He pulled on his bowstring once and let go of it, sending the tankaar sound ringing through the silent night. In the moments that followed, other gandharva sentries stationed at street corners and rooftops responded with their own bowstrings. They were all in the same boat, resisting the call of music, waiting for the hour of prophecy to arrive, watching the small house by the lake.
And they were not the only ones. Roaming the streets below, somewhat more conspicuous than the gandharva archers, were two actual Vajra-class yakshas. How brutes such as these came to be in the employ of the gods, Veer didn't know. But it was not his place to question orders. The yakshas were resources, this was a mission, and he was in command. He just hoped the child of prophecy was worth all the trouble.
Veer heard the arrow splitting the night-time air before he saw it coming. What he found interesting was that he didn't even have to evade it. The ornate, obviously custom-made arrow with the Rakshas Dominion seal passed right in front of his eyes, missing him by inches. A less talented archer, Veer thought, would have missed by a wider margin, or worse -- actually made the mistake of shooting a gandharva commander in the face. This wasn't an attack. It was a message, an invitation -- from the Rakshas Prajapati no less. The dark lord was saying hello.
Why him though?
Veer had never really considered himself anything more than an employee of the gods. Unlike many in the service, he was not political. In his mind, the kingdom to the east was not the dominion of darkness where all things evil assembled to plot against the sacred land. It was just another place. It didn't matter to him that the Rakshas Dominion and its allies did not submit to the gods the way gandharva and yaksha people did. He didn't even care much about the tales that the children of Devbhumi were brought up on -- scary stories of how the Rakshas kingdom was a blight on the land and how wiping it off the face of the Earth would ensure eternal prosperity for all beings everywhere. As far as Veer was concerned, people were just people. The world was just the world.
On the other hand, the fact that his current mission was all about fulfilling a hundred-year-old prophecy about the dark lord's end didn't bother him much either. This was just a job. And if the dark lord thought he could be dissuaded from carrying it out, he was clearly underestimating the loyalty of a government employee with free healthcare, accommodation, and five children in deva-run schools.
By the time the arrow hit the wall to his left, bounced off, and fell to the floor with a dull thud, Veer was already on his way down, humming the tune to an old war song as he fell free, bouncing off ledges, swinging effortlessly over turrets, all the while keeping his eyes on the small house. He landed on his feet just as the front door opened and a hooded figure emerged into the night. The stranger was almost as large as the two yakshas who stepped out of the darkness to cover his escape routes -- the lakefront and the street corner.
"It's over," Veer announced as he drew an arrow and notched it. "You are not taking the baby."
The hooded stranger raised a hand to stay Veer. Then he spoke with surprising calm, "I am on a mission of peace. The child's parents have not been harmed. There is no need for you to involve yourself."
Veer hesitated, not completely understanding why. His bowstring made an impatient sound, as if urging action. He had to make an effort to regain his confidence.
"Even if I could bring myself to believe a masked man from the Rakshas capital, you should know that the parents are of no consequence. All children of Devbhumi belong to the gods, and this child, more than any other, is dear to the devas."
"Dear to the devas, yes. I know all about the prophecy. This little one is supposed to grow up and slay the Rakshas Prajapati one day," said the stranger, almost kindly. "I know everything there is to know about him."
A shiver ran down Veer's spine. It was a gandharva thing, meaning perhaps, that danger was close and that something was very wrong. Although it was a hard to translate feeling. Gandharvas had been known to experience it in moments of extreme joy as well -- like when leave applications got approved, or in anticipation of a long weekend. But in any case, Veer couldn't ignore it.
"Seize him," Veer commanded the yaksha to the stranger's right as he lowered his bow.
The stranger dodged the yaksha's lunge and raised his left hand. Three fingers. The yaksha froze, and then fell face forward onto the cobbled pavement. Veer tried to put his finger on what magic it was that the stranger had used until he figured out it was no magic at all. There was an arrow sticking out of the back of the yaksha's head -- a gandharva arrow!
"Impossible!" Veer gasped. "My men are protected against Rakshas magic. You cannot control their minds!"
"I am not controlling their minds," said the stranger, dropping his hood. "I offered them bribes, and jobs, and lucrative professional opportunities in my capital. And in a couple of cases, I offered them the opportunity of returning home and finding their families alive. Your men are, in effect, my men."
"All of them?" Veer said, disbelieving.
"All except this one," the Rakshas lord said, pointing to the dead yaksha.
Veer glanced at the yaksha to his left. The yaksha shrugged and said, "Sorry commander! Do you have any idea what he offered me?"
The Yaksha never got to tell Veer exactly what he had been offered. This was on account of the fact that Veer had removed his head from his shoulders before he had reached the end of his sentence.
"That was quick," said the Rakshas Prajapati. "I usually make them suffer more. But then again, I was not the one betrayed this night."
Veer waited for his anger to subside. When it didn't, he dropped his sword on the pavement with a loud clang, as if that was what was keeping him angry. It had been a long time since he had taken a life and he needed this moment of anger to end. Berserker rage was most useful on a battlefield, but it wasn't ideal when a baby was being held hostage by a rakshas at a street corner in the middle of the night.
He blinked at long last when he heard the baby start crying. He looked up. As his bloodshot eyes refocused, he found the Rakshas Prajapati smiling at him.
"You woke him up," said the dark lord.
"You're going to kill him," Veer said. "You are going to kill the chosen one and defeat the prophecy."
"Do you think it will work?" asked the Prajapati.
"Never!" Veer said. "The akashvani is never wrong. Your death at the hands of the chosen one was foretold by the gods and nothing can stop that from happening. Cruel kings and dark lords have tried before. Prophecies always come true."
"Yes, I have heard the stories," said the Rakshas Prajapati. "Something or the other always gets in the way, doesn't it? A bounced curse, a divine intervention, a celestial deception."
Veer notched an arrow and aimed it at the Rakshas Prajapati's head. "Or a pissed-off gandharva," he said.
"You aren't thinking straight commander," said the Rakshas Prajapati, laughing a little. "If you put an arrow in my head, who will the chosen one slay when he comes of age?"
The paradox wasn't lost on Veer. If the dark lord couldn't kill the chosen one because the prophecy was absolute, his arrow won't kill the dark lord either. Though he found this a curious problem, he was not about to lower his bow and share a moment of philosophical abstraction with the Prajapati.
As if reading his mind, the Rakshas Prajapati said, "It would seem that the prophecy has us both beat." When Veer said nothing, he added, "Commander, if you want to try to kill me and violate the prophecy, I suggest you do so now. But if you are not even going to try, please lower your weapon. Having an arrow pointed at my head feels insulting."
"So you can try to kill the child and violate the prophecy instead?" Veer asked.
"I have had seventeen opportunities to end this little life tonight," the Prajapati said. "The only one you have a chance of stopping is this one. Ask yourself why I haven't killed the child."
Smarting at being reminded of his many failures this night, Veer lowered his bow anyway. The dark lord did have a point.
"I am not going to kill this child, commander. That will not defeat your gods," said the Prajapati.
Veer listened, as another shiver ran up his spine. The Rakshas Prajapati held the child up before he spoke again.
"I am going to love him instead. I am going to take him back with me and raise him as a son. All that is mine will be his. He will have the best education, a loving family, and he will have the entire Rakshas Dominion to play in."
The first light of dawn started painting the eastern sky red. Veer took a deep breath. "You believe the boy will choose to not slay you when he comes of age?"
"I believe the boy will choose to not kill his father," said the Prajapati. "I believe your gods are not more powerful than the love I intend to give Rudra. I believe the power of your prophecy will pale before this child's ability to choose."
"Rudra?" Veer raised a brow.
"It's what I am calling him," said the Prajapati proudly. "I named him after my grandfather."
"It's a terrible name," Veer said. "Makes him sound like a general. Sounds like you are sending him off to battle."
"I will let him be anything he wants to be," the Prajapati said, a little offended, and perhaps a little amused as well. "Do you have a better suggestion?"
"Call him Chirayu," Veer said. "So that he lives long and prospers."
As the Rakshas Prajapati considered the suggestion, Veer turned around and started walking towards the sunrise, humming a little tune to himself. Something told him he was going to have a lot of time for his music now.