The Burning Island

Have you ever driven from the suburbs straight into a metropolis and suddenly felt the air around you get hotter? Even if you have not, if you have lived both in the suburbs or the country, and the city for a quite a while, you must have noticed that the city is significantly hotter than country or the suburbs. This is the urban heat island effect. You can realize why this effect is called ‘island’ if you look at the picture below.

Urban Heat Island

Notice the ‘island’ of high urban temperature in the ‘sea’ of lower rural temperatures. (C3 Headlines)

There are a couple of reasons why this happens:

  • Buildings are quite efficient in absorbing (if the buildings are dark-colored) and reflecting (if the buildings are light-colored) heat. Due to reflections and the dense building networks in cities, the heat is bounced back and forth between buildings. Thus the heat is effectively trapped.
  • Dense rows of buildings block winds and this reduces heat lost by convection
  • Urban drainage systems do not allow much water to stay on the ground. So, the amount of evaporation is less. This also contributes in increasing urban temperatures.
  • Waste heat from industries, air conditioner etc. also plays their part in rising urban temperatures
  • The fact that urban areas have lower vegetation cover does not help

So, what is the solution for this burning island? Well, there are quite a few solutions, but I will mention just one very important one. That is, the increasing of green space.

Plants lose heat by the process of transpiration, that is losing water through their leaves and other parts. Because water has a very high specific heat, which means a lot of heat is needed to increase the temperature of a unit mass of water, its temperature does not rise much even in a hot day. Thus, when this water is released into the atmosphere, the temperature there also remains low. Thus, we see water acting as a kind of heat buffer.

In fact, researchers at Manchester University have found out that just by adding 10% of green cover, the maximum surface temperature of Greater Manchester can be kept to the 1961-1990 baseline for up to the 2080’s. (Carter and Handley, 2006)

Here are two pictures of the city where I live, Dhaka. The images have been taken from Google Earth. You can obviously tell where it is more comfortable.

Dhaka University Campus

Satellite view of the University of Dhaka, my university. You can see the ample amount of green cover here.

Mohammadpur.jpg

Satellite view of the residential area Mohammadpur of Dhaka. This is where I live. You can hardly find any green cover here. Just buildings and buildings.

As you can see, if we do not want Dhaka to be a completely unlivable city, we really need to start working now. And increasing green cover is one of the most important thing to start working on.

Do you live in a city? What does your city look like and how much of the urban heat island effect do you feel there? Is there a lot of green cover there? Comment below and we can have a little discussion.

References:

C3 Headlines Available At: http://www.c3headlines.com/global-warming-urban-heat-island-bias/
Carter J. and Handley J. (2006) Adaptation Strategies for Climate Change in the Urban Environment, draft final report to the National Steering Group Available At: http://www.sed.manchester.ac.uk/research/cure/research/asccue/publications.htm

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The Burning Skies: Chapter III Part 1

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Read Chapter II

As the agnons appeared in the sky, the thought that most concerned him was the altitude at which they were flying. “At this height, our arrows just maybe able to hit them but I don’t think it’d be able to pierce through them. At least, that would be enough to get their attention. And when they come lower, we’ll get them,” the Captain thought.

On the other hand, an archer waited in anticipation for the agnons to come inside his range. His bow stretched, sweat dripping from his brows. The closest archer to him, just a few trees to the right, was Elmar. As soon as the first agnon entered his range, he shouted out “Elmar, the agnons have entered our range. Shoot! Now!” He released the bowstring letting the arrow fly towards the dragon.

Elmar, however, had other problems to deal with, as it seemed. “Darn, why isn’t it stopping? It stops all the other times very quickly! I should’ve put this ring on after knowing the details!” His right hand, where he wore the ring, was already covered by a red glow. He could no longer see his nails anymore. “Oh, for God’s sake! I have to act now, be it revealed or not! Maybe it’s a blessing that it’s happening now. I can take down those agnons easily!”

The first arrow to hit an agnon, brought an angry cry from it and it dived down to find it’s predator. Just then, a few more arrows from the surrounding trees flew towards it and it fell to the ground.

Elmar fixed an arrow to the bow and stretched it, picking up another one of the nine agnons as target, which was behind the one that just fell. They still were pretty high up and the fact that one of their companion was down, didn’t seem to affect them. “Alright, you ring! Time to put you to test one more time.” He released the arrow. He could hardly see his arrow flying towards the agnon. “That had to be at least fifteen times faster than an average arrow!” He saw the agnon suddenly jerk hard and for a few second it flapped its wing frantically as if it were intoxicated. After a while, it crashed into the ground some five hundred feet away from where he was. “Whoa!” was all he could say.

“Oh my gosh! What was that?” Someone in the rear middle lines cried out loud. A few others, including the Captain, saw it too. Nick was there, somewhere along the middle lines. “Why do I have a feeling that that was Elmar’s doing,” thought Nick. All of them were quite astonished at the sight but they could dwell over it for only a little while. Because, even if getting the attention of these agnons were quite a pain in the butt, that little crash did the trick. All the agnons were now diving down to see who or what had caused it.

All the soldiers started to fix their arrows on the bows hastily and started shooting those agnons. Elmar fixed his arrows on the bow too. His hand was now glowing even brighter. “Yup! For now, it is a good omen. You ring, have caused me quite a bit of trouble. I hope you make up to it, and I know you will, judging from the power you just showed me. You’ll help me kill most of these agnons and the monsters to follow!” he said. He shot his arrow at another one of the agnons.  As soon as it hit it, the agnon was thrust higher into the air as if it was hit by a massive catapult stone. The agnon fell somewhere nearby. Elmar could feel the adrenaline rushing through his veins, as he saw that.

Not only just Elmar, it affected the other people who saw the scene of the agnon crashing. They could see it was hit by an arrow but could not see who shot it. “Where are these extremely powerful arrows coming from?” someone in the middle formation asked. “I think they’re from the front line.” “I don’t know what is happening, but whatever is happening is good!” Three of the ten agnons down and zero casualties. The morale of the whole army there was soaring high above the clouds that afternoon.

Even though the arrows weren’t raining on those flying creatures, there were arrows coming from all side. More than half the agnons have already taken at least one arrow. But they wouldn’t weaken from just one. One of the agnons above the middle lines opened its mouth and spit a rock. As soon as it hit the ground the rock became aflame and rolled around destroying some trees before coming to a halt. That was the most dangerous thing about agnons, their burning rock spit. Thankfully, none of those trees had any of the archers.

Two more agnons spit burning rocks, one of them hit the rear part of their formation. This time they were not so lucky. A few of the trees broke down and at least two archers fell to the ground. One of them merely scraped his knee. But the other one couldn’t feel anything in his arm for a while. Then suddenly an excruciating pain hit his arm like an electric shock. He screamed out loud. “God, hope he’ll be alright!” a nearby soldier prayed.

Meanwhile, another burning rock hit somewhere near Elmar’s tree. Elmar’s tree was spared but one of the trees housing another archer fell. “Oh God! Hey, you alright?” Elmar called out. “Oh God, my chest! I think I broke a rib, man!” Elmar couldn’t abandon his position now. No one could, actually. In a ‘real’ war you could get the wounded out of the way by covering for him but in this situation, when the agnons were directly above the head and with only a handful of soldiers do defend against them, leaving your position even for getting the wounded out could be fatal, for both the one who is evacuating and the evacuee alike.

The agnon, who spit a rock at his wounded fellow archer’s tree, started to loom closer to Elmar’s tree. He took out an arrow from his quiver and fixed it to his bow as fast as possible. As he was aiming, he saw the agnon getting ready for another burning rock spit. But Elmar was first. His arrow flung towards it and it fell thrashing somewhere nearby, knocking down a few trees.

And so, four agnons fell and it became harder and harder for the archers to become demoralized, even with all those burning rocks. But after a while, it seemed that morale alone wouldn’t be enough for them to hold their positions. Because, with a few more spits of burning rocks, the trees at the center of the formation started catching fire. “Leave the trees! Start spreading out in the woods! Find another tree. Go! Go!” Even without Nick shouting these instructions, the archers were aware of what to do.

One of the archers caught fire on his back and started jumping around and shouted frantically. Another fellow archer, seeing that went towards him and slapped his behind to put the fire out. “Oh God, it stopped! Come on, let’s get out of here.” He walked him out of there.

But somewhere, on the further east of their formation, another archer did not have as much luck. He was falling back from his position to find another tree to get on. Fire around that tree was getting more and more intense. Two more soldiers were accompanying him. Seeing a shadow underneath their feet, a soldier looked at the sky behind them. “Watch out!” he shouted and pulled one of the soldiers along with himself leftwards while the other soldier jumped right, as the agnon spit a burning rock upon them.

As one of the archers looked to the right to see if he was okay or not, he was seized with alarm. The soldier, who jumped right, was on fire and he was separated from the other two archers by a screen of fire which was slowly spreading. “Hey, we got to get to him!” the other archer said as he began rushing towards the burning soldier. But as he approached the fire, the other archer tried to hold him back “don’t go near the fire! You’ll get yourself burned.” “But he’s on fire, for God’s sake! We have to pull him out of there!” “Agnon!” the archer shouted and indeed the agnon was looming immediately over them just above the trees.

They started fixing their arrows on the bows and shot a few arrows towards the agnon. Lucky for them, the four-five arrows the two of them shot together did the job and the agnon was falling somewhere nearby. “Eat that! You scoundrel!” one of the archers said. But immediately afterwards, their joy was overtaken by panic again as they turned their attention to the burning soldier. He was completely surrounded by fire and down on the ground, perhaps due to suffocation.

Again, the archer, who tried to reach him previously, made an effort to go towards him again but the intensity of the fire was way too much. “Come on, let’s get out of here.” “But………” “There’s nothing we can do about him right now. You’ve seen how hot fire there is! Now, let’s go!” He complied but kept staring back in disbelief and disappointment.

Elsewhere, Elmar himself took down two more agnons. A small fire was there in the front line, but the archers still held their positions. And somewhere in the rear lines another agnon fell. Seeing the fire slowly building up and the force of ten agnons were down to only two, Elmar saw his chance and pulled his nearby wounded soldier out of there, and climbed onto the tree with him, with the weight being no problem at all. “Thanks a lot, Elmar! By the way, why’s your hand so red! It seems like red hot iron!” “Long story,” Elmar said with sigh. He had been bracing himself for a while that everyone will know about this. So, it did not come in any shock at all. “I’ll tell you all about it later.”

Much to everyone’s relief, the agnons decided to flee from here northeastward, an action the monsters less often choose to do. More often than not, the monsters were very persistent and they would not back down until each and every one of them were dead.

Now that the monsters left, all the soldiers were moving to the rendezvous point they previously agreed to. “Come on,” Nick said as he helped put a fellow wounded soldier’s arm around his neck and helped him walk.

The scene was common all throughout the soldiers. Elmar actually decided to carry his injured fellow soldiers on his back rather than just supporting him on his shoulder. “Hey man! You better be careful about this. I’m actually pretty heavy and you may end up with a broken hip by the time we get to the rendezvous point!” the soldier with the broken rib said. “Don’t worry about it.” Elmar said. “You got a broken rib. You deserve some rest. And for some reason, you don’t actually feel so heavy.” “Hey! Just what are you getting at? Do you mean to say I don’t have enough muscle in my body?” he said in a mock-angered tone but then went quiet abruptly. After some moments of thinking, he said again “Wait, does this have to do anything to do with the red glow in your hands? Oh and it’s not glowing anymore!” “You’re pretty sharp, aren’t you?” “Oh, you thought I was thick-headed?” he joked again.

“Oh, look,” Elmar said ignoring the mock-accusation the man on his back put him. “We’re here, the rendezvous point. I can see it, just a few more yards away.” As they approached near it, they saw many other soldiers coming towards the place. Many wounded were already being treated.

“Oh, you guys just arrived here? Whoa! Elmar, that’s some show of strength!” Nick said to Elmar as he approached the place. “Yeah, thanks, I guess!” “Anyway, go put him down over there where they are,” he pointed in the direction where some more wounded people were laying down and some other soldiers and volunteers were tending to them.

As he made his way to where the Captain was hastily giving some orders, he declared “Sir, I have come back with another wounded soldier. He is with the other wounded, sir.” He turned his head to him and said “oh, is that so? Well, how bad is his injury?” “I think he broke a rib, sir.” “Oh, too bad. Hope he’ll be okay.” He turned to another soldier beside him and said “how many are here now?” “Sir, forty seven have reported in so far. We still have three more people to report in.” “Make that one. I think that’s two more soldiers coming.” And indeed, two more soldiers were coming.

“Sir, we are reporting in,” they said as they came to the Captain. “Alright, that’s forty nine. Alright, we need one more soldier to report in. You guys know about any other soldiers who’s missing?” One of the archers looked like he was about to open his mouth for speaking but stopped short. He started shivering. The Captain gave him a questioning look. The other archer with him said “sir, we do know about another archer, sir. He is dead.” “Dead, huh? How’d he die?” “Well sir, he was burned by a burning rock spit. He was surrounded by fire, sir. Couldn’t recover his body.” The Captain’s face assumed a thoughtful look as he said “then that’s two dead in this skirmish and seven wounded. Quite a success! I say, unexpected, isn’t it, Elmar?” The Captain seemed to insinuate something.

“Yes sir. That was my thought,” Elmar said in a matter-of-fact manner. “And who do we owe this unexpected success to?” Elmar remained silent. He wasn’t sure whether he should reveal the cause of the extremely high velocity arrows. “Sir, I think it was Elmar from where the glow was coming from, wasn’t it? And I’m pretty sure that’s where the powerful arrows were coming from,” a soldier said. Elmar looked at him. He looked unsuspecting. Elmar still wasn’t sure what to say.

“Well,” the Captain spoke. “It didn’t look like it came from Elmar, it indeed was Elmar. Wasn’t it?” He looked at Elmar expectantly. Elmar gulped and thought that there was no use hiding it anymore. He said out aloud “yes sir. It was me who shot those arrows.” Some soldiers around him in that room looked at him with awe.

The Burning Skies: Chapter II

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Read Chapter I

“Alright, quiet! Not a word!” Nick said under his breath. “You don’t have to tell me twice!” Elmar replied. Slowly, they anticipated its move. It was standing still. Ever so slowly, they crept up to the bushes closest to it. Elmar took out an arrow from his quiver and fixed it to his bow. Carefully he fixed his aim. “Okay, Elmar. Take the shot!”

The stag realized something was flying towards it. But before it could even think of escaping, the arrow pierced its heart and it fell. “Excellent job, Elmar! A round of applause to the best hunter of the party. Oh, wait. Weren’t you the best hunter of the castle?” Elmar bowed to an imaginary crowd at the humor his friend made. But it was true. Elmar was a well-reputed hunter and his throwing had very good accuracy be it an arrow or a stone. “Okay, time to get the stag.”

As they approached the stag, they felt the presence of something behind them. As they turned around, they saw two hajers coming towards them. The thing that terrified them was that swords aren’t the best things that could cut through rocks. And Elmar didn’t even have a sword. All he had other than the bow and arrow, was his dagger perhaps.

Yet, they couldn’t just sit around here. Nick took out his sword. Alright Elmar, ready?” As he looked to his right he became puzzled. Elmar wasn’t there anymore. “Where’d he go? Did he ditch me at a time like this? Oh no, I hope he didn’t get caught by any other monsters. If there is any and I hope there isn’t any,” he thought. He wasn’t sure if he was feeling anxious or angry.

He didn’t have much time to think as the hajers were now mere feet away and were about to strike a blow. With determination, he took a forward stance and swayed his sword. Surprisingly, both the hajers turned to rubbles. He stood there, bewildered. Surely, it couldn’t be him. As he looked around he caught a glimpse of a tall black figure merging back into the bushes. “Who or what was that?” Nick exclaimed.

He looked around and shouted “Elmar! Where are you?” There was no response. “God, I hope he’s okay,” he thought. He didn’t consider the place very safe anymore. There was a possibility of other monsters being here as well. He went back to the place where the party set up a temporary camp.

“Sir, I have bad news,” Nick reported to the party leader. “What is it?” the party leader asked. “And did you not find anything to hunt?” “We did, sir. We killed it too. But the bad news starts from there sir.” He took a deep breath and said “sir, we have noticed monsters in the Sundre forest.” The leader’s expression changed to a more serious one. Yet, there were no signs that he was nervous. “How many?” he asked. “We’re not sure sir. I just saw two hajers. And there was another strange incident, sir.”

At this, perhaps the leader got even more interested. “Go on,” he said. “Well sir, when I swayed my sword at one of the hajers, they both broke into pieces and that also in one slash. I could’ve sworn I hit only one of the hajers, sir. And a sword can’t break those rock monsters now, can they? So, when I looked around to see if it was something else or not, I noticed a tall black figure, sir. But it was just a glimpse, sir. I couldn’t trace it.”

The leader thought for a while and said “good job on the reports. And where is the other guy I sent with you?” “Well, he……..” “Captain, we got ourselves a good hunt!” Elmar called out as he approached with the stag over his shoulder. Nick stared at him with astonishment for a while and finally ran towards and said “You okay, man? Where did you go?” “Well, I, uh…….” “At first, someone get the stag from that boy. Then we can ask the questions.” Some other soldiers standing around the leader helped him put the stag down. “Nice job, now we can enjoy a good feast!” a soldier commented.

This forest of Sundre is still pretty green as monster attacks here had been very rare. The forest had enjoyed the protection from Aggard castle in the south and Rendo castle in the north. That is why, the trees are still good looking and forages as well as animals for hunting can be pretty easily found. Things are however about to change now that the Aggard castle has fallen.

The party has been moving for three days straight, resting only during the nights. So this afternoon, they decided to take a break and find some good hunts which they could all have a good taste of meat and conserve the food they brought with them. Though the truth is they were not going to run out of food anytime soon. They just needed a break and get some good meat to eat. However, now that their initial assumption of the monsters not catching up to them was wrong, they had to make sure to move quicker.

As the soldiers carried the stag away, the party leader said “well Elmar, did you see anything else other than what Nick saw?” “Well, what did he see?” “He reported seeing two hajers.” “Yes sir, I saw that,” Elmar replied. “And he also saw a black figure and apparently, it could have some role in destroying the hajers. He only caught a glimpse though.” “No sir. I saw the hajers but I did not see the black figure sir.” “Okay, good. Since we already decided to stop, we are not going to continue our journey until tomorrow dawn. However, we are going to increase men in our night patrol, in case anything happens. So you guys, go set up your tents. And one more thing. There is no need to tell all these to the people just yet. They’ll just panic too much.” “Yes sir,” Elmar replied.

As Nick and Elmar starting heading out, Nick said sarcastically “I can’t believe you abandoned me like that!” “I didn’t! Promise!” he sounded desperately apologetic. “Yeah, okay!” Nick said again. “But where did you go? I mean you were there with me and one moment I turn to look at the hajers and the next moment, you’re gone! You were okay, right?” “Yeah, definitely!” Elmar still used the apologetic tone. “I was just so scared seeing those monsters, I went to pee in the bushes.” Nick laughed at this. “Okay, man. Jokes aside, really, where did you go?” Elmar looked down to the ground. “Well, I uh…” Nick could see the uneasiness Elmar felt. “Okay, don’t tell me. But you know what? Just try not to get yourself killed, man,” Nick said with a pat on Elmar’s back.

Lately, Elmar had been acting strange and Nick could easily tell that. “I don’t know what he’s up to but I know Elmar isn’t the type of guy who would run out on someone. Something is definitely wrong and I need to know what,” were Nick’s thoughts. On the other hand, Elmar too was feeling guilty. He knows that the truth is that he didn’t run out on him. “But I don’t know how he’ll react if I tell him about this,” he thought. No matter what, he didn’t want him to think that he ran out on him, the best buddy he had since he came to the Aggard castle.

Among the few friends Elmar made at the Aggard castle in his two months of living there, perhaps his best friend was Nick. The first time Nick met him was when he overheard a conversation of Elmar with his fellow peasants about going to the Kansarg woods near the castle. His fellow peasants had told him on how a good amount of hunts were available in the woods around the Kansarg village and how it required crossing the Barh canal, a place which was filled with rogues and salamanders. Sometimes the soldiers who got their rare two or more days break used to go there for hunting. Elmar declared upon learning it, that he wanted to go there because if it is a place where only soldiers could go, then surviving there would mean that he is in the same level of any ordinary soldier. “That way, perhaps I could convince the castle commander to get me a place in the army,” he thought.

As Nick overheard their conversation, he laughed at Elmar saying that “you, pretty boy, don’t have the face of a warrior. That pretty face of yours could be perfect for a duke or even a prince but a warrior? Nah! Warriors need to have a tougher face than that.” But that prejudice of this would have changed, had he seen the extraordinary determination that Elmar was blessed with. And determination he did see. Elmar declared boldly that looks does not matter. “After all, it is not the look that made you a warrior but rather, because you’re a warrior, you have that tough face,” he said. Nick was almost intimidated at this determination. So he decided to give Elmar a chance. He decided to take Elmar along with him and his few friends in the army on hunting there, as his three day break was starting. “But if you slow us down, we won’t hesitate to leave you behind,” said Nick

And there, he showed what he was made of. Back then too, he was a great hunter and his arrow shooting was quite good. But on their way back they had to face a bunch of rogues which was inevitable because no one had returned from the Kansarg woods without fighting a few monsters. There were just too many of them to avoid. The others were able to easily shake the group of five rogues off but Elmar couldn’t compete. He was knocked down on the ground by a rogue. He saw the rogue raise its hand and then suddenly saw a sword pierce its heart from the back. It fell.

And a familiar face emerged from behind the rogue. It was Nick holding the sword. Elmar picked himself up and said “thanks. But you said that you wouldn’t want me to slow you guys down.” He said with a crooked smile “look, there is this look in your eyes and it’s pretty scary. Scary because I don’t remember the last time I saw someone with that much determination. So if I don’t save you all that determination would go to waste. And trust me, we are going to need all that determination if we want to get rid of this Armageddon.

“And you look just like the perfect guy who attracts too much trouble. So, I’m going to look after your back from now, get it?” he finished with a smile. “Thanks. I owe you my life, man.” “You do, don’t you?” Nick said mockingly.

The person to whom he owed him his life, he would run out on that person? No, that was definitely not like Elmar. And thus, he was filled with more worry than anger.

That night, much to the relief of the army, went by safely without any monsters in the vicinity. The peasants set up tents, made campfires, sat around and chatted with each other. Even if it was for a little while, they forgot about the hardship they had to go through every day, about the constant feeling that they were about to get killed by monsters. Elmar’s ring began to glow again that night but it was a faint glow. “What! Not this again!” he thought.  “This can’t mean good news,” he thought.

In the morning, some soldiers came back to the place where the party decided to rest, on horsebacks and from the looks, they were making their best to hurry back there as quickly as possible. “So, what’s the news? Did you spot anything?” “Yes sir, bad news.” “Burning sky?” “No sir. No burning sky. But the huge body of monsters that landed on the Aggard castle is making their way towards here, sir. All of them.” “They can’t possibly be coming after our party, can they?” one of the soldiers standing with the party commander said. “No, I don’t think so,” the party commander replied. “This way leads to Rendo castle and that is perhaps what they are after. They are just going to trample us on their way.”

Elmar gasped overhearing their conversation. The guards won’t let him enter the party commander’s tent because he had to have some “private and important” conversation with the other high ranking soldiers about the tactics of this journey. Thus Elmar kept a low profile somewhere around the tent so that he could hear what information they had on any possibility of a monster group advancing. “I was right, then. This is bad! What do I do now! Now I won’t be able to keep the secret of the ring much longer.”

“Well, so I have made a decision,” the party commander, a Captain in rank, said “our job was to protect the peasants until we reach Rendo castle and we are going to do exactly that. The soldiers are going to form a defensive line over here while about one-fourth are going to accompany the peasants to the Rendo castle. We will try to stop the monsters here. Even if we don’t succeed, we will be able to slow them down. And thus we will buy the peasants enough time to go to the castle. Once they are in, their safety is up to Rendo.” “But sir, that is suicide!” a Sergeant cried out. “The entire body of the monsters is coming towards us. That is way too many monsters for us to stop. Let alone stop them, even if we slow them down, we may perhaps slow them down by a second. If we stand in their way, we’ll simply be squished like ants!” “But we have to try, Sergeant. If we keep going at this speed, monster will catch up to us for sure. Thus, either way, we will get killed. So, let us at least try to at least save some lives by forming a defensive line. Those of you who oppose the plan, do say it. Now!” No one said anything. “Alright then. No objections. Any questions?”

As one of the soldiers asked a question about the details of their plan, Elmar thought to himself “Maybe I should have eliminated them when I had the chance. Now, it is inevitable. Even if I do engage them now, I will never be able to stop them from getting to the party. I guess the army forming a line of defense here is the best choice that I have. I guess I have no choice. This is what I wanted. I always wanted to play a role to get rid of this apocalypse. And now, I have the perfect chance to play the biggest role. Whoever said that I only had to fight the monsters to get rid of this apocalypse? I guess one of the things I have to fight is the minds of the people. So be it.”

Elmar sneaked away from the camp and took a deep breath. “Maybe I should just go ahead and engage the monsters where they are. I could lighten them up a bit at least,” Elmar thought. As he left towards the woods Nick saw him. “Isn’t that Elmar? Where is he going?” he said to himself. As he went forward to follow him, he lost Elmar but was staggered at what he saw. “It is that strange black figure again! What is that doing here? And where did Elmar go?” He couldn’t see it for long and it quickly ran off with inhuman speed towards something and vanished from his sight.

After searching for a few minutes and being unable to find his friend, he went back with more concern than what he already had, to report what he saw. “Captain, this is Corporal Nick. There is something I want to report, sir,” Nick said when he met the Captain as he was coming out of his tent. “Ah, Corporal, good timing. There is an announcement I want you to make to the party. But before that, what is it that you want to say?” “Sir, it is the black figure. I saw it again, sir.” “Hm. Did you see it do anything hostile?” “No sir, no hostile activity. And this time too, sir, its appearance coincided with Elmar’s disappearance.” “Elmar? The hunter? He disappeared again? Like the last time you went hunting with him and he suddenly disappeared?” “Apparently so, sir.” The Captain thought for a while and said “anyway, I hope he didn’t go too far. And since the black figure you saw was not being hostile, we will put that matter aside for now. However, I’ll keep that in mind. Right now, we have more pressing matters at hand.”

The Captain explained to him how scouts reported that there was a huge body and monsters coming and their suicidal plan to achieve their quest of making sure that the peasants get to the Rendo castle safely. “I want you to announce this to the peasants. Telling them the size of the monster body is unnecessary because it will only increase panic among the people. Just tell them that a body of monsters are approaching and we need to hurry up on our journey and that we are going to form a defensive line here to make sure they reach the castle safely. I know that your speechcraft skills are remarkable. You can do it. You can announce this to the people without panicking them. That is what my observation tells me. So go ahead and do it.” “Understood sir,” he saluted. It is true. He truly did have a good power of speech. But it only showed up occasionally. Sometimes, out of the blue, the speaking monster inside him would wake up and would conquer the hearts of the people.

Even as he announced this in the most convincing way possible, yet some of the people started panicking. “Perhaps, we should’ve never stopped here in the first place. Now, we will be damned!” “Oh, no! Are we never going to be safe for once?” “Have hope! Because truly, what have you got from all this despairing? Nothing! Despairing will inevitably take you to damnation. But with hope you will believe you’ll have a chance. Maybe both could result in your death but what is the use of regretting until the last second of your death? If you’re going to die, then it is just better to be happy about it.” Strangely, these words of his actually kicked some sense into a lot of people.

It wasn’t true that all of the peasants were the panicking and despairing type. They were perhaps twenty percent. Thirty percent of the people would usually be convinced whichever way the most people were speaking. Another thirty percent were people who were ready to be united, quite the more far-sighted type. And the rest twenty percent, which consisted mostly of the youth, were the ones who would fight, no matter what. They weren’t simply willing to give up to this apocalypse. Thus if one could get good responses from those thirty percent far-sighted type and suppress the twenty percent panicking type, he could easily get the crowd under control. That is how mostly things worked at least for the people of the Aggard castle.

Even though he put the crowd well under control, he couldn’t really dwell on his success. He was still worried about Elmar. “First he behaves strangely, then he apparently abandons me and now he suddenly disappears and that black figure appears coincidentally at the exact same time he disappears, that also twice. What is going on? Whatever it is, I hope he is alright.” As he prayed, he went back to where the army was forming up.

“Elmar! You’re here?” Nick said at the sudden sight of Elmar somewhere near the place where the army was forming up. “Where have you been? I’ve been looking all over for you.” “Why I was around here. You didn’t notice?” “No, I just once saw you going somewhere deep into the forest and then I lost sight. And I saw that black figure again at around exactly the same place you were standing. Did you see it this time?” Elmar gulped but in a way to keep Nick from noticing. “Black figure, eh? Nah! Missed it this time too.” “Really?” Nick gave him a suspicious look. “Why should I be lying?” Elmar tried to sound obvious. “I don’t know. You really have been acting a bit strange lately, whether you’ve noticed or not.” “I am?” Elmar said. “Anyway, whatever it is that is bothering you, do tell me when we get to Rendo, okay? We are going to make it for sure. Have faith.”

“Oh, speaking of Rendo, I heard what the Captain was planning. I have volunteered to stay here to help the soldiers hold the monsters back,” Elmar said. “Well, you do have Logdo’s recommendation letter which makes you a recruit, actually more than a normal recruit, you perhaps got a pretty high rank in the army. Or perhaps you got a place in the Knights’ Guild or maybe the Matilda Quest Corps.” “Commanders can recommend for the Knights’ Guild?” “Yeah, of course they can. But a recommendation isn’t necessarily a guarantee because all recommended candidates are personally judged by the Marshall or a member of Marshall’s Board of Staffs. But a recommendation always means that you’ll be getting a promotion. Seriously, you didn’t even join the army and you’re already on your way to becoming a big shot.” “Huh?” Elmar was puzzled at the revelation. “That was a good one, bro!” he gave a silly laugh. “You think I am kidding? You tell me does anyone need a recommendation letter to become a recruit? Recommendation letters are given only when they want to give you a big responsibility!”

Elmar stood there for a while with his mouth open. “Say, then…..” Elmar was interrupted. “Ask your question later. I have to get back to duty right now,” Nick said. “Oh yeah, me too. I am a volunteer, after all.” As Elmar saw Nick walk away he stopped and said “Hey Elmar. Whatever is bothering you, just make sure you make it to Rendo castle alive, okay? If you get yourself killed, I am going to kill you!” “Sir, yes sir!” he saluted in a mock-scared way.

As the sun slowly rose up the sky and settled exactly above the head, all the hundred peasants along with ten soldiers as their escorts, left. The soldiers were already taking their positions according to the plan made by the Captain. “This is the most possible path the monsters will be taking. Their formation is quite dense. So, attacking head on is suicide even if we outnumbered them by two to one. So, we are going to scatter ourselves in the trees, spreading ourselves all around their line.

“Wait for my signal and only upon the signal and not a moment too soon, shoot the monsters. That way they will come after you and they will be more scattered, causing them a delay as because, you know, these monsters, especially the salamanders, won’t go anywhere without hunting down the one who attacked it.

“As they come to attack you, spread yourselves further, that is, fall further back into the woods and that also before they get too close to you. Once you find another tree to hide continue shooting arrows at them again. And again when they start getting close, fall back to another tree.

“In this way, we hold on for half a day. The entire party is estimated to reach the Rendo castle in about a day and a half that is, by tomorrow nightfall. The monsters may arrive here within nightfall today. So, if we can hold them off until tomorrow dawn, the monsters won’t be able to catch up. So, we hold them off until tomorrow dawn and then fall back.

“There is another slight problem, the agnons. These flying menaces will be arriving here within the rest one hour. So, we are going to form several lines against their flight path and hopefully they’ll be taking the same path as the ground monsters. So, the first line starts shooting arrows on sight. All the lines behind them must stay alert and shoot them as soon as they enter your ranges, shoot them down. These brats are fast, so stay sharp. Good news is that the scouts reported to have seen only ten agnons. If that is all of them, we will easily take them down. Let’s hope there will be no more.

“Immediately after taking down those agnons, we will spread ourselves in the trees as planned. If however, there are way more agnons than anticipated, say, twice as much, we’ll be needing a lot of time to defeat them, taking almost up to nightfall. Thus if that were to happen, then, an hour before dawn the first four lines will scatter into the forest and take up their respective positions according to the previously described plan while the rearmost line will remain in their position and engage the rest of the agnons. Thus, the scattered soldiers will take down the ground monsters while the rest will fight the agnons and if they see the ground monsters getting close, they will fall back to form a new line further backwards. Is that understood?”

“Captain, are you sure this will work?” a sergeant asked. He sighed. “I want all of you guys to know one thing,” the Captain said. “The chances that this plan will go perfect are very slim. You have to fully understand the risk of this plan and you have to be prepared for death. But still, I am hopeful that we will achieve our objective here and for a soldier, there is no death sweeter than a death where he knows that his death will not go in vain. So, we have to stick to the plan.” “Yes, sir,” the Sergeant replied.

All the forty soldiers along with twenty among the peasants who volunteered, stood in the decided formation, hiding in the trees, waiting for hell to arrive. Somewhere in the second line Nick was sitting in a tree, thinking if this is where he’ll die or not. “And just when I was telling Elmar not to die! Seriously, how delusional could I get! I don’t even know if I’ll survive. I don’t even know if the Captain will survive. Oh well, this is it. And somehow I have a feeling that whatever Elmar is hiding will come out now.”

Elmar was in the absolute front line. He was placed there for the excellent archery he had shown time and again. He took a deep breath. “I hope it all goes well”. They all waited breathlessly for the agnons. Elmar’s ring was already glowing for a while. “They are close by,” he thought. Soon, as the sun tilted towards the west, the front line spotted large creatures with huge wings in the far south-eastern sky. “Time to get ready.” He pulled the arrow against his bow and suddenly noticed that the ruby on his ring started glowing with extreme intensity. “Oh, no! Not now!” It began to glow so bright, he could barely see his own arm. “I need to stop this. I have to delay this, just for a little while.” “Elmar, the agnons have entered our range. Shoot! Now!” one of the soldiers shouted out. Immediately, he and the others started to shoot. “Oh no! Stop this!” Now, his hand was completely covered by a red glow. “No, this isn’t a good time! Why will it not stop?”

Read Chapter III Part 1

What She Wanted

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It has been quite a long time since I have been here in this dark place. So long, that I can’t even remember what it feels like to live in the light. I have wanted to get out of here, or rather tried to get out of here. I couldn’t. It’s like the darkness keeps pulling me back, well, literally.

How was it that I ended up here? Oh, that’s right. We went camping, my friends and I. All was well. But then there was this storm when we were coming back. It was so dark. Only in the lightning flashes did we see anything. Before I knew it, I got separated. That’s when I found it. This old house. Where surely no one had lived for ages.

I did not have a good feeling about this. But neither did I have a good feeling about being outside. The thunder was so loud, it was like all hell was about to break loose. Well, at least let me dry off here, I thought. And after the storm dies, I could get out of here. So I stepped in.

The inside of the house was even darker than what it was outside. Pitch black, that’s what it was. The place was huge. It must have belonged to some powerful landlord some long time ago. The perfect place to give you the creeps. Oh well, I had not come to stay, I am here to actually get out of here, I thought. I did not know how wrong I was back then.

There was a window in the room. I sat by it looking outside, focusing on the little light there, trying to forget the darkness over here. I don’t think I was very successful. Somehow, I had this feeling that someone was here.

The storm went on and on, with no sign to stop. I thought maybe it would be a good idea to sleep over it. But in actuality it was futile. Sound sleep in a haunted house, anyone? After lying down for a while I saw the storm was calming down. I thought this was the perfect time. I need to get out of here.

That was when it all began. I went towards the door and tried to open it. For some reason it wouldn’t open. That’s not right, I thought. The door wasn’t that heavy when I came in, was it? I mean, it would open without any effort at all! But now, no matter how hard I pulled it wouldn’t budge. At one point of pulling, I broke the lock. Oh great! Now I am stuck in here!

Wait, calm down, Sam, I thought. Panicking will get me nowhere. I never solved anything by panic. But calm thinking gave me great ideas on countless occasions. Come on Sam, think! Oh, that’s right, the window! Old landlord mansions like these usually have windows the size of about half a man and this window was no exception. I could easily get out of here, silly me.

Just when I was about to climb out of the window, I fell someone pull my collar from my back. I fell to the ground. What the heck just happened, I thought. “You can’t get out of here that easy,” a woman’s voice said and then she started laughing like a hyena. Okay, now I am freaked out! I tried saying something but it got stuck on my throat! After a few tries, I mustered up my strength and said at the top of my voice “who’s there?” I got on my feet. The woman started again “I have been alone for so long! I won’t let you go away that easy.” “Go find someone else to screw around with. Leave me alone!” I sounded more freaked out than angry.

The door from the far left corner of the room started to open. I still couldn’t see it but I could hear it. At last the creaking from the door stopped and I could feel someone coming in. That was it. I was running out of all of my courage. I felt as if my heart would stop. I don’t remember what happened then. Maybe I passed out.

I don’t know when I woke up. What was I doing here? I couldn’t remember for a while. Then I remembered. I was going to get out of here. But there was this woman who wouldn’t let me. Is she gone now? Who cares! Got to get out of the window………………what? Hey, where is the window?

I looked around and finally got what was going on. I was not in the same room. I was lying on a bed. Surprisingly it was quite soft. And the room was quite brilliant with around ten to twelve candles shining. Did she carry me here? Or maybe I am somewhere else? No, it didn’t look like it. Perhaps I was somewhere deeper inside the mansion. Suddenly my eyes fell on a lantern.

My first thought, that lantern would get me out of here. I picked it up. I still had that strange feeling that someone was here. I went out of the room and started walking. One small problem, I thought. I don’t know the way out! Oh well, I just have to keep going straight. It always works!

Of course it could have worked if the hallway was straight. But it wasn’t. At one point I found the hallway going in two different directions. Oh well, let’s just take the left. And there were many more similar splits in the hallway. Never did I think that I had to do something like playing Amnesia* in real life! But it wasn’t totally like Amnesia. I mean there weren’t any monsters in here. At least, I haven’t seen any. And surprisingly, I couldn’t see a single bug! Old mansions like these should be crawling with them. Oh well, who cares! I should be happy that there aren’t.

All along the way I felt that someone was following me. I couldn’t see anyone behind me, nor did I hear any footsteps. It was just a feeling. I guess that’s what kept me going. How long have I been walking? I don’t know. But my legs started to hurt. What time is it? That’s when the thought hit me. I had a cell phone with me! Silly me! I could have just called someone and told them to rescue me!

But the cell phone screen made me more disappointed. There was no network. Of course there was no network! Who would expect network in a remote place like this! I sat down. Maybe in tiredness, or maybe in despair. I couldn’t really tell. My sanity was dropping fast and I felt as if the walls could come down on me any time.

Just then I heard that voice again “You can never get out of here at this rate. No, I don’t think you can ever get out of here.” She started laughing like a hyena again. I jumped up looking in the direction of the voice again. Strange! I couldn’t see anyone. I tried to scream, but in vain. I don’t know how long I could keep myself straight. My lantern was low on oil. I just realized that. I cleared up my voice and this time successfully said “Where the heck are you? Who are you? Why won’t you leave me alone?” She stopped laughing and said “I can’t do that! I won’t let you get out of here. I have been so lonely.”

My lantern finally went out. She started laughing again. I didn’t know what to do. I threw the lantern at the direction of the voice. It crashed somewhere onto the floor. I didn’t hit her, darn, I thought. That was it. My sanity finally dropped to zero. I passed out. Again.

I don’t know when I woke up later. But my head hurt like hell for some reason. I could not get up. I didn’t want to. I was on a bed again. It was so comfortable. It tried to drown me into a deep sea of sleep. I gave in.

I woke up again at god-knows-what o’clock. I thought of checking my cell phone. It was still with me. It showed 9 A.M. Only five percent of the battery left. No network. I understood that I couldn’t depend on my cell phone anymore. I found that I am in the same place, the same bed. The room had no window. It was dark but I could still see. I found a table next to the bed. It had some dishes, a glass, a candle stand with three candles and perhaps a jar or two on it. There was some food on the dish.

As I was trying to make out what was over there, the candles suddenly lit up altogether. “Breakfast is served!” the voice said again. I jumped up again but I was less freaked out than before. It was as if I was expecting that. “It’s you again! I am not eating this stuff! I am getting out of here.” I pushed the table aside and tried to run out of the room as fast as possible. But two steps from the bed and I was pulled back. I fell back on the bed.

“I was only being nice to you. It’s morning. You should be hungry by now. Can’t you be a little more grateful?” she said in a playful manner. I think I was getting used to it. I didn’t pass out anymore. But I remained pinned over there. Not moving an inch. I did not dare touch the food. I seriously could not trust someone I could not see.

“Come on, eat up! I have parata* and beef here! It’s really tasty!” a little playfulness in her voice. I slowly reached out for the parata in the dish. I slowly picked it up and threw it at the direction of the voice and shouted out “take that!” It just fell to the floor as if I threw it in the air. It truly did look like I threw it in the air. I could not for once see the woman not even in this light. Even though she sounds so close and I can ‘feel’ her presence here, I could not see her.

She sighed and said “what a good food wasted. You should not waste food, you know.” Who liked wasting food? Not me, I thought. But poisoned food isn’t food at all. I said “huh! You think I’ll believe you that easy! Who knows what you have done to that food!” my voice was shaking. I was still scared that she’d get angry and do something to me. She didn’t. Instead, she said “look, that food had nothing to make you sick. I made sure it’s extra tasty because if you don’t like this place, you won’t stay here.” “I am not staying here anyway, even for ten million bucks!” I had a clear hint of anger in my voice but still much less in comparison with the fear.

But in the days following my anger would slowly substitute the fear completely. I was convinced that she would not kill me but she would not let me get out of here either. I have tried time and again to get out, through the windows, sneaking out of the door but each time she pulled me back into the house. And she would serve me food all three times a day. She would even serve me tea in the mornings and evening. I refused the meals twice of the three times but that one time I had to have it. I have a human body after all. And the food was really good and it definitely did not have any poison. And in all of this time the invisible woman did not even hurt me. And likewise, I did not find a single bug here even though it was mostly dark with only candles and torches lighting some rooms up. Even the weather there remained gloomy all the time.

After three days like this, I started to ease up a bit. I no longer behaved angrily with her. That fourth day when she gave me breakfast I said “thanks!” I even tried to smile. I think she stood there with her mouth open for a while. I could only imagine since I could not see her because for a while she did not say anything.

I did so for two more consecutive days at every meal and even managed some real smiles the last few times. At last she said “you’re embarrassing me!” “But I just appreciated you! Isn’t that good?” I teased her. I heard her smiling shyly. “Is there anything else you need?” she asked me. “Well, yes but not now. I’ll tell you after my lunch is over.”

After lunch she asked “you said you needed something.” “Yes, I did,” I said. “I need to tell something to you.” I paused a little. From the awkward silence, I understood she was nervous. I took a deep breath and said “well, I really am thankful for your hospitality and how you worry about me and all.” I think I hear her smile a bit. “Well, what I wanted to know was why you are actually doing all this. I mean, it’s not like you know me very well”

I think she was really nervous at this point because she took a few seconds before she answered “well, I want you to stay with me. I am really lonely staying here all by myself. So, I actually wanted someone to stay with me, someone to talk to, someone to care for. That is why, I am doing all this. So that, you would like this place.” I could hear how her voice was shaking. I took a deep breath again and said “well, I did like it here. No one could hate your foods, they are so tasty! And the beds over here are so soft and comfortable! And there are no bugs here! The place is pretty dark but still, the good things here make up for it.” I think she smiled again.

“But you know, I can’t stay here,” I said. There was a pause for a while. I said again “because I bet my family is worried sick about me. My brother was supposed to come from Canada a few weeks ago. I wonder how he’d feel if the first thing he hears after coming back home is that I am missing. And my friends are probably worried too. So, you know, that’s why……………….” I did not finish the sentence. There was a pause again.

After a while she said in a sad voice “I understand. I guess I can’t force people to do something they don’t want now can I? If you really want to go, I won’t stop you anymore.” The door of the mansion opened behind me. I wondered if she was really letting me go. For a moment, I stayed still. At last I decided to walk towards that door. As I took my first step outside, I did not feel her getting close to me. I took a few more steps. This was for real, I thought. She is really letting me go. My long awaited freedom from this house is finally here. But why?

Why am I feeling like this? Why do I have this strong urge to back inside? After such a long time of trying to get out of here, now that I have the chance, I want to go back? I stood still there in dilemma. I looked back at the house again. And suddenly this thought came to my mind. Well, maybe she really needed me. Maybe, I could be the one to help her. Isn’t it human nature to help others in need? And I am a generous person. That’s what everyone keeps telling me. Maybe I should go back.

I turned back and stepped inside the house. “Maybe I should stay here for a few more days,” I said. I still felt her standing at the same spot. After a while she said “b-but you said that your family is worried about you. Your friends are worried about you. It’s not fair to make them wait anymore now, is it? Just go,” she screamed as if she is kicking me out of the house. “Oh come on,” I said. “I thought you would like it if I stayed. At least, you could be happy about it.” “Are you sure you’re not going?” she said after a while. “Yes, I am sure,” I said firmly. She said taking a deep breath “okay, if you absolutely want to stay here, then it’s okay,” she said shyly. I couldn’t help but notice the happiness in her voice. I smiled to myself.

In the days following, I got to know her better. For instance, up until then, I did not even know her name. So, one day when I wanted to call her I was a bit stuck. For a moment I tried to recall what her name was. And then suddenly I remembered that I never even asked her name! Going out to look for her was inconvenient because I could not see her and even though I could feel her presence when she was nearby, it was not a very strong feeling. So I called out “hey!” I heard no reply. I tried again “hey, you!” I still could not hear any reply. Neither did I feel her getting close. I hesitated for a bit and then called out again “hey! Invisible lady!” Suddenly I heard a voice from behind “who are you calling?” It was her.

“I was calling for you,” I said, embarrassed. “What! Seriously! Invisible lady! I have a name, you know!” she sounded a bit offended. “Yeah, I know. Sorry! I actually never asked your name.” She was silent for a while before saying “it’s Cynthia.” I said “oh! It is a nice name.” “Yeah, next time before calling for me, do remember to use my name,” she said. “Yeah, sure I’ll do that.” After a while she said again “hey! You know, I never asked your name either.” I could use this as a rightful opportunity to be equally offended, but I didn’t. I wasn’t feeling like it. I said “it’s Sam.” She said “you have a nice name too.”

Like this, the days went by. I didn’t really think about going back home. The more I stayed here, the more I liked it. This dark place, this ‘haunted’ house. And I became more and more attached to Cynthia. One day I asked her “say, can I ask you something?” She said as she collected firewood “go ahead!” She was always in a very good mood these days. I went on “well, I was actually wondering, why are you invisible? Are you like……some sort of…….ghost?”

She said after a slight pause “well, yeah, you could call me a ghost. I mean, wandering spirits are traditionally called ghosts, aren’t they?” I was surprised. I couldn’t believe it. She perfectly fitted the clichéd definition of ghost! “Now, don’t tell me that you died from an accident or something!” “No, but I did die in an unnatural way!” Oh boy, I thought! “Okay, now you are making me curious. What is it that happened to you? I mean, if you don’t mind telling me that is.”

“It’s okay,” she said. “I have actually been meaning to tell this to you. Because you are the only one who chose to stay here.” “Wait, wait,” I interrupted. “There were more people who came here?” “Yes, many others have come here in these three hundred years that I stayed here.” “What! Okay, you know what? That’s too many surprises for one day.” “So, you don’t want to hear?” she sounded more concerned than demoralized. I said “no, no! Go on. Now that I’ve asked you, I will listen to all your stories. But what should we start with?” “Well, let’s go from oldest first.” I agreed.

“I used to be the daughter of a very rich landlord some three and a half centuries ago. You might think that I was pretty lucky. But I was not. From my birth to when I was ten years old, my parents, especially my father, used to be very upset. Until then I was their only child. They were upset because they had no heir to this huge land. When I was ten years old my brother was born and finally they could be at ease.

“Well, my parents never really beat me even in an era like that. And I was well fed. Every day there used to be very good foods. I had no lack of dresses at all. Some of the most expensive dresses in the entire town belonged to me. But somehow, it didn’t feel like it was because they loved me. Rather it was because they wanted to maintain their social status. Because every time we went to visit somewhere, we were strictly ordered to were those good looking dresses.

“I never had any real friends. All my friends used to do when we got together was talk about who had how many muslin* dresses. My so-called friends used to stick to me only because their parents ordered them to maintain a good relationship with the landlord’s daughter to maintain their social prestige. No one ever said anything bad about me, at least not to my face. Except for one. Salma. She was a maid who used to work at our house. She used to be just a year younger than me.

“One day while walking in the garden, I told a maid to pick up a rose for me. All the maids used to listen to every word I said without any protests. That day, the maid didn’t say anything to oppose me either but she hesitated.  I told her ‘what? Go get me that rose. What’s wrong?’ She said ‘yes, I am going but…..’ she hesitated again. That’s when she passed. Salma. She said ‘roses have thorns, don’t you know? You can’t pick them up without scissors, you stupid.’ That was the first time anyone said that to me. I was offended. But somehow that made me happy. I realized, at least someone was being honest with me.

“Slowly we befriended each other. I used to talk to her every day. I never had that much fun talking to anyone else in my life. But then one day, my mother saw that and sent Salma away. She was concerned about my friendship with a mere maid. It would hamper their social prestige. That is why they had to stop it right then.

“After that when I was sixteen years old my parents got me married to the son of the landlord of this area. This very mansion we are in, used to be their mansion back then. My husband was twenty five when we got married. I thought maybe this is where I’ll find love. I kept hearing from people that marriage is when people find love. I was wrong. Nothing changed in the first four years of our marriage. After four years it did start to change but it changed for the worse.

“After four years, my father died from small pox. No doctors at that time could save him. After that, my husband showed his true form. He was a drunkard. Until my father died, he just held his horses in fear of him. He perhaps thought that he had to do it for the rest of his life. Unfortunately, or fortunately, he did not have to do it. He did get drunk sometimes while father was alive but after my father died it just went straight off the hook.

“He used to get home drunk every night and used to beat me up for mostly no reason. Also, after my father died, he decided to take concubines since my father was the type of man who would never allow his son-in-law to let alone concubines, not even take a second wife. And that’s exactly what he did. He even decided to take a second wife.

“I just didn’t like the idea of his taking concubines and a second wife. So when I opposed him mildly, he would not only beat me up but also insult me. He would say that I am a good-for-nothing wife who couldn’t even cook. And then he would call me a slut for even talking to the menservants and what not. What’s worse, nobody even opposed him. If I tried to protest he’d just beat me up.

“I couldn’t take it anymore of this twisted man. I decided to escape the house and never come back. I went back to my family. At first, my family was concerned about their social prestige. I mean, the daughter of a landlord ran away from her husband’s house, isn’t that strange? Who knew what happened there but whatever happened there was definitely the girl’s fault in it. It could be that she had an illegal affair with someone else or worse, with one of the servants and the husband found out. So she ran away. Or if it was ‘simply’ because she couldn’t take the beating of the husband, then she wasn’t tolerant enough. After all, if you are a girl, you ought to tolerate much more than that.”

At this point, she laughed out hysterically. I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t, really. After a while, she stopped and continued “anyway, as I was saying, after all that, my family let me stay there but they took initiative for this ‘holy’ relationship to continue. They called my husband and his family. Our family and their family sat together and discussed about how husbands can sometimes make mistakes and that wives are to tolerate it. And they criticized about how I have been so intolerant. And my family even agreed to that!

“But they did say that my husband was at fault at one point. They all said that my husband shouldn’t have taken concubines against my will. Anyway, at last, my husband agreed to not beat me without any ‘legal’ reason from then and that I should go back.

“I went back, hoping that things would be much better now. It didn’t. Instead he would beat me up even more especially because of my leaving his house. After all, I was not the only one who had her fair share of scandals.

“And then one day, perhaps three years after my father’s death, I had a fever and it would not heal no matter what.  A doctor was called. He couldn’t do anything about it. After about a week of suffering, I finally died. And I became a ghost.” We both stayed silent for a while. I didn’t know what to say after all this. Maybe, this is why she forced me to stay in the house when I arrived. When she said she was lonely, she really meant it. And all I did was behave rudely with her, throw away the food she made with so much love and insult her incessantly. I felt awful.

“I am sorry,” my voice was shaking a bit. She smiled. “Why are you being sorry? It’s not your fault that my life turned out like this. It was the society back then that was to blame I guess.” We were silent again. After a while, I said “say, is that the reason why you used to force people to stay here?” “Well, yes. And that’s why, I gave them delicious food. But none of them really stayed till the end. They all wanted to leave so I let them go.

“And then there were some others who were greedy. When they saw that their perception of ghosts was wrong and that ghosts could be friendly too, they asked me if I knew of any treasure here or not. Some used to ask me directly, some indirectly. Some used to try to dig this place. Some of them left disgusted when I convinced them that there weren’t any treasure here. And the rest, I threw them out. Truth is no one really wanted to know how I became like this, except for you. You’re a kind person, you know that?” The compliment made me blush a little.

After a while I asked “so, how long will you stay a ghost like this?” “Well,” she said. “A person usually becomes a ghost when they die in an unnatural way and usually young. And also when he has some unfulfilled wish. When the wish becomes fulfilled, the person finally rests and his soul gets peace and finally leaves this world.” “So, your wish is for someone to stay by your side and cook for them and stuff?” I asked. “Sort of,” she replied.

It struck me that if that was she really wanted then maybe she should have been at peace a long time ago. Then why is she still wandering here. Maybe she’s worrying too much about me to be at rest? Or maybe because I never actually thanked her for what she did? No, that’s not true. I did thank her and those days I thanked her every day. Then why? Whatever be the reason, I declared rising up “Cynthia, so matter how hard it is, I will help you to get peace and then and only then shall I leave.” “Okay!” she said in a soft and happy tone.

In the following days, we got along better than ever. Gradually, I understood why there weren’t any bugs in the mansion. It is because she used to take care of this mansion every day and keep it clean and made sure there weren’t any bugs. The landlord she was married to at one point left the house and the ones who bought the house later also left the house eventually. It was because some of the people who lived in the house could feel a strange presence in this house and they left the house, terrified. Cynthia swore she did nothing to make them leave the house. I believed her.

I learnt from her later, ghosts can’t leave the place they died for too long. Eventually they have to come back. If they stay away for too long they felt a strange pull and they’d be back where they died again. Also, they could walk around and touch things they wanted but no one else could touch them even if the ghost wanted to.

And I got the answer to one more thing I wondered about. Which was where she got all the food from? She used go around and scavenge for food. Like going around and taking rice from people’s field. She usually used to take so little from them that it wouldn’t even matter. But when she took from thirty of forty famers, though the farmers never noticed it, the total amount used to be a whole lot. She used to collect the butter, flour or wheat the same way. Collecting all these, she used to cook herself. Of course, she failed miserably at first but three hundred years was a long time to make her a perfect cook. Also, she used to make rice from the paddy herself. She made herself a dheki* for the process. How did she make it herself? Again, three hundred years was more than enough for her.

I don’t know how many days went by this way. I never once thought of leaving. Partly because I promised her that I would help her get peace. There was another reason too. I was, in fact, slowly getting attached to her. Maybe, I started getting attached from even before I made that promise. The more I stayed around her, the more I wanted not to leave her. And then one day.

One day, she asked me “don’t you want to go back home? It’s already been too long you’ve stayed here.” “Nope! I still have an unfulfilled promise, remember?” “Yeah, but it’s not working somehow. You’ve been here for too long and you’ve done too much for me. Maybe it’s about time you got a life of your own. You are a young man. You need to find love. You need to get married.” After a little pause, I said “what if I say, I want to marry you.” There was a bit of silence. If she had a body, I bet her face would be as red as a tomato. That is what her voice indicated “well, that is not possible…” “Why not?” “Well…… it’s just not possible. Because, you know…..” She took a deep breath and said “because, I am a ghost.” “So?” “So……we won’t be able to make babies,” she finally spit it out.

I couldn’t say anything for a while. Then I said “well, does it matter?” “Of course it does.” Of course, what she said was absolutely rational. “But aren’t you supposed to marry the person you love? Isn’t marriage about bringing two people closer to each other? Isn’t it about two people becoming one? Babies come in the later part. So………” I took a deep breath. “So?” she asked, eagerness in her voice. I burst “So, babies or not, you are the person I love.” I think she let out a gasp at this point. “You are the one I want to be together with. I love the way you become shy when I tease you about random stuffs! I love the way you laugh even if it sounds like a hyena! And I love your cooking! That is why,” I gulped. “That is why, I want to marry you. And that is no joke.” Good job, Sam. You nailed it, I thought.

There was silence for a while but the silence lingered for way too long. Moments passed by and yet there was no reply. I said “Cynthia? Aren’t you going to say something?” No reply. I called out again “Cynthia?” No reply. I called out again “Cynthia, I want to marry you. Will you be here by my side forever?” Okay, this was getting bad. I could not even feel her presence nearby anymore either. Then it suddenly struck me.

What if she is gone? That’s right. What she really wanted was someone who would love her and someone who would want to be with her. And I just confessed my will to become that person. This is what she exactly needed to hear to be completely at peace. I was happy. She is finally at peace!

But all the more, I became sad. She was gone. I will never get to see her again. I never even got to see her when she was here. Expect that one time she showed me her painted picture. She indeed was very beautiful. That stupid husband of hers never realized what treasure he possessed.

And I’d never hear her sweet voice anymore. Neither would she cook those delicious foods. I’d never feel her presence again. I started breaking down, thinking all that. Just then, I felt something on my lips. It was definitely another pair of lips. After about a second, I felt it breaking away. I could feel her presence again. It was her voice “the answer is yes.”

*In case you did not know:

Amnesia: Reference to the video game Amnesia: The Dark Descent

Parata: A kind of food made of flour and baked in oil.

Muslin: A very smooth cloth usually worn by the rich or aristocratic people of the middle ages in the Indian sub continent. It is said that, it was so smooth that the cloth could be passed through a ring or could be folded into a match box. Synthetic muslin, though available these days, are not as smooth as that.

Dheki: A kind of age old machine, now less in use, used to husking rice from paddy.

Author’s Note: I know the concept could be a bit clichéd but the story is absolutely original. A constructive review will be much appreciated since it would help me go a long way, God willing. I will be back with The Burning Skies again soon. So if you like it, stay tuned.

The Burning Skies: Chapter I

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“Whoa! That almost hit me!” he thought to himself. But he had little time to think. He had to concentrate on the more important task. Running.

When you are this close to being hit by a burning rock, you are definitely lucky. He had been lucky for the past few days. Besides skills, you would need luck too, if you want to live these days.

The stone path appeared and the forest around him disappeared eventually. Just a hundred yards along this path and he is safe. He could see it from here now. The castle wall. Safety.

However the view wasn’t entirely pleasant. The unpleasant part- some soldiers fighting off some giant salamanders in front of the castle gate. They were keeping those busy while the wood collectors were entering the gate. Getting burnt by a salamander’s fire-breath is definitely not a pleasant experience.

He was almost there, within ten yards of the gate. But just when he thought he was safe, a salamander jumped onto a wood collector who was right in front of him. He ran past the man and thought “safety or generosity?” He took a split-second to decide. Immediately he threw the wood stock he was carrying inside the gate and reached for his dagger. He aimed at the eye of that salamander.

“Elmar, no!” one of the guards inside the castle yelled at him. But it was too late. Elmar hurled the dagger. But it missed. He did save the other man’s life but now it was he the salamander turned its attention to.

It jumped onto him. “This is the end, isn’t it?” he thought. His whole life flashed before his eyes. He remembered his mother waving at him, his sister telling him, “You’ll return, won’t you bro?” Suddenly he thought dying was not an option. With all the strength he could muster, he threw the salamander to his right and stayed there for a split second before he realized what happened. Then he quickly glanced to his left where the wood collector still was. He ran towards him.

“Go! Run!” said Elmar picking up the man’s wood stock. He was a nineteen year old boy. He thought he could run faster than the middle aged wood collector even with the stock on his back.

But now the salamander was getting back up. But the good thing was, one of the guards inside the castle came to cover them. He screamed “I’ll keep it busy. You two, get inside, now.” They nodded and shot off immediately. The last five paces seemed to take forever. “One more, come on!” Elmar thought. Gladly, the last one was over and he finally caught his breath.

“Alright that’s the last one, boys!” the castle commander said. Then he screamed, “Archers! To the front gate, now!” Immediately, ten-twelve archers took their positions at the gate and started shooting at the salamanders. At this the pikemen fighting the salamanders retreated. As soon as they got inside, the gates were dropped. But, apparently that couldn’t stop the salamanders. They started dashing at the gate so hard, the ground shook like earthquake.

“Archers on the wall! Release the arrows!” The castle commander screamed again. At the fierce arrow shooting of the archers, the salamanders had to fall back. A few of them got killed too. As soon as the salamanders disappeared out of sight, one of the archers reported to the castle commander “monsters have fallen back and are out of sight, sir.”

He said “Great job, men. Victory is ours. Now, let’s count the casualties.” Yes, that’s right. Victory in small skirmishes means nothing. The celebrating thing would be if the losses are zero.

One by one, six bodies were brought inside the castle. Five of them were wood collectors, one was a soldier. Four of the wood collectors and the soldier were burned to death. One of them was still alive. He was rushed to the treatment hall.

“Five gone today,” Elmar sighed. For the last few days they had no dead. But he along with everyone else knew that would not go on for long. “Alright people,” the castle commander said at the top of his voice. “We mourn for the dead but we can’t do that for too long. Those who are gone are out of their misery. But it is we who live, who have to go through pains. Let us get back to work for the sake of the living and to honor the cause of the martyrs.”

Mourn! Most people here forgot to shed tears a long time ago. They’re so used to seeing people die. Even the children don’t cry anymore. Two seasons. That’s how long it has been before the burning skies appeared. Watching people die every day for two seasons, is a really long time.

“Alright! All the wood collectors, this way,” called out a guard. Elmar, along with the other collectors picked up their stocks of wood, berries, hunted animals and other stuffs and headed there to form cues. One by one, they submitted their stocks.

“Quite a show you put there, today!” the guard collecting the woods said to Elmar. “Oh, hello Nick,” he replied. “How’d you do that? Become so brave in an instant?” As if he didn’t know Elmar was always brave! Too brave for comfort. “Didn’t you hear what Commander Logdo said?” Elmar said while putting down his stock. “Live together or perish alone.” He and many other believed in that. Most among them have learned the hard way. “At this rate, you’ll soon be recruited,” said Nick. “Yeah, I hope so. Can’t wait to kill a few monsters,” said Elmar.

That is all his job for today. “All that’s left is to sleep like a baby,” he thought to himself.

The twilight sky gave a red hue to the pond up ahead. Just beyond it was the peasants’ quarters. Elmar and most other peasants lived there. As he reached there, he heard a voice from behind, “Hey! Young sir!” He looked behind. It was the middle-aged wood collector he rescued earlier.

“Are you talking to me, sir?” said Elmar. “Yes, you” he came almost running.

“Thank you, young sir.”

“For what?”

“What do you mean for what? For saving my life of course. Those were some good stunts.”

“You’re welcome”

“Is there anything I can do to repay you?”

“No, it was my duty, really……”

“I know, how about I give you a treat tonight?”

“No, that’s not really necessary……….”

“A treat it is, then. You pick the inn.”

“Well, if you insist, how about the Westway Inn. Their food is really good.”

“Westway Inn it is. Let’s meet there in an hour.”

“But you don’t………………”

“Oh come on. You look just like my nephew. At least, let me do this much as an uncle!”

“Well, okay.”

“See you, then.” He was walking away. Suddenly he stopped and asked again, “Oh, what is it your name was again?”

“Well, it’s Elmar, sir.”

“Hello Elmar, nice to meet you. I am Alan,” he shook Elmar’s hand.

“Well, it’s nice to meet you too, sir.”

Meanwhile, Captain Kain stood in front of the castle commander’s room. “May I come in, Commander?” he asked. Commander Logdo was looking down at a map, putting some marks on it. He said without looking up, “Ah Captain, do come in.” As he entered the room, Logdo said again, “At ease, Captain.”

The captain thanked him and said “Sir, our scouts have returned with news. A Burning Sky is approaching our castle fast. Its current location is almost three hundred miles north of here.” At this the castle commander looked up.

“Burning Sky approaching? That is definitely news, but bad news. We need to abandon the castle immediately and head south towards Rendo Castle. That castle is strong. But our castle does not have the means to fight a burning sky. Trying to defend against that would result in the killing of all people of the castle.”

Captain Kain stood there silently for a while. He didn’t like the idea of abandoning the castle without a fight. He thought maybe the Commander would say something different but he said nothing. Sighing, he said, “Should we prepare an announcement?” Logdo replied, “Yes, prepare an announcement within an hour. The people need to abandon the castle by tomorrow sunset.” “Yes sir.” Kain walked out.

In the Westway Inn, Elmar and Alan enjoyed their dinner. As Alan put a little of the stew in his mouth, he said, “Wow! You really picked the best place for food, Elmar. This mutton stew is delicious!” “Told you,” Elmar replied. “Even in this war they can produce very good food. Wonder how they do that. I mean, private inns like this don’t get any food from the rations the castle collects. They have to collect food on their own, going outside the forest in these dangerous times.” Alan nodded in agreement.

“Nasty piece of thing, this war,” Alan said. “Life was so good for me before the Burning Skies appeared. I was a fisherman back then. In the morning, I would go fishing with a boat, catch fish all day and sell them to a market. You can always get some fish in the lake. The earning was good. But now…….” he sighed.

They both fell silent for a while. It was Elmar to break the silence first, “hey Alan, do you have a family? Do you know where they are?” Alan heaved a sigh and said “yes, I do. You see, when the Burning Skies first appeared in Trebabad, almost all of us decided to send our families to safety first and then the men would take all our belongings and join them after a day or two.”

“I had a wife and two daughters. One of them is six, the other, six months. People of our village decided to send our families to Shailand castle. But just the day after we sent our families, a Burning Sky appeared in our village and we all became scattered at the following monster attack. After that, I tried to go to Shailand but I couldn’t. The path was full with monsters. Instead, I ended up here.”

There was again a moment’s silence. Then Alan said “You know, Elmar. The day my wife and my children were leaving, my daughter wouldn’t let me go. I tried to convince them that I would come the next day but they were very persistent. The elder one held on to my arm and said, ‘no, I won’t go without you, papa.’ The small one also tried to do the same as her sister but you know…………” he laughed.

“Such small hands, hahhahha, she couldn’t grab my hand and instead grabbed my finger! But the grip was so hard, I couldn’t help but wonder where does a small kid like her get all that strength!” His laughter turned into a smile and his eyes began to glitter as a teardrop appeared at the corner of his eye.

He quickly rubbed them off and said “enough about me. What about you, Elmar? What did you do before the war? Whom did you live with?” Elmar asked “Me? Well, I used to be a farmer of Augland. I lived with my mother and my thirteen year old sister. When the Burning Skies showed up in that district, we grabbed hold of whatever we could and moved to Senzonia town. That town was quite well defended, so we thought we would be safe.”

“But after a season passed by, I thought it was useless to just sit like a coward. So, I wanted to join the army, teach those monsters a lesson. I heard that they were collecting recruits out here in Elsavv district. So I came here, Aggard Castle.”

“There was no way my mother was letting me come here, neither was my sister. We used to have a lot of debates about this. Well, definitely in the end, I won. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here, would I?”

“No, you wouldn’t, but you couldn’t get yourself in the army, could you?” said Alan. “No, I still can’t. Commander Logdo keeps promising me a place but still couldn’t get me one. God knows when he’ll give me that,” Elmar answered.

“Oh, I see. What about your father? Didn’t he lived with you?”

“Well, my father died”

“Oh, I am so sorry.”

“No, it’s okay. It happened when I was eleven. He was a soldier. Went to fight the war against Tesharia. Never came back. Later, we heard he died.”

“I see. Tesharia, huh? Wow, what a hostility we had! But look at some of the boons of The Burning Skies! I heard the King was invited by the Tesharian court to sign the treaty to form the Normidian-Tesharian coalition. Worst enemies now turn to good friends!” “Yeah, I heard that too,” said Elmar. Their dinner was finally over. “Okay, now let’s get back to the quarters. I’m tired,” Alan said. Elmar agreed.

As they were getting out of the inn, they heard the castle bell ring. That meant there was an announcement. All the peasants were heading towards the assembly field beside the keep. Elmar and Alan headed there too, wondering what the announcement could be. As they all gathered there, a soldier got on the high platform in front of the field and announced, “Attention everyone. Our scouts have reported that a burning sky is approaching the castle.” As soon as he said this the entire field became filled with gasps, exclamation and fear.

“Alright everyone,” the announcer screamed again to get everyone’s attention. “Let us not panic. Everyone must pack up their belongings by tomorrow evening. The Burning Sky is still a week’s walk away. So, we should get out of here while we can. After packing your belongings all of you should assemble towards the south gate. From there, we will travel to Rendo castle. That’s all, everyone.”

The entire field was filled with humming. Alan said “a Burning Sky? Here? Now what?” Elmar was thinking a bit differently, he became angry. He thought that the garrison would at least try to defend the castle. Instead, they are completely abandoning the castle. “Cowards!” he said in a tone muffled by anger.

He went out of the field and straight to the castle commander’s room. The guard there stopped him. Elmar tried to push through and said “I need to speak to Commander Logdo. What kind of cowardice is this?” A few other peasants sharing similar feelings who also came there echoed his words. But most of them were just raged because they thought that the castle was an iron castle, never to fall. Now, they are going down without a fight.

“Here I am,” Commander Logdo said as he was coming from the opposite side of the verandah. The peasants fell silent. “Yes, what is that you wanted to tell me?” The others remained silent. But Elmar did not. “We wanted to tell you that you are a coward. We are simply running away without trying to defend. What is this?” he demanded. At this the others also started supporting him.

“Calm down, everyone,” it was strange how calm Logdo answered them. “Your name is Elmar fi Nak, isn’t it boy?” “That’s right.” “Now I think I did tell you guys about a few things about war. And I told you this that if your enemy is too strong, you need to retreat, regroup and reattack. This is what we are doing. It’s called fighting wisely. Tell me, is it better to defend and die in vain or retreat and blow them a successful strike?”

“But……………….” Elmar couldn’t actually say anything at all to the Commander’s explanation. Logdo said again “you see, when a warrior dives in a battlefield he has to be prepared for death. But he also has to keep in mind that killing is more important than dying.  And to kill, he has to live.”

“That’s all fine, but I thought this castle was strong. It could defend against the biggest of the biggest attack. That’s why we came to this darn place. You think packing all your belongings in just a night and running away is easy,” a peasant began to complain along with a few others. “I think the army has a bigger package to move out of here than any of yours,” said Commander Logdo. “We have to carry all these weapons out. We could have easily told the peasants taking shelter here to carry a portion of these, but we aren’t. Be grateful for that favor. And if you really are that lazy to move your butt, then you can stay here and let the monsters kill you. Your choice.”

The peasants began quarrelling with Commander Logdo. Elmar however was both ‘satisfied’ and despaired. He thought the army was the strongest body there was. He thought the army could fight off anything. That is why he wanted to join the army. So that he could be strong. So that he could fight off anything. So that he could protect everyone that mattered to him. But now he saw that they weren’t all-powerful. They had their limitations as well. All these thoughts were going on in his mind as he headed back to his quarter.

The next day, everyone was busy packing their stuffs. The soldiers were even busier making plans to reach their destination and being sure of their positions. Elmar didn’t have much to pack. His packing was done by noon. Then he had nothing to do. He sat in his chamber looking outside through the window at all the busy people. He decided to take a stroll around the castle.

He hadn’t been here for long. Only two months. In these two months he made some friends, lost some as well. So much has happened in this short time and so much keeps happening every day. He was just a simple farmer, growing pumpkins and carrots but now he is here, in Aggard castle, looking for strength, for a post in the army. He has even saved a few people.

Before leaving this castle he wanted to see every corner of this place. At one point of strolling he saw Nick approaching him. “Hey Nick, how are you doing?” he greeted. Nick gave a wide grin. “Looks like you finally impressed the commander! Who knows, he may just give you a post in the army, after all,” said Nick. Elmar was astonished “say what?” “Well, Commander Logdo said he wanted to meet you. That’s why he sent me to get you,” said Nick. “If he wants to meet you at such a busy time that definitely means something very important! Now run along! You don’t want to keep the Commander waiting all day now, do you?” Elmar’s face lit up with excitement adding a glow to his already fair complexion. He asked Nick to wish him luck and shot off to the keep.

In the keep, the Commander was very busy discussing and debating with his fellow soldier about the best route to take to Rendo castle. Elmar stood outside his room. He became a bit nervous. What should he say, how should he say, what if the Commander gets angry at him for calling him a coward, what if that’s the reason he called him? After a minute a soldier wanting to enter into the Commander’s room said to him, “you have business here?” Elmar was a bit startled at the soldier’s voice. He straightened up and said “yes, I do.” The soldier replied “then get your butt in there already.”

Elmar took a deep breath and knocked on the Commander’s door. “Come in,” a voice came from inside. Elmar stepped inside the room and said straightening up “did you call me, sir?” The Commander said “yes, I did.” Oh no, here it comes, thought Elmar. His thoughts broke off as the Commander continued “well, there is no time for introductions so I’ll get straight to business. You wanted to enroll yourself in the army, didn’t you?” “Yes sir,” Elmar replied. “Well,” the Commander said “after seeing your stunts yesterday and your spirit, I have decided that you deserved a post. Can you believe it, gentlemen! He actually called me a coward yesterday! I don’t think I have seen a brave peasant like him yet.” The other soldiers in the room started grinning. They were all of ranks just below the Commander. Elmar felt a bit embarrassed.

“Well anyway,” Commander Logdo said “I don’t have enough time for recruiting you so I am giving you a recommendation letter containing your acts of bravery. Show it the castle commander once you are in Rendo castle. They will give you a post in the army. Don’t lose this piece of document, okay?” Elmar nodded. He can’t believe it! He is finally being recruited in the army. His dream was finally coming true.

Before sunset all the people gathered at the south gate. The soldiers got in a formation with all the peasants at the center. It was decided that hundred soldiers and all two hundred peasants would all move together in one big party towards the Rendo castle. Commander Logdo would follow them later.

One could see fear, uncertainty, anger and some other unknown feelings on the faces of the assembled people. All they wanted was to get out of here to some place safe. Everyone feared the Burning Skies, the skies which appeared out of nowhere, skies which can travel as fast as the clouds, sometimes faster, skies which would reach a specific place and would break down raining burning rocks and monsters unseen before and unheard of that would create rampage and in the process, kill some people. It is still uncertain what exactly those Burning Skies were but they were obviously not pieces of sky falling off. They were called Burning Skies because when they appeared in the sky, they literally looked like the sky was on fire.

Suddenly Elmar heard a voice “Hey Elmar!” He was startled as his thoughts broke. He looked to his side and saw Alan. “Ah, Alan!” he said. “I didn’t notice you.” “Are you worried about something?” Alan said. “Well, I am a bit worried. I guess everyone around here is. Aren’t you?” Elmar said. “Well a bit. But I guess it’ll be okay,” Alan replied. After a while he said “Hey Elmar, I have something to show you.” “Yeah? What?”

At this point of conversation, the soldiers shouted at the people to start moving as they started marching as well. Their conversation broke. The long journey had begun. Hopefully to another place of safety. But many ‘safeties’ in the past two seasons turned into rubbles. Yet they hope the next place they’ll go will be safe. Hope, that’s all they hang on to. That is the source of all their strength.

After moving on for a while and a good distance away from the castle Alan said to Elmar again “Elmar, as I was saying there is something I want to show you.” “Yes you did,” Elmar said. “What is it?” He took a ring from his satchel. “A Ruby ring?” Elmar asked. “Apparently so. But I was told that this is a very important artifact.” “By who?” Elmar asked again. “an old man once gave it to me. He said to give it to him who is worthy. But when I asked him how to identify the worthy one, he said the ring would show signs once on his finger. But then again he made a complication. He strictly said to only put the ring on those people who I believe is trustworthy and good at heart. So, I have put the ring on a few people’s finger but it showed no signs at all. And most people took it as a joke.” “I see,” Elmar said. “Elmar, I believe you to be a trustworthy person. I have seen you for a while and you had a good reputation in the castle for helping out people. So, I want you to have this ring. See if you are the worthy one. And if you are not, then find him. Please.”

“Me………?” as he was about to finish the sentence, his eyes went to the northern sky. Some others had also seen what he saw. The sky over the castle was on fire. In a moment or two, the sky started breaking and huge boulders of burning rock started hitting the castle. In a few more moments salamanders, rouges, hajers, agnons and agnon riders started falling onto the castle. The people started panicking. Perhaps, they were finally doomed. They were perhaps too late, they thought.

“The Burning Sky, we need to move quickly,” shouted the party leader. They tried to move as quickly as possible. But the party was going nowhere as quick as he wanted to. Pushing and stumbling started pretty soon. They were normal people. They were not soldiers like them.

But the party leader was not a man to give up. One of the many gifts he was blessed with was the ability of quick thinking. He and the other leading guards got together to resolve something immediately. In a few moments, they came up with a plan.

While they were discussing, Alan did not want to waste any time. He put the ring into Elmar’s hand and said “Elmar, keep this ring safe. Search for the signs. And if you are not the one, then find him.” “But why me? Why don’t you keep it? I’ll just try it on right now and if it doesn’t show any sign then just take it back with you,” Elmar said. Was it that lady luck has shone her light upon him? Well, it could also mean that his life would get much harder now. One way or the other, he really could not believe all this.

“Alright, everyone on this party, move this way,” a soldier was saying. The soldiers finally devised a plan. They would move in two parties following two different paths. “Alan, I’ll come with you,” said Elmar as they went towards the other party.

At this moment, a burning rock came flying towards the two. Alan jumped left while Elmar jumped right. Lucky for them, they jumped at the right time. But now, a screen of fire created from created from the crashing of the burning rock, separated the two.

“Elmar,” Alan shouted. “Go. Keep it safe.” “No,” Elmar shouted back. “I’ll come with you.” He tried to run through the fire, but as he approached near it, he was pushed back by its intense heat. The flames of a burning rock were hotter than the normal flames. “Go Elmar. I’ll be fine. I’m counting on you,” he waved as he ran back to join the left party. The leader of the right party was already screaming at him to come back quickly. The peasants of the other party started shouting at the party leader to get moving. Some of them were even suggesting leaving him behind.

“Oy,” the party leader shouted again. “I am telling you for the last time. You can’t go there. Join this party quickly. No one gets left behind.” Elmar looked to the right. The main body of the right party was a few yards away. He looked left again. He did not have much time. He had to make his decision. The monsters could come this way anytime. With determination, he ran to the right party.

As the party started moving, he looked left again. He could not see Alan anymore. Must have been merged with the rest of his party. Hope he’ll be okay, he thought.

Read Chapter II