Kelraji falls swiftly into a deep and powerful sleep, the fatigue of his journey and the unending ache of the serious burns across his skin rushing him into the twilight of his consciousness. Before he fades, the faces of the people he killed the night before begin to flash through his head—the ork in the convenience store, the foolhardy bodega owner, the pair of agents he tricked on the street, the voodoo hag as she fell from the sky, then onward, to the burning mess of flesh and steel brought on by his makeshift net, the faces of these dead not even known to him.
Finally, the biker lieutenant stands before him, his handsome young face calm despite the fire raging across his body. They stand across from one another in the black void of Kelraji’s mind, both ablaze from the waist up. The young man holds one hand out, palm open but upside down, and Kelraji is surprised to recognize the varada mudra. I forgive you, the man seems to say, then his red jacket splits open from shoulder to groin and he falls apart in a welter of blood. A photograph flutters between them, and Kel catches it deftly to inspect the image. The woman in the lavender sari smiles at him over one shoulder, but her image swiftly distorts and crumples as the flames eating Kelraji’s hand spreads to the photograph, consuming it entirely.
He is awoken by a man’s voice, shouting but seemingly a world away. When he opens his eyes, he finds he is no longer on his straw cot in the modest stone-walled bedroom he shares with his two traveling companions, but is instead lying in a massive four-poster bed draped in fine linens which shine through with morning light. The sheets are silken and luxurious against his bare skin. He rolls over to find a beautiful woman dozing beside him, naked save the covers which hide her coffee skin.
The man shouts again, his voice echoing as if they were inside a temple. At first Kel thinks it is Hindi, but revises his guess as he listens, recognizing the subtle tones of Urdu. Though he does not speak it, he finds that his mind somehow comprehends nonetheless. “Emperor! A star falls in the east. Come see, before it passes!”
The woman lying next to him groans in drunken half-sleep. “Salim, silence your man. I would sleep a while longer.”
“And sleep you may, but when the heavens come to earth, it is wise for those of the earth to heed their arrival.”
Kelraji gets out of his bed, and goes to the man calling him.
Kelraji stops as he pads across the room, looking around. He is aware of the various theories concerning ‘past’ and ‘future’ lives, and the turning of the wheel. He knows that dreams, even hallucinations are important parts of the realities of life and existence. What he had not heard of was living these lives concurrently in the present way. He knows that time is not a continuum in the Western sense, neither did he know it was not a spiral in the Eastern sense. Perhaps this was how enlightenment felt.
Either way, the man spends a moment looking himself over, and searching for the clothing that an emperor should wear, lest he be chided for his lack of such.
A massive bedchamber confronts him as he steps from the covered bed, a luxuriously large room with marble walls and tiled porcelain floors. A multitude of portraits hang on every wall, each work of art more magnificent than the last. The majority of the tapestries feature one particular man.
When Kel looks in the mirror he is not surprised to see the man from the portraits looking back at him. He is in his late fifties, his features pudgy and unexercised. His face is stern and business-like, with close-cropped hair which is not yet graying and a mustache still disorderly from the previous night.
He turns in the direction of the shouts to see a handsomely-dressed man standing at a balcony across the room in the harsh morning light, pointing skyward. Attendants hurry from the wings with clothes and grooming implements as Kelraji strides across the room to stand at the balcony. By the time he has arrived, his nakedness has been covered with fine golden robes, a belt of shining silver has been hung at his waist, and his hair has been groomed beneath a royal turban.
As his eyes adjust to the morning’s glare, Kelraji can make out a massive, bustling city sweeping out in all directions from the palace he apparently occupies, its walls only barely visible on the far horizon. A roiling cacophony of city sights, sounds and smells greet his senses as he gazes out. Agra, a voice from somewhere deep within his mind provides.
The attendant to his side points skyward, “There, emperor—to the east.” Kel can make out a bright point of light slashing through the sky at great speeds. It takes several minutes of watching to realize that the meteor is actually on a trajectory which will bring it crashing somewhere within the city limits.
As he watches, a sensation both painfully familiar and shockingly brazen washes over him, as gripping and primal an urge as any the mortal form could bear. It was the black stone’s call, he knew it well enough. The same insatiable, demanding voice which spoke when the dagger was close now spoke here, pleading and taunting in equal measure.
Shouts and cries go up from the city as the populace begins to notice the falling star, citizens stopping and staring in the middle of the streets. Roofs begin to crowd with onlookers as people rush to witness the excitement. The meteor will land in mere minutes.
Impulse often ruled Kelraji, and his recollection of Jahangir was not so far from the same. Affirmation of right to rule came in many forms, and a gift from the gods was not one to be turned away. Whatever, or whomever, sent this gift intended it for me. To do as I please, and to reward my actions. To give a gift so close to home was surely a sign, and one that Jahangir meant to interpret in favor of himself.
He turns to his attendant, and speaks.
“Bring me one hundred and seven guards, and we will claim what has been given by Allah.”
As the guards assemble below, Kelraji leaves the mirror, content to learn what he can about his immortal soul’s past histories. Jahangir may have been Muslim in name, but then, all religions are an expression of Brahman, after all. Kelraji doesn’t stop to ponder the thought.
He exits the royal bed chamber, and tells the attendant to take him to the courtyard, realizing he has no idea how to get there himself.
His servant bows low, gesturing to the door with a slightly confused expression. They pass through a dozen grand halls, each more decadent than the last, before exiting out onto an expansive inner courtyard, already baking hot with the sun’s first rays. Three rough groups of soldiers are assembling, all fully armored and wearing purple cloaks over one shoulder. A unit of forty swordsmen forms by the gate, taking up block formation. A golden chariot is wheeled up behind them, surrounded by a dozen ornately armored men with heavy shields and spears. Behind this comes three ranks of bowmen, and another twenty swords to serve as rearguard.
A single man from the elite spearmen guarding his chariot walks out to meet him as he approaches. He clasps his mailed fist to his chest. “Emperor, your loyal attendants await. Will you be armed this evening?” The soldier leans in conspiratorially, lowering his voice. “The whisperers report Persian Hassassin have infiltrated the city, my liege. No man will think less of their emperor for wearing plate and steel on his own streets.” The soldier glances nervously up over Kel’s shoulder, then diverts his gaze. Kelraji follows the man’s line of sight to see the woman from his bed standing at a balcony high above them, her features obscured by the glare of the sun above.
Kelraji smiles knowingly at the man.
“Am I not safe in my own city? The people would not tolerate such deviants, for their love for me is strong. If you and your men cannot protect me, surely Allah, who has given this gift to his favored lord, will. But, perhaps you are right. A lord should be seen as a protector. Bring me my sword and dress armor.”
The honor guard bows low and beckons to a handful of servants across the courtyard, who come rushing forward with a suit of ornate gold-plated scale mail and a matched set of ruby-encrusted saber and dagger. They swarm over him, pulling the mail over his head, then buckling matching plate to his chest, shoulders and legs before finally hanging his weapons on his belt. Finally, they replace his sultan’s turban with a golden half-helm tufted with peacock feathers.
The sergeant of the guard mounts the chariot and Kel steps in behind him. With a single barked command, the lumbering eastern gates grind open, and the ordered ranks of swordsmen begin to march out into the streets. A crowd forms immediately, threatening to choke the streets, but his troops are well-trained, parting the crowd with riot-breaker shoves from shield and scabbard. They make good progress down the winding main avenues, the citizens of Agra torn between the spectacle of their golden-clad emperor and the massive comet looming over their city.
The entire procession comes to a halt as the meteor’s final approach draws imminent, and Kelraji is able to see the site of impact from roughly a mile away. The impact is truly deafening, a bomb-blast of incredible volume. A terrible shockwave radiates outward over the city, flattening the blocks closest to ground zero and throwing up a choking wall of dust which hangs in the air for hours after the event. Kel finds himself clinging to the rim of his chariot to stay upright as the blast passes, even from their great distance.
Imperturbable in his confidence of his deity’s mandate, Kel pushes his men onward, traveling into the heart of the destruction as his people stream in the opposite direction, their mystical wonder replaced with the collective anguish of mass tragedy. Aimless fathers carry unmoving children through the rubble while mothers follow in their wake, wailing at fate’s injustice. The sheer quantity of corpses increases exponentially as they near the center of the blast, suddenly dropping off again as they reach ground zero, where everything not made of stone has simply been vaporized. Finally, they are able to lay eyes on the place of impact, a massive marble building of palatial dimensions. Though great swathes of the outer walls have been decimated by the impact, some sections still remain. Billowing smoke and fire pour from within the structure.
The sergeant leans in. “Sire, we have arrived. This is the workshop and residence of Nadir al-Zaman. What are your orders?”
Kelraji remembers the man well. A formidable artist, Kelraji had been his patron for years, decades even. Helping the man’s case, his most famous works were portraits of the royal family.
“It is the will of Allah. I mourn his loss, but acknowledge that he is with the prophet. His life of praise will be recognized on Earth and in His Heaven.
Have my men scour the area. Send a messenger to the palace, tell them to allow those injured into the outer courtyard, and have my wives’ servants tend the wounded. Tell them that what is taken by Allah on Earth is returned in Heaven.
And have my men bring water, enough to quench the flames of the gift."
The sergeant salutes and begins moving among the soldiers, barking orders. The majority of his men split off from the procession, many of the swordsmen running off to oversee the control of the fire while archers disperse throughout the civilian crowds, directing them back to the palace. The sergeant and his contingent of heavily-armored spearmen proceed directly into the burning palace, leaving only a handful of men to protect their emperor.
Kel watches for almost an hour as his orders are carried out. Human chains of water bearers are formed, passing jugs and buckets of water from nearby wells into the building. Slowly, the flames pouring from the building recede, shifting from a raging inferno to a relatively more manageable blaze.
The honor guard finally reappears, their fine purple cloaks and silver armor singed and marred with soot. The sergeant removes his full helm, wiping a thick film of sweat from his brow. “Your majesty, we have done our best to clear the building, though it is too expansive and too chaotic now to completely assure your safety. I believe the meteor has come down in the inner cloister, though the flames were too strong to know for sure.”
The officer lowers his voice. “One of my men attempted to approach the crater, against my direct orders. He moved as if in a trance, bewitched by some evil spell, and no man could restrain him. I fear Shivaji has burned to death, or worse. The smallfolk whisper that yawm ad-din has come, and I struggle to find a reason to disagree. My liege, I beg you, turn back to the palace. I cannot assure your safety here.”
Kelraji nods as his man talks. Perhaps the man was right. This was both a major and minor sign, according to the Hadith. He would keep an eye out for inanimate objects speaking to him.
“If these are the end times, we will be no safer from Allah’s light in the palace. And who should shy from the Day of Judgment but one who does not follow the pillars? No, I am safe in my own city. And I am safe in my own Faith. It is my fault that Shivaji has been lost, and I will not allow his loss to be for nothing. Any of your men who must rest may do so. Those willing or able are to come with me. If there is an evil, or if the False Messiah has made his appearance, we must, for the good of the people, alert them and protect them.”
Kelraji steps down from his lofty ride, and moves toward the building, preparing to enter.
Kelraji steps through the threshold of the grounds with his sergeant at arms and five royal spearmen in tow. They advance cautiously through the gutted artisan’s workshop, passing first through a large hall which must have served as the calligrapher’s workspace, for the walls were lined with shelves of books, all blasted and flame-kissed by the meteor’s impact. Burning tomes rain down intermittently on his men as they press onward, crossing rooms filled with half-completed marble busts and wall-spanning tapestries.
After what seems like miles of architecture, the Mughal emperor and his guard reach the inner cloister. They exit through a wide, pointed door into what was once a peaceful garden, perhaps 50 square yards of gently rolling lawn. Most of it is on fire, the small trees and bushes which once grew here now reduced to ash and skeletal figures. an elaborate latticework branches out above their heads, supporting an extensive network of vines and ivy. The ruins of a massive fountain dominates the center of the courtyard, its wide bowl cracked in half and spewing water in random, spastic arcs. The earth has been dug out by some massive force, creating a sizable crater centered on the blasted fountain. Water has begun to pool in the gently sloping sides of the indentation.
Two shapes move through the massive slabs of fountain strewn across the yard, each movement nothing more than a blur of shadow. Kelraji barely has time to process this information when his guardsmen sergeant calls out, pointing to the rafters above. The vines rustle with activity before disgorging four men, each one a lean, athletic figure swaddled in form-fitting black robes. Silver blades flash in their hands as they descend as one to among his men.
Kel barely has time to draw his saber and dagger before one of them is at his throat, brandishing a single-edged straightsword and dirk with practiced ease. As usual, the adept’s quicksilver reflexes take over, granting him the first strike.
The Emperor begins the deadly spin of his other self before realizing that the sword and dagger he wields are unlikely to behave in the same manner as a monofilament weapon invented in a different world. He takes stock of his situation, realizing he knows precious little about combat with stiff blades. Still, the adept knows that he has the advantage, and must press it, or risk losing the fight. Something he had not done in many years. Either way, the moves he knew for the whip would at least add some force to the sword strike. He executes a partial roll, designed to get his shoulder high and his arm higher, before bringing the blade down as hard as he can in a diagonal. He knows it will be blocked, but he hopes that the force of the blow, combined with the arcing angle of the strike, will be enough to knock his nearest opponent to the ground. Surely, his men with spears could end the man’s life before he could rise.
Kelraji’s saber connects solidly with the assassin’s straight sword but his opponent stands firm, locking their blades. Kel follows the momentum of his swing with the weight of his body, crashing his shoulder into the assassin like a lineman’s tackle, sending his off-balance opponent sprawling onto his back.
The adept takes one glance up to see his entire unit engulfed in bitter melee with an almost equal number of black-clad assailants. He sees two of his spearmen get knocked down by the deadly blade-work of their opponents, but their squadmates quickly step in to defend them. His sergeant of the guard is caught in desperate combat with a swordsman who fights with superior skill to the other assassins, but the capable spearman manages to catch the lead assassin’s strike on his shield before delivering a punishing jab with his spear that sends the attacker tumbling backwards.
A sharp Farsi warcry coming from below jogs Kel back to the present, and he just has time to bring his dagger up to parry a thrust from the assassin at his feet. One of his own men charges in to defend him, driving his spear deep into the assassin’s gut and pinning him to the cracked tile floor of the inner cloister. Kelraji’s ears are filled with the sounds of steel on steel, and even worse, the occasional butchershop crunch of blade cleaving flesh and the dying screams of men. Fire rages all around him, tinting his vision orange and choking his lungs with smoke. Through it all an inescapable voice vies for his attention from across the cloister, a siren’s call burrowing deeper into the recesses of his mind.
Kelraji thinks on his obligations. These men were here to protect him, not the other way around. Still, he had an obligation to value their lives and their commitments. And these men were in his city, in his way, trying to kill him, trying to take what was rightly his.
With his immediate opponent disabled, likely dying on the ground, Kelraji extricates himself enough to find the leader, and attempt to cut the head from the snake. His quick steps mimic his other self, as he begins to whip the sabre around. Perhaps it will serve as a defense, but more likely will be a distraction. In either case, he knows no other way to fight… When he reaches the leader, in a few quick steps, he hooks the blade high before bringing it down outside of his shoulder, attempting to bury the tip in the ground as he turns over it, though he doubts the upswing will work with the sword as it does with the whip.
But the voice in his head will not let him stay. He will help as he can, but then he must do what Allah wills.
The downed and skewered assassin takes another swing at Kelraji as he breaks away from their melee, but the adept casually bats the attack away, his attention already on his next opponent.
The assassin leader lets his backward momentum carry him into a skillful kip-up, regaining his feet before Kelraji can barrel into him with his heavy swing. The master twists and ducks, parrying the strike with a twist of his blade. The point of Kel’s saber bites into the earth, and he barely has time to jerk it free before the black-robed swordsman is on the offensive, raining blows down upon him. Kelraji’s blades flash about his body, channeling the fluid motions of his whipfighting talents and keeping his opponent at bay.
Both men are so enthralled in their swordplay that neither notices the sergeant of the guard bearing down upon them until it is too late to react. The officer barrels into the assassin with his shield, bearing him to the ground and pinning him with his bulk. The sergeant’s spear clatters to the ground as he draws a dagger at his hip and drives it clean through the assassin’s throat, his last words nothing more than a wet gurgle.
Another assassin falls upon the prone sergeant, slicing his sword across the guardsmen’s back and eliciting a moan of pain.
All around him the bitter melee continues, almost every participant bloodied or on the verge of death. Kelraji watches as an assassin finishes one of his downed men with a killing thrust, his parting marked by a primal scream. The black stone continues its irresistible call, and the monk realizes it is now mere meters away. He can see its round, glittering mass lying half-submerged in the cracked pool of the fountain, with smaller chunks and shards strewn nearby.
Jahangir’s old bones hadn’t seen this sort of action in decades, if ever. His knees ached. His shoulder was sore from the constant motions. The burn in his tricep told him the blocks were all too real, and all too frequent.
The death a guardsman was trivial for an emperor. But the death of a fellow warrior was the farthest thing from trivial for Kelraji. The devils would pay. They would pay with their lives. Kelraji steps toward the man who cut his sergeant, feinting and jabbing, but saving his strength. This man, the one who saved him, would not meet a similar fate.
Kelraji shouts at the impudent masked assassin.
“Allah damn you to the pit, forsaken one!”
The enemy takes the bait, springing over the sergeant to charge him with blade extended. Kel stands ready for him, parrying the clumsy jab and spinning inside the man’s defenses. The adept reverses his dagger and drives it backward at the man’s exposed gut, but the assassin predicts the move, turning with Kelraji to execute a diving roll which takes him out of harm’s way.
The sergeant picks himself up and kicks his spear into the air with one toe, catching the polearm deftly and squaring off to face the wily assassin alongside his emperor.
One more death cry rises from his left flank as another of his guard falls to the Persian’s steel.
Another of his men down, Kelraji’s attempt to keep his cool slips. He dips his shoulder to bring the whip in an upward slash before realizing that a scimitar is unlikely to behave in the same manner. He uses the attack as a feint to gather his thoughts. He must end this and take his stone. These foolish men believe they can stand against him. Him, Jahangir, who had succeeded Akbar the Great. Kelraji Sivahara, whose very name implies the death of his enemies.
Perhaps the feint had worked on the rolling assassin, perhaps he was off balance. Kelraji did not press. He focused. The man did not know what Kelraji knew. Jahangir may have been old and slow, but he was wise. Kelraji may be young and brash, but he was more than a match for every foe he had faced.
He relaxed his tired old bones, leaving a small, easily covered opening, hoping to draw in the misinformed assailant. They were after his life, and he did not respond well to threats.
The sergeant of Kelraji’s guard steps forward, lashing out with his spear at their evasive opponent, piercing clean through the hapless assassin’s thigh meat in a welter of gore.
The Persian cries out in pain, his eyes widening as his imminent death begins to dawn on him. Apparently deciding to carry out his profession to the end, the bladesman snaps the spear in his thigh with one elbow and charges around the sergeant to reach his mark.
Jahangir catches the man’s overextended attack easily with his saber, stepping once more into his enemy’s guard before delivering a swift kick to the back of the assassin’s wounded leg, forcing him to drop to his knees. Kelraji looks the man in the face as he crosses his sword and dagger at his throat, then draws them apart, taking another trophy for his patron goddess.
A fresh fount of blood sprays from the headless corpse as it topples sideways, spattering the emperor’s golden armor with flecks of red. He looks up to find that the tide of battle is turning in his favor—the soldier at his flank brings down another assassin, reducing their number to three against his six.
Kelraji’s kill seems to amplify the black stone’s voice, rattling in the back of his mind like an alcoholic who has had his first drink of the night and does not intend on stopping.
Kelraji well understood the tide of battle. Now outnumbering his opponents two to one, he knew the best tactic was to speed the flood. Find and kill the weakest. No more need for defense, with his side so heavily favored.
He feels the tug of the stone, knows its power grows, but knows too that it will be there when he finishes. Besides, the tug was soothing, in a sense. The draw, the connection, was clear. Why should he not show his power to the stone?
Strange thoughts, far too intellectual for Kelraji’s taste, poured into his mind.
Better to live simply, so that others can simply die. The nature of the stone would reveal itself, and Kelraji’s current task was clear enough. Pushing the call of the stone to the back, but not out, of his mind, Kelraji locates the most wounded of the assailants, and stalks the man, intent on finishing the fight.
The emperor charges across the cobblestone, delivering a vicious downward chop aimed at the crippled assassin. His opponent barely gets his own sword up in time to block, but the Mughal already in combat with him quickly seizes the opportunity, driving his speartip through the man’s chest.
Jahangir turns to see his men easily finish the remaining two Persian swords, the momentum of their victory both overwhelming and startlingly final. The remaining guardsmen stand about, panting with exertion, their senses numbed by pain and adrenaline. All around them, the elaborate gardens of the inner cloister continue to smolder and burn.
In the center of the courtyard the cracked fountain looms, still sending up water in stuttering bursts. He cannot tell if the voice in his head has suddenly gone silent, or simply become one with his own.
Jahangir sighs deeply as the battle ceases. He wishes he could say that he does not enjoy killing, but the truth is that he does. He smiles a wry grin as he thinks. It was a good thing he counted the beheaded goddess among his patrons, or his afternoon may have been for naught.
Kelraji quickly cleans his weapons and sheathes them, then moves corpse to corpse, placing the hands of the dead in a rough rendition of the mudra for knowledge, tuning out his own troops and the heat.
As he finishes, he blinks a few times, and goes to collect the rest of his belongings, laid by Allah in the fountain. Once he has collected himself, he will continue his quest, to gather…something. He could not recall what it was they were seeking, but surely once he had picked back up his gear, it would come to him.
The emperor approaches the broken fountain as sunset breaks over Agra. Kelraji shields his eyes from the harsh glare of the sun as he walks directly into its rays, nearly blind until he reaches the foot of the fountain’s wide cracked bowl where a large jutting fragment of the centerpiece blocks out the harsh sun.
Sitting in a pool of water, still throwing off steam from its superheated surface, lies the meteor. The bulk of it is still intact, a rough sphere of otherworldly ore, its pockmarked surface giving off a dim metallic sheen which seems to glower with some inner life. Smaller chunks and pieces lay strewn about the site of impact.
Directly at his feet a short, dagger-like shard bobs in a shallow pool of water, apparently floating despite the material’s seeming density. The point of the sliver points shakily at the largest chunk of meteor until a strong gust of wind blows through the courtyard, sending it spinning madly about its axis. Kelraji watches with bemused interest as the shard slows its rotation, then stops spinning completely, its point coming to rest directed once again at the main body of the meteor.
Suddenly, the adept feels as if he is floating upward, like he is being pulled into the open sky by some unseen rope. Now he is looking down at himself standing at the edge of the blasted fountain, surveying the landing site of the mysterious meteor. “Send word to my artificer,” he hears himself say, now nothing more than a speck in the center of the sprawling civilization below him. “Tell him to ready the forge.”
The words echo in his head as he jerks awake with a start and a sharp breath of air. This time he wakes to the dimly-lit interior of the stone room he shares with his two companions.