Destruction, desolation, and death surround you.
The air is choked with smoke and dust as you make your way along the cracked road into the town. Fumes billow from a car abandoned on the roadside. You walk though the craters, rubble and shells of lorries Just visible through the haze are the broken buildings of the city abandoned in the wake of The Bloods’ last visit. You pause for a moment. The smoke begins to clear and you catch a glimpse of yourself in a car window. Her pale face is more angular than it ever was before, framed by a tousled mop of dirty blonde hair. There are dark bags under your eyes but you are pleased to see muscles - you’ve grown strong since joining the resistance. You’ll need all your strength to face this next challenge. Especially now Merub has vanished. You turn back to face the city.
<img src="https://www.cultureword.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/Riana-Final-1thinned.jpg" width="800" height="800" alt="bombed city">
You can’t help but feel lonely as you pick your way along the road. You never valued Merub’s friendship as much as in these troubled and dangerous times, and now she has gone missing you feel her absence like a part of yourself has been taken. She held you up through terror, flight, and finally finding the resistance. You have travelled so far together, following train tracks and trekking across open wilderness, that her sudden disappearance is hard to comprehend. Merub is strong, you have to hold on to the hope that she’ll make her way back to you. You have come so far together that you know what she would want you to do now. Little Qudsia was alone in this city, and Merub would want you to find her. She loved her little sister more than anything. You are Qudsia’s last hope.
You approach the city, keeping an eye out for any sign of movement till before you stands the remains of a town square,. Shattered glass covers the ground. Hollow window frames house broken blinds that creak. There is a breeze. There are no other signs of movement. Stone figures litter the ground of the square like a graveyard. Nearby lies the remains of a woman in a hijab holding a young baby. A man with a Koran in his hand lies beside her. Red paint covers him from head to toe. Their symbol surrounds you. It blinks down at you from all sides, emblazoned around the square in red spray paint, glaring at you from doors and hanging from flags upon walls. The symbol of The Bloods. Qudsia would not have remained at this place here after an assault like this. Qudsia must be further within the city. She has to be. The alternative is unthinkable.
You take an alleyway. A smell comes to you. You try and stem the worst of it. At the end of the alleyway you gasp. The burning flesh smell now chokes the air. Ahead lies the bombed remains of a Mosque.
https://www.cultureword.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/Riana-Final-2thinned.jpg" width="800" height="800" alt="bombed city">
The right-hand side of the building has been destroyed by a bomb blast. Its white bricks are scattered across the street. Half of the dome has collapsed and the two remaining walls lean inwards unstably. The grand double doors remain standing. As you approach the ruin, one of those double doors swings open.
What do you do?
1a. [[Avoid the mosque]]
1b. [[Enter the Mosque]]
The mosque sways gently back and forth. If Qudsia was inside the Mosque when the blast went off… no, you refuse to accept the thought. This could be a trap. The Bloods do those things. You’ll be no hope to Qudsia if you’re dead or, worse, caught. You’ll resume the search elsewhere.
You take one last look at the destroyed Mosque. There is no help for those poor people now, and if you are not careful you are sure to meet the same fate. You stumble up the road that leads away from the city.
Dusk has begun to fall. After a few miles, you climb a lamppost to scout the area and your heart sinks as you notice a bridge ahead. It has been blasted in two. Behind you lie The Bloods, ahead lies nothing but dead ends. Your head turns to the west, where the countryside stretches out towards the horizon. You must find a safe place to rest if you’re to continue your search tomorrow. Reluctantly, you leave the road and head across open fields into the wilderness.
Darkness soon creeps upon you and casts a shadow across the land. The trees loom ominously over you and the path becomes impossible to see. You trip and stumble over fallen. Your legs feel heavy with tiredness. Your brain is so foggy from hunger. You cannot think. The trees sway and your vision blurs. Perhaps there was food in the Mosque, perhaps there would have been somewhere to sleep… perhaps Qudsia was in there after all. You turn and stare at the shadow of the city far in the distance. Your feet begin to guide you back in the direction of the lights.
Then you are falling. Your face hits soft, muddy ground. A pain shoots from your ankle. You know enough to know that it is broken. You gaze at your surroundings. Vertical walls of earth rise high around you on all sides, at least twelve feet tall and slick with mud. Using the last of your energy you pull yourself up on your good leg, crying out in pain from your ankle, and try clamber out of the ditch. You try and try again. Your come crashing down on your broken ankle and your screams echo through the empty night air. You fall back, exhausted.
Your throat is scratchy and you crave water. Fever taunts you with visions of blue lagoons and clear, cold streams. Death takes you.
The rain comes and you sink, enveloped in the soft wet embrace of the mud until there is no mark of you remaining.
Sunlight filters through the hole in the dome. The bodies of men, women and children are everywhere. Smoke swirls from piles of rubble and your footsteps are muffled by a thick layer of ash, dust, and blood that carpets the ground as you desperately scan the faces that are visible, hoping beyond hope that none are Qudisa. You edge forward, heart pounding in your chest. On the right, where the rubble is piled high, all that is visible is the odd hand or foot poking out from beneath the bricks. These people must have been crushed alive.
Bodies are piled high near the door. You had not noticed them before. They must have been trying to escape.
You search for the one face you’re hoping not to find. Your gaze falls upon a small body that lies apart from the others in the centre of the prayer hall. She has wavy black hair and her clothes are covered in dust and smudged with charcoal. Your heart is in your throat as you race towards her and gently turn her limp body onto her back. Qudsia. Her eyes are closed, and a trickle of blood has dried on her cheek from a shallow gash in her forehead. You reach to her neck to find a pulse. Relief floods through you as you feel the weak beat against your fingertips. Gently you scoop her into your arms.
A sliver of movement catches your eye at the front of the prayer hall. From the darkened corner to the left of the Mihrab, a cloaked figure emerges. Their face is obscured by a large hood that falls over their eyes and casts their features into shadow, but you can sense they are looking directly at you.
<img src="https://www.cultureword.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/Riana-Final-3thinned.jpg" width="800" height="800" alt="bombed city">
What do you do?
2a. [[Approach the figure]]
Tentatively you begin to pick your way towards the front of the prayer hall, eyes never leaving the hooded stranger. You can feel their eyes watching you as you get closer and closer. Once you reach them, they slowly lower their hood.
He is tall, looking down at you, with thick eyebrows and deep-set eyes. His features are set in a serious expression that you find strangely calming, yet this is not what makes you stare. A thick red scar runs along the man’s hairless head and across his nose, twisting his face slightly and forcing one of his eyes to sag. He smiles. His dark eyes seem to sparkle. He nods to you in greeting. “Hello,” he says, “I’m glad you came.”
Dangerous times like these leave little space for trusting strangers and your priority has to be getting Qudsia to safety. You begin to slowly back away, your eyes never leaving the motionless figure. You make it out of the door. You break into a run down the main street, then take a sharp left, twist your way through the side streets of the city in hope of leaving the Mosque and the stranger within far behind you. Qudsia stirs in your arms and you clutch her tighter. You stop on a small, narrow street and catch your breath. The sun has sunk behind the buildings and twilight has begun to fall. Abandoned window fronts show last season’s fashion trends on broken manikins. Their sightless eyes seem to follow you as you walk down the central road. You blink heavily, and suddenly realise how tired you are.
You try the door of one of the shops on your right. “Hello?” you call into the room, and when there is no answer, you enter and wind your way between the clothes rails until you see a sofa at the back of the shop. You lie Qudsia down and sweep the hair from her face. She sighs, and, still asleep, nestles into the cushions. It’s a miracle she survived the blast. Exhausted, you sink onto the floor in front of the sofa and try to stop your eyes from closing. Qudsia needs drink, food, a change of clothes.