~5100 words, approx 30 min reading time
Disclaimer: This incident was recovered seventeen floods after the massacre of the Dhovona village by The Maharani Aadhila and is recorded here for cautionary purposes only. It is not intended to hurt the sentiments of any civilized goblin-folk, organizations or cults.
Always consult your local warlock before attempting to capture a goblin. The University of Enchantment will not be held responsible for any side-effects sustained (immortality, dream diffusion etc.) by attempting to medicate through goblin magic.
1) You’re just a child when you realize teleporting acorns into your hands doesn’t mean you can fix everything.
You watch your mothers greet the warlock at the gates of धोवोना Dhovona with a bag of sicklegrass from the first harvest. He rides in on the arms of a redwater ogre, his gold-laced kurta streaming out behind him. Judging from his ashen throat, he was one of the Lujha tribe, and the broken black medallion across his forehead marked him as a senior sorcerer of the royal troops.
The villagers gossip that The Queen, colloquially referred to as ‘महारानी आदिल’ or The Maharani Aadhila, chooses to keep him on guard by her bedside, for her paranoia makes her believe she will die by a poison that takes her in her dreams.
Your mothers lead the warlock to the hut where they keep your sister. You’re almost jealous that Ásta gets to meet him, while you don’t.
You choose to ignore your mothers clinging to each other as they wait outside the hut, their heads bowed as they mutter futile prayers. You call one of them Amma, and the other Man’h though they respond even if you call one the other.
The warlock walks out of your sister’s hut after a while– his hands glowing like blown coals – and shakes his head sadly.
Man’h dissolves into Amma’s arms and cries into the crook of her elbow. She dropped the basket she held and a dozen unripe mangoes go tumbling down the hill. You’d planned to eat them in the afternoon with lime and chilli powder.
Later that night, Man’h takes you for a walk along the सौम्या Soumanya River. Her golden eyes–a mark bestowed upon her when she began living through her Second Age–shine faintly in the dark.
You’re excited when you smell more of the mangoes and chilli in the basket. With a flick of your wrist, you could teleport them into your hands, but all that would earn is a rap on your knuckles.
Man’h takes your hands in hers, and tells you the news. That you’re not allowed to see your sister anymore. She is to remain in the hut on the hill until ten floods have taken Dhovona.
Your mothers would occasionally send Ásta to the hut when she skipped her enchantment classes to play kabbadi with the girls from the Buthur tribe. She must have done something far worse this time.
Man’h hands you a slice of mango and dips the ends into chilli powder. You attack the fruit, and you munch so loud you can barely hear Man’h telling you that Ásta’s sick.
A cursed disease which causes her flesh to fester when a person touches her.
Amma will deliver her meals by a pulley system, and she’ll eat nothing but ಗಂಜಿ congee. You make a mental note to prepare jackfruit pickle when you get home, for you cannot bear the thought of her eating soggy boiled rice for ten arduous floods.
Man’h tells you that tomorrow she’s going to sprinkle broken glass around the hut to deter curious villagers who have never seen an active curse.
That’s a pity, you think, how am I going to give her the pickle?
2) You’re nearly a teenager – about seventy-five floods old – when you’re convinced you can heal Ásta. Over fifty floods have taken Dhovona since you’ve last seen her, and yet every time you picture her face, it’s always that of a small child.Your mothers had visited her a long time ago, back when she had completed her first stay on the hill.
Within a minute of them setting foot in the hut, a lump the size of a grapefruit had erupted from her throat.
Your mothers came back with nothing but a single hastily scribbled note from your sister. Now, you’re in the Dhovona bazaar, hiding behind a wall of crates as you watch the roads. You cut jagged edges into the pebbles and throw them onto the pathway. All you had to do was wait. Last night, you remember hearing Man’h sobbing into Amma’s arms as she packed the last remaining plate of congee for Ásta. The grain rations had been plagued by rats, and all the shopkeepers in the bazaar refused to give her rice after learning she was the mother of the cursed girl on the hill.
The rice vendor was a punctual fellow and rode in on his ragi ogre precisely when the banks of the Soumanya began to brim. You would have to wait until the ogre stepped on the pebbles and bucked with pain. Then, you’d have until sundown to pick the rice off the mud.
Ásta didn’t mind the odd grain of sand in her congee.
But today, you overheard a soldier from Queen Aadhila’s troops while you waited.
He spoke to the Dhovona headman in Konkani, the language that was your mother tongue and yet you never understood. Man’h had tried to teach you by only conversing in Konkani, but gave up after you left your chores undone.
Still, you recognised a single word the soldier said: ‘ಭೂತ’
An umbrella term that meant ‘goblins’.
The headman spoke of the fisherman who had spotted a family of goblins riding the currents of the Soumanya in the carcass of a scythe-dwarf. They were a rare sight this far south, for their magic ran through the sand grains of the desert east.
You were excited.
Dhovona people hold many superstitions about goblins, as people who know little of a topic often do.
A stonemason spoke of his cousin from the east, who would tie a piece of their flesh around his newborn. Though he lived in a jungle thicket, neither beast nor bird ever approached his son. The blacksmith spoke of his aged dadi powdering goblin bones and taking it with honey, after which she was left untouched by the Valspar plague that ravaged her entire village. In the houses where goblin claws adorn the doors, the rice basket never diminishes nor does the oil pot run dry.
But here in the South, all goblins are the sole property of Maharani Aadhila. Hunting them is seen as stealing from the Queen’s personal stores, and your entire bloodline would be nailed to the walls of the Capital.
Some of the Dhovona people refused to believe the fisherman’s tales. Goblins are remarkably similar to the Indian wild katsina after all and those pests graze freely around the Soumanya. Others believed him, claiming that they could hear the goblins using the bark of the oaks to moult.
The rice vendor even said he could smell them near his tea estate, a sharp stench of mutilated dogs.
You knew he was lying. You had smelt them too, especially during the muggy nights.
And to you they smelt like banyan trees after the monsoon.
3) You’re a grown woman who still yearns to play kabaddi with the kids from the other village. The rules have long outgrown you, but you’re sure it still involves pummelling your opponent into the mud and keeping them there.
Amma helps Man’h in the fields in your absence, cursing the weeds stalk-by-stalk. You leave your mothers to it, though you know it’s an enchantment that preys on youth.
You’re far too focused on searching for the goblins.
Tonight is when you decide to sneak out to Ásta’s hut. You spent an age hunting around your room for the map you made as a child, when Amma took you up to her place for the first time.
You thought you had etched the route in your mind, but years have made it difficult to remember how many steps it is before you reach the split in the road.
It’s the third day of the monsoon when the wind ogres finally convene, and the rain cuts down in unrelenting sheets of white.
The winds sound like an ill-tuned flute when you creep out of the house. Man’h sleeps soundly during the night, for the fields make her elbows ache and sleep is her medicine.
The hut on the hill rattled.
The rain shook off splinters of wood from the roofs, and the winds sang through the holes in her walls. You curb your breathing as you walk up the hill. Ever since the goblins arrived, the scent of the rain has turned putrid.
As you near the hut, you feel a sharp sting of pain shoot up your foot. It reminds you of the time a young buck nipped your toes when you wandered into its graze. You slump down on the grass and study the soles of your feet. A shard of glass pierced the thick underside of your heel.
You’d forgotten about the glass you helped Man’h sprinkle around the hut all those floods ago.
Now that you remember, you can spot random glints of light among the grass, miniscule bits of glass running through the soil. In the moonlight, they look as harmless as dew.
The blood on the shard next to you gleams bright.
You pull tufts of grass to bandage your bleeding foot. And that’s when you realize.
You’re not bleeding.
You bend down to study the drops on the glass. You suspect it’s the blood of some poor creature who stumbled onto the shards as it grazed.
The blood is a sullen black and has a shimmering quality to it. It has a smell that reminds you strongly of petrol.
A goblin must have wandered up here, drawn to the Asta’s aura, and cut itself on the glass just as you have.
You run over to a little outgrowth of shrubs and hide behind the leaves, looking around in a wild panic. You thought you’d be ready when you finally saw one, but now in the wind and dark and cold you feel a knife of fear slowly piercing your chest. The nightmare always seems tame in daylight.
The smell of goblin blood still hangs near.
You scan your surroundings in breathless horror, and see a small gathering of bones near the shrub. Rotting meat still clings to the bone – probably that of a katsina – and beside them are a deep set of footprints.
Goblins are distinctive among the mythicals for a variety of reasons. If not for the eyes on their hands, or their instinct to feed on dreams, it would be for their feet. Every inch of it resembles that of a human female, down to the padding and the toes.
The difference, however, is that the goblin’s foot is twisted backward.
You can see the footprints snake around the base of the hill, unable to ascend due to the glass.
A goblin of this size would have abilities rivalling that of a senior warlock. A far younger type of magic, a kind that just might cure Ásta.
You pull out a pair of wooden sandals from your jute bag. You called them your ‘bhoutappal’ and you spent weeks sculpting them yourself. They had the shape of a goblin’s foot carved on the sole, such that the prints they made would be indistinguishable from that of the goblin’s. You’d gotten the idea from the women who tended to the sicklegrass fields and were forced to trek through the forest when the dawn was still dark. They wore sandals just like these ones to hide their route from the creatures.
A more civilized type of creature, like those from the areas of Germany, would be able to track human footprints.
But maybe that’s what the goblin needed.
A way to reach Ásta.
You remember the path that Man’h took when she went on her annual visit to check on Ásta. She always walked through the forest instead of climbing the front cliff of the hill, and sauntered up to the back of the hut. You suspected she had made a path for herself, one clear of glass.
You remove your protective sandals and begin walking through the forest, tracing the route Man’h used to take. With each step you press your foot deeper into the soil, leaving a clear imprint, making sure any goblin could track it with ease.
With the rain still beating down your back, you begin the trek to your sister’s hut.
Maybe you don’t need to find the goblins. They’ll reach you.
The least you can do is help them out.
4) You’re an old woman who still hunts goblins despite the creaks in your knees.
You’re at that age where the death of your Man’h has stopped haunting you, the image of her mangled body long reduced to a wispy blur. You don’t even remember a mother you called Amma anymore.
You spend your evenings out on the front porch of the hut munching on a stalk of kasandi as you watch the trail of footsteps you left all those years ago. You stopped believing a goblin would actually track you after the first fifteen floods, but still do it because the monotony brings you comfort.
You run your hands idly over the rotting wood of the hut. After Amma left, you decided you would care for Ásta yourself. And you would actually be there, actually present with her in her hut. You wouldn’t leave her to fend for herself on a lonely hill. In fact, as a young woman you had wanted to rebuild the hut into an actual house, instead of a glorified wooden box.
But now you wonder if you should’ve done it the way your mothers did. Ásta’s curse has only gotten more grave since you moved in with her. You try to limit how often you touch her, but at times when she’s too weak to hold her spoon, you have no choice but to step in and feed her. With every morsel, she screams and howls at your presence, but after a few floods, you’ve learnt to tune it out.
Now, Ásta’s with you on the porch, sagging into her wooden chair. She stares blankly off in the distance, her eyes clouded over with a smoky white film. The disease has managed to eat its way through her body, and her legs are no thicker than the kasandi stalk you munch.
You spend the evenings making enough congee to last the both of you three days. When you were a young woman you would cook something a bit more palatable for yourself, maybe a simple rasam to pour over your rice. But now you find yourself too tired to cut the vegetables, too tired to stir the pot.
The congee tends to wear you down.
There’s just one thing that keeps you going.
In the summer after the first rains, a cashew apple tree began to sprout behind the hut. Its bark cracked and brittle as it bent from the weight of its own fruit. You spent weeks nursing it back, nailing wooden supports to the trunk and making gutters in the soil to replenish the roots.
You look forward to the days when you have to trek to the Soumanya river to collect the fertile mud from its banks. But even as you tend to the tree, a single thought creeps into your mind. You dread the day the tree grows too tall for you to trim its branches and pick its leaves.
You’re not the child who could scale it anymore.
When the cashew apples ripen, you pick the fruits and squash them by throwing them down the hill. Afterwards you collect the juice, ferment and distill it to make feni.
And this is the process that terrifies you , for it involves waiting. And you’ve been doing an awful lot of that already.
But you’d be surprised how a single night can make the wait a whole lot easier.
You’re sitting out on the porch, basking in the bluefire lights of the Dhuravandi festival at the village when you hear the goblin.
“Ásta!” the voice from the forest says, “Ásta!”
The villagers of Dhovona call the goblin ‘ताएल पोचन’ or Ta’el Pochana.
It takes a good while to get used to the wretch.
For, the Ta’el Pochana steals the voices of people and uses it to lure their loved ones.
The villagers have made it a habit to go to sleep with straps of jute around their mouths, lest they accidentally respond to it.
You were the first one to hear it, and as such yours was the first voice to be stolen. All you have to show for it is an ashy black streak that runs along your tongue: The mark of a goblin.
The villagers lodged a formal complaint with the court of the Maharani Aadhila. Goblins have long gone extinct in the East, as their magic was blown away with the desert sands. They were reduced to creatures no better than livestock, hunted for their metallic nails and black meat.
The troops of the Queen produced nothing but scraps of moulted goblin skin, and an imprint of their inverted footprints.
The villagers of Dhovona are drawn to stories and as such from the tipsy lips of women in taverns came about the legend of the Ta’el Pochana.In her previous life–as the story goes–she was said to be a singer in the court of a lesser king.
The songs she produced were so beautiful that the moon hung lower to listen and her hymns became anthems on the tongues of every villager in the country. Devotees would flock to the court in droves, trampling over each other to hear a snippet.
It so happened that one day, the famed Parashuram, a musician renowned as one of the Nine Jewels of the Emperor Bhaunash began to search the land. He had a premonition that he was to die in 33 floods and hence sought an heir to take his place in the court. And this was no easy feat, for he was the singer who brought forth a tsunami by simply humming the first verse of the Jalgeet.
As fate intervened, Ta’el Pochana was to perform before the great Parashuram.
In her arrogance, she decided to best him in a contest. She aspired to sing the Jalgeet in the drought-ravaged fields of Dhovona, and bring forth a rainstorm to cure the cracked earth.
But as she sang, nothing but a single grey cloud convened above. The drops that fell out of the sky on that day barely filled a single pitcher.
In his righteous anger, Parashuram cursed her so that she would lose her voice.
Now the Ta’el Pochana roams the South, stealing the voices of others in a vain attempt to find her own.
You hear her call out once more.
“Ásta!” the goblin says in your voice, “Ásta!”
During these months, the Ta’el had begun asking the strangers for a drink to quench its thirst. The women at the tavern say this is because she died thirsty, and one cannot sing with a parched throat.
You can hear Ásta groan from inside the hut.
A single thought inches its way through your mind. Ásta is unaware of the Ta’el.
You could let her respond to the voice.
She would wheel herself out of the hut and into the woods and no one would know. The goblins eat the bones, after all.
But you stifle the thought immediately. It’s the tiredness threading through your brain, opening it to the fingers of the evil one.
You cut a strip of jute from your frock and walk back inside.
The Ta’el Pochana calls once more, her voice – your voice – getting clearer. You see Ásta shift her head toward the sound.
“You hear that?” you say, “That voice?”
Ásta blinks in answer.
The women in the tavern tell their sons various ways to guard themselves against the Ta’el Pochana as they return from the villages. The goblin can only call out their names twice, and so they must wait to be beckoned thrice before responding.
You tell the same to Ásta, and even trace the rule on her hand with a stick for you suspect her hearing has faded away just as much as her sight. She whimpers lightly at you standing so close, but you tell yourself that her pain is worth it.
As you wish her a good night, you wrap the jute cloth around her mouth. And you find yourself wrapping it looser than you’d like.
5) You forget how old you are until you catch a reflection of yourself on the bark of an iron tree.
Your eyes have turned a dull gold, the colour of ichor, a signal that you’ve begun living your Second Cycle. You see more of Man’h in your reflection than you do of yourself.
You’re knee-deep in the Soumanya river, filling a bag with the red clay from the bottom. While the cashew apples ferment, you’ve begun molding the clay and sun-baking them into keechad lamps.
At night, when you fill them with oil and light them, you can see Ásta smile.
It’s just the corners of her mouth, but it’s enough.
Ásta told you that their light is the only thing she can see anymore. Now, you’re determined to make a hundred more before the next flood.
It’s midnight when you light the next lamp.
You can barely make out Ásta smiling, her lips eaten away by the wrinkles around her cheeks. It cures the soreness in your arms more than any hot-coal packs would.
But your joy is broken in the morning, along with the keechad lamp..
The flame had fizzled out long before dawn, and the pieces of clay were scattered throughout the hill by the gusts.
You could have baked them for another hour, you tell yourself, you could have molded the clay to deflect the wind and you could have trimmed the wick another inch.
That’s until you spot the footprints beside the lamp. They resembled a human’s in every single way, except they were twisted backward.
The Ta’el Pochana must have approached the lamp in the night and lapped up the oil to quench its undying thirst.
The sight of the footsteps makes your chest burn with a ferocity you thought had died along with the young woman you were. It’s the same excitement you felt when stealing a spoon of curd from under Amma’s nose, and when scaling the wall Man’h forbid you to climb.
The plan springs forth in your mind, fully formed.
You knew you had to do it as discreetly as possible. If word reached the ears of The Maharani….
But, let all the Queen’s elephants try making it up the hill.
You had a couple glass pots at home, and you weren’t afraid to break a few.
6) You watch the steam swirl from the warm cup of feni in your hand. You’re forced to heat the drink, even though it loses its sour edge, for it rattles your teeth otherwise.
You’re crouched on the floor, bathed in the thick shadows of the hut.
A single keechad lamp stands in the middle of the porch, filled to the brim with coconut oil. With the winds as it were tonight, its scent would travel far.
The sounds of the night transform as you wait. The rustling of leaves sounds like the snort of a goblin, the creaking wood boards like its thunderous footsteps.
You reach out for your double-barreled rifle, and the cold metal feels oddly comforting in your hands.
Ásta lies asleep a few feet from you, her breathing long and laboured.
You take a cautious sip of the feni, and wince as you still feel the glass shards in your fingers. You spent the morning sweeping the glass from the hill, for you’re determined that nothing should deter the goblin’s journey today.
And when you see it, you almost mistake it for a common Indian dwarf.
It emerges from an outgrowth of sicklegrass, the nose delicately sniffing the air. It throws a single leg out, and pulls itself through the mud, nothing but a shapeless lump.
But, by the flickering lamp light, you see it clearly.
The Ta’el Pochana circles the keechad lamp cautiously, its black eyes darting independently of each other. It possesses a lithe dark body, fragments of bone tearing through the skin.
“Ásta,” the creature whispers in your voice, “Ásta… Just a small drink would do… Just a single sip.”
Hearing your voice come from the goblin enrages you far more than you thought it would.
The Ta’el Pochana droops down low to the lamp, singeing the tips of its fur, and unhinges its jaw. A messy mass of thin tongues tumbles out, each of them a life of its own.
The flame flickers out.
You watch its tongues, transfixed. Your fingers are lodged firmly on the trigger, but you almost don’t want to shoot.
You have to force yourself to aim the barrel at the goblin’s thigh and you dread the recoil of the gun.
That’s when Ásta puts a gentle hand on your shoulder and says your name.
“You called me,” she says, “…and I saw the keechad die out. Could you not find the flask without the light?”
Ásta’s cloudy eyes miss the goblin completely and she passes it as she searches for the flask. You hold your breath, but the Ta’el Pochana doesn’t seem to notice either way.
Ásta pours a glass of feni, and sets it down on the floor with a thud.
The goblin’s head snaps toward the sound. It approaches the glass, smelling the fruity scent of the alcohol.
You watch as the tongues drown themselves in the liquid, and the goblin downs the feni in desperate gulps.
This is how your sister tells you that it’s time to let go. Goblins are nothing more than animals with a trace of magic in their bones, and how is that different from any other being?
You put your rifle back, and lead Ásta back into her bed.
“You forgot the rule, Ásta,” you scold her, “I never called you thrice.”
She waves you off with a playful smile and for once you see the child behind those wrinkles.
This becomes your habit each night.
Right after you wish your sister a good night, and after you light a single keechad, you leave a glass of feni outside on the porch. Sometimes you even linger by the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of it again.
It takes you a week to notice that the Ta’el Pochana never cries anymore.
7) You wake up and you’re a child again. You’ve lived through your Fifth Cycle and this is your reward.
Most of the women in Dhovona who make it this far go on living for an age.
It was the dying remnants of a blessing bestowed back in the Chaitanya wars, where an aging sorcerer trekked across the land, and the villagers of Dhovona were the only ones who gave him wine.
If you had been back in that era, you would have turned your back on the sorcerer.
Man’h had always taught you that water in a stranger’s belly is water that isn’t in yours. Perhaps that’s what the villagers ought to have learnt back then.
When you make it back to the hut, Ásta looks ten floods old. You’d forgotten how that face looked, back when it was unmarred by the wrinkles and scars. She carried herself like an old woman, her neck protruding like her back still gave her trouble.
You entered the hut, and greeted her, just as you had done every day throughout the Five Cycles. And she never responded.
In fact, Ásta hadn’t moved all month.
After the first week you thought she had finally died and that the blessing of the sorcerer had passed over her. That was until winter came, and you saw the hairs on her arms rise and crawl with gooseflesh.
It pained you to realize that the thought of her dying made you feel like bursting into song.
But now it seemed as though Ásta was damned enough to go through the Fifth Cycle as well.
You spend the evening massaging coconut oil into her scalp and braiding her hair. It was amazing what the magic of Dhovona could do. Ásta’s hair was back to being a muddy brown, with only a stray grey hair to tell the tale. You tug at the strands of her hair, and carefully count the knots you make. The last time you remember doing this was for the funeral of your Man’h. The sorcerers refuse to bury the dead unless their hair is slick with coconut oil, and inlaid with hundreds of sickly-sweet jasmine flowers.
As you tie her hair, you see her scalp turn a stark red, her disease raging just beneath her skin. You work faster, for you don’t want to prolong the pain.
That should be enough for the afterlife and beyond.
By the light of the evening sun, you see a cloud of dust in the distance accompanied by the shrill of a flute. The ground beneath your feet begins to beat and heave.
The Maharani has arrived in Dhovona.
It had taken a whole two floods for the Queen to get word of all that had occurred in the village. The women reported that they had been relieved from the cries of the Ta’el Pochana. It didn’t take long for them to spot the goblin arriving at our porch at every moonrise, lapping up feni until its belly had swollen.
The Maharani had sent forth an entire army, for she believed we had brought the goblin under our command, and that was worth far more than all the women in her troops.
All of this reminds you of the time Amma took you into the Capital for your cousin’s wedding. As you approached the gates, you could see the goblin poachers nailed to its walls. The newer ones still had strength to cry and wail for forgiveness, while the old hung their heads in a drugged daze. Most of them were common workers, selling finger millets and sicklegrass. The poor wretches probably believed that selling goblin carcasses was no more harmless than butchering veal.
Amma had tried to distract you from the nailed poachers by enticing you with a kit of sculpting tools. But the guards ordered you both to look up at them before letting you in.
The Maharani believed the next generation of her reign would be easier if she forced in the nightmares while still young.
You see a horrifyingly clear vision of Ásta nailed to those walls, too weak to even scream. And with her passing her Fifth Cycle, she would remain on those walls until the mighty Soumanya river ran dry.
The ground began to quake in tune with the elephant footsteps. Thankfully, you had spent last afternoon coating the grass around the hill in shards of glass. That would occupy them for a while.
After propping Ásta into a chair, you bent down and whispered a lie in her ear, for that is what the levitation spell calls for.
With the chair hovering an inch off the ground, you push Ásta out into the outside world. You instinctively cover her face with your hand, lest the sudden exposure to the sun blind her.
But she gazed blankly ahead, her eyes empty.
An elephant trumpeted in the distance. The glass always works.
From your vantage point on the top of the hill, you can see the entire troop steadily climbing the hill. As you peer down from the height, you think about how easy it would be to accidentally trip and send Ásta down into the darkness below. But, the hill isn’t as tall as one might think, and a sudden death is not a given.
And even if you managed to do it, you would have to see the pain in your sister’s eyes as she teeters over the edge. You’re far too selfish to do it yourself.
Instead, you begin to jog toward the forests, dragging Ásta along. You notice that you left your bhouttapal back at home, the only thing that would mask your tracks from the goblins.
And you wonder if you did it on purpose.
The moment you set foot into the forest, the sunlight cuts off. The sounds of the village fades into the distance, like you’re hearing them underwater. The only colour in the forest is the orchard of mangoes. Some of them are overripe, the flies buzzing around them in earnest.
The smell takes you back to the days of the First Cycle, where Man’h would feed you rice with pureed mangoes. You almost stop beneath a tree, wondering if there’s time to nibble on one but you continue pushing Ásta through the forest.
And you both hear the voice again.
“Ásta,” the Ta’el Pochana calls with your voice, “Ásta!”
The voice lends strength to your feet, and you begin to sprint toward the sound.
And Ásta speaks.
“The rule…” she murmurs, “The voice beckoned me twice. Didn’t you tell me not to answer? Wasn’t that the rule?” You can see the quiet panic in her eyes. And you realize that your sister suddenly knew where she was going.
You bite your lip so hard you can taste the iron.
“That was a thousand floods ago, Ásta,” you say softly, “Maybe you don’t exactly remember what the rule was.”
You’ve tried so hard to forget the rule. You tried.
You fantasized about the day when you would hear the voice, and your mind would slip as you walked toward it. Then everything would have faded away in swirls of black and red and everything would be glorious.
The call of the Ta’el Pochana gets closer and closer, clearer and clearer. Now that you think about it, though the goblin uses your voice…you can’t help but notice the deep raspy edge it has to it.
You can feel Ásta’s body quiver through the chair.
The forest breaks into a clearing, the entrance of a cave located in an inconspicuous corner.
The entrance is choked with blood-red lilies. The plants in this area are carnivorous and their bite remains long after they’re dead.
The Ta’el Pochana’s voice emanates from within the cave.
All you have to do is walk in.
You want to cover your sister’s eyes as you enter, but you curb that instinct. You want Ásta to see. You want Ásta to know that the goblin heard your pleas and your prayers.
You walk in through the cave, the lilies attacking you and digging into your exposed neck. Asta gasps as she sees the huddled shape hidden in the shadows of the cave.
You close your eyes.
You hear the breathless fear in her voice, the shock jolting her into a brief moment of lucidity. She shrieks with all the strength she could muster, talking at length for the first time in months. And she only screams your name.
The Ta’el Pochana growls, and you hear it shuffling closer.
Ásta’s cries gradually grow more frantic, the sound of your name blending into incoherent mumbling.
And then there is silence.
You hear a sound, like a heavy sack of rice hitting the ground. You had always wanted the goblins to cure her. But not like this.
Never like this.
You hear the bones in the goblin’s spine creak as it turns its attention to you. Outside, the Maharani’s troops are nearly at the entrance of the cave.
For a single fleeting moment, you think about turning yourself in. Maybe being nailed to the walls of the Capital is a fate you deserve.
A chance to suffer just as much as Ásta did. Instead, you slump to your knees. You’re far too afraid and far too selfish.
The Ta’el Pochana’s muggy breath is hot on your cheek. When the pain comes, it comes as a white-hot stab in your gut. All the air rushes up your throat as you hit the floor of the cave.
And amidst all the slithering darkness, the scent of mangoes only grows stronger.
Naethan Pais is a 17-year-old comic artist and writer of speculative fiction that tries its hardest to break your brain. His work has previously appeared in the October 2021 issue of The Future Fire.
Author of “The Goblins of South India”
What inspired you to write this story?
The main inspiration for the story was re-imagining traditionally European mythological characters such as vampires or goblins in an Indian setting and worldview.
To give other writers hope, would you mind sharing with us how many edits and/or submissions this story has been through?
This story went through three drastically different iterations based around the same core concept of exploring goblins in India.
The other versions were an in-world textbook exploration of several types of goblins that told a story through its descriptions (might still take a stab at this another day).
Another was an excerpt from a hunting journal that was inspired by a real-life account of a tiger poacher in British occupied India.
After figuring out some details of the current story, I finished the piece in one marathon writing session after which it was edited by the Apparition Lit team.
Recommend something to us! This could be a book, a short story, a video game, a project you’ve heard about, something you’re working on, etc. Anything that has you excited and that you want people to know about.
Naoki Urasawa’s magnum opus “20th Century Boys” is an absolute masterclass in how to build an intriguing mystery that has hundreds of layers the more you find out. Though it’s a manga, I think a lot of writers can learn a ton about creating unbearable suspense and character building.