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  • Madhurika Sankar

The Shadowseeker


art by  Sirisvisual
art by Sirisvisual

The ink that drips from the tip of my pen fortifies my thoughts into crisp, round words, words that seem sure of their place on the page. The truth in my heart is I’m nowhere as sure as these words suggest, my thoughts, dreams and memories all mingling in a miasma of dulled sentiments to the point where I cannot make out which is which anymore. And, like the wrinkles that make their way up from the tip of my bony fingers, all the way up to my forehead, my mind is crooked with the uncertainties that doubt and decay bring. I’ll be long gone before the world has had Time to meditate on the all that has happened this Century. I was one of them, in the thick of the storm that came and nearly ended it all. And I’m one of the last who lives to speak of the story. But the ink is black and indelible, and I shall try my best to stay true to my inner voice and core remembrance.

Nema revealed herself to me in my sixteenth year. It was a cruelly hot summer morning when I’d gone to fetch water from the well. The long walk to the outskirts of the city had chafed my alabaster feet, and matted my hair with swirling dust, and the vendors of silk and spices looked at me suspiciously, as I’d stared back at them, defiantly. No one could tell me I didn’t belong. I was a Varthan, known by the High Priestess in the Citadel herself, and that would be my saving grace. The girl behind me was not so lucky. She had no protections. She made her presence known to me when I’d heard the soft squishing of her feet on the sandy path we traversed, in the by lanes of the city. There were very few people around and at one point, it was just me, and the squishing behind, shadowing my every move. I quietly felt for my dagger beneath my robes and placed my right hand on its hilt. I negotiated a turn and hid behind a large earthen pot, almost as tall as me. Soon enough, the dark, diminutive figure, hooded against the sun, emerged from around the bend. There was no one else. I grabbed her from behind, my elbow locking around her neck and my dagger placed beneath her chin. “Why are you following me? Who are you?” I asked, feigning aggression in my fast-beating chest.

“Wait! Stop!” she pleaded with a dulcet voice. I yanked the robes off her black hair and pushed her away. “I wasn’t following you!” she shouted, alarmed.

“Who’re you trying to fool?” I demanded, but tears soon, started streaming down her chiseled, ebony cheeks and I, immediately, went silent. “There’s no need for this drama. Why were you tracing my steps?” I asked her, irritated, the boiling heat of the late morning seeping through my drenched clothes and into my very bones, making me yearn for shelter.

“I wasn’t. I was headed to the well to fetch water. I’m not permitted to do so when other people are there that…aren’t my own. This time of day is when it is least busy. I saw you. I know who you are. I’m not allowed to walk in front of you, as you know. So, I followed. Please don’t tell anyone of this! They’ll hang me!”

My pale cheeks turned crimson, and not just from the heat. My Varthan blood hadn’t insulated me from extending a cruelty upon a fellow citizen, a Douthan, as it turned out. “It’s okay. It’s my fault for racing to conclusions. I…I’m sorry.”

She picked up her water vessel and was about to be on her way, but I’d sensed an opportunity. “Wait. What’s your name?” I asked, as she started shuffling away. She must’ve been nearly my age. She turned around, hesitantly, her pretty frame silhouetted by the incandescent sun. “Nema.” And with that, she was gone.

I was born with a special gift. A curse, if you were to ask my mother. Of excessive empathy. No, really excessive. It’s called vartha by my people, the Southern Clan. I can bleed my sentiments into others and receive theirs as well, until there’s a complete transfusion of our spirits. This may not seem like a magical power but, as it turned out, it proved to have a deciding hand in the fate of the world. I think it’s Goddess Mithila’s way of having fun with me, by gifting this strange hyper-sentience to someone from the world’s most cruel of Clans.

The harsh summers and the bitter fight for survival had ensured the Clan conformed to a rigid way of life, and in their hierarchy, only the strongest, richest or most powerful led tolerable lives. The rest, well, they weren’t accorded much respect and were exploited. They were beaten, threatened, raped. At the bottom of the social barrel were the Doutha, the manual scavengers. They were made to clean the drains and toilets and unclog the sewage pipes, and many would die from the toxic fumes in the dingy underground labyrinths in which they worked, covered in filth. They were considered dirty, untouchable.

No, empathy wasn’t a prevalent quality amidst the Southern Clan. And yet, people would come seeking me from all corners of Klustria, the only known Varthan for miles, just so I could commiserate and understand what others couldn’t. It provided them with relief. It drained me completely, but I didn’t mind. People were burdened with all sorts of sorrows and regrets and helping them win reprieve made me happy. There’s a ritual that’s involved, for this transfusion of spirits, but I cannot go into too many details; I’m sworn to the Covenant. Besides, even I’m not quite sure how it happens. I hold their hands and close my eyes and empty my mind and then, their thoughts and feelings surge and course through me. I, in turn, answer them with my own, comforting thoughts. It’s an arcane process, and it just happens, and for all the Seven Suns, I don’t completely understand it.

My mother had forbidden me from making friends with the Douthan children and so we grew up, side by side, unable to speak or laugh or share anything. They went to different schools. They walked behind us if our paths were to cross on the streets. They were strangers to me. But I was a Varthan: I yearned to understand and empathize with these pitiful people. I would need to get close to them for this.

“What news from the Satraps?” shrieked Layrda’s High Priestess and Guardian, Ambala, growing restless as the days passed. Layrda, my home, and the only place I’ve ever known, is the northernmost city of the Klustrian peninsula, situated high on a craggy promontory, overlooking the choppy waters. It started out as a small trading outpost for merchant ships, but soon evolved into an impregnable and vast metropolis, protected by the ocean to the north and the Scorching Plains to the south. Ambala had heard of winter’s slow but sure ascent, inching its way north through the Burning Plains, after nearly three hundred years. And this only meant one things. The dragons. “It feels like months since we’ve heard anything from them. I pay those wretched messengers thrice their value and this is how they repay me! With indolence! Any news from our spies within the Winter Clan? What’s going on?”

Mauryana, her trusted, silver-haired advisor, proffered: “The Dastardly Den stands between the Winter Cities of the south and the Burning Plains. It’s only a matter of time before the dragons will come north, seeking refuge from the cold. We are the biggest city in all the lands of Klustria. We will be doomed if we don’t fortify ourselves,” he cautioned.

“How?” hollered the Priestess, her bony features puckered in a mix of fear and rage. “Who’s to say the dragons are still alive? No one we know has seen them in three hundred years. Maybe we can convince the people it’s all a myth. Folklore.”

At this bold suggestion, a gasp made its way around the Royal Atrium, among the awfully assembled spectacle of Ambala’s trusted deputies and priests. “My Priestess, there are families in this city who can trace their lineage back to the time of the dragons. The stories are real and they know it. The scriptures and military accounts all tell us to turn to the Northern Clan for help. With their giants and Garudas, we will have some protection in the ground and in the skies. Please make peace with your Fellowship,” pleaded Mauryana.

But, Ambala had long ago broken away from the Fellowship of Sorcerers, for reasons that tugged at her very soul’s sanctity. She’d been the only female in the Fellowship, and they’d treated her as such. They should’ve banished Kamarkar for what he’d done to me, she’d think in her bitterest moments, when the memories came flooding back and there was no respite. Rape among the ruling Sorcerers? It was unheard of! And yet, it was allowed to slide into oblivion and without accountability. It’d nearly destroyed her but Ambala channeled all her fear and grief into rage and broke away from the faction.

Everyone in Layrda knew the story and applauded their Priestess’ bravery. If only she hadn’t allowed it to harden her into the cold and cruel person she’d become. Am I really that cruel? She’d rue over this, from time to time, only to dismiss the thought. Never again will I lose control, she’d vowed to herself.

The dragons were a real problem she knew she had to surmount. And she had absolutely no idea how.

I waited impatiently, for the day to be over and night to come and go. All I could think of was Nema and the possibilities my encounter had presented. To understand a different way of life. To make a new friend. That night, as I lay on my mattress on the ground, next to my mother, who’d blown out the lamps and had said her nightly prayers, a sign that the time for conversation had lapsed, I asked, “Ma, why do the Doutha walk behind the rest of us?”

She softly groaned. “What fresh insolence is this?”

“I just wanted to know why?” I persisted.

“They are dirty creatures, vile from the filth in which they spend their days! Why would you want them to be close to you?” she barked. “Is this what you spend your time thinking about when you have a special gift to nurture, envied by the High Priestess, herself?”

“She doesn’t envy me!” I protested, my young mind unable to grasp such complexities. “She was very nice to me the day of the Spring Festival, and spoke to me for a whole five minutes!”

“Quiet!” my mother chided. “She is envious of anyone who has what she cannot possess. She may not show it but I saw it in her eyes. You be very careful, you understand? And don’t go about stirring trouble with the Doutha. Leave them be.”

And then, just when I thought the conversation was over, my mother muttered, “It is considered unlucky even to walk in the shadows of the Doutha. And that is why we do not walk behind then, lest their shadows touch us and cast a spell of misfortune. Now go to sleep.”

I stayed awake for many hours afterwards, unable to process what I’d heard. It was heartbreakingly cruel. The next morning, I waited until the sun was up and beating down upon Layrda, and the familiar, intense heat started taking root in the unfolding day. I grabbed the water vessel and made a dash for the door.

“We don’t need water!” my mother hollered from behind. “Don’t you have school in an hour?” she persisted, even as I quickly escaped the front door and made my way down familiar streets and alleys.

The day was yet to be fully formed, and people were still assembling their wares in the markets, and restaurants were slowly opening their doors for customers. I briskly walked through a crisscross of alleyways until the roads opened up onto a verdant field at the far end of which was the well. I saw a few people but no Nema. I sat under a stunted cypress tree and fidgeted with my pot. It seemed hours.

And, just when I was about to give up and head back into the city, I saw the familiar diminutive, dark figure, with sheathed head, making its way to the well.

There was another person present at the well, an elderly woman, and so I had to be careful. I sidled up to Nema who didn’t seem taken aback at seeing me. I waited patiently for the old woman to extricate her vessel of water from the well, and when she left, and before I could speak, Nema said: “Who is following who, now?”

We both stared at each other for a moment and then, collapsed laughing. Nema was warm and funny and very smart and I will not bore you with the unfolding of our friendship. Suffice to say she wasn’t in awe of my relatively privileged status. In fact, she held it in healthy irreverence. And I, in turn, respected her for it. She lived with her parents and younger brother not too far from our home, in the tenements, and dreamed of being a healer. Understandably, she was very curious of my vartha powers and I skirted gingerly, around the fact that she’d never be allowed to study medicine.

"You’ll be lynched for talking with me,” she’d once said, on the back of a sunny day, when we were sprawled under the cypress after school hours, munching on apples, and when the sun first showed the faintest signs of settling in for the evening. The orange hue made her ebony skin glow a ruddy bronze and I’d honestly thought she was the most beautiful person I’d ever seen.

“Nema, how will you go to medical school? I don’t mean to upset you, but your parents are manual scavengers. There are rules.”

“Useless, cruel ones,” she spat out bitterly, and it was the first time I saw anger flicker in her eyes. She’d been careful, as had I, to glean over the obvious disparities in our lives, but the time seemed to have arrived, when the uncomfortable subjects that loomed just beneath the surface, the kind that rear their head when any friendship is to inevitably survive and grow past the initial pleasantries, for deeper bonds to be forged. I wanted that with Nema more than anything. She was unlike any of the other girls in school. She was soft and hard at the same time, kind and sharp, generous and restrained, and above all, willing to be friends, at great personal risk, with someone she should’ve, ideally, detested. For I’d been born into undeserved privileges she could only dream of, and yet, she didn’t seem to hold it against me.

“I agree,” I concurred. After a long pause, I added, “We should do something about it. I’d like to help.”

“Don’t say things you cannot possibly mean,” she snapped. “I’ve never asked anything of you, but you shouldn’t promise things you cannot deliver.”

I was stung by these words. I did mean them. Yes, I hadn’t thought of a plan yet, but Nema failed to see that I was different from most. I felt her pain. It tugged at my lifeblood making me weak. I wanted her to see I was earnest in my offer. In my feelings.

“I do mean it, Nema. Will you let me show you?”

And so, she did. Perhaps it was her curiosity about my powers, but we sat facing each other with closed eyes, holding hands, and I told her to relax. “Don’t force the thoughts. I can see you within you. Just let your mind drift. Let me do the work.”

And what I saw, astounded me. I saw layers of grief and loss and oppression. I saw unending longing for things she couldn’t dream of having. I saw strata upon strata of hurt piled on from when she’d been a child, of people’s horrific behavior toward her and her loved ones. All this, buried in the soul of a sixteen-year-old. But most of all, I saw determination, to realise her dreams and uplift her family from the hard and trying lives they’d led.

I’d never experienced the life of a Douthan before, it’d been forbidden by the Covenant. I’d broken the rules for Nema. And I knew, not in the least because I’d strayed, but because what I’d seen tested the very limits of my empathy, I couldn’t stand by and watch the atrocities that were being silently perpetrated, go on, anymore. I had to do something. And in my own small way, I would.

Far to the south, beyond the Scorching Plains, and hidden deep within the Gorai Ghats, the Dastardly Den was abuzz with activity. It was a scene of carnage. Carcass upon carcass of animals, shredded and eviscerated by teeth that only one creature in the world possessed, lay piled in heaps, scattered through the vast catacombs. The dragons, after all, had large appetites, and their raids into the villages, towns and cities that skirted the Dastardly Den had yielded poorer results with passing time. They took to stockpiling their meat, even if this meant it wouldn’t be fresh. Winter was fast approaching and they had to leave the Den, their home, and make their way up north, to warmer climes, to ride out the coming cold. This would take decades. But Maia, Queen of the Dragons, was not worried. The northern reaches of Klustria were fertile grounds, even if the meat tasted different. It was hardened and sinewy.

The heat and hard work to survive the scorching sun, did that to the animals. And the men. Especially the men. And the northern towns and cities were better developed and fortified, which meant more fire power was needed to bring them down. And so, Maia had ordered her cluster of dragons to feed heartily, for they had a long journey ahead. And lots of blood to spill.

When I was a little girl, not more than six, I would play in the garden behind our house and try and catch the fireflies with my bare hands, as dusk settled in, bringing with it some respite from the scorching heat. They’d flicker to a deathly pallor, the light being whiffed out of them in my palms, and my parents would applaud me for catching them, but I knew I’d done something wrong. In my palms, I’d felt the sorrow of the little creature seep through my hands and its tiny spirit enter my blood, even as the life blood left it, forever. This is why I never ate meat. I could feel the last moments of fear and pain and horror these animals felt, course through my veins and it’d nearly unhinge me. And then, it did unhinge me, when my father died of a sickness. I’d spent my last moments with him holding his hands in mine and then, I was laid up for several days, nearly battling death myself. Not from sickness but melancholia. I couldn’t save him, but I’d tried to provide him respite in the end, taking on the waning energy of his spirit and offering mine. It changed me, forever.

I missed school that day, after my spiritual encounter with Nema, and my mother heard about my truancy. I was shouted at and interrogated but I’d held fast to my story. I was tired from fetching water and drifted off to sleep under the cypress trees. “It’s just a day, Ma! I’ll make up for it, tomorrow.”

“What’s the matter with you? You’re a young girl, soon to be of marriageable age. You cannot go about sleeping under trees like a vagabond!” she’d shouted before marching off into the kitchen, the consternation in her eyes sincere. But my mind was elsewhere. How could I help the Doutha? I was sixteen and didn’t possess any skills, but I had my powers. And so, I vowed to use them. I thought to myself, if Nema could, at such a young age, be walking around under the burden of so much trauma, perhaps she wasn’t the only Douthan suffering silently in Layrda. I would work my vartha upon them, help them feel better. If I couldn’t fix anything else, I would do this. And who knows, maybe it would provide them with the succor and strength to take the first steps in bringing change in their lives. I was in a faraway place that night, lost within myself and my plans, and my mother had silently, noticed.

It was an ordinary morning, as it’d become those days, the sun high in the sky and at its brightest before late morning, when school would begin. Nema had taken some convincing, when I’d told her what I wished to do. Help her people heal. “Absolutely not!” she’d hollered. “Are you mad? You’ll be lynched for such a crime!” But, in the black pools that were her eyes, I could see that she that understood my powers could really heal – that it was no gimmick. And how her people had suffered.

“One person a day. After school. Right here. Under the cypress. Come on, Nema. You know they know of me. They would feel better. It’s worth the risk,” I’d simply stated. For she was my gatekeeper to the Doutha, but I’d no idea what sway she’d had over them until, that evening, she brought the first person, a middle-aged woman, and asked me to work my powers. “Do it quickly,” she’d commanded.

“It doesn’t work like that. It depends on the individual, what they’ve been through, their personalities. It’s like peeling away at an onion.”

“Okay, okay, do whatever you need to. No need to convince me,” she’d said, trying hard to feign a smile. And so, I did. I held the woman’s hands and looked into her heart. Her being. It was one sad story after another, over the coming days, and my young body had never felt this kind of exhaustion before. It was spirit-sucking. But, when I saw what a difference it made to the Doutha, I persisted. All summer, we carried on with this ritual. Nema would bring one person a day. And I would try and heal them. For the first time in my life, I’d felt like I had a real purpose. I told my mother I’d made some new friends in school and that I was studying with them in the evenings. She’d let it be without questioning. She was so busy working, she didn’t notice my exhaustion and I tried hard to cover it up.

And then, it happened. Perhaps it was our naivety in thinking we could get away with this, but it wasn’t to be. The soldiers apprehended us one August evening, as the sun was sinking behind the faraway hills in an orange cauldron. It all happened so fast. Nema and I were yanked by our elbows and roughly pushed to the front of a regiment of soldiers, and we were marched all the way to the Citadel. I’d felt like it was happening to someone else. My heart thumped loudly in my chest and ears, and my vision was blurry with panic. What would happen to us? I thought of my mother and fended off the tears.

I’d been inside the Citadel on a handful of special occasions but not like this. Being pushed and prodded forward by menacing guards and taken right into the eerie, dark interior depths of the cold building. I soon realized, with a sinking feeling, that we were being ushered directly into the grand Atrium, and I knew who resided there. Large braziers that burnt golden embers skirted the periphery of the massive hall, but it was still cold inside. Nema was shaking, as was I. It felt a dream. A nightmare. I wanted to turn around and run but the sinking feeling in my chest kept me anchored like lead to the bottom of an ocean of terror.

She was there. Ambala was sitting on her massive and ornate throne, at the far end of the atrium, completely still, with only the pupils of her eyes fixed on our approach. She recognized me. “So, it is you,” she whispered, barely audibly. “And who is this, your friend?’ she uttered, turning in disgust to Nema. Nema retreated into herself and looked at the ground.

After an interminably long silence, where all she did was stare, she said to me, “You’ve broken the law. Do you have any idea what you’ve done? Consorting with these filthy ingrates and breaking the scared Covenant, by offering your powers to them?”

Perhaps the past few months of humanizing the Doutha, getting to know them, and my endearingly close friendship with Nema, sparked the words, but before I could catch myself, I said, “They’re not filthy nor ingrates. They’ve been gracious to me for my help. Why should they not have relief from the cruel suffering we subject them to, just because of their race?”

There was a gasp in the room, and then silence. I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me. Ambala finally said, “You dare question me in my Citadel? Question my judgement? My justness? I was going to show you leniency, but now, I see you don’t deserve it. Guards, throw her in the Black Cells. Along with that filthy friend she risked it all for! I will teach her contrition!” she screeched, her rage echoing off the walls and high ceiling of the atrium. I went wide-eyed and quiet. My life was about to change forever, and in unpleasant ways. It was all over, and I’d dragged Nema into it, as well. “Please let Nema go; she didn’t do anything!” I’d pleaded, but it all seemed too late. The guard’s metallic hands roughly clasped my shoulders, and I was being turned around, still in a daze, when there was a deathly screech outside the Citadel. The hall was stunned into silence. And before people had a chance to react, the wall of the massive citadel on one side, partially broke apart in a deafening culmination of noise, and the screech happened again, so loudly, so thunderously, that people fell to their knees and shut their ears.

A massive, dark shadow made its way through the gaping hole in the wall. Maia, the Queen of Dragons, showed herself to the room and then, lifted her slender head high into the atrium and screeched again. Nema fainted next to me, and the guards had abandoned us and were regrouping, with visceral fear in their faces, next to the humungous dragon. I rushed over to Nema’s side and tried to lift her head up onto my lap. I couldn’t form sentences, such was my fear of what was to happen next. The moment didn’t disappoint. Maia, in seeming rage, bent her neck down, picked up a defensive guard with a spear, and while he screamed in agony, ripped him apart with her teeth, and flung his dismembered body to the front of the room. His head landed at the feet of the High Priestess. Ambala, who’d turned a deathly pale, stared wide-eyed and vulnerable, at the beast. The room had emptied of screaming people. The guards had fled. I, with Nema’s limp body, stood between the monstrous dragon and Ambala, who was transfixed to the spot. She knew her spells would be futile against the primeval powers of the Queen Dragon. Maia focused the slits of her pupils on me, and slowly thudded her way forward, blood dripping down her jaws. I wish I could say panic overtook me, but it was an eerie lethargy, as if my body was shutting down in preparation for a bloody and painful end. The closer the green dragon got to me, I could sense the heat of her body, radiating out from her belly. Nema came to, and upon seeing the dragon, screamed viscerally. “Don’t!” I’d pleaded, but it was too late. The dragon quickened her pace and came within a few feet of us, all the while staring at me, obsessively. Then, she stopped. She bent her neck toward me so that her massive head was parallel to mine. I braced for the end. But all she did was sniff the air around me and stare. Now, I don’t know what got into me, but I felt drawn to her enormous life force. It was filled with angst and hunger. I turned the palm of my right hand upwards and extended my hand forward, slowly. She pared back her mouth, revealing her teeth, menacingly, for a moment, and then, brought her snout further down to let me touch her. I gently, placed my hand on her snout. What I’d experienced in those moments is, even now, hard to describe. It was a vartha unlike any I’d felt, before. Pure and raw and teeming with the lust for flesh. There was no malevolence to it, just intensity. After a few long moments, she pulled away, and before I could wrap my head around what was happening, she exited just as she’d come – through the large, gaping hole in the wall – took off and flew away into the skies, screeching one last time, the resonant remnants of which lasted for a long time before petering out. Maia, Queen of the Dragons, had left her calling card. She would be back. And not alone, the next time. Winter had reached the citadel.

I turned to face Ambala, who stared at me in a manner I couldn’t read. And then, she screamed, “Guards! Lock these women up! Take them away1” And while she’d bled dislike toward me before the dragon came, there was an urgent, seething hatred in her this time around, and I couldn’t quite understand why that was the case. Then, I remembered my mother’s words. It wasn’t pure hatred anymore, but hatred made more poisonous, with envy.

As I sat in the dark dungeons with nothing but my thoughts for company – they’d locked up Nema, elsewhere – there was a tingling sensation all over my body. It felt as if my mind and body where on fire, and filled with an animal force so powerful, I couldn’t shake it off. I felt I could lift a mountain. I was filled, I realised, with the life force of the dragon, and I could feel the world through her eyes. It was scary and exhilarating and unlike any vartha experience from before. Normally, the feelings disappeared when the connection was severed with the other person, but with the dragon Maia, it lingered on well past her departure. I could still feel her movements, her flying southwards, her frustrations and her hunger. She’d spared me. We were connected, now. So, when the guards told me of Ambala’s plan to execute Nema in two days, I knew what I was going to try and do, even before the thought had formed into words in my head. I had nothing to lose. Except Nema. And I would die rather than let that happen.

The dragons came on the morning of the second day. They tore the city apart. I sat with a steel heart and broken mind, knowing I’d had a plan, and had clung onto it even as I’d felt buildings collapse and smelt the smoke and heard the beasts screech in the skies above, which reverberated through the damp walls. I thought of my mother and prayed to the Seven Suns that she’d be spared. But I knew in my heart the time for this had come. Change. And, like all upheavals, it came with blood and fire.

I’d communed with Maia. I could reach into her being and convince her that she needed to help us. There was nothing in it for her. The act of altruism was alien to the Southern Clan. But, Maia had heard me. And I’d hoped and prayed she would answer my call. She did. Her band of dragons made for the Citadel and reigned fire upon it. I could smell the charred ruins of building and men and hollered for the scampering guards. When I finally, managed to get the attention of a viscerally frightened sentinel, I’d asked him to tell the High Priestess I knew how to make this stop. “Tell her I can talk to the dragons,” I’d said, knowing she’d believe me, after what she’d witnessed, but a few days ago. Time was of the essence. It’d been a simple plan, but the price that was paid that day, with the death of scores of innocents, would stay with me throughout my life. I’d known no other way.

Suffice to say, a new era was ushered in, reluctantly by Ambala, where the Doutha would be treated with greater equality, and laws were brought in, to protect their rights. They could never be forced to clean the latrines and sewers, again. And their children could study along with the rest. No more were they relegated to the shadows. And no more were their shadows to be cursed. They could walk side by side, head held high, with the rest of humanity. If it seems too simple and good to be true, I can assure you, a price was paid. The dragons would leave Layrda alone, but I could never walk without looking over my shoulders, ever again. I’d been marked for revenge, and when the time came for Ambala, High Priestess of Layrda, to act upon her bloodlust, Klustria would be changed forever. But I fought back. And I had the Dastardly Den of Dragons on my side. That is another story, and I grow weary from this effort of recollection. The dragons are all gone now, and even as I write these words, I’m reminded of the existential debt I owe them, for showing me a kindness that went against their primal instinct. Us mortals are more complex; our motivations layered and nuanced, and rarely, do we do things without expecting recompense. I never told a soul what I’d asked of the dragons. Of my blood-soaked request. That was my guilty secret to take to the grave. But my mother guessed, of that I’m sure. I must go now; Nema beckons. She’s not got much time left, and I’ve promised to spend the last days providing the healing touch of vartha. It’s the very least I can do for a friendship that brought the world to its knees and changed the course of history.


Madhurika is an impact investor ( and freelance journalist whose work frequently appears in The Hindu, India’s leading national newspaper, in the Op Ed. She’s an engineer and holds a Masters in Biotechnology from Columbia University, New York. She loves to write, but lives for music. She plans on pursuing her PhD in Cancer Biology, soon. She lives in Chennai, India.

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