The cards were not in his favour.
Opposite him sat the ageless Shindu-tai Andharkar, stately matriarch of Gondhalekar Chawl. The hint of a smile hovered upon her face as she glanced at her cards. She adjusted the Tudor bonnet atop her head, which offered some protection against the summer’s oppressive heat. Farrokh sighed, regretting the decision to leave his hat behind for the umpteenth time that day. A single bead of sweat made its way down his face and perched on his nose as if contemplating whether to take the long leap down. He took the decision away from it, shaking his head and dislodging it in a fine impression of a dog drying itself off after a bath. Not that there were any dogs around—no canine dared loiter around Shindu-tai’s massive, midnight-black cat Minerva, who was lounging on the grass nearby.
“Blast this heat,” Shindu-tai said. “It’s unnatural, especially in these monsoon months.”
“It manages to resist my best efforts at weather control,” Farrokh answered, with a pained grin. “And it only gets worse every day.”
Shindu-tai frowned. “Surprisingly, parts of the city have been reporting waves of extreme cold. Did you hear about Powai Lake freezing over? The scientists are saying it’s the end days. Climate change coming for us all.”
Farrokh nodded. The weather patterns had been all over the news. Bombay was experiencing an ineffable juxtaposition of summer and winter.
“The Mayor called it a hoax, as expected. He’s blaming it all on supernatural meddling.” Shindu-tai chuckled. Some things would never change, like the towering incompetence of politicians.
Farrokh fiddled with his cards. “He’s not completely wrong, you know.”
Shindu-tai raised a lofty eyebrow. Another bead of sweat made its way down Farrokh’s pinched face. He glared at it, cross-eyed. Shindu-tai waved a hand and gestured for him to carry on.
“It’s not climate change. It’s a… ahem, how do I put it?” Farrokh frowned. “It’s a state visit from across the pond, and the Ladies are not coming incognito.”
Both Shindu-tai’s eyebrows disappeared into her hairline. She stood, unsettling Minerva. Ignoring the cat’s irritated hissing (and her winning hand) she said, “Come, walk with me, Firedrake.”
The majestic woman held out her graceful arm. Farrokh took it with a smile, his earlier vexation replaced with amusement, despite the danger they were in.
After all, it wasn’t often that he was able to surprise the city’s oldest witch.
Farrokh nodded. “The Ladies of Summer and Winter are paying a visit to the city. The defeat of the demonic horde last summer has piqued Faërie’s interest. They want to see the city that successfully resisted that terror.”
“So, it’s not a hostile visit then?”
“Not unless we muck up their reception somehow. You know how… touchy they can be. Their people sent feelers, asked me to arrange a proper welcome. I’ve given them the coordinates of the Sea Link. Might was well shove the city’s best foot—or bridge—forward.”
“Well, that is far from the only problem we have,” the majestic witch stated, as she played with a squirrel nesting in an ancient tree, conjuring a cluster of too-perfect nuts, swaying from a branch which it could never quite manage to leap upon. “A cosmic entity is hurtling towards the planet. My crystal ball broke when I commanded it to show me the creature. The tea-leaves gave me the when, but not the where. And it is definitely hostile.”
“If I were attacking Bombay, I’d use the Dorothy gambit,” said Farrokh, referencing the well-known story of the mighty witch who had saved the Land of Oz. The tale as told to children made her out to be a naïve Kansas native, but the truth was slightly different, obscured by retellings as stories are wont to be.
In reality, Dorothy Gale had been on a secret mission. Assisted by her famous hound Toto, she had accomplished half her task by landing her spacecraft on her adversary, neutralising her completely. “Your entity will surely want to land in such a way as to destroy one of our power centres… by the ancestor who commissioned it, Hanging Gardens! It will land at Hanging Gardens!”
Hanging Gardens, or Pherozeshah Mehta Gardens as it was formally called, had been put in place to concentrate the city’s magical defences through a whimsical erection known as the ‘Old Lady’s Boot’. Children played there in the daytime, and the power of their happiness and innocence was harnessed by the Firedrake’s people to power it up at night.
Shindu-tai nodded. “So, we will have to take care of that as well.”
“Or… we could send the Sheriffs?” Farrokh wore a marvellously straight face, one he should really employ during cards. “You know, The Saviours of Bombay? Whose job it actually is to protect the city.”
The situation might be dire, but Shindu-tai chuckled.The saviours in question were her grandson, Vaman, and Farrokh’s son, Cyrus. They had indeed managed to save their beloved city from a demonic invasion, but only through a series of comical errors, and though they had been named the Sheriffs of the city for their troubles it was purely a honorary title. Neither she nor Farrokh had any illusions regarding their competence.
Farrokh conjured a flame in his hand and shuttered it close. He repeated the process a few times. “When it rains, it pours, eh?”
The older woman merely smiled, and Farrokh shook his head. “I suppose one of us will have to go face that cosmic horror, and the other receive the Fae. Damned if I don’t feel like I’m getting too old for this shit.”
The lady scoffed. “You would complain of age to me, dear Firedrake?”
“You know what I mean,” the (slightly) younger man grumbled.
Shindu-tai hummed in response, and continued playing with the squirrel. Then she turned to him with a glint in her eye. “I have an idea.”
“Why not?” The grand-witch was the very picture of serenity. “Western companies keep outsourcing their work to Indians all the time. Why shouldn’t we find an Indian guy of our own?”
“The young wizard, Arquin whatshisname? He’s also saved the city from a cosmic threat, you know.”
Farrokh furrowed his brow. He knew of Arquin, whose late grandfather had in fact been a good friend. The lad had certainly acquitted himself well in battles past, and unlike his son and Shindu-tai’s grandson, had actually done it intentionally.
“Even if I agree with this plan—and assuming this Arquin feller is willing—what about the Sidhe Princesses?”
“What young hero would reject such a quest? Don’t be difficult just for the sake of it now,” she tutted. “As for the Ladies, well, you’ve been complaining about finding a suitable bride for Cyrus for a while now. And I’m not getting any younger—at this rate, that idiot Vaman will never give me great-grandkids.”
Farrokh looked aghast.“Surely you can’t be suggesting setting them up with—”
“I am absolutely suggesting that.”
Aghast became dubious.“Why would the Princesses ever agree to marry those louts?”
“It isn’t like any human women are likely to marry them,” pointed out Shindu-tai.
Farrokh coughed. “There is that.”
“Don’t you want Cyrus to find a nice girl and settle down?”
“Yes, I do.” Farrokh sighed. It would be easier for him to battle the cosmic entity on his own than to find a bride for his no-good son. Perhaps an immortal Sidhe would find his behaviour appealing instead of obnoxious? One could only hope.
“Alright, I’m in,” he said. “But not without protest.”
Shindu-tai cackled in agreement, looking for the first time like the witch she truly was, and the squirrel fled from the scary old lady. “It is decided then. I will send Minerva with the appropriate instructions. Both the boys should be at the chawl now.”
Farrokh nodded, and wondered whether he could retire from his post as Guardian of the City, a title very much more than merely an honorific. Maybe this Arquin fellow could prove himself and take over. Let him deal with Sidhe, Cosmic Horrors, and Shindu-tai’s eccentricities! He loved the old witch dearly, yet she scared him to the bones. He was already dreading their next ‘Rummy session’ and the new troubles it would bring.
Oh well, at least the actual game had been left forgotten for now. He had caught a glimpse of Shindu-tai’s cards and counted himself lucky to be leaving the club without losing his money for the fifth time in a row.
Maybe things would work out after all.
Vaman, lacking Minerva’s nimble-footedness, stumbled and almost went over. Only grabbing onto Cyrus’s collar saved him from having a fatal argument with the forces of gravity. “Do be careful, old sport,” Cyrus tutted, helping his friend upright, only to receive a glare in response.
“You be careful, idiot!” Vaman screeched.
“What are you talking about?” Cyrus asked, scratching his head.
“You… nearly… threw me over,” a dumbfounded Vaman sputtered.
“You really need to be more coherent, old buddy.” Cyrus patted his lanky friend, who held onto the railing with both hands to prevent a repeat of the previous incident. “Anyway, is that cat playing with scrolls?”
“Why yes, it is. Let’s go see what secrets grandma’s dealing in now,” Vaman said, already forgetting his previous distress.
The two friends sneaked along the narrow corridor—which in their case consisted of a lot of grunts and winces as they tried to walk astride each other—and pounced upon the cat.
Minerva, as might have been expected, took great offense at being attacked by the two friends. She joined the fray, claws out and snarling. A great battle followed in the corridors of Gondhalekar Chawl, one punctuated by the yowls of an angry cat and the screams and shrieks of two young men. Amidst the chaos Vaman somehow managed to grab one of the scrolls and, counting it as a partial success, he fled the battleground, letting his friend deal with covering his retreat. After all, thanks to his prodigious size Cyrus had a lot more protection against the cat’s clawsthan Vaman did. It was a tactical decision. There was no fear involved.
Left to face an increasingly irate cat on his own, Cyrus withdrew from the fray as well, though not before Minerva had given him a final scratch on one buttock. Her eyes flashed once with malice and magic as she took note of the scroll Vaman had gotten away with. Her job done, she proceeded to the kitchen, intent on eating all the fish in the refrigerator and completing her revenge.
“Well would you look at that, the letter was meant for us all along.” Cyrus pulled his collar with a nervous chuckle. “Why didn’t the silly cat just give it to us?”
“How do you know it’s for us?”
“It’s addressed to ‘Young and Mighty Heroes’. That’s us. Hmm. We have to show visiting royalty around the city,” Cyrus said, puffing himself up. “My Dad and your Grandma hope we will acquit ourselves well… and impress the faery princesses.”
“Oh yeah, how do you know all that?” Vaman grumbled.
“I read faster than you, you school drop-out!”
“I am not a… oh, never mind.”
“I won’t. Let’s go get haircuts. We have to meet them at Hanging Gardens in two days.”
“A missive from the grandwitch, eh,” Arquin said. “Wonder what it’s about.” He cut open the seal and began reading. “Dear Brave Hero… pleased with your work in saving the city last summer… gratitude and congratulations… blah blah, cut to the chase, please… Ah, here it is,” he murmured to his disinterested audience of one. “Cosmic threat incoming, city in danger, arriving at the Sea-Link.” He nodded. “This is right up my street.”
He quickly wrote his answer and gave it to the cat. “Convey this to the grandwitch, would you please? Tell her I’ll be there.”
Minerva nodded once in response and turned to more pressing matters: the swiftly-dwindling supply of fish in her plate.
“The letter said Hanging Gardens, you read it same as I did,” a tetchy Vaman replied. They swung around on rickety playground swings overlooking the shimmering Arabian Sea. Well, Vaman did—Cyrus’ swing groaned under his considerable girth and refused to move. Their note had said Farrokh would ensure the garden was closed to public for the day, which meant the two had the run of the place, and did not have to worry about pesky kids getting in their way.
“Pass that bottle, man.”
“You’ve had enough.”
“No I have not!”
They had, indeed, been drinking since arrival in the hopes of fortifying their spirits. Never the smoothest when dealing with women, they had agreed that imbibing a moderate quantity of alcohol would make them brave enough to deal with the Fae.
Unfortunately, neither had any concept of what ‘moderation’ meant, so they were working on their second bottle of whiskey when something smashed into the gigantic Witch’s Boot which stood in the centre of the garden, crushing it to smithereens, and instantaneously snuffing out every protective ward standing between the city, the nation, nay, the world in a heartbeat. In victorious agony, it let out a scream of agonized victory.
The two young men stared dumbfounded as one massive tentacle became visible over the crater, followed by another and another, until an indefinable eldritch horror stood before them. Unexpectedly it was only as tall as Vaman, but in form it was all indescribable shapes and angles, and looking at it made their eyes glaze over in befuddlement.
The double-headed, many-eyed, multi-limbed cosmic horror looked to see if any were there who dared oppose it and saw two things—locals, it assumed—rather tottering in place. One was of considerable girth while the other was thin as a reed, and both had haircuts that even the horrifying-visaged Old One thought were repulsive.
“D-d-d-did you see that, Vaman?” said the larger one, its slurring voice filled with awe.
“Yes, Cyrus. Such dulcet tones, such indecipherable beauty… I think I am in love.” The thin one’s eyes looked like heart-shaped quarters, slightly cross-eyed.
“Me too, dear buddy, me too,” replied the other one.
They ran towards it, zig-zagging and stumbling. Before it could make out whether their intentions were hostile, they had taken hold of a tentacle each and the confused Old One was swept up between the two lads, all thoughts of attacking the place replaced by bewilderment as it was crooningly serenaded.
“We’ll show you such sights as you’ve never seen before,” said the one referred to as Vaman in a husky voice. Its breath stank worse than the distilleries of Andromeda.
“Indeed, we’ll give you a VIP tour of the ol’ city. Parts of her reserved only for the really special people,” the other—Cyrus—said, nudging and winking at the confused cosmic horror. “Once you’ve seen it, you’ll never want to go home.”
As they left the gardens, a disgusting smell of rotting flesh mingled with sweat hit the cosmic entity. It waved a frantic tentacle towards the earthlings.
“What’s got you in a tizzy, m’lady?” Cyrus said, in a barely-decipherable accent that the Old One would have recognised as an attempt to sound posh, had it ever watched television on Earth. It continued to wave its tentacles at everything around it. “The smell? Oh that’s just the charnel house. They leave those bodies out for birds to devour, it’s actually a holy ritual, y’know.”
“Well, his lot does,” said Vaman, “My lot, we burn them. Sometimes we even make sure they’re dead first!”
“Hurry up now, let’s not meander here. We don’t want to disturb the ghosts and spirits.” Cyrus said. “Come, to my car.”
The belching and confounded eldritch was propelled towards a parked car. Or what might have once been a car. Presently it looked held together by sheer willpower. Unwitting, it joined the earthlings inside.
What followed was terror as the clanky, rattling pile of bolts and metal jangled, bumped, and hurtled through roads with more craters than on some moons the Old One had seen and past traffic that made the great cesspool of the asteroid belt seem like a spacious garden.
“Next stop, Asia’s largest slum, Dharavi. It’s a tourist hotspot,” the two intoned together.
“Halt ladies, lest I have to introduce you to my blade.” Arquin drew his longsword. Sunlight glinted off the cold steel.
Their lips crooked into smiles at his words. “Tatiana, he speaks in the formal tongue!” the brown woman said. “Ooh, I thought it had gone out of fashion in the mortal world, it’s a pleasant surprise to hear such polished language.”,
“Indeed, Titania.” A wide smile bloomed on the pale woman’s face as she shivered in ecstasy. “He even makes delightful threats.”
“Welcome to Asia’s largest slum settlement, dear lady. Foreigners pay a pretty penny to visit this place and unravel its mysteries,” Cyrus whispered in its ears —or where he assumed its ears were—with the tones of one imparting great secrets upon the listener. As this was actually the Old One’s olfactory receptor, it recoiled at the smell of cheap whiskey.
“Indeed,” Vaman piped up trying to imitate his friend’s accent but only succeeding in sounding like he had a nasal infection. “It is a true symbol of the human condition, of humanity’s eternal struggle to break through the sky and ascend beyond mortal limits. To become gods.”
The Old One made a series of clicks and noises with its many mouths and tentacles. This roughly translated to Get me out of here, you disgusting cretins, if one used the Cosmic Entity’s Guide to Conversing Politely. Sadly for the Horror, Cyrus and Vaman’s idea of reading consisted of scrolling through social media, and thus they assumed it was enjoying the experience.
“Smell that?” Cyrus asked, moving his hand in a wide arc. “It’s the aroma of a hundred thousand underpaid, overworked people packed in close proximity, never sleeping, working incessantly to create some of the world’s finest, most expensive leather products. Notice the pungent smell emanating from the sweatshops? It really is distinctive.”
Never before in all of recorded history had a cosmic horror ever paled or turned green, but on hearing their words this one did just that.
A bony, withered man clad in a loincloth and smelling of drink crashed into the cosmic horror. The affronted monster was about to retaliate when a great palm slammed against it. “Watch where you are standing, you yob!” the man shouted before heading off, muttering under his breath about stupid tourists.
The Outer God stood shocked. It touched a tentacle to the slowly reddening palm-print on its central mass. How was it to know that, living here, it was only the third-most-horrifying thing the toothless old fellow had seen today?
It was just about to retaliate with a storm of destruction when Vaman caressed the injury and whispered, “Forget him, m’lady. These uncouth apes fail to recognize your magnificence.”
“Come forth, madame,” Cyrus said, smoothly. “We’ve yet to see the grandeur of Dombivali, the haunts of Kurla, and the shifty streets of Kandivali.”
“No mercy for invaders!” he shouted and leapt, his sword flowing like a silver serpent at his side. He swung—and missed. He struck forth again—only to miss once more.
“Vicious,” said an impressed Tatiana, the Winter Lady, dodging a blow which would have cleaved her in two.
“Persistent too,” Titania added, moving out of the way of a strike to her heart. “Maybe we’ve been away from the mortal world for too long. They’ve improved.” She licked her lips.
“Fine posture, good form,” the Lady of Winter said, sidestepping three blows in quick succession. “Exquisite cheekbones.”
“Scarred and ruggedly handsome, as well as a proficient mage,” the Lady of Summer noted, avoiding a fireball aimed at her. She gave her twin sister a shark-like smile. “I like him.”
“Me too,” Tatiana agreed, her eyes glinting with desire. “Let’s keep him.”
To get to Dombivali, it had been shoved into a train by the two miscreants. No one batted an eyelid at it, multiple heads, tentacles and all, for everyone was too busy jockeying to get into the train themselves. Once there, the Old One had been pushed, smashed, smooshed, punched, slapped, poked, and stamped upon, from so many directions that it completely forgot it was capable of destroying them all with a single thought. Once at their destination, the two fools had shown it, with great pride, a number of bridges that had been begun but never completed, and made it eat something called missal, which had made its mouth burn until it was convinced it was being poisoned—except that both earthlings were eating from the same bowl with relish.
Then it was taken to Kurla, where, in the crowd on the railway bridge, it got separated from its apparent suitors. After this, it spent the next hour somehow being turned around or pushed onto various platforms within the station itself. When Cyrus and Vaman finally caught up with it, it actually felt relieved to see their faces, something which it had not thought possible on any plane of existence.
Now little more than a broken shell of a Cosmic Horror, it limped to Kandivali in Cyrus’ bolt-bucket, screaming silently all the while. It did not care to remember what they tried to show it there.
“Back to Hanging Gardens, then? We will take you over the Sea-Link. Amazing bridge. Amazing. Come, let’s go back to Dharavi, where I parked my car.”
Cyrus’ attempt to overtake the bus ahead resulted in them coming right into the way of a cone of ice, which tore through the window and slammed into the eldritch creature, cutting its tirade short.
Cyrus slowed at the toll-booth. “That’ll be a hundred rupees,” said the man behind the glass. “Bit of a traffic jam today. Wizard fight in progress, you know what that’s like.”
The nonchalance with which this petty government employee treated a deadly battle was the last straw for the Mighty Outer God. It dashed through the car, not bothering to open the door, jumped into the sea, and summoning the last of its energy, left the dimension.
“There goes the love of my life, Vaman,” Cyrus moaned.
“Dear friend, I do think she was the one,” a dazed Vaman agreed.
In the distance, ice and fire lit up the sky as the Lady of Summer and the Lady of Winter continued their courtship of the battling mage.
“I wish she’d opened the door before leaving though,” said Cyrus, with a sorrowful look at the eldritch-shaped hole on the side of his rundown car.
“That could’ve gone better,” the Firedrake sighed, and placed his cards. A losing hand, if he ever saw one. No chance he would be able to escape with his money twice in a row.
“Indeed.” The witch did not smile as she displayed her winning hand, but the twinkle in her eyes was proof of her amusement.
“At least the city is safe.” Farrokh shuffled the cards, hoping to at least win the next round.
“True,” Shindu-tai agreed.
“And relations between Faërie and Bombay have never been better. Titania and Tatiana continue to pursue that rather charming wizard, this time without any property damage.”
“And the kids, bless their stupid hearts, have helped avert disaster, saved millions in collateral damage, and made it out alive.” Cyrus began dealing the second round of cards, and sighed again. “I suppose the Princesses would have never taken a fancy to them.”
“Indeed.” Shindu-tai took the proffered cards and frowned.
“And all because your Familiar was annoyed with the kids and switched the locations on the scrolls.’ A twitch developed over Farrokh’s left eye as he looked at his cards.
The witch nodded, petting the feline lounging in her lap. “Minerva is smarter than the average cat.” Minerva purred, throwing her weight behind the sentiment.
“Sometimes I wonder whether she is your pet or whether we are hers, and she doesn’t want other monsters playing in her sandbox,” muttered Firedrake as he tried to work out a winning combination from the hand he was dealt.
“You worry too much, dear Farrokh.’ The witch chuckled as she continued to pet Minerva. The cat’s eyes flashed once more (and the images on the grandwitch’s cards changed to a more friendly hand) before she closed them in contentment.
All was well with the world.
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