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Sky Fall

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SKY FALL

The Cycles Of Time Series – Part One

By MV Kasey

Copyright © 2016 by MV Kasey

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.

Printed in the United States of America

First Printing, 2016

Disclaimer:

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

CHAPTER ONE

 

They say when you are about to die, your entire life flashes before your eyes. But all I could see were some dancing red spots…that were slowly turning green.

I was drowning and I had no clue on how I got there.

All I could see was a faint light coming from above and an endless stretch of water around me. Was this the same light people claimed to have seen when they almost died? From what little I knew, it was supposed to be an out of body experience where one felt weightless and free. But, in my case my body was screaming at me to breathe while the pressure in my lungs began to build.

I was definitely alive and kicking. Literally.

My survival instincts rushed in with a vengeance, and took over my body, making me spend the next few harrowing moments swimming up the water, until I could surface.

As soon as I was able to, I gasped in several deep breaths of air into my lungs. My heart was thumping loudly in my ears, and I was trying to process what just happened and what I was seeing around me.

I was in the middle of an ocean with no clue on how I ended up there!

The sky above the ocean was still mostly dark with hues of oranges and reds. It was twilight and I didn’t know whether it was supposed to be early morning or evening. Neither would make sense…since it was sometime during the afternoon when the earthquake and the explosion hit us.

My mind began to run a million miles per second, with a hundred questions and thoughts jumping through my head nearly overwhelming me.

How did it all go wrong so fast? Did I lose conscious all this time? But I couldn’t have survived under water for that long. Even for a few hours, let alone half a day. Where were the others? Were they okay? I was holding Yaj’s hand…How did I end up here by myself? Oh my god mom and dad would be devastated if they found out! Did they find out already? I need to tell them I’m okay…

My skin broke into goose bumps and I began shivering. I wasn’t entirely sure whether it was due to the shock or the cold.

Taking a deep breath, I tried to calm down and push my panic at bay. I had to clear my mind from the bombarding questions for which I had no immediate answers to and my current situation had to be dealt with first.

Threading the water with my hands and legs, I slowly looked around. There were mountains visible at a distance with a long shoreline about a mile away. It would take roughly an hour or so to reach there.

I was just about to swim there for help, when I heard someone gasp and cough from behind me, making me jump.

Sam and Yaj had surfaced a few feet away. My first reaction was relief.

“Ray was with us—where is he?” asked Yaj. He was breathing hard and looking around him.

Ray surfaced up a few seconds later. He was only a couple of feet away from me.

“You guys okay?” asked Ray while he gasped in some air.

“I don’t know! Define okay. If you mean…very well or very good…then no. But if you mean well enough…and satisfied we are still alive…then yes.” said Sam as she swam towards Ray and me.

A nervous chuckle burst out of me at that answer. It hit way too close to the truth. We were still alive but were a long way from being fine.

“Where are we? What happened?” She asked, looking confused.

“Not a clue. What happened to our group and the island?” I asked.

The mountains and the shore at a distance didn’t resemble anything like the island we were on. I wasn’t really sure how much time had passed. One minute we were at the cave and then the earthquake hit us, followed by a loud bright explosion. Then everything went dark until I opened my eyes underwater.

Yaj swam towards us. “Let’s get out of here first and get help.” He had his usual poker face on.

I had a ton of questions that needed answers. But he was right. We needed help first.

“We can’t swim that far with our shoes on. Put them inside your T-shirts and tuck them in,” suggested Ray, placing his large and heavy shoes inside his shirt and then tucking his shirt in his shorts.

After a couple of tries, I was able to secure my shoes under my shirt and tucked it into my jeans. I tightened my belt a couple of notches, just in case the t-shirt would start slipping out during my swim.

We began swimming towards the shore and stayed close to each other. None of us spoke during our swim. I was saving my energy until we reached the shore safely.

After a while, my right leg began to cramp, slowing me down. I tried to ignore the pain, and pushed myself forward, trying to keep up with the others. Soon it got unbearable and I had to stop.

“You guys go ahead. I’ll catch up with you in a few seconds,” I gasped out and tried to unsuccessfully ease my cramp. I wasn’t able to reach my leg properly to ease it, while trying to thread the water at the same time.

Yaj stopped by my side.“If you are tired, we can all wait here for a few minutes. Take your time Dee,” he suggested.

“Are you okay Dee?” Ray asked me.

Sam was watching me in concern as well.

“My right leg is cramping,” I informed them, grimacing in pain. I was threading water using just my hands. My leg was too painful to move.

“Where exactly?” Yaj asked me.

“Lower calf area on my right leg,” I answered him, wondering why he needed the specifics.

He immediately swam under the water.

I flinched when I felt his hands on the painful part of my leg. Gently he began to rub my calf underwater, easing the cramp.

I was grateful for his help but didn’t want him to be nice to me at the same time. It was silly to hold on to a grudge during a crisis. But we had a weird dynamic between us and as of yesterday I almost hated him. And now…he just confused me. But that’s what he did each time. Be nice and caring one day and then humiliate and ignore me the next. My brain and heart were always at war when it came to him.

He had been underwater for a while and I was beginning to worry. I tugged my leg out of his grasp, indicating to him that I was fine.

He came up and was breathing hard. “Is your cramp gone completely?” he asked.

“Yeah…I am okay now. Thanks for the help Yaj,” I told him, meaning it.

He simply nodded in answer.

“I’m fine now. Let’s go,” I announced.

My leg was still a little stiff, but not painful. I managed to swim rest of the way. My eyes were focused on the shore in front of us and I didn’t see anyone on the beach. Either it was still too early in the day, or it was a deserted beach. I was hoping it was the former, but that would mean…we had been missing for over twelve hours.

***

We dragged ourselves out from the water and fell on the sandy beach we had reached. I was wheezing and my hands and legs felt like they would fall out from my body. Closing my eyes, I lay down on the sand, not moving.

Water. What I needed most was water. My throat felt like I had swallowed the entire ocean. And I probably did on our way here.

“Dee. Are you okay?” I heard Sam ask me in concern.

I was still wheezing like an asthmatic.“I’m fine… just…give me…a second,” I gasped out.

Finally after a few seconds I opened my eyes.

Sam, Ray and Yaj were looking at me in concern. I was no marathon runner, but I thought I was in a good shape because of my daily thirty minute run—or rather an almost daily run. Some days I was just too tired to even sit, let alone go out for a run.

Sam was staring at something behind me. So were Ray and Yaj.

Curious, I sat up slowly and turned around to see what had gotten their attention.

They were looking up an incline a few hundred feet away. The top of the incline had a ridiculous number of steps connecting the beach to a tall long reddish mud colored wall.

I shook my head and snorted. Under water—a tall long wall—a lot of steps leading to a mysterious place. It felt like a cliché dream that I had to interpret. In my case, a reoccurring dream, where almost drowning underwater seemed to be the theme lately. But the pain in my arms and legs felt real. They say that it wasn’t supposed to hurt in the dreams.

Shaking my head, I looked at the three of them in front of me. “Alrighty then, let’s talk now. What in the world happened?” I asked and stood up on my shaky legs to join them. I removed my shoes from my shirt and put them back on.

Ray looked at me. “All I remember is the earthquake, followed by that blinding light and then really loud noise before I lost conscious,” he said. He turned to look towards the ocean. “I’m not sure…how we ended up underwater or in the ocean.”

It was early morning. The sun rise had taken place during our swim to the shore.

“I remember the exact same things…what happened to us during those missing hours?” asked Sam, puzzled.

“No idea,” I replied, frustrated.

Why couldn’t any of us remember what had happened during those missing hours?

Yaj looked at us impatiently. “Let’s talk on our way up there. We should get out of here first and get some help.”

Probably a good idea, but I remembered that we hadn’t been alone back on the island.

“I think we should wait here for some time. Maybe someone else from our group is also out there. We were fifty of us, and that’s not including the tourists, guides and research teams back at the cave,” I reminded them. “Also… I’m sure there might be rescue boats or rescue choppers searching for us.”

Ray and Yaj looked skeptical.

“Dee’s right. We can’t be the only ones who got out. Let’s wait here for a few more minutes,” said Sam.

Sam and I sat down on the beach, deciding to wait. Ray and Yaj looked reluctant, but eventually sat down next to us.

After a while Ray broke the silence. “What if it’s just us? What if the others are still back on the island?” he asked hesitantly.

“What do you mean? How can that be possible?” I asked in confusion. “It was an earthquake! It must have hit the entire island not just the cave with four of us in it.”

I wasn’t entirely sure what it was. It felt like an earthquake. I had been through a few, but those were really small ones, unlike the one that hit us a few hours ago.

“The bright light…it just felt way too weird. I’ve never heard of any bright and loud earthquakes. I’m not really convinced it was one,” he added.

Sam looked a little spooked with his reasoning. I was already beyond spooked.

“Our group didn’t know we weren’t with them during the earthquake or whatever that was. What if they think we were still stuck in the cave?” Yaj added grimly.

That would be a disaster. Hopefully someone realized we weren’t with them in the caves anymore.

Sam murmured softly. “One minute we were in that cave…the next…in middle of the ocean …we drifted…and it’s morning now.” She was still trying to figure out that puzzle.

I frowned. “The caves we had been exploring were in middle of the island. How can it be even remotely possible to go underwater from there?” I asked, my brain finally kicking in to allow me to panic, now that I was relatively safe and with some company.

“Maybe…some kind of sinkhole appeared under our cave…and it dragged the four of us into the water. We must have drifted into the ocean for a while and sank underwater…” Ray tried to reason.

“It’s way too strange that all four of us ended up in the same place. If we drifted…what are the chances of that happening?” I asked.

“Less than one percent…without us holding onto something to drift on,” answered Ray.

We were quiet mulling over the strange facts.

“I’m sure it was a plain old earthquake and they must be searching for us. They’ll find us soon,” I repeated, sounding a little less hopeful this time.

The sky remained clear with no rescue choppers or planes in sight. There was nothing resembling a boat on the horizon. The ocean was reflecting the sun light, making it appear a brighter blue. On any other day I would’ve enjoyed the view and probably the beach. But right then, I was way too preoccupied.

My head hurt trying to figure out what had happened to us during those missing hours. And the thought of not being rescued soon or being able to go back home was almost causing a panic attack.

I breathed in and out with my mouth trying to calm myself. I needed a distraction or think about something else.

Sam and Ray were talking softly to each other.

They knew each other well and had been living in the same neighborhood for a very long time. My family had moved in last year and Yaj’s a couple of years ago. Our neighborhood was a typical melting pot of cultures from various backgrounds. Most of us at school—including me—couldn’t really identify ourselves with any specific label. And we didn’t care, since it never affected any of our friendships or relationships.

Both my parents were of mixed origins. Mom’s origin was half South Asian Indian and half mixed European. Dad’s was a half Japanese and half mixed European. I was named Deena Ishii, which often confused people. I was five feet and six inches tall with wavy black hair and grey eyes that had a slight slant. I had pale skin that often burnt in the sun.

Sam whose full name was Samantha Sen was born to a South Asian Indian father and a mom whose origin was Scottish. Both her parents had passed away when she was just a toddler. She lived with her maternal grandparents since then. She was the same height as me with long dark brown hair and light brown eyes and she also had a natural golden tan that I often envied.

Trey Mistry or Ray was from mixed origins too and we had never discussed that topic between us. He was pretty tall and had jade green eyes with dark hair that often looked messy. Some of the girls at school thought that he deliberately styled it in an understated designer messy look. But knowing him, I seriously doubted that. He was way too preoccupied with his passion to ever think of adopting a designer messy look. One thing I had found very endearing about him was the fact that he always had a smile on his face, and I had never seen him lose his cool even when his patience was severely tested.

And then there was Yaj… sitting right next to me. His full name was Shreyaj More. His first name suggested that he had South Asian Indian roots. I wasn’t really sure about that though. Neither was anyone else from school. I asked. He was tall with really dark brown sandy hair that fell across his forehead. His eyes were the most fascinating feature I had come across. One eye was dark brown and the other bright blue. Heterochromia—a hereditary disease, he had explained several times, amused each time he caught me staring at them.

And I did stare at his eyes often. They were stunning. The first time I saw him was still fresh in my memory. It was on my first day at school:

***

I was with Jyoti Lockhart or Jo as everyone called her. She was the only person I knew at that time in my new school and we had known each other since we were little girls. Our moms had been best friends since their college days.

We were waiting in the class and Jo was introducing me to her ‘gang’. She was one of the popular girls at school and her gang was a rather large one. I was smiling at all of them and trying very hard to remember all their names. The previous night, I had promised myself that I would make a lot of friends at my new school. I had a wishful glimpse of the future, where most of us would remain close friends and reminisce about good old school days.

A deep voice interrupted my wishful thinking, and it was asking me to move aside.

I realized I was blocking the way and turned to apologize, but couldn’t speak for several moments. I kept staring at the person in front of me, right into the most fascinating eyes. They were stunning!

I finally noticed the raised eyebrow over the brown eye.

“Oops. Sorry,” I told him and let him pass.

I continued staring at him shamelessly.

Jo was amused. “Dee! Eyes on me.”

I finally peeled my eyes off him and looked at Jo, grinning at me widely.

“I know right! That’s Yaj by the way. Not a part of the gang,” she stated, disappointing me. “Most of us had a similar reaction to him at first. And some still do. But tell you what…that guy is pretty weird. He barely talks and gets into several fights. Stay away from him. He’s trouble,” she warned me.

“Why? What’s his problem?” I asked, getting more disappointed.

Handsome is as handsome does. That quote kept repeating in my head. It was a little old fashioned, but quite true.

“No one really knows. He joined our school last year. Almost a newbie like you,” she told me.

I looked at him and he was watching us. He probably knew we were talking about him.

I had decided at that time to definitely steer clear of him. He sounded like he was trouble.

***

If only I had taken Jo’s advice or even my own advice. It would’ve saved me hours of agonizing over the person next to me.

Ignoring her advice, over the past year I had become good friends with Yaj. It had been great, until something made our friendship change drastically since the last few weeks. It was right after he had asked me to sneak out to be with him. I agreed and we spent the entire time talking and bonding over several topics. At the end of our meet, he confessed that he cared for me and thought of me as more than just a friend. When I didn’t respond back with a similar declaration, he had asked me to think about what he had said. The next whole week, he hadn’t showed up to school and I was worried. When he finally did show up, I enquired if he was doing fine. His reaction had both shocked and angered me:

“Seriously Dee, you need help. Stop hounding me incessantly… asking me questions that are none of your business. We’re in the same study group that’s all. We’re at most study buddies, who happened to spend some free time together. Nothing. Else. One impulsive outing where I got carried away and spouted nonsense doesn’t give you an exclusive right to question me.”

That outburst was totally uncalled for. He had asked me or rather urged me to come out that time and declared his feelings. While I—

I shook my head not wanting to go there again. I remembered my promise to myself to simply ignore him ever since that outburst and to only have happy thoughts and memories from then on.

Sam and Ray were pretty cool. We had been assigned to the same study group at our school. Until then, we hadn’t introduced ourselves to each other. I still remembered how I was both dreading and at the same time bursting with anticipation before our first study session:

***

It was the third week of school and our study groups were announced a few days ago. The list had been posted on the class website and we had to meet thrice a week for couple of hours to complete our assignments. We also had to revise our lessons for our weekly tests. All of us were divided into groups of four and the sessions were to be inside the school library after the classes.

Two of my partners didn’t really interact with anyone from our class. The third one was Ray who seemed nice. I was fifteen minutes early to the session and Sam was already seated at our assigned table, reading a book. She looked up when she felt me hovering next to the table.

“Hi. I don’t think we were introduced before. I’m Dee,” I told her smiling, and sat in the chair opposite to her.

“Sam,” she answered back curtly and went back to her book.

There was an awkward silence as we waited quietly for the rest of the group to join us.

There were a lot of conversations flying around while the other groups settled down in the library.

Jo stopped by our table. At five feet eight inches, hazel eyes, perfect shiny black hair and a natural tan, she was the heart throb of the school. I loved her like a sister but she behaved like a completely different person at school. Even after three weeks, I still couldn’t digest or accept her behavior towards some people.

“Awww…Dee… you’re with the nerd girl, our special little snowflake. Too bad Mrs.Das picked our study partners for us. You should see who’s in mine.” She shuddered dramatically.

I felt embarrassed for Sam. “Shut up Jo. What’s wrong with you? You’re being really rude and obnoxious,” I told her.

“Maybe…but you still love me.” She grinned and blew me a kiss before moving along to join her group that was thankfully on the other end of the library.

“Sorry about that Sam. Jo can act really dumb sometimes,” I told her with an apologetic smile.

I wanted to add that she was just teasing and didn’t really mean it. But most girls seemed to pick on Sam for some reason.

“That’s okay. I don’t care,” she said with a straight face.

Soon, Yaj and Ray joined us at our table. That was the second time I was seeing Yaj up close. He was pretty attractive, but always seemed to have a pensive, ominous expression on his face by default. Even with his reserved persona he had quite a fan following at school. All we girls discussed and talked about at school were boys, clothes and our social life. A lot of girls had mentioned his ‘killer eyes and his hot body’. I agreed with them totally. But what actually pulled me towards him was something very different. Something I had witnessed several times since a few days ago.

He was in a physical fight with a group of boys. When he caught me looking at him in disapproval, he stared at me as though daring me to judge him. Which I did. At first, I thought he was a true troublemaker, just like how Jo had informed me. But later I found out that he was defending a guy from being bullied by that group. And that he often got into trouble defending many such underdogs. The next few times, whenever we came across each other, both of us did this weird eye contact thing. Or maybe I looked too dazed and he was just looking to see if something was wrong with me. But for whatever reason I felt very aware of him whenever he was around me.

Ray had quite a fan following too. He was chirpy and it often rubbed off on others. Jo had told me that he was a know-it-all weirdo, but I didn’t believe her. He interacted with everyone at school, but didn’t seem to hang out with anyone in particular. I was like that at my previous school. I was just way too busy to socialize.

“Hi Dee, I’m Ray,” he introduced himself with a smile and sat next to Sam.

“Hey Sam, how have you been? Ready to lose another round tomorrow?” he asked Sam with a smirk.

“Oh please…you cheated. I know you rigged the equipment or something,” Sam told him with a huff.

I was surprised to see Sam interact quite freely with him. She usually had a keep-off or don’t-talk-to-me vibe about her when anyone spoke to her.

Ray looked at my puzzled expression and explained that both of them took fencing classes together.

“The only time I let him beat me was when I got bored with the sparring and used my wrong hand,” Sam, told me with a small half smile.

I smiled back, relieved to have found a topic to break some ice between us.

“Fencing sounds cool. Have you been taking classes for long?” I enquired.

I envied them, knowing that there was no way mom would even remotely consider joining me in fencing classes. Long sharp swords and playing piano would never mix.

“Not long…it’s only been a year,” she replied.

“Cool,” I remarked and turned towards Yaj to introduce myself.

He was seated next to me and I had been hyperaware of him right from the moment he sat there. I just hoped that my face wasn’t giving anything away. That would make things super awkward for me. My throat was already dry and I tried making some clearing noises before I could croak out an introduction.

“He’s just a boy. He’s just a boy…” I kept repeating that in my head.

“Hi. I’m Dee,” I introduced myself with a small smile.

He looked at me and stared for a couple of seconds, making me squirm a little. “I know,” was all he said.

He barely spoke during our first session. Sam had strategized our study plans. Ray and I had several inputs and questions. Yaj just nodded his approval and went along with whatever we had decided.

***

Our group was soon nicknamed the amazing geeks. I found the moniker amusing, until I noticed how some of the girls treated Sam. She either got bullied or completely ignored by them. I was bothered by it a lot and I always jumped into her defense, for which she repeatedly told me that it wasn’t needed.

Yaj was left alone because most of the kids at school were scared of him. They labeled him as a loner and a wild card. He had a really low threshold of temper when it came to taunts or jeering.

I was somewhat tolerated and accepted since the past year. The worse taunt I had ever received, that really bothered me was being accused of behaving like a Mary Sue. Sure I didn’t have any snarky comebacks handy each time our teachers asked us to do something, or my conversational skills weren’t super witty, or my observational skills were average and I defended Sam and other people from the bullying. But I was comfortable with who I was and simply attributed those personality traits for having lived an extremely sheltered life with two over-protective parents. Until I was fifteen, my life revolved around my music and my parents. I barely socialized. But over the past one year, I had been trying to change that. I was in a rut a few weeks ago and desperately wished for things to shake up a little and craved a change. The school trip was supposed to do that and bring in some adventure as well.

Maybe that’s why they say ‘be careful of what you wish for’.

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

A few minutes turned into a few hours. I was getting restless but still hoped we’d see something soon.

Ray got up suddenly.

“Be right back,” he informed and began hiking up the sand.

He was walking towards the steps to check if anyone was out there.

“I don’t think anyone is coming to rescue us,” said Yaj looking at me. “We should follow Ray and get help from up there. We’ve waited long enough.”

I wasn’t sure, and still hoped we’d see someone or something on the horizon soon.

“We won’t last long if we sit here waiting for someone to show up,” Yaj told Sam and me. “The dehydration is already getting to us.” He stood up and began dusting the sand from his clothes. “Let’s go find some drinking water and a phone.” He sounded determined.

My mouth was already very dry and my head began to ache. The sun was shining brightly above us.

I could use a phone, I thought. If mom and dad heard I was missing, they must be out of their mind with worry. The rescue boats will have to find us later. And I’d rather that they find us when we were still conscious and could speak coherently.

I stood up. “Ok, let’s go.”

I tried to dust the sand sticking to my clothes—a losing battle, since my clothes needed to completely dry first. Only my T-shirt was completely dry.

Sam was more successful in getting rid of the sand from her clothes. She was in khaki cotton pants unlike my water logged jeans. Her clothes were almost dry too. So were Ray’s and Yaj’s shorts.

All of us wore the mandatory long sleeved black T-shirt with our school logo printed on the front.

Ray was standing near the bottom step, waving enthusiastically at us.

The walk to the steps was much harder than I had expected. As we got closer to the steps, we had way too many heaps of seaweed to wade through. A lot of conch sea shells were lying in between them.

“Don’t you guys think it’s pretty weird that all these piles of seaweed happened to wash up this far into the beach? And all of them have conch shells trapped in them?” asked Sam.

“Yeah…it is pretty weird,” I replied, but I was more interested to find help first.

We joined Ray in front of the steps. They were pretty steep and narrow. I could only see the tops of some coconut and palm trees behind the wall.

“Hopefully there’s a restaurant back there. We could all use some cold water, hot food and a phone. And not necessarily in that order,” I told them, dreaming of a tall glass of ice cold water.

As we began climbing the steps, Sam started counting the number of steps softly. She was probably calculating how long it took for each step to climb. According to her, she always preferred knowing things beforehand and hated surprises. She had a very matter of fact tone whenever she spoke. It made everything she said sound very important or very funny.

Adding to that, she also had a photographic memory and was really good at vocabulary. With those cool combinations, she had won the national spelling bee when she was thirteen. Her picture with the winner’s trophy was displayed on one of the walls at our school library. All the teachers at school really loved her. I had some serious misgivings about her at first. She was pretty reserved and barely liked to socialize with other students. But as more weeks passed, Sam began warming up to me. We spent a great deal of time together, either studying or sometimes at each other’s homes.

***

“There are hundred and one steps,” declared Sam, breathlessly.

I could barely get any words out to reply and I had to literally drag myself up to climb the last step.

“Cool…would you look at that!” I heard Ray shout excitedly about something.

I looked towards the street, but was disappointed. “Darn it, no restaurants! I don’t see any visible sign boards or neon lights anywhere.”

“I know—but someone from those houses can help us,” said Yaj.

It was clearly a residential neighborhood. There were small houses on either side of a street with narrow open drains in front of them.

Something about it felt off.

The street was pretty shabby with seaweed and shells strewn around. And the houses looked very different as well. All the houses were painted a muddy red color like the wall on the beach. I could see exposed brick and stones on a short wall enclosing the houses like a fence.

“What’s with these weird piles of shells and seaweed all over this place?” asked Sam, looking at them in disgust. “They were on the beach and now on the streets.”

“Did you know…that in some places they use sea shells and coral along with oil to lay down roads,” informed Ray.

Most of his sentences started with ‘Did you know’. He was passionate about world culture and history. He always had some really interesting facts to share with us, and some of them were pretty weird and cringe inducing.

We had discussed one such ‘fact’ during one of our study sessions:

***

“Did you know…that in some cultures they exhume their dead after a few days? They dress them up in their best clothes, and make them attend a family function,” Ray informed us with his usual cheerful smile.

“Ooh really? That must terrify the kids in the family, and maybe most adults too,” I remarked, grinning at him.

The four of us had developed a good rapport pretty quickly. After we completed our assignments and homework, we spent some time simply talking casually. Sometimes we had heated arguments about something controversial, but most of the time we kept our conversations fun and pretty interesting. During one such conversation, we had gone pretty off topic. We were discussing weird customs around the world.

“Why would they want to do that? They’d have to sterilize the entire house!” Sam grimaced, clearly focusing on the hygiene factor. She was a self declared clean freak. She always carried a hand sanitizer in her bag, and she used it each time she ‘handled’ the library books or public property.

“Probably to feel close to their dead loved ones and for one more chance to say a final goodbye,” reasoned Yaj with a poker face.

He had warmed up to the three of us pretty well and was an active participant in all of our discussions. Sometimes we weren’t sure if he was joking or not. He always joked with a straight face.

“Couldn’t they do that—when their loved ones resembled themselves, and not much later, when they most likely look like zombies?” I asked and held both my hands up, pretending to be a zombie.

Sam and Ray grinned at my dramatics.

Most kids in the class whined about the grueling study sessions, because they were really long. But I always looked forward to them each week, especially the Wednesdays—

***

I shook my head and wondered why I thought about zombies all of a sudden.

“Okay…let’s ask for help from one of these houses,” suggested Yaj.

He walked across the street to the house right in front of the beach steps. The house had a decent sized front yard and a gate made of dried leaves.

“Thatched leaves—usually used in tropical places,” commented Ray absently, opening the leafy gate.

The yard looked neglected with dying bushes around the corners. Either those plants weren’t being watered regularly or were being cared for by someone like me. I sorely lacked a green thumb and I had even managed to kill a bamboo plant that was kept in a water container.

We stood in front of a yellow door, looking for a door bell or a knocker. Not finding one, Yaj used his knuckles to knock on the door twice. The door had a lot of colorful designs painted around the edges. Similar designs were also on the ground in front of the door, extending almost to the middle of the front yard.

Yaj waited for a couple more minutes before knocking on the door again, this time a little louder.

No one answered the door.

“What time and day is it?” I asked impatiently. “People must be away for the weekend or at work.”

“Sunday…I think,” answered Sam, hesitantly.

It was unbelievable that we could lose an entire day. The news of us missing would have definitely reached back home.

“Let me try the next door.” I was frantic to now find a phone.

The house next door looked very similar to the first one and strangely the yard was also neglected. This one even had seaweed and shells lying right next to the door. I ignored the mess and knocked loudly on the door.

No one answered while I stood there for a while.

I went back to the street to check if anyone else was around. The street was still empty.

Ray and Sam were knocking on two other doors. They didn’t seem to be having any luck either.

I was exhausted and getting impatient. I was pretty sure Sam, Ray and Yaj felt the same.

“That’s it! I’m going in. This is an emergency and we really need help,” I announced loudly from the street.

I went back to the second house and stood in front of the door again.

“Hello-o, anyone there? We need help,” I shouted loudly and tried to push open the door.

It was unlocked!

“Guys! In here. This one is open,” I yelled excitedly.

Sam, Ray and Yaj joined me a minute later, in front of the now slightly open door.

“Hello, anybody home?” I called out again.

“Okay…Let’s find a phone. And I really need some water,” I told them and stepped inside.

“Dee…this is breaking and entering. We might get into trouble,” said Sam. She looked uncertain and was still hovering outside the door.

“Sam, the door was unlocked and I’m sure the owners will understand when we explain our circumstances,” I told her, hoping to convince her to follow me inside.

She didn’t seem convinced.

“Ray and I can check inside first,” offered Yaj and got into the house.

They went in slowly and disappeared to another room. I wanted to join them badly, but didn’t want to leave Sam alone by herself in the strange neighborhood.

“Come on Sam…We survived an earthquake or worse. We got lost in the sea. I don’t think anyone is going to find fault—if we help ourselves to some water or make a few phone calls,” I told her, urging her to join me inside the doorway.

She finally nodded reluctantly and stepped in. Relieved, we walked slowly inside the house. The first thing I observed was the old world decor. There were no visible modern touches at all. The room had a really large wooden bench and a couple of chairs. A lot of decorative pottery was adorning the nooks of the room.

My shoes felt pretty uncomfortable with the sand. Sam had removed hers outside the front door before stepping inside. Deciding to copy her, I quickly walked back to the door and left my shoes next to Sam’s. Ray and Yaj had theirs on, and they left sand all over the floor.

I was determined to find the kitchen first. There was one single thought running through my mind. Water! My throat and lips were painfully parched. I walked into the next room and noticed that there were no doors for any of the rooms inside, only some colorful drapes with beads. I pushed aside the drapes and continued looking for a tap or a phone.

Sam was right behind me and was being very quiet. She was either still worried about breaking into the house or was processing the details of the house. I knew that she wouldn’t miss a phone if we passed by one.

“Water…come on…some water,” I muttered.

We could hear Ray calling us from somewhere. We followed his voice and went towards the back of the house, through a partially opened door that led us into the backyard.

As soon as I walked out the backdoor, I noticed a well at the center on a raised platform. The well had a rope and a pulley tied to a metal water container. Ray and Yaj were standing next to it, drinking water from small bowls. I had never seen a real working well before, just some props that people had in their backyards.

“Is that water clean?” Sam asked them hesitantly.

At that point, I was way beyond thinking about the purity of water. As long as there was no visible slime or some serious debris floating in it, I’d kill for a sip. If Ray and Yaj were drinking it, I was willing to take the risk as well.

“Water! Finally some water!” I croaked and ran towards them.

Sam was right by my side.

When we reached the well, I noticed that only one small metal bowl was remaining unused.

“Here…I can drink some more later. You can have mine,” offered Yaj, trying to hand his bowl to me.

“That’s alright. I don’t need a glass to drink,” I told him loftily. It was rather childish of me, but I didn’t want his charity.

I handed the unused bowl to Sam and grabbed the long ladle next to the water container. Filling it with water, I took large gulps. The water tasted amazing. The best I had ever tasted in a very long time. It was refreshingly cool too. I dipped the ladle four more times and continued drinking.

Yaj and Ray were splashing their faces with some water, trying to cool down. Next on my list, I decided.

“Dee…slow down or you’ll get sick,” I heard Yaj warn me.

I ignored him. The water felt like heaven and my throat was no longer dry. When I lowered the ladle, my stomach heaved.

“Uh oh,” I groaned, and rushed to the nearby bushes, promptly throwing up.

“Ew…gross,” I muttered. Maybe I should’ve gone a little easy on the water.

I went back to the well, expecting Yaj to come back with a I-told-you-so remark. He didn’t bat an eyelid. In fact, he was watching me quietly, while he continued sprinkling water on himself. The silence irritated me more.

Sam rinsed her bowl twice and handed it to me. I thanked her and filled it up. Rinsing my mouth first, I slowly took some small cautious sips. I felt much better.

I could see my reflection in the water container and it almost made me choke. My shoulder length hair with the newly colored red highlights looked messy, and it was sticking out in different directions. I ran my fingers through it—and made it even worse, which was quite a feat considering I looked pretty bad before. Priorities! I thought, ignoring my hair for now.

“Did any of you notice a phone around the house?” I asked.

“No, but I haven’t really looked. I will in a minute,” answered Ray.

“I didn’t notice any phone wires…or any other kind of cables,” Sam informed us sounding worried.

“That’s weird. Maybe they are hidden somewhere. To make the old world decor more authentic,” I reasoned.

My home definitely didn’t have any obvious wires hanging from anywhere. Thanks to mom, they were neatly piled in decorative boxes or hidden behind the walls.

“Ancient,” stated Ray.

“What?” I asked.

Ancient decor not old world decor,” he answered.

“Hmm…Maybe we should split up and look for something to eat first, while some of us look for a phone,” suggested Yaj, bringing us back to the current topic in hand.

We all looked tired. Ray and Yaj were taller than Sam and me by more than half a foot. I was already starving, and could only imagine how hungry they felt. The last time we had a proper meal was yesterday morning.

“I’ll look for a phone or a computer inside—while you guys find some food. These kinds of homes usually have their kitchens outside the main house,” informed Ray before heading back into the house.

“I’ll wait outside the house…just in case I see or find anyone on the street. I’ll join you guys in a few minutes,” Sam told us and followed behind Ray.

That left Yaj and me, alone in the back yard. I felt awkward as I didn’t want to do some small talk with him during the search.

“We can look for the kitchen together,” he suggested.

“No…I can do that by myself. You should go help Ray find a phone. That’s more important. I’ll call you guys when I find it,” I told him.

“Are you sure? You’ll be alone here,” he stated.

“It’s just finding a kitchen in this backyard Yaj. We are not in middle of a complicated maze,” I told him.

He paused and then simply nodded his head quietly before going back to the house.

That left me standing alone in a stranger’s backyard and all I needed to do was to simply find the kitchen.

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

The house wasn’t really large, but the backyard was a decent sized one. There were some really bright clothes hanging over a clothing line at a corner and I was curious to take a closer look to find out what kind of clothes they were. But the grumbling noises from my stomach decided against it. I had to find the kitchen first.

A small detached room was at the corner of the backyard. I walked towards it and noticed that the door was completely shut and locked from the outside. I removed the bolt to unlock it and opened it a few inches. It was relatively dark inside.

The first thing I noticed was the faint smell of rotting food. It got stronger as I opened the door wider. I jumped when I heard a sound coming from the inside. When my eyes adjusted to the dark, I was shocked to see a person sitting on the floor. The room was still mostly dark, and I could only see a shadowy outline of the person. Their hair was tied into a large knot on top of the head, making me think that it was probably a woman. She was holding something in her hands and moving it in horizontal circles.

I knocked on the door. “Excuse me…hello. We need help. We got lost. Can you help us?” I asked her softly, not wanting to startle her.

The woman didn’t respond, and continued to move her hand in circles. It appeared like she was grinding something, possibly using stones. It was weird that the door was locked from the outside. There must have been another access to the room which the woman must have used to enter the room.

Opening the door wider, I noticed that there was an unlit fire pit to the corner and some huge copper vessels around it. There were several containers covered by a long thin white cloth, and placed towards the wall. It was probably the kitchen, and I could also see an attached smaller room towards the back. I knocked loudly on the wide open kitchen door, calling out to her again.

“Excuse me. Hello.” I was slightly louder this time.

The women continued grinding. She held a small vertical handle of some sort and it was attached to two horizontal thick stones, shaped like discs or wheels.

The woman was still facing the opposite direction and was draped in a long, cream colored cloth that fell loosely over her left shoulder. It appeared to be a Sari or a Toga of some sort. Her top appeared to be very unique with a lot of conch shells stitched on a green cloth, making it appear as though her neck and shoulders were made of jutting shells.

Seriously, what’s with the obsession of shells in this place?

I walked slowly into the room and stood a few feet behind her.

“Hello. Excuse me,” I repeated, pretty loudly this time.

I was loud enough to be heard over the grinding stones.

She didn’t respond and continued turning the stone wheels. I noticed some pieces of crushed grain and flour around the stones and there was nothing remaining between them to grind. I was hoping that she would stop for a refill soon.

She didn’t. Even after a couple of minutes, she just continued grinding nothing. I was getting frustrated and decided to tap her on the shoulder to get her attention.

I went closer, until I stood less than a couple of feet away. Before I could reach out and touch her, she stopped and turned to face me. We both froze.

Or at least I froze. She just looked angry at being interrupted while I was terrified looking at her. Her eyes were red rimmed, her face was slimy green with half embedded shells that were jutting out grotesquely and she had a huge round red dot on the center of her forehead. I even realized that she wasn’t wearing a unique top, but in fact her arms and shoulders were bare with her skin split open by a few big shells. There was no blood anywhere to indicate that she had been hurt. Her hair that was tied into a large knot on top of her head was dark green and appeared slimy, almost resembling seaweed.

I tried to scream, but couldn’t get any sound out of my mouth. My throat had almost closed up, making it difficult for me to even swallow. Slowly, I lowered my hand, and kept moving back towards the open door.

Meantime, she grabbed a long stick that was lying next to her and tried to stand up.

Dream, dream, dream, dream, dream…” I kept repeating that in my head.

My legs were frozen just outside the door and I was begging my body to move or think. Considering the circumstances, it was probably a long shot to have any presence of mind, let alone plan an elaborate escape. I had never watched many horror movies back home. And my parents teased me whenever I firmly shut both my ears, to watch a few ‘safe’ scenes with just one eye open. The scene in front of me was much too scary to interpret or process.

“Ok think”, my brain finally tried to reason with some desperate logic. Maybe it was a dress-as-your-favorite-horror-character-day today. If that was true, then that was one heck of a makeup job. But that thought eased my mind a little, enough to find my voice within my seized up throat.

“So-rr-yy to interrupt you. I didn’t mean to break in. We…just…need help,” I stuttered out, throwing in the “we” to let her know that I had others along with me and wasn’t by myself.

She didn’t respond, but finally stood up completely, using the stick as the support. She was pretty tall, maybe around seven feet tall and was also pretty scary.

Taking a deep breath, I yelled “Yaj, Sam and Ray,” as loudly as I could.

That made her angrier. She was scowling hideously and moving towards the door in awkward steps, using the long stick as a crutch. Wondering if she was handicapped, I looked down at her feet and screamed again.

She had two large slightly curved shells where her feet were supposed to be. They weren’t providing her with enough stability, causing her to lose balance often.

My mind conjured up logic for that as well. That she might be walking on some sort of stilts? If this was a character dress up, then she had gone through a lot of trouble. Continuing to scare me—especially when I asked for help was not cool.

“What is it Dee? I heard you shout. Are you alright?” Yaj asked me, as he rushed out from the house into the backyard.

I couldn’t think of a reasonable answer, since my eyes were still glued to the woman in front of me.

“What is it?” Yaj asked me again in concern. He was getting closer to me.

I moved back a few more steps, away from the kitchen door, but I could still see her.

“Her!” I finally shouted in panic and pointed towards the kitchen.

She almost slipped on the kitchen floor and used the stick to stand up, looking towards us determinedly. The fingers clutching the stick had long talon like fingers with blackened nails and she was hunched over the stick, trying to keep her balance on her large shell feet.

It was a bad idea to simply stand there and look at the scary woman, especially when we should be running like crazy towards the opposite direction.

“Who is….what the heck is that?” asked a shocked Yaj, noticing the woman in the kitchen.

“She wouldn’t talk or answer,” I whispered to him.

He was silent for a few seconds.

“She might be just dressed that way on purpose…You should go inside. Let me talk to her and see—” he broke off suddenly and stayed silent.

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea, Yaj. We should just get away. Let’s go and wait outside,” I told him, watching the woman.

I started towards the backdoor and was almost half way there, when I looked back to check whether Yaj was following behind me. He wasn’t. He was still standing near the kitchen door and staring at the woman.

I ran back to him, keeping my eyes on the woman and could see that she was now closer to the doorway. She was holding a curved knife, shaped like a question mark with one hand while she dragged herself towards the door using the stick in another.

“Oh my god she has a knife! Yaj! What are you doing? Move! I’ve told you…we need to get out! Now!” I yelled, not caring if the scary woman heard me.

But he just continued staring.

“Yaj, she has a knife! Let’s leave!” I yelled again and tried to drag him away.

He resisted and didn’t stop staring at the woman.

I was about to have a nervous breakdown when I heard Ray and Sam at the back door.

“Dee, are you okay?”

“No!” I screamed, still trying to drag Yaj away.

Hopefully, they could sense my desperation and fear.

“What is it Dee?” Sam asked me while running towards me along with Ray.

They looked at the woman and gasped. “Who is—” Ray was about to ask me something, but he broke off to stand and stare at the woman.

“Let’s get out of here guys. She is of no help and is definitely dangerous. She has a knife! Help me get Yaj. He isn’t moving,” I told them in a hurry.

Sam and Ray stood next to me not responding or moving, making a good imitation of statues. They were making me more nervous with their weird staring at the woman. I understood shock, but this was definitely taking it too far.

“Sam! Ray! Yaj! Snap out of it. We need to move,” I yelled, trying to push them away.

I couldn’t get any of the three to budge and short of shoving them on the floor, I felt helpless.

The woman was leaning on the door, less than six feet away from us and raising the knife in her hand slowly.

“Guys…you are scaring me. Say something!” I begged them.

Something was definitely wrong. Yaj was not the kind to just stand and stare in shock for this long. To that matter, neither were Sam or Ray. If anyone were to be scared senseless in our group, it would have to be me. I was still terrified, but my brain didn’t shut down. It kept screaming ‘danger’ and asked me to flee.

“I’m going to leave you guys here…I’m getting out!” I screamed at them.

How stupid of me to not do that.

The woman was getting out of the doorway slowly and seemed to be looking at Yaj in particular. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do anymore. Stop the woman’s possible attack with my hands and maybe get hurt in the process? Or somehow reason with her to let her know we didn’t mean any harm. My coordination sucked when it came to catching or hitting balls thrown at me, let alone tackle a wicked looking knife. So I decided to reason with her.

She was well out of the kitchen doorway and had to stand using the stick for support. She stopped suddenly and stood less than four feet away in front of Yaj. She raised the knife higher.

“Please stop! We are just here for help,” I told her, slowly moving to stand in front of Yaj.

She looked at me angrily, but she stopped and stood well balanced, supported by the stick in her left hand.

“We won’t bother you again. Just don’t harm us please. We’ll leave now,” I reasoned with her. Although how we would leave…when Sam, Ray and Yaj stood like statues behind me, I didn’t know yet.

The woman cocked her head and stared at me for a few seconds.

The next few moments were almost a blur.

She lunged towards me with a knife in her hand and I caught her wrist and swung her hand back towards her body, stabbing her deep in the chest.

I froze.

Oh my god I stabbed someone! I stared at her in shock and horror with my hand still on her wrist. I let go of her and was about to scream for help when something strange began to happen.

The wooden stick fell out of her other hand and she began to—melt? I wasn’t sure what was happening. Her face began to melt with a hissing noise, blurring her features into an obscure mass. In less than a few seconds, all that was left of her was a big heap of seaweed and shells with green slime splattered around.

I stood staring in shock. That scene was burned behind my retinas and would probably give me nightmares over the years and I would definitely need a lobotomy to ever get that out of my head.

“Dee…you okay?” Yaj asked me softly from behind.

I turned back and noticed that they all looked dazed and were staring at the splattered mess in front of me. I was confused by their reaction. They looked as though—they had just woken up from a deep sleep.

“I-I-tried to stop her…but I-I ac-ci-dentally stabbed her and she just…” I stuttered to them.

I began to have a delayed reaction and stood shaking.

I stabbed a woman and she melted into that disgusting mass in front of me!

I couldn’t get that thought out of my head and re-lived the last few minutes again and again.

Yaj held my shaking hands. “Dee. Look at me,” he said.

I was hyperventilating but slowly looked at him.

“I saw you. You did the right thing. If you didn’t kill…it first, then that…thing would have killed one of us. You saved our lives,” he said, looking a little shaken himself.

“Yaj is right Dee. You did save our lives. I could see and even hear you. I couldn’t move to help you…I felt paralyzed!” said Ray.

Sam looked shocked too and she was shaking.

“I’m okay now,” I whispered to Yaj and let go of his hands and went to Sam.

“Sam, are you okay?” I asked her.

“I think so. And I should ask you that,” she said with a tentative smile.

We were attacked and almost killed by some sort of a creature that seemed to come right out of a horror movie.

“We need to get out of here. Find a safer place to talk. Let’s go inside the house,” said Yaj, staring grimly at the scary remains in front of us.

“What if there are more of them? There weren’t any doors on any of the rooms inside,” I said. For the first time, it occurred to me that this entire place could be dangerous.

“Those heaps of shells and seaweed…they must be the remains of whatever we just encountered,” said Ray. He looked confused as though he couldn’t believe what he just saw.

“That wasn’t a human for sure,” I declared, still unable to process what just happened.

“We should go inside and discuss this. I didn’t see anything unusual inside the house. We can lock the front and back doors, and shut down all the windows from inside,” said Yaj.

At that point, I just wanted to run and hide in any closed confined place to process what just happened.

“There are eight windows in total and they can all be shut from the inside,” informed Sam.

“Wait…we don’t know how long we’ll be stuck in there. Let’s get something to eat for later,” Ray suggested.

He must have snapped and gone insane!

“What? Are you kidding me? You mean right now? Let’s just go in. We can come out later,” I told him even as I wondered when and how safe the later would be.

“No…He’s right. That…thing was alone here in this house. And we might not be able to come out later—there might be more of them out here,” said Yaj, supporting Ray.

Okay. But let’s hurry,” I said, already thinking it was a bad idea.

But they were right, we couldn’t starve.

“But what are we going to eat?” I asked. Whatever was in the kitchen didn’t smell remotely edible or appetizing.

“Those,” said Ray, going towards a large banana tree.

There were plenty of fruit on it. We followed behind him, looking around us and making sure it was safe.

“Let’s each pluck a couple of fruit and head in quickly,” suggested Sam, looking worried.

“No, we can use the sickle and try to get a bunch,” informed Ray going towards the messy heap.

“Ray! Get away from there!” shouted Sam, as Ray picked up the knife lying next to the slimy heap.

“How can you touch that disgusting knife? After—“Sam broke off shuddering.

Ray returned to the tree with the knife in hand and began hacking at a yellow bunch that was luckily reachable on the tree.

It was still taking longer than I had expected.

“Hurry up, Ray,” I whispered as I didn’t want to attract any attention to us.

But maybe it was already too late since I had been screaming my lungs out the last few minutes.

I saw Yaj going towards the kitchen.

“Yaj, get away from there! Are you crazy?” I hissed, following behind him.

That guy was going to drive me insane and I knew he was going to be trouble the first time I saw him. It was unreasonable, but I blamed him for this whole predicament. Because of him, I got lured into that cave___

He paused to look back at me. “We need some light inside the house. For later,” he informed, looking determined.

“What do you think you’ll find inside?” I asked him.

“Don’t know. You can keep guard while I look,” he suggested.

He went inside and was searching for something, while I stood guard outside the door. Finally, after some nail biting moments, he came out holding a large bowl filled with something in one hand and a metal stick in the other.

“Now, I just need some hard stones,” he said, placing his items on the ground in front of the well.

He began searching the backyard. There were several stones lying around the corners and he kept picking a few only to drop them back. I seriously hoped he knew what he was doing.

“We should fill up some water meantime,” Sam suggested, going towards the well.

That was a good idea and it would keep me busy and my mind off the possible attack.

The water container was almost empty. Sam threw it back into the well and began to pull the rope.

“Let me pull the rope and you can go grab the container outside from the well,” I offered.

As I began to draw the rope, I realized that it was pretty thick and rough, and was scraping my fingers. In a few minutes, I could see the filled container and held the rope until Sam brought it down carefully to the ground. She tried to untie the rope from the container and was having trouble with her short nails.

“My nails are longer. Let me try,” I said and took over.

“Got it.” Yaj announced, finally finding a stone that met his requirements. He left it next to his other stuff lying on the ground and joined Sam and me.

“Let me help with the rope,” he offered when he saw me trying to loosen the impossibly tight and thick knot.

“No. I’m good. I have long nails,” I replied while trying to ease the knot slowly.

Yaj was staring at my nails, probably remembering what I had told him a few months ago, that I was never allowed to grow them long, because they would damage the ivory keys of a Piano. But for first time in my life, I grew them long and I was glad it was handy in this situation.

The knot was too tight and I almost wanted to give up and wait for Ray to free up the sickle. But after a few tries, the knot began to loosen, and I could finally untie it.

“What else do we need?” Yaj asked us.

“Nothing, let’s just go in with what we have,” I said worriedly.

Ray was still hacking at the bananas bunch. Yaj went to help him out. He was holding the bananas bunch and tugging at it, while Ray kept hacking on the top. After what felt like a really long time, the bunch came free.

“Let’s go,” said Yaj, picking up his stuff from the ground.

Ray was holding the bunch with the knife stuck in it.

“Good idea,” said Yaj, looking at the knife.

Sam and I held the water container along with a couple of drinking bowls, and hobbled behind Ray and Yaj.

As soon as we stepped in, we placed our stuff on the floor and rushed to close the doors and windows.

“Dee, you get the back door—Sam, the front door—Ray and I will get the windows,” directed Yaj and hurried out from the room.

I stood facing the back door to figure out the locking mechanism. It was actually two doors with two small pegs on them. One of the doors had a long block of wood that I could lift and insert into the pegs.

After locking it that way, I rattled the door to check whether it was secure and it moved a little. I felt it wasn’t secure enough and could easily be kicked open from the outside. But there wasn’t anything else I could do with the lock.

The room also had a huge wooden bench pushed towards one of the walls. I went towards it and tried pushing it towards the door to block the entry from the outside. But it was way too heavy for me, and I couldn’t move it much.

Others were busy and I could hear the windows getting shut.

“I need help here,” I grunted, still trying to push the bench using my entire weight.

“What do you need?” asked Yaj, coming back to the room.

He figured out and joined me and soon we both began to push the heavy bench. We finally got it in front of the backdoor, blocking it completely.

“Should we block the front door too? It seemed pretty secure from the inside,” informed Sam, looking at the heavy bench blocking the backdoor.

“I think that’s ok. Let’s go sit in the front room by the door. And let’s…talk,” said Ray, his usual cheerful smile absent on his face.

It was slightly dark inside, with the only light source coming through the window cracks, and the small rectangular vents near the ceiling.

We picked up our things, and moved to the front room, and placed them on the floor at the center. Sam and I sat next to each other on a long bench placed towards the wall facing the front door. Ray and Yaj took the chairs opposite to us, next to the front door.

“Okay…what just happened out there? Where are we?” Sam asked softly.

“We are definitely not anywhere close to the island we were on yesterday,” said Ray and leaned back on the wall before closing his eyes.

I wasn’t sure if he was too tired or was simply trying to recall how we ended up here and I still couldn’t believe that an entire day had passed already.

How did one simple act of curiosity bring us to this? I closed my eyes and tried to recall how it all began.

CHAPTER FOUR

 

*** The previous day ***

I woke up with a gasp. I had a bad dream. It was a nightmare and a rather vivid one. I had dreamt that I was drowning underwater and was about to die from not being able to breathe.

My clock on the night stand indicated it was 7 a.m. on a Saturday.

Almost time to get ready for my school trip.

We were going to an island called Cavern Springs. It was a newly discovered island that had the researchers and scientists abuzz. Sam and Ray had several discussions about it. Especially, on how it went unnoticed all these years and suddenly has become a hot spot for researchers and adventure seekers. But due to the size of the island and the research significance, only a selected few were allowed entry at a time. And there was a long trail of paperwork involved to obtain permission for it.

Our school organized it as part of an educational summer trip. Only a few students from each class were selected to be a part of it. We were supposed to explore the island and visit some permitted research spots. The trip was for fourteen days and when we got back, we had to turn in a write up within the next thirty days.

The write up, I wasn’t looking forward to, but I really needed the break. Besides, I really wanted to go there for an adventure.

Things had been pretty tense at home. Even though my parents and I pretended everything was fine, there was a huge elephant in the room, or in my case—a huge baby grand piano. The one we hadn’t addressed properly over the last few weeks. I hadn’t touched it for the past four weeks, which was a huge deal for me. The longest I had gone previously without playing one, was when I had the flu. I could barely get out of the bed and it had lasted for a week. I was ten years old at that time.

I had been playing the piano since I was three. My music teachers felt I had the talent and had encouraged my parents and me to pursue it seriously. Right from the age of seven, I competed and won most of the competitions in my age group. There were endless lessons and practice, as I got older. Sometimes, I had to practice for four hours at a stretch before a competition or an event. Until a certain point, I enjoyed it, especially the attention and the trophies.

But from the past couple of years, something changed. I felt overwhelmed and it affected my health. I didn’t complain to my parents or anyone about it. They would’ve been crushed and worried. They had sacrificed a lot for me. They gotten me the best piano teachers they could afford. And mom had even quit her job to accommodate my crazy schedules.

Last year, I got accepted as a student by one of the famous piano teachers. Mom and dad sold our old house, and bought a new one closer to the piano teacher. With regards to my friends, the move hadn’t made much of a difference for me. I barely had any close friends in my old neighborhood or school. Right after the school bell rang, I was always rushing home for homework and practice.

I promised myself, it would be different at the new school. I already knew Jo, and was determined to make more friends.

My parents never stopped me from meeting any of my new friends. I had managed to make a few, but I still barely met them. My lessons and practice continued, adding more competitions and performances to the mix.

A couple of months ago, I had reached the limit. I had been begging mom and dad to give me a few months break. I wanted to do other things, like other girls my age. I was already in the debate teams and the chess clubs to keep me busy at school. But outside it, I wanted to do things such as watching movies, shopping at the mall or whatever other normal sixteen year old girls did in their spare time.

Both mom and dad had refused:

“You are so close to achieving your dream Dee. If you keep practicing and competing, you can get into any top music school of your choice. A few months break…might ruin your chance,” mom said gently.

She kept repeating that each time I begged her, which was almost every week.

Then something changed, and I finally snapped.

Four weeks ago, mom, dad and I flew to one of the most prestigious competitions. While I was waiting for my turn, I was almost dehydrated. I was extremely nervous and threw up several times in the bathroom. When I looked at my reddened eyes and pale face in the mirror, I knew I had enough.

Mom and dad thought I was falling sick again, but still insisted that I should go ahead and perform. They didn’t want me to lose the opportunity to showcase my talent in front of the classical music elite.

My hands were trembling when I started performing and somehow managed to play the first half of the piece. I was hitting all the right notes at the right places. But my heart wasn’t in it. I felt too detached. Then I just stopped playing and didn’t finish the remaining half. I just got up and walked away, right in middle of the competition.

I haven’t touched a piano since. My parents were furious at first and then worried. I refused to talk about it and simply stated that I needed the break.

Dad consoled my mom blaming the whole thing on my ‘teenage hormones’. I had been listening to them from outside the living room. They always had their family emergency meetings there to discuss what strategy and united front they needed to present before me.

“She’s sixteen. Her priorities are different. At that age, all they can talk and think about are boys and their social lives. Be grateful she still listens to us and does a pretty good job at school. Let’s give her a break until the end of summer,” dad told mom.

Maybe he was right. My priorities had shifted the last couple of years. But my stress disappeared and I didn’t feel like I was being suffocated. Even though I missed playing the piano like crazy, I felt happy. I knew it was a temporary thing, but I decided to make the most of it.

Continuing with my need-a-change-phase, the next week I got my long wavy hair cut to shoulder length. The lady at the hair salon was horrified, when I explained to her exactly what I wanted to do to my hair. But she somehow managed to turn my request into something fashionable. My hair was now highlighted in warm red streaks with fly away bangs. That was three weeks ago.

Then there was also the matter of getting him out of my head. Lately he’s been taking too much real estate in there. I missed talking to him the last three weeks. But after his outburst, I was ignoring him.

I needed this break.

I dragged myself off the bed. There was still some packing left to be done. I was too tired last night and went to bed early. The flight was at 10:30 a.m., plenty of time remaining. Grabbing some clean clothes from my closet, I walked into my bathroom.

I got out in twenty minutes and began packing. I chose mostly summer wear. We had to wear black t-shirts with school logo throughout the trip. Packing everything else, I went through a final mental checklist.

I went downstairs with my bag. Going straight to my music room, I fed my pet fish Goldie, which ironically happened to be a blue colored betta-fish. It was in a small round bowl with multicolored gravel, and a plastic plant, set on top of my piano. Maybe it wasn’t a dog or a cat like I had wanted, but it was my pet.

Mom and dad were seated at the table, waiting for me to join them. One of our house rules was to always have our breakfast and dinner with the family, which was nice. I wanted to spend as much time as possible with them, before heading out to college in a couple of years.

“Good morning,” I said cheerfully, and sat down.

Mom had quite a spread on the table.

“It’s your favorite,” said mom as she handed me a plate of banana walnut pancakes. “Oh wait, I forgot. Don’t start yet.”

She went to the refrigerator, and was rummaging through the door. She got back some butter, and spread a generous amount on top. She poured some honey on the top in concentric circles, the way I preferred.

When I was younger, I used to throw a huge fit if honey was poured randomly on top. I really didn’t care about it anymore, but mom still poured it that way.

“Seriously…why don’t you chew the food for her too?” dad asked mom, grinning at her.

He was eating his usual ‘mom recommended breakfast’, consisting of oatmeal with some fruits and nuts.

Mom rolled her eyes and stuck her tongue out at him. “Oh please, you are even worse,” She told him.

“Your dad barely slept last night, worrying about your trip. I could hardly sleep—with him tossing around so much,” she complained.

“No I didn’t…Well, not that much anyway.” said dad sheepishly.

“He woke me several times, asking me if we should book tickets on the same flight. And maybe stay at a hotel next to yours,” she said.

Dad was looking at me expectantly, as though waiting for my permission to do exactly that.

“Don’t you dare! My first long trip ever by myself with my friends,” I warned.

“Fine, but remember all the rules…” said dad, as he began his safety instructions.

I was used to them by now, especially before the field trips, some of which had barely lasted a few hours.

“Don’t go wandering alone. Always stick to your group. Call us or better still make it a video call. Make sure we know you are fine,” he said, pausing, to probably breathe before the next volley.

“Don’t forget the bugs spray. Did you pack an emergency kit and some snacks in your backpack?” Mom chimed in.

“Yes to everything. I’m going to be fine. It’s just for a couple of weeks!“I whined.

I finished my breakfast along with some fruit. Later, I helped mom clear up the table. We went to dad’s car, and I placed my bag at the back. I quickly checked if I had my airline tickets and passport. Mom and dad got in the front and I settled at the back. We were picking Sam on our way. She lived just a few streets away from our place. Her grandparents had been living there for over forty five years. They had a large two storied house with a nice backyard.

Sam was waiting in front of her house with her bags. She was always organized and prepared. Her class notes were pretty detailed and always ordered by subject and date. Mine were extremely summarized, and sometimes in ridiculous short hand, that even I had trouble understanding. Jo or someone were always whispering some gossip in my ear, distracting me, during the class.

Sam greeted my parents and got in next to me.

“Yay! Our trip begins now! I have waited a long time for this. Can’t wait to get there,” I told her.

“Me too, I even have my recorder packed. I looked up online about that place. You won’t believe the things they’ve found recently. Pretty amazing, and we’re going to be there in less than a day!” she said excitedly.

“Thanks to our study group, I made the cut. Do you know who is going?” I asked her casually.

For some reason, our teachers decided to keep the list confidential, sending emails only to the students who were selected. They didn’t let us know who was going until fourteen days ago. They felt that parents would try and influence the list.

“No. Not really. I just know Ray’s going too. He told me last evening at our fencing class,” said Sam.

She was eying me suspiciously, as though she knew what I actually wanted to find out. I played dumb and distracted her with the discussion of list of items we needed.

“The next couple of weeks, it is supposed to be warm there. I packed pretty light,” she said pointing to her bag that was twice the size of mine.

I knew a few others who were going. But I didn’t know if he was joining us. I was both hoping and dreading at the same time, about him joining us.

***

Our car stopped at the airport in front of our terminal. It was pretty busy as it was a weekend, and beginning of the summer vacation for most schools. Getting out of the car, I took my bag from the back seat. I hugged my parents, and promised to call them every day.

“You guys enjoy your kid free time. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine. I promise to get back home safely,” I told them, and waved at them from the glass doors of the terminal.

Sam and I got our boarding passes, and headed towards the security check. Vikram Rana or Vick as we called him joined us there.

“Hey Dee, long time no see. How have you been?” he asked winking at me, his dark brown eyes shining mischievously.

I rolled my eyes at him and grinned widely. We had become really close over the last few months. We had been talking on our phones, almost every day for the past couple of months. My parents were teasing me whenever he called—exactly at 8:30 p.m., every night, right after dinner:

***

“Vick seems pretty punctual. Right on dot, every night,” said mom, teasing me.

“What’s there to talk so much every day? Don’t you guys meet at school?” asked dad, not looking very impressed.

He was worried that I had started dating, and maybe even had a secret boyfriend. I had told him repeatedly that I didn’t have one. And that I only had good friends. Ironically, mom and dad met when they were seventeen. Maybe that’s why he was worried, thinking that I’d meet someone, and maybe decide to give up my dreams of a music school, to follow that someone blindly to wherever he’s going.

“He’s got a lot of other things going on. He’s into sports and other activities at school,” I told dad.

“So does he call you…to ask you for your notes or for help with schoolwork?” he asked.

“He’s a straight A student dad. We just have a lot of friends in common. We are pretty busy at school. So he just calls me at this time. He’s pretty talkative and a very good listener too,” I said.

“Huh? Are those considered a good trait these days?” teased mom.

“To me it is. We both have a lot of things to talk about. I like having him as my good friend,” I told them, stressing the friend part.

***

Vick and I had hit it off one evening during our group’s weekend outing. We mostly discussed each other’s taste in music. It was ironic, since we had an extremely different taste. I loved listening to the latest pop, hip hop and country music. And he loved the classics and the much older rock and roll. He was pretty shocked when he found out that I played the piano at a competitive level:

“How can you like those atrocious songs when you can actually play most of the classics?” he had asked me once.

“Work vs. fun,” I had explained to him.

“Tell me what you listen and I’ll tell you who you are,” he quoted one of the famous people.

“Hmm…Based on that, I am a teenage girl, who loves listening to music…about girl power, boys and sometimes heart break,” I told him.

He pretended to be horrified listening to all three choices.

“So…based on that quote, you must be pushing seventy, and like to sit in your rocking chair, listening to old rock and roll and classical music,” I teased him.

We spoke about everything under the sun. We mostly talked about our family and friends. He had a younger brother who was almost ten years younger than him. He spent most of his evenings helping his little brother with his homework, and had even brought him along to some of my recitals.

He had been supportive when I told him about my decision to quit piano for some time.

He was the best friend anyone could ever have or even dream.

“Hey Sam,” he smiled at her, getting a small nod in return.

I was glad that he was one of the few people she acknowledged. She ignored most people, especially rude people who didn’t have anything nice to say to her. Strangely, there were quite a few of them who were that way with her.

The three of us went towards the gate together and joined our waiting group.

“Looks like most of us geeks made the cut,” I told them, smiling.

Except for Jo, she wasn’t really a typical geek. She joined us, and we began discussing what we had packed. Soon we were discussing the activities available on the island. My eyes kept going towards the gate entrance. I refused to admit to myself that I was looking for someone.

An announcement was made and we began boarding our plane. I was seated next to Sam, who sat beside the window. I was at the middle, and the seat next to me was empty.

“I’m sitting next to you if no one is coming. There’s no way I can spend the next few hours remaining sane,” said Vick, grinning.

He was seated on the next aisle, beside an old man who was already sleeping and snoring pretty loudly.

“Sure,” I said sticking up my thumb and smiling.

“Let me borrow your phone…any new songs?” he asked.

He hadn’t brought his phone along. He was sure that he would lose it in one of the caves or someplace else. Over the past year, he had lost two of them, and his parents had warned him, saying that he’ll have to earn the money for the next phone. I remembered the conversation we had when he told me about it:

“I should probably demand to be paid for the babysitting, and then get a new phone,” he said with an adorable grumpy face.

He looked like a model with his sharp cheekbones and a stunning face. But he was very down to earth. If my mind wasn’t otherwise occupied by another, I would’ve definitely had a huge crush on him.

“You have expensive tastes. Why not just get a basic phone…to make calls and other stuff?” I asked, and laughed at his horrified expression.

He was always so well put together with branded clothes and other ‘manly’ accessories as he called them.

“Plenty—especially from your most hated albums,” I teased, handing him my phone.

I was passing my phone to him, when I saw someone stopping and waiting between our aisle.

“Oops, sorry to block your way…” I said, and looked up.

My smile froze.

“Hey, Sam and Dee. Excited?” asked Ray, smiling.

I just nodded and stared at Yaj, who was waiting or rather hovering near the seat next to me. He was looking at me oddly. Maybe he didn’t expect me to be on this trip.

“Yaj, I’ve got to pass. My seat is behind yours,” said Ray.

“Sorry,” murmured Yaj, and to my horror sat next to me.

Really? Really? I cursed my luck.

“Hey Yaj. How have you been?” Sam asked, and smiled at him.

“Hello Sam. Doing good and you?” he replied and asked her with a smile.

“Dee,” he said, giving me a small nod, before putting his headphones on and ignoring me.

Okay. I was officially pissed, and didn’t know why. I remembered that I hated him, and was supposed to ignore him too. I turned away and looked out of the window next to Sam.

***

Our flight finally took off and I settled in. Sam began explaining the origin of the word cordillera and the different ones around the world. Apparently the place we were going had a lot of those. They were an extensive chain of mountains. It was like listening to a walking encyclopedia, only here I get to choose my favorite parts.

The flight was long. Sam and I shared her headphones to listen to music from her phone.

I jumped when I felt Yaj tap on my shoulder. I looked at him in surprise. He pointed to Vick, who was grinning at me, handing me my phone and begging me dramatically to switch places. I was almost tempted, but didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of driving me out of my seat.

“Sorry,” I mouthed and took back my phone from Vick. I began my favorite playlist and closed my eyes trying to ignore the person next to me. Seriously, why did I waste so much time thinking about him?

The flight was pretty long. Sam and I eventually began dozing off with our heads next to each other. Before drifting to sleep, I promised myself, that the next few days would be spent only in exciting adventures on the island. I couldn’t wait to see what was lying ahead for us.

 

 

CHAPTER FIVE

 

I woke up during an announcement. We were landing in thirty minutes. My neck felt stiff, and I was trying to stretch and massage it, to ease the soreness.

“Here…your snack boxes,” said Yaj, handing over our missed snacks, provided during the flight.

“Thanks Yaj. I’m starving,” said Sam, opening her box.

“Thanks,” I told him stiffly, and opened mine.

I felt petty not thanking him properly. But I was still pissed at him.

I chose the packaged sandwich first. It also contained a bag of chips and a mixed berry juice. It was still early morning outside, due to the time difference. I could see rugged terrain surrounded by the blue ocean below.

***

We landed shortly at a small airport, and got off the plane with our bags. The buses were parked outside, close to the flight. Our bags were soon loaded into them.

I sat next to a window, with Jo beside me. It was a very scenic drive. The ocean was visible all through our drive.

The group began planning our evening activities, which was supposed to be our free time. Some of the suggestions were to have a small meet up every evening, to discuss our notes from the day trip.

“How about we have a pool party with some really good music? Accordingly to our schedule we should be back by 4 p.m. Plenty of time to relax and have fun until dark.” said Jo to the group. Our teachers were smiling and pretended not to hear us.

“Come guys, we have got to live a little…even if most of us are geeks,” she said outrageously.

“Jo…” I warned her.

I didn’t know why she insisted on keeping up her mean girl persona around everyone.

It was a short drive. The bus dropped us off in front of a large cave like structure with a huge sign in front of it. It was our hotel. The place was buzzing and had several other vehicles parked in front of it.

The hotel looked amazing. They somehow managed to preserve the natural beauty of large interconnected caves.

We got off the bus and took a lot of pictures in front of the multiple arches at the entrance. I could see small rows of windows, probably where our rooms were located.

The dining hall was located at the back of the hotel. There was also a huge open place at the back of the hotel, overlooking the ocean. It was probably a cliff at some point. Now small, square balconies with short walls and cushioned seating were built around it.

I was definitely going to pick the option to dine outdoors. After a long day, the view would make it worthwhile to come here and relax.

After many oohs and aahs, we were ushered back inside by our teachers. We began the checking in process. Sam and I got assigned the same room. Promising to meet everyone later, we got our key and headed towards our room. The hallway was bright with artificial light. Our room was only a few feet away from the lobby.

We opened the door and stood admiring the room. It was slightly dark inside, but the understated light transformed the room into a medieval settlement, like the brochure had boasted.

“Most of this is furnished using reclaimed stone, wood and iron,” said Sam, in awe.

We finally stepped in to look at the room closely. There were two full size beds, a dressing table and a small window. I could also see a small closet. The minimal furnishings added to the ambience. It was a warm and sultry day outside, but the room was naturally cool without an air conditioner.

“You want to shower first or can I go ahead?” I asked Sam, deciding to inspect the room later. We had a strict schedule to keep, and our teachers had already warned us, that whoever didn’t get ready on time, will be left behind.

“Go ahead. I’ll need a few more minutes,” said Sam, while unpacking and arranging her clothes neatly in the closet.

I grabbed my clothes from my bag and headed to the bathroom. There was a handheld shower, a small stone sink and a toilet. The bathroom was pretty cool too.

Thanks to my now short hair, that it took me much less time to get ready. It grew a couple of inches in the last month, and was almost brushing my shoulders now.

My parents’ reaction to my new haircut was classic:

“Be happy that she didn’t get a tattoo or a weird piercing,” mom told dad when they thought I wasn’t listening.

I was almost tempted to get one the next day. But unfortunately, I had an extremely low threshold of pain.

I was out of the bathroom in fifteen minutes.

“Give me a few minutes, and we can go join the group together,” said Sam, holding a neat pile of folded clothes and toiletries.

“No problem. I’ve got to call my parents anyway,” I said, and sat on a small stool in front of the phone.

My mom answered in a few rings. I told her I was at the hotel, and gave her my room number. I gushed over how cool the hotel was, and that we should have our next family vacation in here. She asked me to send her pictures every day. I promised her that I would, even though I knew very well that she wanted them mostly to know I was fine.

Sam got ready, and we packed our backpacks with an extra pair of clothes, water bottles, emergency kits and some protein bars. Her emergency kit looked pretty extensive. I grinned at her, picking up the needle and thread she had carefully placed inside a plastic cover.

“You never know. It pays to be always prepared,” she said, with a smile.

It was warm outside, but we were advised to wear closed toe shoes for the cave exploration. I accompanied my school shirt with knee length jeans. I squatted down a couple of times to check if they were comfortable.

When we stepped out of our room, Ray and Yaj were stepping out of theirs, right across us.

Are you freaking kidding me? Was the universe trying to tell me something? I was getting pretty weirded out by such strange coincidences. Throw him more at my face won’t you? I cursed my luck again, especially when I promised myself I would be ignoring him.

“Hey guys, like your room?” asked Sam.

“Cool isn’t it? Can’t wait to see more,” said Ray, excited.

Sam and Ray were chatting while we headed towards the dining hall. They were oblivious to Yaj and me not talking to each other along the whole way.

We used to talk so much about so many things. How did we end up in this weird space?

My mind drifted back to the first time I spoke to Yaj about my family. It was the first of our various conversations we had as good friends:

***

It was a Wednesday. Sam and Ray left a few minutes early as usual to their fencing class. I was finishing last of my assignment, and my cell phone kept flashing in the silent mode. There were text messages on the screen, and a couple of missed calls, all in the last ten minutes while I hadn’t noticed it.

“You getting that?” asked Yaj looking at my phone.

“Sorry,” I said and checked my messages. Mom was sending me pictures of tonight’s dinner, and was wondering what time I’d be done, so she could pick me up. I had another competition coming up this weekend, and had to practice a couple of hours tonight.

“Boyfriend?” asked Yaj casually, as though it wasn’t a personal question.

“What? No!” I told him, too shocked to let him know it was none of his business.

“What’s so shocking about it?” he asked amused. “Half your friends have boyfriends or are looking for one.”

Like an idiot I blushed. “My parents will flip if they hear the B word from me. That was my mom sending me some pictures of tonight’s dinner,” I told him, smiling.

“Show me,” he asked, surprising me.

I paused for a second, and realized that he was serious. Strange request, I thought, but shrugged and showed him the picture. It was a Japanese-Indian fusion that looked both appetizing and tasted even amazing.

“What are you practicing for?” he asked, looking at the message from mom. She had typed ‘Will be waiting for you before your practice’ under the picture.

“A piano performance. I have a competition coming up this Sunday,” I told him, and sighed. Another weekend sacrificed at the altar of practice.

“Are you any good?” he asked, with a smirk.

I narrowed my eyes at him.“Not to toot my own horn, but I have been winning a lot of them since I was 7 years old,” I told him.

“Hmm, maybe you should call back or send a message, telling her you’re fine,” he said, pointing to my phone with a slight smile.

Both of his eyes were shining brightly when he smiled or even smirked. Gahhh…enough with his eyes already! My brain kept screaming. And it wasn’t as if I hadn’t seen good looking guys before. But each time I saw him glower at some bullies, I fell for him more. I had my own share of crushes before. But I was too busy to do anything to do about them…until now.

My mom had sent me another message—that she would assume I was in danger, if I didn’t respond back in the next 10mins. She even put a funny emoticon beside the message.

I rolled my eyes and replied back, saying I’d be done in 10 minutes.

“How are you getting home? It’s almost dark outside,” he asked, pointing at the window next to us.

“My mom is picking me in 10 minutes,” I told him, wondering if he was offering to drop me. Mom would never allow that without meeting him first. But my heart beat picked up in speed.

“I’ll stay with you until she’s here,” he said.

He stayed until I was done with my work, even though he didn’t have anything to complete. When I was done, he offered to wait with me. There were still a lot of students around and the school was a safe place. But I didn’t say a thing and accepted his request.

While we were waiting, I showed him some more pictures of my dinners. Mom was a great cook and a photographer. She said cooking relaxed her and she took up photography as a passion, when she quit her job.

Mom was just pulling inside the gates and I waved to her.

“So, let’s talk about you? Do you have any siblings?” I asked, curious to know more about him.

His smile dropped and he made a show of looking at his watch.

“It’s getting late. Your mom’s here already. I need to go,” he said with a curt nod, and almost ran away like he couldn’t wait to get away from me any faster.

That was bizarre. I mentioned the incident to Sam and asked some of the girls about what they knew about his parents. No one knew anything. I had a few theories, that maybe he’s from an organized crime family and didn’t want to endanger me with that information.

“Or maybe he’s a vampire or a werewolf, how cool. I love me some fangs and fur” said Sam and immediately shut her mouth with her hands.

“Or…an undercover super hero. We should check if there’s a costume underneath his shirt,” I told her grinning.

We had a good laugh at that discussion.

***

He was sweet enough to wait each time until my mom came to pick me up. All those times, he was a totally different person. He patiently listened to my ranting about my practice, and we discussed about everything under the sun.

According to him, all of that had been a lie. I had been my honest self, but he had been putting on a show. He was probably suffering through my talks or worse pitying me.

I felt humiliated that he didn’t think we were anything beyond study partners. I really needed to avoid him like a plague.

***

We reached the dining area, and sat outside with our group in one of those square seating areas. They even had the tall outdoor heaters all over the place, which would come in handy if we were to stay up late sitting outside. I picked up a brochure about the island and the activities offered.

“Parasailing, we should try that!” said someone from our group.

I had always wanted to try that. The idea of being able to fly like a bird hugely appealed to me.

“Scuba diving or maybe just rent a few boats and have a race,” Jo suggested.

We were grinning at the race part. That would not go well with the school or the parents. Our teacher announced that we were taking a guided bus tour this morning. And the bus would take us around the island and bring us back to our hotel by the evening.

***

The tour bus was much larger than the one this morning. This one had headphones for audio tours and an open top on the second level. I wanted to ride on the top to get a better look at the views.

I took the seat next to Ray who was diligently reading several brochures.

“Hey Ray, excited?” I asked him.

“Very. Can’t wait to see what they got,” he said, and smiled at me.

“Hey Ray. Are you going to be the tour guide today? I’m sure you are waiting to spew your unwanted knowledge at us,” sneered Jo.

Most of her entourage was missing. No one found her taunting a least bit funny. Everyone looked uncomfortable. I was about to intervene and ask her to quit acting like a brat. Ray didn’t seem embarrassed or perturbed in any way.

“Of course…anything for you dear Jo. I could guide you and do some spewing if you’re really interested,” he replied with a straight face.

Everyone burst out laughing, and Jo turned away with a huff.

I grinned at Ray. He definitely could hold his own, and didn’t need any rescuing from Jo.

I couldn’t find Yaj anywhere on the bus…Not that I was looking.

Our guide was a middle aged scientist with a cheerful face named Lily. She volunteered to be a guide during her free hours. She was pretty funny and made us laugh. She asked us some funny facts about the habitat of the island and answered them with some funny anecdotes. We learnt about different hot water springs that were safe and available for public use. She mentioned there were cameras placed in most public places, just in case any of us decided to get adventurous.

“There we go. Our tomorrow’s pool party location has been decided. Unfortunately, clothes not optional,” said Vick, making everyone laugh.

“So tell us about the new research sites set up around this island,” Ray asked our guide.

“Archeologists around the world have set up digging sites in some of the caves. Currently only a few of them are available for public access,” she informed.

Ray asked her a lot of questions on the findings. She mentioned that they found some artifacts and paintings in some of the caves.

“Some of them have a conclusive study, and have some displays within the caves. We will go to those tomorrow,” she said.

***

We stopped in front of a large cave that was much larger and longer than our hotel. This one didn’t seem to be having an end and kept extending like a mountain range. The place was packed. I could see many other tourists. Some of them were prepared with bedding and large backpacks.

“A lot of them are caving enthusiasts. They go on explorations for days or weeks even,” our guide Lily pointed.

We followed her into a well-lit cave. I could see a lot of natural limestone formations.

“Stalactite and Stalagmites” she said as she pointed to some of the formations. She kept the commentary running, and we walked deeper into the cave for another thirty minutes. We passed through a connecting cave that led us to a much larger one, with a small pond in the middle. The water was crystal clear and people stood around taking pictures. Lily announced that we were stopping to take a small break.

I took a lot of pictures with the group near the pond. Jo and I made funny duck faces at the camera. After a few minutes, I realized that Sam was missing from the pictures. I looked for her and found her with Ray and Yaj about a couple of hundred feet away.

“Be right back,” I said, and excused myself from the group to bring her back for pictures. When I got closer I could hear her whisper furiously.

“Are you insane? You are going to get us all in trouble. We’ll be grounded for the rest of the trip in our rooms!” she told Ray.

Ray had a stubborn expression on his face.“No one asked you to join us Sam. Why don’t you just go back to the group? We’ll be back in a few minutes,” he told her.

“What’s happening?” I asked Sam, curious to see her so riled up.

“Apparently, these two want to sneak in. Into the no entry research site,” she said, like it was the most horrible thing anyone could do.

“How do you know it’s a research site?” I asked her.

“We heard some of the archeologists talking…and followed them here. We’re about to go inside, and Sam stopped us,” said Ray, mock glaring at Sam.

“Really? Won’t people inside send you out?” I asked, getting curious myself. “I don’t think they’ll allow students to waltz in from a guided tour.”

“We just wanted a quick peek, to check what’s inside, and get back if they ask us to leave,” said Ray.

I was curious too and frankly a little bored of watching the limestone formations and a pond for the past one hour. Maybe a quick peek wouldn’t hurt and was worth the risk.

“Let’s go Sam. I think it will be fun. Maybe we can discover something too. We’ll have a better write up for our summer paper, with our findings,” I wheedled.

Sam looked at me like I had gone mad. Yaj and Ray looked at each other and then at me.

“Uh… we think you and Sam should remain with the rest of the group,” said Yaj. “We don’t want to get you two into trouble,” he quickly added, looking at my expression.

I wasn’t having it. “Too bad you don’t have a say in this Yaj. Either we join you both or I blab. To the teachers and to our tour guide, who have strictly lain out the laws. You pick.” I said, while folding my hands and taking a stance. I probably sound like a five year old threatening to tattle.

Yaj raised his eyebrow at my display. “Stop being stubborn Dee,” he said, wearing his infuriating I’m-the-mature-one-face.

I saw red, and was about to burst when Ray intervened. “Dee, we’ll barely be in there for a few minutes,” he tried to cajole.

“How are Sam and I slowing you down? We’ll be right behind you. Quiet as a mouse, I promise,” I told Ray, determined to go no matter what.

“Ok follow us. Let’s make it quick,” Ray said, sighing loudly.

We looked around and took turns to slowly slip into the opening in front of us. Our group was still busy taking pictures and no one was looking our way.

“If I get caught, my parents are going to ground me. But maybe this is the only time I’ll get into trouble,” I whispered to Sam grinning.

“What’s so exciting getting into trouble Dee?” asked Sam, whispering.

“Oh, it is. I hate living in a bubble. You want to pop it once in a while, before allowing another one to grow around you,” I told her with a conspiring smile.

It was getting darker inside. We got out our flashlights from the backpacks and turned them on. We followed the narrow cave for a few minutes and saw nothing out of the ordinary.

“Where’s all the good stuff?” I asked Ray.

“Shhh,” said Yaj. I stuck my tongue out at his back. Real mature, I know.

We continued going deeper for a few more minutes. Ray stopped suddenly and flashed his light on one of the walls of the cave, in front of us. I saw what he illuminated and almost mouthed a loud wow! There were paintings of animals, tools and people.

“Don’t touch anything and watch your step,” whispered Ray.“These are from the Paleolithic age. No one really knows why the cavemen decided to paint them,” he said. “I think it’s to leave a legacy. To show the later generations that they existed,” he explained.

It was fascinating. We had read about them and seen pictures in the books before. This was the first time I saw one in person.

“We just have few more minutes before the group leaves,” reminded Sam, anxiously.

“A few more minutes,” said Ray. We continued along and stopped before a dead end wall.

“Okay, no exit from here. Now let’s head back,” said Sam, clearly distressed. I know she hated breaking the rules. I felt guilty dragging her along. I will make it up to her later.

“No. Wait. I see an opening there,” said Ray, pointing towards a corner with his flashlight. “Let’s just see if we can get through there. Few more minutes and I promise we can head back.”

We placed our backpacks outside the narrow opening. Ray tried squeezing through first and was able to get in. I squeezed through next. I moved aside giving room to Sam and Yaj. When all of us were in, I pointed my flash light around on the walls and on the ceiling.

“Wooow! Just wow!” I exclaimed, as softly as I could.

I could see intricate paintings and carvings all over the walls. Not like the ones I saw a minute ago. These were obviously not made by cave dwellers. I went closer to one of them to take a look. There were animal and human forms carved deep into the stone with skilled craftsmanship. Most of the carvings depicted gatherings, or celebrations of some sort. It was a small cave, but had really high ceilings. The art extended there as well.

Moving along, I pointed my flashlight on one part of the wall. I could see a boat with people on it and also a large snake with multiple head baring its fangs. Some gruesome scenes of chopped off heads and severed arms.

Sam giggled softly. I joined her, to see what made her relax enough to giggle. I flashed my light and saw some erotic art. Most of which didn’t seem anatomically possible. “Interesting,” I whispered, and giggled with her. We quickly moved both our flashlights away. We didn’t want to be caught by Yaj and Ray staring at that particular art. That would have been really embarrassing!

I moved along a few more feet and stopped to look at something. There was a small shining red bead between the wall cracks. I ran my fingers across it gently, and held it between my fingers, and tugged it to see if I could dislodge it. It moved and was attached to something.

“I found something here I think,” I whispered.

“What do you think you found?” asked Ray, joining me.

“I don’t know. Maybe a ring or brooch attached to a bead,” I guessed.

“Where is it?” asked Ray, flashing light on it.

With a few gentle tugs I could get it out. I looked at it closely and noticed it was attached to a bracelet of some sort. It was designed simply. It had a few charms around it. There were small animals, weapons and musical instruments as charms. All of us flashed our light on it to take a closer look.

“We are not supposed to touch anything,” said Ray, reluctantly. He was examining it pretty closely.

“I promise I will leave it back where I found it. It’s a bracelet I think,” I said, putting it on my left hand. It was a little on the large side.

Suddenly the ground beneath us shook once. I stumbled, but managed to stand up.

“What was that? An earthquake! Let’s get out of here guys. Come on,” said Sam, tugging at my hand.

“Shoot, shoot, shoot,” I kept repeating in panic mode.

The ground shook again, this time harder. I fell on my knees and tried standing up.

“OK guys, stay close and hold hands” Yaj instructed us, grabbing my hand and helping me stand. He held Sam with the other. Ray held her other hand.

“Let’s go back the same way” said Ray, inching towards the opening, which was still a good thirty feet away.

We formed a human chain and moved slowly. The ground was shaking hard. It shook once every couple of seconds. I was terrified of being stuck in a dark cave during an earthquake. I thought of mom and dad. They’d be frantic with worry!

“Luckily, this particular part of the cave has no limestone formations. We could be been impaled by one of those if they fell on us with this shaking,” said Ray, trying to ease our panic.

We kept moving slowly towards the narrow opening, now a dozen feet away. The bracelet was slipping off my free hand, reminding me of it. “Wait! I forgot to return it” I said, and removed my hand briefly from Yaj’s.

“Forget it. Get it along. You can return it outside,” said Yaj, as grabbed my hand back impatiently. I let go of his hand for a few seconds and slipped the bracelet on that hand. It was more secure now. Suddenly the ground stopped shaking.

“Finally!” I sighed in relief. The very next moment a bright light beamed from above to the center of the cave.

“What’s that?” whispered Sam, sounding as alarmed as me.

It was rapidly expanding outwards with the same intensity. We backed up to the nearby wall to escape it, but it reached us in a few seconds. I felt blinded by it and closed my eyes. I heard a loud explosion and everything went dark.

CHAPTER SIX

 

  • Current day ***

The four of us were quiet and lost in our own thoughts. I looked at my hands and stared at the bracelet. It looked pretty simple with silver colored charms enclosed in red and green beads. I had to return it as soon as we got back, or rather if we got back.

“Okay then,” said Ray, interrupting my thoughts. “About that woman…or whatever that unearthly creature was…back there outside…I have an explanation.”

We looked at him expectantly.

“Not a practical one though,” he warned.

“What? Spill it,” Sam demanded.

I was impatient and eager too. We had to make sense of whatever happened out there.

“I think we are in some sort of alternate universe. Or travelled to another place, really far away,” he said seeming excited about that fact.

“That’s not an exciting theory Ray. We were attacked and we are stuck inside this house!” Sam admonished him.

“Do you guys think the bright light was an alien spaceship, beaming us to their world?” asked Ray, obviously letting his imagination run wild.

“Huh? An alien spaceship? That explains the bright light, but not the fact that they would be less advanced in technology than us,” said Sam looking around.

“There is also the fact that there was no welcome committee from the aliens to receive us. If they beamed us up into their world, they had better be expecting us,” I said.

The entire conversation was bordering on ridiculous.

“I think something happened in that cave. I’m not sure of what exactly… but something remarkable,” he said, as though it were a good thing.

“What do you mean remarkable? We are lost Ray. And we were attacked by that scary shell creature! And it melted into a heap of seaweed and shells!” said Sam, clearly agitated now.

“The island was hit by an earthquake. The four of almost drowned in the ocean and we barely dragged ourselves to this island,” she said, and jumped up from her seat and began pacing around the small room.

“Yes, that sounds like a reasonable explanation. But how did all four of us manage to drift around the same place in the ocean? How were we able to hold our breath for that long?” Ray asked us.

“More than twelve hours…” I chimed in, wondering the same.

Yaj didn’t join in the conversation. He got a banana out of the bunch and began eating like he had no care in the world.

My stomach growled loudly, embarrassing me and also making me realize that I was pretty hungry too. Deciding to get a banana, I tugged on one. After multiple tugs I finally got it off the bunch. Peeling it open, I took a bite. It was not ripe yet and was a little chewy.

“The woman or whatever creature it was. It was violent towards strangers,” I told them, chewing on the banana.

I was still in shock about that fact and didn’t even want to think about how I managed to stab it in its chest.

“That’s what puzzles me too,” said Sam, sitting down next to me.

“Maybe it’s not an actual living thing. Probably a robotic version… made to guard the house, while the owners are away? Powered by seaweed and shells… I don’t know. I can’t figure it out either,” said Ray.

“Okay, that’s plausible. So the actual owners might turn up soon. Maybe she was there to guard during their vacation. That’s why she wouldn’t talk?” said Sam.

“But what about the fact that you three were standing like statues? You guys were unable to move!” I asked skeptically and muttered, “Nothing seems to be logical or making sense at this point.”

I didn’t want to buy in the robotic idea.

“We can’t always have a logical explanation for everything…and put them neatly into a box. That thing must have used some type of stun gun or hypnosis, like you mentioned,” said Yaj finally joining the conversation.

“I didn’t see anything apart from that huge club like stick in her hand. It didn’t look like it had any in-built technology in it,” I said. “Maybe the hypnosis could have worked. I was too scared to look at her directly for long,” I reasoned.

Actually, I did actually look at her for quite a while. Maybe there was a limit associated. Like more than five seconds into the eyes, one would be frozen and helpless.

“So what’s next? Do we stay here; until we figure out for sure… that she was a robotic person with hypnosis powers… left to guard the house? Or maybe we can just wait here, until we’re rescued?” I asked.

If anyone is looking for us and will rescue us,” said Sam.

This wasn’t the first time, I thought in those lines. Nobody knew we had snuck off to a no-entry zone cave, let alone the fact that we wound up at someplace twelve hours later. My parents will definitely search for me, but I doubt they’d imagine me being stuck in this place.

“We can’t wait inside this house forever. Science has advanced enough in most parts of the world, and they do use robotics for different things. We should go out and see what’s out there,” said Ray.

The thought filled me with dread. Based on Sam’s fidgeting next to me, she must be having similar thoughts.

“Can’t we wait until tomorrow morning to go out? We’ve already closed all the possible entry points and have enough food and water with us,” said Sam.

“How will wasting an entire day until tomorrow morning make it any better?” asked Ray.

“I meant early morning, around dawn—when it’s not too bright or too dark. Most people will be sleeping still. We can wait by a building or someplace, away from these lonely littered streets,” she explained.

“That’s true. We’ll be better rested too,” I readily agreed with her.

Maybe tomorrow won’t be any safer outside, but I rather postpone the danger however humanly possible.

Ray and Yaj were quiet. I was hoping they wouldn’t insist on going out right now.

“How about I take a quick look outside and signal if everything is fine. I can just go walk until the end of the street,” said Yaj.

“No!” I yelled loudly, startling everyone.

“Dee’s right. You can’t go alone. We can go together,” offered Ray.

“No way! No one is going anywhere while leaving some of us alone in this house,” said Sam.

Ray and Yaj remained quiet.

“Okay. Let’s spend the night in this house. We can go out tomorrow morning and get help,” said Ray reluctantly.

Yaj just nodded his head in agreement.

“One of the rooms inside has a couple of rolled up bedding. We should take turns and sleep, while couple of us keeps a watch,” suggested Sam.

Unfortunately this room was too small to fit two beddings. But luckily, the house was small enough that a yell could be heard from any room.

“It’s probably still late morning or afternoon; I don’t think I can sleep. I can keep a watch in case someone knocks on the door or we hear people outside,” said Ray looking up at the small vents near the ceiling.

“I’ll stay here with Ray,” said Yaj.

I was a light sleeper and the light would have bothered me under normal circumstances. But I was feeling very tired. After an unexpected ocean swim and an attack from the robotic shell woman, I could definitely do with some shut eye.

“Let’s go Sam,” I told her and got up from the bench. We held hands and walked slowly into a room, which was next to this one. A blue fabric drape with beads stitched into it provided privacy. Right now, that was last on my priority list. I didn’t need privacy and it was much safer to be in everyone’s line of vision.

Ray and Yaj were sitting on the chairs that were opposite to the room we were entering. They should be able to keep an eye on us and hopefully warn us, if there were any sneak attacks.

I tried to push the drape to a side, but it didn’t move. It was either stuck or wasn’t made to slide it to the side.

“Let me try,” said Sam and tried to make it slide to a corner. She kept tugging it, but the drape didn’t move.

Yaj got up from his chair and came over to help us. He tried a couple of times to slide the drape aside. When it didn’t move, he even tried to tug the whole thing off. When it didn’t come off the rod or whatever was used to hang the drape, he tied the entire thing into a huge knot and folded it up. The top couple of feet were still blocked by the drape but they will now be able to see us clearly in the other room.

“Thanks,” I murmured and got in the room. It was slightly brighter in this room with a couple of windows and a small vent on top. The windows were closed but weren’t that well insulated. There was enough light available for us to look around.

Sam was sitting next to couple of large rolled bedding. The room also had wooden cupboards that were closed. I didn’t even want to risk rummaging through them. For all I knew there would be more shells or worse waiting inside. I knelt beside Sam to help her with the bedding.

We rolled them open slowly. Apart from a slight musty smell they smelled like some fragrant herbs.

“I’ll probably be asleep the moment I lie down,” said Sam, laying gingerly on one corner of the bedding.

“Me too,” I told her stifling a yawn.

“Wake us up when you guys need a break,” Sam called out.

“Sure, maybe in a few hours,” Ray answered back.

I lay on the side of the bedding that was away from the cupboards. I was on my right side facing away from Sam. Ray and Yaj were somewhat visible from here. There wasn’t enough light and their faces were in shadow, but I felt Yaj’s eyes on us.

Knowing they kept a watch, I closed my eyes and relaxed and finally drifted off to an uneasy sleep.

***

I woke up feeling very thirsty and I could see that it was almost dark, outside the vent near the ceiling. It was cooler and I could hear nothing from the outside. Why didn’t they wake us up? I sat up slowly and could see Sam stirring.

“Sam, are you up? It’s almost night time now,” I whispered.

“Okay,” she croaked out and slept back.

Not wanting to disturb her, I got up quietly and walked out of the room. Ray was slouching on his chair and sleeping while Yaj was up and was near one of the drapes from another room, studying them closely.

Poor guys, why didn’t they wake us up and sleep inside, I wondered. I sat down beside the water vessel, fumbling to find the drinking bowls. Filling up one of the smaller bowls, I drank some water. My throat and mouth felt much better.

Ray began stirring. He opened his eyes and stretched, yawning. “What time is it?” he asked.

“Not sure. But sometime late evening I think. You should lie down inside. I am done with my nap for now,” I said.

Ray looked at Yaj. “What about you? Did you manage to get a shut eye?”

“No. But you go ahead, I’m not sleepy right now,” Yaj told Ray.

Ray nodded and went inside and slept on my bedding.

“Should I wake up Sam?” I asked Yaj.

He didn’t answer me immediately. I heard some ripping noise and could see that he was tearing strips of cloth from the drape.

“No, let her sleep. I’ll be up for some time,” he finally answered.

I nodded my head and felt foolish, realizing he couldn’t see me nod. He wasn’t even looking in my direction and it was getting dark.

Grabbing a banana, I sat right next to the bunch to eat. They tasted much better or maybe it was my hunger.

Yaj continued ripping the cloth into pieces for a few more minutes and finally sat down on the floor, across me. He moved the earthen pot between us. He had brought it in to create a makeshift lamp and I didn’t check what was in it as we were pretty preoccupied a while ago.

I heard a loud noise that sounded like metal was hitting against something hard. Yaj was hitting a stone against the metal rod he had gotten from the kitchen this morning. After a few tries, there were enough sparks to light a small fire with small pieces of thin fabric he had laid out on the floor. He picked up one of the thin fabric pieces and dipped it in whatever was in the earthen pot. He then lit it in the small fire and used it like a wick over the pot. It must have been oil in the pot that he now lit like a lamp.

“Learnt building fire during camping trips…when I was younger,” he said, looking at me. “We chose to build it using the most unconventional ways.”

I looked at the lamp and didn’t comment even though it was killing me not to blurt out and ask who ‘we’ was. This was the first time he was sharing something about himself. Not really groundbreaking but he never ever spoke about his childhood or any of his family. A few weeks ago, I would have killed to get an opportunity to spend time alone and have a personal conversation with him. There was nowhere for him to run away too. Cornered like a fox I thought with a smirk. But his tantrum from the last time still stung. I was done chasing after him like a desperate fool.

I jumped when I felt his hand in my hair and looked at him in surprise.

“Something was in your hair,” he said softly, watching me like…I didn’t know what it was…but it was all gooey-like. Or maybe the small fire between us made everything appear soft and ambient.

His hand lingered for a bit before dropping back to his side. But he continued staring, making me squirm in a nice way.

He looked so good that it wasn’t fair. Even after the ocean swim, being burnt in the sun during our wait and the harrowing last few minutes…all of that and he still looked good. If anything, his messy hair and a darker tan added to his attractiveness. While I could only imagine or rather remember how I looked when I saw myself in the water container.

The shell-robot had nothing on him when it came to hypnotism. I couldn’t get my eyes off of him. But I had to look away. I knew that I would only be disappointed in the end if I fell for him again.

“I’m sure there’s more than just a twig in that nest on top of my head. I look like a fright with a burnt nose and a messy hair,” I told him with a smile, breaking our silence.

He grinned, his teeth shining brightly against his tan.

“You do look like a mess,” he said smiling.

I frowned at his rudeness, but was shocked when he rubbed his thumb gently on my cheek.

“You still look beautiful though. I don’t know how you managed to pull it off,” he whispered, staring at me again all gooey-like. “Dee—” he began leaning slightly towards me.

My heart was pounding and my stomach was fluttering.

Someone coughed from the other room and we both jumped.

He dropped his hand and sat back quickly looking into the small fire.

My heart was pounding and I was strangely disappointed. I wanted the last few minutes to play out again. Was I going crazy or did it seem like he was about to kiss me?

“Dee, for whatever it’s worth, I’m sorry for lashing out at you that day. I had too much going on at that time and I took it out on you,” he said.

That reminded me that this wasn’t the first time he confused the heck out of me.

Slowly I was getting angry and worked up again, especially when I began to remember how many hours I had agonized over him, while missing him like crazy at the same time.

I wanted to shout at him saying his apology wasn’t accepted. He hurt me and I felt humiliated. The lame apology wasn’t even close to what I had in mind.

I simply nodded curtly at his apology.

“I was going through crazy things and I realized some truths about my situation. You’re almost right about what you said about me leading a double life to Jo that day,” he said.

What truths was he talking about? And why would I ever speak to Jo about him? The only person, whom I discussed him with, was Sam. And that was only in the context of him being our study partner.

“I never spoke about you to Jo,” I told him rather stiffly.

“Maybe the conversation was too boring for you to remember,” he teased.

I felt pangs of nostalgia. I missed being able to talk to him freely and to tease each other on silly things.

“You told her that I had the profile of a serial killer, quiet and anti-social, leading a double life,” he reminded me with a smile.

I was frowning and wondering what he was talking about. Then I remembered it, unfortunately very clearly. It was the week after I had my breakdown at the piano competition and the next day after his tantrum:

***

Jo and I were still talking at our desks after the class. She was concerned about my ‘meltdown’ as her mom described it to her. I was assuring her that I was fine and just needed a break, which she gladly agreed. She was thrilled that I was now going to spend all my free time with our group.

“You need a serious makeover Dee. I’ll be like your fairy god mother or something and dress you up, just like when we were kids,” she squealed.

“What’s wrong with how I am now?” I asked her in outrage, looking down at my knee length dress with leggings and a matching cardigan.

“Nothing, my dear snow white, if one was expecting you to break into a song and dance with birds perched on your shoulder,” she said grinning. She was dressed like most other girls in our group, in a cute girly top with a short skirt and boots.

Maybe she had a point. I was so used to wearing what I wore for my recitals or competitions. Most of my clothes were a less formal everyday version of them. I did wear jeans and t-shirts sometimes too. But mom insisted I make use of all the ‘outfits’ before I outgrew them. Although at sixteen, I seriously doubted I was going to grow any taller.

Just then, Yaj had come in and gotten some books from his desk. He nodded at us quietly and left.

“Maybe your makeover should be complete. Get an arm candy too,” she said, wiggling her eyebrows. “Actually, I’ll pick one for you. Everyone is always sooo beautiful or sooo handsome in your eyes…And not him by the way. Even if he’s kind of hot. That guy is a weirdo. I can see his appeal though. He’s pretty mysterious, tortured and angsty.”

“Who?” I asked playing dumb.

“Oh puhleez…you both have been mooning after one another and making eyes at each other this whole year,” she said.

I didn’t like that she called him a weirdo, even though I was angry at him. And I was embarrassed at being so obvious to others. I did stare at him often which was now very pathetic, especially after he made it pretty clear yesterday on how he felt about me.

“Yikes, no. Definitely not mooning. We just spend time studying in a group of four,” I told her stressing the group.

I quickly needed to kill that thought from her head! I wanted her to forget and never raise the topic again. She might mention it to the other girls and they would tease me mercilessly.

“Mysterious, tortured and angsty?” I snorted. “Try saying boring, silent and anti social.”

She raised her eyebrows at that. I wasn’t too social myself. But I ignored it and continued.

“In fact, I watched a documentary on serial killers and guess what? That’s how they are usually profiled. Most serial killers are high functioning members of the society who lead a double life. I would be terrified to spend time alone with him. I’m almost sure we’d find some tortured or buried animals or even ex-girlfriends in his backyard,” I said with a forced giggle.

Jo just narrowed her eyes in suspicion but didn’t comment.

***

I knew I laid it too thick with the serial killer part. But it worked and Jo never mentioned Yaj and me in the same sentence again. And I didn’t know he could hear our conversation. It was a horrible thing to say, even if I said it at that time because I was angry and hurt.

“I’m sorry Yaj. That was a mean thing to say. You know that I didn’t really mean it. I was trying to distract Jo because… you know how she is… she would tease me about you and maybe harass you in the process too,” I explained.

He smirked and nodded. “I know. I had come there looking for you…I wanted to apologize for my outburst.”

“I’m really sorry for speaking about you like that,” I told him.

“Apology accepted,” he said and got up to sit on the chair next to the main door. “Besides, I don’t care about anyone’s opinion about me.”

Oh really? He didn’t, did he? I was getting angry again. I glared at him. He was leaning his head back and closing his eyes already.

He didn’t even have the minimum courtesy to properly apologize by giving an explanation. He was a rude jerk! I glared at him again. He was slouching on his chair and snoring softly.

I got up and sat on the bench and stared at the small fire. I was stewing and remembered the last time he had given similar conflicting signals. It was the week before I had my meltdown in the competition. That day had been etched into my memory pretty well:

***

Sam, Ray, Yaj and I were packing up our books and getting ready to leave after our study session.

“No calls or texts from home? Is your phone working?” asked Yaj with a straight face.

I smiled at him. Both of us had come a really long way from awkward silences to be able to tease each other and pour our hearts out. It was usually me pouring my heart out about things in my life.

“My phone is fine. My parents are away for a wedding. They flew out this afternoon and must be on their flight still,” I told him.

“You are alone at home? Dee, you should come stay at my place,” offered Sam.

“She doesn’t have sleepovers without her parents,” Yaj told Sam with a slight smile.

Sam looked confused.

“You had sleepovers along with your parents?” she asked.

“When I was younger. Yeah,” I answered her.

I had told him a few weeks ago about my childhood sleepovers. Most of them lasted the entire weekend. My parents came along because the only friends I had were our family friends’ kids. Over the weekends, we visited each other’s homes. My friends and I played all day and went to bed early. Meantime, our parents stayed up late in the night playing cards or watching movies. For a while I thought that’s how sleepovers went. By the time I knew better, I got too busy over the weekends with lessons and practice.

“Anyways, I’ll be fine Sam. My grandparents came by this morning. They’ll be here until my parents get back on Sunday night,” I told her.

I was looking forward to the weekend. The practice was going to be only for a couple of hours each day. There was another competition coming up in two weeks. Mom was going to make me compensate when she got back. I decided to make use of every free minute I had.

The next day was a Saturday. My grandparents and I decided to go shopping after breakfast, and catch a movie in the mall.

After the movie, we had an early dinner at a restaurant and got back home. My grandparents went to bed early, and I wasn’t a least bit sleepy at 8 p.m.

I was watching some new music videos, when I got a call from an unknown number. I let it go to my voicemail and continued watching the videos.

After a few minutes, my phone began to ring again. I answered it thinking maybe it was my parents calling me from someone’s phone.

When I answered it no one spoke for a couple of seconds.

“Dee? Did I disturb you?” a voice asked me softly.

I knew it was him, the second I heard his voice. My heart rate picked up in excitement. It was pathetic. Maybe I should play it cool and ask him who he was.

“No… This is a surprise. How are you?” I asked and immediately felt foolish. I smacked my forehead with my palm. We just saw each other the previous day.

“I’m fine. I called…because…I wanted to ask if I can see you now,” he said, sounding weird.

I thought he meant seeing me, as in a video chat. I didn’t want to ask him about what was wrong. We spoke about every topic under the sun, except his personal life. Each time I hinted at a personal question, he ran away like his hair was on fire. I definitely didn’t want to spook him away this time.

“Yes… I am free now,” I said looking at my phone screen, and waiting for a video request.

“Great… Thanks Dee. I know where you live, can I pick you up in ten minutes?” he asked.

My heart began to thump harder. God, at this rate I would keel down with a heart attack at the age of sixteen.

He wanted to see me in person? My grandparents were fast asleep and I could easily sneak out from the backdoor. But my neighbors might see me getting into his car. I barely spoke to any of them, except for our friendly waves whenever we saw each other. My mom spoke to them sometimes, and they would definitely mention someone picking me in the night.

“Can you pick me up from the end of the street? And don’t wait with your headlights on,” I said.

“Okay…I’m sorry Dee, for putting you in this situation. But I really want to see you,” he said and hung up.

I was feeling very guilty for being sneaky with my grandparents, and ultimately with my parents. My curfew was at 9 p.m. and I knew I probably wouldn’t be back by then.

Taking a deep breath, I took the house key and my phone, and placed them in my night pants pocket. I decided to not change and to remain in my sleepwear. I didn’t even put on a jacket, even though it was slightly chilly outside.

I got down the stairs, and slowly opened the back door and went out. I locked it behind me securely, and went out through the side door.

Crazy thoughts were bouncing in my head, some of which might not be so crazy. What if he was a psychopath? I’d be in the headlines tomorrow. ‘Girl hacked to death by an errant classmate, who couldn’t bear her chattering anymore’.

But I trusted him. We spent enough time during the last nine months or so. I had even asked mom to pick me late on purpose, telling her that I had extra assignments, or needed more help with my studies. She was probably suspicious, but she never called me out on it.

During the time we spent together, I told him about my deepest fears and shared most of my happy childhood memories with him. At one point, I had even teased him that I should pay him for those ‘sessions’. He listened to my rants, and had some really good insights about them later.

I definitely trusted him.

I was almost at the end of the street when I saw a black SUV parked at the corner. The headlights were turned off, and I could see him slightly in the shadows.

“Hey,” I said, sliding into the passenger seat and smiled at him.

“Thanks for coming Dee. Sorry for making you do this. I just wanted to see you,” he said.

He smiled, but seemed to have a lot on his mind. I decided to wait until he spoke about his problems, or the reason why he wanted to see me at this time.

“Let’s get out of here, before any of my neighbors spot us,” I told him with a smile.

We drove in silence for fifteen minutes, and parked in front of a scenic view point. We could see the city lights from up here.

“Dee, say something. Just talk to me about anything. I just want to listen to your voice and forget about today,” he said.

“Okay,” I said and told him about my day. The movie my grandparents and I watched and about my super early dinner.

Soon, we had a heated discussion on the movie plot. He thought it was silly and over the top while I thought it was entertaining and that’s what mattered in movies. Later, I spoke about the competition that was coming up in two weeks, and how I dreaded it.

“You’ll do great Dee. You’ve been doing this for a while,” he said.

“You don’t understand Yaj. This one will have kids who are of a totally different league altogether. Some of them are well known prodigies,” I told him.

“You are in a different league yourself. I heard you play, remember,” he said.

I did send him the links of my performances. I thought he was being polite when he asked me for them a few times. But after the fifth time, I finally did.

“I don’t know Yaj. Maybe I only love it… because it was the only thing I was trained to do. My favorite childhood play was guessing the music notes flashcards. Until I completely stopped making any mistakes, my mom had them everywhere. We played music related games all the time. I wasn’t born into it like some. Sometimes…I resent it. I feel as though I was offered no choice,” I said.

Lately, my resentment grew so much that I almost felt like I was choking on it. I wasn’t able to hide it completely from mom and dad like before.

“Dee, it doesn’t matter whether or not you’re the best. Do whatever makes you happy. Life’s too short,” he said.

We spoke about our classes and some of our classmates. He was pretty amused when I told him about Jo.

“Jo’s a big phony. She pretends like she’s a mean girl, but she’s a softy. She was one of my very few friends I had when I was little. She has four recued cats at home that she adopted. And the latest one was adopted just a month ago. I keep calling her out for her actions at school. She keeps brushing it off, saying that she needed to maintain appearances, or she’d be overthrown. She actually used the word overthrown, as though it were an empire,” I told him with a smile.

Yaj was smiling quietly and didn’t comment.

“Can I ask you something,” I said.

His smile dropped immediately, and he looked like he was bracing himself. I imagined him reversing the car and racing to drop me home as fast as possible. They’d probably be skid marks on the ground.

“How did you know where I lived?” I asked.

I was bothered and flattered by it at the same time, when he mentioned that he knew where I lived.

“It’s written on the back of your phone,” he answered, looking amused.

Darn, I forgot about that. Mom and Dad had made me write down the address and emergency contacts in case ‘I fell down or got kidnapped’. Since they made it into a condition for getting a phone, I agreed to it. Besides, it did make sense to have emergency contact, just in case.

We spent all night talking. I hadn’t felt that happy in a while.

“Dee…you’re the only friend I have,” he said suddenly.

“What? No. Ray and Sam like you and—”

“Maybe, I’m expressing this the wrong way…you’re the only one I care about as a friend…not as a friend…I mean…I care for you more than just a friend…I want more…” he said, while looking at me intently.

“Yaj…I…” I didn’t know what to tell him. My heart was pounding and I was confused whether my brain conjured up this situation based on my deepest desire.

“You don’t have to say anything Dee. I just wanted to tell you that you mean a lot to me and I care for you more than just a friend,” he said softly.

“I do too Yaj,” I whispered.

He brushed the back of his fingers on my cheek and leaned towards me slightly.

I leaned as much as my seatbelt allowed me and waited for him with my eyes closed in anticipation.

I heard him remove his seatbelt and then there was a loud horn sound that made me jump and open my eyes.

He had accidentally pressed the horn in his hurry.

We were both grinning sheepishly.

“It is pretty late. Both of us are tired. Let’s head back,” he suggested with a smile.

He dropped me right in front of my house. It was almost 5a.m and everyone was fast asleep.

“Thanks Dee for coming out with me. You have no idea how grateful I am. Think about what I said. I do mean it,” he said.

He insisted on waiting until I got inside. When I got inside, I sent him a message from my phone, and heard him drive away after a minute. My brain was too tired to think or talk.

I locked up the door behind me and crawled into my bed and fell asleep.

He missed school the entire next week. I sent him a couple of messages asking him if he was okay. My messages were ignored completely. I was starting to worry, and called him on his phone. He never answered any of my calls. He finally showed up a week later.

I had my huge meltdown a couple of days before, at my piano competition. I was very happy and relieved to see him. I was confused when he nodded curtly and agreed to meet me in one of the empty classrooms to talk. I knew something was wrong when my smile was not returned. He looked pretty annoyed.

As soon as he confirmed we were alone, he literally shouted those mean words at me.

“Seriously Dee, you need help. Stop hounding me incessantly… asking me questions that are none of your business. We’re in the same study group that’s all. We’re at most study buddies, who happened to spend some free time together. Nothing. Else. One impulsive outing where I got carried away and told you nonsense doesn’t give you an exclusive right to question me,” he said and stormed out of the room, leaving me humiliated.

***

I had lost count on how many times I had repeated the entire conversation and sequence of events in my head to see what had gone wrong. My brain kept screaming that he was too much of a project, and I shouldn’t have to deal with him. And that I should completely wipe him out of my thoughts.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t willing to listen to my own advice.

And it wasn’t just all in my imagination. He did give me conflicting signals.

I stared at the small fire and felt my eyes getting heavy. Maybe it’ll all get better tomorrow. I’ll probably wake up from this nightmare. Those were the last thoughts I had, before sleep took over.

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

I woke up to Sam’s voice. She was gently tapping on my shoulder. Ray was waking Yaj up on the opposite side.

“Is it time for us to go?” I asked, stretching my neck and arms.

It was early morning and still mostly dark with very little light. It felt safe inside and I was still not convinced about finding something or someone to help us.

“Do we really have to go? Leave this house? How about we stay here a couple more days?” I begged.

“Dee, we won’t sustain long in an abandoned house, not knowing what might happen,” said Ray.

Sam looked uncertain like me. Maybe I could get her to support me, stall our outside jaunt with whatever was waiting for us.

“Look, we still have plenty of water and fruit. We should be able to maybe… crack open a couple of windows first. We could remain in the backyard … or around the house to see if anymore of those shell robot-people will attack us,” I said, trying to convince Ray and Yaj.

Okay. What if no one comes, or if they attack us here? What are our options then? We stand a better chance if we approach them first and negotiate,” said Ray.

It was easy for him to say that. The robot-person from yesterday didn’t seem the kind to have a peaceful negotiation, let alone help us. But I had no choice. There’s no way I could stay behind in the house, alone. They were determined to leave. I didn’t want to influence Sam too much. It was on my insistence that she accompanied us to that other cave.

“What happened to the girl back in the cave? The one who said that it was exciting getting into trouble?” asked Yaj, imitating me.

Great. He decides to get funny now. Only to call me out on a silly statement I made back at the cave.

“It’s definitely more than I bargained for,” I told him stiffly.

“Dee… we can’t stay back here any longer, not knowing if someone can help us,” said Sam.

She was still worried, but seemed to be onboard with Ray and Yaj’s idea.

“Okay. Let’s take a vote, I vote for us to go out. Let’s go see what’s out there,” said Yaj.

They were all looking at me expectantly. Maybe it was worth a try. Before I lost my courage, I blurted out.

“Okay. Let’s do it. Let’s go out to see what’s out there,” I said, already dreading my decision.

Ray looked relieved. Sam still looked worried. She took a deep breath, as though bracing herself.

“Okay, here are the rules. The four of us stay together all the time, until we return home. No exceptions. Maybe in some excruciating circumstances we can reconsider. But we will vote for it during those times,” she said.

“Okay,” said Ray and Yaj. They appeared confident and were almost eager to venture out.

“I agree. Let’s go.” I said in resignation.

I felt as though we were stuck in a reality show, where the creators didn’t provide us with rules or instructions.

We quickly ate a banana each, and drank some water. Ray opened one of the windows slowly, and looked outside the house.

“All clear… I think,” he whispered, looking out in the front yard.

Sam unlocked the front door, moving the heavy wooden bar away from the slot.

Yaj picked up the knife from the floor, and held it in his right hand.

“What do you think you are doing Yaj?” I almost whisper screamed.

“Just in case,” he murmured.

“How is that going to look, while we are asking for help or negotiating?” I asked him nervously.

“He can keep it hidden behind him, Dee” said Ray.

I didn’t like it at all. The whole thing was so messed up. I just wanted to remain safe, until we got back home.

Yaj opened the door a few inches wide, and stepped out. Ray and Sam followed right behind him.

“Come on Dee, hurry up,” whispered Sam.

Hurry up to do what? I wanted to ask them.

Sam and I wore back our shoes. Mine were still slightly damp. Yaj opened the leafy gate, and stepped out cautiously.

“All clear,” he whispered looking at the street.

It was slightly foggy, but with just enough visibility. The street looked deserted, and all the doors from the other homes were still shut. I wasn’t even sure what we were supposed to be doing at this point.

I wrapped my arms tightly around me, staring at the street nervously.

“The houses here have an open drainage system. The waste water from homes must be flowing down into the ocean,” Ray began explaining to us softly.

There were small narrow openings like an exposed drain pipe, running across in front of all the houses.

“The gutters we see on the sides, used to exist in ancient cultures. Some places in our world still use similar systems,” he said.

He was trying to distract us and get our minds off the possible danger. It was working somewhat, to an extent. A part of me wasn’t really convinced that this wasn’t our world. Maybe we drifted to a part where they didn’t have access to modern technology, or chose to not have any. Like a retreat from the daily grind, where technology took over. I remembered one such family vacation. It drove dad crazy. Mom and I found it hilarious. But that place was free of weird shell-robot-people attacking us.

“These streets should cross each other at right angles, and meet a main street at some point,” said Ray, pointing to the end of the street.

There was a cross street visible a few hundred feet away. It was currently deserted. We began walking slowly towards that intersection. The street was littered with heaps of shells and seaweed randomly. I was creeped out because I knew what they were.

It was pretty quiet. There were no birds or any other kinds of sounds. At this time in the morning, it was a little chilly, and the fog was making our clothes damp and cold. My nose was twitching, and I tried to hold back a sneeze.

We passed some cross sections with a narrow street until we saw a much larger one.

“Right or left?” whispered Sam, when we were a few feet away from the intersection.

“Left. Let’s walk away from the ocean. Maybe we’d find some help inland,” I replied and sneezed.

We all froze. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a delicate sneeze that sounded like a sniff. Mine was pretty loud. Shake the rafters loud, especially, when I didn’t have my hands muffling the sound. Also the fact that I was stopping my sneeze for a few seconds made it even louder in this silence.

“Excuse me. Sorry,” I told them dumbly, my eyes quickly looking around to check the streets for anyone.

Sam let out an uneasy chuckle. She kept looking around too. “No harm done. Let’s go,” she said.

We turned left and walked for a few minutes, when we heard the noises. They sounded like the ones that the robot woman had made, while she was dragging herself on her huge shell-feet.

“Oh shoot,” I said in panic.

“Based on the number of thumps, there must be more than one person,” said Sam.

“There’s no need to panic. Remember, we are here to ask for their help,” said Ray pretty unconvincingly.

Two men emerged from the next street, and were heading in our direction. They were dressed differently, and had the same greenish tinge as the woman yesterday. They wore short tunics and flowing trousers. They were both bearded, and the shells were not visible from where they were standing. They were leaning against the wall and a tree.

“Excuse me sir,” said Ray, keeping his tone calm.

They didn’t respond.

“We need your help… we’re new to this place,” he said, raising his voice to be heard well.

The men still didn’t respond. They kept dragging their feet towards us, taking support from the walls and trees.

“Steady… steady…” muttered Sam, breathing with her mouth.

“Maybe they don’t understand us. Let’s wait here,” whispered Ray. He sounded hesitant.

When the men got closer, I could finally see the shells jutting grotesquely out from their faces and neck. My heart was pounding loudly. Every instinct was screaming at me to run away.

One of them removed a knife from his side.

“They are definitely not friendly. Run!” screamed Sam, holding my hand.

Both of us ran the opposite direction, away from the knife wielding person. When we didn’t hear anyone running behind us, I looked back briefly, to see if Ray and Yaj were following us.

Yaj was holding the knife raised up in his hand as though in peace and walking towards the men. Ray was right next to him.

“Stop! Yaj! Ray!” I shouted.

“They are idiots. Boys! Bahh! Always trying to be the heroes,” said Sam.

“Yaj! Ray! Run and get away from them!” I screamed.

They suddenly stopped and froze at a spot. The men were less than twenty feet away from them.

They didn’t move and stood staring like statues.

“Oh my god. Just like yesterday…with that creature-thing in the house,” I told Sam.

“Yes. It’s their eyes remember? Don’t look into their eyes. Must be hypnosis or something,” replied Sam.

“How do we snap them out of it?” I asked, as we ran back to them.

We stood in front of Ray and Yaj. They weren’t even blinking. My eyes kept darting between the creatures and the frozen guys in front of me. I placed my hand in front of Yaj’s eyes to see if that would snap him out of the daze. Sam did the same with Ray, and nothing happened.

“What do we do Sam?” I asked in panic.

The men were getting closer slowly. We tried to drag Ray and Yaj to middle of the street, where it seemed relatively safer. There was nothing to support the men, who were pretty unstable on their feet. Ray and Yaj were much too heavy and stiff, seemingly rooted to their spots.

We heard more dragging noises. I couldn’t see anyone else. Yet.

“Oh no…oh no…oh no,” kept muttering Sam.

I refused to stand there helplessly. There was a good chance that Ray and Yaj would be seriously hurt if we didn’t do anything soon.

“Okay… we’re running out of time. Let’s give it a try. I’ll get the one with a knife,” said Sam, as she slowly removed the sickle from Yaj’s fingers.

“Like a saber, side thrust…arghh…Not even remotely close,” she muttered, looking at the weapon in her hand.

“Now!” I signaled, and ran at full speed, holding out my hands, ready to push one of the men forward.

I braced myself and made contact. The shells on his back under his clothes were hard. Just like yesterday, the impact didn’t make him stumble. I crossed my fingers, and waited with a bated breath. He turned back to look at me. I remembered it too late that I wasn’t supposed to look into his eyes. Thankfully, I wasn’t frozen on the spot or hypnotized.

“Dee!” I heard Sam shout. She was on the ground, edging away from the other man, towards the middle of the street, away from Ray and Yaj. She was avoiding his eyes, and watching his hands. He was holding the knife in a threatening manner.

I ran towards her, hoping I wouldn’t be too late. She was holding up the sickle to deflect the oncoming blow.

My heart was pumping fast and it was a blur again. Just like yesterday.

My hand stopped the oncoming blow by holding the creature’s hand and I twisted it backwards, swinging it and stabbing it in the chest, right into the heart. There was a loud hiss and splutter.

“Eww,” said Sam. She was drenched with slime, and partly covered in the splattered seaweed and shells.

I didn’t wait. I picked up the knife and went towards the other one, who was barely a foot away from Ray and Yaj. I stabbed him clean into the chest and waited till I heard the hiss and splutter.

“It happened again.” I heard Yaj speak. “We were we frozen again. I could see and hear everything” he said slowly, and looked very dazed.

“I felt useless and helpless!” exclaimed Ray, shaking his head.

“Then next time, just run!” I shouted at them.

Good god. What was happening to me? How did I suddenly become some sort of hulk going on a rampage and killing those things? Something weird was going on. What was making me act like some sort of ninja?

“Don’t look at their eyes,” said Sam, warning them.

“We can’t deal with these things, or people, or whatever heck they are. Let’s just vote to run. Okay?” I asked.

Sam and Ray nodded their head. Yaj had a stubborn expression. But eventually he nodded when I didn’t stop glaring at him.

“Okay, but how did you destroy them Dee?” asked Ray.

“I don’t know. For some reason I get all psycho-murderer like, when I see them attack any of us. Maybe just dumb luck,” I told them.

“Well…we all need that kind of luck if we are going to survive here,” said Ray.

“Dee…I noticed that you always stab them in their chest…right into the heart. Maybe that’s what kills them,” said Sam in awe.

“You mean, stake them like a vampire?” I asked.

I sounded like a character from a bad horror movie or a slasher movie.

“Dee… they were also freakishly strong. One shove and I fell down,” said Sam sounding uncertain.

That was weird and unsettling. I was pretty puny compared to those tall shell-robots or whatever they were. How was I able to stop them by holding their hand and twist it to stab them?

The thumping noises grew closer, and we could see at least a dozen of them emerge from the narrow intersections. They were all leaning on walls or the trees, on either side of the street.

“Let’s go the opposite way this time, run towards the beach,” I said.

Yaj and Ray held a knife each in their hands.

“We’ll go in the front and you both follow us,” said Yaj.

We began to run. We stayed towards the middle of the street, dodging the heaps, keeping our eyes down. Ray and Yaj were at the front, with Sam and I right behind them.

At one of the cross street, a few creatures lunged at us. Yaj stabbed one of them in the chest with his right hand while he maneuvered me with his other to stay behind him. The creature fell down with a hiss.

Meantime Ray did the same with another creature. Several more were coming towards us at the same time.

“Dee…stay behind me. Don’t move far from me,” said Yaj as the creatures got closer.

I wished I had some sort of weapon to deal with them. I felt stupid staying behind him helplessly. He wasn’t able to focus and deal with them while his left hand stretched out protectively to keep them away from me.

There were half a dozen of them surrounding us.

“Yaj! Forget about me. Use both your hands and deal with them,” I told him as they lunged towards us at the same time.

I heard some hissing noises, but before I could see how Yaj was doing, I was lifted high up in the air thrown down with enough force to knock the breath out of me.

“Dee!” I heard Yaj shout.

I was coughing, trying to get some air back into my lungs.

Ray was stabbing a lot of those creatures, but I could see he would be overpowered soon. There were way too many of them.

I didn’t have any weapon in hand and felt helpless. I tried to get up slowly, but something that must weigh a ton slammed into my back, knocking the breath out of me. It was a shell foot. I could feel the cold hard surface through my shirt.

I was gasping unable to breathe.

“Dee!” shouted Yaj.

When I thought I would pass out from not being able to breathe, I felt the weight lift with a hissing noise. I tried to breathe and I was almost certain I might have cracked a rib. It hurt that bad.

I felt a hand on my shoulder turning me gently.

“Oh god Dee, are you okay?” asked Yaj in concern.

Before I could answer, I saw two more of those creatures behind Yaj.

“Yaj! Behind you!” I shouted. But it was too late.

One of them kicked the knife out of Yaj’s hands and shoved him on the ground next to me. The creature lifted his feet high up in the air and was about to crush Yaj’s stomach.

And then everything happened in slow motion this time and not a blur like before. I stood up and sunk my hands into the creature’s chest. I could even hear the squishing sound. I grabbed its heart and tore it out of the chest. The next second there was a hissing sound.

Meantime, Yaj got his knife back and tackled the other creature until all that was left was a slimy heap.

We didn’t waste time talking about what I did. Both of us ran to help Sam and Ray who were overpowered. One of the creatures was lifting Sam by her arms up into the air to fling her down like me.

I went and sunk my hands into its chest and tore out its heart. Sam fell on the ground and the creature’s slime was splattered all over her.

“Sam, are you okay?” I asked her urgently as she knelt on the ground.

“Yes, I’m fine. Just some scraped knees. Let’s go help Ray and Yaj,” she said.

Ray and Yaj were stabbing the creatures but there were too many of them remaining still, and more were heading towards us.

There was a knife lying on the ground next to a slimy heap. I picked it and gave it to Sam.

“What about you Dee?” she asked, even as we ran towards Ray and Yaj.

“I just figured out a trick, I’ll get them that way,” I told her as I ripped out another heart.

The next few minutes were quiet apart from the hissing noises.

Finally there were no more creatures left in the immediate vicinity.

“Dee. Are you okay?” asked Yaj, looking at me. I was clutching my bruised ribs that hurt like crazy.

“I think so…I’m fine…And you all?” I asked in a daze, trying to wipe away the slime on my face.

Sam and Ray were staring at me in a weird way.

“I’m fine. Thanks to you. Let’s go…quickly towards the shore,” said Yaj almost dragging me along.

I ignored the pain in my ribs. That creature almost crushed them with his foot.

We began running fast, dodging the heaps, trying to remain in middle of the street, far away from the other creatures. There were quite a few of them pouring out from the streets, with their hands outstretched.

After what felt like forever, we could see the ocean from the street, downhill.

I looked back briefly and couldn’t see anyone chasing us. We stopped running and began to walk really fast.

“Something is going on Dee. Ray or I weren’t able to pass our hands through those creatures like you were able to. You ripped their heart out, killing them,” said Sam, panting slightly.

“What? Maybe you both didn’t try doing that at the correct angle. I really doubt that I am the only one who is able to do it,” I told her almost wheezing.

“No…Sam is right. I tried to shove one of those creatures away from me and my hands didn’t pass through their chest either. In fact they were pretty hard,” said Yaj.

“I-I…don’t know. Can we figure this out later? My brain is about to burst with what just happened,” I told them.

They remained quiet.

Yaj began to slow down, and eventually stopped.

“Why did you stop now?” I asked panting.

“Look,” he said, pointing at the ground behind us. The heaps of seaweed and shells ended at a point behind us. There were none lying beyond that point. There was almost a clear indication, as if they stood in a line, and got destroyed.

“You’re right. There are no disgusting heaps from that point. I wonder if it’s safer out there… or if something worse is waiting on the other side” I remarked.

“Only way to find out,” said Ray, continuing to walk forward.

CHAPTER EIGHT

 

We were halfway to the shore, when we heard something. It sounded like people singing or chanting. They grew louder as we got closer.

I could see a small crowd at a distance, next to the ocean. They were all watching something. Smoke was rising up the air.

“Great. A lot more people here. Just what we wanted,” I remarked sarcastically.

“Something seems different about them,” said Sam.

“Of course there is! They have shells, and are out to get us for some reason,” I replied.

“No, the people seem taller and are standing upright with no support,” said Ray.

He may be right. But they were standing too close to each other to know that for sure.

“I don’t know…” I said, hesitantly.

“Ray’s right. They do seem different. We should check them out from up close. Sam, Dee, do you both want to wait here?” asked Yaj. “I know we discussed sticking together. But Ray and I can go down there first,” he offered.

“What? No… Those people could be dangerous… you guys wouldn’t be safe, and neither would be Sam and I…waiting here alone,” I told him.

“Dee is right. Let’s stay together like we decided. Safety in numbers and all that,” said Sam.

“There is no seaweed or shell debris lying around here,” mentioned Ray, pointing to the sand near the ocean.

He was right. That was somewhat promising.

“Okay, so what’s the vote?” asked Sam.

“Let’s go there,” answered Ray and Yaj.

“I think so too,” said Sam, although she didn’t seem very sure.

The vote was three to one. I nodded reluctantly.

“Okay. Let’s do it,” I said.

We slowly went towards the end of the street. There were rails made of stone, indicating that there were steps that led down to the beach.

When we got closer to the steps, I noticed that the people were tall, a couple of feet taller than Sam and me. They also seemed slightly taller than the people we encountered.

Remembering Ray’s words, I felt that the alien theory did hold some merit. My heart was racing, and I felt intimidated. We were voluntarily heading towards them. If anything bad were to happen down there, I wasn’t sure if I should be in a flight or attack mode. Considering the size of the crowd, neither would help.

They were all dressed similar to the ones who attacked us previously. I couldn’t see any of their faces yet, or figure out what was happening out there.

We stood next to the rails, about to get down the steps.

“Are those men standing guard near the steps? I can see a part of scabbard I think,” whispered Sam, pointing at two people on either side of the bottom step.

“They do look like some armed security guards,” I whispered back, looking at their stiff posture.

“Let me see if I can get their attention,” said Yaj, getting down a few steps.

We followed behind him and got down a dozen steps or so, when one of them whipped his head towards us. He moved his hands quickly towards the scabbard and froze, staring at us. My first reaction was relief. He had normal human features like us. No jutting shells or greenish tinge. My second reaction was to freeze, especially when I saw what he was slowly drawing out.

“He has a sword, and is looking at us,” whispered Sam, pointing the obvious.

The other armed guard was also turned our way. Both of them were now blocking the bottom step completely, and watching us. We kept looking at them for quite a few seconds.

“What do we do? Should we continue going down… to show them we don’t mean harm?” asked Sam frantically.

“No. Let’s just stay here a few more seconds, to find out what their next move is,” said Yaj.

The men continued to stare at us.

“We can’t keep having this staring contest all day,” I whispered.

“Besides, there is no way we can out run them in any direction. Have you seen the length of their legs?” asked Sam.

“We should talk to them. Maybe ask for their help,” Ray stated.

I remembered how it went the last few times we tried doing that.

“Yeah, let me try asking them this time. You guys have weapons in your hands,” I said, going down a step.

“Uh…excuse me sir…We are lost. We need your help. Can you please help us call home or help us get back?” I called out loudly.

Both the men nodded quietly and stepped aside.

“That was weird. Why are they silent? Are they going to help us or not?” asked Sam.

“Hope they don’t plan on attacking us… once we get closer,” I said.

Both the men began walking towards the crowd, standing next to the ocean.

“I think we are supposed to follow them,” said Ray.

I was blocking their way, standing still, on the steps. Yaj stepped around me, followed by Ray and Sam. They got down a few more steps and looked at me.

“You joining us Dee?” asked Yaj, with his eyebrow raised.

I reluctantly followed behind them.

The guards seemed to have informed everyone of our presence. A lot of people in the crowd were whispering, and looking at us. The guards stood at the back of the crowd, waiting for us to join them.

I stared into some of their faces, making sure they weren’t green with any jutting shells. The beach was really clear of any slime or heaps of seaweed and shells.

When we were a few feet away, the crowd began to part, making a path way to the middle. I could hear the chanting, but couldn’t figure out the language.

They had a very hypnotic quality to them.

We followed the guards, who were walking towards the source of the chanting. When the last of the crowd had parted, the guards stepped away, standing up straight as though waiting for instructions.

A group of long and heavily bearded men were seated around a loosely placed brick fire pit. They were still chanting together. They were all dressed in loose white colored cloth draped like trousers, and another one loosely falling off their shoulders. They wore brown colored beads in form of jewelry, as a long necklace, around their arms and their wrists. Some of them had grey hair, some of them brown and the rest black. All of them had their hair styled in form of a bun on top of their heads.

We waited silently, observing them. After a few minutes, they were done and got up from their places.

One of the guards whispered something to them, pointing at us. I couldn’t really make out if they were saying something positive or negative about us.

“What is he telling them? Maybe, they don’t understand our language. We need to let them know we are harmless,” I whispered, not taking my eyes off of them.

All the long bearded men, along with a few others were slowly approaching us. They were pretty intimidating with their height and built. They had a well defined six-pack with bulging muscled arms.

“Let me talk to them this time. Maybe they’ll understand me better,” said Sam, and stood in front of us.

“Wee… aare… loost. Wee… need… your… help… to… get…baack…hoomee” said Sam enacting every word and gesturing with her hands. I was horrified that they’d be insulted by it, and found it funny at the same time. I didn’t dare to laugh though.

“We are Sam, Ray, Yaj and Dee” she continued pointing at each of us.

The bearded men were staring at us in shock and awe, while nodding their heads slightly in acknowledgement.

“We have been waiting for you to come to us,” said one of them, in a very formal tone.

I was surprised as he began to speak. I was sure I was hearing an unknown language, but somehow I was able to understand it perfectly. The words I understood, but I wasn’t sure of the meaning.

“What did he mean by saying that they’d been waiting for us?” I whispered softly from behind Sam.

“How did you hear about us?” asked Ray, watching them closely.

Maybe someone saw us break into that house after all. They must have complained or warned them about us. Also about the attacks and the fact we destroyed a few of the shell-robot-creatures. If these people created the robot-shell things, I wasn’t sure destroying some of them would be appreciated.

The men in front of us didn’t seem upset or angry. Just pleased and relieved about something.

I was fidgeting due to my ribs, which were still aching.

“Please join us,” one of them requested, and showed us a place to sit by the fire pit.

The four of us sat next to each other. I had a hundred questions racing through my mind. Before I could voice any, one of them started to talk.

“I am Vasishta,” he introduced himself. “These are Bharadvaja, Jamadagni, Gautama, Atri, Vishvamitra and Agastya,” he said pointing at six other long and heavily bearded men.

The names were a mouthful and I hoped Sam would be able to remember all their names. I looked at Sam, Ray and Yaj. They were listening intently.

“The seven of us are called Saptasris, and we are the kingdom’s council members. On behalf of our king Manu, we have been summoning for help from the gods,” he said.

Wait … this place had a king? I looked at their king. Manu was tall like others, but didn’t have a long beard. He was built crazy strong and looked like a warrior. But he had a weary expression on his face with dark circles under his eyes. He was dressed differently from the others too. His clothing was much richer with vivid colors. His upper body was covered with a long bright blue colored cloth that was just draped across his shoulders. He also had a lot of jewelry on him, loopy gold earrings with four chunky bracelets bands. Two of the bracelets were worn on the upper arm and the other two on his wrists. They had red colored shiny rubies embedded in them. He was also wearing a thick plain gold necklace around his neck.

“From the past fourteen days, the entire kingdom… or what is left of it, has been instructed to assemble here every morning on these shores. We have been praying and waiting for a sign from the gods,” said Vasishta.

I looked at him uncertainly, not knowing what he expected of us, and why they felt we were the answers to their summons. I wasn’t able to sit down comfortably either. My shoes were covered liberally with the slime from the past encounters.

“We can see that four of you have succeeded in defeating some of the cursed people of our kingdom,” he said, while pointing to the slime on our clothes.

“So far, no ordinary man has been able to do that. Every morning, we have been praying here for help. After our prayers we get the holy water and ashes from our ritual, and sprinkle them around the kingdom to stop the curse from spreading further. Lately, it has been a losing battle. We have already lost most of our kingdom to the curse,” he said grimly.

I couldn’t remain silent anymore. Sam, Ray and Yaj seemed content to listen all day without talking.

“What do you mean by cursed?” I asked, finding the entire thing surreal.

According to what I understood so far, the shell-robots were actually people who were cursed. Not some kind of engineering marvel like Ray had guessed. Oh my god, did we actually murder so many people?

Even if they wanted to kill us first, it was still a murder.

“The kingdom was cursed by the demon king Shankasura. He has stolen our holy texts and scriptures, containing the salvation to our kingdom. He has refused to return them, and we can no longer wage a war on him. He has the power of dark arts on his side, and can convert the people into something irreversible. Once a curse touches a person, they are dead and no longer remain themselves. Their hearts are controlled by the demon king who has instructed them to destroy anything that comes in their way. The only way to kill them is to stop the heart from beating,” he said.

After hearing that, it made me feel slightly better, although the surreal feeling still remained.

“Did he just say a demon?” I whispered in shock.

“We’re not sure… how we can be of any help. In fact, we need your help to get back to our families,” said Sam.

The men were all quiet and nodded sympathetically at us. That definitely didn’t look promising.

“We understand. But please know that our stolen texts contain the four Vedas and without them, our kingdom will remain cursed for eternity. We have already begun to see the destruction. We know that the four of you are a sign. You are not from our world. You will be the key in the downfall of the demon king, and ultimately retrieve our Vedas,” one of them stated.

It was scary that they believed that of us and counted on us to help them. But they were right about the fact that we were not from their world.

“Please trust us. We need your help, and we promise to help you in return,” said their king Manu.

I looked at Sam, Ray and Yaj. Although, we couldn’t communicate telepathically, I know we all thought the same thing right then. That we had no choice, but to wait and see what would happen next. And we had to play along.

The people before us were a better choice than the cursed.

Manu stood up holding a small shiny bowl. It looked like it was made of gold. Most of the crowd had some form of jewelry on them. And it wasn’t limited to just the women. Even the men wore ear rings with bracelets and necklaces. It suited them somehow along with their clothing.

“Please, follow me. We need to get our holy water now,” said Manu, getting up and walking towards the water.

I paused for a few seconds, not moving. After my last couple of nightmares, it was safe to say that I was feeling a little water phobic. The ocean didn’t seem rough though. It must be sometime in the morning. The sun had risen a while ago and was bright enough to make the weather humid and warm.

“Please join him inside the water. Your presence will be appreciated,” said one of the council members.

I couldn’t recall all their names, just the term used to represent the seven of them together. Saptasris.

The four of us began walking towards Manu. He was walking slowly into the water. My brain couldn’t possibly reason in any manner, to make the entire situation appear normal. The curse… the demon… the stolen holy texts…

“My god! We seem to have fallen into a rabbit hole…or as Ray suggested, possibly a weird sink hole,” I whispered.

“I know! Where is this place anyway?” asked Sam.

“No idea. Based on their clothing I would say South Asia. But we should find out as much as we can to help ourselves,” said Ray.

“My god, if we can’t help them find their stolen texts, we could be stuck in this place for an eternity,” I said, horrified by the thought.

“If we manage to stay alive for that long,” remarked Yaj.

That sounded worse. There definitely must be a way to escape this place and return back to our homes.

Okay, maybe we should convince them that we are not the signs from the gods,” I whispered.

“How do you think they’ll react to that? You think they’ll just say ‘Oh, okay’ and send us on the next flight home?” asked Yaj.

He had a point, although the delivery of it rubbed me the wrong way.

“What do you think they’ll do, when they eventually find out that we are useless in getting their stolen texts back?” I challenged him and glared at him.

“Children, children… calm down. Let’s wait until we’re alone to discuss this. Okay?” muttered Ray, shaking his head to indicate that we were being watched closely.

“Ray’s right. We can’t bicker here. We should handle this later,” said Sam.

They were right, and we were almost close to Manu. The sun was still not high up in the sky. It must be some time in the morning. I wondered how long our adventure on the streets lasted.

Manu stood in knee deep water. He was filling up the golden bowl with some ocean water. We stopped and stood a few feet away. He began chanting softly, and was pouring the water from the bowl back into the ocean. He filled it again, to only pour it back into the ocean. He repeated that, a few more times. I was standing next to Sam, who was softly counting, the number of times he did that.

On the seventh time, he froze in the act of pouring the water back into the ocean. He was looking into the bowl with a shocked expression.

“What happened?” I whispered almost expecting one of the cursed to come out of the water and attack us.

“No idea. Maybe he is supposed to freeze that way on the seventh time,” replied Sam.

Then, I heard something. Or rather someone speak.

“Please don’t throw me back into the ocean. The big fishes will eat me. You must always keep me safe,” said the mysterious voice.

The voice was coming from Manu’s side. I knew it was too high pitched for it to be him. Besides, his lips weren’t moving.

“Who is that?” I whispered, and looked around.

It was just the four of us with Manu in the water.

“Shh, he can hear us,” said Sam, squeezing my hands gently.

“If you save me, you will be rewarded. I will save you from the Pralaya,” the small voice continued.

The only logical source seemed to be the bowl he was holding in his hands.

Sam, Ray and Yaj didn’t seem surprised. Did they not hear it? Or worse, did they think it was normal to hear random voices from a small bowl?

Manu was holding the bowl carefully now.

“I am done here. Let’s get back,” he said grimly.

He seemed worried about something.

We headed back to the crowd, and fire was almost gone. There were just a few glowing embers remaining around the ash. One of the council members was carefully collecting the ash into a container.

A couple of women stepped in front of Manu, offering to help with the bowl. He shook his head, and covered the bowl with a small piece of cloth.

“Can you please take care of this?” he asked, looking at me, while holding the bowl in his outstretched hands.

I paused for a second, and reached for it. I held it carefully in my hands.

Manu left to speak to his council men. They were nodding their heads at something he told them.

Moving the cloth slightly to the side, I took a quick peek inside. There was a tiny bright blue fish, with a little horn on top of its head. It was so small that I could barely locate it in the bowl. Did it really talk, or am I losing my mind? I covered it back with the cloth before anyone noticed, wondering why he wanted it covered in the first place.

“What’s in it?” asked Ray, looking curious.

“A small fish,” I told him.

“Why would he ask you to hold it for him?” asked Sam.

“Not a clue,” I told her, wondering the same myself.

“What do you think they are discussing? I think it’s about us?” whispered Sam, looking towards Manu and his men.

“I sure hope it’s all good,” I whispered to her. My ribs were still hurting, and I was getting tired and hungry.

Manu came to us, followed by his council members. “Please come and join me at my place. You are my guests now, and we desperately need your presence, especially during these difficult times,” he requested.

The four of us looked at each other and nodded our approval. “Thank you for the offer. We’ll join you,” said Ray answering for all four of us.

We definitely didn’t want to be left here alone to fend the cursed by ourselves, and to face who knows what else.

 

CHAPTER NINE

 

We were led towards a closed carriage driven by a couple of white horses. The carriage was decorated with multicolored shiny fabrics. Different kinds of beads were stitched into the fabrics in pretty designs. There were small windows on both sides that were currently covered by the drapes.

Inside, there were two rows of seats facing each other. They looked comfortable with plush padding and small embroidered pillows. I handed the fish bowl to Sam, and used the small step attached to the carriage to heave myself inside. Even with the step, it was quite high to comfortably get in. Taking the fish bowl back from Sam, I sat on one of the seats.

Manu joined us four in the carriage. His council members followed behind us in another one. He had an impressive golden crown on top of his head. It looked really heavy, and was made of gold and some other precious stones. He seemed preoccupied with something on his mind. We remained silent all through the journey.

I stared out of the carriage windows. There were several rows of houses similar to those we had seen before, close to the beach. All the houses were in a square or a rectangular shape, arranged neatly in rows. People were standing on the streets, some talking to each other or simply waiting outside their homes. They weren’t that many of them; probably they were still on their way from the beach.

After a few minutes, the carriage stopped in front of large heavily sculpted gates. It was most likely the entrance to Manu’s place. A giant golden sculpture of a bull, almost as tall as the gates was right next to them. The sculpture looked regal and imposing with a fierce expression. It appeared as though it was guarding the gates. On either side of the bull were two thick stone columns as high as the bull and were lit with large fire on top.

The gates were opened by a couple of guards and our carriage was led inside. We passed through several well-kept gardens and stopped in front of a huge two storied stone structure. There were several rectangular shaped buildings on either side of the main structure.

Manu got down the carriage in a hurry.

“I need to speak with the council right away. I will send someone to assist you. Please send for me if you need anything,” he said and walked away.

I let Yaj hold the fish bowl while Ray lent me his hand to get down the carriage. He helped Sam next, and we stood staring at the huge imposing structure before us.

“I’ve never seen anything like it before. It doesn’t look anything like a palace or a castle,” I remarked, taking the fish bowl back from Yaj.

“It’s called a citadel. I’ve seen similar pictures before. Most early civilizations built such structures,” said Ray, looking at it in awe.

A lot of people were hurrying about the place, probably getting back from the morning ritual at the shore.

“How did so many of them get here faster than us?” asked Sam, looking surprised.

“Maybe not everyone gathered on the shore for the morning ceremony,” I told her.

“We need to talk about this whole thing” I began.

“Not now,” said Yaj, interrupting me. “First let’s find a safe place to talk,” he said, looking at the people around us.

They were watching us curiously. Maybe, he was right. What I had to say was definitely not for their ears. I wanted to discuss how we plan on getting out from this place and go home.

A man came by and offered to escort us into the citadel. While we were walking towards the main structure, Ray asked him a lot of questions.

“How do you get fresh water for the garden and the ponds?” he asked.

The man mentioned that it was a combination of rain water and reservoirs. He pointed to something beyond the garden walls.

“We have several reservoirs outside the building, and across the kingdom,” he explained.

He also went on to explain how those were built to store excess water during the rains or floods. Apparently, they protected the kingdom from several floods over the years.

Ray looked at us sheepishly.

“Sorry, I know we are in middle of this whole crisis and situation… it’s weird, but I feel as though I am experiencing one of my favorite fantasies! This place is awesome!” he said, smiling.

Knowing Ray, he probably felt like a kid in a candy store. This place was pretty cool and I could have enjoyed the tour better, if I weren’t so anxious to get over with our discussion.

“That’s okay Ray. When we get back, you can fill me up on the details,” I told him smiling. “Trust me; I’m too dazed to note anything.”

The entrance to the citadel was through another set of heavily carved doors. These doors had some tiny bells attached within them.

As soon as we stepped through the doors, the first thing I noticed was the huge polished stone columns across a large hall. The entire place was brimming with a lot of people doing various activities. It was definitely different from the house we broke into the previous morning.

“Wow! Certainly befitting a king!” exclaimed Ray.

“I need to place this fish somewhere,” I said looking for flat surface to place the bowl on.

I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do with it. Hopefully, Manu handed it to me as a temporary thing. I wasn’t ready to acquire a pet in this strange place, especially, when I was a reluctant guest myself. I moved the cloth covering the bowl to a side, to see how the fish was doing.

“What…?” I gasped, almost dropping the bowl.

“What is it Dee?” asked Sam, concerned.

“It’s the fish…I…I swear it was barely visible in the bowl a few minutes ago. It has grown… probably ten times its size or maybe more,” I told her in shock.

It had gotten quite big with its horn almost jutting out of the bowl.

“Are you sure?” asked Sam, looking at it in puzzlement.

“Yes! I remember looking at it, and thinking it was way too tiny. I could barely see it in the bowl this morning” I explained.

“Maybe you didn’t notice the size. We were all preoccupied, and we still are,” said Sam.

“No…I’m sure I remember its size. In fact it reminded me so much of my pet fish Goldie! I’ve had a betta-fish for over thirteen years. Goldie and this fish were the same size and color early this morning,” I informed them.

“Uhh…the fish is blue Dee,” said Ray, watching me and then the fish.

“I know! Goldie is blue too. I just picked that name when I was three,” I said.

“Wait… you have a pet fish that lived for almost thirteen years?” asked Yaj skeptically. One of the few things I might have missed discussing with him.

“No Yaj, I knew my parents replaced it with a similar one every time my old fish died. They thought I was oblivious. But I knew it,” I explained with my voice turning slightly shriller.

“Maybe this one had a growth spurt,” said Sam watching me carefully. She looked as though she was worried I was about to have a breakdown.

“Yes…it’s possible Dee. I grew at least a foot taller since the last two summers,” said Ray, trying to sound helpful.

“Nothing can possibly have this fast a growth spurt! I remember how small it was. I even heard it talk. It asked Manu to save it,” I informed.

“What? Who asked Manu to save them?” asked Yaj.

He had the same look on his face as Sam. They were all worried I was about to have a meltdown.

“The fish…I didn’t know it was a fish at that time. But I heard it speak guys. It asked Manu to save it from the other big fishes… and…warned him about something. You guys didn’t hear it?” I asked, and felt ridiculous telling them that.

“Dee, we need to rest first. It’s been an eventful morning. Maybe we can talk about this later,” said Sam.

“Dee, I don’t think any of us heard the fish talk. I’m not saying it’s not true… just that we didn’t hear it,” said Ray, carefully.

“I don’t think I imagined it. We were attacked by the cursed, and there are actual demons living in this world, why is a talking fish that big of a stretch?” I asked.

I knew I was making them nervous. I was making myself nervous.

A woman was looking our way and approaching us.

“I need to speak to Manu. Where can I find him?” I asked her, when she came close enough to hear me.

“King Manu is speaking to the head council now. He should be back shortly. Meantime, please let me show you to your rooms. You can freshen up and proceed to the dining area,” she offered.

I was exhausted and the offer was very tempting. Sam, Ray and Yaj also looked like they could use some food and rest. But I felt determined to find out what happened to the fish. And that I wasn’t imagining things.

“You guys go ahead. I’ll wait for Manu here,” I told them.

I held the bowl gingerly. How did I not notice the bowl get heavier? The fish did look uncomfortable now. Its horn was almost crushed in the bowl.

“We’ll wait here with you Dee,” offered Sam, sounding concerned.

We waited there for a few minutes. Manu finally came out from one of the rooms. He was talking softly to one of the council members. They all had grim expressions on their faces. Soon, he was done talking, and was about to leave. He was walking in our direction, when he realized we were waiting.

“Were you not helped by anyone? Shown to your rooms yet?” he asked, when he came closer.

“I kept them waiting. I wanted to show you this first,” I told him and handed the bowl over.

He held it and looked inside. He seemed shocked and that made me glad. I wasn’t imagining things then.

“It has started to happen already,” he said rather ominously.

The four of us looked at each other’s faces trying to decode that statement.

“I need to go outside,” he said, walking through the doors leading to outside.

He stopped by one of the ponds in the garden. He bent down and let the fish into the pond. The fish swam away towards some lily pads in the pond.

“Thank you for taking care of the fish. It’s very important that it remains comfortable wherever it is placed,” he told me with a worried expression.

I was sure the fish growing in size was bothering him.

“Uh…not a problem,” I replied.

I was still a little uneasy about the fact that I heard the fish talk, especially, when Sam, Ray or Yaj couldn’t. I was pretty sure that Manu did too. And that’s why he had brought it back with him. I wasn’t sure why he wouldn’t mention it to everyone though.

“Let any of us know if you need anything,” he told us distractedly, and went back into the main building.

“Why didn’t you ask him about the fish talking to him?” Sam asked me.

“He would’ve told us about it, if he wanted to,” I told her.

We went inside the main building, and a couple of women approached us. Sam and I were to follow one of them while Ray and Yaj were asked to follow the other in the opposite direction.

“Let’s meet in this main hall after freshening up,” said Ray.

The lady told us that a couple of rooms had been prepared for Sam and me, and that they were next to each other. Sam and I insisted on sharing a room. I didn’t want to be by myself and neither did she. The woman nodded and left, informing us that someone would be joining us shortly.

A young girl probably around our age came to our room. She introduced herself as Mandira.

“I’m going to be assisting you during your stay,” she informed us with a rather aloof expression.

“Thank you. We definitely need your help,” I told her smiling.

We were helpless as babies around this place, with nowhere to go and no one to guide us around.

“Wow, quite a room. We’ve been sharing some really unique rooms, Sam. First our hotel cave-room and now this,” I told Sam.

She laughed and agreed with me. The bed looked luxurious and inviting. I wanted to just fall into it and sleep rest of the day. Maybe I would wake up and find myself back home in my room.

I walked to the large windows on one of the walls, and pushed aside the heavy drapes. The view was pretty cool. The gardens and the mountains could be seen from here. The same mountains I saw yesterday morning from the ocean. They were pretty high, and I could see the clouds form around the peak.

“I don’t want to lie down on these clean sheets with our dirty clothes on,” said Sam. “I need a bath. I’d settle for a quick shower even,” she said, joining me near the window.

“I can lead you to the bathing area,” offered Mandira, who was still waiting in the room.

“Thanks. But we don’t have any clean clothes with us,” I told her.

“That’s not a problem. I was asked to find something for you both,” she said.

I somehow doubted it was an easy task to find clothes that fit Sam and me. Everyone was so tall around here. Maybe a younger child would be our size. Luckily Sam and I were the same dress size. At least, Mandira wouldn’t have to borrow from two different children. She didn’t appear real happy ‘assisting’ us in the first place.

“Thank you for the offer. We’ll take it,” said Sam, gratefully.

Mandira handed us with some supplies and led us out. We each held a drying cloth, a wash cloth and some flowery smelling powder to be used as soap. She led us towards the back of the main hall. As soon as we stepped out of the back doors, I noticed a couple of huge stone structures on either side of the garden area. She went towards the left one which was supposed to be the women’s bathing area.

“Whoa those are a lot of steps,” said Sam, as we stared up the structure.

There were several series of steps in shape of a pyramid. We started to climb them quickly.

“No wonder everyone here is really strong and fit. With all these steps to climb every day for a bath, who would need to exercise?” I remarked, breathing heavily.

When we finally reached the top, I could see to a huge sunken bathing pool in the middle. It had several water fountains and each of those was accessible through series of small steps.

“Wow a rooftop pool! Imagine that!” I exclaimed, excited.

Mandira left us and promised to be back with our clean clothes.

“Finally I’ll stop smelling like the slime and seaweed,” murmured Sam.

We went down the steps, and picked two fountains that were next to each other. Each of them had their own series of small steps around them, providing us with privacy.

I removed my clothes and shoes, and jumped into the water. The water was just right and it felt quite refreshing. I used the washcloth and the powdery herbs to scrub myself clean. The bracelet was still on my right hand. I didn’t want to remove it during the bath. It was my only link to home.

The powdery herbs didn’t lather like soap, but after I rinsed off with water, my skin felt squeaky clean. I used some of that powder to brush my teeth using my finger. It tasted bitter, but got the job done.

The long drying cloth smelled nice when I dried myself. Like herbs and sunshine, unlike my discarded clothes from yesterday. They smelled like rotting seaweed. I began washing and scrubbing them thoroughly in clean water, using the herb powder. Next, I washed my shoes. I wish I had worn my flip-flops for the trip. But the shoes were a safer option for water and cave exploration.

I left my clothes and shoes on one of the steps to dry. When I was done, I called out to Sam. I could still hear some splashing noises.

“Sam, are you done? We’ve been here long enough. I’ve begun to prune now,” I told her.

“I’m almost done. Be right out in a minute,” she answered. “Besides… pruning improves our grip on wet or submerged objects. It’s a good thing you know…when we have so many slippery steps to wade through on our way back,” she said.

That made me smile. I sat on one of the steps waiting for Sam. After a couple of minutes, I heard her come out.

“I’m done. Let’s go,” she said.

We climbed up the steps, and went back to the top of the bathing area. We saw Mandira waiting for us with some clean clothes. She brought back quite a few choices. She told us that she wasn’t sure what size would fit us. The clothing was very different from what the women around us wore. Most of them had a really long cloth draped around them from top to bottom allowing them movement.

I tried a couple of choices, and settled on the one that fit me more comfortably. It was a simple red short tunic and a long green flowing skirt that ended a couple of inches above my ankles. Sam was similarly attired in a red tunic with a yellow flowing skirt.

“May I ask you something?” asked Mandira, looking at Sam and me.

“Sure. Go ahead,” I said, wondering if she would ask me something about the stolen holy texts. We were yet to have a discussion, on how we plan on getting out of that situation, and still manage to find help to get home.

“Some of us were wondering… about the man with different colored eyes. Was he touched by the gods or the demons?” asked Mandira in both awe and fear.

I was almost tempted to tell her that he was the devil, and to run the opposite direction. Based on what was happening around here, that joke would not go well. All four of us would be in danger.

“He wasn’t touched by the gods or the devil. He was just born that way,” I told her.

She still seemed puzzled, but nodded anyways, and then began showing us the footwear.

“Are you two married to any of those two men?” she asked us, laying out a few options in front of us.

“Wha-a-a-t? Eww..Noo,” I told rather forcefully, startling her and Sam.

“No. The four of us are good friends. None of us are married,” Sam told her, eyeing me speculatively.

Mandira looked relieved and excited about that fact.

Most of the foot wear was shaped like a fish. They were made of wood and had a post and a knob which would separate our big toe from the rest. And they had a two inch heel. I had never worn heels in my life. My mom had insisted they would mess with my bone growth and would cause severe pain. And this footwear seemed like they would definitely cause some serious pain.

Sam had a similar expression eyeing the footwear. I slipped my feet into one of them, and walked a few steps gingerly.

“Not too bad, if we walk slowly,” I told Sam.

“Well, better than going barefoot, I suppose,” she said, walking much more comfortably in them than me.

Mandira led us back to the main building and showed us the way to the dining area. She asked us to call for her in case we wanted anything.

“Well… someone has a huge crush on Yaj,” said Sam, shocking me speechless.

I looked at her, and realized she was talking about Mandira, who was stopping and talking to Ray and Yaj. It was mostly to Yaj. She was asking him something, and when he replied, she giggled and blushed.

It was weird watching Yaj speak freely to someone like that. Apart from me that is.

“All she has to do is talk to him more, and that will cure her of her crush,” I told Sam.

It didn’t appear that way. Ray joined in their conversation, and the three of them were doing a lot of gesturing and smiling.

“Hmm… she seems to have made quite an impression. Yaj seems… friendly with her,” said Sam.

She was right. Yaj usual aloof expression was absent.

“Maybe he has a type. He only likes really tall girls who are close to seven feet. Unfortunately, none of us in our school qualify,” I told her, almost irritated by the display.

“Hmm…” said Sam, and looking at me curiously.

I was ashamed of myself. I was really losing it and transitioning to weird obsessive zone. I needed to snap out of it and pull my head together. Now was the time we all needed our wits together.

CHAPTER TEN

 

Ray and Yaj joined us in front of the dining area. They had bathed elsewhere, and were wearing similar clothing to the other men here. They had on a short tunic on the top, with a loose cloth draped around their waist ending at their mid calf. They had wrapped the long cloth in such as way that it resembling some sort of loose trousers. They looked comfortable enough. Yaj looked stunning in his blue tunic and red trousers which irritated me for some reason.

“So what was Mandira asking you guys? She seemed pretty friendly with you both,” I said, trying for nonchalance.

Yaj stared at me with an odd expression on his face.

“She offered to give us a tour to this place. Some of her friends wanted to join us too. Apparently, they have some really nice places we could explore. Pretty cool huh?” said Ray, excited.

“Better make as many allies here as possible,” said Yaj, back to his poker face.

“True,” said Sam.

He was right. We should get as many people as possible to sympathize with our situation, enough to be willing to help us get back.

“Quite a fancy dress we all have on,” said Sam, grinning.

“Unlike you three, I have some matching jewelry,” I said, lifting my wrist and displaying the bracelet.

Ray rolled his eyes at that and smiled.

“I wouldn’t mind a well crafted manly chain as part of my jewelry. The men have been wearing some amazing pieces. But I draw a line at wearing more than one piece,” he said flashing his dimples.

He was looking pretty fetching with a green tunic and red trousers. His green eyes were bright against his tunic.

Then his smile dropped and he was serious.

“This place seems to be very similar to what I had read about ancient South Asia,” he said.

“Really? What do you know about it?” Sam asked him eagerly.

“I do have Indian roots but I don’t have too many details unfortunately. I’ve seen some ancient Indus valley civilization pictures and videos. I know more about India’s current cultures rather than events that took place in the past. But I know enough about ancient Egypt, Mayan, Rome and Greece, which might not be useful at this point,” he said.

“Ancient India? Maybe Yaj would know more,” I said and looked at Yaj expectantly.

“My roots are half Irish and the other half which is Indian is from my father’s side. Unfortunately, I haven’t learnt much from him,” he said cryptically.

That was news to me. Irish?

“I’m one-fourth Indian, but all I know I had learnt from my grandpa on my mom’s side. And that’s not a lot. Whatever is happening isn’t familiar to me either,” I told them.

We were silent for a while.

“What about you Sam? Know anything much about ancient India?” I asked her. With her photographic memory, she was sure to remember all she read about India.

“No. My dad and his family were from there. But I just read about some current culture and maybe a little history. But what’s happening here doesn’t ring a bell,” she said. “Wait…you guys think we are in some sort of time travel or an alternate universe and not just on another planet?” asked Sam, her eyes wide.

“Only plausible explanation…apart from being abducted by the aliens’ theory,” replied Ray.

Both those options were so surreal. But there were no other possibilities that could make sense of what was happening.

“The only common thing the four of us have is our Indian roots. Do you think that has anything to do with why we got transported here?” I asked.

“No. What about Jo and Vick and others? It must be something to do with the cave. A portal or something of that kind,” said Ray.

We were silent, digesting that news.

It was all too Sci-fi. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the kind to learn enough about time travel or any alternate universe rules or etiquette.

“So…looks like all of us are accepting this rather calmly. Should we be worried about that?” Ray asked us.

“What are our other choices? Disbelief or panic? I think both wouldn’t help us get home,” remarked Yaj.

He was right. Roll with it or get crushed under.

“Please proceed inside and partake our hospitality,” said one of the men coming towards us.

We went inside the dining area which was located inside the main building. It was pretty large and people sat in rows. We picked a few empty spots and sat down. There were several options of food being served by different people. They each brought in several dishes of wheat bread, different kinds of roast meat, vegetables, lentils and lots of dessert. Soon, my plate was brimming with way too much food. I kept shaking my head, and telling them no, but they continued serving food in my plate. Soon, I barely had any room left.

“You can stop them from serving. Just place your hand over your plate,” said Yaj, staring at my plate in amusement.

I looked at Sam’s, and hers was almost full too, but not as much as mine.

“I figured it out a little late. Got too distracted watching the dishes,” she said, grinning.

“Great, I’ll be lucky if I don’t end up with a stomachache after this,” I said.

I hated wasting food. Dad traumatized me when I was younger. Each time I refused to finish all the food in my plate, he showed me pictures of starving and undernourished kids. That stopped my tantrums right away, and I never wasted food.

Somehow, I managed to finish all the food on my plate. I was uncomfortably full.

After all of us were done eating, we were led to a room overlooking one of the gardens. It was late afternoon, and pretty warm outside. The new footwear was slowly beginning to hurt my feet.

“Ok then. Quite a day, huh? We’re truly and finally alone. Now let’s talk,” I said, sitting on a comfortable armless couch by the window, overlooking the garden.

The couch had a lot of small cushions with rich shiny fabrics. I hugged one of them and got ready for our discussion.

“Okay. So… we were asked to be on a quest to possibly save this kingdom from an evil demon king dabbling in black magic. And maybe somehow find the stolen holy texts. What are your thoughts?” I asked them.

Ray was seated next to me on the armless couch. Sam and Yaj were seated on the chairs opposite to us.

“Well… we need to find the stolen texts somehow. Or maybe just lead Manu and his men to it,” said Ray with a thoughtful expression.

“Are you serious? There’s no way we can do that. They’ll realize it soon enough that we don’t have any magical powers. Or…that we are incapable of finding those stolen texts,” I said.

“Dee, they promised to help us. Maybe if we get more information on what happened, we can decide on what to do next,” said Sam.

They all looked really determined to pursue the quest. It scared me that I was alone in thinking we had to get out of this place first. I had to quickly persuade them to drop the idea of the quest.

“You guys realize that there are actual demons involved and people got cursed. We had plenty of not so friendly encounters with them ourselves,” I remarked.

“But Dee, the demon king sounded really evil. He’s out to destroy the entire place. And we are in it. We have to try and do something to save them and ourselves,” said Ray.

They were being way too serious about pursuing the demon.

“I still don’t get how we can help with a book stealing evil demon. Maybe the poor guy was just misunderstood. You know… maybe all he wanted was to extend his meager library. Expand his literary skills. The only contribution, I’d be willing to do is to write him a note and ask Manu to send it to him. The note would simply ask him to copy the texts and return the originals.” I grinned trying to distract them from thinking along the lines to find the demon.

Sam was smiling at that, and Ray was shaking his head and rolling his eyes.

“Even if you want to escape this place, how can we do that Dee? Who’s going to help us? Everyone is pretty keen on thinking we’d provide them with the solution,” asked Sam.

“Maybe Yaj should ask Mandira to arrange or steal a carriage. We can use that to get to another place, where they can help us right away,” I said smirking. “Seriously Yaj, you both looked pretty cozy a while ago. She had been asking Sam and me about you too,” I informed him.

He was quiet, and didn’t respond to my teasing. That irritated me and wanted to needle him further.

“Maybe Yaj wants to stay here. He finally found his true love, his soul mate, in an alternate universe or where ever we are. Kind of insta-love don’t you think, Yaj?” I asked him with a smirk.

He didn’t respond.

“But wait…maybe it wouldn’t work. You would tell her that you would meet her at a place and never show up. Then she would be waiting and be pissed off about you never showing up or even apologizing. That’s what you usually do…don’t you?” I mocked him with a fake wide smile.

Yaj looked angry. “Is this all a joke to you?” he burst out.

“Don’t you really care if we’ll be stuck here forever? That’s what would happen if we don’t help them. We need to take this whole thing seriously. We have to do what we can to get out of this place. Grow up Dee! Stop sticking your head under the sand and notice these people suffering around you,” he said.

When he finished his rant, he got up and walked out of the doors into the gardens.

What in the world was that?

I followed behind him, itching for a fight. This was the second time he yelled at me and humiliated me. This time in front of other witnesses, who were good friends of mine.

There was no way I was going to let it slide. Last time I was too shocked to react or demand an explanation. He could try being a caped crusader and save this place by himself. That didn’t mean I had to feel that way too and follow along with his plans. I knew it was childish of me to needle him in the first place.

He was standing nearby the pond, where we had left the fish earlier this morning.

“What was that outburst about? I don’t deserve to be yelled at and you know it. And of course I want to go back home. I just don’t want to die trying,” I fumed at him.

I was so angry I wanted to push him into the pond.

“I know. I’m sorry,” he sighed loudly, confusing me.

“I don’t know why I lashed out at you. You were just teasing…although most of what you said was true,” he said with a tentative smile.

Hot and cold…He was going to drive me nuts one day.

“You know I’m bad at humor and don’t react to teasing well,” he said as though it were a fact.

“I know no such thing. You do have a good sense of humor. Even though it’s a little too dry for my taste,” I told him with a sniff.

And I didn’t address the teasing part because I knew I was taunting him.

He knew I was bluffing about his humor. All the times he joked about something, whether it about politics, movies or games, I always found his insight funny. I did enjoy his company a lot. He was pretty knowledgeable about a lot of things. He even knew enough about current musical prodigies and facts about composers who were long dead. I was excited that I could talk about them with him.

We stood staring at each other.

“Do you regret our friendship or spending time with me Dee?” he asked quietly.

“No. You know very well I liked spending time with you,” I answered him stiffly.

“What about that night? When I asked you to come and declared how I felt? Do you regret that?” he asked.

I didn’t answer him.

“It was a while ago Yaj. I’ve forgotten about it,” I lied to him.

I remembered every second of what happened. I had to play those few hours a hundred times in my head to figure out what had gone wrong. And I didn’t want to touch the ‘declaring feelings’ part with a ten foot pole.

“You said I wouldn’t show up. You haven’t forgiven me about the bowling alley incident?” he asked.

I wanted to pretend I didn’t know what he was talking about. But it was still pretty clear in my head, the heavy feeling of disappointment and confusion.

It was the third month of school and right after he began waiting with me until mom came to pick me up:

***

It was a Friday evening and I was almost done with my assignment. Sam and Ray had left a few minutes ago. Sam left grumbling about some party her grandparents were making her attend. Vick came by our table.

“Dee, you going bowling tomorrow?” he asked with smile.

I hung out with the group every other weekend. Mom made me take the “me” time, claiming it would de-stress me and also help me make new friends.

“I’m not sure. Are you going?” I asked him, smiling.

“Yeah, you should come too. We need a few more on our team. Losers buy pizza for everyone,” he grinned.

He didn’t know that I barely went bowling before. Putting my fingers into heavy bowling balls and possibly spraining my arm didn’t appeal to my mom or to my piano teachers.

“Sure … I’ll be there. Sounds like fun,” I told him.

“See you tomorrow. Bring more people…who can bowl,” he said, and left with a wave.

Yaj was packing his books quietly.

“So Yaj, do you want to go?” I asked, crossing my fingers behind my back.

“Are you asking me out? He enquired with one of his rare smiles.

“Yes…I mean no…I mean… it’s with a group of friends,” I was flustered. Then I took a deep breath. “We’ll hang out in a group,” I said, trying to sound casual.

My cheeks and ears felt pretty warm.

He smiled and watched me fidget with my pen.

“I’ll be there. Let me know the address … Give me your phone number, I’ll text you sometime before tomorrow. You can reply back to me,” he said.

I was elated and wanted to dance a jig. Putting my I’m-so-cool expression, I nodded quietly and gave him my phone number. We waited outside together, talking until mom picked me.

“See you tomorrow,” he said, before I got into the car and left.

“Going someplace exciting tomorrow?” mom asked me, as I put on my seatbelt.

“Just bowling with some friends,” I told her casually, trying not to let my excitement show.

“Now Dee, you are old enough to make your own decisions. You have the Kaufman competition coming up. Just be careful,” she said.

I felt guilty about going bowling.

“I won’t bowl mom. I’ll just hang out with my friends, I promise,” I told her.

I was so excited about him joining us, I barely slept that night.

That morning I had a very distracted practice, much to the frustration of my mom. My eyes kept going towards my phone screen. He hadn’t texted me yet. I almost kicked myself for not taking his number in return. Maybe he found the time and location from someone else.

When it was finally time to get ready, I changed several times. I didn’t want to be too overdressed, which would make it obvious that I was trying to impress someone. Neither did I want to be overly casual.

I had snuck into mom and dad’s room and borrowed some nail polish and perfume from mom. I had never bothered with either because I had short nails on my fingers and mostly left my toe nails bare. I was used to mild deodorants, but it was special day and it warranted a perfume.

Dad dropped me off at the place a few minutes early. Most of the group was already there, but Yaj wasn’t. I kept glancing at the door every few minutes. My heart sank when he didn’t turn up even after an hour. When I wasn’t searching for him, I kept checking my phone for messages.

He didn’t come and neither did he send me a message.

I was very disappointed and hoped he had a good explanation on why he couldn’t make it.

The next time I saw him, he continued to behave as though nothing had happened. But, I noticed that he had become slightly wary. We still talked freely, but both of us were more guarded and never spoke about any other another outing.

***

I still recalled how crushed I felt when I realized he wasn’t coming. I had promised myself then that I would never allow anyone to make me feel that away again. And like a fool, I let him do it to me again when he asked me to go out with him that night.

I glared at him.

“You have every right to be angry at me. But we need a truce now, for old time’s sake,” he said looking at me as though I was being unreasonable.

“You are right. We can’t afford to needle each other. We need to work together to get back home,” I said, feeling rather generous.

He was frowning at something behind me and suddenly dragged me towards him.

I fell on him hard and he quickly moved us away tripping us on the ground. We were about to crash on the ground and he turned us in the last minute so he took the maximum impact.

The impact still managed to knock the breath out of me.

“Yaj, what the heck do you think you are doing?” I asked him in shock.

His eyes widened and he rolled us away with me under him.

“Yaj—” I broke off as I heard a loud thunk of a stick where we were laying initially.

“It’s the cursed people! They are here…inside Manu’s place!” I stated the obvious in panic.

The one who was attacking us was raising the stick again to get us. Yaj rolled us again and I heard another sickening thunk.

We rolled a few more times and it was making me slightly dizzy and worked up for all wrong reasons.

“Yaj, get off me. I can deal with him,” I told him squirming under him.

“Dee…we don’t have a weapon and I don’t want to take chances if you are not able to… rip his heart out,” he said.

A stick hit him hard on his shoulder. He almost fell back on the ground with the impact but still managed to cover me.

“Yaj! Don’t be crazy” I shouted and looked at the cursed who was about to strike again.

The cursed man appeared to be in a rage and his face looked pretty scary with the grotesque shells out of his cheek bones and forehead. This was the second time I was seeing one in the eyes. When we were attacked the last time I had just focused on stabbing them in their chest or ripping their hearts out.

“Dee! Don’t look at them in their eyes!” said Yaj as he got off me and stood between me and the cursed man.

The cursed man hit Yaj on the shoulder again with the stick. This time he flinched but remained standing in front of me.

“Yaj, please move away! You are going to get seriously hurt!” I shouted struggling to push him away from my way.

The next time the stick hit Yaj in his stomach making him fall down with a groan.

That pissed me off. I was more angry than scared.

When the stick was raised again, I lunged and stopped the oncoming blow with my hand. I looked at the cursed man in the eye not caring about the consequences. I was in a rage myself.

I pushed the stick back and stood up. The cursed man stumbled but kept coming towards me.

“Give it up…you are soon to be dead seaweed,” I told him in a furious tone and deflected another blow from the stick and stuck my hand through the chest and ripped out the heart and crushed it.

All that was left was a disgusting heap with a hissing sound. I shook the slime away from my hand.

“Yaj!” I exclaimed and went towards him.

He was sitting up and clutching his stomach in obvious pain.

“Are you okay?” I asked him sitting next to him.

Maybe he couldn’t move and had some internal bleeding. And I wondered if they had any doctors in this place?

“You are seriously bad for my ego. You are always saving me. This is the third time now,” he grinned and the grimaced in pain.

“Don’t be an idiot. You saved me plenty of times. How many times should I tell you don’t put yourself in danger to save me or anyone? We need to take care of ourselves first before we can save others!” I scolded him.

“I’m fine Dee. Just a little bruised up that’s all,” he said still wincing slightly as he moved.

“Let me see. There might be internal bleeding,” I said and lifted his tunic.

His stomach was bruised pretty badly. I was sure he was hemorrhaging internally. We needed a doctor soon.

“Uh…Dee,” I heard him say in a weird voice.

I was still staring at his stomach looking for signs of internal bleeding. And what were the signs anyway? Maybe Sam or Ray would have more information.

“Dee…” he said lifting my chin and making him look at his face. He was smiling.

“What?” I asked, thinking that maybe if he was smiling then he must be okay. But people with internal injuries could be smiling. The next thing you know…they might keel down with blood dribbling from their mouth. That picture of Yaj keeling over scared me like crazy.

“Um…Dee…you are lifting my shirt and stroking my abdomen. Not that I’m not enjoying your…attention…but we have company and people have started to stare,” he said.

“What?” I asked in shock and realized that there was indeed a small crowd gathered around us and were looking at the cursed remains and also at us.

I quickly let go of his tunic in embarrassment and moved away from him. Oh my god! Did I just grope Yaj in front of these strangers while he lay there helplessly? Sure I was worried about him…but what was I thinking!

He got up and gave me his hand. I took it and didn’t make eye contact with him. Now that I was slightly convinced that he wouldn’t keel over with internal injuries, I was embarrassed to the core in epic proportions. I was sure I resembled a tomato. I also recalled that he had a really nice hard abdomen with a golden bronze tan. My ears burned when I remembered that fact.

“Dee, don’t be embarrassed. I didn’t mind. You were—” he broke off.

I was what? Was he about to say ‘enjoying ‘ or ‘concerned’?

He was being too quiet.

I looked at him finally to ask him what he meant and frowned at his expression.

“What is it?” I asked, and followed his eyes.

I gasped.

The fish was as big as the pond. It was barely able to swim and its horn was sticking out of the pond like a shark fin.

“Good god! See… it wasn’t all in my imagination,” I whispered, staring at it.

Yaj looked back at me and nodded.

“Let’s go inform Manu. Someone should know what to do,” he said.

The people gathered around us went closer to the pond and were talking noisily about what they were seeing. Some of them stared in awe and some of them looked downright frightened.

We returned back to the room and joined Sam and Ray.

“What happened?” asked Ray, looking at both of us in concern.

“We were attacked by a cursed. Dee killed it. But that’s not it…It’s the fish. It’s grown even bigger now, almost the size of the pond,” he informed them.

“Manu must be in the council room. He mentioned that he’d be there most of the day. And he did say that it was very important that the fish remain comfortable,” said Ray.

“Good. Let’s go tell him first. The fish was definitely not comfortable in there,” I said.

“You guys go ahead. I want to see the fish first, and I’ll join you near the council room,” said Ray.

“I’ll come with you. Dee, Yaj, you should inform Manu. We’ll be with you in a minute,” she said, following Ray into the gardens.

“Let’s go,” said Yaj, and we went towards the council room.

When we waited outside, the guards saw us and informed Manu of our presence. Manu immediately stepped out from the council room.

“I hope everything is fine. Sorry I couldn’t join you earlier,” he said.

“We’re fine thank you. A cursed attacked us in the garden outside and we killed it. But we have something to show you that maybe important. It’s the fish from this morning. Can you come and look at it? It’s grown really huge,” I informed him.

He nodded grimly as though he knew what was waiting for him in the pond. We followed behind him as he walked quickly towards the pond.

The fish was definitely too big to even move inside the pond.

“Get the Saptasris here. I need their advice. We need to move the fish to a bigger place,” he ordered one of the men.

“How is the fish able to grow this fast?” I asked and wondered why he thought the entire thing was of great significance.

“It’s a test from the gods to see if we regard them, and manage to keep them comfortable during their stay,” he said.

I wanted to ask him more, but he was too busy providing instructions to people around him.

“Why would the gods test him with a fish displaying mutant like properties… and outgrowing the water bodies?” I asked.

“I wish someone can just explain what’s happening with us. Starting with how we ended up here from the cave,” said Sam.

I wished for the same thing as well.

***

Meantime the Council men arrived along with some people. They discussed the layout of the ponds and the reservoirs surrounding the citadel. The idea was to open the gates around the pond and move the fish to a nearby reservoir, next to the ocean.

The fish was larger than the gates and opening connecting the pond and the reservoir. Several men started digging around the opening, widening it. Finally, it was big enough for the fish to comfortably fit. The fish swam away into the reservoir that seemed pretty huge.

It would be impossible for the fish to outgrow it, unless it grew to a size of a whale.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

 

It was almost late afternoon by the time the fish was let into the reservoir. Manu announced a short while ago that he would be meeting with some of his men.

“Everyone be on your guard. A Shankadanav was able to enter our place. The holy water’s effect must be waning,” he warned before leaving.

Everyone seemed edgy with that news. Most of them hurried away and went into the Main building.

I was tired, but too excited to rest.

“We should meet one of the council members and ask them about the stolen texts. We really need to find out as much as we can,” said Ray.

It was still a sore topic for me. But there was no harm in finding out more information about them. We might even find out something that would help us get back home.

“True…how about we speak to the person who told us about the texts this morning?” I asked.

“His name was Vasishta. He’s standing right there,” said Sam, pointing to him.

He was talking to another council member.

“Let’s go,” said Yaj and led the way.

When we got closer, they stopped talking and looked at us expectantly.

“Excuse me sir… we were wondering if you have some time to tell us more about the stolen texts?” asked Ray.

“Yes. The seven of us were to have a meeting this evening with you four to provide you with the details. But I will be pleased to do so now. It is in your destiny to lead us to them. Please have your evening meal at my house. Kashyapa will be joining us too. I live close by and we can walk to my place,” he said.

We stepped out of the citadel gates and walked along the street. The street was bustling with activity.

Vasishta stopped in front of a large open store. The store appeared to be selling crafts and jewelry. “Would you like to see what our artisans have created?” he asked Ray, who was looking pretty keenly at some of the display pieces.

“Yes… if everyone is fine with it,” said Ray.

“We can spend a few minutes here. Our kingdom is proud of our artisans. They will enjoy displaying their pieces,” said Kashyapa.

I wanted to see what they had as well and we went inside to take a look. The people at the store were pleased to see us. They handed us several pieces to look. I held a wooden necklace that had semi-precious stones glittering on it. There were several displays of rows of different types of beads hanging on wooden stands. One of the displays had arm bracelets and necklaces in thick chunky gold with intricate designs on it.

I walked towards one of the corners where stamped jewelry was being made. Different types of molds were used on clay or even some type of molten metal. There were also unique mirrors being crafted using just some shiny metals. I could hear discussions being held regarding creating and improvising the craft. Ray had joined them briefly to listen in. Most of them were skilled artisans.

“This gathering apparently happened once a week to discuss different new styles. They even take notes to improvise,” said Ray with excitement.

“Each of you should pick something from here, as a memento from our kingdom,” said Vasishta.

“Oh no, we don’t have any means to pay,” I informed him.

“Don’t worry about that. King Manu will compensate these artisans for your purchases. We are grateful for your presence,” said Vasishta.

I felt guilty that everyone was so nice and that I had thrown a tantrum and made fun of their problem a while ago.

“Thank you,” I said, looking at the different options to pick.

Ray had decided on a multicolored beads necklace with a square pendant. The pendant was a silver one, and was stamped with an image of a peacock surrounded by colored stones.

Sam chose a blackened metal necklace with a stunning pendant. It was the top half of a setting sun in vivid orange and red hues.

“What are you getting Dee?” she asked.

I wasn’t sure, and went around the displays to see what I liked the best. There was a bright blue fish pendant which reminded me of the fish from today. It didn’t have a horn on the top, but the color was pretty close. It also matched my pet Goldie.

“Can I get that blue fish pendant please?” I asked the man behind the display.

When he gave it to me, I saw that it came with a thin silver chain. I thanked him and joined back the group.

“What did you get Yaj?” I asked, curious to see what his taste ran into.

He had picked a thin silver chain like mine. But his had a large shiny black stone pendant that was clutched in silver talons.

Sam and Ray held his pendant in their hands to take a closer, but I didn’t. I was still embarrassed with the early afternoon’s groping episode.

We thanked the artisans again and stepped out.

“My house is right along this street,” said Vasistha going towards a street.

We followed quietly behind him.

***

He stopped in front of a small house with a big front yard. There was a cow grazing next to a tree.

“That is Nandini,” he said pointing to the cow.

“My wife Arundhati must be in her prayers. She should join us shortly. Please sit.” he offered.

We sat on a raised platform, under another tree on the opposite side of the cow. It was almost evening, and the weather was beginning to cool down slightly.

Vasishta’s house was similar to the one we had been to last morning. The front yard was shaded by several huge trees and was well kept.

Vasishta and Kashyapa washed their feet and hands with water left near the entrance of the house. We followed behind them, and did the same, before sitting back under the tree.

“What would you all like to eat and drink? Please don’t hesitate to let me know,” asked Vasishta.

Right that afternoon, I had eaten until I almost burst, and I wasn’t feeling too hungry. I also wasn’t sure what kind of food we could request. I didn’t want to impose on him, and was willing to try anything he served.

“Please go to Nandini and ask her for whatever you wish to eat. I promise you that you won’t be disappointed,” he said with a conspiring smile, handing us each a large empty copper plate.

The four of us stared at each other. Not wanting to offend him, I went towards the cow. I placed my bowl in front of the cow and mentally asked for my favorite food. I should’ve felt ridiculous staring at the cow, but stranger things have happened since last morning.

After I finished asking, the cow looked towards my bowl.

Soon my bowl began to fill up with my requested food.

I picked up my bowl in a daze and sat down. Sam, Ray and Yaj made similar requests and sat back in their places. They had similar baffled expressions as mine.

A mutant like fish and now a mystical cow?

Holy cow!,” exclaimed Ray.

Vasishta and Kashyapa also joined us with their filled plates in hand. My food tasted just the way I had imagined. Yaj, Sam and Ray seemed to be enjoying their food too.

We ate quietly and got up when we were done. After washing our hands, we returned to our seats.

Soon, Vasishta began to narrate to us about the stolen holy texts:

“Our kingdom was a prosperous one. We were free of diseases or death. There was no hatred, vanity, sorrow or fear. Our gods visited us frequently with our summons. We could only summon them with our Vedic chants from our holy texts. Shankasura, the demon king wanted his dominion on everything he could possess. He spent most of his time trying to conquer the surrounding kingdoms. But all the kingdoms were united, and we were able to defeat him several times.

He was furious and determined. He left his kingdom to go to the Malaya Mountains for tapas. He was able to please the gods with his rigorous tapas for over fourteen years. They had appeared before him and asked him for a boon. He chose to be immortal and more powerful. The gods granted him his wish, but with some conditions. They had insisted that he transfer his mortality into any living creature. And that creature would hold his mortality for him while he himself became indestructible.

The demon king chose a small green bird that he kept safe in a forest at the foothills of the Malaya Mountains. He even asked the gods to grant him with a wish that only a certain type of person will be able to kill the bird, and turn him back to a mortal.” Vasishta looked at Kashyapa.

Kashyapa looked resigned.

“I was able to obtain the information from our gods on how one could vanquish the immortal demon,” he said.

“The person should not belong to this world.

The killing should happen when it’s neither the day nor the night.

The killing should be neither on the ground nor on the air while doing it.

The weapon used should be neither animate nor inanimate.”

When Kashyapa finished, we were all quiet. I was trying to digest the information and it sounded impossible to carry out all those conditions.

“When he was granted his wish, he became even more powerful, and his body became indestructible. He was able to steal our holy texts with the help of some people under his influence. They had sneaked into our kingdom in middle of night and succeeded.

They were the only things that would render his dark arts useless. He was an immortal, but powerless around them. The texts were stolen and placed high up on the Malaya Mountains, guarded by the forest which is now under his spell.

When he attacked us the next time, he cursed the entire kingdom to become mindless and violent creatures. People affected by the curse would take up the ghastly form and they would no longer have any memories of their former life. Their only aim would be to destroy anything that would be of a threat to them.

We have been diligently chanting our Vedas every day to obtain the holy water and ashes. We have been sprinkling it everywhere to stop the curse from spreading. Unfortunately the ashes and the holy water’s effect have been waning each day. We lost half of our kingdom already, and everyday a few more villages have been falling under the curse.

The souls of the cursed people will attain Moksha or peace only with the cleansing of a Pralaya. Before that can happen, the demon king should be destroyed to prevent him from cursing the new land again.

King Manu began a fast to please the gods. To request them to send our saviors, the ones who would help destroy Shankasura, and bring back our holy texts to us. It has been fourteen days since he last ate. He has been surviving only on water until now,” said Vasishta.

That explained why Manu appeared haggard and worried.

“We had almost lost hope, before the four of you appeared as a sign,” said Kashyapa.

“We’ll definitely try to help you as much as we can. How can we find the green bird? Has Manu tried to find it before?” asked Yaj.

“Several people had volunteered to find the bird in the forest. No one has been able to return alive. The moment they step away from the protected part of the kingdom, the curse takes effect,” said Vasishta.

“And the ones who managed to avoid the curse, were sent back hacked into pieces,” said Kashyapa.

That was a grisly image. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go searching for the bird. But it probably was the only way we could get back to our world.

“What is Moksha?” asked Ray.

“Moksha is releasing the souls from their cursed bodies,” answered Vasishta.

“When the curse took effect, they were already dead. It’s due to the dark magic that the soul is trapped within a cursed body. The body will only function to destroy what they perceive as their enemies, which are us. Stopping their heart is the only way to kill the body,” explained Kashyapa.

A woman joined us from inside Vasishta’s house.“Any hesitation to kill the cursed body would result in tragic consequences. Many women had hesitated to kill the cursed form of their husbands or brothers or worse their own children. Only to be killed in the most inhumane way possible,” she said

“This is a war. And in wars, there is no place for emotions. Just principles and what is best for the kingdom and the safety of its people. The best thing you can do with the cursed is to kill the body and release them from the curse,” she said grimly, sitting next to Vasishta.

I didn’t know if I agreed with her completely. My head knew it was practical, but if it was mom or dad I had to face opposite to me, even if they were cursed and were trying to kill me…I shuddered at the choice and was beginning to feel deep empathy for the people here.

“A demon cursed the people. Did he turn them into demons like him?” Ray questioned.

“The cursed are different from demons. Demons have a brain to think and a heart to feel. Not all demons are evil. But the few who have turned powerful and evil have taken over the kingdoms and gave all of them a bad name,” she said.

I didn’t know that. For some reason I have always had a very black or white opinion about the word demon. I had always felt that being a demon meant being evil.

“Also when the demon is in the Rakshasa form, they can get as large as they want, sometimes as big as a mountain. They can wreck havoc in that form. Their only weakness is they forgo the thinking power in that form. They operate purely on brute strength.” She remarked.

“I am Arundhati. We are happy to have you with us to help us during these difficult times,” the woman said to us.

Not everyone appeared happy back at Manu’s place, I recalled. Some people in the kingdom seemed distrustful of us. They probably knew we were phonies, and that we had no mystical or magic powers to save their souls from the curse.

While I had empathy towards their plight, it was overpowered by a healthy dose of self preservation and fear. Sure we could tackle a half a dozen of the cursed but it was way more complicated than just that. Especially with the mystical forest, the demon, the stolen texts.

The best course of action for us would be to play along, until we found a way to return home. I quickly wanted to change the topic to something else. I’ve heard one too many times of being dubbed as a ‘sign’ sent from above to save them all. There’s no way I would even entertain the idea of going to the cursed forest in search of the bird. I preferred if we remained in the relative safety of the kingdom, until we found a solution.

“Thank you for your hospitality. Our meal was well appreciated,” I told her, meaning it.

I realized how my language and accent kept changing to their more formal tone whenever I spoke to them. When you are in Rome…or rather ancient India…

“Nandini provides everyone with their desired food,” she said.

I was really intrigued and wanted to know how one could get a cow that could produce meals on demand.

Ray asked them that question.

“Vasishta got her as a gift from the gods. She is the daughter of Kamadhenu, a wish fulfilling cow of the gods,” said Arundhati.

We could all use that cow’s help. It would make everyone’s life easier. Even though the company was pleasant, I didn’t want to stay here any longer. I wanted to discuss with Sam, Ray and Yaj on how we plan on achieving the impossible…us returning home to our families.

“We should head back to Manu’s place,” I suggested.

Sam, Ray and Yaj nodded in agreement and we got up to leave.

“Thank you for the wonderful meal and telling us the history behind the stolen texts,” said Ray.

“We hope to quickly find a solution to end this curse with your help, before it is too late,” said Kashyapa.

We bid them a good night and set out to the citadel.

As soon as we stepped away from Vasishta’s house, we began discussing our plan of action.

“So…that was an interesting evening. All we need to do is find out the whereabouts of the green bird and maybe ask for a map to direct us. Still want to write to the demon king?” teased Ray.

“The answer is a very resounding no! You heard what happened… to the people who ventured into the forest looking for that green bird,” I said.

“What if Manu and the others are right? Maybe we were summoned to this world to help them?” asked Sam.

That was a scary thought and most people here already believed it. I didn’t want to be the next dismembered scapegoat messengers to be sent to the forest in search of the bird.

“We can’t just wait here to see what would happen. That might mean being stuck here forever. Let’s vote. I vote for us to see what’s out there, in the forest,” said Yaj with feeling.

I experienced déjà vu. He said the exact same thing early this morning, although it felt like a life time ago.

“That right there is a faulty logic. We might not make it out alive out of the forest. I’d prefer being stuck here forever, but alive still,” I said.

Yaj had a stubborn expression.

“We made it out alive from the cursed. And I refuse to be stuck here forever, even if it means being alive,” he said.

“Come on Yaj, this is neither the time nor the situation to be go-getters. We’re talking about a real demon with murderer on his mind. You heard what happened to the others…that went in search of the bird. I like my body parts together in one piece, thank you very much,” I told him.

“Let’s sleep on it tonight and decide,” said Sam, who was watching Yaj and me as though expecting us to break into a fist fight.

“Fine,” I said.

We could see the gates to the citadel. I stopped in front of a large tree and leaned on it. Sam, Ray and Yaj were a few feet ahead and they stopped, waiting for me to join them.

“This footwear is killing me slowly one painful bite at a time,” I whined, bending to rub my soles.

I heard a whizzing sound and a thud.

Standing up, I looked around to see what had happened. A wicked looking knife was protruding from the tree trunk. I was wondering how it got there when I heard Sam shout.

“Dee! Run!” she screamed.

From the other side of the street, I saw a man whose face was half covered. He was staring at me furiously. He was dressed the same way as the people around him and wasn’t using anything for support to stand up on his feet. He wasn’t a cursed one. And he just tried to kill me and was brazenly maintaining eye contact in challenge.

There was roaring in my ears and I literally saw red. I pulled the knife out from the tree and looked back at him.

“You! Wait right there!” I yelled and began crossing the street. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was planning to do. But my adrenaline was running high. I needed to confront him. He almost killed me! Mom and dad would’ve—

His eyes widened when he saw me nearing him and he began to run. I removed my wooden shoe and threw it at him with all the force I could muster. It hit him squarely on the back of his head, and made him stumble. A few people from the street saw me chasing him and ran behind him.

The guards from the citadel saw him running towards their direction and stopped him. Soon, he was overpowered.

By the time I reached him, a crowd had gathered around him.

“Are you crazy? Come inside!” yelled Yaj, trying to drag me away from entering within the crowd.

“He threw a knife at me! I could’ve been killed!” I said, still angry about that fact.

“I know Dee. The guards have him. They’ll let Manu know and find out why he attacked you,” said Sam.

“I want to talk to him myself first. I’m sick of being attacked in this place. And now by people who aren’t even cursed,” I informed.

I glared at Yaj and pulled back my hand from his and walked in front of the crowd.

The man’s lower half of the face was no longer covered. His entire face had a bluish tinge to it, and he was foaming from the mouth.

“Poison,” said one of the guards.

The dead man was clutching a locket in his hand, and it was attached to a thin broken chain.

“It’s not safe out here Dee. There might be others,” said Yaj, trying to drag me away.

“No. I want to see the locket. Maybe there would be a clue,” I said, pushing a few people away to get to the dead man.

“Dee, it’s poisoned and he died instantly when he touched it or with some kind of contact. It’s dangerous,” said Sam frantically.

“Dee. Stop. You need to think this over when you’ve calmed down,” said Ray.

I ignored them and was in blind rage. I bent over the dead man and was about to clutch his locket when the world turned upside down.

Yaj had dragged me away and was holding me in a fireman’s hold over his shoulder.

Yaj! What do you think you are doing? I want to see that locket! Put me down! Right now!” I shouted at him.

He didn’t answer but was walking rapidly away from the dead man and the crowd.

I pushed my hair away from my face and saw Sam and Ray following behind us. I was annoyed at being held in this position.

“I want to know why the un-cursed are attacking us now. We were supposed to be helping them!” I shouted.

“The demon must have found out about us. There must be a lot of his people, wanting to stop us from helping Manu retrieve those texts,” said Ray, sounding grim.

Yaj went inside the citadel gates and stopped near one of the fountains letting me down.

“That was annoying and uncalled for. Your caveman tactics were not appreciated,” I shouted as soon as I could stand on my feet.

“Did you want to die back there with a deadly poison?” he asked me calmly.

“He’s right Dee. Some poisons are pretty deadly. Even a small whiff or any sort of inhalation or touch could result in death,” said Ray.

I knew they might be right, but my gut was churning with so many emotions. Rage, fear, anticipation…I felt I would explode. I held my head with both my heads and tried to breathe a few times.

When I felt calm enough I looked at them with my mind made up. It was as though something just clicked in my brain, making a sudden switch. I saw things very differently.

I was definitely going to pursue finding the green bird, and then eventually the stolen texts.

“Okay… I understand it was a bad idea to pursue the poisoned locket. And I changed my mind. I’m with you guys. I vote for us to go after the bird and the texts. I’m ready whenever you guys are,” I informed them calmly.

I knew it was the right thing to do for the kingdom and eventually for the four of us.

“Dee… I know it was a terrifying experience. But we need to calm down and think rationally. We can’t risk our lives out there. It’s obviously dangerous,” said Sam.

“Sam is right,” said Yaj, shocking me.

He looked at me grimly.

“But…you just said… a few minutes ago… that you wanted to go!” I shouted at him.

His several about faces were going to drive me nuts.

“That was before you were almost killed. First by the knife and then the poison!” he shouted back, shocking me.

He sighed loudly and looked shaken.

“I was being naïve. I thought nothing bad could happen here at this place. We managed to kill and escape the cursed ones somehow. But you were right before. We probably won’t remain safe all the time. But I don’t want to risk our lives going to someplace we know is dangerous,” he said.

“I agree with Sam and Yaj. The whole thing felt like a dream. But the last few minutes made it all too real. We need to watch our backs all the time,” said Ray.

“Don’t you agree with us Dee?” asked Sam, looking at me expectantly.

I didn’t answer them right away. I remembered Sam’s words from a while ago, that we were meant to do this. She was right then. And no piddling dark magic or knife is going to stop us from finishing what we were meant to do and ultimately going back home.

“No. I don’t agree with you all. We can’t remain here like sitting ducks. There might be more assassins sent our way. Obviously, they are trying to stop us from going. I’m going to find the bird and the texts. And end this curse. It might be our only way back home,” I told them firmly.

I knew I wasn’t being very rational. But I was done being a helpless spectator.

“Dee, we need to think this through. You just had a harrowing experience,” said Yaj, looking upset.

I looked at him as though he were crazy.

“We’ve all been having harrowing experiences since yesterday. We need to end this soon.” I told him calmly.

The three of them remained quiet. Probably thought I was in shock.

“We should let Manu know right away though. It might not be safe even inside the citadel,” said Sam, quietly.

I nodded.

I recalled how the assassin kept staring only at me. It felt as though he was targeting just me. He didn’t even have a backup weapon, just in case he missed. And he chose to end his life when he was caught.

We were walking by the gardens, towards the entrance of the main hall. A loud thudding noise made us all jump.

“What’s that noise?” asked Sam.

It sounded as though something large was banging against a wall.

“It’s coming from up there,” said Yaj, pointing towards the reservoir that held the fish.

“Maybe another attack. We should get inside,” said Sam, looking worried.

It was night time and we couldn’t see much in the moonlight. I narrowed my eyes and looked towards the reservoir, to try and see if I could find anything. The water was splashing out from the sides, and a large horn shape was sticking out, on top of the reservoir.

“It’s the fish. It outgrew the reservoir. It must be the size of a whale now,” I stated.

 

 

CHAPTER TWELVE

 

“Let’s get Manu here,” said Yaj, staring at the reservoir.

Manu was coming out of the building with a group of people, probably to investigate the source of noise.

“What happened?” he asked, when he saw us waiting out in the gardens.

“The fish has outgrown the reservoir,” I said, holding back the information of the attack.

“Let’s get closer and see,” he said, walking towards the reservoir.

“Dee you should stay in your room,” said Yaj, stopping me from following Manu.

“I can’t. I need to know what’s happening. There are enough people and guards around,” I told him.

“Dee, we can find that out whatever it is tomorrow morning too,” said Sam, still concerned.

“There’s no way I can sleep or even rest through this Sam. This must be related to the texts somehow. I need to find out more,” I said.

I felt guilty for making them worry about me. But I had promised myself to no longer be a passive observer.

“Let’s stay close to the guards,” said Ray.

Manu and the crowd were already standing around the reservoir. We stood next to the guards, watching the fish almost trying to break the walls around it.

“Open the reservoir gates when I signal,” Manu instructed someone.

He climbed up the ladder that led to the top of the reservoir. The moonlight cast enough light for us to see him clearly. He was waiting on top, close enough to touch the fish.

“Why is he still not sending out a signal?” asked Ray.

Suddenly I heard a booming sound.

In two nights, you must prepare. The curse will spread to your entire kingdom. They will attain Moksha with the Pralaya. There will be a new beginning,” announced the booming voice.

“Prepare for what? What new beginning? Did you hear that?” I asked Sam.

“Hear what Dee?” asked Sam.

“I heard a loud voice announce that we need to prepare for something in two nights. The cursed will attain Moksha… And that there will be a new beginning,” I told her.

“I didn’t hear it. Does that mean the place will be destroyed like how Vasishta and Kashyapa explained it to us?” Ray frowned asking me.

“I’m not sure,” I answered and wondered how we could get anything accomplished in less than two nights.

Manu signaled from the top. “Open the gates,” he shouted, and began to get down the ladder.

The gates were soon opened and we could hear the sound of gushing water from the reservoir. The ocean was supposed to be on the other side of the huge reservoir. He was letting the fish get back into the ocean.

Manu got down and stood next to us with a grim expression. It was definitely bad news.

“Get the Saptasris together for an emergency meeting. Tell them it’s urgent,” he ordered one of his men.

He continued staring at the emptying reservoir.

“I heard the fish.” I informed him Manu softly.

He nodded silently.

“What did the message mean?” I asked him, already having a bad feeling.

“Let’s go inside and talk,” he said, looking at the four of us.

We followed him into the main building, towards the council room.

“Please close the doors from the outside, and don’t let anyone in except the Saptasris,” Manu instructed a guard standing outside the council room.

It was a huge room with a large throne on a dais. Below the dais were rows of seating on either side. Sam, Ray, Yaj and I sat next to each other in one of the rows.

“Someone threw a knife at Dee, a few moments ago. When the man responsible was caught, he killed himself with poison,” Yaj informed him.

“Are any of you hurt?” asked Manu.

His head was hung low and he almost looked defeated.

“We’re fine now,” I told him.

“The assassin must be sent by the demon king. I am sorry, I couldn’t think of that possibility before, and provide you with appropriate protection. It is all coming to an end in two nights,” he informed us sadly.

“Coming to an end… how?” I asked him.

“I know you can hear the fish talk. You and I were the only ones who could hear it,” he said, looking at me.

I nodded.

“The fish has announced the end of our world in two nights,” he informed us quietly.

I heard that too. But I wasn’t sure what that meant.

“That means that my kingdom and the surrounding kingdoms will be destroyed to save the cursed souls. Our prayers are getting less effective and soon the curse will take over the entire kingdom, possibly by the end of two nights. My only hope is that Shankasura will not win to curse us again after the Pralaya,” he said, getting up from his throne.

He began walking back and forth in front of his thrown in an agitated way.

“His regime will be destroyed too. But if he is still an immortal, he can begin the whole curse again. Unless the bird is killed, there is no way we can stop him from further destruction,” he said in a broken voice.

He sat back in his throne and slumped.

“I spent the whole day trying to come up with a plan. To save what I can of my kingdom, and stop the curse from spreading.” He looked tired and worn out.

The guards announced that the council men were joining us.

The council men were seated and were waiting for Manu to tell them the news.

“The Pralaya will be upon us in two nights. We should prepare our boat to set sail with your families and our four guests,” he announced to them.

“Most of our boats got destroyed by the cursed,” informed one of the council members.

“Then let’s start the repairs of our boat at dawn,” said Manu in resignation and was about to leave the room.

“Wait!” I told him urgently.

I had to try. There’s no way I was going to simply wait until whatever destruction hit us. And then there was the matter of the likely hood of it happening all over again.

“I…I volunteer to go to the forest in search of the bird. The one having the demon king’s mortality,” I informed him.

Sam, Ray and Yaj looked at me in shock.

“We only have two days Dee,” said Sam.

Manu walked towards me with hope in his eyes.

“It takes less than a day to reach the forest on our horses,” he informed me, sounding desperate.

I nodded. Maybe I’ll be lost before I even reach the forest. But I wanted to go and try finding the green bird.

“I’ll go with her,” said Yaj, shocking me.

He was looking at Manu, determined.

Sam and Ray looked at each other and announced that they would join us as well.

“The four of us will go,” said Ray.

I felt elated but guilty at the same time, for putting them on a spot, and maybe obliging them to join me on this dangerous quest.

“The four of you have provided us with the best news we have gotten in days. You can start the journey to the forest tomorrow morning. We are all sure that you would be successful,” said Manu.

“How can we find out the exact location of the bird?” I asked.

“Once you reach the forest, look for clues and follow your instincts,” said Manu.

It wasn’t exactly the most informative guide but I knew it in my gut he was laying out the facts.

He left the room with the council members.

We heard bells ringing loudly from the outside.

“I think an announcement is being made,” said Ray.

“Guys… don’t feel obligated to join me to the forest,” I told them. And I meant it.

“We all made the decision on own, Dee,” said Sam, trying to cheer me up.

“But there’s a possibility of not making it. We should be prepared for it…” I told them.

I leaned my head on the chair and closed my eyes. I already had a healthy dose of guilt, and the calamity hadn’t even happened.

“It’s not selfish for wanting to help them. We had decided that early on. And like you said, it’s probably the only way to get us out of here,” said Yaj.

I nodded my head and sighed.

“Dee, you were holding up well tonight. I know it’s not easy to remain calm after the attack,” said Ray.

“I was hardly calm. Yaj had to fling me on his shoulder to drag me away from doing something stupid,” I told him, recalling my reaction to the attack.

“Well, you weren’t a hysterical sobbing mess covering at a corner, refusing to come out of your room. You are allowed to that after the attack” said Yaj with a small smile.

I raised my eyebrow at his assumption.

“I think that’s what any sane person would’ve done under the circumstances. I was more furious than scared at the attack. I thought of my parents finding out that I had died…and I just flipped. I won’t let anything hurt them. I promised them I would return home safely…and I will. We all will,” I told him.

They were quiet when I told them that.

Our time was ticking by already. We had been stuck in this place for two days already.

“Why did he attack just you?” asked Sam, puzzled.

“I’m not entirely sure if I was the only target. Maybe I was that man’s target. There could be others sent after you guys. You guys need to be careful too,” I told them.

“That can be a possibility. We should remain in our rooms tonight until tomorrow morning,” said Yaj.

“You’re right… we had a long day and an even longer one tomorrow. We should get some sleep. We need our wits around us to face tomorrow,” said Sam.

We got up and walked towards the hallway that led to our rooms.

“We’ll meet you at the same place in the main hall. Good night guys,” said Ray walking away with Yaj in the opposite direction.

Sam and I were walking slowly towards our room, lost in our thoughts when we heard someone running from behind us.

I turned quickly almost expecting to see a cursed or another assassin. But it was Yaj.

“Dee…promise me. Please promise us that you’ll remain in your room tonight and not try to do any cloak and dagger stuff on your own,” he said.

He looked really concerned and maybe it was a valid concern.

“I promise. I’ll remain in my room the entire night. I’m too tired to even think about anything right now,” I told him.

His face relaxed and he looked reassured.

“Good. Then sleep tight and have pleasant dreams. You too Sam,” he said and left with a wave.

***

Sam and I were quiet as we walked towards our room. When we got inside, I went straight to bed and lay down to get some sleep. I closed my eyes and thought about my parents, wondering if they got the news…of me missing. They would be heartbroken.

I missed them like crazy. I remembered our fun bake days. I helped mom bake a batch of cookies or cupcakes most weekends. We tried the craziest recipes sometimes and dad was our guinea pig. We started it as a tradition, right from the time I could stand on my own feet. Even at sixteen, I didn’t want to give it up, and will probably continue doing it most weekends until I left home.

“Can’t sleep? Are you thinking about tonight’s attack or tomorrow morning?” I heard Sam ask.

“None of those… yet. Thinking of home,” I replied.

She sat up on the bed next to me and put her arms around her legs.

“Do you ever wonder… what will happen, if we can never get back?” she asked.

“I know we will Sam. We wouldn’t have been dragged into this place, just to get lost or to die here,” I said, sitting up like her.

“I wonder if anyone even realized we went missing from the cave,” said Sam, contemplating silently.

“I never said it…but sorry Sam. For making you come along with me to that prohibited area. I knew you weren’t comfortable. And I’m doing the same thing again now, dragging you along to that forest tomorrow,” I told her, feeling extremely guilty.

“You didn’t make me do anything Dee. It was my choice, and I had agreed to come along both those times,” she said.

“I just hope we can get back soon,” I told her.

“Jo, Vick and others might have started a search party for you. For all we know they might appear here and be our saviors,” she said.

“I really hope not!” I said, horrified. “We already have too many things to worry about,” I said.

I missed my friends, especially Vick. It felt weird not talking to him from past two days.

“Our teachers must be frantically looking for you. You’re the celebrity in our school, remember. Your picture is over our library wall,” I told her with a smile.

“I’m hardly a celebrity. And the picture, the less said about it, the better. I’m called a nerd because of that. That didn’t help me win any popularity contests. But the reward and the cup were worth it though, made my grandparents so proud of me,” she said softly.

“Nerd. Hah! I think most boys and even girls get intimidated by you. I remember being intimidated by you myself when I was new. But it was only until I spoke to you. You’re sweet and so much fun to be around Sam. I’m glad it’s you with me on this crazy ride,” I told her.

Both of us yawned loudly at the same time. “Excuse me,” we said at the same time and chuckled.

"Me too... I mean... if someone were to ask me... whom I would choose to be lost with in an unknown scary place... I would've picked you Dee. Ray and Yaj too. The three of you are the kind to stick along, even when the going gets rough... you never let anyone down " she said, breaking into another yawn, and lay back on the bed

“Good night Sam,” I told her and lay down next to her.

I felt the same way about them.

My eyes got heavy and I closed my eyes.

We had a long day tomorrow, and I promised myself again to get the mission accomplished successfully, and get us back home safely.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

 

  • [* Day 3 *** *]

I opened my eyes when I heard bells ringing at a distance. There was faint light coming from the windows. It was almost dawn.

Sam woke up to the sound of bells as well. We grabbed a couple of bathing sheets and some toiletries, left behind in our room. We headed to the bathing area. Our clothes and shoes were clean and dry on the steps, where we had left them yesterday. I took a quick bath and changed into my now clean clothes. I felt much better wearing my own clothes and shoes.

We headed back to the main building towards the dining area.

Yaj and Ray were already there waiting for us. They were also dressed back into their old clothes as well. We went into the dining area together. There were very few people compared to yesterday. They were laying out several dishes of food.

“This is a special occasion. King Manu is breaking his fast today after fourteen days. He is completing his morning ablutions and will be down shortly,” a man announced to the room and hurried away.

“People don’t seem very nervous or scared about the curse taking over. Do you think they were informed about it?” I asked.

“I think some people react differently to a disaster, especially if they know there’s nothing to be done,” said Yaj.

“They probably find comfort in continuing their normal routine or habits,” said Sam.

We saw Manu enter the dining area. The food was being served like the previous day. This time I remembered to place my hand on my plate, to stop them from serving me more.

“There will be a carriage waiting out for you four. It will take you to the forest. The horses have been trained to go until the end of the forest,” Manu informed us.

We finished our meal and stood near the gates, waiting for our ride to arrive.

“It’s not too late to back off guys. I wanted to do this on my own. No one will hold you accountable for not wanting to come along,” I told them.

“Dee. We might or might not succeed today. But we are in this together,” said Yaj looking at me.

“We wanted to do this before you changed your mind Dee. Put your mind to rest. Like Yaj just said, we are in this together… until we return back home,” said Ray.

Sam squeezed my hands in assurance, and I felt grateful.

People were hurrying around. I could sense the desperation and fear on some of their faces. It was so different from yesterday, when everything seemed relatively carefree and cheerful.

Our ride arrived and it was the same carriage that had gotten us to the citadel. The two white horses pulling it also seemed like the same ones from yesterday.

We got in and found some bags of food and water stored at a corner. Ray and I sat opposite to Yaj and Sam. There was a small opening in front of the cart that led to the driver’s seat.

I still had a healthy dose of guilt, for dragging my friends on this crazy unpredictable journey. Until yesterday, I was trying to get out of any situation that involved any hint of danger. And today I was packed up and preparing for a journey where other more trained people have failed. The changes within my own thoughts were giving my brain a whiplash. But something was driving me. The entire thing felt like a dream, and I had decided to be the hero of my own dreams.

The council members and Manu came towards our ride. Some of them began chanting quietly, and sprinkling water around the horses and the carriage. He even sprinkled some on us.

“This will protect you from some of the dark magic. We know you will succeed in this mission. You were meant to do this,” said Kashyapa, addressing the four of us.

“Godspeed,” said Manu, and signaled the horses to move.

The horses took off and were moving pretty fast. We had to brace ourselves on our seats to stay upright. After few minutes, I finally found my balance and settled back.

I moved the drapes away from the window to look outside. We were passing the streets of the kingdom. These streets were clear of any shells or seaweed. I looked at Ray when he placed his hand on one of my fists.

“Dee, the four of us are in this together. Don’t feel guilty. So far you’ve been leading in points. For the most effective kick-assery of the bad guys. We’ll need those skills in the forest too,” he said, smiling gently at me.

I felt grateful hearing his words. Yaj was silent. I knew he was the first one to support me on this quest. Was he having second thoughts or worse felt obligated?

Soon, we were outside the kingdom and the horses were moving at a steady pace. I had a restless sleep last night, and had a dull headache because of it. I closed my eyes and leaned back to rest for a few minutes. The steady rhythm of the carriage put me into sleep.

***

When I woke up, it was still bright outside. Maybe, it was late afternoon. Sam was asleep opposite to me.

“You should get something to eat. The three of us already ate a while ago,” said Yaj.

I drank some water first and grabbed a cloth pouch that had our food inside. There was couple of flat breads with stuffing inside. I took a bite and it was delicious, with meat and vegetables that were seasoned perfectly.

I was still very nervous, but apparently my stomach didn’t get the memo. I finished both the wraps in no time.

Soon, we were passing through a lot of deserted fields. They were still surprisingly green. Somehow, I had the impression that people were too scared to venture outside their homes or outside the gates of the kingdom.

Ray and Yaj had fallen asleep. I wasn’t sure how much longer the journey would last. We’ll have to find that bird somehow and kill it. And then return to the kingdom on time before whatever calamity hits it. Just thinking about it overwhelmed me, and all of my doubts began to rise back.

“What time is it?” asked Sam, waking up from her nap. The bright orange sun setting outside matched her pendant, bright against her black t-shirt.

“No idea. Sometime in the evening,” I said, trying to remain calm.

The scenery outside turned barren with only a few trees scattered randomly.

The horses neighed loudly and stood on their hind legs. The entire carriage tilted and I fell on Ray, jolting him awake.

“Sorry,” I told him, trying to see what had spooked the horses, stopping them from moving forward.

I stuck my head through the window and found nothing out of the ordinary that might have spooked the horses.

Suddenly, they began to take off at a rapid speed. I almost fell on the carriage’s floor. Yaj grabbed me on time and pushed me towards my seat.

“What’s happening? I don’t see anyone or anything,” said Ray, pulling his head back from the window and sitting back.

The carriage was moving too fast and weaving about randomly. Yaj got up and went through the opening towards the driver’s seat.

“Yaj, come back inside. You’ll be thrown down or worse,” I yelled.

I wasn’t sure he heard me. I grabbed the walls of the carriage and went towards the driver’s seat. Sticking my head out, I yelled at him again to get back inside the carriage.

He was handling the reins using both his hands. He pulled at them with his right hand making small loops in them.

After what felt like forever, the horses were moving in a straight line, on a well threaded path which hopefully was our way.

“Is everything alright out there,” Ray yelled from inside.

Yaj seemed to have control of the horses. He knew how to drive a carriage?

“Yaj is handling the reins. Something spooked the horses,” I replied.

The horses came to a stop. I could see a lot of tall trees everywhere, but no visible path on the ground.

“It’s the forest… We are finally here,” said Sam.

“The horses won’t move any further,” said Yaj with a grim expression.

Yaj and I went back to our seats.

“This is it guys. We need to start our quest now. Find that green bird somehow and head back to Manu’s by tomorrow night,” said Ray.

“And remember… we stay close at all time and we’ll continue to vote on any decision we take, while we are in there,” said Sam.

We will find the bird. Or rather, we have to find it. All we needed was a GPS that would lead us to the tree with the bird.

I hoped I would be less squeamish when it came to wringing the bird’s neck to kill it.

“Here… wear this around your waist,” said Yaj, handing a belt that had a scabbard.

It held a medium sized knife in it. Yaj chose another knife that was similarly sized to mine. Sam and Ray picked really long ones that were swords.

We got down the cart one after the other, and stood in front of the horses looking at the trees.

“I hope these horses will be waiting here when we get back,” said Sam, trying to sound optimistic.“If only the quest was something that we were good at,” she said.

In that case the quest would have to be—a play off with the demons, on who could play the best symphony by Beethoven. Probably, I’d have more confidence in achieving success to that.

Taking a deep breath, I began walking towards the beginning of the forest.

“Follow me,” I told them.

The least I could do was stay at the front, especially, when I was the one who insisted on this quest.

Yaj smirked slightly at my bravado. He didn’t comment on me taking the lead, and followed behind me, along with Sam and Ray.

The sunlight was gone completely. The sky was clear with the moon and the stars shining brightly above. I had no clue where the bird could possibly be located. But according to the council members, it was in the forests at the foothills of the mountain. My plan was to keep heading inside the forest, until we reached the mountains.

“Do we know which part of the foothills was supposed to have the bird,” asked Sam.

She probably was more nervous, because it wasn’t planned and organized, with clear directions to the tree. I only hoped she remained friends with me when we got back home. She had better instincts than me when it came to making decisions. Whether it was entering a no entry zone in a cave or volunteering to go on a wild goose chase… or this case a green bird chase.

“No, they said foothills of the mountain. My instincts are asking me to go this way,” I told them. It was weird, but something kept driving me. I felt more alive; especially my hearing and eyesight seemed keener.

“Wait… I think I see something,” I announced, pointing to something about ten feet away.

I went closer and realized that it was a heap of shells and seaweed.

“We probably are on the right path… if these people were here before us. We can keep following the trail of seaweed and shells, sort of like that fairly tale,” said Sam.

It was a trail. There were so many of them every few feet leading us almost towards the middle of the forest.

“How many people were here? At least a few dozen must have come in search of the bird,” remarked Sam, looking at the heaps that lay in front us further in to the forest.

It was very quiet.

“There are no crickets or any other sounds at all,” said Sam.

I wasn’t sure if it was a good thing or a bad thing. While I appreciated not having to tackle the animals and insects during this journey, the fact that none of them remained was also worrying. We kept walking for a couple of hours and stopped at a point when we didn’t see any more shells or seaweed.

We stood waiting near a huge tree that had several roots falling down from the branches all round it. It looked scary under the moonlight.

“What we do now?” Sam whispered, looking around. I wasn’t sure why she was whispering.

“No idea, should we just keep going and see where we’d end up?” asked Ray.

“No. Let’s wait here. We can take a two minute break first,” I told them and sat down on one of the roots. The knife around my waist was uncomfortable. Sam tried to sit. She moved her sword to the side without removing the entire scabbard.

My instincts were screaming at me in some sort of anticipation. I was waiting for something or maybe someone. But who? Vasishta or Kashyapa didn’t tell us about anyone else in the forest.

“Need help?” asked a man’s voice, almost giving me a heart attack.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

 

All of us froze and didn’t respond for a few seconds. For a moment, I thought it was my imagination.

“I can help you… if you will help me,” said the voice from the tree.

It was coming from top of the tree. I tried to see but I couldn’t find anyone there. The moonlight was bright enough, and my eyes had fully adjusted to the dark.

“Here, behind the tree,” the voice continued.

“Let me go check,” said Yaj, and turned to go around the tree.

“No wait. Let’s go together,” I said.

We held our weapons in hand, and stayed close to each other, and walked slowly around the tree. I was looking for a man standing next to a tree, but didn’t see anyone yet.

“It’s a Banyan tree. Some legends state that it hosts a lot of spirits. The good and the bad ones,” whispered Ray.

“Thanks Ray. That’s very reassuring,” said Sam.

“Welcome,” the voice spoke, and we stopped immediately.

Where was he? Was he an invisible person or a spirit? At this point, I was ready to welcome anything that would guide us to the bird, before this night was over.

The voice was coming from somewhere close. He should be around close by.

Two small glowing yellowish eyes opened right in front of me, making me jump and almost stab the eyes. I stopped at the last second.

“Holy forest Batman, what is that?” whispered Sam.

He did look like a bat. Now that I knew where he was, I could see him in the shadows. He was upside down with his hair hanging down, and both his feet on one of the higher branches. He opened his arms that had honest-to-goodness wings, an actual thin black web like wings around his arms.

He landed right in front of us. He was dressed in all black, a thin black top with loose black trousers like the people at the kingdom. He had long hair that fell a few inches below the shoulders. I couldn’t make out his features; he was hidden under the shadows of the tree. Only his eyes glowed yellow and bright.

“So, will you help me?” he asked, tilting his head sideways.

I stepped forward, and was about to say yes, when Yaj stopped me.

“What if this is a trick? An illusion set by the demon king? He’ll want to lead us in the wrong way, to get lost here in the forest,” he said.

“No. I know he’s going to lead us there… I can’t explain why. But… just trust me on this. Besides, what’s our other choice?” I asked.

“Dee is right. That Bat man might be our only choice. We might have to take our chances with him,” said Sam.

I smiled at the use of her phrase ‘Bat man’. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine that we would be stranded inside a forest relying on ‘Bat man’.

I stepped closer to the man and looked at him confidently.

“Tell us how you can help?” I asked him.

He stood there, not moving. I was almost sure I felt him smile, even if I couldn’t see his face clearly. Yaj was standing next to me with his sword drawn, as though to attack the man if he made any threatening move. I was pretty confident the man was the one I had been anticipating, the one who would help us.

“I know what you seek. I can get you closer to the much wanted green bird,” he said.

He knew about the green bird, which meant my instincts were right.

“What do you want from us in return?” asked Yaj.

Ray and Sam were quiet. I looked at them to make sure they weren’t hypnotized like before. They were blinking their eyes.

“I seek some answers,” said the man.

“Answers to what?” asked Ray, finally breaking his silence.

I was hoping they were some sort of general knowledge questions, and were easy to answer. While I didn’t fancy myself to be an expert on everything, I had enough idea about the world around us. Thanks to the news, and all the books my mom and dad made me read since I was a little girl. Sam, Ray and Yaj were even better at general knowledge. They were the true geeks while I had to slave away at my studies to make good grades.

“Just answers to some small dilemmas that people in my stories have,” he said.

And then he cackled. He actually cackled… like how I had imagined an old witch in fairy tales would cackle.

“And one more thing… If any of you doesn’t answer even if you have an opinion, I’m going to burst open your heads,” he said, cackling again.

We were stunned speechless.

“Actually I am not allowed to do that, although it would be fun to watch that happen. What I will do is… simply go back to my tree and not lead the way to your green bird,” he said.

“Can we discuss the answer among ourselves, and then tell you the right answer?” asked Sam.

This was getting beyond surreal now.

“No. You may not discuss among yourselves. But since I am in a generous mood, I will let you each pick an answer. If any of you have the right answer, I can still accept that, and will continue leading you towards your bird,” he said.

He opened his arms showing off his webbed wings and disappeared.

“Follow me,” he said, now standing behind us.

We found him facing away from us, and slowly walking deeper into the forest. He didn’t speak or ask any questions, yet. He was walking quietly as though we had plenty of time left for his questions.

***

We had been walking for a few hours in this forest and he was yet to utter a word about the story.

“My legs are killing me. I sure wish he had brought along his Batmobile,” Sam muttered.

Ray and I snorted a laugh at that.

“Listen carefully, no repeats,” said the man, finally breaking his silence.

We could hear him clearly, even though he was walking a few feet ahead, in front of us. The entire forest was still eerily quiet.

“It’s the first story. Listen carefully,” he said.

 

“Once upon a time, there was a king. He had an impressive army. But most of the days they spent their time in games and with their families. Since the king was in good terms with the neighboring kingdoms, they did not feel the need to keep training for long hours every day or be prepared for an attack. Each day one of the soldiers was assigned to guard the palace. They had to stand watch during the night, looking out from the top to see if they found anything unusual that threatened the safety of the kingdom. The soldiers took turns to stayed up and keep watch every night.

One night the king was woken up from his sleep. The guard who was on the watch had an urgent message for him. He said that one of the neighboring kings has decided on a surprise attack in two days. Upon questioning him, the guard said that he could see the future in his dreams and that all his predictions have come true so far. Even though the king was skeptical, he did not want to take chances with his kingdom and its people. He ordered the army to begin training for longer hours and to be prepared for an attack in two days.

After two days, the neighboring king did indeed attack the kingdom. Luckily for the king, the army was more than prepared, and could easily defeat the neighboring king and his army. The entire kingdom celebrated the victory.

During the celebration, the king called for the guard who had predicted the attack. He thanked him in front of everyone and said that he and his kingdom were grateful for his timely message. He rewarded the guard with a bag full of gold. Once the guard received the bag and held it in his hands, the king also announced that the guard will no longer be serving as kingdom’s guard in the future. He had been dismissed from the post.

The entire kingdom was shocked at the king’s decision. The guard had after all saved all their lives. When his advisors asked him about his decision, he had an answer that justified his actions.

So, what do you think was the king’s answer?” the man asked.

We were all quiet, thinking of a response. Nothing really justified firing the guard, especially when he saved the king’s and many people’s life.

“I think that the king was a narcissist and he didn’t want the guard to be credited with the safety and victory of their kingdom,” said Sam.

The man was shaking his head no even before Sam completed her answer.

“Maybe the king wanted that guard to remain home where he could sleep in the night and dream. He could predict any impending danger in his dreams,” said Yaj.

“No,” said the man.

Both those answers sounded like a good possibility. I couldn’t think of anything else to add.

“Maybe the king was angry that the guard didn’t use his talent multiple times for the kingdom, prior to the incident,” I said.

The man shook his head no.

We looked at Ray who was yet to come up with an answer. I really hoped we wouldn’t lose this early on in our journey.

“The guard was able to dream the prediction because he slept while on duty. The king didn’t want to risk the safety of his kingdom,” said Ray.

We looked at the man in front of us. He had stopped. I crossed my fingers hoping he wouldn’t fly away to the nearest tree. I was almost mentally preparing to drag him back from his tree.

After keeping us in suspense for a while, he finally nodded.

We all let go of our breaths collectively. We kept walking for a while, and the man remained silent.

***

“Good. Now it’s time for the second story. Listen carefully,” he said, after sometime.

“Once upon a time, there were two men, who were very good friends. The first man was short and stout. The second man was very good looking. Both of them were in love with a beautiful woman whom they had seen from far, a while ago at a fair. The friends found out that she lived in their neighboring kingdom. They asked for the woman’s hand in marriage. She accepted the good looking man. They got married and were heading back to his kingdom. His friend joined on the journey.

On their way, they got attacked by a group of thieves. The husband and his friend were killed in the encounter. Their heads had been cut off. The woman was devastated and prayed to the gods to bring back her husband. The gods answered her prayers, but put her husband’s head on his friend’s body and vice versa, bringing them both to life. Whom should the woman pick as her husband?” the man finished.

“She should pick the one with the head of her husband. Brain is the only thing that makes the person who they are. It would have memories of her and the marriage,” said Sam.

The man nodded and continued walking.

“That was easy,” said Ray signing in relief.

“Too bad if the friend had a potbelly or hygiene issues,” I muttered.

“Dee that would make her shallow!” said Sam smiling at me.

“Oh come on. And the man wasn’t? He married her after seeing her ‘once’ at a fair. That’s not exactly deep abiding love from both sides. They were attracted to each other and that’s ok. Why not just make decisions based on how it would ‘appear’ to the outsiders?” I asked.

“So you’re saying a hot body with an ugly face is better than handsome face with an ugly body?” asked Yaj, raising his eyebrow.

“I’m saying that it’s okay to make whatever choice we want. What if her husband was a bumbling idiot but she liked how he looked and was attracted to him?” I challenged.

He shook his head with a smile and I had no idea what that meant.

***

“The third story, listen carefully,” said the man.

“Once upon a time, there was a man in a kingdom far away. His mother had passed away when he was a child. His father had gotten remarried a few years later. His new step mother loathed him. She felt he was useless and that his father paid way too much attention to him.

One day, there was an announcement made in the kingdom. The princess who was a well known beauty was to be married. She hadn’t chosen a groom yet. She wanted a brave and a crafty man who would pass a test conducted by her. She had a huge cage with an opening on the top. Inside the cage, the ground was lined with sharp knives pointing up. There were just enough distance between the knives to fit a leg. Several suitors, some of whom were princes from other kingdoms lined up to win the hand of the princess. When each of them stood in front of the cage and saw the knives, they backed away from the competition.

It was finally the man’s turn. He saw the knives and knew his chances were slim. He still decided to go ahead with the test. He climbed up the cage and jumped inside. One of his legs landed between the knives, but the other was cut very deep injuring him.

The king and the princess were very impressed. When it was time for him to claim his prize, he rejected the princess offer. He just claimed the prize money and walked away. The entire kingdom was shocked.

Why did the man reject the princess hand in marriage?” asked the man.

There wasn’t sufficient information. It could be any number of things.

“He found the princess too self absorbed with her beauty,” I said.

The man shook his head no.

“He liked someone else and wanted to marry her. He did it for money,” said Sam.

The man shook his head no.

“He didn’t like the fact that he had to go through dangerous tests to win the princess’s hand. He thought she might have more in the future and he had to prove himself each time,” said Ray.

The man shook his head no.

I was getting frustrated. Why would he reject her? Actually why wouldn’t he if some of the reasons we stated were valid.

“He did the whole thing to prove to his parents that he wasn’t useless. He was willing to bleed, just to prove to them, that he would amount to something. He rejected the princess because he didn’t really want her in the first place,” said Yaj.

Whoa that was some deep psychoanalysis. I would have never thought that.

The man paused and shook his head affirmative.

We all sighed in relief.

***

It was getting chilly and we had been walking for a few hours following the man.

“The fourth story, listen carefully,” said the man after a while, making me jump at his voice.

“I’m going to make this interesting. Let me show it to you, as well,” he said.

The forest in front of him disappeared and was replaced by a hologram of sort. It was pretty big and bright and we could see four men standing in a forest. It was day time in there and couldn’t hear them talk. The man kept walking, the hologram moving with him. We looked at each other and walked behind him.

“Once upon a time, there lived four brothers. Each of them had a unique power. The first brother could take a bone of an animal and create the entire skeletal system. The second brother could create the entire flesh and blood of the animal. The third brother could create the skin and organs of the animal. The fourth brother can add life to a body.

They decided to use their powers and create an animal. The first brother found a bone lying in the forest and used his power to create the entire skeletal of the animal. The second brother created the flesh and blood of the animal. The third brother created the skin and other vital organs of the animal. The fourth brother brought it to life. The animal was a lion and it killed all the four brothers.

Who is responsible for the death of the four brothers?” the man asked.

It was a gruesome sight, watching the four brothers get mauled by the lion. We weren’t spared the details. When the whole story ended, we could still see the lion standing beside its kill.

“All four of them were, they were present through it all from the beginning. They knew what each of them was capable of,” said Yaj.

The man shook his head in negative.

“The first brother, he should have stopped when he realized the bone was of a large animal with four legs and shaped like a carnivore. There are no domesticated animals with that kind of bone structures,” said Ray.

The man shook his head in negative.

“The third brother, he could actually see that it was body of the lion. He should have spoken up and stopped them from proceeding further,” said Sam.

The man shook his head in negative. That left me to come up with the right answer. There was just one more option, really. How hard could it be? It was our last story and I was glad it was coming to an end.

“The fourth brother, he gave it life. With his power, the lion killed the four brothers,” I answered.

I knew it was not the answer I wanted to pick. The four brothers were all morons who used their powers frivolously. They were all equally responsible.

The man did not respond. He moved to a side and waited. For a moment, I thought he’d fly away to the nearest tree and disappear. The next instant the lion jumped from the hologram and landed right in front of us.

We all froze on my spot with shock. It was less than six feet away from us. I had never seen one before from this close a range. It was huge and threatening, with blood from the kill still stuck to its mane.

“Nobody move, the predators attack if there is a sudden movement,” said Ray whispering to us.

Every instinct was screaming at me to attack it with my knife. But I controlled myself. The lion began to move towards us. It was right in front of me and I felt as though its eyes were boring holes into me. The intensity of its eyes was startling.

“Let’s slowly get closer to each other. They are usually intimidated by bigger creatures,” whispered Sam.

I slowly moved closer to Sam in the middle and felt Yaj on my left. The lion didn’t seem a least bit intimidated. A lion that jumped out of a hologram movie, in middle of the forest, might as well dictate how it could act.

“Take out your weapons and prepare,” said Yaj quietly.

I could hear the soft whoosh’s of the weapons being drawn from Yaj, Ray and Sam. My hands were already in an attack position and I knew exactly where I would stab it.

The lion was less than three feet away right in front of me. It was still looking at me, into my eyes in particular. I knew it only wanted me. Something told me it was another prop instigated by the demon. Well… bring it on… I told the demon, mentally. I was tired of these games and wanted that bird in my hands as soon as possible.

“Here, kitty, kitty,” I whispered, looking at it.

It’s eye. I wanted to stab it in its eye. I held my knife in position.

The lion began growling and was crouching as if it was about to pounce.

“Guys, be prepared. Do as much damage as you can,” said Yaj.

The growls got louder and it jumped towards us.

“Now!” shouted Ray. “Spread out and inflict as much damage to it,” he said.

I held the knife up with my right hand. I literally jumped towards it and stabbed the lion in its eye.

My knife went deep, almost to the hilt.

“Impressive,” said the man cackling.

The lion was still suspended in the air barely a few inches away from me. My hand was holding the hilt. Yaj, Sam and Ray had their weapons into the lion’s body.

The lion and the hologram disappeared making us stumble with our knives and swords in thin air.

“You have answered all the questions to my satisfaction. Your journey with me has now ended. I cannot go any further from this point. The bird you seek is right on that Banyan tree,” he said, pointing towards a tree a hundred feet away.

It was the tallest tree around and it looked eerie under the moonlight. Behind the tree at a distance was the mountain. We had reached our destination, the foot hill of the mountain.

“The forest is alive. Watch your backs. One more dilemma shall one of you face. Should you see a double, kill the imposter to find the bird. Until next time,” he said cryptically.

“Thank you for your help,” I told him.

He just nodded. I couldn’t see his features or any part of his face. He always remained in the shadows or turned the other way. He opened his arms exposing his web like wings. He moved his arms until he was airborne and flew away.

We stood watching until we couldn’t see him anymore. He had disappeared into the forest behind us.

“Wow, Dee. How did you get the lion in his eye?” asked Ray in awe.

I was in quite awe myself.

“I was provoked. Its strange guys…but I just feel a little different. I keep getting these intuitions and keep hearing things when no one else can. I feel as though it’s my destiny to be here. We’ll get the bird. I know it,” I told them.

They were quiet.

“Be very careful Dee. Don’t believe in just luck. I don’t. In a split of a second, things can go very wrong. One minute you might think you are on top of the world, and can conquer anything, the next thing you know… everything is gone,” said Yaj grimly.

It felt weird hearing him say that. But I nodded my head quietly.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

 

“This is it guys. It’s probably going to be morning soon, and we still have to get back to the kingdom on time. Based on how long it took us, we should be back in less than twenty four hours. Hopefully it will be before whatever calamity hits us,” said Ray.

“Okay. So we’re looking for a green bird on that huge tree in front of us,” said Sam.

“How were we going to see a green bird, let alone find one in the dark? The moonlight was bright enough, but it would be darker under the branches,” said Ray.

Then I heard something. It was as though something was slithering in the dead leaves on the ground.

“What was that?” I asked, raising my knife.

“I didn’t hear anything. Yet.” Sam replied.

“I think I heard it too, some kind of rustling noise,” said Yaj, holding his knife in an attack position.

There wasn’t even a slight breeze to make the leaves rustle. It must be something else.

“A snake?” asked Ray, looking down around us.

The moonlight was bright enough for us to see a snake. But only if it was a light colored one and was big enough to be seen. The rustling noises got more frequent and were getting closer.

We stood in a circle with our backs facing each other. I had my knife in my hand, and somehow knew things were about to go south really quick. Yaj’s ominous warning a while ago not to rely on luck kept repeating in my head.

“Over there!” whispered Sam, pointing to something in front of her.

I turned and saw something beginning to grow up from the ground.

“What is that?” she asked, still pointing towards it.

Some sort of roots or creeper vines without any leaves were growing rapidly from the ground. Within a few seconds, they were forming a human like shape. The head and torso was almost formed.

My knee jerk reaction was to ask the other to wait while I tackled it. I somehow knew they would be in danger with these things.

“Crap! Let’s cut it down before it grows any taller,” said Yaj, going towards it.

We ran towards it, and began hacking away at whatever we could reach. There was a sizzling sound with burnt smell. And all that was left of the creeper was a small sticky dark puddle.

I assessed the puddle to see if it still had any connecting creeper vine attached to it. I couldn’t make out much, because it was in the color of mud, and unless it moved, it blended in with the ground.

Sam jerked back suddenly and fell down. Then she was being dragged away with one of her legs wrapped by a creeper.

“Sam!” I called out, running towards her.

She still had her sword in her arm, and began hacking at the creeper that was around her ankle. She got up quickly and joined Ray, who was also battling the creepers.

There was another one growing right in front of me. I quickly cut through the creeper. It sizzled and melted into the dark sticky puddle.

When I looked up, I saw that several creepers had fully formed into human like shapes with arms.

Sam and Ray were cutting through them like pros with their swords. But whenever they cut off an arm, another grew back. Yaj was managing to stop them as well. His knife was shorter like mine. And he was hacking away in rapid cuts at the roots.

I joined them, and began hacking at the creeper with my knife.

“Why aren’t they melting into that viscous puddle!” yelled Sam, continuing with her hacking.

The few creepers I had hacked around me had already turned into a puddle. The whole place smelled like burnt rubber. I looked towards her, wanting to ask her to stay close to me.

I was shocked to see what was behind her.

“Sam!” I yelled. “Behind you!” There was huge creeper that had grown almost ten feet tall.

Before she could turn back, the creeper had wrapped a vine around her sword and her arms. It dragged her up with both its human shaped arms, and was wrapping vines around her torso.

“Sam!” I screamed, and began running towards her.

“Ray!” I heard Yaj, shouting at the same time, from behind me.

I tripped on the roots that were forming rapidly around me. Sam was not answering or even calling out for help. Her head was bent towards her chin, and she lay limp. The creeper held Sam around her waist, and was moving away.

“Wait! Sam!” I screamed again, hoping to bring Sam into conscious.

She didn’t respond. I was hacking at the creepers around me, until I heard them sizzle. I looked briefly at Ray. He was also being held by a ten feet tall creeper. He seemed unconscious too like Sam.

Yaj was still battling a lot of creepers that were surrounding him. I could barely see him.

“Yaj!” I screamed, trying to get to him.

Just then, I realized that for some reason, only I was able to burn away these creepers. Maybe it was my knife. The council members must have made it powerful with their chants or holy water. The knife also must be making me more alert.

“Yaj… My knife… I think only my knife can burn these creepers!” I yelled, moving towards him.

Sam and Ray were nowhere to be seen. I tried to remain calm, and decided to find them as soon as I could get Yaj out from the creepers.

I was almost near him, when a creeper wrapped around my left leg. I switched my knife to my left hand, and began hacking at it. It didn’t burn. I was only able to cut it. The root grew back rapidly, and tightened its grip on my leg.

Trying to shake it off, I looked towards Yaj; he was barely visible within the creepers that managed to overpower him. He wasn’t making any sound either.

The root moved back suddenly, jerking me forward. Even as I began to fall down, I decided not to let go of my knife, and held it away from me.

My head banged into a hard root on the ground, and everything turned dark.

***

When I opened my eyes, it was still dark. I was lying on the forest floor with my face down on the ground. My fingers were still curled around my knife in my left hand. It was very quiet with no rustling noises.

Sam, Ray and Yaj. I knew I had to get up and find them.

“Dee. Help me,” I heard Yaj gasp from somewhere.

My head was pounding, and I could feel a large egg sized lump form around my temple. I transferred my knife to my right hand, and slowly began to sit up, using the knife as support.

I dragged myself up and began searching for Yaj. I couldn’t find him anywhere around me.

“Dee,” he gasped again.

When I turned towards the sound, I could see two huge cocoon like tangled roots that were lying next to each other. That was also the spot where Yaj was last surrounded by the creepers.

I walked towards him, stumbling on some dead roots. They were no longer creeping along. I wasn’t sure which of the cocoon like structure contained Yaj inside.

Carefully, I began to cut the right side one first. The moment my knife touched it, the cocoon melted into a sticky puddle. Yaj was inside it and he fell back unconscious. I was about to go towards his head, to try and bring him back to conscious. But I stopped when I heard him, or rather heard his voice.

“Dee… where are you?” asked Yaj, sounding desperate from a few feet away.

The voice was coming from within the next creeper cocoon.

My heart began to pound. But I couldn’t afford to take chances, and decided to see what was behind the other creeper cocoon. I slowly walked toward it and sat next to it. I tapped my knife on the surface, and it melted just like the previous one. I was shocked when I saw what it held.

This one also had Yaj inside, and he fell back to the ground. He was conscious here, and began to cough and splutter.

I stood staring at both of them.

What was this? A trick? Were these the same doubles that the man in the forest had warned us about? And I had to kill one of them to get to the bird.

My instincts were screaming at me again. But I decided not to depend purely on luck. I had to make a more informed decision.

The right side Yaj began to groan and move.

“Dee, he’s the double. Remember what the man told us? Kill him quickly. Sam and Ray need us,” said the left Yaj, sounding urgent.

My heart began to pound. He knew about Sam and Ray, he must be the real Yaj.

As I went closer to the right one, he opened his eyes. Even in the moonlight, I could make out the blue and the brown eyes.

“Dee, are you ok?” he asked, sounding just like Yaj.

My instincts told me he was the real deal. But I had to use my head. Both of them looked exactly the same. They even wore the same silver pendant with the black ball clutched in between the talons. Both their pendants were shining brightly in the moon light.

“Dee… we don’t have much time. We have to return to Manu’s place on time. Sam and Ray need us,” said the one the left, with desperation in his voice.

I stepped away from both. But he was right. We didn’t have much time left. It would be dawn soon.

“Dee, don’t listen to him. He’s the double the man in the forest warned us about,” said the right one.

Both of them knew everything about the situation, making it more difficult to determine by logic alone. My hand held the knife and I was almost rearing to go with my instincts.

“Dee, listen to me carefully. He is the double. If all the time we spent together means anything to you, kill him. Kill him now. Ray and Sam are waiting for us,” said the left one.

The time we spent with each other, did mean a lot to me. Yaj meant a lot to me. I was angry with him at times, but my feelings for him had never dimmed.

“Don’t listen to him Dee. He’s bluffing. He knows nothing about us. He just knows what happened here, in this world,” said the right Yaj, sitting up and looking at me.

“Dee…You know that you mean a lot to me. I have never told you this before, but I love you. I always have, right from the moment I saw you. I didn’t want to tell you because I wasn’t sure how you had felt about me,” said the left Yaj.

That sealed his fate. Even though I knew what I had to do, my hands were shaking badly, and I could barely hold the knife. I closed my eyes briefly to compose myself.

After a few seconds, I opened my eyes, and looked at the Yaj on the right.

I held the knife tightly in my right hand and raised it.

“Dee, please,” he said softly.

Raising my hand further up, I screamed out loud, and ran towards the left, to stab that creature hard into the stomach.

“Dee! No-o-o!” He screamed with a distorted and gravelly voice.

He melted into a black puddle like the other forest things.

The cursed people, the knife attack, lions and creepers, everything paled with what I just had to do. It was the single most traumatic thing that could ever happen to me.

I sat there silently with a dead expression on my face. I had killed the correct double, but my heart was heavy and felt tight. I wasn’t able to breathe and it was stupid of me to feel this way. We’d probably have to face worse until we got home.

I tried to breathe again, but it was difficult to even move.

Yaj got up and walked towards me.

“Dee,” said Yaj, quietly sitting next to me.

I didn’t respond to him.

I knew why I was feeling this way. Like the wind had been knocked out of me.

The wrong guy had spoken the right words. It was humiliating and tragic at the same time.

“Dee, please say something,” begged Yaj. He wrapped his arms around me, and began to gently stroke my back comforting me.

I was the worst person to be on this quest. The fact that I had initiated the whole thing was ironical. Sam and Ray needed us still. And here I was, bemoaning over a boy, just because he wouldn’t return my feelings.

“It wasn’t from the first moment, you know. Not even the second… or third,” he said softly, continuing to rock us.

If he was trying to cheer me, then it was a horrible way to go about it.

“All those times… I thought it was just an attraction. But when I saw you waiting for me at the bowling place… I knew I felt much more… And each time we spoke, I was falling for you more deeply.” he said.

The tightening in my chest slowly began to unfurl.

“But whenever I saw you with your friends… I knew that I didn’t belong there… or even deserve someone like you. I did come to the bowling event that day. But I didn’t join you when I realized how different your life was from mine,” he said softly.

It felt nice being held by him. But I had to see his face. I sat back and looked at him. His face still had a serious ominous cast to it, especially in the moonlight.

“Why?” I asked finally. “What do you mean you didn’t belong?”

He was crazy to think that. We were in the same school and class for heaven’s sake.

“There are a lot of things you don’t know about me Dee. It’s much better off that way,” he said, sounding frustrated and torn.

“You don’t get to decide that for me Yaj. Tell me why? What do you mean deserve me?” I asked.

He looked down at his hands, and didn’t say anything for a few seconds.

Finally, he looked right into my eyes, and took a deep breath as though bracing himself for something worse.

“Because whoever cared for me got destroyed!” he said.

“Yaj, what are you talking about?” I asked.

“I killed the only person who loved me, my brother,” he said softly.

I was shocked hearing that. But I knew there was definitely more to it than how it sounded.

“I know you wouldn’t deliberately hurt someone you loved Yaj,” I told him.

The person, who waited patiently with me every week until my mom picked me, was not capable of harming someone he loved.

“Maybe not deliberately, but I was responsible for it anyway,” he said, looking shattered.

Just then, we heard a small sound from somewhere.

“We don’t have time to talk about it now. But I promise to tell you as much as I can, later,” he said, looking at me.

“I’m going to hold you to that promise. Now, let’s go find Sam and Ray,” I told him.

Sam and Ray needed us. We had to finish this quest soon. I was pretty confident, we’d succeed. And I was determined to get us all back home.

“Let’s go to the tree, find that darn green bird, and wring its neck,” I told him.

The ground around us was filled with the gooey, molten, black liquid puddles. Our shoes and clothes were also liberally splattered with it. Yaj had some smeared on his face. I was sure I had more, considering I burnt most of the creeper roots.

We walked towards the huge tree, and stood in front of it. The tree was much bigger than the one with the bat man on it. The branches were drooped down, all around the tree, forming thick roots at the ground.

It was still comparatively dark under the branches. But I saw something glint from within the branches.

“I think Sam and Ray are under those branches,” said Yaj, pointing towards the same spot, the glint had appeared.

“I think so too. I can see part of their swords,” I told him, moving forward.

The branches and roots were too thick for us to go towards them.

Yaj began to hack away at some of the roots. I did the same, but these didn’t melt. They merely fell down. He was able to get closer to the glint. There were two cocoons like things made of creeping roots, hanging from the branches. Yaj was trapped in a similar one before.

“Here, use my knife to get them out. I think it has the power to burn away those roots,” I told Yaj, handing him my knife.

He squeezed inside, and tried cutting down one of the roots. They didn’t melt. He was being careful, while cutting the roots.

“Let me try, “ I told him, and took back my knife. I tapped on one of the cocoons, and moved back, dragging Yaj along with me.

The roots melted into a thick black liquid releasing Sam. Luckily, she was only dropped down from a height of less than three feet. But it must have still hurt.

“Oww!” She exclaimed when she hit the ground.

I was glad she was safe enough to feel the pain, and even react verbally to it. I moved to the cocoon next to her, possibly containing Ray. I tapped on it with my knife and stood back.

Ray fell down, and was still lying down with his eyes closed.

“Ray! Are you all right?” asked Sam, leaning next to him.

Yaj and I stood next to her, looking down worriedly at Ray. Apart from the gooey black stuff that covered all of us, he didn’t seem to have any visible cuts.

Ray groaned and sat up slowly, holding his head.

“Ray, are you all right?” Yaj asked him.

He shook his head, as though he was trying to clear it.

“Yes, I’m fine… Did I miss the action? Do we have a dead bird already?” he asked, looking at the three of us.

“Not yet. But we must get to it right now. We must hurry to make it on time to Manu’s place,” said Yaj.

The next hour or so was very critical for us. We had to get the job done. We were running out of time.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

 

Sam and I came out of the branches, and stood in front of the tree. Yaj and Ray came out, right behind us.

We stood quietly, watching the tree in front of us.

I heard something, a faint sound, more like a faint chirping sound.

“I hear a bird. It’s in there somewhere. I can hear its chirping,” I said, walking around the tree.

“It’s not morning yet, why would a bird chirp now?” asked Sam, puzzled.

“Come on Sam. The tree vines attacked and trapped us, we were attacked by a 3D projected lion… do you really want to question a bird chirping right now?” asked Ray.

“True… But I think it’s almost twilight now” said Sam, with a sheepish smile.

The tree was pretty large, and I had to strain my ears to hear the chirping again. Sam, Ray and Yaj followed quietly behind me. I stopped just behind the tree, in front of the mountain foot hill.

Right there, on one of the branches was a really small green bird, sitting in a nest. It seemed pretty harmless. I couldn’t believe that an evil demon would have his mortality saved inside it. And it was sitting brazenly, on top of the lower branches, especially the ones we could easily climb and reach.

“That’s the bird. Wow Dee, how did you hear it when we all couldn’t?” exclaimed Sam.

“In this world, I’m like an animal whisperer,” I joked.

I was no superhero with an extraordinary hearing power. My ears were trained to find the nuances of different musical notes right from a young age. I always paid attention to the background music, and instruments in my favorite songs as well.

“It is that one. Right there on top of those branches,” said Sam excitedly. “I see the green bird”.

“It’s already twilight now. Remember Kashyapa’s words on one of the conditions to kill the bird. We need to hurry up,” said Sam.

“I can reach it with my sword,” said Ray, extending his hand up.

The bird was still a couple of feet higher.

“Let me go up the tree. I’m good at climbing trees,” he said, and began climbing the tree with barely any effort.

“No! Wait! Let me go,” I told him urgently. Something about the whole bird, and it being so simple didn’t feel right.

“Oh come on Dee. It’s just a little bird. Stay. You’ve been fighting too hard all this time,” he said and went towards the tree.

Once he reached up there, he swung his sword towards the bird.

The tree began shaking. It was shaking pretty violently, with all the braches and vines swinging around. There was a loud gasping sound, and Ray fell down from the tree with a sickening thud.

“Ray!” we all shouted, rushing towards him, and knelt down next to him.

He was gasping and coughing, while clutching his stomach.

“Ray! What happened? How did you fall off the tree?” asked Sam.

He was not able to speak. He just shook his head, and was trying to gasp out some words.

“Feels…like…sword… run…through,” he finally managed to gasp out, still clutching his stomach.

I saw Ray trying to pierce the bird with his sword. But the bird was still alive, instead Ray felt as though he was pierced in the stomach.

“The bird… we have got to kill it before the twilight is over. That might release Ray from this plight too. It has to be on neither the ground nor up in the air. Maybe because Ray was up on the branches, it’s considered to be up in the air,” said Sam.

We picked up Ray, and moved him a few feet away, just in case some branches came crashing down.

“Sam! Please repeat those words for me… the one that Kashyapa said would kill the bird,” I asked.

“The person should not belong to this world.

The killing should happen when it’s neither the day nor the night.

The killing should be neither on the ground nor on the air while doing it.

The weapon used should be neither animate nor inanimate.” Sam repeated the words.

“We also need to kill it with something that is both animate and inanimate. Sword is not it. Neither is a knife,” Yaj pointed to us.

“The twilight isn’t going to last long. It’ll only be for at most thirty to fifty minutes. We’ve lost ten minutes already,” said Sam urgently.

Yaj got up and was walking towards the trembling tree with its vines swinging crazily.

“Nails,” gasped out Ray.

For a moment, I didn’t understand what he was trying to say. Then I looked at my hands, at my long nails. That was it. They were neither animate nor inanimate. It wasn’t dumb luck. It was meant to be. This was the first and the only time in my life, I had grown my nails this long.

I looked up from my nails and saw Yaj moving towards the branches.

“Yaj stop!” I screamed, running towards him.

“Dee, I’ll get the bird down from the tree. We need to stay on the lower branches with one foot on the ground and the other on top of a branch…We can figure out what weapon to use later,” he said in a determined tone.

“Ray already figured it out. It’s our nails. I have them and are long enough to do some serious damage,” I said, moving closer to the tree.

“Get back to Ray,” I told him, moving towards one of the lower branches, which were shaking violently.

“Dee, I’m coming with you,” said Yaj, staying right next to me.

“No! Please go… I need to do this by myself without having to worry about you,” I told him.

He had a stubborn expression on his face.

“Please Yaj… trust me on this. I know I can do this. I need someone to guide me from down here, while I go up the tree,” I told him.

He looked torn. But he finally nodded.

“Dee, I can’t lose you too or let anything bad happen to you. Promise me you’ll back off if you don’t feel safe,” he said.

“Okay,” I replied, but couldn’t promise to back off, if things go crazy up there.

This try was our only hope. Ray and others depended on this, and I probably had less than 15 minutes to deal with the entire thing, until the twilight passes to become dawn.

He hugged me tightly and kissed me on my forehead, before letting me go.

“That branch right there, it’s the lowest on this part of the tree. Take that one to climb up. You can also bring back the bird there, and have one foot on the ground, before you kill it,” he said, while pointing towards that branch.

My childhood didn’t really allow me to explore or play with the monkey bars. The closest I had gotten to climbing something was a bunk bed at Jo’s house. Even that needed a few tries, at first.

But when I got closer, I knew I was going to get to the bird. I climbed the lower branch, holding the knife between my teeth.

“That’s pretty good Dee, now step on the branch on the top, to your right. That’s the one that has the bird on it,” I heard Yaj instructing me from below.

I quickly climbed on top of the branch with the bird. I began to slowly crawl towards it.

I felt something wrap around my leg, stopping me from moving forward.

“Dee, there’s a vine wrapped around your leg. Use your knife,” shouted Yaj from below. He sounded worried about me.

Holding my knife in my right hand, I slowly sat up. I swung the knife towards the vine cutting it and freeing my leg.

The vines and the branches stopped shaking. Before they could resume, I set out in a fast crawl towards the bird. It was tempting to simply run it through with my knife like Ray had done. But I tucked back my knife and reached out, and held the bird in my right hand.

Immediately, I felt a crushing pressure around my torso. It felt as though someone was holding me in a bone crushing hug. I eased the pressure on the bird and held it lightly. I felt the pressure ease around me as well.

“You’re doing good Dee. Now get back the same way, facing the bird. I’ll tell you when you are closer to the lower branch,” said Yaj.

Holding the bird gingerly with my right hand, I kept edging back on the branch, using my left hand as leverage. Every time, I felt myself slipping, I tightened the grip on the bird. There was a similar tightening around my torso, and I had to remind myself to ease up my grip.

“The branch is right below you Dee. Step down and hold the branch you are sitting on with your left hand,” he instructed.

Holding the bird in my right hand, I stepped down and sat on the lower branch.

“Now, Dee,” said Yaj, sounding urgent.

Sam was still sitting next to Ray. They were both looking at me expectantly.

“Okay… here goes… we don’t belong to this world,” I began.

“It’s neither morning nor the night,” I said, looking towards the sky.

“It’s neither the ground nor the sky,” I said, and put my left foot firmly down on the ground.

“These are neither animate nor inanimate, “ I said, looking at my nails.

Taking a deep breath, I placed the bird on my right thigh. I closed my eyes and hardened my heart. Thinking of Ray and Manu’s prophecy, I dug my nails in, and tore open the bird’s belly.

There was loud screeching noise, and the wind began to blow. It knocked me off the branch.

“Dee! Are you alright?” shouted Yaj coming towards me, and holding my hand.

The bird was lying dead beside me, with its belly torn open. My nails and hands were now covered in blood along with the black slime. I did it. The demon was now mortal.

“Dee,” said Yaj. “You did great. We need to leave now,” he said, dragging me along, towards Ray and Sam.

Ray was now standing up, and didn’t seem like he was in pain. The wind was picking up and getting worse. I felt my body pushed up by the blowing wind, my feet rising an inch above the ground.

Yaj dragged me down, and we held hands tightly. Ray and Sam joined us, and we all crouched, waiting for the wind to die down or lower in intensity.

But it only got worse. It was making a loud howling noise, and I heard some tree branches break.

“I hope we aren’t crushed under the branches or tree trunks,” yelled Sam.

“Guys, stand up,” I told them suddenly. I was trying to stand, but Yaj dragged me down.

“What? Are you crazy? Sit down Dee,” he said.

“No. Seriously, stand up. Trust me,” I told them.

They stood up slowly and reluctantly.

As soon as we were all upright, we were suddenly lifted high up in the air, some twenty feet or more above the ground.

“Oh shit,” said Ray, as we were being blown away at a rapid speed on top of the forest.

I could see the forest below our dangling legs. Some of the trees were crashing down as we were zipping by.

After a few minutes or maybe seconds, we crashed into a tree. The impact loosened my hold and I began to fall down. I grabbed on to one of the branches, breaking my fall. My breath was knocked out of me, but I didn’t feel any shooting pain or seemed to have broken anything.

“You guys okay?” asked Yaj, somewhere from below me.

“Yes!” I heard Sam and Ray reply from above.

“Dee! Are you alright?” yelled Yaj, sounding panicked.

“Yes. I’m fine,” I gasped out, finally getting some air into my lungs.

The wind had stopped blowing. It was dawn now, and the sky was lit in orange streaks.

A few feet away from the tree, I spied our horses with the carriage. They seemed intact and weren’t affected by the crazy wind.

“Our horses and the cart are close to this tree!” shouted an excited Ray from above.

He began climbing down the tree, followed by Sam, who was getting down gingerly. I followed them both, stepping on the same branches as them. When I finally got down, the three of them were waiting for me.

“That was one heck of a flight back to our horses. Thanks Dee for making us stand up,” said Ray, grinning. I could only see his green eyes and teeth shining brightly within the black sticky soot on his face.

I smiled back at him.

“If only we could be blown back to Manu’s place. Now, that would have expedited our whole journey,” said Sam, smiling.

“I’m just glad we are all still in one piece, while we succeeded the quest,” I said.

“I know. But let’s go, we need to hurry up and get to Manu’s place. I just hope the horses are trained to know the way back as well,” said Yaj, walking towards the horses.

We climbed into the carriage, and took turns to drink water from the pots. There was plenty of water remaining, and I decided to wash off the blood and grime, from my fingers and nails.

I got down with a small cup full of water and washed away as much grime and blood as I could. Sam, Ray and Yaj took turns and did the same.

When we were done, we climbed back in. Yaj sat on the driver’s seat and led the horses back to the path we had taken. He came back inside, when the carriage began to move at a steady pace. He sat next to me and held my hand. Ray’s eyebrows shot up in surprise, and Sam simply smiled at us.

“How do you know how to drive a horse carriage?” I asked Yaj.

“My brother and I learnt it from a carriage driver, during one of our vacations. No automobiles were allowed in that place. It was one of the best vacation I had,” said Yaj, rather wistfully.

I wanted to ask him more about his brother and his parents. It bugged me that he thought he didn’t deserve to be happy. We had a lot to talk about, and hopefully we’d get some privacy back at Manu’s.

Sam found some dried and sweetened fruits in one of the packed pouches. She passed some around. We kept chewing on the fruit quietly. I was recalling the last few hours.

“No one would believe us back home. When we tell them what we saw and experienced the last few days,” said Ray, smiling.

I was glad that all of us had enough confidence that we’d return home at some point.

“Maybe we don’t have to tell them everything. Just come up with a plausible reason on why we went missing, and where we were all these days,” said Sam.

“We can think of a reason when we’re almost back home,” I said, stifling a yawn.

We were up the entire night, and a very eventful one at that. I was slightly sore, but too tired to wait for a comfortable bed, before falling asleep. Leaning back on the carriage wall, I closed my eyes to get a brief shut eye.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

 

When I opened my eyes, it was bright and sunny outside. My head was resting on Yaj’s shoulder.

Sam and Ray were still asleep opposite to me. I sat up slowly, not wanting to disturb Yaj. When I looked at him, his eyes were already open. He was smiling at me in amusement. I must be looking like a fright with my hair and a grimy face. He looked equally shabby, but all I could still see were his eyes, shining brightly with amusement.

“One of my eyes is blue because of a hereditary disease called Heterochromia,” he repeated, probably for the hundredth time.

“I don’t care. Your eyes are stunning. First thing I noticed about you,” I told him smiling.

“Really? Not my stunning looks or personality then?” he asked with a smirk.

“Naah, there are other good looking guys at school too. And your personality… the less we talk the better,” I told him, putting on a straight face.

“I’m really hurt Dee. And shocked that you could be so shallow,” he said mockingly, putting his hand on his heart.

“Don’t forget petty. You ignored me the first few weeks and turned yourself into a challenge. One that I had to conquer,” I told him in a mock serious tone.

“Well. You’ve conquered me now,” he said.

“I know. But it’s not just the challenge. One of my favorite times at school was spending time with you and talking about everything,” I told him.

“Mine too. You have no idea how much that meant to me. It was the only thing keeping me sane,” he told me.

I was happy that it was all not just in all my mind. He had felt that way too.

“You know that day… with the woman Mandira. I wasn’t flirting—” he began.

“Stop, Yaj. I was being petty, behaving like a toddler, throwing tantrums ever since I thought you blew me off. You don’t owe me any explanation,” I told him.

“No. I do. I had heard she had lost her entire family to the curse. I felt sorry for her,” he told me.

I felt horrible hearing that. Never assume. Have kind thoughts. My grandparents kept repeating those words each time they visited me.

“You never know what is happening in a person’s life. Always be kind when someone is being angry or aloof,” my grandma told me.

“God, I feel like a selfish idiot,” I told him.

“No. Just very dedicated and single-minded about me,” he said, grinning.

Seriously, what did I do to deserve him? I felt so lucky.

Sam began stirring, and we fell silent. She woke up with a small yawn.

“What time is it? Do you know if we are closer to Manu’s place?” she asked, looking out of the window.

“Not sure. It’s probably late afternoon. We should be there in a few hours before the dusk hopefully,” I told her.

We ate some more dried fruits from the food bag. I couldn’t wait to get to Manu’s place for some hot food and a soft bed to rest, before our journey tomorrow.

Ray woke up shortly, and Sam handed him the last of the food.

“Do you guys think… they are expecting us back at Manu’s place this evening?” asked Ray.

“I hope so. Considering, they felt we were their only resort to kill the bird and make the demon mortal,” said Sam.

“All the other people who’ve tried haven’t been successful before. In fact no one has ever returned. Maybe they aren’t too sure about us returning as well,” said Ray.

“Well, regardless of them expecting us, I’m sure we’d still be welcome back to their kingdom. And we still haven’t even begun the main quest, to find their missing holy texts,” I told them.

“How would they even know that we really went to the forest and killed the green bird?” asked Sam.

“Maybe just by looking at our faces and clothes,” I replied.

“And also by looking at this feather from the bird,” said Yaj, drawing a green feather from one of his pockets.

I was surprised looking at the feather, and wondered when he had the time to pluck one from the dead bird.

The sun began to set and we could see the fields outside of the kingdom. That meant we were pretty close, and would hopefully reach before it got too dark.

***

There was still some sunlight left when we entered the kingdom. There were no people on the streets, which was a bad sign.

The horses got spooked again and came to a stop. They were shying away from moving forward. Yaj got into the driver’s seat to control them, and I went along with him.

“Oh shoot. The curse must’ve taken over completely… the seaweed and shells are heaped around in front of the houses,” said Sam, looking out from the window.

We saw some in front of the houses, but the streets were mostly clear.

“Come on… a little further. It’ll be safe enough inside Manu’s place,” I told the spooked horses.

We were moving slowly towards the citadel, which could be seen at a distance. As we went closer, the streets were littered with more heaps of seaweed and shells. The horses came to a standstill. Even after repeated attempts made by Yaj, they didn’t budge.

“We’ll have to walk to Manu’s place by foot. Grab your weapons,” said Yaj, getting down the carriage.

“Yes we need the weapons for sure. Last time… only Dee’s hand could rip out the hearts or even pass through the cursed bodied,” said Sam, getting down with her sword drawn, along with Ray.

I realized that even back at the forest, when I thought it was my knife that was magical. It didn’t seem that effective when I had handed it over to Yaj. And it didn’t seem to work when I held it with my left hand. I had to ask one of the council men, on what was making my touch special and what was driving me.

Until yesterday, before the man attacked me with the knife, I was reluctant to even go anywhere dangerous. Now, all of sudden I felt like some lead character in some cheesy action movie.

We began walking towards Manu’s place with our weapons drawn out. The knife in my hand felt very natural. I was stepping over piles of seaweed when Ray stopped to look at something.

“What is it Ray?” I asked, suddenly alert.

“The huge torches around the bull… they’re not lit up. I was told that they are always lit. No matter what,” he said, sounding alarmed.

I looked up towards the citadel. The torches around the bull statue weren’t lit. And it seemed like a good thirty minute walk to reach up there.

“We only have a few minutes remaining, until the sunlight disappears. Let’s hurry up,” said Yaj.

We were walking faster, almost running towards the citadel.

“How did so many people get cursed within a day?” asked Sam, worried.

“No idea. But I think it might have something to do with those people that the demon sent. We’d have to ask the council men, if they remained un-cursed,” said Ray.

We kept running for a few minutes and slowed down to a jog eventually. The gates were now clearly visible. We were only ten minutes away.

“Almost there,” said Ray, looking around him.

Right then, I heard the sickening sound of dragging shell feet. They were faint but I could hear them. A lot of them.

“Guys, hurry up. I hear them. The cursed people. They are around somewhere,” I said grimly.

We broke into a run, and took a right turn on the street, that led up to Manu’s place.

That’s when we saw them, at least a few dozen of them, waiting a hundred feet away from the front of the gates. They held sticks in their hands, either to be used for support or an attack.

“Oh god!” Exclaimed Sam as she stopped abruptly. “What do we do? We’re almost near the gates. How do we know for sure Manu and his council men are still un-cursed?” she asked.

The clomping noises got louder. I turned back to see more cursed people, pouring out on the streets from their homes. There were dozens of them, way too many for us to kill without being surrounded or hurt.

“The only way is to kill some on the way and run fast, bypassing the others. They cannot chase us. Just try not to get surrounded,” said Yaj.

“No. There’s no way around them… Let me go first; attack them with my knife and hand. I can make a way and you guys can join me when the coast is clear,” I said.

“No! Are you crazy? You can’t go alone Dee. They are way too many of them,” said Yaj.

“Yaj, we have no choice. For some reason I’m able to tackle the dark magic here. No idea how,” I said.

“Dee, wait. Look at that person,” said Ray, pointing towards someone.

That person was covered completely in a white cloth, including their head and was coming from the street behind us. He was not cursed. The walk seemed normal and he didn’t require any support.

“We are running out of time to wait,” I said.

“Just a second…Something seems familiar about that person,” said Sam.

We all raised our weapons and stood waiting. When the person got closer, he removed the cloth covering his face.

It was one of Manu’s council men.

“I’m glad you all could make it back. I was waiting for you near the kingdom gates since this evening. I was ambushed by some of the Shankadanav, and had to ward them off until now. I must have missed your entry. Everyone is waiting for you inside the gates. Please follow me,” said the council member, walking towards the gates, as though there were no cursed people blocking them.

“That’s Bharadwaja. I’ve watched him train at the citadel. The man can fight pretty well. He was able to deflect a dozen built warriors, just by using his sword. According to some people, he’s supposed to be well versed in the military arts,” said Ray softly, while we followed him.

Bharadwaja drew his sword, and held it close to him. With the sharp tip pointing up, he closed his eyes and began praying. In a few seconds, he opened his eyes, and charged towards the cursed people in the front.

They were standing up, and looked really angry.

Bharadwaja cut through them with a swipe, turning them into heaps of shells and seaweed.

They were all single-mindedly attacking him. He barely seemed to panic, and was methodically cutting through them.

The four of us joined the melee and began attacking the cursed. Some of them had come armed with weapons.

“Dee! Behind you” yelled Yaj from somewhere.

I turned back and ducked and stabbed the cursed in the heart. There was a huge axe in the hissing pile.

The next few minutes were quiet with just the hissing and spluttering noises. Only a handful of cursed remained.

One of the cursed approached me. There was no weapon in hand. I paused for a second and had a strange thought in my head.

I lifted my left hand and tried to drive it through the cursed person’s chest. It didn’t pass through.

I was stunned at the discovery. Holy cow! Everything clicked into place.

Yaj came running to me. “Dee! Are you crazy! Why are you just standing there touching the cursed guy’s chest? Kill him!” he prompted.

The cursed one picked me up off the ground a few feet high when I quickly shoved my right hand through the chest and ripped out the heart.

“Dee, what were you thinking?” asked a shaken Yaj.

Before I could answer him, I saw another cursed one, getting close to Sam from behind. I ran quickly and stabbed it in the chest.

There were no more cursed people remaining in the vicinity.

I ran back to Yaj. “It’s the bracelet!” I told him excitedly.

“Okay… But let’s talk later. We have cleared the path. There are more heading our way soon,” said Yaj, dragging me along.

It was baffling how none of us figured out that the bracelet was magical, or that it held some sort of power. We all had too many things on our mind, to be able to just sit down for a long drawn out discussion. But I finally knew. The bracelet was the reason why we were here.

***

We were finally inside the gates, and they were firmly shut behind us by the other council members. They all seemed to fair well, including Manu, who was walking towards us with a grim expression.

“We knew our prophecy would come true. You succeeded in making the demon king a mortal. And now, we begin our next part of the journey—to find the stolen texts,” said one of the council members.

“What happened here?” asked Ray, looking around at the gardens.

Apart from the seven council members and Manu, I could see no one else in the garden or even at the citadel entrance.

“Our chants have weakened, enabling the curse to extend to the entire kingdom. Our seven families and Manu were the only people who could escape it,” said one of them.

That was tragic. I remembered how the entire place was bustling with people just yesterday.

“We need to find the texts and break the curse, let the people of this kingdom attain Moksha,” said another council member.

“It might not be safe in here. Let’s go inside,” said Manu asking us to follow him.

The garden was mostly clear with only a few heaps of seaweed and shells scattered around the trees.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

 

The hall was almost empty, with only the council member’s wives seated and waiting for us to arrive. I recognized one of them. Arundhati. We met her when we had one of the most memorable dinners at her place.

Ray and Yaj were asked to follow the council members. They disappeared from the main hall to freshen up.

Meantime, Arundhati approached us along with six other women.

“We knew you all would make it safe back to the kingdom. You must be tired. Would you like to be assisted to a bath before your meal?” she asked kindly.

I was starving, but there was no way I could eat or sleep in this shabby condition.

“Yes, please. I would like to go up to the bathing area, if it’s safe up there,” answered Sam, eagerly.

Hopefully we’d have no more encounters of the cursed. I just wanted a peaceful bath, and possibly some hot food with a good night’s rest.

“We do not have any resources to cook or serve food in this place anymore. We are relying on Nandini. Why don’t you go ahead with your bath, and join us shortly for a meal?” suggested Arundhati.

Two women introduced themselves as Ahalya and Renuka. They offered to come along with us for our protection. One of them carried a wicked looking sword and the other one an axe. The women held them, like they knew their business. It was kind of odd seeing them dressed so simply, looking delicate, yet wielding weapons like seasoned warriors.

Grabbing the clothes we had left behind yesterday, we set out to the bathing area behind the citadel. Each of us had a lit lantern in our hand, and we cautiously climbed up the steps.

Getting rid of my dirty clothes, I tried to scrub away the sticky grime or whatever was on my body. After I was satisfied, I scrubbed and washed my clothes and shoes. It was sometime in the night, but it was still humid and warm.

Ahalya and Renuka kept calling out every few minutes, to ask us if we were doing fine. Sam and I answered them each time, grateful that they were keeping guard.

I lay my scrubbed clothes out on the steps, hoping they would dry by the morning. Dressing in my borrowed clothes, I waited for Sam to join me.

The clothes reminded me of Mandira, and I felt a painful tug. I felt petty, thinking about how I was slightly jealous of her a couple of days ago. I sincerely wished she would attain salvation from the curse soon along with her family.

Sam joined me soon, and we held our lanterns to head towards Ahalya and Renuka, who were waiting for us on top of the steps.

“Let’s go. I don’t see anything threatening yet. But we better not take any chances,” said Renuka, getting down the steps carefully.

We followed behind her, back to the main hall. Everyone was seated there with food in front of them. It was a bit strange seeing a cow, albeit a holy wish fulfilling one, inside the hall.

Ray and Yaj were back from bathing, and were waiting for us to join them.

“Guys, you didn’t have to wait for us. You must be starving. I know I am,” I said, walking towards Nandini.

I insisted on Ray and Yaj getting their food first, Sam and I went next. We were quiet while we ate our food, or in my case, devoured the food. It was exactly the way I had imagined, a perfect combination of flavors, with high carbs and proteins. Just what I needed after the harrowing day, and possibly facing another one tomorrow.

“It’s my bracelet,” I told them, when I felt sated and could talk. “Giving me the power to rip out the heart from the cursed people or anything associated with dark magic,” I explained.

I was expecting skeptical looks, but all three seemed to take my word for it, and nodded in agreement.

“That makes sense. You should keep it safe… it might be our only ticket out from here, back to our world,” said Ray.

“I think we should keep this piece of information to ourselves,” said Yaj with a frown, shocking me, and possibly Ray and Sam.

“What? Why? I thought the council members or Manu would tell us more about what makes the bracelet so special or the significance,” I said.

“I know it’s probably farfetched, but… if they find out that the bracelet is the one giving us the powers, to do what we did and maybe the only way to retrieve the stolen texts, what do you think they might do?” he asked.

Yaj had serious trust issues that I needed to find out about.

“You think they wouldn’t let me keep it, and then we’d be worse off?” I asked, now thinking along the same lines.

But I felt guilty hiding the fact from Manu and the council, especially when they’ve helped us in every possible way. But they had a very strong reason driving them to help us.

We stopped talking as Manu approached us.

“We will start our journey tomorrow morning, before dawn. Our boat is ready, and we will have to get to it, before the Shankadanav come out during the day,” he informed us.

“We need to rest as much as we can. Tomorrow is the day; the Pralaya will wipe out the cursed lands, for a new beginning. We are sure that our new start will commence right after we retrieve our lost texts,” said Kashyapa, joining us.

We decided to get back to our rooms. But first, I badly wanted to speak to Yaj, about him feeling responsible for his brother’s death. I wouldn’t be able to sleep without getting an explanation.

He looked at me with a small smile, as though he knew what I was thinking, and held my hand.

“We’ll be right behind you… see you guys in a few minutes,” he told Sam and Ray.

“Don’t wait up for me Sam. Get some rest. I’ll join you soon,” I told Sam.

Sam and Ray went back to their rooms, and we began walking towards one that overlooked the gardens.

I sat next to Yaj, in an overstuffed couch shaped like a swan.

“Dee… I know you have quite a few things to ask me,” he said softly.

“A million things!” I exaggerated.

He smiled. “I do want to answer them all, but I don’t know if we have enough time,” he said.

“I promise to keep them short…I’ll only ask a few that matter,” I said.

I held his hand. “Why?” I asked him.

“You want to know why I feel responsible for my brother’s death?” he asked, looking towards the gardens.

“Yes. But only if you want to talk about it right now,” I told him hesitantly. I didn’t want to push him. Make him re-live those bad memories.

“I do want to tell you about it. At least you care,” he said.

I didn’t say anything and waited for him to continue. I squeezed his hand gently, offering him assurance, or maybe to just brace myself. It was hard hearing and seeing someone talk about their personal tragedy. Especially someone I cared about.

“I want you to know what you’re dealing with. It’s not just my brother…” he said.

Taking a deep breath and looked at me.

“My mother is an alcoholic with a chronic depression. She wasn’t always that way. In fact, according to my brother and everyone who knew her, she was the most cheerful and kindhearted person. She turned into whatever she is now…because of me… or rather immediately after she gave birth to me. She is alive, but just a shadow of her former self.

My father blamed it on me. He said that I had taken away his wife from him… and a mother from my brother. My brother was ten at that time and had to play the role of a parent at that young age. He took me along with him everywhere he went. He even chose a local college close to home, when he had far better options. He did that to stay close to me and our mother,” he said and closed his eyes.

I knew it was painful for him to continue. I wanted to stop him.

“Yaj… you don’t have to—” I told him.

“No, I want to… What happened to my brother…it was a freak accident… one that could’ve been avoided, if it weren’t for me. My father had grounded me for a week, but I snuck out to a friend’s place. We went to a movie together and I had to call my brother to pick me up. He picked me up without a complaint, and we were heading back home. One minute, we were laughing together at something silly, and the next minute he was gone. It was a head on collision from a drunk driver, driving on the wrong side of the road. By the time the ambulance arrived… it was too late. Apart from a broken leg, I had no serious injuries.

My father loved my brother, and blamed me for destroying his entire family. He reminds me every chance he gets that I didn’t deserve to live while my brother was gone,” he said, with a self depreciating smirk.

I was angry at his father for blaming him for something that was an accident.

“You know it’s not your fault Yaj. Whatever happened to your mom or to your brother…No one could’ve done anything. I’m sure your mom can get help and improve in time. See a good doctor or a therapist,” I told him.

He scoffed.

“My father is a very well reputed surgeon, Dee. That’s what tears at him. He couldn’t save his wife or his son. And my mom has been on medications and on therapy from the moment I was born. None of them helped,” he said.

“Do you remember the night I asked you to come? I was coming straight from a police station. I had gotten my mom arrested for drunken driving. We had a fight just before that. I was trying to hide the bottles from her. She was already too drunk. She stormed out and drove away in her car, determined to buy more. I followed behind her, but lost her on the highway. Having lost one family member to a drunken driver, I didn’t want it to happen to anyone else. I called the cops and gave them the car details.

Everyone I care for…gets harmed Dee. You have family and friends who love you. I don’t want to ruin it in anyway,” he said hesitantly.

“What? Don’t you dare speak that way! Things happen to everyone. No one can control it. And I want to be with you…” I said with conviction.

“Dee… some of the things locked inside my head…it wouldn’t be right to get involved with someone like you… I don’t know if I’m ready,” he said looking torn.

“Relax Yaj. I’m not asking you to marry me. I just want to spend some time with you. Build a friendship and maybe something more, when both of us are ready. All I want from you is to be open to the possibilities,” I told him holding his hand.

He smiled. “I don’t want to sound cheesy, but the best part of my week was when we spent time together. I couldn’t believe that someone like you would ever be interested in me… I was forced to grow up in the last couple of years…And not in a nice way. You are so innocent and bright and beautiful… I can’t promise to change overnight, but I am willing to try for you,” he said.

“I don’t want or even need you to change Yaj. I just want you to know that you matter a lot to me.” I looked at him earnestly. “You can talk to me about anything and I’m not so innocent or bright as you think.” I smiled. “We all have our own history and personal demons to deal with,” I told him.

He squeezed my hand in assurance.

“So… you think I’m pretty?” I asked, feeling a little shy.

“Fishing for compliments Dee?” He teased. “You could’ve picked any guy you wanted. Half the guys at school are in love with you already, and the rest are halfway there,” he said.

I seriously doubted that. But it was sweet that he thought that.

“Well… I just want to be with you,” I declared, and put my arms around him.

It felt so right. The weird chemical reactions happening within me, almost made me want to crawl into him, to get closer.

“I have so many things to share with you,” he whispered, moving his head closer to mine. He was looking into my eyes. Our breathing started to get a little choppy and faster. My heart was pounding, and I barely stopped myself from grabbing his face. Our lips were only a few inches apart. The anticipation made my head feel slightly dizzy.

Someone spoke loudly, right outside the door, making us both jump apart.

We looked at each other sheepishly.

“This keeps happening a lot to us. Maybe we should get some sleep now,” he said, running his hand on his face.

I was disappointed, even though I knew he was right.

“Dee…I promise you that our first kiss would be pretty memorable. Something you can brag about,” he teased and smiled.

“I’m holding you to that promise,” I told him smiling.

We stepped out of the room and saw a few council members standing in the hallway, discussing something.

“See you tomorrow morning. Sleep well,” I said.

Yaj wanted to walk me to my room and I refused. I told him that he should get some sleep right away. He barely slept the last twenty four hours.

Sam was already asleep when I walked into the room. I lay down on the bed and closed my eyes. My mind kept wandering to Yaj’s revelations. It pissed me off that someone educated and a doctor at that, would blame their own child with those horrible accusations. I felt bad that Yaj had such parents while I lucked out with mine.

I missed mom and dad and wished there was some way to let them know I was fine. Those were my last thoughts, until sleep took over.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

 

*** Day 4 ***

It was still dark outside when I opened my eyes. I could hear the bells ringing faintly somewhere within the main hall. Our big day had arrived. I touched my bracelet, running my finger tips on the charms. They made me feel powerful and to believe that I could accomplish anything.

Sam was awake next to me. She sat up yawning.

“Ready for the big day, Dee?” she asked, walking towards the window and looking outside the drapes.

“More than ever, I guess. Hopefully, today is the day we get to go home,” I said.

“I hope so too. I hope we can somehow find those lost texts, and invoke their magic that would send us back home,” she said, smiling.

I hoped so too. Already, this was our third night here. Mom and dad must be in pieces with worry. After listening to Yaj last night, I wanted to hug them, and promise to never worry them again.

“Let’s go to the main hall. Maybe others are awake, and can accompany us to the bathing area. Hopefully our clothes are dry,” said Sam.

We grabbed our weapons and went to the hall together. Most of them were already awake and were chanting prayers. Ray and Yaj were not in the hall. They must’ve been sleeping or getting ready somewhere.

Ahalya and Renuka saw us approach. They were ready and waiting for us, with their weapons in hand. When we got closer, I noticed that their long hair was braided and still wet. They must’ve already bathed this morning.

“Do you want to go up to the bathing area?” asked Ahalya.

“Yes. Our clothes are drying up there. Would it be safe to go now?” asked Sam.

“We will join you both. We don’t have too much time though. You will have to hurry up,” said Renuka.

Sam and I were ready under ten minutes. My clothes, especially the jeans were still a little damp. But I felt much better when I wore my own clothes.

We went back to the main hall, and people were already having their breakfast provided by Nandini. When all of us were done, we gathered near the entry way of the main hall. Manu stood in middle of the room, waiting to instruct us.

“We will have to go through our main gates,” he said.

“There might be a lot of cursed ones waiting for us outside. We need to get past them, and get to the boat docked on the eastern shore. We don’t have any animals left to take us there. We will have to walk there,” he announced.

“We have decided on a formation that we need to follow, when we go out of the gates. The Saptasris and I will form a circle with the rest of you inside it. We will try to maintain that formation as much as possible, and proceed to the docks,” he informed us.

Everyone agreed with him, and began clearing up the place to get ready for our journey. None of them carried any belongings, except their weapons.

We stood in front of the gates, Nandini, the wives and the four of us at the center with the council members and Manu surrounding us. Manu opened the gates and ordered us to move.

Surprisingly, we moved at a very brisk pace. Considering that we had a cow at the center.

So far there was no one on the streets and I couldn’t hear anything unusual.

It was almost dawn and the sky was turning lighter. According to Manu, we were getting closer to the docks.

As soon as we turned to the last street, I saw the cursed. There were dozens of them, blocking the path to the dock. The boat was behind them. It was an impressive one with a huge peacock head on one end and a multicolored tail on the other. Rest of the boat was blocked by swarms of the cursed, lying in wait for us.

“Prepare!” yelled Manu, raising his sword.

The council members began chanting prayers, before raising their weapons to get ready for the combat.

The cursed were armed to their teeth as well. They had swords, spears, axes, sticks and some large stones in their hands.

Soon we got closer to them, and Manu along with the council members attacked. The fight that ensued was vicious. A lot of hissing noises along with some cut off arms and heads were littering the streets.

Some of the cursed snuck though the protected circle. The council member’s wives were prepared with their weapons as were we four. We began fighting them off. The ground was slippery with slime around us. There was almost no clear place left to step on.

I began to stab the cursed in the heart like everyone around. I didn’t want to rip out the cursed heart in front of everyone. For now we were still keeping the bracelet a secret.

After I killed yet another cursed person, I realized that I had come a long way from not wanting to face any danger to simply tackling it head on. Even if it was just the bracelet’s affect, it felt invigorating to be in control, and to succeed in the seemingly next to impossible task.

After some time, there were no more cursed people remaining in the immediate vicinity.

“Let’s hurry up. We have to get on the boat now,” shouted Manu looking behind him at the street.

There were dozens more hobbling through the street, coming towards us.

We quickly moved towards the boat and got onboard. Manu began cutting the rope that held our boat anchored to the docks.

Before we could sail away, some of the cursed managed to reach us and jumped towards the boat. The council men and their wives fought them off. Meanwhile Manu ran towards the sail and began steering our boat away from the dock. I could see seven oars on either side of the boat with a huge anchor at the end.

The boat set sail and was unreachable from the docks.

“How can we help?” I asked Manu, looking towards the cursed. They were waiting by the dock, watching us sail away.

“Right now… just be on a look out for anything unusual around the boat and on the sea,” he replied.

There was nothing usual about anything anymore. But I nodded, keeping a watch along with Sam, Ray and Yaj. We were also on a look out to see whether an impending calamity was on our way. The ocean didn’t appear rough and the sky was clear.

The council men took up the oars on the right with their wives taking up the ones on the left.

The boat was a decent sized one. It was around thirty feet long not including the peacock head or the impressive tail. Everything on the boat including the sails was a vivid combination of blues, greens and yellows, matching the colors of a real peacock.

Nandini was placed towards the front of the boat, next to a large pile of bags that were covered by a cloth.

“Those are different kinds of grains and seeds. We will need them at the end of our journey,” explained Manu.

I just nodded, not really understanding him. He was still pretty busy with the sails, and was navigating the boat deeper into the ocean.

***

As the hours passed by, the houses and the citadel were not visible anymore. We could just see a faint outline of the mountains.

“The Malaya Mountains,” said Manu.

It was unbelievable that we were close to them just yesterday.

“We should help with the rowing. The council member’s wives must want to rest,” said Yaj.

The women had been rowing the oars for hours, and must be definitely getting tired.

Soon we switch places with four of them.

After a while, I couldn’t see the outline of the mountains anymore. Manu ordered us to stop rowing and to rest for a while.

“Please do not to stand or stay together at one place. The boat might lose its balance,” announced Manu.

Sam, Ray, Yaj and I sat in middle of the boat, along with Manu and a few of the council members. The rest were standing around and looking at the ocean.

“What are we expecting? What exactly is the Pralaya?” asked Ray.

“According to some scriptures, a Pralaya can constitute a lot of things. It could mean a deluge due to a flood. But some have described it as a sky fall,” said Vasishta.

I couldn’t imagine what a sky fall meant.

Everyone was waiting quietly.

The sky was slowly turning darker with the clouds.

CHAPTER TWENTY

 

The wind calmed down and it felt very quiet all of a sudden. The boat had slowed down due to lack of wind. It didn’t bode well.

“Something is happening there!” exclaimed one of the council men’s wives. She was pointing to something in the ocean.

Manu, Ray and Yaj joined her and were looking towards the ocean.

Sam and I stood up, but remained at our places. We couldn’t see much.

The council members and their wives went back to rowing positions and started rowing furiously.

Sam and I joined Ray and Yaj at the corner.

A large hole was forming in middle of the ocean, only a few hundred feet away. For a moment, I wasn’t sure what it was.

“A whirlpool!” yelled Sam, horrified.

Manu was still adjusting the sails to move the boat faster. The wind had picked up and the sails were able to push our boat further away from the edge of the whirlpool.

The boat moved faster, barely managing to escape the huge whirlpool.

“I see something under water. A sea animal?” asked Ray, puzzled.

I looked into the water and froze. There was something huge was under the surface of the water. And it kept getting larger as it got closer to the top.

“Good god! What the heck is that?” asked Ray.

I was too mesmerized by what I was seeing. First I saw two sharp curved things rise. They were far apart from each other, and I wondered if they were some kind of sea animals.

"What are those ?" I was about to ask, and my voice almost seized with shock when I realized they weren't two sea animals.

They were actually two horns, attached to a grotesque human like face and a torso. It closely resembled the cursed people back at the kingdom. The creature kept rising slowly from the water, and it had something white and spiky on its lower body.

Part of it was still submerged below the water. The creature was already almost twice as big as our boat.

“What is that thing?” asked Sam.

I had no clue and I didn’t take my eyes off it.

“That’s the demon king!” yelled Manu.

I was still rooted to my spot, unable to takes my eyes off the demon. He looked angry and began bellowing loudly, heading towards us creating huge waves and rocking our boat wildly. He came closer to our boat and stopped at a distance. I felt its eyes on me.

It was time for reckoning.

The council members and their wives stopped rowing. They picked up their weapons and stood waiting in their places, watching the demon warily.

I could see the demon’s huge eyeballs focused towards the four of us. I knew he was looking at me in particular, especially at my bracelet. He began bellowing loudly, and lunged towards the boat.

At that point, I was somehow sure it was me he wanted. I waited at the edge waiting for him to reach me.

“Dee! Stand behind me! The demon is looking at you. He wants your bracelet,” shouted Yaj, trying to stand in front of me.

“Are you crazy Yaj. Get away from me. Everyone! Please… away from me! He wants me in particular,” I shouted, pushing Yaj away. He didn’t budge, and we were running out of time.

I decided to run away from Yaj. I ran to the other end of the boat towards Manu. I knew that he would be better prepared to deal with the demon.

Manu stood by my side, and wrapped my fingers around a knife. I didn’t look down to see what kind it was.

“Remember, you made him mortal. He can be killed now. He is the Rakshasa form. He won’t be able to think. He just has brute strength. You were meant to be an instrument in his death. It has already been decided that way,” he told me.

I held the knife tightly in my hand, with a smirk on my face. I probably appeared crazy to others. But I felt a rush of power roar inside me.

My eyes were glued to the demon in front of me. Yaj came rushing to me, again. Manu and the Council members stood in front of me protectively with their swords drawn out.

“Get away!” I screamed at them.

The demon knocked them with his hand and they flew around the deck.

“Yaj!” I screamed, trying to go towards him to check if he was alright.

“I told you to stay away from me!” I screamed at him. He had a huge bump on his head, and was shaking his head as though he were dizzy.

“Dee, behind you!” screamed Sam and Ray together.

Something dragged me up by my right arm into the air. Everyone on the boat stood up with their weapons drawn. They were looking at me with shock and horror on their faces.

“Dee!” Yaj yelled, trying to reach for me. He was held back by Manu and the council members.

I was glad he wasn’t allowed to do anything foolish, like jump into the water to try and save me. I turned my head to look at the demon holding me between his fingers. H was moving me closer to his face. I could see his eyes staring at my bracelet. My heart was beating very loudly, but it wasn’t in fear. It was in anticipation. I could hear the crashing waves and the screams from the boat.

“Come on big guy. Show me what you got,” I muttered, looking at the demon.

I looked at the weapon in my hand. Manu had wrapped my fingers around a very sharp knife. It was different from the one I had used yesterday. This one had precious stones on the hilt and was glinting in the light. I snorted. Mom would’ve thrown a fit, if she knew that I had acquired knife wielding skills. I imagined the conversation I would have with her:

Mom: Dee! What happened to your fingers? You are missing a couple!

Me: Mom, I had to use the sharpest sword to fight back a demon. It was either my fingers or become his chew toy.

I shook my head to focus.

The knife would probably feel like a needle prick to the demon. He was crushing my right arm and was lifting me closer towards its face.

I stabbed hard at one of the fingers that held me, twisted the knife and pulled it back. I did this repeatedly, until the demon bellowed loudly in anger, and loosened his fingers.

I fell down into the water. There must’ve been at least a few dozen feet between me and the water. The impact hurt like crazy, but I didn’t let go of my knife. I was deep enough to see that the demon’s lower body was attached to a large white conch shaped shell. I swam towards the shell, and tried to stab it with the knife. It had no impact. The water pressure lessened the force, and the shell was too hard.

“His eyes…Get him in the eyes,” I heard a voice in my mind.

I couldn’t see anything underwater. I knew I wouldn’t last long without air, and I needed to breathe.

I came up for air, and could see Yaj and the others watching us from the boat.

“Nothing’s going to happen to me Yaj. I promise,” I whispered to him, even though I knew he couldn’t hear me or be assured.

The demon was still bellowing, and looked at me in fury.

“When you’re ready come and get it!” I taunted him in a sing song manner, showing him my bracelet.

He dragged me up by my arm again, and I could feel that he was single minded.

“That’s it… just a little closer,” I told him with a smirk.

He lifted me up in the air closer to his face. My survival mode kicked in. I probably had only a few seconds to act.

Screaming loudly, I swung my left arm with as much force as I could muster, and stabbed the demon in one of his eyes.

He bellowed loudly, almost deafening me. He released me and I fell into the water again.

“Darn that hurt!” I said, feeling the water slap me hard on my back.

The demon continued to bellow loudly. I could hear yelling and screaming from the boat. Yaj was asking me to swim towards the boat. I didn’t want to do that, and possibly jeopardize them all.

I had no choice, but to wait and see what would happen next.

Something shifted in the water below, making me go down underwater. When I came up gasping, I could see the demon being dragged up into the air, the shell and all.

For a second, I thought he was trying to jump on me, but that made no sense. I braced myself for the impact, until I noticed that the demon’s throat was wrapped by the biggest snake I’d ever seen. The snake was white in color and had multiple heads. It picked up the demon as though it weighed nothing, and banged him around the water, choking him. The creature turned crimson and then blue.

I wasn’t sure of what was happening. Considering the demon tried to kill me a while ago, I didn’t want to wait there to see what would happen. But the knife was too long and sharp for me to safely tuck it anywhere during my swim.

I was torn and in two minds, on whether to throw away my knife and swim, or to wait there, just in case I was attacked again. Watching the struggle between the demon and the snake, I decided to swim back to the boat. I dropped my knife into the water and began swimming towards the boat. It seemed pretty far away for me to swim, and the sea was pretty rough.

The sky above had changed in color dramatically. There was lightning and thunder all of a sudden. Huge drops of rain began pouring from above.

The choking noises from the demon had stopped, and I could hear gurgling sounds from behind me. I didn’t want to stop swimming towards the boat, just to look at how the demon was faring. I knew for sure that the mortal demon was properly dead.

“Dee, come on,” I heard Yaj and others from the boat shout.

The creature’s hold on my arm a while ago made it throb painfully. I was only halfway to the boat, and I felt that I wouldn’t be able to make it that far with a hurt arm.

I slowly let go and sank deep into the water. There was a sea turtle with long legs shaped like paddles, gliding swiftly through the water. As I stared at it, I remembered the vacation my parents and I had gone to when I was six. It was to an underwater submarine trip on a tropical island. It was one of my first memories that I had as a child. I still remembered it, even after ten years. I was in my pigtails, with a pail and shovel in hand. I had insisted on bringing them along to catch a shark underwater.

I’ve been underwater so many times in the last few days. I sure was glad that I could swim. I remembered a picture of me taken during my first swim lesson. I was standing next to my mom and scowling into the camera with puffy red eyes. I was two at that time, and terrified of the water. My first few swimming lessons had been in a toddler wetsuit. She had managed to convince me that it was a floatation suit, and would keep me safe in the water. Even after I got over my water fear, my mom insisted I continue wearing the wetsuit. She didn’t want me feeling cold inside the water, or worse, fall sick. The swim instructors had to patiently explain to her several times that the water was kept pretty warm at 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Mom had to reluctantly trade in my wetsuit with regular swimwear—especially when I complained pretty noisily of being too hot.

The pressure began to build in my lungs. I was exhausted and in pain. But I didn’t want to give up; I owed it to my parents, Yaj and my friends to try. Determinedly, I kicked my legs hard to swim up the surface.

Then I felt something touching me.

The snake was coiling around my waist slowly. I froze, waiting to see what would happen next.

It slowly lifted me out from under water, high up into the air. The hold around me was tight enough to secure me, but not enough to crush the breath out.

I was slowly carried towards the boat. The snake stopped moving, and I was held up high on top of the boat. My fingers were crossed. I could see Yaj and the others, watching me from below, all of them surprisingly quiet.

After what felt like the most traumatic few seconds, I was slowly being lowered towards the top deck. When my feet could almost touch the floor of the deck, the snake uncoiled itself from me.

I sat on the deck, having a weird thought. It was the snake that asked me to stab the demon in his eye. I was somehow sure of it.

Yaj came rushing, and sat next to me. He hugged me tight and seemed more shaken than me.

“Dee, I almost lost you too,” he said, rocking us slightly back and forth.

“Never Yaj… I knew I would be safe, and nothing would happen to me,” I told him.

“How can you know that for sure? And never push me away or run away from me. Especially, when I try to protect you,” he almost shouted.

“Please Dee,” he begged, when I didn’t answer him right way.

“Okay… but you need to let me do the same, especially, when you are in trouble. Promise?” I asked him.

He just kept shaking his head and continued to hold me tight. I felt safe being held by him.

After a couple of minutes, my right hand began to ache. My adrenaline levels went down and I felt every ache and twinge.

“Yaj, my arm is bruised,” I whispered.

“Sorry,” he said, letting a couple of inches between us.

“Dee, are you alright?” asked Sam with concern.

Yaj slowly released me and stood next to me, still hovering.

“Yes, I think so,” I said, moving my arms and legs to test.

“The snake… why did it save my life?” I asked Manu and the council members, who were watching the multi-headed snake with folded hands.

“That is Vasuki, a messenger of god. He has come to keep us safe,” said one of the council members.

The sky was still stormy, and all of us were drenched completely. “Was this the calamity that was expected?” asked Sam.

“I don’t know. But with the demon king dead, the entire cursed land will be destroyed. We are not sure if it would keep rain heavily, causing floods in the kingdom,” said one of the council members.

We all sat quietly in our places, waiting for the rain to stop.

CHAPTER TWENTY ONE

 

It was evening and the sky was lit up in hues of oranges and reds. The rain didn’t seem to stop anytime soon. The sky was lit with lightning and thunder. And strangely, the full moon was completely visible, it was tinged orange with no clouds covering it.

Sam and Ray were standing at the edge of the boat, watching the sky quietly.

“Can’t we catch a break?” I heard Ray groaning in distress and looking up towards the ocean.

“The sky fall,” said Kashyapa, grimly, and rather dramatically.

I almost shivered when I heard him say that. I stood up and looked towards the ocean, in the direction he pointed. I didn’t see anything unusual.

“What is it? Where is the sky fall” I asked.

“Over there!” yelled Ray, pointing towards the same direction.

“Oh no…oh no…oh no…“Sam kept muttering.

I didn’t understand what I was seeing at first. Then I realized what it was. It was a huge wave at a distance, almost as dark as the sky behind it. It seemed to be growing and was moving towards us.

“The Pralaya. Everyone! Grab on to something sturdy,” yelled Manu.

The council members and their wives returned to their seats next to the oars, and held on to them.

They asked the four of us to stand together in the middle of the boat, and to hold the wooden bars and the thick ropes of the sails that were part of the boat. Yaj and I held on to one, while Sam and Ray to another.

The wave was moving much faster than I had expected. We only had a few minutes or a few seconds, before it hit our boat.

“Thank you god!” shouted Manu in joy, pointing to the other side.

I dragged my gaze away from the wave to see what Manu was overjoyed about, especially when we had a killer wave heading towards us.

It was our fish from two days ago! I was amazed at the size of it. It was much bigger than before. The white snake rose up high in the water before stretching out, with one end extending towards the fish, and the other end towards our boat. The snake coiled its tail around the horn of the fish. For a second, I thought it was trying to hurt the fish, like it did with the demon.

“What’s happening? What are the seven headed white snake and the horned fish doing?” asked Sam frantically.

I kept watching the impending disastrous wave getting way too close, and the horned fish with the snake around it.

Manu ran towards the end of the boat with the peacock head, and leaned down to look at the snake below.

I could see its seven heads rising up slowly and covering the boat protectively.

“Dee!” said Yaj, placing his hand gently in my hair, at the back of my head. He was staring intently at me. “I want to keep up my promise,” he said.

"What promise ," I broke off, remembering. My heart was already beating fast, and it sped up even more in anticipation.

“Now?” I whispered, my hand already moving into his hair.

“What can be more memorable than this moment,” he asked, leaning closer.

“We can tell everyone… that our first kiss was during a… sky fall…” I said.

The kiss made my ears roar. I wasn’t sure if it was purely the kiss or the wave that had crashed around our boat. Our kiss was everything I had imagined it would be, and more. My world shifted and I saw stars.

We had to finally break apart to breathe. We were grinning like fools and breathing heavily. I felt alive as though I were flying on top of the world.

I looked up at the sky, and immediately knew why they decided to call it the sky fall. The sky did look like it was being split up into pieces, and was crashing down towards us. It was scary and beautiful at the same time. I wouldn’t ever forget the moment in my life.

Several waves began to crash around us every few minutes. The snake protected us from the impact.

The crashing waves had stopped temporarily.

“Do you think this is it?” I asked, looking towards the ocean.

“I don’t know. Maybe not,” said Yaj, watching the snake.

It had moved away from the protective stance over the boat, and was slowly coiling around the peacock head mast of the boat.

“Don’t move yet. Stay where you are,” yelled out Manu to us, from front of the boat.

The boat began to rise and was moving very fast.

“We are riding on top of a wave!” yelled Ray, excited.

“I can almost see the drop from here. We are almost on top of a hundred feet wave!” exclaimed Sam, panicking.

Yaj and I slowly managed to turn towards the direction the boat was moving in. We were able to see the drop as well.

The fish and the snake were still anchored to our boat, and were moving along the wave. The snake was acting like a rope anchoring our boat to the fish’s horn.

The council members began chanting loudly.

We were moving towards the partially submerged city. I could still see a portion of the citadel and the bathing areas. Soon, our boat rode over the city on top of the wave. We were approaching the top half of the Malaya Mountains at an alarming pace.

Yaj and I held hands, bracing for the impact. With only a few seconds remaining for the collision, the boat stopped moving and came to a standstill with a jerk.

The horned fish and the snake had prevented our boat from smashing into the mountains.

Slowly, they began to drag the boat on top of the mountains, well above the water level.

“We are here! On top of the Malaya Mountains,” said one of the council men.

I could no longer see any part of the city. It was as though it never existed.

“Our people have attained peace,” said Manu, watching his kingdom totally submerged in water. He seemed sad and resigned.

“Is anyone hurt?” he asked.

Everyone appeared fine. My arm was still sore, but I was fine, considering what happened the last few hours.

“We have to remain on the boat until tomorrow morning. The water would have receded a little by then,” said Manu.

“Are you all right, Dee? That was quite an adventure you had,” said Ray, walking towards Yaj and me.

I snorted a laugh. “I’m totally fine. Can’t wait to tell everyone back home about it,” I said.

“No, seriously you were fantastic Dee,” said Sam.

“I loved how you stabbed the demon right into its eye. That was pretty cool,” said Ray, smiling.

“Thanks, but we still have one major thing left to do,” I reminded them.

“Hopefully we find the lost texts as soon as we get off the boat tomorrow,” said Sam.

We sat quietly around the boat. The rain had stopped. It was almost completely dark and the ocean was still rough. Sam was sitting next to me and had fallen asleep. My eyes were drooping, but I tried to keep them open. I wanted to speak to Yaj when everyone was asleep around us.

“Dee, you should rest,” said Yaj, kissing me briefly on my forehead and placing a warm blanket around me.

“Look at you… A few days ago, you barely cracked a smile at me. Look at us now,” I remarked and smiled at him.

He smiled back. “Sleep Dee and remember, we need to go hunting for the lost texts tomorrow. You are our hero. So, we’re going to be relying heavily on you,” he said.

“Thanks…” I said, and closed my eyes, leaning back on the edge of the boat.

Just a quick nap, I decided. And then, I would spend rest of the night talking to Yaj.

***

I was dreaming of the demon. Only this time I didn’t have anyone saving me from him. The demon ripped my bracelet away from my hand, and began crushing me in his hands.

I woke up with a gasp. Sam was asleep next to me, and I could see Yaj and Ray talking to Vasishta. He had a serious expression on his face. Vasishta was pointing to the sky and explaining something to him. I wanted to call out to him and tell him about my nightmare. But I still too tired. A few more minutes of rest, I thought, and closed my eyes.

***

First thing I saw, when I opened my eyes was Yaj. He was sitting opposite to me, on the other side of the boat. He had his arms around his legs and was watching me with a strange expression. His eyes were red, as though he hadn’t slept the entire night.

“Hey… good morning,” I told him, with a smile. My arm was still throbbing, and my entire body felt as though it was used as a punching bag. But I was feeling happy. I had survived, and was to make best to everything. A whole new beginning from now on… I had a thick blanket covering me. Almost everyone around the boat had similar ones covering them. All of them were still asleep.

The snake’s tail was still coiled around the boat, but its head was no longer covering the boat protectively. It was covering the fish, at a distance.

“Dee…” said Yaj, without returning my smile or my greeting.

Something felt off. Maybe he was too tired. It was barely dawn.

I continued smiling at him. He wasn’t exactly the kind to jump up and down the boat, and come running to me for a morning hug.

Neither was I, but I reminded myself of ‘the new beginning’ and got up and went towards him.

Everyone was still asleep at a distance, and the boat was gently rocking on the water.

“Did you not get some sleep?” I asked him with a smile and sat next to him.

Even with his red rimmed eyes, he looked stunning. I felt like the luckiest person to have someone like him in my life. He was protective of me, and had the courage to face all the hard balls that life had dealt to him.

“Dee… we have to talk,” he said, looking away from me.

Something about his tone made my smile disappear. I sat up straighter, and didn’t move my eyes off his face.

“Okay… about what?” I asked him, trying to maintain a neutral tone.

My heart was pounding, and I could feel dread creeping up on me. Somewhere faint hope remained that I was just letting my imagination run away. Maybe it was nothing. He’d probably talk about his past or his family. From what little I knew, there was nothing remotely happy about it. That’s why he had a serious expression … or wasn’t making eye contact.

“This… thing between us…It’s not going to work,” he said, making my hope wither and die. “I’d prefer it, if we went back to how were before. We can be good friends… but I don’t want us to care too deeply about each other. It was a mistake telling you things—I didn’t mean. It was just in the heat of the moment—with danger around us. It wasn’t real…,” he said.

“I don’t believe you…,” I told him, sure he was lying.

It wasn’t because of the heat of the moment, at least not for me.

“We’re only sixteen, Dee. I know you think we have an epic love. But we don’t. No one forms meaningful relationships at our age,” he said, his hands shaking slightly.

“I’m not asking you to form one right now. I just—” I broke off, when he began shaking his head.

“I don’t want to even entertain those kinds of thoughts. Neither should you,” he said.

“What? Don’t… please don’t do this,” I begged.

He continued talking, even as I begged.

“I… just can’t commit myself to you in any way. I’m sorry. You shouldn’t care for me either, or… you’d wind up dead! I just hope you understand,” he finished.

With each word, I was alternately feeling numb and confused.

“I don’t believe you. Something must have happened and you’re trying to push me off again. This isn’t the first time you did this sort of thing. What do you mean I’ll wind up dead? Tell me what it is Yaj. Please tell me what it is,” I begged him again.

“I’ve already told you all I can Dee. We were both in danger… and our emotions were running high. But I’m sorry; I don’t really feel that way anymore. It was a mistake,” he said, still looking away.

“Look me in my eye when you say that,” I told him.

I was getting angry and frustrated. We had gone over this before. He had been cold and detached the week after our night out in his car.

“Tell me Yaj. Please tell me what’s bothering you,” I asked him again in desperation.

He finally looked at me with no expression on his face. He looked indifferent and cold, just like before. And it pissed me off.

I did the only thing I could do whenever I felt hurt or pissed off. I blocked my reasoning and lashed out at him. This was the second time, he had an about face. One day he wanted me there with him and the next day he didn’t. I was sick and tired of it. It was unfair.

“You know what? You’re right. It was a mistake. A really huge mistake on my part. To think you were brave and courageous to survive—what you had to go through—and that you came out strong because of it. But you didn’t. You are nothing but a coward who is too scared to care about anyone. When we get back home, go back to your sad little miserable life. I’m done with you,” I told him.

His face crumpled, listening to my words.

As soon as I finished speaking those harsh words, I wanted to hug him and tell him I didn’t mean any of it. I looked at him to apologize, and to take back my words.

“I’m glad you feel that way. Then I hope… we never bring up this discussion again—and we go back to how we used to be,” he said without an expression.

“I don’t know if I can ever go back to how we used to be after this,” I told him truthfully.

He just nodded curtly and looked away.

My lip was quivering uncontrollably and I was trying hard to stop my tears.

I remained next to him like a fool, sitting quietly. This would be the last time—I promised myself again—to ever get hurt because of him. He was right. We barely had anything. It was all in my imagination.

So…we liked each other over the past year. So what? People had crushes all the time. We all but declared that we cared deeply for each other. But like he said, maybe it was because of the danger and the adrenaline high that made us emotional.

I was done with him and all my energy should be focused to get back home to mom, dad and my friends.

People around the boat began to stir. Soon, everyone woke up. Manu, the council members and their wives stood up in their places. They had their palms pressed together and were praying to the snake and the fish.

Sam joined me, and we stood to watch the event unfolding in front of us.

The snake slowly uncoiled itself from the boat, and joined the fish completely in the water. Its lower body began coiling into several layers under the fish. They seemed like they were glowing brightly. There was an aura around them in orange and red hues, much brighter than the morning sunrise.

We watched them disappear slowly, deep into the water.

“The Matsya was our god in disguise. He saved our lives,” said one of the Council members.

“Let’s get off the boat. We can carry a bag of grains with us while we embark,” instructed Manu to everyone.

The sky was clear and bright, with no hint of yesterday’s darkening clouds with thunder and lightning. It should have been that way, and then it would have matched how I felt on the inside.

I picked up a bag of grain, and it was heavy. My legs were a little wobbly, while I went towards the exit of the boat.

Yaj had dropped his bag outside, and was coming to help me off the boat. I ignored him and continued forward without his help. The step was way too high and I stumbled slightly. I dropped my bag beside the others, and headed towards a large boulder, close to the boat, and sat down.

Yaj was helping Sam.

Soon, everything was cleared off the boat.

Ray joined me and stood next to the boulder.

“Dee. I know it’s probably none of my business and I usually don’t like to get involved. But I have something to tell you,” he said with a grim expression.

I felt too numb as though I was on autopilot. I wasn’t sure I wanted to listen to what Ray had to say. He probably noticed the change in behavior between Yaj and me and wanted to comfort me.

“What is it Ray?” I asked him halfheartedly.

“Last night Yaj and I were talking to Vasishta, and somehow we ended up talking about stars and constellations. He was explaining to us about how some of the things are destined to happen and already written in the stars.” Ray was watching my face keenly.

I was really not in the mood to listen to that information. I knew it interested Ray but I was in a bad place and needed some time to lick my wounds in peace.

“Ray…I don’t want to be rude but can we rain check on this conversation? I’m just a little tired right now,” I told him politely to brush him off.

He smiled sadly. “No Dee. I think you need to hear this. When Yaj and I told him our birth dates he had told us some really astonishing specific facts. Some of them have already happened in our lives, especially for Yaj. One of the major ones was that he had already lost the most important person in his life. But that’s not it. Vasishta told him about a dire prediction. That Yaj would cause the death of the woman he loved. I think that might have something to do with you sitting here alone with a pensive face,” he said.

I was stunned to hear what had happened last night. Stars and destiny… the reason Yaj blew me off this morning, hurting me yet again?

I was exhausted to even think about it right now. I was going to wait until I finished the last part of our quest before coming back to analyze what I heard to death. Pun intended.

“Thanks Ray for letting me know. It doesn’t affect me in any way though. I’m not the woman he loves. I’m just tired from yesterday that’s all. But we need to keep our wits together to find those missing texts today,” I said.

Ray just smiled at me. I knew he didn’t buy what I was trying to pull off.

Yaj and Sam joined us.

I shaded my eyes with my hands, and looked around me. There were only tall trees around, and it appeared to be a forest.

“How did they manage to keep the grain bags, blankets and other clothes dry?” asked Sam, looking at the neat piles arranged next to the boat.

“They had some kind of oilskin, covering them all on the boat,” replied Ray.

Sam had no clue about what happened this morning between Yaj and me. I was determined to keep it that way. Until we got back home, I would continue being polite with him, and do what was needed to be done.

The Council members and their families gathered in front of us. Arundhati had Nandini with her, and soon we all took turns in requesting our food. We all sat down to eat, and I felt much better after eating, yet another dish that reminded me of home.

“We need to find our holy texts. It should be on these mountains somewhere. This is where the demon king hid them,” said Bharadwaja.

“The four of you will lead us to it. The gods above will lead you to it. I am sure of it,” said Kashyapa.

After our meal, we decided on a strategy and split up in groups. The four of us decided to stay together to find the missing texts.

“I know we are supposed to be looking for some kind of holy texts. Somehow I imagined them resembling four large old musty books. But according to the Saptasris, it’s a single golden tome. Pretty bright and shiny,” said Ray.

“But the demon hid it in the mountains. So it must be in some sort of a hiding place. Not in plain sight… I think,” I said, remembering how the bird in the forest was not well hidden on the tree. The entire forest was well protected, but the bird had been just sitting on one of the lower branches.

“True, but our boat was dragged to this place. According to Vasishta, that must mean something. And that it should be somewhere close by,” said Ray.

I looked around us. There were too many trees around. What if it was buried under one of them? We wouldn’t even know where to begin. I shaded my eyes and looked up. There were more trees on the top until possibly the peak. That would make it hundreds if not thousands of trees.

A picture flashed in my head. It was a picture of a large golden chest shining bright in front of a cave.

“Follow me. I know where they are,” I told them in excitement.

“What? How?” asked Sam.

“We are looking for a shiny chest placed in front of a cave,” I said.

***

We had been walking for a few hours. It was almost afternoon.

“Wait,” I said, shading my eyes to look again, towards the trees.

Something glittered through them. I wasn’t sure if it was the sun playing tricks on my eyes. I closed my eyes for a few seconds and looked up again, at the same spot between the trees. I still saw the glittering.

“That’s it. Those are the holy texts,” I said, pointing towards it.

“I see it too. Something shining between the trees,” said Ray, as he squint his eyes against the sun.

“I see it too,” chimed in Sam.

“I do too. It doesn’t seem like a long hike to get there. Let’s go,” said Yaj.

It took us longer than we expected.

We kept climbing towards the glitter which was getting bigger and brighter.

We got closer and had only few more feet to climb. I noticed the cave behind the chest. We couldn’t see it from a distance, because of the blinding light reflecting off the thing in front of it. I could only see the top half of the chest.

We climbed the remaining distance and stood in front of it.

We found the large shiny chest that almost resembled a treasure chest. This one was golden and it was locked. We looked at it closely. The lock had an odd looking key slot.

Sam and I tried to pry the lock open with our fingers. It was pretty sturdy and didn’t budge.

“Let’s carry it down to the others,” said Sam.

We all tried to lift it. It was very heavy and barely moved an inch.

“I don’t think it’s going to work. Let’s get others up here to look at it,” said Ray.

“Good idea. We were supposed to just lead them to it. Let them figure out how to get the contents out. Ray and I will go down and bring the others up here. It might take us quite some time,” said Yaj.

Sam and I nodded. They began trekking down. We couldn’t see much from up here, just some faint glimpses of the water between the trees.

“You think this is it? These are the stolen holy texts?” asked Sam.

“I know they are,” I said, confidently.

“It’s almost been four and half days since we last disappeared from the cave. Our folks must be looking for us,” said Sam.

***

Soon, I saw Ray and Yaj with Manu at a distance below us. They had a few more minutes before they reached up to us. Following them a few feet below were the Council members and their wives.

I went towards the lock and tried to pry it open again. “I wish it were a wooden chest with a rusted lock, instead. We could bash it open,” I told Sam.

“Still no luck?” asked Yaj sitting beside the box.

“No,” I answered him, and moved away from the chest.

Manu joined us and tried to open it forcibly with his hands. When it didn’t open, he picked up a big stone nearby and tried breaking the lock. There weren’t even faint scratches visible on the surface of the lock or the chest.

Soon, the Council members joined us. They sat around and examined it. They even tried rolling the entire chest. It didn’t budge.

They brought out an axe and tried to chop it open. Again, there were barely any scratches left on the chest.

“We need a key to unlock it. It won’t open any other way,” one of them announced.

“Duhh,” whispered Sam beside me.

I smiled and was playing with the bracelet absently. My wrist still hurt and was almost black and blue. The demon’s not so delicate ministrations let quite a mark.

I was slowly moving my fingers on the charms when a thought struck me. The demon was trying to steal my bracelet…For a reason.

I smacked my palm on my forehead for not thinking of it earlier.

“Oww…” I remarked as my wrist began throbbing at the impact.

“Dee, you okay?” asked Sam, wondering why I was suddenly so agitated.

“Yeah. I believe so,” I told her.

“Wait.” I shouted, walking towards the chest.

Sitting in front of it, I examined the lock again. I removed the bracelet from my wrist gingerly. Holding it between my thumb and forefinger, I quickly searched through the charms looking for a fish. Once I found it, I knelt down and gently eased it into the lock.

It was a perfect fit.

I twisted the fish charm around and watched the lock open. I gently got the lock off, and took back the bracelet, dropping it into my pocket.

Meantime, the Council members opened the lid of the chest. I could see a large golden tome with inscriptions on it.

“The Vedas…Our holy texts!” said one of the Council members, overjoyed.

It was done. We fulfilled our destiny according to them, and retrieved their holy texts.

Vasishta walked up to us. “You brought back our kingdom’s biggest asset, the Dharmasastra. It contains our four Vedic texts,” he said.

“Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva Vedas,” said Bharadwaja, with a grateful smile.

Everyone was busy thanking us and looking into the texts with joy on their faces.

“Who is that?” I heard Ray ask. He was looking up at the peak.

I could see a woman further up the mountain. She was walking towards us slowly, and was in no hurry. She was dressed slightly different than the people in Manu’s kingdom. There was no jewelry visible on her. She was draped in a simple ankle length tunic and wore flowers around her neck and wrists.

We all waited silently, until she reached us.

“I am Shradha. I live on these mountains,” she introduced herself, particularly to Manu.

She looked a little familiar. I wasn’t able to place why exactly. Maybe she resembled someone from school.

“Did you know about these stolen texts? That they were hidden here by the demon king?” Manu asked her.

She had a serene look. “Yes. I knew they would be safe, and no would be able to open it until god willed it,” she answered him with a smile. “I even know about the Pralaya that happened below, destroying your cursed kingdom along with the others.”

Manu appeared agitated hearing that peace of information. “How did you know that?” he demanded.

“I could see it from up here. I am sorry about what happened. I can help you rebuild your kingdom, as soon as the water recedes. Until then, you can all be my guests,” she said.

There was no way I wanted to visit yet another place. I wanted to just get home. Before I could voice my thoughts, Sam beat me to it.

“Thank you. But can you help us get home first?” asked Sam.

We were probably not being polite or tactful, by taking up the woman’s offer. But it was fine, considering we had been missing for so many days.

“Come with me,” said the woman, smiling serenely, and took us closer to the cave entrance.

“Right here is the Malaya Mountain’s mystical cave. Many great men have come up here for tapas. It has the most powerful aura. The bracelet you have is your guide home,” she said, watching me closely.

“How do you know about the bracelet? How is it supposed to guide us?” asked Yaj.

“I just know. You are one of the few lucky mortals who get to experience the cycles of Yugas,” she said, gazing off at a distance.

She just stopped talking after that cryptic statement.

“The cycle of Yugas?” I asked repeating like a parrot.

“Yes, the cycles of time, you will continue your journey through all the Yugas until you reach your destiny,” she said.

“How will we know what to do… to proceed to the next one?” asked Ray.

“On the bracelet are the avatars of our god through the Yugas. You are now on the first one. He appeared as a Matsya,” she said.

I looked at my bracelet and counted the charms. There were ten charms, not counting the various beads in between. That would mean we had nine more to go!

“Wait…Nine more to go! We need to complete nine more cycles?” asked Sam in shock.

“No. There are only four in total. You chose one of the forms as Matsya in the first Yuga, the Satya Yuga, our golden age,” she said, smiling serenely at us, but not providing more information.

It was painful getting information from her. Almost like pulling teeth, one painful tug at a time.

“So…we have three more to go. Why is this happening to us? Why the four of us? And why should we complete these cycles to get back home?” I asked her, not caring that those were a lot of questions to keep track of.

“You have the most powerful gift anyone can wish for, a token from the gods. The four of you uncovered it somehow. As to why the cycles must be completed by you four, I don’t have the answer. Maybe someone you meet along the way on your journey will,” she said.

“Will we be safe? Will we all make it through the cycles and reach our destination safely?” asked Yaj.

“I don’t have any answer to that. We are all mortals. We must face sickness and death sometime,” she said.

“See!” I wanted to yell at him. But I kept quiet.

“You are visiting our savior in all of your journeys. He will keep you safe,” she said and began to walk away.

She stopped suddenly and looked at us, at me in particular.

“Dee… it’s not just the bracelet,” she said, cryptically with a knowing smile.

I was again about to engage in a painful drawn out conversation on what she meant followed by many short answers, when she began explaining.

“It wasn’t just the bracelet that gave you the power. It was you as well. When you wear it, it can simply help you with dark magic. Unless, one knows what they are truly capable of, and be determined to bring that strength out, they cannot reach the full potential of the bracelet. You have managed to do that, albeit a little late. You were determined and knew what you were capable of before you went to the forest. All the things you had done since then were mostly by you. The bracelet just aided you. You need that same determination with you. All of you do during your upcoming journeys. That’s what will get you home,” she said and turned away from us.

I was speechless. Good god, she wasn’t definitely an ordinary woman. She was right. I had worn my bracelet the first two days, but I was still scared and worried. The moment I had made up my mind and decided to take up the cause, I felt invincible, as though I could succeed even the impossible.

She stood next to Manu.

“This is where we belong. We will have a new beginning,” she informed him.

Manu nodded at her hypnotically.

After a few minutes of staring, he came up to us, and smiled at us warmly. He looked strangely happy after everything.

“We are all thankful for your help. I hope you find success in your endeavor. May the gods be with you,” he said.

We bid our farewells and thanked each of the seven council men and their wives.

Soon, they were to trek up the hill, following Shradha as the lead.

We headed slowly back into the cave with our final goodbyes

A few more minutes, and we would leave this place.

“Oh my god Dee…Shradha was your doppelganger!” Sam said in excitement as soon as we were earshot from them.

“Wait. What? You think she looked like me? That’s crazy. She was almost a couple of feet taller, had dark eyes, and…and…looked really different than me,” I said, baffled.

Did she seem familiar because she looked like me?

“Sam is right. She did look a lot like you. I was stunned too, when I saw her face for the first time,” said Ray in deep contemplation.

Yaj didn’t say anything. Maybe he didn’t care whether or not I had a doppelganger in this world.

“Hmm…I don’t know if that’s of a huge significance in anyway though,” I said.

“Probably not…but it’s so cool!” said Sam.

“Anyway…She didn’t tell us too much about who we would meet and where exactly we’d be going next,” I said.

“I think she might know more than she is letting on,” said Ray.

“There is nothing we can do about that. We need to leave now,” said Yaj.

“We had quite an adventure. But I can’t wait to get back home. After three more stops that is…,” I said.

“I feel sad for Manu. The guy lost his entire kingdom and seemed heartbroken,” said Sam.

“He didn’t look super torn anymore. Not in the last few minutes anyway. I think he’ll be fine with Shradha. They’ll have their ‘new beginning’ like they predicted,” said Ray, with a smirk.

“Raaayyy,” said Sam admonishing him.

“Oh come on. As if none of you saw the googly eyes they made at each other,” said Ray.

“Ew…Ray! I did not need that picture in my head. Especially when you guys think she’s my doppelganger,” I said.

Sam and Ray laughed at that.

“Holy cow…I realized something!” Sam shouted suddenly.

“What is it?” I asked concerned.

“The Vedas…or rather the names. They sound like our names. Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva,” she said.

“Just similar consonants, don’t you think?” Ray asked skeptically.

“Not even that unless you use a harsher ‘thee’ instead of ‘Dee’ for my name,” I told him.

But she was right; it was a strange coincidence, with four of our shortened names sounding similar to the shortened version of the holy texts.

As soon as we took a few more steps inside, I knew it was the same cave as yesterday. It had the same paintings and carvings on the walls.

“It’s the same cave,” we all said in unison.

“Okay. Here goes,” said Ray, walking towards the middle.

“Ok, now what do we do?” I asked, standing next to him.

“Shradha said we’d have to navigate the cycles. I think we should determine where we want to land next,” said Sam.

“Can you believe that this age is called a golden age? Seriously a misnomer!” said Ray.

“Maybe, things will get back to being golden in a few years,” I replied, grinning at Ray’s remark.

“If this was the best age they got, I shudder to think what’s awaiting us in the next three cycles,” said Sam, shuddering dramatically.

I removed my bracelet from my pocket and looked at it.

Ray was looking at it closely.

“The first charm is the fish, followed by a turtle, a tusk and canine teeth. I think the red beads represent the four cycles. We already experienced the cycle with the fish in it. So that part must be the first set of cycles,” said Ray peering at my bracelet.

“The second set had a foot, an axe and a bow I think. Which one should we pick?” asked Sam.

“I don’t think we have a choice here. How does one go about picking?” I asked.

“What if we hold on to a charm? Can we jump ahead? The third set had a flute and a tiny bust of a man with a halo depicted. The fourth set had just one charm and I’m not sure what that is. Can we pick the last charm?” asked Sam.

“Maybe it is not a good idea, but worth a try. Let’s do it,” said Yaj.

“Okay, the last charm. Not sure what it is but let me hold it, and we can stand around in a circle,” I said.

“Also maybe hold hands like the last time,” said Sam.

We stood in a circle and held hands. Nothing happened, except maybe me feeling the unwanted electricity between Yaj’s and my hands.

We looked at each other and I could see slight desperation in his eyes. Or maybe I was just imagining things. The only thing reeking of desperation around here was me. I looked away from him.

“Maybe we need to close our eyes,” said Ray.

I closed my eyes and waited. Still nothing happened.

“Ok wait. What were we doing when the ground shook first?” asked Ray.

“I had just worn the bracelet on my wrist,” I said.

I wore it on my left hand. It was very snug. We held hands and stood waiting.

“Okay to the last cycle, we hope,” I said.

Nothing happened. I was getting worried.

“Okay…later… I removed it and switched it to my right hand. Let me wear it on my right hand now,” I told them.

I wasn’t looking forward to it. My wrist was still sore.

“Let me wear it this time, Dee. Your wrist is sore. If nothing happens, I promise I’ll give it back to you,” said Sam.

I nodded and gratefully handed it to her.

Sam took the bracelet from me, and wrapped it around her right hand near the wrist. She had to loop it twice too. We held our hands and waited.

The ground finally shook.

We saw the bright light appear. This time we didn’t move away from it to escape.

“Off we go!” said Sam.

Yaj squeezed my hand, drawing my eyes towards him.

“Dee… I—” he broke off, still looking at me with pleading eyes.

“I…what?” I wanted to shout and demand him.

Was it I am sorry or I something else? Just like a moth drawn to a flame, he kept luring me, and I didn’t care for the pain it would cause me each time. But after remembering how strongly he felt about being some sort of bad luck omen to people he cared for, and then Vasishta’s dire predictions, I finally understood why he might be pushing me away. He was worried of causing me harm. And that made me fall for him more.

As soon as we jumped off to the next cycle, wherever it was—I was going to prove to him that there was no such thing as predicting future.

As someone famously quoted, ‘after all, tomorrow is another day’.

That was the last thing I thought before the loud explosion rang through my ears and the world around us turned dark.

  • .. to be continued.*

 

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PREVIEW OF PART TWO:

 

Sam

It took us thirty six seconds to jump to the second cycle. I counted. Dee, Ray and Yaj said it was my turn to shine and lead them on the quest. I didn’t know if I had it in me. I hated making messes of any kind, and couldn’t function without my trusted emergency kit, the one lying behind at the cave, back at our world. I had never imagined coming to another strange new world, let alone fall for someone there, a local bad boy prince, who killed demons. I just hope the four of us make it out alive before we jump to our third cycle…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Sky Fall

When sixteen-year-old Dee finds herself underwater, she hardly expects to be lost from the island she and her school group were visiting—much less find herself stranded in an unknown world. All she wanted to do was take a break from her crazy schedules. Then there was Yaj—who was now her frenemy, whom she was trying very hard to forget. An impossible feat—considering he was with her, along with two other friends—Sam and Ray, lost in the same unknown world. Dee and her three friends explore the place to find help and encounter the cursed... With journey to a mystical forest on a quest and an ocean adventure with an evil demon gunning for her, will Dee and her friends find their way back home? Based on Indian mythology, Sky Fall is the first of the four part series.

  • ISBN: 9781311645692
  • Author: MV Kasey
  • Published: 2016-04-05 07:50:16
  • Words: 75806
Sky Fall Sky Fall