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Under the Gebmids


by stella_123_5

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Mom wanted me to invite you to grandma’s birthday next month,” Sarina said as she leaned in to examine a painted brick. “I was going to wait to ask till we got home tonight, but since it might take a while to get out of here…” The flame from her lantern flickered, making shadows play across the White Aisha’s face.

     It made it difficult for Noemi to gauge her expression. She knew it probably wasn’t fair, but she couldn’t help but hear a hint of accusation in her sister’s voice.

     Maybe the single entrance to the tomb had come crashing down behind them because she’d stepped on the wrong tile, sure; but it was Sarina who hadn’t been holding the lantern right in the first place. Of course, Noemi hadn’t seen the trick tile. In her opinion, a professional like Sarina should have known better.

     Besides, she hadn’t wanted to come here at all.

     Noemi tried to think of a charitable, yet non-committal reply as she brushed her hand over another brick in the tomb wall; feeling for a groove, or a switch- anything, that could get her out of here and let her put more than two metres of distance between her and her twin sister.

     The other Aisha huffed as the pause grew too long. “You don’t have to say yes, you know. But there’s barely enough room as it is, we don’t need your humongous ego down here with us too.”

     The walls really were too close for comfort. Loopy Qasalan writing surrounded them, running around the walls in hundreds of tightly spaced lines, broken up only by the occasional illustration of a Geb. The ancient blues and reds were faded with time, but the ghost of their beauty still shone as Noemi and Sarina passed over them with their lanterns.

     The dust the falling door had kicked up was still floating around, dancing in the too-little light. Noemi coughed. Was it her imagination, or were the cracks in the walls a little longer, a little deeper than when they’d come in? She tried not to think of the thousands of tons of sandstone piled up on top of them. Just as she tried not to engage with Sarina’s taunts.

     “The only humongous thing in here are those ears of yours.”

     (Ah well, one out of two wasn’t bad.)

     Sarina gasped, offended. “You-!” She tugged her ears down defensively. “Rich coming from someone with your tail!”

     “Indeed, both your tail and ears are too long, too round!” A third voice rang around the room. “No appreciation for the good, clean lines of a triangle!”

     Noemi and Sarina both screamed. The fire in their lanterns went wild, whipping around as if in a spectral wind. They grew brighter, so bright both Aishas had to cover their eyes.

     And then everything went back to normal.

     Normal, except for the glowing Geb now floating just above their heads.

     The little petpet had a deeper voice than one would expect from his stature. “I am Doku, guardian of these chambers. To gain your freedom once more, you must prove your worth in my trials!”

     

***

      Six-year-old Noemi believed her mother when she said she liked both hers and Sarina’s drawings. (And maybe she did, it was difficult to dislike anything a child handed to you; clumsy crayon strokes going over the lines and all.) She believed the faerie tales that assured her that trying her best was all she needed, that the little pets who didn’t complete their quests were just as loved as long they tried hard.

      Ten-year-old Noemi had begun to suspect that sometimes the faeries (and her parents) picked favourites.

     Fourteen year old Noemi was sure of it.

     Maybe she should have known, even before, when relatives always asked after Sarina first. When teachers mixed only mixed her up with Sarina, never the other way around. Or when at school, she was always “Noemi, Sarina’s sister.”

     (Or, “who?”, if it was a particularly bad day.)

     In any case, she eventually had figured it out; somewhere in between the runner up trophies and the participation medals from a million extracurriculars she’d tried, hoping to find the one thing that could be her thing.

     The closest to that she’d gotten, however, was: “Oh, Noemi is far more curious than Sarina is. It’s a pity she never sticks with anything, though. I imagine she’d have been very good at something by now if she did.”

     (Her mother, to their Scorchio neighbour, over tea, as Noemi passed by the kitchen window.)

     Later, Noemi would occasionally imagine this moment as earth-shattering. On those nights, when twenty-six-year-old Noemi would be laying in bed and staring at the ceiling, the neighbour in her memories would be snickering. She imagined she’d run up to her room in a rage.

      Fourteen-year-old Noemi, however, had simply done a sort of shrug; and decided to not quit the Yooyuball team after all. She hadn’t paid much attention to what the neighbour was doing.

     

***

     “Do you still play?” Sarina asked, in between wheezes. “Yooyuball, I mean. Look at me, barely a hundred-metre sprint, and I’m spent.”

     Doku’s first trial, it turned out, hadn’t been very creative. The little Geb had done a little wiggle in the air (Noemi imagined he’d have waved his arms around too, if he had any), and a panel had slid open on one of the walls. A corridor lay behind it. As they watched, the torches lining the walls had lit up in succession; and all manner of spike traps, heavy pendulums, and barrages of arrows had started up along its length.

     “These look just like the trap designs I encountered in Geraptiku!” Sarina had said enthusiastically. “Fascinating, did your cultures interact? You have to let me interview you, the paper will be groundbreaking.”

     “You are not worthy of my answers, rounded one! Complete my trials, and I shall consider a reply.”

     And of course, nothing stood between Sarina and her relentless march towards being the best archaeologist in Neopia.

     She and Noemi had traded a glance.

     And then they’d run, leaping over spikes, rolling under volleys of arrows, and hugging the walls to squeeze past the pendulum.

     Noemi now leaned heavily against the wall for support, too winded to care that her sweat and the dust were turning into mud and caking into her fur. “Just… a local hobby team,” she replied. The moment of synchronisation melted away, and she fought to keep bitterness out of her words.

     Noemi’s Yooyuball, and Sarina’s archaeology. Noemi’s hobby, and Sarina’s bright, shining career. Their things.

     But her sister smiled. “You always did like it better than me.”

     “You could have played during college too. I saw the Brightvale University team’s game when they played the Lost Desert Academy down here a few years ago.” Noemi coughed uncomfortably. “They were awful, you would have been an asset. No way they would have turned you down.”

     Sarina wasn’t breathing as hard now. She tried to straighten out her clothes as she spoke. “Well, I only joined to pad out my application, after all. There wasn’t much point after I got in. Besides, it wouldn’t have been the same without you.”

     Something twisted in Noemi’s heart. Of course, Sarina would go ahead and say something nice. She was always sweet like that. And whatever negative emotion Noemi felt about that would just be some kind of misplaced anger, sour grapes from the less accomplished sibling. So what if Yooyuball had meant more to Noemi than some silly little thing to do with sister? So what if even now, a decade later, Noemi was still trying to finish some kind of one-sided argument she’d begun a decade ago?

     Before she could say anything, Doku materialised between them.

     “Yooyus,” he clucked disapprovingly, “are far too round to have any good sense. You wouldn’t catch me getting tossed around like them.”

     Sarina clapped her hands together excitedly. “Do you mean you were in contact with the ancient Altadorian cultures too? Amazing! But then how-”

     Doku spun, a full three hundred and sixty degrees. “Silence! The trials still continue. Come, young orbular ones.”

     Another panel slid open.

     

***

          One of the earliest things Noemi had felt jealous of, was the fact that Sarina had been the first to come up with an answer to that oft-asked question: "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

     Noemi had never liked being asked that. She understood now, how an adult looked at a child and saw limitless potential, years and a dozen different paths laying out in front of them. But a child really only knew the now, and Noemi couldn't stand how they wanted to take her away from her now of dolls and finger paints.

     So when their aunt, a lovely green Lupe, had knelt down beside where Noemi and Sarina were lying on their stomachs and colouring drawings destined for the refrigerator and asked them if they wanted to be artists when they grew up, Noemi had just shrugged.

     But Sarina, she'd considered it for a second, before proudly declaring, "I wanna be an arcolo-kissed!"

     "A what?" Both Noemi and the aunt had asked.

     "Those people who dig in the desert! An arcolo-kissed. Mama showed me in the newspaper yesterday."

     "Oh, an archaeologist. That's nice, dear. It's always good to have a dream. Make sure you study hard!"

     A dream, huh? Noemi had thought. I like how things are right now, though. I don't really have anything to dream about.

     She'd spent years trying to chase down this thing she didn't have, but only succeeded in finding a dozen different names for it. A thing, a dream, a passion, a calling.

     So it had been a little exciting when she scored the winning goal in her third inter-school Yooyuball match. Time had slowed down as she came up on the goal post- she had been able to see the path of the ball clearer than ever before, the movement of the goalkeeper's legs that told her he had read her approach all wrong, that she was going to score for sure.

     Oh, I wouldn't mind doing this for the rest of my life, Noemi had thought as the last whistle blew and she looked up at her family cheering in the stands. Maybe that's what a dream is.

     On the way home, her mother had asked if Sarina could still sign up for the team, how it would look great on her application to Brightvale University.

     "Besides," she'd continued, despite Sarina telling her they could talk about it later, “You girls used to be so close, it’ll be so much fun to watch you play together again!”

     

***

     “Okay, I think if I put my weight on this one now, it should…” Sarina narrowed her eyes in frustration. “Why won’t it light up?”

     The second trial was a puzzle. Doku had brought them to a long room, its furthest wall taken up by a collection of illustrations depicting what looked like ancient Geb life. Gebs dancing, Gebs gathering at a market, Gebs worshipping a larger Geb. The images spilt off the wall and continued for about a metre into the floor tiles.

     (Oh, Noemi was getting sick of all the angles.)

     Doku had given them a poem that was a horrible cross between a comprehension test and a word problem; and directed them to light up the appropriate bricks and tiles by pushing on them.

     The two Aisha were precariously balanced. Sarina had one leg on the floor, and one on a wall. One hand laid flat against a brick, while the other tugged down on a torch. Noemi was upside down, supported on her palms, trying her best to weigh down two (extremely inconveniently spaced) floor tiles, while also threading a leg between Sarina’s arms to push down on a brick.

     “Figure it out quick, because my shoulders are about to give out,” Noemi groaned.

     Doku spun maddeningly about the room like a Beekadoodle; making sharp, angular turns, looping around in perfect squares. He repeated his helpful hints about angles and isosceles triangles as he went, unfortunately in a style of verse so archaic Noemi wanted to turn him into so much Geb-powder.

     (Sarina would probably be mad about her damaging the artifact.)

     (But really, not all that much. He was being very annoying.)

     Noemi’s shoulder made a threatening click. “Okay,” she said hastily, “that little guy’s talking about isosceles triangles, so we should maybe be going for some kind of symmetry. Something like… that one near your head.”

     Sarina considered it. “I don’t have any more limbs.”

     “I got it,” Noemi grunted and stretched her tail out as far as it could go. The second it brushed against the brick, the entire array lit up. The wall shook and began to fold in on itself, with a deafening rumble.

     Noemi and Sarina, off balance, tumbled into a heap on the floor.

     After the din subsided, Noemi cautiously raised her head. A new corridor had been revealed. She sighed and got up, then tugged her sister to her feet as well.

     “Good thing I have a big tail, huh?” Noemi grinned. “Let’s keep going.”

     But Sarina looked worried as she peered down the corridor. “I got a little turned around just now, but this direction…”

     Doku interrupted her in his booming tomb-guardian voice. “Onwards to the final challenge!”

     

***

     In a perfect world, Sarina would have been better than Noemi right off the bat.

     Then, at least Noemi could have written angsty poems about forever being in her amazing sister’s shadow.

     As it was, Sarina was just good enough for Noemi to be jealous of her natural ability, but not good enough to start crying in her diary about it. Infuriatingly competent, as she’d told a teammate who’d asked her what she thought of her sister’s performance.

     The Red Draik had been taken aback for a second, but then he’d laughed. “That’s one way of putting it. Man, it took me ages to get those edge shots right, and she’s halfway there already. Glad she’s playing for us and not the other team.”

     Even more infuriatingly, Sarina chose not to get better.

     “We’re miles better than anyone else in the circuit,” Sarina had argued frustratedly, “and you don’t need me to wipe the floor with all of them anyway, so what does it matter if I don’t practise with you on the weekends? I do plenty during the week!”

     She had been right, and Noemi had hated it. And what she’d hated even more, was not understanding why she had a problem with it. Wouldn’t she have disliked it even more if Sarina tried to take away “Noemi, the one who’s better at Yooyuball”? She certainly didn’t want to be “Noemi, the White Aisha on the bench”.

     It had been bittersweet when they’d won the high school championships that year. Noemi had scored the winning goal, and Sarina had scored nothing. But Sarina had cleared the path for her.

     Noemi really couldn’t have done it without her.

     

***

     “Oh no, just like I thought,” Sarina whispered. “We’re back where we started!”

     Noemi growled in frustration and spun around. “Hey! What gives-”

     The Geb was nowhere to be seen.

     “That little-”

     “He made us go around in a triangle,” Sarina groaned. “Where is he? Why isn’t he giving us the last trial?” She sighed and sat down on the floor, in front of the wall that had trapped them in the first place. “This isn’t how I pictured the weekend going.”

     Noemi looked at her for a second before joining her. “Me neither. I thought I could push you down into a pit somewhere and go home,” she teased. “Didn’t think I’d be stuck too.”

     Sarina shoved her playfully. “You don’t mean that!”

     “Yeah, I don’t.” She didn’t.

     (It felt a little nice when they were both equally lost.)

     They sat there in silence for a minute, both absently looking at the wall. It was almost identical to the rest of the room; but the paint was a little less faded, and the text wasn’t as cramped- as if the artist had meant for this one wall to be special. Beautiful ancient Qasalan calligraphy looped around images of the desert; pyramids in front of the setting sun, on the banks of a river that had long dried up.

     Both of them would have appreciated it more if it wasn’t the thing between them and their freedom.

     Noemi spoke again. “How did you think the weekend was going to go? Were you worrying about my ‘massive ego’ the whole time you were coming down from Brightvale?”

     Her sister looked surprised for a second, then she smiled softly. “Honestly, kind of. But not about your ego. Just… Noe, I’m not really sure, but I got the feeling you didn’t like spending time with us. With me.”

     Noemi looked away. “Nonsense. I love you, you’re my family.”

     “You can love me, but you don’t have to like me just because we’re twins.”

     Noemi met Sarina’s eyes and was shocked to see a nervous, expectant expression.

     “Of course I like you!” Noemi blurted out. “There isn’t anyone else I like more. I don’t accept invitations to explore old tombs with just anyone, you know.”

     Sarina beamed, and then huffed theatrically. “Good, you better not.” She looked at the wall, where a lone scarab now skittered across the painted brick. “I know you get uncomfortable when mom compares us. But honestly, I think it’s really cool how you’re just doing your own thing in Qasala.”

     “Sarina, you don’t have to-”

     “No! It’s true! All my life, I’ve just been an archaeologist. Well I haven’t been one properly, but I knew that was what I wanted. Or what I wanted more than other things… what I mean is, I never felt like the world was… was wide, you know?”

     Noemi cocked her head. “You’ve travelled so much, Sar.”

     “That’s not it! Ah, I’m not making sense. It’s like… you have choices, you know? You could just get up and move to Roo Island tomorrow, and spend a few years selling milkshakes. And then go to Neopia Central. Intern at the Times office, or something. I could too, I guess. But it’d just be like… taking a break from what I really am, no matter how tired I was of it. You though, you could be so many things. You always have been so many things.”

     Speechless, and honestly a little teary, Noemi turned her head away to look at the scarab on the wall. “Thanks, Sar. I…”

     Beside her, Sarina giggled and leaned in for a hug. “It’s okay, you don’t have to say anything. You know what? If I have to be stuck down here forever, at least it’s with you.”

     Noemi awkwardly hugged her back. She appreciated the sentiment, but hopefully, it wouldn’t come to that. As she stared at the wall, the scarab squeezed itself into the smallest of gaps between two bricks and disappeared behind it; making Noemi incredibly jealous.

     Hang on, the place where that scarab had disappeared…

     “Sarina, the letters on the wall have changed.”

     Sarina gasped. Noemi jumped up and ran to the wall. Sarina soon joined her, reading over her shoulder.

     “Oh Fyora, it’s a riddle!” Sarina exclaimed. “Let me see, uhm… I am three twice over, but four I remain.

     “A square! It’s a square!” Noemi shouted. “Four sides, but it’s just two triangles put together. He’s obsessed with triangles!”

     Doku appeared in a shower of sparks from one of the torches. “Circular ones, despite your lack of straight lines, you have prevailed! I now acknowledge and release you from Doku’s trials.” He spun, and the wall that had trapped them there began to grind open, letting loose a fresh shower of dust. “Please, feel free to visit any time.”

     Noemi and Sarina ran for the entrance.

     

***

     Neither Noemi nor Sarina had scored any goals in their last Yooyuball game together, to the eternal disappointment of their mother. It would have been such a great story, she’d always say, if you’d pulled off something dramatic at the eleventh hour in that final game.

     (The game had been a tie, 2-2 versus another school from the Lost Desert. A thoroughly mundane affair, from beginning to end.)

     The first few instances had stung, but by the third time Sarina had come home from college for the holidays; it was just another thing for them to trade glances and roll their eyes at over the table.

     (That had been back when Noemi still went back to their parents’ house every year.)

     Noemi had liked the little bubble they had had in those moments. Even when the conversation moved to Sarina’s impending field digs and prestigious internships, all she had to offer were a few small wins in the local Yooyuball hobby circuit; the bubble was still there.

     “If this was a novel,” Sarina had said after dinner one day, when they were lounging around in the living room, “We’d go out and toss around a few Yooyus, reminisce about the past and all that.”

     “And I’d have a great internal monologue going about… I don’t know actually, but it’d be deep.”

     Sarina had thrown a cushion at her. “Who says you get the monologue?”

     “Please, I’m sure my thoughts are way more interesting,” Noemi had said as she stuck her tongue out at her. “Wait, was that invitation to go out and actually play a little?”

     “Yeah,” Sarina had giggled. “Glad you caught on.”

     

***

     Somewhere deep in the Lost Desert, two Aishas ran across the white sands, playfully dancing around and chasing one another. A beautiful (round) orange sun hung low in the sky behind them, setting over the Gebmids.

      The End.

 
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