Written by Amethyst Mare for Catprog
It is never a good idea to insult a genie...
If some well-meaning soul had said that to you, in good faith, any time before this point, you would not have believed them. Who would have believed that genies existed? Not you, of course not - they were just a fairy tale. Something of fiction and fantasy, not of the "real world". You should never have picked up that old pot from the overflowing wheelie bin, surroundings spinning with drink, and staggered to the ground, leering at it like it a prize of great value and did not cage a demon within. Your sleeve rubbed the brass surface into a subtle shine, a gleam rising after years of misuse, and you swore loudly as hot steam hissed from beneath the lid, searing a line of pain across your hand.
If you had known that the being within was a genie, you would not have said the crude and vulgar things that you did, when the steam materialised into a blue-skinned something, muscled like a skilfully carved statue. He frowned after your tirade, for the figure was clearly male, and shook his head despairingly at your insults, saying that punishment was due to you for speaking so.
Punishment? Your mind became hazy, as if you had spent hours laying in the heat of the summer sun, subsequently becoming ill. You looked down at your hands, stumbling backwards with a half-strangled cry - they were not your hands! There was some monstrous growth making them bulge out, more animal than human and coated in a rapidly spreading tawny-gold layer of fur. How could this be? Trying to shriek, your vocal chords rebelled, permitting only a cat-like yowl of pain, you crashed heavily to the broken paving stones, writhing and twisting in unprecedented agony. Your spine cracked ferociously and you feared that it might have snapped in two, but it seemed to be stretching, elongating into a bestial shape...
That was the last you remember of that particular interlude. You blacked out and sank into restless unconsciousness, the sole sound fading into nothingness being a malicious, cruel laugh.
It takes your eyes a few minutes to adjust when you finally awake, blinking blearily in the startlingly bright sunlight. You are in a barren wasteland of a desert, frail looking cacti bearing their way up through the parched soil - the only thing that may be able to find substance in this ruthless land. Shaking your head to clear it (the effort goes in vain with the sun beating down upon your skull) you raise your hand to your head. But...the action does not quite go as you imagined it would and you are compelled to bend your head forward in order for your hand to reach it at all. How very peculiar.
It then comes to your attention that you are lying in a strange position on the ground with your arms curled beneath your body and your legs angled in a way that you would have expected to be painful... However, you are comfortable. Sighing deeply, you cannot make head or tail of this change, until a lengthy, leonine tail swishes behind you, disturbing the sand with the tufted tip.
What? That cannot be right! How can you have a tail? Leaping to your feet and whirling around in a dizzyingly tight circle, you realise that you are on all fours. Something has happened to your limbs and you're walking like an animal! Are you an animal? It's not a ridiculous conclusion if you have a tail. Can you still talk? What if you cannot talk? Are you a simple beast now? What happened?
"H...hello?" You try cautiously and are relieved to hear a voice of sorts, although it does not seem like your voice; the voice that comes from your lips is lighter and of a higher pitch. At least you can talk and that is all that matters in this instance, that you are not a dumb, mute animal.
"Having fun, are we?"
To your left, near a spindly cactus with extraordinarily long spines, the man from the alleyway appears. Blue from head to...well...he dissipates into nothingness at the waist, but he has striking blue skin and a toned body that induces a jealous wish in you to have those hours, which you spent in the gym, returned to you.
"You?!" You shriek, rearing on to your hind legs and striking the air warningly with your paws, which you see are tipped with dangerous, sharp claws. "You did this to me? Just who the hell do you think you are? What have you turned me into? What are you?"
"Now, now," he chuckles, his attempt at placating you falling terribly flat with his amusement. "You should not have taken the liberty of insulting a genie now, should you, little sphinx?"
You crane your head back over your shoulder and yelp to see the broad pair of feathery wings resting against your back, the fur coating your animal body like to the tawny fur of a lion. Jaw slack with astonishment, you flap the wings experimentally, surprised at the strength in your he new muscles, and stir up a cloud of sand with just a single down stroke, your lion-like tail waving as if with a mind of its own beyond them. Your face still appears human though, as you can talk, even if there is something not quite right that you cannot put your finger on. Unbelievable... Wait, he is a genie? Are they real after all then?
"Oh, and I made the decision to make a small change to your gender...none of the traditional sphinxes look male after all," the genie remarks, breaking into your stream of thought and looking up expectantly to enjoy your reaction.
"You...you what? But I'm not female!" You shout, baring your teeth and advancing towards the genie, who struggles to banish a growing look of alarm from his expression. That's right, you think, that's good: he should be afraid of you!
Your hackles raise, long, dark hair falling wildly about your face as you lower your head, your body no longer your own and ruled by feral impulse. If the genie could stumble backwards, he would have, but with his current, insubstantial form he only drifts rapidly, his eyes wide in alarm. Though when you try to leap for the genie, claws unsheathed, something holds you back, like an invisible hand clutching the scruff of your neck to prevent aggressive or unwanted motion. Confused, you shake your head roughly and snarl, upper lip curling back from your teeth in a shockingly animalistic style.
"Now, now, if you really wish to leave, I might be able to consider it," the genie goes on hastily, holding his hands up to stay your advance.
"Oh, yes?" You say suspiciously, crouching low to the ground and growling softly. "And what, pray tell, would make you 'consider it'?"
"Well, there are many tasks that require doing about the zoo and items that require collection periodically," the genie says, his expression vague and unconcerned, more in control of the situation. "There are some that you could do...then I could let you go home. If you do these tasks well enough, of course."
What choice do you really have? As if to highlight your one and only option, a gust of wind blows your hair back, the sun beating down unforgivably as you are forced to narrow your eyes against the gritty sand carried on the shifting air. This land is sterile and completing these 'tasks' for the godforsaken genie will at least allow you to find some sustenance in order to survive, or so you hope, until you could escape or convince the mad bastard to release you.
"All right," you say in a disgruntled tone, sitting down upon your haunches. "What tasks do I have to do?"
"Excellent!" The genie beams, his whole manner altering with your acceptance.
Flourishing his large hands grandly, he produces a smart, brown, leather satchel, polished to a professional shine, and you sigh deeply, thinking that you had best become used to these ridiculous 'tricks' of his. He throws the satchel at your forepaws - you shudder to say your 'feet' any longer - and unrolls a short length of crisp parchment, curling at the corners and yellowed in patches that look like a schoolchild has aged the paper using artificial means for a school project.
"Ah, yes," he murmurs quietly, so quietly that you prick your ears despairingly to catch his words. "This set will do nicely for today."
Tossing the scroll beside the satchel, the genie grins; a sharp edge to his lips suggests he is concealing something more sinister behind the white curve. Shivering, you duck your head to study them, pawing the scroll until it lies straighter upon the sand, so that you may read it more easily.
"I am confident that you will be able to calculate the locations from the information supplied," the genie continues, turning to leave and fading from sight. "I must simply leave you to it then, sphinx. Ensure that you perform these tasks admirably!"
And with that, he vanishes completely, leaving a glowing pair of crystalline eyes shining for just a second after his body ceases to be composed of earthly matter. Growling over the pristine, gleaming satchel, which seems out of place when compared to the situation afoot, you crouch low to the ground to inspect the scrawl text, which reads:
Required items for collection:
1. Three ruby eggs, found in the nests of harpies.
2. One gold key, guarded by the chimera.
3. One ornate hand mirror, last seen in the caves to the north.
Harpies? Chimera? Your stomach drops and you swallow the influx of bile that gathers in your mouth. What on earth is a chimera? Some creature from mythology? Surely that means it's not real? Hah... You realise all of a sudden that you are not so far in kind from the chimera. Either way, it is something that you will discover and face in due course. You must escape from this place...and the first step in that quest is to find these damn harpies and those eggs of theirs.
"Okay..." You murmur thoughtfully, falling prey to your old, human habit of speaking your thoughts aloud. "Where would harpies nest? What is feasible? Up in trees? Cliffs?"
You do not even know what harpies look like, but suspect that they are prone to the habits of birds, to a certain extent, if they 'nest' in some way. Sighing deeply once more, you roll the scroll up carefully and manoeuvre it into the satchel, dropping the heavy flap securely over the precious cargo. You will not have any idea where to go if you happen to lose the scroll. Sitting up, you crane your neck at a near impossible angle to see into the distance and, squinting, you pick out the straggly shapes of what could be trees, if the desert heat is not confusing your senses.
What else can you do? You lift your wings to provide a little shade for your head and begin the long, weary plod towards the distant foliage. The sand burns your paws, though those paws are large enough that the shifting, loose sand does not constantly dislodge you, something that you are subtly grateful for. You are too hot in your fur coat, regardless of how thin and fine you might have originally thought the tawny fur, moving over taut muscles in the repetitive action of your ground-covering stride. Relaxing into the motion, you try to forget the growing hunger in your belly and the insistent thirst; you did not think that being a 'pet' of sorts in a collection or zoo would be so tiring or taxing on the body, though you had never been exposed to extreme conditions before, having lived in the city for your entire life. You had never been the adventurous sort. But, you reason, this is not any ordinary zoo, so you will have to do the best you can and get out of the desert as quickly as your paws can carry you.
The air shimmers to your right with the alluring glitter of a shady oasis - how could you have missed this? Eagerly, you trot closer, longing for a drink of cool water to soothe the burning thirst, just a little drink of water. But, as you approach, the longed for water seems to grow increasingly distant, drifting further and further away until you stumble to a halt, growling furiously: the desert plays cruel tricks.
Turning away from what you now know is nothing more than a wistful illusion, you alter your course, heading back to the crooked trees. They are a bit closer, but still shimmer in the heat, appearing and disappearing like a magician's trick; now you see it and now you don't. "Just like magic," the magician would say after making your watch disappear. But that was only an illusion, a trick of the eyes and a slight of the hand; you hope that the trees are not an illusion too and that you will find the harpies there. It's the only lead that you have.
Thankfully, the trees become very solid and real when you finally walk beneath the scant, patchy shade that they offer. The landscape around them is more rugged and less barren than the desert - enough for some vegetation to survive, barely - although it is still excruciatingly hot, so that every step seems to require a great effort. Exhaling slowly, you flop on to your side; you wince at the thought that you are behaving like a lion, or lioness, in the heat, but continue your panting as you realise that it is cooling you down more than any drink of water. Although water would be wonderful right now...
Something glints above you and you glance up, bothered by the red twinkle, which seems determined to disturb your rest. Irritated, you stand up and shake yourself vigorously to rid your fur of the dust and twigs, which had clung on when you rested. You rear back on to your hind legs and place your front paws against the spindly trunk of the tree, which shakes dangerously, a couple of dry leaves landing upon your face. Sneezing, you dislodge them and crane your neck, squinting into the glare of the sun. There is a tangled mess of twigs tucked into the crook of two branches, something white and feathery caught along the perimeter... Is it a nest?
Your heart leaps and you scrabble against the bark, ripping off flaky slices as you try to claw your way up the tree. If there are harpies here - whatever they are - surely they would have attacked you by now? They must be away and that red glint must be the eggs you are searching for! It must be the nest!
This 'tasks' lark isn't so hard after all! You think jubilantly, dropping back to the ground with a hefty 'thud'. But how to get up there... That's the question...
Stepping back a few paces, you look over your shoulder and flap your wings, testing their strength; they stir up a cloud of dust and you cough, waving the pale feathers gently until the air clears, though it is as dry as ever. The tree is not very tall and the nest is not truly that high up... What else can you do? Swallowing nervously, you beat your wings hard and leap into the air.
Your first flaps almost send you careering back to the ground but you heave a great breath and pump the unused muscles harder, ignoring the burn. The hardest part must be getting off the ground, right? With that in mind, you hiss between your tightly clenched teeth, powering upwards. If you can just work out the motion, the pattern of the beats...like playing an instrument, only your wings are your instrument...
And then it comes to you. The rough and tumble ascent ceases and evens out, though you are many, many metres above where you had wanted to reach initially; you can't even guess at the distance, but you know that your target is only a short dive away. You suppose that you need the height anyway in order to not cause more damage than subtle good. Your wings spread wide to the full span and you imagine that you can feel the air caressing every feather. You're flying!
Soaring, you revel in the sensation, forgetting your purpose. Your muscles are no longer strained, but working with the air, taking what little shape it has to use and moulding it to your demands. It is amazing, this feeling of having no limits; you can go anywhere you wish. There is not a mountain too high for you to ascend, landing safely at a roost at the end of the day. Vaguely, you think that maybe your new shape is not so bad if you get to do this, but you quickly snap yourself back to reality, focusing once more.
The nest is below you and you unsheathe your claws, angling towards the twisted twigs at a shallow, carefully measured dive. Your wings fold in closer to your body, but not completely - for balance and a more cautious descent - the soft feathers brushing your fur lightly, like fingertips trailing over a lover's skin. As if you have been flying since birth, you alight gently on the nest, the tree rocking under your weight; it is a testament to the harpies' skill in constructing their nest that it does not collapse beneath your paws. You're very glad that it doesn't fall to pieces, as you do not want to destroy their home...just take a few things, you reason with yourself, trying to shake off the uneasy sense of guilt in your stomach.
The 'eggs' are captivating, though you wonder if it really is possible for a harpy to hatch from one. Then again, if they are mythical beings and there is really a genie that can change men into animals...anything is possible, you conclude, staring down at the glowing ovals. How could these be eggs? They are beautiful, like rubies cut from the finest veins below the earth's crust, perfectly formed into these faceted eggs... Mesmerised, you lean closer, balancing precariously upon the very lip of the nest.
"Those are ours!"
The screech comes from behind you and you scramble around, a guilty expression flashing across your face. What you can only guess is a harpy is streaking towards you and your eyes open wide at the strange appearance. The harpy has the head and chest of a woman, crowned with a halo of brilliant, blonde hair, the remainder of her body like that of a bird of prey. Cruel talons tip her narrow legs and she screeches more furiously than ever, more harpies rising from distant crags, swooping towards you at a frightening speed.
"Get away from them! They're ours! They're ours!" The harpy shrieks, diving at your head and raking her talons through your hair. "Get away! Get away!"
Yowling in pain, you shake off the trickle of blood that runs down your scalp, reaching down into the nest to scoop up as many of the eggs as you can. But your paws are too ungainly for such fine work and they keep slipping back on to the twigs as if they do not wish to leave their comforting circle. Tipping forward, you swear under your breath and almost overbalance entirely, managing to regain your position by a stroke of unbelievable good luck.
The other harpies are much closer now, uglier than the first; their ugliness, however, could be because their faces are twisted and contorted with hatred, all of them coming for you like hounds chasing down a fox. Yanking the satchel from your back hurriedly, you push three of the ruby-red eggs under the leather flap. No time to tuck it securely closed - you leap off the crook of tree branches, leaving the tree swaying below as if buffeted by a storm. Your wings spread and flap instinctively, the motion far more effortless now than it was before, when you first tried to fly. As the harpies whirl and streak after you, you have good reason to be very grateful for this.
"Bring them back!" The harpy at the head of the flock cries out, pain lacing her voice as she fights the still air to catch up with you. "They are ours - bring them back!"
"I'm sorry," you shout over your shoulder, pulling your tail sharply away as a black-haired harpy lunges for it. "These will help me escape. I can get out of here, with these."
Cawing in anger much like a crow, the harpy achieves a sudden burst of speed, screaming and clawing viciously at your back. You cry out in pain, wriggling and twisting in midair to shake off the harpy; her spurt of energy is lost quickly, however, and she falls back into the cluster of her sisters, all of them crowding around one another and keening loudly, mourning for their lost eggs.
"You'll never get out, never get out," they chanted as one, hovering in a small, tight group, giving up on the chase. "You're lost, lost, just like us. You're lost and you'll never get out."
Short of breath and with your head whirling from the attack, you beat your wings wearily away from the harpies, leaving them far behind. Your fur is stained with your own blood but, thankfully, you are not injured too badly, so are able to continue flying at a steady pace. The landscape is changing swiftly and some stretches of grass pass below that do not look so dry and bleached of life, which gives you a little spark of hope that maybe you will be able to find some water soon. After a short while, you have to set down and you circle slowly, picking out a patch of greener grass that might be comfortable for a few moments.
Landing gently, you sigh happily as the cool grass soothes the sore pads of your paws. Dropping the satchel on the ground, you start as the loose flap falls open, the scroll and those three eggs rolling out. You sit down and prod the scroll until it unrolls, trying to ignore those eggs, which had been so mesmerising before; it is no good in being hypnotised by them now - you have the next item on the list to collect.
"One gold key, guarded by the chimera," you read aloud, flicking your tail. "Where will I find that thing? What is it? What's a chimera?"
Jerking your head up, you chance that you see something slinking behind a pile of rugged rocks not too distant from you. The shape is slender, although you only catch sight of it for a split second; whatever animal it was is too cunning to remain in sight for long and slips away like a snake. Slowly, you roll up the scroll, never once taking your eyes off those rocks, and push everything back into your pack, securing it across your back once again, so that you may have free use of your paws. You must investigate.
You advance slowly, stalking the rocks with your body hunkered low to the ground, imagining the lionesses of the Serengeti preparing to pounce upon an unsuspecting antelope. What's behind there? Is it something like the harpies? Will it attack? You are not willing to take any chances and the predator's stance seems to come naturally to you, every muscle in your body tense and burning for action. Snarling out a warning, you dart around the sharp, angular rocks and stop dead in your tracks.
It is a real beast that stands in front of you, it's head lowered and growling deep in its throat; the...creature is a cacophony of animals muddled together into one form, as if a child has put them together using clay, and it is absolutely terrifying. You whimper softly, looking over the lion head and front half with large paws, which is by far the least frightening of the whole ensemble. Upon the middle of its back is a goat's head, which turns to look at you, its eyes wide and fearful - the hindquarters of the animal are also like that of a normal goat with a soft, vulnerable grey coat. The tail, however...you shrink back from the tail, eyes trying to follow its quick, darting movements. It is a living, breathing, writing, hissing serpent... The tail is split into three cobras, staring at you with beady, calculating eyes: it is judging whether or not you are prey.
Now you know what a chimera is.
"What do you want here?" The chimera asks suspiciously, with his - for the pitch is too low to be feminine - lion head, pawing restlessly at the ground. "Who are you? Why are you here?"
"Forgive me for disturbing you," you stammer, unsure of how to avoid an attack: how could you win a fight with this brute anyway? "But I was sent to retrieve a key from you, if you would be so kind as to hand it over? Please?" You add as an afterthought.
"No," the chimera answers calmly, angling its body so that something behind it is blocked; the goat head stares at you silently. What is it hiding?
"Ah, why not?" You ask, edging quietly to the side and taking note of an unidentified mound behind the animal, which has a flattened 'nest' in a patch of longer grass where the chimera may have been sleeping recently. The mound might be the remains of his last meal - that could be promising if he is not likely to attack out of hunger. The chimera snorts and shakes his mane, the snakes thrashing and hissing, infuriated.
"Why should I give it to you?" He challenges, stepping forward defiantly. "It's my key, is it not? It is mine and not yours."
"But it will help me escape from here," you cajole, employing every ounce of your cunning and looking down despondently, one paw trailing a sad circle over the ground. "I've got to get home, you see... There's family and friends wondering where I am. What if they think I'm dead? They'll never see me again if you don't give your key to me and help me go back."
Seeming to consider this carefully, the chimera tilts his head, the snakes arching over its back like a scorpion's poisonous tail. It kneads the earth between its large paws - which are even larger than yours - and you wonder, if it does come to a fight, what will the outcome be? Does he have the typical male strength that you now, perhaps, lack? You won't know until the moment comes and you will either be an even match or hopelessly outclassed.
He is not the same as I... You think, warily keeping an eye on the chimera, which looks torn between multiple courses of action. Maybe...he is weaker...or has a weakness... I hope so.
"No," the chimera says at last. "The genie never lets anyone go. You'd do better to give up now and find somewhere to make your own."
You growl in frustration and pace back and forth while the chimera merely watches you with a smug expression upon its feline muzzle. You do not feel tired any more - your body is pumping with energy and your limbs feel supple, strong and ready for action. Taking in a deep breath, you steady your nerves and resolve to trust your instincts. If you wish to escape from here, there is only one thing you can do. It's not going to be easy.
"Well, if you will not give it to me, I will simply have to take it from you," you growl with false bravado, hoping the chimera does not notice the tremor in your voice. The chimera laughs and bats a paw dismissively at the air.
"You?" He snorts. "You're nothing more than a cub here. Obviously not good enough to be transformed into a male either, just a lowly, little female. What do you think of that, lioness? Think you're stronger than the mutated king of the jungle?"
"I'm not a lion!" You snarl in defence, crouching low. "I'm a sphinx. And you would do well to remember it!"
Your hind legs compress beneath your hindquarters and then you are flying through the air at the beast, propelled and steadied by your wings. When you hit, all the air rushes out of your lungs, like a startling fall from a horse or other beast of burden, and you allow yourself to be thrown to the side, wings cushioning your fall. Rolling to the side, you spring upright and bare your teeth, like a wild animal, at the chimera, who hisses threateningly, the snake's showing you their poisonous fangs, dripping with venom.
"Last chance," he warns, though the goat head appears terrified, swivelling this way and that as the back legs scramble and jerk randomly. "This is your last chance to turn away and heed my warning."
"Like hell," you murmur, lashing your tail as you approach. "I'm getting that key, whatever you bloody try to do to stop me!"
"Oh, this should be fun," the chimera smirks, a demonic glint in his eyes.
You circle each other as you are not willing to show your back to the beast when his is a great deal more protected by the writhing snakes. Growling, you break the circle and lunge for the beast, knocking it over on to its back and crushing those snakes under its own weight; they hiss furiously, the sound muffled by the goat's grey fur pressed over their gaping maws like a strangling gag. The chimera squirms and kicks out, landing a solid blow to your underbelly, which sends you sprawling, gasping for air that does not come easily.
Taking the opportunity presented, the chimera struggles back to its feet, more enraged than before, but you notice something different this time; the goat part of the creature is frantic with fear, kicking out wildly while the dumb animal head bleats, unable to convey its terror through speech. Pausing in its attack, the lion head turns to snarl ferociously at the goat, which only serves to drive it into a greater panic, kicking at its own underbelly like a thing possessed. The snakes dart in and bite the goat's haunch, pouring precious doses of venom into its own body will the goat bleats plaintively, thrashing wildly under the continued assault. From a safe distance, you wonder warily if this is an attempt to incapacitate the goat to an extent that the lion and snake parts will be able to fight unaided but dragging the goat's dead weight along with them.
The stinging, venomous bites, however, have the opposite effect entirely; the goat squeals and the lion roars as it is dragged away. The chimera backpedals swiftly, seemingly overcome with the urge to escape but in conflict with the desire to fight and protect what it owns. You shake your head in confusion, staying well away from this internal battle. Eventually, the lion gives a pained roar of loss and succumbs to the goat, streaking away from its precious mound with the snake still sinking its fangs into the hindquarters. Shocked that you have succeeded against such a vicious creature, you are quite still for several minutes, listening intently to ensure that you are not caught by surprise if it returns unexpectedly.
When you are sure that the chimera is long gone, you approach the mound cautiously, lowering your head to inspect the edges, but you drawing back swiftly at the putrid stench, which rises when the pile is stirred with a cautious forepaw. It is nothing of interest at all and is merely the remains of the chimera's last meal. There are shards of sun-bleached bone, tufts of fur and stinking flesh mixed in with what appears to be the creatures own dung: you wrinkle your nose and fight the urge to vomit. You almost turn to go before thinking that you really should inspect it more closely, as the chimera was trying to hide the mound from you earlier; maybe there is something valuable hidden underneath and the scraps of rotting flesh are a clever deterrent to discovery, whether intentional or accidental.
You paw through the mess, wishing even more for water with which to wash your now filthy paw clean of the filth, examining everything carefully. A small smile spreads across your face when a delicate object is revealed, covered with fine engravings that separate it from any old object: the desired key. It is gold, though its shine is dulled by the filth, and you extract it with a dewclaw, shaking your paw to rid it of the worst muck, even if the stench does not fade in the slightest.
One task left.
You are hopelessly lost.
It has only been a few hours since you encountered the chimera, but the land changes so swiftly and with such variety in this strange, unconventional world that you cannot retain any sense of direction. Wandering aimlessly, you have found your way into an area that is composed of lush rainforest, the air thick and humid with moisture clinging to your fur. It is difficult to traipse through this even more hostile environment, but you are grateful to find many pools and rivers along the way, so you are able to finally quench your burning thirst. Although, you learn to drink with a wary eye and only from the shallows after the first crocodile rears out of the water, teeth bared dangerously. It had seemed to have done it more for sport than anything else, sinking back so that only its eyes and snout remained on the surface, watching you retreat.
To your surprise, apart from the reptiles lurking in deeper channels, there is very little wildlife to be seen and hardly any birds sing, flitting by from a distance. You try to shake off the sense of unease this gives you, focusing on your task: to find the hand mirror. Vaguely, you know that you are heading north, as the scroll said that the caves would be found to the north, but you do not know where these are - how are you to find them in this jungle? Shaking your head, you push on through a tangle of vines, whining quietly at the thorns, which snag painfully against your fur.
There is a pressure on the top of your head, as if you have a headache, although it is a foreign sensation - something abnormal about it. Without your consent, your paws cross over one another, edging off your chosen route and on to harder ground, stone biting at your pads. You stop in your tracks, hesitating against this force tugging on the corners of your mind. You don't understand... You want to veer to your right and to a rockier area, which looks a great deal more difficult to traverse. Shaking yourself energetically, you try to keep to the more open path, not really wanting to go up over the rocks as it looks difficult to traverse and tiring on the paws...
But could they lead to the caves? Is that why you 'want' to investigate? Is the genie interfering with your head?
Still not understanding why this route will be better than any other - there have been rocky areas dotted throughout the jungle and you have not felt any impulse to investigate those - you swallow nervously and allow your body to follow it, wincing as you step over sharp stones. Moss covers some of the rocks, making them treacherous to walk over and you slip more than once, cursing and spreading your wings to save yourself from a nasty fall. You curse the genie, thoughts running away from you, wishing that you had never been brought to this godforsaken land, that you were still home and far, far away from his cruel influences. Life would be a lot simpler and less painful.
There! There is a small, dark hollow in between the rocks! You dash over and skid to a halt, peering down into the hole. It appears to be deep, much deeper than you may expect and is faintly illuminated by a scarce but noticeable pale light. What could cause that? You know nothing about cave systems and the hole is very small but, when you cautiously duck your head into the opening, you see that it widens out a little further along and you will only have to squirm on your belly for a short distance, if you enter. Distantly, you can hear the trickle of running water and the drip, drip of water falling some distance into a pool; the sounds echo and you suspect that, if the mirror is not close, you will be able to travel underground to find it.
As if to warn you that you will be quite alone down there, your stomach growls loudly, reminding you also that you have not eaten in this body yet. What choice do you have though? You have not discovered anything safe to eat above ground, so it stands to reason that the more quickly you complete these tasks, the more quickly you may return home. With this bolstering your courage, you take a deep breath and wriggle into the narrow space, wings crushed to your back.
The tunnel downwards is damp and close around you and you slide most of the way down to land in an ungainly heap several metres below ground, which slopes downwards into the bowels of the earth. Stalagmites and stalactites branch from the floor and ceiling of the cave, the water that you heard before dripping from the stalactites with slow, patient consistency. Despite there being many other tunnels branching off from yours, they are much too small to enter and echo eerily when you experimentally scatter some pebbles down one with a flick of your paw. Only one path is open to you and you follow it the caution deserved by the situation.
As you progress deeper and deeper, you find the source of the underground river pouring from a crevice in the rock wall, where it flows down the slope and pools in convenient hollows. The tunnel widens suddenly into a vast, underground cavern, the sense of space overwhelming; you do not know how far below the earth's crust you have travelled, but you it does not feel right to be in such a place, so unnatural. There is also the sense that you are being watched.
"Hello?" You call out, twitching your tail nervously. "Is anybody there?"
There is a tinkling splash of water a few paces to your left and something darts through one of the pools - some kind of fish? With a sick feeling in the pit of your belly, you approach the water, struggling to make sense of the flickering, ever-shifting motion within, the water rippling as if roused by a gentle breeze. The inhabitant of the pool cannot be made out for several long moments, but the water eventually becomes calmer and you start to see that there is nothing there at all, not even one lonely fish, mutated from time spent in near darkness. There is only your reflection.
But your reflection does not move with you.
The form of a sphinx dwindles and paces back and forth through the water, moving as if mirrored on the surface, which makes it difficult to make out any distinguishing features. As you look around, you see that similar images are appearing in every single one of the other pools, the sphinxes disturbing the water with their discontented pacing. Strangely enough, they do not seem to be threatening, nor do you feel anxious or threatened by their presence. It is comforting to have similar company, you think to yourself. Stepping back with a confused twitch of your tail, you freeze as every face turns towards you in perfect unison.
"Turn back!" They call, lips moving as one, their faces blurred by the moving water, unrecognisable.
Startled, you sit back on your haunches, tilting your head at the image in the water. Why would you turn back? You have come this far so there is no point in giving up now. And they speak?
"Turn back!" They say again, voices echoing strangely and sounding as if they are coming from very far away.
"Leave me alone!" You growl, dashing a paw at the patter to shatter the image, not intending to 'turn back' at all. "Where is the mirror? Tell me."
"Hidden!" They laugh, flashing in and out of sight, darting in and out of sight, though you suspect that each is trapped within its own pool. "Deep! Hidden!"
Oh...there's no use with them, they're not a threat, you think irritably, walking away with a derisive snort. Where can that damn mirror be?
There is one pool left dark and obtrusive in the midst of all the disapproving faces. It begs your attention. Ignoring the repeated cries to go away, to turn back and leave the caves, you step up to the pool, peering into the startlingly deep depths; it looks to be quite a swim to reach the bottom. But, right at the bottom, there is a glint of silver and a flash of something reflective... It can only be one thing and your heart pounds with excitement at the thought of completing the tasks at long last.
You drop the satchel and the contained treasures beside a sturdy stalagmite, trusting that it will be safe until you return, and scramble up on to the lip of the pool, spreading your wings for balance. Taking a deep breath, you dive forward into the pool, slicing cleanly into the water and only leaving a quickly quelled ripple in your wake, the water terribly cold. It feels like an icy grave encasing your body but you push on, swiftly swimming to the rugged bottom of the pool and snatching up the mirror in your painfully inadequate human teeth, needing your paws and legs to swim, however slow your progress is.
You have it! You have the mirror!
Looking up with the mirror in a tight hold, you see with alarm that there is something dark spreading across the surface of the pool...like a layer of black ice. In the underside of the 'ice', if that is what the strange darkness is, a sphinx appears, her hair and expression stormy as she smiles cruelly to you, mouthing the words 'you are trapped' with exaggerated movement of her perfect, crimson lips.
No! This is impossible! You must escape! With the mirror gripped firmly between your teeth, so woefully inadequate for holding such a thing, you spread your wings to their full wingspan, imagining for a second that you are floating in air and not water. Desperately, you power through the dark water, paws flailing wildly as your lungs burn, a fire inside your chest. The ice spreads rapidly and then you are up against it, smashing through it with the sound of shattering 'glass' tinkling in your ears.
Dashing for the exit, you gasp and stumble to a halt, your jaw falling open. There is another sphinx standing in front of you - exactly the same. She smiles serenely, stunningly beautiful. Is that really how you look? You just know that she appears exactly like you, there is no doubt about it, but it stirs up a sense of deep-seated unease in your stomach and you flutter your wings anxiously. A shiver runs down your spine and you crouch, snarling at the mirror image, thinking of the mirror tucked safely within the satchel. She's not going to take it from you!
"What do you want?" You snap, unnerved and trembling all over. "Why do you look like me? I just want to get out - I want to escape!"
"You shall never escape," the other sphinx says slowly, bowing her head to you.
"Yes, I damn well will escape!" You explode, leaping for her in more of a warning than aggressiveness; every limb in your body aches and you do not honestly know if you have the strength to engage in another tussle today.
"No, you will not escape," she replies sadly, unfazed by your display. "You are doomed."
"I will escape as soon as I return to the genie," you protest, though her words raise the beginnings of doubt in your gut. What if he does not honour your agreement? No...no... You are going home, you are sure of it.
She seems to sense your refusal to accept this and shakes her head sorrowfully, half-turning away. Rearing back on to your hind legs, you flap your wings hard, buffeting the sphinx with great gusts that push her back across the cave, fighting to maintain her balance. When you drop to all fours again, you glare threateningly, daring her to challenge you, daring her to challenge all that you have encountered and daring her to challenge the last hope you have. Knowing that you are a lost cause to her, she bows her head and vanishes much like the genie did before, although she leaves a whisper of breath behind her: take care...
The events of the long, wearying day catch up to you all at once and your legs tremble, buckling under your own weight. Collapsing to the dirty, damp cave floor, you sink into an uneasy sleep, wondering how you will crawl out of these caves and how you will ever find the genie again.
Days later, when you have recovered, you find yourself back at the desert, at the very spot where you first entered this world. The genie is there already, waiting with a stern, masterly expression, arms crossed firmly across his broad chest and the wind stirring sweeps of sand to funnel about him. Exhaustion drags at your heels and you can barely lift your muzzle, but the knowledge that you will soon, finally, be able to escape this hell propels you forward, your gait steady, if slow.
"Well?" He demanded once you were within convenient speaking range. "Have you got what I wanted? You took your time about it, animal: you were only supposed to be gone for one day. What use are you if you take so long completing tasks?"
"Yes," you huff, only answering the genie's initial question and carefully slinging the leather satchel to the ground at his 'feet'. "Everything that you asked for is there. Take it and be gone."
The genie takes the satchel strap between two fingers, holding it away from his body as if he does not want to sully himself with the dust, which coats the worn and cracked leather. Carefully, he removes the three quest items - hand mirror, gold key and ruby 'eggs' - from the bag and places them delicately upon the sand, each making a little furrow in the fine grain. He inspects everything with great interest, turning the key over several times between his nimble fingers, although you cannot understand why he would be so interested in the key, of all things that you collected. Surely it is simply old junk? The ruby stones and the decorative mirror are far more appealing to you and you start, ruffling your wings; you had been considering taking them for yourself in that moment and you berate yourself mentally for succumbing to a similar kind of greed as the genie's.
This land must play tricks on your mind... You think dreamily, tail lashing gently as you still wish very much for the beautiful items to be yours and yours only.
"Hm...your effort is admirable - everything here is in impeccable condition," the genie says at last, an air of reluctant admiration entering his tone. "This is a solid beginning. I will see how you perform your tasks tomorrow."
"What?" You shriek, turning on the genie ferociously. "You said that I could go if I did what you asked! I would be free! I demand that you release me and transform me back into my human, male self immediately! Keep your word!"
"Ah, ah, ah," the genie says snidely, wagging his finger at you mockingly, gathering up the items into the satchel again and holding it away from you, for you seem to desire leaping for what you had fairly earned. "I said that I 'might' change you back. You haven't done enough yet: I am not satisfied."
Snarling, you jump forward but the genie merely dissipates into a cloud of smoke, reforming a few metres away and laughing mockingly with his display.
"Goodbye, sphinx," he chuckles lowly. "I shall return at my leisure tomorrow. Be ready."
The genie then performs another of his marvellous disappearing acts, as you think to yourself bitterly, and you know that, somewhere, he is bending over the rare jewels and artefacts that you collected for him, risking life and limb at his whim. Flicking your ears curiously, you fancy that you can hear him gleefully congratulating himself over your finds, claiming that he will never release you from his collection, despite what he has said to you in good faith. Your back stiffens and you dig your claws into the ground, equal amounts of fury and despair swelling in your chest.
You will never be released: you are far too valuable already.
It is never a good idea to insult a genie... One young man discovers this the hard way and is set to complete a series of tasks for the genie - if he ever hopes to escape his cruel bindings, that is...
This should, technically, be better than the first one, but it was still difficult to write in second person. I think this is more episodic at least, which is definitely what I was aiming for! :3
Story (c) Amethyst Mare
Commissioned by Catprog, who has posted it on their website also