“Damn!” Marlin muttered as he inspected the bike’s tire closely. That was the third time that the rear tire had gotten punctured in one week. It would have to go.
He dragged the bike through the sand, his long frizzy hair trailing behind him in the wind. It wasn’t too tough a job for someone of his strength, but the wind kept blowing sand into his eyes. Once, the sting was so awful that he opened his mouth to curse, which only resulted in a mouthful of sand. He spit it out with vigor and carried on. No little sandstorm was going to get the best of Marlin Parinski.
He couldn’t believe his luck as he came up to a garage not too far away from where the tire had broken down. He dragged the bike in and handed the mechanic ten Prios after telling him to remove the old tire and fix a new one in its place.
As he looked out from the shelter of the garage, the sandstorm kept getting worse. He’d been to deserts before on Earth, and although there had been sandstorms there as well, they were nowhere near as frequent as those on the desert areas in this world.
Marlin wondered if this world was bigger than the Earth . He wondered if anyone here had bothered to find out. People seemed to have very little enthusiasm over here. Most of the people Marlin knew lived in the town named Geric, which was where he lived. There were lots of others scattered all over the place, living by themselves. Many other towns probably existed as well, but very few wanted to explore the land to meet new people and were mostly satisfied with their simple, secluded lives.
He looked at his watch. He had to finish the task that The Prophet had assigned him and reach home before sunset. Not only did he not want to be out in the severe cold, he had to reach home in time for the special feast.
Today was no ordinary day. It was the ten-year anniversary of the eruption of Mt. Hellfire. Marlin had been in this world for two years when it had happened.
He had been sitting at the table eating dinner with his mother when it happened. The loud bang seemed to shake the house. He could see the volcano from the window. The top of the mountain was covered in what he assumed to be lava and ash, which slowly started flowing down.
They had rushed out of the house and watched as people screamed and ran in different directions. Some simply stood and stared at the volcano, either in shock or fascination. Those were the first ones to go. Marlin had rode away on the bike with his mother, but few others had the luxury of vehicles to get away.
The lava wasn’t the worst part of the eruption. Its flow was slow enough for the people to escape, although lots of homes were destroyed by it. The worst part was the clouds of hot tephra that emerged from the top and sides of the volcano.
The clouds raced down the mountainside, destroying almost everything in their path. The ash that erupted into the sky fell back to the land like powdery snow that wouldn’t melt. The thick blankets of ash suffocated all the creatures that couldn’t escape its wrath.
The volcano continued burning for two weeks. Their town was almost completely obliterated. Nearly half the population had died of asphyxiation and due to the landslide that followed in the aftermath of the explosion.
Nobody had listened to the warnings of The Prophet. He had told them that the mountain was fated to explode very soon, but no one had paid heed to the old man’s warnings. They had thought him to be a lunatic. After the eruption, he became their leader. He helped organize the rebuilding of the town in a location away from all the ash. He helped put their lives in order once again.
The Prophet dubbed the volcano Mt. Hellfire, and that was what everyone called it now. Everyone except the rebels. They were the ones who repudiated The Prophet’s leadership.
Every year, The Prophet held a special feast to celebrate the anniversary of the explosion. The rebels considered this an insult to the ones who had died, but The Prophet said that the anniversary was simply to rejoice in the fact that Mt. Hellfire had left them in peace for another year.
Marlin didn’t find death as serious over here as it seemed on Earth. Somehow, the concept had taken on a whole new meaning. They now knew that death was not eventual; at least, not the first time.
The mechanic had finished the work, and Marlin decided that he had better get going or the man he was to rescue would soon find out what happened the second time. The Prophet had told him that the man had been in one of Zhang Lin’s cells for a few days. There was no way out of the cell. Zhang Lin hadn’t meant his prisoners to escape. He had wanted them to die a slow death of starvation and thirst.
In spite of the sandstorm, Marlin made it to the spot in good time. Before his eyes were the infamous fifty cells where Zhang Lin, the most terrible ruler that the Second World had seen, imprisoned the worst of his enemies. It was very unfortunate for someone to arrive in this world at that particular spot.
Marlin walked through the area, noting the numbers on each cell, until he finally arrived at number 22. The Prophet had told him that there was only one way to open the cell. If Marlin leanedon the wrong spot, anything could happen. Zhang Lin might have placed any number of traps that would be triggered if pressure was put on the wrong part of the wall.
Slowly, Marlin moved his hands lightly along the wall. He had moved it along two of the four walls and was halfway through the third when he felt the slight bulge that was invisible to the eye. On this spot, Marlin applied all the force he could.
The wall opened up into two halves and revealed an emaciated figure lying on the centre of the floor, motionless.