(Book 2: Hello, Can You Fear Me?)
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Ravi growled out in frustration. He forced himself up off the floor. The bonds that had previously refused to let him move loosened as he struggled against them, but Ravi had no time to waste in celebration. He made a dash for Abhijit and landed a punch on his face with all his might.
Abhijit collapsed beside Sharmila’s feet.
‘Dada!’ she screamed in worry and bent down to check on him. ‘Dada, are you okay?’
Abhijit shoved her aside, getting up. He spit out blood as he got on to both legs with some effort, but swayed as though he were unable to balance well.
‘What did you do to Ghosty?’ Ravi demanded. ‘What did you do?!’
Abhijit didn’t bother to reply. He continued to sway like a drunk man. He lifted one leg by an inch and took a small step, slowly, as if the act was painful.
‘Tell me!’ Ravi ordered the man, but he got no better response. Ravi stepped forth and grabbed the man by the collar. ‘Why won’t you tell me? Where is Ghosty?!’
‘No,’ Sharmila said. ‘Don’t hurt him…’
‘He took Ghosty!’ Ravi snapped at her. ‘It saved your life! And your brother, he… he absorbed it! I want Ghosty back! Where is it?’
Abhijit finally mumbled a reply, ‘Here…’
‘What was that?!’ Ravi snapped at him.
‘It’s here. Your ghost… is here.’
‘Here, where?!’ Ravi demanded.
‘Here… It’s me. Your Ghosty.’
‘Ghosty? You? You are Ghosty?’
‘What? But… how?’
Abhijit pulled out of Ravi’s grip and moved his head from side to side to crack his neck. ‘It wasn’t easy,’ he explained, or Ghosty did through his lips.
Sharmila approached. ‘You’re not Dada? Where is he?’
‘Ohh, he’s in here,’ said Ghosty. ‘But I’m in control.’
‘How?’ asked Ravi. ‘How did you gain control? He’s been absorbing ghosts left, right and center without a care. How did you manage to overpower him when all the others did not?’
‘Because I had something they didn’t.’ Abhijit’s face lit up with a sly smile.
‘You.’ Ghosty looked at Ravi with Abhijit’s red eyes.
‘Me?’ said Ravi, perplexed. ‘What do you mean?’
Subro arrived from behind him. ‘I have a bad feeling about this,’ said the painter.
The other people by the walls were stirring up as well. With Abhijit no longer in control, the magical bonds seemed to have grown inanimate.
Ghosty remained quiet for a while, still swaying in one spot. It seemed to be examining Abhijit’s body, flexing one hand and twisting the other arm as if to see how far it would go. Finally, it said, ‘I have been waiting for this day for a long time.’
‘Waiting?’ Ravi repeated. ‘What do you mean “waiting”? You wouldn’t even have come here if it wasn’t for us!’
‘Ravi…’ The ghost breathed his name without looking at him. ‘Don’t presume to understand me. You are a just a young and foolish boy. What would you know of me, of my kind? We have existed for a long, long time. We were here before you humans walked the earth, when you were mindless apes swinging from trees.’
‘Wow, what?’ remarked Subro.
‘You’re saying that you’ve lived for thousands of years?’ asked Ravi.
‘No, not exactly.’ Ghosty waddled around as it spoke, getting better at holding up, with time. ‘We did live tens of thousands of years ago, yes, but then we departed this realm of existence. We’re no longer technically living. We have gone beyond basic life.’
‘Err,’ Subro commented again, ‘so, like, you’re spirits of dinosaurs?’
Ghosty laughed out so suddenly and so ferociously, it startled everyone for a moment. The humans darted nervous glances amongst themselves as the terribly loud guffawing filled the temple.
It was then that Ravi realised, Fernandes had slipped away from the scene. The inspector wasn’t anywhere he could see.
The laughter ended as abruptly as it had started, and Ghosty elaborated, ‘Here I am, having an intelligent conversation with you, and you compare me with the likes of beasts? How arrogant that you cannot even imagine an intelligent race apart from yours.’
‘What race is this?’ Uncle Silver asked. He had picked up his walking stick and was standing behind the ghost. The others had formed a rough semi-circle around the ghost.
‘You don’t know, do you?’ Ghosty asked, turning around to look at everyone. ‘None of you?’
When it stopped its turn, the ghost was facing Sharmila.
The girl mumbled slowly, ‘The beings who came before us… the first intelligent race. My father told me stories…’
‘Yesss!!’ Ghosty hissed. ‘When your ancestors were still hanging from trees, we were the dominant species that thrived on this planet. We explored every inch of the world, discovered all of its wonders and uncovered all the secrets it had to offer.’
‘And what happened?’ Ravi asked. ‘Where are your cities? Why haven’t we found them?’
‘You haven’t found them because we never had any cities. Everything we needed, nature provided to us, and when we departed, we gave ourselves back to nature. We lived nomadic lives, never settling in one place. How else do you explore the world? How else do you learn the truth of life?
‘You humans have been around for so long. You’ve built your cities, you’ve perfected your technology. Yet you’ve never transcended life, for it is only when you give up these distractions that you will find the truth waiting for you.’
‘You say you are beyond living,’ said Anurag. ‘You’ve transcended life? Then what are you doing here? How come you’re not enjoying your larger than life experience?’
‘Ah, at last, someone who asks the right questions,’ said the ghost. ‘See, there are a lot of benefits to transcendence. For one, you are relieved of life and death. You essentially become immortal. Moreover, you have a relaxed existence. There’s none of the anxiety and stress that comes from living. It is quite peaceful and therapeutic.’
‘But?’ Anurag urged.
‘But it can be monotonous. Especially after centuries and millenia, when you run out of new things to do. Back when we transcended, it was a breathtaking experience. There was so much to explore. We left our physical bodies behind, along with the limitations that came with them. It enabled us to float off to wherever we liked, whenever we liked. But what do you do when you’ve been everywhere more times than you remember?’
Nobody answered, and ghosty busied itself with examining Abhijit’s fingernails instead of elaborating.
It was Sharmila who broke the silence. ‘So, what? What is your plan? What do you want from Dada?!’ she cried.
‘Ah, that would be his body. You see, there’s a drawback to the transcendence. Although you can explore the world as much as you want, you can no longer affect it. Thus I have been on the lookout for a medium. Someone I could possess, and thereby regain the ability to interact with the world. It could have been anyone, but it was your brother who absorbed me.’
Sharmila looked away, her lips trembling.
‘You still haven’t explained how you managed to overpower Abhijit,’ Ravi told the ghost.
‘That required a lot of planning,’ it replied.
Seemingly satisfied with testing out Abhijit’s body, Ghosty sat down on the floor in the middle of the circle formed by the others around him.
‘Once I was determined to possess someone,’ it said, ‘I began to observe living creatures closely. At first it seemed like a foolish prospect, since I couldn’t interact with them, and nor could they sense me. But as humans evolved, they developed intelligence and language, and that’s when they started to show promise.
‘Even though humans did not follow in our footsteps, your kind at least had some diversity. Some of them denounced civilisation and did pursue the secrets of nature. These were the people I studied. It took centuries and centuries, but finally, humans started worshipping gods. This was when a tiny connection was wrought between your kind and ours.’
‘So prayer connects humans to ghosts?’ Subro asked. ‘Thank goodness I stayed away from that stuff.’
‘It is really a very one-directional connection,’ Ghosty explained. ‘Humans who prayed diligently, the ones who really put their hearts into it, were able to absorb nearby ghosts, feed off their energies and grow powerful. They could accomplish feats regular humans could not. Take Abhijit for example.’
‘And how come we’ve heard so little of these superhumans?’ Madhu asked.
‘You have enough, in the form of your mythologies. In recent times, though, these people have hidden themselves. They did not want to share their abilities, you see. Instead, they hoped to rule the world with their gifts.’
‘You’re talking about the Company,’ Ravi observed.
‘Yes.’ Ghosty got up and marched forth all of a sudden. Ravi had to step aside to get out of its way. Subro and Abhijit also moved away. The ghost ignored them and even jumped past Sharmila who was still on the floor. ‘Well, the Company’s time is long past. It is now my time to shine!’
‘Wait,’ Subro butted in. ‘You keep deviating from the main question. How did you overpower Abhijit?’
‘Oh yes, well, like I said, the connection through prayer was a one-way signal. I couldn’t do anything about it other to than watch my kin get taken down one by one. I didn’t want to get absorbed, so I stayed away, but I was always afraid that I would be the next. Our existence was supposed to be free of stress, yet you humans took that away from us.
‘It was much later that we discovered an unexplored ability. Just like the humans could tap into our power through prayer, we could tap into their minds, read their emotions, and present it to them.’
‘Like you did in the bungalow?’ Ravi asked.
‘Yes. We realised that the ghosts who could do this were more resistant to absorption, though not entirely secure. The trouble was that the humans who were subjected to this ability would often grow scared, no matter how pleasant the images we showed them. When this happened, we would lose the protection. We needed someone who wouldn’t be scared of us, but who?’
‘Me…?’ Ravi asked softly.
‘My plans took a boost when there appeared another method of communication — the Captura! My friends reported that humans were gaining the ability to see us. This got me excited. I looked for the device they described to me and found you both in its possession.’ Ghosty stared at Ravi and Subro. ‘With a little help from my friends, I tried to give you directions to reach me, and although you chose to ignore it, somehow, events led you right to me.’ Ghosty smiled.
‘So you established a connection with me, and this helped you resist Abhijit?’ Ravi asked.
‘Precisely! In order to combat a human’s mind, I needed help from another human’s mind. By having you genuinely care about my survival, I actually ensured my survival. Do you see how you fit into my plans now, Ravi? As gratitude, I will not drag out your death too long.’
A sudden panic seized Ravi’s chest. ‘What?’ he managed to ask.
‘I’ll make your death short,’ explained Ghosty. ‘Less painful and all that.’
‘Why? We’re… friends…’
‘Friends?!’ Ghosty laughed maniacally, even as it raised a finger and moved to tap it against Ravi’s forehead. ‘You’re no friend of mine, Ravi. You were just a pawn in my plans. A pawn of no further use…’
Ravi was too stunned to move.
It was one of the officers who acted, rushing to grab Abhijit’s neck from behind, pointing a gun at the man’s head with the other hand. ‘Go!’ screamed the policeman at Ravi. ‘Run, now, move!’
Ravi felt somebody pull at him, dragging him away. His legs followed of their own accord, down the long staircase. Madhu was leading him out. Looking behind he saw Subro helping to pick Sharmila up and Anurag assisting his father. The two police officers who weren’t busy battling the ghost were also backing away with their guns aimed at it. ‘Keep going,’ they said to the civilians. ‘Hurry, down the stairs, now!’
Just as Ravi was gaining back his stride, an ear-splitting scream sounded from above them and then abruptly died. There was no doubts as to what the screaming signified. The officer who’d allowed them to escape was dead.
Ravi looked back again, despite the increased urgency with which Madhu tugged at his arm. He saw Abhijit’s figure at the top of the stairs, staring down at them. The officers opened fire. They unloaded their entire clips, but it did no good. Ghosty appeared to have inherited Abhijit’s ability of being unaffected by bullets.
Both policemen dropped their weapons and rushed down the stairs to keep up with the others. Ghosty laughed menacingly. Two yellow wisps of smoke rose out of Abhijit’s palms, coiling into ropes that whipped at the policemen. The officers were lifted off their feet and the tentacles bashed the men against the stairs in a spattering of blood.
A fresh wave of antiperistalsis came over Ravi and he retched, the vomit soiling his clothes. Madhu urged him on.
Footsteps sounded from below and Ravi saw scores of uniformed men rushing up towards them. As the new arrivals approached Ravi and the others, they broke into two files and went past them through either side. Every man was equipped with heavy rifles that were at the ready.
Madhu continued to pull Ravi away, and it was all Ravi could do to not fumble his steps. They weren’t half the way down when the sounds of loud gunfire filled the air, only to be replaced by even louder screams.
‘We — we must go back,’ Ravi said, shaking his head. He retrieved his arm from Madhu’s grip to cover his ears, but the screaming was etched in his mind.
‘It’s no use,’ Anurag said. ‘We can’t help them. We can’t do anything…’
‘Dada…’ Sharmila mumbled but couldn’t finish her thought.
‘Let’s keep going,’ Madhu commanded.
Finally, the voice of Inspector Fernandes said, ‘Mr. Thakur, everyone, we have transport waiting for you below. Please hurry. It doesn’t seem like we can hold here much longer. There’s someone who wishes to speak with you regarding this situation.’
‘Who?’ they asked in unison.
‘The Prime Minister.’
‘The — the Prime Minister — is here?’ Anurag asked.
‘Yes, on a visit. With the way things were progressing I had to get the higher-ups involved. The army was brought in, as you see, and my instructions are to deliver you to the Prime Minister while the army wraps things up here.’
‘Inspector,’ Anurag argued, ‘you must pull these men back. This ghost is too powerful. They’re all going to die.’
‘Yes. They’re not mine to command, but they’ll be pulled back alright. It’s time to employ the army’s trump card.’
‘What is it?’ Subro asked.
‘You’ll see. That ghost isn’t the only one with terrible power. But first, we must get far away from the target.’
They followed her to the bottom of the stairs where a half dozen cars awaited. The group was rushed into the vehicles and driven away. Ravi found himself with Fernandes in one of them.
The inspector sat nervously, shifting glances between the temple they were leaving behind and her wristwatch. He heard her mutter something that sounded like, ‘Any moment now…’
The object of her anticipation made itself clear within seconds. For a moment it appeared as though dawn had arrived and the sun had risen up in haste. But the sudden light got too bright too quickly, until the entire sky was enveloped in electric blue.
The sound of the explosion arrived moments later, along with a violent shockwave that threatened to upturn their car which was at the rear of the group. Ravi shot a glance back at the temple, only to find it gone. A fraction of the staircase remained, leading up to nothing.
Their driver barely managed to round a corner to take cover behind a building. Stone and brick pieces rained down upon the streets, shattering windows everywhere.
Ravi, Fernandes and the driver stayed silent in the stationary vehicle until things quieted down. Then the cars started up again and went on their way, avoiding the rubble as best as possible.
Around ten minutes later they arrived at a wide street where police and government cars were already parked on both sides. The rubble was much less in this area, although everything was covered in layers of dust as thick as hide.
Once out of the cars, they were led into one of the buildings through a wide arched gate. Ravi noticed that Sharmila’s cheeks were streaming with tears. He shivered at the realisation that her brother’s body was probably dust by now.
They went through a spacious reception and up two flights of steps, until they reached a rather lavish room. Guards were posted heavily all along the way. Inside the room, a smartly dressed woman was standing by one of the giant windows on the far wall, gazing out at the night sky.
As they entered, she remarked, ‘Looks like our attack wasn’t as effective as we had hoped.’
‘What do you mean?’ Fernandes asked, surprised.
‘See for yourself,’ she said, stepping away from the glass.
Fernandes moved to look at what the woman had been watching. Ravi followed behind her. It took no effort to spot the object of the woman’s discomfort. A huge glowing yellow sign in the shape of a skull was floating above where the ruins of the temple was likely situated. Beneath it glowed the words “DEATH TO ALL!” The colour and luminescence distinctly resembled Abhijit’s supernatural attacks.
‘My god!’ remarked Fernandes.
‘It survived that attack?’ Ravi asked in disbelief.
‘We must stop it,’ Anurag said. ‘That message is a declaration of war. We need to stop the ghost before things turn ugly.’
‘Yes, but how?’ said Fernandes. ‘Weapons don’t seem to work on it.’
‘Guns and bombs aren’t everything,’ Ravi said. ‘Our enemy is a supernatural being; we need to consider supernatural options.’
‘You mean like Subro’s intuition?’ Madhu asked.
‘Yes, and maybe more. We need to learn all we can.’
‘We’ll need to do it awfully quickly,’ Anurag pointed out.
‘I can help,’ voiced Sharmila. Every eye in the room fixed on her as if suddenly being alerted to her presence. She fell shy at once.
‘Yes, we will take all the help we can get,’ said Ravi. He smiled at her as she darted a nervous glance at him.
‘Okay,’ said Anurag, thinking intently. ‘You and Sharmila try to figure this out. Take Subro’s help if necessary. The rest of us will help out the Forces.’
‘Excuse me?’ Fernandes butted in. ‘We cannot allow civilians to meddle in our affairs!’
‘We aren’t meddling, Inspector; only helping,’ said Anurag. ‘Like Ravi said, you need all the assistance you can get. Don’t worry, we won’t be on the front lines. But I’m sure there will be tasks for us.’
‘Yes,’ agreed Madhu. ‘We can help pull innocent people away, look after the injured, that sort of thing.’
‘Exactly,’ Anurag continued. ‘We’ll need to spread awareness about the whole situation, maybe evacuate some parts of the town. We have experience with that, as you know. Three months ago we spread word of the Company’s shadiness quite quickly.’
Even Uncle Silver joined in. ‘In fact,’ he said, ‘we might be able to do a faster job this time around. Not only can we have InstaCopies to distribute, we can also use the Echorder to broadcast messages to large groups of people.’
‘Hmm,’ said Fernandes, considering. ‘Well, as long as you’re not putting yourselves in active danger, I guess it should be okay.’
‘I’ll get working on the two devices immediately,’ said Uncle Silver.
‘How long will they take, Papa?’ Anurag asked.
‘Hmm, maybe a day or more… but… I’ll try to figure out a way to get a quicker turnaround…’ His voice softened until he was speaking all to himself. ‘I could combine both functions into a single device… That might help, yes. I should go to my workshop and study the feasibility…’
‘Sounds good, sounds good,’ said Subro in a funny voice, ‘but aren’t we kind of forgetting someone, guys?’ He pointed towards a figure nervously.
‘Thank you,’ said the woman they had been summoned to meet. ‘I have much to discuss with all of you.’
‘Too bad it needs to wait till the next book though, Prime Minister,’ Subro told her. ‘This one ends about now.’
‘To be continued!’ he added over-enthusiastically for the benefit of anyone who might have been reading into the situation.
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