While Bheema was winning his victory over Dushasana, Karna galvanised his army; soldiers descended from the asuran clans. These fearless warriors thirsted for blood and revenge. The Angaraj unleashed a counterattack and stalled the primary Pandava armies.

Enthused by the initial gains secured by Karna’s cohorts, the Kaurava defence stiffened; and they launched a general offensive. The burden shifted to the Pandava generals who grappled with the deteriorating discipline and porosity in their battle lines. Dust, tainted red with blood, shrouded the battlefield.

“Arjuna, gather your forces and head towards Karna,” said Krishna. “The auguries are favourable. Engage the Angaraj and you will gain victory over him.”

Arjuna’s army was like a juggernaut. It bludgeoned its way through the oncoming Kaurava hordes. Like a snake scattering rats, Arjuna cut a path and reached Karna. He challenged his arch-enemy.

“Karna, I’ve come for you.”

“Will you rely on Krishna’s magic and your endless supply of celestial weapons, or use mortal weapons?” said Karna.

“I will use whatever you choose,” said Arjuna.

“I choose mortal weapons. Bow. Sword. Mace. Javelin,” said Karna; he held up his fists. “And these.”

“You fool,” said Shalya, his chariot driver. “You should use your Brahmastra and annihilate him once and for all.”

“Silence!” Karna armed his bow and waited for Arjuna to get ready.

“O Partha, why did you not consult me?” said Krishna. “Without your celestial weapons, you cannot defeat him; you’ll match him.”

“I will kill him, but I will do it on equal terms.” Arjuna pulled his bowstring and said, “Karna. Attention.”

He let fly his arrow. Karna shot it down; released his arrow. The Pandava shot down Karna’s dart. And so, the duel began and picked up the tempo.

A stream of arrows flew from Arjuna to Karna, and vice versa. Every single dart met its counterpart, disintegrated, and fell to the ground as dust. The combatants worked fast; their arms moved in a blur. The arrows exhausted. Attendants rushed forward with fresh quivers and the duel continued.

As the fight progressed and plateaued, Arjuna realised Krishna was right. Karna’s prowess matched his.

“O Keshava, what do you suggest?”

“Keep shooting. He will slip. And that’s a promise,” said the Blue One.

Over at Karna’s chariot, Shalya said, “Use your Brahmastra and be done with.”

“Be quiet,” said Karna.

He reached for an arrow, but it lodged in the quiver. His eyes fixated on his enemy, he tugged and the feathers shredded, or so he assumed, because the shaft was smooth. Time did not permit him to take another arrow.

Arjuna’s shot came straight for his face.

Karna ducked, got up, and fired his featherless arrow. It burst into flames; flew fast like any arrow, but wriggled like a snake.

“Krishna.”

The Blue One did not reply. He pressed down with his foot and at the last moment, the earth around the chariot sank. The fire-breathing arrow glanced off Arjuna’s helmet, toppling it from his head. The fiery dart circled and went back to Karna’s hand.

“Did he fire a celestial weapon?” said Arjuna.

*** Copyright @ 2022, Eric Alagan ***

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