Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Shadow of the Babul

I. Sundown Coming
Through the windows, Irene and Peter could see the sun setting across the Sindh – not orange as they had once dreamed of the Indian sun, but a bright yellow ball, hefting light across the steppes even as it was impelled down, down behind the Earth. As the light filtered through the branches of the lone babul tree in the front garden of the hospital, shadows seemed to pull themselves off the tree's boughs. They strained and stretched into the windows of Peter's room and the hallway, waving and undulating like the black fingers of the spinster tree's nighttime self. Down the hallway, past Ayub's empty office, past the now also empty room where the dead intruder had been laid, past another room where the injured soldier had been staying, and past yet another, the door to Mumbles' chamber was cracked open. Inside, Peter and Irene could hear a voice. A breeze blew through the open window and the shadow boughs seemed to caress Mumbles' door. Irene could smell smoke from outside – acrid, unidentifiable smoke. She had been on an anthropomorphizing streak lately, and she fancied that the tree's shadow was reaching towards the captured intruder, and that the smoke was somehow the odor of its nighttime form. Perhaps it should be let into his room? She wondered how the man would react to seeing her. When Peter caught a whiff of the smoke, he covered his nose – it was, he knew, the last remnant of the other intruder's funeral pyre.

As the pair approached the room, it became clear that the voice belonged to Mukherjee and, from the noise of boots shuffling, that there were several soldiers inside. At the threshold, the pair could hear Mukherjee, reading: "Main, Krishna, jo Gay ki Rakshee hai, yah qabul deta hoon. Kosh ke vinash evm hatya ke iraadaa rakhkr Angrezee padaav pahonchaane ka irada, jo apne aparaadhe hain, main sveekaar kartaa hoon. Angrezeeon ko maara, kuch lajjaa nahin mera. Jay Mata Bhaarat."

[For Peter: "I, Krishna, the Protector of Cows, give this confession. I admit to my crimes of entering the English camp with the intention of murder and destroying treasures. Death to the English, I have no shame. Hail Mother India."]

Karan had departed from Peter's side to allow a private meeting with Irene. He was in the room with the other soldiers, standing near the door. Looking over his shoulder, he noticed Peter in the hallway and opened the door for him. "Ji," he nodded. "Miss Howell." Shadows slid from the door as it opened and seemed to climb up the legs and shoulders and faces of the soldiers. "Mukherjee has just finished . . . interrogating the prisoner. His name is Krishna." Mumbles – Krishna – lay on his bed, surrounded by Mukherjee and three other soldiers.

The Sergeant finished Karan's narrative for him. "I say, he wanted a beating. So I gave it to him. We have our confession. This will be sufficient to see him off to Kala Pani!" He peered around the room. The threat of imprisonment in the Andamans was not a pleasant thought. "We're done. Saagar, secure him again, everyone else out. Saagar - God's sake, crack the window a little for some wind. It's time to show him some mercy." The soldiers – four counting Mukherjee, Karan, Mandeep, and Arjun – shuffled through the door, Mukherjee last of them. "Were you planning on seeing him?" he asked. "Quite sorry, then, but I think he's had enough for tonight. We shall see in the morning. Nurse!" In short time one of the nurses, Anita, responded to the call. In brusque Urdu, Mukherjee ordered her to prepare to stay the night in the corridor in case of an emergency, and explained that he had been required to beat the man, but that he did not wish to see him worsen. He assured her that Private Saagar would be in the room with Krishna.

II. Nighttime
Irene's room was situated between Peter's own and Doctor Ayub's office. When the door was open, she could see clear across the hallway and through a window. She had a very good view of the babul tree. Though she was a relative newcomer to the Empire's Jewel and its flora, she was already familiar with the character of the babul. It was rather like an acacia tree, and Irene had spent many an afternoon reading and writing in the shade of her trusty friend, the Acacia nilotica. The babuls of India were Acacia arabica, at least according to a brief she had read in Mumbai, where she had enjoyed the opportunity of climbing a steep hill to meet with Babulnath, Lord Shiva in the form of a Babul tree. That tree in Mumbai, she was told, was an earthly incarnation of the world tree shared by Buddhists and Hindus, as well as by the Germanic tribes and the Slavs. As a friendly presence and as the centerpiece of an urban temple, Irene felt that acacias and babuls were just fine as trees and that they made attractive figures in the landscape. This one tree, though; this tree of Ayub's: there had been something about the play of the light through its broad, flattened boughs, something strange about the shadows it had cast. Like it was tangibly touching whatever its shadow happened to fall upon. Surely, it had only been the lingering wariness from the violent events of two nights ago, and the strange conversation she had had with Peter – a cult! To think of it! Irene decided that Ayub's tree was a fine tree too and that she should leave it at that.

Now, it was night, and there was no way to distinguish a shadow from the darkness. Irene carefully closed her door, took her dress off and folded it neatly in a chair. She stretched out in her bed, and finally lay her head on her hands and closed her eyes to sleep. She drifted in and out of a temple on a hilltop, surrounded by a throng of devotees to the world tree.

When we sleep, we fall into suspension. As we sleep we take no notice of how delicately our senses hang, but if, in the single moment of falling into the sling of dreams, we are awoken, we struggle to come to our senses, to right our drifting bodies. It was in this moment that Irene heard a knocking on her door and a sob. She felt as if she had been dropped from some height, but without any impact, just a confusing sweep into the arms of the solid world, now dark all around her.

Peter, who had sat up running theory after theory through his mind, was only half-asleep. He heard the muffled sound of a knock on Irene's door.

(Peter passed a listen check.)


HomoDM said...

The sound of knocking brought Peter's ruminations to an abrupt halt.

Someone is knocking on Irene's door, he realized, sitting up.

Probably a nurse or a guard making sure her accommodations are satisfactory, he assured himself.

But perhaps I should check, just to be certain. Better to be safe than sorry, he reasoned, and surely no harm could come from looking.

Even as he thunk it, he had swung his feet off the side of the bed and onto the floor, and pushed himself up to a standing position. He crept to his own door and, as quietly as he could, opened it a crack to see who might be paying her a visit.

Irene Howell said...

It was disappointing that they had not been able to speak with Krishna—Irene had to say that she preferred Mumbles—but at least there would be a chance to do so tomorrow. Hopefully. Irene had been far from pleased by the brutality done to the thief. Torture she could never condone. Well…probably never. There were always some tricky situations that wreaked havoc with one’s sense of morality. In general, torture was never right. She supposed that sometimes, though not often, it could be necessary if it served a greater purpose. In this case, though, there had been no call for it.

Sleep had surprised Irene, as it had the night before. She was grateful that her body was able to shut out the questions of her mind, ones that threatened to keep her awake at all hours. Why she was so easily able to drift away she did not understand, but she was grateful for it. It was a small gift, but an extremely important one, especially at times like this.

Thank goodness that once she fell asleep she was not dead to the world. Waking up at just the right time—that is, at the sound of a knock on the door rather than the footsteps of a nurse down the hallway—was another knack of hers.

Irene’s thoughts did not catch up to her actions until she was halfway across the room, her arm already stretching out towards the door. Only then did she come to terms with the situation. It was the middle of the night and someone was outside of her door. Someone was crying, it sounded like. She had to pause to consider the possibility that this was a trick; yet, bearing in mind the relative ease with which someone could break into her room, why would anyone bother to knock?

After that brief hesitation, Irene closed the rest of the distance and wrapped her fingers around the knob. As her eyes crept down her arm and settled on her hand, she remembered that she was wearing a knee-length cotton slip rather than a proper nightgown. But taking the time to put her dress on wasn’t an option right now. She was extremely curious and she didn’t want whoever was out there to have second thoughts and disappear. She’d just have to hope she wasn’t going to shock anyone on the other side of the door with her déshabillé.

Taking a deep breath, she turned the knob and opened the door a few inches. But she had enough forethought to place the side of her foot firmly on the ground and against the bottom of the door so that she’d have a chance to brace and close the door if whoever was out where did try to enter forcefully.

da solomon said...

Starlight shone through the top of the crack in Irene's door. What illumination might have been afforded her was mostly blocked by a form in the doorway; by someone tall, bulky, and breathy. A bear's snuffling, an obese man working to expand his lungs against his own corpulence, the sound of an athlete winding down from their exercises; all these possibilities alighted upon her in a split second, and Irene's eyes seemed to affirm all three of them as they took in the big, black shape. The door seemed no thicker than a tent flap.

In a moment the threat was somewhat eased by Peter's voice, hushed but excited, signaling familiarity. "Ji?" he beckoned the visitor. Irene hadn't heard Peter's door open – he must had heard the knock as well and, while she stumbled towards the door, moved quickly to investigate. The hulk in the doorway shifted towards the direction of Peter's room and muttered something in what was probably Urdu or one of its related dialects. "Peter? Kya tum ho? [Is that you?]" he asked in a harsh whisper. He turned back towards Irene, and now her eyes were well enough adjusted for her to see that it was a man, a huge man covered in a wretchedly worn kurta-dhoti combination. A long red scarf was draped over his head as if to hide his features, which were already tangled into a huge matted beard and clumped locks. Irene could see the light in his eyes flash as he looked into her room and declared in thickly accented English, "Sorry! Mistake." He shuffled to Peter's door.

This could have been none other than Ashan, the physician cum wrestling instructor with whom Peter had met. He did not appear to be crying. Irene listened very carefully as he lumbered away, trying to pick up some sound behind the sliding and scratching of his dusty feet on the floor of the clinic, which was itself very faint. There was something – a hoot, a coo, or a sob – but much further in the distance than what she had heard – or thought she had heard – before.

"Ashan," Peter whispered.
"Mere pas hai tumari dawai, Peter. [I have your dawai.]"
"Shandar," Peter replied with the politest of sarcasm. "Par kyon-" Peter began, still whispering.

Irene gave up on trying to pick out the ghosts of sounds then, and opened her door. To her right, she could see the nurse sleeping soundly on a mat at the far end of the hallway. To her left, in much weaker light, she could see the dim shape of Peter in the hallway beside Ashan.

"Kyonki," the man interjected, "main yahaan pe hoon . . . jis ke karaan hai wo dekhna hai. Kuaane ke pas."
"Kuaane ke pas." Ashan whispered. "Geedare."

["I am here because . . . there is that to be seen. By the well."
"By the well. Jackals."]

(Peter passed an Urdu check. The literal meaning of "phoonk" is "breath" or "exhalation". The word's most common usage, however, is as slang for cigarette or pipe smoke. It can also mean the breath used to animate a work of magic; that is, the utterance of an incantation.)

HomoDM said...

How it was that Ashan had known to come to the hospital in the dead of night and alert Peter to trouble was a matter that would have to be determined some other time.

Geedare. Jackals! Peter swore under his breath, recalling that the presence of jackals had heralded the intrusion into their camp just a few nights past. Although he was unclear as to the exact nature of the connection between the two events, he intuited that the arrival of jackals portended danger.

Why jackals? Did the cult lure them to the area somehow, hoping to use them as a distraction or cover? Or did the cult mimic the calls of jackals to communicate amongst themselves? Unlike last time, however, they were not making any noise - which suggested to Peter that their enemies were intending something more stealthy and devious this time. But what?

Phoonk. Peter briefly imagined a somewhat droll scene of a pack of jackals loitering by the well, smoking. But this could not have been what Ashan was trying to communicate. No, he must have meant phoonk in the mystical sense, indicating that some devilry was afoot.

The fact that the cult had known to come to the hospital was especially alarming, for it suggested that he and Irene had been correct in their supposition that someone within their camp was a spy or informant. Peter deduced that they had come for either him and/or Irene, possibly to interrogate and kill, or perhaps to abduct and ransom. Another possibility, and not mutually exclusive from the first, was that they had come for Krishna/Mumbles - either to liberate him, or to silence him permanently.

The advent of this new crisis energized Peter, and adrenaline allowed him to ignore the pain of his wound and to move with some rapidity. He ducked into his room to retrieve his notebook as Irene, sensing that something was the matter (and loath to be excluded from any excitement), hurried over to join the two men in the hallway.

"Ashan says there are jackals about," Peter explained. "I'm going to have a look and alert the guards."

His voice was urgent, his words curt. "Go to your room, close the door, and stay there until we return."

"Take this," he said, handing his notebook to her. "I don't know how safe we are here, and we may find ourselves forced to flee if worse comes to worse. Pack only what you need, and quickly!"

"Don't argue! We'll be back as soon as we can," he promised.

To Ashan, he said, "Show me."

Irene Howell said...

Jackals! The very word made Irene’s stomach turn. If they started talking to each other, she might very well begin to scream.

“I was not going to argue,” was all she said, smiling faintly as she did so. She was smiling because she normally would have protested, as he had guessed, but in this case she couldn’t do so. It would hardly be proper for her to accompany them outdoors in her slip. No, she would have to return to her room, if only to quickly dress herself.

“You have five minutes to report back,” she said sternly. And she meant it. If she didn’t hear from someone before that time was up, she was going out there.

Returning to her room, Irene closed the door and immediately set about putting her dress back on. The buttons weren’t quite connected correctly, but she didn’t much care.

Waiting was very difficult. She was tempted to go out into the hallway in defiance, but held back, reminding herself that five minutes would go by quickly. At least she hoped it would.

da solomon said...

I. "That to Be Seen"

Ashan and Peter strode down the hallway. As they passed the nurse outside Mumbles' door, Ashan gave her a light kick with his foot. She whimpered and, looking up in the starlight, gasped. "Ashan! Kya hua?"
"Sapaee ooth karo!" he told her, and walked past her. She scrambled towards the thief's door as the pair passed her and began knocking on it, hushedly crying to the soldier inside. Unconcerned, Ashan made for the exit and – "Aa jao, ji." – ordered Peter to follow him. Outside, he nudged one sleeping guard and then another as they crossed the hospital's lawn. How he had managed to move past these men in the first place, and why he had alerted Peter first rather than the soldiers were points to be pondered another time. The guards – Karan and Mandeep – roused much more quickly than the nurse. Ashan hustled past them and offered them no explanation. As he hurried to keep up with the wrestler in the dark, Peter could only briefly pause to apologize to the guards and warn them to be alert. The other men would be in the inn, closer to the rest of town, in a direction away from the well.

The well was in a slight depression towards the north, some three or four hundred meters away from the hospital or any other building. Ashan took Peter's hand in his own rough palm and pulled him along, over stony ground, through tall grass (where Peter had seen a passing goatherd relieve himself of nature's burdens), and to the lip of the depression. There, he crouched behind a babul sapling, dragging Peter down with him. Clumsily weighted by Ashan's strength, Peter could but barely keep from falling entirely into the thorns of the shrub as he did his best to hide himself as well.

"Look there."

The well was entirely utilitarian – little more than a stone platform split by an aperture large enough to lower a pail into. The depression, some ten meters across, was littered with short shrubs and a few narrow cacti, but they offered no impediment to viewing the scene before Peter and Ashan. Some number of small forms – jackals, without a doubt – could be seen crowding and moving about on the well's surface. They were silent. The well was much too deep to allow them drinking water – why were they there? Ashan released Peter's hand and, as if to fill in the details for him, told him to wait, to watch. Peter did.

In the pale light, the jackals were silver, and their circling gave them a fishy look, as though they were coursing amongst each other as a school rather than a pack. After a minute – how many had passed already? – they seemed to settle into a ring around the well. No, Peter was sure of it: they were sitting attentively around the hole in the ground, looking into it, ears cocked forward. Something in the well was commanding their attention. They watched without a sound, and the notion crossed Peter's mind that there was some prey animal drowned within, and that they were working on a way of hoisting it up and into their jaws.

"What is in there?" Peter asked.
"Chup-chaap! Watch."

Peter did as he was told. He peered through the branches of the young tree, and tried to make out the finer details of the jackals' congress. Yes, he could see something there, amidst the pack. The silver caste of the jackal's fur was not from the starlight – quite the opposite, it radiated from somewhere beneath them; that is, from within the well. Their open muzzles glowed as the well-light grew more intense.

(Not all rolls have been revealed. Action is on Peter. Don't worry, Elizabeth! Irene will have her moment soon. New posts in Ghosts & Time main blog.)

HomoDM said...

Peter found himself both fascinated and horrified at what he beheld. The jackals' organized, almost ritualistic behavior was unlike anything he had seen; had the thing in the well called out to them, or were they somehow calling it?

As the unearthly light emanating from the aperture grew more intense, Peter sensed that it might ultimately prove only too illuminating. Surely, he was about to bear witness to something that would resolve many of his questions and forever dispel many of his doubts -- but at what cost?

The intensity of his apprehension brought a wave of nausea over him, but he could not look away; though the light stung his eyes, which had accustomed themselves to the night, they teared but dared not blink.

His desire to know; his dogged determination to unravel the mysteries of the past few days; his most fundamental instincts of self-preservation: all of these fell away. As the light rose within the well, so too did something rise up from deep within Peter, eclipsing his fear and premonitions of doom. It was not courage he felt then so much as desperation, the overwhelming and irrational urge to interrupt whatever was about to happen at all costs.

Fumbling along the ground nearby, Peter's hand found a stone. He stood, cocked his arm behind him, and sent it speeding through the air toward the assembly of feral canines. Without even looking to see if the projectile had struck any of them, he then grabbed a fallen branch and charged forward, brandishing it like a club, praying that Ashan would see Irene to safety if this proved to be his final act.

da solomon said...

Irene could not find a way to fill five minutes easily. Indeed she lost track of the time no sooner than she had finished dressing herself. Unwilling to risk seeming impatient or untrustworthy, she resisted her building apprehension and the temptation to charge ahead into the hallway. The wait was made no easier by the lack of audible clues about the rest of the hospital's situation. As Ashan and Peter had left, she had heard a knocking and the thud of the hospital's front door as it closed behind someone, but little else. It was a stereotypical element of such stories as the one in which (by her own admission in a journal entry) she had found herself: one's senses could not be trusted, and this generic aspect of her situation was some mild comfort.

Yet in admitting this wasn't she also copping to a certain chauvinist literary conception? Namely, that cunning and courage were but two sides of the same coin - a coin resting comfortably in the pockets of Quatermain and Holmes. Didn't Alain Quartermain's perceptive abilities only highlight the severity of the dangers that he had to brave? Wasn't the rationale of Sherlock Holmes the very weapon he used to force his foes to submit? What could be said of the women in such novels? Nothing quite so generous.

There was a yelp - a human yelp - from down the hallway, and the rush of feet. Irene had spent her time well enough now; she knew there was a problem in Mumbles' room.

Readying her gun - Irene exited her own room and stepped into the hallway. To her right, in Mumbles' room, there was a flicker of candlelight. The door was, of course, open. It would have no made no difference if she had bothered to think of the silence of the scene as surreal, for, despite Irene's worldliness, much of the past few days had been nothing if not that. Yet the lack of audible clues - perhaps even the lack of audible authority - struck her hard.

Shouldn't the night magnify its voices? What of the weeping earlier?

She paused for a moment and ran one short fingernail over the painted brick of the corridor, feeling the solidity of its rough surface, scraping dust into a deposit beneath the edge of her nail. She heard the dull, soft sound of her scratch as she did so, and took a step further. Now she was in the prisoner's room.

Karan and Mandeep stood just inside the doorway; Saagar and the nurse - Anita? - crouched before them. Gun still drawn, Irene approached.

On the ground before them lay something brown and furred. It was a dog - no. Obviously not. Obviously a jackal. It was dead, and laying on its own twisted neck. Saagar looked to his lacerated hands.

One step more and Irene saw him, Mumbles - Krishna - laying on his bed, limp. She saw the blood staining the pillow before she saw the wound in his neck. His esophagal tube had been torn from its nest in the man's neck, and extracted. The natural plasticity of the human body would have pulled it back into place, but it was caught on some protrusion from his neck . . . his tongue.

Such ghastly and precise butchery!

Irene too dropped to her knees alongside Saagar and Anita.

(Irene failed a sanity check. -2 sanity. Action is on Irene.)

Irene Howell said...

Irene’s head was spinning in a most irritating and nauseating manner. Even with her eyes closed, she felt the urge to rid herself of her supper, but she reminded herself how much she hated to throw up and told herself that it would do absolutely no good. It was disgusting...what was left of Mumbles, that is, but in a way it was so unnatural, so strange and unexpected that it was somehow less horrible than, for example, a bloated, drowned body with no other marks on it would be. After a minute or so, Irene was able to force herself to open her eyes and look back up. She could only see his arm and the side of his face, but she didn’t look away. She was certain that she could do this.

Once she had recovered, new emotions took the place of the initial shock and horror. As she looked up and slowly got to her feet, Irene had a sudden urge to fling her gun across the room in frustration, though thankfully she was too much in control of herself to carry out such a petty and dangerous act. But she couldn’t help but feel angry and frustrated. Hadn’t she said that Mumbles might be in danger? She’d felt that his “friends” wouldn’t let him live, for he might be coerced into revealing secrets. There was nothing about these men and their actions thus far that hinted at any compassion, and now it was quite clear that not even members of their own order were considered valuable in a personal sense. Instead of mounting a rescue, they’d killed him.

Well, Irene admitted to herself, glancing again at the jackal (Good Lord was it ever a nasty looking creature!), that thing had killed him. But she had no doubt at all in her mind that it was the cult’s doing. She was not sure how they’d done it, but they had. This was no accident.

“We should cover him, at least for now,” she said quietly. Not only was it difficult to look at the body, but she felt that the man, despite his actions in life, deserved a bit of respect in death. She wouldn’t want to be gawked at under these circumstances, never mind that she’d be dead and gone and certainly in no position to care.

She retrieved the bed sheet from the floor and, after one more quick glance at what was left of the man’s face, she fluffed the sheet up and let it fall down over him gently, careful not to disturb anything. She was not going to forget that "face" anytime soon. But for now she could push the unpleasantness aside and get down to business.

“Can you tell me what happened?” she asked, turning to face the others. “I can divine the general sequence of events, but what I would like to hear are any details you remember, any thoughts, feelings, impressions…anything at all no matter how odd or unlikely you think it may sound.”

da solomon said...

As Irene afforded the unfortunate soul a degree of dignity after what surely had been a dreadful end, Anita, who was still crouched on the floor at Saagar's side, looked up. Her mouth opened into a quivering frown and she appeared ready to bawl. But she did not, and instead fixed her gaze on Irene. She said nothing, but her face did not relax. Even in the shadow of the candles, Irene could see that the poor nurse's face had gone pale.

Karan retrieved a roll of gauze and some alcohol from a cabinet. He knelt at Saagar's side and began to tend to the man's hands. "Baat le jaana, ji," Karan ordered and sent Mandeep out, presumably to warn the others. Turning to Saagar, he urged him to answer Irene. "Kya hua? Answer her, bhaiyya!"

The nurse and everybody looked to Saagar.
He was no longer staring into his hands. As Karan dabbed alcohol across his wounds, Saagar's gaze had slipped back to the dead jackal. "I broke its neck." He spoke softly, but with obvious agitation, like a man confused to exhaustion. "I woke up and it was there. He was being eaten!" Saagar lifted his hands, interrupting Karan's effort to dress his thumb. "I couldn't shoot him! Hathon men pakara maine, and I broke its neck!" He waited for Karan to finish. "Then she came in" – he gestured to Anita – "and that is all."
"It came in the window, hai na?" asked Karan.
Saagar paused. He shook his head. "It must have." He looked up finally, to Mumbles' covered corpse. "He did not fight with it."

Karan stood to face Irene. "We will stay here until Mukherjee comes."
Irene consciously decided not to dispute Karan's judgment – there would be no point. She nodded to him solemnly. Irene was just about to lower her eyes for a moment of thought, when –
She jerked her head to the side.
"What is it?" asked Karan, a little startled by the Angrezee's sudden movement.
"Why, it sounded like Peter!"
"What sounded like Peter?"
"Didn't you hear that?" Irene asked. She looked to Anita and Saagar, but they were both sitting on the floor, paying little attention to anything.

Karan hadn't heard it, but Irene had – a scream. Irene had never heard a scream like it before. It wasn't a cry of pain; it was much more like the yelp loosed by Anita when she found Saagar and the jackal. It was a sound from deep within someone's chest, pushed into the night by some emotional force from below. The scream was hoarse and gliding – surely this was the human model for that ubiquitous emergency tone, the siren.

And it was definitely Peter.

Irene Howell said...

The reports were not very helpful, though one sentence resounded in Irene’s ears:"He did not fight with it."

She mulled those words over for a moment. That observation didn’t surprise her. The man must have known that he would die here, by some method or another. Did he know that it would be a jackal? Was there some…connection between those animals and the cult? Irene was not sure that she could think sensibly when it came to those creatures. After their human-like—yet utterly unnatural—conversation the other night, she was prone to what were surely fantastical thoughts when it came to the intelligence and capability of the jackals. Surely it was a coincidence or, in the least, nothing supernatural.

The scream, or whatever it was, sent a shiver down Irene’s spine and back up again. Anita and Saager were apparently still in too much shock to register the noise, or perhaps they had heard it and then had subconsciously blocked it out. Whatever the case, they were not going to be of any help in this situation.

“I’ll be back,” Irene said, though the words sounded hollow and meaningless to her ears. Considering the events of this evening, there was not guarantee that she would be coming back.

Gun in hand, Irene headed for the door and then retraced Peter’s earlier steps. She moved quickly, but quietly; she had always been rather light on her feet. As she drew closer to the outdoors, she felt a growing tightness in her chest, though the apprehension seizing her did not overcome her senses. Her hand was steady and her eyes were alert, though deep down she was bracing herself for the worst…

da solomon said...

"Miss Howell! Don't go!"

Irene ignored Karan. She dodged out the front door and into the moonlit landscape. She ran towards the lunar horizon, sidestepping, even hopping, over the shades of stones and scrub, jogging towards where she thought the well might be. Up the ridge, carefully and quickly, she crouched a little as she reached its height.

She didn't see anything on the other side of the rise. It was dark in the depression.

Irene clenched her teeth and her gun. She froze and waited. There would be a sound, her eyes would adjust. Just wait.

There were no jackals howling, and no animals calling.

Karan didn't call after her again. She squeezed her eyes shut.

She waited and got nothing from her environment – nothing but a yawning, foreign silence all around her.

When she opened her eyes again, Peter and Ashan were there, standing in the depression. Each of them gripped the well – or its slowly materializing ghost – with his bare hands. Irene's fingers relaxed around her gun a little. She jogged into the depression, and onto the platform around the well. "Peter!" she whispered as loudly as she could.

He didn't respond, and she grabbed his shoulder. Peter, it seemed, had been afflicted in the same way as Mohan. "Peter?"

"Miss Howell!" she heard in the distance.
Mandeep came running with a lantern and another man – was Munna his name? No time – "Down here!" she called. "The well!"

The lantern came over the rise like a lighthouse, and Irene turned to meet it. On its horizon, the soldier adjusted the hood and shined the light into the depression, illuminating everything and forcing Irene to shield her eyes and avert her gaze. Downward she looked – it was at her feet, just an inch away – a jackal! She jumped back, pushing against Peter's sharp elbow.

The beast was lying on its belly, with its limbs akimbo. Irene swung her gun arm towards it, realizing not soon enough that it was dead. The jackal's bloodied tongue protruded from its jaws – Irene swallowed and noted that its head had been crushed.

She looked back to Peter and in the lantern light, she saw just how pale he was. His knuckles were white, his fingertips red with blood as he clutched the stones of the well. His hair and pyjamas, dark with cold sweat, clung to his head and body. His face was contorted, his dry lips stretched open as if still screaming, but whatever terror had seized him left him hoarse. With a weak sigh, his joints began to fold. His strength gone, it was not difficult to pry him from the well as he collapsed into merciful unconsciousness.

(text by da solomon and HomoDM)

da solomon said...

(Action picks up the next morning in the hospital. Look for a new post in the India blog in a day or two.)