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Fiction

The Giving One (Part 2)

When Parsh returned home and found that his father’s calf had been stolen, and stolen by none other than the King of the very Stonak kingdom who had been slaughtering priests for decades, he did not hesitate. He took up his axe and set out on the road that led to Stonak City. He did not stop to think of the consequences of what he was about to do, nor of the odds against him. For while a priest caste’s disciplined meditation and learning compel him to consider carefully before embarking upon any venture, a Stonak’s very nature is predicated on swift reflexes and instinct. Parsh only knew that his father and mother had been insulted, their sanctified home and hermitage defiled, and a precious calf stolen.

What Jamarg had not mentioned to the Stonak, as it would hardly have mattered to them, was that the calf actually belonged to Lord Inadran himself. The king of the Stone Gods had graciously given it to Jamarg for safekeeping. Bad enough that King Arjen Stonak had stolen the calf; worse still, the calf had not belonged to Jamarg in the first place.

In those days, Stonak were masters of the realm. Priests cloistered themselves in deep Aranya jungle ashrams, on unattainable mountain peaks, in the most uninhabited locations possible. There, in their ashrams and caves, they reigned supreme over the worlds of learning and inner space. But the developed world of cities and towns and villages was dominated by Stonak who roved the land, taking whatever they desired and fighting for anything that was disputed.

Stonak City, the capital of the Stonak nation, was a land dominated by the Stonak way of life. Violence was omnipresent, considered a natural expression of their true feelings. Sadly, it was the people of other castes, those who were merely living their lives or going about their tasks, who suffered the most. Some fell victim to rapacious Stonak, others were innocent bystanders who came into harm’s way accidentally, and many unfortunates died or suffered only because they happened to work with or work for one or another group of warring warriors. Many tradesmen, craftsmen, artisans, artists, and poets set aside their tools and implements and took up weapons only to defend themselves and their families against the incessant threat of violence. Fights erupted at any moment, every day there was a battle, and life itself was one endless war campaign.

It was to this violent and ruthless city that Parsh came in search of his father’s lost calf. A young man barely grown to adulthood, hair matted and tied in a knot on top of his head, clad in the simple white garb and loincloth of an acolyte, bearing the ash smears that declared him a priest caste, he walked the dusty kingsroad that led to the city. Even before he reached its high gates, he encountered trouble in the form of a band of Stonak warriors returning from a skirmish in which they had fared badly against the forces of Bosh, son of Saegen. They were talking bitterly amongst themselves of Bosh’s inroads into Stonak territory and how the tide appeared to be turning against their army as well as the Panchagana. To a man, they all agreed that it was only a matter of time before King Arjen Stonak lost control of Aranya, and once that seat of the Stonaks fell, it would be a great blow to their cause. It was while they were in this foul mood that they chanced upon the young priest caste boy walking steadfastly along the kingsroad.

“Priest!” said one of them, tapping the hilt of his sword on his shield. “Do you not see Stonak on the road? Bow at once to us!”

“Show some respect for your superiors!” said another, deliberately taunting Parsh.

Parsh did not even notice that they were addressing him. Completely absorbed in his goal, he walked at a rapid pace, intent on reaching the city. The Stonak took his quick walk as an indication of cowardice and thought he was scurrying away from them. Irritated, they rode after him and one of them raised his sword to strike Parsh down from behind.

His eyes on the dusty road, the sun above and behind him, Parsh saw the shadow of the Stonak horse rider with his raised sword slicing down at him. Without a second’s thought, Parsh’s axe flashed upwards. A man’s cry rang out. And the arm holding the sword fell with a clattering thump, severed arteries and veins spurting life fluid onto the dusty road. The injured man swung his horse around, screaming in pain, and his stump spewed blood onto his comrades, drenching their armour and faces. He fainted away from the shock and loss of blood, falling to the ground as his horse milled about in confusion.

Parsh continued to walk on towards the city. He had not slowed his pace even when he defended himself against the Stonak’s attack. He flicked the blood from the axe’s edge as he went, but did not return it to its place in his waistcloth; he let it stay in his hand by his side, swinging as he walked, its finely honed blade catching the noonday sunlight and reflecting it in bright dazzling shards.

After a moment in which the other Stonak gaped at their fallen friend, and other pedestrians and horse-mounted passersby on the kingsroad continued on their way with eyes averted from what they assumed was just another routine instance of Stonak violence, realization set in of what had just occurred.

A priest caste had killed a Stonak.

A priest caste boy, no less, on foot and armed only with a woodchopper—for Vish’s axe appeared deceptively ordinary at first sight; a priest caste boy who somehow survived despite being attacked from behind by a veteran Stonak warrior, one of King Arjen Stonak’s own.

It was unheard of. Unthinkable. Impossible.

Yet it had happened. There lay the fallen Stonak, severed stump bleeding out the last of his life onto the dust of the road, who only moments earlier had been talking and laughing with the rest of the Stonak soldiers.

Without thinking further, the rest of the band of veterans roared with fury and spurred their horses, riding after the priest caste boy, who had already left them several dozen yards behind as he continued his resolute journey up the kingsroad. Swords drawn, they rode down at him from behind, hellbent on avenging their fallen comrade. Others on the road drew their horses aside, leaped off the road, or stopped their chariots or uks wagons to let the Stonak pass. Nobody paid much attention to the intended victim of their rage. When Stonak were on a rampage, it was best to continue about one’s business and ignore them completely—unless of course they expected you to bow or serve them. Only a pair of acolytes, trekking back to the city with herbs collected from the woods, paid heed. As fellow priests, they knew they were about to witness a familiar sight: the murder of one of their brethren for no fault other than the mere fact that he was a priest caste. Even though they were both boys with hairless chins, they had seen scores of such assaults and massacres; it was a part of daily life under Stonak rule. The world belonged to the men who wielded swords, and that meant Stonak. The only weapons they possessed were words.

But not the priest caste boy. He was armed with something more than words. And unlike his priest caste brethren, he was not afraid to use it on Stonak if compelled.

As the band of Stonak rode down on him, Parsh raised the hand holding the axe before his face. He did not slow his walk or turn his head. He kept walking towards Stonak City. The blade of the raised axe was as clear and mirrored as still water. Upon the surface of the blade, he could see a clear reflection of the kingsroad behind him—and the Stonak riders bearing down on him with swords drawn and ugly expressions on their bearded faces. He gripped the axe by the leather thong that hung from the base of its handle with his other hand, then, as the riders came within striking distance, he swung it.

What followed next was a blur to the acolytes watching across the road. While they had witnessed any number of acts of violence in their youthful lives, almost all involving Stonak slaughtering priests or, less frequently, one another, they had never witnessed anything akin to what they saw on the kingsroad that noonday.

Parsh’s axe swung around in a looping blur as the first Stonak bore down on him. The blade of the axe seemed to glide through the torso of the Stonak, as if it came close to his body but did not actually touch him. This was because it did not strike with any impact, merely spun a full looping turn without any indication of having struck the rider.

The first rider swung at Parsh, appeared to miss him by an inch, and rode past.

Parsh’s axe continued to twirl around the leather thong, which was spinning on his forefinger held up in the air like a man launching a discus, crooked just slightly at the tip to keep the thong from slipping off. By the time it was on its third looping turn, the next horseman came within striking distance. Parsh moved his hand at blurring speed, and once again, the axe continued spinning as it cut through the space the rider occupied, apparently without touching the rider himself.

The second rider also swung at him, missed, then overshot.

Parsh then stepped sideways, moved the spinning parsh to adjust for the new angle at which the next rider was approaching, and spun it at this third Stonak as well, with much the same result. Except this time, there was a brief red glitter, like red rubies had been tossed in midair and caught the sunlight.

The axe spun round without interruption, and the rider hacked downwards, missed, and rode past.

Now, a peculiar thing happened to the first rider.

He had stopped his horse and had begun to turn its head, to ride back at Parsh for a second pass. But he barely managed to twist the reins once, then doubled over in apparent agony . . . and fell off his horse to the ground.

Except that only the top half of the Stonak fell.

It slid off the man’s torso, as neatly severed as a joint of lamb struck cleanly by a butcher’s blade, and fell with a wet thump to the road. The rest of the man, everything from about midway down his chest downwards, remained seated on the horse, gaping bright red and terrible in the gaudy sunlight.

A moment later, the same thing happened to the second rider. The angle of the severance was slightly different, the second man having been cut a little lower than the first man, but the effect was much the same.

The axe had cut them in half.

The third rider paused, appeared to gag on his own blood, then toppled off his horse—and his own lower body, but the cut was not complete in his case, which was why the acolytes had glimpsed the ruby red blood winking in the sunlight, and the top half of his body hung down, still partly attached to his lower body. It was a nauseating sight. The horse was drenched in the blood of the rider and whinnied in alarm and disgust.

The remaining Stonak suffered much the same fate.

For the span of ten or twelve normal breaths, Parsh swung his axe round and round on his upraised finger, as each warrior rode down at him, and in that time, as many warriors died.

Moments later, the kingsroad was strewn with the severed bodies of almost a score of Stonak veterans, butchered like chopped meat.

Parsh turned back towards the direction he had been going, and continued on his way.

He flicked the axe as he went, sending a few drops of blood flying from its blade. But oddly enough, not all the blood was flicked off. The gore upon the edge and sides of the blade seemed to seep into the shining metal face, like water absorbed by parched earth. Parsh flicked a drop or two off, but the rest seeped into the blade itself.

The axe literally drank the blood.

Even thirty yards away, the acolytes across the road could hear the blade sing. It was a keening shrill metallic sound, like the sound a knife blade makes when set to a rapidly spinning grindstone. It was so high-pitched, it set stray dogs to barking for miles around, and along the length of the kingsroad people looked up and frowned, sensing rather than hearing the sound before shaking their heads and continuing on their way.

Parsh continued walking towards Stonak City. Already, the gates of the city were within sight. The encounter with the veterans had taken barely a few moments of his time. Seventeen experienced and battle-tested warriors lay dead in the dust behind him.

There was not a scratch upon him.

• • • •

Parsh approached the gates of Stonak City. The Stonak milling about the gate were mostly inebriated louts spoiling for a fight. Gatewatch duty was a lucrative assignment, as it came with the power to stop any visitors, seize contraband, as well as levy the city toll. Few dared pick a fight with the gatewatch of Stonak City because they represented the official might of the Stonak empire. Over time, this had led to the sentries abusing their positions of power, preying on travellers, demanding a higher toll than was official, pocketing a portion for themselves, taking bribes from the richer merchants, smuggling contraband out or in, confiscating items for their own personal use or as gifts, and generally doing as they pleased. They mostly spent their duty hours under the influence of one or other of the many intoxicants that they came into possession of, playing bone-dice games to decide who went home with the day’s spoils of confiscation, or, when they needed some diversion, harassing the female or weaker travellers passing through the gates they watched.

They might have let Parsh pass by unmolested, taking him to be what he was in fact: a priest caste boy from some remote hermitage come to the city on some errand or other. Strictly speaking, priests were not expected to pay any tolls or taxes, being as they were, bereft of worldly possessions and wealth. But this was Stonak City, seat of the Stonak, and the very existence of a priest caste was an affront to any Stonak.

So, just as Parsh was about to pass resolutely through the vaulting gates of the city, he was challenged by a drunken guard.

“You there. Pay your toll.”

The sentries at the gate, hearing their colleague call out and seeing the priest caste boy, crossed their spears, barring Parsh’s way.

Parsh slowed, then came to a halt. His dark face glowed with an energy that belied his unattractive features, lending him an extraordinary aura of strength and charisma. His features were not handsome, far from it, and his body was squat and dwarfish in proportion. But the fiery black eyes, high prominent cheekbones, bristling black beard, and crow-black priest caste hair matted in a knot atop his head, with the powerful neck and shoulders, all created a sense of great power and menace when seen from close up.

The gatewatch guard who had called out the challenge felt and saw this menace as Parsh halted close before him and had a tiny moment of misgiving. It was gone as soon as it had arisen. After all, this was no Stonak; he was merely a priest caste from the Aranya jungle. A naïve young acolyte who was sworn to ahimsa, the philosophy of non-violence, and would sooner cause himself to waste away in self-punitive austerities than lift a finger against another living being. There was no menace or danger here.

“Toll,” said the gatewatch curtly. “Pay.”

Parsh merely stood his ground and glowered. He was not looking directly at the gatewatch guard or at any of his colleagues. His gaze was set beyond them, upon his destination, the city within. This lent him a peculiar air of distraction, the look of a man not entirely in his senses. And this was true: Parsh was inhabiting a mental space that was not the rational realm of most mortals. Certainly not the warped morally corrupt world that these predatory sentries inhabited. He was following his own sense of dharma.

He gave no answer to the guard.

The gatewatch looked at his colleagues with amusement. “A silent one we have here, men.”

“Maybe he’s taken a maun-vrata,” said one of the others, drinking from a jug of soma they had confiscated from a wine vendor passing by. “A vow of silence.”

His colleague, seated on the wall above the gate, called down: “Priest fool won’t have a penny to his name anyway. Beat him and kick him on his way.”

Another sentry pointed to the shining blade of the axe hanging from Parsh’s cloth waistbelt. “He could pay the toll with that. That looks like it could be worth something.”

“Or useful at least,” said the first man who had spoken.

He reached for the axe, intending to examine it more closely. “Let’s take a look at this, youngun, shall we?” he began. “I have always wanted—”

He never finished—either his words or his action.

Even before his fingertips touched the hilt of the axe hanging from the priest caste boy’s waist, Parsh had taken up the axe, and cut off the gatewatch sentry’s arm. It fell with a soft thud to the ground, knocking over the sentry’s own jug of soma. The soma jug toppled over, spilling thick honey wine into the dirt. The blood from the severed arm mingled with the blood.

The other sentries reacted quicker than their compatriots on the kingsroad had earlier. For one thing, being on gatewatch meant they regularly dealt with all manner of ruffians and foreigners. Corrupt they were, but fit and skilled at violence as well, or else they would not survive a day of being on gatewatch. The instant they saw blood spilled, they drew their weapons and attacked without further comment or discussion. Spears and swords in hand, they moved in on Parsh, intending to kill him without wasting a single breath asking a question. He had maimed one of their own, that was all that mattered. He had to be brought down at once.

Parsh raised his forefinger, twirling his axe on its leather thong. It spun faster than it should have been able to spin, the edge of its blade producing the same keening song it had made earlier. The sentries heard it and noted the blurring speed at which the axe spun round the priest caste boy’s finger, but moved in anyway.

It was not long before they all lay dead, or horribly maimed and dying, at their post.

Visitors coming and going gawked at them and reacted to the extraordinary sight of so much Stonak blood spilled at the very gates of the city. They had never before seen such a thing, not in Stonak City.

Nor had they ever seen anything like the priest caste boy who stood over the butchered corpses with the axe in his hand. The axe that seemed to have almost no bloodstains on its blade, and which produced a sharp high-pitched sound that physically hurt their ears and set dogs barking across the city.

Parsh raised both hands, shaking the axe at the banner which bore the sigil of King Arjen Stonak.

“Stonak! I am come to reclaim my father’s calf. Come out and return our property to me, or I shall enter and kill every last Stonak within these walls today!”

As the echoes of his challenge faded away, the citizens who had witnessed the slaughter of the gatewatch turned to one another, unsure whether to laugh or to wonder at his audacity. Surely he was suicidal, insane, deluded. To stand at the gates of Stonak City and challenge the entire Stonak dynasty? What hubris! In moments more soldiers would come—scores, hundreds, thousands if need be—and put an end to this ingenuous youth.

They waited to watch the foolish young priest caste die.

• • • •

Parsh did not have long to wait. It so chanced that King Arjen Stonak had not yet reached his capital city. The Stonak king had set off from Jamarg’s hermitage with his prize, intending to come straight home and experiment further with his new possession. But on the way, a thought had occurred to him. He realized that if Kamshen could grant any desire its owner asked, then there was no reason to restrict one’s demands to treasure alone. He had demanded uks carts to carry the treasure he had already conjured up back at Jamarg’s hermitage and now a veritable train of uks wagons followed his band of warriors on the kingsroad, laden with more wealth than he had brought home from most military raids or campaigns. And that was what made him realize that if he could ask for uks carts to carry his treasure, he could ask for other things as well, things not inherently of value but of great strategic and tactical use to a warlord.

For instance, at this very moment, he was chasing Bosh, son of Saegen, with a band of about two hundred and fifty of his finest soldiers. He commanded great armies, massive military forces, but it was not practical to mobilize them all quickly enough to give chase to a small band of rebels. What he needed was a way to track down and find Bosh and his band of marauders quickly and efficiently. He needed a small force of expert trackers who perfectly knew the region of the Aranya jungle into which Bosh and his warriors had taken refuge and were capable of flushing them out and slaughtering them on sight.

And so this was what he asked Kamshen for next. Stopping on the road itself, he uttered the mantras of command and compelled the calf to produce his demand. A blink of an eye later, a whole company of lean-faced men, accompanied by dogs as lean-faced and lithe-bodied as their masters, stood before King Arjen Stonak, ready to do his bidding. He set them upon the trail of Bosh and soon enough, the hunt was on.

Hours later, he had rounded up and slaughtered Bosh’s band of rebels and captured Bosh himself. He decided to take the rebel leader back to Stonak City to be tortured and publicly executed as an example. There were still some packs of rebels loose across the wilderness, for they had split up and fled to the four quarters. The Stonak king sent his three sons after them, using the trackers and their dogs. He ordered his sons not to return home until they had tracked down and eliminated every last one. Then he turned the head of his own horse and started back for his capital city.

And thus it was, only a little while after Parsh stopped at the gates of Stonak City, King Arjen Stonak came riding up as well, bearing in tow the very thing that he had stolen from Parsh’s father, the precious calf Kamshen.

King Arjen Stonak was taken aback by the extraordinary sight that met his eyes at the city gates. Parsh stood alone before them, with a large and growing crowd of travellers, merchants, citizens, and other priests standing across the way and watching with great interest. His axe was in his hand, still singing after the slaughter of another round of Stonak men. And the bodies of those he had killed lay strewn all around him.

Even at a glance, King Arjen Stonak estimated there must be at least two hundred corpses lying around the priest caste boy. It was difficult to tell exactly because the corpses had largely been brutally hacked apart. He looked around, frowning in the afternoon sunlight, trying to fathom who else had assisted the priest caste boy in this slaughter. Where were his allies? Surely there must be a sizable contingent fighting alongside him, to have produced such a death toll?

It took him some time to absorb and accept the fact that it was only one man, a boy at that, and that too a priest caste, who had accomplished all this, entirely on his own. With a single axe.

Parsh recognized King Arjen Stonak from his burnished armour and the banner bearer and umbrella bearer that flanked him. He raised his axe and hailed him loudly.

“Stonak! You have stolen something that is not your property. Return unto me that which you took from my father’s hermitage.”

King Arjen Stonak grinned at his men, then permitted himself a hearty chuckle. “The boy has spirit. Clearly he was struck too hard on the head when yet an infant. Cut him down where he stands.” He raised a finger, adding, “Use archers first. He seems to be fairly effective with the axe, but it won’t be any use against arrows.”

Several shortbows appeared in the hands of the Stonak horsemen. Accustomed to loosing from the saddle, this was an easy target for them. They loosed a volley of several dozen arrows at once at Parsh.

Parsh twirled the axe on his finger as he had before. The blade blurred. He stood rock still. The hail of arrows flew at him, lethally aimed, and almost all found their mark—and were chopped to splinters by the spinning axe.

The watching crowd oohed in amazement. This was something new.

King Arjen Stonak frowned. “Try javelins. All at once.”

The result was the same. The axe chopped every last javelin to fragments. The splinters fell in a pile around Parsh, yet not a scratch marked his body.

The audience cheered and applauded. Despite the presence of the Stonak King and the knowledge that this charade could not possibly continue forever, they felt an overwhelming joy at seeing the brutal Stonak bested at their own game: use of weapons. The watching priests cheered loudest of all.

Parsh let the axe slow, then lowered it. “Surrender the calf to me now, Stonak, and you may yet live. I will not warn you again.”

King Arjen Stonak bared his teeth. He was no longer amused by the priest caste boy. “Kill him,” he said shortly to his warriors. “Attack him with everything you have, all at once, and do not stop until he lies dead.”

It was easier said than done.

A short while later, every last man of King Arjen Stonak’s contingent lay dead on the ground, butchered by the unrelenting axe.

The crowd had swelled to the size of most of the city’s population by now. Word was spreading far and wide. A priest caste boy had challenged the Stonak—and he was slaughtering Stonak by the hundreds, single-handedly. Already, the poets would be composing their lyrics.

King Arjen Stonak stared coldly at the insolent priest caste boy who stood before his gates, barring him entry to his own city, his own kingdom, his own home.

It was intolerable. An example must be made.

But how? Clearly the boy was possessed of some extraordinary astra. That axe was no ordinary wood axe. Nor was its wielder merely an acolyte: He displayed a skill comparable to the greatest champions the Stonak king himself had seen in combat.

He thought of asking the calf to produce a greater champion than the boy.

To produce the greatest axe-wielder that ever lived.

Or even, a stroke of brilliance, the guru who had taught the boy! That personage would undoubtedly be able to best the youth, surely?

But there was another factor to consider.

The watching crowds.

Had this encounter taken place within the palace compound, or in a remote forest clearing, it would not matter what means Arjen Stonak resorted to in order to secure victory. He could summon up entire armies of champions from Kamshen to destroy the son of Jamarg. Ironic, considering that the calf itself was Jamarg’s!

But he needed to set an example. The boy was fighting alone. And to throw armies against him would suggest that Arjen Stonak himself was the weaker one, to need such great numbers to best a mere priest caste boy. It would engender any number of rebellions across the land. Every priest caste boy would be inspired to take up an axe or a hoe or a yoke and attack Stonak. Parsh would become a legend for all priests to follow.

He needed to set an example.

He needed to best this boy himself.

Man to man.

In single combat.

To prove that he, Arjen Stonak, was the greatest warrior of all. And nobody else, priest caste, Stonak, or otherwise, could challenge him and live.

Nobody.

And so, the King of the Stonaks dismounted from his horse, and walked towards the spot where Parsh stood, swinging his axe.

• • • •

Parsh mistook the Stonak king’s action for capitulation. He thought that he had made his point effectively and the Stonak had decided to cut his losses and surrender the calf to its rightful owner. As Jamarg’s son, he had been raised to the highest standards of morality. Dharma dictated that the Stonak acknowledge defeat and return the calf willingly, so Parsh expected that this was what the Stonak was doing. He watched as the Stonak approached, then stopped about one score yards from the place where Parsh waited.

Parsh noticed that the calf was farther ahead, tethered to an uks cart, one of several in a long grama train of heavily laden wagons. The men on the uks carts made no move to dismount, untie the calf, or bring it to their king. Perhaps the Stonak king intended to speak with Parsh before having the calf fetched, or perhaps he intended to tell Parsh to take the calf himself and return home with it. Either option was acceptable. Parsh had killed a number of Stonak here today. He had taken no pleasure in the act. It had been mindless butchery, no different from the practice sessions with his guru Vish where he was expected to wield the sacred axe until he no longer thought about each action or gesture, but merely acted. It was thanks to those rigorous training sessions that he had acquired the ability to wield the axe relentlessly, moving with the automatic repetitive actions of a man chopping wood or cutting down a tree.

Parasu was partly responsible of course. The axe was no mere object made from wood and metal. It was a living thing, created and consecrated by Vish himself, Lord of Destruction. This was why it sang when it worked, just like any woodcutter might sing as he chopped down trees. And it was why it drank the blood of those it slew. Vish had warned his pupil about that last part. Parasu loved the taste of blood; the more it drank, the more it desired. If its wielder permitted it to drink too much, it might not be able to stop. Then a point might be reached whereupon the axe drove the bearer to fight on, so that Parasu could continue to drink more blood. An endless cycle of thirst and slaking would follow and there might be no limits to how many it would slay. Its thirst could never be fully quenched and that meant it could drink on forever, until its owner reached a point where he might no longer care who he killed, so long as Parasu could drink. In exchange, Parasu granted its wielder a sense of invulnerability—nay, not merely a sense, but invulnerability itself. So long as Parasu was given the blood of new victims to drink, its wielder could not be harmed or killed. He would effectively be immortal.

After all, it was a weapon of a god.

Parasu had drunk a fair amount today, more than it had ever consumed in Parsh’s hand. He could feel the power surging from the axe even now, singing in his veins, filling his being with a sense of supreme power. Immortal. Invulnerable. Unassailable . . . Parasu sang these thoughts to him silently, giving him a sense of complacency. This must be what it felt like to be a deva. Yet, it was important to remember what Lord Vish had taught him: Use Parasu only to accomplish your given task, no more. You must wield the axe, and take care to not let the axe wield you.

He was glad that the Stonak was capitulating. He felt that already Parasu had drunk too much, that the axe was intoxicated with the blood it had consumed, and he could hear it singing out to him silently, craving more, pleading for more . . . demanding more . . .

King Arjen Stonak began swinging his arms.

Parsh blinked.

What did this mean?

No words, no offer of conciliation, no acknowledgement that he had stolen the calf and was now willing to return it, just this peculiar . . . windmilling motion of his hands?

What was the King doing?

As Parsh watched, the Stonak’s hands began swinging around in a diagonal motion that did not appear plausible by human standards, let alone physically possible. That angle, the way those shoulders bent and those elbows twisted? Had he broken his arms? How was he swinging them so rapidly? And why was he doing it?

Then a remarkable thing occurred.

King Arjen Stonak’s arms elongated, stretching out impossibly long and far, yards long, then a score of yards long . . .

Then, they divided, splitting into multiple arms, all different lengths, thicknesses, different in form and function . . .

In moments, there were hundreds of arms stretching out from the torso of the Stonak king, sprawling across the kingsroad and the surrounding area, like the vines of some great banyan tree, flailing about madly, still forming and shaping themselves, solidifying into a variety of forms. As Parsh watched in fascination, each arm began to pick up a weapon from the several hundreds lying about. With several hundred men lying dead around, there were any number of weapons present. The elongated arms of Arjen Stonak began taking up various weapons and wielding them.

Parsh was astonished by the sheer number of arms that now sprouted from the body of King Arjen Stonak. The Stonak king’s torso and body remained exactly as it was, standing rooted to the ground with surprising stability, anchoring the morass of flailing arms that covered the ground for tens of yards around him. There must be easily hundreds of arms, for every single weapon lying about had been taken up and still there were many arms seeking more weapons. Parsh saw some arms simply reach out and close fists over rocks, rusting metal objects, and anything that lay within reach.

The watching crowd gasped and emitted sounds of awe. Yet it was evident from the nature of their reaction that they had witnessed something like this before.

Apparently, King Arjen Stonak had displayed this astonishing ability on earlier occasions.

Parsh was fascinated. He had never seen a man with a thousand arms before. For surely that was how many arms now swung about in the air, bearing weapons, swaying like cobras preparing to strike. If only his guru were here to watch this, Vish would undoubtedly take great interest in observing his pupil engage with such an unusual opponent.

Clearly, King Arjen Stonak had no intention of returning the calf amicably to Parsh. He intended to fight. And from the looks of it, he intended to kill Parsh himself. That was honourable, at least, to do his own fighting instead of having his endless supply of lackeys do it for him; Parsh respected him for that much. Whether or not the Stonak succeeded in his goal was another matter. What concerned Parsh was that the Stonak had challenged him and had started by demonstrating that he possessed an ability far superior to any man Parsh had ever seen. If nothing else, it would make this one fight more interesting at least than all the earlier ones—he barely remembered those, blurring as they all did into one another, an endless succession of slaughter in which Parasu gained more satisfaction than he did.

Now, he had a worthy opponent.

Parsh hefted his axe and began to swing it around on its leather thong.

Parasu began to sing again as it swung around, faster and faster, until its movement was a blur even to Parsh and its song a sharp keening at the farthest limit of hearing.

Across the city, the dogs resumed their barking.

The crowd oohed and aahed, anticipating the clash of the priest caste with the axe and the Stonak with a thousand arms.

Parsh waited for the enemy to attack.

• • • •

The ritual at Nimsh-sharanya demanded a great deal of attention from the rishis as well as the acolytes. Coupled with the numerous daily chores, rote recitation lessons and other learning, it was always evening by the time everyone finished their ablutions and assembled in the clearing to hear High Priest Karlon resume his narration of the epic. Everyone looked forward eagerly to each day’s narration and everyone felt more than a little disappointed when it ended for the evening. In this, there was little difference between the oldest hermit priests and the youngest acolytes. Everyone wanted more.

Karlon smiled apologetically each night as he rose after declaring that day’s narration ended, taking in the sea of wistful expressions and disappointed sighs. As the days passed, he grew certain that his audience expanded daily, and in time, it seemed as if their numbers extended beyond the clearing itself, into the deep recesses of the jungle, until he felt as if the entire Aranya jungle was listening, each tree representing a dead soul in the Beha’al war, eagerly listening to hear the history of their ancestors and to know the events leading up to the great war that caused their demise.

If there is one question that has always haunted the human mind, it is this: What is the point of living? What is our purpose here on Arthaloka? Why were we put here on this mortal plane? Is there a larger plan?

Phrase it any way one wishes, they all come back to the same question: Why are we here?

The fire crackled as Karlon resumed the tale of Parsh and the history of the clan:

“Parsh slew King Arjen Stonak and returned home with the calf. The Stonak king’s thousand-armed attack was formidable and was capable of routing entire armies, for each arm could function independently of the others, extending longer or shorter, stronger or leaner, and fight separately of the rest of its sibling limbs, thereby confounding any number of the enemy. King Arjen Stonak could plough through an enemy force like a pair of uks dragging a yoke through soft earth, leaving a trail of churned bodies and sods of flesh. He was an unstoppable force.

“But against a single opponent, his power proved futile.

“Parsh’s ability to wield Parasu at blinding speed enabled him to chop off every last one of Arjen Stonak’s thousand arms. It was pure butchery. A thousand arms on one man or a thousand arms on five hundred men, it made no difference to Parsh. Or to Parasu. They hacked off every last limb, evading every attempt to strike, cutting through every weapon, eliminating every threat, until the Stonak king fell to ground on the kingsroad before the gates of his own city, shoulders spouting blood in thick, viscous gouts.

“He slumped over, lifeless, and lay staring blindly up at the sky.

“Parsh stepped over him and untied the calf from the cart to which it had been tethered.

“He took the calf home to his father, who was pleased and relieved to see it. He intended to return it safely to Inadran at the earliest possible moment. Some things were too powerful to remain in the possession of mortals.

“But that was only the beginning of the conflict.

“King Arjen Stonak’s sons returned home soon after, their mission successfully accomplished, and the last rebels dead. They found that their father had been slain in a humiliating encounter, cut down at the gates of his own city by a mere priest caste boy. The enemy their father had captured and brought home, Bosh son of Saegen, had taken advantage of his captor’s death to make good his escape.

“Now, Bosh was raising a great army and preparing to wage all-out war against the Stonak and the Panchagana, to stake his claim upon the throne of Aranya once and for all. And when he was done reclaiming Aranya, he had promised, he would take over Stonak City and the possessions of the Stonak and their allies as well. With Arjen Stonak gone, it was likely he would accomplish his goal. What was more, the slaying of the Stonak king at the hands of a mere priest caste boy had already become the stuff of legend, and across the land, Stonak were taking up arms and declaring against the Haihaiyas and the rest of the Moon Clans.

“The sons of Arjen Stonak were not capable of standing up to the might of a full-blown opposition. With their father gone, their own kingdom would crumble quickly. He had held the conflicted forces of their allies together through brute strength. Now, they would be lucky if their own army remained loyal to them long enough to fight one battle.

“Seeing the end of their dynasty, brought down so suddenly and shockingly, they laid the entire blame at only one man’s feet: Jamarg. After all, it was he who had demanded his calf back. He had sent his son forth to reclaim her. And so he was responsible for their father’s death.

“Thus they rode towards Jamarg’s hermitage. As it so chanced, Parsh was away at that moment. The sons of Arjen Stonak fell upon Jamarg like wolves on a lamb, and tore him apart. They did to him what Jamarg’s son had done to their own father, severing his limbs and then chopping his body into multiple parts and pieces.

“Then they rode away to try to piece together the fragments of their own disintegrating legacy.

“Parsh returned home and saw the fate that had befallen his father.

“He recalled the sufferings of his ancestors over generations at the hands of warrior castes such as the Stonak and other enemies of the priest caste.

“He saw that the violence that existed in the world at present was all the work of these very Stonak, who, despite their so-called code of Stonak dharma, were wanton, ruthless, immoral beings who did nothing but shed blood and spread violence like a disease upon the earth.

“He saw them as a pestilence upon the mortal realm.

“And he resolved to cleanse them from the world.”

• • • •

Three times seven Parsh scoured the world of every living Stonak. Twenty-one times he travelled the earth, seeking out warriors he had missed before, who had hidden away out of cowardice, or disguised themselves as priests or low castes rather than fall prey to his terrible axe. Twenty-one times in all, he slaughtered every last warrior and cleansed the earth of every last person of the Stonak varna.

He would have continued endlessly perhaps, but the spirits of his ancestors, including his grandfather Sage Kakrinz, appeared before him and appealed to him to cease his campaign of vengeance. Only then did he stop. Weary of slaughter, his task done, he decided to go home.

Crossing the river on his way home, he paused to clean his axe. Parasu had drunk far too much blood. Twenty-one generations of Stonak had died under its perennially sharp blade. Now there was no more left for it to slake its thirst. Parsh dipped it into the cool waters of the river, meaning to rid it of its burden, for the blood it drank added greatly to its weight and Parsh had borne that weight too long.

The axe relented, also weary of bloodthirst, and began to purge itself of the blood it had consumed. Like a man who has consumed too much will vomit up the excess, Parasu began to spew forth the blood of its countless victims.

The river began to turn red with blood.

Parsh realized that if he allowed Parasu to relieve itself here, the entire river would be filled with the store of its accumulated blood. And eventually, all that blood would be carried down to the great ocean, which would also be tainted.

He lifted the axe out of the river.

He went in search of a suitable place to relinquish the blood of his victims.

He found it in the great northern plain. There he unleashed the blood from Parasu, once, twice, thrice . . . five times in all, the blood flowed from the axe, like a roaring tide. When it was drained, five enormous lakes of blood lay upon the land.

Beha’al was the name given to this place.

Field of Despair.

Over time, the land absorbed the blood but was forever tainted.

It was on that very site that the great war took place an Age later, when eighteen armies of the Krushan and their cousins the Shvates clashed on that field and stained that tainted soil once again with fresh blood. Parsh, by then a legendary ancestor of both sides and an immortal through his exemplary devotion, chose to favor the Shvate side, aiding them in their eventual, bitterly won, victory. But that tale is another thread in the winding tapestry of the Burnt Empire.

Ashok K. Banker

Ashok K. Banker is the author of more than seventy books, including the internationally acclaimed Ramayana series. His works have all been bestsellers in India and have sold around the world. Ashok’s most recent publication is his debut picture book I am Brown. Upcoming in April is A Dark Queen Rises, the sequel to Upon a Burning Throne.