3340 BCE
Present-day Miaozigou
Inner Mongolia, China

Yun looked back, tears streaming down his face, as he trudged along with the ragged group of survivors. It was the last time they would see the village they were abandoning forever.

It wasn’t just the huts they were leaving behind.

Less than three months had passed since the discovery of the accursed rocks. A find that had, at first, been welcomed as an auspicious omen. Almost a godsend.

He could still recall, vividly, the events of the day his friends Chang and Xang had intrepidly ventured
out to the semi-arid desolation that lay a few miles east of their village; a tract of land where no one had ever lived or farmed, and which was shunned by the villagers.

And for good reason.

Legend had it that this barren belt was Jīngshén zhī dì –the dwelling place of spirits. According to the myth, an ancient conflagration had rendered the land unfit for tilling, and inimical to human survival, leaving it fit only for spirits to infest. No one in the village had been brave or foolhardy enough to test the myth, but stories were told of daring men in antiquity who had audaciously attempted to cultivate that land, despite the legend, and had died horribly.

Young and not entirely convinced of these old superstitions, Chang and Xang had decided to brave
their way to Jīngshén zhī dì. They believed there was water to be found beneath the infertile surface
soil. Water had been a scarce commodity that year. If new water sources were not found, the entire
village would have to move.

Yun, uneasy about the legend and the stories, had tried to dissuade his friends. But they had refused
to pay heed.

“We will dig for water at the edge of Jīngshén zhī dì,’ Xang had laughed away Yun’s reservations. ‘It is
such a large expanse of land! Surely the spirits will not mind us searching for water at the very fringe?”

“And we will honour and propitiate the spirits before we commence our exploration.” Chang took
Yun’s apprehensions a bit more seriously. “Don’t worry, Yun, we will not offend them.”

And so the two had started for the barren strip of land, inhabited only by spirits. Their efforts had soon borne fruit. A few feet of digging had unearthed water.

A jubilant Chang and Xang had scrambled back to the village and shared the good news. The spirits appeared to have smiled upon them and aided their efforts.

But water was not all they had discovered.

Yun had an inkling that his friends had stirred up trouble. He didn’t know what it was about the small
black rocks that they had found while digging for water, but he couldn’t help feeling that something
was amiss.

But he had kept his misgivings to himself as the ecstatic villagers rejoiced in their deliverance from
the drought. He didn’t want to cast a pall over the celebrations. Some of them thought the black rocks were old, hardened wolf droppings. Others thought they were old pieces of charcoal. Either way, it was intriguing because the area was not frequented by wolves nor were rocks of this kind found there.

But the village elder was the most perspicacious.

“Why have you brought these cursed objects here? Have you no fear?” he had exclaimed, holding out
his hands dramatically as though to ward off the small black fragments. “They are accursed! Possessed by spirits!”

Despite his own suspicions, Yun, with all the irreverence of youth, had sniggered quietly on witnessing the old man’s histrionics. Today, however, as he tore his gaze from the huts, he knew the
village elder had been correct.

Within two months of the discovery of the rocks and the water, the village had become a living hell. It had started with the madness. People losing their minds. It was different for different people. For some, it was limited to memory loss, disorientation, confusion and incoherence. For others it was more serious. An inexplicable aggression would take hold of them without any perceptible provocation.

Fortunately, only a few were afflicted.

Then came the bodily deterioration. A baffling series of physical disabilities began to spread through
the village. Some lost their vision, others lost the use of their limbs. And there were those with
puzzling tremors, some so badly affected that they could not walk or even stand on their own.

Before the villagers could even begin to understand what was happening, people had started dying.
A fever would come on without warning, even in men and women who seemed hale and hearty. It
would burn high for a day.

At the end of it, the tormented individual would be dead.

Within a few weeks of the beginning of the mysterious affliction, most of the villagers were either ill
or dead.

The handful of survivors had huddled together, desperate for a way to escape their inevitable fate. It was then that Yun had voiced his fears about the rocks. A murmur of agreement had spread through the rest of the group. “It must be as Yun says,” one of them had said. “The sickness came upon us only after the rocks came to the village. They are cursed. We are cursed!”

A decision was made quickly that day. There was no time to lose. The village had to be abandoned.
And another, more difficult, decision was also arrived at.

They quickly scoured the village, collected the dead who had not yet been buried and dumped the
bodies into pits that were hastily dug around the huts. There was no time to transport the dead to
the ancestral graveyard, which lay a short distance away. The survivors then packed the bare
essentials they needed for their journey: a few utensils and clothing.

Nothing else was touched.

Everything else was to be left behind. Including those unfortunate people who were sick in mind and
body, but not yet dead. The most difficult decision had been to abandon not just the village, but all
the afflicted. They were left to die where they lay. And the mysterious disease—the curse—would
die with them.

The Mahabharata Quest: The Khandavaprastha Conspiracy

Excerpted with permission from The Mahabharata Quest: The Khandavaprastha Conspiracy, Christopher C Doyle, Westland.