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

Give Her a Break (Part One)

give-her-a-break-part-one

Sophie was enjoying herself. It was the first day of twelfth grade and everything was just as she had always imagined it would be. She could almost feel the excitement buzz against her skin as the returning second years swarmed through the college gates. She scanned the crowd for her best friends while expertly dodging the shoves generated by overly enthusiastic hugs accompanied by high pitched squeals. Thankfully, the guys preferred bumping shoulders and fists over the joyful public bouncing the girls were partial towards. She had just caught sight of Sam striding towards the café in pink heels when a carelessly swung giant handbag nearly knocked off her glasses. On the bright side, her yell of surprise had drawn the attention of Sam, who was now hurrying over as fast as her shoes allowed. “You okay girl?” Sam asked with concern. “I was afraid this would end up like a scene from Sleepy Hollow!” Sophie clutched her head and groaned in reply unable to give her retreating attacker a piece of her mind.

Fortunately, they finally reached the café without further accidents and collapsed next to Sarah and Aly. As both girls were busy texting, they failed to notice them until Sam exclaimed “OMG! You guys will not believe who I just saw practically seducing our Math teacher!” Two heads eagerly whipped around to face them at that juicy piece of gossip. Sophie got up to enfold Aly in a hug but she was instantly held at arm’s length and scanned from head to toe. “That shirt cut was barely trendy like six months ago Sophie. For a second there I thought you were one of the teachers!” Aly said shaking her head in disapproval. Sighing Sophie moved on to greet Sarah who suddenly seemed conscious of her own top from last season. “Come on, Sam spill!” Aly nearly shouted out in impatience. “Well,” Sam begin drawing out the word slowly, “It was that total snob Laila! You know that Kardashian wannabe who everyone says got lip injections during the holidays?” There were gasps from the other two as Sophie interjected, “I bumped into her at the mall a few days ago. I didn’t think she looked like a duck.” Sarah snorted at that statement. “Oh please, your nose is always buried in a book. You never notice such things.” Sophie opened her mouth to argue just as the bell rang and they all hurried towards their classes.

The girls made plans to go to the movies later that afternoon to celebrate their first day back as no assignments had been handed out. Standing in the queue for popcorn, Sophie shifted her weight from one foot to another and watched Sam throw up her hands in exasperation at the ticket counter. She could hear her friend yelling from all the way over there. “Four! I said four!” Sam screeched at the poor guy on duty. “Are you deaf or too stupid to count?” Thankfully, Aly and Sarah showed up in time to pull Sam away from the panicked guy who appeared to be stuttering apologies. Sophie rolled her eyes at the scene. Sam was way too dramatic about everything from breaking a nail to her cat getting run over by the neighbour’s car. Oh and how could Sophie forget that time her brother yelled at her in front of everyone for taking his car without permission? Sam’s mascara had completely transferred from her lashes to her cheeks by the time she finally stopped sobbing into her pillow. “What a drama queen!” she muttered under her breath as she found her friends in the third row ogling a passing couple and giggling like idiots.

“Isn’t that Ruby?” Sophie inquired as she glanced over at the girl smiling shyly at cute guy who was obviously trying to impress her with his witty one-liners. Sarah threw a malicious look in Ruby’s direction as she let out a bubble of laughter. Her companion seemingly pleased with his success, grinned from ear to ear. “Yeah, that’s her. Home wrecker!” Sarah snarled in response to her question. Comprehension dawned on Sophie’s face and she sighed inwardly. Ruby must have earned that title because she was guilty of appealing to a guy Sarah had set her sights on. “I have been inviting him to the movies with us all week but all I got were lame excuses!” Sarah whined loudly. “It’s his loss”, Aly patted her knee trying to placate her. “Yeah”, Sam piped in, “Ruby isn’t half as pretty as you Sarah.” Sophie forced herself to nod along at the appropriate places to stop Sarah’s grumbling. Fortunately, the movie started at that moment putting an end to the annoying conversation.

The next day they met in the main hall of their college and were almost swallowed by the animated crowd of first years pouring in for their orientation. Moving to stand with the other seniors, they scrutinized the newcomers for potential prey respecting the long standing tradition of ragging. “Look at that one!” Aly suddenly pointed at someone just entering the hall. Sophie craned her neck to catch a glimpse of the first year but she was hidden from view by a burly boy who looked hopelessly lost. “Her sleeveless top looks more like the strapless variety”, Sam snickered next to her. “Did she run out of cloth for her trouser?” Sarah added laughing at the unsuspecting girl. “No scarf either,” Aly noted smirking. “Looks like another one of “those” girls who is just begging to be branded with a distasteful nickname.” Frustrated at not being able to see the first year, Sophie took two steps forward before stopping in her tracks as the crowd parted to reveal the newcomer. Her friends were openly laughing by now but their laughter died in their throats as Sophie calmly stated, “That’s my little sister”. Storming past them to meet her sister, she heard their gasps and almost felt the shame burning their faces.

-End of Part One-

Cookies and Constellations (A short story inspired by true events)

cookies-1377567_1280

It was hot. Too hot. Zoya’s dupatta seemed to tighten like a noose around her neck as sweat tricked down her spine. Surely she should not be feeling claustrophobic in this large room with the air conditioner on full blast. Then why did her heart hammer as if she had just run a marathon? She would have screamed but suddenly it felt like all the air had left her lungs.

“So, what kind of cuisine do you cook well dear?”  The high pitched nasal voice left a ringing in her ears as she turned to face the speaker. “Uh, well my father always loves it when I make his special breakfast cheese omelet,” Zoya replied attempting to plaster a polite smile on her face. Across the room, her father beamed with pride and affection. On the other hand, the middle aged lady’s unimpressed expression did nothing to calm her nerves. Her mother quickly jumped into the conversation to salvage her culinary reputation in front of prospective in-laws. Zoya listened as her mother narrated a story from the previous Eid, when she had prepared exceptional biryani. Apparently, all the guests had generously showered her with tons of praise. Strangely, Zoya remembered it as the never-to-be-repeated-Eid-biryani-fiasco. They had been forced to order takeout to feed their guests. Predictably, the lady could not stand it any longer and launched into a saga paying homage to her son’s perfection.

She had heard horror stories about such visits before but had always treated them as exaggerations. Now, Zoya could sympathize with generations of poor girls exposed to this sort of trauma. Instead of a seemingly innocent proposal, it was playing out like a deal with the devil: a fight for her very soul! Earlier in the day, she had somehow kept it together while helping to prepare a grand welcome for the expected guests.

Her mother had the whole house in uproar, snapping at anyone who dared to stand idle in her presence. She could not remember the last time her house had looked this immaculate. Delicious goodies had been brought in from the local bakery, including her favourite cookies. “Everything has to be perfect for this afternoon’s tea!” her mother had constantly stressed. Zoya had observed her sister’s failed attempt at sneaking a cookie followed by loud reprimanding by their mother. Within minutes, sharp maternal scrutiny had shifted her way as the critical gaze had landed on a clock. “Why are you not dressed yet?” the frazzled hostess had demanded in a panicked tone. Rushing into her room, Zoya had hurriedly dressed while rummaging through her limited cosmetics’ collection. Her hair had just not been in the mood to settle down and she had been worried about tripping in her only decent pair of heels. “Everything is happening so fast!” she had complained to herself. Looking back, that was probably why she was caught unawares by the current situation.

Sighing to herself, Zoya tried to believe that patience was a virtue and prayed hard to get out of the present predicament in one piece. The shuffling of feet and creak of sofas brought her out of her reverie. “We will let you know of our decision then”, the lady stated in a regal tone as she walked towards the exit in her now familiar stately manner. Concealing her relief, Zoya joined in the polite farewells, bracing herself for the in depth analysis that was sure to continue in the following days.

After hearing no news from the matchmaker or the family in question for three days, her mother’s patience finally cracked. As she left to make a phone call to the matchmaker, the atmosphere in the room turned alert. Zoya pretended not to care but her pounding heart betrayed her true emotions. She didn’t lift her gaze as her mother returned and sank into the chair next to her. “Unhone kaha k sitarey nahi mile (They claimed that the stars did not match)”, she revealed in an unbelieving murmur. As Zoya’s head snapped up in shock, a moment of stunned silence descended upon the audience. Then hysterical laughter burst out from the corner her sister occupied. She was dumbstruck by the sheer absurdity of the statement. As far as Zoya was concerned, she had just dodged a bullet.  A glance at her father confirmed he was red faced and fuming with barely restrained rage. With great effort, it seemed, he kept his composure and stalked out of the room. Her mother made to follow him in her trance like state but stopped short as her sister blurted out, “Tmhare sitarey gardish mein hain Zee! (Your stars seem to be in revolution Zee!)” As Zoya watched her sister side step a well aimed smack on the shoulder from their mother, she had a feeling this was only the beginning.