Book Review: A Court of Wings and Ruin (A Court of Thorns and Roses #3) by Sarah J. Maas

Hello! The much anticipated third book in the A Court of Thorns and Roses (ACOTAR) series, A Court of Wings and Ruin (ACOWAR), was released on 2nd May, 2017 and I was able to get a copy the very next day thanks to the pre-order suggested by my fellow Massassin. Thanks Saima ❤ This is NOT a standalone novel so don’t skip the first two books in the series folks!

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Spoiler-free review

It’s huge like HUGE!! (705 pages) You can legit use it instead of a plain old dumbbell. I am sure a lot of people are disappointed (I actually have seen posts about this on social media) but remember that expectations were really high for this release. There were several fascinating fan theories but it appears that Sarah went in a completely different direction haha!

There are three parts: Princess of Carrion, Cursebreaker and High Lady. Everyone was agonizing over Feyre being stuck at the Spring Court and Tamlin’s “advances”. That part doesn’t take up too much space which I was glad for. I think you’ll find Feyre’s time at the Spring Court very satisfying 😉

The first ¾ of the book is paced quite well in my opinion. Nothing feels rushed or slow. We get to meet many exciting new characters especially the High Lords who I hope will feature further in the series. The characters we know and love return as this trilogy concludes. We learn so much more about the cadre, the Court of Nightmares, Velaris and Prythian as a whole. More of Miryam, Drakon and Jurian’s history is revealed and there are plenty of twists to enjoy. My personal favorite returns were the Bone Carver, the Weaver and the Suriel. I loved their stories and their contribution to the plot. Nesta and Elain have significant roles and we see how they have changed after becoming High Fae. Their father makes an appearance and we get to know where he’s been this whole time. As promised, Amren’s true identity is finally revealed though I didn’t understand it until someone spelled it out for me.

I enjoyed the storyline of the missing human queen we all wondered about. I won’t spoil it but her story is actually a loose adaptation of a fairy tale. We anticipated more of Rhys and Tamlin’s history but that barely gets any pages. Instead, the focus is on the Autumn Court’s history and its connection to Mor. Lucien obviously gets much space as a result of that and his contribution in the war. The plot follows the war with Hybern as expected but not all is doom and gloom so don’t worry. There’s plenty of smut (not a fan) and mushy romantic moments (again not a fan). If you thought things were dangerous before you’ll see just how bad things can get. There’s Fae magic and creatures to learn about besides cool action.

I can’t talk about ships and controversial characters without giving out spoilers so I’ll reserve my thoughts for the spoiler-y section. My issues with this book are similar to the ones I had with the previous two. The last third feels rushed. I understand the chaos of the war and personal preferences but there were many significant events that didn’t get the attention they deserved. Sarah was like, “Yeah, that happened. Let’s move on!” and I was like, “That’s it?”

There were some important things particularly with regards to the ships that weren’t concluded properly. It could be that she plans to explore them more in the upcoming books but still, it would have nice to have some conclusive interactions. There are some things that brought down the rating for me. I have noticed that Sarah makes things super convenient at times which kills the charm of a perfectly good story for me. I mentioned this about the mate thing in A Court of Mist and Fury (ACOMAF) too. ACOWAR leaves you with more questions than answers. That’s probably why some readers were disappointed.

It isn’t a bad book at all and you should definitely pick it up if you have already read ACOTAR and ACOMAF. Let me know what you’re looking forward to in ACOWAR.

 

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!

 

Spoiler-y review

Okay, time for some real talk. I’ll split the stuff into sections so let’s get started!

Plot

I was happy with the plot. The beginning, middle and end were all good. There was tons of action, mystery and thrill just as it should have been. There was politics, betrayal and unexpected twists. Yay! Things at the Spring Court were wrapped up well. I didn’t anticipate Lucien becoming such a close ally but enjoyed his role in ACOWAR. I wish we could have visited all the courts but we couldn’t sadly. I was happy to see Tarquin again because I have a crush on him hehe! I think Sarah did a good job with the twists. I totally didn’t see them coming.

I enjoyed learning about the histories of various characters especially the story about Nephelle. That was cute. I was disappointed that we didn’t see the Weaver and the Bone Carver interact much and we never learned who their bother was. I thought it might be Briaxis. The battle scenes were awesome and exaggerated but that’s okay. It’s fantasy after all 😀

 

Controversial characters

Tamlin

I don’t think anything ever excuses abuse and you can’t ever make up for it especially after Tamlin exploded at Feyre in his study. It doesn’t matter if she provoked him on purpose. The fact that Tamlin killed or let Rhysand’s mother and sister be killed is not something I can get over. Tamlin claims to do everything to protect his court yet he treats his subjects poorly particularly when he chose Ianthe over his guards. He insulted Feyre and Rhys badly during the High Lords’ meeting but then saved her life from Hybern apparently because he still “loved” her. He gave a drop of his power to save Rhys wishing Feyre a happy life doesn’t make me forget anything that happened before. I don’t judge characters on their morals but it’s important to say that I don’t think Tamlin deserved forgiveness or redemption. As a character, I enjoyed Tamlin’s role and him being so unstable added more anticipation to the plot. I am glad his role wasn’t small because that wouldn’t have made sense. I was happy that he was smart enough to side with the High Lords in the war.

Nesta

Let me just say this first. Nesta was a shitty elder sister and nothing excuses her behavior. She is one of my favorite characters. She brings excitement to any scene though she did change quite a bit in the second half. I didn’t expect her to agree to help the cadre but she did diligently. I think she and Amren made a great team. The part where the sisters got together after Elain’s rescue was touching. I enjoyed her facing the King. It was nice to see her care about someone besides Elain for a change.

Elain

I place Nesta and Elain in the same category of shitty sister though Elain did have her moments with her sweet gestures towards Feyre. I felt sorry for her throughout the book but she was very close to being pathetic in my opinion. I am glad she came through in the end as the situation was reversed with her and Nesta.

Lucien

I can never forgive Lucien for being a bystander while Feyre was being abused by Tamlin. At least he apologized and was willing to play his part in the war. It was interesting to learn about his family’s history but I feel like Sarah told us many things yet didn’t tell us how it factored into the plot. I was hoping Lucien and Tamlin would confront each other but that didn’t happen. Considering their friendship since ACOTAR, I was disappointed their interaction was literally zero after Lucien left the Spring Court.

Feyre’s father

He is probably the one I blame the most for Feyre’s condition in ACOTAR. Not only did he sit on ass the whole time he never tried to change the behavior of her sisters. I think he had a fitting end in ACOWAR. Even if he didn’t do anything for his kids while he was alive he wanted to become the father they deserved and died trying to protect them.

Villains

The King

I loved his cunning and schemes. He was a worthy adversary for the High Lords and I was seriously impressed by his battle strategies. He was a cool villain throughout the series and I was sad to see him go. While his death was satisfying, it seemed so insignificant to the other characters that it bothered me.

Ianthe

I love Ianthe. She brings so much fun to the plot. Stubbornly evil till the very end. I love her craftiness which Feyre turns against her. I had a blast watching Feyre destroy Ianthe using own weakness against her. The part where Feyre orders her to crush her hand was awesome. I wasn’t very happy with how she died and would have preferred her to suffer for the rest of her miserable life.

Amarantha (Honorable mention)

Even though she’s dead, Amarantha came up so many times. I am glad Sarah kept it real and highlighted the hardships of the survivors of sexual abuse.

Relationships

Feyre and Rhysand

It’s important for me to say that I can’t overlook what Rhys did to Feyre without her consent Under the Mountain. Feyre stresses again and again on how much Rhys cares about her consent compared to Tamlin. If Sarah wanted readers to completely accept Rhysand then she should have made Feyre fully consent to Rhy’s schemes Under the Mountain. Besides that, their bond just gets better and better with every book. It’s a healthy relationship where both partners respect each other’s wishes though they are both sneaky. I loved the surprises they both prepared for each other in the final battle.

Nesta and Cassian

I know many people didn’t want this ship to go further because they hate Nesta as a person. I don’t like Nesta as a person but their romance in ACOWAR was too good. I have been enjoying their interactions since ACOMAF and I was SO relieved to know that there was no mate stuff between them yet. It’s a strained, quiet bonding between them. Their close interactions were the kind I hold my breath for. 100% satisfied!

Elain and Lucien

I really don’t know what is going on between them and where it will all go. I feel like the mating bond between them was pointless if this is how they parted ways. I was SO annoyed when I found out that they were mates in ACOMAF. Nothing happened between them like nothing literally.

Mor and Azriel

I don’t quite understand Mor’s romantic preferences but her story was sweet and sad at the same time. I don’t know why things between her and Azriel were left this way because this ship was so hyped up in both books. I am hoping there might still be a satisfying conclusion to this.

Amren and Varian

Amren is my favorite character and I was hoping for something more between her and Varian after their interaction at the Summer Court. They went from sweet and subtle to “I don’t care who’s watching”. It was hilarious and I was cheering on Varian. I don’t know if we’ll see them again but I’ll miss them. This was definitely my favorite ship in this series after Nesta and Cassian. Yes, I pick ships based on their entertainment value LOL!

 

Deaths

Amren

I love you Amren but you should have stayed dead! I am not sure how I feel about Amren’s betrayal. I don’t understand how she could stand by while Feyre, Cassian and Nesta were in such danger from the King. I want an explanation for that. All of them could have easily died and they almost did. That being said, I liked her death scene. It was emotional and meaningful. I felt like she had gotten everything she had desired in her life. She came back in such a weird way and I felt like her sacrifice and that intense death scene lost meaning.

Rhysand

I wouldn’t have minded if Rhys had not come back to life but maybe that would have defeated the meaning of the famous Suriel dialogue, “Stay with the High Lord.” I enjoyed his death scene too and it felt true to his character. However, I don’t understand how he came back the same way Feyre did. Even the High Lords doubted it. It was like a children’s fairy tale. It made no sense and again, his sacrifice lost meaning to me.

The Bone Carver

I was fascinated with the Bone Carver in ACOMAF and I was so happy to see him again in ACOWAR. His past and true character cast him a different light. I am glad we got to know him better before he died. His death scene was great too. I am sad he died but that’s what he wanted so I guess I should be happy for him.

The Suriel

Ah, this death hit me the hardest. I would rather Rhys had died instead of the Suriel. It’s sad that we never learned its name. This death scene was really emotional and I truly fell in love with the Suriel there. His death scene was my personal favorite. Bye bye Suriel. I hope there’s loads of gossip where you’re going 😦

I think I have poured out all my views on ACOWAR for now. Have you read it? What did you think about it?

 

A Book Review of Beckoning Darkness (The Damned and the Pure #1) By J. D. Stonebridge

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Hello! Welcome to the first post of my brand new series, Whimsical Wednesdays, where I will be reviewing a book every week J

My first selection is a book I received from the author in exchange for an honest review. It belongs to the Fantasy and Paranormal Romance genre. So, if this is something you’d like to try then read on!

Beckoning Darkness” is the first book in the “The Damned and the Pure” series by J. D. Stonebridge. The name of the series makes sense since the hero is a “Damned” demon and the heroine is a “Pure” angel. I liked the depiction of the angel, Ariel, on the book cover but that sword is what stole my heart. It was released in 2014 and is now part of a trilogy.  So don’t worry about waiting for the next book to come out.

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Blurb

God left humanity in the care of the angels. Centuries have passed, and Heaven is preparing for His return.

After centuries of imprisonment in Heaven, Ariel is given a chance to redeem herself in the eyes of the archangels. Years after her last descent, Ariel must return to the mortal land to fulfill her mission for the coming of God. But the memories of her past sins catch up to her, and Ariel must decide where her faith truly lies.

The city of Chicago was the chosen residence of the eccentric demon, Caelum. His taste of entertainment sets him apart from the rest of his kind, driving him to walk amongst the mortal men. But when he is presented with an opportunity to have a hand in Hell’s grand plan, temptation beckoned him to take the risks. Walking through shadows and nightmares he crosses paths with an angel from Heaven, and the memories of his forgotten humanity begin to resurface.

Both Heaven and Hell have plans for the End of Days with the angel, Ariel, and the demon, Caelum, at the center. When faith is threatened, two natural enemies become unlikely allies in a war for all Humanity.

My Thoughts

I have never read a book by this author so I was excited to see what I would find. Beckoning Darkness opens with Ariel being released from imprisonment now that the archangels have a mission for her. What her sin was exactly even she doesn’t know. Her memories of that time have been erased. It’s not that her memory doesn’t try to resurface; it’s just that she’d rather not remember her shame. Fresh out of prison, she is assigned a task on earth and is eager to redeem herself in the eyes of Heaven as it prepares for the return of God.

Ariel is your typical Goody Two-shoes as you would expect of a mythological angel. She reminds me of that one kid in your class who refuses to budge a centimeter from the rules *points to self*. It’s almost like she is brainwashed since creation (which she probably is) into thinking that the world is black and white. She believes the best of all Heavenly beings and the worst of anyone remotely related to Hell. In a way, Ariel is the most naïve and innocent creature you have ever come across. She is an adult but I am sure you know street kids way smarter than her. The core of her ignorance is her belief that doubt is sin. This is why she fights so hard to keep her “faith” even when the signs clearly tell her otherwise.

I enjoyed Caelum’s entrance. It shows you the harsh reality of humans and where demonic influence would actually stand if it existed as in this book. You could say our boy’s a bit unique. He is a demon who doesn’t like Hell or torturing souls. He has no loyalty to anyone but himself. So, in many ways, he is the opposite of Ariel. He survives dodging Hellish beings especially his superiors. Unlike Ariel, he loves the human world. He enjoys the fine comforts of life. Caelum has no recollection of his life before he was a demon but he knows that he used to be human. He is smart and charming. Did I mention this is all a façade for how deadly he really is? While angels can fly and heal, Caelum can move between shadows undetected and create nightmares. As Fate (or someone else *coughs*) would have it, Caelum and Ariel are assigned the same task by their higher-ups: influence the same human. Since beings off Heaven and Hell are sworn enemies, our leads are polar opposites and they are competing for the same prize, their first meeting goes something like this.

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Ariel’s straight-faced self-righteous dialogues in reaction to Caelum’s flirtatious provocation remind me of Castiel from Supernatural. It’s hilarious and kind of sad (for Ariel).

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I wasn’t expecting the book to veer off in a completely different direction with how that particular mission ended. I thought the story would be about that mission. I was quite glad though because that’s where the plot thickens. Ariel’s dreaded doubts arise and I delighted in her inner war. Is it bad that I didn’t take the woman’s side? Yes, I sold my heart to a demon but you can’t really blame me. Caelum grows on you pretty fast. He’s a swell guy despite being a demon. Are you telling me you wouldn’t want to be influenced by someone like that? !

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Coming back to the plot, mysterious events start to happen around them and disturbing rumors reach them (ooooooooohhh!). As you might have guessed, this is the part where they shake hands and decide to help each other “solve the mystery” *Uses Shaggy voice*. Ariel is still a haughty biatch but that’s okay, she goes through a tough inner battle and plays her part admirably. Lots of other supernatural creatures join the party and the bloodbath begins!! That’s always my favorite part 😀

Strange mysteries, heart-rending betrayal, slick action, soul deep agony, fun world building, interesting characters, engaging storyline; yup, Beckoning Darkness has it all. Not only are the two main characters well developed but the secondary ones are all integral to the story and refreshing. The main mystery wasn’t hard to solve but I guess the author intended that. The others kept me hooked and I enjoyed how they unfolded. There is still a lot we don’t know and the book ends in a sort-of cliffhanger.

The writing style pulled me in from the prologue and kept me in its spell till the very end. I have read a fair number of Paranormal Romances about angels and demons but I was glad to see this book take a different approach to it. The plot did not depend on romance (Thank God!) so I was able to enjoy the story without the compulsory seduction, couple fights and make ups. This was nice. It was really nice. One thing I wanted to see more of was the world-building. I felt like a lot of things just existed but weren’t explained properly. In the beginning, there is significant human interaction so you can see how the supernatural world fits into the human one. After that, the humans are not mentioned yet everything happens in the human world. There is so much more I wanted to know but I thought was unfairly kept from me. You might be frustrated by some aspects of the writing like not having enough to go on but it won’t prevent you from enjoying the book. I hope all that will be revealed in the second book.

Will Caelum and Ariel become buddy-buddy or will they remain “just friends”? Find out in the next episode of “Days of Our Lives in Hell”. JK do read the next book in the series, “Wavering Light” to see where the story goes.

Overall Opinion

If you love reading Paranormal Fiction then Beckoning Darkness will give you something new in this genre. Even with its weaknesses, it is a very well written book with characters that you can connect with and an engaging plot.

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My Rating 

****

Will you be adding this to your TBR list?

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

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“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