The Loneliest Stadium in the Galaxy
ANOTHER INKY WHIRLPOOL, unending. It had no beginning, no end. It drew me in and I couldn’t resist. Deeper and deeper I sank while it roared about me, smelling of saltwater.
Sometimes the roars relented and I sensed snatches of music, and eerie whispers, and the clashing of steel.
Then cracks of thunder, a pattering drizzle, cries of joy. I was there, yet I wasn’t.
I was gossamer, floating aimlessly in a monstrous storm’s eye. These were embers of events past, I knew. Far more significant than I’d ever be, but that didn’t concern me. Long ago I’d learned the broad strokes of the human experience mattered little to street urchins.
The only thing of import was I find Chacha Kakakhel and have him restore my life. Meager though it was, anything beat staying locked up in an underground cell for reasons the diabolical midget omitted to explain.
Thinking of that traitor Muji also gave me migraines. In my mind, I again and again replayed that afternoon and emerged none the wiser. I’d never fantasized about offing a senior, but Chacha made an ironclad case and I should oblige.
My surreal dreams kept to a regular schedule. How many nights now? I lay still as death until a blinding light enwrapped me and electric bolts fired through my body. Then I’d come to, sweating like a cast-iron kettle, and crawl toward the dented food tray near the cell bars. The rats often got to the flatbread first, so I’d sip on soggy dhal.
That day was different. The light did not envelop me and instead formed many fiery orbs that circled before my eyes like slaves to a celestial juggler. The air seethed and sizzled as their violent dance grew faster and faster until my skin pruned and blistered and bled black blood. Louder and louder, I howled in pain until the orbs whooshed together and collapsed into nothingness.
And then someone flipped the floodlights.
I swore and covered my face until his infuriating laugh pricked my ears. But on a dime my rage swapped for fear when I nearly fell off my seat. Round ten feet away, Chacha Kakakhel also sat on a wooden stool hovering in midair.
Around us set an outfield of dazzling emerald green, fenced by spired grandstands splendorous as princely manors. And beside the dull buzz from the light towers and Chacha’s chronic wheezing, there was no sound.
No chirping grasshoppers or pesky gnats. No life. We floated over a glassy pitch in the galaxy's loneliest cricket stadium. I couldn’t fathom such a farce unless a mortal pandemic struck humankind and shut us indoors.
He coolly picked his nose; his attire unchanged, beside the curved horn that strung round his collar like a protective charm. Mercifully, his annoying boombox was missing. “How goes it, son?”
“As if,” I grunted. “What’d I ever do to you, huh?”
He made a somber face. “I didn’t expect you to show up either, you know. Threw my plans all awry.”
“Is that why you told them only I could reach you? And then disappeared, goddammit.”
His wispy brow arched. “Ah, you’re still Kalia. No wonder it took so long.”
I scrubbed my face in exasperation. “What did? Forget it. Just clear my name and I swear I’ll steer clear from whatever you’re planning.”
He shook his head. “Sorry, kid. Wish there were another way. We need you or history will repeat itself.”
If a meat cleaver were handy, I would’ve diced him into ribbons without remorse. Or fired up a cannon and made him go kablooey. I’d even have settled for remodeling his face with my slipper. But Chacha was a djinn or a warlock and I, a mere cheap candy seller.
“You’re a man, right?” he asked brightly. “What makes one a man?”
I straightened and crossed my arms. “To act as one, what else? A man’s word should be unshakeable.”
“Splendid, so let’s make a deal? An agreement between men. You help me, I help you.”
My eyes narrowed. “You’ve proven more of a weasel to date.”
He looked away and swatted his hand. “Fair enough. We’ll start over,” he said, tapping his shades. “Guess why I wear these.”
I recalled Kubba’s ashen face when the geezer removed them. “You’re not blind, are you?”
He shushed me, a wry smile on his lips. “This is top, top secret, but you must know. No changing that.” His head pitched a few degrees and he reached for his specs.
My heart ba-dumped. Maybe he was a cyclops? Or a zombie with bloodshot eyes? No, he must have lasers for pupils. The kind that could incinerate buildings…
He outspread his palms and posed for me. “Really something, eh?”
My limbs went limp. How could this be? Was I dreaming inside the dream?
Behind the shades, a swirling black hole. The inky whirlpool that’d haunted me for days, rippling in a clockwise motion. No eye sockets, only an abyss.
Chacha stuck on his shades and patted the horn. “The cover still won’t fit, but that’s life.”
I didn’t respond. I couldn’t respond.
“You’ve met my brother, yes? Now that guy is the sneakiest fellow I know, hee-hee.”
It had to be that knave, Muji. Nothing else made sense. “K-kubba and the councilor. W-who are they?”
His neck stuck out like a rooster. “Oh, you noticed? Clever boy.”
Right then, my terror overtook the threshold of common sense and gave way to indignation. I edged off my stool and landed in a crouch. “What do you people want with me?”
He grinned. “Aren’t you the brave one after seeing my oculus?”
I stomped on the hard loam. “Enough. You better explain if you want my help. Who are you people and who’s warring with Naya Chooran?”
Chacha bobbed his palms to calm me. “Patience, my little friend. Time for an ancient story and don’t get bored quickly. You need to know this.”
At the dawn of civilization, he began in a raspy voice, God tasked two brothers to wreak havoc on Earth. He didn’t tell them why, and they didn’t bother asking.
For centuries they slashed and burned cities, countries, and continents. Sometimes, one brother would act the savior, and once he’d baited the locals to trust him, they’d join forces to reduce entire nations to dust. Though they didn’t need the mind games to usher destruction, these kept them entertained.
The brothers were invincible, God made it so, and infinite in their appetite for violence. They felled pharaohs and false gods and mighty kings. Only, Gabriel warned them not to cross a particular river to the East. The abundance of prey round them curbed their curiosity, but as centuries passed, they grew weary of easy kills and their conceit sent them across the river.
There they met a young man, humble in his carriage, the seventh son of the sultan of a small kingdom bordering the river banks. He greeted them warmly, and with his silver tongue assured them of his support to overthrow the sultan if he could rule in his stead.
The brothers agreed, seeing in young Zulkarnain a fellow evil, but he instantly forsook them. Using a supernatural gift unclear to Chacha, he stole the source of their power; their runic horn and staff; and banished them inside an impenetrable fortress for all eternity.
Chacha scratched his temple, simpering. “Thing is, I’m not sure who freed us.”
He faked a bow. “Yajuj at your service.”
Muji. Muji. Majuj! I flopped onto the pitch; my terror-stricken gaze locked on him. “Are you going to kill me? Everyone?”
“No, you fool. We’re no longer the superpowers of old. And I’m on your side.”
His features hardened. “There are beings protecting this land. They were people once, I guess. Won’t let us do our thing.”
A hollow chuckle escaped me. “They’re protecting Naya Chooran? What’s there to protect?”
He wagged his finger. “Great question. Only the big man upstairs knows, but these beings, they’re powerful. Scary, even.”
“Great! Nothing to worry about then.”
“Not so. These beings cannot defy the will of the people, so my brother is back to his tricks.” He heaved a sigh. “If only they’d made me councilor.”
My lips shaped into an O. “You mean?”
“Yes. The missiles, they’re his doing. And he lucked out since the peasant class of our tribe did very well for themselves, hah.”
Then he touched his forehead. “I told them to read the inscription on the shell. Our seal’s right there on the fins. Those imbeciles have forgotten Majuj’s guile.”
They. Kubba and Ikhlaq. Everything I’d known about life was wrong. I was still a child. I lay flat on my back and peered past the halo of the floodlights to the Stygian, starless sky.
“Why did you call them your comrades? These beings,” I asked drily.
A shuffling sound reached my ears. Chacha dropped from his stool onto the grass and sat cross-legged. “After my sons sided with Zulkarnain to keep us captive, rage blinded me and I swore revenge on humanity. But years ago, when I scouted Naya Chooran, they showed me the error of my ways.”
More they. I snorted. “You seek redemption now, is that it?”
“No, son. I want to be a man. A real one.”
My chest twinged. “Why am I here?”
“You might find this hard to believe, but you’re Zulkarnain’s offspring or his reincarnation, who knows? Otherwise, the whirlpool would’ve melted you into goop.”
I snapped upright on the pitch. “Liar. Me?”
He stroked his beard. “How the mighty have fallen, eh? I bet the forebears of your kings used to clean horse poop in my time.”
Should I celebrate or knock myself in the head? Could I be the progeny of an immortal hero who held the demonic brothers at bay? Sigh, but I was merely a street urchin who sold candy in the boondocks and now locked underground. His revelation raised no courage, no heroism in me.
His finger snap caught my eye and he chortled. “Typical. You’re trying to save the world all by yourself.”
My face crinkled in anger. “Easy for you to say. You’re part demon.”
He coughed into his fist. “True, true. But it’s not all bleak. You have an ally on the outside, a useful one.”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself. The most important thing is I become councilor as soon as possible.”
I threw up my arms, incredulous. “You’re a broken cassette player.”
“You don’t understand,” he said seriously. “They won’t help us against Majuj until the people decide so. And we can’t win without them. As we speak, my brother allies with your mortal enemy for a massive strike.”
My brain reeled from his info dump. “I should just skip town after telling mom,” I said, clawing at my scalp.
“You could. But will that make you a man?”
My lips smacked in irritation. Chacha knew what buttons got me going. “Fine, but I’m not dying for these ingrates. What has Naya Chooran ever done for me?
He stared at me overlong. “Only you can answer that question.”
I got to my feet and brushed down my clothes. “What’s the plan?”
He heartened and polished the horn with his wrist. “Majuj’s staff. Or something similar he keeps with him at all times. Steal it.”
The miswak stick he brandished that day. “You think I can overpower his handlers, much less him? You’ve lost your damn mind.”
His lips drew back and his chipped teeth glinted. “My brother has a fatal weakness, but you haven’t spent enough time with him to know. But your ally does, at least he should if he’s not a total stooge.”
The cantaloupe-sized lump in my throat shrunk. “That’s something. Now, who is he?”
“Afi,” he said, shooting me a victory sign.
My shoulders slumped. “You’ve lost your damn mind.”
He hissed a laugh. “Well, I didn’t deny the first time, did I?”
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