The Lantern Man

The sun had sunk behind the horizon, and darkness had settled into the hollows of the trees. Stars pierced the black sky like buttons of a mourning dress, the silver specks shining down The Doon School.

Silence spread its long arms around the buildings, the endless fields, and pavilions. Perfectly cut grassroots rustled in the cool breeze as it slid between the leaves, then oozed through the window crevices.

As the cold air slid across Neel's skin, he frowned and shuddered, wrapping himself up in the thick blankets. But the breeze kept breaking his calm night, not letting him go back to sleep.

Growling from annoyance, the boy stood up, his long white pants dragging across the floor as he walked up to the open window to close it. When he grabbed the handle, he noticed something shining in the field. Narrowing his eyes, Neel leaned on the window sill, trying to see through the murk.

A blue fire floated in the air, high above the ground, on a fixed spot as if someone with a transparent body held it. The fire kindled as its sharp edges stretched up in the air, the blue color altering from a darker shade to lighter on top, with deep orange tints and yellow dots in it.

Shivers running down his body, Neel leaned back as if afraid the fire would burn him. But it was too far away, so far that it seemed like the size of his fingertip. But the blue flames lanced the gloom, burning endlessly as if requiring no effort to exist. Neel sensed that it was not a usual fire, not something that needed twigs and wood to keep burning. And he had never seen such a strange color - a mix of deep blue, grey, and white. There was something magical about this fire, something unearthly.

Suddenly the boy heard footsteps outside his door and looked back. The sound soon halted, but when he looked out of the window again, the fire had disappeared without a trace as if it had only been an illusion.

When the sun rose and the first period ended, the students filled the dining hall, blabbering and laughing. The shine shimmered on the walls while the boys tried to stuff their mouths with breakfast, gulp water, and talk at the same time.

Neel flopped on the table at the window with his friend - Jai, two years older. Neel had just begun studying at The Doon School.

Jai started taking bites of his food, one after another, trying to die down his hunger, his gaunt cheeks slowly enlarging. Sinking in his thoughts, Neel didn't touch the food and gazed out of the window, resting his chin on his hands.

"What's wrong?" Jai asked as Neel kept quiet.

"Nothing, I-" Neel paused for a moment. "I saw a blue fire. Around the main field and pavilion. A blue fire floating in the air."

He gazed into Jai's eyes, scared his friend would guffaw at his silly imagination. But instead, Jai wiped his mouth clean, and his brows lowered.

"You saw it too?" he asked. "The blue fire shines at night. It's known as a lantern man."

"Lantern man?" Neel's jaw dropped. "It's a ghost?" Jai nodded and took a sip of his water.

"Yeah, a lot of students have come across it," Jai shrugged. "I haven't seen it, though."

"Do you think it's dangerous?" Neel asked as his mind kept flying back to the previous night and the magical fire.

"Nothing has been said about it killing a student," Jai replied, a slight smile dancing on his lips. "But I wouldn't try getting closer if I were you. It's a ghost after all."

Neel's eyes returned to the window as the image of the blue fire floated to the surface of his memories. "Lantern man," he mumbled. "Why is he roaming around here? What is he searching for? Maybe he lost someone..."

Jai bent his lips from confusion.

"I have no idea," he forced the words through his stuffed mouth. "It's part of this territory already. Just forget it."

But Neel couldn't forget. It had been the strangest, scariest, and yet the most beautiful experience he had ever had. He needed to see it closer; he needed to see the lantern man.

The night hung above the school like a heavy cloud as Neel stepped out of the building and into the field. He stopped, his eyes fixing on the blue fire that kindled in the air. As he strained his eyes, the boy saw the outline carving out of the darkness. A shadowed, see-through body appeared in front of him, and Neel's legs began walking toward it on their own.

Neel froze a few feet away from the man, holding a lantern, the blue fire shining through glass. The white lantern dangled from his strong hand, and Neel's eyes glided to his face - wrinkled like a withering flower. White hair covered his head, and old, ragged clothes clasped around his heavy, tired body.

The lantern man watched the boy with weary, half-lidded eyes, sated with loneliness and melancholy.

"Why are you here?" Neel asked, hearing his own heartbeat. He couldn't decide if it felt like a nightmare or a fairytale.

The man stayed silent, gazing at him as his eyes ignited just like his fire - two glowing blue dots like pieces of a morning sky.

"Who are you searching for?" the boy asked again. The man's parched lips opened and moved slightly. "My son," he murmured with a deep voice.

"He studied here?" Neel asked.

The man nodded wordlessly.

"He died here?"

As these words left Neels mouth, the blue fire flickered and began weakening, shrinking, and getting smaller.

"Don't leave!" Neel begged, but the man had started blending with the dark, his body fading like his fire.

In a second, the blue light vanished, and Neel fell into the night. With tears burning his eyes, he stood alone, still feeling the warmth of the fire, wondering when he would see the lantern man again.

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