Soul Warrior by Falguni Kothari
The ancient, nomadic cavalcade of Lok Vitalas had staked down for the night in the Mojave Desert. Circus tents of all shapes and sizes, bursting with the kind of temptations the mortals called entertainment, thrived within a thirty-kilometer radius. All were halfway decent establishments run by relatively law-abiding nonhumans who dwelled seamlessly, and with apt mystique, in the Human Realm—as in, different enough to be an attraction, but not sufficiently different to scare away paying customers. As humans were their primary source of income and subsistence, the denizens of Vitalas had little desire, even if they had ample opportunity, to make mischief with them.Seven loks or territories of authorized iniquity had sprung up across the Human Realm in the Dark Age, since the human world was the easiest realm to breach, and stake a claim on, as were the human souls. The loks had been created as a harbor to the mixed breeds, the outcasts, souls who didn’t completely belong on any one realm. Each lok thrived within its own set of rules or anarchy. Lok Vitalas, besides being the least dangerous to humans because its leader ran a tight ship, also had the dubious honor of being the only aboveground one. The other loks existed many meters below the Earth’s crust or submerged deep in its waters. Gypsy-like in attitude and business tactics, Vitalas relocated to a new location nightly. The transient state of affairs meant the lok had limited sanitation facilities and a nonexistent sewage system, and hence smelled terrible.For nearly two hours, Karna had zigzagged through the bylanes of the encampment, hopping in and out of tents in search of the godlings. Salabha, the leader of Vitalas, had confirmed that some eighteen Celestials had come slumming in the last two days, and he had immediately begun the process of tracking them down. Too restless to sit and wait for results, Karna had set off to do his own reconnaissance. His efforts had reaped zero fruits so far.He’d run through the list of potentials Salabha had texted to him, the last of whom had turned out to be an old acquaintance of Karna’s. Clothal was a Celestial cloth merchant and was in Vitalas on business. Quite obviously, he was not a godling.What if they were wrong and the godlings weren’t in Vitalas at all? What if Draupadi had thwarted her summons and gone into hiding with her brood again? What if the sons of Kunti had created a stink about him being their offspring’s guru and stopped their banishment in time? Well, good riddance to the lot of them then. But what about his son?Karna wound his way back to the heart of the encampment with his thoughts in a jumble. It was just after midnight, and Vitalas pulsed with life and activity. He snaked his way through the throngs of merrymakers queued up around the corner of a massive red-and-yellow pavilion with a flashing neon-green head-sign: The Shrieking Sura—Salabha’s bar, and the only karaoke club in the encampment. Shifts had changed sometime during his search. And a fresh face with whom he was well-acquainted was on bouncer duty at the entrance.“Yo-ho-ho! It’s the Boodah Man. How you doin’, brother?” said Roy, a former professional wrestler.Roy knew Karna had personally known the bona fide Buddha. On any other night, Karna would’ve responded to the witty greeting with a laugh and a joke of his own. But he was too wound up to crack jokes tonight.Boots planted hip-distance apart, tattooed arms crossed over a barrel chest, Roy looked fit and fierce in a camouflage T-shirt and pants. Roy was good people. His soul was aquamarine, and Karna had no problem being his brother.“Not bad, Roy. How about yourself?” Karna bumped his right fist and shoulder with the human. They were both sizable, though Karna was two inches taller and a dozen inches leaner.“Guess who’s a married man now?” Roy’s fierce expression didn’t waver when his lips spread wide in a grin.“That’s fantastic, man. Congratulations.” Karna thumped Roy on his back, genuinely happy for the man. “Who’s the bride?” he asked.“Tara,” came the prompt and proud answer.Karna blinked slowly. “Psycho Salabha’s Tara? I didn’t know you were dating.”“Yeah. I know. It all happened like a Big Bang boom. We eloped. To Vegas,” Roy said, tongue-in-cheek.Karna gave the big man a considering look. “And Salabha didn’t go ballistic?”Roy shrugged. “Didn’t really have a choice, did he? Tara thought it best to marry first and announce later.”Which was sound handling on Tara’s part. Psycho Salabha was nuts about his daughter, possessive and insanely protective. He was nuts about other things too, like his job as Vitalas’s leader, and woe to any soul who brought trouble in Salabha’s territory. He wasn’t called psycho for nothing. Karna couldn’t begin to imagine how Salabha must’ve reacted to Tara’s elopement, but presumably all was well, as Roy still lived and remained in one piece.Salabha and Tara were shape-shifters. They morphed into giant butterfly-like creatures when needed. Around a century ago, a nasty band of asuras had laid waste to Salabha’s home realm, destroying or enslaving most of the indigenous beings. Crown Prince Salabha had escaped with his baby daughter and a handful of his kith. He’d sought asylum with Lord Yama, who’d granted it in exchange for their allegiance and services to maintain Cosmic Order.For the Soul Warrior, the pact was a blessing—not that he’d ever label the extermination of a species a blessing—but in truth, he was damn glad he no longer had to monitor the gateway. Honestly, Salabha was doing a much better job of running Lok Vitalas than Karna ever had.“Your wife is a wise female. Congrats again,” Karna said, and stepped forward to go inside the tent.