Kala was scared. The smoke was everywhere, pieces of the pavilion collapsing at her feet. The heat from far more than just another sunny day was already biting against her skin, singeing and crackling fabric and hair alike. She wanted to panic, she wanted to scream, but the precious air she would need to be able to complete either one of those tasks was sadly lacking.
"It's okay, we will get you out of here," she heard Wolfgang promise. He appeared as though at her side. His clothing was wet as if it were raining where he was and she felt a brief wave of jealousy at that. She realized with a start that her own clothing was becoming far more than damp, that she had brought herself to him instead of dealing with the task at hand.
"At least I feel as though I can breathe here," she commented.
He smiled, but shook his head. "Your body will burn alive if you stay," he said, both pragmatic and sad. "We can help you, but it has to be where you are, not here."
The smoke was back, as well as the heat. "We can manipulate your body, look for a means of escape," Sun pointed out. She turned in a slow circle, contemplating. "There are exits, if you know to look for them."
"Is this India?" Riley said, apropos of nothing. "It is very warm here." She still didn't release her hold on the thick sweater she wore.
"That's because the building is on fire, sweetheart," Wolfgang replied with a roll of his eyes.
Riley frowned. "I know that; I was just trying to distract her from that while we looked for a way out," she told him. She was doing just that now, wandering a few steps forward and peering at things only she could see.
"Shouldn't you be taking care of Will?" Wolfgang asked, a little harsh over the hint of concern, but it was all of their lives on the line and the slightest slip up could mean a fate worse than death.
"He's sleeping, we're safe for now," Riley insisted. She looked around again and corrected that to, "Well, as safe as we all respectively can be."
Kala smiled despite the danger she was currently in. The flames had found the paper offerings and were working their way towards the flowers. The prayer room was behind her, a thin line of broken glass and fire between her and the statue of Ganesh. She hoped it would survive even as she knew it was only a symbol to help the devoted focus their prayers to their god.
There was a crowd in front of her, chaos all around her. Everyone was trying to push and shove their way down the steps to freedom, but most only succeeded in slowing everyone else down as bodies fell and become obstacles to trip over. Pots and bowls, containers of food and other offerings were being used defensively or in outright attack as people tried to make headway against the blockage.
"Head towards your god," Sun ordered.
"Is this really a 'head towards the light' scenario?" Riley asked doubtingly. She tugged on a strand of her hair, nervous, and Kala knew death far more than a casual acquaintance in her life.
Sun did not roll her eyes as Wolfgang had, but it appeared to be a near thing. "There are alternative exits, ones not so crowded with people yet and with very little flames," she explained with a calmness Kala envied.
Kala looked towards the statue, towards the debris and sparks and everything else that stood between her and it. She looked down at the flowing fabric of her dress, and her bare feet below that, shoes left at the entrance to the stairs before she made the climb. "I don't know if I can make it," she admitted. The flowers had caught now, the smell smokey and pungent in its own right, yet almost welcomed versus the dry harshness of everything else.
"We will be right here with you," Capheus promised. "You will not do this alone."
"Cross to the statue, take the hallway to the right, turn left at the next interchange and then right at the one after that. There's a staircase that's kinda crappy, but it leads back down to the street," Nomi told her. Before she could ask, the other woman shrugged, "It's damn near a world heritage site. The pics online are amazing."
Kala took as steadying of a breath as she dared, and then managed one cautious step towards her goal. There was a shriek and a push and another small container burst into flames a good five meters to the side.
"Do not worry, I can do this for you," a new and final voice sounded beside her. Lito tugged at the neat hems of his shirt and cracked his neck in two different directions. With a smile and a wink and the bravado she needed, he added, "I do my own stunts."
And then it was a blur of motion. She felt her feet touch the brick, touch the thin fabric that smoldered atop it. Flowers and draperies brushed against her arms as she leapt and ducked and turned. Her skin still felt the crackle of the heat, but in a distanced and almost abstract kind of way.
She stood before the statue now, and resisted the urge to kneel. Instead, she settled for a polite bow and gave into an instinct she knew she may regret later. She took off again, Nomi's directions ringing in ears that were not fully hers, a trail of dazed worshipers behind her.
"This way!" she called, even though she had never set foot in this area of the temple before.
A holy man smiled and nodded and folded his hands briefly before him. "We will trust the one that knows the old paths," he said, and that was apparently all that was needed for another dozen people to follow her.
The brick slowly cooled beneath her feet, though the smoke was caught in the small passageways making the great escape even more breathless than it needed to be. Soon enough though, she found herself against a wooden door that was stationary with weight and rust and age. The combined forces of those that followed her, with perhaps a little bit of help from a very determined Wolfgang, were enough to get the ancient hinges moving and let the throng of escapees out into the fresh air.
There were cries of elation mixed in with the cries for medical assistance, and she slowly turned to see what remained of the temple behind her. The stone blackened but remained stable, and anything remotely flammable was either destroyed or well on its way to being so. She thought again of the statue she had laid many an offering at and hung her head in sorrow of knowing that, even if it survived, it would never be the same again.
"Do not worry yourself so, child," the old man admonished. "The statue was but a physical thing, Ganesha will live on forever in our hearts and our prayers," he promised.
"Many an artisan would be honored to create a new one should the old one not survive," a woman of nearly the same age agreed. "And that which you saved will hold a place of honor wherever it may rest, just as it has for centuries."
She looked down at her hands, and it took her a long moment to register what she held. Small and mobile and oh so very old, it was a wooden carving of the elephant-headed god, bright paints now well faded and thin strips of decorative metal long tarnished. It had survived floods and earthquakes and regime changes, always finding its way back to those who needed it. For as long as she remembered, it had sat before the larger, more visible statue. For as long as she remembered, she had always thought of its story and used it as inspiration in her own trials.
The old man clasped his hands over her own, but made no attempt to remove the relic. "You will be honored in the prayers of all who enter here for saving such a thing of value," he promised her.
She thought of the men she had seen, the scarves across their faces to hide their true identities as they threw the bottles that lit the first flames. She had seen their eyes though, had seen their despise and utter hatred and mockery of those who had frequented the temple, for those whom the men thought were stuck in the past with no true vision of the future. She looked to the gathering crowd now, and tried to spot them again, knew they would be watching and waiting and gloating when she corrected her current companion to say, "Not all."
He nodded, likely either having seen the same thing she did, or suspecting the source of the fire as a whole. "There are those who would have us move forward to the future," he agreed. "And perhaps we do need to quicken our pace. But can we truly have a future without a past? We do not stand alone with the currents of time that flow around us. We move with those currents, but always churn the soil and leave a path in our wake."
She looked to him now and wondered if he could see what she saw. She was not alone. Even if every single frantic person around her were to disappear, she knew she would never be alone again. Her cluster, her friends whom she had never personally met nor touched nor shared so much as a cup of tea with, were there beside her reaching out to make sure she was safe and whole, as real and as important as the tiny depiction of the god she held in her hands. Will may have been absent, but she knew she could travel via Riley to see him too if she dared. Knew she could share the moment with each and every one of them if any of them felt the need for a touch of danger of a different kind.
Instead, she looked back to the temple and brushed a thumb over the worn edges of the carving. Time and life and everything else flowed around her and, much like that stone in the river, she still had so very many paths before her. She also had one very solid one in her wake. None were more important than the other, and her life thoroughly depended upon both the past and the future together as a whole even if they seemed in direct contrast most of the time. It was terrifying and exhilarating and, more importantly, it was simply her life.
She looked around her once more and corrected that final thought: it was simply their life, and no small part of her reveled in the fact it was not her fate to forge this path alone. They may end up filthy and charred and soaked and muddy and freezing and hot and everything else but, in the end, they reached that end together.