A precise descent needed a perfect take-off. Therefore, the Pashupatiastra missiles had been set at precise angles within the tower. The target area on the tower where the fiery arrow would be shot was small. Shiva had to fire an arrow to hit the target, placed more than eight hundred metres away. Moreover, he had to do this while seated on a horse, so that he could escape immediately after firing the arrow.
‘Remember, great Neelkanth,’ said Tara, ‘the moment your arrow hits the target, you have to ride away. You will have less than five minutes before the Pashupatiastra explodes over Devagiri. You have to cover at least three kilometres within that time. Only then will you be out of the range of the minuscule number of neutrons from the Pashupatiastra which may escape that far.’
Shiva nodded distractedly, still testing his bow’s draw strength.
‘Neelkanth? It is crucial for you to ride as fast as you can. The blast can be fatal.’
Shiva didn’t respond. He pulled out the arrows from the quiver. He smelt them and then rubbed the tip of one of the arrows against the rough leather of the pommel. The tip immediately caught fire. Perfect. Shiva threw the burning arrow away and returned the rest to the quiver.
‘Did you hear me? You need to move away immediately.’
Shiva wiped his hand on his dhoti and turned to Tara. ‘Ride beyond the safety line now.’
‘Shiva! You shoot the arrow and move.’
Shiva looked at Tara, his gaze glassy. Tara could see the blackish-red blotch on his brow throbbing frantically.
‘You will ride away immediately!’ emphasised Tara. ‘Promise me!’
‘I have already promised you. Now go.’
Tara stared at Shiva. ‘Neelkanth...’
‘Go, Tara. The sun is about to reach overhead. I need to fire the missiles.’
Tara pulled her horse’s reins and spun it around.
Tara pulled up her horse and looked back over her shoulder.
‘Thank you,’ said Shiva.
Tara was still, watching the face of the Neelkanth with clouded eyes. ‘Ride back quickly beyond the safety line. Remember, all those who love you are waiting for you.’
Shiva held his breath.
Yes, my love is waiting for me.
Tara kicked her horse into action and rode away.
Shiva pressed his forehead, right above the blackish-red mark. The pressure seemed to ease the horrendous burning sensation. The pain had been immense and continuous for the last few days, ever since he had seen Sati’s body.
Shiva shook his head and focused his attention on the tower. He could see the target in the distance. It had been marked a bright red.
He took a deep breath and looked towards the ground.
Holy Lake, give me strength.
Shiva breathed once again and looked up.
Lord Ram, be merciful!
Arrayed in front of him was an army of clones, blocking his view of the Pashupatiastra launch tower; clones of the giant hairy monster who had tormented him in his nightmares since his childhood. Shiva looked carefully and noticed that none of the monsters had faces. There was a smooth, white slate where their faces should have been. All of them had their swords drawn, blood dripping from every single blade. He could clearly hear their ghastly roar. For a moment Shiva imagined he was a terrified little boy once again.
Shiva looked up at the sky and shook his head, as if to clear it.
Shiva heard his uncle Manobhu’s voice call out. ‘Forgive them! Forget them! Your only true enemy is Evil!’
Shiva brought his eyes down and locked his gaze on the launch tower. The monsters had disappeared. He stared directly at the red spot, right at the centre of the tower.
Shiva pulled his horse’s reins and turned it right, singing softly in its ear to calm it down. The horse stayed still, offering Shiva the stable base he needed to hit a target. He turned his head to his left, creating the natural angle for a right-handed archer to get a straight shot. He pulled his bow forward and tested the string once again. He liked the twang of the bowstring when it was pulled and released rapidly. It was as taut as it could be. He bent forward and pulled an arrow from the quiver. He held it to his side and looked up, judging the wind.
The art of shooting arrows from this huge distance was all about patience and judgement. It was about waiting for the right wind conditions; the ability to judge the parabolic movement of the arrow; determining the ideal angle of release; controlling the speed of the arrow at release; deciding the extent to which the string should be pulled. Shiva kept his eyes fixed on the windsock, keeping his breathing steady, trying to ignore the burning sensation between his eyes.
The wind is changing direction.
Pointing the bow towards the ground Shiva nocked an arrow, the shaft firmly gripped between his hooked index and middle finger.
The wind is holding.
He ignited the tip by rubbing it against the leather pommel. Taut muscles raised the bow and drew the string in one fluid motion, even as his warrior mind instinctively calculated the correct angle of flight. Master archer that he was, he kept his dominant eye focused on the target. His left hand held the bow rock-steady, ignoring the searing heat from the tip of the arrow.
The wind is perfect.
He released the arrow without hesitation.
He saw the arrow move in a parabola, as if in slow motion. His eyes followed its path till it hit the red target, depressing it with its force. The fire immediately spread to the waiting receptacle behind the target. The Pashupatiastra’s initial launch had been triggered.
‘Ride away!’ screamed Tara from the distance.
‘Baba, turn your horse around!’ shouted Kartik.
But Shiva could not hear either of them. They were too far away.
Shiva kept staring at the rapidly spreading fire behind the target, the pain within his brow ratcheting up once again. He felt as if the insides of his forehead were on fire as well, just like the launch tower. He pulled the reins of his horse and turned it around.
He could see his troops far away. Beyond them, he could see his ship, anchored on the Saraswati. Sati’s body was stored in there.
She’s waiting for me.
Shiva kicked his horse. The animal didn’t need much coaxing as it quickly broke into a gallop.
The fire within the launch tower finally triggered the initial explosion. The three Pashupatiastras shot out of their pods, the two that were directed at the Tamra and Swarna platforms taking off just a few milliseconds after the third. That was because the target of the third missile, the Rajat platform, was farther away.
Shiva kept kicking his horse as it galloped faster and faster. He was just a few seconds away from the safety line. The missiles flew in a great arc, leaving a trail of fire behind them. Seconds later, they began their simultaneous descent into the city, like giant harbingers of absolute destruction.
Shiva could have sworn he heard the voice that he loved beyond all reason. But it couldn’t have been for real. He kept riding on.
The Pashupatiastra missiles were descending rapidly.
Shiva looked back.
A bloodied and mutilated Sati was running after him. Her left hand was spewing blood in bursts, in tune with each beat of her pounding heart. Two massive wounds on her abdomen gaped open as blood streamed out from them in a torrent. Her left eye was gouged out. Her burn scar seemed like it was on fire once again. She was struggling desperately, but she kept running towards Shiva.