thundering explosion as the ground shakes. Pimmi’s heart beats a single time, and then the shockwave of the strike knocks the boy atop her as the scores of other cats who live here scatter.
She wriggles to get free, to run, to hide, but the boy wraps her, covers her, ignores her claws and her frantic flailing as clods of earth, chunks of rock, shards of wood plummet over and around them.
In the village, a few hundred yards away, houses, shops, barns, warehouses crumple, collapse. A cacophony of ruin and destruction, the lowing and bleating of stricken, dying livestock, and the screams. Hundreds of screams, of the boy’s people.
The rain of debris ends quick as it came. Still clutching the small black cat to himself, the boy sits up, sees. A huge dust cloud billowing hundreds of feet into the air, black smoke of newborn fires flowing up after it. Pimmi writhes, but he holds her legs together so that she can’t escape.
He staggers to his feet. “Mama….”
A rasping, mechanical voice. I WILL SAVE HER, IF I CAN.
The boy whirls; Pimmi goes still against his thin, bare chest. A giant—more than twice the boy’s height, orange armor blazoned with dozens of curving black stripes—stepping nigh silently from the underbrush of the jungle about them.
RUN AWAY, the giant says, AS FAST AND FAR AS YOU ARE ABLE. Its striped helmet dips, green eye slits settle on Pimmi for a moment before going back to the boy. TAKE THE CAT.
Impossibly quick for its size, the giant sprints down the hill, into the valley and toward the village, vanishing into the jungle again, and the boy starts running the other way. The cat squirms free, tumbles from his arms, lands on her feet, dashes as fast as she can after the giant.
“Pimmi, stop!” The boy hesitates. “Pimmi!” Goes after her.
People—many of them hurt, bleeding, burnt—running, panicked, screaming, into the jungle; Pimmi and the boy weave through them. “Mama!” the boy calls. “Mama!” Ahead, wood snapping, the crash of metal against metal, bestial snarls. Again and again, the sound that this once-serene world, far from the galactic center, had not known for centuries: gunfire.
The cat and the boy come to his mother’s shack, now little more than a pile of kindling. “Mama! Mama! Are you in there?”
Pimmi creeps through a hole in the splintered wall, then under the palms used for the roof, and over and around the broken beams that used to hold it up. “Mama!” the boy calls again. “Are you hurt?”
There is little light, but Pimmi’s eyes can see. There is hardly space to move, but Pimmi’s whiskers find the way inward, until she comes to her, the boy’s mother. Crushed under a rafter, broken, bleeding, her breathing faint, fainter with each one.
“Mama!” Pimmi hears him yanking up palm branches, throwing them aside, to reach her. The cat feels something flutter weakly within the woman. Pimmi licks her hand, once, twice, and senses that she has brought the woman a moment’s comfort when there are few moments left.
MOVE. The mechanical voice again, and suddenly, Pimmi’s eyes shrink to slits as the sun appears over her. The striped giant, pulling up an armload of house timbers as if they were no more than a sheaf of reeds. Pimmi hops aside.
The boy clambers across what’s left of the wreckage. Cradles he woman who once cradled him, holds her on his lap, presses her head against his breast. The giant turns from the boy’s wails. Pimmi waits, watches impassively. Her kind cannot know pain as deeply as his kind can.
From behind them, glass grinding against glass as something stamps toward them. The creature is no taller than a man, and stands on two legs that bend backwards at the knees. Four arms, each with two elbow joints, ending in prehensile claws. Hide of smooth, purple scales, seemingly thick glass. A short but thick tail, spiked at the end. Two crocodilian heads on a single, squat neck. Sputtering white light dripping like tears from the five eye-nubs on the center of each head, and more white light slopping from their jaws, filled with teeth of jagged black glass.
Pimmi’s back arches, hair rises, ears flatten and she hisses, shrinking away. As the monster springs, the giant steps between them, an armored fist shattering one of the thing’s stony skulls, another fist punching through its torso and out its back, spattering liquid light. The giant tosses the creature to the ground as almost a dozen more of them appear from around one of the few buildings still standing.
GET OUT OF HERE, the giant says, but if that was meant her or the boy, Pimmi doesn’t know. The giant reaches behind its back, unslings a rifle as long as the boy is tall. With every bolt of searing blue-white fire, another monster explodes into sprays of light and glassy shards. Still, the boy does not leave his mother, and Pimmi does not leave him.
From elsewhere in the burning village, scores more of the creatures, screeching, swarm to the fight, firing crude carbines whose slugs are nothing more than rain against the giant’s armor. Standing almost atop Pimmi and the boy, the giant’s gun fires again and again, but the monsters keep coming.
SKANDA, STAND WITH ME, the giant prays. Slinging the rifle across its back, it crouches, claws of white plasma—so bright that Pimmi winces—crackling from each metal fingertip.
And then the monsters leap upon it, biting with obsidian fangs, slashing with thick glass talons, kicking with clawed feet. The giant impales the first, takes both heads of the second, cuts in half the third, slices off each arm of the fourth, disembowels the fifth, all in seconds, giving no ground. The giant keeps fighting until all of them lie lifeless, shattered and smashed, spattered with white quicksilver.
The claws dissipate as the giant turns to the boy and the cat. WHY DID YOU NOT RUN WHEN I TOLD YOU TO?
The boy says nothing.
“I won’t leave her.” Strokes his mother’s hair. “She’s all I have.” Pimmi nuzzles his arm, marks him as hers. Purrs.
The helmet retracts into the shoulders of the armor. A slit-eyed man, brown of skin, like the boy. Several long, black stripes tattooed down one side of his bald head. “What is your name, child?”
He looks up. “Rajeesh, sahib.”
“‘Kumar.’ Of course.” The man looks left, right, all around. Most of what’s left is burning. “It is not safe here.” Hefts the rifle again, looks up into the sky. “More of them will come.” Back to the boy. “The other villagers have left. You need to leave, too.”
“There’s nowhere else for me, sahib.”
“No family in another town?” The boy shakes his head. “No uncles, aunts?”
“I have no one, sahib.”
“Then you will come with me.” Holds out an armored hand to the boy.
The boy shakes his head, holds his mother tighter.
“There is nothing you can do for her,” the slit-eyed man says, “except live.”
Pimmi nuzzles the man’s outstretched gauntlet. Purrs.
The slit-eyed man crouches, his armor’s joints wheezing. “Your friend Pimmi says she wants you to.”
The boy looks up, wipes his eyes with the back of his hand. “How do you know her name?”
“She told me.”
“She can’t tell you. She’s just a cat.”
“Now, she tells me that you are being rude. Do as I say. Let me help you.”
Together, they gently lower his mother to the ruined floor of the shack. They stand, and the boy covers her with a frond that used to be part of their roof. “Will you…” the boy starts.
The man nods. A flicker of flame from the palm of his left glove. The boy turns, steps away as the fire consumes her. Looks instead at the smashed pieces of the monsters. Picks up a shard, throws it against the ground, cracking it. Picks it up again, throws it again, and this time, it splits in three, shining white goo seeping from each bit.
“What are they?” the boy asks.
“Kurindans,” the slit-eyed man with the striped tattoos says. “They are here to kill our people.”
“What are you?”
“A Fighting Tiger of Vedah. I am here to kill them.”
“What sort of a name is ‘Pimmi?’”
Trudging along a jungle path up a mountain not far from the village. Overhead, kalpaka branches sway as the brachiating sbarna monkeys chatter in annoyance at the intrusion. Eyes fixed on the trees, Rajeesh holds the black cat tight against him in a jute sling. Pimmi doesn’t know if the monkeys—three-eyed, their scabbed skin sparsely covered in a dull green wool—would try to harm her or the boy, but like him, she fears and hates them.
“I made it up, sahib.”
“She is your pet?”
“No. She lives with her brothers and sisters and cousins at the shrine of Gdon, where you found me. I like to visit them, when I can. She’s my favorite.”
The tattooed man grunts, the footfalls of his armored boots only a soft wdd wdd. Here in the deep shade, the slits of his eyes are wider, and his nostrils twitch from time to time. The monkeys hoot their insults, but stop at the edge of their territory as the three depart it. Pimmi is glad to be rid of them.
“Mama doesn’t believe in the Fighting Tigers, but I always did.”
The giant says nothing.
“She says they’re just stories, that there aren’t any.”
The boy loosens his grip on the sling, and Pimmi languidly extends a leg, stretches a paw, her claws out. “Where are they?”
The man stops, cocks his head. Listens. Pimmi hears only the buzzing warbles of the makarasa birds. He shrugs, starts walking again, the boy following.
“The other Tigers—where did they go?” the boy persists.
“Off this world.”
“There are other worlds?”
“Ten for every nightstar you can see, and a dozen more for each you cannot.”
“And they went there in ships that sail past the skies?” The slit-eyed man nods. “How many worlds have you been to?”
The man doesn’t answer.
“Are the rest of the things they say true?”
“That a Tiger is stronger than a hundred men, and that they’re warriors for the Sleeping Brahman, and that they kill rakshasas and monsters from the Outer Dark, and that their armor can’t be broken, that divine Kartikeya himself makes their weapons, and that—”
“All true. And that we eat small boys who talk too much.”
The boy lowers his head. “I apologize, sahib.”
“Stop calling me ‘sahib.’”
“Yes, sa—Yes. I hear and obey.” Hesitantly looks up, but the giant keeps his back to him as they walk. “What should I call you, o Fighting Tiger?”
“Five-Thirty-One,” the giant says.
“‘Five-Thirty-One?’ I don’t understand.”
“It is my number.”
“You don’t have a name?”
“You used to have one?”
“What was it?”
“It no longer matters. When I was made into a Fighting Tiger, as a son of Shiva Naguradiku, they took out of me the parts that I would not need anymore. My appendix was one. My name was another.”
“I…I don’t know what an appendix is, sa—Five-Thirty-One.”
“Let us hope you do not need to learn.”
The boy considers this. Then: “Where did you come from, in the jungle? It was as if you came from nowhere. Were you just—”
The slit-eyed man raises his gauntleted hand as Pimmi yawns. “We are boring the cat.” Her eyes close.
The boy looks down at her, then to the giant’s back again. “How can you tell? You’re not even looking at her.”
“We are not called ‘Tigers’ because we play pretend.”
“Wha—” the boy starts, but then a shrill keening noise, from high above, growing louder. A muffled PMFFF and the jungle floor trembling beneath their feet.
“They are coming,” the man says. Another whistling screech, closer, louder, another impact that shakes the ground and sways the trees. Another. “More pods, like the one that hit your village. Each with more of them.”
“More of the Kurr…Kurray—”
“Kurindans. Aliens—but you would call them ‘monsters’—from someplace past the Outer Dark.” Another shriek, another pod crashing into this world. “Slaves of the Lights.”
“Extra-dimensional, plasma-based entities. Malevolent, of course.”
The boy wrinkles his brow. “They’re…bad?” The giant nods. “How can light be bad?”
“Light that lets one see is good. Light that blinds is not.” Hurries his pace; the boy hustles to keep up, jostling Pimmi. “If I tell you again to run a certain way, do it.”
“Where are we going?”
“The fortress of the Fighting Tigers.”
“We’ll be safe there?”
“No? Why not?”
The giant ignores him.
“How can a fortress not be safe?”
Another impact, closer than the one that hit the village. Thick, curved claws extend from his massive boots, anchoring him to the bucking ground, and he grabs the boy as the boy grabs Pimmi. Helmet sliding into place, the giant hunkers over the boy, a deluge of dirt and rocks, splintered branches, shattered tree trunks pounding him, the roar and crash of it the only sounds in the world, and to Pimmi, it seems to go on forever.
It does not. The Tiger straightens, debris falling off him as the boy starts to stand. From close—too close—something—many somethings—crashing through the underbrush, and the already-familiar shrieking. Pimmi pops her head out of the jute slings. Dozens of Kurindans charging fast—too fast—through the jungle, toward them.
GO BEHIND THAT TREE.
Pimmi tucks herself as deep as she can into the sling as, crouching, Rajeesh runs to the closest one, flattens his back against, slumps out of the way of the giant as he steps half into cover, firing the plasma rifle lefthanded, incinerating one, two, three, four Kurindans.
Sheltering behind their own trees, the aliens shoot back, carbine rounds embedding in the trunk where the boy hides, or again bouncing off the Tiger’s armor. He keeps firing, never missing, each shot killing another of them.
“Five-Thirty-One!” Rajeesh shouts. “To your right!”
The striped helmet slightly swivels; Pimmi, too, pokes her head out to see. A score or so Kurindans, flanking them, already readying their weapons. A rectangular panel at the giant’s waist slides open, a dozen steel spheres—each the size of the boy’s fist—depending there.
As the Tiger keeps firing at the aliens in front, he plucks a sphere—a mere pebble in his gauntleted hand—holds it out, let it go. Instead of falling, it flings itself into the cluster of Kurindans and explodes, obliterating them, Pimmi and the boy flinching against the heat blast as the jungle ignites.
Brownish-gray smoke billows into the air as flames leaps from tree, birds, rodents, monkeys, insects fleeing. Still, the Tiger stands, still the Tiger fires again and again. When a Kurindan darts behind a tree, thinking to elude him, the giant simply targets the trunk, his rifle blasting through it as if there were mere air between the gun and its target.
Yet still more Kurindans come, seemingly numberless, their fusillade striking a vital part of the tattooed man’s weapon. Sparking, shuddering, screaming, the rifle gushes superheated gas.
GOBARA, the Tiger curses, holding it away from himself as the gun automatically powers down before it can melt. He drops it to the ground, retrieves a pistol as long as the boy’s arm from a compartment in his left leg armor. Keeps firing, keeps killing.
Her heart hammering inside her, Pimmi hears, smells, feels the flames creeping closer, beginning to encircle them. Still she crouches in the sling, staying with her boy, though every wild instinct within her wants her to flee and not stop, to leave the others to their fate.
“Five-Thirty-One! Behind us!”
The boy ducks, cradling Pimmi, as dozens more of the Kurindans open fire from the rear. The giant pivots, blasts several of those behind him, pivots, blasts several in front. Pivots, fires, pivots, fires, again and again, but the aliens steadily advance.
They are too many, Pimmi realizes. Soon, they will have him, and the boy. And her.
Rajeesh bolts upright, runs to the warrior, grabs two steel spheres from the waist compartment as bullets ricochet off the armored man’s legs and back, inches from the boy.
WHAT ARE YOU DOING?
Murmuring a prayer to Agni, the boy holds out the spheres, lets them go—and they fly into the Kurindans behind them. White-orange eruptions consuming the monsters and the trees, shaking the ground beneath Pimmi, Rajeesh, and the giant.
“I’m saving our lives!”
The compartment’s panel zings shut. DO NOT TOUCH THOSE.
The Kurindans in front of them charge, shooting as they come. The giant secures the pistol in his leg armor, steps out from behind the tree, extends both hands. Flame streams from his palms, melting the last of the Kurindans, fusing them into molten blobs that screech and scream as they tumble, sizzling, to the ground.
The fire surrounds them, Pimmi realizes. They have survived the creatures, but there is no escaping the burning jungle.
GET UP, he tells Rajeesh. Lights along the rifle flicker to life as it powers on, leaps to his outstretched hand. He slings it on his back, gathers the boy and Pimmi against his chest, his gauntlet uncomfortably hot.
Metal clanging as panels and vents on his armor open, his helmet tips up—and then the three of them rocket into the air, jets on his rear armor roaring.
They arc up, up, hundreds of feet over the burning rainforest, the plumes of smoke mere ribbons beneath them. Up, so high that the village where Rajeesh and Pimmi have lived all their short lives is but a smoldering dot. Up, so high that the cat and her boy wheeze, struggling to draw breath as they look down upon the snow-covered mountain and the Durga, the stone fortress of the Fighting Tigers, there.
Micro-jets along the giant’s armor spurt on and off, tiny dribbles of flame for a moment or two, slowing, adjusting, angling their fall. The jungle grows larger, greener, the mountain closer, greater, the air thicker, easier as they waft down, down, until the giant’s armored boots settle gently into the snow that the boy has only ever seen as a bit of white in the distance.
“It’s cold,” Rajeesh says, rubbing his thin arms as the warrior sets him down. “How can it be so cold?”
The helmet retracts into the shoulders of the slit-eyed man’s armor as he trudges toward the titanic fortress. The boy follows. Pimmi pokes her head from the jute sling, shivers at the cold she has never known. The fortress is domed, windowless, doorless, an ugly, brooding gray place, much different from the warm, colorful, airy shrine where she was born and spent every day until this one.
“You can fly!”
“No, the armor makes assisted jumps.”
“Why didn’t we fly before, instead of walking through the jungle?”
“I was conserving power—just like I was conserving the grenades you took.”
“They were all around us!”
“You were in no danger.”
“They were shooting at us!”
“They were shooting at me. You would have been fine if you had stayed down.” The giant reaches the fortress wall, touches a blank space on it. A rectangle the size of a palm leaf lights up white.
“What’s that?” the boy asks.
“The way in.” He leans his face closer, eyes thinning to slits in the harsh light as it plays across his face. “Anurodha anumati Sepoy Pamca-Tirisa-Eka prabesa karata.”
“What are you speaking?”
“It is High Mahaduyanan, a language most of our people have forgotten. I am asking the Durga’s sentry program to let us inside.”
A buzzing from the rectangle. PRABESADBARA MANJURA KARA HAYANI. HAYA SEPOY PAMCA-TIRISA-EKA HARIJAN.
“What did it say?”
“It said, ‘No.’” He frowns, considers. Then: “Ghosana ibhenta bilupti—Kurinda. Anurodha pratyahara kara jata Harijan asthayibhabe.”
The light pulses. PUNAHSTHAPANA SEPOY PAMCA-TIRISA-EKA. PRABESA ANUGRAHA.
A seam appears in the middle of the stone fortress wall, lengthens top to bottom, widens, rumbling like distant thunder as the gargantuan gates grind upon.
“Why is it letting us in? What did you say to it?”
“I told it that the world is coming to an end.”
The boy squeezes Pimmi against himself. “Is it?”
Lights flicker to life as the three of them go through the great stone gates, into an enormous, circular antechamber whose ceiling is higher than the tallest tree in the jungle. That ceiling, the walls, the floor, all of white marble rippled in tangerine. Silks of crimson, lemon-yellow, and parakeet-green depend from golden rails, high above.
Facing each other across the room, two tigers, each larger than the boy’s hut, carved from orange garnet, their stripes flawless obsidian, their eyes ebon star sapphires. One rears, sejant-rampant, claws extended, mouth in a perpetual roar. The other is boldly statant, sabreteeth bared, tail up, all four feet set as if to resist its brother’s attack.
Rajeesh’s head tips back, back, slowly turns here and there, his mouth slipping open.
THD THD THD THD. The giant’s metal boots on the smooth marble floor. “You can put the cat down.”
The boy does as he is bid. Swallows. “This is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.”
“It is. Because you have been nowhere except that village.”
Pimmi bounds after the slit-eyed man, her feet silent on the slippery floor, the like of which she has never known: the shrine of Gdon was naught but coarse stone. It is warm here, and quiet, save for the warrior’s steady stride and the slapping of the boy’s sandals. There is a pleasant scent, like when the certain blossoms sprout within the jungle. Pimmi purrs.
“Where are we going?”
The tattooed man does not answer, merely crosses the chamber, headed for a pair of great golden doors before them, ignoring the dozens of smaller doors along the walls. They gently open at his approach, white light beyond them. Pimmi follows the boy and the man into the great hall.
The hall is so wide that a hundred man could stand abreast, at arm’s length, across it. So long, that a hundred times that number could stand in long rows from the front of the hall to the back. An entire army could stand at attention in this hall. And perhaps once, it had.
Marble walls, floor, ceiling, and pillars. Fountains of clear water spring to life from pools studded with opals, jade, and lazurites. More silks, in every delicate pastel, hanging from the walls. More tigers carved from enormous gemstones. Hundreds of low, square tables, each standing no higher than Pimmi’s chin, with hundreds more decorative rugs around them. Niches in the walls with ivory idols of the hundreds of many-armed gods. Titanium statues of men and women in armor identical to that worn by Five-Thirty-One, each with a plaque at their feet. Etched there, lines of script that Pimmi ignores, and are unknowable to the boy.
“Who are they?” he asks, as the three of them stride through the hall.
“Suryah Ashukka,” the man says, nodding at the closest. “Shrendi Vushtar,” at the one next to it. “Shamhiir Taletri,” to a third. “There are many more. All great heroes.”
“Why do they have names, if you don’t?”
“Because they broke the bonds of purusha.”
“What’s ‘purusha’ mean?”
One of the dozens of side doors slides open, and Pimmi shrinks back as a spindly, metal figure, shaped something like a person, floats into the room. It is not much taller than the boy, and it stops, hovering a few inches above the floor, before the warrior as the boy stands and stares, mouth agape.
The slit-eyed man speaks to it for several moments in the language he used outside, at the gates, but Pimmi pays that no mind, watches only as the mechanical creature’s flat, featureless face turns from the man to the boy, back to the man, back to the boy, then to her, then to the man again. Then it turns and glides off the way it came.
“What was that? What did you tell it? Where did it go, and what will it do?”
The man points to a table behind the boy. “Sit.”
“Do are you are told. There is not much time. The slave-bot will bring you food. You, and the cat. Eat. If you need to relieve yourself, there is a privy,” he says, indicating another nearby door. “If you want more to eat or drink, tell the ‘bot—it understands Low Mahaduyanan. I have told it to accept your commands. When you are finished with your meal, it will take your bowls. Then you will stay here, in the hall.”
“What about you?”
“I am not hungry.”
“What will you be doing?”
“Killing Kurindans. Thousands of them are ascending this mountain. They will be here in minutes.”
“How do you know that?”
“Enjoy your meal. It will most likely be your last.”
“If it is any comfort, know that to Kurindans, lives—even their own—have no value. They will have no desire to capture you, or torture you, or put you into bondage. They will mere kill you quickly, so as not to waste time.”
The warrior does not wait, walking a little way down the hall. He goes to a featureless metal door that splits in two as he approaches it, revealing a lighted room little bigger than the armored man. The door reseals itself, and he is gone.
The gleaming metal slave-bot appears again, a tray with a bowl in its hands. It bends, sets the tray on the nearest table, glides back a few feet, and holds still, expectantly watching the boy.
Rajeesh doesn’t move.
iii Pimmi squeaks, looking up at the boy. She has never been able to properly meow, like other cats. iii! Purring, she rubs first her face, then her side against the boy’s leg. Nuzzles him again.
“How am I supposed to eat when we’re going to die?” he asks.
Pimmi looks at him again, still purring. Saunters to the table, hops onto it, sniffs what’s on the tray. The bowl of rice and vegetables and bits of meat is too warm for her liking, and—to her keen nose—stinks of pungent spices much too tangy for her palate.
But beside it, delicate, carefully-sliced gobbets of raw fish. Pimmi spares no thought to where the food has come from, or how it has been prepared so quickly, but merely tucks in, needle-teeth champing.
The boy regards her, then the silent robot nearby. Goes the table, sits, cross-legged on the rug there. Takes the spoon—pure gold, worth more than his whole village—and pokes at what’s in the orange and yellow ceramic bowl. Tastes. Sweet river rice and deep brown kermah beans, chopped purple jamun berries, chewy cuts of roasted babirusa haunch, bits of fiery purwa gourd for flavor, all with zesty saffron sprinkled over it.
“This is delicious,” he tells the robot. The mechanical servant makes no reply. “The best I’ve ever had.” The boy gobbles it up, washes it down with icy cold water from a gold goblet. As he is finishing, Pimmi raises her head, licking her muzzle.
“May I have more?” the boy asks. The slave-bot eases toward him, three-lobed handed extended. “And for my cat, too, please.” It looks at Pimmi, seems to ponder, takes the tray. Goes back where it came from.
A murmur, as if thunder far away. She cocks an ear. “What do you suppose that is, Pimmi?” She cleans the base of her whiskers with a curled tongue. “Yes, that was a stupid thing to say, wasn’t it? It’s them, isn’t it?” Another murmur.
The robot returns with another tray of food and drink, sets it before the cat and her boy. Pimmi starts in again on the fish, but the boy says, “Where is Five-Thirty-One?”
The robot makes no answer.
“What is he doing? Is he in danger?”
Another murmur, louder this time, is the only reply.
“Take me to him.”
Pimmi looks up, annoyed. Swipes a paw across her face.
“You have to do what I say! Five-Thirty-One said so. Take me to him, now!”
The robot turns, glides toward the metal door where the giant went. The boy follows him on quick feet. Pimmi gobbles down another morsel, then leaps from the table and bounds after them.
The door splits open again, but the man is not there. The robot goes in, waits for the boy. He hesitates, peeking into the well-lit room with its metal walls, until Pimmi scurries inside, settles beside the robot. The boy tiptoes in as the door shuts.
A tickle in Pimmi’s whiskers: the room is swiftly, smoothly descending deep into the mountain, but the boy seems not to notice. After several moments, the room comes to rest, the doors split again, and the three go out into a short stone tunnel. Before them, a massive metal hatch. The robot pauses.
“He’s in there?” the boy asks. Silence from the servant. “Open it.”
The great door, as thick as Pimmi is long, easily slides open, securing itself into the wall beside it. Beyond, a small, round room, lit with the flickering, ghostly white light of dozens of screens. In the midst, seated behind an expansive console, the Fighting Tiger.
“Why are you here?” he asks.
“I’m looking for you.” Rajeesh and Pimmi come in, the cat a bit more cautiously. The door eases shut. Everywhere are screens and computational machines and other equipment far beyond her capacity to understand. She hops onto the console, heedless of stepping on any of the seemingly hundreds of buttons and switches.
“I told you to stay in the hall and have something to eat.”
“I did, and it was good, but I can’t very well eat any more when the Karamdans—”
“—Kurindans are out there, doing whatever it is they’re doing.” The boy comes and stands beside the warrior. Looks at several of the monitors. “What are they doing?”
“Dying.” On the screens, missiles and rockets and shells and bolts of super-heated plasma and quavering beams of searing-white amplified light, firing from launchers and guns and cannons that Rajeesh supposes must be ensconced along the fortress walls. The jungle below, on the mountainside, nearly obliterated by the relentless barrage, and what still stands of it burns, each tree naught but towering flames.
Amidst the ruin and devastation, thousands of reptilian Kurindans trudging toward the fortress, futilely firing their weapons as each salvo from the Durga, each shot and bolt and beam and explosion, wipes out tens, dozens, scores of them at a time.
“Who is doing the fighting?”
“No one. These are automated weapons, controlled here, by me.” The boy frowns. “Like the slave-bot, except instead of serving food, they are killing Kurindans.”
The boy grins. “Good.”
“No. We are not killing them quickly enough. And we are not killing enough of them.” The tattooed man points to a screen. Pods slamming into the base of the mountain. “An average of one every second. Each with a full rampage of twenty warriors. Or about 1,200 arriving each minute.”
Another display. “Our solid ammunition is running low. When it is depleted, 40 percent of our weapons will go offline. The other 60 percent are supplied by drawing energy from the tokamaks. They cover the same fields of fire as the solid-shot weapons, but are not as rapid.”
Points to his left: on that monitor, a graph with a jagged purple line slowly, incrementally creeping toward the top of an electronic triangle. “When the line reaches the vertex, that means they will be right outside the walls.”
The boy blanches. His breath comes faster, shallower. “But they can’t get in, can they?”
Pimmi wanders toward them. The man scoops her off the console, holds her against himself. His gauntlet strokes her once, twice, and then he sets her on the floor.
“Can they?” the boy demands.
“That remains to be seen.”
“What can we do?”
“We are doing everything we can.” Rajeesh follows his eyes as the man looks up. Above his head, a hand switch firmly locked in the down position, diodes above it blinking green.
“What is that?”
“What does that mean?”
“I am recalling the Fighting Tigers. The entire shikar. All nine thousand of them.”
“And they’re just like you?” The man nods. “Then we’re saved!”
“Perhaps. First, they must get here.”
“How long will that take?”
“Minutes. Or months. Or centuries. It depends on how far away they are, off this world.”
Purring, Pimmi rubs herself against the man’s armored leg.
“Why are the Kurindans here, at the fortress?” the boy asks. “What do they want?”
“This.” The middle of the man’s eyes narrow to slits as he takes from a belt pouch something blazing a searing white. The boy squints against the glare, shielding his eyes. On a chain, a crystal figurine, no larger than the boy’s palm, of a tiger.
“What is that?”
A light flashes red on the console. The man swivels the chair, studies another monitor. Shadows in a narrow space. The warrior flicks several switches, and clouds of gas billow into view on the screen, filling what the boy decides is a tunnel. Several Kurindans—those are the shadows—fall dead, gasping, shuddering, screaming.
More lights flash: other tunnels, some of them so narrow, the Kurindans crawl through on their bellies. More gas, and flame, too. More Kurindans dying.
“Look!” Rajeesh cries, pointing to a screen: Kurindans inside the antechamber where they entered the fortress. The man frowns.
“How did they get in?” the boy asks.
“They are not unintelligent.” The Fighting Tiger rises to his feet, hands the crystal figurine to the boy. “Keep this until I come back—you can watch me on these monitors. If they kill me, take the talisman and the cat, and go through here.” He flips another switch, and the hulking chair slides back, revealing another hatch in the floor. “Toggle the switch to the third position, and it will open.”
“What’s in there, sahib?”
“A way out. Hopefully, the Kurindans have not found a way into it.”
“And if they have, what should I do?”
“If they have, there is nothing to do.”
The boy holds up the figurine. “What is this?”
“I will tell you if there is more time. Do not lose it. Do not let them have it.” The great door that the boy came through opens for the man as his helmet seals itself.
IT IS THE ONLY THING KEEPING THIS PLANET SAFE, he adds. The door closes behind him, immense rods within sealing it with a muted dhnn.
The cat hops onto the chair, sits, admires the splendid, shining thing dangling from the boy’s hand. She tentatively bats at it with a paw, is pleased with how it swings. Bats at it again.
“No, Pimmi.” The boy pulls it out of reach, spoiling her fun. Pimmi’s tail twitches. “What does he mean? How can this be ‘keeping the planet safe,’ when nothing’s safe?” He looks to a monitor, watches the man treading up the stairs. “The Kurindans have gotten inside, and we’re probably going to maybe die, and he says ‘safe.’”
Pimmi deftly jumps onto the console again. On a monitor close to her, the Kurindans in the antechamber shoulder their weapons, attempt to puzzle out the stone gates. “They’re trying to open the outside doors,” the boy says. He glances at another screen. Outside, thousands of them, not far from the summit. Digital counters run down as ammunition runs out.
“Gobara,” the boy mutters. He learned the word from the older boys in the village, and once, he made the mistake of saying it in front of his mother. She cuffed his ear and told him never to use such foul language again. And he hadn’t. Until now.
On another monitor, the Fighting Tiger has emerged from the lift, is stalking into the great hall, rifle ready and apparently mended. For an instant, the boy wonders if the man had time to do that, or did the weapon repair itself, but then the thought is gone. “Hey!” the boy shouts, leaning close to the screen. Waves his hands. “Hey! Five-Thirty-One, hurry! They’re—”
“—trying to open the gates,” the warrior answers. “I know. I can hear and see everything in the Durga, including you. Be like the cat.”
The boy looks over his shoulder. Pimmi is lying on the chair, paws tucked under her.
“The rest of them, the ones outside, are getting close,” the boy tells the Tiger. “You need to hurry—”
“You need to be still and silent.” The man crosses the hall, quiet as the cat whose colors he wears. In the antechamber, the Kurindans chitter to each other.
The hall and the antechamber—and only those places in the Durga—suddenly go completely dark, the Kurindans hissing in confusion. Rajeesh sees nothing, but hears the Kurindans fumbling about, perhaps to find or strike a light. For an instant, he spots a pair of glowing green dots in the inky blackness, and from its squeal of surprise, one of the Kurindans does, too.
Then the dark is ripped open by sizzling white light as the warrior’s claws ignite. Somehow, he’s come through the great golden doors and crept up on the Kurindans without them knowing. There are twenty of them, but it doesn’t matter, the Tiger slashing through stony torsos, or slicing off arms, legs, tails, heads. In seconds, they are dead, and the lights have come on again.
Before the boy can cheer, a tremendous
and Pimmi leaps from the seat, dashes beneath the console, runs circles around the tiny room, looking for a way, any way, to get out, and the ancient fortress quakes, fountains spraying wildly, idols spilling from their niches, statues toppling over.
A screen: outside, a blackish-purplish reptilian beast, seemingly almost as large as the Durga itself, plods heedlessly through the flames on six stumpy legs.
“Yes,” the warrior mutters, moving toward the gates. “Of course.”
“Run, Five-Thirty-One! Run back here! I’ll open the door for you, and—”
“No.” On the monitors, every weapon still functioning fires again and again, as swiftly as it can, blasting off bits and chunks of its stony hide as the monster shambles forward, the Kurindans hurrying out of its way. Squeezing shut its five eyes, it spits an enormous ball of green acid, bigger than an elephant, at the gates, which hiss and sizzle and steam, but hold.
The beast lowers its head, charges, rams the gates, the fortress shaking. It stumbles back, reeling under the incessant gunfire, and charges again, another blow, harder this time. A red light goes on in the control room; calculations scroll across a screen.
“The gates will break before the guns can kill the Titanodan,” the Tiger tells the boy, backpedaling toward the hall. “When the Kurindans get in, they will come for the talisman.” Another thunderous blow. Cracks scrawl upon the edges of the gates.
“What should I do?”
“Open the hatch I showed you.” The golden doors into the great hall swing wide. Rifle still raised, the Tiger backs through them, and then they shut again. CHHD as mammoth locks seal the hall.
The boy toggles the switch, and the hatch at his feet slowly grinds open. A wet, musty smell: the boy wonders how long has it been since anyone used this. Perhaps, he supposes, no one ever has.
“I’ve got it open!”
“There is a ladder. Take the talisman, and the cat, and climb down. It is a long way. At the bottom is a tunnel. Go to the right, and follow it. Eventually, it will let you out into the jungle.”
“I’ll wait for you to come back, and then all three of us will go.”
On a monitor, the Titanodan, liquid light seeping from hundreds of wounds, the warty hide on its back aflame, rears up on four of its legs, bellows its defiance—
—and slams itself, collapsing more than charging, against the gates for the last time. They buckle, hunks of stone crumbling, revealing steel rods as wide as a man is tall. As the monster’s eyes dim, go out, the squawking Kurindans spring forward, scrambling through the rents, skittering into the antechamber. Swarm the golden doors, battering them as the beast had done.
“Five-Thirty-One, you’ve got to get out of there!”
“No. A Tiger fights. That is why we are.”
“There are so many of them! If they get in—”
“It does not matter.”
“But they’ll kill you!”
“My life is not mine.”
On a screen, wriggling through a hole in the gate, a slender, two-legged, purple beast, a serpentine neck ending in a frilled, stubby, beaked head. Riding on its back, a Kurindan with long, jet-black quills protruding from the cheeks of both heads.
At the rider’s glance, the others step away. Two more beasts and riders squirm their way inside, the mounts strutting awkwardly, legs bending in three places, toward the doors.
The beasts’ beaks flare wide, gushing streams of green acid at the golden doors, which hiss and sizzle and steam, but hold. The warrior levels his rifle.
The beasts spray green acid again and again, and the doors start to sweat, start to drip, start to melt.
Molten golden metal running down the doors, puddling on the marble. The Kurindans draw near, try to peer through holes opening.
“Take the crystal, and the cat. Go down the ladder.”
“No! You saved me, so I’ll save you! Just tell me how!”
“There is no ‘how.’”
“There has to be!”
“There is nothing you can do except live.”
A final shower of acid, and the doors are like tallow. Kurindans—four, five, seven, thirteen—bound through what’s left of them, and the Tiger stamps forward, fires, fires, fires, each rifle shot another kill.
iii Pimmi squeaks, ears flat, tail under her, standing by the hole in the floor. Looks at the boy.
Screens of Kurindans summitting the mountain. Of wrenching open the remainders of the gates. Of spilling into the fortress. Of hurtling heedlessly into the unrelenting plasma fire of the Fighting Tiger.
iii! Pimmi calls.
The boy scoops her up, nestles her deep in the jute sling. Puts the chain with the glowing figurine around his neck. Crouches, swings a leg over, plants one foot on the first rung of the ladder. Glances into the seemingly unending darkness awaiting him below.
“Nothing I can do except live,” he whispers.
Gingerly, he puts the other foot onto the next lower rung. Steps down. Steps down again, and again, and again, carefully, but quickly, Pimmi huddled against him, the talisman swaying, lighting no farther than he can reach, but just enough that he can go on.
The tunnel is cold. He climbs down for a long time—how long, he doesn’t know—stopping to rest once. After a minute or so, Pimmi pokes her head out to look, and he starts climbing again before she can wiggle more of herself out.
Farther down, his foot slips from a rung, his sandal tumbling into the dark as he grabs tightly to the ladder to hold on. For several long moments, there is nothing, then a flat thhph from far below. He kicks off the other sandal, counts slowly in his head one another, two another, three another, four another, until he gets to fifteen another and then the whap of the sandal hitting the floor.
“Not so far, then, Pimmi.” She makes no reply.
The boy’s sandals still wait for him on the rough, stony floor when at last he and Pimmi reach the bottom of the ladder. The cat hops out of her sling, and stretches, front paws extended, rear raised, bowing deeply, as if their recent climb had been a brief bit of exercise.
Slipping into his sandals, the boy holds up the talisman, shining it first this way, then that, along a narrow tunnel, hewn from rock, running perpendicular to the one he came down. “He said to go right, didn’t he?”
Tail held straight and high, Pimmi trots left.
“Pimmi, no! That’s not it.”
She stops, looks over her shoulder at him.
Pointing in the direction of the light. “We have to go this way.”
Pimmi keeps on the way she had been going.
“Pimmi! Stop!” He starts after her—
—from far above, and the tunnel’s walls and floor and the ceiling, only a foot or so higher than his head, tremble. Pimmi pauses, ears up and swiveling, eyes wide, and then she dashes farther into the dark.
“Pimmi!” The boy chases, sandals slapping, talisman bouncing on his thin chest, its glow jumping. The cat runs even faster. “Pimmi! Stop!”
But it is the boy, not the cat, who stops, catching himself—arms out, hands splayed—before running face-first into the metal door at the end of the tunnel.
While metal, the door is in no other way like the others in the Durga (although, it occurs to the boy that he is, perhaps, no longer in the Durga). It is not flat and featureless: every inch of it is carved or embossed or otherwise decorated with figures or sigils or writings, none of which he knows. He holds up the crystal, bathing the door in its glow, as he struggles to take in all of what it may be.
Pimmi sits at his feet. “It’s beautiful,” he whispers to her, “but…it’s scary. Not like the Kurindans are. It’s different…and it’s worse.” He looks down at the cat. “Let’s get out of here.”
The talisman throbs at the end of its chain, and the door opens, silent on its ancient hinges. A waft of air colder than the snow outside permeates him. “Pimmi, I—” he starts, but she has already slunk inside.
A round chamber with an arched ceiling: the boy recognizes it as a shrine, like the one to Gdon where Pimmi and the colony of cats lived. On a pedestal in the center of the room is a bronze statue, more than three times taller than the boy, of an eight-armed warrior, its armor like that of Five-Thirty-One.
Also on the pedestal, behind the warrior, a massive metal tiger, twin tusks as long as the boy’s forearms. One of the warrior’s feet rests atop the back of a tiger-headed demon, also of bronze, sprawled on its belly. Six of the warrior’s hands were empty; one holds what seems to be an actual sword; the last hand grips a real tiger pelt.
“What is this?” the boy asks, holding up the crystal as high as he can. The statue’s face is young, with a thin nose and the hint of a smile. The sculptor had forged long, curly locks spilling onto the warrior’s shoulder armor.
“I can’t tell if this is a man or a woman,” Rajeesh says. Shakes his head. “Pimmi, we shouldn’t be here. Five-Thirty-One said to go the other way, out to the jungle. Why did you bring me here?”
The cat makes no reply, only tentatively steals toward the tiger pelt. Sniffs it delicately. Daintily taps the edge of it with a paw once, twice.
The boy comes closer, steps onto the pedestal. The sword is curved and rests in an ivory scabbard encrusted with thousands of tiny precious stones of every color. Of all the treasures the boy has seen today, this, by far, is the grandest to him. Still holding up the talisman, he reaches for the scimitar, then jerks his hand back.
“It’s warm,” he tells Pimmi. “How can that be?”
The cat looks at him, expectantly.
He reaches again, takes the sword this time. Lowers the crystal to his chest, wraps both hands tightly around the scabbard, carefully steps down from the pedestal.
“It would be good to have a weapon,” he explains to the cat, “if any Kurindans find us.” He frowns. “Not that I know how to use this. Still….”
He slides the scimitar from its sheath, and the talisman flares, its light filling the room. Pimmi’s eyes shrink to slits, but for a moment, the boy can see nothing. When his eyes adjust, someone—something—stands in front of him.
The monster is not a Kurindan: it is as if the statue of the defeated demon had come to life. Seven feet tall, with a ghostly green aura all about it. The fur-covered body of a muscular man, clawed talons that bend backward, and the head of a tiger. Hissing, Pimmi leaps to her feet, arches her back, bares her needle teeth.
Ekati misti chota chele, the monster chuckles, a leer twisting its face. Dekhate susbadu lagache.
“Stop! Get back!” the boy yells, holding out the scimitar with shaking hands.
I’m frightening to you, the creature says, its form rippling, changing, solidifying into a version of Five-Thirty-One. “Now, perhaps, I’m less so.”
“You don’t fool me,” the boy replies, eyes narrowing. Though it’s heavy, he holds the sword a bit more firmly. “My mother told me about your kind. You’re a rakshasa, a Child of Lies, and you have no shape of your own.”
Pimmi growls low in her throat, and the false Tiger scowls at her. “If you try to hurt her, I’ll kill you,” the boy says.
“While you hold the Scepter, I can’t hurt her, or you,” the monster admits, changing itself back to how it first appeared. It’d be best for you, then, if you don’t let go of it.
“I don’t believe you.”
As you ought not, but I’m bound by the Scepter to speak true to whoever claims it. The rakshasa steps closer. Do you claim it?
“What happens if I do?”
Then you’ll have power, as Shiva Naguradiku, the first Fighting Tiger of Vedah, did. This is his Scepter.
“Power for what?”
To rise. To create. To change. To defend. To save. To burn. To destroy. To die. To rise again.
“None of that makes any sense.”
It wouldn’t, to you. You’re just a boy. A small, underfed boy, of unremarkable wit, with no discernible talents, scavenging along, hand to mouth, like a thousand, thousand other such boys in flyspeck villages, like yours, of sticks and dried mud.
“No, I’m not.” Teeth gritted.
When your fisherman father realized that all his lumpy washerwoman wife would squeeze out for him would be the disappointing weakling that you are, he floated his ramshackle raft down that piss river, choked with goat excrement, where your murdered mother did her work. He abandoned you and her to squalor so as to busy himself with drink and the hookah and slatterns to be had for a few thin, oily coins.
“That’s not so.” The boy steps closer, sword held higher, tighter.
Your people are benighted dullards of low caste, ignorant and insignificant, though they live in sight of the palace for warrior-gods who tamed the nightstars of the Outer Dark. You and your kind were nothing more than prey animals for me and mine, until the Fighting Tigers took pity on you and stepped between us, putting their shields before you.
But the Tigers are far from here, too far, and by the time they return, the Kurindans will have what they’ve come for—they’ll take it from your mangled body—and then their Masters will shatter the wards around this miserable world, and burn it with their Light, and melt your people into swill for babirusa sows. As they have on worlds not far from this one.
The boy ignores the tears trickling down his face.
You weep? As well you ought to. But perhaps your worm-riddled cat will survive. The Sleeping Brahman forbids the Lights from harming beasts wild or tame; the Kurindans, though, aren’t similarly bound. If she can escape them, and hide in the jungle, she might live long enough to labor out a wretched litter of strays before some stronger animal gobbles up her and half her kittens.
The cat growls, again, louder and higher this time.
“Nothing is going to hurt Pimmi,” the boy swears. “And the Kurindans aren’t going to get this,” he adds, dipping his chin at the talisman around his neck. “I’ll keep it from them, until my friend kills them all.”
You have no friends. When the Kurindans cut off your limbs and pull your innards from you, the cat will run off to hide. She’s not a dog, to fight to the death for you. The nameless Tiger is no friend, either, and he’s not enough to stop the thousand, thousand rampages of Kurindans. Perhaps all the Tigers together could, but not a single disgraced exile, shackled to the wheel of purusha, seeking death because he failed his dharma.
His sacred duty.
“He did not! He never would!”
I’m bound by the Scepter to speak true to whoever claims it. Do you claim it? Terrors may befall you if you do. But if you don’t, if you give it to me, then I swear by the Sleeping Brahman himself that harm will not come to you—or the cat. That I’ll save both of you, that my people will step between you and the Kurindans, and put our shields before you.
“There are more of you? More rakshasas?”
A thousand, thousand, thousand more.
Pimmi hisses again.
“Why do you want this sword?”
Do you claim it? Death may be the best it brings you.
Do you claim it?
“Yes! I claim it!” A shiver runs along the curved blade, through the hilt, into the boy’s arms, and down his legs, into the stone floor. The rakshasa sinks to its knees, lowers its fearsome face. Pimmi cocks her head.
The boy, quietly. “Now, answer me.”
When the Tigers subdued my kind, Shiva bound us to the Scepter, to serve him.
“Or who claims the sword?”
Or who claims the sword.
“He bound you, all of you. A thousand, thousand thousand?”
All of us.
“Then why is it down here? Why doesn’t Five-Thirty-One have it?”
The Scepter binds the one who claims it.
“What does that mean?”
What’s done can’t be undone.
Pimmi murmurs, irrr
“So, you’ll do what I tell you to?”
I’ll hear and obey.
“Can you save my friend? And stop the Kurindans?”
“Then do it.” The boy pulls back the scimitar, rests the curve of it on his shoulder.
The first binding’s loosed, the rakshasa says. Eight bindings remain.
The talisman’s light fades, fades, until all the boy can see of Pimmi are her eyes glowing faintly green in the dark.
The boy crouches, careful not to let go of the sword. Holds open the jute sling with his free hand. “Come on,” he tells her. “We’re going back up.”
Pimmi’s nails tkk tkk tkk tkk on the marble floor, the only sound in the Durga besides the boy’s breathing.
The elevator that had would have taken them to the great hall did not open; the boy did not know if it was damaged, or shut down. Pimmi found stairs going up, so they climbed hundreds of stone steps. The boy stopped only once, for a minute or two, bending over, hands on the top of his thighs. Pimmi tidied herself as she waited. Then he started again. Finally, they emerged not far from where they had eaten. To him, it feels like that was many hours ago.
tkk tkk tkk, and then Pimmi carefully—paws lifted high—steps around and over the seemingly uncountable Kurindans lying shattered and sprawled and slumped atop each other across almost the entirety of the floor, from one end of the hall to the other.
Tables splintered, statues and idols toppled. Fountains smashed, icy water seeping across the floor. Silks torn or burnt from the walls, the marble behind blackened. The cat and her boy pick their way along.
A hint of orange buried deep amidst purple shards and scales. Rajeesh squats, digs through the debris. Stands, ponders the twisted scrap of striped armor. “Where do you suppose he is, Pimmi? The rakshasa said he would save him.”
iii Pimmi squeaks, looking up at the boy.
“At least I saved you,” he says, bending to pat her. Purring, she rubs herself against his leg.
“Better that all of us had died.”
The boy jerks upright. From behind a cracked pillar, the warrior—cut, bleeding, bruised, burnt, left hand broken and twisted—clothed only in the tattered scraps of a black bodysuit.
“The Scepter,” he says, coolly regarding the cat. “You showed it to him. Why would you do that?”
Pimmi sits, extends a back leg. Splays her toes, begins to wash her foot.
“You’re alive!” the boy exclaims, rushing toward him, holding out the curved sword for him to see. “Look! Isn’t it beautiful?” Glances around the hall. “And the Kurindans, they’re—”
“Dead,” the warrior finishes for him. “All of them. Here, and along the side of the mountain, and those that were still down in the village, that had not yet made it to the Durga. All of them, dead.”
“Yes!” The boy beams. “We beat them!”
“No, the rakshasas did. What you did was beyond foolish.”
“How was that ‘foolish?’”
“You cannot use evil against evil. Yet, that is what you have done.”
“So? They killed Mama! They would have killed us!”
“Our lives are not our own. They are not to do with merely as we wish. It is our dharma, our sacred duty, to do as we ought. And you ought not to have taken the Scepter.”
“I saved our world!”
“You have lost our world.”
“No, I haven’t!”
“You allowed the rakshasas to return to Vedah. Indeed, you ordered them to.”
“I ordered them to kill the Kurindans, and they did!”
“So, you think that you control them?”
“Yes! They must do what I say.”
“How do you know such a thing? Who told you that?”
“The one that was summoned by the sword—”
“Yes, when you purloined it from Shiva’s holy hands.”
“—he said they had to obey me.”
“And you believed that?”
“He said he had to speak true to me, because I had the Scepter.”
“Your mother’s ashes still smolder, and already she is dishonored, for surely, she birthed an idiot.”
“Don’t talk about my mother!” Points the scimitar at him. “You couldn’t save her, or me, or Pimmi, or anyone, not even yourself! You couldn’t do your dharma! That’s what—”
The giant swats the sword out of the boy’s hand, sends it flying several yards, then it skitters and bounces and clatters off the debris on the floor. Looms over the boy, scowling. Pimmi cringes, ears flat, but the boy glares his defiance.
“How do you know this thing?” the slit-eyed man demands. “Was it told to you by an eater of infants, one who laps children’s still-warm blood from their broken skulls? One who meant for you to undo what blessed Shiva and a thousand Tigers died for? To rid Vedah of the rakshasas, to lock them outside this sacred world? Is ‘that what’ was told to you by a Child of Lies? And do you choose to believe it?”
The boy lowers his eyes. Mumbles, “I am sorry.”
“You are a child. You know as little of sorrow as does this cat. Unlike her, you will learn. Let us have no more of this stupidity.” Looks around, then back to the boy. “At least you still have the talisman. Now, get the Scepter.”
Pimmi follows the boy as he picks his way over the dead and destroyed, goes to the sword. Picks it up. If it seems heavier to him, the cat does not notice. He scabbards it as they go back to the slit-eyed man. “Here,” the boy says, holding it out to him.
“You claimed it.”
“I don’t want it.”
“It is too late for, ‘I don’t want.’ You must take it. You are bound to it, and it is bound to you. And it will never let you go.”
The boy nods. “Now what?”
“The Tigers have kept the talisman in this Durga since Shiva laid its first stone. Somehow, the Lights learned of this. That is why they sent the Kurindans here. It would be best, then, if it were not here, should they return.”
The boy sighs, starts to take the chain from around his neck. The giant’s hand on his shoulder stops him.
“Most of the vaults below are intact. There are weapons and armor. Some may even be fit for you.”
“For me?” Glances at the sword. “But—”
“Failure does not excuse one from their dharma. Yours is to bear the Scepter. Mine is to keep this world safe. We will do those together.”
He starts for the far end of the hall. The boy hesitates.
The Tiger turns. Beckons. “Come along.” A faint smile, the first the boy has seen from the slit-eyed man.
“Bring the cat.”
“A Sacred World” is one of several short stories from my upcoming sci-fi/fantasy book Stray Cats, the adventures of a cat across nine worlds. If you’re a cat lover, you won’t want to miss it. You can sign up for another free excerpt here.