She looked at Rama. The expression on her face was one he was accustomed to seeing, just not on a bloodthirsty demon intent on killing him. It spoke of untold weariness, and sheer exhaustion, and a very tiny amount of grim determination that was fuelling her even now. Usually it was one that his father wore, at the end of a particularly long day. It was one that veterans of the last war wore, at the beginning of the anniversary. And it was that expression that the rakshasi that he had come to slay had on her face.
'You, little boy? You will defeat me? Brahma blessed me with power and speed and wit beyond compare. Agastya cursed me into this form for all eternity. I have survived more than you can imagine. The passing of Time does not affect me. I cannot drown, cannot burn, cannot be poisoned. There is only one thing I live for. I will avenge my husband, and remove this curse from my body. But you will end me? A snivelling little brat barely out of his teens? I wish you luck, for all the good it will do you', she said in little more than a whisper, though it seemed to carry for miles.
Then another voice spoke; one that was supposed to be chanting hymns, but had stopped abruptly when Tataki had started speaking. With one hand motion he paused the world. All tension seemed to leave it, all hostility disappearing like so much water in desert heat. 'You do not know who this boy is, Tataki. He is your downfall.'
‘Hermit, do not disrespect your senior. I was old in this form before you were a thought in Brahma's mind. Death shall have no dominion over me. The noose of one as pathetic as Yama will never encircle my neck.'
'Really, rakshasi? None can best Death. He bows only to Shiva, the Destroyer, and even then under great duress. Taint the name of a son of Surya, and a son of Surya will claim restitution.'
'Hn. I would like to see him try', she said, in the softest of tones. Her manner shifted, her eyes hardened as she fought the maya of the Hermit with her own, and the battle was joined again. Gone was the tired warrior; in her place was a rakshasi eager for bloodshed.
Rama's bow was strung, his fingers ready for action, his mind calling to the memories of the Hermit's teachings. Next to him Lakshmana had a sword in hand, ready to fend off any attacks on his brother. They had both agreed that Rama was best suited for the bow; that Lakshmana's quick swordwork would come to both their advantages in a tight spot.
Rama's mind calmed. Vishwamitra's voice echoed in his skull. 'To call the Devas is not an easy task, young princes. They do not bow to just anyone. They are proud, stubborn, and wilful. And yet we know it is possible for them to aid us. I myself have done it, in times of need. And so we come to the how. How is it that kshatriyas can do what brahmins cannot, to make the Devas do one's bidding? The priests speak to them; they ask them for favours, bind them with hymns. But they cannot control the gods. That is the power of the warriors alone. And to do so, one must accept one simple fact. The gods are not people. They are ideas. And all you need to call an idea is to name it. An elephant king once called down Narayana himself, simply by naming him. And that is what you must do. Name the gods, their characters, their very being, and they will have no choice but to descend. They do not do this willingly. They do not take kindly to being summoned, whether it be by a street sweeper or Vasistha himself. And to withstand their force, you must learn Bala and Atibala. You must fortify your minds and your bodies. Do this, and the astras of the gods shall be yours.'
‘But you have not yet proved yourselves worthy of the astras of the Devas. Defeat Tataki own your own merit, and then I shall teach you to wield Bala and Atibala. Show me the power of the Line of Surya.’
Tataki swung wildly at the two princes, her reach far longer than any normal woman’s. As Lakshmana tried to defend his brother, jumping over the demoness’ arm before landing awkwardly a few feet away, Rama was already pulling back his bowstring, launching one arrow, then another, then a third, all at the most vital points he could find. And yet, despite the skill of Ayodhya’s best, despite the fact that Rama knew that he was aiming for the eyes, that arrows should have hit the eyes, they missed. Every single one of them.
He had already been separated from his brother. Lakshmana was behind the rakshasi, trying to regain lost ground, but she was moving too fast for either of the princes to find purchase. He continued to fire arrows at her, but to no avail. Rama’s mind, always fast, always fluid, always flexible, could come to only one conclusion. They were not good enough. The crown princes of Ayodhya, descendents of the Sun, sons of Dasaratha, grandsons of Aja, the best in the realm, were not good enough. And that was not acceptable. Rama refused to bow in the face of adharma. The sun brooked no defeat, brooked no insults. The demoness had insulted his family, for was not Yama the son of Surya? And for that, she would pay.
With a final gasp of breath, Rama nocked his very last arrow. He poured all his might, all of his very being into it, as he tracked the demoness’ chest and the beating heart that lay underneath it. And, just as he was about to loose, a single unbidden thought came to him.
'Some things are hidden even from the one from whom nothing is hidden'
He was a Suryaputra! He destroyed secrets and shadows and left nothing but light! THERE WOULD BE NOTHING HIDDEN FROM HIM!
Just for the briefest of moments, when it mattered the most, the meaning of the most powerful hymns of flickered in his mind. A spark that grew into a flame that became an inferno of four simple lines praising none other than his own grandfather many times over. He named his patron, Savitr-called-Surya, and beckoned him into his last weapon. And then he loosed.
That single arrow was transformed. Once it might have been wood and metal and nothing more. Now it was a golden missile, bent on destroying anything that came in its path, demoness or no demoness. He saw Tataki’s eyes widen, he felt Lakshmana dive out of its path, and he just knew that back in Ayodhya Guruji was meditating in his ashram, the ghost of a proud smile dancing on his lips.
Tataki’s death was a conflagration of light. As it struck her breast, it burned through blood and bone, lungs and heart dissipating in its wake. The utter disbelief in Tataki’s eyes might have been comical had she not been about to skewer him with her claws. And so the deed was done. He had killed Tataki, and he had not needed anyone’s strength but his own. Surya could still hold his head high, secure in the knowledge that his descendants were still the most powerful of them all.
In those precious moments of reflection, when he was trying to recover from that one instant of sheer clarity, he missed a single detail. One that his brother managed to catch. Lakshmana, while diving out of the path of the astra, had for once seen something that his brother did not. A dark man, with a noose in one hand, an iron rod in the other, seated on a buffalo, trying desperately to encircle Tataki’s neck. One who, after Rama’s arrow pierced the heart of the demoness, finally succeeded. One who then winked at Lakshmana, as if to say ‘You cannot avoid me forever’, before disappearing with his prize.
There would be much discussion after the fact, of how exactly Rama had managed to call down Surya without Bala or Atibala, of whether Lakshmana’s visions of Yama were caused by fatigue, adrenaline, or some combination of the two. But for now, both princes were happy to be alive, to have killed a demoness far older than them, and to know that the other had not died.
aaaaaaand cut. i really liked this bit, i thought it came out well.