The day we met, Prasad asked me how many times I had died.
I answered without hesitation. “Forty-four.”
That number is part of my identity. As important as my womanhood, my occupation, my name. My soul had occupied forty-four bodies. Had experienced forty-four deaths. And the memories of those forty-four are in my head. Unforgettable. Unshakeable.
Prasad understood. He too was a mantrik. Magical ability was our shared blessing, but remembering our past lives was our curse.
“Sixty-one,” he said in reply. After he shook my hand, he downed a vial of rasayan in one gulp.
Prasad and I worked together for seven years as suppressors for the Raj. After all that time, Prasad could read me better than most. “Anusha,” he’d say, ignoring rank or title, “I can see the memory coming before it hits you…”
I had come to appreciate his subtle warnings. When our vimana, Daybreak, neared the end of its ponderous flight, Prasad suggested I put my hand on the guardrail. I did so without thinking, watching Daybreak‘s narrow shadow fall upon the city of Kholnagara and the forested mountainside around it. The deck vibrated softly beneath my feet. The engines whispered. And the memory came.
It was a heavy one. Painful. There was smoke and fire. There were horrified screams. The memory was so vivid that I could even smell the chemicals of purgation squad firethrowers. I gasped, shook the memory away as quickly as I could.
I can’t say I hadn’t expected it. Memories are strongest in places familiar to past lives, and I had known where we were headed from the start. I looked down at the gray scar that was once the city’s southwestern district. Empty streets, buildings choked with encroaching forest. I sighed, wiped sweat from my flushed cheeks. The memory was brief. A taste. But they would only strengthen the closer I got to Kholnagara.
“A bad one, I think. You should not have taken this assignment, Anusha.”
“I go where the Raj commands.”
“The Raj doesn’t know your past lives, and doesn’t understand the connection you have to this place. Your memories could compromise the mission. You should have requested a different one.”
“And appear weak? In front of the Raj?”
“It’s not weakness, Anusha. You get too involved down there and your memories could overwhelm you.”
“Let them. I’ll finish this job regardless,” I said, even though my forehead throbbed with another dull ache. “Besides, I have you and Neela and the rest of the team to back me up. I’ll be fine.”
Prasad didn’t look convinced. “In all my lives, past and present, you are the most stubborn woman I have ever met.”
He sighed heavily through his mustache and offered me a vial of rasayan. I refused. I always refused.
“It’ll help you forget,” he said. “If only for a little while.”
I nodded, struggling against the lingering stink of chemicals. “I know. But I can handle this.”
He frowned in a good-natured sort of way. We’d had this discussion numerous times, always ending it the same way. I had long ago stopped calling rasayan a “crutch for weak mantriks,” but that didn’t mean I had stopped believing it.
“You’ll think differently when you’re older,” Prasad said, as if reading my thoughts. “Trust me.”
I could read him pretty well, too. He couldn’t completely conceal the sadness in his voice.
This is what happens when a mantrik casts a spell: light, and shadow, and color. Matter is moved, transformed, manipulated. Energy is created, molded into shields and arrows, bolts of lightning, tongues of fire. Things happen. Spectacularly.
But magic has two parts. There’s the energy that powers a spell, and the waste it leaves behind. Dross. Rogue magic. It falls from fingertips like ash, or drips like candle wax, or sloughs off like dead flesh. But it’s all the same: dark and deadly, a poison to anything it touches.
Magic has to be controlled. The everyday stuff is wrapped in tech, with barriers and dampeners built into the machinery that activates the spell. But mantriks don’t need tech. Our magic is raw, summoned up with a command. We use siphons to suck up the rogue magic, dispel it, make it safe.
Without a siphon, the rogue magic will seep into nearby objects or, more likely, catch a ride on an updraft. When enough accumulates, it eats away at the barrier than separates our world from that of the gods. It creates a hole. A skymouth.
It’s up to suppressors like me and Prasad to prevent skymouths from forming. The gods don’t belong in our world. The gods are hungry. They’re never satisfied.
In Kholnagara, the siphons weren’t working. Not a single one.
It was a long way down.
The lift rattled on braided steel cables, a thin gray line to the ground. Above us, the vimana was a golden egg hanging in the air. Its sky anchors and dampener fields made odd patterns across its hull. I could make out the tiny silhouettes of crewmembers looking down at us from the decks. Gun ports winked as cannon and vajra were locked into place.
Prasad sucked down another vial of rasayan. That brought the count to three, or would have if I hadn’t known he spiked his drinks. “You drink too much rasayan,” I scolded.
“I drink enough,” he said.
“Enough for what?”
“Enough to feel normal. Enough to quiet the memories by day and keep my dreams empty at night. Enough to sustain me through old age.” He smiled weakly and leaned against the lift. “It isn’t easy to age as a mantrik, Anusha. The magic fades, but the memories never do. Hopefully this is the last life my soul will experience. Death will bring release. But until then, rasayan will be my comfort.”
I listened to the somber click-clack of machinery as the lift continued its steady descent. “And what if this life isn’t your last…?”
“Then the world is crueler than even my vast experience would lead me to believe.” He went quiet, as if the idea didn’t bear further thought.
I didn’t blame him. I had been reliving the burning of Kholnagara all morning. I didn’t want to know what horrors Prasad saw whenever he closed his eyes.
The team waiting for us on the ground was made up of soldiers, not mantriks. All five of them snapped cartridges into their rifles, keeping their distance from Neela, the blademother. They were right to be cautious. Neela paced like a caged tiger, scowling, tulwars drawn. The suppressors had deployed with Prasad and me before. They knew better than to agitate a blademother—and doubly so if that blademother was Neela.
“This place stinks of gods,” she said as the lift kissed the paving stones.
I wrinkled my nose. The air felt unnaturally thin for our altitude, and the breeze carried an unusual smell. Copper, saltwater, ash. The ashen smell seemed particularly strong. “I think you’re right, Neela.”
She grimaced. “I know gods when I smell them.”
“Hopefully their smell is all we’ll get from them today.”
“Hope all you like,” she said. “I just want to cut something.”
Prasad helped me out of the lift. I was weighed down with siphons; tubes and thuribles hung on chains around my waist, clattering against one another and the thin metal symbols sewn into my leather armor. Prasad was far less encumbered. His waning powers increased his faith in firearms. Two heavy revolvers were holstered where siphons once hung. A pouch around his neck held the few pieces of tech he relied on for communication and defense.
He held my hand tighter than necessary. I soon understood why. Another memory washed over me, and I shuddered at the force and the heat of it. A child reached for me, tiny fingers clawing at the air in desperation. I heard coughing and smoke-choked screams. I saw fires that didn’t stop, only grew, swallowing up living and dead alike. Firethrowers hissed, spitting more flames through narrow nozzles. Purgation squads were everywhere, herding people into hungry red mouths.
Someone cried out, and I realized it was me. The others were looking at me. “Apologies,” I said breathlessly.
“I don’t like this place, Anusha,” Prasad whispered.
“Nor I,” I confessed.
“You’re certain you can handle this?” I don’t think I remember him so nervous. He flexed his hands helplessly, kept his voice low. “This team relies more and more on you. And if you’re not at your best—”
“I’ll be fine,” I said. Behind me, the lift trembled and retracted back into the vimana’s hull. I addressed the others. “We’ve got a citywide siphon failure here. Odds are this isn’t an accident. If we find the source of the trouble quickly, we can shut it down before a skymouth opens up. This is a big district, and the forest’s taken over a good portion of it,” I said, and took a deep breath. “But I’ve been here before. In a past life. Stay close, and you won’t get lost.”
“Weapons at the ready,” Prasad added, drawing his pistols.
There was definitely something wrong with the air. It was thin in some places, thick in others. The sensation shifted, rippled. It was disorienting. Rogue magic had the habit of hanging in the air like dust motes in a sunbeam. We were probably surrounded by the stuff, even though we couldn’t see it.
I prepared a barrier enchantment, a simple protective spell. It rose around us in a transparent dome of energy that distorted the buildings around us like mirages.
My siphons didn’t react.
The rogue magic from the spell lingered above the ground, a ribbon of gray and black and pale, sickly green. It looked very much like a tendril of smoke, which aggravated my memories once more. They tugged at me, but I fought them down, clenching my jaw until my teeth ached.
But then the rogue magic did something I had never seen before. It slithered away from me. Almost as if pulled.
Prasad looked at me, puzzled. “Anusha…?”
“Follow it,” I said.
Neela had already started pounding after it, and I took off behind her despite the weight of the siphons. “Come on!” I shouted. “It’ll take us straight to the source of Kholnagara’s problems, I can feel it. And stay inside the barrier!”
Every footstep took me deeper into a world I recognized. The memories were becoming more vivid, more real. The past was superimposing itself on the present. Shimmery outlines of buildings as they once were clung to the gutted, overgrown ruins. Shades of people long dead filled the streets. My life and my past life were being lived at the same time. And though it hurt to remember the district of the past, it hurt even more to fight it. So I tolerated the memories. Worked with them.
I jogged confidently down the streets, keeping steady pace with the ribbon of rogue magic. Then I realized where it was headed and I stopped.
“It’s a block away. There’s an old ashram there. I… I can feel where the skymouth is forming.”
The ashram was in better shape than the buildings surrounding it. Through the haze of memory, I could see that half the roof was gone, a tree grown up through the third floor. But the foundations were strong, and the walls were unbowed. “I remember this place,” I said slowly to Prasad. Ghostly families were running toward it, parents clutching for their children, pulling at them. The spirits of long-extinguished fires licked at their heels. I frowned, coughed on smoke that wasn’t there. “Many people hid here to escape the fires. But the purgation squads found them. They found everyone.”
“They were sick,” Prasad said, putting a hand on my shoulder. “The Raj in those days—”
“I know what the Raj did in those days, Prasad.” I said, a little harsher than I intended. I was starting to feel the flames as well as see them. I coughed again. “Medicine wasn’t what it is today. Plagues had to be burned away before they spread. Burned at the source. Even if that meant—”
Neela whistled from the doorstep. “We going in?”
I waved her away. “Me first,” I said, keeping my voice low. I was growing impatient. I resisted the urge to just kick the door down and be done with it. The stink of copper and saltwater overwhelmed the memory of the smells from the chemical flames. But I focused. Maintained caution. “No one goes inside until I give the go-ahead.”
Neela nodded. Behind me, Prasad whispered a few quiet orders, and the rest of the suppressors trained their firearms at the ashram’s windows. I tried the door. It moved easily. With a quiet chant, I poured a detection spell through the doorway, a liquid light that spilled from my outstretched hand onto the floor. As the spell rippled an all-clear, the rogue magic it produced crackled in black sparks. Again, my siphons did nothing. The sparks rose and disappeared between the cracks in the ceiling.
I nodded, and Neela followed me inside. Prasad positioned himself in the doorway.
The ashram was strewn with leaves and garbage. Animal bones. Gutted siphons. Empty vials of rasayan. Prasad rolled one of the orange-stained bottles aside with his foot. He didn’t say a word but spoke volumes with a frown and the sound of his pistol being cocked.
At the ground level, the ashram was divided into two large rooms. Much of the wall dividing the two had been torn down, roots and debris everywhere. I could see a table piled with books on the other side. Real objects. My memories painted more furniture into the scene, and huddled bodies, and fire.
I went to the table. There were other things here, real things: an overturned chair, a squat bookshelf, a washbasin. An empty oil lamp hung from the ceiling, diagrams from nails in the walls. There were notebooks everywhere, and earmarked texts, and tightly rolled scrolls. I was shocked by the quantity. The content. These were dangerous ideas. Suicidal ones. The notes’ author had scrawled his name alongside his findings: Manjeet Kalibhat. I didn’t know who he was, but I could tell he was a mantrik, and understood what he had been looking for. I spilled the research on the floor, furious.
“Prasad,” I hissed. “Alert Daybreak‘s captain. Tell him to pull anchors and wheel the vimana around, weapons aiming this way.”
He nodded and pulled out a spherical communicator. He was whispering into it as he hurried outside. He could tell from the urgency in my voice that it was bad. But maybe I just didn’t want him to see what I had found.
Kalibhat was trying to find release from the cycle of lives. Artificially. And if the notes were to be believed, release required summoning gods.
Neela crept back down from the stairs. “Second floor’s empty,” she said. “Third floor… I heard chanting. And something else. Something silent, but…” Her face contorted as she fought to explain. “Heavy. Like a sound you feel but don’t hear. Permission to strike?”
“Yes,” I said, although I was afraid of what we would find upstairs. And I was growing hotter.
Neela rushed back up, aggressive, incautious. As she reached the top, a concussive blast of magic knocked her off her feet. I popped my head up and screamed a spell of my own. A bearded man stood at the top of the staircase and tried to ward off my spell with an upturned palm. The magic swirled like a cloud of glowing hornets swarming around him. He tried backing away, but the moment he got too close to the window the suppressors fired a few warning shots and he stumbled back toward me. As he managed to clear away my spell, Neela pounced.
She knocked him backward. Sat on his chest with a tulwar jammed into the floor on either side of his face. The man was breathing heavily, but didn’t dare struggle. “Say the word. I’ll finish him in one slice.”
I looked down at Kalibhat’s face. His beard was unkempt, his hair graying, his skin lined and sagging. He tried remaining impassive, but I recognized the look in his eyes. Sadness. Just like Prasad.
“Keep him pinned.” I winced. The memories were stronger. Images and heat and emotions. Fear and anger. But still I focused. I had a job to do. I would not fail the Raj.
The room was dominated with a siphon unlike any I had ever seen. Large as a baby elephant, a patchwork of metal plates. The turbines inside were churning furiously, creating a low throb around it—Neela’s silent, tangible sound. But the giant siphon was doing more than collecting rogue magic. It was funneling it upward, into a patch of sky just above the ashram where the roof had been torn away. From this angle it was clear how wrong the sky looked. Almost wrinkled, like old paper.
I pulled a null spike free from a tube at my back. It was a powerful piece of equipment, capable of counteracting most spells or shutting down technology. I jammed it into the siphon. Within moments, the throbbing slowed to a shudder, and the air grew lighter. My own siphons clattered to life then, quietly picking up the room’s ambient rogue magic. Then I approached our captive once more.
“Manjeet Kalibhat,” I said. “By the authority of the Raj, I place you under arrest for the misuse of magical abilities, the improper disposal of rogue magic, and the willful attempt to open a skymouth over Kholnagara.”
He said nothing, but managed a small smile.
“I saw your notes. Think you’re clever?” I spat. I thought about what Prasad had said earlier. “You had to end it all here and now, like this? You’re a mantrik. For all you know, this is the last life your soul will experience.”
“Come now, child. You don’t believe that,” he said, his voice low and rasping. “I’ve been a mantrik before, in a past life. There is no end. The cycle continues, over, and over, and over. Why? Progress? Enlightenment? You know as well as I that the lives we live have no relation to those in our past! One life you’re a thief, the next you’re a nobleman. No reward. No punishment. Just the cycle.
“I’ve experienced pain, child. And I have seen and done terrible things,” he said. His eyes began to water. “Never again. Never again. I’ve found a way to break the cycle. I’ve summoned a god to take me away. To pass through the barrier between worlds… release!”
“And once the god has taken you away, what happens next? What happens to the city? You irresponsible idiot! There are people living here! Thousands of them! You really think a god is going to be content ferrying you from one world to the next?”
His face twisted into a hateful frown. “We are mantriks, child. We give so much to the Raj, and for what? To retire when our magic’s gone dry? To live with several dozen lives’ worth of memories banging around in our heads? We deserve better.” He relaxed. “I’m not the first mantrik that’s tried to break the cycle. And you can be sure I won’t be the last.”
“I can stop them as easily as I’ve stopped you.”
“Can you? Does it matter?” He smiled again, more confident now. “You haven’t stopped anything, child. I’ve already succeeded.”
He wasn’t looking at me anymore. He stared past me. “Release at last…”
The skymouth yawned.
An alien sky of red and lavender glowed beyond the hole. It looked like dawn or sunset, only brighter, and speckled with multicolored stars like chunks of polished tourmaline. I held my breath. The gods took all manner of monstrous forms. There was no telling what would try to force its way out.
I didn’t have to wait long. From the skymouth emerged a god of many arms and many eyes. Half a dozen long, muscular tentacles squirmed free. Each bulged with glistening blue-black eyes, unblinking and expressionless. Chitinous barbs lined the tentacles’ undersides. The arms probed the opening, grasping at the air as if trying to haul itself out. Electricity discharged along the edges of the skymouth. Something rumbled like the gnashing of monstrous teeth.
I should have been repulsed, awestruck, even terrified. But my memories had been conjuring up far worse scenes, and the god only served as a fleeting distraction. I watched Daybreak unleash two decks’ worth of cannon and vajra, filling the sky with exploding shells and crackling arcs of energy. The tentacles writhed, whipping wildly at the projectiles, reaching for the vimana itself. Then came the second thunderous salvo.
I hoped it would be enough. Without the siphon to funnel rogue magic into it, the barrier would knit itself back together. But that would take time. Fifteen, twenty minutes. The god couldn’t be allowed to slip free.
But that was up there. Down in the ashram my world was being consumed with a fire that only I could see, filling up with smoke and ash and burning flesh. Anger flashed hot across my eyes, turning my mouth into a sneer. “You’ll get no release today, traitor.” Magic coursed up my right arm in rippling bands of pink and orange. “Neela, stand aside.”
The blademother obeyed, reluctantly. Kalibhat tried to sit up. I didn’t give him a chance.
“What are you doing?” he said.
“Sparing you the blades.”
I extended my hand. The bands of magic slipped off my arm and latched on to Kalibhat. Pinning him. Gagging him. And while the magic held the traitor tight, alternating bands of ashen rogue magic crumbled away. My siphons were humming now, their slats glowing blue and orange, and floating about my waist on their chains. I could hear choking sobs, but they weren’t coming from Kalibhat.
My head throbbed. My eyes watered. My ears filled with the teakettle whine of firethrowers building pressure, a whump and hiss, a roar of flames. Kalibhat writhed at my feet. Cannon and vajra boomed and flared overhead, but I was deaf to nearly everything but the sounds of my past life. I was completely consumed, and I didn’t even care.
I turned my back to leave. Ordered Neela to follow.
Neela looked shocked.
“Not a word,” I said. Curt and clipped. “Mantriks serve the Raj. We make the Empire strong. Kalibhat and his discovery could undermine everything.”
“A quick death, then,” she said. “Not this.”
“He deserves worse.”
“Loyal to the Raj. And strong.” I wiped the sweat from my brow. “The strong don’t need release.”
Bones and empty vials crunched underfoot. I pushed my way outside, past Prasad, who nearly dropped a vial of his own. I scowled. He tried saying something in reply, but I couldn’t hear him over the crackle of flames, the hiss of chemicals, and the screams of burning people.
Prasad had to repeat my name several times before I turned to him. “Anusha! The skymouth—”
“—Won’t be a problem. I shut down the source.” Crackle. Hiss. Scream.
“And the man we saw? At the window, the man—”
“Guilty. Weak.” Every scream had a face. “Unclean.”
Prasad narrowed his eyes. “We have to get you away from here. The memories are overpowering you.”
“No. There’s still work to be done. For the Raj.”
My fingers wrapped around a firethrower that wasn’t really there.
Magic pulsed along my fingertips. And memory became reality, and I summoned up fire.
I engulfed the building in flames.
© 2015 by Andrew Kaye
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