Right now, he was handing over his product—a bag with several opium balls—to a jittery client. But then, all his clients were jittery.
“Take it easy on the smoke, machan, you don’t look too good, eh?” he said. Becoming a big dealer in the district wouldn’t work out too well if all his clients died before his supply ran out.
“Just give it to me. I don’t want to be out here for too long,” the other man mumbled. His eyes were dull black points in deeply sunken pockets, and his leg drummed relentlessly to a beat only he could hear. He grabbed the bag from Govind when it was proffered, tossing a coin pouch at the dealer and starting back through the plantations quickly, almost at a run.
“Otha, a ‘thank you’ would be nice, punde,” Govind hissed, but the man was already several paces away, visible in the light of the full moon as a disturbance between the thickets of tea.
And then there was another disturbance, this one softer, almost imperceptible except for a whisper through the tea-leaves in the moonlight. It cut across the client’s path, and Govind spied the silhouette of a long tail rise above the leaves.
That was when he began to run.
He’d made it about a hundred feet down when giant fangs cut into the back of his neck.
Vikram, his name was, and he’d just appeared out of the morning mist scarcely two days after the killings, carrying little but the rifle slung over his back. He’d heard of children going missing in nearby villages, and was making his way to each of them, to see if the abductions were the work of a maneater. There was one such case in Tirucheri, but his interest now had been piqued by these most recent killings.
Wandering hunters like him were commonplace in the countryside—drifters who never stayed in towns long enough to be hated. They came in, brought down a few maneaters, and then vanished back into the forests with their pay.
“We found them near the entrance of Harish anna’s plantation. They had been thrown over the gate,” the sarpanch told him.
“Was there anything else on or near them?”
“They were killed quickly,” Vikram said, pointing to the puncture wounds on the back of each neck. “Those are typical of leopards. They sever the spine at the neck and shut the body down. But the rest of this doesn’t make sense.” He crouched over the bodies, his palms resting on his knees. “I’ve never seen a leopard leave its kills untouched like this, unless driven away. And you say no one saw the attacks take place.”
“No, we found them just before daybreak, when the first workers came in to open the godowns,” the sarpanch replied.
The hunter fingered at a hollow in his cheek. “There’s one more thing.” He spread his thumb and index finger as far as he could. “This is about as long as a leopard’s canines get, and they’re usually about the width of my thumb. This one’s had to have been almost twice that, by these wounds.”
A spasmic shiver ran up the sarpanch’s spine. There was one that fit that description, but they had burned the incense to her. They had paid obeisance. She wouldn’t come for them.
Vikram stood up and dusted off his trousers. “All right. Could you show me to this plantation? I want to go see where this took place.”
The sarpanch could see excitement flicker in the man’s eyes, a fire lighting up his wan face.
Villagers always thought he hunted maneaters because he hated cats, but in truth, he was enamoured of them. It had taken time, of course. He began as many hunters did, out of a need for vengeance. A desire to kill the evil that had stolen his brother. But that cat, and most maneaters like it, were aged beasts—once-kings driven to desperation by failing bodies, seeking to recapture their dominance. They were outcasts, their actions breaking unspoken treaties between man and cat, bringing ruin to both. And so Vikram hunted them, an arbiter of peace, a soul between worlds.
But he had never seen a maneater behave as erratically as this leopard.
“I’ve asked Harish anna to send a couple of his workers to show you around,” Sarpanch Gunasekaran was saying. “He’s shut his plantation down for the time, out of concern for his people.”
He showed Vikram through the village, prattling on about a new spinning mill, and new factories that Harish had built to bring Tirucheri into the modern age, but Vikram wasn’t paying close attention to his words.
“Remind me, how many people has this one killed?” Vikram asked.
“These two make twenty in the past year,” Gunasekaran replied.
“And they’re never eaten?”
“The ones we’ve found are never eaten. The children… better not to think about it.”
“That’s strange, leopards don’t kill for entertainment. Who were the victims? Where were they found? When were they found?” Vikram asked, rattling off the questions in a staccato burst. People dying was a job prerequisite for him, and he’d grown quickly inured to the grotesque intricacies of his work, but this behaviour, this was fascinating.
“Only troublemakers stay out late in this town, drinking and being nuisances,” Gunasekaran said offhandedly. “These two must have been the same.”
And then he clapped, because they had reached the plain iron gate atop which the bodies had been found. Two plantation workers—a swarthy man and woman in their middle years—waited just inside for him.
“These are Gokul and Kavitha, they’ll take you through the fields,” the sarpanch said, before waving his goodbyes to all three and leaving.
“So,” Vikram said into the silence left by the sarpanch’s abrupt departure, “What do you two think of leopards—beautiful monsters, no?”
“We prefer them when they don’t eat us,” Kavitha replied, shrugging. Gokul didn’t respond, but his demeanour morphed, twisting into something far deeper than anger. He turned and spat into the dirt, walking away from Vikram, his back stiff with unbridled hate.
“Gokul’s son was one of the leopard’s victims last year,” Kavitha said by way of explanation. “They never found his body.”
Vikram groaned. His mouth felt like he’d stuffed several of his dirtiest socks into it. “Right. Well, what can you tell me about this place?”
“Five hundred hectares,” Kavitha said, “give or take. We get a lot of monkeys, snakes—cobras and kraits mostly—mongoose, and other animals around here, usually have a couple guards to keep them away from the crops. There’s about a thousand of us working these fields, though most come in from other villages every day.”
“How many leopard or tiger sightings in the last few years?” Vikram asked. Much easier to speak when it was about the cats.
“Only this one in the past year.”
“You don’t seem particularly scared,” Vikram noted as they caught up with Gokul, who seemed to have cooled off after a little walk up the path.
They looked at each other, then Gokul spoke up. “We fear the cats, in the same way we fear a cyclone—when they come. Until then, we see no reason in giving ourselves more things to live in fear of.” The words came clipped and guttural. Vikram got the sense that for this man, that had been a speech of incredible gravitas.
“Well, this one’s come, so you should be at least a little afraid. Now you can stay here, or you can follow me. I’m going to be wandering all over your fields to look for where this happened.” Vikram paused to look around the gate where the bodies had been found. “Because it sure as hell wasn’t nearby.”
“It went to a massive amount of trouble to get these bodies to the gate,” Vikram said, kneeling next to the track.
“Is that normal for leopards?” Kavitha asked.
“Not in the least. A leopard will usually drag its prey into or near a tree. I’ve never seen one do… this.”
Kavitha’s eyes widened slightly, and she whispered, “Ciruvan,” under her breath.
Vikram hid his instinctive scorn. Ciruvan. Of course the villagers would attribute this to a god. Much easier to lay the blame at some deity’s feet than to acknowledge that they were interlopers, trespassers encroaching on the leopard’s territory.
From a short distance away, Gokul waved to them. “Over here! I found something!” he called, from the bushes near where one of the men had died.
He held a small bag up out of the underbrush. A wave of pungent ammonia assaulted Vikram when he opened it, making him recoil. Inside were the remnants of several balled cakes, broken and crushed. He knotted the handles on the bag and stuffed it into his shirt.
“What is it?” Kavitha asked.
“It’s what our victims were doing out here,” Vikram replied. He pictured the scene—two men, a clandestine meeting under the full moon, a bag filled with opium. And their deal, rudely, and fatally interrupted by the arrival of a leopard, somewhere they didn’t usually show up.
But why didn’t it eat them? Why did it drag them to the gate just so they’d be found?
It was leaving a message.
And with that, Vikram was on his feet and running, his rifle thumping painfully against his hip, back to the sarpanch’s office.
Vikram had come here because he’d heard tell of a leopard terrorizing these parts, and the money from his previous hunt had just about run dry. But this was no simple maneater. And now, Vikram was driven by a different hunger, an incessant craving for mystery.
Gunasekaran had only nodded sadly when Vikram produced the opium. It wasn’t as common in these parts as it was further north, but despite a war to eradicate it, the drug had found its way down even this far south, a rot that had set deep in the country’s bones. “There have been rumours of the poppy’s curse reaching the district.” He shook his head ruefully. “I just never thought it would come here.”
“Do you know anything about the victims from Tirucheri?” Vikram asked. “What did they do?”
“Almost everyone here works for Harish anna’s family in some fashion.”
Vikram knew the system. That future, living and dying under some rich mogul’s thumb, had been his destiny before his brother died. He had exchanged that future for an uncertain life of hunting so he might control his fate. He wouldn’t have his back broken so a rich man—a lesser man—could live ever more comfortably.
No, give him the cats and the shadow of death’s gaze every day.
“But these four adults specifically,” he pressed. “What did they do?”
“I don’t know, but you’d learn more if you just went to Harish anna’s villa,” Gunasekaran replied. “Three of them worked there. The other, we don’t know yet.”
“I’ll have those two workers from the morning show me the way to his villa after lunch, then.” Except he had abandoned them out in the fields. “Do you know where they will be now?”
The sarpanch shrugged. “They might be under the aalamaram. There are food vendors there.”
“Ciruvan is keeping people away,” one of them gummed fervently while Vikram waited to get his dosa.
“We have offended her, so she comes to take us, one by one,” the second one flapped, while flipping the dosa shut over its chicken mash, presenting it steaming to Vikram on a smallish banana leaf, with a side of coconut chutney.
Ciruvan again. Tirucheri too had its idols of the leopard revenant, a ward to keep her pride assuaged. They prayed to her before going into the woods or the plantations. But Vikram doubted her existence. Thirteen years of hunting, and she had never shown herself to him. Surely a leopard god would have exacted vengeance on him for those he had killed?
She couldn’t exist.
Vikram thanked them for the food and returned to the base of the banyan, where a dirt stage had been built around the roots to serve as the panchayat’s meeting spot. Right now, though, it only held Gokul and Kavitha, who he’d caught mid-meal. He explained what he needed, secured their agreement to guide him to the home of the plantation owner, their employer, perhaps that of everyone but the two toothless ancients who’d supplied their food.
When Gokul stepped away to piss behind some bushes, Kavitha spoke, her gaze fixed on the canopy of the banyan above them. “Gokul owes Harish anna his life.”
When Vikram didn’t respond she continued, “I told you about his son, no? Gokul was a guard on the plantation before it happened. When the leopard took his son, he was devastated, sank into his bottles. Harish anna was the one who gave him purpose again. He swore to have the leopard found and killed. That hate is the only thing keeping Gokul going.”
The landlord and tea mogul was an unassuming man in his sixties wearing a white shirt and khakis—and who was sitting on the parapet of his balcony with a cigar in hand, looking over his vast estate. He turned to them with the first creak of boots on wood, surprise quickly melting into a gracious, welcoming smile.
“Ah, the hunter! Just as terrifying as I imagined!” he said, waving the cigar at a few chairs beside him. “Please, make yourself at home.”
“I’d prefer to stand, if that’s all right,” Vikram said.
Harish shrugged, and turned to his two employees. “Have you shown Mister—I’m sorry, I don’t know your name?”
“Ah! Have you shown Mr. Vikram around the estate yet?”
“We helped him find where the attacks happened, anna,” Gokul said, taking off his head-wrap in deference.
Harish shook his head and pulled a long, sad drag from his cigar. “Such a sorry affair, that. But it is the risk we run, living so close to that forest.”
“Truly,” Vikram said. “That’s why we’ve come to you. We’ve found something interesting, and I’d hoped that you might know about it.” He produced the bag of opium from his shirt.
“What is that?”
“These latest victims were trading opium when the leopard attacked. We found this on one of the bodies.”
Harish blinked in confusion. Then he leaned back against the parapet. “I… didn’t know.”
Gokul stepped forward, glaring at Vikram. “Oi, hunter. Harish anna had nothing to do with that.”
Vikram put his hands up. “Of course not. I just wanted to bring it to his attention, nothing more.” He paused a moment, and added, “But if there’s anything you do know, it might help me understand why this leopard is acting so strangely.”
Harish took several thoughtful pulls of his cigar before replying. “I cannot control what happens on every inch of the land I own. I wish dearly that I could, that I might prevent tragedies like this one, but I am not omniscient, Mr. Vikram.”
He spoke earnestly, so much so that even Vikram felt guilty for insinuating that this old man could have known of the drug. “I do not expect you to, anna, I just want to understand why a leopard left two bodies on your gate as a message.”
At this, Gokul interposed himself between Vikram and Harish, his bulk obscuring the older man from view. “You overstep your bounds, hunter,” he rumbled. He looked like he had more to say, but Harish laid a hand on his shoulder, stopping him.
“It’s okay Gokul. I don’t mind.” Harish looked at Vikram. “I commend your intent, Mr. Vikram. Truly, the drug is a disease that needs purging, but you are here to hunt a leopard that has killed twenty people in the past year. Once that threat is dealt with, we can discuss how to handle the drug problem.”
His tone brooked no argument.
“Did you know either of the victims?” Vikram asked.
“The big one, Govind, was a temporary worker on the plantation some time ago. He found… other employment shortly after,” Harish replied.
“And now you know what that employment was.”
“Unfortunately so.” Harish leaned against his parapet wall heavily, the picture of a troubled conscience. “If only he had come to me instead of turning to opium, I could have helped him.”
“You couldn’t have known, anna,” Gokul said.
“All we can do now is find his killer, and hope that the beast has scared the rest of the opium traders into hiding,” Vikram said.
“I wish you the best of luck, hunter. The sooner you deal with that menace, the better for us all.”
Vikram pressed his hands together in namaskaram and turned on his heel, stalking out of the house. Harish, he decided, was either a good man, or a very convincing actor.
Days passed, the goat waking from its unwitting fate to feed and fraternize with its fellows, Vikram freed from his long lonely watch to do little more than eat and sleep and start it over again. In the dark plantation fields, no illicit commerce took place. He sourly lamented the lack of an opium dealer to trade places with the goat—a more likely lure, perhaps—then silently scolded himself for the thought.
He was starting to doubt, wondering if the culprit had moved on to another village in the region, when finally experience prickled intuition. Somewhere past midnight, he knew it was near.
He mounted his gun on the edge of the pavilion and trained it on the goat, not yet settling to watch down the sights. Instead, he watched the forest around him, looking for the leopard’s approach. He’d learned to spot the slight distortions that cats left on the inky blackness of night. To feel their presence in the air. He didn’t want to watch the goat only to have fangs dig into his neck, ripping at his spine. The scars on his back served as a constant reminder that paranoia was his only friend out here.
An instant of movement to his left, gone before he could confirm it happened. The goat slumbered, unaware of the danger it was in. The slightest flicker of a white-tipped tail rising out of the bushes like a cobra, mesmeric and hinting at lethal violence.
It was here.
Vikram loaded the rifle. Held his breath. Waited for the soft thump of claws on flesh. One chance was all he’d get.
The shot echoed in the air, drumming in his ears, melding with the rhythm of his thumping heart. A body hit the floor to lie unmoving. He waited a few minutes, loaded another bullet, and then climbed down to survey the scene.
It was a young male, too young to know to avoid tethered prey. And too young to resort to man-eating? He tried to ignore the churning in his stomach. This was too simple. From its size, this beast couldn’t have been much more than a cub at the time the killings began. It had no deformities or injuries, nothing debilitating that would stop it from hunting its regular prey. There were anomalies, of course, so good health didn’t preclude it from being the maneater. And yet, something about this felt wrong*.*
Torches lit the dirt path leading up to his pavilion, shortly revealing the sarpanch approaching with Gokul and a few others—all bearing aruvals.
“We heard the shot from the village,” the old man said.
“Is this the beast?” Gokul asked, nudging the leopard with his foot.
“It has to be, there was only the one leopard here,” the sarpanch replied.
“Are you absolutely certain of that?” Vikram asked. “This one seems too young to have killed people a year ago.”
“Then maybe those were a different leopard—this one’s mother, perhaps,” Gunasekaran said.
Vikram wasn’t convinced. That explanation couldn’t satisfy the voice within him that screamed that his mystery couldn’t end this meekly. He looked at the leopard he’d killed once more. At its mouth, lolling open in death. At those fangs, which would have fit twice over in the wounds he’d seen on the victims.
He felt sick. This couldn’t be the same leopard. He’d killed an innocent*.*
“We’ll take this back to the village. You get some rest, thambi,” Gunasekaran said, while guiding his men to pick up the carcasses.
“This is wrong,” he whispered.
“What do you mean?” Gunasekaran asked.
“This leopard couldn’t have done it. There’s another one out there.”
“There are no other leopards here,” the sarpanch said. He placed a wrinkled hand on Vikram’s shoulder. “You’re thinking too much. Only this one was dumb enough to come close to the village. It’s over, hunter. Just get some rest for now, and then we can celebrate in the morning. You’ve done this village a massive service.”
With the adrenaline rush fading, Vikram was too tired to argue. But no matter what the sarpanch said, he could dispel the sickness he felt looking at that body, at the child he’d killed.
“Come, Harish anna has prepared a room for you in his villa, in anticipation of your service to Tirucheri.” Gunasekaran patted his shoulder and left to oversee his men. Vikram returned to the villa, whose guards let him enter. Fatigue paid no heed to Vikram’s troubled mind, and took him as soon as he’d touched the downy bed in one of the villa’s many guest rooms.
He did not notice the eyes that watched him from just beyond the room’s window.
A lush garden greeted him, blooming manoranjini, jasmine, ixora, and bougainvillea shrubs mingled with rubber, mango, and tamarind trees. Patches of tilled soil had been set aside at the end of the garden, one holding watermelon creepers, and the other sprouting a controlled forest of sugarcane.
And on the ground, leading away from one large mango tree and over the compound wall, was a set of prints etched deep into the mud.
So big. Unreal.
Sweat prickled the back of his neck, that space of flesh so coveted by leopards. He risked a glance upwards into the boughs of the tree that he now realized stood close outside his bedroom, but did not spy glowing yellow eyes, nor the silhouette of a giant muzzle.
How long had it sat there in that tree, watching him sleep?
Curiosity warred with fear within the hunter, caution trying and failing to temper intrigue. He clambered up the tree and used it to leap over the wall, the landing jarring a shockwave through his legs. The tracks continued on the other side, leading away from the house and brazenly through the heart of the deserted village before entering the forest. The leopard had even stopped to run its claws through the giant aalamaram’s trunk, parting wood as if it were water.
Vikram paused at the forest’s entrance, breathing deep to calm the torrent roaring in his ears, to steel his mind to his body’s desperate urge to pull him from this course. But all reason, all logic, had been shredded by his simple desire.
He wanted to know.
A thin layer of mist had settled over the town and forest, and it swirled in currents around Vikram, parting in tumbling waves at his approach. An early-to-rise mynah sang from somewhere in the dense canopy over him, warning of his presence. A langur took up the cry, and soon the calls reverberated all around him, a cacophony of barks, chirps, song, and screeches to welcome him to the leopard’s court.
The riparian wood of mango, rosewood, marudha maram and plum grew thick around him now, the closer he drew to the river that cut through these woods. But the air was different. The clean smell of mist and flora felt… infected. Tainted by a sharp tang that itched at his mind.
He broke into a grassy clearing as the smell grew stronger, ammonia sending his head spinning. A large shack of wood and rusted iron sheets stood within this clearing, up against the riverbank. It had no windows, and its door was padlocked. A dirty brown sluice ran from its side directly into the water, while a solitary chimneystack rose above it in a vain attempt to join the canopy.
And at the very tip of its prismatic roof stood a giant leopard, regal and condescending.
It was the colour of a forest fire, an avatar of nature’s retribution given lethal flesh. From the six-inch fangs that poked through its lips to the sooty white tip of its almost-prehensile tail it radiated power. It stood fully seven feet at the shoulder, a mass of muscle and sinew that rippled through its coat. The beast stood regal over its prey, watching him with cold disdain writ in its liquid gold eyes.
This is no normal leopard. And the thought rose, unbidden but inevitable, Ciruvan.
His hands, which should have reached instinctively for his gun, didn’t move. His gun would be useless, he knew. And if he were to be judged for his crime, then so be it.
“What are you?” Vikram asked, daring a glance directly at it. He was ignored.
When it seemed apparent that the leopard was not going to move, Vikram edged forward, one eye constantly turned skyward for a sign of the creature’s lethal intent, but the blow never came. He stood before the door with its heavy chain and padlock. Breaking it could draw attention to him, so he circled instead to the back of the building, where a ladder to the roof was propped up against the back wall.
He stepped gingerly onto the corrugated iron sheets, watching for spots where rust had eaten completely away at the metal. Tetanus would be a painful and stupid way to go—assuming the cat didn’t put him out of his misery first. A small hatch sat in the roof, midway between Vikram and the leopard, and to his immense relief, it wasn’t locked. The leopard yawned at him when he scuttled over to the hatch, but did nothing else. Whatever its test, he had seemingly passed. It could kill him with ease, but seemed patently disinterested in making the effort.
He opened the hatch and recoiled from a stench wave of half-processed poppies. Darkness lay heavy over the workshop. A ladder dropped from the hatch onto a narrow walkway that ran around the perimeter of the building. Vikram groped his way from the walkway down to the factory’s floor, which was split by four tables running parallel down the room. Baked clay pots were scattered around the room, and banana leaf-wrapped bundles stood stacked up near the front door. He could just see another door set in the back wall.
The second room seemed to be where they refined the opium before sending it to be packed. Large clay vats occupied one corner of the room, while the furnace and waste chute sat opposite, facing the river. But directly across from Vikram lay the reason he’d been brought here.
A crude but large cell spanned the length of the far wall, occupying fully half the room.
Inside it slept a mass of young children, huddled together for warmth.
Vikram dropped to his knees in front of the cage. “Hey!” he hissed. A few stirred to eye him warily. Cracked lips parted, crying silent pleas. “Just wait, I’ll get you out.”
Vikram grabbed a large pole used to stir the drug resin. He angled it against the bars and pushed until they distended, forming a child-sized space in the cage.
“Come on, give me your hands,” Vikram told them, pulling the children out one by one. He bade them wait inside and returned to the padlocked door. The rusted chains resisted feebly, but gave way soon to his rifle butt, and the factory was open. He gathered the children and guided them back to the village, them limping on legs covered in weeping sores and insect bites, fingernails ripping at burns on their arms. They entered as the first roosters began to crow, a parade damning the village for its blindness.
It wasn’t until he had them all in bed at the healer’s house that he realized he’d forgotten about the leopard.
They stood beside one boy’s bed, the sarpanch having come over as soon as Vikram had sent word to him about finding ten children in the woods. “What do you mean?”
“This is Selva, Gokul’s son,” Gunasekaran replied.
“The boy who was killed last year?” Vikram asked. Gunasekaran nodded. “What about the others?”
“I don’t know. Selva’s the only one from Tirucheri. I’ve sent word to other villages nearby. Where did you find them?”
Vikram told him about the factory in the woods, but kept the leopard’s involvement to himself. Ciruvan or not, the leopard was his mystery to solve.
The sarpanch’s face turned grave, furrows of creases and wrinkles digging ever deeper into his skin. “I did not know how pervasive this infestation was.” He rubbed his leathery face. “But we shall speak of this later. First, I believe that there is a man who needs to be told that his son is alive.”
They suffocated him.
He stood under the aalamaram that night*,* lost in thought and fiddling with one of its innumerable hanging roots when a voice called out to him.
Kavitha approached him from the celebrations at Gokul’s house. “Thank you,” she said.
“You know, I wasn’t looking for them,” Vikram said. “I didn’t know they were alive at all. Just… I couldn’t accept that it was over, and so I went out. This was just luck.”
“And that’s why I wanted to speak with you. I’ve been questioning some things now that you found Selva.” She took a seat on one of the tree’s sprawling roots. “Gokul didn’t witness Selva’s abduction himself. Guna thatha’s helper was the one who said she’d seen the leopard take him away that day. No-one else saw it happen. And that doesn’t make sense. Selva couldn’t have gotten away from a leopard by himself, and he couldn’t have lived in that forest for a year by himself. So I wanted to ask you, where did you find him?”
Vikram, the hunter, was tempted to stay out of this. He didn’t get invested in the plight of villagers. Killing maneaters wasn’t altruism, it was business. If anything, he sympathized more with the cats. But then, none of this was normal. And looking into those fiercely concerned eyes, Vikram found that he wanted to tell Kavitha. She deserved to know about the evil that was poisoning their village. About what the beast had led him to.
Kavitha took the news with a stolid stoicism, like an opium ring was just another minor occurrence in a routine day. Cyclones and hurricanes couldn’t rock this woman, so why would a giant leopard or a drug infestation be any different?
She didn’t speak for a long time, just stared into the boughs of the banyan, where a number of rainbow-winged parakeets jostled for space with ravens. But when she broke her silence, her voice carried the low menace of a building rage. “I think we need to see the children, before I do something stupid.”
She stalked through the celebrations—drawing a concerned look from Gokul—and back to the healer’s house. The children had huddled together, their beds pulled close together. They shied away from the adults at their approach.
“Paavam kozhandai, you must have been so terrified,” Kavitha said.
“We aren’t going to hurt you,” Vikram said.
“He rescued you,” Kavitha said. “We want to find out who did this to you.” A few of the children shook their heads. “Whoever it is can’t hurt you anymore. You’re going home.”
“You’re lying,” one boy said.
“Selva’s going home,” a girl said, her voice barely carrying to them. “But thatha already told us that no-one’s coming for us.”
“Thatha?” Vikram asked.
“Why did you take us from the factory if you were just going to bring us back to them?” the first boy asked, anger rising through his hurt.
“Why did you do it?” Kavitha asked. Her voice was ice. “You had those children kidnapped to make opium. You made them slaves.”
“What are you raving about?” the sarpanch asked, frowning.
“The children told us you’re planning to send them back to the factory,” Vikram said.
Gunasekaran waved a dismissive hand. “They’re malnourished and delusional. You know the state they were in. They aren’t thinking straight. Why would you believe anything they say right now?”
“Your maid was also the last one to see Selva before his ‘death’,” Vikram said.
“I watched my friend suffer for a year, thinking he’d failed his son,” Kavitha said, “and all this time you’ve been strolling around here, knowing exactly where he was—and worse, using him to make that vile thing.”
“He did what?” They all turned to see Gokul, who had left the celebrations to check on them. Who was now dawning to horrific realization.
Gunasekaran’s hands now shook with fear. “Gokul, they’re out of their minds! You know I wouldn’t do this, right?”
Gokul’s response was to rush the old man in rage. Vikram and Kavitha reacted together, grabbing Gokul before he could hit the sarpanch. All of them, save Gokul, turned their backs to the aalamaram.
Vikram saw it reflected in the farmer’s eyes before he turned.
The sleek, giant, form that rose silently in one of the branches, gliding down onto Gunasekaran, forcing him to the floor with implacable, inconceivable force, raking giant claws down his back.
Vikram released Gokul, who had gone still at the leopard’s advent, anger forgotten in shocked reverence. Vikram knew the feeling. The leopard narrowed its eyes, its gaze burning his soul for his sins. And then it raised itself from the body and walked, supremely confident, into the night.
Vikram hadn’t even thought to raise his gun.
Gunasekaran thankfully, was responsive. Four large wounds cleaved his back, the skin peeling away from each cut, soaking him in blood. He coughed weakly.
Vikram steeled himself. “Kavitha, go get the village healer. Gokul, I’m going to need your help holding him down now.”
“Wait.” The old man coughed, spittle and blood dribbling down his chin. “I deserve this.”
“Save it, old man. Tell us when you’re stitched up.”
But Gunasekaran grabbed Vikram’s sleeve, gripping it with quivering strength. “Ciruvan has made her decision. If I die, it is her will.” His breath came in heaving bursts. “Yes, I knew where they were. I helped him set up the factory. Children were easy targets for workers—their disappearances were easy to cover up as leopard kills. And the adults were needed on the plantations anyway. It was the only way to keep him investing in the town. All those new looms and mills he built, that was my payment.”
The dam had broken, and now he sang, even as his body wept for his crimes. “But then you came. With your questions, your investigation. Your insistence to search, making connections with the opium.”
“The leopard I killed,” Vikram said, “the juvenile. It was to put me off, correct?”
Gunasekaran nodded. “He bought it from a zoo, had it brought here and released. Thought you would take your reward and be satisfied.”
“Who?” Vikram asked, though he knew the answer.
“Harish anna,” the sarpanch said, his consciousness fading with the indictment.
Gokul let out a sound unnatural to man, a wretched thing born of bestial fury and despair.
“What should we do?” Kavitha asked.
“First, we need to stop the bleeding. And then we find Harish.”
They carried Gunasekaran to his house and laid him on a bed, and Vikram sent Kavitha to find alcohol to disinfect the wounds, fearing Gokul would embark on an errand of vengeance instead. Vikram had learned to stitch himself out of necessity, but he’d never sewn wounds this extensive before, nor on another’s body. Gunasekaran’s back was a stringy mess of flesh that throbbed like a thing alive, seeping rivers of bright blood onto everything.
“Give me that,” Vikram said, when Kavitha entered holding a clay pot filled with toddy. He splashed the liquid across Gunasekaran’s wounds, prompting a weak moan from the unconscious man. Vikram then pulled a needle and a small spool of string from his coat and set to his task.
He worked quickly, his hands steady but indelicate—if the man survived, he was going to have an awful set of scars to remind him of this incident. Not that Vikram cared.
When he finished, Vikram worried that his patient had already died, but then Gunasekaran coughed, and Vikram’s heart calmed to merely a furious thumping within his chest cavity, no longer the crazed hammering of a madman trying to break free.
With the job done, weariness settled over him with a gentle, unceasing pressure that made his bones creak until his knees buckled. His hands, so steady during the task, now shivered like he’d dipped them in a freshly-melted mountain spring. He fell back onto the floor and drew the first breaths of a man who’d nearly drowned. Stitching himself had been an easy task, because it was only his life at stake. This was another person who lived or died by his hand. A responsibility Vikram had never wanted, had actively avoided. But he’d done it.
The gulping turned into a cough that became a choked laugh, like a rooster being strangled. Gokul watched him silently, dark eyes tinted with something approaching respect.
“Where is he?” Vikram asked the maid who came out at the sound of their entry. Countless thoughts were screaming in his mind now, but they would have to wait until they could talk to the man at the heart of all this.
“Harish anna has taken to his room. I don’t think you should disturb him,” the maid replied, but Vikram pushed past her and climbed the stairs with Kavitha and Gokul at his back, the wronged father’s strong hands flexing between claws and fists with every step.
The master bedroom occupied the entirety of the villa’s third storey, being an ostentatious affair of marble tiles and ivory-framed paintings, with the occasional tiger or elephant bust set in between. Vikram grimaced at the sight. He’d often seen this kind of man’s people waiting when he brought in a maneater’s body. They wanted to buy the head or skin or penis from him, so that their masters could pin them up as trophies of feats they could never dream of accomplishing.
In the middle of all this garishness was a giant four-poster bed, surrounded by a muslin mosquito net that only left Harish’s silhouette visible, now splayed across several large pillows, fast asleep.
“Anna?” Kavitha ventured, just before the iron tang of blood filled Vikram’s nose.
He pulled her and Gokul back into the shadow of the doorway as the figure behind the curtain rose limply, a puppet on strings, and the net curtains billowed, distorting the lithe shadow of the giant cat that held Harish’s head in its massive jaws.
They watched, terrified beyond measure, as the net lifted, bringing the leopard into full view, carrying Harish by the head. It stepped off the bed and dropped the body, grimacing as if it tasted something irredeemably vile. Then its heavy head lifted, cold eyes latching onto Vikram’s trembling gaze, and there it held.
Vikram couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, could do nothing but stare into the leopard’s eyes. After a moment that stretched into eons, it broke contact, and left through one of the room’s large windows, stepping onto the high sill and leaping into the night, dismissive of all witnesses.
“Ciruvan, protector of the voiceless,” Kavitha said, her voice a reverent whisper.
Vikram followed it to the window, ignoring the body of the tea owner and would-be drug kingpin, but the beast had vanished.
Vikram looked down at Harish. He had never seen his revenant come for him. His eyes were closed, the lines of his face eased in his endless slumber. It would have been easy to think him just asleep, if not for the gaping hole where his throat had been.
Vikram felt a stranger in his own skin. He had long considered himself an expert on the beasts he hunted. Now he felt as ignorant as a newborn. “Do you think she came because of the children?” he asked.
“That, and because of the factory,” Kavitha replied. “She asserts her dominance. The forest is her land, and no-one can infringe upon it.”
“We should go,” Vikram managed.
“Leave me here,” Gokul said. He stared at the body of his treacherous benefactor, a straight back belying the war taking place in his heart. “I’ll deal with the guards—they won’t do anything to me.”
Kavitha and Vikram left through the window, climbing down the vines encircling the house as Gokul’s call drew the guards from the perimeter before slipping from the dead man’s compound and making their way back to the village itself.
They walked in silence, and Vikram felt the weight of his rifle lie as heavy on his back as a fallen tree. A leopard goddess. She had made him her tool, set him to discover the guilty so she could serve up her own justice.
But what of him, a hunter who taken the lives of so many of her kind?
The ugly assembly of iron and wood had been pummeled into the ground, the boards and sheets left shattered and bent on the ground, and the chimney toppled to become a bed for the denizens of the forest floor. The sluice, which had been feeding its poison to the river, had been brutally dismantled and thrown onto the riverbank. Nothing of the building remained untouched.
And standing on top of the rubble she’d created, in a pool of dazzling sunlight, was Ciruvan herself.
Vikram slowly unslung the rifle from across his back and dropped to one knee… but instead of aiming, he lay the weapon on the ground of the clearing and took up a chunk of broken stone cast from the chimney, lifting it over his head. Ready to smash his weapon. At her command.
He owned no guilt. As a hunter he killed only maneaters, only worthy, necessary prey. But Harish had been a maneater too, of a sort, and because of him Vikram had killed an innocent. One of hers.
Let Ciruvan decide if he should pay for that with his livelihood, or life.
He waited, stone held high, until the goddess deigned to acknowledge his presence.
The giant leopard’s eyes paused for the briefest moment on Vikram’s, an infinite sea of the coldest gold, and then she rose and loped out of the clearing opposite him, her tail held high.
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