Riddles in the Dunes (Third Place Pakistani Readers Fantasy Short Story Competition 2016)

sphinx

“Listen closely child to the tale of Mikamah, the goddess of wisdom. For her self-serving ways, she now suffers a fate worse than death they say. Perhaps she was not that bright after all. At a time when gods walked amongst humans and shifters in the desert realm of Yaransa, Mikamah was a celebrated deity. Combining the body of a lion, wings of an eagle and the torso of a woman she fashioned the first sphinx. Breathing her essence into the creature gave the female a unique form of wisdom: premonition. The catch was that sphinxes could only reveal those secrets in the form of riddles. In Mikamah’s sight, only those smart enough to solve them were worthy of possessing those secrets. The other gods and goddesses were alarmed as potent secrets were gained by those with nefarious intentions. They pleaded with the vain goddess but she rebelled and was finally defeated. Stripped of the amulet holding her power, she was cast into the deepest pits of the Underworld where she languishes to this day.”

The little girl stared wide eyed and slack jawed as her mother concluded the story. The young woman smiled affectionately at her daughter, “Close your mouth Lina or the locusts might jump in!”

Admonished and concerned the dark haired child pressed her lips together tightly. “Why is my precious flower turning blue in the face?” Malina’s father strode into the tent and settled down next to her pallet.

“Pa the locusts want to eat me!” the five year-old exclaimed throwing herself into brawny arms that snuggled her closer.

Her mother shook her head in exasperation while her father declared, “Only if they get past my deadly fist!”

A serious debate followed between father and daughter comparing the speed of fists to that of locusts.

Assured at last and yawning like a sand cat, Malina was tucked into bed and fast asleep when alarmed cries forced her awake. Her parents were nowhere to be seen in their humble nomadic dwelling. Horses stomped big hooves in the sand right outside the faded cloth causing her to whimper in fear. As gruff voices in a harsh dialect sounded closer and closer, she climbed into the large wicker basket set aside for blankets. Suddenly she heard her mother scream and her father bellow in outrage. Both backed away from an unseen threat stumbling through the tent flap. Before Malina could fly into her mother’s embrace, wild looking men with wicked curved weapons charged in. Before she could inhale to scream, identical crimson streaks laced across the air spattering the grimy tent fabric and the wooden poles that once held her home together. The child’s mind could take no more horror and she succumbed to blissful darkness.

 

Someone clutched Malina to their chest rocking her back and forth. Bleary amber eyes registered her grandma’s arms wrapped unyielding around her. The tears finally burst forth soaking them both in renewed grief. They along with two men, who had been visiting the nearby city of Ramin, were all that was left of the Kabali tribe. The rest had been slaughtered in their beds like cattle hunted by wolves in the night. The Harashi tribe had their vengeance for some ancient indiscretion no one remembered and Malina became an orphan. Once the funeral rites were observed, Ashbel bundled up her granddaughter and returned to Ramin. Her elderly friend, a kind schoolmaster took them in and soon Malina was learning to be a scribe while Ashbel minded an herb stall in the Great Market.

“I wish the rest of my students were as bright and eager as Malina”, Behlur remarked. “Such a creative spirit she is with her quick wit and queer puzzles.”

Ashbel froze arranging herbs and struggled to smile in reply at her old friend. After he walked off, she packed up for the day and hurried home to her granddaughter.

“Nana, look at this book I found today!” the eleven-year old trilled in greeting. Malina’s love for mythology had resulted in an entire collection of strange books like one she now held out.

“Lovely, dear”, Ashbel kissed her cheek. “Do put the kettle on. Will you?”

She had dreaded this day ever since Malina’s mother, her daughter-in-law, had confided in her about their true heritage.

Dropping in the seat next to her, Malina sighed dreamily, “Oh! How I wish I had claws like Marion or wings like Gaili.”

Listing the fascinating traits of her shifter friends, Malina’s voice slowly trailed off noticing the increasing alarm on her grandma’s face.

“What’s the matter, Nana?” she placed a gentle palm on her furrowed forehead.

The wrinkled hands grasped the smaller ones warmly. “Lina, it is time you know who you are”, Ashbel begin hesitantly.

“Who I am? Why I am Lina!” the child’s wide smile died out when Ashbel’s somber expression remained.

“Do you remember the bedtime stories your Ma told you about hunted sphinxes and the evil goddess?”

A shaky nod was her only response.

“They are not legends child, but history; the history of your people.” Ashbel continued.

Malina had always longed to be like her exciting shifter friends but this? This was scary. Panicked tears leaked down her golden face and she ran out of the house towards her favourite thinking spot by the Hamrum River. When Ashbel joined her hours later, Malina’s tears had dried and she appeared pensive.

“Your Ma also had a special message for you,” her grandma pushed back a stray lock. Malina perked up at that and her grandma recited.

 

“Mirror to heart is mind,

Soul to body they bind.

Blind are ye accursed vain,

Wiser to fear than disdain.”

At Malina’s perplexed expression, Ashbel gave a watery smile, “She said you would figure it out when the time came.”

Hand in hand they walked back determined to face whatever came as family.

 

Standing at Behlur’s doorstep, nineteen-year old Malina reflected that her Nana would be there now if the gods hadn’t called her away three years ago. Life had been hard without her to teach Malina control of her growing abilities especially shape shifting.

“Promise you won’t breathe a word of this to anyone Lina”, she had made her swear.

Malina had kept her word since but hiding such secrets had cost her many friends growing up.

“Jazzem is a well respected professor at Sarus University. Make me proud,” Behlur gave her a parting hug sending her off to the capital as a scribe to his long time friend.

When the caravan stopped to rest in the quaint town of Laleer, Malina happily browsed book stalls at the weekly market. Suddenly aware of a man breathing down her neck, she whirled around but a pungent cloth was pressed to her mouth stifling any protests. Darkness engulfed her and she fell limp in his burly arms.

“Ah! The heat was too much for my little sister.”

Syn inwardly cringed at Jef’s lame tactic.

Thrusting the girl at him, the eagle shifter ordered, “Load the bitch up in the carriage and let’s be off”.

Syn was really getting tired of that low life acting like the boss but he cursed at the mercenary’s back and did as told.

Glancing at his unconscious burden he lamented, “Too bad we can’t be friends darling. You’re kind of pretty.”

Scowling at the unfairness of the universe, Syn guided the horses to their hidden destination.

 

Malina jerked awake in pitch black. While her eyes adjusted, trembling hands felt around for clues making contact with a rocky surface on all sides but one. Gripping metal bars, she realized it was a cell of some sort. Sensing her shifting ability blocked by a spell of some sort, she was resigned to act like a damsel in distress.

“Help!” she yelled.

Her voice echoed off invisible surfaces leading her to conclude she was trapped in a cave-like prison.

“Shut up!” a gruff voice complained coming closer along with a lit torch until she could make out the sharp features of the speaker.

“Enough Jef! Zellis is on her way”, a clear deep voice announced.

It came from a younger man around her age, who appeared bored but his alert gaze said otherwise.

A haughty older woman in scarlet robes swept in addressing her scornfully, “You? You are the sphinx?”

Malina’s blood turned to ice in her veins.

“I am Zellis, high priestess of Mikamah’s Temple,” the woman gestured at herself regally studying her with reptilian eyes.

Rattlesnake shifter, Malina noted uneasily.

While she stood mute with panic, the priestess droned on about how the priesthood had fled underground after Mikamah’s fall.

“You will locate her lost amulet and mighty Mikamah will return to finish what she started,” Zellis commanded.

“Why me?” Malina titled her head curiously.

“Pathetic as you are, you are the last descendant of the first-born sphinx, ungrateful wench!” Zellis spat out viciously. “The goddess told me where to find you when we last communed in ritual. Her connection to your blood is strong.”

Lunging forward, her lethal nails piercing Malina’s neck, the priestess hauled her by the collar and demanded, “Tell me where the amulet is!”

Malina’s gaze grew unfocused even as an otherworldly voice issued from her lips:

 

“Power that seek the bold,

Sleeps in death’s embrace cold.

Watch as dark devours light,

Beckoning to those with the Sight.”

Smiling triumphantly, Zellis dragged Jef out shooting over her shoulder, “Report to me when you solve the riddle, Syn.”

Striding closer to Malina, Syn waved a familiar parchment in her face.

“Jazzem’s scribe huh? I know him from my university days,” he revealed. “Cooperate and I will deliver you to him safely.”

 

Mulling over her options during a wretched meal of moldy bread and cloudy water, Malina decided to remain compliant until she could find real help. Absorbed in her gloomy thoughts, she didn’t notice the desert wolf slinking in until it sat panting beyond the bars cocking his head to study her. The canine wagged its fluffy tail and whined rubbing its damp nose against the bars. She reached out with an uncertain hand to pet her only friend in that miserable rank cave.

“Better a wild animal than a caged one,” she sadly mumbled to her companion.

The desert wolf’s muscles trembled beneath its fur and before she could blink, Syn stared down at her smirking. Quickly recovering, Malina stumbled to her feet and returned his intense stare, ignoring the flush that crept up her temples.

“See something you like?” Syn teased bending to her level.

“For Gods’ sake, put some pants on man!” Jef marched in eyes tightly squeezed shut.

Infuriated beyond belief, Malina shot back, “I’ve seen better!”

Uproarious laughter followed Syn all the way to the entrance where he paused and announced, “We leave at dawn.”

 

The next morning the trio set off with their reluctant prisoner in tow and Syn navigating. “The Valley of the Damned!” Zellis screeched at him. “Have you lost your mind?”

“That’s where the riddle points to,” Syn explained calmly, “Clever really when you think of it. No one would think to venture into that pit of decay.”

“The ancient battleground of the Gods,” Malina gasped in realization.

“They say the souls of the damned still haunt it, ripping apart any who dares enter,” Jef supplied.

Braving sweltering days and bitter cold nights in the desert, they finally reached the mouth of the valley on the sixth night.

“Are you sure about this?” Zellis asked uncertainly.

“Rattled?” Syn taunted.

“Careful mutt before I whip out a leash!” she hissed back.

Jef added his fears of being followed and no one noticed Malina pacing towards the dead tree smack in the middle of the wasteland.

She was being pulled inexplicably in the direction of the grey trunks twisted as if in pain, the branches bare and lifeless. Her quick strides turned into a sprint and she slammed her hands over the creaking trunk. Running feet sounded behind her while she desperately scratched at the bark till her nails bled.

Syn pulled her off and held her struggling form still reaching out. Jef brought down his axe and the rotting tree groaned falling to the cracked earth.

“It was hollow!” Jef exclaimed.

He plunged a hand to extract the heavy gold amulet with an oval amber stone set in the center. The mercenary’s agonized scream rent the air once before he collapsed dead and unmoving. Taking advantage of Syn’s shock, Malina freed herself and grabbed the amulet sighing in relief. The pull had vanished.

“Good riddance,” Zellis flipped her long golden hair back and straightened her shoulders. “Time to summon our mistress!”

“Don’t do this!” Malina pleaded with Syn. “I cooperated. Now take me to Sarus.”

“Not so fast!” He dragged her to Zellis, who produced a dagger and sliced Malina’s palm coating the amulet in blood.

A maniacal gleam entered Syn’s eyes as the priestess began a hypnotic chant.

“You think this is about gold?” he sneered. “Those fools at the university threw me out just because I showed another his place. Once Mikamah rises, the brightest like me will take their rightful place as rulers of the world!”

The crack beneath their feet got wider as the chanting grew in fervor. Unbelievably hot vapors shot out of the fractures causing them to leap back. The goddess emerged as they dissipated terrifying beautiful and undeniably cruel. Syn and Zellis fell in prostration but Malina stood transfixed with terror.

“Ah, my little sphinx,” she purred. “Stand with me and taste true power. Imagine the strong Broji demons and my wise sphinxes breeding to birth the ultimate race not even the gods could defeat!”

Sickened with horror, it took Malina a minute to register her words, “Sphinxes?”

Mikamah laughed maliciously, “You didn’t think you were the only one, did you? Your sisters are out there. My connection to them is weaker but exists.”

Struggling to see through the red haze that clouded her vision, her mother’s words swam to the forefront of Malina’s mind. Struck by an epiphany, she calmed and bowed her head to Mikamah.

“I yield”, she said quietly.

Zellis and Syn rose to join her smiling and victorious. As Mikamah glided to her, a single black arrow flew through the air and plunged into the priestess’s neck killing her instantly. Howling with anger, Syn shifted at the same time Malina did, now free of Zellis’s spell.

Mikamah lifted a hand to curse the black clad figures poised to attack from behind a crumbling rock but Malina pounced on her crushing the amulet under one giant paw. A painful yelp told her another arrow had found its mark in the desert wolf’s body. Malina’s long sharp teeth sank into the goddess’s neck delivering pure divine essence that devoured her own tainted essence. Mikamah’s body dissolved into vapors before her eyes.

“Diamond cuts diamond huh?” Amber eyes so like hers smiled at Malina.

“Sorry we were late for the party,” another young woman with the same eyes spoke emerging from behind the rock.

Soon Malina was gazing upon an entire group of sphinxes, warriors by the look of it.

“Mikamah couldn’t see beyond her own pride to the compassion she always thought demeaning,” Malina explained.

“We have been searching for you for a long time sister,” the first sphinx took her hands warmly.

Feeling tears well up, Malina embraced her sisters one by one. Shifting into magnificent beasts, they spread their wings and soared into the approaching dawn together at last.

 

THE END

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