They walked alone on the crooked path. There was nothing for miles, not even the dead grass that had accompanied them the past few days.
It was as if the land could not fathom how to respond.
The sand was gritty and bit into their worn out shoes. The long robes they had been wearing when they started the journey two weeks ago were tattered. Behind them a brown wasteland, in front of them, a black one.
The two girls did not hold each other’s hands. They did not huddle together. They did not take their eyes off their surroundings.
They had made that mistake once before.
The distinct smell of sulphur filled the air. Chandra started coughing, and her sister grimaced. “You can’t start that now.”
Chandra sighed. “It’s not as if I can control it.” Her older sister was never one to coddle her, but Chandra wished she acted more like a sister than a prison guard at times.
As they walked on, the air started to get grimy. Chandra was trying her best to control her breathing but the coughing fits became more frequent. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see her sister swallow hard. Antarika did not say anything, but Chandra knew what she was thinking.
What if someone, or something, heard her?
The air had gotten so dark now that they had trouble seeing ahead of them. Antarika knew the camp had to be somewhere in the vicinity. They had walked for two weeks with little rest in precisely the direction their mother had sent them.
She allowed herself a moment of grief for not knowing if her mother had lived or died. Quickly, she shook her head to clear the memories embedded deep inside. She had a sister to protect, and that moment was all she would allow herself.
The sand started to turn to sludge. It required effort to be able to take more a few steps and she was forced to abandon the punishing pace she had set for them. “Chandra, come closer to me. I can’t see you in this air.”
She felt her sister move up behind her right elbow. She was about to reach out and squeeze her sister’s hand when she realized Chandra had not coughed in a while.
A vile odor wafted towards her as she felt cold breath behind her ear.
Antarika wheeled and struck high. Her right leg connected with a crunch and she knew she had aimed well. “Chandra!” she screamed, hoping her sister had been far away. She saw long, gleaming white teeth dripping with saliva appear through the dark air and she wheeled again, this time ending in a crouch which kicked the legs out of the shumba. Her knife was in her left hand in an instant and embedded deep in the heart of the demon a moment later.
“Antarika!” she heard faintly enough to know her sister was alive, but she was terrified another shumba might be after her.
“You have to run! You must not wait for me.”
“Chandra, go now!” She heard her sister try to run but the thick mud on the ground was making it near impossible. Her sister could not fight both the air and the earth at the same time.
Antarika could not control the terror rising inside her. She tried to jump across the mud, using every ounce of her strength to get to Chandra. She begged the immortal Blue-Throated God to take her instead.
Another flash of gleaming teeth forced her to stop. Then, she realized what she had seen was not teeth. Instead, a silver sword sliced through the demon, cleaving it into pieces.
Another sword followed, and then another after that. Behind her, a flash of light lit up the area.
The scene before her almost brought her to her knees. There were four demons, including the one she had killed. Two of them were holding her sister, but only for a moment. Surya’s warriors were weaving through the sand as if it was open land, the sludge not slowing them down. One demon went down screaming, then another. Chandra got free and ran to her.
“Girls! Come now, run towards the truck!” A voice behind them urged. Antarika took her sister’s hand, climbing into the back of a truck waiting beyond the sand pit. Chandra was shivering and had a nasty gash on her left arm. She started crying as the truck sped into the night.
Antarika stared out into the pitch black darkness surrounding them and prayed the whole time.
Half an hour later, the sisters were being tended to in the camp as doctors fussed around them. They had been checked thoroughly and given food and water.
One of the men who had battled the demons walked into the camp. He smiled at them reassuringly. “The General would like to talk to you about what happened out there.”
Antarika frowned. “The General? Do you mean there’s a legion here? I thought it was just a survivors’ camp.”
The soldier looked at her with sympathy. “There were no survivors left in this camp when we arrived. This now belongs to Surya’s men.”
Antarika clenched her teeth. Without the survivors’ camp, she had no idea where to bring her sister. An army legion was not going to adopt two girls. “I don’t understand why this is happening.” She looked up at the soldier. “I thought your side had won the war.”
The soldier snorted. “I’m not sure exactly sure we won the war if we are still fighting Indra’s demons almost on a daily basis.”
A doctor came by and shooed the soldier away. “She will come see the General when she is ready, and not a moment sooner than that.”
After the soldier left, Antarika could do nothing but stand watch over her sister’s sleeping form. Their mother was most likely gone, their town shattered and their land burnt. The survivor’s camp had been her last hope, but it seemed that too was not to be. There were no civilians, farmers, or tradesmen left. Only soldiers and more soldiers, while they set up camp after camp.
She supposed this was what was left of a country when two Gods went to war.
General Dheeran was an unsmiling man, strongly built and imposing. He sat on his chair across the table in his tent, while a subordinate stood next to him, taking notes. His gaze was unnerving and Chandra started to squirm under it. Antarika, however, looked at him straight without flinching.
“Where are you girls from?” he asked.
Antarika debated how much she could tell him. Too much information could work against them, too little and they could get no help. She decided to tell him some of the truth. They had saved her sister’s life and she owed them that much.
“From a village down south called Charmun. My mother sent me away with my sister when it seemed that Indra’s soldiers were close by.”
The General raised an eyebrow. “Charmun is at least two weeks away. Did you come by foot?”
Chandra lifted her chin. “We did.” Antarika shushed her. The General continued, “I’m impressed.” He looked at Antarika. “You did a good job looking after your sister.”
Antarika showed no emotion. She waited, knowing men like him did not offer praise without wanting something in return.
“Indra’s demons have been ravaging across villages like yours. My soldiers tell me you managed to kill one. Would you like to explain how a fifteen-year-old so easily did what has taken my soldiers years of training to do?”
Antarika knew this was the point behind the whole meeting, and possibly even their rescue. She wondered if he suspected the extent of her abilities, or simply thought her well-trained for a village girl.
“My mother had sent me to a Kalaripayattu martial arts teacher as a child. He had no daughters, and so raised me as one of his own. He trained me well, but I was simply lucky in the attack. The shumba happened to be close behind me.” She hoped that would be enough to satisfy his curiosity.
The General looked at her for a minute, studying her. “I see. Well, that still means you have had some training, and that could be valuable.” He glanced at his assistant, who nodded.
“Since the destruction of the villages, we have had many village children begging to join the military. They are not trained, and I cannot waste time and energy using my limited men to do so.”
Antarika understood where this was going. “You want me to train them?”
The General nodded. “An older child such as yourself training young children would work a lot better for us.” He continued, “In return, your sister and you will be given food and shelter.”
Chandra gasped. “Truly? Oh, thank you!” She smiled at Antarika, her face filled with hope.
Antarika looked at her sister, knowing she did not have many choices in this situation. The General probably knew this as well, but she was not going to back down that easily.
“Very well, I want a contract drawn up promising us food, board and safety for the duration of my time with the army.”
The General finally smiled. It was not pleasant. “There are no courts anymore. No judges. Who would you go to claim restitution from should we renege on our deal?” he asked softly.
Antarika looked him dead in the eye. “I have my ways and you would not want to find out what they are.” Her eyes turned the colour of burnt orange, the early morning sun reflected behind them.
She knew what she was revealing, but she needed him to understand what deceiving her could mean for him.
The General swallowed slightly and she knew she had gotten her message across. “Sign the contract with your blood. That is how we seal deals.” Antarika took Chandra’s hand and walked out of the General’s tent.
“You let him know who you are. Why did you do that?” Chandra asked worriedly.
“Because it was the only way I knew to make sure he did not double-cross us.”
“But now that he knows, isn’t he just going to tell the God?”
Antarika considered this for a while. The General could tell Surya who she was, but somehow she felt he wanted to use her for his own ends, and those probably did not include divulging to the Sun God her relation to him. Even if he did, for all she knew, she was merely one of many other children like herself.
Antarika did not think Surya would be vastly interested in yet another half-god child, even if she was His.
The General waited for a moment after the girls had left. He told his men to stand guard outside, saying he needed to finish drawing up combat plans. He went to the corner of the tent, and opened the small altar he had hidden there. He uttered three mantras in Sanskrit, and waited patiently.
The room began to glow after a while and the General had to close his eyes, knowing they would be burnt if he kept them open. A few minutes later, the glow had subsided and in the centre of the room stood the form of Surya, the Sun God himself.
The General bowed respectfully, maintaining a professional relationship with his God. Surya nodded at him to speak.
“She is fine. Mostly unharmed,” the General said.
“Mostly?” murmured the God.
“She’s fine, my lord. She had her baby sister in tow.”
Surya dismissed this with a wave of His hand. The sister was not his, he could not feel her pull the way he felt Antarika’s.
“Did she suspect?” he asked the General.
“I doubt it. She showed herself fairly quickly, although I had to push her to do so.”
“Is she strong?” he asked intently.
“I am quite certain she is. She killed a demon by herself. There are grown men who can’t do that.”
Surya smiled. “That is because she is no mere man.” He looked at the General approvingly. “Thank you for finding her, Dheeran.”
The General fumbled with this, unaccustomed to honour from Him. Instead, he asked what he had been wanting to know ever since he started on the mission to locate Antarika.
“My lord, if I may, why do you want her? She is not the first, nor the last, of your dalliances.”
“But she is the smartest and the strongest of my progeny. You’ve seen this for yourself.”
The General nodded. “So this is about having her join our side in the war?”
Surya smiled sadly. His most favoured General knew much about battle, but little about theology.
“I am a minor God, and I not omnipotent, or omniscient, as you well know.” The General’s forehead creased. He could not understand what this signified.
Surya sighed. He did not feel emotions the way humans did, but he did try to avoid disappointing his devotees.
“I am going to die, Dheeran, as all minor Gods do.” The General’s face crumpled. The God continued, not without some sympathy. “And when I do, she will take my place.”
General Dheeran sat back in his chair, starting to sob.
Surya paused, feeding the General some warmth before he left. “After all, the sun has to rise every day, doesn’t it?”