The Write A Novel Challenge, Complete Story!

So here it is, ALL the chapters from the first 'Write A Novel' Challenge, an incredibly rich storyline that grew ever more complex and rewarding with each passing day. Discover Neina, what has happened to her, and why she is the girl made of stars... All is revealed in this AMAZING, AMAZING novel written completely by the students of the UAE. What an achievement... Now, are you sitting comfortably?
The Write A Novel Challenge, Complete Story!
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
Chapter 28, by By Amal Jabir, Amity Private School Sharjah
Chapter 29, by Mnahil Fahad, Scholars International Academy, Sharjah
Chapter 30, by Bliss d'Souza, Nibras School
Chapter 31, by Jana Samy, Sheffield Private School
Chapter 32, by Annabelle O'Connor, Jumeirah College
Chapter 33, by Katie Meldrum, Safa Community School
Chapter 34, by Joli Lindberg, Kent College
Chapter 35, by Manal Fatima, Star International Al Twar
Chapter 36, by Ruby Shadwell, Horizon International School
Chapter 37, by Hasan Javaid, The English College
Chapter 38, by Shahinaz El Sayed, iCademy
Chapter 39by Umar Shahzad, GEMS FirstPoint School
Chapter 40, by Amr Baroudy, Dunecrest American School
Chapter 41, by Aya Nayal, Deira International School
Chapter 42, by Samhita Roychoudary, Universal American School
Chapter 43, by Zoya Khan, The British School Al Khubairat 
Chapter 44, by Sophie Waddington, British International School Abu Dhabi
Chapter 45, by Mishal Faraz, The Winchester School
Chapter 46, by Francesca Chapman, Brighton College Al Ain
Chapter 47, by Cydnee Howard, Dubai English Speaking College
Chapter 48, by Kristian Maglantay, Hartland International School
Chapter 49, by Polina Chirkova, Cranleigh Abu Dhabi 
Chapter 50, by Manahil Siddiki, Jebel Ali School
Chapter 51, by Praneeth Jose, Amity Private School Sharjah
Chapter 52, by Natalia Anwer, Nibras International School
Chapter 53, by Maryam Junaid,Sheffield Private School
Chapter 54, by Mahra Almesaybeh, British International School Abu Dhabi
Chapter 55, by Amy Downes, GEMS FirstPoint School, Dubai
Chapter 56, by Jessica Cullen, Dubai English Speaking College
Chapter 57, by Tia Planojevic, GEMS Jumeirah College
Chapter 58, by Fiona Dugenio, Star International School Al Twar
Chapter 59, by Alanah BunchDubai English Speaking College
Chapter 60, by Chaeli-Jade PienaarHartland International School
Chapter 61, by Kriti Rai, Amity School, Sharjah
Chapter 62by Kinda Abouchakra, Cranleigh Abu Dhabi
Chapter 63, by Mishal Faraz, The Winchester School
Chapter 64, by Sabaa Rashid, Sharjah English School
Chapter 65, by Sreya Gupta, British School Al Khubairat
Chapter 66, by Lesath Samarakone, Sheffield Private School
Chapter 67, by Christia Baghdadlian,The English College
Chapter 68, by Alya Al Shamsi, Swiss International Scientific School
Chapter 69, by Cydnee Howard, Dubai English Speaking College
Chapter 70, by Dalia Mustafa, Universal American School
Chapter 71, by Arshia Shetty, Repton School Dubai
Chapter 72, by Sofia Syed, Kent College Dubai
Chapter 73, by Talia Al Darrai, Horizon International School
Chapter 74, by Anya Prokop, Safa Community School
Chapter 75, by Mishal Faraz, The Winchester School

-- - --

Epilogue, by Yasmeen Shahin, Nord Anglia 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...? 

eI’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

Author's note: 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 

Author's note: 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

Author's note: "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

Author's note: "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!"



The shocking deep toned, hoarse voice made her think that she was hallucinating; but she entirely regained consciousness to understand that it was actually Archie. She was in a state of perplexity, not knowing why he was here and whether she was actually supposed to forfeit the project she worked her heart and soul on, to Isla.

“Hi Neina. How are you feeling?” queried Archie.

“I’m alright,” replied Neina though confused. She added, “Look, no matter what you both say or do, this project is one I will never proffer, you will have to do so over my dead body.”

Archie chuckled, “I was never going to ask you that. I know the amount of daily grind you put into this and you deserve this more than anyone.”

For the first time, in several months, Neina finally came across someone who understood her worth. Someone who knew the effort she had put in her work, the hardships she endured day in and day out and knew that she had survived a life that most others would not even imagine. A feeling of bliss and contentment seeped to her very bones; happiness and joy overflowed, emotions guttered through her mind and brought about a reflex to do something more. 

As Frankie and Archie left, someone else seemed to approach, and without surprise, it was Isla.

“So, heard your little conversation. I don’t care about this project or any other. All I care about is finishing YOU,” threatened the devilish voice.

“Wow, why am I not surprised? Try all you want but I won’t give up any time soon,” responded Neina. Right then came in Charlotte asking, “Umm, whom are you talking to?”

That was when Neina came to her senses and understood that there was no one other than her in the room at the time.

“I-I-Isla, she was right here!”

Charlotte laughed and replied, “You need to get some rest.” She left and shut the door close. 

Neina closed her eyes, visioning the stars shining in the bewitching sky. Dreaming of her mother by her side, her family and friends all there to support her and wrap her in a cocoon of comfort. As she fantasized deeper, thinking about the extended family, she had always wanted to have, she found herself propelling from one world to another.

There she was; in the world, she never wanted to be in- the Mors World. Usually, it was a feeling of ramification. This time, she expected that it would happen. 

Two old women approached with distressed, bedraggled hair, wearing black , crumbled sloppy hoods and holding lanterns in their hands.

“Come with us,” in an adenoidal, croaky voice they murmured, prompting Neina to follow.

After a distant walk, they stopped in front of an old and rusty citadel. It seemed filthy and very similar to the haunted houses seen in the movies and overall out of place. The two decrepit women stopped and routed Neina to the inside of the shanty-looking building and left the place as Neina walked in.

As she entered, she saw someone, the very someone she wished to see every day; someone who was always by her side during the light and dark, someone she saw leave this world right before her eyes. She saw her mom: as pulchritudinous as ever, beaming with light and ecstasy. Her alluring blue eyes, glowing skin and just the brightest smile on her face made Neina distrust her eyes. She approached her closer, going in for a better look!

“Neina! Neina! Wake up, we have to go,” insisted a dulcet voice. 

Waking up in astonishment, she looked around and saw the figure of her mother to be found nowhere around. “Where are we going at this time of the day?” lazily asked Neina.

“Work of course! Where else?” replied Charlotte with a laugh. “You really wished to go back to work, what happened now!”

“I’m just a little rusty. I’ll be fine,” responded Neina.

After around ten minutes waiting for a cab in the early Monday hours with people thrashing the streets, a kind man possibly in his thirties came in front of Neina.

“Where would you like to go ma’am?” he asked.

“The Chelsea Design Harbour. Please make it fast.” stuttered Neina, upon her realization of being late.

On her arrival, the receptionist gave her a nice welcoming smile. “Glad to see you back Neina.” As she went further, she saw everyone mumbling in delight to see her back. Well! Everyone except one person, Isla. As she walked towards her workstation, Archie approached her. “Great to see you back. Why don’t you get to working on your project, The Prophecy Tower?”

“Yeah, sure I will.”

She gathered her papers and went on her way to be stopped by Isla. “Liked my little visit the other day? I would’ve called but I like to approach my enemies directly.”

“So you were there? HOW?”

“I can get in and out of rooms without notice. It’s just one of my powers. You know something else! I’m good at taking care of my business and I don’t mean your little Prophecy Tower project. I mean taking care of people like you. Don’t worry because I won’t hesitate to take care of you, the same way I did with your mom.” 

Neina sighed in disgust.

“Well anyway, glad to see you back, bye,” she left.

Neina walked to her office with a cluster of papers and a face of utter dissatisfaction. She sat on her brown, leather chair; forced her papers on her table and laid back, thinking about what Isla was planning next. Most importantly, why she was doing all this. Thoughts ran through her mind to pair up with the adrenaline pumping through her veins. Her heart was pounding with an increase in its pace. She tried to calm down but her emotions wouldn’t let her. 

“Hello!” buzzed a soft voice. “Sorry to disturb you, but are you Ms. Neina?” queried the person.

“Yes, Can I help you in any way?”

“I’m Alice. I work for the Regent Street St. James’s Post Office. There is a package for you.”

Neina responded, “I’m sorry, but I’m not expecting any package.”

“Well, I don’t know about that, but this is supposed to be delivered to you and I’m just doing my job.”

Neina took the package and examined it from the outside before checking inside. It was wrapped in brown paper and sealed tight with paper ribbons which were quite strong. On top, there was an extremely rare Penny Black VR stamp. After a quick and thorough examination, she opened the package to find…. 

By Amal Jabir, Year 9, Amity Private School Sharjah

Author's note: “This was a huge opportunity for me and was certainly something very different in terms of plot and creativity. Over all, I am very grateful to be given this opportunity to discover a greater part of the character of Neina as well as explore my artistry. I wish the next writer all the best and remember; just let your imagination flow! Thank You.”



… An argyle scarf? The distinct smell of her childhood erupted from the package; her mother’s perfume, the mouth-watering aroma of her home cooked meals and the musty yet beloved scent of the farmhouse when it would rain a little too much. For a moment, Neina could not match the scarf to anything, or anyone, in particular. Just before it hit her, endless black crept in from the edges of her vision and, once more, stole her from this reality.

More often than not, Janus found himself incredibly bored. How could he not be? Life as a scarecrow isn’t exactly teeming with adventure. Of course, he had spent just a little under eternity in this role. Though many thought his role to be menial, his position just beyond the farmhouse allowed him to view the entire property with ease. From the pond that rippled in the breeze, to the gorgeous barn that stood empty and desolate for years, he saw it all. So, in his mind, he looked upon the flimsy little humans the way a god would from upon his throne.

Well, only if the throne was a mere stick tethered to the ‘mighty’ figure.
He’d seen his fair share of life grow and eventually wither away. Children running through the fields would age in front of his beady eyes, small and naive one moment, tall and afraid the next. They all left eventually, no one ever came back. In all his years he never really cared for them; why should he? They were all beneath him.

That is, until a peculiar breed of humans entered the picture. At first glance they seemed completely normal, yet his trained eye quickly recognised the tell-tale signs of imperfection within them: the wails at random times of the day, the strain in the mother’s smile and the tremor in the children’s legs whenever their mother’s shrieks grew too loud. One of them in particular, the young girl, would often wander out to him and sit in his protective shadow. Her hair would be matted with products and her smooth dark skin would glisten under the hot summer sun. She’d rarely speak, just sharing the view of an imprisoned god. It soon became a habit, every evening for at least an hour she would wander up the hill and bask in the comforting presence of the sweet scarecrow with the argyle scarf.

Near the end, before either of them knew it was the end, she struck up a conversation,

“Do you ever wish you could see into the future?” Janus simply billowed in the breeze. She looked up at him and smiled sadly, “I really love my family but sometimes I get a little bored being with the same people. I wish there was a way to know if it gets any better, don’t you?” She giggled at his silence. When the orange rays of sunset began painting the sky, she got up and left. This time was a little different, because she took the time to turn back and wave goodbye.

Funny, Janus would chuckle whenever he thought back to that fateful day, it’s almost as if she knew.

When her mother fell into the pond, something shifted in the air; it tasted different, more malicious. The little girl stopped visiting for a while.

One special night, the night of a vicious thunderstorm, Janus felt a presence under him… but it wasn’t the little girl. No human girl could evoke such fear and panic with her mere presence.

“Hello Janus,” the voice slithered up his straw spine. Envy stood before him; tall, imposing, beautiful and deadly. “It’s about time you and I have a little chat about that family you guard so lovingly.”

Mnahil Fahad, Year 13, Scholars International Academy Sharjah

Author's note: Following Neina's story has been really fun, but the character of Janus really interested me so I thought it would be fun to explore his backstory as well. Good luck to the next author, and hope you have fun.

 



 

Time had tattered Janus, but the sweet vivid memories spun to his heart like strings of gold.

He cherished each one of the memories he had woven so lovingly, from the moment he was created, up till the fateful day when his little girl bid him an abrupt good bye. Janus suddenly felt a surge of love. He felt his body burn like a bush on fire. He stood strong, facing his opponent like a fiery dragon; there was longing, there was ecstasy but there was no room for envy, no not yet.

Neina opened her eyes to the broad day light, and her unsteady gaze locked on the scarf which swayed gently under the breeze. Instantaneously the labyrinth inside her head unravelled itself and she recalled the resemblance, “Oh yes! It belongs to Janus’ she quivered as she fondly pictured her childhood companion; a mere bundle of straws with black beaded eyes and the argyle scarf around his neck.

Neina sat upright, her head spinning. She felt lost and disoriented and numerous questions stormed her mind. `Who could have sent this to me?’ she thought aloud. “And why Now, after all these years!?’ She gazed at the shimmering sun sinking into the sea far away. As it disappeared into the deep horizon, Neina felt a familiar feeling of trepidation creep up her spine - “Is this an inkling to something big?’, she thought nervously.

The warmth of the scarf gave some solace to her cold icy soul as she reminisced the good times in her life. The happy days when she lived without a single care in the world. The only thing that she ever worried about was reaching the kitchen table well in time before her tall charismatic older brother, Ryder, would gobble up the deliciously flavored chocolate filled dessert her mom always made for them.

“Ryder” she gasped, as she felt the pang in her heart of longing just to have a glimpse of him. Lately Ryder seemed to have just vanished. He had not picked up her calls nor replied to any of her texts. `Where could he possibly be?’, she thought helplessly. She reached out to her cell phone and dialed the only number she could trust.

`Hi butterfly!’, the familiar comforting voice of her friend, Charlotte, squeaked at the other end. Neina could not reciprocate her friend’s enthusiasm. Instead, she spoke only haltingly, examining the piece of jewelry dangling down from her neck. The heavily embossed glittery stones on it shaped its fine texture paving way to two tiny butterflies who seemingly held the door to a priceless treasure. Neina opened the locket and stared tenderly into the eyes of a little boy with dark curly hair and charming smile, `Did Ryder visit me when I was unwell?’

Charlotte did not have to think much, `Yes’, she said softly. She had seen Ryder storm into Neina’s hospital room, red eyed and pale. He had stroked Neina’s hair muttering repeatedly `you will be fine; all will be fine’. His soft lips pecked her forehead as a solemn goodbye while his presence disappeared as quickly as it appeared.

Charlotte did not want to burden her friend with extra worries by being garrulous describing his visit. Earlier that month, Neina had confessed to her about how she feared that her brave but vulnerable brother might be in some sort of trouble.

After a minute of complete silence, Neina spoke, her voice soft but unwavering, `Char,’ she said `I worry for Ryder, I worry for Janus. The time has come for me to rise above the chaos surrounding me and take matters in my own hands’.

She sounded shaken yet firm, like a final decision made, a path selected - ready to lose herself into the unknown.

Bliss d'Souza, Year 11, Nibras School

Author's note: It has been truly fascinating experience reading about Neina and the other characters in the novel. I personally love to unravel the mysteries in the various books I read, so I decided to add a little bit of suspense to the story. I cannot wait to see how the mystery will be unfolded. I wish all the very best to the next author and hope everyone enjoys writing this novel as much as I did.



The unknown. After her mother’s passing, Neina’s haunted mentality had been dragged into astronomically unbearable complexities. The infinite void of the ‘unknown’ felt almost too familiar to her. In practice, the unknown was a world she ended up in. But potentially, it was a world she would never come out of. Neina’s mind was perplexed with distorted thoughts: Ryder, Quinn ...

“Neina? Neina?” recited Charlotte from the other end of the call. “Did you hear anything I just said?” Neina had once again slipped into her bewildering train of traumatic daydreams, and had paid no attention to what, she assumed, had been Charlotte’s words of comfort.

Neina managed to orchestrate her usual: “I’m sorry Charlotte, I’ll call you later”. Obviously, Charlotte was quite used to hearing that statement. She would always complain that Neina was drowning herself in heaps of work. This was different. Neina wasn’t drowning in work; she was drowning in thought. She was delusional - hysterically consumed by an untamed beast of hallucinations, swarming together in an undefeatable phantasm of terror.

Overwhelmed, she hung up and closed her phone. Grabbing a chair from under her desk, she sat down and aggressively forced multiple breaths through her nostrils in an attempt to calm her thoughts and make sense of her proliferating ideas. “No, I mustn’t surrender again ..... ” Neina protested, as the she felt herself being relentlessly, again, pulled back to the Mors world. Rapidly and affirmatively, she decided that finishing off her paperwork would be the best distraction.

Determined to trick her tumultuous, chaotic subconscious and fighting desperately to maintain her grounding in reality, she picked up her ballpoint fountain pen and began to jot down a few ideas for her ‘prophecy tower’. Holding her pen, her weapon, she felt formidable. Although architecture was a career fulfilling enough to keep her distracted, writing was a passion she had possessed, that had possessed her, for years. It was her source of freedom; her only source of freedom. As she began to write, her debilitated eyes were drawn to the pen that she clasped in her fingers and she guilelessly began admiring the deep, yet caressing, sapphire ink that flew from its tip.

Waterfall.

A waterfall of once imprisoned ink was set free and frolicked along the blank pages. Like a light-headed soul, the prepossessing canvas created by the dancing ink blew her away and left her mind in a puzzled state. The chasmic aroma of ink nauseated her. Neina felt bewildered, befuddled. Her mind once again broke into two empires; like Heaven and Hell.

A peaceful world where she had her brothers, father, a rewarding job. She had Charlotte, a roof over her head, good income and overall a pretty satisfying lifestyle. This was the kingdom she dreamt she would live in, the kingdom that provided her with serenity. When her mind came to rest in that realm, she felt grateful, content and, most importantly, hopeful. Living next door to this heavenly entirety, was a not so friendly neighbour - a scorching hell. Its devouring fire grew gluttonous over the years. The habitants of this ravishingly cataclysmic realm included Isla, the loss of her mother, jealousy and the constant striving for ultimate perfection. It was home to her grief, sorrow and, recently, the Mors world. It was a realm excessively fed with hallucinations, guilt and self-doubt. Clearly, the kingdom of hell lay comfortably inside her mind and was possessing her person. A narrow, strait border differentiated between both worlds. It grew thinner by the day until it was almost impossible to tell which half was heavenly peaceful and which was an eternal damnation of peace.

A spiral of unwelcome thoughts engulfed her; where is Ryder? How is he doing? Who is he with? Instantaneously, the reality she had hidden away for so long finally hit her - her mother’s death didn’t only affect her, but it must have also impacted her brothers and her father. Although she felt lonely, deserted and abandoned, she wasn’t going through this alone.

Neina caught a glimpse of the argyle scarf that was deposited on the corner of her undisturbed desk. Cautiously, she picked it up, longing to remember Janus and the consoling smile he always wore. She folded her eyelids (exposing her crooked eyeliner) and inhaled the aromatic nostalgia carried by the scarf. Blissfully, she was transported away to a world of memories;  a different reality where her corrupt mind was still at ease. The deliciously soothing perfume gently diffused into her nostrils and filled the cracks in her heart. This crafted fragrance allowed her to reminisce, to feel, wonder ..... It uplifted her splintered soul. She could almost visualize their house. An outraging tsunami of tears fell uncontrollably from her glistening eyes as she began to reimagine her childhood home. Spontaneously, as she did so, the enthralling beauty of those memories collided with an achromatic vision of the three trees ...

Neina’s vision was blurred completely. The only oak tree that she could see palpably was Ryders. Roots of the grandiose tree were like tangled hairs dug into the mud. The tree near inaudibly pleading for breath, for life, despite its looking magnificently robust. It reminded here of the type of tree you would imagine finding in an enchanted forest. Although it stood with overwhelming power, it equally looked as if it was close to being entirely deprived of life. Its once emerald leaves were suffocated into a desolating deep brown; its branches were dipped in demise. The majestic oak was a soulless griever. Grieving silently for Ryder’s cobalt head that hung, still, from the tree’s tallest branch.

Ryder looked wan and an expression of consternation plagued his fragile face. His lifeless body followed his face and took its place beneath his neck. He was still wearing the clothes he had worn on the night of their mother’s incident. Although he showed no signs of life, Neina willingly spoke to her brother, begging for any answer out of his bleached lips. “Ryder… Ryder please, speak to me”. No answer came. Neina moved closer to the tree trying as best she could to appear impassive. She leaned closer to the wood. Feeding her curiosity, she allowed her eyes to feast upon the murdered body of her dead brother in the desperate hope that she may find something, anything, to help her come closer to uncovering the mystery of his death.

As Neina looked intently on the bronzed tree, she found words engraved on the right side of the wood: ‘Omnia accidere. Terroris speciem. Iustus ens ut nulla sit ultima affectum’. Written in Latin, she didn’t understand what it meant. The second her eyes had finished deciphering the last few letters, she heard an echoing voice from a distance. She couldn’t tell where it came from, but, as Neina listened, a bodiless echo breathed a translation of the words, giving them meaning: "let everything happen to you Neina. Beauty and terror. Just keep going, no feeling is final."

The unrecognizable voice was right.

Just keep going ...

Jana Samy, Year 11, Sheffield Private School

Author's note: I have enjoyed reading the story and was extremely excited to write my chapter. I can’t wait to read the next chapter find out how the story continues. Thank you for this opportunity and I wish the best of luck for the next author. 



‘Just keep going… Of course, that was easier said than done,’ Neina thought to herself, retreating from her mind back into the harsh reality of daylight. She sank into her office chair, struggling to keep her conflicting emotions in check as they coursed through her body like a river in spate; unpredictable and ever-changing.

Reaching up to her neck, she suddenly felt the scratchy fabric of the Argyle scarf draped around her - but she could’ve sworn she hadn’t put it there. Dismissing it, she buried herself in her work, plans flowing out of her and sculptures forming in her mind seamlessly. She loved her job. She’d thrown herself into it from the first day she arrived at work - and she would throw herself into it until the day she left. The recognition that she, Neina Nyala, was in a job that she loved and she deserved had felt like the most powerful thing she could ever receive.

But like everything in life, it came with a price. The hours were longer and the work was harder. The deterioration of her engagement was perhaps the hardest sacrifice she had been forced to make; for her work she had paid the highest price. Still, she pushed on through.

Glancing around the room she spent every waking hour occupying, the room she had earned, she felt immense pride. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right about her office. The lights were too bright and the colours too harsh. The voices she could hear were almost distorted...

All at once, spools of inky blackness melted into her surroundings and folded Neina into a sea of darkness until her office was no longer visible. Drowning. It felt as if water thicker than ink and blacker than night was pouring down from the ceiling, filling up the office. She could have sworn, as she went under, that the last thing she heard was the faint sound of a man laughing.

Finally, the dark gave way into soft rays of sunlight. Her office chair melted away into a yielding sand that cushioned her, as she sat with her back against a mountain of granules, reaching up towards the sapphire sky. She opened her eyes to find herself back in the desert of the Mors world. Terror gave way to confusion as she watched the sand skitter in the gentle wind, the golden grains stretching before her for miles, each delicately warmed by the heavenly glow radiating from the sky. In the sunlight, a rainbow of colour cast itself through the desert, lighting it up with a prism of hues as it caressed the dunes. Graceful golds twirled with ostentatious oranges, colours leaping from mound to mound in a ballet of endurance.

For the first time, she wondered if perhaps the two corners of her brain weren’t so different after all - if the heaven and hell were both merely the product of her own imagination, one fed by a lifetime of stories from every corner of the globe.

She was finally shaken from her admiration of the desert by the throaty chuckle of a man. Struggling to sit up and glance over, she eventually found the man in the Argyle scarf from her childhood. He seemed remarkably calm - and almost smug - that she’d found herself back here again.

“Janus?” she asked, confusion running through her brain as she tried to figure out how her world had melted back into this cesspit of terror and danger. For the first time, Neina realised that she did not feel afraid.

Welcome back,” he drawled, leaning back on his elbows while still maintaining eye contact.

“What am I doing here?”

“You haven’t figured it out yet? That’s a pity. I thought you had more intelligence than that,” he replied haughtily.

Anger flared through Neina. A lifetime of being told she wasn’t smart enough, or talented enough, had instilled in her a raw exasperation that seethed out. Reining in the anger, she instead decided to admit her lack of understanding aloud.

Come on kid, think,” he urged, closing his eyes and relaxing back onto the sand, fiddling with the same scarf that had been round her neck only moments ago. Despite his apparent serenity, Neina could tell he was monitoring her keenly.

‘Think?’ Neina felt like a million things had happened in the last few days; how was she to sort through them all to work out why she was back here again?

‘Envy? Pride? Maybe it had something to do with the sins? Or was it something to do with the tasks she had been forced to complete? And then there was the man - scarecrow - lying across from her, a wicked smirk settled across his features. Janus.’

She twisted the name over in her brain as it echoed and ricocheted around her head, she was scraping at the corners of her mind to identify the significance, the reason it sounded so familiar. Then she discovered it. ‘Lurking in the corner of her mind was the memory of the summer that Ryder had spent obsessed with Ancient Roman myths and legends. Janus, the Roman god of “duality,” Neina realised aloud, glancing up at the man lounging across from her.

“Very good Neina,” he affirmed, nodding his head. “God of duality, doorways, beginnings and endings at your service.” He mockingly bowed his head at her, a wreath appearing on his head; an emblem of his arrogance and power.

“So you’re not here?” she asked, unsure of the world around her and the man sitting in front of her.

“Do you think I’m here?” he asked curiously.

“I think - I think this is a puzzle, one big puzzle,” she began slowly, realisation dawning on her.

“Keep going,” he urged, smirking as he recognised the understanding in her eyes.

“You’re part of the puzzle,” she continued, “and so are Isla and my mother. But I don’t have all the pieces yet - and some of the pieces I have don’t fit?”

Janus nodded. “Correct,” he said, pushing himself up from his reclining position. Neina went to stand up next to him but found herself stuck. She struggled as Janus began walking away, whistling to himself.

“Wait,” she called after him, desperate to extract more answers from him.

“One question only,” he said, tossing the words over his shoulder provocatively, still retreating slowly.

Neina wracked her brain for the one question that would give her the most answers. “Is this real?”

He stopped, turning around to face her with a smirk on his face. “I suppose that’s up to you kiddo.”

He shrugged and faded away into the distance.

Annabelle O’Connor, Year 11, Jumeirah College

Editor's note: I’ve really enjoyed following how each author has developed the story and the characters. When I read the story I noticed a few previous authors had set up really interesting opportunities to explore characters like Janus, so I decided to capitalise on their talent and further establish the storyline.



‘I suppose that’s up to you’. How was that helpful at all? She was confused and lost as it was, but everyone speaking in riddles just added to the chaos that was bubbling inside of her.

Neina felt her stomach drop as she sunk below the silky cushioning of sand. She plummeted downwards, dizzy and growing more and more unaware of what was going on. Her experiences in the Mors World plagued her mind. She was there to find answers to the puzzle she was embedded in, but everything felt wrong. Like she’d been turned and flipped inside-out and spun around multiple times. Everything had changed.
That was the problem. She felt weak and cowardly, a world away from the feisty, happy, adventurous girl she once was. Her confidence in anything but architecture was slowly spiralling downwards; to say she felt a shadow of her former self would be an understatement.

But she supposed that was the whole point: she completes the puzzle, completes the tower and ultimately completes herself.

As a much-needed distraction, she embedded herself into a pile of papers. Wielding her pen, she planned out the prophecy tower. Unique arches and twirls. Windows that would glisten like a lake on a bright summer's day. Floors upon floors of shiny marble, with sleek black walls and ceilings to give the illusion of the night sky. An array of silver, blue, black. It was beautiful but also mysterious, like it had a story to tell.

“Neina.” The sickly voice of Isla filled her ears. “You’ve been here for hours, pretty much everyone has gone.”

Neina looked out of her floor to ceiling window that gave a picturesque view into the London streets below. She’d fallen so seamlessly into her work that she’d let the hours fly past unknowingly. It was pitch black outside, save for the few street lights that dotted the pavement. She caught sight of her reflection in the window, she looked horrendous; like she hadn’t slept or eaten in years. As she looked from the window back up to Isla, she quickly saw her reflection change, glimpsing platinum hair.

Drowsily Neina replied, “Oh, I’ll just pack my things and go.”

“I’ll wait for you downstairs, ok?” Isla wandered out the room. She was being suspiciously nice Neina thought, as she gathered the last of her belongings, and shovelled them into her bag.

With the Argyle scarf in her hand, she got into the elevator, descended to the ground floor and headed towards the large entrance. Along the walls was an ensemble of images, relics of past and present architects, photos of buildings and their designs. A few brisk steps later and she met Isla by the doors. They pushed through and happened upon the pavement. It was a pleasant evening, despite being extremely dark - and the temperature was comforting.

“I guess I’ll see you tomorrow then...”

Neina turned and began wandering down the street. Almost immediately she felt the icy clasp of someone's hand on her forearm. It was the kind of cold that freezes instantly. It felt like death. Neina shuddered, but the grip tightened and Isla materialised in front of her. If looks could kill, Neina would’ve been dead.

Isla’s platinum blonde hair, which had a strange red tint, swayed around her face like a halo. She seemed to glow, as though she was draped in ethereal light. The piercing scent of lilies surrounded her. Suddenly, Neina felt a frenzy of eyes surveying them. Like ants crawling up and down her back. There was nobody here, it was imagination, right? Or was there an army of angry, monstrous, green-skinned demons which Isla had summoned from Mors World? As hard as she tried, she couldn’t separate her mind from reality. Mors World seemed very real to her, it was the place of nightmares. But also the land of truth. Going to the Mors World just a few more times would be inevitable in finding out what happened to her mum. But the thought of it made her feel sick.

Neina’s arm was beginning to turn purple, from Isla’s squeezing, icy hand.
“I got rid of your mother, now all I have to do is get rid of you.” Isla’s words felt like daggers penetrating her ears.

“What are you talking about, my mother was murdered by someo-”

“The prophecy killed your mother… there could only be one…”

Isla’s words flew over her head and the grip tightened. Was Isla real? Or was Neina insane? It was hard to tell. Isla cackled and began to chant even louder.
Janus’s words earlier echoed in her head and she began to realise that it was only real if she allowed it to be.

It was in her head.

It was her imagination.

It was her job to stop it.

Somehow.

Tears spilled from Neina’s eyes as she struggled to gain control of the situation. Feebly, she reached out a hand and, with the inkling of power she had left, picked up one of the many broken bottles that lined the street. She swung it at Isla. A red slash, one that clashed with her cool, calm, pale facade, now decorated her face. Vibrant blood began to drip down her cheek onto the pavement. She stopped, stunned and shocked. Neina blinked and, suddenly, Isla was gone.

The foreboding feeling that she was being watched was gone too and Neina found herself lying on the floor shaking. A pool of icy sweat surrounded her petite frame and a deep purple bruise was beginning to form where Isla had held her.

The familiar aroma of water lilies greeted her as she looked up to see Charlotte standing in front of her. It was still dark, but the pleasantness of the early evening was gone and replaced with an ominous humidity. She surveyed her eyes upwards, noticing the startled, yet bewildered look on Charlotte's face. Then, she saw something much worse.
A luscious ruby liquid was spilling from a gash in her cheek.

Drip, drip, drip…

Katie Meldrum, Year 9, Safa Community School

Editor's note: She writes"I have really enjoyed reading the exciting chapters from different students. I love the way the story is heading and how new characters are being introduced and developed. In this chapter I decided to explore Neina's struggle to find out if everything was 'real' or not. Thank you so much for this opportunity, it has been an extremely enjoyable experience. Good luck to the next writers. I hope you all have a great summer ..."



Drip, Drip, Drip.

Neina stood there, paralyzed with fear, regret and anger. The sound of Charlotte's blood dripping onto the cobblestone path seemed to multiply in both sound and speed.

This has got to be in her head, she would never hurt her best friend, right?

With a shaky breath she whispered, “Charlotte?”

Hot pools of tears started to run down Neina's face as she made her way closer to her injured best friend, hoping, begging, that the cut to her face wasn't as severe as she imagined it to be. That did not work for her. Charlotte's cheek was completely cut open, with her teeth visible through the sinews of her cheek muscle and blood pooling out.

The air between them became heavy, and time seemed to stop. In an act of pure desperation, Neina began to try and cover the wound with her cardigan. As her best friend slumped lifelessly, Neina began rummaging through her purse to find her phone to call the police, the ambulance - she didn't care, as long as it could help her friend from dying! She struggled to focus, once the phone came into contact with Neina's shaking fingers.

As the ground around them started to crack like glass, a ball smashed through it. They were plunged into a sea of darkness.

“No no no no no no, not now, why now!?”Neina yelled as she began to fall into the void of darkness. Her heart began to ache at the thought of Charlotte dying in her arms.

Why had she hurt Charlotte? Why was Charlotte there to begin with? How could she have done this to her best friend? Why is the world doing this to her? The panicked thoughts started to soar through Neina's mind as she frantically tossed herself around within the bottomless pit she was still falling into. She desperately looked for her best friend in the dark and endless void.

A moment of relief washed over her for a second, once Charlotte came into site. She screamed for her best friend, in the hope that she would answer. She was just falling as if she was just a lifeless doll cut from the strings of life. No matter how hard she tried to close the distance between her and Charlotte it felt as if gravity was only pulling them apart. The air around them stopped and now it felt as if they were floating in air.

“Charlotte!” Neina yelled “Please answer me, please tell me you're alright even if your lying ... just show me that you're still alive, please!”

The sounds of Neina's sobs filled the void, as her tears started to fall once again.

‘I suppose that’s up to you' Janus's words echoed through the void. A sudden moment of realization lifted her up, but why? It felt as if she was circling close to the answer, even if in her hearts of hearts, she knew she had ... nothing.

“Think…” a voice echoed through the dark empty void. Then it hit Neina. “This isn't real…”

Suddenly, a figure draped in all-black swathes of material with only her mouth showing, appeared in front of her. Her presence alone made Neina tremble, but her aura felt motherly, warm and loving. She started to move closer to Neina. Every instinct in her body told Neina to run, but why was she so anxious? Was it because she knew she was in Mors world now? Or was it because Charlotte was still hurt? It was, probably, a combination of both.

The silence was broken by the woman.

“The mind is the most sensitive part of the body and soul. One mere word can send it down a dark train of thought,” the voice said with a sinister grin. "So many people fail to realize it. So tell me dear, what makes you so special?”

Her mind went blank. Every part of her body felt as if it were on fire, screaming at her to get out, to run. The woman sighed and walked to Charlotte. It was then that Neina realized that she was now walking on air. But that wasn’t the part that scared her. What scared her was how normal it felt.

The woman started to laugh hysterically before being able to compose herself and fill the air with her sinful sneer.

“Poor, pitiful child. The world plays a cruel game with you."

Game? What does she mean game?

Every second that passed only put Neina down another path of questions.

Neina noticed that the woman was picking up Charlotte and starting to drag her away.

“Wa..wait what are you doing with Charlotte?” Neina asked, fear tracing over every ounce of her body.

She had to do something.

Charlotte was helpless, lolling in the arms of her cloaked captor. She needed to get her to help, but, as she reached out, the woman just continued to walk away, ever further into the consuming darkness.

No….no no, she's taking Charlotte.... I  have to get out of here, I HAVE TO HELP CHARLOTTE!

Neina’s mind reeled.

Then, suddenly, everything became uncomfortably bright and the sounds of yelling echoed within her head.

“Neina…..Neina wake up!”

It was Frankie, yelling. She jolted awake. "Hey are you alright? You passed out  at your desk while working on Prophecy Tower. Do you need to see the doctor again?”

Neina started to look around trying, desperately, to make sense of the situation.

And then it hit her. She wasn't in Mors World anymore. Well, at least, it didn’t feel like she was.

It took her some time to reply to Frankie. “Yes, I think I was just working a bit too hard,” she croaked. Then it hit her: Charlotte!

“Have you seen Charlotte?” she pleaded in a barely audible whisper.

Concerned and confused Frankie replied that she was in her office.

Neina rushed around the office, but as luck had her, she couldn't seem to remember where Charlotte's office was. It was as if she was in an alternate dimension. The office looked the same but she had lost all recollection of how to navigate her way around the once familiar place.  Defeated, she sped her way back to her desk, in hope of finding her there.

Suddenly a familiar scent grazed Neina's nose. “Neina?” She slowly turned and, as if all time had stopped once again, she was filled with an overwhelming feeling of happiness, relief and, then, disappointment.  With a few shaky breaths she finally spoke ...

“Ryder?”

Joli Lindberg, Year 8, Kent College

Author's note: I really enjoyed how the story progressed over the past few weeks with all the plot twists and the continuing feeling of mystery. I have tried to build up further suspense and leave a lot of opportunities for the next author to elaborate on the action in the story. I wish luck to the next author, I am really looking forward to seeing where the story goes from here.



She stood frozen. There he was, Right there, right in front of her. Neina’s mind screamed at her to say something, to recoil from the man in front of her, scream, do something. But she couldn’t. Her eyes were wide, dilated, her breath, sharp, shallow, rasped and uneven. How is this happening? What is this? It-It can’t be.

She could win gold at the Olympics with the type of mental gymnastics her mind had to endure to wrap itself around this. This was like some kind of twisted game whereby the world pulls on her heart-strings, whilst also making her dance for an eternity in the palm of its hands. A game where ultimately, she’s made a fool out of, or simply a game played by some crooked puppet master who enjoys watching others suffer.

“Neina! Neina!” called a familiar, masculine voice. 

“H-Huh?” 

“Earth to Neina. Are you there? Jeez. I thought you’d be happier to see me!”

Ryder rolled his eyes. There was something off about them. While he still sounded the same, or at least similar enough to the Ryder she knew, something was so very off about him. His eyes, for example, where they once held warmth and kindness, they now appeared frozen, devoid of the Ryder that was. 

“U-Uh… Yeah… I-I just-” 

“Hey, is something wrong? You don’t look so good,” Ryder asked. 

“I’m s-sorry, I’ve been working really hard lately and -” 

“And you just overdid it? Should we hire someone to make sure you don’t do that? It’s been happening so much that it almost feels as if the world is being a little extra cruel to you,”  

Neina was still trying to get her body under control. She had to move. She had to say something? She had to-

“The world plays a cruel game with you,” 

Neina’s eyes widened upon hearing those words. The woman. Ryder. Her words. His words. 

“Y-Yeah. I guess you’re right. I suppose,” Neina laughed nervously, “I-uh, I have to go. There’s something I need to ask Frankie,” 

“Sure. See ya,” Ryder smiled.

His smile was cold. It held little emotion. It seemed hollow. Even so, Neina forced a smile and scurried out of the room. She made her way through the now unfamiliar halls, not bothering to even glance at the people she pushed on her way. She could apologise later. 

Eventually, after about ten minutes of speed walking, she had found it. Neina had no care as she slammed open the door to Frankie’s office. Nor did she care about the three other people staring at her with wide eyes and disapproving faces. 

No. She marched up to Frankie before speaking in a low, shaking tone. 

“Can we talk?” 

Silently and dumbfounded, Frankie nodded and excused himself from the room. 

“What is he doing here and where’s Charlotte?” 

“What? Who’s he? And I told you, Charlotte’s in her office?” 

“Ryder. And no she’s not,” 

“Ryder works here. Charlotte may have gone to take a break, Neina. You need to calm down. I understand you want to work on your projects your way, but you have to be able to admit when you need help-.” Frankie placed a hand on her shoulder but she swatted it away. 

“No. I can do this on my own. This is my project, my dream! If I want to reach the vision that I have, I need to do this on my own. And, that’s not the point.” 

“Then what is the point? I’m worried about you Neina. You don’t need to do this on your own, you need a break or help or something,” Frankie did his best to reason with her. “There’s no shame in getting help from someone and it definitely won’t take away from your original vision,” Not that his reasoning would work. Neina was a fighter. 

“I’m not doing that, sorry. This isn’t what I’m here for anyway. Just tell me where and when you last saw Charlotte, then I can get some peace of mind and finally get back to work,” Neina sighed, she was not in the mood for this conversation. With an exasperated sigh of his own, Frankie told her about Charlotte getting lunch with Ryder an hour earlier. 

Neina’s face paled on hearing. She thought back to what she saw in Ryder earlier. The look in his eyes. Neina quickly said goodbye to Frankie, she needed to think. She wandered around for twenty minutes or so, cursing whatever creature was at fault for practically turning this place into a maze. Finally, she had made it back to her own desk. Taking her seat, Neina decided to take a moment to calm down and try to assess the situation, though the world was not that kind to her. 

“There you are, Neina. I was looking for you,” Ryder smiled, casually placing a hand on her shoulder. Nenia froze. 

“I need to borrow a USB stick since I lost all of mine. You don’t mind, do you?” Neina just nodded her head, completely in shock. Her eyes were wide and her body trembling. 

“Y-Yeah. Sure,” 

“Thanks. I’ll make it up to you later, I promise! In the meantime, let’s hope that the world doesn’t play any more cruel games with you, right? After all, you kind of need to be at least, somewhat healthy to complete Prophecy Tower,” he joked. Neina nodded again. 

“Yeah,” 

“Great. Well, see you later.” Neina could only nod. Ryder’s touch used to be warm. Her brother used to be affectionate and kind. Now, when he placed his hand on her shoulder, she felt cold. Something dark and sinister resided instead. Something so terrifying that it shook her to the core. Neina couldn’t explain it. She had never felt something in her entire life that managed to shake her entire being like that. It was terrifying. 

Deep down, she knew. She knew that if she couldn’t figure it out, everything she loved would come crashing down around her, and it would all be her fault, regardless of whether Mor’s world had something to do with it, everything to do with it or nothing to do with it. 

Finally, regaining her will to move, Neina placed her head on her desk. Maybe some peace and quiet would help to clear her mind. Perhaps it would allow her figure out what to do. For a split second, she closed her eyes, and in that moment, she heard it. It almost felt real. Charlotte. Her words were desperate, but also reassuring, letting her know, that perhaps there was still a chance she could fix things.  

“Neina… You’ve got this. Please hurry,” 

 Manal Fatima, Year 10, Star International Al Twar

Author's note: I’ve been fascinated with the story from the start and wanted my chapter to be able to add new ideas while also trying to incorporate the themes of the previous author. I left some things vaguer than others to see how the next author will interpret them and what they’ll do from here. How their ideas may be different from what my original ideas will be. I’m glad to have an opportunity to add my own creative input into the story and I can’t wait to see where the next author takes it. 



“Neina... You’ve got this. Please hurry,” 

Those words echoed through her mind, like a never-ending cacophony. Her vision blurred, her stomach in knots, Neina couldn’t remember the last time she’d had peace of mind. How long had she been stumbling in, out or teetering on the edge of the Mors world – of all the confusion, lies and memories? Where was she now? Was she even alive? 

Is this what death feels like?” The once strong-minded woman asked herself. 

She needed to figure something out, but her brain refused to process the information that’d cascaded upon her like a waterfall of words. Her mind was a jumble sale of people and hidden truths, leaping out at her from every corner. How easy it would be to just give up. Just to give into Isla. 

Isla. The name brought combinations of emotions that Neina never thought she’d feel. Ones that couldn’t be deciphered, especially in her own brain. Many a time, she had longed that she had chosen death over the Mors world. At least it would’ve been quick. She could feel the darkness slowly coaxing her in. She was too tired – too weak. But then, Neina heard Charlotte’s voice ringing through her ears, the single phrase crystal clear against the madness churning around. 

Neina couldn’t give up. That’s what Isla would’ve wanted. 

And Neina was no Isla. 

She needed to think. Forcing the rusted clogs in her head to turn once again, she fixed her mind onto a goal. Complete the puzzle she was in right now. Work from the easiest part of the puzzle – the edges. The things you know. 

Neina knew that Isla was out to get her. To do whatever it took to derail Neina from her prophecy, just like her mother. Isla had sent her to the Mors World to prove her worth... Clearly, she had thought it an unattainable task. Unfortunately for her, Neina was still prevailing - completing the three challenges set for her. So why was she still being targeted? 

Think, Neina, think...” 

The appearance of her brother had thrown her off balance more than she could’ve expected. After ‘disappearing’ for the majority of Neina’s adulthood, then suddenly turning up, claiming to work at her own workplace?  The brother she had once known had hated the type of office environment that she adored – he had felt captive in a cell of four beige walls. The brother she had once known loved adventure, after being tied down for all those years, looking after her. 

Neina was so engrossed in the mess that was her mind, she didn’t even hear the footsteps approaching her desk, or the subtle ‘click’ as the figure locked the door. She didn’t hear the duffle bag being opened, or the frigid breeze that swept through her office. She didn’t notice the security cameras being disabled, or the cloth being plucked from the stranger's shirt pocket. It wasn’t until he spoke that she noticed his presence. 

By that time, it was already too late. 

“Neina?” Ryder questioned, placing a hand on the back of her chair, smelling heavily of aftershave. It was overpowering, so much so that Neina almost gagged on the smell. Then something (other than the horrific minty stench) hit her. 

Ryder hated aftershave. He said it was because he didn’t like the overpowering smell, but Neina knew it was due to the fact that it reminded him of their dad, who would wear it to disguise the scent of alcohol that was ever present. 

She whipped her head around, her bouncy curls hissing through the air like snakes. Trying not to show her fear, she glared at the smirking stranger right in his dark, unforgiving eyes. Neina had finally figured something out. 

“You’re not Ryder.” 

The figure laughed, as she was taken aback by the response. He shoved the cloth into her face, until all she could smell was chemicals. She tried to scream, to escape his grip, but the hand stayed put, constricting her movement. Slowly, her fight disintegrated, as her heartrate melted away. 

“I thought you were smart, Neina. Thought you would’ve worked that out sooner.”

It was the last thing she heard before her eyelids locked and she took one last glimpse of her office. 

Darkness. That was the only thing on offer on the Despair Express. Neina felt like she was floating through a bubble – void of time, light or feeling. Her body parts felt loose, like if someone yanked them, they would fall off. She couldn’t touch, smell or hear anything, alone in her bubble of gloom. She sat there, hunched in a ball for what seemed like days, yet only seconds had passed. It was strangely peaceful, as Neina reflected on what she could remember. The office, Ryder... Chloroform, that voice... It was all so disorientating.

Her bubble then gradually started to get lighter – and a hole in the side appeared. Blinding light radiated through it, a way out! Almost swimming through the air, Neina managed to get closer, like she was drawn to it, a moth to a lamp. Without hesitation, she took a voluminous breath before hurtling herself through. 

Gasping for air, Neina’s eyes darted back and forth across her new surroundings. She tried to touch her face to make sure she was all in one piece, before realizing they were tied behind her back. The coarse rope clawed through her wrists, irritating her skin. Bewildered, the exhausted woman searched for answers in her surroundings. She sat in a jet-black carriage, trudging along a bumpy road, causing her splintered chair to ricochet off the sides of the interior every few seconds. 

Neina was travelling through a forest of thick trees that blocked the sunlight, the blistering cold snapping at her bare ankles. The windows to her carriage had no glass, and so subsequently trees would poke their brittle branches at her, some catching her eyes, and tearing her top. She felt quite helpless, constricted to her chair, battered, bruised and defeated. Her gut feeling had been right – Neina was truly running out of time. 

Questions. Questions with no answers. It was hard to believe there was a time where she had felt content. The truth really did hurt, and sometimes, as Neina was growing to realise, it just causes even more questions. The list of wonders and queries grew longer by miles every day, every minute, every second as she kept being thrown information, like she was in a basketball game. Neina had never been very good at sports anyway. 

She had to keep a cool head if she was to get out of this situation. 

Scooting her chair to the edge of the carriage, Neina managed to get close enough to the window to stick her head out. From that position, she could see two figures, controlling the horses pulling the vehicle. They were laughing, joking around with each other like childhood friends. 

One was obviously Isla. The effortless blonde hair combined with the petite frame of her enemy was undisguisable. But who was with her? It wasn’t ‘Ryder’, no, this character had a much more feminine frame. She had cropped ginger hair. 

The figure turned slightly to whisper something to Isla, revealing a huge gash down her pale cheek.  With a sickening lurch, Neina realized who it was. 

It was Charlotte. 

Ruby Shadwell, Year 8,  Horizon International School

Authors note: I have been so intrigued by this story ever since the first chapter! I love how everyone's taken their part and made it so different, with so many new ideas that I never thought of. I thoroughly enjoyed writing my part, and I cannot wait to see where the next turn takes this story!



Neina’s eyelids fluttered open. Day had traversed into night within what seemed to be the blink of an eye; the city skyline glowing fabulously from her vantage point up in her office.

Down below, Neina could hear the commotion caused by scores of cars and people commuting back to their homes. Oh, how she envied their normal lives; free of the pressures of evil forces, of the knowledge of some ancient prophecy that had her life balanced on a tightrope. How, after a long day of work, they could go back to their residencies where their loved ones would be waiting, welcoming them with open arms and drowning any of their worries purely by their company. Company itself could evolve into many different stages where the loved ones would console, caress and care for their counterparts. Eventually, they would heal. Forget their worries and start anew.

But who did Neina have to share her troubles with?

Her mother and Freya were dead. Ryder was a shadow of his former self; cold and uninviting. Quinn and her father were nowhere to be found; completely vanished off the face of the earth. Her fellow colleagues, notably Frankie, exuded an air of selfishness around themselves and were shallow beings. And Isla, the root of all her pain, bedevilling her with misfortune upon misfortune; Neina would rather live the rest of her days in the Mors, than express her emotions to that sorry excuse of a creature.

But there was still someone. Someone who kept Neina from toppling off into the extremity of lunacy. Someone who meant as much as her precious mother to her. Someone who just encouraged her to persevere. “You’ve got this.”

Charlotte.

It was all it took. A small sentence of encouragement, nothing out of the ordinary. To the everyday Joe, such a saying would bring bouts of eye rolls and the usual sarcastic comments: “So inspirational”, “Never heard that one before”. But to Neina, the source of the comment was all the inspiration she needed to break free from the cycle of terror that repeated every day. A small spark that set alight a blaze, too powerful for even Isla to stop.

Exhausted but committed, mustering all the energy within her frail body, she heaved herself off her office chair and turned around to face the window that accounted for the back wall of the room. She hesitated for a second; what if her plan failed? Was her sudden change of attitude just the result of adrenalin? Was she really committed to this? For the trillionth time, the two sides in her mind waged war against each other; the rational side favouring peace and the adrenaline-fuelled side favouring the rescue. The ensuing carnage left her mind relatively shaken, but adrenaline endured. Now her plan of action was resolute.

“JANUS!” 

From a hitherto unused section of her vocal cords, Neina yelled at the very top of her voice repeatedly:

“JANUS! JANUS! PLEASE! I NEED YOUR HELP!”

No sooner had she said the word “help” did Janus materialise to her left, head cocked slightly in concern, taking in the ghoulish sight of Neina.

“Did somebody call for my help?” 

“Janus, please,” As much as she loathed begging, Neina had to do it. “I need to get to the Mors world.”

“Excuse me?” Said Janus, slightly taken aback.

“You heard me. I want to – no – I need to get to the Mors world. It’s imperative. I have a hunch Charlotte is down there. And she desperately needs my help.”

Janus furrowed his eyebrows, indicating he was thinking. Neina could sense the tension building up in the room, as Janus seemingly weighed up the dangers her trip could cause, especially in the atrocious state she was in. 

“You do understand Isla will be waiting for you. This is all most likely a trick; a plan to lure you in, give you a false sense of victory by rescuing Charlotte but being ambushed on the way.”

Neina soaked in the new theory. Could this all be a plan? Possibly a figment of her broken imagination? Is Isla taking advantage of her damaged brain by playing dangerous mind games with her? The thought of it certainly seemed plausible. But she would never forgive herself if it all turned out to be what she had originally assumed, and let Charlotte perish in the unruly Mors. There was no alternative, she told herself. She must go into the Mors to save her, and that was that. 

“Look, Janus, I get your point. There’s a minor chance this is all a ploy to get me into Isla’s grasps. A minor chance that I may not come back again. But it’s certain that Charlotte is confined in the depths of that wretched place, and if I can’t make it back alive… well… at least she can.”

The silence that followed stretched on for what seemed like eternity. Janus simply stood to her left, his gaze averting her eyes, staring off into the dark, endless fathoms of the night. After what seemed like an age, he finally caved in. 

“Fine. I’ll open a portal for you to be transported to the safest place I know in all of Mors. From there you can begin your search for Charlotte. Lucky for you, the region is also a haven for fruit growth, so you can replenish yourself too.”

Neina could tell from the subdued tone of his voice and unusually dark, damp button-eyes that he was strongly against the idea and was holding back tears. Going into the Mors world to meet a face-off with Isla without any weaponry was practically suicide. But she was determined, and clung onto the miniscule amount of hope that remained within her, praying this was the right call to make.

Janus moved his arms in circular motions, while simultaneously chanting in an indecipherable language, generating an infinitesimally small hole at the centre of the herculean glass window. Gradually, as the pace of the chanting increased, so did the size of the hole. At some point, green-flecked mist spontaneously appeared and was sucked into the abyss, giving the portal a dark green tinge – all the more eerie. Like a black hole, it engulfed the whole glass pane; ultimately meaning the back wall was now a noiseless, rectangular portal that lead straight into the jaws of death.

As Neina walked into the portal, she experienced the same weightless feeling she had felt in her previous trip in a portal. Before it took her down, knocking her unconscious, she glanced back at Janus, giving him a reassuring wave.

But as he smiled and waved back, another miniature version of the portal Neina was using appeared behind him. Unsuspecting, he took no notice of it until Neina screamed at him to run.

But it was too late.

Ryder, his face glazed with an unnaturally deranged expression, materialised from the portal wielding a razor sharp knife and stabbed the hay-filled sack that was Janus’ torso. 

Before she could react or even take a step towards him, Neina was violently sucked into her own portal. The last thing she remembered before blacking out was the helpless body of her mentor splayed on the floor.

Hasan Javaid, Year 10, The English College

Author's note: Reading the previous 36 chapters showed me how varied everyone’s style of writing is, and how each author has their own creative flair with which they contributed to in their chapters. It was a pleasure slowly watching Neina’s fate unravel before our eyes and participating in this event. It’ll be exciting to see how the story turns out in the next 45 or so chapters, and I wish everyone the best of luck!



 

When Neina came to, the first thing that she realized was that she was in bed. Not her own bed either but a bed that was uncomfortable and foreign, yet .... familiar.

Opening her eyes, she realized that she was, once again, in the hospital. The hospital room was dreary and empty, an outdated TV set up a few feet in front of her. On her bedside table was a vase of flowers, a glass of water and a remote, inviting her to turn on the TV.

“Neina?”

The voice was now all too familiar to Neina. It was a voice that she had come to hate with a burning passion. A voice that belonged to the person who had started this whole mess. Neina hadn’t seen anybody when she had glanced around the room only a minute earlier, but now there was Isla, perched in the ugly pleather armchair that was positioned right next to Neina’s bed. She held a newspaper in her hands, an expression of concern contorting her face. Neina knew better. Any concern that Isla had for her well-being was fake, and nothing could convince Neina otherwise.

“What do you want?” hissed Neina, her voice gravelly from not having been used for a good while. Her vocal chords still ached from screaming for Janus earlier. How long had it been? A few hours?

“Oh I’m so glad to see you awake!” gushed Isla, standing up and abandoning her newspaper to go hug Neina as though the two were old friends. Neina immediately held her back, her hand gripping Isla’s arm.

“WHAT DO YOU WANT?!” Tears began to stream down Neina’s face - and she couldn’t quite tell whether they were from rage, fear, or simply grief. Charlotte was gone. Now Janus-her only source of help-had been killed, too. “Why must you keep doing this to me?!”

Isla simply chuckled and pulled Neina’s hand away with ease. “Let me guess. This is about your friend and that stupid scarecrow. Is that right?” Isla sat back down, taking out a mirror and checking that her cherry red lipstick was properly applied.

Neina felt her blood boil. “What did you do to Charlotte?!” she demanded. She had already seen what had happened to poor Janus, but she had yet to learn what Isla had done with Charlotte. Isla’s expression turned to one of mock sadness, even sticking her lower lip out a little the way a small child would.

“Oh, poor Charlotte...haven’t you heard? She killed herself…” Isla picked up the newspaper she had been holding, flipping a few pages before holding it up for Neina to see. There was a small article in the corner, with the headline, ‘WOMAN FOUND DEAD IN APARTMENT.’ Below the headline, just before an article about how she had supposedly killed herself, was a selfie of Charlotte and her pet cat, Stanley. That had been posted on Instagram just a few weeks ago. Thinking of it now, it seemed only yesterday that Neina had first seen the photo. Before any of this happened. Before Isla. Before the Mors world.

Of course, Neina didn’t believe a word of what the news article said. She knew the truth. Charlotte had been taken. Neina was the only one who could get her back.

She looked at Isla, feeling rage consume her from head to toe. “I don’t believe any of what you’re showing me.” hissed Neina. “You’re lying. Where is she, really?!” Nothing else mattered to Neina at that moment but her friend. She would never forgive herself if Charlotte died all because of this.

Isla raised her brows. There was a look of satisfaction in her eyes. “What do you mean? She’s dead.” She frowned, pretending to look concerned. Anyone would be able to see the satisfaction in her eyes. At least, Neina was able to. And it angered her more than she could say.

“YOU--” Neina lunged forward, yanking her IV with her. She didn’t care, simply wanting to absolutely destroy her. She wasn’t thinking straight at that moment; everything was spiralling out of control.

Isla screamed, her eyes widening-but Neina knew better. “HELP ME! HELP! SHE’S OUT OF CONTROL!” Isla sobbed, tears streaming down her delicate face.

Apparently her screams had been heard, since a few nurses immediately ran in. Neina drew in a choked breath when she saw the nurses’ faces. They weren’t just any nurses; they were Ryder, Frankie, and Janus.

“JANUS! HELP ME! IT'S ME, NEINA!” Neina had begun hyperventilating loudly, struggling against the nurses as they forced her into a straight jacket, snapping it shut so that she couldn't move. Frankie, or the nurse that looked like him, was getting an injection ready, poised to inject it into her jugular vein.

"This should calm her down…" he said, speaking to Isla, who by now had let a smirk grow across her face as she watched the whole scene taking place.

"Frankie...no. NO!" Neina shrieked, right as he leaned in to inject whatever the substance was into her neck...

 

Shahinaz El Sayed, Grade 12, iCademy

Author's note:  It has been a privilege to take part in this challenge, and I found myself wondering more and more about what was happening with Neina--how much of the story really happened, and how much was simply in her head? I wanted to make the readers wonder this even more.



When she roused back to consciousness, she was no longer in the hospital room.
No, she was in the Tutumni; a strange, sulking smile morphed the tip of her lips. ‘When was the last time I smiled …’ she wondered. She found her mind drowning, back into the oblivion she had left only a few days earlier. A voice gingerly whispered into her ear: “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. It will protect you from any occurrences beyond its reach.”

She was remembering…

She felt a dire sensation of pain, everything had happened so fast. Had Janus sent her here? Wasn’t Janus with Frankie and Ryder? Wasn’t he stabbed? What had happened?
She was a fool, wasn’t she? Her arrogance, her pride and her desperate desire for vengeance had started to constrict her thoughts and understanding. She too had, finally, come to this realisation.

Charlotte. The name had become one that tormented her.  Voices started to run around her head.

“You wanted to save her, didn’t you?”

“It’d be an ambush…. that’s what Janus said. And it was. What if it’ll be one again?”

“Isla is preying on your mind, a mind which you yourself don’t understand…”

“There is just a minor chance.”

“Isn’t that what you said before”.

“Isla is preying on your mind, a mind which you yourself don’t understand.”

Those words reverberated around the insides of her brain.

“Isla is preying on your mind …” The words really struck her hard. Neina was fighting a war that she was losing; she was fighting a war for which she was too weak. This was a war in which she was being manipulated so she could finish herself.

She hadn’t attacked yet, not once. Instead, she has consistently run away from the truth presented to both her and Isla. But what did Isla do? She did attack. Isla rained flaming arrows down on her at every turn. Every word Isla said she said was an attack…. An attack on her very mind.

Whenever Isla had said that the she would kill her, she weakened Neina by playing with her wrath and her arrogance. Neina was full of pride; she expected victory despite doing nothing to justify or secure it. Isla had realised this and used it to ‘damage’ Neina’s mind, twisting Neina’s anger and vengefulness revenge to the point that it clouded her common sense. Neina had irrationally fallen for all of Isla’s traps and damaged only herself.
This realisation hit her as a hammer hits an anvil.

She observed the terrain around her in the Tutumni; the vast sierra upon which families of Tanoak trees were haphazardly scattered. The peaceful environment seemed almost like a mere myriad, juxtaposing near perfectly with her abject loneliness.

She returned to her thoughts; it was her turn to attack, her turn to strike. She must now act. Thinking swiftly, Neina decided that she would steal Isla’s own dagger and use it against her. She would impale Isla’s on its blade.

Isla had always been one step ahead of her. Now it was her turn to control destiny and to take her revenge on Isla for all that she done to ruin her life.

“Ruin her life ….” Those words hurt her and she found her mind constricting. She thought of how perfect, how amazing, how extravagant her life was before Isla. Now it was a ruin. She would, must, now avenge everyone whose life, like hers, had been flipped into turmoil; Janus, her Mother, Freya, Charlotte and the hundreds of others.
This time she wouldn’t let herself be a victim to pride or simply imagine for revenge.
In the far distance, she saw something approaching, some sort of a monster… It was a …goblin. It looked familiar, as if she had seen it before. Had she dreamed it? She smiled as the name of the goblin came to her. Pride.

Memories flooded her consciousness. She remembered the riddle. She remembered how she had struggled with it.

Then, behind the monster, followed other beings, each shimmering with the same green hues of the goblin. As the goblin approached it coughed and, then, spoke: “I come here with regards from Queen Freya’s heir; Gersemi. She wishes to aid you in your battle against Isla, as did her mother.”

Neina’s face crinkled as her perplexity grew. She didn’t remember Freya telling her anything about an heir. A strange, uncomfortable feeling started to form in her stomach…

She wasn’t feeling good about this. Any of this …

The monster continued: “She summons you to her palace. There you will be greeted with the utmost respect. You deserve this much. I have been sent with my men to ensure your safety until you reach the safety of her castle.”

Neina struggled to find the words to replay but could only find the strength to nod mundanely. Eventually she whispered simply. “I will come because I know it is my duty.”

Gunshots rang out. The Goblin crashed to the floor. It was dead. A large bloodied hole where the bullet had entered its head made that certain. The same fate befell its compatriots as the shots ricocheted around her.

Neina looked intently around her, searching for the slightest of clues as to where the shots had come from. The remaining goblins, startled, drew swords in defence.
More shots rang out and the remaining goblins fell. All of them. Neina was scared. She was overwhelmed by it. Devastated.

Panicking, she walked backwards. Her head met the barrel of shotgun. ‘Now it’s Isla’s turn to kill you.’

She turned around and gasped…
It was Janus.

Umar Shahzad, Year 9, GEMS FirstPoint School

Author's note: Neina, I think, was being set up in the novel to lose her battled with Isla. I have responded to this by trying to re-develop her character and make her realise her weaknesses. Simultaneously, I wanted to add a strange twist to the story by introducing a new character, Gersemi, and by adding a crucial event - her friend’s possible betrayal and, perhaps, her possible death? I’d love to see how the next author takes the story from here.



Neina, terrified, slowly walks backwards, her hands pushed upwards to protect her from the threat she sensed around her. Shakingly, she calls out to Janus, begging him to reveal what had happened in the hospital before she fell unconscious. 

“Isla thought we had finally killed you when we injected, TEN TIMES, the recommended dose of numbing medicine” he replied, while he slowly followed her every step with his gun pointing to her chest. “But your brain was too powerful and Gersemi was able to locate you and bring you to this realm before your body went to sleep.”

Neina halted. How did he get into the Tutumni? Wasn’t the Tutumni supposed to protect her from ‘any occurrences beyond its reach’? What did he mean by “Now it’s Isla’s turn to kill you?” 

Question after question followed as her mind went over, and over, the events that had brought her here. She felt utterly overwhelmed. But now she was no longer afraid to face Isla. She wanted to, needed to, extract her revenge on Isla for ruining her life. 

“How did you get into this realm?” Neina asked angrily, ready to pounce on Janus like a dog. 

“Oh Neina…” Janus responded mockingly. “You can't escape us, especially me. I am a god. I can enter any realm I want to, even those built to protect you.”

“Why is Isla not with you? Was she not able to enter this realm?” Neina asked.

Janus had enough of the questions. He ran towards Neina. Janus needed to latch on to her so that he could open a portal back to the real world. As he did so, the sky’s pretty colours turned an angry red. The realm felt danger.

Neina started screaming uncontrollably. “HELP! HELP! PLEASE SOMEONE HEL--!” But history was repeating itself as her unclaimed words met only silence. She was as alone as she had been in the hospital. There was no help waiting. This was not a fairy story.  

Janus covered her mouth with his immense, divine hands, muffling her screams. The only thing hearing her screaming now was her own mind. 

As her screams were crowded out by violence, Janus opened a golden portal. It shimmered red with implicit evil.

“Where was he taking her?” Was he taking her back to the hospital only so that Isla could, finally, kill her?

As they entered the portal, Neina felt the warmth of sunlight. She saw nothing, her eyes blinded by the rays as the darkness receded. As they adjusted, reality shocked her senses. Around her, life took shape as normality crowded out any indication she had ever left. People walked on the sidewalks as they always had, their thoughts filled with the mundane chores and responsibilities of their day-to-day lives. The sense of normality was painfully at odds with the reality of Isla’s dagger and its promise of her murder.

Janus, gripped her tightly, walking towards something….. some … one ….

As Neina struggled for her freedom, a girl walked towards them. Her face is somehow familiar. It is someone she has been looking for. Someone with red hair that glistens as the sun hits it.

 She has, finally, found … Charlotte.

Amr Baroudy, Grade 10, Dunecrest American School

Author's note: When writing this chapter, I wanted to steer the story in the direction of bringing Neina back to the real world; I wanted to show Neina the world that she had been looking for, and that someone she had been looking for would be found. This challenge was a great opportunity to push me to be more confident in the way I write and I can’t wait to see how the next chapter develops Neina’s story even more!



Bewilderment overcame Neina as the unknown figure approached her. As the shadow inched closer, thoughts ricocheted around Neina’s brain, overwhelming her. Breaking the silence, Neina bellowed, “Charlotte! Is that you?”

The slim silhouette of her best friend revealed itself with an unnatural glow; a glow that was foreign to Neina. But before Neina could comprehend what was happening, she felt the tight, familiar embrace of her dear friend that made her, if only for a moment, forget about her troubles. The confusion, the curiosity; it all slipped from her mind. Charlotte comfortingly whispered in Neina’s ear, “We’re going home.” Neina finally felt safe, sheltered. Little did she know of the malicious smirk that replaced her friend’s usual, warm grin.

Suddenly, an iridescent vortex sprouted from the ground and engulfed them, along with Janus. They swam in a boundless ocean of light, for what seemed like an eternity, until their surroundings morphed into Neina’s apartment. Neina scanned around her, unable to find her two companions. Too tired to even question what had just happened, Neina collapsed on her bed for some much deserved rest.

As she eagerly climbed underneath her silk covers, she discovered a small card on her pillow that read:

There I lay; beneath your skin
I am not a deadly sin
You come to me with all your problems
For I am the only one who can solve them
I’m the one you least expect
Someone you shall never neglect
I’m the mastermind behind it all
It’s your turn now to take the fall
The person you want to hate
Is in fact, just the bait
So object now, or forever hold your peace
For my power over you shall never cease
Do not forget, you reap what you sow
Who am I? I’m closer than you know.

Neina racked her brain for hours, searching every nook and cranny of her mind, trying to solve the riddle. Eventually, she gave up and thought it best to try again in the morning, perhaps with a different mindset. She squeezed her eyelids shut, attempting to hold back the waterfall of tears that were imploring her to release the flood and admit defeat. But Neina was a fighter and she wasn’t going to give up any time soon. With that, she drifted into a restless trance for the remainder of the night.

Neina was roused from her sleep by the beaming rays of light that managed to seep in through her thick, linen curtains. She gazed at the beautiful sunrise that painted the sky with florid, orange streaks and adorned it with smears of tropical pink. Her smooth, ebony skin glistened in the morning sunlight as she stretched her arms, soaking up every last bit of beauty that lay before her.

She glanced at the nearest alarm clock and decided to put on her lavish clothes, determined to look and feel her absolute best. She also decided to embrace her naturally curly hair that she had spent so much of her time taming throughout the years. She was confident. She knew that she was good at her job and no fresher would be able to compare. She strutted out of the mahogany door standing tall, feeling confident that she could conquer all of London. The Prophecy Tower was going to be a hit and no one could argue with that.

Neina arrived at work and greeted the receptionist with a beaming smile. As she entered the brass elevator, Neina was met by an unwelcoming face. Isla, the root of all evil. Or so she thought. As she studied Isla’s porcelain face, she suddenly remembered a part of the riddle:

The person you want to hate
Is in fact, just the bait

At that moment, Neina realized that Isla, her one and only enemy, wasn't behind it all. It wasn’t Isla. All along, Neina had been positive that Isla was the mastermind who relished in her misery. But, in fact, she was merely a pawn in some greater power’s wicked game. Isla was not Neina’s true enemy. But if Isla wasn’t the true enemy, who was? Neina’s mind was once again clouded with thoughts that raced at a hundred miles per hour. Her mind sprung from one notion to the next, with nothing to help her keep it in order.

As Isla and Neina approached the fifth floor, an awkward silence grew between them until they both gladly cleared out of the elevator, each going in a different direction. Neina’s mind was still spinning as her skin met the cold leather of her armchair. But, blocking out the dazed confusion, she somehow managed to shift her focus back to the most pressing matter at hand: the Prophecy Tower.

Neina sketched and sketched until she was satisfied with what she had done. She briskly strolled to Frankie’s office, in hopes of impressing him with what she had created. “Hey Frankie!” she exclaimed as she entered the glass doorway of the office, “I wanted you to go over my plans for the Prophecy Tower and maybe give me some feedback.”

Frankie’s stone grey eyes met Neina’s, replying, “Of course! Leave it on my desk and I’ll check it out when I’ve got some free time. Sounds good?” Neina nodded and ambled back to her office. Just as she was going to sit down on her seat, she recognized a familiar card. This card read:

Still can’t figure it out?
I guess you don’t know what it’s all about
Here’s a hint to make it simple
On my pale face, I’ve got two dimples
My face is framed by a lovely red
Watch out, sooner or later, you’ll be dead…

In that moment, it dawned on Neina. The red hair, pale face, dimples, someone unexpected. It all made sense now. It was Charlotte – the bane of her existence. The only person she felt she truly knew and trusted had torn her heart to bits. Neina couldn’t hold back the reservoir of tears that were buried behind her eyelids. But instead of giving up, she unlocked a newfound conviction that would obliterate any opponent. She would make it out of the Mors World alive, and no one would get in the way. Not Isla, not Janus, and most definitely, not Charlotte.

Aya Nayal, Year 9  Deira International School

Author's note: In this chapter, I wanted to throw in something completely unexpected to make this novel even more thrilling and to unleash an ocean of possibilities for the next writer. I hope that the next authors continue to expand on the twist I have included whilst keeping true to their own ideas. To the next writers, good luck!



Sinking into her chair, Neina willed herself to stop her tears. All the screaming, all the pleading, and all the crying wouldn’t help her take her stand against them. Neina knew she couldn’t beat them at their sadistic games- they were far too superior to her.  Staring blankly at the two cards on her desk that ruined whatever else she had left in her life, Janus’ words returned to Neina.

"You’re asking all the wrong questions. All that matters is what's happening right now, and for you, that means surviving”.

Squaring her shoulders, Neina realised that she was right where they wanted her to be. Fighting her way through the three challenges to survive her gunshot wounds. At least, with that purpose, she was able to complete her tasks. Though the hardship that primed her to fulfil a prophecy Neina wanted no part of still loomed over her.

It was futile to seek this prophecy, for she refused to believe in the fate that would define her, much like society did with her. The only reason Neina was curious about the prophecy was for the link it had to her mom. Neina couldn't help but wonder now about what she was fighting for each time she went into Mors World. Was it for her friends-  her family?

No, Neina thought, it was for normalcy. For answers. She would rather know the complete truth than go back to living a life built on deception. This game had never been fair but it changed now; new rules, new secrets, and new players. Janus may not be the ally Neina thought she could rely on, but she realised the truth to his words. She knows as little now as she did before all this, and little knowledge is always too dangerous.

This time she would ask the right questions. Instead of asking why Charlotte did what she did, it was time for Neina to question how Charlotte did it? The fact that Neina was never once suspicious would mean that there were clues there that she'd need to trace back.

From the 4 years in the Architecture BSc programme in Bath to the 15 years of their career, there were two decades of memories they shared. Only now, she knew that Charlotte spent it all lying, observing, and studying Neina and her life. Two decades of scheming before Charlotte orchestrated Neina’s introduction to the Mors World, but why now?

Standing up, Neina picked up the two cards from her desk. She absently wondered who sent them and how it went unnoticed by Isla and Janus, when she had an epiphany.

Neina couldn't control going into the Mors World, but whenever she was there, she lay unconscious or asleep in this reality. It was as if she existed in both dimensions simultaneously and would experience her consciousness drifting between them. While Charlotte may be far more proficient, it was a possibility that she left her body behind and vulnerable too. A possibility which meant that Charlotte would've left unreasonable excuses to cover for it, in the past.

Pacing the floor, Neina tried to remember their history. She remembered how it felt like fate from the very first moment their friendship clicked. Especially when her mom died, despite now knowing Charlotte's involvement in it, Neina couldn't ignore the comfort she received. With her dad estranged and her fiancé, Archie, abroad on business, she was all alone to pick up her broken pieces. She was hurt more than she would like to admit with Archie's absence, and with the moral support from Charlotte, Neina was able to ask for some space away from their engagement.

Archie-- Charlotte wanted Archie out of the picture, away from her plans. Charlotte made Neina think she wanted this space from Archie. Why didn’t she see it before? The arguments they all had, as severe as they’d become, it always felt oddly scripted and resolved better than she could imagine. Was every moment with her a manipulated and calculated result of a continued trust-building exercise in Charlotte's plans? What little Neina believed in fate ceased.

Tears threatening again, she reached for the cardigan she hadn't realised was on the handle of her chair. Slipping it on, she started to stuff the cards she was still holding into her pocket until her hand met with a small object. Taking it out, it was the same 1.5 carat, round cut, platinum band ring she had returned to Archie. Archie… the cards, the cardigan hiding the ring… was Archie a part of this too? Was Archie trying to reach out and help Neina? How much did he know? Was that why he made himself scarce after her mom's murder? Did he have something, a reason why Charlotte wanted him gone?

Glimpsing down at the words on the cards, it all became clear. It was never about her or her fate. It was about something that she was a part of, not something that was a part of her.

The prophecy that was supposed to be her life’s purpose wasn’t a prophecy of fate. It was the Prophecy Tower, a project that would become her life’s biggest accomplishment. A project that everyone around her was so adamant to involve Isla into and keep Neina, and even Archie, out of. The project Charlotte encouraged Neina to pursue. The project in which everyone in her life was somehow involved. Everyone who eventually appeared in the Mors World. It was like a work of a puppeteer, skillfully controlling lives beyond her own.

“I’m the mastermind behind it all.
It’s your turn now to take the fall.”

The words from the card jumped out and taunted Neina, for if she weren’t too engrossed in the personal pronouns earlier, she would have figured out the implications of the “all” and “your turn now”. There was a reason why Charlotte involved Neina after 19 years. It wasn’t her saintly patience, because Neina wasn’t her only prey. Neina was just a part of a big plan, a plan that may very well have started two decades ago, and it was her turn to play her part in it now. She couldn’t find her way out because she wasn’t the lone prisoner she thought she was. She couldn’t figure out reality from illusion because everyone around her was far too lost in it as well.

Neina always wondered why Charlotte never applied for a position in the same firm as her. Though, it would make sense for an important figure indulging in criminal activity not to be associated with their targets.

It was this project. It all started and ended with the Prophecy Tower. The project her firm claimed the majority of the rights to. The project that despite all the mind games, was going to be built.

There was something about this tower. Some reason why they needed everyone under their control. Some plan, some desperate need, something she was missing and if she was right about all this, then it was far worse than anyone could imagine. She both hoped that she was right and that she was wrong.

Neina knew that the barren premise of the Prophecy Tower held all her answers. She knew it was time she went looking for some herself. With her hand fisted around the ring, she walked out of her office, looking for him.

Samhita Roychoudary, Grade 11, Universal American School

Author's note: I’m in awe of the countless writers and the concept of this project uniting us in creating this whole fictive universe that we can step into. I can’t begin to express my gratitude for this opportunity. I hope I did justice to setting the tone for Neina’s intelligence and individuality. With her epiphany and resolution closing the last chapter, it was almost too good of a chance to pass up on clarifying some of the queries the readers can have, tie up some plot points together, and build the framework solidifying a purpose or an intent for this section of the book. I’m beyond excited to see how the story unfolds and I wish the best of luck to the next writers in line!



Trust is a significant thing. To put your trust in someone is to allow them into your life, into the secrets held within the heart. A betrayal of trust is a gut-wrenching feeling. You realise that the person you have trusted has deceived you in an unimaginable way.

Charlotte, Neina thought, had been her best friend. Instead, Charlotte was the engineer of this operation. The administrator of the torment and heartbreak. At first her betrayal had left Neina in shock. But now she was seething. Furious that she had been so gullible. She was not going to let herself be a puppet to their scheme any longer.

She needed answers from the one she had put her faith and her soul in when she said “yes”. The one who had proved, throughout this ordeal, that he could be trusted. The one who loved her.

Archie.

The lioness within her was going to start fighting back. She was more confident in herself than she had ever been before. Fuelled by her thirst for vengeance, Neina was ready.

Her eyes scoured the cafe around her. The sounds of people, of regularity, made her nostalgic for a different life. These people had no idea of the purgatory that plagued her mind and had done so for many weeks now. Normality, Neina knew, would never be something she would ever experience again.

The idyllic euphony of the familiar tinkling of the piano and the quiet chattering of people around her alleviated her stress. Letting out a deep sigh, Neina shut her eyes her eyes and allowed herself to revel in the tranquil atmosphere that she knew wouldn’t come again anytime soon.

A soft fluttering in her ear provoked Neina to open her eyes. She frowned to see a butterfly in front of her, wings as pure and white as snow. But it was not the arrival of the butterfly that confused her; it was the oddly familiar presence it brought in its wake.
As it fluttered its wings, time slowed. As her eyes fixated on the diminutive insect, each moment that passed seemed to last not seconds, but years. The hypnotising pattern its painted wings created was spellbinding.

Neina stared at it for a moment longer, mystified, then forced her eyes to look away. She blinked once and it was gone. An expression of bewilderment appeared on her face, the vision of the butterfly already fading from her memories.

 A soft rustling to her right snatched her attention, prompting her to find the source of the sound. It was yet another card, with the familiar small, black print. Neina was reluctant to pick it up, but her mind compelled her to. She found herself impulsively reaching towards it.

I see that you don’t want to play -
What a pity, I’m here to stay.
Your demise is my reward -
But I’m already getting bored.
So, let me start by saying this:
Your old life will be what you miss.
Your world took a cheerless path
As well as ending with my wrath.
Do you not enjoy the game?
Well then, that seems quite a shame.
This game will be full of death -
I know you’ll take your own last breath.

Neina’s nostrils flared in irritation. Charlotte was playing her mind games once more, but this time she wouldn’t let those words affect her. She was going to find the answers and confront the initiator of her turmoil.

Deep in thought, Neina didn’t notice the feeling in her skull. First it was a subdued ache at the back of her head. Then it magnified. She recoiled, bringing her hand to her head in a failed attempt to sooth the agony. A sharp stinging forced Neina to let out a cry as she buried her head in her hands.

Her shriek grasped the attention of the people around her. Some looked at the woman, baffled. Some got up, concerned.

“Ma’am, are you alright?” a stranger asked, reaching his hand towards Neina. However, Neina could not hear, nor see, anything from the real world as she felt her vision blurring and fading. It seemed as if a bubble was forming around her, drowning all sound and suffocating her. She gritted her teeth and closed her eyes tight.

A moment later, the feeling ceased precipitously. Haltingly opening her eyes, Neina flinched at the radiant, blinding light that greeted her. As it faded, she found herself standing on bedrock with molten, calescent lava surrounding her.

Neina started panting laboriously. Her eyes scoured the expanse around her in a despondent search for escape but found only lava stretching to the horizon before her and blurring across her peripheral vision.

The magma started to rise, slowly consuming the rubble underneath her. It started to inch closer to her feet. There was no liberation. This was it. This was to be her fate. This was to be her downfall.

The antagonising affliction she had become so familiar with returned, her body searing from a pain as intense as knives cutting into her skull. Letting out another spine-chilling scream, Neina blinked through hot tears only to find herself seated at the cafe where she had been taken. Perplexed, where there had been lava, her eyes now found only people seated at tables, eating and chatting with others.

Had they not seen it?

Neina’s mind descended into a senseless jumble of thoughts as she tried to register the banal reality surrounding her. It was as if nothing had happened.

“Neina,” a distant voice called out, snapping Neina out of her thoughts. She looked around the cafe, but saw no sign of the speaker.

“Neina.” It was much louder this time. She knew now for sure that someone really was calling her name. Was it the traitorous Charlotte?

She felt a tap on her shoulder. Neina nearly jumped out of her skin at the touch. Instinctively she spun her head around.

A strangled cry escaped her throat as her fearful eyes met the figure behind her...

Zoya Khan, Year 9, The British School Al Khubairat

Author's note: Reading through the story so far, I decided that Neina may have needed that short break before adding some of my own action into it. I truly enjoyed being a part of this opportunity and am looking forward to seeing the end result. Good luck to the next writers in line!



“Janus?” Her eyes widened as he placed a hand over her mouth, silencing her. His eyes were wide, his pupils darting across the room with every passing second. He leaned in and whispered to her “We need to leave. Now. You go first, I’ll catch up.”  

She shook her head violently and he sighed. He took his hand away from her mouth, immediately regretting it as she exploded into a cacophony of shouts. 

“You-you traitor! You just left me to die! No, you tried to kill me! You absolute, utter...” She was cut off by Janus’s hand silencing her once more.  

“Be quiet, you imbecile. I’m not supposed to be here. Just trust me.” He looked far worse than when she last saw him. A large scar covered his cheek, and his hair was matted and slightly wet. Was that blood? Neina’s head was flooded with questions, but in that moment, her instincts took over. Every ounce of her being wanted to tear Janus apart, to scream, and yet she didn’t. Somewhere in her head, a small voice urged her to trust him.  

“Please?” He looked desperate. He cautiously removed his hand from her mouth, but no words escaped her lips. She sighed dejectedly and nodded. Janus smiled a genuine smile, the first she’d seen in what felt like years. She stood and left the café, the notecard tucked into her pocket. As she stepped outside, the bell on the door rang softly. She stared down at the ground, trying not to attract any unwanted attention.

From ahead, a horrendous discordance of sounds erupted. Her head jerked up, and she silently cursed. The connection to the Mors World had gotten so bad she could barely tell when she was transported any more. The sky was a shade of red not unfamiliar to Neina, the same shade as her favourite wine. As she stared up at the sky, she spotted what had made the sound in her peripherals. It looked like a heap of pulsating flesh, veins and muscles writhing grotesquely. She looked towards it, and it was gone. Her eyes scanned the horizon, looking for any sign of the beast, but none arose. She glanced back at where the monster last stood, and gasped. For a second, she saw it, but only out of the corner of her eye. Then it dawned on her.  

And I thought this place couldn’t get any stranger.” She whispered to herself.  

“Figured it out yet? Took you long enough.” She scowled and wheeled around as Janus sauntered out of the café. His old attitude was back, nothing like the pleading mess she saw in the café. She nodded. 

“It’s only visible when I’m not looking directly at it.” Neina announced.  Janus chuckled and smirked.  

“Smart girl.” Neina rolled her eyes. “But maybe don’t call him an ‘it’. It’s a little rude. After all, he is our ride.”  

Neina snickered. “Yeah, right.” Janus looked at her disapprovingly. “Of course. Why wouldn’t HE be our ride.” She placed her head in her hands and sighed.  

Janus took her hand and Neina recoiled at how cold his hands were.  

“What’s wrong? Come on, we’ve got to get moving.” A quizzical expression took over Janus’s face.  

“N-nothing. I just don’t remember your hands being that cold.” Janus laughed, his shoulders moving up and down heartily. She smiled briefly, but a strange feeling filled her body. She shrugged it off and followed Janus. As they drew closer to the fleshy beast, it began to morph. She could barely watch the mass writhe and wriggle until it became something she recognised. A New York taxi. She smiled and Janus opened the door for her. She could now openly look at the taxi without any problem. She sighed as her body sank into the leathery seats. Janus chuckled and closed the door. The taxi began to move, and they rode in silence.  

“So, where exactly are we going?” She asked, realising that she had just gotten into a taxi with a traitor.  

“A safe place. The Tutumni has been corrupted, so we can’t go there anymore.” He sighed, looking away wistfully.  

“Yeah, corrupted because of you.” She rolled her eyes. 

Janus looked confused. “No, it was Janus’s fault.” 

Neina’s head turned quickly. “Huh? But you are Janus, right?” 

His eyes widened for a second before he nodded. “Ha, yeah. Sorry about that.” 

Neina stared at Janus, before scrambling back in fear. “You’re not Janus.” The phrase repeated itself in her head.  

Janus smiled. “What do you mean? Of course I am.” 

She shook her head. “You slipped up. Took on the wrong attitude. In the café, you were... different. Not like Janus. You realised your mistake and changed your act. But the laugh. That’s not how he laughs. And the speaking in third person? All wrong.”  

The Janus disguise laughed. The wrong laugh. “Wow, I thought you would have realised sooner. But I always was smarter.” The disguise pulled a limp hand up to its hairline and grasped around for a couple seconds, before snagging something. The hand jerked downwards, and Janus opened, like a zip. The two halves of him fell away, revealing the face that Neina had spent most of her life with. Charlotte laughed again, the laugh that seemed so alien to her now. Neina scrambled to find the door handle, only to come up with nothing. She was trapped. She peered out the window and saw that the ground had disappeared. They were driving through the sky, and Neina was doomed. 

You never fail to disappoint me. I thought this would be more fun. I do love a good chase.” Charlotte smiled. The only thing Neina could think was how her personality had stayed the same. Even in evil, she was still energetic and lively. As Charlotte rattled on about ‘the chase’, Neina’s head spun as she tried to plan an escape. Her architectural brain measured distances, checked doors and planned routes. And then it came to her. She tensed up as she punched her hand through the window and grabbed the car handle from the outside. She could barely feel the shards of glass embedded in her arm as the door swung open. She wrapped her arms around Charlotte, embracing her. And with one movement. She ejected both her and Charlotte out the door. As they fell, Neina felt Charlotte panic.  

“Neina? What are you doing? We’ll both die! You can’t do this!” Neina could hear the terror in Charlotte’s voice. Charlotte didn’t want to die either. 

Neina tuned out Charlotte as she reminisced on her life. She opened her eyes as she realised every good memory, every achievement was because of Charlotte. Even though it was all fake, it felt real. And Neina loved Charlotte. She had scripted Neina’s whole life and made it amazing. Neina closed her eyes tight and pulled Charlotte into a tight hug and whispered two words before they both hit the ground.  

“Thank you.”

Sophie Waddington, Year 8, British International School Abu Dhabi

Author's note: It has been such a pleasure to take part in this project. Getting to work with these amazing writers is such a privilege and I hope people enjoy reading my chapter and the next writer enjoys working off of my chapter. In this chapter I wanted to further explore the relationship between Neina and Charlotte, as well as the qualities of other characters that may be overlooked. Thank you so much for reading and I can't wait to see the rest of this story.

 



 

Charlotte paced restlessly through the hospital corridor with Frankie close behind her. It took every ounce of her strength to not crumple down in a corner and cry her heart out. But she knew that she had to be strong for Neina - the friend who had been more of a sister to her and had stood by her through thick and thin. Her Neina.

The past 12 hours had been a nightmare. She had been in the middle of a presentation in her office which was in the same building as Neina’s, nine floors down, when she had heard the commotion outside. The shrieking sirens that reverberated through the streets had pierced their way through the glass and concrete of the building. Staring out of her street facing window she had seen a woman lying supine on the pavement. The worst thoughts crossed her mind. Could it be ...

The slightest of anomalies around her totally threw her off balance these days. With the strange way Neina had been behaving in the recent past, she feared for Neina's well-being more than anything else in the world.

Charlotte had raced through the corridor and hit the elevator button repeatedly until the doors opened and she got in frantically. After what seemed like hours, the elevator drew to a halt and Charlotte bolted out and sped through the front doors.

There she was. Her worst nightmare had come true. Sprawled on the pavement, with her right hand covered in blood, and with shards of glass standing out painfully, as Neina. Charlotte’s heart hurt and she thought her hearty would burst as she raced to get to her.

The sounds of the sirens grew louder and she heard tires screech behind her on the asphalt. Paramedics raced out.

Charlotte stood with bated breath as she watched them examine Neina who lay motionless like a rag doll. She felt utterly powerless. Feeling a hand on her shoulder, she turned around to see Frankie. He looked shattered. Older. Fragile.

A paramedic spoke to his colleague, “Vital signs are stable. I don’t suspect a spinal injury as of now. Limbs seem normal too. No external injury except the right hand. There are embedded splinters from the window glass she punched through.”

They lifted Neina on a stretcher and whisked into an ambulance. Before the doors closed, for a brief moment, Neina eyes flickered opened and she looked directly at Charlotte and blinked in recognition.

That was 12 hours ago.

Neina was still in a medically induced coma. She was being treated by the same doctor she had met earlier, Dr. Craig Davis. Charlotte was grateful to him - he had taken time out to speak with her and the police's investigating officers about Neina's condition - and prognosis. What little they knew, as of now, came from the statement of the taxi driver. Neina had entered his cab in front of the building and, when he had asked her where she wanted to go, had seemed preoccupied with her thoughts. He had asked a couple more times and she still hadn't said a word.

Then, out of the blue, she had punched through the window glass, thrown the door open and lunged to the pavement.

The officers had also procured a video patched up from the footage of multiple cameras following Neina’s movement though the office leading up to the incident. It showed monochrome, grainy footage of Neina walking through the corridors and entering the café. She had stood alone in a corner, staring into space, as if lost in thought for almost 10 minutes. Then she had walked out and hailed a taxi. Two minutes later, after getting into the taxi, she had smashed the window of the taxi with her closed fist. The footage blurred momentarily before showing Neina lying head down on the pavement.

Dr. Davis had had a detailed talk with Charlotte and Frankie. “Neina told me about her condition the first time we met - the visions she’s been having, the hallucinations and her irrational fear of the people around her. These kinds of symptoms are common when a person has gone through debilitating trauma. The pain manifests itself in various ways - in Neina’s case I suspect it is paranoia set off by post trauma stress." seemingly looking at Charlotte directly, he had continued: "The good news is that she has a strong mind. She can, sometimes, recall hallucinations and can distinguish what is real from what is not. For the brief time that she was awake she told me what she remembered of the incident. She remembered Charlotte dressed as a scarecrow and leading her to the taxi. The taxi started flying in the sky. And then both of you plunged through the door.”

Charlotte winced, fighting back tears.

“There’s something else” Dr. Davis continued, drawing out three cards and handing them to Charlotte. “These were in the pocket of the jumper Neina was wearing when she was brought here. Do they mean anything to you?”

Charlotte took them and read out the disturbing content.

“This game will be full of death -

I know you’ll take your own last breath”

She had read the words again and again until she recoiled in shock. She knew this handwriting. The alphabet was written with extreme calligraphic precision and the handwriting was distinctively that which could only have been mastered after years of practice. It was handwriting which she knew intimately down to every minute stroke and loop. It was Neina’s own handwriting.

“It’s Neina’s handwriting! You can have it verified through official channels, but you have to trust me. I would recognise this writing anywhere!” Charlotte felt her heart breaking into a million pieces.

Dr. Davis drew a deep breath, “Well, it’s clear now that Neina needs treatment. It will need to be a combination therapy of medicines and counselling. We cannot ignore it - she is at clear risk of taking her own life.”

Charlotte turned to Frankie, “ Frankie, she needs us. We are all she has ...”

Frankie spoke, tears swimming in his grey eyes, “ I will do whatever it takes. I still remember the day she walked into my office 15 years ago. The starry eyed Neina. I’ve always looked after her as my own and she has given me a hundred reasons to be proud. She is and will always be my number one. I’ve tried to help her, I said to her that she must rest and recuperate. It kills me inside when in return all I have seen in return is her distrust in her eyes for me...” Frankie's voice trailed off as word failed him.

“It’s not that she doesn’t trust us Frankie”, Charlotte spoke gently. “Deep down inside she does. And now we need to live up to that trust by protecting her against what has always been her best friend, but which now has now become her worst enemy - her own, brilliant, mind ....”

Mishal Faraz, Year 9, The Winchester School

Author's note:  "It is an absolute honour to be able to contribute to this exemplary, innovative initiative by WhichSchoolAdvisor.com and SchoolsCompared.com. This never before attempted endevour has truly shown what wonders we can do if we work together. I’ve followed Neina’s journey, in every detail, since the first chapter. The story, until now, has been told from Neina’s perspective. Relying on omniscient narration, I have written this chapter from Charlotte’s perspective. I feel that Neina has been very lonely for the past 40 chapters; she has been quarantined in her own private hell with no one she can trust. By decoding Charlotte’s thoughts in this chapter, as well as by making Frankie’s thoughts more explicit, I have attempted to give steadfast allies to Neina. As readers, we now know that she has people she can rely on. After all the deceptions and ordeals that she has suffered, I look forward to our Neina getting the much-needed stability and respite she so dearly needs as the jumbled pieces of the puzzle that has become her troubled life begin to fall back into their rightful place."

 



Neina faced her limp body on the oddly pristine, white sheets of the hospital bed, her face scarred from the broken rubble of the concrete. Her eyebrows clenched in a permanent scowl and, as the wind from the opening doors flicked her unplucked eyebrow hair, her eyelashes occasionally fluttered.

Her body was huddled in the same position as a new born baby against their mother. As she glared back at herself, she noticed the lifelessness of her bulldog, bulging eyes. It was as if her spirit had leapt out of her body in the hope of escaping her future treatment. The stare of her eyes fixed on the comatose creature laying weakly on the bed below her, nurses circling her body like insects swarming around a dead corpse.

Neina watched fascinated as they paraded around her empty vessel of a body in perfect rhythm with the seemingly never-ending hustle and bustle of the hospital. Gentle hands soak in blood, as splinters ooze puss, she thought to herself. Neina’s body now seemed only as useful as a feast for a resting fly.

At that moment, without warning, the comatose body gasped for air, panting uncontrollably. A panic attack had shocked the body in the presence of what looked like, to her, the dead body of Charlotte. Grasping the cotton sheets, her dilated pupils darted to the heart monitor, whilst her hands ripped away the medical cables around her. A fazed illusion of herself flashed in her mind, her body collapsed on the sheets, her scrawny self stuck to the rustling clothes. In the blink of an eyelid, terror had shocked Neina’s soul with such force as to return her to her defeated body.

Rejoicing with the fact that she could, again, control movement in her stubby fingers, Neina patted the infected wounds clean with a stray corner of the crisp hospital sheet. An unusual pain spread like a virus back and forth in her head. As the pain enveloped her in its grip, a melancholy expression washed over her, drowning out the upbeat hope she yearned to feel again. To Neina, only pointless seconds had passed when she had lain motionless on the bed, staring down on herself. To the nurses fighting to save her, hours had passed.

Without realising it, during this time, moments of her life had turned to rust and disintegrated. Her memories had deteriorated rapidly despite her mind and body battling with all their joint might to cling on to what she thought was normal. But what, exactly, is normal? She was in a coma, with medical instruments dangling from her body as safety wires on a trapeze artist flipping somersaults over a bottomless ravine. Not only that, but her bones ached in sadness whilst they suffered paralysing decay. Whatever normal means, it is not this ....

With a confused gaze, Neina steadily eased herself into the starched hospital pillow, its polyester fabric creating a barrier over her ears blocking out the sounds of the ward. Friction between her cheeks and the thin material caused a rash on her face, flushing her cheeks with a mixture of tabloid reds and the pink hues she associated with the pox.
She caught the words of a junior doctor as he barged through the door - “It’s unfortunate that Neina thought of suicide as her only way out.” He was followed attentively by two nurses carrying vending machine food on a yellow, stained tray.

“She’s in a coma, right?” asked Rachel - the nurse holding the doors as wide as possible for Kwaime, who was holding a rather disgusting looking Supermarket own brand rip off of a Mars Bar.

“Yeah, why?” Kwaime questioned inquisitively, his northern English accent bellowing over the quiet, waiting room chatter.

“It’s just... I keep hearing her mutter random names that don’t make sense. It’s quite creepy,” Rachel wittered, her voice quivering with uncertainty.

“What voices?” demanded Luca -the junior doctor.

A dramatic tension surfaced between the trio as Rachel tried to recall the ambiguous names.

“I dunno. Something ‘bout a Christina or Charlotte, or something like that, and a Fra…Fran… Frankie,” she stuttered. “She mentioned Jane as well for sure! Or was it Janus? It can’t mean anything though, right?”

A deep silence fell between them, as thought crushed the conversation in its tracks.
“Right?” Rachel asked again, the intensity of her fear and need for answers breaking through the silence.

Luca interrupted the long pause, “No, of course not. Just forget about it and focus on your job. That’s why you are here, to work. Come on then,” he continued. His face seemed oddly expressionless as he spoke, a million miles from the usual frustrated and crumpled expression he wore.

A disturbing, eerie silence filled the air. Peace. Finally.

But it was short-lived. An eruption of noise clattered through the room. Neina’s silent mind was once again interrupted by the accusing sounds of uninvited voices. Nurses tumbled over their feet in an attempt to update the surgeon on her new medical improvements. As they did so, Neina found herself battling to think in the face of the constant yelling echoing throughout the room, the tik-tok stilettos of the surgeon. The sounds of the ward synchronised together with the deafening alarm of a bomb about to trigger. Thankfully the pillow muffled out the worst of the now irritating and repetitive grating of the squabbling group of doctors screeching out their orders to their staff. It seemed to Neina that each was driven by little more than the vain need to nurse their own arguments rather than care for their patient.

A slender figure bowed over her beaten body, her golden and polished name tag reading ‘Dr. Patricia Vokscamp’. As she did so, the doctor yanked at the bed controls and stretched her skeleton-like, bony, aged finger towards the HELP button, pressing it firmly. Her aloof personality illuminated as the red light blinked on.
The nurses gathered together, mouthing the words "Call Dr. Brantley Spang. Call the psychiatrist," like a pack of wolves planning a hunt.

Within seconds, a tall, bulky man peered through the distorted glass window of the ward, his expression reading like an exercise in dramatic shock.

“Why did you call me down? I’m a psychiatrist, I don’t do clinical work!”

“This ....,” the nurse retorted, “This person is responding to different names and we can’t explain why.”

Neina heard another nurse call across the ward: “In her purse she has 16 different id’s of people who are not in any record books.”

“We have managed to convince her to talk about the incident and she just repeats the name Charlotte. Do you know anything about this?”

The Psychiatrist crept forward, like a child trying not to step on the cracks in a pavement. His face gradually drooped into what looked like a depressed smile. He leaned over the shaking girl and grunted
“Camari, what’s happened to you? Where have you been?”

Neina didn’t reply. She couldn't. She felt as if she was underwater, hearing only an outline of what was said with its core meaning dispersed beyond her reach.

A chorus of doctors spiralled around Neina chanting “Neina,” “Charlotte,” “Frankie,” “Janus,” “Eligh,” “Samantha,” “Chloe,” “Anita,” “Derek,” ...

With every name she felt tortured, as if by prongs digging into her skin. The names were forcing her mind to remember. To remember who she really was. The agony seared her mind like a razor cutting dead meat, unnerving every inch of her body. It was as if a cotton reel was being unravelled within her, revealing the truth with every unwelcome word. Keys and locks. Shadows of honesty danced around her.

It was obvious. Each person. Each life. Each telling its own story. All entwined within the same mind.

Dr. Spang erupted “This young lady has a rare disorder in her brain, I have been treating her.”

He looked shattered, beleaguered. It was as if the very sight of Neina's crumpled body had sapped the last of his strength.

“I booked her in for some CT scans but she didn't show. Her disorder,” he continued, “causes her to have multiple personalities. She is a rare schizophrenic.” Dr. Spang paused at the gasps from around the room. “I am afraid that, although she has not harmed anyone else, she will cause great harm to herself. I need her monitored around the clock. I have never treated a case that has developed this far and she needs now, urgently, to be locked down.”

“This condition is ... exceptionally rare.”

Francesca Chapman, Year 9, Brighton College Al Ain.

Author's note: I am so incredibly proud to have taken part in such an amazing challenge. Throughout the novel, Neina’s character has really developed and I absolutely loved the different perspective in the last chapter. For this chapter, I aimed for Neina, again, to be seen in a different way. She is battling with her own mind and has many struggles which makes us question who she can really rely on - and who is truly real. The many characters that are seen throughout the previous chapters turn out, in my chapter, to be many facets of her own mind. I am very excited to see where the story leads in the coming chapters.”



Neina was dead. Isla knew this because she had been the one to end her life. While Janus, disguised as Dr. Spang, distracted the ward with the warnings of a schizophrenic, Isla had ducked into the room and suffocated the helpless mortal. With her in a coma, it was almost too easy. As Neina’s heartrate flatlined, Isla phased into the Mors world, and watched in sweet content as the nurses desperately scrambled to revive the corpse. They had failed, of course; after all, nothing could beat magic.

That was 24 hours ago. Now, Isla was walking through the Mors world, down a passage kept like an oath from those who stood against her. With Neina gone, Isla could finally relax. She had failed to kill her the first time, too caught up in playing with Neina to get the job done. But The Queen had found out, and Isla and her inner circle had spent the last week trying to fix the mistake. Isla’s entire existence, since she had joined Queen Orla’s forces 10 years ago, had been entirely focused on the destruction of The Prophecy Tower. Now that the architect was gone, she could relax.

All was right in the world now. The twisted emerald trees of the Mors world turned to gnarled relics that reeked of death, and the dirt path turned to thick mulch that made walking exhausting. Isla knew that she did it on purpose. The Queen’s meticulous design and ultimate intention – exhaust your enemies, so that when they arrived they would be destroyed with ease. Those that desperately flew in to escape the bog below were locked away for disrespect to the Queen. Isla had learned this the hard way. It was not a lesson she needed twice.

As the trees became sparser and more intermittent, Isla strutted into the clearing – The Queen’s court. It was a perfect circle, with every chair, guard, and cup of tea standing in their allocated position for fear of punishment. The Queen herself sat on a steel chair in the exact middle of the clearing, a few steps higher than everyone else just as a reminder of her power, and, as Isla entered, she grinned.

‘Ah! So glad to see that my favourite toy has returned. This time with good news, I hope.’ Her voice was high pitched and stringy, and seemed to dance in front of you like a tease. Isla knew the rules; answer with respect and speak for no longer than necessary. ‘Yes, Queen Orla. Neina is dead, and The Prophecy Tower is doomed. I had one of my men pick up the blueprints from her office, and they are in the Library, waiting for you.’

Isla paused, watching with a bowed head to see The Queen’s reaction. She seemed indifferent, but the malicious glow of her eyes gave away her excitement. She raised one eyebrow, as if waiting for something. ‘And thank you for your help. The riddles were a welcome surprise, and writing them in her own handwriting was a nice touch’.

The Queen sat back in her throne and smirked, then waved her hand to signify that Isla was dismissed. Although she would never admit it, Isla resented The Queen for stepping in.

Ever since The Queen had taken her from the mortal world, she had always been watching Isla, never fully trusting her. But this was somewhat understandable. You can expect people to hold grudges when you kill their mother. Isla smirked at the irony of the situation. Queen Orla was to Isla, what Isla was to Neina. Isla was stopped short when a thought intruded: she hoped she wouldn’t meet the same end.

Isla walked out of the clearing, and started back up the path to the rest of the Mors world, when she came to a sharp halt. What was she going to do now? Her entire life had been dedicated to gaining control of The Prophecy Tower. Now that she had succeeded, what was she supposed to do?

She looked up at the positioning of the sun, and worked out the rough time. She wasn’t supposed to rendezvous with Janus and the rest for a few hours, which left her some time alone. Isla knew that unless she could make herself useful, she would be cast out from the Queen, doomed to an eternal isolation. That fate was worse than anything the Queen could ever throw at her.

The Library. That was where the blueprints were for The Prophecy Tower. Maybe if she could understand those, she could propose a jumping point for herself and her team. Isla tuned back on herself, headed towards the court, but took a left turn about halfway there. The Mors world never ceased to amaze her. The lack of trees meant that the Library should have been in plain sight of the court, but both were hidden from each other in the ever-shifting fabric of space.

The Library was huge. There was no other word for it. The shelves stretched up into the sky, and expanded endlessly backwards. This had always been Isla’s favourite place in the Mors world. There were libraries like this one dotted all over the realm and, provided you had the right clearance, you could read anything from anywhere. A tree right near the entrance held out one of its low, hanging branches, and Isla approached it.
She rolled up her long, tattered sleeve, and pressed her finger into the end of the branch so it drew blood. Isla hated this bit. It was a reminder of The Queen’s ownership; her branding ran blood deep.

Although it looked like nothing had changed, Isla knew that the Library would show her what she wanted to see. Without reading any labels, she grabbed a scroll from a bucket near the front of one of the shelves, and unfurled it onto the table nearby.

Sure enough, it was the blueprints to The Prophecy Tower. To Isla, it just looked like a building, but a building wouldn’t give her a job, so she sat down in one of the chairs to look closer. She flipped the scroll over, and found Neina’s looping script scrawled onto the back. The words seem to float and taper on the page, like they had been idly added. Isla scanned them, at first disengaged, until she realised what they were…

‘A tower tall and made of stone
Shall the cruellest Queen dethrone
The one to build the final plan
Dictates the fate of all of man
For if the Queen is in control
To endless chaos the world shall fall
Only one fuelled by revenge
Can truly, for unfair death, avenge
A mother’s life has been lost
Don’t let the world fall to frost’

Isla sat, mouth agape. She had found the prophecy.
The Queen was going to kill them all.

Cydnee Howard, Year 13, Dubai English Speaking College

Author's note: From the very beginning I knew I wanted to do something radical and different. As the novel has progressed I have been increasingly inspired, not by Neina, but by Isla’s resilience and what that means for the development of her character. I look forward to seeing how we, as a collective group of writers, develop Isla’s personality - and how the prophecy will play into the story. It was such an amazing opportunity, and I am so grateful to have participated..."



After discovering the truth about the prophecy, Isla, desperately, tried to keep her composure. Adrenalin seared her body like a river of fire, every vein scorched as her nerves threatened to immobilize her in panic and fear. She rapidly searched the room for a hiding place, any hiding place, to ensure that no one else would find the blueprints, or find her, in the Library. If the Queen ever thought, even for a second, that Isla knew too much, she knew her death would be at once cruel and merciless.

Knowing the risk she was taking, the thought of what the Queen could do made Isla shiver.

Her mind raced.

Initially, she could not process the revelation she had discovered. Deep down, she knew that she had to stop the prophecy from happening but rebelling against the Queen was something she was not ready for; she dreaded all the consequences that would follow if she were to fail.

Attempting to calm herself, she let her mind wander to memories of her childhood. Memories of her mother. Isla didn’t quite know why her thoughts drifted to this place inside her head but, at the same time, she knew that reminiscing would provide her with the short-lived distraction she needed to feel at ease - her mother was and always has been a pillar of stability inside her head. Throughout dark times, she would cling onto those memories. She needed now to be calm and pull herself together. Her survival, and those of many others, depended on it.

She looked back to the time, long ago, when she had been just a normal girl with an almost tragically mundane life. She would trade anything in the world, now, for the mundane life that she had then with her loving mother. Those years were the happiest she had ever been. They were also the ones she thought of as “the calm before the storm”, although in hindsight the storm would have been better described as a blizzard.

Isla knew that during her childhood, in order to survive, she had no choice but to block out huge chunks of what make us all human and that sense, in all of us, of a higher purpose. In so many ways she had become an assassin of the soul. Her father had been absent from the start of her life’s journey and she knew he would never come back. Isla started to recall peaceful events in her early childhood. Memories of being tucked into bed by her mother and helping her with trivial tasks like preparing the dough for bread and chocolate cake, things we take for granted as the trappings of childhood, now seemed overwhelmingly important. She could not allow her sense of mourning to overwhelm her, but she missed those days terribly.

Too late she realized that allowing herself to look back had been a mistake. The floodgates opened and memories forced themselves on her. Now the memories were black, the light of cookie dough and hospital corners extinguished.

She remembered returning home and noticing what felt like glacial temperatues throughout the house, every room so cold it made her shiver. She had frantically searched around for her mother, with cries filled with agony and sorrow.  After a couple of minutes that felt excruciatingly like weeks, Isla found her mother. Dead.

She was in her bedroom. Her body was unnaturally blue and icy cold to the touch. The first few seconds were silent. Isla could not believe that her mother was dead. Or was it that her mind could not handle that and had momentarily shut itself down? But no mind is strong enough to shut out grief for anything longer than the seconds needed to stop you completely, irretrievably breaking. The next few seconds saw silence replaced with deafening cries and wailing that was never loud enough to express the acuteness of her pain. After that, she had screamed with a voice full of rage, a voice that she never knew she had. She sobbed until there was nothing left, using her remaining strength to say a single sentence to her dead mother. “I love you, no matter what.”

It was then that a stranger had appeared at Isla’s house.

Still suffering, she noticed someone had come to the bedroom door. An elegant woman that introduced herself only as “Orla”. She also mentioned that some people called her ‘The Queen’ but at the time Isla dismissed it as an irrelevant lie.

The Queen told her that she came to her in her time of need because she was special. The Queen had never elaborated further. Isla had stayed grateful, and obedient, to a presence who had come to her when her world had been crushed of all meaning and hope.

And then things changed.

She found out the real reason her mother died. Who could ever forgive the person that killed their mother?

To this day, Isla would never reveal her mother’s name. It is her only to keep her mother’s memory safe and distance herself from the pain she felt as a child, the only way to stop the return of a level of pain and loss that would surely break her. But, deep down, she knows that she still feels the sorrow of losing her mother in every action, every moment. It has made and makes her who she has become.

The feint sound of footsteps behind her crush out her memories in an instant.
Her eyes blink open and she returns to the present, looking for a hiding place for the blueprints. Her eyes traverse the bookcases but, before she can move, the sound of someone approaching grows louder. Too late. They are behind her. A part of her is petrified, terrified of facing who, or what, waits for her if she turns around. Nervously she tries to think of an excuse to explain, to justify, why she is in a place she knew she should not be. She gulps and stands, stock still, in utter silence. She tries to turn around but is immobilized in blind fear, rooted to the floor.

A voice from behind her calls out. “Isla.”

Isla’s face froze.

In an instant, she had recognized that voice.

She knew exactly who it was – and what was coming …

Kristian Maglantay, Hartland International School

Author's note: Neina’s death was a really inspiring choice and it lead to me wanting to humanize Isla to make her seem more likable and to hopefully give some explanation for her past and future actions. I look forward to seeing how Isla’s motives and personality expand and grow.



“Isla.”

Struggling to contain her equanimity and inscrutable countenance, Isla slowly turned around to find herself quivering under Queen Orla’s untrusting and interrogating glare. 

Her mind hazed with panic, Isla strained against it to recall the rules - answer with respect and speak for no longer than necessary – and finally spoke:

“Yes, Queen Orla, your majesty. Anything you need?” 

“I assumed that despite succeeding at achieving one of your tasks, you would promptly find a way to make yourself as much as remotely useful, which is why I’m hoping you’ll be able to recognize my concern after seeing you lounging around, doing – what exactly are you doing, Isla?” the Queen stretched her neck to glance over Isla’s shoulder. 

Gulping down a lump of utter awe, Isla stretched her arms in a vain attempt to cover the blueprints, but the Queen narrowed her eyes and after a brief pause of tension that made Isla wince silently with apprehension for what might come next, Queen Orla inquired in a firm interrogating tone:

“Those aren’t my blueprints, are they?”

“They are, your majesty,” Isla uttered hastily, seeing there’s no point to lie, “I was… just making sure they are where they’re supposed to be by your arrival. I didn’t want you to –” 

The Queen raised her hand to silence her, and Isla’s explicating ceased. 

“Go, Isla. And do me a favor, contribute to being of service to the world I so generously let you reside in, will you?” 

As Isla made her away around the towering bookshelves and out the ebony doors of the Library, she could descry a shadow of a smile pass the Queen’s lips as she traced her finger along the backside of the blueprint sheets.  

Isla’s feet sunk into the thick dirt of the path. If the prophecy was true, it was only a matter of time before the Queen carries out her plan to kill them all. The thought made Isla’s mind desperately scramble for a solution, for any straw to grasp; as many people as Isla hated, she loved humanity. Sinking deeper and deeper into hopeless despondency, a sudden call for her name made her jump. 

“Janus!” 

“You’re late. What could possibly delay you from attending an inner circle meeting?”

“Only the end of the world.”

Soon, Janus and Isla were racking their brains for something that would as much as delay the doomed “fate of all of man”, as it was scripted on the back of the scroll in Neina’s elegant handwriting. Neina. Gradually, Isla started to decipher the intentions behind the Queen’s orders, which she never dared to question before. 

The moment Neina was born, her fate was predetermined. 

“The only purpose of her shallow existence,” Isla thought, “was purely for the dirty work of creating the Prophecy Tower for the Queen.”

The Prophecy Tower - a building the blueprints of which Queen Orla wanted to be in possession of so badly. And now that she was, there was nothing standing between her and holding the foreordained destiny of humanity in her hands. But there must have been a reason the Queen wanted Neina dead… 

Swiftly, Isla shot up to her feet, fueled by a sudden realization. Neina was the key. 

Thinking back to the many times she heard of the simple Earth girl destined to fulfill the prophecy, Isla reminisced about the night she was meant to kill Neina but chose to mess with her instead, skeptical of the rumors. Then unaware of how strong Neina actually was, now Isla could trace the outlines of Neina’s boldness to understand her inner power – Neina was able to fight the illusions of the Mors World, travel between the two realms and stay alive. Neina’s willingness to take risks and act innovatively could be enough to rebel against the Queen. 

Except there was a slight problem: Neina was dead. 

Charlotte’s heels echoed against the tile floor of the hospital. The weathered scent of her best friend’s gift brought back memories every time she inhaled the pleasant fragrance. She cast her mind back to over a decade ago, to the memory of when their friendship was nothing more than Queen Orla’s caprice and Neina meant as much to Charlotte as a run-of-the-mill job to get out of the way.

Charlotte pulled the handle of a hospital ward and hurriedly scurried inside. She thought she was ready for what she was going to see, but nonetheless gasped at the harrowing sight of her best friend – her face drained of blood down to the last drop, Neina’s skin appeared ash-grey and her face, bereft of any expression, looked bleak and desolate of life – in fact, just as Isla has promised. Determined to save her best friend, Charlotte paid no notice to doubting her abilities in reviving magic. 

Neina woke up to soft sobs and someone’s hot breath against her face. She lifted her heavy eyelids, but her vision blurred. Panic settling in, Neina tried to prep herself up on her elbows, but a vain attempt at moving caused her to grimace at the agonizing pain searing through her limbs and abdomen. 

Slowly, consciousness came back to Neina. She recalled hearing the last of her heartbeats and her vision sinking into a darkness so deep that for a moment, with her every atom, she experienced death. Now, she was aware of the movement in her body, the air filling her lungs; feeling pain has never made her happier. She was alive again.  

“Shh,” she heard a hushed, oddly familiar voice. 

Charlotte. Following a sudden rush of adrenaline and the impetuous instincts of self-preservation, Neina’s body surged upward, but someone’s hand firmly held her down.

“Neina, please let me help you… please, before- just stay still!” 

“Charlotte? W-what are you doing here?” 

“You… were dead, and it’s a long story; Isla asked me to help, she will explain…” 

Charlotte’s voice was weak and brittle, “I’m sorry, I have to go… I don’t make the rules; the Queen is controlling me, and she’s stronger but I- I didn’t want any of this!” 

As if overpowering herself, Charlotte continued, in between short, wheezing breaths, 

“I’ll get you home. And… Neina, thank you, too.”

Neina was shattered and worn to a frazzle, but the moment she closed her eyes, she was transported into the eerily real illusions (or were they uncannily illusionary realities?) of the Mors World; whenever she managed to sink into a restless slumber it was only to get jerked back into wakefulness by whatever sounds or visions. The verge between illusion and reality has been blurred and Neina couldn’t distinguish asleep from awake, death from life.

Overwhelmed by a wave of despair, she tossed and turned in her double bed. 

She let hot tears roll down her cheeks as she thought of Charlotte, the Mors World, Archie, Janus, the Prophecy tower; she felt deeply nostalgic for her old life, the biggest problem of which was the fear of being replaced with a younger and brighter college graduate. 

Suddenly, Neina sat up, propelled by a sweeping and unexpected thought. Was reversing the consequences of events following the night of her almost assassination really what she wanted? As much as she wished it didn’t happen, she couldn’t deny the growth it brought her. Now, however, it was time for her to take control. Just as Neina planted the seed of determination inside her mind, a now familiar portal tore through the air in the middle of the room, radiating an alien shade of green that made Neina tense up and observe it with attentive suspicion as Isla emerged.  

“I know what you must be thinking, but we need your help.” 

Polina Chirkova, Year 9, Cranleigh Abu Dhabi 

Authors note: I'm very grateful to have taken part in this creative and inspiring challenge! I've thoroughly enjoyed the process of each character's growth over the chapters and the different perspectives and ideas every author has incorporated into the story - each chapter was super unique and creative. In my chapter I wanted to expand on the idea of humanizing Isla and allow her to take a step away from being the evil character by reviving Neina with the help of Charlotte, who I also wanted to make more likable. I'm very excited to see how the story progresses!



Neina stood with trepidation, feeling the pull of an inexplicable future, her head pounding and her heart racing. She peered into the portal, the green pigment sickening her. The words kept repeating in her head, again and again: "We need your help. We need your help. We need your help." With a deep breath, she took a step in. Her eyes squeezed shut, and she clenched her fists. 

In seconds, she made it to the Mors world. 

As she looked around, she noticed that Isla was right in front of her. "Follow me," she muttered, not waiting for a response. Neina did so without thinking, admiring the hallway they walked through. Decorated with expensive antiques, the velvet walls displayed an array of paintings, each one hugged by a gold frame and intricately carved with details suggesting a long-forgotten history stretching back beyond the capacity of human memory. Lit torches adorned the walls, their flickering lending a hazy lustre to the shadowy gargoyles that seemed to watch them knowingly. The floor was polished to look as lustrous as a beautiful pearl. Neina found it galvanizing to be in this place.

"Where are we?" Neina asked, as they made their way through their seemingly endless journey through the great hall. "The Queen's castle …" Isla replied, "She's planning to kill us all. We need to find a way to stop her. I just need to find the maid that works here: Annabelle." As her words echoed in front of her, Isla opened one of the towering mahogany doors. Shocked, appearing as if from nowhere, they immediately confronted the Queen standing in front of them, surrounded by guards. 

The pair stood entirely still, like tombstones watching over graveyards. The silence in the room felt intimidating until the Queen spoke and broke the spell of implicit threat.

Neina noticed the Queen's beauty. She was undeniably radiant. Her eyes had a certain sparkle in them that carried an ethereal, other worldly depth beyond simple biology. Her hair looked like silk. The gown she wore perfectly followed the contours of her body and entranced Neina’s senses with an exquisite shade of vermilion red. Her crown was pulchritudinous, garnished with the rarest of gems. Neina envied her.

Awestruck by the Queen, she had not noticed that Isla was in tears. Pulled out of her trance, she saw Isla drop to her knees. "Your Majesty," she pleaded, "I have served you for years. You can't do this to me." The Queen simply chuckled, Isla’s request for mercy falling on deaf ears.  "Oh, Isla. I can do whatever I please." She turned to Neina, "And you, daughter of Abelina; you are the chosen one. It would be rather galling if you jeopardised my plans. So, you too, will be sent to the dungeon. Guards, take them away. We shall execute them tomorrow morning." 

Two of the guards grasped her, their grip causing friction burns on Neina’s arms. Brutally dragged from the room, Neina hurt from savage fingers piercing her skin. 

The guards shoved her into the dungeon, causing her to scrape her hands on the cobblestone. She felt as if she were a rag doll, her slender frame jarring weakly against the strength and focused, uncaring brutality of the guards. Behind her, Isla was held by two other guards, her eyes glossed over and her lower lip quivering as if she had closed down and lost any remaining will to fight. She felt utterly alone as Isla seemingly gave in to the inevitability of their death and the futility of fighting back. Isla was thrown into the cell opposite her. 

Neina found herself struggling to process what was happening. Rather than fear, she felt strangely emotionless, though her heart raced unhealthily rapidly.

Hours passed, though she couldn't tell the time in any substantive way; there were no windows, and the area was darker than night. Neina sat uncomfortably in the corner of the cramped cell, resting her head on the wall. She looked at the metal bars that seemed to entomb them. As she inhaled, she took in a putrid smell, which caused her head to throb with revulsion.

She heard Isla pacing around her cell, back and forth, murmuring to herself. She could imagine her Isla harshly rubbing her temples, a tell she so often used when stressed or fearful. 

Suddenly, she heard Isla fall. Isla had tripped and fallen, landing face-first on the ground with a loud thud. Neina shot up from her position, "Are you okay?" She asked, genuinely scared about the impact Isla had just taken. "I'm fine, don't worry about me …" Isla called across to her as she brushed herself off "…but I think there might be something hidden in the floor here..." 

Isla had dislodged a piece of stone from where she tripped. Underneath was a scroll of undamaged paper protected by its hiding place under the stone. It was almost as if it had been preserved. She was bewildered. What is this scroll? Why is it here? Who put it here? Carefully, she unravelled but found words that made no sense to her. 

"What does it say?" asked Neina curiously.

"I can't read it. Why don't you give it a try?" Isla shot back. 

As she did so a guard marched in front of the corridor dividing their cells and Isla immediately hid the scroll, pushing it back into its hiding place under the cleverly cut stone. She mouthed to Nena "…wait" and Neina nodded in reply, conveying that she too recognised the importance of keeping the parchment hidden. 

As the echo of departing guard’s footsteps dissipated, they waited, time dragging as they ensured that they were again alone. Isla tossed the scroll into Neina's cell, or tried to. The parchment landed right in the middle of the corridor between them. Neina at once slipped her hand through the bar, stretching out her arm to try and recover it. By barely holding it with her fingernails, she succeeded. 

Neina read the scroll of paper aloud.

"The one who rules over the Mors

Is using a cruel and evil force

They have committed an unforgivable crime 

And kept it a secret for a long time.

The one you know as your Queen

Is despicable, unlike what you've seen.

She stole the kingdom

And took away freedom. 

This Queen of yours does not belong 

She took the throne and sang her song

To hypnotize the world that you live in

And there are only a few people that can stop her, who must not give in.

The real Queen is someone you do not expect

The person whom you used to detest."

Isla's eyebrows furrowed. What could this mean? The Queen was evil, but that was obvious. "Do you understand it?" She asked. 

Neina concentrated on the paper. She focused on every word until her jaw dropped, and her eyes widened. 

"What? What is it?" Isla questioned. 

"The Queen. She doesn't belong on the throne. She stole it." Neina said, in shock. 

"W-Who did she steal it from?" Isla said nervously.

Neina looked down at the paper, then shot back at Isla. 

"You..."

Manahil Siddiki, Year 9, Jebel Ali School

Author's Note: Thank you for this opportunity! I decided to add a little twist to this chapter, giving the readers another reason to dislike the Queen and humanise Isla a little more. This was an extremely enjoyable experience, good luck to the next writer!



What followed was the sort of large dramatic pause you would find in a theatre. But this was not a theatre. This was reality. Hard, bitter and terrifying reality.

Silence hammered itself throughout the dungeon, deafening in its intensity.

In her confusion, Isla’s head blanked out. She couldn’t make sense of the impossible situation she found herself in - and her consciousness crashed in on itself. As she reeled from the shock, wisps of faint memories long obscured by the ravages of her life and simple age, forced themselves on her, inking themselves in a myriad of colours on the blank canvass of her mind, filling it with images. Even here, there was to be no peace. No escape. No blacking out the horror.

She remembers living far away in a place filled with happiness - her childhood home. This was the place that Isla had lived for the majority of her youth.  Around her is a large room, elaborately gilded with gold and silver. A large chandelier hangs from the towering ceiling.  Looking down, she sees herself wearing an elaborate dress cut from rich silk hues of emerald green and adorned with gold embroidery and pretty ruffles, lending it a soft but sophisticated appearance. Behind here, she hears an old woman following in her footsteps, hurrying her long, and referring to herself as the nanny.

Isla sees herself as a child making her way across way across the room. Flanked on either side of the room there are large, imposing knights in fully gilded armour, their eyes seeming to follow her as she effortlessly glides across it.

The room leads to the Great Hall and, as she enters, she finds herself struck by the sparkles thrown off by a million rubies and emeralds layered on its walls in swirling patterns that draw her eyes away from the crowd of wealthy men drinking champagne that seem to have been waiting for her.

As she enters it seems the gaze of everyone in the room is on her, or rather her studded necklace.

Suddenly, everyone turns as the huge doors again opened. Isla finds herself stepping backwards, with those around her, to the sides of the hall, creating a path for a large gentleman walking through the grand entrance towards her. As he walks towards her, those around him bow.

He was wearing an embellished suit and a crown covered with diamonds and a large ruby in its centre. In his right hand, he carries an incongruously plain ebony staff, but one topped by a carved handle on which she could see astonishingly beautiful engravings of birds and flowers.

Standing before Isla, he offers her his left hand and she feels herself reaching out to him and holding his hand so tightly it hurts, as if anything less will see the beautiful world around her vanish as quickly as it had appeared.

Isla sees them both walking towards the throne where they sit besides each other smiling and laughing.

“Father…”

~

In the dungeon, Isla and Neina lean against the walls of their cells, seemingly waiting for the other to start speaking and to break the interminable silence. It seems that words are pointless in the face of such depths of despair - and neither speaks.

Instead Isla sobs as the truth of her real identity and her real home crush her in abject sorrow of a world once forgotten and now lost.

Neina is unable to comfort her, their cells divided by bars rusted with time and the vain impressions of futile and scuppered attempts by long dead prisoners to escape. So she calls out, not expecting a response, "We have to get out of here and find out about my parents; if they are alive or not.”

“But before that..." Isla fires back, "we need to stop the queen from completing the prophecy."

It all seems to so pointless to Neina, but at least Isla seems to have not given up hope. Fearing the answer, Neina pleads: "... and how are we going to get out of here?”

“That’s easy, just follow my lead.”

In hushed tones, Neina reels from the plans that Isla whispers across the cavernous space between them. She is tired, but hope forces her awake as they lay in wait for night to fall and the moon reach the furthest corner of the barred window of her cell. It was then that she knew that twilight fell and the stout man would arrive with their meagre rations of of what bore a very far fetched relationship to ochre porridge.

As he does so, Neina follows Isla's instructions, starting to scream for help. “Please help, Mister. She’s not moving. I’ve been trying to wake her up, but she doesn’t respond, no matter how many times I call her name.”

Hearing this, the man's alarm is evident in his rush to open the locks of Isla's cell. His haste betrays his fear of the consequences if something happens to them under his watch.

As he pulls across the bar to Isla's cell and squats down to check on her apparently unconscious body, Isla's hands dart out, grabbing the bowl of gruel and smashing it down on his head with all the force she could muster.

It was too late for him to call for help. He fell on his face, knocked out of his senses, dead to the world.

Isla pushes her way out of the cramped, tiny cell, making her way to Isla's cell, freeing her with the key she has taken from the stout man's belt.

Together, the moon behind them disappearing into blackness, they run towards a single pin prick of light.

Neither know whether it is even real, or simply something conjured by shared imaginations starved of hope.

It does not matter.

They are, finally, free.

Praneeth Jose, Grade 9, Amity Private School Sharjah

Authors note: This was a great opportunity for me to show my skill and creativity. I hope the next author will add even more interesting twists to the novel and enjoy the pleasure of writing their chapter. Roll on Chapter 52!



They ran towards the light - and ran..... and ran. Exhausted, they slowed down, eventually coming to a stop as they realized they weren’t getting closer. It was as if they were moving in place, going nowhere except the starting post of an interminable race to the beginning.

“Why does it feel like we haven’t covered any distance?” Neina asked nervously.
Isla kept quiet at a loss for words. She didn’t quite know what to say or how to answer a question that had no logical answer.

Neina looked over her shoulder at Isla and saw that she had now lost hope. Isla's palms were sweating and she was struggling for breath as if she were being choked. She looked again at the light and observed it, peering at it as if maybe there was something they were missing. Was this yet another puzzle, some new torturous challenge that they needed to complete before they would be allowed to escape?

Neina had little more time to think; glancing back at Isla she now saw a frail shell of a women, frozen to the spot, her mouth agape and staring into space as if set in stone. Isla was in trouble....

“Isla?...Isla?... Are you alright? Please say something!”

Neina shook her desperately and stopped as she realized that Isla was trying to say something. Neina removed her hands and pulled herself to within inches of Isla's face trying to decode the faint whisper coming from Isla's mouth. But Isla showed no sign that she even saw Neina. Her eyes were immobile and unblinking. But it was Isla's face that now frightened Neina. It seemed as though she was conversing with the devil himself.

Neina moved even closer putting her ear next to Isla's mouth.

“I tried, I tried, I couldn’t… I’m sorry.”

Isla repeated these words over and over, her face utterly expressionless. It was as if Isla was in a trance, reciting words completely disconnected from her.

Suddenly Isla stopped talking altogether and, still gazing into empty space, started sobbing uncontrollably. Neina looked around making sure that they were alone. Was Isla seeing something she couldn't?

“I tried… Please help me. I don’t know how to raise a child on my own… Mom, I need your help.”

Neina was confused, what child? Where was her mother? What was she not able to do? Why was Isla in this trance?

Isla’s eyes slowly shifted to Neina. For a fleeting moment it seemed to Neina that Isla had recognised her as she started whimpering and manically looking around. Neina reached across and put her hand on Isla’s shoulder to comfort her but Neina shoved it away aggressively, frantically asking,

“My mother… where is my mother????”
“I need to find her, she took my baby”

Neina tried reassuring her that it was just the two of them but Isla repeated the words over and over like a woman possessed.

Sudenly, Isla stood stock still and, with her hands trembling, pleaded “my baby” before dropped to her knees and descending into complete hysteria.  Neina was about to get on her knees to comfort her when she heard another voice that shattered her intentions.
It was so familiar but she could not remember where she had heard it.

“Neina… I’ll always love you, just because you wont be the youngest doesn’t mean we’ll stop loving you”...

Absolute blackness surrounded her. It felt as if she was floating, yet, the air she stood on seemed solid.  She slowly started walking towards the voice and a figure of her mother appeared from the blackness.

“Don’t cry… I will always love you, not any more or any less than your brothers.”

A much younger version of Neina appeared next to her mother. She was crying. Neina remembered this day. Her younger brother was about to be born and she had been riven by jealousy at the thought that her Mother's affection would be lost to her, transferred to this new invasive member of the family.

Neina kept trying to walk towards them but as before found herself standing still. As fast as she ran towards the figures, the faster she went nowhere, rooted to where she started. She was trapped at the beginning of a road that had no middle or end.

Isla felt an inconsolable sadness descend on her. The weight of her sorrow seemed just too much to bear as the last memory she had of her mother, the horror she felt at the sterile headline of an impersonal and invasive newspaper, seemed to burn.
As if divided from her Mother by eternity itself, Isla found herself calling out
“MOM!... MOM!”

Her mother’s figure looked across and the space between them started diminished. As she came towards Isla, it was her Mother's eyes that terrified her. Their utter blackness, like hollowed out pits, returned Isla's gaze.

Isla felt herself paralysed, her life ebbing away into the black, light-stripped nothingness at the floor of a dead ocean.  Wrapped in a blanket of navy blue, Isla was drowning, her breath fading into the silence of a cruel and unplanned death. Her eyelids grew heavy.
And then, all hope lost, she saw a figure reaching out for her. She had no life left even to recognise who had interrupted the ending she now welcomed. She had no fight left. She needed the pain gone.

But the beauty of the face before her shone like an angel. A remarkable peacefulness descended on her as her pain receded.  It was Archie.  She was hallucinating. Death, she heard, did this. There could be no way that her fiancé could be here holding her in her arms.

But his beauty was enough to end any craving for death. She had to find her way back. She knew, at once, that it was happening again. This was not real. She was stuck in a realm of projections, hallucinations and lies, no matter how real it felt.

“Neina. Snap out of it. This isn’t real - and you know it. You need to get back to Isla. She needs your help. She needs you. NOW!”

Neina closed her eyes tightly, refusing to let herself be taken in any longer by the ghosts of a past being used against her.  When, finally, she forced them open, she was back in the castle.

Isla was nowhere in sight.
She heard a voice, a whisper…
“So easy to fool… just like your mother. Janus told me you were smart. I find that hard to believe. No matter the stakes, all you do is daydream...” 

It was the voice of Queen Orla, elegant, soft - but with an edge of implied violence that was utterly terrifying. The Queen appeared from the shadow cast by the sculpture on the left hand side of the room, carrying a box.

Neina did not want to see what was inside.

“Maybe you’ve been too caught up in your own selfishness to remember, but I never forget the important part of the ones I love. I don’t care if you think I'm lying Neina. Believe it, or not, it makes no difference. I love you.”

Neina took a small step back, but found only a wall blocking her. Orla narrowed the space between them ominously.  Isla had nowhere left to go.  The Queen opened the box. Inside was the same, melt-in-your-mouth, chocolate cake her mom used to make. 

The Queen lit the candles and brushed her finger on the side of Neina’s face wiping away a delicate tear…

“Make a wish darling.”

Neina shuddered, but then squinted her eyes, trying to get a better look at the figure watching her from the corner of the room.

Someone was hiding.

Neina sensed that, whoever it was was, it was there to help her.

To save her.

The Queen followed Neina's gaze, sensing the presence of another.  “Neina, only you can hear me. Don’t make it look obvious - I need you to stay calm. I’m going to get you out of here. Do you hear me? We are getting out of here.”

That voice. She knew it.
It’s not possible. Could it be?
It was the one person she knew she could fall back on.
Archie.

Natalia Anwer, Year 10, Nibras International School



Bewildered and baffled, Neina had to undertake abrupt action, but her body was petrified, she questioned how Archie could be here and if she was being delusional again; if such a thing was even possible. Neina and Isla were both cornered with no place to run (this was their thin chance), she had to trust her instincts, or else the Queen would have them both executed. It was all in Neina’s hands, but she could not comprehend how Archie was here.

“A-Archie, is that really you” she stuttered; unable to keep herself together. It was practically as if she was paralysed, her mouth shut she could not find the adequate words to say to him she assumed she would never see Archie again, but here he was — here to save her. Archie repeated “yes, yes, it is. No one else can hear me I have a plan all you have to do is cause a distraction, and quick.”

Several moments later, Neina finally cut through and with hesitation agreed, she was at a loss of any ideas on how she could initiate a reasonable distraction. Neina did not fear death anymore; she had been through much, but she feared losing her loved ones again and again. She could not lose Archie, not after everyone she has already lost. Neina pushed her limits and began to think, her palms sweaty and her heart racing, the only idea that sparked was if she disclosed that Isla and her have information on The Tower. But that was too perilous, one wrong move could get them all killed.

Just as the Queen asked the guards to take Isla for execution, Neina bolted in front of the Queen; staring deep into the Queen’s menacing eyes and selfish soul, she justified why she shouldn't kill neither Isla nor herself as they could both give her details about The Prophecy Tower; details that could possibly help the Queen conquer it. Neina blurted out that they found a key which could lead them into the Tower’s most sacred chamber. Neina clenched her fists and took a deep breath praying that the Queen would not suspect their plan. As Neina wanted, this caught Orla’s attention, she seemed satisfied enough to keep them alive for a few days longer,

“Alright, I will not execute you so soon. Guards lock them up.”

Isla glanced at Neina, who was stood there utterly confused and with a disapproving look at her face.  In disagreement it was clear to see she did not support Neina’s choice. Neina had no other alternative, as this was the only way they could escape.

Blind trust. Blind trust in Archie.

In an instant, there was a rumble in the council chamber, something scraped along the tiled floor the streak of noise allowed the guards and the Queen to establish this was a plan, the Queen immediately knew she had been betrayed. The guards did not worry about Isla and Neina, instead tried to figure out who managed to lurk inside the palace, especially into the council chamber: one of the most private and guarded rooms. Within moments, it was almost impossible to barely hear a breath — silence. Silence echoed so loud, it was deafening.

Neina was hoping that Archie’s plan worked. All of a sudden, the air turned frigid, fierce and fatal. Shortage of breath, suffocating coughs and blurry vision. Clouds of dark smoke possessed the room. It felt as if they were inhaling hazardous chemicals and were gradually drowning from within, slowly Neina and the others had their lungs expanded with smoke and no air. The walls felt as if they were closing in.

The thick grey smoke billowing around the place. The once cobalt blue flooring was now shielded by a veil of darkness, slowly swallowing the air. Neina thought to herself why can’t I breathe? Is this the plan? Her eyes began to slightly close, her life flashed faintly as she lost control: her mother, The Prophecy Tower, Ryder, Isla and Archie, her whole life felt as if it was being torn apart. Neina felt tremendously unsteady and eventually fell on the stone-cold floor. She prayed she would fall into the arms of Archie, saving her from Orla.

Archie rushed towards Neina and the others picked Isla up. Neina was finally safe in Archie’s arms. Archie tackled the two guards guarding the main door, they were so close to freedom — one step closer. He had a cold burning sensation in his eyes one without fear, he was fighting for Neina. They covered all the exits and ensured the coast was clear, running towards the hidden exit where they could seek shelter before Neina and Isla woke up.

Streaks of sunlight flickered through the walls of the cave, sparkling on Neina’s face slowly waking her up. as her eyes opened, the sunlight illuminated her eyes making them glisten and sparkle. She had not had exposure to the sun for days, being locked up. The warmth felt overwhelmingly relaxing warming her inside out.

The watery daylight pushed back at the darkened edges of dawn, reclaiming the colours of day that had been washed into grey by the moonlit night. Neina’s world came back to her like a new opportunity to survive for everyone’s freedom. The sunrise brought hope and a sense of serenity along with it, Neina was ultimately with Archie; away from the Queen, away from all her problems.

Archie stroked her shiny hair, as Neina’s eyes slowly opened she saw her perfect fiancé who had been bruised fighting for her, it was as if her organs were being crushed seeing him inflicted in so much pain. Blood ran freely in thick maroon rivers along his rosy cheeks, but he still managed to pull through with his perfect smile as the sunlight illuminated his pearly white teeth. He had tousled dark brown hair which was lustrous and lay perfectly shielding his eyes, the softest brown infused with green; large and dreamy; just as Neina had remembered.

“Hey, you’re up. We did it Neina; we are safe, away from the Queen” Archie informed her with an immense smile; happiness flared in his eyes, his smile came from deep inside lighting his eyes and it spread to every part of him. Deep down Neina knew this was too good to be true and sooner or later she had to return to the Queen — for the sake of her family, for her loved ones.

Isla lay in the corner cleaning herself up with water, she was bruised all over her arms and legs. The Queen was ruthless, she perceives nothing past herself. Isla has always been resilient and determined; she would never let a few scars halt her. As Neina adjusted herself to sit up, she caught sight of the guards surrounding herself, Archie and Isla. Terrified and horrified. Neina yelled, “No, no, Archie you said you had a plan, you said we were safe.”

“I knew he would play you! You liar.” Isla made no second choices and blatantly exploded “we have to run Neina, now.” In the look Archie have her, Neina felt some reassurance, “Wait, both of you. It is not what you are thinking.”

The guards began moving closer, Neina and Isla’s hearts beating rapidly. In the brim of dayl
ight, the guards paused and took their helmets off. It was formidable to make out who they were as the sunlight was bright but as soon as their true identity dawned, Neina and Isla gasped in surprise.

Charlotte, Ryder and Frankie stood there with broad smiles on their faces...

Maryam Junaid, Year 11, Sheffield Private School

Author's note: I am very delighted to participate in this challenge. Neina’s character has prospered from the very first chapter and in this chapter, I have unravelled the appearance of Archie. I am excited to see where this novel progresses, good luck to the next writers!



Neina struggled to process the sight before her.

“H-How is this p-possible...?” she muttered in such complete awe that her voice was almost inaudible.

Archie grabbed her by the shoulders, but it didn't diminish her overriding feeling of shock.

“I promise I’ll explain everything soon, but right now I need you to trust me. Can you do that Neina?”

Neina's eyes remained wide open, directly fixated on Ryder and Frankie, her mouth still agape.

“Neina.”

She breathed in through her nose and, with a shaking hand, wiped away the tears welling up in her eyes and flowing down her face. This shouldn’t make sense, but then again, nothing ever did anymore.

“Yes, yes I can,” Neina, finally, answered, as she pushed her voice through the extraordinary mix of happiness, sorrow, anger, frustration, relief and trepidation overwhelming her.

Charlotte stepped forward, “Right, I suggest we get a move on now before the cas