About four years ago I was fortunate to get a short story published in an urban fantasy anthology that came out via a small press. At the time for me it was a huge success as I’d been deep into my writing projects at the time and it was a huge confidence boost. There were some decent reviews for the anthology here and there, but from what I can tell there were some missteps from the people handling the project in terms of the marketing and promotion. And I never even saw a single penny from the project either. That was not a confidence boost. Combined with some other things that were happening at the time, it was just a really bad stretch, the details of which are now irrelevant.
Earlier this year I resolved to get back to my various projects, and as part of that I am posting the short story here on the blog now. There’s a sequel to this that was written before this, called Dharmayoddha: A Warrior of Faith which has also languished. I’ll be working on it some more to refine it. In the meantime, enjoy Dharmasankat!
Dharmasankat: A Crisis of Faith
(A Vikram Chauhan short story)
Swami Aryakeshwar’s words turned out to be prophetic: by the time I arrive at my destination, the grey clouds have given way to a torrential downpour. More than thirty kilometres from the Holy City of Hrishikesh, the old fort is a reminder that the Mughal Empire was once interested in conquering all of North-East India but gave up after suffering crippling losses in war after war.
It has fallen into abandonment and disrepair since the Mughals pulled out some thirty-five years back, and now it is little more than a ruin in the middle of nowhere. Hindu loyalists scoured it clean ages ago and it has been undisturbed in all the long years.
The old fort still has a feeling of faded grandeur about it, and it makes for an imposing sight with its high battlements and its shadowy silhouette. However, with the moon behind several layers of clouds, I can see little of the old fort beyond what is about twenty meters in front of me. Much of this place is just hidden in shadows.
I walk into the front courtyard, or what would have been the courtyard when the fort was still occupied, and it is then that I first hear the faint sounds of chanting. I recognise the chanting as the Navarna Mantra, a holy prayer entreating the three Divine Mothers Maha Kali, Maha Lakshmi and Maha Saraswati to look favourably upon the ritual being conducted.
I should have expected no less. Swami Aryakeshwar did say that Yogiraj Suryamal is a great practitioner of the arts of holy magic and is always working to gain favour from gods and goddesses alike.
I have no idea why I am here in this weather, but I am resolved to discover the reason. With a firm set to my mouth, I walk in the direction of the chanting, passing through the courtyard and into the inner chambers of the old fort. Eventually I come upon the heart of the abandoned structure, a wide clearing that once would have been the place where the fort’s garrison performed its daily prayers to their god. The inner courtyard is overgrown with weed and strewn with storm-carried detritus. The only element of note, unexpectedly and much to my surprise, is a small platform in the centre of the courtyard.
Upon this platform is an old rishi, a holy man, performing a ritual that is unfamiliar to me. His haughty patrician face with high cheekbones, the long unkempt white hair that flow like a lion’s mane, the leopard-skin vest, the black dhoti, the small trident to his left and the heap of skulls and bones to his right mark him out as Yogiraj Suryamal, the man I have come here to see.
The skulls and bones throw me off my guard for a moment as I stare dumbfounded at the Yogiraj, who is meant to be a holy man and a great friend to Swami Aryakeshwar. Yet here he is, performing what appears to be a ritual steeped in the dark arts.
I clear my throat and come to stand before the Yogiraj, bowing from the waist down as I do so.
“Pranam, Yogiraj,” I say.
Yogiraj Suryamal looks away from his ritual and turns his stern, severe face towards me. His intense expression relaxes into a satisfied grin, although his black eyes continue to smoulder with an inner fire that is almost frightening.
“Ah, you have arrived, Vikram,” he says, his voice soft but firm. “I trust you were able to find this place without any trouble?”
“None whatsoever, Yogiraj,” I reply, my own voice neutral and respectful. “Swami Aryakeshwar’s directions were accurate. He told me that you have need of me tonight, Yogiraj. I confess I am mystified as to my purpose here, in an old Mughal ruin abandoned decades ago. How may I be of service?”
He laughs, softly but with vigour, and waves a hand in dismissal. “Vikram, Vikram, do not worry about such intricate details. They are not your concern. What is of concern for you is that I have a very obscure and strange task for you to perform. East of this ruin, some ten kilometres further into the jungle, is an old cemetery. In this cemetery, upon an old tree hangs the corpse of a recently deceased woman. For the completion of my rituals to the Three Divine Mothers, I need that corpse, and urgently. I charge you, Vikram, to go get the corpse for me, and prove to me that you are a dedicated religious man. Do it, you are already sworn to the task.”
I shake my head in disbelief and look at Yogiraj Suryamal in surprise. What is this crisis of faith? A holy man held in such great esteem by my mentor has truck with corpses and bones?. “A corpse? What do you need with a corpse of all things, Yogiraj?”
Yogiraj Suryamal’s expression turns thunderous. “Do not question me, Vikram!” he says, his eyes changing colour from black to a fiery red that is almost demonic. I take a step back in surprise, but he ignores my reaction and continues on. “It is not your place to do so. You must do as I command or return to Swami Aryakeshwar as a failure. Be warned however, if you fail to complete the task I have set before you, you will suffer the dire consequences for refusing a Yogiraj’s command!”
Still somewhat shaken by the change in him, I nod in acquiescence. Whatever power is at work here within him, he surely cannot be in service to the dark powers. Swami Aryakeshwar is a devout man to the core of his being and would never associate with a man in league with hellish powers. And the Yogiraj bears a trident, the holy symbol of Lord Shiva the Destroyer.
I wonder if I might have imagined the change in eye colour. I shrug off my doubts and force myself to be calm. I simply give him an understanding smile. Swami Aryakeshwar has bid me to perform whatever task the Yogiraj commands me to fulfil and I will do just that. “It will be as you command, Yogiraj. You will have that corpse as you requested.”
The Yogiraj now returns my smile with one of his own, a wide grin in fact. As I walk away from the stone platform and head out towards the entry courtyard, I can hear the Yogiraj reciting once more the Navarna Mantra, with a fervour that I had not heard from him before.
I shake my head at the craziness of the Yogiraj and then set out to the cemetery he had mentioned. Ten kilometres further into the jungle in what is turning out to be a particularly stormy night is not a good idea. I can hear thunder in the sky and can occasionally see flashes of light that indicate a lightning strike in the distance. And the downpour continues. I suppose that a warm blanket and a hot meal are not my fate this night.
With my recently-forged sword still in its sheath on my back, I turn right once I exit the old fort altogether, and begin to make my way through the nearby encroaching jungle.
It takes me more than an hour to reach the cemetery. The overgrown jungle certainly did not help matters, as I ended up doubling back to seek out a new path through the dense foliage no less than five times. All I can think of at the moment is that the trip better be worth the time wasted by me on behalf of the Yogiraj.
I could have been back in Hrishikesh right now, progressing in my training as a Dharmayoddha, a warrior of faith, under Swami Aryakeshwar’s tutelage. After nearly eight hundred years of purposeless warfare, I am finally ready to move on with my past, to take charge of my future. I am finally ready to take vengeance upon the Fifth Chakra for the humiliation the cult made me suffer. It is time that I exact my vengeance upon the cult for the senseless murder of my entire family by my own fellow kings of Rajaputana.
Instead, I am stuck here in this godsforsaken jungle, carrying out the crazy instructions of a Yogiraj who appears to be more a sorcerer than a holy man. I sigh heavily at my maudlin thoughts and focus back on my surroundings.
As I make my way past the arched stone entrance to the cemetery, the air begins to turn cold. It is an even more debilitating state of affairs since I am already soaked down to the bones from the heavy rain. I can almost feel a cold coming on, and it is not something I’m looking forward to.
Immortal I may be, but even one such as I can be struck down temporarily with a disease. Hopefully I can take care of this matter soon enough and get back to Hrishikesh for a warm bed, dry clothes, and warm food.
Then, for the briefest moment, I feel as if somebody has just walked over my grave, ridiculous as that sounds. The thought gives me pause since I know that ghosts and others of their ilk are just as real as anything in the world, and that these ghosts delight in tormenting and playing with mortals for their own whims.
Slowly, and with care, I withdraw my sword from its sheath and advance into the cemetery with caution. The place is little more than an ordered row-upon-row of ash and dirt mounds, all that remains of the once-living, those who were cremated here by their families following their deaths.
I look all around me, trying to spot the tree that Yogiraj Suryamal had mentioned. With the thin mist that has begun to brew in the air, it is next to impossible to see anything.
My inner sense of caution, a sixth-sense developed and honed in eight centuries of unending war, thrums now with an urgency I have rarely felt before outside of a battlefield.
Soft, barely-heard whispers carry out in the night air through the mists, the words inexplicable.
Insane, manic laughter follows.
I crouch down and slowly rotate my body from one direction to the other in an attempt to anticipate the attack that I know is coming.
It all happens in a moment.
My sixth-sense flares, warning of a blow on my unprotected back. I swing my sword laterally behind me in a swift move and roll backwards before my unseen opponent has a chance to land a blow. A low moaning sound escapes from my opponent before he topples forward, his head lying seven feet away in the wet dirt.
At the sight of the severed head, I recoil in horror.
The eyes are little more than dark shrunken pits. Even in death, they contain an unfathomable emptiness I cannot explain. The skin is thin and desiccated, ravaged by both time and by disease. Little is left of the once-proud features of a man. The corpse I can see is clothed in the tattered remains of a Vaishnavite priest’s dhoti.
It is a rotting remnant, nothing more.
Making sure that the headless corpse is down and out of the count, I settle warily into a defensive form, alert once more for anything that comes close.
I turn around in a circle again and again, hoping to catch a glimpse of the enemy I know is out there, hidden in the mist and waiting for the sure chance to strike a killing blow. The mist is now thick and intrusive, reducing visibility to little more than a couple of feet in either direction.
This is not good.
I am about to relax when I hear the insane, manic laughter once again. Without any other warning, rough hands grab me at the shoulders from behind. I try to turn around and free myself, but the cold hands at my shoulders hold tight in a grip of iron. I am completely unable to move.
The sounds of shuffling feet in the dirt, the stink of rotting flesh and low insensate moaning are now all around me, but I cannot make out anything through the mist.
The pressure on the wrist of my sword-arm is increased three-fold until I finally release the intricately carved hilt of my sword from the intense pain. I gasp out loud, but a sharp blow to the side of my face silences me. I can feel blood trickling down my temple, and I grimace.
This is turning out to be a bad night, and all because of some vow made by Swami Aryakeshwar to Yogiraj Suryamal.
Then, my sixth-sense flares once more before I’m lifted bodily into the air and hurled some distance away. I crash among the ash-dirt mounds, dazed and surprised in equal measure. With some effort, I manage to get back on my feet, and take in my surroundings.
What I see before me is something from my worst nightmares. The cemetery is packed with shambling corpses, their eyes glazed, drool dripping down their lips, heads cocked to one side, looking at me sideways. Their hands flop forward and backward in a jerky movement that approximates normality but is nothing of the sort.
To a corpse, they are all possessed. I can see that clear as day. The marks of possession are all over their cursed bodies: the black-as-black lips, the weeping sores at their half-covered chests, the long white hair threaded with locks of red.
Still dazed from having been hurled through the air, I collect myself and walk over to where my sword had fallen from my hands. Before I can pick it up however, something lands squarely on my back with enough force that I am forced once more to the wet ground and I lose my grip on the sword-hilt from the force of the impact.
The maddening monotone of the shambling possessed corpses reaches a crescendo. Lightning flashes overhead, illuminating the entire cemetery for a brief moment as I turn on my back to see what, or who, has knocked me down.
Confronting me is another possessed corpse, bearing in full all the various marks of her now-demonic nature. Her hair, half white and half red, fall down to her waist in an unkempt bundle. Her dead eyes are wide, the pupils a fiery red. The last gives me pause, for that is the sign of a high-ranking demon of the Seventh Chakra, the dimensional lair of vengeful ghosts and their “cousins”, the betaals, godsdamned blood-sucking spirits.
The possessed corpse’s black lips widen into the rictus of a salivating smile as she gives me an intense glare. Then her head rocks back as she laughs out uproariously.
Anger giving way to confusion, I manage to rise to my knees before she kicks at me, forcing me for a third time on my back.
This is getting old now.
The betaal-possessed woman is the first to say anything in the silence that follows. “Vikram Chauhan, you are expected. Sadhu-Maharaj Soordas Kamal has been waiting for you for a while now. Will you come willingly, or will you make it a challenge?”
Now that is unexpected. Yogiraj Suryamal did not say anything about betaals or a sadhu-maharaja. What would a god-man want with me, especially one who deals in the blackest of black magics such as betaals?
“Who is this sadhu-maharaja and what does he want with me?” I ask, forcing myself to my knees, without incident this time.
“All will be revealed in time. Know this however, you are a prisoner of the great Soordas Kamal and should you attempt to escape, then you will be dealt with most harshly.”
I shake my head. “I cannot do that. I was sent here on a critical task, and I will see that task fulfilled. If you seek to deny me, then it will be you who will face the consequence, along with your Soordas Kamal, whoever he is, may he be damned to the nine hells and back.”
The corpse-woman hisses in anger and raises her left hand in a threatening gesture. Her fingers are no longer articulated, fleshy and pink, but wicked claws the colour of obsidian. She throws her head back and screams a wordless cry into the night air. For a moment, I wonder how someone who is dead as she is can scream so much. Then I realise my own foolishness in even considering such a question. She is possessed by a betaal of the Seventh Chakra. As far as those blood-sucking fiends and ghosts are concerned, the normal rules of reality do not apply to them.
In the wake of the corpse-woman’s scream, a sympathetic low moan escapes the gathered corpses as well, until it is a soft, whispered chant that is maddening to hear. It thrums through the air and assaults the senses despite its low volume. I am forced to raise my hands to my ears to protect them from the aural onslaught.
Abruptly, the noise ceases and the only sound I can hear is the rumble of thunder in the distance. The air all around me is dead, with no wind blowing, no rustling of trees. Just the crack of thunder again and again.
The corpse-woman turns to face me and screams. “You dare disrespect the great Soordas Kamal, Vikram Chauhan, warrior-born! The penalty for such sacrilege shall be great indeed. Betaalika will exact a most painful penalty from you!”
I shift into a fighter’s crouch, my hands held defensively before me. “Betaalika is it then? A rather uninspiring name, wouldn’t you say? But then I suppose, the rest of your brothers and sisters in that decrepit place you call a home, are all like that as well, bland and uninspiring.”
Betaalika hisses in anger and takes a step forward, but otherwise stays as she is. I can see that her entire body is vibrating in anger, and that the effort to keep her murderous instincts restrained must be great indeed. I decide to push her even further.
“You are all weak, Betaalika, you and your so-called brothers and sisters. Weak and ineffective. That is why you possess the dead in the first place is it not? You cannot control the living, so you seek to control the dead. And still, you can do little more than animate the recently deceased and enjoy a brief power-trip while you are still corporeal in the real world. I am not scared of you in the least or this so called Soordas Kamal.” I taunt her with a one-fingered summoning gesture from my right hand.
Her face turns furious. She gives out another wordless cry of rage and jumps at me with a speed I did not expect. I roll out from under her as she lands, her clawed hands scything through the air where I had been only a moment before, and grab my sword where it lay on the wet earth.
She whirls around to attack again. This time, her left clawed hand meets the edge of my blade and bounces off. We both back up in surprise at the unexpected moment, too shocked to say anything. Well then. Her clawed hands appear to be as strong as the special blessed metal of my sword. That is going to be a problem.
We circle each other warily as the rest of the undead look on, their eyes as unfocused as ever, and their gait still aimless. The atmosphere by now is charged with electricity as Betaalika and I continue our deadly duel. We trade more than a dozen blows in the next three minutes, but neither is able to gain any advantage.
We are at an impasse.
My strength begins to flag as the duel continues. All that time walking from Hrishikesh into the deeps of the jungle, and then from there to this cemetery in this hellish weather. Not to mention getting knocked around and banged up by Betaalika. My body aches all over, and the amount of effort it takes to keep going is immense.
But I cannot give in. I have to consider this duel a test of my skills, arranged by Swami Aryakeshwar in concert with Yogiraj Suryamal. If that is the case, then I have to do my best here. Now that I think about it, Swami Aryakeshwar did mention in passing that I will have to undertake a great test quite soon. Perhaps this is it. Perhaps once I pass this test I can finally begin my true training as a Dharmayoddha in service to the Trimurti – Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh. Only once I am on that path will I be allowed to bear the revered sudarshana chakra tattoo that marks all the followers of Lord Vishnu the Preserver.
All these centuries spent in pointless warfare across battlefields I barely even recall through the fog of mindlessness that inflicted me at the time, I am ready to serve a higher calling. I am ready to have a purpose once again, an objective to live and die for, should that be the need.
As Betaalika stands no more than a dozen feet away from me, carefully sizing me up for her next onslaught, I make the first move. With a roaring cry to the Trimurti, I hurl myself at the corpse-woman, my sword swinging in a wide arc to take off her head.
She manages to evade the blow just in time, but not completely. The leading edge of the sword, blessed and anointed in holy waters, catches her left shoulder and rips a deep furrow in the necrotic skin, nearly taking off the entire arm. Betaalika gives a strangled cry of pain as she jumps out of reach of my sword and into the nearest tree.
She glares at me from the safety of the high branches. “You will rue the day that you came here, Vikram Chauhan! I swear it by all the Lords of the Seventh Chakra!”
I shake my head and give her a rueful grin. “Big talk from someone hiding in a tree, Betaalika. Why don’t you come down here and we can talk about how I’m going to destroy you and send you back to your rotting home in the Seventh Chakra? You can make it really easy on yourself.”
Betaalika hisses and bares her fangs but says nothing. Instead, she begins to make a series of complex gestures in the air, and mutters something incomprehensible under her breath. I catch a few words here and there but they are not in any language I can understand.
All of a sudden, without warning, the electricity in the air charges up to eleven, and the hair on the back of my hands and neck prickle up. A fierce gust of wind blows through the cemetery, nearly knocking me off of my feet. I raise my hands to shield my face from the grit and ash-dirt that is blown about with the wind, even as all visibility drops down to zero.
Then there is a long, collective sigh from the gathered undead and the wind ceases, the air dead once more. I lower my arms to glance around and stiffen in surprise. Every single undead is now staring at me, their eyes singularly focused on me. I find myself unable to move, like a deer caught in an archer’s arrow-sight, able to sense the danger but not react to it. My hands grip the sword tightly and sweat breaks out on my forehead.
From above, Betaalika laughs her shrill cry once again. “You are done for now, Vikram Chauhan, warrior-born. Tonight is the night that you will finally fall! Your immortality is at an end, oath-breaker!”
That word, oath-breaker, stings like a poisoned dart through the heart. It appears that Betaalika is aware of who I am and what my past is. I snarl at her with a vehemence I can feel down to my very bones. “I still have my honour, demon-fiend! Your true death will be atonement enough for all my sins.”
“Brave but foolish talk, Vikram Chauhan,” Betaalika sneers. “First, you have to get through my army of betaals. If you are still alive once they are through with you, I will gladly finish you off myself. A brave soul such as yourself deserves no less. If I remember correctly, my father, Vaitaalasura himself, still suffers bouts of anger and phobia whenever he hears the name Vikram. You will make a good soul-pet for the Fourth Lord of the Seventh Chakra.”
I groan inwardly. Vaitaalasura, the first vampire of the Seventh Chakra to ever escape that hellish, nightmare plane into ours. He possessed the first body that he found once he manifested in this reality. To the horror of all the gods and demons, this body turned out to be the recently deceased corpse of a powerful dark sorcerer. Vaitaalasura went on a murderous rampage through the ancient world for nearly a decade before he was finally brought to justice by Chakravartin Samrat Vikramaditya, the World-King. That was more than two thousand years ago. Betaals are notorious for holding long grudges. And Vaitaalasura himself is the worst of the entire lot.
I look back at the army of corpses confronting me. One man with a sword against some fifty possessed corpses. The odds are not good.
I meet the shambling charge of the betaal-possessed corpses head on. As the first of the undead reaches me, I dodge his swinging right hand, step around and behind him, then lop his head off. The second undead to reach me I front-kick and drop to the ground. I bash out the brains of the third with the thick hilt of the sword. It too falls down to the ground.
The tide keeps rolling after that as the undead reach me one after the other in a mad shuffling scramble. My sword rises and falls in a continuous motion without rest. The undead fall quickly, but not quick enough. Even as I kill five more of the undead, the betaals‘ connection to them severed immediately from the various head injuries I inflict, I am surrounded by ten more.
Within moments, a tide of heaving, necrotic flesh is all around me. I am unable to move my sword arm, reduced to striking out with my fists and elbows. I need to end this soon.
I need to end this now.
And I happen to know just the solution.
I stop struggling against the undead and focus my thoughts inward, to the core of my being that makes me who I am. I reach deep inside myself, finding the very centre of my being, and begin chanting.
“Rama, Siya Rama, Siya Rama Jai Jai Rama. Rama, Siya Rama, Siya Rama Jai Jai Rama.”
Again and again I chant the words that begin the Ramabhajana, the prayer to Lord Rama that is one of the holiest prayers attributed to his worship.
The effects of the chanting are immediately obvious. The tide of undead around me is repelled; bit by bit the betaals reanimating the cold corpses suffer an intense psychic pain from the righteous nature of the prayer. The holy words are enough to scar them psychically.
One by one, like a house of cards falling in slow motion, the betaal-possessed corpses fall down as the betaals leave their host and escape back into the nether realms of the Seventh Chakra to nurse their wounds. Once I have enough room to move, I resume my hacking and slashing, thinning the horde around me even further.
The short battle has taken a lot out of my already however. My reflexes are sluggish as my body struggles to repair the damage suffered. Being an immortal is both a blessing and a curse. Right now, the case is very much the latter.
Within moments, I am surrounded by the cold unmoving corpses of all the undead who only a few seconds before had been baying for my flesh and blood. I kneel down to the wet earth, tired and aching all over. The sword is loose in my right hand as I catch my breath, taking in great gulps of air.
Eventually I look up to where Betaalika is still sitting in the high branches of the tree. The hate that rolls off her in waves is staggering. They do say that a betaal feels emotions much more intensely than any normal human. That is probably true. The projection of her hate is all around me, as if trying to surround me in a psychic cocoon.
“It was not easy, securing the services of that many of my brothers and sisters,” Betaalika growls as she stalks me in a wide circle, out of reach of my sword. “I spent weeks, months on this army, and you destroyed it in a handful of heartbeats. For that, you will pay most dearly, oath-breaker. I, Betaalika, Fifth Queen of the Seventh Chakra, pronounce eternal enmity on you, Vikram Chauhan, Rana Chauhan of Megtigarh. Wherever you may run, wherever you may hide, the Seventh Chakra will hunt you down. You will never know a moment of peace.”
“If you are going to fight me now, I would advise you to do it before I die of boredom,” I quip, unable to resist myself. Bone-deep fatigue threatens to overwhelm me, and it is all I can do to stay on my feet before Betaalika, refusing to show a moment of weakness to her.
She sneers at me, baring her yellowed, rotten fangs once more. “Another time, Vikram Chauhan, another time we will most assuredly fight. One day, I will have my revenge upon you. In the meantime, watch your back, oath-breaker, for the champions of the Seventh Chakra will hunt you down to the ends of the earth.”
And with that, she is gone. She winks out as if she had never existed. I stare dumbfounded around me, trying to comprehend what had just happened. She let me live when she could easily have taken me.
I shrug off the morbid thoughts. Who knows what goes on in the mind of a demon, a betaal at that?
It is another hour by the time I return to Yogiraj Suryamal in the ruins of the Mughal fort, carrying the corpse of one of the formerly possessed, dead women. The stink is overpowering, especially now that the reanimating power is gone.
The Yogiraj greets me cheerfully as he sees me enter the inner courtyard.
“Vikram, you have returned!”
I drop the corpse to the ground before the Yogiraj and bow low to him.
“Pranam, Yogiraj. Here is the corpse as you commanded.”
His face lights up and he looks at me with unrestrained enthusiasm. “Well done, Vikram, well done indeed. You are a credit to Swami Aryakeshwar’s teachings. You are a rare man of honour and dedication! Now leave me, I must complete my prayers to the Three Divine Mothers.”
I bow once more and take my leave, wondering what he will do when he finds out that I did not obey his instructions to the letter. Or what Swami Aryakeshwar will do.
Perhaps that is a topic best left unexplored. Time to head back to Hrishikesh and the comfort of the Yogapeeth Gurukul once more. Time to finally relax from a night of killing and slaying and improbabilities.
As I leave the old fort, I realise that I still have not found an answer to my crisis of faith regarding Yogiraj Suryamal’s activities. After the long centuries of misery, another dharmasankat is something I can well do without.