Excerpt for Lost Gem of the Nagas by , available in its entirety at Smashwords




1. A Strange Experience 3

2. Vasuki – The serpent king 11

3. Nagamani – The wish fulfilling gem 19

4. Back home 28

5. Research 35

6. Chennai 42

7. The second parchment – and the alternate plane 49

8. Pooling information 58

9. In search of the armor 66

10. Crete 74

11. Off to the Spine of Greece 81

12. Hiking up the slope 89

13. The hidden city 98

14. Inside the mountain 106

15. Chased 114

16. Capture – or escape? 122

17. Vasuki’s Palace 133

18. Vasuki again 141

19. Training 149

20. Weapons 158

21. Chaitrath 166

22. Preparation 173

23. Celebration and Simulation I 181

24. Simulation II 190

25. D-Day 198

26. Inside the Palace 205

27. Kay’s Adventure 213

28. Chased to the Flying Chariot 222

29. Epilogue 231

1. A Strange Experience

Addy walked slowly forward, right up to the edge of the cliff. He gazed down at the valley below, unable to believe his eyes. The hillside gently sloped down, a verdant green, undulating with exotic-looking plants and a few trees further down. He could see the sparkle of a stream winding its way down here and there between the foliage. Although this was all very beautiful in a surreal way, Addy had eyes only for what lay beyond, at the bottom of the hill. He took off his glasses, polished them on the end of his shirt, and rubbed his eyes to ensure he was really seeing what he was seeing. He put his glasses back on and looked again. The scene before him was unchanged – a beautiful shimmering city lay snuggled in the valley between two hills. It was neatly laid out in a grid with beautiful mansions, gardens, what looked to be a bathing tank, neat tree-lined roads, and a market. What really caught Addy’s attention was the beautiful palace in the center. It had to be the size of at least four football fields put together. It was breathtakingly beautiful, not like any building he had ever seen before, gleaming golden in the sunlight. There seemed to be colored glass or gems all over it, in myriad colors. The other lesser mansions spread out over the city seemed topped by golden domes and turrets too. “A city made of gold? How impossible is that?” he asked himself.

He could see the inhabitants of the city going about their business. But this was another thing that made him uneasy. They did not look like typical human beings. Sure, they moved like humans and wore clothes and had torsos and arms like humans. But the similarity came to an abrupt end there. There seemed to be something wrong with their heads and/or legs. He could not make out what, from this distance, and it gave him the shivers. He nearly jumped out of his skin when he heard a rustle in some trees nearby and something took flight, soaring into the air. Addy whipped around to look at it, nearly getting a crick in his neck, and his jaw dropped. It was an elephant, gliding up majestically high into the air and flying towards the city center. Addy felt dizzy and faint at the unexpected sight.

Enjoying the view?” asked a husky drawling voice behind him. Addy whipped around for the second time, pivoting on the spot to look at whoever had spoken to him. A part of him was relieved to hear a human voice but another part apprehensive about what unanticipated surprise could be in store for him. It seemed to be a day of surprises. He could not imagine how he had gotten here and where ‘this’ even was. What he saw was beyond his wildest apprehensions. There, behind him on the forest track, a scant meter away from him, stood the weirdest creature he had ever set eyes on. He gazed dumbstruck at the fierce proud face with a golden crown, a strong warrior torso, and arms rippling with muscles. Both the torso and arms were covered with vibrant jewels. What shocked him, however, was the lower half of the man…er whatever it was. It had no legs. Instead, the lower half was a snake-like appendage on which the creature was gliding slowly forward toward him. It was too much to take in. Addy felt himself falling forward in a dead faint.

“Aditya, are you done yet?.....Aditya? Where has the boy gotten to?” A podgy man in his 60s with an unsympathetic face stood in the doorway to the dingy filing room, peering around through his thick glasses. The room was full of filing cabinets in a maze-like pattern. He stepped in towards the desk at the corner behind the cabinet nearest the door and stopped in anger. “Just as I thought” he barked. “Shirking work and wasting taxpayers’ money. I knew he’d be no good as soon as I saw his degrees or rather lack of them, his casual clothes, and his inexperience,” he growled to himself. “ADITYA!!” By now the man was almost shouting, and the young man who was flopped forward on the desk finally seemed to stir. He sat up with a bewildered look in his eyes, glasses askew and hair rumpled, comprehension dawning slowly as he looked at the man he reported to at the government archeology office. “Ss…sorry Sir…must have fallen asleep,” he mumbled sheepishly.

He quickly righted his glasses on his nose and stood up respectfully. “Humph. Have you finished re-filing the contents of Alphabet N?” asked the irate man. “The…the re-filing?” Addy shook his head to clear it of sleep and what he felt was a scary dream and luckily found himself getting more lucid at last. “Er…no Sir. But I’ll get on with it right away. It’ll be ready in another hour, Mr. Kher,” he promised. That would be almost closing time. The superior looked Addy up and down contemptuously before saying, “It better be. There is an inspection tomorrow as you know, and you cannot afford to slip up at this stage of your career.” He trundled out of the room, leaving a relieved Addy alone.

The young man sank back down slowly into his chair, looking unseeingly down at his desk, leaning his head thoughtfully on his hands. What had he been dreaming of? And how had he fallen asleep? Last he remembered he was at the farthest wall, near the cabinet containing files starting with N. Then he remembered something about a snake man. “Must’ve taken in too much of that drivel Mom keeps watching on TV,” he muttered to himself. “That serial on shape-shifting snakes. She does insist on watching it at dinner time, and I am forced to watch along too,” he grumbled to himself. He suddenly remembered the dream vividly. It was so bizarre, the golden city in the valley, the flying elephant, and the talking snake man. How on earth had he had such a strange dream in the middle of the office day? He had never fallen asleep at his desk before, boring as his job was. Addy tried to shrug it off, pulling at his sweat soaked polo shirt to get it unstuck from his back. Must have been quite a nightmare, to get him so agitated and sweaty, he thought.

He got up and went out of the filing room into the corridor outside and down it until he reached the staff restroom, or comfort station as one of his colleagues called it. He couldn’t imagine anything being less of a comfort in this place, however. It was dingier than even the filing room, paint peeling off the walls which showed water seepage, dirty looking toilet booths, and floor tiles that needed a good scrubbing. He avoided this place as much as possible. He kept his gaze carefully averted from the filth and concentrated on getting to the basins. He took off his glasses and splashed water onto his face and looked at himself in the mirror. Dark brown eyes still a little bemused gazed back at him from a pale long face that nonetheless had character in the lines of the nose and a stubborn chin. His hair, cut short, stuck up straight at the top as if he had received an electric shock. He vaguely mused to himself how it was lucky he had hair that naturally looked as if it had been gelled and styled in the latest style.

A rueful smile twisted his lips as he remembered the nickname his little cousin sometimes called him by – Porcupine. He tried to flatten his hair automatically and as usual unsuccessfully, then wiped his face on his handkerchief and replaced his spectacles on the bridge of his nose again. The nightmare had shaken him more than he wanted to admit to himself. He generally was careless about his appearance but wanted reassurance now that he didn’t look as if he were going crazy. He looked at the man reflected in the dirty full-length mirror next to the door – he was tall by Indian standards, nearly six feet, sturdily built without being overly muscular or fat, wearing a collared tee-shirt and jeans, with hiking boots (his only claim to vanity) on his feet. Whatever he saw in the reflection reassured him, and he nodded once to himself before going back out into the corridor.

He hesitated at the door of the filing room and turned to the right instead, into the little pantry where there was a little water cooler and a table and chairs for the staff to eat their lunch. He drank some water and was about to head back when two of his favorite colleagues (in fact, the only ones he spoke to apart from his boss) came in just then and he paused. “Hey Addy, goofing off as usual eh?” asked the male of the two, a dark and somewhat chubby fellow who went by the name of Shaheer and who was always pulling his (and everyone else’s leg). Addy rolled his eyes in response “Can anyone ‘goof off’ with a tyrant like Kher forever on their case?” he asked. “Hey there Kay, how’re you doing?” he asked the other colleague, a beautiful girl with sleek white-blonde hair and blue eyes. Kayla Anderson was Australian (probably with Swedish ancestry) and had recently joined their office as a Research Associate. He remembered how, in the beginning, he had hardly understood what she was saying because her accent was totally different from Indian, American, or British (the latter two he was familiar with having watched innumerable English movies). The first day when they had met, she had said something that sounded like ‘go die.’ He had gulped and stared blankly at her. He had been reassured she didn’t mean it as her demeanor and smiling face had belied the words. Now, after a few months, he was finally beginning to understand everything she spoke and replied “Good Day to you too.” Now they had fallen into a kind of mixed English with Indianisms, Americanisms, and Australianisms all stirred together into a language which they could understand.

“Not bad, all considered,” said Kay, smiling. “Actually I’m pretty excited. Mr. Kher gave me a new scroll to decipher, and although I haven’t yet finished even half of it, it seems to be a really ancient one,” she gushed enthusiastically. Kayla was a Sanskrit expert, having taken that as her major subject during post graduation with a view to working in India. This, ironically, was her idea of a dream job. Addy wondered for the hundredth time how she liked the position when he was just waiting to get out and go abroad, probably to the United States or maybe even Australia (or some other developed country), after completing the three years of experience required to apply successfully to a job overseas. The only reason he was putting up with the old slave driver Kher, was because he needed a letter of recommendation from him at the end of next year, his third here in this dull place. This job had been a huge disappointment to Addy, who had done post graduation in Archeology with visions of being the next big adventurer who found a never-before-discovered civilization or at the very least, a job as a trainee curator in a grand museum such as the Louvre or the Smithsonian Institution. Instead here he was, stuck for the past two years as nothing more than a glorified secretary in a government-run archeological department in India, re-filing decades old discoveries in a musty room. It was the lowest of the low and made him feel glum all over again.

It’s all very well for you,” he thought. “At least you get to see the light of day out in your cabin.” He wondered if she was getting preferential treatment because of her higher degree and expertise, or because she was blond, pretty, and female. He then mentally chided himself for being so nasty. Shaheer had meanwhile launched into a lengthy diatribe about their much-loved topic, their boss. “Isn’t it?” he asked now, butting into Addy’s morose thoughts. “Er..yes, yes,” said Addy automatically, having no idea what Shaheer was saying, but concluding rightly the correct response would be to agree.

Kay, during this time, had been busy brewing three cups of tea at the tiny stove in the corner and handed him a cup, saying “Oh, belt up, Shaheer. The old coot isn’t as bad as all that.” They sat down at the table to drink tea and after a few more minutes of general gossip, Addy stood up, saying he had to get on with his work or face another tirade from the boss, as he had promised to get the ‘N’ files done by today. He went back reluctantly to the filing room and approached the far wall where the cabinet for ‘N’ stood. As he drew closer, he had a strange foreboding and a feeling of déjà vu. He stopped short of the innocent-looking cabinet but seeing nothing out of the ordinary, took a deep breath, went forward and opened it. He checked how far he had gotten with re-filing and pulled out the file he had started on before mysteriously falling asleep.

He went back to his desk and opened the twenty-five year old file. It was about a discovery a little-known archeologist had made in the Himalayas. There was an ancient palm leaf with Sanskrit letters on it, along with the notes. Generally, files contained only the notes the archeologists had made over the years, and the actual artifacts were stored in a museum somewhere in the country. But here, in this file, there seemed to be an artifact, the old palm leaf, which somehow seemed to have been included in the file by an error. He looked at the leaf and suddenly remembered what had happened before his so-called ‘dream.’ He had read the inscription out loud. And shortly after that, had had his dream experience. Although he wasn’t a Sanskrit expert, the alphabets were the same as Hindi, his second language at school and college, and so he had been able to read it, even though he did not understand the meaning. He had idly read it out loud and…he wasn’t sure what to think. Did the dream have anything to do with this leaf? Or had he really fallen asleep and had a nightmare? Although he had a very scientific mind and scoffed at what he called silly superstitions and premonitions, he felt a sudden thrill of presentiment as he held the palm leaf in his hands. He put it down carefully and started reading the notes left by the archeologist.

“This is the mantra to propitiate Vasuki, written approximately 4500 BC. It has to be chanted 108 times to be effective. Once propitiated, Vasuki will appear, and grant a boon with the help of his Nagamani. However, it is a very dangerous and risky proposition as the mantra has to be pronounced exactly right each of those 108 times with the correct intonation. If the mantra is mispronounced or the wrong cadence used even once, it will backfire, and the one who chants it will be beholden to the Nagas until he has completed a task of their choice for them to obtain his freedom.”

There was also, incongruously, an old faded newspaper clipping in the file. It related the strange disappearance of Mr. Harish Bhattacharya, the archeologist in question, from his house a few days after the discovery of this artifact. The file on which he had been working was in his study, but there was no trace of him and the police had not been able to find him, dead or alive, even after two months of searching.

Addy looked up, his eyes blank, brows drawn in as he thought hard, his thoughts chasing themselves furiously in his head. The one word that struck him was – nagas – he knew that meant the snake people. He knew the word Vasuki was familiar but could not remember at the moment what or rather who it was. He felt chilled to the bone and gave a start when his phone rang. It was his mother, and when he automatically answered, he winced and moved the phone a little away from his ear to keep the shrill voice from deafening him. “Why are you late? Where are you? And why didn’t you call me if you were going to be late? Are you still at office? Or with your friends?” (This last suspiciously) asked his mother in a continuous flow. “Er…mom. I’m still at the office,” he answered, quickly looking at his watch, surprised to note it was more than an hour past his usual go-home time. “Well you better come home right now. I’m not reheating your dinner if you’re late. I can’t miss my serial, it’s the showdown day between the shape shifter and the heroine vying for the hero’s attention today,” his mother said excitedly. Addy rolled his eyes and sighed in exasperation. “Ok, ok mom. I’m just leaving. I’ll be there in 10 minutes, ok?” he said. He got up and started packing up his things. At the last minute, on an impulse, he decided to take the file with him and stuffed it into his backpack and rushed out.

2. Vasuki – The serpent king

Back at home, Addy changed and freshened up before sitting down to a delicious dinner of parathas, his favorite curry, curd, and pickles. His Mom was already absorbed in her serial. Addy took out the file from his bag and started reading up on the palm leaf artifact while eating his dinner. There was not a lot there, to his disappointment. He got the feeling that the name Vasuki was really important and wondered how to find out about who this deity was. For it was obvious that in order to be propitiated, Vasuki had to be a deity. And one who could grant boons with the use of…what was it again? Yes, the Nagamani. Maybe it was some kind of boon or another deity, he thought. He pondered over the problem and suddenly it struck him that his mother might be a good point to start from. He looked at her. She was still watching TV but it was the ad break now, and he thought he would try his luck. After all, she was as crazy about mythology as serials, or probably more so. If this was a deity mentioned in Indian mythology, she would be sure to know.

“Mom,” he said “Do you know any divinity called Vasuki?” His mother, who had been sitting with a glazed expression (probably gloating over the cat fight between the shape shifter and heroine), suddenly brought her eyes back in sharp focus and said “Vasuki? Why do you ask? It’s not like you to be interested in mythical beings,” she replied, curious as ever. “Er…it’s something to do with my work. Do you know who or what it is?” asked Addy a trifle impatiently. His mom’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Work? I thought you dealt with fossils and pottery and stuff like that. What has mythology got to do with archeology? To answer your question, of course I do know who Vasuki is. And if you had ever paid attention to the bedtime stories I wasted so much time and energy telling you when you were a kid, you would too,” she said huffily.

“I’m sorry mum. But please can you tell me again?” asked Addy pleadingly. “Vasuki is the king of serpents. He is the snake you see coiled around the neck of Lord Shiva, the destroyer of the world. He also was the snake which was used as a rope to churn the Ocean of Milk,” she said, her eyes sparkling with her usual zeal when talking about mythology. “He is half man and half snake and is the owner of the wish-fulfilling gem, the Nagamani,” she concluded. Addy absorbed this in silence. He was thrilled at getting so much information at once. It was great, the way his Mom was like an encyclopedia on the subject.

“Do you know any incantation specific to him? To ask for boons?” he asked hopefully. His mother’s brows furrowed in thought and she said – “No…no, I can’t say I do. I am not well versed in the mantras for various deities. I just like to keep up with the colorful stories behind them, you know.” She looked at him curiously. “Why do you need it anyway? What boon do you want to ask Vasuki?” she asked. Addy didn’t bother to answer her, asking instead, “Do you know anything more about the Nagamani, mom? Why is it a wish-fulfilling gem?” “Umm…I don’t know much about the Nagamani, only that it is a wonderful precious stone that can heal wounds immediately and bring back people to life. As far as I know, in the Mahabharata, a snake woman called Uloopi used it to bring Arjuna back to life after his son had killed him in a war,” she replied.

“It’s quite an obscure gem and not much is written about it. But why do you want to know all about this gem and Vasuki?” she asked with avid curiosity. “Uh..nothing mom, I was just curious,” Addy said, reluctant to voice his misgivings about what he had experienced earlier in the evening. He was usually the one to ridicule his mom’s belief in such things, and he did not want to scare her or get her agitated about it. At least not until he found out if it was anything to worry about. He looked up to see his Mom looking at him speculatively and groaned inwardly. It was very difficult to deflect her when she wanted to know something. She was so inquisitive. Luckily, the ad break had gotten over, so he quickly pointed out that fact to his mom, and she immediately turned back towards the television to continue watching her serial. He heaved a sigh of relief and got up to go to his room.

He wished he knew what to do about it. He didn’t really believe there was anything in it; that it had just been a dream, but he felt a little uneasy all the same. Fortunately, it was Sunday the next day, and he thought he would distract himself by going over to Shaheer’s place for a badminton match before lunch. They met up regularly for these matches and usually Shaheer had other friends join in as well, so he wouldn’t be left alone with his thoughts. And he felt he deserved some good physical exercise after a week in a dungeon-like room. However, his plan fell through almost immediately as his Mom called from the living room, “Addy dear, remember tomorrow you have to help me shop for the groceries and in making lunch. You do remember tomorrow we have invited Khushi, Samrat, Pracheta, and Kay to lunch.” He had forgotten. He resigned himself to spending the day shopping, helping his Mom cook, and then entertaining his aunt, cousins, and Kay. Oh well, it would be distracting at the least. Especially the fights between his cousins. Maybe he could go over to Shaheer’s house in the evening and persuade him to a match.

The next day was a busy one for Addy. His Mom had woken him up early, nearly shouting in his ear, “Aditya Kamat, will you get up already?!! Am I supposed to do everything around here? How many times do I have to wake you only to find you’ve fallen asleep again?” He’d got up reluctantly and started on his chores. He actually looked forward to the day; he loved cooking (although his Mom didn’t let him do the actual cooking, she only needed help washing and cutting veggies and soaking the rice (little things like that) and his hated job of buying groceries was done and over with. He now looked forward to the get-together. He thought about the people who were coming. He especially looked forward to his little cousin, Pracheta, who had just entered her teens at 13, but was actually 5 going on 90. She was a complete entertainment unit, talking nonstop, doing goofy things, and flaring up at the drop of a hat. She had such refreshing ideas about everything under the sun. And boy, was she inquisitive. He sometimes thought if they had been the same age, he’d have suspected their mothers of having switched them at birth. She was like his mom, while he was more like hers. The fact that she was the only girl on both sides of her parent’s families just meant she was pampered silly. Samrat, her elder brother, who was 19, was nearer his own age of 25, but although they got along fairly well, he felt a little more affectionate towards Pracheta.

His aunt, Khushi, was the quietest of the group, although always happy and smiling. She and his uncle ran a bookstore and were deeply spiritual people. Khushi only got really voluble whenever she was lamenting Pracheta’s latest escapade. Then there was Kay. He wasn’t sure how he felt about her yet. At first, when she’d arrived at their office, he’d been a little intimidated by her higher qualification, different accent, confidence, and striking good looks, although he had done his best not to show this. After they got over the initial language barrier, he found her stimulating company because she was an intellectual (as he liked to think he was) and also friendly.

“Should I mention the palm leaf to her?” mused Addy as he cut up some salad and made a dressing to go over it. He usually kept his cards close to his chest, preferring to work things out by himself. However, this time he had to admit he was stumped. He did not know much about primeval manuscripts, especially as old as those written on palm leaves. He had always been more interested in field work, excavating a site and gathering artifacts and data. He had a hunch Kay would be able to help him on this, as it was her subject, and she was intelligent to boot. He decided he would play it by the ear and would show her the leaf if he were able to talk to her privately. He had to be careful not to pique his mom’s or Pracheta’s interests, for both were impossible to put off when they wanted to know something. He heard a car draw up and saw his cousins and aunt getting out. His mother was already out, welcoming them, and he went out to greet them too.

“Hey bro,” said Samrat who had arrived in first, grinning. A small tornado tore past him and bumped hard into Addy, winding him, and then throwing her arms around him in a tight bear hug. “Hey, hey, I’d like to have a few unbroken ribs,” grinned Addy hugging Pracheta back lightly. She was thin and scrawny with thick black hair combed into two plaits and wearing jeans and a top. She reminded him of a pocket dynamo. Small, but lethal. Her eyes were sparkling, and she started babbling excitedly immediately. “Is your foreigner girlfriend Kay really coming today?” she asked eagerly. Addy groaned. “She is my colleague, and yes, she is coming to lunch,” he said, trying to get his breath back after the bone-crushing hug. “How does she speak, does she have an accent like Steve Irwin the crocodile hunter? Does she have golden hair?” she asked dreamily. “I wonder if she will like me?” she said with sudden anxiety. “Of course she will. I’m sure you’ll get along very nicely with her,” reassured Addy, smiling at the girl. “Well I don’t like Shaheer much. He is always teasing me.” She said with a scowl. Addy threw back his head and laughed. “She isn’t anything like him, don’t worry,” he said.

Khushi and Soma (Addy’s mom) had retired to the kitchen to add the finishing touches to the lunch. Samrat was hanging around the living room, looking a little bored. Addy slapped him on the back and asked him how he was. His cousin replied in a monosyllable, typical for him. “Must come with having to live with a nonstop speaker like Pracheta,” thought Addy. He was being dragged along by the girl who was chattering away. “Come on, let us go to your room and watch our favorite movie again,” she was saying. “Shawn of the Dead. You promised we would today,” she said determinedly. Addy, dismayed, said “Oh no, not again! We must have watched that at least six times already. And you know how scared you get by the end of it.” “I do not,” retorted the teen indignantly. “You get scared. I saw you last time, hiding your face in your hands!” Addy grinned. He had been so bored but did not want to let his cousin know. He shook his head. Little cousins were supposed to hero-worship their elder cousins, not order them about imperiously and wind them about their little fingers. He should be more older-brotherly, like Samrat, he supposed. But the fact was, he loved her to bits and agreed to her demands as much as possible. Samrat was following them a little listlessly, and Addy said “Hey Sam, how would you like to play my latest video game?” at which Samrat perked up at once. His favorite pastime was playing video games. He settled down on the bed facing the TV and started playing the game.

“Either show me Shawn of the Dead, or a video of a sea serpent on Youtube,” commanded Pracheta. “Or one of the mummy Juanita being discovered, or any other new mummy they’ve found,” she continued. “After all, I must get ready to become an archeologist as well, and there is no time to waste,” she said pompously. The last bit about time sounded like something her mother would say, grinned Addy. “Prachi, I’ve told you, archeology is not only about mummies and sea serpents,” he said. “It’s not as exciting as they make it seem on videos. Sometimes you go years without even seeing a new artifact!” Pracheta was not ready to listen to this, however. “But I like to watch them,” she said. “Show me a burial site being discovered then, or about the ghost ship that was discovered in the artic seas. Mom never lets me use the internet,” she pouted. “That’s because you’d go on and on watching video after video and never do a bit of studying or homework,” answered Addy severely. He did, however, get out his laptop, and they began watching a video about the ice mummy that had been found in the Alps. They were interrupted by Khushi coming in to call them, saying that Kay had arrived and lunch was ready.

Pracheta rushed out at once and Addy quickly shut down his laptop before following her into the living room. Kay was talking to his mother, looking very pretty as usual. “Hello Kay, thanks for coming,” said Addy, a little formally. “How ya goin?” she said with a smile and then noticed the little girl gazing round-eyed at her. “And who is this little missy?” she asked, holding out her hand to Pracheta. After a moment’s pause, Pracheta extended her hand shyly (Addy was highly amused to see her speechless for a change) and said “I’m Addy’s cousin, Pracheta.” She smiled coyly with a dimple in her cheek and sat down next to Kay, still gazing wide-eyed at her. After a little small talk, they moved on to the dining room and ate the scrumptious lunch Soma had prepared. Pracheta sat by Kay and kept looking at her devotedly, observing every movement keenly. “I hope the food is not too spicy for you, dear,” said Soma to Kay. “Oh no, Mrs. Kamat, it’s absolutely supah. I love spicy food. I used to frequent the Asian restaurants in Sydney more than the Western ones. I love it here. Everything is so yummy here in India. So many different flavors,” she gushed. “Oh, I didn’t know you were familiar with Indian food,” said Soma excitedly. “I should have asked what your favorite was and made it today!”

After lunch, Samrat went back to playing video games in the bedroom and the mothers sat down to a quiet chat, mostly about their kids, the rising cost of everything, and their recalcitrant maids. Addy thought this might be a good idea to get Kay aside to show her the palm leaf. But with Pracheta hovering nearby, he didn’t know whether to risk it. He was surprised that her quiet spell was lasting. She had been uncharacteristically mum throughout the meal and spoke only when spoken to. However, he did not want to show Kay the leaf with her looking on. He wondered what to do. An idea struck him. “Er…Prachu, would you like to watch Shawn of the Dead by yourself? I need to discuss some work with Kay,” he said, hoping she would not disagree immediately which was her usual habit. She agreed meekly and sat down to watch the movie in the bedroom along with Samrat. Although she always fought with Samrat, she felt safer now, watching the horror movie with him sitting stolidly by her. She wished Addy would spend more time with her though. And she wanted to watch Kay a little more. She frowned a little but shrugged her shoulders and started watching the movie.

Addy took Kay to the little courtyard behind the house and they sat down. “What’s all the mystery about?” asked Kay. “Has anything happened?” Addy showed her the file and related to her the events of the previous day, down to the last detail. He handed over the palm leaf and watched anxiously as Kay looked it over carefully. She had taken the story remarkably well, not laughing it off as he had been a little apprehensive she would. “It does seem a strange coincidence doesn’t it? You looking at this manuscript on which there is mention of snake people and then dreaming about a snake man. And you say you did not know the meaning of the words written, so you could not have psyched yourself into dreaming it?” she said at last. “Is there anything written about Vasuki or Nagamani anywhere?” she asked. Addy remembered he had jotted down whatever his mother had told him, on a piece of paper. “Yes, wait a minute, I’ll bring down some notes I made from my mom’s encyclopedic memory,” he said, going back inside to the study to take up the loose sheet he had written on. It took him a couple of minutes to locate it.

As he was going back, he saw Pracheta was sitting next to Kay, looking at the palm leaf. They were both holding one end of it, and it looked like Pracheta was pulling at it. He had a sudden gut-wrenching foreboding and ran the last few steps. He grabbed the edge of the leaf too, and noticed she had started to read it aloud. “What…Prachi give me that back at once….don’t read it….NOOOOOO” he shouted. But it was too late. Pracheta had read out the incantation just as he had the previous day. There was a sudden whoosh and he felt the world tilt on its axis. Everything around them spun rapidly out of balance. Addy, feeling dizzy and nauseous, fell to the ground, hearing Kay and Pracheta screaming next to him and falling with soft thuds too. He had closed his eyes before he landed and now opened them gingerly, having a very bad feeling he knew where he’d find himself. It was as he suspected. He was back in the forest on the mountain slope. The same place he had met the snake man. Kay and Pracheta were trying to get up beside him. Pracheta’s face was screwed up in terror and she was trembling and crying. Kay looked shaken and pale but composed. She quickly hugged Pracheta and turned to look at him. “Is this the place?” she whispered. He nodded dumbly, unsure what to do now. Then he blanched, for up on the slope above them, gliding toward him again, was the snake man from yesterday.

3. Nagamani – The wish fulfilling gem

“Well, well, well,” hissed the serpent man. Addy wondered how he could have not noticed the slight hissing sound accompanying his words yesterday. He supposed he had other things on his mind at that time. “So you are back again! And with company too this time,” he went on, turning his gaze onto the two girls who were still clutching each other, Pracheta looking like she would scream any minute. The snake man came closer and slithered around them in a wide lazy circle, looking them over from top to bottom. “Humanssss…your fashions get more and more peculiar each time I see one of you,” he commented, looking slightly contemptuous. “Who…who are you and…and wha..what do you want?” bit out Addy in a strangled voice. “K…keep away from us.”

“You don’t know who I am?” asked the creature, seeming affronted at this display of ignorance. “Huh…don’t you humans have education? You are supposedly an ‘intelligent’ race,” he said even more contemptuously. He drew himself up. “I’m Vasuki,” he said. “The king of serpents. You must have heard my name at least?” he asked hopefully. “No…I mean yes, I have, just yesterday,” said Addy, looking around desperately, trying to think how to get back home and away from this strange creature. The snake man did not seem like he was going to harm them, but it was distinctly weird holding a conversation with him in this bizarre place. He wondered how he had been able to get back yesterday without doing anything.

He turned to look at Vasuki, who was still slowly circling them, his face as fierce as he remembered from yesterday, his lower half (which was a snake, broad at the hips and tapering to a long tail), a shimmering iridescent dark green-blue in the afternoon sunlight. He wore a golden crown with precious stones embedded in them. Addy was relieved to note he carried no weapon. His torso was bare except for rich golden chains and necklaces covering his chest almost like an armor, gold arm bands on his upper arms and wrists, and a silk sash at his waist. He seemed to tire of intimidating them and stopped his circling, coming to a rest in front of Addy. He coiled his tail neatly around itself on the ground so that it supported his upper (human) half like a pedestal.

“Since you are so conveniently here, let me tell you the task you have to do for my people,” he said. “Task? What…what task? And why should we do a task?” asked Addy, although he already knew the answer to the latter question. “Don’t tell me you don’t know even that?” asked the snake man, seemingly taken aback. “Why did you attempt to invoke me, when you hardly know my name and do not seem to know what will happen if you do not succeed?.... Answer me, boy!” he said in a ferocious tone, his eyes flashing. “I did not know we weren’t to read the palm leaf aloud. I read it inadvertently and…and that’s how we got here,” said Addy, alarmed at the change in tone. “By the way, where is here?” he asked, curiosity finally winning over his fear.

“All in good time, all in good time, boy,” replied Vasuki. He had his arms folded across his chest and looked at Addy speculatively. “I can’t believe my good luck, humans can be so foolish,” he muttered to himself in a soft hiss. “The law of invocation states that if the incantation is not rendered clearly and accurately, the chanter comes under the power of the invoked deity and has to provide anything the deity demands. That is the ‘task,’ which I am about to ask you to do,” he said smugly. His hand went to his waist and Addy tensed up, thinking he was going to threaten them with a weapon. But he needn’t have worried, Vasuki pulled out something from the silk sash at his waist and held it out to Addy.

There were two awed gasps from behind him, at the sight of the beautiful blue-green translucent stone in the snake-man’s palm. It looked like it was afire from inside, sending out rays of light. “The Nagamani,” whispered Kay. Addy had almost forgotten that she and Pracheta were still there behind him. He turned back to Vasuki. “Look, he said, I was the one who tried to summon you. These two are innocent, please let them go. I’ll…I’ll do any task you give me,” he said bravely although his extremities felt like ice and heart thudded painfully. “Aha, gallant to your womenfolk, I see. I like that,” Vasuki said, and Addy felt a sudden hope that he could at least get the girls out of this mess.

However, the next moment his hopes were dashed to the ground when Vasuki went on, “It was the young one who invoked me. And all three of you were holding the palm leaf when she chanted the incantation, wrongly, I might add,” he said, seeming to relish saying the word wrongly. “You can do the task for the little girl, but no one moves until I have explained the mission, do you understand?” he asked. “It’s okay, Addy,” said Kay softly. “Whatever this experience is, we are in it as much as you are and although you are sweet to try to get us out of it, we wouldn’t be here if not for Pracheta reading out the incantation and me not being smart enough to prevent her in time,” she said.

“We’ll try to do whatever he wants us to do and go home together.” She turned to Vasuki. “Is that the famous Nagamani?” she asked him fearlessly, looking again at the lovely gem in Vasuki’s open palm. Vasuki looked at her in appreciation. “You seem slightly better endowed in the brains department,” he told her, while Pracheta let out something suspiciously like a half sob and half snigger and Addy felt a twinge of indignation. “However, you are wrong. Why would I need a puny human to do a task, if I had the Nagamani, the great wish-fulfilling gem?” he said.

“This is a poor replica of the real gem of my people, the Nagamani,” he replied. “The real one is hidden away there,” he continued, pointing down the mountain toward the golden city spread out in the valley below them. “And the charge I give you, boy, is to get it back for me.” The three of them turned to look at the city, Addy too, although he had seen it before. The city looked idyllic and surreal just like last time. “But…isn’t that where you live? Isn’t it your city?” he asked in confusion. Vasuki snorted in disgust. “The snake people do not resort to blatant show like that,” he said proudly. “We have an underground city much more beautiful than this. This is the city of Vaisravana, the king of the Yakshas,” he spat, his face twisting in hatred.

“But why is the Nagamani, your gem, in the city of the Yakshas?” asked Addy, bewildered. He felt someone tug at his sleeve and found Pracheta pulling at it. He raised his eyebrows at her and she asked timidly, “What is Yaksha?” He almost smiled to see she was getting over her fear and starting to ask questions again. “Umm.. some kind of mythical being I think,” he replied. “They are benevolent nature spirits, caretakers of natural treasures,” stated Kay, remembering the definition from one of her textbooks on Indian mythology. “But sometimes they can be wicked too, living on trees and devouring people who pass underneath,” she said. Pracheta shivered and moved closer between the two adults, holding their hands tightly.

“Why is the Nagamani in the city of Yakshas?” repeated Addy. “Because they have stolen it from us,” snarled Vasuki, his face a mask of fury. In the last war between the nagas and Yakshas, Vaisravana seized our priceless gem and kept it for himself.” He seemed beside himself with fury, his hands clenched into fists and eyes flashing dangerously. Addy noted distantly that he had very dark eyes with longitudinal pupils like snakes do, especially when he was angry, like now. “Calls himself the Lord of Wealth and takes our jewel like a common thief,” he went on, baring his teeth in rage. “Oh…” said Addy, his heart dropping like a stone at the realization of what the snake man wanted him to do. “You want me to steal it back for you?” he asked. Vasuki turned furious eyes back at him. “It is ours,” he roared. “It will not be stealing to get back what is ours.”

Addy was sure that wouldn’t be the opinion of the Yakshas if they knew what he was up to. “Why can’t you do it yourself? After all, you must be more powerful than a ‘puny’ man like myself,” he said, hoping Vasuki would not turn him to ash with a glare of his eyes or something equally impossible like that. “Because there is another law about it,” sighed Vasuki regretfully. “I would have liked nothing better than to hoodwink that old imposter of a Yaksha and get back our Nagamani. Unfortunately, dharma (the natural law) states only men can take or receive wealth, including gems, from the city that Vaisravana built. Usually that is in the form of boons, but men have also been known to take away wealth from the city by force.”

Vasuki carefully failed to mention that none of those men had reached home with their loot. They had been found out before even reaching the gates of the city and devoured by the Rakshasa guards. “How is it possible to do this?” asked Addy in despair. “We know nothing about the city or inhabitants, nothing about where the gem might be kept and how it is guarded. Besides they are all divine beings, how can we pit our might against theirs?” he asked. “I will give you all the help you need. I will inform you about where to go, and how to conceal yourself from the Yakshas. You just have to go and get it. It will be a piece of cake, believe me,” Vasuki said smoothly.

Too smoothly, thought Addy. There was bound to be a lot of danger and he honestly did not see himself or the two girls getting out of this place alive. He thought hard and a plan formed vaguely in his mind. “Er… can’t you ask some other humans to do this? Please?” he asked in a last ditch effort to escape. Vasuki looked at him pityingly. “The humans of another era would not have trembled in the face of a challenge the way you are doing, boy. Everything seems to be declining on the human plane,” he said with a sneer. The human plane? Did that mean this was a different one? Not a part of the planet which was still undiscovered?

“Is this a different plane then? How is it possible to travel here and back?” Addy asked, cleverly inserting the thing he actually wanted to ask. “There are several planes in creation. This one is just above the human plane. The place you see is in what humans now call the Himalayan range. It is colder on the human plane and less fresh. The place you live in, Delhi, is to the south,” he said. He looked broodingly at Addy. “Travel between planes is possible only with the use of highly potent mantras, chanted, as I told you before, exactly right, with the right intonation, number of times, and pronunciation. “So is there a mantra to go back to the human plane too?” asked Addy, trying to sound as casual as he could. “Trying to run away, boy?” asked Vasuki, apparently amused. Addy flushed. He’d been found out. “You will have to go back anyway,” said the serpent king. “Go back and prepare a strategy. Then come back and get the gem for me,” he hissed imperiously.

“We can go?” asked Kay incredulously. “How do you know we will come back?” she said. “Oh, you will,” said Vasuki complacently. “I have been around eons longer than you have, impudent girl. Besides, we have our ways,” he said, almost laughing at the mixture of emotions running across the faces of the three humans before him. I will tell you the mantra for getting back as soon as I’m done giving you some points to remember before formulating your plan,” he said. Kay interrupted him, saying, “I have a question,” and when he glared at her, she gulped and said, “Sir.” Addy was beside himself with anxiety at whatever she was going to say. Didn’t she understand they were in mortal danger here? Despite her superior knowledge of Indian scriptures and mythology, he felt she was not conversant with the nature of these divine beings. If she had listened to half the stories his Mom had related as bedtime stories, her hair would have curled.

“Humph, what is it, girl?” asked Vasuki. “How is it possible that we are speaking English but you understand and reply?” she asked. Addy stared at her, dumbfounded. That was a pertinent question, and one he had not thought of until now. Vasuki chuckled. “I suppose it seems strange to you, human. However, we of this higher plane, do not really have to learn languages. Just as you do not consciously have to learn how to digest your food, or learn to see, or learn to hear, because these are performed for you by your mind on a subconscious level, we do not need to learn languages. It comes automatically; our subconscious takes care of it.” He still looked at her, as if expecting her to ask more questions.

“I’m sorry to ask, but what happens if we just refuse to do the task…Sir?” Now she had torn it, thought Addy, his palms sweating. Why did she have to go and ask a stupid question like that when they were trying to go away quietly here? Just like a typical woman, he groaned inwardly. He supposed he should be happy that she at least seemed to have cottoned on to the fact that deities need to be addressed with respect. “There is no question of refusing,” said Vasuki, smirking. “You are bound by the natural law that operates between this plane and yours, not by your word. You will find things…happening to you if you do not intend to go through with your charge.” “Is there a time limit for this then? Do we get any time to make a plan?” she asked further.

“There is no fixed time limit, you can take your time. However, the natural law will come into play automatically when you decide not to go ahead with the job.” Pracheta was again trying to get Addy’s attention by jerking his hand this time. He looked at her and she whispered, “Do you think he has little baby snake children like him at home? I wonder what they do, how they play? I’m sure they don’t have anything like computers or TV here.” This was typical for Prachi, thought Addy. She always had had a strange fascination for reptiles, albeit crocodiles were her favorite with sea serpents and snakes a close second. Addy shushed her and was greeted by a chortle from the snake man. “The little one is very curious, isn’t she? I must say I’m thankful she is, as she landed you here in the first place. If you get the Nagamani for me, I might let her play with the children of my city,” he added as if it were a favor. Addy shuddered at the thought of Pracheta among snake children, probably in an underground snake pit like the ones he had seen at zoos. He quickly put the mental image out of his mind and asked a question himself. “Er…can you read minds too?”

He was mentally crossing his fingers, hoping his thoughts could not be heard, especially the ones that were screaming at him to try to escape as soon as possible. Vasuki looked at him with a strange look. “No, we cannot read thoughts. Only beings higher than us, who live on a plane above us, can do that. We can however read thoughts if given permission by the owner of the thoughts to enter his or her mind. Anymore questions?” he asked briskly as if he were a lecturer and they his students, or if he were their troop commander explaining a mission.

When all three shook their heads, he said, “There are a few points you need to know about the difference between our and your plane and travel between the two. One you already know, which is that you can see this plane when you chant that mantra you already have and go back with another mantra that I will give you shortly. The second thing you need to know, is that time on our plane is not the same as on yours. An hour here is two hours on your plane. So when you plan on coming here, make sure you know that you will be losing double the time spent here. Another is that you need to take into account Vaisravana will not be pleased (to say the least) if he comes to know his coveted jewel is missing. He may attack or chase you along with his minions. So you need to know the kinds of creatures living in his city, what they do, and how you could possibly escape them.” He held up a hand when Addy opened his mouth. “Let me complete. The third and most important thing you need to know is that he has a very powerful missile in his possession, the Agneyastra. It is a fire missile and is armed to unleash the moment a thief leaves the city with any treasure. Nobody can stop it, and it razes everything to the ground, even a cave, in a wide arc around the city, in a matter of minutes.” He paused while Addy and the others gasped. “There are generally counter measures to powerful missiles and you could find out about these.”

“Any questions?” he asked now looking at Addy. “Er…can’t think of any,” he choked out, past the lump that had formed in his throat. He looked at the girls, and they looked as terrified as he felt at that moment. “This is all new to us. We might fumble the attempt and lose you the gem forever. Please, please can’t you just let us go, I’m sure a powerful king like you can pardon us and get some other human to do this?” he asked in a last ditch attempt to wriggle out of the situation they were in. Vasuki seemed a little discomfited at this, and spoke a little more gently than he normally did, “I’m afraid not. The possibility of another human chanting the incantation wrongly to land here anytime in the near future is very slim. And unless that happens, I cannot get the mani (gem) back. The wellbeing of my people is at stake here, and I, as their king, cannot let them down. The Nagamani is not only a wish-fulfilling stone but one that has tremendous healing powers. It is on account of the Nagamani that we are virtually immortal. My people are now suffering due to its loss, and their numbers have already decreased to half from the time it was snatched away from us, as they are now vulnerable to disease and death like lower beings.”

He stood up straight again and said, “I will now give you the mantra to re-enter your plane.” He held up his hand at chest level, with the palm facing Addy. Addy saw a faint light pulse from his hand toward his own chest and he flinched, thinking it was an assault. However, he didn’t feel any pain. “It’s in the pocket of your shirt now,” said Vasuki. Addy looked down at the pocket on his tee-shirt and was amazed to see he was right. There was a palm leaf just like the one they had brought from the archeological department. He took it out carefully and looked at Vasuki. “Any instructions about reading it out?” he asked cautiously, not wanting to make yet another mistake and get into even more trouble, if that was even possible. “No, this one is uncomplicated,” said the serpent king, “Just read it out loud, and you will find yourself back where you came from.

“Can we at least come back here to ask you any questions before we actually have to go get the gem?” Addy asked tentatively. “Yes, you can. Just read the other leaf as you did before, and you will find yourself here again. I will come as soon as I sense you here,” replied Vasuki. Something was niggling Addy at the back of his mind. He remembered suddenly and said, “I have one last question. How come I was able to return to my plane yesterday automatically? I did not read out any reverse mantra…” Vasuki smiled. “You had been here only for a minute or two the first time and blacked out on seeing me. Hence you were able to return automatically. But now it is the second time and you have been here for a much longer time without losing consciousness. You cannot return except with the help of a mantra now,” he said. “Go on, read it out and go home,” he urged. “Come back after you have devised a plan of action.”

Addy looked at Kay and Pracheta. The three of them were still holding hands. Kay gave a little nod, and he read out the incantation clearly. At once, they felt the now familiar whoosh followed by a sensation of the world tilting on its axis, and everything spinning dizzyingly around them until they fell over.

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