Amber lay down after she reached the top of her current staircase. She had long lost count on the number of floors she had ascended. Breathing loudly, she placed a hand over her heart and rested on herself on the ice cold floor. Her head was pounding, her heart was racing and sending blood pulsing through her whole body, her thighs were aching, her calves were aching and she had never felt more tired in her entire life. With a deep yawn, she lifted her head and looked around the room. There was a dark tunnel, a climbing wall and a well in the room. With a frown, Amber looked from one item to the next.
‘What kind of room is this?’ she asked to herself and rolled over to her front to take another look around. She glanced down and frowned, dusting away the dust in front of her to reveal a message in golden letters. As soon as the message was seen clearly, a voice echoed in the room.
‘Round like an apple and deep like a cup. But all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can’t pull me up. What am I?’ The voice sounded like it was a shy yet powerful female voice. Amber perked up when she heard it and frowned curiously.
‘A riddle?’ she said and glanced at the message in front of her then slammed her forehead against it ‘Please, God, I know I don’t believe in you, worship you nor do I follow you but I need your help.’ Staring at the golden letters she sighed and rested her chin against her hands with a pout. ‘Round, deep and you can’t pull it up,’ she murmured while mentally highlighting the important parts of the riddles ‘Damn, I never was good at these kind of things…’
She kicked her feet in the air and glanced around the room. She frowned as she stared at the tunnel. It was round, deep and no-one could pull it up. She glanced at the well, which was also round, deep and wasn’t easy to pull up. Shrugging, she stood up and walked over to the well and peered in curiously. She couldn’t see anything through the pitch black darkness, wait what was that glint? Amber leaned forward more and gasped as she accidentally fell down the well. She immediately spread her arms and legs out to try and get a grip on the walls so she could try and climb back out but to no avail. She was slipping on glass instead of stone, which confused her to no end until she landed on the bottom of the well rather harshly. She winced, rubbing her rump soothingly and looked up with a scowl. She looked ahead and raised an eyebrow as she realised she was in a candlelit glass tube. She began crawling carefully through the tube until she found a ladder. She winced as she used her sore hands and feet to climb up the ladder. She poked her head out of the exit inquisitively and dragged herself out. She slumped onto the floor drowsily, flexing her scarred fingers and toes out to get some feeling into them. Sitting up, she saw three bronze statues: a young man smoking a cigarette, an elderly man playing golf and a woman playing the piano. She looked at the wall behind them which said in gold letters…
‘The longer you pull me,’ the voice sounded suddenly in the room, making Amber jump with a sharp yelp and look around with a scrutinized stare for the source of it ‘the shorter I get. What am I?’ Amber groaned and lay her head on the floor.
‘I hate riddles,’ she whined.
Groaning, she stared at the statues blankly, lost for words. She stared at the woman playing the piano blankly. She wasn’t pulling anything while playing and as far as Amber was concerned, pianos didn’t get shorter if they were pulled. Staring at the golf player with exhausted eyes, she frowned thoughtfully. She didn’t know much that about golf because golf wouldn’t be a good sport to play in the middle of a desert, too much sand. When she turned her gaze to the cigarette smoker and chewed on her lip. Well cigarettes grew shorter but did you actually pull them?
Amber glanced back at the other statues and steadily got up to her feet to wander over to the golfer. She ran a hand down the bronze texture and withdrew her hand as something clicked and the hand that held the golf club went down. She yelped as the floor suddenly opened beneath her and she instantly grabbed onto the statue in fright. She stared down at the trapdoor and pulled herself up, clutching onto the statue for dear life when she saw the nasty looking spikes that awaited her through the trapdoor. Swallowing nervously, she carefully lowered herself next to the statue and stepped away carefully. She yelped as crashed into the smoker statue and turned around sharply as it clicked. The arm with the cigarette lowered itself and the statue slid to the side to reveal a doorway.
Blinking, Amber walked through the doorway cautiously, following her way down the dimly lit corridor. The next room contained a timeline with two dates in gold numbers: 00012 and 65700. There was a ticking clock in the middle of the timeline which read the current date and time. Amber glanced at the message underneath the timeline.
‘I never was, am always to be…’
‘Will you stop doing that?!’ Amber shrieked to the ceiling as she jumped out of her skin at the sudden sound of the voice. She heard a light giggle.
‘Just doing my part in this obstacle, Amber,’ it said and Amber stiffened up.
‘Do you know me?’ she asked with a surprised and suspicious whisper. Another laugh answered her.
‘I think you know me too,’ it said ‘I’m known to a lot of the world.’ Amber breathed in sharply and glared at the ceiling.
‘You’re her, aren’t you?’ she snarled ‘The Queen?’ A sigh could be heard.
‘Well, you solved that little riddle, moving onto the next one,’ she said and before Amber could protest she continued the riddle ‘Now, where was I? Oh yes. I never was, am always to be. No-one ever saw me, nor ever will. And yet I am the confidence of all, to live and breathe on this terrestrial ball. What am I?’ Amber sighed and sat down with a pout.
‘I will have your head once I find you,’ she vowed and stared at the timeline.
‘I’d like to see you try,’ came the drawled reply.
‘I accept your challenge, Your Majesty,’ Amber narrowed her eyes at the message determinedly ‘Never was? Can’t be the past, surely. Am always to be? Must be the future, of course.’ Without really thinking twice, Amber got up and strode over, slamming her palm onto the date 65700. The wall jolted and Amber jumped back, suddenly regretting her decision. The wall turned to reveal a passageway behind it. Blinking Amber tilted her head to the side with a surprised look. The Queen laughed.
‘I love your sudden boost of confidence when you’re pushed,’ she simpered as Amber made her way down the passageway. Amber snarled inwardly with gnashed teeth as she stormed through the corridor. She yelped as she found a large golden sphinx blocking her way out of the corridor. It looked down at her and smiled softly.
‘Oh, what’s this?’ it purred and looked Amber up and down with its piercing eyes ‘A fresh face. This is a rare occasion. What’s your name, dear?’ Amber swallowed anxiously.
‘A-Amber…’ Amber stuttered out. The sphinx’s ears pricked up in interest.
‘So you’re Amber,’ it murmured with its head tilted to the side curiously ‘I see. Well, my name is Holly. So, Amber. Ready for the next riddle?’ Amber groaned and hung her head.
‘If you must,’ she muttered sullenly ‘Don’t expect me to enjoy it.’ Holly laughed and cleared her throat.
‘What has four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon and three legs in the evening?’ Amber gaped at her in disbelief.
‘What?!’ she exclaimed ‘What kind of riddle is that?!’
‘My favourite one,’ Holly sniffed ‘Very traditional amongst us sphinxes too. It’s so well known that it’s so easy.’
‘I haven’t heard of it,’ Amber whined and folded her arms with a pout. Holly looked at her with wide eyes.
‘Well, from what I have heard, I thought your village would know it,’ she frowned ‘You’re a desert dweller too, aren’t you?’ Amber stared up at her.
‘Sphinxes live in the desert too?’ she said ‘But I’ve never seen one before, only pictures in books.’ Holly tilted her head to the side then smiled knowingly.
‘We prefer deserts that are closer to the equator,’ she explained ‘I’ve also heard your village is quite secluded, yes?’
‘Exactly how much do you know about me?’ Amber asked suspiciously while narrowing her eyes. Holly’s tail swished in the air as she stuck her head up.
‘Answer my riddle, young one, and I’ll tell you,’ she said shortly. Amber sulked and sat down, holding her head.
‘OK,’ she muttered thoughtfully ‘Four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon and three legs in the evening? Sounds like a lizard of some sort but their legs usually take weeks to grow back…’ She tapped her forehead while staring ahead. Holly tilted her head to the side and smiled.
‘You think too hard,’ she said. Amber stared up at her and blinked.
‘Is it some sort of lizard?’ she asked. Holly sighed and shook her head. Amber groaned in frustration and glared at the floor. ‘I hate riddles.’
‘Au contraire, dear Amber, I quite like them,’ Holly simpered. Amber looked up at her and sighed, looking down at the floor.
‘You said this was easy,’ she muttered sullenly.
‘Well, you haven’t heard of it so it can’t be as easy as I thought it might have been for you,’ Holly raised an amused eyebrow. Amber groaned tiredly and leaned back and stared at the ceiling. Holly sighed and shook her head disapprovingly. ‘It’s a pity. The Queen was so looking forward to seeing you…’ Amber growled.
‘Unfortunately two of the same tricks never work on me,’ she mumbled. Holly simpered and sighed.
‘Well, I’m not really hungry so I won’t eat you if you get the riddle wrong, so I might as well drop a clue for you,’ she shrugged and licked her paw to start grooming her ears ‘What do morning, afternoon and evening have in common?’ Amber raised an eyebrow.
‘Your clues are riddled too,’ she mumbled. Holly laughed boisterously as she narrowed her eyes at the ceiling. ‘Morning, afternoon and evening are parts of the actual day,’ she said out loud to herself ‘Periods of time. Time… Stages… Phases…’ She sat up suddenly with a gasp. ‘Some sort of cycle?’ Holly perked up in interest, ears pricked and tilted her head to the side expectantly. Amber frowned. ‘But what kind of creature loses and gains legs during its life?’ Holly slouched in disappointment and sighed.
‘Oh my, looks like we’re going to be here for a while,’ she said. Amber gaped openly at how the way she slouched. No matter what this beautiful creature did, she did not lose any elegance whatsoever. Amber shook her head out of her thoughts and placed her head in her hands.
‘Well…well…uh…er…um…’ Amber lay down with her arms and legs splayed as she glared at the ceiling moodily. ‘Four, two, three,’ she murmured ‘I guess when I was a baby my hands counted as legs for the first three months of my life.’ When Holly’s ears pricked up suddenly, Amber knew she was going in the right direction. Sitting up, she stared at Holly with an uncertain frown. ‘Is it the human life cycle?’ When Holly purred loudly and nodded, Amber gaped. ‘But we don’t have three legs in the elderly stage…’ Holly simpered.
‘You’re not a human,’ she said ‘Those in the Enhanced category don’t need to use a walking cane to aid them in walking.’ Amber blinked and realisation struck her.
‘Oh! Oh yeah, old regular humans do need walking sticks!’ she said and smacked her hand on her forehead ‘That’s where the third leg comes from! Right, I see now!’ Holly giggled cheekily and her body enveloped itself in a golden light. Amber closed her sensitive eyes to protect them from being damaged and opened them carefully when the light calmed down. A young woman in a gold linen dress stood where the sphinx was sitting down and stepped to the side.
‘You may pass, little Amber,’ she smiled as Amber walked past her. Amber glared at her.
‘I’m roughly the same size as you!’ she said. Holly laughed and ruffled her hair good-humouredly.
‘When I’m a sphinx, you’re a little girl in my eyes,’ she said, her golden eyes glinting playfully. Amber groaned and rolled her eyes.
‘Well, I’ll see you soon,’ she nodded and jogged off.
‘Be careful, Amber.’ Amber paused and looked at Holly as she tucked a strand of her ebony hair behind her ear shyly. ‘The Queen can do a lot in her power alone but she has two henchmen who are much stronger than her. They know everything about a lot of individuals on Ethylias. They talk regularly about you.’ Amber felt her blood run cold at the mention of someone powerful talking about her.
‘Who are they?’ she asked.
‘Two elements which would strike horror in people’s hearts and they would never be able to dream, only suffer nightmares,’ Holly winced as she said her line ‘They know where to look for what they want on Ethylias. They know nothing about mercy nor do they know virtue.’
‘They’re demons aren’t they?’ Amber felt fear crawl up her spine ‘If you don’t know virtue, you must be a demon.’
‘Exactly,’ Holly nodded ‘You’ve come across them before?’ Amber paled.
‘I was once tempted by one,’ she murmured and shuddered violently as the memories flashed past her ‘It wasn’t a pleasant experience for a ten year old so I forgot all about it up until now.’ Shaking her head she turned back to Holly. ‘What are they called?’
‘I’ve already said their names,’ Holly held a grave face ‘I will not say them again.’ Amber stared at her and nodded.
‘Thank you,’ she said and ran down the corridor to go to the next room. She came to a maroon coloured room with a chandelier to light it. A large painting was hung on the wall before her. It showed fields, mountains, villages and a young boy with his pet horse. Amber approached it in awe, running her fingers along the golden frame.
‘Once upon a time a cowboy rode into a village with his horse on Teneday,’ the Queen’s voice sounded in the room ‘He stayed for three days then left on Daeday. How is this possible?’ With a confused frown Amber closed her eyes and counted the days from Teneday to Daeday. Opening her eyes and gaped.
‘Uh…he arrived at midnight on Teneday night and left at midnight on Augenday night which technically would be Daeday…’ Amber bit her lip nervously and the Queen tutted.
‘Wrong.’ Amber sighed in frustration and stared at the painting. Folding her arms she closed her eyes then opened them suddenly.
‘I once had a friend called Magday,’ she remembered with a snap of her fingers ‘Could it be possible that the horse was called Daeday?’ The Queen giggled and Amber gently ran her tiny fingers along the horse’s image in the painting. Its outline flashed brightly and the painting slid to the side to reveal a staircase. Amber jogged up them to reach a room with a long golden vertical line attached to the far wall.
‘What is the straightest line in the world but bent? It’s always in front of you yet always behind you.’ Amber gaped at the riddle and bowed her head, gently massaging her temples.
‘Come on, brain,’ she muttered darkly ‘I know you’re not happy with me doing all those head-butts in father’s training classes but if I can get through this, I promise to never do a head-but again.’ She sighed and stared at the line. ‘Always in front of me?’ Closing her eyes, Amber mentally imagined that she was outside, back in her little village in the vast desert. ‘She said it’s always behind me too…’ Focusing harder she narrowed her eyes. ‘So it’s like a circle around me but it’s the straightest line in the world, apparently.’ Sighing and shaking her head with a frown, Amber’s brain failed to comply with her attempt at logical thinking. Amber opened her eyes and looked around for any lines. She stared out of the window and watched the battle against the fighters and clay dolls. Her gaze slowly drifted to the mountains and she huffed. ‘I don’t see any…’ Her eyes suddenly widened. ‘Wait, the horizon!’ She ran up to the line on the wall and spun it into a horizontal position. The line clicked into place and the wall moved to the side, allowing her access to the next room.
‘You’re getting better at this,’ the Queen’s voice echoed through the darkness as Amber was faced with three tunnels ‘What always runs but never walks, often murmurs but never talks, has a bed but never sleeps and has a mouth but never eats?’
‘I would say vampires for my answer but they walk and talk,’ Amber murmured and folded her arms while studying the tunnels. The one on the left hand side had smoke coming out of it, the centre had water running down it and the one on the right hand side had flowers growing out of it. With a thoughtful hum, Amber tapped her chin attentively. ‘Runs but never walks? I don’t think this would be a creature then. Unless you could say a sprinter but they talk and I hope they do eat and sleep.’ Amber closed her eyes and shook her head. ‘No, the answer needs to be related to one of these three tunnels.’ Looking at them closely, she bit her lip anxiously. ‘Well…water runs, doesn’t it?’ With a deep breath, she dived through the centre tunnels and screamed as she plummeted down with the water. ‘I hate heights!’ she cried and didn’t bother snarling as she heard the Queen laugh above her. She landed on a soft patch of soil with a light thud. With a groan, she lifted her dirt-caked face and stared at the three fruits before her. Sitting up, she wiped her face clean as the Queen recited her next riddle.
‘Once upon a time, there was a green house,’ she started with a giggle ‘Inside the green house there was a white house. Inside the white house there was a red house. Inside the red house there were lots and lots of babies. What is it?’ Amber tilted her head to the side with a frown. In front of her was a watermelon, a green apple and a lime. Tapping her head thoughtfully, she frowned.
‘I’m having a problem linking the riddle to these,’ she murmured helplessly and looked at each one with a confused frown ‘I guess the green house links in with them somehow. And inside an apple there’s white. But the watermelon sort of has a white layer too and it’s red underneath but what on earth are the babies?’
With a tired and lethargic groan, Amber pinched her nose, bowed her head down in thought and sagged her shoulders. Nibbling on her lip, she stared at the watermelon and raised a hand to chop it in half. It was a very messy karate chop, though it could possibly be better than Sarah’s, which only cracked the watermelon a little way. Amber rubbed her hand tenderly before prying the watermelon apart and looking inside. Her brain clicked to attention as she saw hundreds of tiny black seeds inside the red flesh.
‘Oh, those are the babies, I see,’ she said then began eating some of the watermelon when her stomach grumbled for food. She hummed in approval, it was a good watermelon compared to the amount of good food Amber could salvage from anything. The soil before her parted as soon as she took a bite to reveal a small hole, leading to the next room. She finished her bite and jumped down to see three boxes before her: a cardboard box, a glass tank and a coffin.
‘The maker doesn’t want it,’ the Queen recited the riddle that was written on the wall ‘The buyer doesn’t use it. The user doesn’t see it.’ Amber tilted her head with a puzzled frown and looked from one item to the next.
‘Well…I suppose some makers wouldn’t want anything they made,’ she muttered to herself with a curious look ‘The cardboard box is quite useful though, it can be used by anyone for anything. And the buyer would use it to store things in.’ She stared at the glass tank. ‘I guess the buyer would use it to, I don’t know, keep snakes in perhaps?’ She briefly remembered Xeann’s description of her pet snakes. ‘Yup, Xeann would use it and I think the snakes would see it.’ She glanced at the coffin and tilted her head curiously. ‘Uh…what were coffins used for again? I keep on forgetting…’ She rubbed the back of her head sheepishly, biting her lip. ‘My father keeps on saying something about them during our training missions.’ Stretching and closing her eyes she hummed thoughtfully then gasped in realisation. ‘Oh yeah, you use them to store dead people in them! Yeah, the buyer doesn’t really use it and the user can’t see it!’
She hummed merrily as she skipped over to the coffin and opened it. It was empty so she leaned in for a closer inspection, seeing if there was something else about the coffin and accidentally fell in, trapping herself inside as the door swung close. Her stomach jolted as the coffin was lifted up and into the next room. The door of the coffin swung open as it was suddenly propped up to a vertical position and Amber tumbled out, smacking her face into the stone floor that awaited her. With a groan and a nosebleed, she groggily sat up and stared at the five dark tunnels before her. They each had a unique symbol above them: the letter P, the letter E, the letter S, the letter T and a question mark.
‘This is my favourite,’ the Queen giggled as Amber wiped her nose tenderly and stared at the riddle on the floor ‘I appear twice in this verse. Can you guess? I bet you can’t. Can you?’
‘What on Ethylias was that all about?’ Amber asked in confusion with an extremely bamboozled, befuddled and baffled look. Lying back with a sigh, she pinched her nose to stop the bleeding. Amber repeated the verse in her head carefully and frowned. She had heard that riddle somewhere before but she couldn’t remember the exact details. She hummed, drumming her worn out toes on the cold stone floor beneath her. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, yawning as she remembered exactly how tired she was. She began humming a little lullaby that her mother used to sing to her when she was very young every night and licked away the blood that trickled down over her lips and chin. With a defeated and knackered sigh, she opened her eyes slowly and glared at the dark ceiling. ‘Please, can’t you just tell me which tunnel to go down so I can fight you?’ she asked. The Queen’s laugh was very shy and sounded very girly.
‘I want my opponents to be smart, fun, challenging and interesting,’ she said ‘That’s the reason for all these obstacles.’
‘I’ve done the last few on my own,’ Amber whined.
‘Well, you can do this one on your own, can’t you?’ The Queen didn’t sound very impressed with Amber’s attitude to her riddles. ‘You know, not all riddles have a definite answer.’ Amber grumbled and looked up at the symbols.
‘It’s these kinds of riddles that I hate the most,’ she mumbled sulkily, staring at the symbols idly. Her eyes slowly drifted over to the question mark and she frowned curiously when she failed to recognize it. She could just read the other letters. ‘What kind of symbol is that?’ she asked to herself and stood up, dusting her hands down on her shorts. She had seen it at the end of every riddle that had been written in gold in the past few rooms. Perhaps that was the way to the Queen and her subjects. Amber got up, wiped her nose then purposely strode down the tunnel with the question mark over it. She soon began jogging after a few minutes of walking then running as adrenaline pumped through her body.
She groaned when she saw the staircase at the end of the corridor and began to ascend it. She stopped at the top, panting for breath and looking at the next room she was in. A low growl caught her attention and Amber felt like collapsing in exhaustion when she saw a sabre tooth tiger come out of the shadows.