Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




A History of Snakes, Part II

Visshki, now the eldest and most senior of the Serpents, had heard of the curse pronounced by his own mother. He called a meeting with Airavata and all their other siblings. “Brothers, as you know our own mother has cursed us. Anyone who is cursed by his own mother has no hope of remedy. What is more, Brum himself was witness to this curse, which makes it immutable. Now, we are all doomed to die in the serpent satra of King Majaya which is but the same curse of our mother Kadrush brought to fruition. Still, I know that we are wise beyond measure and by combining our wisdom, we may yet find a loophole in Auma which enables us to survive the ill effects of this curse. I invite your suggestions.”

Some snakes suggested that they turn themselves into Brum-seers and exhort Majaya to call off the sacrifice. Others expounded on this stratagem: “We shall travel back in time to insinuate ourselves as mortal Brum-seers among his advisors. Over time, we shall gain his confidence and respect. When the time comes to start the sacrifice, we shall advise him against initiating it in the first place. Thereby, the sacrifice shall never begin therefore it can never succeed in destroying our species!” The suggestions continued: “If all else fails and the serpent ceremony still goes forward, we can go to the chief preceptor and bite him with venom, killing him before he initiates the sacrifice. We shall kill all priests who dare to officiate at the sacrifice!” But some of their brothers objected saying, “This is the very reason why we are facing this calamity today! We cannot resolve our problem through further violence. Killing Brum-seers will only compound our sins thousandfold. The only way to resolve the situation is through peaceful means. At all times, we must adhere to Auma. Adharma will only lead to death and destruction.” After further thought, a suggestion was offered: “Let us become rainclouds and shower torrential rain to extinguish the ceremony fire.” Yet another was made: “Let us sneak into the site of the ceremony under cover of night and steal the ladles for the sacrifice.” The more violent Serpents shouted again: “Let us go in great numbers and kill everyone present!” Other angry ones suggested, “Let us defile the ceremony offerings of food with our dung and urine, rendering the ceremony itself worthless!” Someone proffered: “Let us become officiating Brum-seers at the satra and demand an impossible guru-offering in order to proceed with the sacrifice!” Someone cried out, “Yes, and let the offering be that King Majaya does not perform the ceremony at all!” Another group suggested: “Without violence, let us kidnap the king and hold him ransom until the ceremony is cancelled!” Still others said, “The only way to be certain is through violence—let us bite Majaya as we bit his father before him. With the Krushan king dead, there can be no serpent satra!”

Visshki heard the clamour of suggestions and considered them all carefully. Finally, after much thought and consultation he said, “Brother snakes, I am sorry but none of our ideas seem practicable. I am not satisfied with any of our plans. We must still think further. I take full responsibility and blame if we fail in this endeavour but I cannot go ahead with any of these suggestions.”

In the gloomy silence that followed Visshki’s announcement, Elapatra raised his hood and hissed, “This talk of preventing the serpent satra from beginning is pointless, as is the idea of kidnapping or killing King Majaya. Let us first accept these two facts: One, King Majaya is determined to host this ceremony, and Two, the ceremony will take place as scheduled. But there is something I heard once that may be of use to us now. Soon after our mother pronounced our curse, I overheard the gods speaking to Lord Brum. They were amazed that a mother could curse her own children so harshly and not be reprimanded by the great Creator. This is how he answered them: ‘The snakes have become too numerous, too venomous, and too violent. They threaten the existence of all life on earth. For their sake, I permitted Kadrush to pronounce her curse and the curse to take effect. But it is not as cruel as it sounds. Only the most venomous and vicious snakes shall actually perish in the serpent satra of King Majaya. Once they are dead, the other snakes who are peaceful and observe Auma diligently may still escape. A great seer will rise in the line of the yayavaras named Jaratkaru. He shall marry a woman bearing the same name as his own, and their son will be named Staki. Rishi Staki will be the one to halt the sacrifice and ensure the survival of those snakes who are virtuous, peace-abiding and follow Auma.” Elapatra then pointed out, among their gathering, their sister named Jaratkaru. “Since Jaratkaru’s wife is to bear the same name as himself, and there sits our sister of that name, let us offer her as wife to the seer, that he may cohabit with her and produce a son named Staki. Thus shall one of our own kith and kin become our salvation.”

The snakes were delighted to hear this excellent plan. Visshki undertook the task of taking their sister Jaratkaru, who gladly volunteered, to the seer when the time came. Soon after this congregation of the snakes, the Great Churning began and Visshki was used as the rope for the churning. In the course of that momentous event, he learned that almighty Brum was in fact well aware of the plan suggested by his brother Elapatra and had in fact been the one to plant the seed of the idea in Elapatra’s head—that was how Elapatra came to overhear Brum’s conversation with the other gods. Brum exhorted Visshki to delegate his snake brethren to always keep watch over Jaratkaru so that when the time came, they would be ready to fulfill his desire for a wife by offering their sister to him in marriage. Wherever Jaratkaru travelled, he was watched by snakes.

• • • •

Once there was a king named Prishp. Born in the Krushan line, he was son of Abhimanyu and the great-grandson of Pandu. Like his great-grandfather, he was a dedicated hunter, devoted to the thrill and joy of the hunt. Strong of eye and keen of eye, he was an excellent archer and if he set his heart on hunting any creature, it never escaped his sights. Wild boar, deer, hyena, buffalo, every manner of creature that was fit to be hunted was pursued and brought down by his eagle eye and steady hand. One day, engaged in his favourite pursuit in the deep jungle, he shot a deer with a distinctive tuft of fur. Pierced by the arrow, the deer ran screaming into the deep woods. Like Lord Rudra seeking the sacrificial deer in swargaloka, King Prishp pursued the deer relentlessly, bow ready to snap off a second fatal shot the instant he laid eyes on his prey. “I have never failed to bring a deer down once I set my sights on it,” he thought, “and I shall not fail today.” His pride drew him ever deeper into that jungle as the deer, even though wounded and in pain, tested his stamina to the limit. Tired and thirsty, King Prishp chanced upon a humble hovel, barely a shelter beneath which stood a milch cow with calves suckling. There sat a seer engaged in deep meditation. His name was Shamika, although Prishp did not know it. Relieved to see another human being in that desolate place, King Prishp stopped before him. “Brum-seer, I am King Prishp, son of Abhimanyu. I shot a deer and it ran this way, pierced by my arrow. Did you see which way it went?” The seer opened his eyes and looked at the king but because he had undertaken a maun-vrata, a sacred vow of silence, he could not answer. Prishp was a king and accustomed to being answered instantly. When the seer continued to stare at him without answering, he was offended. But he tried to ask the question again, keeping his voice level and his manner respectful, because he had been brought up to always show respect to Brum-seers and elders. Still the seer refused to answer. Prishp was certain the deer had passed this way only moments earlier. Soon he would lose its trail and fail for the first time in his life. He was tired, hungry, thirsty, and eager to end the chase quickly. When the seer continued to ignore his queries and closed his eyes to resume his meditation, Prishp took this as a sign of a personal affront. He lost his temper. A dead snake happened to be lying nearby. Picking it up with the end of his bow, he draped it around the seer’s neck, intending to provoke him into speaking. But the seer adhered to his vow and remained silent. He only opened his eyes and glared at Prishp again, this time showing his own anger and displeasure. As Prishp stared at the absurd sight of a seer meditating with a dead creature draped around his throat, the Krushan king realized what he had done and felt ashamed. In his desperation to get his quarry, he had committed a grave transgression against a Brum-seer. Not wishing to compound his error of judgement, he quickly left that place and returned to his city, the hunt abandoned. Now, unknown to Prishp, a neighbour of the meditating seer had observed the whole incident. His name was Krisha and he was a friend of Shring, the son of the seer around whose neck Prishp had placed the dead snake.

Some time later, the seer’s son Shring returned home. On the way home, he met Krisha who smirked and said, “Shring, you are always so proud and superior. But I just saw your father, wearing a carcass around his neck like a necklace. Is that any way for a Brum-seer to act, meditating with a corpse on his body?” Shring was a self-righteous young Brum-seer, austere in his views and his vows, and given to great fits of rage. He was a devotee of Brum and it was on Brum’s urging that he had cut short his trip to come home. He was offended by Krisha’s tone and manner of speaking. He refused to believe his friend. “What nonsense is this? Why would my father wear a corpse around his neck?” Krisha laughed. “The only mistake was made by King Prishp. The Krushan king was hunting a deer which had passed this way. He asked your father to point out the direction the deer had gone, but your father refused to answer him.” Krisha blinked, trying to take in this information and replied crossly, “My father has taken a vow of silence. He cannot speak to anyone for any reason until his vow has ended.” Krisha shrugged, still grinning. “King Prishp must not have known that. He lost his temper at your father’s silence, picked up a dead snake, and wrapped it around your father’s throat. Now look at your father, still sitting there with the carcass!” Shring caught hold of Krisha, who took one look at Shring’s furious expression and stopped laughing at once. “Where is this King Prishp now?” asked Shring. Krisha gestured with a nod of his head. “He left some time back. Probably went back to Hastinaga.”

Shring pushed Krisha aside and ran the rest of the way to his humble hermitage. He saw his father seated in the cowshed, the dead snake around his neck. Shring’s anger swelled until his eyes turned red and his face glowed red with rage. He could not bear the sight of his father, so devoted to his austerities that he survived by only drinking the froth discarded by the calves after they had suckled at their mother cow’s teats, and who spend his days in utter silence under the force of the maun vrata. His father opened his eyes and saw his son standing before him, staring at the dead snake and Shring saw his father’s eyes turn away in humiliation. Tears sprang from Shring’s eyes. His father still did not speak but in his mind, Shring could hear his father’s voice saying, “Son, we are men of Auma. We possess nothing of value except the virtue gained by our austerities. Always remember that. Poor though we are in wealth and belongings, we are rich in austerities and can always hold our heads high with pride, for few even among Brum-seers can claim to be as devoted to their vocation as we are.” It was this same approach to life that made Shring equally proud and self-righteous and his heart could not bear to see his virtuous father who had suffered and surrendered everything else humiliated in this fashion by a wealthy royal warrior from such a great dynasty.

Taking up water with his fingertips, Shring vented his anger in a terrible curse against Prishp. “I curse this evil king, defiler of Brum-seers, disgrace to the Krushan race, for his sin of abusing my old, feeble father. Seven nights from today, the great Taaksh, king of snakes, shall hunt down and find King Prishp no matter where he hides, and shall bite him with his fangs, using his lethal venom to send the vile kshatriya to the abode of Yarm.”

Shring’s father Rishi Shamika heard the curse and stirred, breaking his vow of silence. “My son, what have you done? This is not what I have taught you. This is an act against Auma!”

Shring could not believe his father. “But look at how he treated you? I could not let him commit such an insult and walk away without consequence! I stand by my curse: Within the next seven days, King Prishp will be bitten by Taaksh and sent to Vaivasvata’s realm.”

Shamika shook his head. “What he did was wrong. But what you do is wrong as well! He is a king and a kshtriya. It is the duty of such persons to protect Brum-seers like us. If they act rashly as he did, then we must somehow find the strength in our hearts to forgive him.”

“But he acted against Auma too!” Shring cried. “He insulted a Brum-seer whom he ought to respect and protect!”

“True. But one cannot wipe out one transgression with another. If a kshatriya fails in his Auma and does not protect a Brum-seer, if he insults one instead, then we must show ourselves greater than he, and forgive him his lapse. By violating our own Auma and seeking violence against him, we commit a greater crime!” Shamika shook his head, upset with his son’s outburst. “You do not understand the full story. Prishp was exhausted, near collapse, he had not eaten or drunk a drop of water, nor rested for who knows how long. His determination to finish off the deer and succeed at the hunt was his undoing. He had no idea I was under a maun vrata. He thought I was the one being rude and insolent by not answering him. He thought it was my Auma to answer, to offer him food and water and shelter, as our king. Even if he acted wrongly, he did so out of exhaustion and while in an improper state of mind. You had no cause to issue such a terrible curse against him!”

Shring saw the point of his father’s argument at last. But he spread his hands in despair. “But father, there is nothing to be done now. Because I only speak the truth, my curse will be effective. I cannot stop it now, once spoken.”

Shamika sat beside his son and pondered the matter with some gravity. “Very well then. I shall do what I can to try to mitigate it somehow. But my son, I have some advice for you. There is a lesson to be learned from this incident and your reaction. Even though you are a grown man and are dedicated to your given varna, devoting your life to austerities and the gaining of knowledge, yet you have still much to learn. In this instance, you behaved not like a man but like an impetuous child! You must give up this anger, or it will destroy you one day. There is no use pursuing austerities and controlling your urges and desires for decades, if in a single moment you allow anger to overcome you. Anger is an emotional motivation, just like lust, greed, hunger, thirst. If you can control those others so perfectly, then you must learn to control your anger as well. A man who cannot control his anger is no different from a man who cannot control his lust, greed, or other instincts. The only way to gain true maturity and progress as an ascetic is through peace and non-violence. Any action or word that causes, or permits to be caused, harm to other living creatures, is against Auma. There are no exceptions to this rule.”

Shring listened to his father’s words and asked, “But what does one do when someone commits such a transgression, insulting or humiliating oneself or one’s loved one?”

Shamika put a hand gently on his son’s shoulder. “One forgives.”

While Shring considered what he had done and what his father had said, Shamika sent his disciple Gauramukha to Hastinaga. Obediently, Gauramukha travelled straight to the Krushan capital and requested an audience with the king. King Prishp received him with full respect and honour. Enquiring after the king’s welfare as his guru had instructed, he then came to the real purpose of his visit. Acting on his guru’s orders, Gauramukha told the king, in the presence of his advisors, the history of the incident in the forest, ending with the curse spoken by Shring son of Shamika and his guru’s instructions to himself.

Listening to the disciple’s story, King Prishp was overcome with remorse. Mortified at what he had done, he regretted how he had behaved with poor Shamika. Hearing that the old, feeble seer had been under a vow of silence, he was overwhelmed with self-recrimination. He barely heard the disciple repeat the curse. To King Prishp, all that mattered was that he had behaved unforgivably toward an innocent old, impoverished, and frail Brum-seer who had only been constrained by his own vow of silence. He thanked Gauramukha for his message and asked him to beseech his guru Shamika for his forgiveness, for he was deeply ashamed at his actions. Gauramukha informed the king that the guru had already forgiven him his error, and that was why he had sent his disciple here to warn Prishp.

After the disciple left, Prishp sat in counsel with his ministers. Still focussed more on his own mistake than on the curse, he nevertheless understood that as king, he had a responsibility to his people and dependents. Acting on the advice of his counsellors, he had a palace be built overnight, standing on pillars to make it impossible for any snake to climb, with every entrance heavily guarded day and night. They also advised to place Brum-seers, vaids, and men of science around the palace to use warding mantras, herbs, and potions to dissuade any serpents from approaching. The moment the palace was constructed, Prishp took up residence within it, surrounded by his protectors and continued with his royal duties.

The next six days passed uneventfully.

On the seventh and last day, Sage Kushir was on his way to meet the king. As a Brum-seer possessed of great knowledge of various sciences, he had been summoned. His special knowledge lay in the preparation of antidotes to snake venom. It was his given mission to ensure that in the event that King Prishp was bitten by a snake, he would be on hand to administer an antidote to counter the venom at once. Aware of this, Taaksh king of snakes, assumed the form of a Brum-seer and appeared before Kushir on the road. “Where do you go in such a great rush? What task is so urgent to make you travel so quickly?” asked the old Brum-seer. Kushir replied politely, “Good Brum-seer, today is the last day of King Prishp’s curse. If Taaksh king of snakes does succeed in biting the king, then I will administer an antidote to his venom. It took me these many days to prepare the perfect venom. Now that it is ready, I must rush to the king’s palace to be present in case the serpent lord succeeds in his endeavour.”

Taaksh then laughed and revealed his true form. “Kushir, look upon me now! I am that same Taaksh you speak of. Turn back now. Once I bite someone, he can never be saved. Your mission is useless.”

Kushir did not flinch or blanch before the king of snakes, not even when Taaksh enlarged himself to his full size and towered menacingly over him, swaying proudly. “You may believe that to be true, Serpent. But I have faith in my own scientific knowledge as well. I am certain I can cure the king of your bite—if you are able to bite him at all.”

Infuriated by Kushir’s response, Taaksh hissed and dripped venom, showing his long fangs. He indicated a very large and old fig tree nearby. “Do you see this fig tree, Brum-seer? It has existed here for hundreds of years. Yet I can wither it in moments with the toxin from my venom, destroying it as swiftly as fire itself would consume the wood! Even your great knowledge cannot save it then!”

Kushir shrugged. “If you want to bite the tree, then bite it. Then let us see whether or not it withers.”

Provoked further by the Brum-seer’s challenge, Taaksh lunged at the tree, twisting his hooded head sideways to sink his fangs deep into the ancient wood. At once the sap of the tree began to sizzle and dry up as the powerful venom from the snake lord’s pouches entered the veins of the tree. The trunk began to turn grey, the leaves lost their colour, the fruit blackened and the whole tree withered before Kushir’s eyes just as if it had been set ablaze by an invisible fire. In moments, it was reduced to an ashen withered state. Even the ground for miles around began to wither and die. Taaksh had injected enough venom into the tree to slay a thousand trees.

Taaksh withdrew his fangs and hovered above Sage Kushir. His ruby eyes glinted in his hooded face. “You see, Brum-seer? That tree is destroyed! Nobody can save it now!”

But still Kushir stepped forward, approaching the skeletal ruin of the once-proud lord of the forest. He knelt down and laid a hand on the base of the trunk. “So you say, king of snakes. You have shown what you can do with your destructive poison. Now see what I can do through the power of science and knowledge!”

And Kushir set to work, chanting mantras and using herbs and unguent mixtures of his own making. Soon, a green shoot emerged from the derelict tree’s ruin. The shoot grew into a sapling, then the sapling sprouted leaves, then twigs, then branches . . . before the astonished eyes of the snake king, the entire tree rose up again from the earth, every inch as it had been before, glowing with health and vigour. Kushir picked a fruit from a low-hanging branch and bit into it, smiling to show that it was delicious.

Taaksh hissed long and hard at the Brum-seer, flashed his fangs in anger, shook his tail about, raised and dipped his hood. Finally, his anger spent, he subsided sulkily. “Very well, Brum-seer. I concede that you possess a great ability. Never before have I seen anyone contravene the effect of my venom in this manner. Truly you must be blessed with great knowledge and power. Tell me, what is your real purpose in going to the palace of King Prishp? What do you seek to gain by saving his life?”

Kushir answered honestly, “I seek to enrich myself. He is a king of the great Krushan line. If I save his life, he will certainly reward me richly.”

Taaksh’s ruby eyes gleamed brightly within the shadows of his hood. He lowered his great hood so his face was on the same level as that of the sage. “Brum-seer, you know that the king is under a powerful curse, a terrible shraap. There is no power that can countermand such a shraap, once uttered. Nor has anyone mitigated or circumvented the effect of the curse as yet. It is King Prishp’s fate to die today. No matter how great your knowledge or skill, your success is uncertain. If you perchance fail, instead of gaining riches, you will suffer a great loss of your reputation. Whatever earnings you presently gain will also cease and you will be penniless.”

Kushir considered Taaksh’s words and found merit in them. “Let us assume you are right in your assumption. What do you propose?”

Taaksh hissed sibillantly with pleasure. “Best of Brum-seers, if it is riches you seek, I can give you more than you can ever hope to get from King Prishp. Moreover, your gain will be assured as I will give it to you right now. All you need do is turn back and retrace your steps homewards, a rich man!”

Kushir meditated on the proposal and saw that Taaksh was right. No matter what he did, Prishp was doomed to die. It could not be any other way. There was therefore no reason why he should not profit from this proposal.

“So be it,” he answered at last.

Taaksh then produced a great store of riches which he gave to Kushir. Burdened with his newly gained wealth, the sage returned home.

Taaksh continued on his way to Nagasahnya. He disliked referring to the capital city of the Krushans as Hastinaga, for the name meant City of Elephants, and elephants often trampled snakes underfoot and crushed them to death. He preferred the name Nagasahnya: Nest of Snakes!

Reaching the city, he quickly learned from his snake spasas that King Prishp had taken elaborate precautions to ensure his survival. While it would not be impossible to gain access to the king, Taaksh had no desire to be seen until the very last instant. Because he could only kill the king through a bite, he must get close enough to Prishp to commit the deed without anyone being aware of his presence. He first dispatched several of his snake spasas to the king, using Maya—the power of illusion—to disguise them as ascetics. They carried with them leaves, water and fruit, allegedly for a rite they were to perform. There were any number of holy men performing similar rites in and around the king’s palace that day. Even so, the king’s guards searched the ascetics and the things they carried carefully. Not a blade of elephant grass or single fruit did they leave unexamined. Only when they found nothing suspicious did they let the party pass into the palace.

The ascetics performed the rites with due ceremony. When they had finished, they gave the king the fruit that had been consecrated by the ritual. After examining each fruit carefully, the king’s advisors pronounced the fruits safe to eat. King Prishp asked his advisors to share the fruit with him for it was late in the day and in moments the sun would set and the time of the curse end.

Lit by the rays of the setting sun that shone in through a window of the raised palace, King Prishp selected a fruit at random from the platter placed before him but did not pick it up. It was a succulent ripe fruit, perfect in every way, the skin unbroken and unblemished. He took it up for a moment then returned it to the platter. Everyone was on edge, waiting eagerly for the sun to pass below the horizon and the curse to end. As the moments passed by and the rays dipped lower, the mood turned from one of great anxiety to one of controlled jubilation for it was obvious by now that Taaksh had failed to complete the curse and the king would be free of the threat.

At that moment, the sun fell below the horizon and the time of the curse was at an end. Cheers began to ring out across the palace—and farther across the city, as the citizenry celebrated the survival of their beloved king. For too many Krushans had already perished in the great Great Krushan war not long ago, and nobody wished to see yet another of that great dynasty die before his time.

Smiling, King Prishp picked up the fruit and was about to bite into it. But as he raised the fruit to his mouth, the skin broke and the tiniest of black worms emerged from the succulent ripe flesh. Prishp laughed and held up the fruit, showing it to all his well-wishers.

“Look! The hour of the curse has come and gone and I am still alive and well! The sun has set on the seventh day! Now, Taaksh cannot bite me and kill me with his poison. I have no fear of assassination from him! But because the Brum-seer cursed me with Taaksh’s name, I do not wish to see the words spoken by a Brum-seer to be untrue. Therefore, I pronounce this little worm to be Taaksh! Let him bite me, if he can, and let the Brum-seer’s words therefore be true to the letter, if not to the deed.”

And so saying, he placed the tiny worm upon his own neck, still laughing at his own wit. Filled with the euphoria of having escaped a certain death, he was obnoxious and arrogant. His advisors too, exulting in their success at keeping the king alive despite all odds, were filled with pride at their achievement, and laughed loud and long as well.

“Come now, Taaksh,” King Prishp said mockingly, clicking his tongue as if addressing a pet, “Will you not bite me now?”

In a flash, Taaksh assumed his true form. Gigantic, jewel-scaled, powerful, he coiled around the king. As the horrified advisors and guards watched, King Prishp was wrapped from head to foot in the mammoth coils of the king of snakes. At once their laughter turned to tears and cries of dismay. Taaksh opened his great maw and showed them his giant fangs, dripping with venom. As they stared, hypnotized like prey before the fascinating gaze of a cobra, he roared at them in fury, demonstrating his power. Droplets of venom sprayed the entire palace, drenching it, bathing everyone present. The stench of the snake king’s maw filled the room, turning the stomachs of the advisors and guards.

The roar reverberated throughout the city. Everywhere, people celebrating and dancing stopped still and listened, their hearts chilled by that terrible sound.

The advisors and guards picked themselves up off the floor, staring in dismay at the white speckles that dotted their clothes and skin. They could feel the toxin from the venom poisoning their bodies already. Screaming, they ran, tearing off their own clothes, falling out of the palace windows in their haste to get out. Some fell to their death or injury, others succeeded in tumbling out the doors and down the steps, scouring off the venom with mud, leaves, anything they could find. From within the palace, another terrible roar exploded, this one louder and more terrible than the first. They ran in every direction, screaming and tearing at their own skin.

Taaksh roared again and again, spewing his venom across the palace that had been built to keep him out. In moments, the palace lay ruined, its walls, pillars, floor, ceiling, furnishings, all smoking and smouldering as the toxic venom worked its poisonous magic, seeping into the very cracks and crevices, corrupting the very foundations. As the walls began to shake and the pillars cracked, Taaksh rose up and lunged skywards. Bursting out the roof of the palace, he flew up into the sky, hapless King Prishp clutched in his coils. Below, the palace crumbled and collapsed inwards, leaving only a cloud of dust. Taaksh bellowed loud and long enough to cause riots and panic across Hastinaga, terrorizing everyone. People looked up in the dusky twilight and pointed in horror as they saw the king of Serpents holding their king in his coils. As they watched, Taaksh sank his fangs into Prishp’s body, impaling him as a man fallen upon swords. When Prishp was dead, Taaksh released his body, letting it fall to the ground before his ruined palace and slaughtered advisors. Then Taaksh flew through the sky and disappeared from sight, his goal accomplished.

• • • •

Around the time that the Krushan king Majaya learned for the first time the full story of his father’s demise, a young man named Staki was born. His mother Jaratkaru was the sister of Visshki. She named him Staki after his father’s last word, “asti” which meant literally “it is there”. He grew up in the house of the king of snakes and studied the Scriptures under the tutelage of Vyacha, son of Hrugib. Even as a child, he was disciplined and exact in his actions and words, gifted with great intelligence, spiritual strength, and numerous other fine qualities.

After listening to the entire tale, and hearing the awful, needless death that befell his father, Majaya was overcome by grief. A young boy when his father died, he had possessed little understanding of the event at the time and the ministers had deemed him too innocent to know the full story. Now he finally knew everything, he resolved not to rest until every last snake in the world was destroyed. But most of all, he sought to kill Taaksh himself, along with his closest brethren and kin. Thus the serpent satra of Majaya was undertaken with great vehemence and intensity.

As the serpent satra gained momentum, the time approached for the ceremony’s accumulated power to draw in the beings targeted for extinction.

As the energies of the ritual increased in potency, snakes began to be drawn from all corners of the earth. From far and wide they were sucked into the vortex of Auma energy created by the sacred ritual. On and on the priests chanted their mantras and poured great quantities of ghee into the sacrificial fire, resolute in their vows and intent in their purpose. One by one the snakes were summoned against their will, compelled to come flying through the air, up into the sky, thence to fall directly into the sacrificial fire. As the chanting increased in intensity, and the oblations were poured in greater quantity, the fire roared higher and louder, filling the air with Agnar’s bellow. The heat was tremendous as was the intensity of the flames. The tongues of Agnar reached up as if they would scald the bellies of the clouds themselves. And down came the snakes in a never-ending torrent, until they appeared to descend like a waterfall that melted instantly in the heat of the ceremony fire. The great square tank of the ceremony began to fill with the fat and marrow of the snakes, crackling and spitting and hissing like a nest of serpents. It was impossible to tell if the sounds that emerged were from snakes that suffered as they were burned to death or merely from the fluids they turned into after they were dead. Either way, the sounds were horrible to hear. The stench would have been too great to tolerate but for the oblations the priests poured into the fire in copious quantities.

Down fell the torrent of snakes, never-ending and relentless, to be consumed instantly by the ravenous mouth of Agnar.

Never before or since that time have so many snakes been seen by human eyes. There were snakes of every hue, length, thickness, and description. There were two-headed snakes, five-headed snakes, and seven-headed snakes. There were snakes a full yojana in length, and there were snakes twice as long. Of Visshki’s lineage, many great snakes, their bodies red, white, and blue and filled with virulent venom died.

Thousands upon thousands perished. Then hundreds of thousands. Then millions. Then tens of millions. And still the torrent of snakes continued unabated, pouring from the sky into the heart of the fire, where each snake died at once, scorched to ashes by the supernatural power of the ceremony fire.

Afraid now for his own well-being, King Taaksh of the Serpents rushed to Indraloka, the heavenly abode of Lord Inadran, king of the gods. Standing before Prrundi, he tearfully confessed all his transgressions and begged the great one for protection. Inadran smiled at the unexpected sight of Taaksh begging for mercy, and assured the snake king that his fate had already been decided. Both Brum and Inadran had conferred on the matter and it was clear that Taaksh was not going to perish in the ceremony of Majaya. Taaksh was greatly relieved but asked for sanctuary until the ceremony was ended. Inadran granted him leave to stay in his own palace so that he might not be drawn into the fire.

Meanwhile, Visshki was experiencing the effects of the serpent satra. Yet, unlike his brother Taaksh, Visshki was less concerned about his own survival than about the millions of snakes that were being slain by the ceremony. “At this rate,” he thought, distressed, “our entire species will be extinguished.” Appealing to his sister Jaratkaru who yet lived in Visshki’s house with her son, he pleaded, “Now is the time of which we were warned. That terrible day of doom has arrived at last. Now that it is here, I have lost all strength to resist. I, myself, feel the powerful pull of the mantras chanted by Majaya’s priests. It requires all my strength to keep from being pulled to the fire myself! I can barely stand erect, my senses are in turmoil, my vision blurs, my heart pounds as if about to burst, and I cannot control the direction of my movements. Soon, I fear, I too will be drawn to my destruction. If I, a king of snakes, cannot resist, then imagine the plight of my fellow Serpents. Surely they will all be destroyed in no time at all now. We have only one chance of survival. This is the very reason why we gave you to the yayavara in marriage. Sister mine, you alone can ensure the survival of our species now. Brum himself has prophesied that your son Staki will halt this sacrifice and save us all. Now is the time to put his words into action. Go seek out your son and send him to undertake this task for the sake of the survival of his own kind.”

Jaratkaru left her brother in this state of anxiety and hurried to find her son. She took him aside and told him the story of his birth in full detail and the purpose for which he had been created. Staki listened solemnly to the extraordinary history of his family and when his mother was done, he bowed before her and took her blessings before undertaking his given task. Visshki came out and was relieved to see his nephew prepare to depart on his journey. Staki addressed his uncle, although his words were intended for his own mother as well. “I shall ensure the survival of our species. I shall go to the site of King Majaya’s serpent satra at once and stop it. This I promise.”

Saying this, Staki left his uncle’s house and set out for Samantapanchaka.

• • • •

Staki arrived at the site of the sacrifice and was awed by the scale of the event. A vast area of the plain had been taken over for the ceremony, with literally hundreds of priests officiating and thousands of ritvijas assisting in the numerous tasks, all clad in sombre black as befitted the nature of the sacrifice. And in the center of that vast theatre of activity was the enormous square where the sacred fire burned. He could hear its roar all the way here, where he stood, hundreds of yards away, and also feel its heat. And from the sky, descending out of apparently nowhere, the torrent of snakes rushing down to be consumed by the fire, the most extraordinary sight he had ever witnessed in his brief youthful life. He watched in morbid fascination as the morass of writhing, screaming snakes poured down continuously like water from a pipe, dissolving instantly in the tremendous supernatural and physical heat of the sacred flames. Resolved to do as he was meant, he moved towards the fire, knowing that the king would surely be close to the sacrificial Agnar. By dint of his being a Brum-seer, he managed to come within hearing distance of the king himself. Several burly guards barred his way, preventing him from going further. Seeing Majaya just ahead, he immediately began singing the praises of Prishp’s son.

“I come to praise Majaya, son of Prishp, best of the mortals!”

When Staki continued to praise Majaya and the other priests officiating at the ceremony with such passionate eloquence, they were charmed and pleased.

Deferring to the Brum-seers, Majaya said, “This is but a child yet he speaks as eloquently as a wise old sage. I am impressed by his eloquence. Grant me permission to have him brought before me that I may reward him for his talent.”

The sadasyas replied, “Certainly, for any learned one deserves the praise of kings, though he be but a child. But you must wait until we have accomplished the chief goal of this sacrifice. Once your father’s assassin, Taaksh, is summoned here to die in this sacrificial fire, then you may do as you please. Until then, all our energies must be focussed on bringing the lord of snakes down.”

Through all this, Staki continued his chant of praises without pause. For hours on end, he stood reciting beautiful shlokas praising Majaya, the Brum-seers, the sacrificial fire, the line of the Krushans, the mortal race . . . his eloquence and innocence were irresistible. Time and again, Majaya’s heart went out to the boy, and he was eager to thank the boy and bid him join him in the sacrifice. But each time he tried to summon the boy, the Brum-seers surrounding him objected. Finally, he tried to catch the boy’s attention and summon him directly. Seeing this, hrota Krandish said severely, “King? Have you forgotten what we discussed? Until Taaksh is destroyed, all our attention and energies must be focussed solely on this sacrifice. This is an immense task that demands every ounce of our ability.” Majaya, distracted by the continual chanting of the Brum-seer boy, replied, “In that case, let us bring Taaksh here now and destroy him at once. Why delay?” At that time, the hrota was compelled to continue his ritual chanting and did so, glaring disapprovingly at Majaya. The ritvijas spoke up then: “O King, we have done all that we could to summon Taaksh to the fire but he has taken refuge in Inadran’s palace. Even our best efforts are unable to pry him loose from that sanctuary.” The bard Kshalot was present and he confirmed what the Brum-seers said: “It is so. The weapons confirm this fact. Inadran has granted Taaksh sanctuary in his own house. This fire can no longer burn that king of snakes.” Hearing this, Majaya forgot about the Brum-seer boy and his chanting and grew angry at Taaksh once again. Determined to avenge his father’s cruel death, he resumed his own part in the satra and dedicated himself to chanting along with the Brum-seers and pouring oblations into the fire to add his own soul’s strength to the effort. Then the intensity of the fire grew even greater and the torrent of snakes increased to a blurring downpour. The earth grew depleted of every crawling snake and serpent and even the depths of the ocean yielded up their kin, all to perish in the inexorable fire of the great ceremony of Majaya.

Meanwhile, in Inadran’s palace, Taaksh was unable to resist the pull of the ceremony’s power. He cried out in agony as the sacred mantras compelled him to fly to his doom and fainted dead away, helpless. Seeing his plight, Inadran realized he could no longer protect Taaksh simply by keeping him here. He picked up the snake king, intending to keep his promise of sanctuary. As soon as he did so, he too felt the pull of the mantras drawing him downwards to earth.

Moved by the power of the ceremony, Inadran himself was forced to descend from his heavenly abode of Inadran. Concealing Taaksh upon his person, hidden with the folds of his robes, he emerged from boiling clouds, accompanied by a great congregation of vidyadharas and apsaras. This heavenly host descended and landed upon the plain of Krushan’s Stand, approaching the site of the ceremony.

“Look, King!” cried the Brum-seers of the ceremony to Majaya. “Taaksh has been summoned by the power of our ritual. He can no longer resist or escape. Mighty Inadran himself is compelled to bring him here, concealed in his garments. Soon you will accomplish the goal of this sacrifice and slay your father’s assassin!”

At this, Staki sent up a great shout of praise and broke into a song praising Majaya even more lavishly. So moving was his eloquence, and so pleased and relieved was Majaya at the success of his enterprise, that the king of the Krushans resolved to invite the young Brum-seer to join the ceremony in time to participate in the slaying of Taaksh. In a sense, it was his presence that had provoked and motivated Majaya to put in the extra effort that had resulted in Taaksh’s summoning.

Staki was permitted at last to enter the last square and brought into the presence of the king. As he greeted the great liege, Majaya said, “Young one, the beauty and perfection of your singing has inspired me. I am greatly impressed by such talent in one so young. See for yourself. Taaksh, king of snakes has been forced to come to the fire through the power of our mantras, carried by Lord Inadran himself. In another moment, the Serpent who killed my father will be dead at last. Will you participate in his demise? Come, sit beside me, and join the rite! Your singing has earned you the right to share in this great moment of my triumph!”

Staki joined his palms together, thanking Majaya for such a great honour. “Hastinaga-naresh, king of the Krushans, son of Prishp, as you are pleased with my recitations and wish to thank me, and as I am a Brum-seer and you a kshatriya, I ask you for a gift. Do not refuse me.”

Majaya was in a magnanimous mood and answered, smiling, “Ask me anything and you shall have it.”

Staki bowed his head. “Then grant me only this boon. Halt this sacrifice this instant. Kill no more snakes.”

Majaya reacted as if struck by a sword. “Brum-seer! What are you saying? I meant to thank you for your praises and talent. This is not what I had in mind! Ask me for anything—gold, silver, kine, anything you desire. But I cannot stop this sacrifice at this crucial juncture! We are about to fulfill our chief purpose! Soon Taaksh will be dead and the last of his kind will be exterminated!”

But Staki was firm. “You offered me a gift and you cannot refuse me now. Stop the sacrifice instantly. I will accept nothing less.”

Agitated and stricken by anxiety, Majaya begged and pleaded but to no avail. Staki remained resolute. Finally, the sadasyas present rose and came to Majaya, speaking to him sympathetically. “You have no choice now. You must concede to the young Brum-seer’s wish. We are stopping the sacrifice.”

• • • •

At this point, an extraordinary thing occurred. Rendered unconscious and senseless by the power of the mantras, Taaksh was drawn forth from the folds of Inadran’s garments. Pulled by an invisible force, the snake king’s inert body flew through the air, destined for the sacrificial fire where he would perish on contact with the flame. Inadran reached out his hand to grasp the tail of the snake, but it slipped from his grasp. Majaya, harried by the Brum-seer boy’s demand and his own priests’ pronouncement, stared at the assassin of his father, flying through the air, an instant from his death. In another moment, Taaksh would fall into the flames and perish and his goal would be accomplished. All Majaya need do was delay his answer by another heartbeat and he would succeed, despite the turn of events.

But Staki held out one small hand and spoke with a power belying his youth and innocence: “STAY!” he cried.

The passage of the unconscious snake slowed visibly. Taaksh’s sleeping form continued to float but at a much slower pace, still moving toward the ceremony fire.

“STAY!” Staki cried a second time.

Taaksh’s body slowed almost to a halt but still it crept toward the fire, as if even in his unconscious state, the king of snakes was compelled by the mantras and the tapas heat of the fire to proceed towards his own destruction.

“STAY!” Staki cried a third time.

And this time even the sky reverberated with his command. The vast plain of Samantapanchaka echoed with the single word, so powerfully uttered. For an instant, everything on that plain, man, beast, insect, wind, even the birds of the sky, paused motionless before continuing on their way.

But Taaksh hung rock still in mid-air, only yards away from the pit of fire which had been designed chiefly to draw him and slay him. The senseless snake neither moved nor budged, but merely hung there.

Then Majaya, like all others present there, including the great Vyasa and Inadran, turned to look at this young Brum-seer boy who possessed such spiritual power that he could stop the snake in mid-air, defying both the law of gravity as well as the combined spiritual power of all the thousands of Brum-seers present. He remembered the warning issued by the bard Kshalot who had studied the vaastu of the sacrificial site and cautioned him that the sacrifice was destined to be thwarted by a Brum-seer. The king of the Krushans knew then that this was what was meant to be. Regardless of what had gone before, of how righteous his own desire for vengeance, how powerful his ceremony, he was meant to spare Taaksh and yield to the demand of a young Brum-seer boy.

He raised his hand and declared, “You have your wish, boy. Stop the ceremony!”

As the chanting of the hrota and other officiating Brum-seers died away, a deafening silence fell across the site of the serpent satra. The torrent of snakes stopped in mid-air, just as Taaksh had stopped. Then with a great roar of exultation, the snakes broke free of the tractor beam of Auma that controlled them. The sky exploded with colours as hundreds of thousands of snakes flew back to their respective abodes and habitats across the earth. Taaksh revived, opened his ruby bright eyes, his hood rising, expanding himself to his fullest. Hissing with renewed vigour, the snake king shepherded his people away from the place where they had been brought to perish. Fleeing as rapidly as possible, in moments, all the snakes vanished from sight. The air was clear, the sky bright blue and cloudless and only the crackle and hiss of the ceremony fire remained; even that slowly faded as the priests no longer poured oblations and the sadasyas ceased their activities.

Majaya was a righteous king who always obeyed Auma. Despite the abrupt cessation of the ceremony and his failure to avenge his father’s assassination by killing Taaksh, he upheld his duties and responsibilities. Richly rewarding and compensating every single sadasya, purohit, hrota, and ritvija Brum-seer attendant at the satra, he sent them home enriched and smiling. He gave a special reward to the bard and builder Kshalot for his prediction had indeed come true. And then, in accordance with the steps prescribed by the weapons, he concluded the ritual formally. The sacred fire was banked, the site cleared. At last, after everyone had left, the king turned to the young Brum-seer boy who had single-handedly saved the line of snakes from extinction. Other kings might have been wroth at the boy for bringing the ceremony to a halt before its chief aim was achieved. But Majaya had accepted the turn of events with magnanimous grace. Rather than be upset with Staki, he praised him for his boldness and spiritual strength. If he could achieve such a feat at this tender age, what might he not achieve when he had attained his full maturity? “I shall perform the rajasuya someday,” Majaya told Staki, “for as king of the Krushan, I must reassert my dynasty’s dominion when the time is right. It would honour me if you consent to be a sadasya in that horse sacrifice.” Staki smiled and agreed at once. Brum-seer boy and Warrior king, neither bore ill will towards each other. Then both went their separate ways.

Returning home, Staki touched his mother’s and uncle’s feet and was warmly embraced by both in turn. Visshki took him out of the house to show him the grassy slopes of the mountain on which their house rested. The mountainside was covered with snakes of every description, hue, and size. At the sight of their savior, the snakes set up a tumultuous clamour. “These are some of the snakes you saved today,” Visshki told his nephew proudly. “You have saved our entire species from extinction. They wish to grant you a boon. Name anything you desire and you shall have it.” Staki smiled and bowed with joined palms, greeting his kith and kin. “From this moment on, let no Brum-seer or mortal man, woman, or child who reads this history of our species and the triumphant conclusion ever have any reason to fear one of us. This account should be read with a calm disposition either in the morning or the evening for maximum benefit. The reader shall never have reason to fear being bitten by one of us, no matter the cause or provocation.” As one, the Serpents replied, “It shall be so, exactly as you say, Staki son of Krushan and Krushanyin! All those who invoke your name, Staki, will be protected from our bites. In addition, those who remember the great sages Ashta, Ramtin, and Nisthun at any time, day or night, shall also be safe from our venom always.”

Staki went on to become a great sage, magnificent in austerities, perfect in Auma, and engendered many children and grandchildren of his own, furthering his line prodigiously. In due course, after a long illustrious life, when his time was ended, he found a peaceful death.

Ashok K. Banker

Ashok Banker has appeared in Asimov’s, Lightspeed, Nightmare, Weird Tales, Year’s Best Fantasy and other places. His epic fantasy Burnt Empire Trilogy concluded in 2022 with The Blind King’s Wrath. His crime thriller debut, A Kiss After Dying, is out now. His US picture book debut, Brown Girls Rule, comes out in Fall 2023.