Aviva checked the gun quickly. 'Cora-Pamela,' she mumbled, and headed for the mouth of the cave.
Vineet stared after her, petrified. His instincts urged him to head the other way, fast, but he overcame them and followed. So did Madhu, the machete in his hand twitching as if imbued with life of its own.
From the entrance, the cave sloped gently upward and water flowed out towards the cave mouth, running in little rills along the floor, washing around the stalagmites. There must be fissures in the mountain allowing rainwater to leak in, thought Aviva. Strange. There had been no such leakage during the monsoon, just three months earlier. Determinedly, she led the way in. Outside, the light was fading rapidly but within the cave, it was never quite dark, the phosphorescent walls emitting just enough light for visibility.
'Arun!' Aviva called out.
There was an echo but no answer, only the sound of water gurgling in the interior halls of the vast cave. There were no bodies here; the stalagmites, the arrow groups on the walls, the recess in the north wall with the 'Hanuman' figure-nothing seemed disturbed. Something seemed different, though, and Aviva suddenly realized what it was: the cave was bigger than it had been. A wall had collapsed, revealing a passage that led deep inside, far beyond the original hall. Straining their eyes, the three edged up the passage. Ankle-deep water ran down a natural channel in the middle and they stayed close to the walls, keeping clear of the stream. In caves, cold was a killer and icy cave water could be deadly.
They moved forward, looking around warily. It was Madhu who spotted it: a limp form lying against a mound. They hurried over and found Dr Royce, dead, unmarked, his neck snapped like the others outside the cave. Aviva breathed shakily and gently eased the body down. There was a sudden flash. The archaeologist stumbled back, startled.
'Don't do that!' she hissed at Vineet as he lowered his camera. 'We don't know what could-'
And then she saw it: what looked like a human body silhouetted against the flames, suspended eight feet above the ground. For a moment, Aviva froze in shock, then ran towards it. There was no mistake. It was Arun, his eyes open in death, limbs dangling, impaled on the spear-like shaft of a ten-foot-high stalagmite. Vineet and Madhu came up, staring in disbelief. What could it be that had picked up a strong, full-grown man and slammed him down on the stalagmite with such force that the petrified point had smashed right through muscle and bone and was now two feet above the impaled body?
Vineet stumbled away, fell to his knees, retched violently. Aviva dashed away the tears that formed. Suddenly her foot struck something-she looked down and saw Arun's cell phone on the ground next to the stalagmite. She stooped and picked it up; it was stained with the blood that had run down the stalagmite and congealed at the base. She tried switching it on. The battery was low but it came alive-and displayed the picture gallery. A snapshot appeared, hazy behind the glutinous red stain smeared across the screen. Aviva wiped the phone on her damp sleeve and held it close. What is it? The shot was shaky, the picture blurred, but surely it was a human, the frame capturing half the face and the upper portion of a naked, extremely powerful male torso. It was coated in white, streaked as if the colour were dripping off. And was that another figure just behind, partially seen?
Quickly, Aviva flicked to the next picture. The shot was still shaky, unclear, but unarguably the same two whitened figures, a little farther away. There were two more pictures, wider aspects, the figures a little more distant. Aviva reversed the sequence and suddenly understood what she was seeing. The two figures had charged at Arun and he had tried to use the flash of his cell phone in a futile attempt to dazzle them, blind them. Aviva was looking at Arun's killers, the perpetrators of this horrific massacre! She slid the phone quickly into her pocket and thumbed back the hammer of the revolver she still held.
'Vineet, Madhu,' she said under her breath, 'we've got to get out of here. Now. Get reinforcements-'
'What is it?' Vineet asked, weakly getting to his feet. 'W . . . what have you-?'
Abruptly, a roar filled the cavern, physical in its impact, punching the air out of their lungs, smashing them to their knees. And then something exploded out of the flaming grotto, trailing a comet's tail of fire. It arced through the falling water into the white froth of the lake. Aviva, Vineet and Madhu tottered to their feet, the steam obscuring their view of the lake. Then the water stirred, the steam parted and a form struggled to drag itself out, collapsing into unconsciousness on the lip of the stony ground abutting the lake. An enormous, imposingly powerful human male, naked, lime-white from sole to head.
They stared at the prone figure, frozen, terrified.
It was the weight of the gun in her outstretched hand that snapped Aviva out of her trance. Levelling the weapon, she edged closer. The being didn't move, the watery lime dripping off his still face, revealing an intricately tattooed sun. But what was that on his wrist, increasingly visible as the lake-lime thinned? Another tattoo? Yes, it was, a few markings, aksharas, characters, of what looked like the ancient Brahmi script. Aviva looked at them, instinctively deciphering. The letters came together; it was a name, a legendary name, one that had echoed down the centuries.
The archaeologist's eyes widened, her breath hissed out and almost involuntarily her lips formed a word: 'Bheem.'
The beautiful story you read is an excerpt of the book 'Bheem: Destiny's Warrior' written by Jyotin Goel and published by Penguin Random House. Goel is a Mumbai based television writer and film-maker. He has written and directed the animated children's film Bird Idol for Warner Bros.
PS: Images used in the article are for illustration purpose only.