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A Sinister Friend



"Long ago, the Halmasti descended on our valley after the birth of my grandfather.

It terrorized the people of the valley and many went missing. To this day, the missing

ones have not been found."


Khadija Begum was telling her kids a story like every other evening. It was their

daily ritual before everyone went to bed. The electricity was gone, so they lit candles.

The kids were hooked on the story. It seemed today’s genre was horror and suspense.

Everyone had latched onto their pillows and stuffed toys.


"It is said the Halmasti appears after a baby is born or a corpse is washed before burial.

It lingers there for several days, and to protect themselves from that demonic fiend,

the people recite the verses of the Holy Quran. The Halmasti usually targets newborn

children, and one is never to leave them alone unless it is a pressing matter.

In that case, one should place a weapon of iron near them."


Outside, the thunder started crackling, and within moments, heavy rain

hurtled down from the sky. Normally, the kids would abandon everything to go outside

and play in the rain, but the story Khadija Begum was telling had completely

captivated them today.


“When the demon appeared in the valley, it abducted my grandfather and took him

somewhere unknown and uncharted. Such abductions had happened in the past, the people were

never found again. When my great-grandparents found out about this, instead of giving up and relinquishing, they decided to get their child back. So they traversed the entire valley on foot

and climbed the mountain to visit the Seer. They say the Seer has remained atop the mountain for

hundreds of years, but rarely do the people visit him, for the journey across the

valley and up the mountain is arduous and not an easy feat."


The clouds bellowed, making the kids jump out of their skin.


"During those times, it used to rain heavily like this, and at night no one would dare leave their

home, for the Halmasti, would be out lurking."


"What if the Halmasti is descending and takes one of us?" Zunaira, the

eldest of all the children interrupted.


"Oh my child, don’t worry! I won’t let anything happen to any of you. Plus, no one has

seen that demonic beast for years. As I was saying, my great-grandparents had

ventured alone to the Seer. No one in our village supported them.

Everyone called them fools for believing they could get their child back from the

Halmasti. When they reached the Seer and told him about the abduction of my

grandfather by the Halmasti, he said, '"Oh the day has come, when the devil rents

asunder the fabrics of the universe and descends from the sky to wreak havoc and

mayhem in this valley. Many will be doomed. Many will never be seen again. If you

want to get your child back, the journey you will have to make will be

back-breaking. No one has ever accomplished the task set before you, no one has

ever come back alive."'


The winds had grown stronger and the thunder louder. The candles started to

flicker, and with another strong gust of wind coming in from the open windows, the flame

was put out. The whole lounge went pitch black. There would only be light momentarily

when the lightning outside illuminated the sky.


"The Halmasti is coming for us!" Zunaira screamed.


All of the children started to scream and cry in fear and panic.


"I don’t want to die" cried Hasan, the younger brother of Zunaira.


Soon, their words melted into inexorable wailing. Khadija Begum turned on

her phone’s flashlight and went to relight the candles. She closed the windows

and in the distance, she saw two dim yellow glowing orbs in the woods.

She couldn’t make out what it was and decided to ignore it.


Everyone had calmed down, but their faces were drenched in tears.


"So, where was I? Ah yes, the Seer. He gave them a strange concoction, which he

claimed was made from a flower native to the mountain, and could not be found anywhere else.

At first, my great-grandfather hesitated to drink the elixir, but my great-grandmother

was determined to get her child back. She drank it without any contemplation

or forethought. She collapsed onto the floor right after that, seeing that he also

hastily gulped it down, for he didn’t want her to be alone."


Khadija Begum’s phone came to life and rang loudly, petrifying the kids, "Ok everyone,

time’s up. Get back to your beds. I’ll tell you the rest of the story later."


Everyone complained and whined. No one was willing to go to sleep.


"But you just got to the best part-" Hasan protested.


"Now, now. To your beds, everyone."


The thunder had stopped and the rain dwindled to a drizzle. Zunaira got up

and went outside to replenish her water bottle from the water cooler in their backyard.

The crickets were creaking and the trees in the woods were rustling. Cool and gentle air caressed

her, sending chills through her body. Zunaira was enjoying the weather; she stood in

the middle of the backyard, looking up at the night sky. The stars and the moon

painted the skies with a heavenly view, and for a few moments, she was lost in the

beauty of it. Taking in deep, refreshing, and rejuvenating breaths, she walked to the

water cooler and filled her bottle with ice-cold water. Whilst the bottle was getting filled,

she looked around at her surroundings; the peace and tranquility loaded her with pure

joy and merriment. She loved the valley, it was the best place on earth to be. The

water bottle began flowing and cold water fell onto the ground, splashing at her feet.

Some of it trickled down her hands and to her arms. She took a gulp of it and felt the

coolness descend into her. Zunaira took another quick look at her surroundings, but

this time something caught her eye. There was something in the woods; she could

see two glowing objects in the shadows. They flickered and moved to the right.


The realization hit Zunaira: those were eyes; the eyes of some animal lurking in the

woods. Instead of going back into the house, she stood there. Those eyes had held

captive her undivided attention; she was completely hypnotized and started taking

strides toward the woods. The rain had stopped, but the ground had turned into a

quagmire, and her footsteps printed onto the ground easily. She opened the fence

gate, exiting the backyard and onto the mud tracks that separated the woods from

their house. In the distance, she could hear the laughter of the other children in the

house. Someone had probably cracked a joke, and the whole legion was hysterically

laughing at it. However, her attention was locked on the two ominous-looking eyes that

were fixated on her. Once she got closer, in striking distance, the bushes moved and

the trees shook. The yellow eyes had melted into the darkness, maybe the animal

retreated into the woods. Instead of turning back and doing the sensible thing,

Zunaira kept on moving and advanced into the woods. She had no awareness of her

surroundings or where she was going. She was utterly mesmerized as if those eyes

had a magical magnetic pull to them that would make people go to lengths they never

thought they could. -- Zunaira had never ventured into the woods at night. No one did.

The fear of the Halmasti still plagued the valley and had festered deep within the

hearts of people, even though no one had seen it for ages. But these thoughts didn’t

occur to her as she took strides toward imminent danger. Twigs cracked under her

feet, and she pushed the bushes out of her way. The darkness was of no help to her,

as she stumbled and fell into a muddy puddle, splashing the mud water everywhere.

But that didn’t bother her, she stood up and spat out the mud in her mouth, and carried

on walking forwards without a second thought. Zunaira reached a clearing, where the

moonlight poured in and lit up the whole place. The ground was enveloped in tall

grass, that reached up to her waist and there was a stump of a tree, cut down by

someone. But she couldn’t see those eyes or the animal anywhere. There was

nothing here. The hypnosis wore off and Zunaira questioned herself,


"Why did I walk out here? What’s wrong with me? I should get back before someone

notices my absence."


As she turned around, she heard a deep growl. On the other side of the clearing,

the two eyes had appeared again, and this time they were emitting a mixture of

yellow and blood-red. Slowly, the creature stepped out of the shadows. First,

the muzzle materialized, it was drenched in blood. The monster had

feasted on fresh prey recently. It huffed from its flaring nostrils, and flame danced out

of them. The flame was a blend of yellow and red as they melted into each other.

Then, it revealed its menacing, sharp carnivorous teeth. Just the sight of its

countenance made Zunaira tremble like an earthquake. Her legs quivered like a

tuning fork and her mouth morphed into a desert. She wanted to run away, but her

entire body was paralyzed and frozen. The fiend showed its entire body; it looked like

an oversized wolf and had a thick coat of dark red fur that was also covered in blood.

On the right side of its body, there were three long slash marks, from which blood

oozed out. The Halmasti had probably fought off another predator and was punished

by the enemy with a souvenir of their duel. The tail was lifeless; it was a mass of dirty

fur hanging from its rear, just a few inches above the ground. The claws were as long

as a human finger and as sharp as a knife, and the Halmasti had sunk them into the

earth. It flared its nostrils again and huffed out a fire, and then, with a loud, ear-

shattering shriek, it charged toward Zunaira.


The screams and shrieks coming from the woods had woken Hasan up.

It’s as if something forced consciousness back into him, for he didn’t feel sleepy or drowsy

at all. He was gasping and breathing heavily; his back was covered in sweat, making

his shirt stick to his skin. But that was a dime’s worth to him right now. He knew

something had gone wrong. Hasan got out of his bed and went to Khadija Begum’s bedroom.

He tried to wake her up, but she shooed him away,


"Hasan, whatever it is, we’ll talk about it in the morning. Now, let me

sleep, dear child."


Hasan went back to his bedroom and tried to sleep. "Maybe it

was all a weird dream I saw. I must be worrying without any reason. Everything is fine,

nothing is wrong," he tried to convince himself, but sleep wouldn’t come to Hasan

that night. No matter what he did, that night kept him up, and he kept pondering about

what had happened. In the morning, Zunaira usually wakes up first among the children,

so Hasan decided to go to his sister’s bedroom. But upon opening her door, he found

it vacant.


"Strange. Where is Zunaira?" he thought.


So Hasan searched for her throughout the whole house, when he realized she wasn’t

home, he raced to Khadija Begum, who had just gotten up.


"ZUNAIRA IS MISSING!" he cried in panic.


"What has happened, Hasan? Calm down, please." Khadija Begum tried to pacify Hasan. He told

her the whole series of events since he got up in the middle of the night.


The notion, that maybe the Halmasti abducted Zunaira crossed her mind, and it

sent ice-cold shivers down her spine.


"Where did Zunaira go, before she was meant to go to bed?" she interrogated Hasan, who

replied,

"I think she went to fill her water bottle from the cooler outside."


Hasan was trembling with fear, and his cheeks were covered with streams of tears. He

started sobbing, so Khadija Begum held him tightly to her chest and comforted him till he

stopped weeping and regained his composure. They went to the backyard; the rain

from yesterday still had a cooling effect and the winds were still howling. The sun had

ascended a little bit, on its trajectory up to the zenith, but that would take a little while.

Khadija Begum wrapped her shawl around Hasan to protect him from the cold, who

was still shaken from all that happened. His love for his sister was unparalleled and

second to none. He couldn’t imagine spending even a day without her.


They spotted Zunaira’s footsteps on the muddy ground that had solidified after

the rain had stopped. But her footprints were conspicuous on the russet earth. To her horror,

she saw the footsteps leading into the woods, and her doubts about the Halmasti were

getting weaker with each step. With each stride, she prayed that Zunaira was safe

and hadn’t been abducted. The dread and fear made her heart pound. They crossed

the fence gate, crossed the mud tracks, and entered the woods. Today, even the

birds weren’t chirping or singing; only silence prevailed, interrupted by the occasional

rustling of the trees because of the feeble gusts of wind. She picked up Hasan and trod

carefully when they reached the woods. The footprints led straight to what she

could make out, as a clearing.


When they reached the clearing, she put Hasan down and reconnoitered the whole area

from her position. The tall grass had been trampled by something massive and heavy,

leaving a trail of destruction behind it that began at the other end of the clearing and

ended where they were standing. “Look!" Hasan pointed at something glistening due

to the sunlight on the ground. It was Zunaira’s water bottle; buried under the flattened

grass, it was smashed and crushed. The metal body had been beaten into a sheet as if

some heavy object had fallen on it. When they brushed the grass aside, they also

found large footprints, something like those of a wolf or a big hound.


Khadija Begum went utterly still; her eyes were plastered onto those footmarks,

and everything in her periphery went blurry. The questions and cries of Hasan rang

in the background, but her mind was virtually occupied by the fate of Zunaira and

what had happened to her. Her doubts came to be true: The Halmasti had returned,

and it had come for Zunaira this time. Her eyes started to water, and she was teetering

0n the brink of crying, but she realized that would cause Hasan to cry uncontrollably as well.

She took a few deep breaths and gathered herself. Then, without saying a word, she picked

up Hasan and made haste back to the house. Hasan complained and protested, trying to release

himself from her iron grip, but she only replied,


"I will find Zunaira and bring her back."


Horrendous and scary thoughts kept plaguing her mind, but she had devised a plan: She would find the flower from the mountain, make the

elixir, drink it, and journey across the world to find and rescue Zunaira.


When they reached home, the first thing she did was call her closest friend,

Zulaikha, and asked her to watch over the kids while she was gone. However, she

told no one where she was going, what she was going to do, or whether she would

ever come back. She started walking on foot; the journey to the mountain would be long

and would take quite a while. Khadija Begum decided to traverse on the mud

tracks since no one used them and no one would notice her leaving the valley. The winds

had died down and the skies had cleared; there were no clouds and the sun shone with utter pride

and glory, as it hovered its way to the top. This induced hope and fortitude in Khadija,

as she embarked on a journey that her great-grandparents had made ages ago.

They had been successful in bringing their child back, but there was always a price to

be paid, when anyone dealt with the malevolent beast, that the Halmasti was.


Her great-grandfather paid for it with his life. He sacrificed himself for his newborn son;

whom he never saw again. And her great-grandmother was traumatized for the rest of

her life; what she saw in that realm haunted her dreams until her last days. But that

was a sacrifice Khadija was willing to make for Zunaira. The day had waxed and

waned into the evening. After hours of walking, she finally exited the

valley and reached the base of the mountain. It rose into the sky, touching the

heavens. The peak was enveloped in a thick blanket of snow. Somewhere up there,

the Seer was in absolute solitude and silence. A path had been carved into the mountain

that led upwards, but Khadija didn’t plan on going all the way to the Seer. She knew

where she’d find the flowers and how to make the elixir. The steps were treacherous

and steep, but with determination and will, she carried on ascending the mountain with

all her strength.


It took hours before she saw any vegetation or flowers. The path

was mostly rocky and barren, without any life. It spiraled up to the peak, slithering like

a serpent around the mountain. Khadija then came across short wild grass that

sprouted from cracks on the steps, and finally, she saw a cluster of violet-petalled

flowers; these were the ones. She crouched down and plucked a few and stashed

them in her satchel. She looked at the view; the sun had gone down hours ago, but

the stars and the moon shone intensely as if they had come out just to help her along

her journey. The valley stretched out below her; she could see the lights turned on

inside the houses and said a prayer for everyone down there. The fresh-water stream

that flowed through the small village gleamed under the radiance of the heavens. For

a while, the picturesque and scenic sight of her home inundated her with peace and

tranquility and brushed aside all her worries. She sat down and crossed her legs and

pulled out a small wooden bowl and the flowers from her satchel. With her hands, she

mashed the flowers in the bowl, forcing out the nectar and the juices, and poured

water, to make the mixture, and then let it rest. Khadija closed her eyes and envisioned the

series of events that would occur once she drank the elixir. She was willing

to go to any lengths to save Zunaira, even sacrifice her own life. It reminded her once

again of the sacrifice of her great-grandfather and also when she first heard of it from her

mother. She remembered herself and her mother both crying at the end of it. When

she used to ask her grandfather, he would prevaricate and never answer. He

never talked of it to anyone. Whenever someone would bring it up, he would go stiff

and become tense, as if he remembered what happened to him and what he saw

even though he was an infant at that time.


Khadija opened her eyes; the elixir was ready. She picked up the bowl and

without any hesitation and further thought she drank it. She started getting dizzy;

the world became blurry and vague. Her vision lost all order and structure. Everything

morphed and danced into each other. Nothing made any sense. She lost all sense of

touch and feeling and had a sensation that she was levitating and hovering in space.

And then she blacked out; there was nothing but pitch-black oblivion.


The thunder and rumbling of the clouds woke her up. Everything around her

was dark and red. The crimson sky was flooded with a legion of monstrous clouds,

from which lightning descended and constantly struck the cracked desert ground,

which appeared blood red under the scarlet demonic-looking umbrella

that spanned across the sky. It was all flat land around her that merged with the sky at

the horizon in three directions. But far to the east, there was a gargantuan volcano

that spewed hot, blazing lava which ambled down its face. Above the volcano, dark

poisonous fumes had gathered and remained stagnant. The lower part glowed with a

golden tint because of the magma palpitating and gurgling in the volcano. If the winds

blew her way, the toxic fumes would asphyxiate and end her right there. Khadija

realized that she was parched, but there was no water to quell her thirst. She had lost

her satchel and the water she had.


Lightning hit and pulverized the ground, and it was so bright that she got blinded for a few moments and her ears rang intensely. She gathered herself and started to drag herself

towards the volcano. This world was sucking the energy out of her and she was

debilitated; her legs were quivering and with each step walking became harder.

She thought she would collapse, but she would continue to remind herself of Zunaira and

get filled with willpower and resolve. Then a ghastly shriek resounded across the plains.

Some creature was flying in the sky towards the volcano; it hadn’t noticed her but it kept emitting horrendous sounds as it made its journey to the volcano and then it plunged itself into the crater.

She would have to make haste to the volcano before some other malevolent fiend saw her.

Her heart was pounding rapidly and she felt a lump in her throat. She was scared, drenched in

fear and horror.


Khadija looked behind and stopped dead in her tracks. A dust storm

had materialized and was kicking up; it was heading straight in her direction and

toward the volcano. She knew instantly, that she had to make haste to the volcano

and find somewhere to hide, otherwise it would be curtains for her. Khadija raced as

fast as she could; as she got closer she could make out a small cave tucked under an

overhanging on the bottom of the volcano. The storm had virtually engulfed her, but

she managed to launch herself into the cave in time. When the powerful and potent

winds struck the volcano, the whole place shook. Khadija placed her hands on the

cavern walls to balance herself, as the ground was treacherous and she could easily

sprain her ankles there. With her palms stretched out and grazing the rugged walls, she

started following where the path led. It got hotter and hotter; she was moving toward

the center of the volcano, where the magma was. Sweat trickled down her brow and

dripped onto the ground, evaporating instantly with a sizzling sound. She could hear

the growling and the gurgling of the magma even from here.

After minutes of treading in the darkness, following the path using the walls

as a guide, Khadija finally stumbled into a large opening; the cave had grown into a large cavity.

The ceilings were bedecked with ominous and menacing stalagmites and the ground was rent

asunder by a stream of lava that meandered across the length of the cavern. It

separated Khadija from the other side, where a sinister, diabolical, maleficent creature

sat on what appeared to be a throne. It was staring straight at her with a wicked smile

that stretched from ear to ear, as it flaunted the dilapidated ruins of its teeth. The

creature’s flesh was plagued with severe burns and it had sharp scales on its torso

and limbs. From the ends of its fingers, long knife-like spikes sprouted out that were

curled onto the edge of the hand. The face was the most horrendous

part of its body; instead of a nose there was a giant crater that was constantly bleeding and the eyes were entirely black, one seemed as if it would fall from the

socket. The ears were a ruin; marred completely and they melted into the flesh

hanging from the monster’s skull. The throne suggested that this monstrosity was the

ruler of this damned realm, he was the master of the Halmasti. Slowly it got up from

the throne and as it moved the scales grazed each other, producing a ringing sound

that made Khadija cringe. It bellowed with an ear-shattering roar, making the entire

place tremble. One of the stalagmites collapsed onto the ground and Khadija thought

the ceiling would crumble, trapping her under the debris. She could hear the phlegm

accumulating in its throat, as it continued to shriek. It was summoning someone or

something.


Khadija was utterly petrified, she thought her heart would give up right

there and then. Her entire body was quaking, her legs had grown as feeble as those

of an infant, and she realized that she was holding her breath. Suddenly, something

smashed through one of the walls, pulverizing it into smithereens. When the dust settled

down, she saw what it was, and who it was holding. The Halmasti, covered in dust and

ash, had Zunaira in its robust steel-like jaws. It was holding her by the back of her

shirt; her head was slouched over and her limbs were hanging out toward the

ground. Then at the command of its master, the Halmasti hurled Zunaira to the front

of the throne.


“ZUNAIRA!” Khadija cried as she took a few steps closer to the

stream, “I’m here, please look at me!”


But Zunaira was comatose. Seeing this made her heart drop, she was in sheer

fright and horror.


“Please, I’ll do anything. Just- just let her go!”


She pleaded to the fiend that looked at her in amusement. At first, it started

laughing hysterically, but the laugh didn’t sound any different than the horrendous

screeches it had made earlier. Then it rapidly spoke gibberish, it was entirely unintelligible

to Khadija, but then to her sheer surprise, the Halmasti spoke up as well; it translated

with a hoarse, raspy voice: “Oh you weak, frail human! It is funny, how you are willing to

do foolish and irrational things out of love! Just like the old man and woman, who

came before you!” The Halmasti huffed flames from its muzzle, trying to intimidate her.


“But if that is what you are willing to do, you witless creature, then be my guest!”


The Halmasti and its master both shrieked louder than the thunder rumbling outside.

Something charged towards her from behind her; it was galloping like lightning at her,

its' footsteps thundering and making the ground tremble under its wrath. As soon as

Khadija noticed it, she turned to look behind her, but it collided with her, hurling her into

the lava. Her screams rang and resonated in the cavern, but just as she fell into the

lava, they died down. The thunder of the clouds had stopped; only silence prevailed.

The stench of burnt hair and flesh clung to the air.


When Zunaira opened her eyes, she found herself back in the clearing. It was dark;

the evening had matured into night and there were no stars or the moon out today. She

couldn’t recall what happened after she encountered the Halmasti. Remembering it flooded her

with dread and fear, she raced back towards her house before it appeared again. Zunaira didn’t care to

slow down and tread carefully, but made haste with tunnel vision straight ahead; many

thorns and bushes cut her skin, but she didn’t care. She saw her house in the

distance, which pacified her a little bit. She flung open the backyard door and hurried

in. Everyone was sitting down, except for Hasan who was pacing around the house.

But instead of Khadija, it was her friend, Zulaikha, who was sitting with the children. All

of them stared at Zunaira in astonishment. Only one question came to her mind:


“Where is Khadija Begum?”


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