The Keepers (Anoosha Lalani)
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Sixteen-year-old Isra Kalb has grown up starving in the slums of Islamabad. But hunger is only the beginning. When her father is mysteriously murdered and madness corrupts her mother’s mind, she’s left alone to fend for herself and her sister. Homeless and destitute, the only thing she has to remember her loving family by is a commonplace necklace–an amulet barely worth keeping.
Or so she thinks.
Swept into a web of lies, deceit and turmoil, Isra struggles to find a place for herself and Zaffirah, wondering if the strange creatures and visions she’s seeing are indications of the madness that took her mother. But when Snatchers capture Zaffirah, Isra learns her amulet isn’t so useless after all. Transported to Zarcane–the beastly garden where Adam and Eve were born–Isra comes face to face with her destiny. She’s a Keeper, charged with protecting the borders of Zarcane and keeping the demon hordes lurking in the shadows from taking realms that are not their own. And she’s not the only one; there’s a second Keeper, a boy whose identity hasn’t been revealed.
Now, in order to save her sister and fulfill her family’s legacy as Keeper of the Amulet, she has to find the second Keeper and close the borders. Surrounded by betrayal, trapped between warring factions of angels, and desperate to save the only family she has left, Isra must decide:
Who can she trust when nothing is what it seems?
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Read The First Chapter
The hunger cramps gnawed at my empty stomach. They crept into the hollow insides of my body, silent and sly, snatching the sleep I had only just fallen into. I fooled the yearning for a while by wrapping a cloth tight around my torso. I almost convinced myself that I wasn’t hungry. Almost. Now, enraged at the deception, the hunger was back with a vengeance. It was useless to try to go back to sleep. I had worn out my welcome in the dreamers’ lands.
I glanced at the silhouette of Zaffirah, lying beside me. The blanket, having slipped off her skinny body, now lay in an untidy heap on the floor. I picked it up and gently pulled it over her cold shoulders. She rolled, spinning a cocoon in its wool, and sighed happily. I felt my lips part in a smile that echoed her short-lived contentment.
Sparing a final glance at my sister, I crept out of the one-room house. The door wailed behind me as its rusted hinges creaked. I hoped silently that it hadn’t woken my sister and began walking along the dirt road. I moved past rows of corrugated iron and wooden shacks toward the only well in our slum. Maybe I could fill my stomach with water instead. I had done it before on many occasions.
I looked back. From a distance, my home looked like a human bird’s nest, but they all did. Every broken house in every filthy slum in Islamabad—if they could even be called houses. The crumbling infrastructure was the framework of my life.
I continued walking, and within seconds, I was greeted with the smell of excretion and vomit. I pulled my gauzy dupatta over my nose, but the stench permeated the thin fabric. My breath automatically turned shallow as my feet pulled me forward, further into the slum. The tiny rocks of sand bounced off my slipper-encased feet and grains found their way into my shoes and between my toes.
My stomach groaned violently, a reminder that it was still waiting to be fed. I stopped beside the faded brick well. A sixteen-year-old girl with dark, tangled locks, thinly layered with grime, looked back at me from the well’s deep, dark depths. My fingers automatically combed my hair, undoing the knots with little success. Knowing the hopelessness of the task I had taken on, I dropped my hands to the metal pail and pushed it into the well, causing ripples that distorted my reflection. When I pulled the pail back out, it was overflowing, unable to contain the water. I cupped my hands together to sip the cool liquid it held. The water ran down my throat, feeding every inch of my body. It soothed my stomach for less than a second before the ache of starvation was back.
I refilled the empty pail and lifted it to my head, the palms of my hands carefully supporting its weight as I turned, ready to make my way back home.
“Abbeh!” The sharp voice snapped me out of my thoughts.
Meters ahead, two boys were yelling at each other. “You have three seconds to give it to me!”
I knew that voice. It was Farid, the fisherman’s son and, occasionally, my friend.
“Or what?” the other boy asked, smirking.
Farid held up one finger. Then he brought up the second. Just as quickly as the third appeared, he punched the boy across the jaw. Red globules of saliva flew from the boy’s mouth to the ground. Farid’s temper rose like the howls of wind, unexpectedly and often with harsh cruelty. The very rage he displayed now. His face was twisted into a mask of grotesque fury. He wasn’t done. He straightened his leg and kicked the boy in the gut. The boy fell to the ground, clutching his stomach. Farid then bent down and whispered something into the boy’s ear before snatching a white plastic bag out of his clutches.
“Farid, stop!” I ran toward them. The water from my pail spilled in large droplets down my face, hanging off the tips of my eyelashes and fusing with the sweat on my cheeks. Farid didn’t so much as glance in my direction. His head lolled back, and he stared, expressionless, at the vast expanse of the sky. I glared at him—a futile gesture since I knew he wouldn’t notice—before putting down my pail and turning to the boy, who was still curled up on the ground in a fetal position.
“Can you stand?” I asked the boy. When he nodded, I helped him to his feet. His eyelid was purple, swollen to the size of my fist from the blow. He could hardly look at me. His face was a wreck, stained with blood and tears.
“Do you need me to help you get home?” I asked, though I knew the moment the question slipped from my lips that he would say no. I regretted asking it.
The boy shook his head and wiped fiercely at his tears. “Don’t touch me!” he snapped.
Without another word, he hobbled away, leaning on his right leg. I stared at him until he disappeared from my line of sight. Then I turned to Farid, not even bothering to ask him why.
He didn’t give me the chance to, anyway. He broke out into a crooked grin. “That boy seemed awfully eager to get away from his darling savior, didn’t he?”
I ignored his words and instead scanned him, head to toe. He hadn’t suffered a single injury. Just as I’d expected. He had been in so many fights, there weren’t many that could lay a finger upon him anymore. His skin was unmarked, unlike the other boys, who carried their scars like trophies; his unblemished skin marked his victory over all of them. Few dared to a pick a fight with him, but that didn’t decrease the number of fights he got into anyway. That boy was brave, fighting Farid. Brave, but stupid.
I walked away from Farid. He didn’t bother to stop me.
It was about time I got home. My mother would be getting up soon, and she would wonder where I was. I picked up the pail and took the shortcut, wandering away from the main path and into the labyrinth of narrow, congested alleyways. Furry mice scuttled away as they heard the sound of my human footsteps. I stepped past the assortment of trash that decorated the area. The rats had taken refuge in the empty metal cans.
I stopped. My ears pricked at the hissing. It was a sound that could only come from the forked tongue of a snake.
A snake that could speak.
I had heard the snake-like voice call my name many times in the past few weeks. At first, I thought it was insects, but now, I knew better. The snake had visited me in my dreams too; I had seen it. It had eyes like dark, infinite oceans, and it would come closer and closer till I woke up, breathing heavy, in a pool of my own sweat. I jerked away instinctively, trying to find my way out of the alleys. The shortcut was a mistake.
I quickened my pace, but the voice surrounded me. In whichever direction I went, it got louder and louder. Every step I took brought me closer to its owner.
I closed my eyes and ran. My heart thumped, beating raggedly against my chest.
“Ooof.” I opened my eyes to see what I had knocked into. The hissing was gone. A dark grey creature about three feet high stood before me. His skin was made entirely of stone, and he looked almost like a grumpy cat standing on its hind legs. Certainly not human, but not animal either. A creature of a completely different race altogether—one not from this world. I let out the sigh of relief I hadn’t realized I was holding in. Anything was better than the snake.
“Dearg! Where have you been? I missed you,” I moaned. I put the almost-empty pail down and cradled the heavy creature in my arms. He put his thick arms around my neck, holding tight.
“Miss you too!” he croaked. “Got stuffs to tell you—”
Tap Tap Tap. Footsteps. Settling Dearg carefully on his webbed feet beside me, I brought a finger to my lips, gesturing for him to be quiet. I looked up to see Farid sauntering toward me.
“Couldn’t help following me, could you?” I murmured, my voice dripping sarcasm. I couldn’t be sure that he had heard me.
His green gaze penetrated me, devoid of emotion. Not many people in our slum had eyes as green as his. It was rare amongst our people. There were rumors that his mother was a devil-worshiping witch. I had known Farid his whole life, but the woman had barely spoken more than a few words to me.
“Are you stalking me now?” I asked, raising my eyebrows.
“You are so terribly hard to resist.” A mocking light danced in his eyes. “I heard you talking to someone, and you have a total of one friend. Me.” He eyed me, a grin playing on his lips again. “I was curious. Is it a crime to be curious?”
“I wasn’t talking to anyone.” The words left my mouth quickly.
As subtly as I could, I pushed Dearg behind me, though I knew Farid wouldn’t be able to see him anyway. He turned inquisitively toward where Dearg had stood at my side, but he rubbed his eyes and quickly returned his gaze to my face again. He would have seen an empty space beside me, nothing more, I told myself.
“Okay. Whatever you say,” he replied, his shoulders relaxing.
I softened my voice and changed the subject. “Farid, why did you hurt him?”
“Who? That boy? I taught him a lesson. He deserved what he got.”
“Yes, I’m sure he did. Like the one last week?”
He shrugged before opening his mouth. “He should be glad I didn’t slit his throat. I’m not going to make you believe me. Friends usually have this thing called trust.”
“Since when are we friends?” I replied. He didn’t respond. I watched his face fall. His eyes turned dark. Farid’s emotions always had a way of creeping onto the features of his face. His beautiful, high-cheekboned face. It was a face so angelic that it almost masked the intensity of his temper. Guilt washed over me. I sighed. “Farid, I’m sorry, but you have to stop. You hurt that boy badly, and he wasn’t the only one you’ve hurt.”
I scooped up the pail as the last droplets of water dribbled out.
“Your pail is empty. You should be more careful with that thing.” His voice had softened. It had a magnetism that I couldn’t explain. Kind, it was not, but maybe, it could have passed for thoughtful. I nodded and pushed Dearg forward, looking back every few minutes to make sure Farid wasn’t trailing behind us. When I was sure we were safely alone, I stopped.
“Dearg, what were you saying?” I asked.
“Isra papa in trouble,” he grumbled.
“What? Dearg, what happened to him?”
“Can’t say. Isra must ask Mama,” he murmured. I grabbed the creature by his shoulders and shook him hard. My nails would have cut through his skin if it were not solid stone. Despite this, his expression didn’t change.
“Tell me. Now!” I demanded.
“Can’t say,” he repeated.
Poof. The creature disappeared, leaving iridescent wisps of smoke in his place. He had a habit of doing that at precisely the most annoying of moments. Regardless, a strange trust had developed between us, and I knew he wasn’t lying.
Racing home, I crashed through the door, instantly spotting my mother sitting on the ground with her head in her hands. I heard her sharp intakes of air. My sister entered the room with a crumpled, plastic cup of water. She placed it on the floor across from my mother. I could see the wet trails of tears on her cheeks, but she said nothing.
“Zaffirah . . . ?” I probed.
In answer, she picked up the torn newspaper on the ground, smoothed it out, and held it to me. I took it from her hands and peered at the front page. It was dated almost five days ago.
“Market . . . er . . . er . . . erupts with the k . . . kh . . . chaos of fight . . . fighting sold . . . soldiers,” I struggled to read out loud. My mother had taught me the letters, but I still had trouble with the words. “Papa,” I said with shock, when the meaning of the article finally registered. My heartbeat grew louder in my ears. All I could hear was its rhythmic beat. My sister’s lips moved, but I heard nothing. I didn’t want to hear any more.
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