PodCastle 759: INDIGENOUS MAGIC – Anu and the Vetala
Anu and the Vetala
by Srikripa Krishna Prasad
The marble-tile floor of King Vikramaditya’s throne room is cold against Anu’s forehead. As she prostrates herself before him, body curled into a ball as her forehead meets the point of her hands, she can’t help the contempt that rises in her throat like vomit. Such riches, while she has to beg in front of the court for a chance at life.
“Rise,” intones the king.
Teeth clacking as she fights back shivers, Anu painstakingly lifts herself to her feet and meets his eyes.
“What brings you here?” he asks, courteous.
Anu breathes in deeply, taking the opportunity to look around the throne room. The marble walls are gilded with gold and tall, carved pillars support the ceiling, which is painted with figures of the king in various battles. Cushions and mats surround the throne where the ministers and court musicians would usually sit — once a week, the king banishes them from court in case they are the subjects of a civilian’s complaint. The throne itself is just how the stories describe it — carved into it are the figures of the thirty-two apsaras, the virtuous spirits who recognized King Vikramaditya as the most noble of kings. The king’s wives are absent; Anu wonders if they are even allowed to be present when the king holds court.
Allowed to. Anu’s mouth curls, and she quickly controls herself. You need him, she reminds herself. He is the most generous of all kings.
“Your Majesty,” she begins at last. “I come at the behest of the many stories told all around the nation of your grace and benevolence. Tales of your generosity and courage have been recited loudly enough to reach even my small village, far in the south.”
The king smiles, pleased. Anu swallows, then continues. “Your Majesty, I have journeyed for one month to bow before you and make a request. You see, I am very ill.” Anu curbs the roll of her eyes as the guards conspicuously move away from her. “The physicians in my village could not find a cure, nor could the ones in the cities around me, until one finally revealed my condition is one that can only be cured by great magic.”
“This is truly unfortunate,” the king says. “What ails you?”
“Intermittent fevers,” Anu replies. “They used to come on every few months, but now they have been occurring weekly. I fear for my life, Your Grace.”
“I see,” the king says, thoughtful. “What is it that you seek from me?”
“I have heard that you employ a sorcerer.”
The king’s eyebrow arches. “Indeed, I do.” He gestures towards a man standing in the far corner of the throne room, who comes forward. He carries a wooden staff and is dressed in a plain, white dhoti. Something about him reminds Anu of a coiled snake about to pounce.
“Speak, sorcerer,” says the king, “and tell this woman if you may assist her.”
“Your Majesty,” the sorcerer says, lying flat on his stomach and bowing to the king before getting to his feet. His eyes turn to Anu, assessing. “I have indeed heard of the illness of which you speak. The recurring fever addles the mind, making one confused and senseless before death finally arrives. It truly is tragic.”
“Do you possess enough power to cure me?” Anu asks, hope a hummingbird in her chest.
The sorcerer winces, and Anu’s blood turns cold. “I possess the knowledge to, I believe,” he says slowly. “But I lack sufficient power without something to amplify my magic.”
“What might that be?” Anu asks.
The king and the sorcerer exchange a look. Anu tenses, suddenly uneasy.
“To cure your illness,” the sorcerer says, “we will need the power of a vetala.”
A vetala. A spirit that possesses and animates corpses, whose powers are so great that it can see into the past or the future, enchant people, and perform other dark magic.
The very creature that the king has famously been trying to capture for two years, now, without any success. Anu shouldn’t know this, but despite the king’s attempts to hide his failings, the stories have spread from the palace to the common people like a plague. Anu keeps her mouth shut.
“I was not aware that a vetala could heal,” Anu says slowly.
“Indeed, it is not well known or understood,” the sorcerer says. “But they might possess this ability when redirected by an external conduit, like me.”
Anu nods, brow furrowing as she thinks. How should she proceed now?
The king looks vaguely amused. “You do not seem so shocked,” he observes. “You are quite brave, aren’t you?”
“I risked my life to come here, just for a chance to live,” Anu says wryly, forgetting to be deferent. “I might still die, in the end, with what you’ve told me. In the face of all that, I am nothing without my bravery.”
“I see,” the king says, sobering. “I apologize for the news, then. If you would like, I can arrange a carriage home — ”
“Wait,” Anu interrupts. The king’s expression clouds at being interrupted, and Anu winces at her blunder. “Is there a vetala near the city?” She knows there is, but she keeps up the pretense of ignorance.
The king stiffens. The sorcerer boggles, his mouth opening and closing like a dying fish.
“If there is,” Anu continues, knowing that this will offend no matter how she puts it, “I would like to attempt to retrieve it.”
The king’s fingers clench around the arms of the throne. The sorcerer remains silent, but his eyes go calculating.
“Do you know what you’re saying?” the king asks, icy, keeping his voice low. His gaze bores into Anu. “This is an evil, immensely powerful spirit. Even I — ” He stops himself, face paling.
Anu quickly speaks to mollify him. “I recognize that I, a lowly servant, am unlikely to succeed,” she says, “and surely one such as yourself is better suited for the task. But I recognize that Your Majesty must have put his duty to the people first instead of pursuing this quest.”
The king pauses. “Yes, it is as you have spoken,” he says.
Anu bows. “Your Majesty is truly honourable. I assure you, my desire to live is strong, and I am glad to think that in retrieving the vetala, I might help you obtain something that will further your power.”
The sorcerer’s eyes gleam with anticipation. “Your Majesty, I urge you to consider her offer,” he says. “What is the harm in letting her try?”
The king’s eyes are still cold. Anu waits, sweat coating her palms. Which will win — his pride or his ambition?
Finally, the king inclines his head. “Very well,” he states. He glances at the sorcerer and the few other nobles in the room, then smiles. It’s forced and doesn’t reach his eyes, but Anu knows now that his image is important to him. “If you succeed, I will even grant you a home and enough money to live within this city.”
“Your Majesty’s benevolence knows no bounds,” Anu responds.
“But,” the king says, low, “you will only have thirty days, until the next full moon, when my sorcerer’s ability is at its peak. I cannot lend out my sorcerer and guards for too long.”
More like he doesn’t want people to notice any more than they will, Anu thinks. How it must rankle this proud king to rely upon a servant girl.
Anu nods sharply. “Yes, Your Grace. Thirty days, and the vetala will be yours.”
The next day, at dawn, the king sends the sorcerer and ten guards to accompany Anu, as well as enough supplies to last a month. He tells her that the party will be setting up camp in the mouth of the forest for the month while she ventures deeper in. “For only thirty days,” the king warns.
“Yes,” Anu says. “I understand.”
The king regards her. “I will give you these words to guide you. One, once you carry the vetala’s corpse, you must not utter a sound, or it will go back to the tree. Two, you must not let go of the vetala even once, or it will leave. Three, the vetala always lies. Heed these wisely.”
Anu bows. “Thank you. I will do my best to honour you.”
The journey to the forest takes less than a day. Satchel in hand, she leaves the party behind and heads into the trees without a single look back.
The forest is thick with trees at the start, birds twittering and soaring from branch to branch above Anu’s head. Sunlight streams in through the canopies above, and the ground underfoot is rich and loamy, making for a pleasant trip. Anu breathes the air in, the tension in her body easing.
But as the hours pass and the first splashes of sunset soak into the sky, Anu notices that the trees have become even denser, and that all birdsong has stopped. Twigs crunch and branches crack all around Anu, as though creatures of great weight stalk her in the night. Anu quietens her steps and presses forward.
After night has fallen, a little under a day by her estimates, Anu finds the banyan tree. She knows it not only by sight, but by pure instinct; something inside her rears its head, baring its teeth. She approaches cautiously, finding a path by moonlight.
The tree has a hollow in its trunk, big enough to fit at least two people. This will make good shelter for the month, though Anu has no plans to stay that long.
She drops her satchel and circles the tree to look into its branches. Near the back is the one biggest and closest to the ground, upon which sits the corpse. It has long black hair and is dressed in an old white sari — the colour of mourning. Its dark brown skin is slightly ashen. It is leaned back against the trunk in a position of repose, its eyes closed. Were it not for the lack of breathing, Anu would mistake it for someone . . . well, alive.
Aside from all that . . . the corpse — or, rather, the person it was — is beautiful.
Anu rids herself of that thought and places her hands on her hips. She could try to carry the corpse now, since it is at rest, but how? Maybe the body is light enough for her to bear the weight? But touching it might wake it up . . .
Anu shakes her head at herself. She has thirty days. She should get her mistakes out while she can.
Regret twists her insides as she approaches the body. Her parents had always taught her to respect the dead, and here she is, desecrating a body for her own wishes.
“Stop it,” she murmurs to herself. “You’re doing this to live.”
Anu takes a breath and pulls the body into her arms.
She almost drops it — not because of the weight, but because of the surprise. It’s feather light, almost insubstantial in her arms, and surprisingly warm. Anu takes a few experimental steps away from the tree, marvelling at the ease of her movements.
“Well, all right, then!” she crows.
The corpse disappears from her arms.
Anu blinks. “What . . . ?” She turns, and the corpse is back in the tree.
Only this time, the vetala stares back at her, its mouth quirked into a grin. It gives a little wave and says, “Well, this is new.”
Anu screams and staggers back, bracing her hand against the tree for support.
The vetala tsks. “That will have cost you, too,” it says lightly, jumping to the ground. “No talking, screaming, yelping, or any sound allowed. Didn’t your king tell you that?”
Despite how her knees buckle and her ears ring, Anu can’t help but grimace. She forces the irritation to override her fear and stands upright. “He’s not my king.”
The vetala raises an eyebrow; Anu thinks it looks almost intrigued. “Oh? Are you not here at his behest? What else would bring you here?”
“I want to live,” Anu hisses. “This is the only way.”
“Hm,” the vetala says, disbelieving. “Well, good luck with that. I won’t make it easy for you.”
And with those words, it launches itself back into the tree and, presumably, goes back to sleep.
On trembling legs, Anu makes her way inside the hollow of the tree. The night is eerily quiet, and there’s a monster just above her, but somehow, she falls asleep in moments.
Anu wakes up to singing.
It takes her a moment to remember where she is. She wolfs down a mango from her satchel, then goes outside. The vetala sits on a branch, eyes fixed on the rising sun. Its voice is melodic and mournful as it croons a folk song.
Anu finds herself mouthing the words, transfixed. When the vetala stops, the sun has fully risen.
“Are you fond of music?” the vetala asks. Anu jerks, realizing that the vetala must have been watching her the whole time.
“Yes. My parents were, too,” Anu answers, then wonders why she did. An enchantment? But the vetala looks surprised at her response, too.
“Hm. Well, let’s get this over with, then,” the vetala says, tilting its head.
Anu frowns at it. She finds that she is not afraid anymore — just irked at its nonchalance. She marches over and hauls the vetala over her shoulder. The vetala is silent and compliant as she follows the path towards the forest’s entrance. Anu doesn’t know what it’s doing, but she takes advantage of it and quickens her pace.
As late afternoon approaches, Anu notices sweat pooling down her forehead, dampening the underarms of her blouse. Her sari sticks to her legs.
Only then does she realize that the vetala is dead weight on her shoulder. In that instant, the vetala’s weight triples. Anu staggers against a tree.
The vetala lets out what can only be described as a giggle. “Let’s see how long you can keep this up,” it says, mocking. “Remember, you can’t drop me, or this is all over.”
Anu lets out a sharp breath. She tightens her lips and attempts to keep moving, counting to keep focus. On her sixteenth step, her foot twists on a root, and she goes tumbling with a cry. The weight disappears instantly.
Anu spits curses into the soil. She takes a break for an hour before traipsing back to the tree. It’s dark by the time she returns, and her stomach complains. She throws the vetala a dark look as it chortles at her from its perch, munches on some grains and chaat, and then goes to sleep, fuming.
The next few days go much the same, although even as Anu adapts, the vetala varies its tactics. She finds that she can bear the weight for longer if she takes one step at a time and takes breaks every hour by dropping to her knees and catching her breath. The vetala responds by abruptly distributing all its weight to one side of Anu’s body at random, causing her to eventually topple and lose her grip. A few days in, it doesn’t use its weight tactic at all; instead, it keens for hours straight into Anu’s ears, until she can’t take it anymore and is forced to cover her ears. They don’t stop ringing for the entire journey back to the tree. On the eleventh day, the vetala bypasses all attempts at magic and repeatedly jabs its fingers into Anu’s ribs until she’s wriggling on the ground, peals of furious laughter escaping her lips. This time, the vetala watches her for a long moment as she heaves for breath, its eyes unnervingly intent, before giving her a jaunty salute and vanishing from her arms.
“That’s not fair!” Anu shouts at it when she stomps her way back to the tree. She’s aware that she’s being childish, and to a monster at that, but she’s angry. “You can’t do that!”
“Says who?” the vetala says, chin in its hands. Its smile is infuriatingly pretty, and heat rises in Anu’s cheeks. “You’re the one bothering me.”
Try as she might, Anu can’t argue that. Instead, she makes a rude gesture at it and enters the tree.
Halfway through her meal, a shadow covers the hollow. Anu flinches as she meets the vetala’s playful eyes.
“You know,” the vetala muses, taking a seat at the entrance. “You’re a lot more fun than the king was.”
Anu pauses, curiosity getting the better of her. “Really? What was it like when he came?”
The vetala snorts. Something in its eyes go dark. “Easy.” Anu’s eyebrows fly to her hairline, and the vetala clucks its tongue. “It was easy to goad him into speaking every time. His will was servant to his pride. Not like you, I can tell.”
Anu squints at the vetala — is that a compliment? “What did you do?”
“Every time he tried, I gave him riddles and asked him to answer them.”
Anu waits. Nothing else comes. “That’s it?” she asks, incredulous.
“Like I said, he was so prideful that he couldn’t resist showing off his knowledge. It was easy to goad him into speaking; I just implied that he likely didn’t know the answer.” The vetala grins, sharp. “He lost his temper frequently. He shouted at me, cursed at me, even tried to hit me — I didn’t let him, of course.”
Anu shifts, uncomfortable.
The vetala hums. “Feeling guilty? You should.” Its voice goes quiet, melancholy. “All I wanted after I died was to be left in peace. You can’t even grant me that.”
Anu bites her lip. “For what it’s worth,” she says, “if I didn’t need to, I wouldn’t be doing this.”
The vetala scoffs. “It’s not worth much at all,” it says. It gazes at her for a long moment. “But I don’t sense that much regret. You’re used to dirtying your hands, aren’t you?”
Anu shrugs. “I wouldn’t murder someone. Probably.” The vetala appears to hold back a laugh; Anu finds herself unexpectedly pleased. “But other than that . . . I don’t really have morals, I suppose. I’ve stolen, begged, and bartered my entire life just to survive. I’ve done . . . other things.” She gestures at her whole body as elaboration. “Things I would be condemned for, that someone else might not be proud of.”
“But you are.”
“I want to live.” Anu holds the vetala’s gaze. “I don’t see why I should be shamed for that.”
The vetala breaks their shared gaze first. It nods and rises silently to its feet, turning to leave.
Anu bites her lip. “Wait,” she says. “Uh — what’s your name?”
The vetala whips around. “What?”
“Your name.” Anu doesn’t know what she’s doing, but she feels a tinge of delight at the shock on the vetala’s face. “What can I call you?”
For the first time since she’s met it, the vetala is speechless. “That’s the first time anyone’s asked me that in a long time,” it murmurs finally.
Anu doesn’t know what to do with that. She waits. Her heart thuds in her chest; she doesn’t know why.
The silence becomes pregnant enough that Anu thinks the vetala won’t respond. But it does.
“I was a woman,” it says, achingly quiet, as though it is a confession, “and my name is Preethi.”
Anu lets out a breath. “Goodnight, Preethi,” she whispers.
Preethi’s shoulders shudder for a moment, and then she’s gone.
A few days later, Anu wakes with a fever.
It’s an overcast day, and the breeze is cool, raising goosebumps against her skin. Anu slowly rises and takes stock of her aching muscles, the dryness of her mouth, the fatigue leadening her bones. She knows that she won’t be heading out today, even though there are just under two weeks left.
Anu forces herself to eat and drink as much water as she can stand to. Then she wraps herself back in a blanket and goes back to sleep.
When she wakes an indeterminable amount of time later, sweat plastering her forehead, Preethi is sitting next to her. Her hair swings over her shoulder as she leans over Anu, tickling Anu’s cheek. Anu lets out a sleepy murmur of protest.
“You’re sick,” Preethi says, something sharp edging her tone.
Anu doesn’t respond, her eyes closing. When she drifts back to waking, there’s a cold cloth pressed against her forehead and two under her armpits. Preethi is still sitting beside her, watching her.
Anu reaches for her satchel; two steps ahead of her, Preethi hands her the metal cup of water. Anu drinks slowly.
“What are you doing?” she asks finally.
Preethi doesn’t answer. “You’re sick,” she repeats, the words almost accusing.
Anu nods. “I’m surprised the fever took this long to come. It feels different, too. I think . . . ”
“You think?” Preethi prompts.
Anu shrugs, tries to keep her voice light. “I think my illness might be approaching its worst. I think Yama will be coming to take me soon enough.” Idly, Anu wonders what the god of death looks like.
Preethi is silent for a long moment. “When you said you need to do this to live,” she says, voice strange. “What did you mean?”
Anu lies back down. She’s too tired to parse out why Preethi is asking, too tired to figure out the wisest way to answer. She shouldn’t trust Preethi, really, and getting close to her will make it harder to bring her back to the king, but something in her wants to tell Preethi everything.
So she does.
When she finishes, Preethi is looking out of the hollow into the trees beyond, her body tense. Anu curls into her blankets, on the cusp of slumber again.
“I don’t suppose you feel bad enough for me to let me take you out of the forest?” Anu jokes.
She’s asleep before she can hear Preethi’s response.
The next time she wakes, sunlight is streaming into her eyes. Anu stares at the sky, marvelling at how blue and beautiful it is and how much better she feels.
Then she bolts upright.
“What day is it?” she hollers at Preethi, charging outside.
“It’s been three days since you were out,” Preethi responds. “Your fever got worse two nights ago, but I managed to reduce it last night. I don’t know how long it will last. You have around a week until the deadline now, I think.”
Anu’s face burns. “Thank you for taking care of me,” she says. “You really shouldn’t have.”
Preethi shrugs. She looks listless, lacking her usual humour and verve. “I’m a kind soul, what can I say?”
“No, I mean, you really shouldn’t have,” Anu says, frowning. “You could have let me die. In fact, it would have been better for you. Why didn’t you?”
Preethi’s nostrils flare. For the first time since meeting her, she looks truly angry. “Unlike you,” she snaps, “I don’t ‘lack morals.’ If I can help, I do. Not everyone is as callous as you are.”
Anu steps back, startled. To her surprise, she finds that she’s hurt by the words.
“Yes,” Anu says after a long moment. “You’re right.” Without another word, she picks Preethi up, ignoring how strange and wrong it feels to do this now, after they’ve exchanged words that have teetered them into something like friendship.
Preethi resorts to her tickling trick this time. Though Anu has become better at bearing it, she cannot last for more than an hour before she breaks. She lands with a thump, clutching at her sides as she wheezes. Preethi stays with her, ankle touching her body, her face devoid of any mirth. Is she still angry?
Anu looks at her, overcome by the urge to apologize. But why should she? She was right.
“Preethi,” she says instead, giving into a burning curiosity. “Tell me a story that you told the king.”
Preethi’s face darkens. “Why?”
“I want to know what kind of riddles he couldn’t answer. I want to know what he said.”
Preethi considers her for a long moment. Then she speaks.
“There was once a girl who worked as a servant in a palace. She aimed to feed her family and found herself well suited to the work. She was quickly promoted to clean the king’s son’s chambers and tend to his baths. Over time, she found that the king’s son would seek her out. The girl did not like him, and she tried everything to avoid his searching gaze and wandering touches, but he was persistent. Hearing the stories of the king’s sense of honour and justice, she naively sought an audience before the king to tell him her troubles. The king responded by silencing all who heard the tale and reproaching the girl for telling tales and besmirching the king’s name. To properly punish her, he ordered her execution.” Preethi’s breath hitches, but her face is blank. “Who was in the wrong in this story?”
Silence falls. Anu breathes in and out, carefully watching Preethi’s face.
“The king,” she says gently. Preethi’s expression cracks. “The king was wrong.”
Preethi swipes roughly at her cheeks. Anu hadn’t known vetala could cry. “Well, the king got that one wrong. This was the story that enraged him the most. It felt good to rub it in his face.”
Anu leans forward to take her hand, then stops herself. She doesn’t know if the touch is wanted. “Is that what happened to you?” she asks, soft.
Preethi looks skywards. The breeze lifts her hair, and Anu sees a jagged line surrounding Preethi’s throat that she hadn’t before. Her heart trembles in her chest.
“This was my body when I was alive,” Preethi murmurs. “They killed me near the tree, but as they began to bury my body, I . . . came back. Somehow, I had become a vetala, bound to that tree.” She laughs wetly. “After all that, Yama didn’t want me to rest. And now I’m forever being chased by the one person I never want to see again.”
“I’m sorry,” Anu says, the words entirely inadequate. “I’m so sorry, Preethi.”
Preethi shakes her head. “So am I,” she says.
They sit together for a long while. Eventually, they get up and walk back to the tree.
The whole time, Anu’s heart and mind wrestle.
I have to, her mind protests, weaker and weaker.
I can’t, her heart sighs with hurricane force.
Anu stares after Preethi. “Damn you,” she murmurs helplessly, not angry at all. “You’ve condemned me to death.”
Four days before the deadline, far too early for this time of year, it begins to rain.
Monsoon season is glorious in its ferocity and deadly in its perpetuity. Anu shivers in the hollow of the banyan tree, grateful for its shelter, limited as it is. The hollow is enough to protect her when the rains come straight down or the wind blows in the opposite direction as the entrance, but when the spray turns in the direction of the tree, Anu finds herself drenched to the bone.
She pushes herself backwards to the very end of the hollow and curls into a ball. Even though it’s only been a few hours of rain, she can already feel her fever spiking as the cold sets in. She needs to get warm, if not dry. But there is no hope of finding enough dry foliage for a fire, and even if she could get one going, she can’t sustain it in this wet.
Anu’s head snaps up.
Preethi kneels in front of her, long black hair clinging to her scalp. Her eyes are wide, concerned.
“Anu,” she says again. “I’ve been calling your name for a long time.”
Anu’s teeth chatter too much to speak. Preethi’s brow furrows.
“All right,” she says. “Take off your sari. We need to get you warmed up.”
Anu gapes at her.
“Come now,” Preethi chides, trying for a grin. “What modesty can one lose undressing in front of a corpse?”
Don’t call yourself that, Anu thinks, irritated. The word is too clinical, too perverse, to describe Preethi’s vibrance.
With shaking fingers, Anu slowly undoes her sari, Preethi helping undo the folds at her waist. The fabric falls around her, dirty and wet, but still sturdy and enduring.
“Underwear, too,” Preethi says, aiming for jovial but coming out soft — this level of undressing broaches on a vulnerability too significant to joke about. Anu bites her tongue but complies. Her skin burns, her cheeks hot, and she knows it isn’t just the fever this time.
When she looks up, Preethi has undressed as well. Preethi catches Anu’s gaze, holds it firmly. “Body heat,” Preethi murmurs. “If you’re comfortable, I can . . . ” She falls silent and mimes hugging Anu. “But you don’t have to. I know one wouldn’t generally want to be embraced by a monster.”
“How many . . . how many times have I held onto you . . . to bring you out of the forest?” Anu manages.
Preethi arches an eyebrow. “That’s different.”
Anu nods. “It is different. I’ve been . . . I’ve been trying to bring you to your doom. You’re trying to save my life.”
Preethi stares at her, something sparking in her eyes. A crackling tension rises between them. Anu’s heart tangles in her throat.
“So,” Anu continues, “I would appreciate it if you did . . . that.” She punctuates the statement by lying down. The earth is cool against her skin, refreshing in a way that the rain had not been. It carries the scent of the storm, and she inhales deeply, quelling her nerves at the same time.
Slowly, Preethi settles in front of her. She hesitates, one arm hovering above Anu’s body, before landing around her hip and pulling her close.
Anu sighs, moving further into Preethi’s embrace of her own accord. Despite Preethi’s body lacking the full warmth of a living human, Anu is cold enough that Preethi’s body feels like a furnace. Anu tucks her head under Preethi’s chin, pressing her nose into the softness of Preethi’s neck.
Preethi’s arms tighten around her. One begins to rub down her arm, trying to chase away the chill. Anu relaxes fully. She feels sleep tugging at her eyelids with insistent little fingers.
“You need to bring me back.”
Anu opens her eyes. “What?”
“You’re burning.” Preethi’s voice is tight. “It’s like touching fire.”
“Oh.” Anu doesn’t want to hurt her. She tries to pull away. “I’m sorry. You can stop.”
“No,” Preethi hisses, hugging her tighter. “No, that’s not — Anu, you need to take me back. The sorcerer can heal you. In this state, it will take you the full time to get back through the forest.”
Anu leans back so that she can see Preethi’s face. “I don’t think I should,” she says, trying to keep her head clear. “I don’t want to anymore.”
“What?” Preethi glares at her, fear brightening her eyes. “Aren’t you the one who said you’ll do whatever it takes to survive? Anu, if this fever gets any higher, you’ll die!”
“And if I take you back, you’ll die.”
“I’m already dead!”
“Don’t play the fool,” Anu says sternly. She leans up and cups Preethi’s face in her hands, thumbing away a tear from her cheek. “You know what I mean. If I took you back and you had to serve the king, it would be killing you all over again.”
Preethi’s face crumples, warring with her scowl. “You’ll die,” she whispers again. “You can’t die.”
“I don’t care,” Anu says. The words come out fuzzy. She’s so tired. “I don’t care anymore. Not if it means doing that to you.”
“Anu . . . ”
“What do you know,” Anu jokes, surprised at the rising lump in her throat. “It seems I do have morals, after all.”
“Of course you do,” Preethi says, fierce. She rests her forehead against Anu’s. “Of course you do, you beautiful, brilliant, kind girl. I knew that from the moment I met you.”
Anu leans forward and kisses her.
It should be strange, kissing a dead-not-dead girl, but it isn’t. It’s electrifying, warmer than any fever, brighter than any sun.
Anu kisses Preethi drunkenly, savouring the feeling. It’s the first kiss she’s ever had with someone she’s really liked. It’ll probably be the last.
They stop kissing when Anu groans, the ache in her head too great to ignore. She closes her eyes, the world starting to fade to white.
“No,” Preethi says above her, panicked. “No. You’re not going to die. I won’t let it happen.”
“Don’t do anything stupid,” Anu wants to say, but her tongue is useless.
Time moves as slowly as ghee dripping down the side of its urn. Shivers wracking her body, Anu drifts in and out of consciousness, confused each time. Are they moving? She’s being carried, she thinks — but by whom?
“Preethi,” she mumbles.
“Shh,” comes a reply, lulling. “Just rest. You’ll be all right.”
The next time Anu comes to, she glances down the path to see the king’s party. The alarm that courses through her is enough to make her alert.
“Preethi, no!” Anu tries to wriggle, but Preethi’s grip is iron on her.
“It’ll be okay,” Preethi says, facing straight ahead. The party gets closer, and Anu sees the shock and dawning delight on the sorcerer’s face. “You’ll be okay, Anu.”
“You won’t!” Anu shrieks with the last of her energy. “Please, stop!”
“I’m already dead,” Preethi says.
And then it’s too late, and they’re in front of the sorcerer. Preethi lets Anu down.
“You truly succeeded,” he gasps. He reaches for Preethi; Preethi bares her teeth, and the sorcerer flinches back.
“You must heal her first,” Preethi says. “I will go with you quietly once you do.”
The sorcerer’s expression turns sly. “You come with me first,” he says, “and then I will heal her.”
Preethi’s expression oscillates between disbelieving and desperate.
“No,” Anu manages. “No — ”
“All right,” Preethi says.
The sorcerer murmurs a chant and Preethi winces, a brand appearing on her wrist. “We’re bonded now,” the sorcerer murmurs, darkly satisfied.
Then he smirks. Preethi’s eyes widen as she’s yanked forward. Anu drops to the ground.
“Guards!” he announces. “I believe this woman has been enchanted by the vetala, and she poses a risk to the king. Kill her.”
Anu isn’t surprised. How could she be, after what Preethi had told her?
“I’m sorry,” she whispers. “I’m sorry — ”
“No!” In a flash, Preethi lunges forward, arms outstretched. The wind picks up, raindrops spraying everywhere as the guards are buffeted backwards by the wind.
The sorcerer laughs. “There’s nothing you can do to me,” he says, almost kind.
Anu watches from under her eyelashes as he approaches her, drawing a knife from his cloak. He’s bonded to Preethi now. Something rises in her memory.
“Preethi,” she gasps. Preethi cocks her head, meeting her eyes. “Conduit.”
Preethi’s eyes alight. She swivels her head towards the sorcerer, then launches herself at him, catching him by the throat. “You can use me,” she growls, “but I can use you, too.” She drags him over to Anu and presses her palm to Anu’s face.
Anu focuses on Preethi mouthing something over her, her eyes almost black. Her limbs gain strength, her head beginning to clear. When she blinks next, she finds herself cradled in Preethi’s arms. The sorcerer lies dead by their feet.
“Preethi,” Anu begins, but she’s cut off by Preethi’s laugh.
“I’m free,” Preethi says. “I’m not bound to the tree anymore, or to him. I’m free, and you’re alive!”
Anu blinks. “Oh. Oh.”
“Don’t you see?” Preethi says, still laughing. “I can come with you wherever you go.”
“Would you want that?” Anu asks. “Would you want to . . . be with me? After everything?”
Preethi pulls her into a kiss. “After everything,” she says, joy bright in her eyes, “how could I not?”
…aaaaand welcome back. That was ANU AND THE VETALA by SRIKRIPA KRISHNA PRASAD, and if you enjoyed that, check out her story “ACCEPTANCE” in Cast of Wonders, episode 458
Sri sent us these notes on her story: I remember reading the stories about King Vikramaditya and the vetala as a child in this series of comics in India called Tinkle comics, which were collections of comics with different stories covering original stories, folk tales, and myths. The historical stories about the vetala were some of my favourites; I would always remember excitedly trying to figure out the answer to the vetala’s riddles and seeing if it matched what the king answered with. The original stories end with the king capturing the vetala because he’s stumped by one of the riddles, doesn’t know the answer, and thus can’t speak and cause the vetala to fly away. I recently realized that it was strange that the king felt so beholden to answer the vetala, and that a reason why could be because of his pride. Adding that to my instinct to make all my writing feminist and queer, I wanted to explore the vetala’s magic and humanity some more, and thus Anu and Preethi were born. It’s been such a pleasure to write about these two women finding freedom, healing, and love in each other!
Thank you, Sri, for the notes and the story. This was wonderful, even without being familiar with the original story of King Vikramaditya and the vetala. I’ve been trying something on social media lately, which is possibly pissing into the wind given the sheer toxicity of Twitter most days, but still: when someone starts trolling me, instead of flying off the handle I’m trying to stop, and take a breath, and think about what must be going wrong for them to leave them in such a place of anger and pettiness. It’s hard to go against my instincts like that, and not get my back up, but when I can manage it, it’s a much healthier response for me to simply ask them if they’re okay rather than getting dragged into a spiral of bitter and pointless fighting. It’s like an updraft that lifts me instead of a weight that pulls on my mind and my mood. It feels like that’s Anu’s lesson here, too; she’s so wrapped up in her own woes she can’t see the pain of others around her, and it’s an idea that encroaches into her worldview only slowly. Once it does break through, though, and once she considers Preethi’s point of view, it unlocks so much for her. It’s a hard skill to train yourself in, for sure, but it’s one that benefits you as much as everyone around you. It’s an irony that letting go of selfishness often benefits you as much as anyone else.
About the Author
Srikripa Krishna Prasad
Sri is a graduate student hailing from near Toronto, Ontario, who is (metaphorically) wandering the world, searching for purpose. She is deeply fond of reading and writing speculative fiction, especially fantasy, and has work published in Cast of Wonders; she hopes to publish more soon. Outside of writing, she is learning how to play the guitar and piano, practicing the violin, daydreaming, and trying to motivate herself to finish any of the numerous projects she has going. You can find her on Twitter at @sriative, where she rarely tweets but lurks in the shadows, casting her judgmental yet benevolent eye over the world.
About the Narrator
S.B. Divya (she/any) is a lover of science, math, fiction, and the Oxford comma. She is the Hugo and Nebula nominated author of Meru and Machinehood. Her short stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, and she is a former editor of Escape Pod, the weekly science fiction podcast. Divya holds degrees in Computational Neuroscience and Signal Processing. She worked for twenty years as an electrical engineer before becoming an author. Born in Pondicherry, India, Divya now resides in Southern California with her spouse, child, and two fur babies. She enjoys subverting expectations and breaking stereotypes whenever she can. Find out more about her at www.sbdivya.com or on Twitter as @divyastweets.
About the Artist
Cindy Fan (she/her) is an illustrator and night owl who specializes in bringing stories to life in a dreamy and thoughtful manner for print and digital media. When she’s not drawing she loves walking slowly and aimlessly admiring the textures around her. Her work can be found at www.cind.ca