Rama looked around in the cold and darkness. It was unnaturally dark – heavy and inky – like it would stain his body black. The silence was stifling, and pregnant with pain and misery. His breath turned to mist ahead of him. Rama had a feeling he was high up somewhere, and he could sense Indra next to him. The weak light from the lone torch on the wall ahead seemed to die as soon as he walked past it.

Shadows seemed to ooze out from the walls. Rama reached out and touched the stone wall: hard, cold and damp. He could smell the rot and decay. His eyes adjusted to the darkness. He saw the stone slabs bulge and sag at places. The rocks seemed to moan with agony. He withdrew his hand, and the surface of the stone came off like glue, holding on to his hand, stretching greasily, before finally letting go and collapsing under its weight. Rama grimaced in disgust and fought the urge to scratch his palm.

“Where are we?” he asked.

“In the watchtower of the outer fort wall around Indrapuri, the city of the devas,” replied Indra. Rama was taken aback. The stories he’d heard of this city were all unanimous in their description of its fabulous beauty and riches. Just breathing the air here was supposed to be a heady, intoxicating experience for mortals.

“What happened?”

“Come,” said Indra. He led Rama out of the watchtower and walked along the rampart. He stopped beside a sentinel, who was looking out through an embrasure. The sentinel stood up slowly, but Rama realised it was as fast as he could manage. He was battered and bruised all over, barely keeping body and soul together. His weary, empty eyes stared at Rama, unsurprised at seeing a mortal walk the rampart with the King of Devas. He looked like a man hoping for a quick death.

Indra relieved him of his longbow and picked an arrow from his quiver. Rama doubted if the sentinel would be able to string and draw a single arrow if asked to. Indra nocked an arrow and whispered a mantra. He shot the arrow high and long, the arrowhead glowing as it reached its apogee, and sped downward. There was a flash of light that extinguished in a nimisha and the arrow disappeared. “That should have exploded,” said Indra. “It should have created a crater five yojanas wide!” He strung another arrow, and whispered some mantra again and shot it straight up in the sky. It hit an invisible barrier high up in the atmosphere.

Streaks of golden light flew out, from the point of impact, spider-webbing in a huge inverted semi-circular pattern. In the brief flash of light, Rama saw a black fog stretching for miles towards the horizon and around the serpentine walls of the fort as far as he could see. Rama realised that the first arrow had died out as soon as it had pierced the top of the fog.

The fog seethed and undulated with things unseen. A yojana-long tentacle emerged from the haze, its length splattered with giant, glowing suck holes oozing sulphurous drool dripping acidly into the unseen depths of the thick fog. The tentacle was studded with triangular spikes the size of a horse, black and edged with crimson. It withdrew into the black obscurity with a menacing quiet.

“That astra should have sent blinding light in all ten directions. The horde hides their asura forms in the fog, and that absorbs anything we throw at it,” Indra said.

“Anything!” he emphasised again. “Even my thunderbolt loses most of its power. Our spells of maya don’t hold. The fog sucks them in and absorbs their energy to strengthen itself. We cannot counter asura maya with indrajaal. I have barely managed to hold on to the fort; it is only a matter of time before they breach it. There is no possibility of waiting out the siege; we don’t even have the time to rest and recover.

“The dome,” he continued, pointing up, “covers the entire city, blocking out the light of the sun and the movement of the wind. It infuses all of us with despair and desperation. It taints my city with decay and corruption.”

Rama put his head and shoulders into the embrasure and peered into the darkness. A million red twinkling points appeared suddenly in the obscurity. Eyes! Rama realised and withdrew in a hurry.

“My city lies destroyed by their bombardment. It rots with asura maya. I have moved out the children, the women and the infirm, but I will not leave. I make my stand here. The asuras know we are beaten; they await my final charge with glee. They don’t seek conquest alone. The asuras seek to annihilate us and lay waste to my realm. But I will not flee. If Indra has to die today, then Indra will die fighting.”

Excerpted with permission from Rama of the Axe: The Epic Saga of Parashurama, Ranjith Radhakrishnan, Westland.