Sunday, January 26, 2014

Possessed *Horror*

A break from my usual romantic stories.. to something more scary..


Click here to read this four part story..

**NO COPYING, SHARING, ALTERING OR DISTRIBUTING OF ANY PART OF THIS MATERIAL STRICTLY ALLOWED. COPYRIGHT 2014 BY TINA!**


SS: Possessed 
by TINA!
*Horror*
Part I: The Cemetery
Clunk. Clunk.
The awful, hair-raising noise continued without an end in sight. More and more dirt was thrown, the pounding rain making it difficult to see. And then finally, it was done. The priest lowered his head and one by one, everyone left till only Devyani Raizada remained.
Tears swam in her eyes as she stood immobile, clutching a black umbrella in a death grip. Her bony knuckles shone white in the dimming light. The sudden roar of thunder startled her and her gaze flew back to the headstone, a chill sweeping through her.
"Ma.." her son-in-law called from the gate. He was expressionless, holding onto his grieving wife. Beside them, her granddaughter Anjali, looked terribly lost and confused. "It's time to go."
She could delay it no longer. "Goodbye, Chote," she whispered, brushing aside tears and joining the others. It hurt to leave him, to realize she'd never again see his cherub-like face or hear the sound of his laughter.
He'd been a quiet child, almost too quiet, but in her eyes, he'd been perfect. The perfect grandson. What had possessed him to play with electric wires in the shower? she wondered for the umpteenth time. He was just a boy, just an innocent nine-year-old, but a freak accident had taken his life.
Her son-in-law helped her into the luxury sedan, and then turned to his most loyal servant--someone he could trust with the last remaining task.
"Make sure... make sure he's really gone."
Raj Prakash nodded grimly. "Yes, sir."
The car departed in the rain, the taillights disappearing around the bend. The servant stayed just outside the wrought-iron gate, his eyes on the fresh mound of earth not too far away. He shivered, cold beads of sweat dotting his forehead. It had nothing to do with the fact that he was drenched to the skin. What he could not forget was that he'd been a part of this grand scheme. He may not have taken the boy's life, but he'd arranged the wires around him, making it look like an accidental electrocution.
The minutes ticked by slowly, shadows wafting around him in the misty air. And then a low, angry voice broke out: "Murderer..."
He whipped around, his heart beating like a drum. No one was there.
"Who was that? Show yourself!"
The howling wind was his only answer. Prakash tried to calm down. It had to be his mind playing tricks, his guilt-ridden conscience. No one other than his employer and himself knew the truth.
"Murderer..." the voice taunted in his ear, louder this time, the rage palpable.
His eyes bulged with terror, his throat constricting as he saw dark shadows encircle him, coming closer and closer till he felt suffocated. Cold, finger-like extensions sliced into him like the sharpest of knives. He backed away, his feet skidding on the muddy ground.
And then there was only pain and darkness. He toppled as if invisible hands had shoved him, his head striking the razor-sharp edge of a rock.
Raj Prakash died instantly. The shadows departed, flying back to the grave.
*****
It was hours later that Shashi Gupta entered the cemetery, raising the collar on his mud-streaked coat. The rain had thankfully stopped, but an icy chill lingered even now. He grabbed his trusty shovel, humming under his breath as he opened the wrought-iron gate. He had no idea that just beside his feet, a body lay in the shadows, dark crimson blood mixing with muck in shallow puddles.
He went to work right away, digging with a mad fetish. It was backbreaking work, the kind that paid little, but took every ounce of his strength. And yet, he was grateful for it. The family business was failing, the mounting bills and debts seemed unending, and he had a wife and two young daughters to think about. Where else but a graveyard could an uneducated man like him find a night job?
His wife had been skeptical from the start, and remained that way. "Don't you get scared?" she'd asked him on more than one occasion. "Alone in the dark with all those dead people nearby?"
Surprisingly, he hadn't been spooked even once so far. Never one to believe in ghosts or anything remotely supernatural, the eeriness of the cemetery didn't disturb him. Sometimes the silence did become too much, so he'd taken to humming as he worked, old songs mostly.
The first grave was dug within a half an hour. He wiped back his sweaty hair, climbing out of the pit and moving to the next site. There were six funerals scheduled over the coming two days. He was on schedule, but just barely.
And then, just when he'd finally begun to make some headway, he heard something. But it couldn't be. There was no one here but him.
It came again: "HELP! HELP ME!"
Shashi hobbled up, his eyes wide as he fell beside a tombstone, the letter A shining in the moonlight. It was a freshly dug grave from what he could tell. Against his better judgment, he laid his ear against the soil and waited.
A hammering sounded within seconds, as if someone was pounding with their fists. "HELP! Someone help me!"
A child's voice, frantic and afraid, rang out clearly. It spurred him into action. He dug wildly, dirt and mud whipping through the air. And then his blade hit the wood of the coffin.
Shashi was shaking by the time he opened the lid, his eyes widening with disbelief. An adorable child, no more than ten years old, lay inside, swathed in white lace. He had coal black hair, slightly wavy. It contrasted sharply with his complexion, highlighting his fine features. And then his eyes snapped open, the orbs appearing to glow.
"Dear God! You're alive!" He helped the boy out, staring at him with ill-concealed shock. "Who are you? Who did this to you?"
The child didn't answer, standing sullen-faced.
"Your family?" Shashi asked, kneeling beside him and taking him by the shoulders. "Did they do this to you? Where are they?"
"Dead."
The child's voice, distant and oddly hoarse, sent a shiver through him.
"What's your name?"
"De..."
"What?"
The boy looked dazed suddenly, his eyes flashing with rising panic. "Ar... Arnav."  His voice broke, tears rolling down his cheeks.
Shashi wrapped him in his coat, picking him up in his shaking arms. The child hardly weighed anything. He could think of no place to take him, but one.
"It's alright, Arnav. Everything will be okay."
"It will never be okay. Never..." The words were hushed murmurs, easily lost in the whipping winds.
"What was that?"
The boy gazed up at the stars, not seeming to see them nor Shashi. "Nothing."
*****
Garima watched from the doorway as Arnav bit into some bread as if famished. She'd been more than a little surprised when her husband had entered in the middle of the night with a sobbing child in his arms.
"Shouldn't you have taken him to the police?" she whispered, turning to face him.
Shashi nodded. "I will in the morning. He just looked so frightened I thought it was best if he first calmed down and realized he's no longer in danger."
She found herself agreeing with him. "Who would do this to a child?" she asked in a livid tone. "Bury him alive?"
Like her, he too could not comprehend it. There were no answers. Arnav refused to disclose anything more than his name.
"Is there more?" the child suddenly asked, looking a bit shy.
Garima gladly fed him what was left of their dinner and then took him to a spare room. "Just rest, dear. Is there anything else you need?"
He didn't reply, staring at her so intently she had the unnerving sensation he could read all her secrets. Garima awkwardly patted his head. "Sleep, Arnav, and don't worry, we'll help you."
He said nothing as she left him alone, staring up at the ceiling. No one had ever been able to help him and no one ever could.
Black shadows seeped under the doorsill, their smoky tendrils inching ever closer. And as always, he observed them with cold, heart-racing fear, knowing what was to come. He struggled, his body twisting on the sheets, but the darkness was too strong. And then Arnav was gone, and only it remained.
His legs swung out of the bed, limping toward the dresser. He smashed his fist into the mirror, not feeling any pain, though blood seeped from his fingers, thick and hot. Crimson letters took shape on his forearm: Demon.. A crooked grin lit his small face.
*****
Eight-year-old Khushi Kumari Gupta shuddered as loud thunder crackled again, hugging her doll close. Her Babuji had always told her there was nothing to be afraid of, but she couldn't help it. Storms had always scared her.
She closed her eyes, gripping the doll hard. And then suddenly, it was gone. As if invisible hands had ripped it away. She could have sworn she'd felt nails digging into her arm for a brief second.
Khushi frowned, her palms gliding over the sheets. It had to be here somewhere. A doll couldn't just disappear. Perhaps it had fallen..
Rolling to the edge of the bed, she tentatively reached down, her tiny fingers sliding along the carpet. She didn't feel her doll anywhere. Where had it gone?
She peered into the blackness, seeing nothing except shadows. It was strange, but something made her hesitate, her heart thumping.
Khushi flipped back onto her back, her arm dangling off the edge. She began to scoot away when something caught her wrist.. someone..
She yelped with fright, tugging frantically. But whoever it was, was much stronger, its pointy nails digging into her flesh.
"Amma! Babuji! Help!"
No one replied, but a chuckle sounded. As lightning flashed, her eyes widened. She saw it now. It was a small shape, around her size. And then his eyes snapped open, the crimson orbs making her scream once more.
The red-eyed boy smiled. "Hello, Khushi."
Possessed by Tina
Part II: A Real Family
A bloodcurdling cry of terror escaped Khushi's throat as the boy smirked at her, his red eyes glittering in the plunging blackness. Lightning flashed outside, illuminating the bedroom for a blinking second. It was just enough time for her to glimpse something far more frightening.
Dark, clotted blood gushed from his eye sockets. His pink tongue darted out, flicking at her.
She closed her eyes against the horrific image, tugging her hand madly. "LET GO! AMMA! BABUJI! Help me!"
The demon ignored her shouts, clutching her wrist in a hard, immovable grip.
"Khushi.." he whispered in that same raspy voice, licking a wet trail up her forearm. Tiny, pointy teeth bent closer, as if to snap off her fingers.
"AMMA!"
Heavy footsteps sounded in the hallway outside. The demon immediately retracted, gone in the blink of an eye. Khushi was too frightened to notice. She was screaming and crying as the lights flipped on, her parents racing to her side.
"Bitiya, what is it? You scared us to death!"
Khushi threw herself into her mother's arms, shudders racking her small frame. Garima rocked her in her lap, brushing aside sweaty tendrils. "What happened, Khushi?"
"There was a boy," she managed, pointing to the carpeted floor. "A demon.. He was crouched there. He had red, bleeding eyes.."
Garima exchanged a glance with her husband, motioning him to head back to bed. She could handle this. Khushi had always had an overactive imagination.
"Bitiya," she murmured, "It was just a nightmare."
"No, Amma! He was here. A demon! He wouldn't let go of my hand."
Laying down beside her, Garima explained in soft, patient tone: "There's no such thing as demons. It was just a terrible dream, nothing else. From tomorrow, you're sleeping next to your sister. Then there'll be no reason to be afraid."
Khushi knew at once her parents wouldn't believe her. Even she could hardly believe it. But it had been real. She'd been awake, not dreaming.
"Sleep, bitiya. I'm with you now."
With a shuddering breath, Khushi closed her eyes, holding onto her mother tight. Both fell into a light sleep. Neither noticed the shiny trail of saliva dotting Khushi's arm.
*****
The very next morning, before Khushi or Payal had yet awakened, Shashi escorted Arnav to the local police station. The child uttered not a single word, his expression never changing as a stout police officer bent to his level, asking a series of questions:
What happened exactly?
When did you last see your family?
How long were you trapped?
The look in Arnav's eyes didn't alter, remaining hollow and oddly detached. He sat deathly still, not even a single tear breaking out as they told him what he'd already known. Shashi, beside him, looked far more astonished.
"You can leave him here," the inspector said, straightening up. He frowned down at the silent child. "We'll try to find him a suitable place to go."
That statement didn't reassure Shashi. He stood to leave, telling himself his duty was complete. He'd done all he could do. But one look at Arnav's young, lost face and he didn't have the heart to walk away. He couldn't..
Clearing his throat, Shashi Gupta shook his head at the inspector. "That won't be necessary." His meaning was clear and though the officer was taken aback, the child did not appear to be. He sat sullen-faced, not reacting to anything around him. After a few formalities and forms, it was done.
"Come along, Arnav."
He slowly rose, following after Shashi. He asked no questions nor shed any tears.
"You brought him back?" asked a stunned Garima the moment she spotted them enter the house.
Shashi hushed her with a glance, speaking in a low voice that Arnav couldn't hear. But he didn't need to. He knew exactly what they must be discussing:
How the police had traced his family rather easily. How the Raizadas had all perished in the storm last night, their car losing control and overturning on the main highway.
A case of nasty weather conditions and brake failure was believed to be the cause. Arnav, however, knew that was all untrue. His family had been killed by the shadows, the evil that lived within him.
"I couldn't leave him, Garima!" Shashi looked and sounded a bit more hassled than normal. "He has no relations and they were going to send him to one of those awful, impoverished orphanages."
"We don't have much either," she countered. "The loans and--"
Her husband set a comforting hand on her shoulder. "We will manage. And we can give him what no orphanage can: a real family."
Garima was truly torn. "Someone might have adopted him though."
"Do you really believe so? Most people prefer adopting infants and toddlers. Who'd take a nine-year-old? And what if they were the wrong sort? Haven't you seen the news? They're always reporting on so many terrible incidents. I couldn't leave him."
Arnav swallowed thickly, the only indication that he'd overheard their talks. The Guptas wanted to help him. If only they knew he was beyond saving..
"YOU!"
A girl approximately his age, dressed in a bright summer dress, her hair in two, straight braids, was pointing right at him. She appeared horrified, her eyes bulging.
"AMMA! THAT'S HIM! The demon from last night! The one in my room!"
Arnav stared at her stupefied, his eyes unblinking.
"Khushi! That is no way to behave," Garima scolded, glancing over her shoulder at him apologetically. "That was just a nightmare. Arnav will be staying with us from now on. Be nice."
Khushi's heart sunk, her gaze whipping back to him in horror. "No! Amma, he can't! He's a demon!"
Her parents hushed her, dragging her kicking and screaming out of the room. But Arnav couldn't look away. Their gazes met and in that one moment, both realized it: she knew.
Somehow, she knew.
He had no recollection of the night before; he never did when the demon reigned over him. How had she guessed the truth, he wondered? No one had ever solved it.
His father had suspected something was amiss, and after several grisly events and a terrible incident that had left Anjali crippled and nearly dead, he'd gone as far as to arrange his own son's murder. But even he had not connected the dots.
As Arnav sat immobile on the sofa, wondering how this young girl, the most unlikely person, had figured it out, Khushi was arguing with her parents.
"He's evil!" she told them again and again. "Believe me! He's a demon!"
"KHUSHI! That's enough!"
Her father's shout quieted her at once. He'd never raised his voice at her before. Tears gathered in her hazel eyes.
Shashi sighed, kneeling on the floorboards and pulling the terrified looking eight year old into his arms. "Bitiya, hush. You need to be nice to Arnav. We're all he has now. He's lost his whole family."
"He probably killed them and ate them for breakfast!" she snapped.
"Khushi!" Garima's brow bent sternly. "Enough! Not another word about Arnav."
Tears rolled down Khushi. "But, Amma, it's true. He's evil.. He has red eyes.."
Her parents shared a look. "We've both seen his eyes, Khushi. And trust me, they are not the least bit red. A very nice, dark brown shade in fact. What you saw last night was just a nightmare. Your mind was playing tricks. Remember I explained it to you?"
Khushi's face scrunched. Had she been mistaken? She shook her head forcefully. When the lightning had struck, she'd seen the demon's face. And at this very moment, that same demon sat in their living room.
"It was him. I'm telling you, it was him."
Garima sighed. "Fine, let's say you did really see something last night. Do you have any proof that it was Arnav?"
"Proof?"
"Yes, can you prove it was really him with red, bleeding eyes in your room?"
Khushi quieted, glancing away. "No.. but I know it was him."
Garima shook her head. "Don't you see? There's no proof because it was just a dream, bitiya. Now, be nice to him," she insisted.
Khushi remained silent as her parents left the room, murmuring under their breaths about kids these days.'
"I'll prove to you I'm right, Amma and Babuji. I'll find proof. Proof that he really is a demon."
*****
Over the next few days, she tried to catch Arnav doing something suspicious, but it was like he knew. His cold, hollow eyes would stare across at her on the dining table every night, as if he knew all she was planning.
It did not help that the rest of the family had taken to him right away. Though he remained quiet most of the time, talking in monosyllables, her parents seemed to adore him and even Payal approved of him.
Khushi lay awake every night worried that the demon would attack them all in their sleep. Her family was in grave danger and they did not even realize it.
A month rolled by, her uneasiness steadily building. And then one night, when she'd least expected it, she heard something.
Something that did not belong in the dead of night.
Tiptoeing out of bed, Khushi followed the noise. It was coming from Arnav's room, just as she'd suspected. And then it came again:
Munch. Swallow. Spit.
It was as if he was eating something, but why would he be hungry so late at night? Usually, he picked at his food.
Her heart was pounding as she carefully turned the doorknob, hoping it wouldn't give her away.
She'd expected the room to be dark, but to her surprise, all the lights were on. One glimpse inside, and she almost wished it had been dark. Because under the glare of the overhead bulbs, she could see every horrifying detail.
Arnav was eating, but not food. He'd pushed his shirtsleeve to his elbow, his mouth gnawing on his forearm. His razor-sharp teeth tore through flesh and muscle in an animal-like frenzy, ripping out chunks and spitting them to the floor. The ivory shine of bone glinted around his wrist. Blood soaked the sheets, red and oozing.
A terrified gasp left her lips.
The demon paused mid-bite, his red eyes flashing to her. She backed away as the corner of his lip curved.
"Khushi.." he hissed, extending his bleeding, skeleton-like arm toward her. "Hungry?"
She screamed, running down the hallway as fast as her feet would carry her. "AMMA! BABUJI!"
She could hear the demon's shrill breathing. He was near. Very near.  Racing into her parents' darkened bedroom, Khushi jumped between their sleeping forms, shaking them awake.
"AMMA! That demon! Arnav! He's eating himself!"
"What?" Her parents exchanged a bewildered glance.
Gripping their hands, Khushi dragged them to the door. "I'm not lying! You can see for yourself."
They followed her reluctantly, Garima yawning several times. Arnav's bedroom door was closed. Khushi hid behind her father as he pushed it open.
The room inside was no longer brightly lit. It was now completely dark. Shashi turned on the lights, his gaze widening.
"Bitiya.."
"Do you see it now? Do you believe me?"
"All I see is that Arnav is sleeping without a blanket."
"What?" It couldn't be. Khushi peeked from behind him, unable to believe what she saw.
The blood and torn flesh were all gone. Arnav lay on his back, appearing to be fast asleep. Her eyes were drawn to his right arm. It looked perfectly normal, not even a scratch visible.
As her Babuji draped him with a blanket, Arnav's eyes blinked open. He stared at the two of them with dazed astonishment.
"Something.. something wrong?"
"Of course not, Arnav. Khushi just had a nightmare."
Those icy eyes flashed to her. She could keep quiet no longer.
"I know you're evil," she told him, ignoring her father's stunned glance. "Stay away from us, demon!"
"Khushi!" Her father lifted her in his arms. "Enough. Come along now."
Over his shoulder, she stared at Arnav with loathing. He, as always, was expressionless. But inside him, the demons were barking with laughter.

Possessed by TINA!
Part III: Ten Years Later
Months rolled into years and then into a full decade. Khushi did her best to find and gather evidence against Arnav, but he was always two steps ahead. Every time, she came up empty-handed. Grudgingly, she learned to ignore him, though her hate and terror never diminished.
A long chain of bizarre events occurred over that time: disappearances in the neighborhood, gruesome murders and even sightings of "a dark shadow." None of it could be directly linked to Arnav, but Khushi knew he was behind it. No one could convince her otherwise. Her parents and sister had long given up.
Most of the incidents occurred in the surrounding area, but on her eighteenth birthday, tragedy struck close to home.
Payal was the one to discover it. She was washing dishes while Khushi devoured another slice of birthday cake, when she suddenly screamed.
"Jiji! What is it?"
Payal seemed unable to speak, pointing toward the faucet. Confused, Khushi turned to look, her eyes rounding at once. A red, rapidly diluting liquid poured endlessly. Blood...
Arnav walked into the kitchen to the sound of their shrieks. One look at him, and Khushi knew. Their gazes clashed as always.
Her mouth opened to question him, but just then, the young couple who lived across the street darted inside without even bothering to knock.
"Is it happening here too?" asked the man.
"Is what happening?" 
"Blood!" panted the wife, trying to quiet the crying toddler in her arms. Her eyes were wide and panic-filled. "There's blood coming in the water in every home on the street."
"What?" Khushi ran outside, the others--all except one--following after her.
Eventually, the whole neighborhood gathered near their front lawn, murmuring about the terrible omen. The police were called and after a search of the premises, they discovered the cause rather promptly.
Their next-door neighbor's mangled body was found in the water supply, his limbs arranged like a broken marionette. As his corpse was taken away, a wind tore the white sheet off his face, revealing an odd smattering of brown crumbles around his mouth.
Khushi caught a brief glimpse, her stomach rolling. That was no dirt coating his lower face. She recognized it almost immediately. But it couldn't be..
And yet it was true, staring right at her as the paramedics hid the face again. She was very sure that crumbles had to be from her birthday cake. Chocolate had always been her favorite.
But how had their neighbor gotten a slice? He and his family had been unable to attend her party. Was it another chocolate cake? Or dirt as those around her assumed it be? Was she mistaken?
But one look in Arnav's direction, and she knew it was no coincidence. He stood mute, his hands stuffed in his pockets.
"You did this, didn't you?"
He froze at her question, nothing giving him away. Khushi observed him with disgust.
"I'll catch you one day," she vowed. "And then everyone will realize that you are evil. Evil in the flesh." With a glare, she marched off, drawing her arm over her sister's quaking shoulders. Payal had not yet stopped crying.
Arnav watched Khushi go, something deep inside of him throbbing. Why did it matter to him so much that she hated him? he wondered. That she couldn't stand the sight of him? After all these years of facing her constant hatred, it shouldn't have affected him any longer.
But it did. It cut into him like the sharpest of knives. He was used to be alone, but why then did her every gibe sting his soul--if he had one, that is.
At eighteen, just one year younger than him, Khushi Kumari Gupta remained the most alluring girl he'd ever come across. Perhaps it was due to their many differences. She was his opposite in every possible way.
If he was silent and unsociable, she was the life of a party. He had no friends, and she always had a giggling group trailing after her. She could even make friends easily, a skill he'd never had and doubted he ever would.
If he was ice, she was fire. If he was death, she was life. And most notably, he was evil, and she was goodness in every sense of the word.
Was it any wonder she hated someone as contaminated and horrific as him? She'd seen things over the years, things he didn't even know. When the demons possessed him, he was never in control. Sometimes he heard things--pain-filled screams, cries for mercy that haunted him every blinking moment--but he would be trapped within himself, utterly powerless.
For the demons, he was nothing but a useful vessel. It was for just that reason they'd intervened in his death. His father's plan with his most loyal servant, Raj Prakash, should have killed him, but the evil forces within him had prevented it. They'd kept him alive until the witless Shashi Gupta had discovered him in the graveyard.
Sometimes the shadows showed him flashes of the horrific acts he'd committed. They were all done unknowingly, but that knowledge did not ease Arnav of his guilt. He'd scream and bellow in agony as the images flashed past his eyes, the demons snickering madly.
He was cursed beyond redemption. There was no ray of hope or light in his dark life. There never had been. But why then did his heart still beat? Why did it long for someone he could never have?
Khushi glanced over her shoulder at him, her revulsion as easy for him to read as when they were children. He gave nothing away, standing unmoving.
I hate you, her every look screamed.
I know, he said to himself, wishing she could sense his feelings. But I.. I love..
He couldn't finish that thought, biting his tongue as he followed after her into the house.
A monster like him had no right to love anyone, he reminded himself. Khushi had been right all along: he was evil in the flesh.
*****
The following week, it rained all day, the sky nearly black with thick clouds. Khushi returned home earlier than expected. She'd gone with her friends for some shopping and a movie.
"Too bad the movie was sold out," murmured the girl she was sharing an umbrella with. "How about we try tomorrow again after class?"
They all nodded and then one pointed to the house, her eyes widening. "Oh my!"
Khushi turned to look, her eyebrows knitting together.
Arnav stood at the window, his tall, lean shape hard to miss. He was staring right at her. As always, it made her uncomfortable. She scowled at him, her posture tensing up as she turned her back to him.
"You're so lucky, Khushi. The most good looking guy in our whole college lives with you and he's not even a relative!"
"He's so hot.." murmured another, her eyes tracing over Arnav with undisguised appreciation. "That dark, wavy hair, those sharp, handsome features, and those eyes. It's like he can see right into your heart, isn't it?"
The girls all nodded--except for Khushi. She was frowning at her friends.
If only you all knew his reality, she mused. How those eyes you find so hot turn red and bleed. Then you'll be running away, not drooling over that demon.
But like her parents, she doubted even her closest friends would believe her. "See you all tomorrow," she said frostily, stepping out of the umbrella's protection.
Her friends watched her go with surprise. "Be careful, Khushi!"
"I could have left you till the door," called the one with the umbrella.
"I like the rain," Khushi lied, shivering and drenched to the skin. "Bye!"
She hurried through the downpour, jumping over puddles and mud. She was almost at the doorstep when her right foot skidded on the pavement, her ankle twisting.
She toppled at once, losing her balance completely as a sharp pain exploded. Her cry went unheard in the rain--or so she thought.
"Khushi.."
His low, masculine voice crashed into her, the pain momentarily forgotten. Arnav towered over her, his gaze grim as it focused on her ankle.
"Get away from me!" she yelled, scooting away. "How many times do I have to tell you? Stay away from me!"
"You're hurt."
She ignored him, trying to see behind him into the house. "Amma! Babuji! Jiji!"
Arnav kneeled before her, not seeming to feel the brunt of the pounding rain as his eyes rose back up to her face. "They're gone."
"Gone?" Goosebumps dotted her chilled flesh. "What did you do? I swear I'll kill you if you've hurt them!"
He did not react to her threat. "They've gone to the market. They're not back yet."
Khushi was not the least bit reassured. So she was alone with him? She'd always gone out of her way to make sure that never happened. Though she tried not to show it, this man scared her to death.
"I'll wait out here."
"You're hurt," he reminded in a clipped tone. "And it's raining."
"I don't care. I'm not going into the house with you."
Arnav wasn't the least bit surprised by her refusal. He was, however, a bit stunned by this entire conversation. He'd never talked this much to anyone before--least of all Khushi, the girl he secretly admired so much.
"You go in," he finally said. "I'll stay out here."
His suggestion floored Khushi. Was he truly serious or was this some evil ploy? If only she could know what he was planning.
She weighed her options and then nodded, wiping back soaked strands of hair. Rising to her knees, she steeled herself and pushed up. She managed to stand, but the second she put weight on her right side, she crumpled on the ground, her ankle giving out.
To her horror, his hands immediately reached for her.
"Stay back!" she screamed. "Don't touch me!"
For the first time since she'd known him, he seemed affected by her outburst, his brow furrowing.
He said nothing as she attempted to stand again. Taking a deep breath, Khushi stepped forward.
She would have fallen headfirst if not for him. His arms caught her and before she could stop him, he'd lifted her up, cradling her against his chest.
Khushi smacked her hands against his black shirt. "Let me go! How dare you!"
He watched her grimly, his eyes latching onto hers. "I won't hurt you, Khushi."
Her breath caught at the warmth in his eyes, something she'd never seen before. It almost made her want to believe him, but she shook herself out of it. He was evil, she reminded herself. A monster.
"Put me down! Now! The rest of the family may like you, but not me. Never me!"
To her surprise, he did set her down--right onto her bed. She stared at her surroundings in bewilderment. He'd walked so quickly, his soulful gaze almost hypnotizing her.
"This might hurt..." he murmured.
Her heart lodged in her throat. So he would kill her after all. Of course, he would. Why had she for a single second thought otherwise? Unknowingly, she'd stumbled right into his trap.
"Stay away from me," she warned, edging away. Her eyes searched for a weapon. "Don't come any closer!"
His hands caught her foot, twisting hard and fast. Pain erupted, darkening her vision for a moment.
"You said you wouldn't hurt me!" she screamed as her senses returned.
Arnav was expressionless as always, his icy black eyes impossible for her to read. "I should have known. My hands only give pain."
As he left the room, her ankle caught Khushi's attention. It was no longer throbbing; even the swelling seemed to be receding. With disbelief, she flexed her foot up and down. There was a slight discomfort, but no pain. His quick hand maneuver had healed it.
"It's better..." she whispered to herself.
Glancing up, her eyes widened with renewed terror. Arnav had returned--but not empty-handed. Thick iron chains were in his grip as he stalked to her.
"Don't... don't hurt me..."
This time she saw the flash of pain in his eyes before he could conceal it. But instead of tying her up as she imagined, he looped the chain around the bed frame and then around his wrists.
"What are you doing?"
He didn't look up, locking his wrists. "I won't hurt you... but they might."
All the air in her lungs seemed to leave. Her hair stood on end. "They?"
His steely gaze seemed to hide a thousand secrets. "You know already. You've always known."
Khushi gulped. "Tell me still. Who are they, Arnav?"
"Demons... the dark shadows that live within me. They would hurt you. They would relish it."
So he wasn't evil, but he harbored something dark within him? Could it be true?
"Did you create the demons?" she asked.
He glanced away. "No... they found me..."
"Where? When?"
His eyes swung back to her, dead-looking. "I believe I was four years old. We'd moved into a new house."
"We? Your family, you mean... the ones who..."
"Died," he finished for her. "Yes."
Khushi struggled to piece it together. "And something changed in the new house? But why? You were just a child."
"That's why they chose me."
"I don't understand."
Arnav gazed out the window, not seeing the storm and the strike of lightning.. but something else... a sunny day...
He saw his mother's smiling face, heard the echoes of his sister's laughter as his dad opened the main door.
"Our new home... Do you like it, kids?"
"We'll be so happy here," murmured his mother, not having a clue what awaited them.
"Arnav? Are you listening to me?"
Khushi's voice shook him. He took a deep breath, his insides screaming with agony.
"The house had a terrible history. A massacre once happened there. My parents weren't told. They didn't know the demons never left that house... that they were lying in wait all those years."
Khushi trembled as he spoke, his voice low and oddly detached. She wondered if he'd ever told anyone these secrets. But almost at once, she realized she had to be the first. Who could he have told? He had no friends and even with her parents, he was reserved.
"Why did they go after you?" she asked quietly.
"Because evil feeds on innocence. I was the youngest, and so they chose me."
"All the terrible things that have happened.. I saw you with red eyes once in this room. And another time, I saw you eating your own arm."
Arnav stared at her grimly. "I have no memory of it. When the demons possess me, I'm not in control."
"They come and go then?"
He nodded. "As they like. That's why you're in danger around me. They can return any moment."
A shiver racked Khushi, but she wouldn't be dissuaded. "There must be a way... a way of stopping it."
"There is none. They're too strong. Too powerful."
"There must be something."
He began to say something and then his eyes froze. "They're here.. RUN! RUN NOW!"
"How do you know?" She looked wildly about them.
"I can see the shadows. They're sliding in from under the door."
Khushi turned to look. "I don't see anything... Arnav?"
Her eyes widened as she spun his way. His head was thrown back, his mouth open in a scream though no sound burst forth. And then his neck snapped back, his eyes blinking open.
Red, glowing orbs pierced her. His mouth curved in a twisted grin. "Hello again, Khushi..."
Possessed by TINA!
Part IV: Face in the Mirror
"Hello again, Khushi.."
That distinctly hoarse accent hit her ears like the most jagged and sharpest of glass shards. Khushi knew at once that standing before her was not Arnav, but a demonic entity. Evil in the very flesh.
As his hands extended, as if to grab her by the neck, a scream escaped her constricted throat. She ducked, scampering off the bed.
"STAY AWAY FROM ME!"
The door stood wide open and she made a frenzied break for it. Her right ankle though was still weak. It collapsed beneath her, sending her flying to the ground.
The demon snickered, walking in short, calculative steps around the corner of the bed. Khushi observed his approach with cold, dizzying fear, struggling to get up. She'd almost managed it when he flicked his finger almost leisurely.
Thick, oozing blood, a deep shade of red, so dark it appeared to be almost black pooled beneath her--though she felt no cut or injury. It seemed to breathe, sputtering and spewing as it slithered, coiling around her wrists in thin, veiny straps. Even as she gasped, the blood tugged on her hands, slamming her back down.
"Do you really think you can escape us?"
Blinking one eye open, Khushi watched with choking terror as his feet shifted closer. He was so close.. barely three steps away, walking in that same bored manner..
Fight, Khushi! her mind screamed as adrenaline pumped through her.Get up!
Even as she struggled to get away, the demon easily caught a hold of her hair, dragging her to him with a sharp, painful yank.
Crying out, Khushi swung her head aside, crawling on her hands and knees. Clutching broken strands of her hair in his fist, the demon almost lazily followed her. And then as he took another threatening step forward, a hiss escaped him.
Burns and welts appeared on his hands as he pulled on the iron chains that held his wrists captive. Khushi observed it all with horror, managing to stand. So Arnav had known iron would weaken it. He wasn't with her and yet, he'd certainly saved her life.
"Run.. RUN NOW!" his frantic voice echoed in her ears.
But her feet felt frozen, rooted to the floor. This was what she'd been waiting more than ten years for: to confront this demon. She had always assumed Arnav was evil, but now she knew better. Knew that he was instead possessed, one more victim of this dark force.
And now they stood at an impasse. The demon seemed to realize it too. He stopped struggling with the chains, his blood-red gaze rising to her.
Khushi was the first to speak. "Why? Why are you after Arnav?"
"The boy is useful to us..." Several voices merged into one, something so raspy and snake-like, it made her shudder.
"Why haven't you killed me?" she wondered aloud. "You've had so many chances."
The demon snickered, his head falling back. "We like to watch the boy torment himself with you. But no longer. It's time for your death, Khushi." His eyes burnt like flaming, red coals as he stepped forward.
Khushi was half turned to flee when a jarring noise hit her ears. Against her will almost, she found herself glancing back.
The iron chain lay on the floor, split cleanly in two. The bedroom was now empty. She held her breath, her eyes darting around. He had to be here.. somewhere..
Hard, icy hands whipped out from under the bed, clamping on her ankles and drawing her down. Khushi screamed as the demon pulled, his red orbs glowing under the bed frame.
"HELP! SOMEONE HELP ME!"
"No one can help you now," the demon jeered.
Her nails scored the floorboards as she fought, kicking and thrashing wildly. But his grasp was too strong. He laughed watching her struggle.
"You will die now.. We will kill you.." The hand on her right ankle tightened, twisting punishingly.
Through the fog of numbing pain and fright, a glint of silver caught Khushi's eyes. Using all her strength, she propelled herself upwards, her hand coiling around it.
With a cry, she flung the iron chain towards the demon.
He hadn't anticipated any more resistance. The chain hit him square in the face. As he hissed, grabbing his cheeks, his hold loosened. Khushi scurried out, hobbling out the door.
Her eyes swung wildly around, her breathing erratic as she ran. How could she destroy the demon? she wondered. What would kill it? Iron controlled it for some time, but it appeared to be only temporary.
A knife seemed hardly enough, but it was all she could think of. It was the only weapon within reach. She'd just entered the kitchen when a deafening, booming bellow hit her ears. The sound of fury.
Her fingers fumbled as she pulled open one of the drawers, her heartbeat pounding as she rummaged through the utensils. The knife felt slippery in her hands, but Khushi held on to it. Hiding in a shadowy corner, she willed herself to keep quiet, biting down on her bottom lip till she tasted blood.
Each second ticked by slowly. Outside, the storm thundered on, lightning flickering every now and then.  Khushi's dilated eyes squinted to every shadow. So far, there was no sign of him. But she knew he had to be here.
Somewhere..
And then without warning, the wall behind her seemed to crumble and give away. Pointy, sharp nails squeezed her throat from behind. The knife slipped from her fingers, tumbling to the floor.
The demon pushed her against the opposite wall, twisting her around so they were face to face. His lips bent into something dark and evil. Khushi fought to breathe, clawing his chest desperately.
And then something unusual happened. Those red orbs altered, shifting to a rich, molten brown and then back to red. So quick was the change, she wondered if she'd imagined it.
"Arnav.. Arnav, I know you're in there.. you need to fight.." she managed.
The hand on her throat tautened, making her vision blur and her limbs jerk. "Arnav is not in control. We are. And you will die.."
She felt herself weakening, her lips turning a faint blue. Every passing second sapped away her strength and energy, till nothing remained but a will to survive. To not give in.
The room swayed around her, shadows seeming to dance and spin. Hope was dwindling now, her end felt near..
And then blinding headlights appeared outside. The sound of her parents' conversation with a neighbor filtered from the main door.
"Khushi?" called Payal, stepping into the too quiet house. "Arnav?"
The demon hissed, retracting almost at once. Black, smoke-like shadows clawed out from Arnav's mouth, snaking upwards and vanishing into the ceiling. Arnav rocked on his feet, his hand catching hold of the countertop. His molten brown eyes anxiously flashed to her.
"Khushi... Are you--"
She backed away from his outstretched hand and he froze, the silence thick and heavy between them.
He'd always seen hatred in her eyes, but he found himself aching for that. Anything had to be better than this. To see the woman he loved staring at him with such fear twisted his soul.
He swallowed. He had no right to touch, let alone love someone as good and pure as Khushi. He was contaminated and condemned.
"Khushi?" Payal entered the spotless kitchen, staring at the two of them in confusion. "Did you two fight again?"
Arnav stalked out of the room just as Khushi took a deep breath, massaging her raw and throbbing throat with one hand. "No... Not exactly."
Payal sighed, bending down. "And why is there a knife on the floor? Khushi, this can be dangerous."
She nodded absently, her mind consumed with one question: How did you destroy a demon?
*****
Arnav's eyes sealed close as he splashed water on his face, wishing he could wash away all the evil within him.
"That will never happen," whispered the shadows, curling around his nape. "You are evil, boy. You are one of us."
"No! No, I'm not!"
"We will prove it to you. See for yourself what you did just days ago..."
The demons snickered, a black tendril extending to the bathroom mirror. Arnav stood frozen as his reflection faded, the glass seeming to melt, sizzle and pop. And then a man his height appeared, a hood covering the vast majority of his face.
As he glanced up, looking directly at him, Arnav gasped. It was him--except his eyes were ruby red, his lips twisted darkly.
Like a movie, he watched his possessed form cross the grass to the neighbor's house, a slightly chipped plate balanced in his hands. He had no memory of any of this.
"Arnav dear?" Their next-door neighbor smiled. "You brought cake?"
The demon nodded, keeping the red orbs concealed under the hood. "It's Khushi's birthday."
The man didn't find his appearance odd, busy eyeing the slice of chocolate cake. "How sweet of her."
"Have a bite," the demon urged. "She made it herself."
"I should probably save it for after dinner."
"It won't taste the same then. Have one bite at least..."
Their neighbor didn't need more encouragement. He opened his mouth wide, gladly taking a rather large bite. Something happened then. Something terrible...
Arnav realized that at once, though he couldn't tell what was happening. The man was gurgling, crying out in odd, broken words that strung together made no sense. Blood trickled from the corners of his mouth, his gaze wide and panicked.
"We had you put a very sharp, double-edged blade in the cake," the shadows teased in Arnav's ears. "It split his tongue in two."
The demons laughed as he watched in horror the scene play out. What appeared to be an invisible rope coiled around the neighbor's neck, dragging him toward the well nearby.
His eyes flew to Arnav. "Help me," they seemed to say.
But there was no mercy. Wiping back the hood, the red orbs shone brightly, a smile on his face as the man was pulled to his death, chocolate crumbs coating his mouth.
The mirror swam back into focus, showing him his own hated image. Arnav fell forward on the sink, the neighbors' pain-filled gurgles snapping his control, his mind recalling Khushi's terrified gaze.
He was evil. He was.
The shadows were gleeful, flying in dark swirls above his head and relishing his agony.
*****
That night, thoughts of Arnav consumed Khushi. For decades, he'd lived with these demons and yet, he'd always kept the pain and torment bottled within him. She mourned for the innocent boy whose childhood and family had been snatched from him, for all those years she'd spent hating him, never once envisioning him as anything but evil.
"What are you thinking about?" Payal raised an eyebrow at her. "You're awfully quiet today."
"About Arnav," she admitted. "He's so different from what I imagined."
Her sister's eyes grew shuttered. "Don't hurt him, Khushi."
"What? I would never--"
"You have though," broke in Payal. "All these years you've been so rude to him."
Khushi glanced away. "I... I was wrong, Jiji."
"I'm glad you're finally realizing it," murmured her sister. Her voice lowered to a whisper. "Arnav loves you, you know."
Khushi's head snapped up. "What?"
Payal nodded. "You've really been blind all these years, haven't you? He's always so quiet and expressionless, but as soon as your name comes up, his eyes seem to shine. And when you're near him, he can't look away. It's fairly obvious."
Khushi was reminded of the gentleness in his touch as he'd carried her in from the rain, the flash of remorse on his face as he'd twisted her ankle.
"Don't hurt him," Payal said again. "Promise me."
Swallowing, Khushi reached for her sister's hands, her eyes shining. "I promise, Jiji. I won't ever hurt him."
*****
The next morning, Khushi found Arnav raking the fallen leaves outside. The storm had passed on, but it had left quite a mess behind.
She gingerly stepped over a muddy puddle. "Arnav..."
The muscles of his back bunched up and tensed. "You shouldn't be out here."
"Well, I am."
He didn't reply, raking with renewed vigor. Tiptoeing closer, she laid her palm on his arm. "Arnav, I'm trying to talk to you. Please--"
He swung to face her, dark strands of hair tumbling over his forehead. His gaze was cold and detached, almost vacant. "Leave me."
"No," she insisted stubbornly.
He blinked at her, seeming at a loss for words. "How can you bear it?" he finally ground out.
"Bear what?" For some strange reason, her heartbeat was galloping, her eyes traced over his features, pausing at his brown eyes, chiseled chin and lips.
"Bear to be near someone as evil as me? You hate me, don't you?"
She gazed at him calmly and with such tenderness, his breath suspended. Surely, such a look couldn't be for him.
 "I don't hate you, Arnav. And you're not evil." A soft smile curved her lips, making her look so beautiful against the morning light, it took everything in him not to crush her into his arms and never let go.
From the depths of his soul, he longed for her gentle touch. But he hardened himself against that fierce urge.
"Yes, I am! More evil than you can ever imagine!" His vehement tone startled her, but most striking was the pain shining in his eyes. He looked lost, hopeless.
"If only you knew about all the things I've done, Khushi... the number of innocent people I've brutally killed..."
She shook her head, settling her hand on his arm. "It wasn't you, it was--"
He flung her hand off with some force. Khushi began to go after him, but her feet slipped on the muddy grass, a cry escaping her lips.
Arnav caught her before she could fall. He kneeled on the ground with her draped over his arm. His eyes traced over her with rising alarm. His hands trembled as they brushed over the smooth paleness of her cheek. "Are you alright? You're not hurt, are you? Khushi, say something."
She found herself smiling up at him, bracing herself against his broad shoulders. "I'm fine. Don't you see how different you are from that evilness? You care, you love..."
His sharp intake of breath washed over her upturned face. It felt as if he was on the verge of confessing something, but then his expression turned hard and unapproachable once more.
"A demon has no right to love."
Khushi watched him stomp away, shivering despite the sun shining overheard. "You're not evil, Arnav. An evil possesses you. If I can differentiate between the two, why can't you?"
In the days that followed, Khushi tried to catch him alone. There was so much they needed to discuss and plan, but he kept his distance, running off and finding excuses every time. The tension was thick as ever between them.
The demons were silent too, though always lurking nearby. Some days, Khushi found herself wondering if they'd disappeared all together. But then tragedy struck, proving how utterly wrong she was.
Exactly two weeks from the night the demon had squeezed her throat, her parents and sister were involved in a terrible car accident on the way home from the market. Onlookers would later describe to the police that what appeared to be a giant, black shadow had flown past the windshield, obscuring the view completely. The car had skidded across two lanes and ended up directly in the path of a speeding truck. Though the driver had braked, it was too late.
All three of the Guptas died on the spot.
Possessed by TINA!
Part V: Finale
The hours that followed the crash felt like a hazy maze in Khushi's mind. She was aware of family friends and neighbors gathering in their too small home as the news reached them. Condolences poured in from all corners of Lucknow. The local news featured footage of the wreckage, the reporter talking at length about reckless driving. Her aunt arrived from Delhi, her eyes grief-stricken and disbelieving.
And yet, despite everyone surrounding her, the house more congested than she'd ever seen it, Khushi felt more alone than ever. Alone and frozen.
The funeral was held early the following morning, the three bodies cremated as gray clouds rolled in and a light rain began falling.
Khushi stood stoically, sharing an umbrella with her aunt. Buaji was sobbing, and though tears swam in her eyes as well, she was too numb with pain to react. Everything around her felt slow and sluggish. As if the sun would never shine again.
Everyone kept telling her that time healed all wounds, that the best people were taken early. And while she was grateful for the love and support, she couldn't help but feel that no one truly understood her pain.
Except for him.
He, the boy who'd grown up right alongside her and who despite his reserved stance and every attempt to not form any attachments, had loved her parents and sister dearly. She knew he had.
Her eyes searched for Arnav through the downpour, needing him. Since the accident, he'd disappeared, but her heart told her he had to have come to the funeral.
And then she saw him, standing far from the rest of them, almost hidden behind a thicket of trees near the cemetery gate. He was drenched to the skin, not seeming to feel the iciness of the rain. Their gazes clashed.
Tears rolled down her cheeks and she wordlessly passed the umbrella to her aunt, something deep within her driving her to go to him.
"Khushi bitiya," murmured Buaji, catching a hold of her arm. "Where are you going?"
"I'll be right back."
Without further explanation, she stumbled to Arnav, soaked to the skin by the time she reached his side.
This close, she could read the pain in his eyes. Could make out the tears mixing with rain on his cheeks. She didn't know who reached for the other first, but the very next second, she was in his arms, crushed to this chest.
A sob broke out as she clung to him, burrowing her face against the crease of his neck. He was silent, but his hands massaged up and down the slope of her back, his lips for the briefest moment gliding past her temple.
And yet she felt his touch down to her toes, shivering.
"You're cold as ice," he whispered.
He stepped away and she made a noise of protest, refusing to let go. The shivers were due to him, his close proximity and his gentle touch--not the rain, she ached to say.
"Just for a second, Khushi."
Reluctantly, she loosened her grip on him. Arnav removed the jacket he was wearing, settling it on her shoulders. Drawing her backward into the trees, he took her into his arms again.
Khushi clutched him almost desperately, the pent-up tears finally breaking out. She tried to stop crying, she really did, but with him, all her defenses splintered apart.
He held her without speaking, but as Buaji called out her name, his eyes blinked open. His body stiffened against her.
"You should go, Khushi. You're in danger with me here."
"No, I need you."
His eyes flashed with something and his hands fisted at his sides. Swallowing, he managed, "The demons have killed everyone I've ever loved. I won't let them near you."
Something in his tone made her heart sink. "What are you planning?"
Arnav glanced away. "Nothing..." that you should know about.
"Khushi!" her aunt shouted.
She grudgingly stepped away. "Buaji is taking me to Delhi day after tomorrow. You'll come too, won't you?"
His silence bit into her.
"Khushi..." he began slowly, his voice hitting her hard. The hesitation she detected amidst the usual husky undertones made her assume the worst.
"We'll discuss it later," she said hastily, the thought of losing him too more than she could endure. "Buaji, I'm over here!"
To Arnav's surprise, she took his hand in hers, waving to her aunt. How could she not blame him? he wondered with thinly veiled astonishment. How was her heart so strong?
Buaji observed him suspiciously, and he couldn't blame her. She took Khushi's other hand as if to pull her away, but Khushi had always been stubborn. Her grip tightened on his hand. And against his better judgment, Arnav did not let go. Instead, he clasped her hand just as tightly.
*****
That night Arnav slept fitfully, nightmares plaguing him as always. He woke up sometime in the middle of the night, a cold sweat dotting his forehead. The room felt unusual, something strange fluttering in the air.
The mattress suddenly dipped next to him.
And as his head turned sideways, his eyes widened with horror. Shashi Gupta, his face scarred and bleeding lay beside him, staring at him with accusation.
"You did this. I saved you, and you killed me."
He leapt out of the bed, his heart thundering. "No, Babuji. I never meant to hurt anyone."
"You're evil! Evil!" A bent finger pointed to him. "Stay away from my daughter, demon. Khushi will never love a monster like you!"
He stepped closer and Arnav could only watch. The demons flickered a small tendril from the shadows and the vision vanished as suddenly as it had come. Arnav crumpled on the floor.
The demons grinned over their own joke. These humans were so easy to taunt and humiliate. It was so easy to control them. Like playing with puppets. Once you knew their weaknesses, you just had to pull the right string.
Arnav recoiled into the small, untouched space within him, where he'd kept memories of his family, of Khushi and the Guptas locked up. The demons had always shunned those memories.
"I won't let you win," he muttered under his breath, a glint of determination blazing in his eyes. "I'll end this. Tonight."
*****
The sound of the door opening alerted Khushi right away. She hadn't been able to sleep.
A shadow stepped inside and for a moment, fear clogged her senses. Was it the demon? But one, quick glance showed no glowing orbs.
Her eyes fluttered close as Arnav came to her side, close enough to touch.
She could sense his eyes on her, his quiet breathing. She heard a faint rustle as his hand slipped across the mattress. But he never touched her.
And then out of the blue, came his husky voice: "Goodbye, Khushi. I... I love you..."
Tears stung her eyes as she heard his footsteps draw away, the door softly closing. She lay quiet for a moment, her breathing irregular, and then she kicked off the blankets. So she'd been right. He was planning on leaving her forever.
Arnav was already outside on the veranda and she hurriedly picked up a shawl, draping it over her shoulders as she chased after him.
He walked in the shadows, his tall, lean shape sliding in and out of the streetlight's glow.
Khushi followed him from a good distance, keeping him within sight. To her surprise he walked directly to a cemetery--one she vaguely recalled from childhood. Her father had once dug graves here when the family business had failed and their finances had dwindled down to almost nothing.
What was Arnav doing here?
He suddenly glanced back and she dropped behind a gravestone, her heartbeat pounding. After a few seconds, she risked a glance.
His back was turned to her. He stood near a freshly dug grave, though the headstone looked decades old. As the clouds slid past and a shaft of moonlight struck it, she could just make out the letter "A" engraved on its marble surface.
Edging closer, she caught a glance of what loomed inside. Silver... silver everywhere...
A squeak of horror escaped her before she could stop it. Arnav spun toward her direction.
"Khushi?" Speechless for but a moment, he sighed with frustration, running a hand over his face. "I should have known."
She was too preoccupied with looking at the coffin inside. It gleamed in the darkness. "What are you doing here? What are you planning?"
"Khushi, it's nothing, I'm--"
She cut him off with a swift glare, her eyes agonized. "This is not nothing! Do you think I'm so stupid I don't realize what you're planning? That's an iron coffin! You're going to lock yourself in it, aren't you?" Her voice sparked with challenge.
He met her gaze grimly. "It's for the best. The demons won't be able to harm anyone else if I do this."
She clutched his arms in panic. "You'll die! I won't let you!"
Arnav's jaw tightened. "There's no other way."
"There must be! Anything, but this."
His mouth opened to argue, but then he saw something... something far more frightening than his own impending death. Near the gate, shadows coiled as they drifted over the dewy grass, edging closer.
"They're here... the demons. You need to leave! Leave now!"
She shook her head. "I'm not running away anymore. This ends tonight."
He hauled her against him. "Why don't you understand? When they're in me, I'm not in control. I've tried for years to fight them off and never succeeded. LEAVE! I can't bear to see you hurt!"
As the shadows snaked closer, she cupped his pale face tenderly in her palms. "I believe you can win this time. I'm with you."
He swung his head out of her grasp, stepping toward the coffin. "Nothing has changed. They'll win again. I can't lose you too."
"Everything has changed."
"How?" he shouted. "I don't see it."
"You love me."
His foot froze on the coffin; his gaze swerved to her. Khushi nodded, her hair flying in the wind. "I heard you. And I--"
The shadows swooped down. Arnav's head fell back, his mouth opening on a pain-filled scream. When his eyes fell once more on her, they were blood red.
"You will die, Khushi," came the hoarse voice. "We will kill you tonight. Finally."
The demon caught her easily, slamming her into the marble headstone.
"ARNAV!" she screamed. "ARNAV, I KNOW YOU CAN HEAR ME! You need to fight. You must!"
The demons laughed, flicking an idle hand. There was a cracking noise as the gravestones surrounding them were wrenched off the soil, spinning in dizzying circles above their heads.
"This is your end, Khushi."
"NO!" She looked into those eyes, searching for the man she-- Her breath caught as she realized it. Realized a truth that had been there all along.
Nails dug into her neck, squeezing without mercy. Her vision began to dim, her struggles growing fainter.
"Arnav," she managed, gasping. "I love you."
The demon paused at that, and then laughed even harder.
"The five of us will never let your Arnav win," he spat. "Never! Together we five form the darkest evil. It is impossible."
But even as the demon spoke, something was changing. The graves were slowing, falling back to the ground. And most astonishing, his grip at her neck was loosening. Khushi shoved him backwards, taking deep breaths of the crisp, night air.
His voice changed. Changed to one she recognized. "Our love will defeat you all. Not even five hundred of you would be enough," roared Arnav. "I won't let you harm her!"
As love and hope surged in his blood, the demons hissed in agony. It was worse than any iron. They fought and clawed to survive, but that small space in Arnav's heart where he'd tucked away his most cherished memories was expanding, flooding him with light.
Black blood gurgled from his mouth, falling on the grass in thick droplets. As it hit the ground, it fizzed and spluttered, fading away.
Arnav fell to his knees, for the first time since he was four years old alone in his own skin.
"Khushi..."
His gaze found her through the darkness. She was standing near the headstone, clutching her heart. As she glimpsed the warmth and richness of his brown eyes, the redness no more, she cried out, running to him. They embraced tightly, shudders racking both.
"It's over, Arnav," she whispered, running her hands through his hair. "They're gone, love."
His gaze was tearful. "Say it again," he demanded.
"They're gone. It's over. Finally."
"No." He drew her back so their foreheads touched and their breath mingled. "Say you love me again."
Khushi blinked back tears, cupping his cheeks. "I love you, Arnav," she said, her heart in her eyes.
His mouth curved into a smile--something she'd seen far too little of. It took her breath away.
"I love you, Khushi... I've always loved you."
Tears marred both their cheeks as he drew her into his arms, their mouths meeting in a tender kiss. She clung to him, matching him stroke for stroke. Love crashed over them, a bliss neither could describe.
The fear of losing one another still lingered, and their hands and mouths met with pent-up urgency. It was like they were unable to stop touching one another, murmuring words of love between kisses.
"I don't want to go to Delhi with Buaji," Khushi admitted, laying her head over his heartbeat.
"Where do you want to go?"
She smiled up at him, reaching up to kiss his mouth. "Wherever you are."
"Always?"
"Always," she vowed.
As moonlight shone down on them and the first light of dawn appeared on the horizon, Arnav pulled Khushi up, guiding her out of the cemetery hand-in-hand. The darkness was finally gone. He was free.
Free to live... free to love...
~~~~~The end~~~~~

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