The Journey to Death (A story about magic, love and, of course, death)

March 29, 2012
One day, in the bustling oasis of concrete that is Mumbai…
A conversation floated out of an open window in the house on the hill.
“… Another amazing story, aunt Veda. How do you do it?”
“Remember, Antara, that it is easy to tell stories when you have lived them. But people will kill for stories, and, if and when I die, suspect foul play…”

Two weeks later
“Aunt Veda, I’m home!”
Antara, a gangly teenager with black hair and green eyes ran up the stairs to the first floor of the house she and her aunt shared. Bursting into the library, she saw her aunt napping in her favourite chair. “Aunt Veda? I’m back. School was boring today. Aunt Veda, wake up!”
When repeated shaking failed to wake her aunt, Antara picked up her cell phone. Then she noticed the scrap of paper in Veda’s hand.”Oh!” she exclaimed, as her hand moved forwards on its own and picked the piece up. Stuffing it in her pocket, she dialled 102 for an ambulance.

“Child, she’s no more. Is there anyone who will let you stay with them?” Antara stared at the doctor in shock. Aunt Veda, dead? She remembered their conversation from a few weeks ago and realized that she could trust no one. To the doctor, she said, “I’ll stay with the neighbours. I can go by myself.” “Are you sure, child?” asked the doctor, but he was talking to thin air. Antara had left.
Back at the house, she absentmindedly put her hand into her pocket, looking for something to wipe her tears with. Instead, out came the piece of paper. She unfolded it and read;
“An ancient evil awakes,
That only the chosen two can stop.
Buried underground, lost in time
Beneath the land not covered
By a holy ones’ step
Magic lies,
Yours to find.”
And below the poem, in Aunt Veda’s untidy scrawl, it said, “In the library.”
Following that clue, Antara ran up the steps. On the desk before the window, a book lay open. Antara picked up the book and starter reading the story of Vishnu’s fifth avatar, Vamana. And then she fell asleep.

Antara was woken by a strange sound. It was the sound of silence. “Hello? Hello?” she asked to the seemingly empty house. “Hell…….mph!” her words were cut off as a hand was clapped over her mouth and she was lifted into the air by a huge man.

Rakshas was puzzled by his latest assignment. He normally refused requests to visit the same place twice, but the price the KalaAnkhs were offering him was so exorbitant that he couldn’t deny the offer. But then he received his orders. “Don’t kill her. Knock her out, torture her, but try leaving her alive. We only want the paper,” was what the Toran of the KalaAnkhs, Manas, had said.
This time, the security had been easier to easier to pass. And his target was sleeping! But not for long. She had woken up and was struggling. Looking around for something he could use to knock her out, he noticed the mirror from the wall levitating. He barely had time to duck before it hurtled itself at his head. The girl couldn’t be doing this. Her eyes were yet to acquire the violet tint of a sorcerer’s eyes. “Quit wondering,” he mumbled to himself. “Duck!” His body responded instantly, the magic that held him together working perfectly. Then he gasped. Of course, the girl would bite him. She was still conscious. He was making mistakes.
Antara fell out of his arms and rolled to the other side of the room. She couldn’t believe her eyes. The furniture was shaking violently, forming a barrier in front of her. She took a deep breath, trying one of Aunt Veda’s breathing exercises as her left hand extended in front of her. Bending her fingers towards the man, she shouted, “Fire!” imagined him burning. Flames appeared on his coat and she blacked out.

Nikhil stood anxiously over Antara’s body. It had been fifteen minutes since Rakshas had run away, most likely with second degree burns. Impressive magic for a first timer. Now it was getting dark, and they had to leave before nightfall, when the KalaAnkhs were most active. He looked down at Antara’s face as her eyes fluttered open. They were a stunning shade of violet. “Hey, Antara. I’m Nikhil. Do you remember what happened?” “I think so,” she said. “Some guy grabbed me…And I made him catch fire!” To calm her, Nikhil said, “That was magic. Like the kind in Veda’s stories.” She considered this for a moment, and asked, “Who are you? And why can’t I see you properly?” Nikhil knew he had no choice. He said, “Your aunt was a member of a society of sorcerers. I was her apprentice until I died.” “So you’re a ghost. How old are you? My age? Fourteen?” He shook his head. “Actually, I’m sixteen. But that isn’t important now. Your aunt wanted to protect you from our world, but it’s too late now. We need to leave before nightfall. There are people coming after you.” She was shocked, but nodded. “I’ll just pack some clothes and stuff.” Nikhil smiled. He liked girls like that.

“So my aunt was a member of a secret society?” “Uh-huh” Nikhil replied. “They’re called the Roshinis. Kavya, who was you’re aunt’s teacher, is their leader. She’s called the Prema.” “And we’re going to meet them? Where are they, and why?” Antara’s questions for Nikhil were endless. They were walking along Chowpatti beach, hidden by a storm that seemed to be right above their heads. “Are you causing this storm?” she asked. Nikhil chuckled. “Not me, the Roshinis. I contacted them while you were unconscious and they agreed to provide us protection. Yes, we are going to meet them,” he said, sensing Antara’s next question. “Their headquarters are underground, and connect most of Mumbai. There’s even a path leading to Mukesh Ambani’s house! The Roshinis have centres all over India, ‘cause it’s their job to find and train all sorcerers. If everyone knew about magic, the mortals would get pretty worried. So they keep it a secret. Shush now, we’re nearly there!” Antara watched as he climbed up a rock ledge with ease. Once he reached the top, he looked around, and then floated back down. “That’s the entrance, but the rock’s too slippery for you to climb. Do you remember the magic you did against Rakshas?” “Yep. I felt really mad and kind of weird, and I was thinking about hurting him. And I sort of screamed,” she said, and blushed. ”That’s alright,” Nikhil said. “You don’t need to scream, but this time, tap into your emotions. Breathe calmly, and pay attention to the air around you. Manipulate it, feeling the spaces, and use those to push yourself upwards.” Antara nodded, but could feel the butterflies in her stomach, trying to escape. Nikhil looked at her pale face, and said, “Don’t worry. I’ll catch you on the ledge.” She nodded, and started feeling the air around her. Then she counted to ten, giving Nikhil enough time to reach the top. When he waved to her, she pushed at the gaps, and flew upwards. Then she was falling, and landed on a cushion of condensed air, saying, “You didn’t catch me!” Nikhil laughed and replied, “Technically, I’m just ectoplasm. I can’t catch people!” Antara frowned, and then said, “Fine. Where’s the entrance?” Wordlessly, Nikhil pointed at a large, flat stone a metre away. Antara took a step closer and gasped. The stone was beautiful. There was a carving of a rising sun on it. She turned around and looked at Nikhil. “Why can’t you open it?” she asked. He flashed a crooked smile and said, “It won’t open for me. Ectoplasm, remember? But I can tell you how to. Put your hand in the palm-shaped depression. Now, just think about the magic you’ve done and it will open. It behaves differently for different magic signatures.” Antara put her hand onto the surprisingly warm stone. Before she even thought about it, a flame licked across the rock and something jerked her into it. Her eyes closed and when they next opened, she was inside a cave. The torches on the walls flared to life and she screamed, “NIKHIL!” Then she turned around and he was standing behind her. Under her breath, she cursed, “Ectoplasm.”

“There are a few things you need to know,” said Nikhil, “First, everyone will expect a lot of you, as Veda’s niece. Second, don’t give them the prophecy.” Antara looked down at her feet and said, “Umm, Nikhil, about that. I think I’ve figured a part of it out. The fifth avatar of Vishnu, he took three steps, didn’t he? And...” “He didn’t step on the underworld!” Nikhil finished, and grinned from ear to ear, but the grin faded and was replaced with his ‘thoughtful’ face. “But that means... we have to go to the underworld,” he mumbled, half to himself. Then he faded from view to hide his actions from Antara. He took the piece of paper from her pocket and, reading it once, hid it. Leaning forwards, he whispered in her ear, “Don’t worry if you can’t see me. I’ll be right behind you. She nodded and continued down the long stone corridor, towards the Roshinis.

“Welcome to our sanctuary,” said Kavya, leader of the Roshinis. “I am the Prema. You must be Veda’s daughter.” The girl looked confused. What was her name? Tara? Kusumita? Apoorva? “What’s the matter, Apoorva?” The girl looked even more confused than ever, but finally said, “My name is Antara, not Apoorva. And Veda was my aunt, not my mother.” Kavya looked at the girl with pity. Of course she didn’t know. Veda had tried to protect her from the world of magic, but evidently had failed. She cleared her throat and began, “Child, Veda was your mother. She didn’t tell you to protect you from the evil KalaAnkhs.” When the girl didn’t react, Kavya frowned. She had expected more of a response. Then she continued, According to our sources, you have recently come into your gift. It is our job to help you develop it. Now, you will be taken to your quarters.” Antara nodded, and followed the apprentice to her room.

The room was comfortable enough, although sparsely furnished. However, Antara wasn’t paying attention to her surroundings. “Nikhil!” she scream–whispered. A second later, he appeared. “Did you know Veda was my mother?” Nikhil looked distinctly uncomfortable as he began, “ But I sort of guessed.” Antara collapsed onto the bed and stared at the ceiling. “My mother... For fourteen years I thought you were dead.” She was so deep in thought that she didn’t realise that Nikhil had left.
The next few days were monotonous for Antara. Lecture followed lecture on how to use her “powers” for the good of all. After yet another talk from Kavya on “responsibility”, she had made up her mind. In her backpack, she put her few possessions and one thing the Roshinis had given her; a necklace with the North Star on it, an amulet. Then she called Nikhil. “Leaving already?” he asked, making an impish face. “Yep, hilarious. ROFL,” she said. “I need a way out. You know one?” He looked around the room and nodded tentatively. Then he disappeared, whispering, “someone’s coming!’ Antara barely had time to hide her bag, climb into bed with a book and cover her clothes before the door opened. An apprentice came in. “Madam Prema says it’s time for the lights to be turned off. Goodnight.”
Antara was out of bed as soon as the door slammed and Nikhil reappeared. “You need to put them to sleep,” he said, and Antara grumbled, “I know! Shut up and let me concentrate.” She slowed her breathing and Nikhil watched in amazement as a white mist spewed out of – her body? Her mouth? It crept out of the door and, lying close to the floor, spread along the tunnels. When the mist stopped flowing, Antara whispered, “sleep.” Then she stood for a minute, swaying gently, and her legs folded under her, her body collapsing to the floor with exhaustion.
Antara opened her eyes, to see Nikhil standing over her, a worried look on his face. His handsome face, she thought. Then he spoke, and she realised what she had known for a while; she really liked him. The only problem was that he was a ghost. “Are you alright?” he asked her. “You collapsed for a bit. If you feel fine, get up and let’s go.” She stood up shakily, and smiled at him. There was a tenderness she had never noticed on his face. “It was the spell. I’ve never tried that before,” she said, and swung the room door open. With Nikhil leading, they walked towards the Juhu exit. Ten minutes later, they were walking along Juhu beach in absolute silence. “I have a confession to make,” Nikhil said. Antara’s heart beat faster. He’s going to say he loves me! Then he continued, “I’ve never seen anyone command magic in a language other than Sanskrit! It’s amazing!” Antara’s heart fell, but she lightly replied, “Actually, I can’t speak Sanskrit. Where are we going?” “Well’ we’re going to Bombay High. The deepest you can go and the entrance to the underworld.’
They walked to the point on the coast closest to the oil well, and there they encountered the first obstacle barring their way; the heavily guarded checkpoint that provided access to Bombay High. This time, Antara already knew what spells to use. She pushed the air under her feet to levitate a few centimetres off the ground and whispered, “Light,” bending the rays from the huge spotlights around her body, effectively turning her invisible. She floated up to join Nikhil on the roof or the guardhouse. To her surprise, he didn’t notice her. Antara whispered, “Boo!” in his ear, and burst into a fit of giggles when he jumped. “Not funny,” he said with a frown, and continued towards the docks. Antara ducked behind a barrel, and swore when she realised that, of course, she was invisible. Reaching the end of the dock, she said to Nikhil, “We can’t steal a boat!” to which he replied, “We’ll swim till that boat anchored out there for underworld visitors. It’s a natural progression of water manipulation to breathe underwater and propel you.” Antara nodded, walked to edge, held her breath, and jumped into the frigid sea. She tried Nikhil’s method and swum a few metres, but when she tried to go further something grabbed her around her ankle. Her body sank and her lungs filled up with salty brine. Antara thrashed violently, but a huge weight pulled her down.
Nikhil skimmed over the waves, arms spread out and face down. He had left the dock a minute after Antara, and there was no sign of her. He dived under the surface, turning back to check on her, but she wasn’t anywhere. A stream of bubbles rose from under him and he went deeper, looking for their source. Suddenly, the pressure increased. Of course! The KalaAnkhs would have tried to stop them. He doubled his speed and soon saw Antara sinking towards the ocean floor. Magic he didn’t know he could perform pushed all the water between them away, bending to his will and carrying Antara towards the surface.

On a platform attached to the oil well, Antara was coughing up the last of the seawater, Nikhil striding up and down behind her. “I was a fool. I underestimated the KalaAnkhs. I should have known they would go to any lengths to stop us...” At this point, Antara stopped retching and said, “How were you supposed to know? You can’t know everything.” Nikhil stopped his pacing and sat down next to her and said, “No one knows this better than me. Two years ago, while you were in that boarding school in Ooty, Veda and I were looking for the virUpin stone. Yes, that’s what it’s called,” he said with a grin. “It gives the user unimaginable powers and protects them from other sorcerers. Well, we tracked it down, but so did the KalaAnkhs. I started a spell to transport the stone to a safe place known only to us, but just before I named the place, Manas, their Toran, pulled out his sword and, well, he killed me. But the spell worked and transported the stone, not to where it was supposed to go, but to the underworld. Veda must have tracked it down. And the spell allowed me to maintain a semblance of my form.” For a minute, the only sound was the waves lapping on the platform. Then Antara said, “Thanks for saving my life. Now, let’s go. We didn’t come this far to turn back at the end, did we?” And together, they walked towards the entrance to the underworld.
The smoke whirled in front of Antara and Nikhil, and then solidified into a terrifying creature with three heads. Once the smoke had condensed into its snake–like shape, the creature spoke. “The living do not step here.......mortal,” it hissed. “Turn back before it’s too late.......” Antara was quaking with fear, but she stood her ground as Nikhil whispered to her, “Demand the rite to safe passage.” “I demand the rite to safe passage,” she said, her voice sounding unusually loud. The creature hissed its displeasure, but said, “Very well, human. A riddle will be asked of you...are you ready for the riddle?” Antara nodded. “Yessss........the riddle isss....
This thing all things devours,
Birds, beasts, trees and flowers.
Gnaws iron, bites steel,
Grinds hard stone to meal.
Slays kings, ruins towns.
And beats high mountains down.”
“Umm...” said Antara. “Umm is not the answer, mortal. You are denied entry.” “That wasn’t my answer!” Antara snapped, and then said, “It’s time, isn’t it?”
“Hisssssss..........Yes, mortal. You may pass, but just this once...” Scarcely believing their luck, Antara and Nikhil ran through the smoke that the creature had dissipated into, finally nearing their destination.

Walking through the dark tunnels of the underworld, Nikhil and Antara were hopelessly lost. “Do you see that?” Nikhil exclaimed. “What? Oh! The golden trail!” she said. They both turned to face each other and grinned. “It wants us to find it,” said Nikhil. They followed the trail through the dark, musty corridors till they came to...a dead end. Antara’s face fell. “There’s nothing. Amazing.” Nikhil went a step closer, peered at the wall, and exclaimed, “It’s not a wall! It’s a door! But how do we open it?” There was a pause, and he said, “I see. It’s enchanted. It’ll need a sacrifice to open.” Antara turned pale. He turned to her and said, “Can you do it?” When she replied in the affirmative, he continued, “Cut one of your fingers on the rock, and wipe the blood on the floor below it. And have a clear idea of why you want to get in.” Antara made the cut with determination, and bent to press her finger to the ground. As soon as the blood touched the ground, she jumped back like she had been stung. “It stung me!” she said, staring at the wall. Suddenly, flames licked across it, burning towards the middle. The wall dissolved before their eyes, and they stepped into the treasure–filled room, virUpin’s home.

“Is this it?” Antara asked again. Nikhil looked back at her and yelled, “YOU FOUND IT!” Antara looked down in awe and whispered, “We found virUpin!” “Yes. Thank you so much.’ The new voice was harsh. She whipped around as Nikhil hissed, “Manas.” “So nice to see you, my dear. Now, hand that stone over to my minions,” he said. When she shook her head, he frowned. “So naive. Very well, I’ll kill you and take it. An unpleasant prospect, but for you, not for me. Just ask your friend. I’ll give you a minute to make up your mind.” “How did you find us, Manas?” Nikhil asked with a voice like flint. Manas laughed. “We followed you, of course. A simple tracking spell on your girlfriend here while she was underwater. And it was extremely helpful of you to tell us how to open the door. Now, give us the stone.” “No,” said Antara and Nikhil together. Manas sighed and nodded to someone standing in the doorway. The KalaAnkhs moved closer and Rakshas entered the room, trapping Antara in a circle of people who wanted to kill her. “Charge!” Manas yelled.

virUpin glowed white in Antara’s hands as the KalaAnkhs neared. It could feel the fear pulsing through her body. It felt her desire to live. And under that, it felt her desire for revenge. It felt when she started the spell.

Antara pulled her whole being together, tense in anticipation. This was the most complicated spell she had ever tried. It might also be the last spell she performed.

virUpin moulded into Antara’s mind flawlessly. It was ready for the spell. When Antara released the magic, it altered it to suit what she wanted.

Green flames were all around Antara. She stared in shock at the spell – her spell? It was completely changed from what she had intended it to be. The light from the flames got brighter and brighter, and with a loud “CRACK!” they disappeared completely. Antara was alone in the room. “Nikhil!” she screamed, but her voice just echoed back to her, taunting her. “I’m dead,” she whispered, and fell to the ground, crying.

Warm arms encircled Antara, waking her. Someone hugged her, stroking her hair. Antara looked up. “Nikhil,” she whispered, “You’re alive? Or am I dead?” “We’re both alive. The stone must have altered the spell. It’s completely destroyed.” She looked into his eyes; a shade of purple so light they were almost grey. “I love you,” she said. He pulled her to her feet and kissed her. “We did it!” he said. Together, they walked out of the underworld in time for the start of a new day.

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