"Devi, I bring a bad news."
It was a voice filled with anxiety which shook Vishakha from her sleep. She opened her eyes and saw Lathika anxiously trying to wake her up. "What is it child? What brings you here in the dead of the night?"
"Devi," Lathika's eyes welled up. "The hermitage of Acharya is in flames. It was too late before anyone could warn him."
In spite of her years past fifty, Vishakha sprang from her bed. "Are you in your senses Lathika? Do you know what you are saying?" She shook Lathika by her shoulders.
Lathika pleaded in tears. "What I am saying in true Devi, my misfortune of past lives forces me to break this tragic news to you."
Neither caring to set right her hair, nor wrap herself in a shawl as she did when she steped out of her chambers, Vishakha ran out like one possessed. " Lord Mahadeva, let what I heard be false. We can't afford to lose our Acharya."
She raced towards the hermitage, undeterred by the late hours where women generally kept to their homes. She reached in time to see the frame of the hermitage collapse due to the fire. A couple of bewildered inmates were trying to put off the fire in vain by pouring water from their water pots.
The fearful destructive dance of the flames left the onlookers in a helpless daze. Vishakha who had rushed to the spot was left staring at the fire stupefied. There was no way of escape for the ones caught inside.
"Acharya, Gurudeva, No! This can't happen! This spells doom!Why could not anyone of you protect Gurudeva? Don't you owe this much to him? How could you leave him defenceless?" Vishakha screamed at the disciples who had crowded around the Ashram. Some of the younger disciples who had escaped earlier hung their heads in shame.
Not caring for the fire, Vishakha ran inside, braving the flames. But with much of destruction already done, it was not difficult for her to enter the central chambers of the hermitage which belonged to the revered Acharya Vishnu Gupta.
Vishakha shuddered in anticipation of the charred remains of the person she almost worshipped. "Acharya, how could you desert us all?" She wailed while stepping inside the chambers which was by now, almost in ashes.
The sight that met her eyes left Vishakha in a greater surprise. For in front of her eyes, sat the Acharya in a meditative pose. He was untouched by the raging flames. His white hair shone as if to present the magnitude of the knowledge treasured in his head. The serene expression on his face was enough to make the one facing him feel assured from all his/her troubles.
Even before Vishakha could get over the wonder and rush to fall at the feet of Acharya, his body fell to the ground lifeless. The Master had taken to Samadhi and shed his mortal frame! Screams of bereavement escaped Vishakha as she fainted.
Lathika was close behind her. Choked with tears, she tended to her mistress. She was the second to brave the fire. The other inmates too followed, shamed by the boldness of the two women who proved their greater devotion to the Master.
As Lathika revived her with water, Vishakha came back to her senses. She slowly got up and went to where the great Master lay lifeless on the ground.
"God of fire could not touch you Master, what made you desert us. How could you orphan your people. Who offended you in this way, Acharya. Why did your grace stop flowing on us?" Sobs escaped Vishakha as she uttered these words. Others around her broke into tears.
As Lathika tried in vain to comfort her, she turned around. "Has the emperor been informed?"
"Devi, his chamberlain forbade us from disturbing his sleep. We could not talk to His Majesty." One of the disciples replied in a downcast voice that broke at places in anguish.
"What are you saying, Son? The great Master was caught in this fire and that chamberlain was bothered about the emperor's sleep. Why din't you make a commotion and wake him up somehow? How on earth could the emperor continue to sleep while the architect of his empire was engulfed in flames?" Vishakha was shocked beyond words.
" Devi, we do not deserve his presence amongst us any longer." The voice belonged to Satyadatta, one of the main disciples of the master.
Satyadatta made his way towards the master's body and sat down. Looking at the serene face of the master, he let out a sigh of anguish. He turned to Vishakha.
"Devi, Our beloved Acharya willed to leave us. Accusation of treason and murder is not something which a soul like him could face in his advanced years, given his contribution to the country.
"Treason! Murder!" gasped Vishakha. "And the emperor believed in all of that?"
Satyadatta was silent for a while. "I do not know of the emperor's stance, Devi. But Acharya seemed more detached than usual, the last two days. Yesterday, this unfortunate me could not attend to him for his evening Sandhya. When I apologised for the same at night, he only smiled and hinted that he has lived for too long. I fell at his feet and pleaded with him not to speak so. He raised me up and smiled at me with the affection which he did not express all the while during my schooling. I felt his looks overwhelming and sobbed loudly. Then the master turned serious and told me never to swerve from my path of dharma and never to fail this land. He then disposed me off for the night telling e not to disturb him. He had decided to desert us all."
Vishakha's face changed at the narration of Satyadatta. The tears gave way to wrath. She stood up with a determination of a warrior.
"Lathika, take me to the emperor. Now, don't stare at me like a fool. Lead me to your Emperor now."