AUTHOR'S NOTES: Okay, guys. Here it is: the unfinished draft of Chapter 27. This represents the first ten pages of solid writing that I have finished. The rest is partially done in a combination of note/draft form. So please read this to the end if you wish. Thank you all for all of your support and feedback over the years, it's meant a lot to me! I hope that you enjoy this last little tidbit. And please please please don't kill me for ending with a cliffhanger…
EXILE 03: RESCUE
The mornings were the worst. When his brain was still sleep-addled and his stomach was still empty, he was at his weakest. And waking up at all was getting more and more difficult as the days passed.
Today was no different.
"Good morning," the attendant said, throwing open the curtains that covered the windows in his room, letting the red-tinted early morning sunlight slam him mercilessly in the face. He opened his eyes and blinked. She was pretty, of course – all of Hidimba's servants were pretty. And normally he would have appreciated the sight of such a pretty face. He did like pretty girls, after all. But at the moment, all that he cared about was the gnawing emptiness in his gut.
He sat up in his bed, slowly. If he sat up too quickly, he would get dizzy and nauseous. He always had to move slowly now.
"Are you hungry?" she asked him cheerfully.
He nodded, because no matter what the circumstances, he had been taught better than to lie.
"Here's your breakfast," she said, setting down a tray beside his bed. There were only two items on the tray: a glass of juice, and a bowl of meat stew.
She stood back and watching him silently, waiting to see what he would do.
He reached for the juice, of course. He drank it slowly, savoring its sweet taste, and the little bits of fruit pulp that tickled his tongue. It wasn't much, but it was sugar and a bit of nutrients, hence enough to at least keep him alive for the day.
The meat stew, he did not touch. Its rich, spicy smell only served to turn his stomach. He knew what the primary ingredient in the stew was. He would rather die than taste a single bite of the abomination.
He finished the juice, neatly placed his empty cup back on the tray, then lied back down in his bed and rolled over, his back to the servant. "Thank you," he mumbled into his pillow.
He could feel the pity in her eyes as she gazed at him. "Your Highness, you have to eat."
"Don't call me that."
"I do not recognize my uncle's crown. So I am not a prince. This is simple." He buried his face in his pillow, trying to block out the smell of the stew. "I'm not a cannibal, either," he said into his pillow.
He closed his eyes, and listened to the sounds of her picking up the tray and leaving his room. He listened to the door slide shut behind her. He listened to the sounds of the many locks clicking into place.
He pulled his covers over his head, trying to block out the merciless sunlight. Of course, he could have just gotten out of bed, strode across the room, and closed the window curtains. But that would have required the expenditure of energy, and he had precious little of that left to waste.
He closed his eyes and willed himself to stop thinking about how sweaty and dirty he felt, or how nasty the taste in his mouth was. He knew that later on in the day, more of the emperor's servants would arrive, so that he might bathe himself and change his clothes beneath their close supervision. Until then, however, he could only sleep. He had to conserve his energy. He had to wait, and watch, and perhaps even pray for an opportunity to make his move.
It wasn't hard to fall back asleep, of course. His mind and his body were now in an almost permanent state of exhaustion.
"Oh Gods, that wasn't supposed to happen." Ashwatthama's hands were clasped over his mouth in horror. "Oh Lord. Oh Lord. I didn't mean to."
Arjuna blinked at him. "Since when did you have three eyes and sixteen arms?"
"Wha-?" Ashwatthama seemed to look at himself for the first time. "Oh hells." Ashwatthama's many hands waved in frustration. "You must be really unconscious right now. Like really gone. What happened?!"
"Uh, where am I?"
"Deep within your lower brain but also in a higher plane of existence. It's complicated."
"But what happened?" Arjuna asked, throwing Ashwatthama's question back at him. Then he looked down at himself. "And why am I naked?"
"You triggered the curse. You – I mean, not specifically you, more like the plural all of you, or one of you at least - must have violated the rules of your exile. Now you have to start all over again." Ashwatthama smacked his forehead with one of his many hands. "What did you do?! How could you have broken the rules in less than a week?!"
"I don't know, but that ring of yours tried to set me on fire." Arjuna crossed his arms over his bare and – in this plane of existence, at least – unblemished chest. "And if we're having a mystical experience, and you get to have sixteen arms and three eyes, I think it's only fair that I should get at least some pants. Or something." He paused to look at Ashwatthama then, really look. The blue mark on Ashwatthama's forehead was gone, but in its place was a clear and bright eye, turned on its side. The third eye wasn't quite moving in tandem with Ashwatthama's other two eyes, either. It didn't blink when they blinked, but a few seconds before or later. Its gaze slid along on its own trajectory, not always following the focus of his other two eyes. It regarded Arjuna with the same sympathy and kindness that showed through the other two eyes, but something about it still made Arjuna want to shiver with disgust.
"I know. I'm sorry." Ashwatthama did look sorry – and genuinely mortified. "I guess I didn't realize… Mmm. How to put this. I guess I didn't realize how much juice I had charged that thing with," he said.
Arjuna looked again at Ashwatthama's sixteen arms and three eyes, and said, "Maybe you didn't realize how much juice youhad inside of you."
"Am I going to be all right?" Arjuna asked, touching his chest again.
"Yes. Gandiva will heal you. That's what devaweapons do – they protect their hosts. But we're lucky – and very, very blessed – that it was you wearing that ring, and not one of your brothers." Ashwatthama nodded to himself, solemnly. Then he turned his attention back to Arjuna. "Don't wear that ring again. Any of you."
"But it's the only thing I have that's from you," Arjuna said, sadly. Then he suddenly realized something. "Wait. Don't you have a matching ring back on Kuru?"
"Who was wearing it?!" Arjuna asked, suddenly alarmed.
"Are you all right?!"
"I'm fine." Ashwatthama laughed. "The, uh, the kickback came as a surprise to me too. But I'm fine now. My devaweapon healed me. Like I said."
"…You have a devaweapon?"
"Arjuna, what are you wearing?"
Arjuna looked down at himself, and realized, with a start, that he was wearing the gown that he remembered Draupadi having worn on their wedding day. "But I asked for pants!" he cried out at nobody in particular.
Ashwatthama was nearly doubled over with laughter, two of his arms clutching his stomach, while the rest of his hands waved around uselessly. "Arjuna, your subconscious is definitely the weirdest plane of existence I've ever experienced."
Arjuna crossed his silk-gloved hands over his silk-covered chest. "Thanks," he said. "I guess. So… what now?"
Ashwatthama's laugher abruptly ceased. He answered Arjuna solemnly, "We start over. As soon as you or I finish this, er, conversation. I guess you could call it that. This will be our last contact, unless you manage to set off the curse again. Anyway, as soon as I'm back in Kuru, I'll reset the clock. When you wake up, tell Yudhisthira to do the same." He peered at Arjuna carefully, all three of his eyes squinting with curiosity. "So… How did you break the rules, exactly?"
Arjuna shrugged. "I don't know. I was passed out. But I think – I think – that we accidentally ran into someone that Bhima knows."
Ashwatthama frowned. "Aren't you supposed to be in jumpspace right now?"
"Yeah, but… We kicked out of jumpspace. We're kind of being robbed right now. Er, don't tell Mom. She'll just worry, you know."
Arjuna opened his eyes right into a blinding flash of light.
"Damn!" His hands flew to his face, trying to shield himself. He heard laughter.
"I think you woke him up," Sahadeva's voice said.
"About time." That was Nakula's voice. "Hold still, Arjuna, I'm trying to take a picture."
Arjuna blinked, his mind waking up more slowly than his body. What? What? He sat up – easily. The last thing I remember, I think I was dying—
His hand flew to his bare chest, and he rested his fingers against the smooth, unblemished skin there. He felt no pain.
Another flash, momentarily blinding Arjuna again. He winced, blinking his eyes furiously to restore his sight.
"Nakula, stop that," Yudhisthira said.
"Are you kidding me? Look at his face. This is priceless."
Arjuna sat up quickly, felt a deep chill, and realized that he was naked from the waist up. Also, he realized that he was in a room with a lot of people. And they were all staring at him. His vision focused, blurred, then focused again. He was on the couch in the lounge, and surrounding him were his brothers and Draupadi and three strangers.
Three strangers. Oh, no.
Arjuna's hand twitched, as he prepared to reach for his bow. But suddenly Yudhisthira was there, grasping his hand, stopping him. "It's all right, Arjuna. They're not going to hurt us."
"What happened?" Arjuna's eyes darted quickly around the room. "And can somebody please give me a shirt?"
Somebody did throw a shirt at him, then – Arjuna wasn't sure who. He started to dress himself, then winced as Nakula's camera flashed again. "Nakula!"
"Hey, I'm doing this for Ashwatthama. Seeing these holos will make him feel better. Even if we have to wait another thirteen years to give them to him."
Arjuna froze. "Ashwatthama?! Did you talk to-?"
"Arjuna, I'm sorry," Yudhisthira said, quickly cutting in before Arjuna could finish his question. "Not Ashwatthama, but Duryodhana contacted us. It was… a while ago. I actually inquired about the possibility of speaking to Ashwatthama, but Duryodhana claimed that he was indisposed."
"Oh, that's right," Arjuna said, quickly. "Ashwatthama just spoke to me anyway."
"It was kind of a mystical experience. Thing."
Yudhisthira patted Arjuna's shoulder, a bit condescendingly. "Arjuna, you had a fever," he said. "An extremely high fever."
"All right. Sure. I had a fever." Arjuna glanced around the room, found Krishna, and risked rolling his eyes. Krishna lifted his hand to his mouth to hide his chuckle.
"We started over." Yudhisthira went on, ignoring Arjuna's sarcasm and Krishna's obvious laugh. Yudhisthira pulled Arjuna's fingers apart, dropped his golden ring – no longer melted – into Arjuna's palm, and let Arjuna close his hand again. "We broke the rules. We had contact with somebody that one of us knew from before, and the curse did what it was supposed to do. Er, to you. But it was an accident, I believe. Ashwatthama would never intended for the curse to hurt you, it just…" He trailed off, the way that Yudhisthira was prone to do when Arjuna knew that he was choosing his words very, very carefully. Finally, Yudhisthira lowered his voice to a whisper. "Ashwatthama has powers greater than even he understands. And he made his curse more powerful than he intended. That is all."
"Did Ashwatthama get hurt?" Arjuna asked, also in a low voice.
"Duryodhana told us that he was unharmed, although I suspect-"
"Arjuna, you can't wear that ring anymore," Bhima's voice cut in, loudly.
Yudhisthira whirled toward Bhima, his face instantly going dark. Arjuna was as taken aback by this reaction as Bhima seemed to be. "Bhima," Yudhisthira hissed, "Don't you dare interrupt me I am talking to Arjuna right now and I am going to deal with you and your load of gillwash in a moment but right now you really need to back off and shut up and wait your helldamned turn."
Stunned silence greeted this outburst.
Yudhisthira took a deep breath, then turned back to Arjuna, having apparently gotten all of the invective out of his system. "Do you want us to call Kuru again?" Yudhisthira asked, gently. "We've already started our exile over, reset all of the clocks. It will hardly matter if we lose a few hours and do so over again."
Arjuna swallowed. "Why would I want you to call Kuru again?"
"Because we all had a chance to say our farewells again. It didn't feel right that you slept through that."
Arjuna thought for a moment, then shook his head. "No. No. I can't say goodbye to any of them – not again." He tried to push Yudhisthira aside, to get a good look at the strangers that he still sensed in the room with him, but there was no way for him to do so politely. "So. Uh. Can somebody tell me what's going on?"
That was when Yudhisthira finally stepped aside, and Arjuna got a clear view of the three strangers in the room with him. Two women, and one man. They obviously weren't human. Too tall and too thin, with long flat faces, too-small noses, dark eyes and sharp visible fangs. Their hands and feet were too large. Speaking of which, their hands had claws. Long, sharp claws.
One of the women stepped forward. She did not bow to Arjuna, but she at least briefly lowered her head before she spoke. "Your Highness," she said. She spoke Arjuna's language with an accent. "We are relieved to see that you have recovered."
Arjuna stared at her. "Wait. Wait wait wait. Aren't you people still trying to kill us?"
"No," she answered smoothly. "We were unaware that you were Kuru royalty."
"And who would you be again?"
"Oh hells, this is taking too long," Nakula cut in, impatiently. "Here, Arjuna, let me info-dump on you. These are rakshasa, they were trying to rob us, but it turns out this one here actually had a bastard son with Bhima-"
"Whaaaaat?" Arjuna's jaw dropped.
"—And an evil rakshasa emperor kidnapped that kid," Nakula went on, breathlessly, "and Bhima's been freaking out because he didn't know that he had a son, and Yudhisthira's freaking out because he didn't know that Bhima had a son, oh yeah and also Bhima has super special awesome linguistic powers and can magically understand rakshasha language."
"Whaaaaat?" Arjuna repeated.
"See, now you're up to speed," Nakula said. "Next time, Arjuna, try not to sleep through the important parts, okay?"
He finished his bath for the day after the sun was already high in the sky. Freshly bathed and dressed, he was escorted back to his room – to his prison – and the doors were locked behind him again. He knew that he would not be permitted to leave his room for at least another day, if not two or three.
He lied down on top of his bed, and forced himself to relax. He needed to rest. He had to conserve what little energy he had left.
Eventually, his mind wandered into half-sleep. The hours passed in instants. Then, the sound of the locks unlocking, and his door sliding open. Soft footsteps approaching the bed. A cool, comforting hand on his forehead.
"Are you awake?" Mayasura asked.
"I am now." He sat up, slowly, and beckoned the asura to sit beside him on the bed. "My uncle let you come see me?"
"On the condition that I put in a good word on his behalf. Pretend that I am doing so now." Mayasura wrapped his arm around Ghatotkacha's shoulder, resting his hand on the boy's arm. It was not so much a gesture of affection as it was a gesture of diagnosis. "By Ravana. You're fading fast."
"I… I won't, you know. Eat. I won't eat what they feed me. Never."
"I know." Mayasura returned his hands to his lap, then a moment later, slipped a small bread roll into the boy's hands. "This is the most that I can do without risking your uncle detecting the use of my maya. Take it. Eat."
Ghatotkacha instinctively wanted to tear into the food immediately – he was already uncontrollably salivating, just from the scent of it, the feel of it in his hands. But still he held it for a moment, properly reverent. "Your maya is great," the boy breathed, in awe – as he always was – of the asura beside him. "To create something so real out of thin air, and within the constraints of the Lower World as well-"
"It is nothing," Mayasura said. And the boy knew that to him, it truly wasn't. As the devas were to humans, so were the asuras to the rakshasa – they were their gods. Asuras had created the rakshasa's world and the rakshasas themselves, eons ago. But they had also bestowed upon their creations the essence of their own powers. Which was why, to this day, rakshasas could still manipulate the power of maya – the very same power of the asuras themselves.
It was also why, god though he might have been, Mayasura was just as much a prisoner as Ghatotkacha was. "I am old," Mayasura had said to the boy, long ago, when their ordeal had first begun. "And I have been in the human world for a long time. Too long. I have little power in this realm. Your uncle has so much more… I am sorry."
At the time, the boy had insisted that no, he was the one who was sorry. Everything was his fault. Because of his foolishness, his stupidity, his selfishness… It was his fault that a being who was as a god to him was now trapped in the same prison that he was.
Ghatotkacha finished tearing apart and devouring his bread, taking time to lick every last crumb from his claws. Then he turned to the asura and said, "What will happen to you when I'm gone?"
Mayasura looked taken aback. "What do you mean, 'gone'?"
"I mean dead," Ghatotkacha said, bluntly. "Simple analysis: only three outcomes are possible at this point. One, I give up, renounce my parents, and join my uncle. Two, I don't ever give up, and my uncle lets me starve to death. Three, my mom and Jara rescue us before that happens. So, the first is never going to happen, the third, maybe, but it's really the second that seems the most likely outcome at this point." The boy regarded the asura evenly. "So. If I die. What will happen to you?"
Mayasura shook his head. "I am a god. I will not let you die. You are one of my favored children now."
"Thank you," Ghatotkacha said. Then he closed his eyes and leaned against the asura's shoulder, too weak to do anything else. But at least the asura's presence comforted him.
Some time passed. Ghatotkacha wasn't sure how much. But he sensed the heavy, dark presence of his uncle long before he heard the door of his room open and shut again. Ghatotkacha opened his eyes, looked up, and saw his uncle looming over him.
"Come," Ghatotkacha's uncle said. He sounded imperious. But then again, he always sounded imperious – he was an emperor, after all. "I have a guest who wishes to meet with you."
Mayasura said nothing, but squeezed Ghatotkacha's hand. The boy stared up at his uncle, silent and defiant.
"She is a priestess," the emperor said. "A vegetarian. We have offered food to entertain her, of course. You may partake if you wish."
Ghatotkacha looked down, unable to meet the emperor's eyes anymore. But he let go of Mayasura's hand and stood up, slowly.
"That's my boy," Hidimba said.
"She's your what?" Arjuna spluttered. "But she's trying to rob us!"
"Oh, no no no no no," the rakshasa woman said quickly, waving her claws for emphasis. "We're not going to take anything from you. Not anymore. Bhima is bound to me by my son's blood, and his family is my family."
"Oh, thanks," Nakula commented snidely. "You'd only threaten and steal from complete strangers, but not family. Oh, that's real honorable."
"Nakula," Yudhisthira said.
Nakula shut his mouth. Arjuna stared at Yudhisthira, surprised. He had never heard his oldest brother imbue a single utterance with so much anger before.
Yudhisthira, however, walked over toward the rakshasa woman, stood in front of her, and said, "You are thieves."
"Yes," she answered calmly, "but for good reason."
"We have thousands of refugees on board the Pantha. Civilians and children. They need food. And we need energy resources to keep the Pantha moving. There is no safe planet for us to land the Pantha back in our universe. And there is no safe haven within the Lower World, either. We are rakshasa. In this universe, human-controlled planets will reject us, and rakshasa-controlled planets are all ruled by my brother. So we have been forced to resort to trapping and thievery to keep ourselves alive."
"But can't you just make food? Out of thin air?" Bhima asked her. "I saw you do that once."
"I was cooking, Bhima, not magicking food out of thin air. You just didn't see where I was storing the ingredients. I was keeping things in a separate space and I was cutting and grilling in a fast-forwarding time pocket. Got it? That's not magic."
Everyone stared at her.
"That… really sounds like magic to me," Bhima said.
"No, it's maya. And maya has rules. Strict rules. Especially here in the Lower World. We rakshasa are not omnipotent magicians, and we are every bit as much in danger of starving to death as-"
"—As we are," Draupadi said, cutting her off smoothly. "You most certainly chose the wrong ship to steal from. We have barely enough supplies to last us through the jump to the Gajapati system."
"Yes, yes, we're all hungry," Bhima cut in, impatiently. "But there's something more important that we have to deal with right now." He turned toward Hidimbi. "What the hell happened to my son?!"
Ghatotkacha was dressed from head to toe in elegant finery. His newly-pierced ears were weighed down with gold and jewels. His uncle's most talented makeup artists had even touched up his face, in order to hide the dark circles beneath his eyes, and the hollowness of his cheekbones.
"You look so handsome," Hidimba said, his enormous hand resting on Ghatotkacha's too-thin shoulder. "You finally look like a real prince."
"I am not a prince," Ghatotkacha said.
"You are my flesh and blood. Therefore, you are royalty."
"I may be your flesh and blood, but you are no emperor," Ghatotkacha said.
Hidimba's claws dug into Ghatotkacha's shoulders. "One more remark like that, boy," he said, "and I will dismiss your ungrateful ass back to your room, without letting you join us at dinner."
Ghatotkacha pressed his lips shut. He sat obediently beside his uncle, waiting. They were not in his uncle's usual grand reception hall, but rather in a small room that Hidimba used only for the most intimate – and the most private – of meetings.
Finally, their guests arrived. The priestess came first, bowing down until her forehead touched the ground in front of Hidimba's feet. "Your Majesty," she said. "My Lord is pleased to have an audience with you." And then, a moment later, the Lord that the priestess had referred to stepped out of the shadows, looming over them all.
Hidimba, the rakshasa emperor, actually bowed all the way to the ground in front of the asura, closing his eyes and whispering humbly, "It is an honor, my Lord."
Ghatotkacha hesitated for a moment. His mother had taught him to worship noble asuras like Ravana and Mayasura, not wicked asuras like the one standing before him right now. Then Ghatotkacha dared to glance up at the asura's burning eyes, and he realized that if he did not bow and kiss the ground before the asura's feet this instant, he was about to be burned to ash.
Ghatotkacha threw himself down on the ground, trying to grovel with dignity, trying very hard not to piss himself out of sheer terror.
"My Lord is displeased by this child's disrespect," the priestess said, straightening from her bow. "Your Majesty, who is this boy?"
"This is my nephew, Ghatotkacha," the emperor said, also uprighting himself. "Please have mercy on him, my Lord. He was raised by his corrupt, abusive mother. I only recently was able to rescue him from her grasp. I have been trying my hardest, my Lord, but I cannot undo fourteen years of brainwashing overnight. Ghatotkacha still has much to learn. Please, have mercy on him."
Ghatotkacha swallowed his fear and slowly straightened out of his bow.
"I have come to you today, Hidimba," the asura said, "because the devas have once again begun to directly interfere in the affairs of the humans, thus it is only fair that we asura return to aid our rakshasa children as well." The asura closed his eyes for a moment, as if he pained. Then he opened his eyes and said, "The devas have already inserted two of their most powerful pawns into the Lower World." He gazed at Hidimba solemnly. "The Avatar has returned. And the Dharmaraj was born decades ago. Together, they will destroy us all."
Hidimba's eyes widened. "No," he breathed. "That's impossible. An Avatar? Here?! In the Lower World?"
Why yes, I did just cut off in the middle of a scene. You may throw tomatoes at me if you wish.
So with this, I'm afraid that I'm going to have to put this fic on hiatus. There are a lot of reasons behind this, and I spent a lot of time struggling with this decision, but here it is. The end, for now.
Anyway, here's where this is all going: The asura that Hidimba is speaking to now will become important later on, although we shouldn't know his name yet. As for what Hidimba is planning – as well as questions like how he managed to get Ghatotkacha into the Lower World, and how he managed to imprison Mayasura – that was all going to be revealed at the end of this chapter. In case you're thinking that I'm building up Hidimba as a major villain, however, that really isn't what I have in mind. Hidimba's days are numbered; the next chapter was supposed to be the Pandava's first major action!sequence during the Exile part, which of course would have climaxed with Hidimba's death and Ghatotkacha's reunion with his family.
If you're wondering who the major villain in the Exile chapters would have been, well, he was already hinted at a few chapters back: Jarasandha.
I want to thank everybody who's read this far, everybody who's given me feedback over the years, and especially my superheroic betas, Neeti and Steelehearts. From this point on, I might be posting some unfinished scenes, short takes, and other material over at mahastory dot livejournal dot com. If you're interested, please check it out.