Write A Novel Challenge: Chapter 27

So here it is, chapters from the 'Write A Novel' Challenge coming thick and fast, weaving an increasingly rich storyline with each passing day. Who is Neina? What has happened to her? And why? All is being revealed to those with the patience to wait for each new installment... Are you sitting comfortably?
Write A Novel Challenge: Chapter 27
By James Mullan
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LET'S GO

Chapters

Chapter 1,  by Eman Murshed, Jumeirah College
Chapter 2, by Joury Elbeihiary, Safa Community School
Chapter 3, by Anamika Khaleghian, Nord Anglia School
Chapter 4, by Amelia Vivash, Kent College Dubai
Chapter 5, by Kaalidas Sanjeev, Star International School Al Twar
Chapter 6, by Samvrutha Krishnakumar,  Horizon International School
Chapter 7, by Afreen Thariq, Capital School
Chapter 8, by Madeleine Cranitch, Brighton College Dubai 
Chapter 9, by Menna Abdelwahab, The English College Dubai 
Chapter 10, by Maryam Perjessy, Repton School Dubai
Chapter 11, by Siwar Hamdi, iCademy
Chapter 12, by Srija SuragouniGEMS FirstPoint School
Chapter 13, by Fares Sharifi, Repton Abu Dhabi
Chapter 14, by Maya Adham,  Dunecrest American School
Chapter 15, by Salma Ghalwash, Deira International School
Chapter 16, by Jon Vincent Dela Cruz, Universal American School
Chapter 17, by Camila Simao, Swiss International School Dubai
Chapter 18, by Valeria Awada, Jumeirah English Speaking School
Chapter 19, by Ryan Taoutaou, British School Al Khubairat
Chapter 20, by Rachel Deyis, Sharjah English School
Chapter 21, by Solenn Anne Le Guyon, British International School Abu Dhabi
Chapter 22, by Philip Dackiw, Cranleigh Abu Dhabi
Chapter 23, by Jude Hasanin, Amity International Abu Dhabi
Chapter 24, by Jacob Sims, Dubai English Speaking College
Chapter 25, by Nandini Nambiar, Hartland International School 
Chapter 26, by Mishal Faraz, The Winchester School, Jebel Ali
Chapter 27, by Maia Christensen, Jebel Ali School 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some time between dusk and dawn, she found herself stumbling across cobblestone lanes with a broken heel to match her broken heart. Her audience was limited to the attentive stares of empty windows with borderline suffocating apathy; not a flicker of a candle nor a dance of a shadow could be seen in any of them. Still, their gazes were rather overtly fixated on her distressed, wine-stained blouse - silently mocking the weeping Goddess in a wrinkled pencil skirt. Her worries buzzed around her like wild, pestering bees on a sweltering summer’s day, and in a lazy attempt to gather her bearings she couldn’t help but let the wind persuade a shiver from her soft, crumpled frame. 

Her sluggish movements could only be attributed to the misery that followed yet another one of her projects being invaded by opposing forces. Despite the incessant applause and approval that seemed to follow the clack of her heels wherever she went, she could still feel the underlying criticism in the lengthy gazes of her peers. She prided herself with being the best -- the kind of easy confidence no one would dare hold a candle to. Yet doubt and regret were permanent fixtures in her mind; an already chaotic mess of thoughts that had become disarrayed beyond repair like an assault of metal-tipped bomb shells on war-torn barbed wire

Besides the obvious puff of her laboured breaths, the only other noise that could be heard was the solitary jingle of her keys as she struggled to jam them into the door. Her vision blurred but she soldiered on, huffing with frustration as the lock clicked in place. The mahogany of the door felt cool against the dimpling skin of her forehead, face pinched with concentration in order to keep the reservoir behind her eyelids at bay. It was a doomed collection of salt and water she hadn’t set free in what felt like a millennia, but the urge to let go seemed all the more tempting this time around.

With a stuttered spin on her heel, she tapped her phone awake, balancing it against the tops of her shoulders and the shell of her ear as she listened to the one voicemail that pleaded for her attention.

“This is Neina! Might be busy with work -- I mean, probably busy with work, so I’ll get back to you when I can!”

What followed was a hushed apology she wouldn’t forget anytime soon.

“Hey, Neina,” began the deep baritone of the speaker, voice dripping with forced remorse. “I just wanted to make sure you’re alright after the conversation we had in my office today. I realise now that I was rather harsh considering everything you’ve done for this company, but Isla is the young, creative streak we’ve been looking for for months and I’d really appreciate it if you worked with her on this project. I think you’ll realise you’re both quite similar in your styles -- it’ll be good. See you Monday.” A beep sounded, and Neina finally exhaled. 

 

Monday. Monday. Monday. She wasn’t certain if she could make it to Monday knowing the usual spaciousness of her office would be crowded with someone else. Young. Creative. Frankie’s endorsement of the girl -- still doe eyed and rosey cheeks from having graduated not even months earlier -- was utterly humiliating. Hadn’t that been her 15 years ago when she first skipped her way through the revolving doors with a briefcase bursting with the skeletons of buildings? Shouldn’t he have fallen to his knees in the dirt - exhibiting undeniable sycophantic behaviour that rivalled that of Petrarch’s? 

What irked her most, truly set her skin alight and burning, was that she wished she was more furious. 15 years of unwavering commitment to the firm and 3 years prior to that studying to become as accomplished as she was, yet the thought of it slowly but surely fumbling from her grasp had left her a detached heap of flesh and bones. 

A glimpse of light emerging from the window caught her attention, drawing it away from its straying path. The archaic city hummed with an intense life despite the deepness of the night, and Neina couldn’t help but notice the clear-cut contrast between her and the outside world. She listened. She watched. The scene before her and the lonesome feeling slowly seeping into the cracks of her mind - it was all eerily familiar, like a mirror she owned not too long ago. Bleeding but no blood; the ongoing rampage of her heart threatening to break free of the dwindling confines of her ribcage - how long would it last? 

Neina hated it: how the lights, although beautiful with their glaring glow, obstructed her view of the stars she knew littered the black blanket above her head. If only she could see them - the intertwining constellations as they formed surreal masterpieces that surely belonged in ‘the Louvre’. And the moon - how it hung with grace, under siege and surrounded by stars with an ethereal, pearl-white pallor.

Her breath caught as a sudden spark of this palpable something(she wasn’t sure what it was, not really) ricocheted through her veins, almost as if someone had stirred the life inside of her. 

But no, it didn’t last. Two yawns and a muffled curse later, she found herself drowning in the silky embrace of her bed. Time had a nasty habit of slipping away from her more often than not -- an obstacle woven into the literal fabric of the universe. And as much as she knew, deep down, that she couldn’t control such inconceivable intricacies, all Neina wanted was to hit pause and rewind.

 

By Eman Murshed, Year 11, Jumeirah College

Author's note: “As daunting as it seems -- writing the opening chapter of an entire novel -- I can easily say that I am beyond excited. What is most thrilling about this challenge is being able to introduce everyone to a character I've already grown so fond of, and witnessing how the next writer perceives her! The idea of this first chapter stemmed from a conversation with my friend as we discussed what we feared most about the future as it seems pandemics really bring out the most existential questions in teenagers. My hope is that this rather depressing start will juxtapose nicely with the later chapters as we watch the character grow past her initial turmoil, and I really hope everyone enjoys what has and will be written!”.

 

She wore the cloudy, milky stages of sleep around her like a blanket. From the vague myriad of thoughts in her mind, a beam of light emerged, leaving traces on her skin. The sloshy mud between her toes brought comfort, the potent smell of lilies that pierced her nostrils gave her hope; a flicker of recognition. Yes, she had been here before. What struck her most  - the birds as they sang to the rhythm of the wind, their sound filled the space with sweet vibrations, clouding her mind with what could only be described as ecstasy. She heard the steady, tumbling flow of a waterfall, the soft rustling of leaves, the swaying of grass, the scraping of dust. It was all uncomfortably familiar. 

“Neina?” The voice was clear and wobbly, like a child’s. Only then did she realise that her frame seemed to have shrunk, the tall grass was now just underneath her chin, her hands were small and bony, almost like a different body. But no, she could feel it, this is my body. She strained in an effort to seek the composer of who the honeyed voice belonged to. The realisation almost knocked her legs from underneath her. She knew that face. Had I been here in another life, perhaps? A beat later, a name came to mind. Quinn. 

Then without warning, she was bombarded with memories. There was grass, tree-lined roads, a starry night stretching beyond her. The singsong voice of a woman with long blonde locks flowing after her. The sight of her filled Neina with a warmth she couldn’t explain. The ripples of a lake, the vibrant blur of flowers, lilies... Lilies were the woman’s favourite, she remembered. There was the face of a young boy, no more than 12, with wild dark hair, curls framed his pale face. There was a man, with rich dark skin and a voice that sounded scratchy as he attempted to sing a song that was much too high for his tone. But, she realised, it didn’t matter that the song did not suit him, they didn’t care. They didn't care that they were all sitting in a car that was seemingly ancient, with a radio that filled with static now and again. They didn’t care that the road was empty, that the darkness stretched eerily in front of them, didn’t care that they could wake up the neighbours. They only focused on the song, each other, and the sky that rolled out above them like a canvas. 

She was jerked back to reality, or rather the present moment, where she stood face to face with the boy with dark hair. With Quinn. Only he seemed older now, and something about his demeanour struck her as tired. His face broke out with a smile, as he ran towards her. 

“You won’t believe what Ryder just found!” Energy and bounce radiated off of him in waves. “John says we might even get to keep it! Come on!” He started in a run but stopped to realise that Neina wasn’t following. 

“You’re... Quinn, right?’ she cringed at the way her voice sounded; childish and weak. If Frankie were here, he would scold her. Voice is power, he would say to her. 

Quinn laughed. “Did you hit your head on the docks?” he teased. But slowly she started to piece it together, the events bloomed in her mind. She wasn’t just dreaming, she realised. She was remembering. 

Quinn started towards the farmhouse that towered over them, and without knowing why, Neina trailed after him. She recognised the warm, sun-bathed interior of the house. The beige walls, the wicker chairs, the white flowy curtains billowing in the breeze, the flowery wallpaper. Home. 

Another, taller boy came cascading down the stairs, almost tripping over his feet.

“Neina! I need your help to convince Mom about keeping it. Dad said yes, but Mom will only listen to you.” The boy’s - Ryder’s - voice was deeper, older. But this only confused Neina further, her head spinning in an effort to keep up. 

“M-Mom?” she asked, bewildered.

He looked amused. What is it with these people? Do they find everything amusing?

“Yeah, mom, silly. You know... The woman who raised us. You might know her,” he answered. She could do nothing, of course, but agree and follow Ryder, her brother?

“I think your sister hit her head,” Quinn added, chuckling.

The blonde woman was sprawled along the wrap-around porch, a book in her hands. She wore a flowery dress that flowed around her. There was no denying it, she was beautiful. Mom. Only when Neina appeared did she look up, seemingly out of her daydream.  She smiled.

“Hey there, sugar.” Her singsong voice was thickly accented.

“Where’ve you been all day?” She reached out and touched Neina’s cheek.

Neina’s heart filled with longing. She took a deep breath, breathing in the scent of the rich earth, breathing in the scent of lilies that almost lulled her mind. She was filled with content, a relaxed sensation enveloped her. 

I remember this. 

The setting, the people that surrounded her, the visible love that they all felt for each other. She heard the birds once again, chirping above. She let herself soak it all up, the peace. It gave her a chill, the setting, because what she heard next was a gunshot. 

It’s fine. You’re fine. She told herself. It’s just a dream. 

But as she looked around her, the porch slipped from under her feet, the people disappearing into nothing. For a minute, there was nothing but darkness. It crept up behind her, filled her thoughts with dread. She could almost feel its fingers stroking her spine. She shivered. She felt a sudden stab of sharp pain at her side, and as she returned to consciousness, she felt a warm, sickly substance on her fingers. Her eyes bolt awake. Her fingers came away from her side, a brilliant shade of dark red.  

She found a figure standing over her. The girl with the doe-eyes and rosy cheeks.


By Joury Elbeihiary, Year 9, Safa Community School

Author’s note: I found the first chapter very intriguing and impressive, and I enjoyed continuing what was written! I liked introducing some new characters and ideas. I have always had a love for thriller novels, and books that keep you on the edge of your seat and hook the reader from the start. I tried to leave the ending open to new ideas that the next writer can introduce. I really enjoyed taking part in this challenge, and I look forward to finding out what happens next!

 

 

“Neina!”

She turned in recognition of the familiar voice to see a nine-year-old Ryder running into the barn, one hand behind his back. “Neina!” he repeated as he slowed to a stop, “close your eyes, I have something for you!” Anticipation filled her mind as she tightly shut her eager eyes.  

“Is it my present?” She extended her hands in anticipation. A velvety feeling she was very familiar with touched her palm and she squealed, overjoyed with the present she had received. With eyes still closed, she jumped to hug her spirited brother.

 “I knew you would like it,” he smiled. She opened her eyes after taking in the sweet scent of the lily.

 “I love it!” she whispered as her mother entered, enveloped in the most elegant wrap that depicted a beautiful array of water lilies that floated above a pool of reflective water.

“What are you two up to?” she smiled.   

“Look! Look what Ryder gave me!” Proudly she showed her mother her new fragrant lily.

“Wow!” her mother exchanged a knowing look with Ryder, "It is beautiful.”

“This is going to be the best 6thbirthday ever! It has to be!”

Just then, as she looked at her mother fold the wrap around her delicate shoulders, a sense of foreboding swept over her. She felt the worry but refused to acknowledge it. She had to have the best birthday; she couldn’t be anxious. She exhaled deeply as the lights went out. “Happy Birthday to you, Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday dear Neina, Happy birthday to you!”  As they sang,she heard her mother’s sweet sound mixed with the bellowing of her brothers and the scratchy voice that she wanted to ignore slithering underneath all these tones. She turned to see Ryder, Quinn and her mother place a delicious looking cake on the wooden table.  “Happy Birthday Neina!” Quinn said from across the huge table. She closed her eyes, ‘I gotta say thanks to him later’ she thought, as she took in a deep guttural breath.

 The dancing fire disappeared in one sweep: remaining nothing but melted wax. “Woohoo!” Ryder and Quinn exclaimed in unison.

Neina giggled, “I’m six!” she declared, a cheeky grin spreading across her face.

 “You sure are,” her mother responded with a smile, “maybe now you’ll start eating more vegetables”.

“Never!” Neina answered, giddy from the excitement of the evening.

“Mom, can I turn the radio on?” Ryder asked, as he handed their mother the steel knife.

“Sure honey, it’s by the door.”

Neina’s thoughts ran around the barn, soaking up the moment. ‘I don’t want anything to change, I want to stay here forever’.  She looked up at the roof where the red paint was peeling and faded, but still she loved it. It was her hide-away, a place she never wanted to leave. The rustic wooden structure with its painted beams  and gigantic red doors had history. As soon as one entered the scent of hay, wood and the barn was a haven, a place no one could disturb her. It was hers.

Quinn came running up to her, his curly hair covering his eyes “Neina, here’s your cake!”,

“Thanks”, Neina replied as she took the large slice of cake from Quinn’s hands. Her mom’s chocolate cake. No cake could compare. The type of cake that melts into your six-year-old mouth and disappears faster than you remember eating it. With chocolate covering her hands and mouth, Neina walked towards her favorite part of the barn, signaling Quinn to follow.

“So, how do you like being six years old?” Quinn asked once they had sat down in the hay at the back of the barn.

 “It feels old,” Neina replied with another giggle as the cake sloshed around her mouth, “but I like it!” Quinn smiled, his shy smile small but bright. They quickly finished their cake as the rest of the party joined.   Ryder looked up. “Finished already!” he cried in astonishment as they nodded enthusiastically. “No chance of another slice mommy?”  she asked as she looked up eagerly at her delicate mother.

 “Not today sweetie,” came the reply. “I am going to take these plates back to the house. Ryder, take care of the kids, will you?” she added.  

A grunt identified as, "No problem mom” was the muffled retort from Ryder heartily digging into his own slice of cake.

“Quinn?” Neina asked “wanna go outside? I bet I can find more constellations than you.”

 “Yeah right, come on!” he replied.

 “We’re going to the field, okay?” Neina signaled to Ryder. He grunted an approval. Running out of the red barn doors, the radio becoming softer and faded the further they went. As they ran, the wind whistled past, blocking the sounds of the world from their young ears. They ran until they reached the middle of the field then lay side by side on the grass and embraced the sound of silence that surrounded them. The smell of wheat filled the air as the smooth breeze tiptoed by. Stars scattered across the moonlit sky, sparkling and lighting up the night, as if painting a living picture. The radio in the distance was no longer a soft hum and had been replaced by the rhythm of the trees silent sway. This is the life Neina wanted. This is the life Neina lived. A little girl in a big world with just  the stars to light her way.

 “Look over there! I found Orion!” Quinn teased.

“Aww come on! That’s unfair, I just found the Big Dipper,” Neina whined but nonetheless a smile spread across her chocolate smeared face. “I don’t want to life to change Quinn, I like living here with you, Ryder and mommy...”

Just then, the surreal sense of foreboding returned. Neina felt the chill.   Something dreadful was about to happen. She didn’t want it to. She wanted it to stay the same. A cold sweat saturated her tiny spine. She stared in fear at the stars begging them for comfort. But none came. The constellations, cold and unfeeling, stared right back. Suddenly she felt incredibly alone. And that was when she heard it. In the very moment that she stopped to stare down the stars, an anguished piercing scream rang through the heart of the land and changed her life forever.

 

By Anamika Khaleghian, Year 9, Nord Anglia School

Author's Note: I have grown fond of Neina,  from the first chapter in which we were given insight into her current life and the everyday struggles and trauma that she is faced with. The second chapter caught me by surprise as it took me on a ride of emotions through Neina’s past and then back to the present. It was the events of this third chapter that made me wish to take a step back and look at Neina’s childhood and explore her memories in order to continue her development as a character. I hope this leaves the next writer with the opportunity to explore further Neina’s life and character, as well as her family. I have really enjoyed this challenge and look forward to finding out more as the weeks go by, good luck!

 

 

The cacophony of noise echoed through her room. Pain had finally pulled her to the surface of consciousness. Ryder and the stars melted away into the dark abyss, her brain filled with cotton. It took her an eternity to realise the screams were her own; her own unwavering wails.

Her eyes were squeezed shut and no matter how hard she tried to yank the barriers open, they remained sealed. There was an overwhelming feeling of warmth in the room. She hears it…

Shaky breaths were puffing from the person towering above her. Neina finally peeled her eyelids open, to find someone staring back at her. Me. She thought. The spitting image of Neina stares back at her. Though the inhuman glow that followed her was not Neina’s. Or the purple tint to her skin. A toothy grin perched unevenly on her face, the gun at her side. Neina frowned, her brows furrowed in deep thought, though with all the ideas her mind could muster, she came back with nothing. Then it dawns on her like a slice of sunlight on a gleaming day. Doe-eyes, rosy cheeks?

Isla.

“Who…?” Neina groaned and barely strangled the word from her throat. Isla’s grin only grew, “Hush, you’ll be dead soon.” she practically cackled, her laugh was horrible, the shadow of a sneer still settled in her features - the remnants of her evil chuckle.

Neina scowled and spat at Isla, her smile wavered, “Well if you insist on rudeness, I suppose I will tell you the truth before you bleed out.” Once again Isla laughs through her bitter words. “Believe me,” she leans closer, “The truth will haunt you forever.” Isla holds out her hand, “I’m an assassin. But don’t tell anyone!” She giggles, “Not that you will see anyone ever again!”

“Wait…” Neina croaked, as she practically prances for the door.

“Whatever they offered you double it and I’ll get it for you!” Neina pleaded for her life.
Isla’s expression never wavered, the smirk on her face remained the whole time. Neina saw she was considering the deal and so she continued.  “Just, please... Call an ambulance!” She implored, “I won’t mention you, I’ll say I dropped the gun and it went off!”

Isla stroked her chin in mock consideration, her nails were tinted green and had harsh sharp points at the end. Neina wondered for a moment if those claws might tear her skin from her skull, though her hopes were too good to be true. “Well Neina, this is such a great deal you have come up with!” Neina felt her body fill with anticipation. She continued with a disparaging smile. “But by the time the ambulance gets here, you will be dead…” Neina felt the air catch in her lungs, she could feel the salty paths of tears snaking down her cheeks. “Oh don’t despair, well I suppose…No that would never work…” She grins.

“What won’t work?” Neina says, adrenaline taking over my body. Neina risked a glance down to see blood pouring from an unknown location, nausea takes over her body. When Isla starts talking Neina’s eyes feel as though they have lit up and they dart to Isla’s.

“Well I suppose you could venture to the Mors World and prove you are worthy of your life,” She cackles one again and a cold shiver races down Neina’s spine, “Not that any human has ever made it out alive...” She spits the word human back in Neina’s face as if it disgusts her more than anything else.

“I am all for some good old bloodshed entertainment so I suppose I could let you go…” She gives Neina a fake smile, one that does not reach her eyes and leaves her mouth only to curve awkwardly.

“My magic is only strong enough to last two weeks, that gives you 14 days to brave the Mors World. I don’t think a fairy has even done it that quickly…are you up to it? Neina couldn’t see anymore, it’s almost like life is leaving her body with every drop of blood that pours from her wound.

“Okay...okay. That money would be really good right now…” Neina could see right through Isla, she could see the struggle for money and the work that she had to resort to. The pain and loss and worry crosses her face in seconds and laces her voice. For just a moment she sees not the horrifying faerie before her, instead a scared girl willing to do anything to stay alive. Within the same second, as Isla spots Neina looking at her with the slightest hint of sympathy, she replaces the tableaux of trauma with an icy glare.

Isla raised her arms dramatically and emerald green mists drift around the room, filling the air. Neina stares in awe, her naturally brown eyes turn the same emerald green, she starts chanting in a language Neina doesn’t understand. Finally, the green dust-filled air envelops her and Isla is pulled from her state of trance- she leaves with a single phrase “Good luck invalidum, welcome to the Mors world...”

Neina is whisked away into the green vortex. Engulfed by the verdant gas, Neina chances one more look at her wound, the blood is drawn back from the bedclothes and her pyjamas return to their original form. To the Mors World, she went...

 

By Amelia Vivash, Year 8, Kent College Dubai

Author's note: It has been such an incredible opportunity to take part in this challenge! I love writing and reading, which is why I absolutely adore the concept for the novel. The writing style the previous authors have used and the characters that have been introduced are fascinating and I really wanted to extend on the intriguing character of Isla - I hope I have done her some, if any, justice. I know this novel will be amazing if everyone participating enjoys what they are doing. I have incorporated some Latin in my chapter so please don’t be confused by the strangely spelt words! I love fantasy novels and also adventure books so I loved putting my own twist on the beginning. I tried to leave plenty of room for creativity. Good luck to the next author, but most importantly have fun with it!

 

Neina cautiously took a step out of the green mist. She had seen darkness before, the kind that makes a street look like an old-fashioned photograph, perhaps even resembling your own vivid depiction of how you’d imagine an old gothic street to be. There were overbearing street lamps, dangerous dark corners and sinister shadows.

This didn’t seem like any old darkness. The malevolence was palpable, tangible; it was thick to the touch. It took on a life of its own, and you could feel the breath of it on your neck. Once touched by it, then the paralysis would set in.

Neina stood in the darkness; her muscles cramped, numbed and then left her unable to move. Her only reassuring sense of self was the knowing that she was able to blink. That at least meant her eyes were still intact, even if she was unsure of anything else as the anaesthetic that was fear, continued to envelop her. 

In front of her was a gold, illuminated palace with a large gate. The gate was fashioned to make it look antique, as though it had been forged over a century ago. It had huge, black twisted rods that began to slowly unravel. But the hinges, they just didn’t seem right. They were modern and totally incongruent with the devilish-beauty of the gate. It was a gate to castle.

The castle was made from solid metal and had large engravings on it. There was a large thud and the doors flew opening. What was then revealed was a scintillating dance of lights. Neina could smell a delicious combination of cedar, pine, cherry and morning freshness. Whilst taking in the flavours, she noticed an old man walk out. 

He called himself the “Gatekeeper”. He had a large, grey beard that made him look somewhat omniscient. He told Neina that she could only enter the palace if she completed three tasks. If they weren’t done in time, then she would be stuck in the dark void for all eternity. 

With his scratchy, yet very deep voice, he said, “You have three Morbidean days to complete all three tasks, the faster you complete one task, the more time you will have for the next; failure to do so will cost you your life. For your first task, you will have to cross Gargul’s Tunnel of Truth.”  And with that, he slowly faded into the engulfing mist.

Everything went dark and a spot of light appeared in the distance. Neina knew that her time was limited, and rushed into the tunnel with the hope that all would soon be over. The tunnel seemed to curl away into infinite darkness, with light showing up the rough walls that had moss thriving on it. The only indication that it was indeed a tunnel was the raised ground with a worm-like shadow that shone upon it. Neina was again, paralysed with fear as she heard screeching sounds which grew louder and louder. It seemed to have been coming from the walls. Were there people trapped on the other side?

The light at the end started to flicker as Neina heard footsteps drawing closer and closer. They were large footsteps; ones that sounded as if they had just got out of a swamp.

In front of Neina was a large silhouette of a creature. It began to approach her, one step at a time. Neina felt as though Death himself awaited her.

The creature had globular, green eyes, skin that looked like it had not been washed for millennia and hair sticking out of places you wouldn’t think is possible. The creature was the embodiment of evil. Neina’s stomach turned. You could smell the stench of it first, see it second. 

Then it opened its mouth “Tell me the truth and you can pass. I have only one question. If you fail to answer honestly, you will be stuck in these walls with the rest of the trapped souls”

“My question for you is...

By Kaalidas Sanjeev, Year 11, Star International School Al Twar


Author's note: Thank you for this amazing opportunity to take part in this community based novel. I have always found creative writing to be very intriguing since you are able to play with different stories, characters, personalities, etc. I have enjoyed reading what the other authors have created and tried to keep that same flow through my writing. I have also created an ending that would assist the next author but also leave as much room as possible for creativity. Good luck to the next author, cannot wait to see where the story will lead. 

 

“My question for you is... I’m the path to perdition. Gravest of all, keep that in mind. The root of all things evil, first in line. I bring heaven down to its knee and to the demon inside, I fill with glee. Niobe’s tears run through my vein, I’m difficult to give up but even harder to rein. Keep me dear and I'll bless you with the sweet stench of ruin, set me free, that’s the solution...” 

Each word enunciated seemed tainted with a sliver of mystique and every time he opened his mouth it was as if he was trying to contain a smug smile. His whole body radiated a hostile, unsettling energy, it swiveled around him like a tornado and possessed his very being so there was nothing left other than an abyss of darkness. 

He continued, “So Dear Neina, should you wish to passeth, leave me behind as I’m but only...a seventh. What am I?”  

His eyes squinted for a moment, studying the sight in front of him before explaining that she had five minutes. Five minutes. Neina was capable of doing A LOT of things in just five minutes but solving a riddle was not one of them. She stared right back at him, right into the soulless holes of his eyes, trying to compare herself to this Herculean-like creature and attempting to not look terrified. She was, though. Icy terror shot through her veins. Her delicate fingers were shaking terribly and all she could hear at that moment was the sound of her beating heart. Her eyes frantically searched her surroundings, trying to fathom the situation she was in but every time she told herself to calm down, it seemed to get worse; body and mind were not cooperating.  

She sat on the cold marble floor in front of the fiend and took a few teetering breaths before wading into an ocean of thoughts, trying to decode this puzzle. How hard could it really be? After all, it was just a riddle...a riddle.  A question or phrase which requires ingenuity and problem-solving skills to unravel. After a few painful seconds of putting a worthy, but hasty, plan together she decided to extrapolate each key line and analyze it carefully. Yes, the process would be quite tedious, especially since she only had five minutes, maybe less, but it was the most efficient way.  

Path to perdition.... Gravest of all........The root of all things evil, first in line.  

First in lineWhat could that mean? Perdition. The eternal damnation faced by a sinful, vile person after death. Neina struggled, to say the least, in trying to paint the full picture. Her fingers tapped against the surface beneath and her eyebrows were furrowed. She bit the pinkness of her lower lip, holding it hostage between her teeth until she solved this cryptic message.  

…bring heaven down to its knee and to the demon inside, I fill with glee. 

Demon? Where can you find it, humans? Do we all havit? Thoughts whizzed back and forth in her head, trying to comprehend the information told to her. Whatever this was, supposedly, fed the demon within... us?  

Niobe’s tears run through my vein. 

Niobe...a distant memory in some Greek myth, but she wasn’t able to catch the clue in her hand. Niobe, Niobe...The name caused immense frustration as she tried to remember, it seemed just there and yet still, somehow out of reach... 

Ok...think Neina! she thought to herself. ‘Niobe’ might be the key to solving the conundrum. Who was she? Some sort of Greek character...who had many children. But what happened? The story didn’t end well.  It was eating her brain inside out and her life depended on it. Two gods... They punished her for something... lost her kids... she showed off?  

Why did it tie in with the riddle? What was the relation? Neina raided her brain, pocketing bits of information, searching for the clues in the bits of myth... 

Time raced ahead, faster than she was used to. She could feel the callous gaze of the beady-eyed monster now beginning to sense a hint of victory, another soul for the taking.  

Neina shook her head, lost in the working out of what the solution was. Precious time ticked by and she knew every second counted. She couldn’t waste time digressing from what was important.  

I am, but only, a seventh. 

A seventh what? Or was it a ‘seventh’? She let out an exasperated sigh and pressed the palms of her sweaty hands together. It’s part of seven things...seven what though? And how does it relate to Niobe...or perdition...? 

I’m difficult to give up but even harder to rein. Keep me dear and I'll bless you with the sweet stench of ruin... 

Set me free, that’s the solution... 

Difficult to give up but...harder to contain?  She desperately tried to connect the dots, her respiratory system was obviously not on her side as it decided to increase her pace of breathing to a laborious pant. The solution was to give it up...to set it free, let it go...or it could, potentially, be the cause of destruction. 

Harder to give up...heaven to its knee...set me free, that’s the solution...I fill the demon with glee...Niobe’s tears...she was proud of something...? nearly impossible to rein... let it go, give it up. Seven... seventh, one out of the seven... 

Death loomed over her; it was probably just a few seconds away. The grim reality of failure dawned as Neina’s life flashed before her eyes and she was, for a brief moment, taken back to happier times. All her achievements, everything she was proud of... all of it came down to these last few momentsThis was a chance at a new life and she may not even make it past the start.... and then, as if destiny chose otherwise, Neina froze. Could it really be that simple? It just made sense all of a sudden, a perfect fit for every clue. She raised her head, stared into the monster’s face and said, “Are you Pride?” 

By Samvrutha Krishnakumar, Year 9, Horizon International School

Author's note: I thoroughly enjoyed reading the last five chapters, they were all very interesting! I also loved how they developed the character of Neina and her life so I’m really thankful to have been selected to write about her journey as well. Honestly, the beginning stages were rough as I was really nervous about keeping it consistent and maintaining the same style but after the first few paragraphs I realized that I should just let it come naturally. And it did! I’m really glad with the way my chapter developed and I can definitely say that I ADORE Neina! Good luck to the next writer- I can’t wait to see how her journey progresses and where we go to next!

 

There was a streak of sunshine glaring in her eyes. She closed them for a moment, just a moment and the walls disappeared out of view. The humans at the rear of the room were a gaggle of young girls, however, there was something wrong with them. Their faces were scarred and their ragged and torn garments couldn’t be any more dirty. There was a yell, so loud and dreadful, that she was forced to the marble floor. As she fell, its bottom gave way, and she disappeared into dim, foggy darkness. As she wakened, she realised she was in a tall tower of sunshine. She pondered it and wondered how she had survived?

Is this the rainbow of belief that comes with the storms, that mother had told her about?

She felt a quiet injury in her heart. Hot tears splashed onto her pretty face, how long has it been since she met her darling mother? When the pool of tears in her eyes dried, Neina went right into an odd looking bicycle shed close to her, seemingly begging her to enter. “Seems strange to keep it right here,” she mumbled. As she entered the queer place, she saw a vast space, the gauge of a house. There she saw a bunch of shiny bulbs, giving off a delicate light. She touched a yellow one and was transported into a deep silence, broken by a yell.

She had been cheerful, surprisingly happy. She strolled ahead and saw herself, at the age of three, holding a trophy factory-made from gold. She had received the prize of a running competition, a happy moment in her life. Zap!, just like that she came back! Touching the blue bulb, she saw herself at five, screaming badly, an aching wound that kept on bleeding. Why are these memories here? As she once more entered the chamber of recollections, an odd looking girl also entered. She saw her... and moved forward to the dim, grey light bulbs. She tried to comprehend what she was feeling. She saw a fuzzy space but was thrown out right away. The odd looking girl, now an ugly woman was facing her. The creatures face transformed into a shadow, and tried to enter into Neina's soul.

She ran and and enter an elevator, which looked like it had not worked for years. The lift seemed to offer a limitless variety of the way it moved, but it suddenly stopped. There was a person crouched next to her. He was still but could barely compress a horrific and dangerous grin. Then he advanced a step to the management box. Shuffling, he reached out into its control area and ripped out a blue wire. Nothing happened at first, but then she plunged down millions and millions of floors of doom, unleashing a blood-curling scream as she fell into the lowest part of the shaft. She awakened.

How many times can she fall asleep?

Now, the bottom of the shaft she felt a cold breath on her face and her mom came into view. “M-mo-m?” spoke Neina, as though she has never spoken before. “Yes, sweetie, you’re alright. You gave us a fright there!” spoke a sweet voice, determined to make her talk. Neina hugged her but when she let go, something slimy came all over her. She faced her mom once more, to realise it was not her, but a monster, made completely of slime. Ewwww! How could I imagine that slimy monster was my dear mother!

She ran away, far into the twilight. She saw a bright light, and then met darkness again. As she retraced her steps, she reached the light. She walked on and it seemed as though it was an endless path. She rushed, she stumbled on some blocks and before she knew it, she could see blood gushing from her knees. She knew panicking was not a solution, so she tore a small piece of her dress and wrapped it around her bleeding knees haphazardly. She decided to continue her journey. She had to get out of this somehow. “I am brave, I am brave” she muttered to herself while deep inside her, a voice told her: “This is your end.”

All her loved ones kept flashing through her mind as she continued her journey. On either side of her was now a dripping-wet wall of sharp-pointed protruding stone, excluding in her view save a strip of the blue sky; It seemed like a dungeon and it had a deathly smell as though she had left the natural world. She wished to scream out loud, but someone seemed to be strangling her throat. Was she dreaming or was someone really there? She did not dare to look behind her.

Her mouth was dry, she felt it had been hours since she entered this lane. She took a right and a left or was it a left and a right? It seemed as though she was trapped in a maze with no end. She couldn’t stop now; she had walked miles and miles. This is my last chance to see my mom.  Why didn’t I love her more? Taking a deep breath, she followed a series of rights and lefts, finally reaching a corridor of many weird-shaped doors. As she progressed through one, it seemed as though she reached the same area, or was it really the same?

It seems that every door led to more and more doors only, but no exits were there.

Oh God, will I ever escape! I want to see my dad, mom and brother. I miss my beautiful house! Please bring me back!” she wailed loudly, begging for help. "Please help me. Please, please, please!” Her voice echoed throughout. She pulled open an enormous door...

By Afreen Thariq, Year 8, Capital School

Author's note: I am twelve years old and I am Indian. I am inspired by many authors like J.K Rowling, Enid Blyton and David Walliams. I am currently reading the Ickabog by J.K Rowling and I was glad to get an opportunity to write a chapter for this novel. I mainly enjoy adventure stories.

 

The room was musty with age but the seeming normality of it was unnerving. A waterlily, crumpled and dry, sat solemnly on the centre of a large table. Surrounding it, six chairs lay undisturbed and perfectly uniformed. An oil painting hung gently on the dim grey of the wall, depicting a vivid sunrise. The rich oranges and pinks juxtaposed the rest of the room to such an extent that Neina found it hard to look at the picture without squinting.

The only real light in the room erupted from a couple of candles on the table, instant proof that this room lay separate from time as was humanly measured. How could a candle keep burning in a room that otherwise appeared untouched for near eternity? Ignoring the impossibility of it all, the candle flames continued to dance their timeless waltz, flickering and fluttering without the slightest trace of a breeze. They illuminated various cracks and crevices embedded into the walls and floor whilst casting ominous shadows.

Neina rubbed her eye, only then did she realise that it was damp. The salty residue of tears rested by the corners of her mouth, begging her to notice them. If the room had been filled with monsters, laced with traps or occupied by a minotaur, she would have been less scared. It was the normality, the familiarity that scared her.... Because it wasn’t normal, nor familiar but it almost was. Almost.

The cacophony of silence that had once surrounded her now felt like it was trying to engulf her. Trying to drown her in its emptiness. For a second, just a second, Neina wondered if she should submerge herself in it. She could shut her eyes and lie down; would it matter if she never woke up? Did she want to wake up again? This, all of this fantastical blur, had occurred far too fast.

It was almost enough to make her laugh as she traced her fingers over the bleeding wine stain on her blouse. A thick and rich Merlot, fruity and vibrant. Neina ran her hands down her skirt, the same black pencil that she had been wearing, well, before. Before the tunnels and the doors and the monsters. Before the mazes and the riddles and this mystifying room. Before her dreams and memories had intertwined as one. She took a breath. Drawing in the dust and the age, sucking it down into her lungs; revelling in it. She allowed her tears to escape, to celebrate the absurdity of it all, and she allowed herself to laugh, for much the same reason.

Neina?” whispered a young woman, materialising from nothing and taking a seat on one of the chairs. It creaked a little under her weight but other than that, nothing changed. Perhaps a minute ago, Neina would have screamed but instead she was perfectly calm. Why? Neina wanted to be scared, just like she’d wanted to be angry with Frankie all those hours ago but had found herself lost in defeat. The tranquillity filling her insides, pulsating through her veins and invading her brain, that wasn’t defeat. It was more of an acceptance.

It felt right the woman should be here, it was almost as if Neina wanted her to be here.

“Freya,” Neina allowed a hint of a smile to pass her lips, “Is it really you?”

Do you want it to be?” was all the woman replied. Her face should have been beautiful. Her jungle-green eyes were laced with expensive mascara, her lips were voluptuous and dressed in a warm shade of red, her smile was sweet and gentle, but she wasn’t beautiful. Or even pretty. In fact, she was quite possibly the ugliest person Neina had ever laid eyes on. Three men appeared at the table, each pulling out a chair in unison. None of them spoke a word but it was obvious who they were. The tall man, silvery haired and decorated in wealth was Frankie. The shortest was almost a boy, he had the raw hands of a farmer and the eyes of an elder, but he was no doubt Ryder. The third, was Quinn, a little taller than Neina remembered him but the depth of his obsidian eyes was unforgettable. All four of these people, so familiar and yet so distorted. Their faces looked almost normal, almost real, but just like Freya’s they were grotesquely garbled. Neina took it as proof that these were no people at all.

A flood of memories knocked Neina to the floor. She could smell the autumnal breeze, hints of warm apple crumbles and fresh earth. Freya was beaming as they walked, hand in hand, out of the exam hall. Her cheeks were rosy, and a scarf was hanging loosely around her neck, framing the beauty of her face. Neina was scowling, not a single question she had wanted came up on the paper. Three hours spent mindlessly drumming a pencil onto a desk, eventually leaving a mark. She was becoming irritated with Freya’s utter jubilance, why was the world working in her favour? Then, losing control of herself, Neina set free her anger in the form of a storm of insults upon Freya. Every insecurity that her best friend had was suddenly being targeted. That was the last time they had spoken; until now.

“Freya, I’m so sorry!” Neina burst into a fresh set of tears, forgetting to care if this vision of ‘Freya’ was fact or fiction, “I didn’t mean it. Any of it. I hated myself for screwing up the paper and you were just there. I was an awful, awful person and an even worse friend,” Neina’s whole body convulsed with sobs. Instantly, Freya’s face transformed into the stunning masterpiece that it used to be. Everything aligned, configured, returned to normality. She smiled. A subtle smile. And then she was gone, leaving not a hair to trace.

By Madeleine Cranitch, Year 10, Brighton College Dubai 

Author's note: I’m so grateful to have been chosen to explore Neina’s story a little further. This novel has already taken many a twist and a turn so I thoroughly enjoyed being able to add to that. I feel during these turbulent times in which we live, sometimes the scariest thing of all is not knowing what’s going to come next, not knowing how the future will shape. I wanted to capture this subtler aspect of fear within my chapter to mirror a fear that I believe all teenagers are feeling at the moment. I wish the next author all the best and remember to just have a bit of fun with it!

 

A sudden appearance of memorabilia encased the living, yet lifeless structures in the bottomless pit. They breathed in their vibrancy; their trembling flickers. Ones that, momentarily, could be reduced to a mist by the delicate touch of a lanky finger. Every definite edge was replaced by a blurred haze, and an unsettling desire to organize the emptied chamber of darkness, to fill it with love, light and all that is whole, filled Neina's soul. She had been raised to embrace perfection, and yet she found a slight delight, a vicious pride in her small rebellions. In a flurry, amidst the growing piles of memorabilia and a racing mind, came a mother.

Neina's mother.

Cupping her face in its dying flesh, the softness of the fabricated rubber of her skin sculpted at the worried dentures of her daughter's ageing expression; an unruly wrinkle in the corner of her left eye revealing itself. It had formed in times of heartache, and in times of revelling in joy. For once, her mother had not hoped to uphold an image of precious royalty. Rather, a warmth laced her intentions.

The sudden infliction of wasp-like stings against her sullen expression lifted it in pain rather than in joy; its twitching corners a testament to her mother's attempts to maintain lifeless tranquility to the structure of an uncontrollably emotive body. Many a time, she'd wept in her mother's arms, gasping and inhaling in her lap upon the woven hammock from the market. This idyllic nature of her mother - her pearl earrings and the obnoxious, deep, bloodied red of her slip dress - was not a reality.

In her frequent explorations to the kitchen as a child, Neina would stare at the trash can, where heaps of price tags ripped from the pieces of luxury attire lay. She'd peer through the crack of a door to reveal her mother's cautious muffled sobs, and a face so anxiously red and yet so beautifully rich in colour. She held her hands up to her face in fear, punishing herself for her expenditures by clawing at her skin and, by day, revelling in the luxury. The plastered smile was nothing but a disappointment - a momentary insight into the daily, relived patterns of deceit.

In the coming months, the daughter would lie in her bed, peering out of the window and watch the woman walk out - her performative dignity abandoned, her stained uniform crumpled and worn. She laboured over the leather wheel, and the endearing age of the vehicle that held road trips and sullen hums across streets was now hideously morphed. It appeared worn, persistent in its sadness. It looked as if it were not an antique, as they had called it. It was the result of poverty. It was the result of remarks ingraining themselves deep into her skin; sculpting them repeatedly as they melted out of shape.

She was a tutor, once, dismissed for her thick accent. It was certainly not the obnoxious one she’d now perfected by listening eagerly, or desperately, as she rubbed the mustard stains on the businessman's table for just a little longer. Her ideals were rules to live by - reconstructed by those who relived the same removal of colour, and a heap of influence.

Neina had watched as her wardrobe was replaced from vibrant colours, to symbols of American media she barely understood, to silk blouses and suffocating buttons. As she'd imagined, her children glared in a questioning manner. The mother grew weary of the way her shame weighed on her frame and made note of upholding herself in great structure, in great posture as if she were, truly, a woman of affluence.

Her surgical removal of the unruly in any situation she encountered became a way of life, and it was the way of an obsessive criminal.

As bleach burnt into her flesh, she shoved scissors deep into her scalp if any unruly curls revealed themselves. The hate she held for herself was strategically hidden away, tucked in the darkest corners of a mind filled with the desire for the new and polished. It masked itself as a desire for good. It filled her with immense pride to state that she had provided the greatest of lives to children who, without her endearing interruptions as a saviour, would be left fragmented, unwhole.

Her father had very much done the same. A rabid punch interrupted the beauty of their starkly empty wall, with nothing but markings of an unsharpened graphite pencil depicting a small child's growth. Hers was etched out at the age of six, a third of the way along the column. The age she adored.

These plastered attempts at healing melted away to a six-year-old. They melted away until Neina began to grow old, until she criticized the smudged markings of the wall. If an organized life failed to fasten onto an ordinary course, she would ponder, if it failed so greatly that it left the holes on her wall punctured, intricate markings collected over a lifetime smeared and sloppily plastered over, was it truly perfect?

The deceit of a century sunk in, melting away to reveal a sour truth. It was much like the tracing of a rough tongue against a candied sweet; its bright, chemical coverings an attempt to conceal the bitter distaste left in your mouth. A journey of washing away every strip of colour.Erased, sunken, remodelled.

And so, as soon as she could, Neina moved away from home.

Her first attempts to integrate into a foreign town were, disappointingly, met with a white-picket fence. Within seconds, her black tube of paint was slathered onto the surface. The sheer amount she used was an exploitation of the colour, really. But just like her mother, she aimed to erase a broken past.

The very sight of such a starkly present structure disturbed her. It was her mother, for the imperfections of the underlying wood were so ignorantly painted over. Her wide-toothed and thick-lipped grin. Her basking in the sun, basking in the beauty of a drunken man that beat her walls, her home, her chairs. His slurred words were sloppy declarations of false love and endearment.

Neina's mother spoke of him like a saint. Like a man untouched, like a high-school lover whose endearing daily nuances never failed to fade away. She spoke as if the man had control, as if he didn't douse his body entirely in Merlot rather than blood.

To be worthy of life, Neina felt she would have to resolve her life's agonies, troubles and conflicts. She would have to relive it all over again, and she would have to deconstruct the permanent fixtures of a cluttered shed of a mind.

The unexpected nature of it all and the prying gazes of those who had inflicted the heavy torture was a demand to organize; to allow for a focus on the slips and cracks, to see her mother's plastered fixtures crumpled, the paint chipping away. The sing-song voice of the man she called her father would reveal itself to be a reoccurring memory.

Now, she realized, was the time for the architect to reconstruct.

 

By Menna Abdelwahab, Year 9, The English College Dubai 

Author's note: Hello! I’m Menna and am an aspiring creative writer myself (and a lover of the subject of history). I have come to understand the roles our histories play in the creation of our worldviews, an idea I’ve explored in this chapter. Most importantly, I adored delving in depth into the mundane routines which shape Neina's character. Being given the platform to share my work among a sea of talented writers is a privilege. To the next writer: enjoy it! 

Neina rubbed her eyes and the memories of her parents faded. She knew what her task was now, and that she would have to face it. She turned to the table in the familiar-looking room, around which were seated Frankie, Quinn, and Ryder, their faces still looking grotesque and unreal, their presence ghostly. The room seemed cold and forbidding now. Neina shivered.

Somehow, she knew what she had to do, but it seemed much more formidable than it had been a few moments ago, now that she was actually doing it. She managed to steel her resolution, and took a faltering step toward Frankie, who was seated nearest to her.
“Frankie?”, she whispered. There was no sign that he, or anyone else, had heard. He did not move, and his expression did not change. Neina came closer, and whispered his name again, this time more urgently. “Frankie!” This time, he came to life. Still expressionless, he stood up, facing her. His tall form cast an eerie shadow on the candlelit walls around him.

Then suddenly, without her knowing how or why, Neina’s eyes were irresistibly drawn to stare up into his. At first, she only saw his unfathomable grey eyes staring stonily back into hers. When she tried to close her eyes, she found that she couldn’t. Whatever is coming, make it come fast, she thought.

She didn’t have long to wait. She saw the grey eyes in front of her get bigger and bigger until they were the only things that she could see, until they merged into one spinning vortex. Before she could scream, she felt her feet leave the ground, and found herself being pulled into the vortex’s pitch-black center. She spun dizzyingly through the blackness.

Neina didn’t know how long she had been spinning for when she finally landed on solid ground with a rather hard thump. Her knees buckled, and she fell helplessly to the floor, gasping, her heart beating wildly. Finally, she managed to sit up and look around at the curious place that she had landed in while she regained her breath and courage.

She was alone, and was leaning against a stone wall in a cold, dark, cavernous hall with vaulted ceilings. These ceilings could barely be seen in the dim, uncanny purple light that hung around the place, coming from an unknown source. The hall was filled with a spine-chilling silence, the kind that makes you feel that you are being watched. Neina wanted to get away from the place as soon as possible, so she got up, and began to make her way to the only place that looked like it led anywhere, which was an arched opening in the rock wall that could be compared to a yawning mouth; an eerie purple hue hung about it, and beyond its entrance was unfathomable darkness.

As Neina walked hesitantly across the hall, her footsteps echoed on the stone floor, the sound of them amplified by the vaulted ceiling, as she tried to stay brave and shake off that feeling of being watched and followed. Eventually, she approached the formidable looking archway.

The odd thing about this arch was that the seemingly impenetrable darkness beyond it began very abruptly. At one point, the wall would be dimly illuminated by the purple glow, and then, suddenly, it would melt into darkness. This made Neina seriously consider whether or not there were any walls or floor beyond the archway at all. She knew that although the last thing she wanted to be doing right now was to venture out beyond the archway into the unknown, completely unprepared and unaided, she had to do so, or she would be forfeiting any remaining chance to escape the Mors World. So, she took a deep breath, looked at the archway one last time, and stepped into the blackness.

Contrary to what she had originally thought, Neina found that there actually was firm ground to walk on. She also noted that it had become increasingly cold. She shivered in her wine-stained blouse and began to make her way forward rather uncertainly, feeling her way through a darkness that her eyes would not adjust to. From the echo made by her footsteps, she could discern that she was in a fairly large cavern with a high ceiling.

It was a few minutes before she decided to look back and see how far she had walked. To her horror, she found that she could no longer see the opening she had come through, nor could she detect any distant glimmer of purple light. Could I actually have come so far in such a short time? she wondered. Then a new, startling realisation dawned in her mind. Maybe – you just can’t get back, she told herself. You can only go on, go forward.

“But what is there that lies ahead?”, she asked herself in the dark, though she hadn’t really meant to say it out loud. Her voice sounded small in the vast emptiness.

Then, suddenly, a figure materialized in front of her. It could be distinctly seen, even though there was no light illuminating it. Neina gasped with sudden recognition.

 

Maryam Perjessy, Year 8, Repton School Dubai

Author's note: I have especially loved the element of fantasy and adventure that has been introduced into the story by the previous authors, and have enjoyed the opportunity to add my own twist. I can’t wait to read the next chapter.

It was with a slight feeling of disgust that she recognized the figure standing about twenty feet in front of her. The half-buttoned, crumpled blue shirt, the unshaven black beard with splotches of grey and the lanky stature of this figure were all too familiar to Neina. It was a sort of familiarity she wished she hadn’t felt.

“Dad…” she whispered with mixed emotions as her palms drowned in sweat.

Yet, his face, which once looked like Frankie’s, was now as blank as a sheet of paper, and the glassy grey eyes of his stared into the nothingness that loomed behind her. Slowly, he raised one of his strong arms, rough with decades of manual work, in her direction and began to make a gentle beckoning gesture, still staring into the dark void swallowing them up. Along with his beckoning gestures, he produced a slight grunt. He moved as mechanically as a robot and then turned around, making his way towards the never-ending darkness in the opposite direction.

Does he…want me to follow him?

With a quick glance at her pitch-black surroundings, empty of any crevice from which light can protrude, the only choice Neina had was to follow him. After quickly making up her mind, Neina nervously hastened her steps to catch up to him.  She heard the 6’6 ft. man mumbling incomprehensibly to himself. While moving closer in desperate efforts of trying to make out the obscured words that came out of his half-opened mouth, Neina realized that his tanned hands were shaking with overwhelming rapidity.

The two of them walked for what seemed an eternity, their footsteps heavy and noiseless until they had reached a single standing door placed awkwardly in the middle of the black void. Neina’s heart skipped a beat, and she shuddered with a painful, but also heartwarming, recognition as she stared at the door in front of her.

The door to my room!

She gasped, trembling with sobs when she recognized the door that had once led her to the happiest place on earth.

Her father, unfazed by her reaction, slowly twisted the golden, rusty knob on the familiar door. The door opened up into a room not like the one Neina grew up in. Instead of the striped pink walls of her childhood which held up her paintings and posters, this bedroom’s walls were painted in a chaotic manner with a dull shade of dark blue paint, and it was marred by poorly-drawn stars of white chalk.

Her small bed and the tiny white desk on which she spent hours a day drawing and writing were gone, rendering the room as empty as the void which lay on the other side of the door. Like the ceiling and walls, the once chocolaty-brown wooden planks of the floor were also covered in the same shade of blue paint. A strong stench of chemicals alarmed her, and a cold gust of wind froze her features as she moved in.

Suddenly, in the midst of her gloomy observations, her father turned to her with a blank stare, shaky hands, and unintelligible mumbling. He raised a shaky fat finger, pointing to a corner in the room. Anxiously following the direction in which he pointed, her eyes met a new figure visibly struggling on its stomach and shaking with heavy, low cries. It was far too dim to make out what this thing was, so she decided to approach it with careful steps and a racing heart. She was now almost gasping for breath, and her hands were clammy with anxiety, but she moved closer, becoming more distraught with every step. Recognizing that familiar voice, she suddenly forgot her pain.

Almost stumbling as she struggled to run to the corner, she reached the figure which belonged to a woman in her mid-40s or 50s and noticed that the woman’s delicate, milky-white hands were tied behind her back with a course piece of yellow rope blotched with dark red spots. Without a moment of hesitation, she gathered up all her courage and glared hard at the woman’s face.

To her great horror, Neina was confronted with the begging face of her dear mother and they painfully met eyes. Her mother’s eyes were no longer as blue as the sea but were rather like two black marbles, and her lips were no longer full, pink, smiling, and full of honey-sweet comfort. Instead, they were chapped, dripping with blood. Her frown extended into the depths of her long visage and exposed a rotting set of teeth. Her eyebrows seemed to beg for mercy.

“Mom!” Neina screamed as she tried to frantically untie the rope that constrained her mother. Her fingers were not cooperating, and not an ounce of energy was left in her body. Suddenly, she heard the screeching of a chalkboard behind her and abruptly turned around. Her father, still standing as she had left him at the far end of the room, was scribbling something frantically on the wall, his mumbling growing louder, his words becoming more coherent, his hands getting shakier with every passing second.

Clinging tightly on to her mother, Neina watched him slowly go insane. When she realized that he was trying to tell her something, she decided to move closer to him. Despite her grappling fear and her shaky frame, she stepped closer to the man until she could almost make sense of the words he wrote in the same white chalk used to draw the stars in the room. She squinted her eyes in an intense effort to read the sentence jotted on the wall and was unable to contain herself.

He can’t really be writing this! I’m going insane!

Dropping the chalk on the floor and turning to Neina with his ghastly, emotionless face, her father suddenly yelled in a deep bone-chilling voice the same phrase he had scribbled on the wall…

“It was Isla.”

 

Siwar Hamdi, Year 11, iCademy

Author's note: In this chapter, I wanted to provide more insight into Neina’s parents, and I decided to incorporate Isla more into the plot. The brief description of Neina’s parents’ unique relationship in Chapter 9 intrigued me and motivated my work in this chapter. I am looking forward to read the upcoming chapters!

 

For the first time, since she was forced into that incomprehensible, harrowing dimension, time stood still; almost as if it had been frozen by the words that had bellowed from the misshapen substitute of Neina’s father.

As for Neina, the room simply meshed into a black pit of despair, spinning uncontrollably before her veined, bloodshot eyes. Clenching her pulsing head, her legs numbed as she plunged toward the ground. Her father hadn’t uttered much – only three words. Three words that would forever change the course of Neina’s life. Three words that would consistently haunt and taunt Neina. Three words that would consistently pulse through her head:

“It was Isla.”

Each numbing day since her mother’s disappearance, she had ripped herself apart, inside and out. Spending countless, torturous nights, tossing and turning restlessly in a sea of tears. A single day had not passed without her gut wrenching at the slightest idea that her mother – who’s beaming smile illuminated rooms, who’s azul, doe eyes glistened in the tranquil sunrise – might have left because of her. Because she wasn’t talented enough, because she wasn’t good enough. Because she wasn’t enough.

She was constantly unnerved and brimming with the constant fear of disappointing, doubting each minor action – living in what seemed like a nightmare come true; a mural painted with shades of pain.

But her father’s words echoed through her head, running at an unworldly speed. Her worst fear, most unimaginable outcome, hadn’t come true. It was never the reason. She was never the reason. Those three words brought inexplicable clarity to a dilemma that had forever clouded and obstructed her life. So, as Neina cradled herself on the cobbled blue floor, face buried in the warmth of her bruised knees, a feeling rushed through every inch of her, leaving goose-bumps in its wake. A feeling of actual relief. In that moment, Neina truly asked herself: “Is this what happiness feels like?” For the first time, she had real answers.

However, even in that completely contrasting, mystical world, Neina knew all good things must come to an end. She wished, ever so dearly, that she could tightly clutch on to the sudden, freeing rush that had engulfed her – and never let go. Instead, a boiling flush of rage bubbled through her veins. Heat… radiating off her like metal in summer. Her nostrils flaring and fuming … at the sight of her poor mother. With constraints so tight that her hands slowly lost their flow of blood, salty streams of tears crusted across her once youthful face. Desperate wails from underneath the tape that concealed her past, beaming smile.

Neina knew the root for this despicable misery. Not just for her mother, but the years of torture for herself and Ryder. It was all due to a pathetic, sociopathic excuse of a being… Isla.

Mustering what seemed like the anger of a thousand demons, Neina hoisted her once weak legs with tremendous power. It seemed as though the room trembled with terror. Now she knew who was behind her living nightmare – and rage was pouring out of her, craving the sweet taste of revenge. She wasn’t even slightly concerned for Isla’s deplorable excuses; she was still bewildered as to why she was unmercifully shot.

However, there was one objective that Neina was crystal clear on. Revenge. With every last breath she could gather, her vocal chords’ strained to squall “Isla, I’m coming for you”.  A deathly silence followed, with these words resonating throughout the black box Neina was confined to.

Just like that, the room faded, immersing her in blinding, ethereal light.

Srija Suragouni, Year 9, GEMS FirstPoint School 

 

Surrounded by what should have been an unbearably blinding light, Neina felt a surge of strength as if her whole mind had been lit up. Her dark shadows, fears and subconscious demons had no place to hide.

Isla, the epitome of the ‘American Dream’ and the American image. Fair, young, ambitious, beautiful.

Neina’s mind was racing and raging at the same time, with a tsunami of mixed emotions and utter confusion battering against the confines of her skull. One thing was clear though, she was not going to be defeated. Ascertaining what it was she was defeating was the more pressing issue at hand. Go back to the beginning. Retrace your steps. Find what you have lost.Neina’s beautiful and complex mind spurred into action. An assassin; a mythical world full of riddles and misrepresentation; the constant and imminent threat of death. Death of what?

All of this had begun with her fear of not being perfect. Fear of sharing her career with a new and vibrant college graduate. Fear of losing the position she had worked so tirelessly to secure. Fear of not being good enough. But how did this relate to her mother? Who was Isla? What was Isla? If she had killed her mother, that would make her middle-aged at least by now. It was simply not possible for her to be the fresh-faced, doe-eyed porcelain star that had so unceremoniously catapulted into Neina’s world.

Images of her mother flashed through her mind, like scrolling through the photo albums on her mobile phone. Quickly and impassively at first, but then she landed on one image that caused her to pause and made her feel as if she had travelled back to that very moment. The sweet-scented perfume consumed Neina’s senses, as if her mother were so close that she could reach out and hug her.

There was undoubtedly an elegance there in the way she carried herself, but it was a learnt elegance. Slender, stylish. Manicured in the latter stages of Neina’s memory of her. The lasting image which Neina kept being drawn to was her mother’s many battles with what she described as her ‘unruly hair’. Neina could remember the vast array of hair products her mother had: Hair oil, frizz control, keratin.

A vision of straighteners and hot brushes, strewn across her mother’s dresser, lingered in Neina’s mind. Neina drew a small sentimental smile at this connection she had shared with her mother. She had inherited her mother’s hair and had learnt from a very early age to keep it under control, straight and ordered. She had never really thought to question why. She couldn’t seem to shake this question now though.

Her mother had been unquestionably beautiful. The desired heart-shaped face, almond-shaped eyes and perfectly symmetrical features. Her skin was smooth and blemish-free, with a shade of ebony that radiated through a crowded room. Neina was said to resemble her mother but was of the slightly lighter tone of her father with eyes that were sharper and deeper.  Eyes that glistened with knowledge and moved with a relentless curiosity about them. Neina knew she stood out.

She knew that her looks were noticed, but she was also acutely aware that her looks would never be enough. In a perfect and equitable world this would be quite rightly the case, but Neina did not live in this utopia. Her disadvantage was as concealed as Isla’s aesthetic advantage was camouflaged. She was an intelligent, well-educated and ambitious individual. Neina had always strived to be the best at whatever she did.

During her school days, she had put in the hours, hadn’t gone to parties or allowed the usual teenage distractions to deter her from her academic focus. She had worked twice as hard as her counter-parts to graduate as valedictorian and hadn’t been well-liked as a result.

However, no matter how hard she worked and how brilliant she was, she also knew that she could never assume anything. Never be complacent. Never expect fairness or justice.

 Work hard and always be ready to answer questions, defend your position, know when to push and when to hold back.This conversation was had at the tender age of five. The conversation that occurred in every African-American household. The content of which Neina had always tried to deny, push aside, ignore, but no matter how hard she tried or how hard she worked, she could not shake this from her being.

As with her mother, she had pushed herself into a world that was not hers by history or culture.  This was her demon. This was her nemesis. It was this that killed any hope of self-gratification and self-appreciation that she may have otherwise held. It was this that was her assassin! She was her own misrepresentation and a product of a world that had allowed this. No more! Her mother had longed for milky-white hands and sky-blue eyes, but this vision was as forged as the world Neina was experiencing.

Now more than ever before, she understood what all of these bizarre and strange occurrences meant. She had to embrace with full glory who she was, what she was and what this meant. Of course, Challenge 2: recognise this illusion. Challenge 3: recognise myself. A familiar melody echoed through her ears,

‘Black is beautiful, black is exceptional, black is powerful, black is me’

 Finally tears of joy fell from her eyes as the feeling of gratification cascaded through every vessel of her being. This was Isla, a killer, an assassin of the soul. But only if she chose to die. Neina chose life. She had chosen to break this cycle of subjugation that haunted the many before her. To see all that stands before her, acknowledge it but change it. Never accept.

The sound of a scream and the crack of a rifle, followed by muffled voices, resounded from her television set on the opposite side of her bedroom. The news reporter was gesticulating wildly with news of rioting and looting. It was happening. Change was coming and it was time for her to take control. Yes, she was coming for Isla, but her revenge was in the damage she had inflicted upon herself.

She hurried up out of the sweat-filled bed, dazed and confused, yet with a clarity she had never possessed thus far. Everything now made sense. In a frenzy of excitement, she threw on her clothes, tossed her jacket over her shoulder and hurried out of her house, slamming the door behind her. For the first time she could remember, her coarse, spiraled curls hung freely down her back.

 

Fares Sharifi, Year 10, Repton Abu Dhabi

Author's note: I saw an opportunity to bring in the struggles and self-doubt that ethnic minorities face and how they are treated differently based on what society deems as acceptable or not, beautiful or not, important or not. It has a relevance for the moment we now find ourselves in. I also wanted to bring the story back to our world so that it would allow those following more flexibility in the development of the story.

Walking briskly down the streets, masked behind the filth of humanity’s waste, the intensity of fury held Neina’s body as a hostage. The mere pondering of revenge blurred her view of her return to reality. She suddenly realized it was 6 A.M. when she received her daily notification of sunrise alerts on her phone. Two hours until it’s time to head to the office. So, Neina decided to strategize how the final showdown between her and Isla would occur.

Neina wanders the empty streets, searching for a place of tranquility, until she discovers a meadow where a single bench lies at the center. The intriguing view of the vast meadow, surrounded by towering skyscrapers that reflect the rest of the city on their lofty glass facades, compelled her to spend the entire morning on that bench. As she delicately takes a seat, she begins to appreciate the fine craftsmanship of the wooden planks bundled elegantly with curvy green iron leaves. Touching the wood gracefully, she sensed the coarse bumps of an engraved phrase, “vastata est nitor non ad iram”. She attempted to read it. Neina knew it was Latin yet did not fully comprehend its meaning.

As she looked down, she was shocked to realize that her attire was not particularly suitable for this time of day. The attire consisted of a flamboyant, scarlet-red jumpsuit, embroidered with numerous alexandrite gems on the waistline. Yet, the jumpsuit draped around her figure astonishingly well, complementing her petite frame, chocolatey brown skin, and her spiralled curls that added a perfect finish to the attire. As she sat there, almost still, Neina’s recent struggles slipped out of her troubled mind. She realized her one genuine wish at this exact moment: to soak in the few sun rays grasping the edges of the sky, heralding the start of a new cycle.

The overwhelming silence that flooded the meadow was now interrupted by the charming singing of a small bird and the cascading waters crashing down rocks. An unwelcome feeling begins to run through Neina’s bones, turning them sore and somehow brittle. Pain, devouring all the light and hope left in her body, was forcing her to cower to the ground, twisting her torso like a modern art piece, where darkness is the only comprehensible aspect. It seems like pain rose out of her frail body and engulfed the crystalline sky.

This was the type of darkness that could only be housed in the Mors World. Was Neina not supposed to retaliate and avenge her mother? At this moment in time, Neina believed she was teetering on a fine line between both worlds, each prying at the ends of her soul. She was neither on Earth nor in the Mors World. Yet, she felt somehow strangled in between these two worlds. As she slowly folded out of her embryonic position, Neina opened her eyes and gazed into what seemed to be a perfectly new world.

Frightened and confused, Neina stood up promptly and examined the peaceful meadow. To her surprise, Neina was startled when she found an old woman, maybe in her 50’s or 60’s, sitting on the bench beside her. Neina gazed at the woman’s mesmerizing features. The deep blue eyes, with surprisingly beautiful full lips and blossomed cheeks that Neina could not stop staring at, unnerved her. The old woman’s kind smile and inspiring energy seemed so familiar. “Brilliance must not be wasted on anger,” the old woman stated with a tiny smirk. “What?”, Neina responded abruptly. “It’s written on the bench,” the old woman responded, “did you not see it?”

Neina began to dig for her phone in her purse, and as she swiped its screen back to life, the screen read 7:45 A.M. She apologized to the old woman about the inconvenience and hustled down to the city to catch the first cab she could find. Even though it felt like eternity, it was only twenty minutes that passed as Neina began her ride. She started counting the raindrops that raced down the car window, wondering whether rain poured over the city the night before. Finally, the cab stopped. Neina rushed into her office, only to find Frankie leaning on one of the tables. She exhaled and joined Frankie in her office. “Frankie, it’s great to see you!” Neina said with a forged grin. “I believe it’s time to end our little dispute.”

Neina thought of this as the first step in avenging her mother’s death.
“First, I’d like to say that I have been working in this office for several years,” Neina began, “and you have been exploiting my talents and parading them as your own”. Before the usual, tiresome frown drew on Frankie’s face, Neina continued; “I don’t know whether you believe me to be an important asset to this company or not, but I am, and I can work without Isla’s aid…”

A knock interrupts Neina in the middle of her anticipated long speech.  The door slowly opens, and Isla enters the room.

Maya Adham, Grade 10, Dunecrest American School 

Author's note: In this chapter, I wanted to show a glimpse of Neina’s strengths and abilities. Every woman deserves a chance to stand out, and I find that a current struggle in the real world. This challenge was a great opportunity and a great learning experience, as well. I can’t wait to see how the next chapters develop Neina’s character!

With fiery red embers swaying above her hips, Isla sauntered in, commanding the room with every footstep that she led. Glowing. A dim orange luminescence descended into the hall, apparently unnoticeable to anyone but Neina. Everyone’s vision was drawn to Isla, blinded to the existence of anything beyond the space engulfed by her hypnotizing disguise. She was a vision of supremacy, but her gaze only preached terror. Like the sun  she was overpowering, features laced with a bewitching allure, yet capable of burning if you peered too deeply. The master of hypnosis; her snake-eyes were reminiscent of two black moons in the withering night.

The white-collar workers were reduced to theatrical caricatures in the presence of her unchallenged, intrinsic femininity. With his eyes drawn towards the entrance where Isla still stood, Frankie’s lips began to move. His face was fixated on her while he expressionlessly witnessed words passing through his mouth. 

“Neina Nyala, you showed up to work the other day hungover, and you have rebelliously refused to follow my orders. Due to your continuous displays of uncooperative and negligent behaviour, you’re fired!”

Skin stretched thinly over her jaw and her sly smirk emerged from the uniform, modest laughter behind her. Public humiliation. The warmest welcome. She hurriedly slithered away and her hellish hair twisting behind her as if it were sentient. With a final glare shot towards Neina, Isla was gone. 

An evanescent entity.

After the degradation she was subjected to in the hall, Neina took her 15 years of devotion to her company and escaped through any door she could find. With no clear idea of where she belonged anymore, she raced her own sanity for as long as her body could endure. Desperately lost in the quiet streets of the town, her back grazed against the brick wall as she hopelessly trickled onto the floor - was powdered with old cigarette butts and the illusion of sorrow, and now, decorated with Neina’s petite frame.

Aware of the horrors of the past, she pathetically attempted to remove Isla’s image from her mind; but the more she tried the more vividly she saw her face in the shadows. Drowned by her haunting memories, she sheltered her face under her arms and shook vigorously in fear. All she wanted was to escape this ocean of oppression and be free of her existence.

Scrunching her eyelids tightly together, she attempted to hide in the emptiness of her vision, her only refuge. As if her fears amalgamated as a black mass that hammered her skull into the crevasses of the earth. Disoriented, she cautiously opened her eyes, unsure of what she was hoping to find. Convulsing, in every way humanly impossible, she had sparks of electricity prancing through her joints - robotic sharp movements.

Her figure compressed until it had the density of a singular nucleus within an atom. She felt herself being pulled through a tunnel without walls, darkness upon darkness was the limit of her understanding of this warp. This cosmic plughole had the impression of eternal flight, or rather endless damnation. Exponentially elongating, her limbs deformed to the width of arteries, to veins, then to the size of infinitesimal capillaries and so on.

The Mors.

Alongside the dull buff land, every particle of Neina’s being rematerialised into the face of heaven. Her locks reflected a sheen, which had the lustre of bright morning dew. Amber eyes made of liquid gold; she had a look of brilliance that was parallel by the sky’s constellations.

Before her, appearing from the fog that was squirming along the ground, a familiar shadow rose above the dust. She’s here. Again. Her usually perky nose began to protrude out of her face, pulling the tightly wrapped film of her skin that had once given Isla her mesmerizing beauty. The translucent skin tore along the centre of her face, revealing a disfigured layer of flesh dotted with cracks and scabs.

Her nose continued to reach out to Neina, close enough to sniff her aura, subsequently cracking like a piece of fine china. Green claws sprouted from her bones (disgorging from underneath her painted fingernails) with small chunks fleshy chunks dripping off the tips. Spiraling horns propelled from her skull, and a thick leathery tail flopped on the floor behind her. 

W-w-what in tarnation is that? First a faerie, then a bludgeoning beast! Is there any more lies to this glamorous facade? There’s no proof! There’s no proof to the events I spiel, nor the remnants of my sanity - the blooming pain.

Neina felt her eyes lock in with Isla’s. Her neck was paralysed, unable to repel the magnetic force that had drawn Neina into this distorted abyss. A sudden nauseating force seemed to grab her soul, dragging it out of her throat - along with any traces of consciousness or sanity that remained. 

Isla’s voice penetrated the clouds of dread that loomed over Neina’s body, her screech rivaling the discombobulated cacophony of a busy city. Hidden behind her overpowering caws, Isla’s gentle, worldly tone chanted its last echo, the prophecy to her life’s purpose.

በኃይልህላይየሚያግድህእርሱበሥጋለክፉውወራሽነው፣በተለበለበየነሐስጸጉራማፀጉር፣የሰውልጅእናአብሮነትያለው፣በእያንዳንዱአጽናፈሰማይመካከልያለውንጨርቅለመጠገንአንድተዋጊ

“You. You are the one who shall impede on my power, the heir to my own flesh, with hair of warped bronze sceptres, harboring the duality of man and what co-exists, a warrior to repair the fabric between each universe. And for that very reason I must destroy you.”

Flooded by her own weakness and despair, she began losing any sense of sight or sound. A bitter flavour stroked her tongue, this must be what death tastes like. As her knees collapsed and her body had given up the war against gravity, she began her descent towards the ground. Her vitality had slipped away from her so effortlessly, and all Neina could do was wait for her heart to finish its final beat.  

A shallow cry seeps into the distance. It has a familiar timbre, one that is of the sweetest trills and most melodious tune. Freya. Her dominating march towards the disaster had shook the ground. The shadow of light that had preceded her blinded Isla, and as she shrivelled into herself to her comforting darkness.

Sparks burst like firecrackers along her leathery skin, leaving behind ashy marks on her limbs and skull. Panicked, she loosened her grasp on Neina’s soul as it hung between the ground and ceiling, and her webbed arms stretched over her face as she catapulted into the sloshy waves of filth. PLOP!

Freya reached out her wing, and pulled Neina’s slippery soul towards her, grasping it tightly in the palm of her hand. Looking endearingly at the lifeless body beneath her, Freya glided away from the battlefront. The soul found solace in her warm embrace, and layers of heavenly light enveloped each other in a gleeful dance. The light had created a border between space and her current existence, and sensing the surge of an inhumanely intense consciousness. On the brink of death, Neina was more alive than she had ever imagined possible.  

Disillusioned by the knives of time, she stared at Freya in astonishment. Without having to utter a single syllable, Freya was aware of Neina’s bewilderment. In her hypnotizing voice, she whispered an ancient secret into the depths of Neina’s soul. 

“This has gone too far; we can’t risk losing you. You are destined to fulfill the prophecy - you alone harbour the power to defeat her vicious crave for ultimate domination. You only have one more chance to save your family, and bring an end to the vile curse which that beast has cast upon your blood. Don’t fail us, not like your mother.”

Neina, encircled by a swirling daze of confusion, releases an anguished bellow from the bottom of her core. Her frustration devoured the debris of what she had once believed, and a storm of uncontrollable fury flooded out of the limits of Freya’s shelter. As Neina surpassed the boundaries between space and time, Freya pulled herself away, allowing herself to witness this tornado of ruin. Crackling, scorching and sinking, everything underneath was disheveled into a hollow chasm. 

Miraculously, Neina finds herself waltzing on a recognisable cobblestone path, amidst the chaos. I’ve been here before. Gawking intuitively at a woman in a creased yet formal skirt, complemented by a scarlet stain, she realises those snapped heels are hers. This is not happening- no! Am I looking in a mirror? Hallucinating?

She spots an out-of-place chasm that matches every intricacy, every mark of destruction left on Mors world. Lost in self-doubt and instability, she searches for a trace of humanity. A man loosely draped in a thick argyle scarf passes by her, and Neina desperately grabs his arm and pulls him in. “What is this? Where did this hole come from?”

“Oh this, it’s always been here.” 

Salma Ghalwash, Year 11, Deira International School

Author's note:  I am impatiently waiting for all the following authors to to develop the concepts I placed in this chapter, with their own verve and innovative elements to experiment with and transform the characters into something extraordinary; a product of many minds under various constraints, whether it be time, quarantine or the occasional creativity block.

 

Neina let go of his arm, confused. Always here? 

“Who are you?”

The man didn’t answer. He took a step back and looked at her, as if examining her person. He smiled.  She stared at him - for some reason, she felt like she’d seen him before. He kept on smiling.  A thought.  Why did it seem so familiar?

She was broken out of her trance by her doppelganger, who, she noticed, started walking away from the two of them. Its steps seemed sure of itself, barely feeling the unevenness of the cobblestone path. Neina stepped back from the man, away from him and his smile. That smile, why does it bring me comfort?

Turning around, she made to catch up with what seemed to be herself, escaping the frightening sense of comfort. From the corner of her eye, she noticed the man disappear, leaving nothing but his argyle scarf. She shook her head, picking up her pace. One mystery at a time.

The figure moved gracefully compared to Neina, its heels making a soft click each time they met stone. Abruptly, the clicking stopped, and it stood, rooted in place. Neina stumbled, her step a lot less confident than the figure’s. The combination of her heels and the uneven ground caused her to lose balance, her left ankle rolling as it lodged itself between two stones. She reached outwards in desperation, begging to find something she could balance herself on. She readied herself to grip onto the figure’s shoulders.

A gasp.

The doppelganger spun around in extraordinary speed, watching as Neina fell to the ground. She crumbled onto the floor, her hands falling through its body, shimmering as they sliced through what should have been something. She looked up at it as it stood over her, towered over her.

The air turned heavy, its thickness suffocating. Every step she took was a chore, as if the world around her were slowly seeping her energy away until she would be nothing more than a hollow shell, indiscernible from the doppelganger before her.

“What are you?” she asked, her voice dry and raspy. It tilted its head, a sickening grin sprawling across its face.

“I am you,” it said, moving even closer to her. “I am what you will become.”

It crouched down, levelling its eyes with Neina’s. A cold shriek of laughter erupted from it, the sound filling the emptiness of the cobblestone path. Neina shuffled backwards, her ankle bruised from her fall. The creature followed her slowly, its knees bent in inhumane angles. She felt her back press against a wall, an invisible barrier in the otherwise sprawling nothingness of this realm. Her doppelganger inched closer, its eyes piercing into hers. Silence encompassed her being, her shaky breaths rendered into nothingness. She closed her eyes, preparing herself for the worst. I’m sorry, everyone. Her mind retreated into itself, her body slowing to a still. I’ve failed you. Her eyes shut.

“Enough!”

A booming voice cut through the deafening silence, a bright yellow glow filling the darkness she stared into. Her eyes shot open, trying to focus on the source of the voice.
Argyle scarf guy?

She watched as the man from just minutes ago planted himself between her and the creature. A radiant wall of light flared from the ground in front of him, his hands manipulating the barrier of pure energy. He turned his head, his arms evidently struggling to maintain the wall.

“Go,” he said, nodding to the chasm opening, “I’ll meet you there.”

She scrambled up, her ankle somehow healed from its bruising, and made for the chasm. The ground shook as she approached it, and she risked a glance backwards. The thing that once resembled herself had grown into a creature of gargantuan proportions. It slammed itself onto the barrier, shrieking each time it met the wall of pure energy.
The man caught her gaze, shaking his head,

“Just go,” he yelled, “there’s nothing you can do now.”

Neina nodded back to him, turning to face the chasm opening. She took a deep breath, collecting herself. One last time, she looked back at the man. Only then did she seem to understand what he was, who he was. It was her turn to smile, facing her back to him once again. She faced the never-ending chasm.

Ryder, Quinn.

She planted one foot into the void.  Thank you, boys. 

She plummeted.

Jon Vincent Dela Cruz, Grade 11, Universal American School

Author's note: With what the last author gave me, I thought I’d introduce a new possible leading character - argyle scarf guy. I also tried to tie in the previous themes from earlier chapters regarding her past, so I added a little plot twist involving Quinn and Ryder. From reading all the previous writing, I grew  a sort of attachment to Neina, and I hope that the next writer can tie everything together and improve her story even more!

The fall seemed never ending. Somehow, the anxiety previously buzzing around her brain seemed to evaporate, leaving her with a strangely artificial calm. Was this how Alice felt in the rabbit hole? Except instead of flying furniture and a sunny hole atop, it was progressively more suffocating darkness. She closed her eyes, feeling the wetness behind the lids inundate her lower lash line, and cold tears streaking her face. Was this how she would end?

The wind steadily hissed in her ears, until it stopped. Suddenly, she missed it, as the dooming silence replacing it felt much worse. She could feel nothing, hear nothing, see nothing. She would much rather be back on the surface, with the scarf guy and his magic wall, although maybe not with the scarring creature trying to rip her to shreds.

The voices got progressively louder, nearly screaming in her ears, resonating in her skull and echoing around her in a cacophony of sounds. Her mom singing a soft lullaby, Quinns giggles and Ryders friendly banter mixing together into demonic screeches spanning multiple pitches. Maybe she was screaming, too.

She opened her eyes suddenly, sunlight pouring in her apartments window. She was home. She was safe. It all was silent apart from the constant rumble of cars on the road underneath. The silky sheets were clean of sweat, or blood, or any sign of struggle. She was wearing her usual pyjamas, the blouse she remembers having stained with an old Merlot lying in perfect condition on a chair. It was all perfect. It was all normal. It was all... off.

She blinked, and the room started to sway, ripping apart as if shredded by sharp claws, chunks of it flying like fabric, leaving only the familiar darkness behind them. Why was it familiar? Why was her room disappearing under her eyes? She clutched the bedsheets in her clammy hands but found that they werent there anymore. Golden sand trickled through her fingers, falling back on what was her bed, covering it. She looked up to see herself reflected back on giant glass. More sand poured over her head, bouncing off and adding to the piles around her.

She was in a giant hourglass, her time quite literally running out. She sank deeper into it, and desperately tried to lift herself out, only succeeding in falling down further. The sand kept falling on her head, burying her until she was back in the darkness, suffocated on all sides, pressed between walls of sharp rocks digging into her skin. She couldn’tbreathe.

Neina opened her eyes again, to find herself on the edge of a crystalline river. Birds chirped on the trees around her. Panting, she ran her hands on her face, finding no trace of the sand previously covering her. Had it all been a dream? Maybe the sun had given her hallucinations. The foliage above her shook with a warm summer breeze, green leaves tinting the sun’s golden rays as they hit the grassy floor.

A white butterfly leisurely flew over the river, passing close enough to Neina for her to see the small rip on one of its wings. If she remembered her high school biology class well enough, a broken wing was as good as a death sentence for butterflies. How come this one was still floating around? The bright white bug stared right back at her, seeming to look into her soul itself, before flapping away. The rip had mended itself.

She crawled nearer to the river, wounding her hands on the sharp rocks littering the bank. Blood poured out, but nothing hurt, and so she paid it no mind. She put her hands in the water to soothe them, and took the time to observe her face in the limpid liquid. Two tired eyes stared right back, the usual spark swimming around the iris unusually gone.

Her lips fell into a frown, as she put her face closer to her temporary mirror. The reflection wobbled a bit, disturbed by the movement. Soon though, the water trembled, becoming darker, swirls of black sand and gravelly rocks bobbing up to the surface. Her hands slid into the muddy bottom, trapped there by some unseen force.

The water contorted her face into something unrecognizable, elongating her head and darkening her eyes, changing her features until she couldn’t possibly name the person she was seeing. Her knees dug into the rocks on the edge of the river, giving her some leverage to get the momentum needed to free her hands. Nothing worked. Nature itself seemed to be working against her with all it’s might.

A thick, black cloud passed over the sun, and all of the birds went silent. Two scarred green hands suddenly appeared in the water, surfacing quickly and grabbing her by the shoulders. Neina screamed, inhaling a mouthful of water when the hands forced her down with them. Where there should have been a river bed to hit her head on, there was only more to fall in.

The water surrounded her, getting progressively darker as the hands dragged her further away from the sunlight. She choked on the bitter liquid, her lungs seeming to fill with it, her brain becoming sluggish and slow. The hands let her go. She was back in the darkness.

The wind was still whizzing past her ears when she came back to consciousness. She blinked, aware of her surroundings, of the fall she was still in. There were no voices, no apartment, no hourglass or peaceful river. Just her, the wind and a never ending fall. Just as she thought that, the wind got impossibly louder, and she hit the rocky bottom with a loud thud.

She wheezed, laying on her back, her eyes watering again. How she was alive, she didnt know. A shout reverberated from the very top of the chasm, barely a whisper to her. She closed her eyes once again. Come what may, she was too tired to care anymore.

Camila Simao, Year 11, Swiss International School Dubai

Author's note: When I read all the previous entries, I fell in love with Neina and her story. I wanted to give her justice, but knowing my strength lies in creepy situations and detailed descriptions I decided to keep her in the chasm for the chapter. I was really excited to be a part of this challenge and add on to her story, and can’t wait to see where the next writer will take her.

What was happening to her?

Neina’s entire being pulsated once before falling numb, speckles of dust and dirt clinging to her clothes and skin - or was she clinging to it? If she thought about it, the riverbank represented a cruel irony; she had quite literally hit rock bottom. Despite everything though, a taught wheeze escaped her, a cheap imitation of what should have been a laugh. The vanity of her own fleeting existence seemed glaring against the backdrop of what she could only assume was another part of Mors world.

Neina had to get out of here, but she knew she wanted answers too - answers to why the fates of Isla and her mother were seemingly intertangled with one another, causing the death of the latter, as well as answers as to how and why she was constantly being transported to what looked like a deranged parallel of her own world. More importantly, Neina ached to be ignorant of all she had learned, to be back in the false normalcy which she had managed to successfully construct following the death of my mother.

There were no signs of a tunnel, so the only way out was up. Neina stood up, a shot of pain rushing up her spine, and contemplated lying back down, simply allowing her body to erode with the stone beneath her. A minute past, then another. Looking around the walls of the cavern, she began to notice that the effects of time and the elements had failed to touch the stone the way they had the ones beneath her, giving them an almost artificial quality.

Slowly, her legs began to make their way towards the wall. On closer inspection, it seemed to glow, reverberating a faint humming sound that pleasantly filled the air around her. Reaching out her hand against the wall, Neina found an indent in the stone shaped like a lock, with the key on the floor next to it. She reached down to pick it up and quickly realized her first mistake as the walls start to cave in, the air growing heavier as the humming became louder and louder. Her tongue lay glued to the top of her mouth, throat constricted as her lungs made a desperate attempt to push as much oxygen into her as they could.

As the walls got closer and hotter, pain seared through her abdomen like a branding iron. She tried formulating an escape plan, but her mind conceded to the torment and futility of her situation, unable to form a single coherent thought. Her fingers jumped sporadically, as if in spasm… she couldn’t for the life of her fit the key in the lock.

Neina stumbled as she tried to avoid the falling rocks, but lost her balance, legs folding into one another. Her bowels suddenly churned.

Oh God, don’t let this happen… not now

Fighting the urge to vomit, the key dropped from her hand, lost under the rubble. This was hopeless.

Against her better judgement, Neina's body curled into something fetal, something primeval, all the while the pain and the heat continued to burn and radiate.

The walls began to ripple, the intense heat dissipating. Neina began to open her eyes and, while she found herself still covered in dust, she was no longer trapped, but instead standing in the office where she used to work. Isla briskly made her way past her without a second glance; ‘doesn’t she see me?’, she wonders.

Isla's hair is done up and her face looks younger, softer than it did a day ago. Neina looks around, trying to find Frankie. However, the longer she walks around the office, the more she realizes the discrepancies between this place and her office building. There is nobody here she recognizes, save Isla, and even she looks like a snapshot pulled out of one of her mother’s old photobooks. In place of smartboards there are chalkboards, instead of laptops, there are large computers.

Where am I?

At this point, Neina is certain that nobody could see her, so she followed Isla into a large conference room. The room was virtually identical to the one she was accustomed too, with bookshelves lining the walls and a large table taking up most of the room. However, what was weird was that everything, including Isla, was slightly translucent, almost like if she looked too hard, it might all disappear. Walking towards Isla, her legs froze, as a shadow emerged from the door.

It was her mother, no doubt about it. The woman had the same heart- shaped face, almond- shaped eyes, and, yet, her face was softer, her features less sharp. What stuck out the most was her hair; it wasn’t ‘kept under control’ or ‘ordered’, but, rather, it was curly and wild - and beautiful. Her mother walked up to Isla, an air of superiority trailing behind her, despite her youthful appearance. Isla closed the door and all Neina could do was listen to their conversation, hoping to find some answers.

“Isla listen to me, it’s not safe. There’s a reason why I never told you, never told anyone, about it.”

About what? What was my mother talking about?

“How could you not share the glory, share the honor, you have been prophesized, with your best friend. We were sisters, now I barely recognize you.”

Honor? Prophecy? Attempting to follow the conversation was a struggle as all she could think about was Isla's chant: ‘You are the one who shall impede on my power, the heir to my own flesh.’ What did she mean by ‘her power’? Did she mean the power that comes with the supposed ‘glory’ Isla accused her mother of keeping for herself?

Neina tried to move closer to the two women as their voices became hushed, but accidently knocked over a plant pot in the process. Isla and her mother suddenly stopped their conversation as their eyes darted up, looking straight at her, instead of through her.

But they couldn’t actually see her… right?

Valeria Awada, Year 13, Jumeirah English Speaking School

Author's note: I enjoyed reading the fantastical elements featured in the last chapter, so I decided to continue on from that in the beginning half of my chapter. My hope was that I was able to tie in several previously mentioned themes, such as the prophecy, as I thought it would be interesting to explore them further. Moreover, I wanted to delve a little more into the backstory of Isla and Neinas’ mother and I hope the next author will be able to carry on from there.

“It appears as if we have an unannounced visitor at our board meeting. Please, don’t be shy, come in, come in.” The singsong voice of Isla echoed throughout the room. Though her tone appeared to be cordial, the words were dripping with unmistakable malice.

Neina unfurled from her hiding place, from the safety of the dark shadows at the edge of the room. She dejectedly approached. When would she learn that this hell on earth, ‘Mors World’, was created to destroy every ounce of humanity she possessed? Even now she could feel it being ripped away from her by an invisible, imposing, undefeatable force, getting stronger with every step she took towards the figures in front of her.

When she heard the hurried footsteps and voice coming from behind her, Neina stood, stock still. Confusion enveloped her. “Stay where you are!” The familiar voice urged, rushing past her towards the others. “They can’t see you Neina; only I can.”

“Pay close attention.” she warned, “What I am about to say to them is of vital importance!”

The anxious woman, with closely cropped hair as red as a desert sunset, scurried past Neina and towards her waiting audience. As she did so, the waft of her perfume was so recognizable it instantly took Neina back to the day she first introduced the same perfume to her best friend Charlotte, who now stood before her, engulfed in a heated discussion.

Neina knew she should be listening, but she was powerless to do so. She had definitely understood that the information she was about to hear was pivotal, yet something from within seemed to block out all sounds around her. Instead, Neina instinctively turned her face to the direction of the windows.

There, eerily watching her, was a ghoulish looking soul, with a face caked heavily in dirt and grime and bedraggled hair that lay in inescapable knots around its head. As it blinked, so too did Neina, whose mind started racing, trying to make sense of what she was seeing. She lifted a hand to her face and so did the ghoul. It took her only an instant then to comprehend that the figure staring back at her was indeed herself! Morosely, she noted how her eyes that used to gleam like morning dew were now pools of darkness, drowning all signs of light in their path.

As unwelcome tears trickled down her cheeks, she realised she was but a mere husk of her former self. “What ever happened to me?” Neina wept, and her mind was transported to an idyllic time in her life, long before all this disaster unfolded. Back to a time of blissful normality.

She reminisced of the time when her life seemed to truly take off, when she was aged just 18 and at Bath University studying architecture. This was when Neina first met Charlotte, who soon became her best and most loyal friend. Together, Neina and Charlotte were an architectural ‘dream team’, constantly creating unique ideas for designs, which greatly outclassed their peers. After graduating with First Class Honour’s Degrees, the two set off for London, an architect’s paradise. Neina was swiftly offered a job at a large, prestigious firm, ‘Delavive’ (by her future fiancé Archie). Charlotte meanwhile, worked for an equally successful company, ‘Damac.’

On her first day at work, a unique pen was bestowed upon Neina. The illustrious pen was a Mont Blanc Fountain, with an ornate inscription along the barrel. It read “Sic Itur Ad Astra” a Latin phrase meaning “reach for the stars”. The gift was unquestionably thoughtful and was the main inspiration for Neina’s later grand design.

Before long, Neina was commissioned by the firm to design a building unlike any other. Located in the heart of the bustling city, the iconic ‘Shard’ was to be the crown jewel in all of Neina’s achievements. She was even given the honourable task of laying the first brick at the start of construction. It was clear to all that she was truly at the pinnacle of her career. The much anticipated opening ceremony some two years later was the most memorable moment of her life. Right by her side, supporting her all the way, was Charlotte, beaming with pride at her friend’s incredible accomplishment.

It was at this momentous event that Neina presented her loyal companion with a luxurious plum, purple perfume bottle, the very same they had both desired at university but were never able to purchase due to its astronomical price tag.

“Siempre Toujours!” Charlotte gasped ecstatically, grasping the bottle tightly to her chest. She tenderly peeled back the delicate perfume packaging and sprayed herself generously with the aqua blue liquid. The familiar scent of water lilies elegantly rose up into the air, the majestic aroma filled her nostrils with its sweet smell. From that moment on, Charlotte was captivated by the fragrance and went nowhere without it. It became her trademark, with many friends often commenting that more often than not, she could be smelt before she was even seen.

Neina was suddenly jolted back to reality as an ear splitting scream filled the room. Nothing could have prepared her for the sight that met her eyes. She only wished that she could unsee it.

At the speed of light, Charlotte raced towards Neina and grabbed her frantically by the arm. “Run Neina, run like your life depends on it. Because it does…”

Ryan Taoutaou, Year 9, British School Al Khubairat

Author's note:  After reading all of the other chapters it is incredible how many twists and turns one specific character can experience in such a short period of time. I am looking forward to seeing what happens next in this diverse book.

Her body finally unfroze itself and Neina’s legs were shocked into motion. She was running now, her lungs screaming and her mind scrambling to keep pace with what she had just witnessed. She tried, hopelessly, to bury the horrific memory. It couldn’t be true. She couldn’t have-

Her thoughts were interrupted by a sudden flash of brilliant gold which illuminated the room. Skidding to a stop, she squinted through the shimmering haze and caught a glimpse of a wry smile on a weirdly familiar face, and a... was that a scarf?    

“Argyle scarf guy?”Neina questioned incredulously.

The smile morphed into something that resembled amused exasperation as he took in what was happening. Before Neina could say anything else, he did something with his hands and the room flared up in blazing gold. Bright yellow spots danced in front of her eyes and she felt her vision grow fuzzy around the edges, her knees buckled beneath her. 

“We have got to stop meeting like this”, argyle scarf guy muttered, and then everything went dark.

Soft splotches of light danced over Neina’s eyes and gently tugged her away from the darkness. Her hip twinged in pain as she tried to sit up, and her hands rubbed the last bits of sleep away from her eyes; for a second, Neina stared around blankly, blinking. And then the memories rushed back into her mind.         

She paused for a moment to gather her thoughts before she hauled herself off the cold floor, looking around at the boundless expanse of shifting greyness. Was this another dream or memory, she wondered, was any of it real?    

“Would knowing make a difference?” questioned a quizzical voice from behind her.

She twisted around in surprise and was greeted by a familiar wry smile.            

“Argyle scarf guy?” she exclaimed. He had kept his word about meeting her on the other side and it was twice now that he had saved her, she thought, while her eyes quickly registered the weathered skin and dark eyes. Some recent memory shifted in her mind.

He arched an eyebrow. “You do realize that isn’t my name?”                     

Neina nodded absently, as she continued to stare at his face, trying to reconcile the niggling familiarity that was prodding at her thoughts. But the more she looked, the vaguer his features grew. Then, as he tilted his head, she recalled what she had realized at the chasm and gasped.

“It’s you- you’re my scarecrow!”    

Neina slapped a hand over her mouth as soon as the words slipped out. She sounded insane. Argyle scarf guy’s eyebrow lifted infinitesimally higher, and his dark eyes danced with amusement. Her confusion was entertaining him?               

She let it go and focused on his face. For a moment, her mind was cast back to the field by the farmhouse- the blue sky and glowing days spent laughing with Ryder and Quinn, and old memories of make-believe games with princesses and monsters: the wild, cawing crows were always the monsters. She had been scared of them once, but Ryder and Quinn had fashioned a scarecrow out of sackcloth, buttons and, of course, an argyle scarf, to keep them away- a protector. He had always protected her in their make-believe games.

She looked up at him again: black, button eyes and the argyle scarf. It was undeniable.

“You are the scarecrow! But- how? I don’t understand-” Neina cut herself off in frustration. Nothing was making any sense. Again, she felt a sharp tug, like there was something she was meant to remember. 

“I never said I wasn’t the scarecrow” replied the argyle scarf guy, his mouth curling up quizzically.

Neina clenched her teeth. That wasn’t an answer. Then, as she stared at him in frustration a shadow fell across his face and his features momentarily blurred, suddenly she was reminded of the old woman on the bench. Her bewilderment mounted, and she blinked to clear her eyes, but when she looked at him again, another, older memory rose from the back of her head and his features became oddly reminiscent of the gatekeeper who issued the challenges.

“You’re-”, Neina stopped, grasping for words. Who was he?Was he even real, she wondered feverishly; was he just a figment of her imagination? A little girl’s fantastical dream?      

“Would knowing really make a difference” he repeated and Neina realized she must have thought out loud again, “knowing what’s real and what isn’t, I mean?”

Neina looked at him, “Of course! If Mors and Isla and you and the prophecy aren’t real I could- I-”. She clenched her fists, “I would finally understand- whether Isla is some manifestation of my own fears or whether she is real and-the prophecy-her transformation-if it's all real? I can’t-I don’t- If I knew, I would-”                            

“You would what?” he said carefully, like he was handling a child, “Let's say it’s all in your head and I’m a figment of your imagination, maybe this is a battle against your mind. Maybe it's real, and you are the child of the prophecy. But right now it changes nothing about what you have to do.”       

“But which one is real?” groaned Neina, feeling lost. What did he mean?

“Can’t both of them be real? Maybe you’re holding both worlds within your mind, maybe your mind is split between both worlds or-”

He stopped as he noticed Neina’s blank stare, realizing he had clearly lost her. She heard him mutter something about humans and inefficient designing beneath his breath before composing himself. 

“Look”, he sighed, “You’re asking all the wrong questions. All that matters is what's happening right now, and for you, that means surviving- something that’s going to get a lot harder once you remember what you saw- what you weren’t meant to see”.

Neina told herself to ignore his condescending tone- he had saved her life after all- and focused instead on trying to understand what she had apparently failed to remember. Something stirred uneasily at the back of her head.                                                   

“What I saw? What did I see?” she questioned.             

The unsettled feeling inside her chest solidified as she spoke, and a sense of urgency swept through her. Neina was forgetting something, something important...Isla and her mother’s angry faces were surfacing and her pulse began to race.

Argyle scarf guy smiled. “You’re remembering. And don’t be worried, you’re ready to face it now. Just make sure that when it all comes back, you don’t forget the little girl in the fields”, he warned.

Neina’s mind whirred. A flash of red and the smell of water lilies. She shut her eyes, feeling as though she was on the brink of... something. Trepidation swirled in her stomach.

“The little girl who would have changed the world instead of letting it change her”.

 

Rachel Deyis, Year 12, Sharjah English School

Author's note: This book has definitely taken some unexpected twists and turns, and I wanted to use this chapter to address the unresolved mystery of the argyle scarf guy and what happened at the end of Ch 16. I thought it would be fun to stretch out the suspense with the cliff-hanger from the previous chapter, and help prepare Neina to deal with whatever it is was that she saw, which I think could make for a pivotal moment in the book! I’m eagerly looking forward to how future authors shape this story!

A flash of red and the pungent scent of water lilies – masking the iron tang of blood. Fractured shards of the accident she’d buried deep come back to Neina.

It was a Sunday in May – her father was tinkering in the garage, and her mother was watching over them from her rocking chair on the porch. The spring air was fresh with the flowers blooming around the farmhouse, and the mellow sun warmed the back of her neck. The memory is tinged with sunflower yellow and sky blue: happy colours, and Neina smiles as she remembers that afternoon.

Their father had built them a boat that they could use on the small pond in the garden. Neina and Ryder were on it, rocking it back and forth and laughing wildly. The surface of the water was littered with flowering water lilies, whose petals little Neina touched in wonder as they floated by.

Then, after a while, Ryder paddled the boat to the edge of the pond and called, “Mama! Ride the boat with us!” Their mother laughed, protesting that she was too old for boating, but as Neina and her brother ran up to the porch to take her hands and lead her to the water, she reluctantly went with them, chuckling softly and leaving her shawl behind. They held her hands and she stepped in shakily, sitting in the middle of the boat with each of her children settled in on either side. Ryder pushed off, and they bobbed to the centre of the pond. Looking off into the distance, Neina could see the scarecrow standing in the lonely field, his argyle scarf waving weakly in the breeze, his canvas sack face smiling at her reassuringly.

She was startled out of her daydream by the uncontrollable swaying of the boat. Ryder was rocking it from side to side! Neina joined in, shrieking gleefully as their mother held on to the sides, laughing nervously. Then, Ryder loses his footing and hits the side of the canoe, causing it to tip, and they are thrown out of the boat and into the cool water. Neina screams as she falls in, shutting her eyes as her face makes contact with the greenish water and she sinks. When she opens them, she sees the blurry bottom of the shallow pond. She waves her arms and legs, struggling to reach to the surface, but its no use. As she flails, she feels something tugging her upwards; lifting her head, she sees the distorted shape of her brother. When they emerge, Neina sputters out the pond water and looks around.

The boat is upside down, drifting. Clouds have hidden the sun, and Neina feels cold all of a sudden. The once refreshing breeze is now a biting wind and she wades to the side of the pond and stands up. With a pang, Neina remembers her mother – where is she?
As she and Ryder look to the centre of the pond, they see a red cloud blooming from under the water lilies. Neina screams as her brother goes back to the centre, looking around for their mother. Their father runs out of the garage, and as he spots his son struggling in the centre of the pond, he jumps in with him. He digs around the water, causing big splashes, and after what feels like an eternity, pulls out his wife.

Go inside and call the ambulance!” he barks at Ryder, who runs off with a panicked look on his face. As Neina glances toward the shadowed field, she could have sworn the scarecrow is frowning, his scarf whipping in the wind. Her father lays their mother out on the grassy bank of the pond, listening for a pulse. Watery blood spills over the hand that is in his wife’s thick hair, supporting her head. He performs mouth to mouth, turning her head to the side and then back towards his. After a few tries, she coughs weakly, trying to get the water out of her lungs. Neina steps closer, but her father orders her to stay back, adding, “you’ve done enough.”

The ambulance comes to take her away, and Neina touches her mother’s curls for the last time as she is carted away. Her father instructs them to stay put before the ambulance doors shut.

For weeks, their mother is in a coma. An aunt comes to stay with them, cooking casseroles and making sure they shower once in a while. Neina refuses to go the hospital. She is waiting for her mother to come home. Her brother described her as a corpse, and she does not want to see her mom like that. She stays at home, and they all pretend not to notice how often or how early their father carries around a glass of whiskey.

Two months after the accident, a call comes from the hospital. She has disappeared. Her bed is empty, and they can find her nowhere. The police investigate, coming up empty. Their mother, who was lying unconscious a day before, seems to have gotten up and vanished without a trace. The few outdated security cameras in the hospital ‘malfunctioned’ as it was happening. The police do not dismiss it as more than a coincidence, but the pretty blonde hospital attendant with sharp blue eyes and a canine smile says it happens often enough.

Drawn back into reality, Neina realises that her mother’s disappearance marks the moment she began to work relentlessly. To make up for what she felt she had done; as if making sure her mother would have been proud was going to bring her back; and to distract herself from her father’s sorry state; Neina had focused on being the best, and proving to everyone that the dark skinned girl with the vanished mom could succeed. She’d followed the rules, trying to ensure she’d never hurt anyone ever again. Looking into the scarecrow’s sad eyes, she feels ready to do what her mother couldn’t.

Solenn Anne Le Guyon, Year 13, The British International School Abu Dhabi

Author's note: I’ve been following Neina’s story closely over the past month, and I’ve really enjoyed seeing the different writing styles. I wanted to delve into what drives her, and clarify what her motivations are. So, I guess this is kind of a build on what was explored in chapter 13. I also wanted to do a bit of world building, and add to her history a bit. I also wanted to refer to the ideas suggested in previous chapters, so I hope I expressed them well. I’m excited to see what happens next!

 

Gradually, Neina emerged from her exhaustion induced trance, the tantalizingly vague recollection of a memory long past submerging into the recesses of her mind. A beam of ray enveloped her frail frame, currently resting in a fetal position that protects and shelters. Warmth, a nourishing, comforting warmth, coursed through her body thawing segments of her soul previously exposed to the horror that accompanied entering the Realm of Mors. Gingerly her eyes blinked open, bracing for the piercing rays of sun which instead caressed her; comforted her. Gusts of wind tousled Neina’s hair, reminiscent of a motherly hand praising her.

Growing accustomed to the surprisingly bright light, Neina surveyed her surroundings, realizing that what she previously perceived as a golden hue was in reality a barren land unfolding into the horizon. The morning had arrived in all its glory, its rays dispelling the darkness that clung to the various dunes that towered above, reaching for the heavens. Vibrantly, it illuminated the surrounding landscape, displaying it in its entirety and accentuating the sheer magnitude of the region. Several shrubs desperately clutched the undulating sea of sand, teetering on the very edges of the mounds of desert. A trail of footsteps, their impressions curious looking, extended past several dunes. Receding into the distance, a silhouette, noticeable against the stark contrast of amber, was barely visible. Tentatively at first, Neina began her trek, in hope of pursuing this mysterious figure.

Step after step, stride after stride, this embodiment of hope continued, now more determined than ever to find answers. Trudging up the face of a dune, riddled with the occasional sharp stone which consistently found a way to her naked feet, Neina unsuccessfully attempted to forget the events of the previous days. A frenzy of questions regarding her mother, Isla, and the curious phenomenon she was enveloped in, plagued her mind, forcing her to acknowledge the complete strangeness of all that had recently transpired. Despite these unanswered questions, a calmness settled over Neina. Here she allowed her thoughts to drift and recollect; everything appearing clearer, more centered, following the mayhem and disorder of her previous experiences. Dutifully, the sun continued on its ceaseless journey throughout the sky and the figure drew nearer now, unmistakably strutting towards her. Its manner of walking was perplexing, each leg sporadically extending in an effort to move forward. Undoubtedly this creature’s gait was odd, slightly lurching as it went, perhaps leaning too far forwards; it was hard to tell.

Eventually Neina reached her sought after destination, recognizing the frame assembled with an array of buttons, clothes, an argyle scarf and really anything else available at the time of his creation.

“Janus…” she exclaimed in bewilderment, finally recalling the name her siblings christened him with.

“How nice of you to finally address me by my proper name!” he remarked in a slightly condescending tone. “Apologies for the separation. Nothing I could’a changed about that.”

Contrary to his stature, his voice possessed a hint of more power than that suggested by his figure. It was a deep, resonating speech that contained a certain twang, occasionally stumbling over words. Immediately his manner conveyed one of friendliness and compassion. Recovering from her incredulity she responded “No… No problem”.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you Neina”, said Janus extending his arm.

Shaking it, she began questioning. Initially hesitant, once her first question formulated itself, dozens more replaced it, erupting in a steady stream until her thoughts, increasing in fervor, overwhelmed her and incoherent phrases were articulated.

“Hold your horses, Neina. Now I’m aware that you have questions, but you’ve also just hiked a long way. Managed to save you a little something. You must be famished – here, this should satisfy you for the time being.”

Abruptly her queries stopped, replaced by the groaning of her stomach begging for a mere morsel of food. Throughout her adventures she had suppressed this urge, realizing only now the protests issuing from her body. Gratefully, she accepted the stew Janus provided her, heat originating from the bowl blossoming outwards into her fingers. An explosion of scents reached Neina’s nostrils, largely dominated by the sweet smell of marinated meat and fresh bread. Propping the bowl against her legs, she shoveled its contents into her mouth, trying to suppress the thought that this might be her last warm meal in a long time. Wolfing down the majority of the meal, Neina settled into the food induced trance that is so warmly accepted and began conversing with her newly discovered companion.

“Allow me the pleasure of introducing you to the Tutumni.

“The what?” replied Neina, remnants of her dish escaping the confines of her mouth.

Staring disdainfully at her, he continued, “The Tutumni. As you previously may have noticed, this region is one of relative safety, which will protect you from any occurrences beyond its reach. Do not, however, let this deter you from your real purpose  - and only access it when in great peril. One must only remain aware of the light that casts the temporary shadow to access this segment of the mind unbeknownst to anyone.”

Minutes faded into hours as the two conversed; Neina posing elaborate questions and Janus responding to the majority of them. Unsuspectingly, evening had encroached upon the pair, the faint light of the moon announcing it. Dusk had begun to settle and enveloped the world in the mysterious twilight that precedes it. Once Neina’s queries had been answered to her satisfaction, a period of rest was announced by Janus who abruptly nestled into the embrace of the sand and subsequently fell asleep. Despite her exhaustive efforts in recent days, Neina struggled to transition into the realm of sleep; instead, she gazed at the canopy of stars illuminating the dark. Some were dull, barely flickering into existence, other radiating intense light, filling the dark cavernous void. Her drowsy brain tossed and turned; her stomach satisfyingly full as she recalled countless, perplexing answers from the day before, each usually responded to by an alternate question. One especially concerned her, namely, the prospect that all these events were occurring in her mind, a mind which was unable to distinguish reality from imagination. Gradually her thoughts drifted, disassembling and rearranging themselves in delightful patterns. Hours passed and all she wanted to do was hand herself over to her pursuers - to sleep - to let go of her miseries...

 Philip Dackiw, Year 10, Cranleigh Abu Dhabi

Author's note: ‘I was under the impression that in recent chapters many narratives have been dedicated towards Neina and the perils she encounters and therefore thought it suitable to provide a moment of tranquility and a harbor of safety for Neina to return to whenever in mortal danger. This chapter was further meant to provide insight to the reader of the actual purpose of Neina’s quest. During these unpredictable times I have realized the joy in contributing to a creative story devised by many young authors and wish the next in line good luck! (the name Janus is relevant)’

 

The delicacy of the cool, ethereal light was coming from within her. Within her soul. Time was a complete illusion of eternity as her beauty was timeless. She was as radiant as the Sun and as elegant as a rose. She held the stars and galaxies in her eyes that spoke of a thousand constellations. And oh, how her eyes glistened of rich pools of honey to match her long, wild, golden locks, of which she wore as her crown of legacy.

Pride. She wore her scars as big, powerful wings. She held the strongest control over the skies, and she didn’t even know it. She was the girl made of stars. She was powerful.

She plunged into the starry night as her escape from reality. But this was her reality, right? Why can’t she just freeze this moment, and live in it forever? She belongs here, in the reign of the galaxy. Dreamily, she began dancing around the myriad of lucid snowflakes in complete tranquility; this was perfect, endlessly perfect.

In the middle of her mindless trance, she was startled to find that something was fluttering before her. She gazed at it, trying to make sense of the impalpable creature. Its flight was delicate, fragile…weak. Like a fairy, it cast a spell upon Neina with colours blending and swirling in a whirlwind of elation.

A wave of sudden foreboding crossed over her as the realisation hits that the butterfly’s wing contained a crevice on its lower left wing, marking its death sentence. Yet it kept on fluttering…

The lustrous, soft glow that once enchanted the galaxy began withering away like time itself. The impenetrable, gloomy darkness cursed the ethereal warmth into nothing but dark matter. She was no longer the epitome of a warrior but merely a scared girl with broken wings. Like the young girl she once was, she closed her eyelids shut as the world around her began falling apart, all over again…

The cold stench of the spine-chilling, eerie room snapped her to the present moment. The cacophony of her laboured breaths echoed through the small room. Hot tears began to stream down her freckled face, as the frustrations of her tired mind pleaded for peace.

Her eyes, so drained of sight that she couldn’t tell if the uncontrollable swaying was the room or just her deranged self. Lost in a whirlwind of forever darkness a countless number of times, she allowed herself to delve into it once more…

Her tired eyes looked up and tried to fathom her surroundings. She surveyed the hollow room to quickly realise a thousand eyes were glaring at her, tentatively. These eyes belonged to a body, no, a thousand bodies, wearing wine-stained blouses, pencil skirts…

Mirrors. She was in a room full of mirrors. Broken mirrors. She could see herself now for who she really was. Not a girl made of stars, not a ruler of skies, just a sad girl that dwells on her memories. And now, her eyes are open wide to the truth. This is who she is. Only… the smiles that they possessed were much brighter, their lips much fuller, their hair: long, straight, shiny…perfect. But those eyes; young, passionate, doe-eyed…

This isn’t me.

“No, Neina it is. I mean, I am you. I am what you’ll become,” spoke the menacing voice of Isla. Can she read my mind?

“You…” she started, her voice thick, “l’ll never become what you are, whatever you are. GET OUT OF MY HEAD!” says Neina, her voice echoing so loud that one of the mirrors split in half, multiplying.

This made Isla fume with rage. Fume with resentment.

“Listen here, Neina. I am always going to be here, whether you enjoy my presence or not. At whatever mirror or reflection you lay your eyes on, you’ll see me. It could be our body, no, no… it will be my body…’ she said, as her eyes gleamed of envy.

“No matter what you say or what you do, I’ll always be there…at the back of your mind, controlling you. Just like your mother you are, same desire for the perfect Image. The longing for milky-white skin and platinum blonde hair…remember, no one will want to hire a woman looking like that.  Well Neina, now you can have what finally completes you. ME!”

Suddenly, the floor began to shake. The thousands of mirrors began to shatter into tiny fragments of smithereens. All except one. Isla’s image began to quickly exit from the mirror she was confined to; she had a hungry, vicious look in her soul.

She stepped onto the broken glass inhumanly, as there was not a trace of a single scratch to be seen on her pallor skin. She was no longer the gorgeous American dream she used to idolise, but now a cold, callous creature with devilish, snake eyes. She started staggering towards Neina.

“Your mother failed to fulfil the prophecy, and now you will fail as well!” She wheezed in a hoarse, croaky voice. Her presence was so awfully cold that the closer she was towards Neina, the more she felt her limbs go numb. She smelled of death itself. She limped towards Neina, only a few centimetres away…

“You are neither who I am, nor who I will become. You are the illusion I failed to recognise. You are the reason my family were never at peace. You are the demon that I felt the need to run away from. But it is you that represents the harsh reality of society. You’ve always made me feel that I was not good enough and not worthy of feeling beautiful.

"All this time, I felt the need to change my appearance to satisfy your needs. Well let me tell you what I think: you are nothing but an assassin of uniqueness and diversity. I don’t have to be white, blonde and slim to feel worthy because I am beautiful, I am exceptional, I am powerful. I am black. I am .... the girl made of stars,”

Clouds and darkness began to fill the room along with loud vibrations resulting in even more glass shattering causing a collection of wounds all over Neina. She was drenched in a pool of scarlet blood. Her body may be dead, but her mind was wild. She now understood the prophecy she must face. Challenge 3: recognise myself.

Isla placed her lanky, slender fingers around her victim’s neck. She began squeezing the living soul out of Neina, clogging her from all the breath she couldn’t have.

“I need you to die! I can't live with you still here!” She squeezed on tighter to her neck without a single hesitation of letting go. She needed to have her dead, for she is going to fulfil the prophecy and end her soulless existence.

Neina’s small, feeble hands held on to the creature’s wrist at a failed attempt to ease her grip on her neck, but it was no use. She was seriously panicking now, swaying her arms and legs in a haphazard manner. Whatever she was going to do, letting Isla succeed was definitely not one of them. She must go on until the end…

Isla was smiling recklessly at her almost lifeless body. No. She wasn’t going to let her get away with murder all over again…

Something translucent and foggy caught her bulging eye. She placed a shaky hand from across her and felt her hands fold upon a cold, sharp glass segment. She lifted the icy segment, and then ...

 

Jude Hasanin, Year 9, Amity International Abu Dhabi

Author's note: ‘I am extremely proud and honoured to be representing Amity International School in this writing competition. I wanted there to be a part where Neina comes face to face with her fear and for her to realise her worth! I, like many authors, have fallen in love with Neina and am really intrigued on seeing what future authors can bring next to this exquisite tale! Next author in line: good luck!

With a strangled grunt of exertion, Neina let her hand fall, gripping the fragment of glass as it hurtled towards Isla’s decrepit face. The glass pierced through her right eye, slicing her iris as it tore through her once elegant appearance. Hate and rage fueled Neina as she forced the weapon deeper into Isla’s eye, slashing through tendons and tissue as if it were paper. Finally, the crushing grip around her throat loosened, leaving an assortment of bulging, throbbing bruises shaped by Isla’s bony, pale digits.

Neina threw her head back, swallowing buckets of air as she fought her way free from Isla’s clutches. While her experiences in movie theatres dictated that she step forward and deliver the final blow to her foe, Neina knew that she had not reached that step. She remained a slave to the will of this ever-changing, hateful realm that she was trapped in, and it commanded that she run.

Neina could barely stomach the final glance at the source of her self-hatred for all her life; her stomach, still full with the warm stew she had shared with Janus, churned and stirred at the sight of Isla writhing and wailing as she desperately tried to rip the shard from her face. Aware of the Mors World’s abhorrence for disobedience, Neina turned her back on the screeching figure, and her fatigued legs dragged her trembling body forwards, towards the emptiness that lay before her. Neina was running away. Again. Yet this time, it was not out of fear. Though exhaustion racked through her body, Neina felt a hint of freedom lie in the pit of her stomach. The terrors of self-doubt and anxiety that had plagued her subconscious ever since the moment her mother had toppled from the boat, began to dissipate, though the process was painfully gradual.

With a renewed sense of purpose in the tumultuous prism that she had been ensnared in, Neina marched onwards, forcing her legs forward, certain that an equally horrifying path had been laid out for her.

Despite her supposed conviction and confidence, her breath still caught and stuttered as the darkness swallowed her; the floor leaving her feet. However, rather than plummeting into the abyss that lay beneath her, she remained where she was, floating perilously in a state of limbo. Her only company was the continuous tortured screams of Isla that echoed endlessly around her, tunnelling into her mind repeatedly.

Neina did her best to ignore it, clenching her fists in a meek display of strength and fortitude even as her breath shortened and stuttered as the dense darkness pressed against her dark skin.

In peculiar perpetuity, she hung there, her skin crawling as her seemingly undying ounce of confidence began to waver.  Without warning, she felt the familiar sensation of ground beneath her feet, her state of limbo brought to an abrupt conclusion. Simultaneously, as if a blindfold had been lifted from her eyes, light filled her surroundings, placing her in a field that seemed to span to the ends of the earth.

She glanced downwards, gazing upon the lush, rich green grass that she was now perched on. With her ankles bruised and exhausted, she reached down and removed her heels, discarding them haphazardly as she dug her toes into the earth. Neina failed to contain a breathy, light chuckle as the simple feeling of the cool earth and the gentle strands of grass tickling her toes brought her an immeasurable sense of relief and comfort. She refocused on the world before her, looking up and marching forwards, her fragment of conviction carrying her forward, though fear and trepidation continued to flip her stomach.

Neina trekked slowly but with certainty, the emptiness of her setting giving her no indication as to how far she had come. It was as if in the endless plain that lay before her, the world itself had been draped in a thick blanket of verdant cushioning. Revelling in the sensation of the greenery against the soles of her feet, she saw several silhouettes eventually came into view.

She increased her pace, briskly striding in the direction of the figures, her breath heaving slightly as she willed her beaten body to continue. As she approached, a stifled whimper escaped her bruised throat as she gazed through blurry eyes, transfixed at what was before her.

Three grand oak trees towered over her, casting immense shadows across the shimmering field of meadow, their tangled roots escaping the ground and wrapping around one another in a tight embrace, leaving each tree entwined with the others. It would have been beautiful, breathtaking even, had it not been for what hung from the branches of each tree.

On the first, hung a taut, ageing rope tied in a noose at the end, with the head of Freya, her childhood friend before she had chased her dreams at Bath, encased in its grip. Freya’s body hung lifelessly from the rope, the gentle breeze causing her limp body to sway slightly. A choked gasp escaped Neina’s lips as she watched her friend’s skin rot and decay, the life having left her body long ago.

On the second tree, an identical sight met her eyes, except it was Ryder’s head that had been slotted inside the clutches of the noose, his hands and fingers having turned a sickening shade of blue as the breath had been choked from his once larger than life, body. The sly, charming smirk that had often adorned his face throughout Neina’s childhood had been wiped from his handsome face, as if it had been scrubbed entirely from his being, replaced with an empty, cold expression that he would wear forever.

Finally, the last, and grandest, tree exhibited a similar sight, but it was Isla’s body that hung there: lifeless; all signs of rage and hatred absent, her beautiful features on display.

“Well?” a voice as soft as syrup asked; her voice barely hiding her amusement at the horror that decorated Neina’s face. Neina’s attention tore away from the hanging bodies and snapped to the speaker's. Unlike so many of the creatures she had come across upon entering the Mors World, what she saw was not ugly or disfigured. She was actually beautiful. Draped across a mound of rocks, a figure lay in a lazy recline, eyeing Neina, her deep emerald skin matching the acres of grass that spanned the field beneath them. She seemed to be entirely made of grass and leaves, with countless butterflies fluttering around the crown of lilies that sat on her head.

As Neina let out a mess of stutters and whimpers, the green woman rolled her eyes in disdain, before carrying on as if she hadn’t received a response. “Answer me this, girl,” she directed, raising her hand and gesturing to the hanging bodies that decorated the grand oaks. “I am always there but never here, I feed off passion but am always hungry, I live to love but hate to live, I’m ever seeking but never finding. I have ruled you since that day in May. I am the second of seven. What am I?” Upon finishing her riddle, the woman let out a raspy cackle that made Neina’s skin crawl.

Despite the fear and terror that coursed through her veins, the sliver of strength and power that she carried since stabbing Isla’s eye, surged forwards, giving her the confidence to solve the riddle presented before her. Immediately, her mind travelled to her first challenge she had faced in the Mors World. Through her scrambled thoughts she remembered the hulk of mass that had posed her a similar puzzle. ‘A seventh’ it had said. Pride. Neina couldn’t help but emit a deep sigh of relief as she discovered the crux of the mystery much faster than she had last time. It was sin. But which one?

Without the details of how long she had, Neina’s mind raced in a panic, mumbling to herself as the words she had heard became one. She closed her eyes tightly, knowing that if she were to lay them on the hanging bodies, she would lose focus. ‘I have ruled you since that day in May’, played over and over in her head like a mantra. What had happened in May? She had passed her driving test in May; she got her first job in May. What do they have to do with anything? Knowing she was stumped, Neina moved on, tackling the other clues first. ‘I feed off passion but am always hungry’. Something that is never satisfied and thrives on the excitement and passion of others. One of the sins? Greed? It had to be.

Neina went to state her answer, her confidence pushing her forwards, but she stopped herself, causing a strangled “Gr-gghhl’ to leave her mouth instead. Take it slow. Think about it. ‘I am ever seeking but never finding’. Looking for something that it cannot achieve. A dark chuckle rang through her ears, scrambling her thoughts once again. “Open your eyes, girl.” Spoke the green woman, “Look at them.” She commanded.

Reluctantly, Neina opened her eyes and fixed her teary gaze on the three trees, examining the people hanging from them closely. She ignored the twinge in her heart as she viewed their lifeless forms, knowing that there was a clue somewhere… Freya had been as smart as a whip. Ryder had been smooth and cool no matter the circumstance. Isla was stunning and pale. So what?

Wait. ‘Ever-seeking’. ‘Rule over you’. ‘That day in May’. Freya had been her only equal at school in terms of intellect. Smarter even. Neina was usually hysterical and emotional in times of stress; Ryder was always there to handle the situation and calm her down. Isla had replaced her as the beauty in the office…

She was jealous. She was jealous of them all. She hated that fact, but it was true. ‘I live to love to hate to live’. It fits. ‘That day in May’. The day her mother had fallen. Neina had lived much of her life trying to match the traits of others out of jealousy. ‘Ruled over you’. The words of the green creature rung in her head as she put the pieces together, until she was certain she knew the answer.

Neina tore her stare away from the corpses swinging aimlessly in the breeze, facing the beautiful beast draped across the rocks. Neina dug her feet into the cool earth, standing her ground as the seed of confidence grew.

You’re envy.” she said with unwavering certainty, despite the crack in her voice. “And you don’t rule over me anymore.”

The last thing Neina saw was the woman’s face curl into a knowing, nauseating smirk, before the green earth opened its jaws and swallowed Neina, taking the peace and serenity of the field with her.

Jacob Sims, Year 12, Dubai English Speaking College

This story has taken so many twists and turns already and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading it thus far. I thought I would expand upon one of the ideas from an earlier chapter with the seven sins, while tackling the insecurities and character flaws that Neina has. Good luck to those yet to write and enjoy taking this character on plenty of adventures.



Whirling steadily through the vortex, Neina’s body was tossed and turned upside down with great speed and intensity. She felt she had lost control of herself as her head dominated her movements forward and yet at other times her feet took leadership. The tossing and turning that stretched to eternity brought with it a sense of peaceful rhythm. It introduced a sense of stability and balance in her movements, which she had yearned for since childhood.

As far back as she could recall, everything was always done at the spur of the moment, dictated by an impulse that often led to bitter or undesirable consequences. Though she was aware that it would not last forever, she basked in the calmness that comes with watching the waves gently caress the seashore.

Those were her precious moments of tranquility before she was hurled into the hostile, yet exotic surroundings. The cacophony of chirping birds in unison and the whistling of the dense trees presented a different rhythmic experience. The vortex caused a buzzing sensation from the tip of her fingers to the nails of her toes. Desperately trying to shake off the buzz that was racking her nerves, she was able to catch a faint glimpse of the castle only because she had briefly seen it before.

The path ahead was soon blanketed by dense clouds hanging closer to the earth’s surface than to the sky. She trod gingerly, ensuring that she did not inadvertently disturb any living creatures in her path.

Finally, it was there.

It stood as resplendent as a princess dressed up for coronation day conjuring in Neina memories of the challenges that she had endured to seek entry into the magnificent castle. The imposing structure towered over her, making her feel small and insignificant. She realized how little she was, compared to the vast, wide world and her contributions could hardly make an iota of difference. Shrugging off her thoughts of despair and failure, she decided to revel in her glorious accomplishment – three tasks addressed before the deadline. She had survived the hardest of challenges in such a short span of time.

These thoughts energized her with renewed vigour and enthusiasm. Bracing herself for what lay ahead, Neina held her head high in the air as she trudged towards the hallowed entrance of the majestic, gilded castle. Its grace and beauty was only eclipsed by its intimidating presence, daring her to enter despite her reservations.

As she patiently waited for the daunting gates to reveal what lay hidden inside, she was quick to notice that the gatekeeper wore a pleasant smile as he approached her.

“Welcome,” he greeted and pulled open the gates. This time he was gracious in his manners and polite in his speech.

The luscious, emerald green blades of grass brushed against the softness of her calves and dampened the edge of her fraying pencil skirt that now appeared a shade darker than before. The tall trees that graced the premises, swayed to the same melodious tune of the breeze as they reached out to the clouds. The soothing surroundings saw Neina relax and unwind her jagged nerves.

She had never before made time to sit and take in the beauty of nature; smell the vibrant flowers, watch the sunset or cherish the mellifluous birdsong in her own backyard. Neina was always on the move, relentlessly chasing some wild dream or other, trying to outdo someone else - and on occasions even trying beat her previous performance.

Her reflections were abruptly interrupted by distant blood curdling screams. She froze with fear, shock and despair. Sweat beads covered her forehead, yet she was unable to raise her hand to wipe it clean. The warmth and comfort that exuded from the surroundings just a few minutes ago, instantly turned icy enough to chill her spine.

She had thought she had finally arrived in paradise, but all those dreams were now rudely shattered as she ventured deeper into the Mors World.

The absence of any human presence in this desolate place made her tremble intensely. She turned around to speak to the Gatekeeper but he was nowhere to be seen. Was his vanishing act a part of his role here? Perplexed, disoriented and flummoxed she was overwhelmed with queries. Was it really worth cracking the clues? Was this doomsday? Would she ever be able to escape?

Only time would tell.

And time was ticking away.

Nandini Nambiar, Year 10Hartland International School 

I enjoy creative writing and have found the chapters extremely entertaining and thrilling at the same time. Neina has endured a lot since the first chapter and I am eagerly waiting to read how the story unfolds. Good luck.

 



And time was ticking away...

Neina knew she had to break through this labyrinth before it engulfed her and reduced her to a mere shadow of what she used to be. The girl who dared to dream against all odds. The girl who challenged conventions. The girl who made it.

Time was ticking away...

Neina struggled to open her eyes. Her eyelids felt like sandpaper. She could hear voices – unintelligible, hushed, concerned.

Her still incoherent senses caught snippets of conversation -

“It’s exhaustion... pushing herself too hard ...”

“The past few days have been tough...”

“Post-trauma stress disorder ...”

Neina struggled to get up and a pain seared through the back of her head. It helped, jolting out of an almost trance-like state. Bewildered, Neina attempted to lift her head up and propped herself up on her elbows. Blinking in the light, her eyes trying to adjust to the transition from the murky, looming darkness of the Mors World to whatever this was. After all the hurtling through one reality to another, some plain grotesque, others eerily comforting, Neina wasn’t sure how much more of this she could endure. This had to stop...

“STOP!!!!!!” she called out.

“Neina!!! Neina!!!” An orange vaguely defined blob hovered over her...

The mist finally lifted. Everything looked so clean and orderly. As she tried to raise her hand to the aching spot at the back of her head, something tugged at her arm. Neina gingerly turned her head to see a tube running into her vein. She was hooked to an intravenous drip. The strong, pungent smell of disinfectant hit her nostrils and the beating of a heart rate monitor became louder.

Time was ticking... but what she heard was, actually, her own heartbeat.

She was in a hospital room.

As her vision cleared and the room came into focus, she saw Charlotte’s face, her red hair glistening in all its glory. Neina felt her heart burst with relief. All the pain she had endured coalesced into tears, and trickled from the corner of her eyes.

“Neina... Can you hear us?” said a deep voice. Frankie.

“Oh thank goodness, you’re awake!” Charlotte cried out.

“Wha...What happened?” Neina managed to whisper, her throat dry and parched.

Another figure appeared, “Hello Neina, I’m Dr. Craig Davis. You passed out in your office”, turning to Charlotte and Frankie, “If you would please step out for a few moments?”

Charlotte and Frankie nodded. Charlotte gave Neina’s hand a squeeze and walked out with Frankie following her.

“We’ve run tests, Neina”, Dr. Davis said, “You look good except for a mild concussion you endured when your head hit the floor. Nothing to worry about. Your friends here told me about your loss. I’m sorry about your mother.

It all came flashing back to Neina now. The brutal death of her mother which had made international headlines and ignited a movement which was set to change the course of history. How she had thrown herself into work to drown out the pain that threatened to tear her heart apart. That afternoon, when Frankie had called her to his office and told her that a young fresher named Isla Islington would be working with her on all future projects because of “her fragile mental state”. How she had stormed out of his office. That muddled afternoon at home... Mors world, deafening screams, blinding lights, the ground slipping, continuously, under her feet, falling through one vortex to another.

She recalled how she had found a sudden strength within herself and marched up to Frankie’s office and told him -

“I don’t know whether you believe me to be an important asset to this company or not, but I am, and I can work without Isla’s aid …”

And then Isla entered, her lips curled into a smile. And that was the moment Neina’s world had blackened out.

As the psychedelic images of the “Mors World” assaulted her memory, Neina felt hot tears running down her cheeks.

“Neina”, Dr Davis said in a soothing voice, “I understand that you need rest. We can have a talk when you feel up to it.”

“No!”Neina exclaimed, “I need to tell someone about what’s going on before I get sucked too deep into it and I can no longer make out what’s real and what is not.” Taking a deep breath, she continued, “ I’ve been having visions... of an alternate world, green skinned monsters, supernatural, unworldly beings, my childhood home...my... my mother...” her voice trailed off, “It all appears so real...”

Dr Davis took a deep breath, “I’m not surprised, Neina. You have been through debilitating trauma and it can manifest itself in various ways.”

“I... I am not going mad...am I?” Neina’s voice was laced with anguish.

Dr Davis shook his head, “Look Neina, I know what you’re thinking . And I don’t blame you. That’s how the thought process of the masses have been conditioned for generations. When one is not feeling well physically, we try to unravel the reason behind it. But if someone is not feeling well mentally or emotionally, words like crazy, mad and deranged are used without a moment’s hesitation. The brain is just as much a part of the body as any other organ is and we need to treat it as such without attaching uninformed, obsolete stigmas to it.”

Neina swallowed, “Will I be okay?”

“There is no reason for me to believe that you will not be okay”, Dr Davis smiled, “We’ll discuss it all in detail once you’re physically stronger. You can be on your way home after a 24 hours observation. Of course, I will be detailing out some therapy sessions that will help you process your thoughts. If you need medication or not, we will decide in due course. But the fact that you can actually recall the visions - and acknowledge the fact that they are actually visions, is a promising sign. I’ll be back in a couple of hours. Try to rest now.”

Neina nodded as Dr Davis walked out of the room and closed the door behind him. Almost immediately, the door handle turned, and Charlotte and Frankie rushed in.

Frankie spoke, “Neina, I can understand that you need a break. Please take time off from office. Isla will take care of your projects”

A fire grew within Neina, “Frankie, stop patronizing me! It’s high time you stop taking advantage of the situation. Yes, I’ve been through a lot. But I’ve been a fighter all my life just like my mother was. She taught me to dream. She taught me to believe in myself. I will not insult her memory by giving it all up. Remember one thing Frankie, the Prophecy Tower is my project. I have been working on it for two years and, now that everything is laid out perfectly, I am not going to give it to Isla served on a platter!”

The Prophecy Tower, Neina’s project which was touted to change the London skyline and become a global icon of modern architecture.

“No one”, Neina spoke with steel in her voice, “No one takes away my dream from me.”

 

By Mishal Faraz, Year 9, The Winchester School, Jebel Ali

"I cannot express how thrilled I feel to be a part of this very innovative challenge which is a brilliant exemplar of collaboration between students from all over the UAE. The past few weeks have seen some absolutely fantastic writing and I feel honoured to have been passed the baton. What has really intrigued me about the proceedings in the story is the potential it has to become a social documentary about some profoundly pressing issues of our time- ethnicity based discrimination, the crushing effect it can have on minds, rivalry in the corporate world - as well as the stigma attached to mental health and well-being. I’ve kept the language very simple without going into imagery or metaphor because I wanted to utilize the word limit to put an end to the dichotomy between reality and illusion. Our Neina is now back in the human world and I’m excited to see how the future authors shape the story. All the best...

 



 

Neina was furious.

With everything else going on in her life right now, how dare Frankie insult her like that! She loved her work and was designing a project that would make a significant impact on the London skyline.

Her love for architecture was also a welcome distraction from the news about her mother. Neina still couldn’t believe she was actually gone. All these years without the comfort of her beautiful mother, the scent of fresh lilies, the mouth-watering taste of her chocolate cake, and Neina had still managed to hold out hope of her return.

After all her mother had done to become a model American citizen, it hadn’t been enough. All the money spent on hair products they couldn’t afford, the time taken to conceal her African-American heritage. And it had all been for nothing. The very thing her mother had hated most about herself and done all in her power to change, had been the thing that had ended up killing her. Neina’s precious mother had been brutally murdered, for no reason other than the colour of her skin.

The colour of her skin.

Neina was black too, did that mean she too would end up unfairly killed, due to her skin colour? The thought made Neina sick to the core, as she knew her mother was one of many.

Charlotte knocked on the door, interrupting Neina’s thoughts, which was probably for the better.

“Hey, how are you doing?” Charlotte asked, with a comforting smile on her face.

Before she returned to her right mind, Neina felt a flare of hatred towards Charlotte. She wasn’t black. She didn't have to face the same daily struggles as people of colour. She would never be murdered just for the colour of her skin.

But then Neina realized she was being irrational. It wasn’t Charlotte’s fault. Charlotte, like herself, didn't choose her skin colour, but had instead been given unproblematic pale skin. The colour of her skin would never be the cause of her death, and that was a good thing.

Neina stopped herself. No use wishing for lighter skin. Besides, her skin was beautiful, just like her innocent mother’s had been.

“I’m okay now, I was starting to worry I would never make it out of Mors world” Neina replied, with immense relief in her voice.

Charlotte let out a snort of laughter,” Mors world? What on earth is that?” She asked bewildered.

Neina sighed, “It’s a long story,” and she began to explain everything that had happened, and how tangible and bewildering it all had felt.

While doing so, Neina realized how lucky she was to have Charlotte in her life, and what a comfort she really was, despite the colour of her skin - and had been since they first met at Bath university many years ago. Charlotte had stuck by Neina in all the good and the bad times, and was here for her now, at her low point. Charlotte felt like Neina’s Tutumni from Mors world, except she was here on Earth.

“Are you ready to watch the news?” Charlotte’s voice said in a comforting yet concerned tone.

Oh. Charlotte meant the news about her mother. It hadn't occurred to Nina that the story of her mother’s murder would still be circulating American television.

She nodded, and Charlotte took the remote and turned the TV on.

“Reporting live from outside the White House, today I find myself among thousands of individuals campaigning for the justice of Abelina Nyala. Nyala lost her life at the hands of a Caucasian police officer when walking home from church on Sunday afternoon. The police officer claims she held a gun and looked suspicious, but since then footage has been discovered proving the opposite, with clear cut footage showing police brutality. Citizens of all races and colors are therefore gathered here today in an attempt to end this discrimination. This movement is being called Black Lives Matter.”

Neina’s jaw dropped. So many people. All gathered there for her mother. She could never say her mother’s death was worth it, but it seemed to be doing a lot of good for the world, and would eventually lead to less discrimination.

Charlotte, noticing Neina’s shocked expression, turned the TV off.

A sense of clarity forming within her, Neina realized she needed to help. She wanted to avenge her mother’s death, and ensure that no one else had to suffer for their skin colour again.

Frankie entered the room. Fury coursed through Neina’s veins.

“I was harsh before. I’m sorry for saying you weren’t ready to come back to work after how hard you’ve worked these past few years. Please, come back whenever you feel ready. However, I still think you should try to cooperate with Isla as I firmly believe your styles will work well together,” Frankie explained, in an attempt to sound remorseful.

No. Hadn’t Mors world shown her that Isla wasn’t good for her?

Neina’s heart monitor started to speed up,” No, I won’t work with her. I know you think she’s the young creative streak my project needs, but I am better than her!”

The heart monitor was beeping at an alarming rate now, “I may be older, but I have spent the last fifteen years of my life pouring my heart and soul into these projects and you can’t take that away from me, you just can’t!” Neina yelled, a dam having burst within her eyes causing great big tears to flow down her face.

“Neina? Neina!” was the last thing she heard before everything went black.

As she was regaining consciousness, she heard the hushed muttering of two male voices. She could make out Frankie’s voice, and the other sounded familiar, but she didn't know where from.

“I really think Isla will be the better candidate for the company in the long run,” Frankie stated.

“Neina’s worked with us for 15 years, and produced multiple breathtaking projects, including the Prophecy tower, so I think we should just let her do it her own way,” the other voice explained.

Neina forced her eyes open and saw that it was the owner of Delavive, who had given her the job in the first place.

“Archie?”

 

 By Maia Christensen, Year 9, Jebel Ali School

"In this chapter, I chose to explore Neina’s emotions and thoughts on discrimination. I also chose to incorporate her future fiancé Archie who was briefly mentioned in chapter 19. I am excited to see how future authors choose to develop Neina’s story. Thank you for this amazing opportunity!"

For more details on the Write a Novel Challenge, click here.

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