AUTHOR'S NOTES: For more information, and useful things like a character and terms glossary, please visit mahastory dot livejournal dot com. Much love and thanks to Neeti for beta-ing this chapter! Feedback and comments are much appreciated. Thanks for reading!
CHAPTER EIGHT: NIGHT OF THE GANDHARVAS
"This is insane," Arjuna said, fitting the first arrow to his bow.
"Here it is," Krishna said, ignoring Arjuna's protest. "Just like he said it would be."
It made a growling noise in its throat and stomped its hooves impatiently. "That's a ram," Arjuna said.
"He told us it would be a ram." Krishna jumped up onto the ram's elaborate gilded saddle in one smooth, easy motion. The ram made another growling sound and stamped impatiently again. Arjuna stared at it. It had red skin and burning eyes and golden ornaments dangling from its horns. Those ornaments didn't seem very practical, in Arjuna's mind. The ram was also impossibly gigantic. There was room for at least two men on the saddle on its back.
"Up," Krishna said, holding out his hand.
"I've never ridden anything like, um, that before."
"It's not rocket science."
Arjuna gripped his bow in one hand and reached for Krishna's hand with his other. He wasn't sure what happened, but one moment he had two feet on the ground, the next, a saddle in his crotch. He seemed awfully far off the ground. And the heaving, trembling back of the ram did not seem to be the most stable support for—
"Don't grab at me," Krishna said. "You'll need both hands free to use that bow of yours."
"Then how do I hold on?"
"With your legs."
The ram stepped forward, and Arjuna nearly pitched backward and right off it. "Whoa!" he cried out, grabbing at the back of Krishna's jacket. He steadied himself again, and squeezed with his legs. The ram took another step forward, and another, moving its massive, hot body across a grassy knoll overlooking the forest. Thunder rumbled overhead, and lightning flashed as if in warning. Wind pushed against Arjuna's hair and clothes.
"I hope that Spider made it to a safe distance," Krishna said, shielding his eyes against the wind.
"I wouldn't worry about Spider," Arjuna said, as the ram took its first step into thin air, and then began climbing into the sky. "I would worry about us."
"We'll be fine. Agni wouldn't have asked you to do this if you couldn't do it."
"Me, sure." Arjuna wobbled and fought to steady himself, without holding onto Krishna or the ram or anything but the bow in his hands. The ram heaved up and down as it stepped up and further up, climbing the air toward the storm clouds overhead. "What exactly are you supposed to be doing?" Arjuna asked.
"Watching your back, and steering this thing."
"But you're in front of me--" Arjuna made the mistake of looking down. "Wait, wait, wait. How far up are we going?"
"Into the clouds. That's the only way to stop Indra. We have to get him before he can--"
"We can't breathe up there!"
"We'll be fine."
"You keep saying that!" Arjuna had to shout against the rising wind whipping around him, threatening to push him right off the back of the ram, which was obliviously plodding its way into the thunderheads above.
Arjuna closed his eyes tightly shut for a moment, praying that when he opened them he would find himself sitting on solid ground again, everything since his interrupted meditation under the stars having turned out to be a dream. But the wind pushing against him and the moisture condensing on his skin would not go away. When Arjuna opened his eyes again, the ground was completely gone – as was the night sky and the world to either side of him. There was nothing in any direction but gray, illuminated by occasional flashes of lightning. Thunder cracked overhead and below. But at least the wind had died down, here in the center of the maelstrom waiting to be born.
Arjuna opened and closed his mouth, breathing experimentally. There shouldn't have been enough oxygen up here in the middle of a thunderhead, yet somehow he was breathing fine. The electricity in the air was making all of the hair on his body stand on end. Well, maybe not just the electricity.
"There!" Krishna suddenly cried out, pointing straight ahead. "Did you see that?"
Arjuna squinted, unable to see anything but gray. Suddenly, something flashed across his vision – a blur of white and red. Arjuna swallowed. "It's him."
"He saw us. Brace yourself."
Arjuna opened his mouth to ask For what? but it instantaneously became a moot point. A bolt of lightning shot out of the clouds surrounding them and headed straight for Arjuna. Arjuna saw the flash of light out of the corner of his eye, felt the electrical charge run up his spine, wondered briefly what it would feel like to be barbequed alive. He would have at least winced, if he'd had the time. But the lightning didn't strike him; there was a flash a few inches from Arjuna's shoulder, and the lightning bolt bounced back into the gray.
"…What just happened?!"
"Don't worry," Krishna said, reaching into his jacket again, and pulling out a thin rod of metal. He flicked his wrist, and the rod expanded into a series of concentric metal plates. Krishna aimed and tossed the resulting circular disk into the gray abyss. Another approaching bolt of lightning hit the disc and bounced back into the clouds. The disc, however, exploded into a cloud of vaporized metal.
"What are those things?" Arjuna asked as Krishna paused a moment to steady their mount by patting its head and pointing it toward another distant flash of red and white.
"Chakra. Useful for hunting small rodents, under normal circumstances." Krishna leaned dangerously far over to his side, pulling another metal rod out of his boot. "I don't have an unlimited supply, though. I'll be the defense if you be the offense, all right?"
"Right." Arjuna raised his bow and aimed into the clouds. He squinted again, willing his eyesight to penetrate the murk. Maybe he couldn't see, but he could taste the electricity crackling around him, seeming to run in currents through the air, pointing toward a point just beyond where the thickening clouds obscured Arjuna's vision.
Arjuna uttered a prayer and fired a lightning-tipped arrow into the cloudy abyss.
There was a sound that might have been a crack of thunder, or that might have been the thunderous, reverberating cry of an otherworldly wounded animal.
Arjuna willed another arrow to appear on his bow. He narrowed his eyes, breathing slowly and steadily, aiming not with his vision but with the taste of the rain and wind in the air. He refused to notice or acknowledge the ram lurching beneath him, or the bolts of lightning flashing out of the night and exploding as they were deflected all around him. He released another arrow.
The entire world screamed in response, lightning and wind and a bone-rattling crack of thunder slamming into Arjuna from all sides.
"I think you hurt him," Krishna said, sending the ram into a brief dive to avoid another bolt of lightning. Krishna dropped the ram's reigns to pull out another chakra, this time from a pouch on his belt. "Oh good, a miracle. I thought I should have run out of these things by now."
The ram was now galloping through the air, much faster and more gracefully than it had moved on the way up. Arjuna was no longer afraid of its heaving, unstable motions. He squeezed with his legs and held his bow steady. He sniffed the air, tasted the electricity crackling around him, and tuned out the crack of thunder rattling his teeth in his skull, searching for his target again.
All of a sudden, the world around Arjuna was no longer bleak and gray. The skies were filled with crying streaks of color plummeting toward him.
Instinctively, Arjuna began firing his arrows. Just like fighting Nakula's drones, he told himself, sending off arrow after arrow without pause, faster than he had ever fired before, faster than would have been possible for any other human. Arjuna could not let himself truly look at his targets, he couldn't let himself see their human faces or feathers or fur-covered legs or long claws reaching out to rend him limb from limb—
A metal chakra flew across the sky, beheading several. And then another, and another. The creatures screamed as arrows of fire and lightning pierced their hearts or severed their heads from their bodies. Empty-eyed screaming faces, dismembered feather-covered hands, and claw-tipped feet fell from the sky.
And then, almost as soon as they had appeared, Arjuna realized that he was out of targets. The remaining creatures screeched at each other in inhuman voices and retreated back into the gloom.
Arjuna allowed himself to clutch at Krishna for a moment, Gandiva vanishing from his hands. "What--?"
"Gandharvas. Indra's servants."
Arjuna willed Gandiva back into his hands. "Did we beat them?"
"No. They're just regrouping." Krishna turned his face toward a distant flash of lightning, which illuminated a dark mass of twisting, writhing, angry-looking shadows flying toward them. "Here they come again."
Sahadeva sighed and sat up in his bed, as another crack of thunder sounded overhead. "I wish it would hurry up and rain," he whispered.
Yudhisthira, the only other one awake, nodded slowly, turning over on his side to watch the rest of his brothers. Bhima was asleep and snoring contentedly, a massive dark lump buried deep beneath his own blankets. Bhima was at one end of the tent, and Yudhisthira at the other end; between then were the twins, one of whom was asleep, and other sitting up in his bed and very much not.
Yudhisthira stared at the still, sleeping form of Nakula. "How can he sleep through this?" Yudhisthira whispered.
Sahadeva reached over to his brother's bed and brushed back a lock of Nakula's hair. "Earplugs."
"Smart. Does he have any more?"
"Of course not." The interior of their tent was illuminated with the third flash of lightning in less than a minute. Yudhisthira's eyes were dazzled with the afterglow. Thunder was rumbling overhead almost constantly now. "Why isn't it raining?" Sahadeva asked. He sounded genuinely puzzled.
Yudhisthira shrugged, which was a bit of feat when he was lying on his side. "I don't know."
"Mmmm." Sahadeva hugged his legs to his chest. "Arjuna is out there."
"It's all right. You know he loves to be outside for this kind of weather."
Sahadeva hummed to himself for a moment, rocking back and forth on top of his bed. Yudhisthira wondered if this meant that Sahadeva had withdrawn from their conversation. Yudhisthira opened his mouth to whisper something else, but all of a sudden, there was a thump against the tent canvas directly above his head. Yudhisthira glanced upward just as another flash of lightning brilliantly illuminated his vision for a brief moment – long enough for him to see the shadowy thing rolling down the top of the tent above him, leaving behind trailing streaks of black liquid as it slid toward the ground. One end of the whatever-it-was was a gooey mess, but the other end kind of, sort of, maybe looked like a hand with five outstretched fingers.
Yudhisthira jumped up and out of his bed. He ran toward the tent entrance, not bothering with his robe or boots, not answering the confused mumbles of the bodyguards that he woke up when he nearly stepped all over them. Barefooted, Yudhisthira pounded into the grass outside and around to the side of the tent.
A frigid wind tore at his nightclothes and snatched his breath away. Thunder crackled and lightning flashed overhead. Yudhisthira saw what had fallen from the sky and hit the top of his tent, now lying in a thickening puddle of sharp-smelling blood in the grass at his feet. It was an arm. It might have been a human arm, if not for the unnaturally long fingers, or the impossibly long claws tipping each finger.
Yudhisthira turned toward two of his bodyguards, who had followed him outside. "Um," he croaked.
Sahadeva, who had paused to slip on shoes and a robe, stepped around the bodyguards, saw what was resting in the grass at Yudhisthira's feet, and clapped his hands over his mouth as if to stifle a scream.
A flash of lightning suddenly threw the world into black-and-white relief. Yudhisthira saw the black blood of the severed arm seeping across the grass and into the canvas at the base of histent, saw the white flesh of the horrible thing pulled tight across its outstretched fingers, and suddenly had to clap a hand over his mouth to hold back his regurgitated dinner. The flesh on the severed arm began to bubble and hiss, and then to melt and evaporate, as did the blood, fading away and vanishing into nothing.
Yes yes please oh gods make it go away--
Thunder cracked overhead. And there was suddenly another wet thump in the grass somewhere to Yudhisthira's right, and then another, to his left. A third thump as something hit the top of a different tent and then bounced off, landing with a splat on the ground behind him.
Another flash of lightning illuminated a dark, round shadow that rolled across the grass toward Sahadeva,. He stood paralyzed as it rolled to a rest in front of him. It stared up at him with its dead eyes and open, snarling, tooth-lined mouth.
The bodyguards reached for Sahadeva and made as if to pull him away from the severed head at his feet, but it was too late. Sahadeva opened his mouth and screamed.
The entire camp was definitely going to wake up now, Yudhisthira thought. As voices began to cry out and lights were switched on all around him, Yudhisthira glanced toward the horizon, and saw the distant glow of flame in what should have been the direction of the forest where Arjuna had gone.
That can't be, he thought numbly. It's too cold for a forest fire.
Arjuna blanketed the sky with arrows, cutting down the latest wave of gandharvas in mid-flight. He caught another distant glimpse of the red creature in the sky, and fired a volley of arrows. Lightning shot toward him from all sides, but the ram that Arjuna was riding dodged and wove through the air with impossible speed and grace, and Krishna was quick with his chakras.
"We're getting closer!" Krishna shouted over the exploding claps of thunder all around them. "You have to force him to retreat before he can release the rains!"
Forgive me, Arjuna prayed to Indra as he fired another volley of arrows. They were his own weapons of lightning. They flashed as they struck their distant target, and the red man howled in pain and fury. But Arjuna didn't let up. He fired again, and again, without pause, without mercy. A gandharva streaked out of the sky toward him, its claws outstretched. Arjuna wasted a fraction of a second briefly turning his bow toward it, and then turned back toward Indra as the stricken gandharva screamed and clutched at the arrow in its heart, plummeting down toward the ground.
Krishna grabbed the reigns of their ram again and urged him forward, through the clouds. Arjuna aimed another arrow, and then—
All of a sudden, there was no need to aim. Arjuna's target was right in front of him.
Time seemed to slow to a stop. Arjuna and Krishna and their ram floated in the eye of the storm that they had fought their way through, floating in a hushed, otherworldly silence. There was no thunder in here, and no wind, and no sound, save for their own breathing. The red man, wild-eyed and bleeding rain, expanded across the sky, his four arms grasping and clutching at distant streaks of lightning. Beneath him stood a white elephant, its smooth shining skin studded with arrows, sinking down to its knees and as it shuddered with pain. The red man breathed in and out, his eyes burning, his breath rank with fury.
Let me rain, the red man said.
Krishna closed his eyes and leaned forward, stroking the neck of their trembling ram. Arjuna raised his bow and aimed for the point between the red man's eyes.
The red man suddenly laughed, and his flesh ran and trembled. And instant later, he was covered with eyes – he was nothing but eyes – thousands of eyes, millions of eyes, filling the sky from one horizon to another, and all of them staring straight at Arjuna, staring straight at him and through him with their wet, angry gaze.
Try, the eyes screamed at him in a challenge. Try, human, and I will crush you like an insignificant insect.
For a moment, Arjuna trembled with genuine terror. The eyes held him in their gaze, burning him, tearing him apart, making his flesh crawl and his bowels clench—
But then, he closed his own eyes – or perhaps winced, to the same effect – and the red man's soul-searing gaze was gone. And so was his fear. Ah, Arjuna thought, as he raised his bow again, his eyes still closed. How easy.
Arjuna squeezed his eyes tightly shut, and breathed in and out slowly, deeply, tasting the electricity in the air. He could feel his target even without having to see it. So he turned his bow a bit to the left, then a bit to the right, and then fired one single arrow into the abyss.
The storm screamed.
Arjuna opened his eyes and saw the other eyes whirling about the sky in a maelstrom. Then they were gone and there was only the red man again, clutching at the arrow protruding from what had once been his right eye. For a moment, the red man stretched across the sky again, filling the horizon with his four lightning-tipped arms. But then he collapsed into himself, crying out in pain. And then there was just a small man swooning on top of a wounded elephant. The elephant, with the bleeding man on its back, knelt down and began sinking through the clouds toward the ground below.
The clouds began to dissolve almost as quickly as they had formed. The lightning was no more, and the thunder just a distant echo. Arjuna looked down at the ground far, far below. Without the clouds obscuring his vision, he could finally see clearly the orange flames and clouds of smoke beginning to devour the forest below them.
Arjuna breathed in and out, slowly. Gandiva vanished from his hands. And then he leaned forward, carefully, and clutched at Krishna's waist.
"Is it all right for me to hold on now?" Arjuna croaked.
"I think so," Krishna said, tugging at the ram's reigns. The ram began to walk, in a stately, slow fashion, down though the sky and toward the ground.
Arjuna closed his eyes and waited for the descent to be over. He felt exhausted, utterly spent. Perhaps it had been the advanced meditation and calming techniques that he had learned from Mr. Drona that had kept Arjuna alive during the battle – or perhaps it had been pure adrenaline alone. Arjuna rather suspected the latter.
Moments later, however, the ram touched down on solid ground. Arjuna felt a blast of heat, and coughed as he breathed in a whiff of smoke. He opened his eyes, turned his head, and saw that they had landed on a small hill overlooking the forest being consumed by flames, not too far from them.
Krishna hopped off the back of the ram, held out his hand, and helped Arjuna down. "Come on," he said, grasping the reigns again and gently leading the ram over to the other side of the hill. "We have to return this poor thing."
Arjuna followed Krishna in silence for a few steps, his mind dangerously close to finally letting the events of the past hour actually sink in. "Um," he said.
Arjuna stared at the back of Krishna's head. You seem awfully calm about all of this suddenly seemed like a very stupid thing to say. "Have you ever done something like this before?" Arjuna asked instead.
"Well," Krishna said, turning his head back toward Arjuna, "I have ridden on the back of an animal before."
"It was when I was ten years old, when this traveling circus came into town. They offered elephant rides for five credits each. I only had one, but it was so much fun."
Arjuna and Krishna rounded the top of the hill and began stepping carefully down its other side. Heat from the nearby forest fire pushed at their backs, and the flames illuminated the night, stretching their shadows out in front of them. Arjuna glanced down and saw two men waiting for them at the bottom of the hill.
One was Agni, his red skin glowing with health and his two faces mercifully merged into one, beaming up at Arjuna with a bright, rosy-cheeked smile. The other was Indra, pale and pink, his clothing and flesh torn and bleeding, his four arms hanging limply from his sides. What should have been his right eye was instead a bloody smear on his face. Indra's massive white elephant knelt on the ground beside him, looking carefully disinterested in everything, including its own wounds, in the way that elephants were particularly skilled at.
"Thank you, thank you!" Agni said, stepping toward them with outstretched arms. For a moment, Arjuna was afraid that the god was actually going to hug him. But instead, Agni wrapped his arms around the neck of his ram and stroked it lovingly. "Yes, you're such a good boy, yes you are."
Arjuna glanced toward Indra, then glanced down at his own feet.
"You. Boy," Indra said.
Arjuna swallowed. He could feel the devakin markings on his back crawling with a strange kind of electricity, they way he had felt when he had knelt before Agni earlier that night.
Indra seemed to sniff at Arjuna, "What manner of creature are you?" Indra asked, his voice rumbling.
Arjuna opened his mouth to answer, but Agni bellowed laughter and answered for him, "This boy is a devakin. He's your son."
Indra seemed genuinely taken aback. He frowned deeply at Arjuna and said, "That cannot be."
"It's true," Arjuna said quickly. He willed Gandiva to appear in his hands, and it did, weaving itself into existence from rain and lightning. "This is my Gift. You gave it to me."
Indra's mouth seemed to hang open. Arjuna was suddenly afraid that he would start laughing, out of sheer exhaustion or nerves or both. He had never imagined that someday he would see a god standing in front of him, covered in blood, and holding his mouth open with an almost cartoonish expression of surprise on his face.
Indra stepped forward, reached out, and touched Gandiva. Then he slowly stretched out his hand, and brushed his fingers against Arjuna's forehead. Arjuna shivered from head to toe. It was like being struck by lightning.
"You are my son," Indra said. He leaned back and stood up straight, staring down at Arjuna with his one good eye. "You took my eye."
"Only in a metaphorical sense," Agni pointed out. "You have plenty to spare."
"You defeated me," Indra said.
Arjuna looked down at his feet again.
Agni led his ram over toward where Indra's elephant was crouched. "I told you, you should have let me have that forest in the first place."
Indra brooded like a black thundercloud. "You are unfair. Many innocent creatures are dying because of you. Trees. Birds. Small animals. Deer."
"The forest must be cleansed."
"You are merely being gluttonous."
Agni snorted laughter and turned his glowing, rosy-cheeked face toward Arjuna for one last time. "Forgive my brother for his obstinacy. He never does enjoy being defeated in battle."
Indra seemed to cough.
"We devas will remember you, Prince Arjuna, for having faced our king and your own father in battle, and for having bested him. But," Agni added with a wink, "Before you grow arrogant or full of yourself, young man, I would like to point out that my brother has been defeated multiple times by even the lowest-ranked asura--"
"Ravana was not 'low-ranked'--"
"I was not speaking of Ravana."
Indra snorted through his nose, a noise which managed to sound ominous enough. He turned his bloody face toward Arjuna and said, "I am impressed. And angry. Most fortunately for you, more impressed than angry." He climbed slowly and regally on top of his elephant, which groaned and stood up with equal slowness. "We will remember this, and you."
"Thank you boys," Agni said, mounting his ram with one smooth, easy motion. "You have pleased the devas."
Indra and Agni turned their mounts away from Arjuna, and began climbing back into the sky. Arjuna bowed low, touching the grass beneath him with his hands and forehead, and waited until he sensed that the gods were gone.
When he sensed that he and Krishna were alone again, Arjuna stood up out of his bow. He straightened his back and watched Krishna, who was standing with his face turned toward the sky. Arjuna wondered if Krishna had bothered to bow in front of the gods or not. Arjuna had been too busy being awed to take notice.
Krishna turned toward Arjuna and smiled. "You could tell that they were brothers," he said, and laughed.
Arjuna stood for a moment, brushing the grass off his knees, feeling the heat of the forest fire blazing just on the other side of the hill where he stood. He breathed in and out, slowly, forcing his mind to remain calm. It seemed quite easy, all of a sudden, to convince himself that he had dreamed or imagined the whole thing. Surely he hadn't just met and spoken to a pair of gods that night. Surely he hadn't been riding through the sky on the back of an enchanted ram and single-handedly (well, almost) defeating an entire army of—
Arjuna suddenly clapped his hands over his mouth and gagged.
"What?" Krishna asked.
"I killed them," Arjuna gasped. "Those gandharvas. They were divine and they were alive and I killed them. I cut off their heads and arms and legs and--" Arjuna sank to his knees. "I've taken the lives of animals with my arrows before, but I've never, never taken the lives of… Uh…" He wasn't sure how to finish. He wanted to say people but the gandharvas were not people. They were far more than simple-minded animals, however. And their faces had been so horrifically human.
"So?" Krishna asked, scratching at his ear absentmindedly. "And?"
"And I didn't even have to think about it. I didn't even hesitate. It was like…" Arjuna licked his lips. "I thought to myself, it was just like shooting at drones. Machines. But those weren't machines."
"And you killed them quite well, I might add."
Arjuna shot Krishna a dark look. Then he steadied himself, and stood up slowly. He said nothing, and turned away from Krishna. Arjuna placed his hand over his heart, and felt a faint echo of the pain that Mr. Drona had warned him would be there, if he ever used too many of his arrows at once. He felt more than a faint sense of numbness, too, both in body and in spirit. That was the price that he paid for using a devaweapon – each arrow that he fired was a piece of his own heart, and the more he used, the more of his own heart that he tore away. A human heart would always create itself anew, Mr. Drona had said, expanding and growing to fulfill the emptiness left behind by what had torn away and turned into weapons. But that would take time.
Arjuna sighed. Maybe the numbness was a good thing. It made it a bit easier to deal with the events of the night so far, without going insane. "Is it over?" he asked Krishna.
"Maybe. Give it a moment."
Arjuna waited a moment, listening, watching.
And then, from the other side of the hill, from the direction of the forest fire, came a long, frightened, wailing cry.
"That's no animal," Krishna said, already pelting up the hill and toward the fire. "It doesn't sound human, either."
Arjuna followed him without thinking. After all, what was one more supernatural encounter that night?
The forest was consumed in flame. Arjuna at first recoiled away from the heat that he could feel blasting toward him as he and Krishna walked toward the inferno. Then he figured that as long as Krishna kept marching forward, he might as well join him. The smoke made him cough. He could hear the roar of the flames, the crack and crash of branches collapsing, occasionally the (mercifully distant) scream of an animal—
And then there was that cry again, that cry that did not sound like any animal Arjuna had ever heard of.
Krishna suddenly grabbed Arjuna's arm and pointed. "There!"
There was a person on fire, struggling to climb his way over a fallen, blazing tree trunk and into the clear.
Arjuna acted without thinking. Gandiva came alive in his hands. He summoned the water astra from deep within his memories, and fired.
A wave of water splashed over the burning figure. He gurgled, stumbled over the doused tree trunk, and fell into a gangly somersault that somehow managed to propel him past the edge of the fire and into the surrounding grass that would surely catch ablaze in moments.
Arjuna dashed forward and grabbed at the man's shoulders. He grunted, struggling to pull the man further into the clear. How could one person – if it was a person – be so incredibly heavy? But then Krishna was there, gathering up the man's feet and legs and helping Arjuna lift. The two of them managed to carry the wet, gasping creature across the scrubland and over the hill where they had seen off Indra and Agni, before they gently laid him down. And then Arjuna got a good look at the man for the first time, his features illuminated by the ever-increasing glow from the forest fire.
It could have been a human man, save for the odd curved shape of his arms, the slightly off proportions of his face, the translucent bluish skin, and the equally odd translucent bluish hair falling in woven clumps all around the man's face. Strangely- bizarrely – there was no sign that the man had been burnt at all, save for what resembled a char mark near his left shoulder. Other than that, the man's simple traveling clothes – trousers and a jacket and boots, the likes of which Krishna wore – were utterly unmarked. Which was impossible, because Arjuna had just seen the man literally engulfed in flame.
The not-quite-man coughed, blinked, and then opened his eyes. He looked straight up at Arjuna, and Arjuna suddenly had to look away. He had to fight not to whimper. He had no name for the color of the man's eyes, but one look at them and the devakin markings on his back had begun to burn so bright and hot that he was afraid his skin might actually be blistering. It was nothing at all like the sensation he had felt when he had been in front of Agni and Indra. It was an entirely different feeling – an entirely unpleasant one. Arjuna was instinctually, animalistically afraid of the color of the man's eyes.
The man sat up and sniffled, wringing out his hair and clothes with his unnaturally long, slender fingers. "Are you the one who saved me?" he asked Arjuna. At least his voice sounded normal.
Arjuna nodded slowly, then gathered up his courage, and turned his head to face the man again. What he saw made him gas. Now the not-quite-man looked like a man. Gone were the curling ears and strangely-proportioned face and odd skin and odder hair. Gone were the eyes from another world. The man sitting in front of Arjuna was still wet, and still dressed in his traveling clothes, but now he had dusky-colored, human-looking skin, long, tangled black-brown hair, and normal, unassuming brown eyes. He smiled at Arjuna, and his smile was kind. "Thank you," he said. "I would rather have a bit of water up my nose than be burned alive."
You don't look like you were burned at all, Arjuna thought.
"Here," Krishna said, taking off his patched jacket and wrapping it around the man's shoulders. "You'll catch cold."
"Thank you," the man said, clutching Krishna's jacket around his own soaked jacket. "Please tell me who you two are."
Arjuna kneeled before the man. "Arjuna," he said, "third prince of Khandavaprastha. And this is one of my subjects, Krishna."
The man blinked. "Khandava has royalty now?"
The man nodded. "And I am Mayasura," he said.
Arjuna held still for a moment, wondering if he had heard the man right. "Mayasura?"
"As in," Arjuna said, lifting his head, "the legendary asura architect?" His mouth twitched in a half-smile, hoping that this man would understand that he was in on the joke.
Mayasura returned Arjuna's half-smile. "The one and same." He brushed his wet hair away from his forehead. "I apologize that you had to see me partially in my natural form. The fire had me a bit discombobulated."
Arjuna clutched at the grass at his feet, struggling for words. Long ago he had made the decision to believe Mr. Drona when Mr. Drona had told him that asuras were not extinct and that they were still present, still hiding, still lurking among even the most advanced and pious human civilizations. But believing Mr. Drona's words was one thing. Actually coming face-to-face with an asura was another thing entirely. And not just any asura, but Mayasura. Arjuna had heard of Mayasura in stories that were hundreds of thousands of years old, and therefore the man in front of him couldn't possibly be the same Mayasura, could he?
But Mr. Drona had once said that he had met Mayasura. Mr. Drona had once told Arjuna that Mayasura was both the most brilliant and the most inexplicably foolish asura ever born. And Mr. Drona would never lie to Arjuna.
Now, Arjuna realized, it was finally his turn to meet the asura that his own teacher had once described, in one simple word, as stupid.
"You must be a devakin," Mayasura said to Arjuna. "I can smell your deva DNA. My apologies, young man. I am well aware of the physical discomfort that devakin experience while in the presence of an asura."
Arjuna swallowed, then held up his head defiantly. "You do not make me uncomfortable," he said.
Mayasura laughed. "I appreciate your compassion, young man, but there is no need for dishonesty." Mayasura stood up slowly, and handed Krishna's jacket back to him. His own clothes appeared to be drying quickly. "You should not fear me. Unlike many of my brethren, I hold no ill will toward humans or devas. In fact," he said, holding out one hand to Arjuna, "I am rather in your debt."
Arjuna took Mayasura's hand hesitantly. He wasn't sure what he expected – a shock of electricity when he touched the asura, perhaps? But nothing happened. It was just a normal, human hand. Mayasura helped pull Arjuna into a standing position as Arjuna said, "You should thank Krishna, too."
"I don't need anything," Krishna said quickly. "Unless you can convince my mom not to ground me for life when I get back home tomorrow morning…?"
"Some tasks might be beyond even my awesome supernatural powers," Mayasura said, "but I will try."
"I don't want her to find out that I was here. Or anybody, for that matter." Krishna glanced toward Arjuna. "You won't tell anyone that I was here tonight, will you?"
Arjuna raised his eyebrows. After all of that?! "Why not?"
"It's not time yet," Krishna said, more than a bit apologetically.
Mayasura turned his gaze toward Arjuna. "And you, prince? Is there any request you wish to make of me, so that I may repay my debt to you?"
Arjuna closed his eyes and thought. Then he opened them again and said, "You're the architect who built Ravana's capital on Lanka, right?"
"Yes. And the great spacefaring cities of the ancient asuras."
Arjuna nodded to himself, slowly, then said, "My family – my brother – has no capital, at least not yet…"
"Then get them airborne as quickly as possible," Yudhisthira snapped into the comm, which he then handed impatiently back to the aide closest to him. "I want air surveillance in less than five minutes."
The aide turned away from Yudhisthira and repeated his order into the comm. Yudhisthira grasped a roof-mounted handlebar and pulled himself up on top of the RTV again, scanning the night landscape in front of him. Soldiers fanned out ahead of his RTV, illuminating the scrubby inland brush with their high-beam flashsticks, calling out his brother's name over and over again. The RTVs rolling behind them similarly shined their headlights over the landscape, occasionally illuminating another fallen chunk of flesh that was busily bubbling and melting, but nothing, thankfully, that looked like the remains of a human being.
Yudhisthira ducked back down into the RTV again, and shrugged off his jacket, wiping a line of sweat away from his forehead. "It's getting hot," he told his driver.
"The forest should be just around this next bend, Your Majesty."
Yudhisthira clutched his jacket in his hands. "We should have seen him by now," he muttered. "He would have found us by now. I mean, there's no way he could have been caught in the fire--"
"His Highness could have escaped the forest on the opposite side, farther inland," the driver added. He squinted, frowning at something he could see through the front of the vehicle. "Here it is," he mumbled under his breath.
Yudhisthira climbed out the top of the RTV again, and immediately had to shield his face from the blast of heat and light that greeted him. The forest fire roared directly ahead of him, pouring smoke into the clear night sky. The storm clouds that had been gathering earlier that night were long gone, now replaced with black clouds of smoke.
The line of soldiers formerly in front of the RTVs began falling back. The RTVs slowed and grounded to a halt. Yudhisthira climbed completely up and out of his, scrambling down a ladder on its side. He jumped to the ground and ran forward, heedless of the shouts of his aides and bodyguards and soldiers and whoever else was yelling at him. "ARJUNA!" he screamed, cupping his hands and running toward the fire. "ARJUNA!!"
His guards grabbed him by the shoulders, and by his arms, pulling him back, nearly throwing him to the ground. "Let go of me," he shouted at them, "Don't touch me!"
"My brother went in there!" Yudhisthira cried out, his voice breaking.
"We will have airborne surveillance in less than one minute--"
"Your brother may be on the other side of the fire--"
Yudhisthira finally ceased struggling, and his guards gingerly let him go. He stood up straight, slowly, and stared at the wall of orange and red flame roaring in front of him. "This can't be happening," he muttered to himself.
"Satellite reports are in," another aide suddenly said, cupping his hand to listen to the comm resting in his ear. "Surveillance and weather satellites reported the formation of a storm cell in this area, but it broke up after producing quite a bit of lightning. Other than that, nothing unusual detected."
"Right," Yudhisthira said. "Nothing to explain why the sky would suddenly start raining body-parts." Or how an old-growth forest could suddenly burst into flame in the middle of such a cold night.
"Your Majesty," somebody was saying to him, "Your Majesty, come, this way, we can travel the perimeter of the fire in these vehicles."
Yudhisthira listlessly let himself be led back to a parked and idling RTV. He closed his eyes, trying to shut out the light of the forest fire, but he could see the flames from behind his eyelids. Something supernatural was happening on this island, of that there was no doubt. And Yudhisthira's little brother had been caught up in the middle of it. But Mr. Dhaumya had been unable to say whether demons or gods or something in between was responsible.
Please, Yudhisthira pleaded to the gods as he stepped up to climb back into his RTV, still keeping his eyes squeezed tightly shut, Please let my brother be safe. Please let me find him. Please let me open my eyes and see him standing right in front of me—
Over the roar of the fire, Yudhisthira could hear shouting. He turned his head, opened his eyes, and saw the soldiers standing around a second RTV behind him surging together toward a spot they were illuminating with their flashsticks. The second RTV rotated on its tires, training its bright headlights across the brush land in that direction.
--or behind me.
Yudhisthira jumped back down off the RTV and pelted toward the light, pushing aside soldiers and bodyguards as he did so. He caught a glimpse of a small, dark figure running across the brush, heading right toward them. The last line of soldiers parted to make way for Yudhisthira, and he reached out and caught his brother in a running embrace.
"Arjuna, Arjuna, Arjuna!" Yudhisthira kissed his cheeks frantically. "I thought you were caught in the fire!"
Arjuna returned his brother's tight embrace and kisses. "You're not going to believe it," he babbled, "you're not going to believe any of it, you won't believe where I've been, I--" He paused, glancing around at Yudhisthira's shoulders. "You brought soldiers?"
"We were looking for you!"
"But I was fine."
"We didn't think so!"
"Where's Bhima? Where's Mother?"
"At the camp," Yudhisthira said, pulling Arjuna toward the line of waiting soldiers. "I left them there to protect everyone else. Arjuna, what in the five hells is going on here?! We thought that we were under attack!"
"Under attack? From what?"
"I don't know, but there were body parts falling from the sky!"
"Oh, yeah. All of those heads and arms and… things." Arjuna nodded. "It's all right, though. I took care of it."
"Listen," Arjuna said, suddenly grabbing Yudhisthira's arm and pulling him away from the soldiers. "You have to come with me, this way. There's something that you have to see that's totally amazing!"
"It's kind of hard to explain, but there was this cow and it led me and this farmer boy into the woods and Agni was there and he told us that he needed to burn the forest but we had to stop Indra first so we were riding in the sky on the back of his enchanted ram and there were like, a hundred or a thousand or a million gandharvas and, and," Arjuna babbled again, "and I met them, I met Indra and Agni and I talked to them and they were so real and then they left but then there was this asura and he looked like he was on fire so I--"
"Arjuna," Yudhisthira said, reaching out to place one hand on Arjuna's forehead. "You're feverish."
"I'm not making any of it up!" Arjuna said, still stubbornly pulling Yudhisthira away from his own entourage. "I knew you wouldn't believe me, that's why I have to show you!" He was nearly running now – and so, by default was Yudhisthira. The bodyguards and soldiers were running, too, following behind them both, but making no move to interfere. Further behind them, an RTV engine rumbled back to life. The vehicle began plodding along behind them, shining its bright beams across the night landscape unfolding in front of them.
Arjuna scrambled up and over a grassy hill, and then another one. Yudhisthira followed along, not saying anything, beginning to sense a strange electricity in the air. He still had no idea what was going on, but he squeezed Arjuna's hand tightly and decided to trust him.
"Look," Arjuna said, pulling Yudhisthira over the crest of a tall, grass-covered hill.
Yudhisthira looked. And then he promptly fell down to his knees.
On the other side of the hill it was bright, as bright as daylight. A valley lay spread out before him, illuminated by spheres of light floating in the sky, casting their glow down upon the construction projects being completed on the ground. Golden towers of a magnificent palace gleamed as they reached up toward the night sky, joined by the skeletons of half-completed towers between them. Marble brocades threaded between glittering pools and lush gardens. And everywhere there were creatures – half-man, half-bird, or half-lion, or half-something-else-entirely, human faces with inhuman teeth and fur-covered bodies and tails and feathers, crawling everywhere, walking everywhere, flying everywhere. They flew into the air, carrying materials that assembled before the eye to create more spiraling towers; they tread on the ground, digging the gardens and calling forth the trees and flowers and bushes that burst from the grounds at a beckon from their inhuman hands. Others stacked marble columns and broad staircases and sculpture-laden rooftops around the valley, assembling dozens of buildings of incomparable beauty. The inexplicable spheres of light floated wherever they were needed, following the busy creatures from one end of the valley to the other as they conjured, hammered, sculpted, polished, and refined the city they were constructing.
"It's for you," Arjuna said, kneeling down beside Yudhisthira. "It's your capital."
Yudhisthira's mouth worked for a moment, unable to produce any sound. Then he managed to croak, "What are those things?"
"The workers? They're gandharvas. But not the ones that serve Indra. These ones are different."
"These are my personal crew," an unassuming man wearing commoner's traveling clothes said, stepping toward Yudhisthira. The man bowed low and said, "Greetings, Your Majesty. I trust that the city is to your liking?"
Yudhisthira managed to stand up, shakily, and stare down at the man. He took a moment to notice the way that the soldiers who had been following him were now staring, awestruck, down at the valley. Then he refocused his attention on the man in front of him. "Who are you?" Yudhisthira demanded, trying his best to sound imperious, rather than dumbfounded.
Yudhisthira glared at him. "No, truly."
"For real. He's real," Arjuna said quickly, reaching out to grab Yudhisthira's hand. "He's a real asura. Come on, touch him."
Yudhisthira gingerly let Arjuna guide his hand toward the stranger's outstretched hand. The stranger was standing straight and tall, not even bothering to kneel – or at least bow his head, not even that much – in front of Yudhisthira. Yudhisthira's fingers brushed against the other man's for a moment, then he abruptly had to pull his hand back, sucking in his breath. He could feel the truth of Arjuna's words, burning in the markings on his back and neck. It didn't matter that Yudhisthira had never touched or felt or seen a genuine asura before. In his god's blood, he knew.
"I realize that locating your capital in a valley rather than on top of a higher elevation would be untraditional," Mayasura went on casually, addressing Yudhisthira as an equal. "But I thought that it rather suited you as my client, if you don't mind my presumption."
Yudhisthira nodded slowly. "Yes," he said, licking his lips. "Ah, er, yes. I suppose."
"The Dharmaraj ought to be down among the people, no, even below the people, always acting as their servant," Mayasura went on, indicating the city unfolding below them with a sweep of his hand. "Come with me, please. I would like you to inspect our projects. My workers and I wish only to build to your specifications."
"Right," Yudhisthira said, following Mayasura as he began to walk down toward the city, motioning for his soldiers to follow. "There should be a library," he suddenly found himself saying, "in the most accessible place."
"There will be one in the center of the city."
"I want the royal gardens open to the public."
"It shall be so. How would you like the library stocked? My gandharvas keep borrowing books from the libraries in Heaven, I'm simply dying to get rid of them."
"If you humans can read them, that is. The courthouse will be over there," Mayasura said, pointing to an unfinished structure. "Would you fancy a museum here or there?"
"A museum of what?"
"I can have my servants fetch the greatest works of art from among every inhabited human planet within a fortnight."
"Oh," Yudhisthira said in a small voice. "We, ah, we also brought a few pieces from Hastinapura--"
Mayasura suddenly clapped his hands. "Animal skeletons! Especially the extinct ones. I'm not sure why but you humans seem to adore those awful things. Shall I find some of those, too?" He began tapping his chin thoughtfully. "Shall they go in the same museum as the artwork…?"
"Sure," Yudhisthira said numbly. "Why not?" A pair of lion-headed gandharvas flew past him, their wings flapping cool night air into his face, a sphere of light bobbing lazily in their trail.
"And the parliament buildings, and the records archive, and military headquarters, and some way to make the valley accessible by road and by air…" Mayasura ticked off his mental notes on his fingers. "Is there anything else that Your Majesty feels that he needs?"
Yudhisthira stood for a moment, gazing at the wondrous sight in the valley down below him. Finally, he said, "Yes. There is one more thing."
To be continued.