Beneath the Surface



Arjun, the monster hunter, goes to a town to solve yet another mystery that allegedly involves shapeshifters, but this time, he has to work alone without any help from Mansi, the member of the secret society he works for.
Reading time: 44 minutes.

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(Click here to see Arjun's whole chronology.)

Thanks to Mansi, a dear friend of mine. Without her help, this story wouldn't have been what it is.

In the memory of my loving mother, Suman Lata (1975-2021).

Beneath the Surface

XTales.net xtalesnet beastboysuraj Suraj Singh Sisodia

1

Joseph grabbed his glass half-filled with alcohol and walked past the kitchen counter on a silent night that spread across a small town. When he sat on the couch, he remembered why he had gone to the kitchen.

"Oh shit," he muttered, getting back up again. He paced across the living room floor when the doorbell rang. "Who is it?" he asked, but nobody answered. He shook his head, wondering who it could be at this hour of the night and quickly dashed to the front door. He then grabbed the nob and opened it.

The half-filled glass dropped to the floor and shattered into pieces while Joseph hurdled backwards. He gasped and kept looking at the person frozen in his spot. He opened his mouth, but nothing came out except air. He struggled and stammered, "No, it—it can't be—it can'—is it—is it really you?"

He was shocked and scared, and he was shivering. After his temporary paralytic attack, he was able to cautiously take a few steps forward, stretching out his hand as if he was trying to make sure whether the person in front of him was genuine or not. His eyes teared up when he said, "It's you." He took the person in his arms, and the next second it happened.

He let out a sharp yelp. He stepped back and looked at the person with horror on his face and blood on his hands which was his own. He succumbed to the floor, and the last thing he ever saw was a murky grey face covered in thorns and hair.



2

It was a dull morning a few days later when Arjun entered the police station. He didn't bother looking around; he straight went up to the officer sitting at the front desk and casually stood at the desk but obviously with a straightened spine.

The police officer looked up. He was a young recruit of the department. Everything about his triangular, charming face screamed inexperience. He looked as tired as if he wasn't getting enough sleep. He kept looking at the tall, square-faced man with small eyes who wore a black-white checkered shirt under a jacket and dark blue jeans with leather shoes. When the officer didn't say anything–

“Morning,” Arjun did. “I’ve come from the library.” He gave his signature smile.

The officer kept looking. Obviously, he didn't get what Arjun had said.

"Uh—Mansi sent me to talk about—" Arjun started, but he soon discerned that the officer wasn't getting any of that, so he abruptly stopped. He looked at the officer and said, "Um—I think I'm looking for someone else."

The officer finally removed his eyes from Arjun and lowered his head to do whatever he was doing, if he was.

Arjun looked around, sighed and walked out of the station. The sun shone on his head. He let the fresh November air, which came from the forest, wash away his irritation and uncertainty as he took out his phone and dialled the number.

Mansi answered, “Yes?”

Upon hearing her calming voice, Arjun felt a little relieved, his nerves settled some more; he knew that Mansi would solve the problem instantly like she always did. "Uh—who did you say I have to talk to here?" he asked.

“I didn’t.”

"Wh—what—what do you mean?"

Mansi waited before asking, “What do you mean what I mean?”

“I mean, whom should I talk to? About the case.”

"Oh," Mansi took another pause before speaking. "Uh—we don't have anyone in that department. You are on your own this time, detective."

“What?” Arjun was surprised to hear that. He still managed to throw sarcasm. “I thought you said your organisation had people everywhere.”

“Not everywhere,” this time Mansi spoke without waiting. She added instantly, “And for the hundredth time, Arjun, we are not an organisation.”

This time Arjun took some time to reply. He closed his eyes, sighed audibly, and then suddenly asked, "Wait, who called you about the case then?"

“A friend.”

“Well, then I can talk to that friend.”

“No.”

"Wha—why not?"

“Because I say so.”

"But—I don—oh come on Mansi," Arjun turned in his spot uncomfortably. "I can't believe you are still keeping things from me after everything I've done for you."

“It’s not like that!”

"Then what is it? I did everything you asked but, you are not holding your end of the deal. No secrets, that was it. I wanna know the truth about everything, about life and death, about ghosts and monsters, about your organisa—"

"WE ARE NOT AN ORGANISATION!"

No one spoke for a long moment. Then a slow whisper from Mansi broke the silence.

"Arjun, listen, we always keep our promises. I promised you the truth and the truth you will get. You are always welcome to come down here to the library, take any book you'd like, even take it home. But this—this is not part of our deal. This is personal. This is me keeping a promise."

Arjun let the heated, angry air out of his lungs. "What am I supposed to do then?" he asked.

"What are you so worried about? You work cases on your own all the time! Or, are you saying that you no longer can work a case without our help?"

Arjun knew why Mansi said it like that, but it still did sting. "Oh, okay," he said before hanging up the phone. "I can work on my own, alright, even better than with your help."

It wasn’t true.

Arjun had grown used to this habit. He would simply just go and ask whoever worked for Mansi. It was so easy. Before that, Arjun used to take out information in totally different ways, many of them were not very legal, and none of them was as easy as simply talking to a person working for Mansi.

He went back into the station. The officer looked at Arjun, and he rolled his eyes, but Arjun smiled as he stalked towards his desk, never losing his smile or breaking eye contact.

“Turns out,” he said. “I was looking for you." Arjun pulled something out of his pocket and slid it on the desk.

At first, the officer thought that Arjun was trying to bribe him, but he looked at the identity card and picked it up. He read the name on the ID, and his face fell. He jerked his head up at Arjun as he struggled to stand up.

"Uh—um—" the officer couldn't even make a coherent sentence. "Uh—wha—Mr. Warrior?"

Arjun kept smiling as he said, "Shhh, just—just keep it down, okay? Yes, it's me. I'm his son."

The officer looked around to make sure nobody noticed, and then he looked at Arjun admiringly. "Oh sir, I'm so honoured to meet you," he said. "I've seen your father and your brother on TV so many times, your mother and sister a couple of times but never you." He was speaking breathlessly. "That's why I couldn't recognise you. I'm sorry."

"It's okay. You don't have to eat your words. Uh—I just need your help."

“Sure, sir—”

“Just Arjun,” Arjun said.

“Uh–okay, um–Arjun, what can I help you with?”

"I am here about the Joseph case," Arjun said finally.

The officer looked at Arjun with confusion.

"He was a friend," Arjun said, but when he looked at the officer's even more confused face, he added, "of my father."

"Oh, that's what I was thinking. Joseph was at least fifty years old."

"Yeah, since my father can't come down here because—you know," Arjun said.

“Yeah, I get that,” the officer nodded without blinking. He was looking at Arjun, more like gawking at him.

"He sent me to check how the investigation is going, just to make sure that the case is in good hands, you know. So...do we have good news?"

The officer kept looking at Arjun. When he realised that Arjun had asked a question, he snapped out of it, "Oh, yeah, the case. Mr Warrior—"

“Arjun.”

"Yes, Arjun, I wish I could give you some good news, but I'm afraid I don't have any." The officer then put a hand on the side of his mouth and whispered, "Tell you the truth, this case is going to be cold soon if it's not already."

“Why is that?” Arjun asked.

The officer looked around and gestured to Arjun to follow him. “Come here,” he said.

Arjun followed him to an empty corridor.

The officer waited until Arjun wasn't within whispering distance, then he began, "I shouldn't give you any information about an open investigation, but it's going to be closed soon, so I don't see any difference." He stopped to evaluate the situation and rethink his decision one last time. He made a decision. "Actually, Joseph was killed by his brother."

This time Arjun was confused, but before he could ask anything–

“Who’s been dead for five years,” the officer said with a scared face as if he was afraid that Joseph’s brother might be listening.

Arjun’s face changed. He began to think. “Is there any chance I can see the case files?” he asked.

The officer hesitated. "Um—I don't think I can do that."

"Come on, it'll stay between us. And you said it yourself, the case is gonna be closed soon—come on, please."

“Okay,” the officer sighed.

A minute later, Arjun was shuffling through the papers, and the officer was at the door looking out. He was on the watch so he could alert if someone came their way.

"Did the police find the murder weapon?" Arjun asked.

“No, the forensics weren't even able to identify how he was killed."

“The report says 'multiple entrance wounds'.”

"Yes, and that's all we got," the officer replied, still looking out the door. "If I didn't know any better, I would say a bear clawed him."

Arjun kept turning pages. “Was there any witness?”

“No.”

"Then how do you know who killed him?" Arjun asked, but he got the answer as he turned another page.

“We got him on Joseph’s security cam.”

"Yeah, I see that, but how are you sure it was him? I mean, it could be someone else who looks like him."

"That's the crazy part; we thought the same at first. I mean, after all, Joseph's brother died five years ago, it couldn't have been him, but we pulled his prints off the doorbell."

Arjun turned to the last page of the file, confirming the identity of the murderer, and a silence fell across the corridor.

A few minutes later, the sun was a little higher in the sky than earlier. Arjun walked out of the station. He had to bribe the police officer to see the security footage. He had to confirm. As he stepped out, he received a text. He pulled out his smartphone and read the text. It was from Mansi.

'Don't kill anyone. Just find out whether it's a shapeshifter or not, and then we'll see.'

He was about to put his smartphone back into his pocket, but he received another text. It read 'Please.' so Arjun stowed the last bit of his anger and replied, 'Don't worry, I'm on it.'



3

The chirping of the birds and the gusts of slow winds did nothing to help Arjun think. There was little to no doubt that a shapeshifter had killed Joseph. 'But why?' Arjun wondered. 'What was the motive?' He had several questions and no answers, so he started walking with no definite destination in his mind. He was thinking. 'What is the best place to get some answers?' "Obviously," he muttered to himself and paced towards the tea stall in front of him. Anyone going in or out of the town would have to cross there.

A few people stood there, also some kids with their bicycles. Apparently, the men were all discussing something crucial. None of them cared to notice a stranger who had walked there.

“That’s not how a democracy works,” one of them squealed.

“Oh, and what you are saying is totally by the book!”

Arjun shook his head and signalled the old man behind the stall for a tea.

The old man nodded and then jerked his head up again. “Haven’t seen you around, are you new here?” he asked.

"Yeah, I'm a—" Arjun swallowed. "I'm a reporter."

“A reporter?”

“Yeah, I’m here to cover the Joseph Murder Case.”

"Oh, that poor man. Sad. Very unfortunate. So, what happened?"

"You tell me," said Arjun with his strong but amiable and gentle voice. "I mean, you must hear a lot of things."

"Well, that's the thing, I hear a lot, a lot of things, and I can't decide what to believe and what not to."

“Like what?”

"Oh, no, it's crazy enough to just think about it."

“You have no idea how much crazy I deal with,” Arjun said with the same reassuring smile. “Come on, humour me.” He put a hundred rupees bill on the small, dirty, wooden counter. “For the tea, keep it.”

The old man gave Arjun a look, but he took the money and poured Arjun some tea. "Oh, I don't know, I heard that—"

Arjun waited as he took a sip of the tea. “It’s okay. You can tell me.”

"I heard that Joseph's dead brother rose from the grave to take revenge."

“Revenge for what, exactly?”

"Hey, that's what I heard. I don't know, but he died five years ago in a hunting accident."

“Oh?”

“Yeah, the police closed the case stating that it was a bear attack,” he ended his sentence with a chuckle.

"I'm sorry I missed that; what's funny?"

The old man grinned and prompted Arjun, "Um—Mr—uh?

“Just Arjun.”

"Arjun," he said, bringing his face closer to Arjun. "There are no bears in the forest, not for miles."

Arjun processed the information. "Hmm, um—is there anything else you heard? Did he have any enemies? Joseph. Any fight or even a tiny unsuspicious argument recently?"

Before the old man could speak anything, one of the kids mumbled something. Apparently, they were listening to the whole thing.

Arjun looked at those kids and smiled gracefully. "I'm sorry, did you say anything?" he asked.

"Oh, don't listen to them, kids are the ones who talk the most, and it's all just nonsense and imaginary stuff," said the old man.

"It's okay," Arjun replied. "I'm curious. Thanks for the tea." Then, he turned to those kids. "So, what were you saying?"

"He did fight with that boy Madhav from the high school a few days ago,” the kid who mumbled earlier replied hesitantly. “He’s a bully.”

“HE’S NOT ANYMORE,” another kid interjected.

Arjun's eyes gleamed as if he had found the needle in a haystack. "What was that again?" he asked. "He used to be a bully?"

“Yes,” the first kid replied.

“But he’s not anymore?”

“No,” said the other one this time.

“What happened?”

“Don’t know, one day he—”

The third kid cut him off. He hadn't said anything yet, and he was eager. "He fought with another boy from the school, and he's a completely changed person ever since."

Arjun was thinking rapidly. Every gear of his brain was turning violently, but he managed to keep his smile intact and ask a question, the important one. "And this Madhav guy, where does he live?"



4

It took Arjun about twenty minutes to walk to the other side of the town. Meanwhile, the sun had disappeared behind the clouds. The birds, for some reason, had stopped chirping. The wind began to whisper as a menacing silence took over the town. It was so quiet that Arjun could hear his own footsteps. He had an eerie feeling that he was being followed. He reached Madhav's house; it looked deserted, and the entire street looked abandoned. Arjun tried the doorbell—nothing. He then turned the knob of the front door; it was unlocked. Arjun prepared himself for anything that might follow. Also, he put a thick rubber glove on his left hand and entered the house.

Arjun trod very carefully, trying not to make any noise. He looked around; the entire house was covered in dust. He entered the living room straight up ahead and found everything messed up. The carpet was inverted; the chairs were knocked down, and the pictures on the wall were skewed. Arjun took another step, and the shattered glass cracked under his foot. There were clear signs of a struggle. 'But, struggle between whom?' Arjun wondered. 'And why? Did something happen here, or is it just the way a shapeshifter lives?' Arjun moved ahead towards the bedroom, looking for any clue when suddenly, he heard the same crackling of the shattered glass coming from the living room. He turned towards the living room, and he saw—himself, looking at him. It was like looking into a mirror except that the other Arjun was wearing different clothes. One second, one second was all that he got to process the situation because the other Arjun dashed towards him with light speed. Arjun wasn't prepared. He tried to dodge, but the small space couldn't let him. The shapeshifter pushed him to the wall behind him. A few pictures, which hung by the corners till now, fell on the floor, and Arjun had the air inside his lungs knocked out. The shapeshifter pinned him to the wall, and Arjun noticed how strong he was.

"Who are you?" asked the other Arjun with as strong a voice as that of the real Arjun, but it wasn't gentle. "WHO ARE YOU? ARE YOU A KEEPER?"

Arjun took some time to catch his breath, and then he did the most unexpected thing; he smiled. Maybe he WAS prepared, after all, and just needed time. "Name's Arjun," he said. Then he took out a small vial filled with transparent liquid, and with his left hand on which he had a glove, he smashed the vial on the shapeshifter's chest.

Thick white smoke rose from the shapeshifter's chest and filled the whole living room with the smell of burning leather. The shapeshifter let go of Arjun as he cried in pain. He couldn't help but groan and scream as the acid burned his skin. He couldn't even keep his form. His skin started phasing in and out of his real and human form. He would be a disgusting grey creature for a second and a very young high school boy the next. Sometimes, he would turn back into Arjun and then again to the grey creature with thorns and hair.

Arjun did not miss his shot. He took out a knife, but it wasn't a regular steel knife. It looked as if it was carved out of wood. Then, with his left hand, he pushed the shapeshifter against the wall. A few traces of the acid were still on the glove, and when it came in contact with the shapeshifter's skin, more smoke and more smell filled the air, and with as easy as a hot knife going through butter, Arjun pushed his knife into the shapeshifter's chest who screamed again, but this time it was blood-curdling.

Arjun waited for him to stop screaming, and then he said, "Move as much as a muscle, and you are dead."

The wood came in contact with the acid on the skin, fumes began to rise, and the shapeshifter saw Arjun's face clearly for the first time. He saw the conviction and rage in his small fiery eyes, which made him give up instantly.

The silence fell across the living room, and then after about a minute of staring at each other, Arjun broke it.

"So you are the shapeshifter," he said, looking up and down at him. "I was always curious about your kind and would have been excited to get to meet you, but you did something that pissed me off. First, you showed up wearing my face, which I hate to look at; second and most important of all, you murdered Joseph."

Upon hearing this, the shapeshifter moved uncomfortably in his spot.

"Now, I don't want to kill you, but I swear if you don't tell me right now why you did it, I–just–might," said Arjun and pushed the wooden knife a little deeper into his burnt skin.

The shapeshifter, once again, screamed in agony and barely managed to be able to move his lips.

Arjun waited until the screaming stopped. “What was that again?” he asked.

The shapeshifter regained his breath and said very softly, "I didn't kill Joseph." He stopped before adding, "It was my brother."

Arjun narrowed his eyebrows, and with a quick, swift motion, he pulled the knife out of the shapeshifter's thick skin.

The shapeshifter yelled and fell to his knees. He kept breathing heavily, maybe due to the pain. His grey skin took the form of a young boy who looked to be in his late teens. His burnt chest was still visible through the burnt holes in his t-shirt.

"You are Madhav, aren't you? I mean, the shapeshifter who's wearing his face?" Arjun asked.

"No, I'm Rohit. I mean—you know."

“Which would mean that you killed the real Rohit?”

"No, no," Rohit, the shapeshifter, raised both his hands and slowly stood up. "I've never killed anyone, I swear. It was all my brother."

“That doesn’t make you any less guilty.”

“I know, I know. If you just let me explain.”

Arjun just stared at him, trying to contain his rage.

"Please," the shapeshifter added.

Arjun put his knife back into his pocket without saying anything.

"Thanks. I've come from a family of shapeshifters who live underground in the forest. Now, I say 'live', but it's no life. We are nothing better than worms. We eat garbage, sleep in the dirt, and wear dirty sacks and rugs. We are shapeshifters; we can be whatever we wish. We can literally choose our lives, and yet we live like insects, actually, worse."

Rohit was pacing around in the living room as he was speaking without pausing to breathe. Arjun, on the other hand, stood dead-set in his spot. His eyes gave the shapeshifter a death stare, listening to him.

"There are so many other families of shapeshifters who live like kings, but we don't and why? Because my father is way too noble for that. We don't interfere with humans. We don't bother them, and since my father is the leader of our tribe, we have to follow his orders. I was fed up with him and wanted to live, at least, a normal life, so ten years ago, I, with one of my cousins, ran away. My father sent people looking for us. I managed to escape the forest, but my cousin was not so lucky. They took him back. Now, if anyone broke any rule of the tribe, the punishment was severe. I could not imagine what they would have done with him. I just told myself not to think about that.

"I came to this town, and that's when I found Rohit. He accepted me. He never once questioned the fact that I looked exactly like him. I helped him in any way I could, and he gave me shelter, food, clothes, hell, he gave me his life. Everything was fine until a few months ago when my brother arrived.

"He told me what had happened after they brought my cousin back. The punishment of disobedience should have been—death, but my father couldn't bring himself to punish a seven-year-old boy. As a result of which, the other shapeshifters whose family members were previously executed grew violent. They mutinied to throw my father from the position of the leader. To control them, my father had to order my cousin's execution. My uncle, the enforcer, had to execute his own son."

Rohit’s face looked as if he had swallowed something bitter. Arjun’s rage had started to vaporise.

"While my brother was in the forest," Rohit continued. "A guard saw him transform, and my brother killed him. That changed everything. He couldn't go back. If my family ever found out that my brother had killed a human, he'd be executed. He asked me for help. Initially, I didn't want to help him, but he's my brother. I had to do something."

“So you killed Madhav and had your brother take his place,” Arjun said bitterly.

"It wasn't like that," he said. Then, the shapeshifter went to tell him what had happened. How his brother first killed Madhav and later the real Rohit. He intentionally omitted why he didn't stop his brother. When he finished, nobody spoke for a while and then he started again. "Everything went normal, or at least as normal as it could be. We thought someone would come for us, but no one did. It was all good until just a week ago. That's when I last saw my brother and the next morning I heard the news about Joseph. People started talking that his dead brother had come back from the dead. They didn't know the truth, but any shapeshifter would know what actually had happened. I came here to talk to my brother. Madhav's parents are separated, and his father is hardly ever home, so he lives alone. I guess that's why he became a bully. I came here to ask my brother if he had killed Joseph but—"

“What?” asked Arjun.

“But he was missing. I looked for him everywhere.”

"Obviously." Arjun looked around, and something just didn't add up in his mind. "Were you looking for him under the carpet?" he asked.

“I didn’t do this. It was like this when I first came here.”

“So what do you think happened? Why would he kill Joseph?”

“I don’t know.”

"Some kids told me that he fought with Joseph."

"Oh, no, that was nothing. It was over a parking spot, but I'm not sure anymore. He had already killed three people; technically, he is a serial killer. Maybe he enjoyed it and wanted to do it again. Maybe after months of controlling himself, he finally snapped. Ah—I should've seen this coming." Rohit put his hands on his face and knelt on a knocked-over chair.

Arjun was thinking something because he didn't say anything for a while. He looked around, sighed and finally said, "We have to find him, you know—before he hurts someone else."

"What are you gonna do once we find him?" Rohit stood up. "Are you—are you gonna kill him?" His voice broke a little.

“I’m not here to kill anybody,” Arjun declared.

"Why? Don't you have orders to kill? Are you not allowed to kill ye—"

“But if I have to,” Arjun sneered. “If your brother leaves me no choice. I will kill him, and I will kill him without any hesitation or worrying about any orders."

Arjun stared at Rohit for a few seconds, and then he walked out of the house. Rohit stood there with his eyes wide open, wondering what had triggered Arjun before he quietly followed him.



5

A dark, moonless night took over the town and over the even darker forest in which Arjun and Rohit were looking for Madhav. They had spent the entire day looking for him. They checked everywhere, even Rohit's treehouse, where Rohit had already looked a few times and had even left a note if he ever returned. Rohit was convinced that he would be hiding in the forest somewhere afraid of both Keepers and his own family. Arjun, however, was not very sure. He suspected that Madhav might have fled the town, even the state.

"Oh, no, he wouldn't do that," said Rohit. "He is too scared. This is his best chance at defence. He knows this forest, the town and the people," Rohit explained as they were walking deeper in the forest.

It was grimly quiet except for their footsteps. Dry leaves crunched under their feet as they moved forward. Arjun had no idea where they were going. After every minute or two, one of them would try to break the silence by asking a question or saying something, but it would go back to silence right after. None of them could strike a lasting conversation. Maybe it was the distrust in the air between them, but this time after a silence longer than usual, Rohit managed to do it by asking a personal question.

"So—have you ever... killed anyone—or—anything?"

“You mean like a shapeshifter?”

"Uh—yeah, but also other—things?"

“Yes. A handful.”

"So uh—what was all that about, back there?"

"Oh, just—" Arjun grunted. "—just let it go."

“Huh? Not getting along with your superiors, are you? Were you asked to follow the orders?” Rohit said mockingly.

"I don't follow orders," Arjun replied with a stiff face and a clenched jaw.

Rohit snickered, “Ha, you know my father used to joke that there are two things exterminators always say. The first one is 'They don't follow orders.'”

“I am not an exterminator!” Arjun sneered again.

“...and that’s the second.”

Arjun tried to argue back. “I am not—” he said but stopped and just kept walking in the darkness.

The awkward silence fell again but only for a second because Arjun had something on his mind.

“How do you know so much about keepers?” he asked.

"Oh, my father used to tell me stories about you guys," Rohit flooded down his memory lane. He had no idea where they were walking. "I remember, at night when me and my brother couldn't sleep because we would be genuinely afraid that keepers might attack us in our sleep, it was my father who would tell me that they only kill bad monsters, who hurt humans. That's when we would go to sleep."

They kept walking farther in the dense forest. Rohit could see in the dark, but Arjun was totally relying on his other senses. The only thing he could see was just shadows and silhouettes. It was the conversation that was giving him the strength to keep walking.

"When you pushed that knife into my chest, I thought I was gonna die," Rohit went on. "The only thing that gave me hope that I would survive was the fact that I had never hurt a human."

"That's debatable, but uh—that was the only reason I let you live."

"And what was that thing that you—?" Rohit asked intriguingly.

"Concentrated hydrochloric acid; burns like hell. Makes your thick skin uh—well, you know, you've experienced it." Arjun smiled. He knew Rohit could see him smile even in the dark.

"Yeah, and I used to think only a shapeshifter could kill another shapeshifter but why the wooden knife? Once we are vulnerable, any knife would work."

"Yeah, but from what I read about you, you guys have insane healing abilities. You are practically all wolverines, and a regular steel knife doesn't react with acid; wood does. It soaks up the acid, which burns its surface, which then burns your internal organs and keeps them from healing. You see?"

“Impressive. Did you figure it out by yourself?”

"Pretty much," replied Arjun. He then hesitated before asking, "Um—can I ask you something? Can you take any form?"

“Pretty much,” Rohit repeated.

"Uh—how about Hitler?"

Rohit laughed; not loud, though. "No, I've never seen him."

Arjun took a second to understand. He still couldn’t. “What do you mean?” he asked.

“I have to see the person before I can take their form. I can not change into someone I’ve never seen.”

Arjun started to think. He was onto something. “What about pictures?”

Rohit snorted, "Ha, then I would look like a cheap knock-off version of him. The camera doesn't capture what our eyes can. I mean, it's hard to explain, but our eyes see every single, tiny, insignificant detail."

“Huh?”

"Yeah, if you stand still, I can count your body hair."

"No thanks," Arjun replied immediately. "So you are saying that you cannot change your nose, your eyes a bit, or create a completely different face."

"No, no, I cannot change a specific part of my body alone, maybe an older and really experienced shapeshifter could, but I am only seventeen years old."

"And what about animals? You know like—like a bear?"

"We could turn into any mammal, except for whales, I guess, but like I said, only experienced ones, not me."

"That—is reaalllly interesting," Arjun slowly finished his sentence. His gears were turning violently again.

Rohit had no clue. "Why? Why is that interes—" he stopped midway. He had sensed something. He ducked with light speed. "Quick! Down!" he said to Arjun, who followed immediately.

“What?” Arjun asked.

"I think," Rohit said with a clear sign of veritable fear in his voice. "I think we have walked directly into my old home."

Arjun's heart sank. He could hear several footsteps, eager, searching, hunting.

“I must have forgotten the route. It’s been years. They must be looking for my brother too.”

“What do we do now?”

"We have to make a run for it. If they catch us, they will take me back, and I'll be executed."

Arjun’s heart started racing. He prepared himself for anything that might befall.

"Stay low and run," said Rohit. "We have good eyesight, but not as good hearing, so don't worry about making noise as much as staying hidden. GO!"

"Wait, can't you just change and mix with them?"

"Don't be silly, Arjun. We can identify each other in any form. Now go, I'll be right behind you. Go!"

Arjun started moving back the way they had come. He was moving as fast as he could while staying down. After he cleared the area, he stood up and started running. He ran until he was out of breath. He stopped by a tree to catch his breath, and then he heard footsteps which made him go for his knife.

“Hey! It’s me.”

“Oh, okay.”

It was dark, but Arjun recognised the voice. "Where are they?" he asked.

“We lost them. Let’s go.”

Arjun was still catching his breath. His eyes adjusted, and he saw Rohit a bit clearer. He wasn't in his regular clothes; instead, he was wearing an old rug. Arjun did not wait another second. He slammed the shapeshifter against the tree and pushed his knife into his chest. Although, without the acid, the knife didn't even prick the shapeshifter's skin, and then Arjun felt a wave of intense pain as someone hit him on his head. The dark forest went even darker, and the voices faded away.



6

Nothing. Nothing but pain. Arjun woke up with an unbearable pain at the back of his head and a ringing in his ears. He was in the sitting position against a tree. The sound of a crackling fire fell into his ears. He opened his eyes and saw Rohit in front of him. He was awake, and his hands were tied up behind his back. Arjun tried to move his own hands and realized he was tied up too. The rope around his wrists felt weird. He shook his head to make the ringing stop, but he regretted it immediately as it hurt badly. He looked up at the sky. It was about to dawn soon. The sound of running water told him they were near a stream and possibly way deeper in the forest. He looked around, and that's when he saw them.

About two dozen grey figures stood around him. They were all wearing old rugs. Some of them were holding their children in their hands who were looking at him curiously. Arjun looked around. The figures seemed to be in a valley with several large holes on the slope. Arjun concluded that they were burrows as some shapeshifters were peeking from inside. He still couldn't understand why they all had gathered like that. It was still dark, so Arjun could not see clearly. Then, suddenly Arjun heard his name. His full name.

"Arjun Warrior!"

Arjun jerked his head to his immediate left, which hurt his head, and he saw that he wasn't sitting against a tree but just the base of one. Someone was using it as a table. The ringing in his ears stopped, and he heard chewing noises. The person spat something, and a few seconds later, he galloped about a litre of water. A refreshing sigh came out of his mouth as he stood up and walked in front of him.

Arjun laid his eyes upon the shapeshifter. Orange light fell on his murky, grey skin, which made him look scarier than he would normally look. He was also wearing a dirty rug, and in his hand, he had a card, Arjun's ID.

"I found this in your pocket," he said to Arjun. His voice was deep. "Along with this." He showed Arjun a couple of vials of acid, a wooden knife and a regular knife that glimmered in the light. He put all of the stuff about a meter away from Arjun. "The weapons of extermination," he added. He slowly walked to Rohit, grabbed him by his hair and looked directly into his eyes. "Show me your real face. NOW," he said cruelly.

Rohit's expressions told Arjun and everyone around them that he was scared to death. He slowly turned into his real form. Now he looked like everyone else except in nicer clothes; he didn't say anything, though.

The shapeshifter then looked at Arjun and said, "You were supposed to find them, not team up with them. Did Aryan not tell you to report back as soon as you find out the truth?"

The name ‘Aryan’ startled Arjun because it was Mansi’s last name. It didn’t take him much to put two and two together. “So you are the one who called her,” he said for the first time.

"Yes. Not me, but yeah, I sent her the message."

“Why? Why ask keepers to kill your own kind?”

"I was just trying to protect my people," he said. He looked at his son before he added, "These stupid kids have no idea what they have done. They have broken the decades-old deal between the Keepers and my family."

“You made a deal with keepers?”

“I am not surprised that you don’t know.”

Arjun made a face at this remark. Why does everyone have to remind him that he doesn't know anything?

"It was a secret. After generations of war with humans, we finally came to an agreement with keepers. I swore to stay away from humans, never to hurt them, and in return, he promised to leave us alone, not only that, but he also offered us protection."

Arjun was confused. “I’m sorry, ‘HE’?”

The shapeshifter shook his head in disappointment. “Aryan,” he explained.

Arjun was still confused as hell.

"The Senior," the shapeshifter added.

“You mean Mansi’s father?”

"Is that what her name is? I never asked her father, even though I held that girl in my arms so many times. You see, we are not good with names." The shapeshifter smiled. "But that's really a cute name. She is a good kid. A doll."

Arjun grunted and managed to smile. "Mansi; a doll," he muttered.

“I understand why you would feel that way. She wasn't always like that. Time and circumstances changed her. She had to grow tough, especially after her father went missing."

Arjun's expressions were evident enough that this was the first time he was hearing of this.

"You really don't know anything, do you? Agh—I wouldn't waste my time with you if I wasn't waiting for my brother to bring my other son."

“Your brother? He is–”

"Yes, my people got you two, but he escaped. He did once before, too, when my brother tried to capture him from his house. Don't worry, though; my brother will find him. He knows this forest better than anyone."

"But—" Arjun tried to explain as he tried to understand it himself. "But he wasn't with us."

"Lies won't deceive me, son; my brother saw him."

“I’m not lying. We have been looking for him. That’s why we were in the forest. He’s the killer. Your other son here,” he looked at Rohit in front of him. “Is innocent.”

"Oh, he might not be a murderer, but he's not innocent, not according to our laws.”

“So what? You’re going to execute your own son for wanting to live his life his way?”

"THIS IS NOT OUR WAY," the shapeshifter barked. "We do not live our lives pretending to be the most intelligent beings on the planet because we know we are not. We do not deceive our own kind. We do not have peace conferences in the front and stack nuclear weapons behind the back. We believe in peace, so we keep it. We do not discriminate against any creature of this planet like you do. You have defined the term 'Monster' very interestingly. Any creature who doesn't look like you is a monster. We are not lik—"

The shapeshifter was interrupted by another one who appeared out of the darkness running towards them. “He’s here, your brother’s here,” he said. Then he hesitated and added, “With your son.”

“About time.”

Everyone kept looking into the darkness. At first, they only heard the sound; footsteps along with the sound of someone being dragged. Then they all saw him. He was the most hideous shapeshifter Arjun had seen so far. He was dragging another high school boy who seemed to have passed out. When the light from the fire fell upon his face, it made him look even scarier. Arjun was sure that he would look just as horrifying in any human form. He dragged Madhav and threw him near Rohit, who looked at him but didn't say anything.

The brother looked at the leader and said in a hoarse voice, "He tried to fight back, so I had to mess him up a bit, and he wouldn't shut up about you, so I shut his mouth too."

“Good, my brother, just like always. Are you ready?”

The brother nodded. “What do we do with the human?” he asked.

"We deliver him to the Keepers. They will serve justice as they see fit."

“Okay, your word.”

"The fellow women, men and children," the leader began. He looked at Arjun and added, "And the human. Today we have gathered here to stand witness to justice. These two kids here put our little paradise in danger. They put our civilization, our system, our traditions in jeopardy. They killed a human, which is punishable by death." He was speaking confidently until now, but his voice cracked as he went on. "I don't have to mention that these two are my sons, which proves my integrity as the leader of this community, who puts nothing in front of his people's safety. I, now command my enforcer, my brother, to execute the criminals who put all of our lives in dange–"

"WAIT!" Arjun interrupted. "Hold on."

“What?” the scary shapeshifter gritted his teeth.

“At least let them speak in their defence.”

“It’s not a trial.” Then he turned to the leader and said, “Brother, you go ahead.”

“I, now command—"

"NO, WAIT," Arjun interrupted again, but this time something else occurred. A thought. The answer to a question that had been troubling him ever since. The gears in his detective mind started turning. Up until this moment, he was thinking that he was missing a piece from the puzzle. Now, he realised that he already had every piece to assemble the puzzle. He just wasn't looking at them the right way.

“If you interrupt one more time—”

“No, please listen to me.”

The leader ignored him and turned away.

Arjun had no other choice, so he screamed, "YOUR SON DID NOT MURDER ANYBODY!"

It seemed as if everything had stopped for a second. Nobody spoke, nobody moved, then finally the leader turned to Arjun and asked, "What did you just say?"

“It’s true. Will you untie my hands?”

"No!" the enforcer interjected. "Brother, don't listen to this human; he's planning something, all three of them, maybe they are in this together.

A leader would have ignored it, but a father couldn't. He walked a little closer to Arjun and asked, "Why did you say that? If it is a trick, I tell you—"

“No, I’m telling the truth. Just let me explain.”

"Okay, but I'm not gonna untie you; whatever you have to say, say it."

“Okay, but at least help me stand up.”

The leader motioned a shapeshifter, who helped Arjun stand up.

"Okay," Arjun began. "Now I understand that as a leader, you have to follow the rules, but before you execute your sons, riddle me this." He took his moment because he knew what he was going to say needed to be taken seriously. "Why would your son take the form of a dead person to kill Joseph, uh—the victim?"

“What?”

"Yes, this question has been troubling me ever since I got here. Why did he change into a person who's been dead for five years?"

"Isn't it obvious?" said the enforcer mockingly. "To throw your human enforcers off his trail. Brother, he's just trying to waste our—"

"But that's the thing," Arjun eagerly replied. He already knew what the response would be, so he had his answer ready. "He could have done that any other way. He could have taken the form of a living person and frame them or just a random person who nobody could ever find. Now it's true that the police aren't getting anywhere with the case, and they never will. They don't know what happened, but your son told me earlier that any shapeshifter would know immediately, and so would the Keepers. So my question is, 'why would you choose an identity that would alert both you and the Keepers'?"

Nobody had an answer; everyone was thinking. Arjun did not break the silence; he waited.

After a few seconds, the leader spoke, “Maybe my stupid son did not realize it.”

Arjun smiled. It was exactly what he expected. "Okay," he said. "Let's say your son did not think this through. Maybe he was stupid, but that still doesn't make any sense because, and I tell you, if you let your son speak, he would say the same thing that he has never even seen Joseph's brother."

“What?”

"Yes, it should have occurred to me when your son told me that shapeshifters need to see the person with their own eyes. Think about this, your son ran away only a few months ago. Joseph's brother died five years ago."

"But that points out to my other son; he's been living there for the past ten years."

"Yes, it would, but the most bizarre thing about all of this is the way they both died." Arjun's voice changed. He stopped smiling and looked dead serious. "Joseph sustained a wound that looked like an animal attack. Like—like a bear. The exact way his brother was killed five years ago in the forest."

"But—but that means—uh—"

"Yes," said Arjun. "Only an older shapeshifter with experience can do this. This means someone framed your sons, to bring them out, to make them being hunted. I don't know why, and I don't know who could have done this, but it has to be one of your own, could even be you."

The leader jerked his head up in anger. "How dare you?" he said. "You are blaming me, my innocent people. It's not possible. Nobody is even allowed to go hunting near the town—" He suddenly stopped talking. He must have realised something. "Well," he said. "Nobody except—" He turned to his brother, the enforcer who stood right behind him and—

It all happened in just one second. As he turned back, he cried in pain. Arjun saw the paw of a bear peeking out of his back, drenched in blood. Rohit and Madhav screamed, Rohit, aloud and Madhav, whose mouth was shut, muffled. All the other shapeshifters gasped and scattered away in fear.

When the leader's body hit the ground, Rohit and Madhav had burst into tears, wailing. All the shapeshifters started looking at each other. Nobody knew what to do, and Arjun could not comprehend what had just happened. He did not expect it. He stood dead in his spot, and then all of a sudden—

“He has killed our leader,” a shapeshifter bellowed on top of his lungs. “He is a murderer. Get him.”

The shapeshifters slowly started to move towards him. They all let out angry curses at him. Even the kids followed their parents.

“Don’t let him escape,” a female shapeshifter shouted.

As they were a few feet away from him, some of the shapeshifters pushed the others and crossed them to reach the enforcer first, but what happened next shook everyone. Instead of catching him, they all stood around him, looking at the rest of them. It seemed that the enforcer had managed to get some supporters. When the other shapeshifters saw this, they stopped.

“Oh, I’ve been waiting for this day for so long,” the enforcer cried in joy.

"So it was you," said Arjun. "You killed Joseph. But why?"

He jerked his head in the direction of Arjun. There was anger on his terrifying face. His eyes were blazing red with rage. "'Why'! 'Why' you ask. Look at us." He pointed towards the shapeshifters. "Just take a look, and you'll see. This is our life. This is how we live. And these two,"—he moved his finger to point at the two hostages—"get to live the life of their dreams. You, humans, rule this world, the land, even the air, and we live beneath the surface, like worms. Why do you get to live like that and us, like this? Why? Why did these two get to live at all, and my son had to die?"

“So you plan to do what? Kill these two? Will that bring your son back?”

"Oh, I plan to do much more than just kill them. You actually helped me. I thought my brother would break down and wouldn't be able to command his sons' execution, and I, with the help of my supporters, would overthrow him, but he didn't break. You helped me by exposing me. I would have to kill him anyway, better sooner than later."

"So what now, you kill us and assume command of this community?" Arjun could not filter his hatred out of his words.

"About that, yes, I will kill you, all three of you, and yes, I would assume command, but there's gonna be no community here. We are not gonna live in this pit anymore. Things will no longer run by my brother's rules." He looked down at the corpse of his brother, turned his face to the other side with his foot. That's when it happened.

“DON’T YOU DARE TOUCH HIM!” Rohit screamed.

Madhav was screaming, too, trying to bust out of his bonds. His face turned red, his body bulged like a balloon and in a snap, he was free of the ropes. He just looked at the enforcer for a second. That was all the time he gave him to run. He dashed towards him. The enforcer's supporters came forth to stop him, but all the other shapeshifters charged towards them too. They were not afraid anymore. The chaos of punches, kicks, biting, stomping, screaming, and crying broke out in the forest.

Arjun dived towards his weapons. He was lying in the dirt trying to get out of his bonds, but nothing worked. He looked at his vials of acid and hung his head down in disappointment. There was no other way, so he reached out to a vial behind his back, closed his eyes, took a long breath in, and squeezed the vial.

Searing pain made him groan. He still had the rubber glove on his left hand, but his right hand burned as the acid touched his skin. Arjun also felt the ropes burning around his wrists. He pulled with all his strength. The ropes were weak now, so they snapped, and Arjun was finally free.

The first thing he did was take out a handkerchief. He wrapped it around his burned hand, and then he stood up, holding the last vial of acid and the wooden knife. The steel one was secure in his pocket. He scanned the area.

It was just dust and blood everywhere. Impossible to tell who was fighting with whom. Arjun saw everyone fighting against the enforcer and his legion. They were all united. He saw a kid shapeshifter biting a member of the legion on his leg. Arjun searched the whole area, and then, he saw him.

The enforcer was fighting with Madhav. They were slamming each other into the ground one after another. No one had the upper hand yet. Arjun clenched his jaw and moved forward. He ducked from an attack, kicked one shapeshifter, pushed the other and dived towards Madhav. Now there was just one shapeshifter in his way. He was fighting with two others. They tried to attack him, but he, with great reflexes, countered their attacks and threw them away one by one. He then looked at Arjun and growled.

Rohit, a few feet away, was still trying to get out of his ropes. Nobody remembered to free him. He struggled to slide his hands out of those ropes but couldn't. He, too, then tried to break them like his brother, but he wasn't as strong. He looked around to call someone for help. His eyes laid upon Arjun, who was trying to dodge his way out of fighting with a shapeshifter. Rohit saw the shapeshifter grab Arjun by his throat and lift him in the air.

Arjun was struggling for his life. When he saw no other way out, when the light in his eyes started to diminish, he did what he had to.

Rohit saw Arjun smash the vial on the shapeshifter's head. He saw the shapeshifter scream in pain just like he had screamed himself at Madhav's house. He was horrified to see what Arjun did next.

The shapeshifter fell to his knees, crying in pain. Heavy smoke rose from his head, then Arjun jumped in the air and jammed the wooden knife in his head. The shapeshifter instantly stopped screaming. He fell to his side like a ragdoll. Arjun stood there with his eyes closed and his head hung to his chest.

"Arjun, help me!" Rohit shouted.

Arjun snapped back into reality and dashed towards Rohit. He cut the ropes with his steel knife and had just helped Rohit get back to his feet when they all heard a scream. Arjun jerked his head.

“Nooooo...!”

Rohit screamed on top of his lungs and charged towards the enforcer, who had his hand through Madhav's chest. Rohit lunged at him. The enforcer wasn't prepared for this. They both hit the ground. Rohit pinned him down and started punching him on his face. One after another, without stopping, he kept punching. Arjun saw that after a few seconds and a dozen punches, the enforcer had stopped moving. Rohit didn't stop. He still kept punching him.

And then, out of nowhere, a gunshot echoed through the forest, followed by a female voice.

“STOP!”

Arjun moved his head up the valley and saw the first ray of sunlight fall upon the face he had never dreamt of seeing outside the library and five others behind her, four men and a woman. She wore a brown safari shirt and jeans with long boots. The woman behind her wore a denim shirt and jeans. The men behind her were all wearing either shirts or t-shirts, but all of them were in jeans except for one who wore cargo pants. Two of them had jackets on top of their shirts. One of them had sunglasses; he was huge and muscular. Arjun recognised only one of them, inspector Dev. Everyone except Rohit stopped to look at the strangers who all had guns in their hands. Arjun felt something weird about the one in Mansi's hand, but he couldn't tell what. Silence fell across the valley. The only sound was the squishing of the enforcer's disfigured face because Rohit was still punching him. Arjun quickly moved forward and stopped him. He was crying and shaking. His hands were covered in the enforcer's blood. Arjun helped him stand up as Mansi descended into the valley. The people behind followed her.

"Who the hell are you?" someone shouted. It was the last member of the legion. He charged towards Mansi, but she didn't even look at him. She simply pointed her gun towards him, sprayed what Arjun realised was acid and kept walking. That's when Arjun noticed that it was a water squirt gun, just painted black. He laughed in his head as the shapeshifter groaned in pain and backed away.

Mansi now stood face to face with Arjun and Rohit with the five persons behind her with no visible expressions on their faces. "Where is the leader of this com—" she started to ask, but she saw the leader lying dead a few feet away, so she stopped. After a second, she said, "I'm sorry for this community's loss. He was a good leader and a friend of my father."

Arjun tried to hide his expressions when Mansi mentioned her father. He was now just as expressionless as the five persons behind Mansi.

"I am guessing he was the one who killed Joseph," said Mansi, looking at the enforcer's dead body.

Arjun nodded.

“Then we have no business here. Who is the new leader now?”

"After the death of the leader, his son should be the new leader," said Arjun patting on Rohit's shoulder.

“Yes,” a female shapeshifter agreed. “His son should be the new leader.

“But he doesn’t even live with us,” shouted an old one from the back.

"He will," said Rohit. He then turned towards the crowd and announced. "I will live here with you. And as your new leader, I promise you that you won't live the way you used to. We will build houses and farms. We will grow our own food. We will build a school for our children. We will create a real paradise. We will live our lives the way we deserve. I promise you all. But we won't end up like humans." He then turned to Arjun. "No offence, and thank you, couldn't be more grateful to you or anyone," he said. Next, he turned to Mansi and said, "I will honour the deal our fathers made."

"That's the only way we could maintain the peace. It's all I ever wanted," Mansi said with sympathy in her voice. "I'll take your leave now; you have a lot of work to do."

Rohit nodded.

"Arjun, you coming?" Mansi hesitated to ask.

“I’ll be in a minute.”

Mansi and others walked away when Arjun turned to Rohit.

"Will you never go back?" he asked.

"No, I will, I have to. Rohit's parents don't know the truth, and I can't tell them. I don't have a father now, and since I am responsible for their son's death, I guess they are my responsibility now. They are my parents now."

Arjun gave a feeble smile. "I understand," he said. "And listen, about that farm and houses," —he reached into his pocket and pulled out a card— "call this number for any uh—financial help, without hesitation."

Rohit looked at the card, and his eyes opened wide as he looked back and forth towards the card and Arjun a few times. "Uh—um—you—uh—Warrior?"

Arjun chuckled. “Yup, I’m his son.”

Rohit still couldn’t speak.

"Take your time," said Arjun. "I hope I will see you soon." And then he left Rohit in total shock and started walking towards the town. The sun smiled on his back.



7

When Arjun got back into the town, it was already noon, the brightest hour of the day. He reached his car, which was parked with some other cars and a jeep. Mansi and others were waiting for him.

“How did you get here so fast?” Arjun asked Mansi.

"We didn't," she replied. "We, too, have just gotten here."

"Oh. Well, wow, you really stole the show back there with your water gun."

"It's not funny. I was worried sick. Why weren't you answering your phone?" Mansi asked, gritting her teeth.

"I had left my phone in my car, and later, I was a bit tied up."

A new kind of expression took over Mansi's face, which Arjun couldn't decipher.

"I thought you were in danger; I had to call them for backup, which reminds me." Mansi gestured to everyone to gather. "Everyone, meet Arjun," she said. "Arjun, this is everyone."

Arjun shook hands with everyone as Mansi introduced them one by one. He still had that handkerchief on his burned hand.

"Captain Arshad Hussain, Indian Army.

Admiral Pratap Mehta, Indian Navy.

Air Commodore Ruby Shah, Indian Air Force. You already know Inspector Dev."

"Hey, Arjun," Dev said. "Good job on the Krovosos family."

Arjun nodded.

"And Deputy Inspector Ranvijay Singh, BSF."

“No one from CBI?”

“Oh, no, she’s on another case.”

“Why do I even ask?”

“Mansi, I should be leaving,” said Ruby.

“Yeah, me too.”

“So should I.”

Everyone said goodbye and left. After a minute, only Mansi and Arjun were standing in the burning sun.

"Mansi, I uh—" Arjun started. "I am sorry for what I said on the phone."

"You don't have to be sorry," she said. And without stopping, she added, "I should go now."

"No, wait!" Arjun said.

But Mansi started to walk away anyway. It seemed that she didn’t want to talk.

"I know about your father," Arjun said, loudly behind her back.

Mansi stopped her attempt to get away. This was the very reason she didn’t want to talk.

“The leader told me everything,” Arjun added as Mansi turned and walked closer. “Why didn’t you tell me that? You really think you can’t trust me with this?”

Mansi wriggled in her spot. "Arjun, why do you make everything about me trusting you? I do trust you, but It's my family. It's my personal matter."

"Mansi, your father was a keeper, as are you now. He went missing, and I am guessing he was working on some case when it happened. Nothing about this is personal. And even if it is, I think I have proved myself worthy enough to be let in on a family matter. I would trust you with my family matters. You wanna know, okay, my sister calls me a hundred times a week asking me, no, no begging me to come to meet her boyfriend so I can say a good word for him to my parents." He was speaking non-stop without stopping to breathe. It probably was his way of letting his anger out in a healthy way because he couldn't, in a thousand lives, snap at Mansi. "My brother calls every other night to ask for business advice, and my parents, well, they just wanna know if I'm eating right and sleeping enough. You see, how easy it is, not to mention irrelevant, but boy, do I feel better now that I have someone with whom I can share all my matters. Oh wait, I don't 'cause she doesn't trust me." He finally stopped to breathe. He seemed more hurt than angry.

"Arjun, I uh—"

"Listen, Mansi, if you still think you can't trust me with the secrets of your family of keepers then I—" Arjun stopped to think and realised what he was going to say, but then he said it anyway, "I can no longer work for you. Goodbye."

Mansi was astounded to hear that.

Arjun did not stop for an answer. He started walking towards his car. He had just taken out his keys when—

“Arjun, wait!” Mansi walked towards him.

Arjun stopped and turned, but he did not come closer.

"Come to the library whenever you are free."

Arjun turned again, opened the door of his car, waited a second there and then he asked, “Is Sunday good?”

A tiny smile stretched across Mansi's face. "Sunday is good," she said. Then she turned, got into her car and drove away.

Arjun sat in the driver's seat and stayed there for what felt like an eternity. It was unbearably hot inside the car. He fired up the engine and switched the air conditioner on. He then reached into his pocket and pulled out his smartphone. He thought about the lie he had told Mansi. He did not answer her phone because he didn't want to talk to her. He looked at the screen; the protection glass had shattered, probably during the skirmish. Arjun ignored it and checked the notifications. He had numerous missed calls. He ignored the ones from Mansi, three missed calls from his sister, one each from the rest of his family members and clicked on the one unknown number. Someone answered.

“Hello? Arjun?” It sounded like a young boy.

“Yes?”

“This is Ash. We met at the haunted cottage.”

“Of course, you think I’d forget something like that. MidNight Mysteries, I remember. How’s Tammy? Haven’t seen you two on YouTube lately? What’s up?”

Nothing but silence followed.

“Ash? What’s wrong?”

"It's—It's Tammy. He's—he's dead."

Arjun clenched his jaw and closed his eyes. When he opened them again, they were filled with tears and animalistic rage. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m coming.”



Thanks for sticking to the end. Arjun and Mansi are returning for 'Keepers of the Knowledge II', but before that, I'll be re-working 'Keepers of the Knowledge' and will publish the new and improved tale under the name 'Keepers of the Knowledge I'. So stay tuned.

How did you like 'Beneath the Surface? Were there any flaws? Let me know in the comments.

Till next time.

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  1. One hell of a masterpiece. Everything is so detailed and yet interesting. I was completely hooked.

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