Nadec edited

The cleaned-up, slightly edited, and extended version of Nadec’s first draft. After each podcast, the chapter will be added here.

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Chapter 1: deadline

‘Gorwak guts!’

Nadec cursed when she glanced at her watch. She’d missed her deadline by half a day. A common side-effect of being too caught-up in the fight is losing track of time. Although the time wasn’t the main reason for the profanity. She kicked the tall grass as another swear escaped her mouth.  

‘Bloody thing,’ she murmured while tapping the watch a few times. She frowned. ‘I’m sure that had been more than 37 000 steps.’

No fitness trackers ever counted all the steps she took while in the air. It had always been a pet peeve of hers. With all of the technology available back home, it was frustrating how lacking it all still was. Of course, the first time she’d come to The Other Realm—just a little over three years ago now—it had been a pleasant surprise to see her stuff still working. She’d halfway expected things to have been crushed by the travel or freaked out by no longer being on Earth.

She surveyed her surroundings while dislodging her halberd from the dead creature’s head. That was something she’d learned after getting caught by surprise on a few occasions. Tall, knee-high grass swayed in the wind around her on open, rolling flatland. Yellow blending with light green as far as the eye could see. Many creatures could be lurking here, but no threat of xlurps. They were too large and clumsy, not to mention stupid, to hide in the grass. Their choice of camp—this spot must be the worst spot in the history of making camp—attested to their low intelligence.

Nadec tried to wipe her weapon clean on the garment of the last xlurp she killed. She grimaced as she struggled to do that. The clothes didn’t deserve to be called that; a cloth sounded more accurate.

It didn’t look like more than a narrow strap of fabric, with two holes at each end. Those were meant for the head. The tension while wearing the cloth, stretched the holes into elongated ovals. As for coverage, it provided the bare minimum. The only areas it covered was the lower spine section of the back, the middle of the front body up to the navel, and almost everything in between the legs.

The part near the ass was wedged in between the purple-haired, fiery orange buttocks. She did feel lucky that the cloth was attached tightly enough to keep its position. It already gave too much away. Fair to say that the sight had distracted Nadec a lot during the fight. And, she supposed, it would have been worse if it hadn’t worn any cloth at all. She’d been in that situation before, and it was not pretty. Almost lost her head once—dry retching while fighting was not recommended.

Wiping the pink blood off her weapon proved impossible by the tightness of the garment. She had no choice but to cut the cloth off near the neck with her side knife. When she was done with that little bit of battle-aftercare, she couldn’t help but take a peek at what the cloth was meant to cover.

This time the loud curse was directed at herself. Every time she told herself she’d never do it again, but each time she did it anyway. She shuddered in an exaggerated way and contorted her face in disgust. It would definitely have distracted her even more during fighting. As if one ball sack wasn’t enough.

She shortened the halberd’s shaft by holding it in a specific place, and flung it at her back. The magnets held on to it immediately, keeping the weapon in place. A protection cover shot out from the sides to cover the sharp bits. It had taken her a while to find a proper way of carrying the—kind of—oversized axe-like weapon.

At first she’d tried the traditional hip-carry. Because of the special shaft, enabling her to shorten it, she’d thought that would’ve been the best carry. But its large size and her rather diminutive stature—not to mention non-diminutive hips—disproved her idea.

After tripping over it several times and cutting herself more than once, she’d gone on a mission to find a better way. Seriously, how did the men in all those stories carry their axes on their belts? It was just not practical!

She’d tried finding a solution on Earth first, but that hadn’t worked out. Many recommendations had sent her to a tiny village in The Other Realm. The whole village had been—and still is, she assumed—dedicated to weaponry and the art of carrying them. They’d designed the harness. She’d come up with the magnetic aspect. Their ideas combined, and only three weeks later she’d been able to walk away there without tripping and hurting herself.

Having it on her back was perfect. The weight was placed in the most central and supported spot. The handle stuck out over her right shoulder, in perfect reach to grab with her right hand. She’d tried to have it at the left shoulder but that was too awkward.

She shrugged, letting the weight of it settle, and took one last look at the four dead, orange creatures around her. Poor buggers hadn’t stand a chance against her. A chuckle escaped from deep in her throat, banishing that other feeling. No one stands a chance against me. Ever since her employment in The Other Realm, not once had she been defeated or knocked out.

She stood there for a while, gloating over her accomplishment before suddenly remembering her deadline. Oh, and this job’s main goal as well. She hurried to the xlurps’ campfire and untied the man lying there. He’d been tied to a thick branch, ready to rotate on top of the fire. Although she didn’t take the time to properly look at him—her mind set on leaving—a small corner of her brain did register the naked fellow as not unattractive.

‘There you go buddy’.

She untied him without a second glance—because really, who has time for men when you’re constantly being called upon to save them. Nadec felt a constriction at the chest now that the deadline was back in her mind. Her fans would probably be whining again about the lateness of her blog post. It was past time to skip back home. Kitty would be waiting for her too.

She bent her knees slightly, slapping them against each other in quick succession. Her hands were placed on top, appearing to follow her knees. Except that her arms alternated between getting crossed and opening up, giving the illusion that her legs were doing funny things. The expected build-up of energy came quickly and she concentrated on where she needed to go. Home. With the next crossing of her arms, she found herself back in her apartment.

Kitty immediately came up to her, meowing and jumping up in her arms, purring as loudly as a cat-sized bumblebee. The headbutts he gave against her head were like little bursts of joy, spreading happiness around.

‘What just happened?’

She jumped at the unexpected male voice. Her furry buddy dug in his claws at the sudden movement. That definitely shattered the bliss and shrank it down to a pitiful state.

With a grunt and a scowl, Nadec looked down. There was the man she’d just freed, only now letting go of her ankle.

Chapter 2: Stranger

‘I have no time for this,’ Nadec announced to the man lying at her feet. He was looking up at her, eyes wide, lips parted. ‘I’m already past my deadline.’

Kitty detached his claws from her shoulder and jumped off, sniffing at the strangers’ bare knees. Nadec grabbed her halberd from her back, detaching it with ease from the magnet, causing the safety cover to pull back. While she did this, she saw all the pink blood on her hands and clothes and uttered a long and solidly vulgar curse.

‘I should take a shower first,’ she muttered.

She glanced at the man. He had pushed himself to a sitting position but still looked dazed. He better not vomit. She’d only just gotten her carpets cleaned. A trip into the Muddy Marshes had made that a necessity.  

Remembering the first time she’d skipped, she did feel sympathy towards him. Whatever he had to endure from the xlurps probably only added to his feeling unwell. Being on the brink of getting eaten can be an upsetting situation.

She couldn’t feel too sorry for him though, it was his own fault, he shouldn’t have grabbed her ankle and then he wouldn’t have skipped along! Her assigned job had been to merely eliminate the xlurps and free the captive. Her brows drawn down, she took a blanket of her couch and tossed it to him.

‘Here, at least cover yourself up, you can have a shower after I’ve finished.’

His eyes glazed over and narrowed. He mouthed something—Nadec was pretty sure it was the word shower. She ignored him, grunted again, and walked towards her bathroom. Despite the urgency she still felt, she did take a moment to pat Kitty on the head and tell him to keep an eye on the stranger. There’s always time for cat cuddles. Always.

The quick shower did wonders for her mood. She straight away went to work on her blog afterwards. Trying to explain to the stranger how the shower worked—and everything else—would be too tedious so she didn’t bother, for now. She worked on her blog, but watched the stranger from behind her desk. The large, open space containing the lounge room, kitchen and dining area made that easy. A mild annoyance at herself for watching him more than actually typing words didn’t stop her from doing it. He was too amusing.

He had draped the blanket on his back like a cape, completely missing the point of needing to cover him up. He’d been walking around the room slowly, head high, stopping at every little thing and looking at it several minutes a piece.

Nadec decided that he was easy on the eye, very easy even, especially considering what an average person of the other realm looked like. Her eyes kept drifting back towards his uncovered body. Definitely much better than what the xlurps had to offer. She snickered quietly. Even in modern day standards this man would hold up very well compared to other men. Dark hair falling in waves to his shoulders, unshaven chin and cheeks—something between stubble and a beard—tall, lean, obviously muscled in all the right places. A warmth spread from the middle of her tummy. She quickly averted her eyes and stared back at the computer screen.

A feline squeal, a male scream, and a clattering sound, made her look back at the man again, all senses alert. He had stumbled back from the window, tripped over her cat, knocked over her side table and rolled over the back of the couch, hitting the lounge table so hard with his forehead that the wood made a creaking echo. Or maybe that was the sound of his head splitting open. Rolling her eyes, she looked back at her computer screen, scowled at the ten words she’d written, and got up with a sigh.

After fetching her first aid kit, she knelt next to the stranger.

‘Alright fella, let me see. Well done, you’ve split your head open. Don’t look so horrified, it’s only a cut. Right, sit down in the lounge. Yes, that’s this large red thing behind you.’

She cleaned out the cut and used her special skin glue to keep it together. That should do. He let her do it, looking at her in silence, studying her face intensely enough to heat up her cheeks. She was not used to being scrutinised in such manner. Her plain features weren’t a source for much ogling.

‘Ugh, fine. My deadline isn’t going anywhere so I might as well give you some attention. Maybe bake some cookies too, while we’re procrastinating. Do you have any other wounds? Did the xlurps hurt you in any way?’

Perhaps she should’ve asked him that before but she’d been too determined to make up for her missed deadline. No matter that it was self-appointed and no one was waiting for it. False accountability as a motivator did help sometimes.

‘No, I am quite alright,’ he replied softly after clearing his throat. ‘Who are you and where am I? Is this a castle? How can we be so high above the ground and the view is utterly strange, what are all those square structures around us? Are those all towers from this castle? It looks to be in a proper disarray. And I can not believe you have glass in all of the windows, and what is the point of having so many? That does not look ideal for defense.

‘I still can not fathom how we can be so frighteningly high? What were the colourful moving objects on the streets? For that matter, were they streets? They did not look like dirt at all, they appeared dark and hard. How is that possible? I saw a multitude of strange things, too many to name. For instance, what was the point of the tall poles? You must have exceptional archers here for them to be able to hit the tops? And many too, if you need that amount of poles for archery practice.’’

His effort to hide his discomfort and fear was a total failure. The rambling nature of his questions and the amount of white his eyes showed, told Nadec enough.

‘Alright, I’ll try to explain things to you,’ aiming to covertly move the blanket to cover his lap. Too distracting; it was pointing at her.

‘I’m a red knight, and was sent to rescue you. I’m called Nadec. I’ll tell you more of me and what I can disclose of the information my employers told me later. We’ll get you in the shower now, that will make you feel better. But first, tell me who you are, where you come from, how the xlurps caught you and why I’d been sent to free you?’

The stranger pulled himself up, sitting as straight as possible, his chin lifted up slightly—the blanket shifted again, causing Nadec to sigh. His posture reminded her of royalty characters from fiction books.

‘I am Pagewyn O’Elope d’Onnosely, ruler of Paralelo, master of the Squares, defender of the Triangles, chief of all Lines, bearer of the Wooden Water Crown!’

Not knowing whether to swear again or to stare, Nadec burst out in gales of laughter.

Chapter 3: blurgh woods

‘This is wonderful!’

The voice coming from her bathroom sounded as if on the verge of climax. Nadec snorted in recognition. The satisfaction of a good hot shower is a feeling she knew well enough. It’s one reason why she kept returning to Earth. She loved being in The Other Realm; it felt like home. But she had to admit to herself that certain aspects of the modern world on Earth had their merits, among other things the hygienic options. Especially after spending a lot of time in The Other Realm, where the only option of washing yourself was usually a cold stream, a lake, or nothing at all. Most inconvenient when she was on her period.

Once Nadec had managed to come out of the laughter fit, she’d tried to get more information from Pagewyn. She couldn’t keep the giggles away though. Every time he started talking again, she could see him reciting his list of ridiculous titles. And that always incited another round of mad chuckles.  Master of the squares, defender of the triangles, what did that even mean!?

Eventually she gave up and showed him how the shower worked. The wonder on his face at seeing water—and more so at the hot water—coming out of the shower head, had been priceless. Like a little kid going to Disneyland for the first time. Or an adult, for that matter. He had marveled at the metal of many bathroom accessories, shouting out that this castle must be the wealthiest he’s ever seen. Before he could stare at everything in turn, she shoved him into the shower. He would spend the whole day gazing at things if she’d let him, but she had her blog to work on.

She went back to staring at her computer screen while munching on a cookie she’d made right after that. Dragon-shaped, because she could, and dragons are awesome, but unfortunately not real. When she first started skipping to The Other Realm, she’d hoped to see mythical creatures. Turned out they only have weird and unknown ones. She’d given up the hopes of meeting a dragon a long time ago. Kitty hopped off her lap, leaving an empty warm spot where he’d been. She smiled as he stretched, as cute as always. There has to a scientific explanation of why cats are so cute, she thought. The smile dropped when she saw the empty page in front of her.

The cursor was mocking her with its constant blinking. As if impatient to get going. Twenty words. Great, only four hundred eighty more to go. She vaguely wondered if this was going to be the beginning of the end for her blog. Will her twenty four followers now revolt because she missed her deadline again? Bah, they probably hadn’t even noticed. No one was waiting for her posts. That thought did not help her writer’s block at all. And that last one made her stiffen, realising what she’d called it. Well fu— Her couch exploded.

She managed to jump from her chair quickly enough to cower on the ground. Debris landed on top of her, mostly pieces of fabric and wood. Not wasting any time, she grabbed the halberd from its place behind her, changing into her realm-gear in record time.

‘Kitty!’ Panicked, she looked around while slinging the emergency bag on her shoulder. Relief tightened her chest at seeing the grey tabby run towards her, meowing. ‘I know buddy, this sucks.’

She slipped on his harness and put him on her shoulders, grabbed the cookies, and ran to the bathroom to get Pagewyn. Before she got there, he came through the door, his face in shock, water dripping from his wet hair and his body. Naked again.

Nadec shook her head, trying but failing at keeping the nngggh sound in. That man had no right to be so good-looking and wet.

‘Hold on to me,’ she snapped, bending through her knees, moving them against each other while shifting her hands over them. She felt Kitty balance himself, meowing softly. Guilt churned for doing this while his training hadn’t been completed. She hoped he’d be fine during the skipping. It wasn’t the first time, but they’d prepared extensively before.

The next moment they were in the woods, trees all around them. Nadec looked next to her and was relieved to see that Pagewyn had complied to her command. When he let go of her shoulder, he turned around and threw up, falling down on all fours.

‘Sorry buddy, skipping twice in a short period of time can do that to you. Eventually one gets used to it though. Now, where are we?’

Because she had to hurry to get away, she hadn’t been able to pinpoint a precise location. She didn’t recognise anything around her, but that was okay. The woods looked the same almost everywhere anyway. It were the creatures in it which usually told her where she was.

Ah, there we go, she thought, looking at the two creatures lumbering towards them. It appears that we’re in the Blurgh-woods. She urged Wyny to his feet. He stood unsteady but he stood, which was the most important part.

The blurghs running, or stumbling—whatever you want to call it—towards her were about half as tall again as she was, which made them as tall as an average ceiling. Their skin colour imitated a bark, with browns, grays, and even some greens. Nadec felt immense relief at seeing the leaves they used to cover up some body parts; they didn’t always had those and it was too distracting. Their faces were twisted knots and dents, vaguely looking like a human face but you’d need to have a lot of imagination to see it. After stuffing the cookies in the emergency bag and tossing it aside, she grabbed the halberd from her back and shook it, lengthening the shaft.

‘Hey Wyny, I don’t know if you’ve ever fought these guys, but it would be nice if you could give me a hand. I mean, of course I can do it myself but I’ve got to keep an eye on Kitty as well, he’s not trained well enough for it. Here, use this stick.’ She frowned at him as he looked at it in confusion.

‘Hold it out.’ She took a few good swings towards the stick. Her ever-sharp halberd cut through it almost without any resistance.

‘There, just use it now like you would a sword. The trick with these guys is to numb them and they’ll just turn around and stumble elsewhere. Do you see that red-brown coloured area on the side of their body? The one that looks like… you know… a lady’s part?’

She could see him colouring a bit at that and felt oddly satisfied for it. He’s been making me blush often enough already, she thought with a pang of pleasure.

‘Just try to hit that with as much force as you can, and that should do the trick. Oh, but do try to stay away from their—woaah here they are!’

Chapter 4: The Squares

The last one of the blurghs stumbled away in the direction the other had gone. The trees quickly hid them from sight. Nadec swung her halberd on her back before kneeling on the ground next to Kitty, congratulating the cat. He’d been the one to turn the second blurgh away, jumping against the knob in precisely the right way. It looked like the training they’d been doing was paying off. She didn’t think Kitty would’ve been able to jump as powerfully at the start of their practice.

Purring loudly and giving all the head bumps, he accepted the pats, ear scratches, and belly rubs with visible pleasure. His twisting and squirming shape, together with his cute grey tabby face and white ear tips, brought a big smile on her face. If only she could do this for the rest of the days. Spending eternity cuddling with cats sounded like a good deal. She supposed that was why so many people were able to watch cat videos all day long.

Unfortunately, that was not an option, for now. Her apartment got attacked and she didn’t know where it had come from. She obviously couldn’t skip back to Earth before figuring out what had happened. Perhaps it hadn’t been aimed at her. Maybe something had happened in the building, nothing to do with her, not an attack at all. That was difficult to believe.

She glanced at her emergency bag, which sagged against a tree. She’d been sent on an urgent mission before without prep time. After that, she’d made sure there was always a bag, ready to go. There was a map in there, which should help with figuring out where they were. Once she knew that, she might come up with an idea of where to go. She glanced to the side and sighed.

Nadec booped the cat on the nose as she murmured: ‘We better check on our walking trope-friend first.’ Chuckling at her own joke—the man really was the stereotype of a prince charming from a faraway kingdom—she walked over to what looked like a car-sized ball of brown yarn. Granted, only the size of a really small car, but she still grunted and rolled her eyes. She did tell him to stay away from their ass, didn’t she?

‘How often am I going to have to save this guy?’ With another sigh, she took the serrated knife from her boot and went to work on cutting the threads. They were quite thin but strong, resembling root vines. Not like yarn at all.

An hour later she finally saw wrinkly and quite hairy flesh through the slim ropes. Of course the first part of his body to come upon had to be the middle. Gritting her teeth, she moved to a different part of the tangle of yarn. She was not going to expose his balls first! Estimating where his upper body was, she started cutting in that new area. When she finally managed to expose his head, she couldn’t stop a sniff of relief.

‘Good, you’re not dead.’

‘What was that!’ he cried out, terror on his face. She kept cutting to open up a hole large enough from him to climb through. She wasn’t there just yet.

‘Relax buddy, you’re fine.’ She sounded more calm than she felt. He hadn’t even tried to defend himself during the fight! While she had been struggling to hit the knob on the Blurgh in front of her, he’d just been standing there like a stupid with a stick. His Blurgh hadn’t hesitated in turning around and sprouting its threads from its ass. Nadec had to concentrate on her own fight too much to help him. By the time she’d managed to make hers stumble away, Wyny had been well and good rolled up.

Before she had been able to engage the large and bark-like-skinned creature, Kitty had decided that the ball had become too large to play with. So he’d jumped up against the Blurgh, aiming for the sweet spot. Clever cat had seen that’s what Nadec had been aiming for as well. After only a few tries he’d hit the the red knob, right after the first one had left. The red knob numbed them enough to stumble off in confusion. It had all been part of her training, learning about all the creatures of The Other Realm and how to fight them. There was relief in the middle of her chest at the unnecessity of killing.

‘Why didn’t you fight?’ she demanded, still cutting. Okay, so maybe she couldn’t manage to keep the calm face. Stupid man, giving me so much trouble, I’ll need to buy a new couch, heck, probably need to find a new apartment too. She knew it wasn’t really his fault—or was it?—but she had to vent her frustration somewhere.

‘You’re not going to cost me my perfect score too, I’ll keep you safe until you get back to your stupid kingdom, what was it again, Parallelogram, wherever that is, even if it wasn’t in the contract, no matter how long it takes, but it better not take too long, fuck, there’s still my deadline, how am I going to explain that, …’ She kept on mumbling, not noticing the stunned look on his face. He wiggled a bit, testing out how stuck he still was.

‘Paralelo,’ he cut in, swallowing visibly because of the fierce look she gave him. ‘I do not know how to use a stick, or a sword.’

Before he could continue, Nadec burst out: ‘What do you mean, you don’t know how to use a sword! Doesn’t everyone in this Realm use a stupid sword?! You should be able to crawl out now.’ So much for the sword-swinging gorgeous trope-king he was supposed to be. She turned around to get her bag.

‘No, of course not, swords are useless.’ Nadec grunted in agreement while he continued, sounding more confident with each word. He managed to get out of the rest off the blurgh-yarn-ball.

‘I told you I am the master of the Squares, defender of the Triangles, chief of all Lines.’ With that, he lifted his arms and made some strange movements, a bluish-green glowing mist tracing the pattern. Out of nowhere, a solid wooden Square appeared, floating in the air between them. With a few more moves—and the sound of wood sliding on wood—the box turned into two four-sided sticks in an L-shape.

‘These are my weapons.’

Once again, Nadec couldn’t do anything else but laugh, this time until she cried, her cheeks and abs hurting but unable to stop.

Chapter 5: Laughter And Tears

The empty look on Wyny’s face added to her fit of hysterical laughter. Whenever it eased down into giggles, she made the mistake of looking at him and that set her off once more. He was amazing at keeping a straight face, sitting on his knees in front of the floating sticks. The corners of his mouth didn’t budge in the slightest. Must be a large stick up his arse. That thought didn’t help her attempts to stop the laughter at all.  

After the fourth time of almost escaping the cycle, she managed to think and kept herself from looking in his direction. Keeping her head turned the other way was good—the giggles scattered into an occasional chuckle. Her cheeks and belly ached. She wiped away the tears, squinting into the sunlight peeking through the treetops. Something moved in the corner of her eye. A crow? She shook her head in amusement, trying to remember the last time she’d laughed this hard. In fact, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d laughed out loud the past few years, before meeting Wyny.

‘Okay, okay, I’m all good now. I’m sorry for my… outburst.’ She still didn’t look at him, and a snort escaped her. ‘I shouldn’t laugh at you so hard, I know it’s just cultural differences and all. Or realm-differences? Either way, I’m sorry for my reaction, I’m sure your sticks are great. Thank you, anyway.’

She wasn’t sure why she thanked him, and he probably understood even less. The apologies were sincere though; she’d been working really hard at trying not to judge people too harshly. Her own reaction to his sticks, something he obviously took much pride in, embarrassed her. Act like a bloody grow-up for once, N, she berated herself.

Attempts to reach her bag were futile while she’d been stuck in laughter, but now she leaned against the tree, rummaging in it. With vigor, she bit off the head of a dragon cookie. Fighting and, most of all, laughing maniacally, caused a big hunger. A few more digs in the bag produced a small handful of kibble for Kitty. She tossed it on the ground, grinning at the cat’s ferocious hunt for the pellets.

‘You are quite welcome.’ His voice sounded serious, not a single hint at the mocking she expected him to do. She hadn’t met any guy who wouldn’t at least tease a bit in these kinds of situations. He hadn’t even laughed along with her. What kind of person doesn’t also break into laughter at seeing someone else laugh as heartily as she just had? Her head shot up, all snorts and giggles gone. He certainly played his stiff nobleman trope well.

‘I am not quite sure what okay means, but I assume you have had a lonely life and thus many unleashed emotions. You saved my life several times now, and for that I owe you a debt. I will gladly absorb all the emotions you hurl at me. I hope that will help you feel better by the time we have to part ways.’

She blinked. Her jaw hung slack, so she shut it and swallowed the accumulated spit. That man! That man… The nerve! Who did he think he was, a psychiatrist? He’d known her for half a day perhaps, half of which he’d spent caught in a ball made of ass-threads. She’d show him which unleashed emotions she really had! She flung her bag on her shoulder and prepared herself to say something particularly nasty when he spoke up again.

‘As for my Squares, I did not have the time to call for them when the Blurghs were upon us. They do not take that long to appear, but sometimes it can be too precious. Here is what I could have done.’

He stood up, not caring about his glorious nakedness, and grabbed the L-shaped sticks out of the air. He held them on the short ends, holding out the longer ends. Kinda like holding a gun, Nadec thought, curious but still furious at what he’d said. What’s he going to do, shoot out imaginary bullets? A grin started on her face but stopped midway when the stick did just that. Except that the bullets weren’t imaginary, and they weren’t bullets. The end of the long side grew before a piece dislodged itself and shot away. His sticks were shooting cubes! Unconsciously, she took a step closer to him, staring at the sticks. That was not what she’d expected.

‘See,’ he said, ‘I could have hit their red spots with ease, to turn them around before they came close enough. If only I had a few more moments longer, and was not feeling so sick from… what did you call it? Ah, skipping.’

He gave her a look she didn’t understand, and slapped the sticks together. Quicker than she could follow, he folded the sticks—the Squares?—on themselves a few times. Before she could blink, his hands were empty. A puff of bluish-green mist disappeared as quickly as it had come, like breath on a cold day. He kept looking at her with an intensity she couldn’t place. That deep stare stirred up butterflies in her middle. Her mouth felt dry. With a massive effort she tore free from the gaze and resumed control over her breathing. She knew this wasn’t the elusive love-at-first sight, that was a trope too unbelievable to exist. She did, however, believe in lust at first sight. Never with the people she rescued though. She had a professional reputation to maintain.

‘I need to be alone. Come Kitty.’ She picked up the lead and the cat jumped on her shoulders.

‘Wait! Do not go! Did I say something wrong? Do you need something?’

‘No! You’ve done enough. Just… just stay here. I’ll be back soon. I just need… I‘m fine. Stay. I’ll be back.’

With that she turned around and walked off, Kitty on her shoulders and her thoughts all jumbled. She didn’t understand why she felt so confused. She wasn’t going to get a hunky other-realmer get to her with his silly words, was she?

‘Lonely. Urgh, I’m not lonely. I’ve got you,’ she muttered, while accepting and returning the feline’s headbuts on her cheek. ‘I don’t have unleashed emotions. What the hell. He has no idea what he’s talking about. Some king straight out of a fairy tale, what does he know!’

Yet she couldn’t stop her mind from returning to the events which had led to her recruitment by her current employers. She hadn’t realised she’d stopped walking until the sound of snapping branches startled her. Her head whipped to the source of the sound but her tears-filled eyes prevented her from seeing sharply.

A blurry figure, a massive blackness, rammed into her. A yell escaped her before a sharp pain on the head preceded the loss of consciousness.

Chapter 6: Blackie

The abandoned house looked more like a shack than the rich mansion it used to be. Nadec was at the edge of the walled domain, where the gate had long since rusted out of its hinges.

She blinked.

Wood creaked underneath her boots as she walked in through the servants’ entrance. The steady beating of her heart sounded loud and faster than usually.

She blinked.

Voices stopped when she barged into a room, halberd ready. She didn’t want to use it. In the empty fireplace sat a bound figure on a chair.

She blinked.

A man held his hands up in surrender as she stood before him. A coward. She liked that. The other person backed away from Nadec, towards the fireplace. ‘No matter what, keep your subject safe.’ The most important instruction.

She blinked.

Hesitation froze her halberd in mid-air. The fear in her opponent’s face chilled the air between them. Despite the woman’s terror, she swung her knife towards the captive.

‘I can’t do it. I can’t do it.’

Nadec still mumbled while the nightmare was fading. It had been a while since she’d had one, she’d thought them gone for good. This specific one was already vague, but she knew well enough what it had been. Her first retrieval mission after being recruited by her employers.

Nadec’s throbbing temple sped up the process into the waking world. Soon the last traces of the dream and the memories disappeared. She stirred, trying to sit up. She couldn’t. Her hands and feet were bound together behind her back. I’m glad I started doing yoga last year, she thought as she considered her awkward position. Though it will still hurt when I get free. She could feel her limbs cramping up already.

Opening her eyes was more difficult than it should’ve been. Something sticky prevented them from doing so. Blood. Of course. Stupid… whoever did this. Or whatever did this, remembering what had happened. Something Wyny had said, triggering her enough to walk away. His words were lost to her now, knocked out by that massive blackness.

The ones who hit people on the head to knock them out, never seemed to realise how dangerous it was. It was all good in movies and the like, but in real life a head injury is more likely to cause death instead of only unconsciousness. Although this time she got lucky; she was still alive. Hopefully no concu—nausea assaulted her. In a burst of panic, she lifted her head—as much as she could, which wasn’t much—and moved it to the side before violently throwing up.

Her nose and throat stung from the vomit’s acidity. She blew the stuff out of her nose as well as she could before shuffling backwards, away from the reeking spot. She cursed inwardly at the near certainty of having a concussion. That wasn’t the most important issue though. Where was she, and why was she bound? She grunted. Those should’ve been the first things I questioned, something’s wrong with my head alright. Despite the pain, she lifted her head and tried to move into a sitting position.

‘Let me help you with that, love,’ an amused, gravelly, and inhumanely deep voice growled. Her heart jumped in her throat while she was lifted by the waist. Her body protested—the way she was tied up did not make it a pleasant experience. Thank you, gravity. At least this realm had less of a downward pull than Earth. It was fun to use it to her advantage while fighting. A powerful jump could take her places. Her mind drifted, day-dreaming about jumping up and staying in the air, flying, soaring above the trees.

‘Here boy!’ the voice called out, pulling her back to the present with difficulties. Nadec’s half open eyes were too bleary to see more than vague blots of grouped colours—purple, pink, orange, black, green. A wet rag slapped in her face. It moved upwards. It wasn’t smooth, not like what a rag should be. In fact, it felt like… A tongue. It was a tongue! A massive tongue, so much larger than Kitty’s, but with the same coarseness.

Kitty! All worries about being licked by a creature with a tongue larger than her head evaporated to a growing concern for her feline buddy. He’d been on her shoulders when she lost consciousness. Nadec hoped with a passion that he’d managed to escape. All of a sudden she also remembered her other travel partner. Wyny. Did he know she was captured? Was Kitty with him? Was he going to try and free her? A daydream of a nude prince on a white horse, galloping towards her, filled her vision. No, he wasn’t on a white horse, he was running. Running. Naked! That certainly changed the fairy tale-feel of the daydream.

‘Oi! Oi, princess!’

Large, purple, hairy fingers snapped in front of her eyes. She blinked several times in a row. Daydreaming about a prince—no, a king—saving her? Her head must really be bad. Most of the dried blood was gone from her face, licked off with the spew. Her sight had improved visibly. She snorted at that pun and immediately regretted it. Snorting after a puking session, and with a split head, was not a good idea! Working hard to focus her eyes, she looked at what was holding her.

The orange hairs only covered the back of the hands and fingers, but further up the arm and body, it grew pretty much everywhere. Almost like an extremely hairy man. Except twice as large and proportionally wide. And deep purple—a gorgeous, saturated colour. Too bad everything else about the creature was hideous. She wasn’t sure what it was, even though she should know all of the creatures from The Other Realm. Her first thought was a xlurp, but even her addled brain knew the colours were in reverse. She groaned at seeing that this one had no covering strip of cloth. Franking great.

‘Princess? Xlurp?’ She didn’t realise she’d spoken—muttered—out loud until the harumph of the creature exploded in her head. It must’ve seen her wince, because to her large surprise, it apologised for the sound. Though she doubted it was sincere.

‘So sorry princess, Blackie gets too wild some time. She didn’t mean to knock you over. She didn’t mean to head butt you so hard.’

‘Bl-blackie?’

The creature let one hand go from her waist, holding her up as easily with one as with two, and turned her head to the side. A dragon. There was a dragon. After all she’d seen in this realm in the past years, she shouldn’t be surprised. Yet she was. None of the creatures here matched up with any of the myths and legends of Earth. None! There weren’t any orcs nor trolls, no unicorns nor merman, no elves nor dwarfs, none of that. Yet there it was. It was real. Dragons were real!

The blackness of the scales sucked in the light. The darkness it caused made the vibrantly coloured eyes appear to glow. It wasn’t as large as she’d expected a dragon to be, but she still felt her eyes open wide.

‘Did he eat my cat?’

Chapter 7: Zlurp

‘I don’t know what a cat is.’

The reverse-coloured xlurp looked at her, confused, pronouncing cat in a funny way. ‘But it’s fair to think Blackie didn’t eat nought live. She,’ it emphasised the gender, ‘doesn’t eat live things, she only eats the waste. And she loves fruit.’

‘She? You called her boy earlier,’ she murmured. ‘Wait, what? The dragon… is… a vegetarian?’ Nadec asked befuddled. She must’ve heard wrong. Her head pounded.

‘Vegetirn? Vegtern. Veggenar? Hrrmm. Weird words you use. She only eats fruit, and milk, eggs, poo, and all else made by live things. She doesn’t eat the live things.’

That dragon had just licked her face. Was that why she smelled shit? Nadec shook her head in bemusement and denial. That was a mistake. A thousand knives stabbed under her skull. Eyes watering, she couldn’t stop herself from whimpering. Her hands wanted to hold her head, as if that would make it better. But they couldn’t move, she was still tied up.

The purple creature frowned and looked at her closer. She grew even more nauseated from the smell of its breath. It then set her down, leaves crackling beneath her, and removed her ties.

‘You don’t look as if you can run, princess, so we can ease it up a bit, love.’

Her tear-filled eyes overflowed at the burst of pain coming from her released muscles. As predicted, her legs cramped up completely, but the creature didn’t stop what it was doing.

After untying her, it brought her wrists together in front of her and bound them there, leaving a long lead. It tied that around its ankle. If ankle you could call a basketball-wide purple piece of a leg. She was glad to have tears streaming over her face. They blurred her vision enough—it was definitely not wearing any cloth over that area.

It wasn’t until she paid attention to the creature’s nudity, that she noticed her own lack of clothes.

‘Where the fuck are my clothes, xlurp?’ She wanted to use her most demanding voice, but it came out as a simpering question. Something was very wrong with her head. The dragon whinnied. It—she—sounded like a dog. I hate dogs, she scowled.

The creature’s face darkened and he—definitely male—put his face up close to Nadec’s, foreheads almost touching. She almost vomited again from the sight combined with the smell. Ridiculously small beady eyes—she would’ve chuckled at that cliché description if she didn’t feel like crap—blinked at her. Ugh. The eyelids were all wrong, they blinked from the left and right instead of top and bottom. She counted at least 6 pimples, ripe to bursting, whiteheads about to explode.

There was no nose. Instead there was an indent which looked like the imprint of a nose, one hole in the very end, the deepest part of the cavity. The mouth was the worst thing. No visible lips, when he didn’t speak it just looked like a crack in his face, going from ear to ear. Anytime he did speak, it revealed a row of small, sharp teeth at the bottom, and nothing but smooth purple gum at the top. Smooth except for the areas where his own teeth had pierced the skin, causing pink blood to seep out, spreading around.

‘Now listen very carefully, I shall say this only once,’ he grumbled. On the outside her face remained passive, on the inside she was rolling on the floor laughing. I can’t believe he just gave me a perfect television quote.

‘I am not a xlurp. I am a zlurp. Zzz zzz. Zlurp. Not the same as the other.’ He said that last bit with a pause after each letter, teeth clenched. All of a sudden, he exhaled. In relief? In forced calmness? For whatever reason it was, he blew his breath right in her face. Nadec dry-heaved. That smell was finally too much.

The zlurp pulled back as quickly as if he got stung. The dragon came closer, tail wagging in anticipation. That damned thing wants me to throw up so she can eat it! The thought made her dry-heave some more. She hadn’t felt this miserable in years.

When her fit stopped, she looked up at the zlurp, tears flowing, struggling to sit back up. She didn’t stop at that. With a massive effort, she managed to stand. Very unstable, ready to drop down any moment, but she was standing. Agony spread over her muscles, but she didn’t give in. She took several sharp breaths.

‘So, zlurp,’ she put as much contempt in that word as she could, ‘where in Frank’s name are my clothes?’ She shut her eyes tight for a second. ‘And my weapon!?’ She opened them again, focused on looking up and not straight forward. Brrhhhrrhhr, what a sight.

‘And why do you keep calling me a princess? Is that like a pet name you call all women? I’ll show you how much I’m not a princess.’

‘Love, you should know by now that you’re in my hands. I won’t give you any blades. As for your garbs, here, I’ll show you, come.’

She had no choice but to follow him or get dragged along. She hated the way her boobs wiggled without her bra. All good and well when she was home alone and didn’t have to walk, but hiking through some kind of forest is a completely different thing. They were huge and painful as well. Stupid period would start soon. Damnit.

‘Here you go, princess,’ the zlurp emphasised that last word, his face smug.

Oh no. She couldn’t keep standing and fell hard on her knees. These weren’t clothes. These were scraps of fabric. Useless. This… No. She’d loved this outfit. The design had come from the weaponry village, the ones who’d helped her with the solution for carrying her halberd. A tailor from Earth had made it from—at that time—hard to find mushroom leather and other precious materials.

He’ll pay for this! Her eyes narrowed and she prepared to jump up. Nadec wasn’t keen to feel the touch of his sticky scrotum on her head, but the thought of causing him pain made up for that. Before she could do anything, something zipped passed the corner of her eyes and a wet thump sounded. What the…?

The zlurp grunted quietly, a triangular piece of wood stuck in the cavity of his nose, pink blood dribbled from the tiny gaps. A perfect fit. Nadec’s heart sped up. He’s here, he really is. Joy blended with annoyance; she was certain she would’ve been able to free herself.

She passed out once again.

Chapter 8: Unexpected Friendships

‘Nadec? Nadec, wake up. Come now, you are alright, are you not? Wake up!’

The voice cut through her head, every sound amplified in her broken brain.

‘Here, perhaps you should give it a try.’

Something soft and fluffy brushed against her face, accompanied by the quiet hum of a small engine. Funny enough, it didn’t hurt her head. A rough, wet thing scraped her cheek, over and over. A tongue! Normal-sized this time. Kitty! Nadec grinned before opening her eyes, one at a time.

She was on her back, head to the side. Her little purring machine sat next to her, replacing the licks with headbutts once he saw that her eyes were open. She groaned. And repeated the groan when that hurt. Gentle hands helped her sit up.

‘Easy now, I believe you have been injured quite severely.’

She looked left, slowly, and there he was, kneeling. Pagewyn, the prince charming of parallelogram. No, that wasn’t it. What was his kingdom called again? Didn’t matter. And he wasn’t a prince, he was a king. And he saved me! They looked each other in the eyes for an awkward moment.

‘I guess it was about time you saved me. Only a few more tries and we’re even.’

She laughed, a little bit shakily, and bumped her fist against his shoulder. Her head still ached as much as ever, her muscles sore from the awkward tied-up position. ‘What happened?’

‘Well, after you stormed off into the woods, I followed at a distance because I was not about to lose sight of you. Neither of us know where we are, you see, so I did not think it wise to separate. Are you alright to stand up?’ He stood up first to help her to her feet, but she shook her head, slowly, and sat back down, looking at Kitty.

‘Then I saw that dragon barge into you, dropping you like a bag of seeds. Kitty wanted to defend you while you were unconscious, but the dragon scooped him up in one of his paws. I feared the worst for him but he was fine. They seem to get along somehow?’ His voice turned up in wonder.

‘I followed them here, and saw the purple creature cut your clothes away and tie you up.’

Bloody heavens, how could I forget that I’m naked? Before the thought fully formed, she made an effort to cover up her boobs and cross her legs. She couldn’t stop herself from looking up at him because that’s the proper thing to do when talking to someone. Yeah, he was also still naked. With him standing up and she sitting, the perspective wasn’t great. How many more balls am I going to look up to these days?

‘Kitty left the dragon right before you woke up. I prepared my Triangles as Squares, and waited for the right time. The nose cavity deemed me to be an ideal target. And it was, I got a perfect shot in and the creature died.’

‘What about the dragon, didn’t it attack you, or want to defend the zlurp?’

Ignoring the confusion she felt at his Triangles and Squares thing, she attempted to stand up again, accepting his helping, quite muscly, arms. She also make a massive effort of not feeling embarrassed for being in the nude. She kept reminding herself that it’s fair now, because he hadn’t worn any clothes since they’ve met. Once she was standing, she followed her question by looking around, learning quickly that it’s best to move your head in a slow way when concussed.

Before she could look behind her, the feel of Blackie’s tongue ran up from about halfway her legs up to her head. She didn’t know how she should feel about her having licked her ass. She turned around, but faster than she could do anything else, another lick came, covering the front of her body. The tug it did on her sore boobs was definitely not pleasant.

‘Blackie, stop!’ she yelled, not expecting the command to make any impression. To her surprise, she stopped licking her, sat on her back haunches, and looked down at her, split tongue out, moving with her breath. Just like a stupid dog. The breath smelled equally as bad. Nadec glanced at Wyny, then looked down at Kitty, who’d gone up to Blackie, his full pur machine on, giving headbutts against the blacker than black claws. Nadec jumped back when a deeper and louder pur machine started. The dragon bent through the front paws to receive the head buts against the tip of her snout, which was about kitty’s size. So the dragon also acts like a cat? She instantly liked her better.

‘Is this the way dragons are supposed to behave?’ She asked Wyny without taking her eyes of the strange combination of cat and dragon. They obviously liked each other. Blackie had curled up and Kitty was lying in the middle of the dragon-doughnut, both purring away. Nadec was glad that the purrs didn’t affect her split head. It was still hurting, but it also didn’t get worse by those sounds.

She turned her unbelieving eyes toward Wyny, who shrugged. Shaking her head—slowly—she looked back at the animal duo. It was pretty cute, both of them seemed to be falling asleep. The dragon’s body was twisted in an astounding flexible way, her rested head beside her belly, in the same direction! She had a tail long enough to go around the outside of her curled up body completely. Amazing.

Wait, what was that? Nadec looked a bit closer at the tail. At what she would guess was the halfway point, something gleamed at her. Oh! It was her halberd, the dark metal almost camouflaged against the black dragon skin! That zlurp had thought to hide it by putting it on the dragon! She was impressed, that had been a good idea. Could she…? Yes, she unlatched the harness and it came off the tail as easy as the shower’s water had slid of Wyny.

She froze. What? Where did that thought come from? Ugh, must be my hormones making me all romantic and horny. She glared at Wyny as she put the halberd’s support harness on. He’d just been standing there, looking at them. Or had he been looking at her nudity? She decided she wouldn’t go down that path, that train of thought. Too much self consciousness lay that way and that always prevented her from doing her job right. Once the harness was on, she groaned when she looked down. Great. The design of the harness made a triangle of dark muskin—mushroom leather—around each boob, even lifting it up. She looked as if she was ready for a game of kinky bondage.

It was too much for her modesty so she tried to use one arm to cover them, while glaring at Wyny. He wasn’t looking in her direction anymore. She thought he did have a blush on his cheeks.

‘Come on, mister fifty shades of red, we should try to find out where we are and how we can get to your kingdom. How can these two be so soundly asleep so quickly? Wake them. I’m taking a look around first.’

She wanted to see if there was anything she could use to cover herself up. Anything at all would be good, even a large leaf. The rational part of her mind knew that walking around was a terrible idea, wounded as she was. But she wasn’t about to pass out again while naked and with Wyny here.

A loud growl turned her around. There, too close to where Wyny stood, the zlurp jumped up, squeezing the triangle out of his nose cavity. Pink blood spurted out, but he was obviously not dead. He did look furious.

Ch 9: Clichés

‘Shonk swallop and gorwak guts!’ Nadec blurted out, getting a disapproving look from Wyny while he took a step closer to her. As if he never curses, she thought. Those swear words were among her favourites, although she had no idea what they meant. She knew they were regarded as very foul here, and that was enough. While still appreciating The Other Realm’s multitude of curses, her attention went back to the raging zlurp. He was ready to pounce on them. A cascade of pink blood flowed freely from his nose cavity.

‘The search wa’ant said to bring you in live, princess’—there it was again, the word and the deep scorn while saying it—‘but it said naught bout how live. A bit live will do.’

A strange sound emitted from his mouth, the face-wide open hole showing a much larger amount of pink blood on the purple gums than before. Was he choking? Or perhaps trying to bring up a hairball? She’d seen Kitty act like that. Both Nadec and Pagewyn stared at him. Then she realised.

Oh!’ She passed, making sure. ‘You’re laughing! That’s the worst laugh I’ve ever heard.’ She made an exaggerated shiver sound, her body acting it out as well. The motion blackened the corners of her sight and she wobbled, as if being pushed and tugged by gentle ocean waves. A quick glance at Wyny assured her he hadn’t seen, fixed as he was on the zlurp.

The zlurp closed his mouth and scowled.

‘I trained a long time for that, my teach said me to be the best of her studs.’

Nadec couldn’t stop herself from snorting and regretting the snort. They train to laugh? The amusement was dialed back by the pain the snort caused. She cursed at herself, annoyed for being stupid enough to forget about current pain-causing habits. Her voice sounded thin and forced in her own ears.

‘Perhaps it would serve you better to practice making clothes, because that,’ she pointed vaguely in the direction of his bare sex, ‘is the worst thing I’ve ever seen.’ She heard Wyny make a noise, but couldn’t be certain if it was a stifled laugh or an incredulous gasp.

A growl rose in the zlurp’s throat. Nadec rolled her eyes at all of the cliché things surrounding this creature. It almost felt as if he’d taken his whole attitude and manner from human tv-shows and movies. The awareness of an idea formed in her head in a fraction of a second. The zlurp harumphed again.

‘I need not hide my pride, why would I not show I top most?’

The creature’s face managed to convey sincere confusion at that. Nadec’s mind spun, and not only from her concussion. She wasn’t sure what to think of this zlurp. Zlurps hadn’t been among the creatures she’d been been taught about, although xlurps had. They seemed to have similarities but differences too, like a difference in intelligence. And if what this one just said was right, they had a natural hierarchy, based on… what? Their sex? The number of balls? Or something else? Nadec’s curiosity rose; she wanted to find out more.

The zlurp hadn’t stopped talking, saying all kinds of stereotypical things—something about not having to spare Wyny’s life, the consequences of her death being worth the pleasure of killing her—but she hadn’t been paying attention anymore. Wyny took a few steps away from the zlurp, but he still stood closer to him than she was. She looked toward him. He was about to hit the creature with… eh, whatever he was about to do. Squares, Triangles, Circles, Trapezium, Parallelograms, who knew?

‘Don’t kill him,’ she almost yelled. She paused. ‘I mean, not that you’ve managed it before when you actually wanted to…’ she trailed off, grinning at him. ‘Just unconscious please, I have questions. We’ll just make sure to tie him up now.’

She was willing to let him handle this, as she felt herself grow weaker by the moment. If she didn’t know better, she’d think that someone was poking her brain with their finger. Seeing no reason to show that, she grabbed her halberd from her back anyway, lengthening the shaft to lean on it. Hardly a worthy battle stance, but she couldn’t care about that now. Even though the halberd’s weight was nothing like what it should be—she’d long ago stopped wondering about the abnormalities surrounding he weapon— trying to hold it up now would only result in embarrassment.

The zlurp kept on talking. She vaguely heard him say: ‘If you want me, come here and get me!’ Her attention was fixed on her travel compagnon though, the man who’d gotten her in all this trouble.

Wyny merely stared at her, confused. Uncertain. She didn’t understand why he wasn’t doing anything. He stood there, looking like an idiot. A gorgeous, naked idiot. He somewhat looked like a young Gerard Butler, yet with the attractiveness of the actor’s older years. She wondered why she hadn’t noticed that before. She couldn’t help but grin wider at him, and at the zlurp’s number one villain mistake—talking while they should be attacking.

Wyny shook his head slightly, and then a smile blossomed on his nearly perfect face, lopsided, in perfect imitation of Gerard. Those stubbles surely looked nice on him. The zlurp picked him up and tossed him several metres further. Rotting blurbs! Nadec cursed herself for falling into the classic romantic-scene-while-fighting mistake. What was going on here with all the tropes?

The purple creature let out that sound again—the one that was supposed to be laughter—and ran towards her, going faster than she’d give him credit for. He almost got close enough to tower over her when the dragon came to a stop between them. Her long neck forced the zlurp to a halt.

‘Step side Blackie, I can do this. I will like to hear the princess’ screams of pain. I’ll keep her live nough to give her to them, as the wa’ant said. But there wasn’t any word how long she should still be able to stay live after drop off.’

The black beast, head only a bit higher than the zlurp’s—large, but not quite as enormous as she expected a dragon to be—looked from Nadec to the zlurp to Kitty. Utter black head swiveling in an almost hypnotic way, the fierce eyes taking everything in. She repeated that three times before breathing in, her chest puffing up.

Fire! I’m going to be scorched by fire! Nadec had never thought that was the way her life would end. She thought about running away, but all she could do was stumble backwards, tripping over her own panicking feet.

Blackie’s chest stopped expanding. She aimed her head at Nadec, winked, turned toward the zlurp, and let out the most massive burb Nadec had ever heard.

The zlurp fell unconscious.

Ch 10: Dragon’s White Gas

‘The dragon winked at me and burbed the zlurp to unconsciousness.’ Nadec whispered, crawling toward Pagewyn. He was still lying where he’d landed after being tossed away by the zlurp. It was a wonder he hadn’t hit any trees while in the air. With some more luck, perhaps the soft underbrush had cushioned his fall.

‘I can see you stirring, so don’t pretend like you’re hurt.’

She ignored his silent groans, kept telling herself he was overdoing it. In truth, she could hardly see him. Night had settled in and no moons were visible yet. There was a small fire, build by the zlurp, sputtering for survival, in urgent need for more wood. Shadows moved by the random rhythm of the flames. The sound of the ground under her hands and knees accompanied the crackling of the fire. Night active animals were hooting, cooing, japping, scratching. In other circumstances, the combination of it all would be satisfying. At this moment, it was a nuisance, amplified in her head.

She wanted to yell, force him to tell her he was fine. He had to be alright. If only because he was still under her care, no other reason. She couldn’t do anything but whisper, the pain of her concussion bad enough to double her vision. She stopped moving forward to throw up. Blackie immediately licked it up. That almost made her heave again, although she doubted there was enough content left in her stomach. With the way she felt, and all the headache and nausea, she was certain she needed to get rest soon. If not, there might be serious consequences.

‘Whatever the consequences are for not tending to a concussion properly,’ she muttered bitterly.

By the time she reached Wyny—it felt as if she’d been crawling forever—he was sitting up, cradling his left arm. He looked a bit dazed at her, but seemed fine otherwise. Kitty had joined her when she was about halfway, right after chucking up. His purring machine was in full swing and it made her feel slightly better, thankful that it didn’t worsen her pains. The head buts made her feel like the most important person in the universe. The touch of his fur on her bare skin reminded her that she was naked. She ignored that for now. Other things demanded more attention.

‘What happened?’ The force of his voice made her cringe, her eyes watering.

‘Whisper, please.’ Her own voice trembled. ‘Didn’t you hear me before? I already told you what happened after you let yourself get caught.’ Of course he hadn’t heard, with the silence of her whispers, but she did not want to repeat herself. Perhaps later.

‘We need something to tie the zlurp up, any idea?’

There was only confusion on his face. She rolled her eyes, and nodded her head toward the zlurp. The flare of sharp pain generated instant regret at the movement. Balls, she thought, how hard is it to not speak or move your head?

His eyes widened when he saw the body of their current nemesis, and even wider a fraction later. The movement of the purple ugliness’ chest was clear. He was still alive, but in a deep slumber. Something gleamed orange on the ground near the creature.  

‘Huh, I dropped my halberd. When did that happen? No matter. Don’t know how long he’ll be out.’ She sighed as she knew what she was about to do. ‘Blackie burbed and he fell unconscious.’ There. She did it. She’d repeated herself. Blonky wallops in livercod.

‘Dragon’s White Gas.’ Wyny sounded in awe. The wondrous expression when he turned his eyes on her almost made her chuckle. Almost, but not quite. She gave herself an imaginary pat on the shoulder for remembering the effect noise had on her head.

‘It’s not as if she can breathe fire,’ she waved her hand dismissively, ‘so never mind that for now. We need to tie him up, and then we can rest. You should get my halberd first though. Huh.’ Her eyebrows shot up at hearing her own words. She would never in a million years admit to someone that she needed sleep. And she would definitely never let anyone else touch her weapon. It scared her. It meant that she was in terrible shape. When did his hand end up on her cheek?

‘You are very hurt.’ He giggled.

Oh. Wait.

No.

It was Nadec herself who’d giggled at his concerned tone. Why did he appear so worried all of a sudden? She pouted at his expression, not able to stop giggling. He looked so funny. She booped his nose.

‘Not to worry about the zlurp, if he really has been caught by Dragon’s White Gas, he will only wake when the dragon wishes him to, or so the legends go. I will take care of everything. You need to close your eyes and rest. I will get you help.’

She wasn’t certain when she’d lowered herself to the ground, but by the time his hand stopped touching her cheek, she was curled up, Kitty in the hollow formed by her knees and chest. She saw Wyny walk toward the zlurp, a limp in his gait.

Through narrowed eyes, she admired his fine buttocks when she felt a warm surface press against her back, followed by a large black tail taking her view away. The warmth of the dragon’s embrace and the blackness in front of her were enough to make her stop fighting against what her eyes wanted to do. They shut.

She fell into a deep sleep.

Chapter 11 The Cave

A trickling sound, as of water falling down in a small stream. Like a waterfall, Nadec thought. It made her aware of the urge to pee. She opened her eyes, getting herself in an upright sitting position, stiff muscles protesting.

There was no headache. In a rush all the previous events flowed back into vivid memory. She gasped, looking around. Tried to look around anyway. Wherever she was, it was dark.

Oh, wait.

Her arm felt like lead when she lifted it up to her face, removing the cloth.

Her eyes adjusted to the strange light quickly. After a few blinks she could see her environment. Her first thought was that she’d left Earth and had somehow ended up on an alien planet. The absurdity of it struck her straight away. She was in The Other Realm after all, which was about the same thing as being on a different planet.

Dark rock all around her, areas of them illuminated in a bright blue, grouped in patches, providing light and dark contrasts. At the far end it seemed like daylight coming in. Reflections in a lake finished off the beautiful environment. Drops dripped from stalactites everywhere. Some fell into the lake, others dripped onto the stalagmites they’d formed, forming an impenetrable terrain. It occupied about more than half of the open space next to the water. The chuckle at remembering the trick for what was what—tits hang down, so stalactites were the ones hanging from the ceiling—broke off midway. It had reminded Nadec of her clothes’ destruction.

With relief, she discovered she’d been dressed—or at least covered up—in a crude shirt and skirt. Not her outfit of choice, but she wasn’t about to complain. Better than nude. Her halberd—handle still out in normal long sized length—lay next to her, together with the harness.

Her head shot up at something moving in front of her.

‘Wyny,’ she sighed in relief. Utter joy exploded on her face when she saw Kitty next to him. The grey cat ran up to her quickly when she stretched out her arms.

‘What happened, where are we?’ she asked Wyny while receiving headbuts from Kitty, his loud purrs working their calming effect. He grinned at her, causing a sudden burst of butterflies to explode in her stomach. She scowled inwardly at herself. What the hell, body, stop reacting like that. It wasn’t as if he was the first handsome Other Realmer she’d saved.

But then she awkwardly realised he was the first one who had returned the favour. Several times. As much as she’d saved him. Guess we’re even now. She only had to take him home to live up to the promise she made herself, even if home-delivery hadn’t been in the contract, which had only said to free the guy from the xlurps. Wyny had made it more complicated by skipping accidentally along to her apartment. Which was then destroyed.

‘Blackie brought us to this cave. She carried the zlurp after I helped heave it onto her back. I carried you.’

Nadec’s thoughts churned around dozens of different questions with those few sentences. How did he lift the zlurp, that thing must weigh a ton? He carried her? How far? A blush heated her cheeks when she envisioned him carrying her, both naked. Why did she pass out so soundly? Is this Blackie’s cave? How long ago was that? Why did her head no longer hurt?

‘Where can I pee?’

Out of all the questions, this was the one that came out of her mouth? She grimaced, although a full bladder was to be expected after being unconscious for who knows how long. Wait, do unconscious people hold up their pee or does it just flow out? The possibility of the second option flushed her cheeks even more in embarrassment. Wyny saved her from bearing the shame for long.

‘Of course! I apologise, I should have expected that after a week of slumbers, the body will want to take care of their natural needs. Follow me.’

He helped her to her feet, for which she was grateful. After a week of no use, her legs protested at bearing her weight again. As usual, Kitty jumped on her shoulders. A week! She asked Wyny how that happened while he led her through the cave to a side tunnel.

He explained that Blackie used his Dragon’s White Gas on her, in order to give her the time for healing. This ability of dragons is elusive and not much is know of it, but Wyny believed it put the body on some sort of timelessness, meaning that they can survive without food or drink. He wasn’t certain if bodies would age while in the slumber. Nadec suspected his knowledge, came from the two examples he’d seen so far. She decided to take it with a grain, no, a bag, of salt.

Wyny showed her into a hollow of the tunnel, forming a room of about two meters in diameter. As far as she had seen, this whole cave, tunnels and all, appeared to be lighted by the bioluminescence. There was a hole in the floor, against the wall opposite from where they’d come in. He waved his arm toward it, so she went to check it out. Daylight shone through, and when she looked down, she almost grew dizzy with how far above ground they were.

‘Do not fall through, that would not end well. The garderobes in my castle discharge into the moat, so if you were to fall down one, it would not be such a problem. They are smaller too, so falling through would require an effort. But, we cannot complain, I certainly did not expect a chamber like this in a cave.’ He cleared his throat. ‘There is even a stream.’

Nadec saw the stream he pointed at, a narrow flow of water coming out of one wall at about belly height, weaving through the room to disappear through another wall. She hadn’t noticed it before, although she’d stepped over it to check out the hole. Her eyes widened when she realised the small waterfall can act as a way to wipe her butt. Or, well, whatever else needed wiping.

‘Great!’ She was genuinely pleased with it. Nothing worse than doing your business, whether that’s taking a piss or a shit, and having nothing to clean yourself with. After doing what she needed to do, ignoring the familiar feeling of cramps in her lower belly, she re-joined Wyny in the cave where she’d woken up.

Blackie was there now. At the sight of her, she jumped around in a circle, and stood there trampling in excitement. ‘No licking!’ Nadec told her in a stern tone, laughing. Kitty meowed at her, jumping from her shoulders to greet the large black beast. Apparently the dragon had gone out to fetch food, as a variety of fruit lay in front of Wyny. He explained that it had taken several fails to get the food gathering right. Blackie had been confused about him not wanting any poo to eat.

After eating their bellies full, Wyny’s expression grew serious. He looked at her with such intent and gravity, the witty comment she was about to say got stuck in her throat. There were plenty of questions remaining unanswered. Were they going to get solved now?

‘I understand you have many questions at this moment…’ he cleared his throat, looking away from her a second. Her face must have shown the sarcasm she felt. She’d always thought that eyebrow had a life of its own.

‘… but I will not answer them yet. There is something else we have to handle first, and I am quite certain it will take care of a portion of those.’ He nodded toward another tunnel leading out of the main chamber.

‘It is time we wake the zlurp.’

Chapter 12 Clothes

Nadec stared at Wyny, no sound but that of dripping water, and the combined purring of cat and dragon. She’d only just awoken from a week-long recovery slumber, and he wanted to get into the serious stuff straight away; wake the zlurp? She wasn’t certain if she could handle it. Her face remained neutral; there was no need to show uncertainty. Ever. He’d already seen enough of her in a weak state. Besides, she had to take care of something else first.

‘Where did you get these clothes?’

‘I can show you that later,’ he said, hesitating. ‘It is hardly important at this moment.’

‘Were there more?’ A faint cramp in the belly reminded her of the urgency. ‘Were there more clothes? Show me.’ She managed to put a sense of command in her voice, but cursed inwardly at the pleading undertone. Had he noticed?

He regarded her with a slight frown, almost seemed to study her, then narrowed his eyes, coming to a conclusion.

‘I suppose we can wait until tomorrow. In any case, Blackie can keep him unconscious as long as we want.’

At the mention of her name, the dragon lifted her head and blinked a few times in their direction. When she saw there wasn’t anything going on, the head went back down. The black scales of the large animal moved with an intake of breath, reflecting the blue of the cave’s illumination in rippling, scattered iridescent tones. The sigh drooped with contentment for being curled up with Kitty in the middle. Nadec vaguely wondered why the black had seemed all-consuming before, outside of the cave.

‘You do not enjoy the clothes I gave you?’

Gave me? GAVE me? Those words made her blood boil. He hadn’t given them to her as they hadn’t been his in the first place! Ignoring the embarrassment she felt at knowing that he’d dressed her while she’d been passed out, she began giving him a piece of her mind.

‘Bloody heavens dude, you really have some nerve, claiming you—’ the tirade slowed down when she looked at his amused face. Why was he amused? Had that been a joke? She wanted to think that uncharacteristic of him, but then realised she didn’t yet know him that well. She cursed again as she understood what that meant. He must have guessed she’d have a more profound reason to want to check the clothes. That man was too good at reading her.

‘What is a dude?’ 

Nadec couldn’t help the amused snort before explaining that a dude is a synonym of man. He didn’t appear to know what a synonym was so she told him synonyms are different words with the same meaning. They stood up and started walking toward another of the side tunnels.

‘I understand.’ He nodded. ‘What is a synonym’—he pronounced this in an odd way—’of a woman then? Wodude?’

The way he asked it—delivered in such a sincere and serious tone—made her break out in a loud and belly-deep laugh.

‘You, sir, have made me laugh more often and more genuine than ever in the past three years. Thank you for that.’ She glanced at him from the corner of her eyes while they walked through the bio luminescent-lit corridors of the cave. The strange light—produced by a combination of some sort of moss or algae and worms, she saw now—made his facial features look regal. She wondered if she thought that because she knew he was a ruler, or because he did look it. The stubble he had when they first met had turned into a scruffy beard. At least that validated his claim about her week-long slumber.

‘Now that we’re exchanging… knowledge, let me ask you a question. You obviously know something about cleanliness and hygiene, as you knew what to use the waterfall in the little room for.’ She scraped her throat roughly, surprised at how much of a taboo this felt like.

‘You mentioned garderobes in your castle before. They were like a bathroom, right?’ She didn’t give him a chance to reply, rushing on before shame took over. ‘So how do you wipe your butt? We use toilet paper, and some use water, but I’d be surprised if you have easy access to water in all of your rooms. I always wondered about that, but I’ve never thought about googling it. On the internet.’

He stopped in bafflement, his face scrunched up in confusion.

‘Bathroom? Googling? Internet? Toilet… paper? Why would you use paper? It is incredibly rare, not to mention rough. I do not see that working very well. Never you mind. If you need to know, we have strips of linen to take care of our business. And, as far as I am aware, commoners, outside of the castle, use leftover leaves from food they have prepared. I assume they have other ways as well, but I can not say for certain what they are. I do not mingle often with people on the street, I am afraid. It is fairly smelly. Here, this is it.’

His hand pointed toward a smaller opening in the end of the cave’s tunnel. Smaller was a matter of perspective, as the tunnel was still large enough to fit herself at least three times in height and multiple times in width. She marveled again at the sight of the natural irregularities in the dark rock’s surface. The uneven illumination worked to bathe it all in a magical, and even mysterious, glow. She decided she liked this place, a lot.

When she entered the room, the change in atmosphere was palpable. The air was much drier. Nadec barely registered it. She could only gape at the huge pile of clothes in front of her. The size reminded her of a tv-show she once saw, not too long ago, where the tv-people—had it been called the war on waste?—wanted to illustrate what the amount of clothes people threw out on an average ten minutes looked like. That pile had been about six thousand kilos of clothes. After seeing that, she’d changed her attitude towards clothes and commissioned her sustainable fighting suits.

Hence why she again felt anger rising towards the zlurp for destroying them. None of the clothes she saw here were damaged much, they all seemed fine. All of a sudden, she was very much looking forward to the morning. That creature would answer her questions, and if not, she’d gladly toss him around the room!

‘Do you need help with anything?’

The concerned look on Wyny’s face replaced the anger with tears forming in her eyes. He did care, she was sure of that. Despite that, she shooed him off. This was something she had to do by herself.

She tried to pick out the most shabby looking pieces of garment, ripping them in large strips. A woman’s period doesn’t wait on anything, not even being in the Other Realm, away from civilisation. The cramps were getting worse. Nothing she could do about those. She counted herself lucky to have such a massive stock of fabric. It would make things easier.

They weren’t going to budge from this cave for the next days, of that she was sure.

Chapter 13: Comfort food

‘I would really like to have strawberries right now.’

Nadec groaned and sat up from where she’d been lying in foetus position. She clutched her arms around her knees, hugging them tight to her body. She’d managed to make a big heap of pads, which were merely strips of fabric folded upon each other. Unfortunately, having less chance of leaking blood everywhere, still didn’t diminish the pain.

‘Strawberries?’ Wyny sounded confused. 

Don’t they have them here? Nadec thought, equally as confused. She was sure she’d eaten them in The Other Realm before.

‘Yes, strawberries. If I was at home right now, which I would’ve been if you hadn’t messed everything up and if my apartment hadn’t been blown to pieces,’ she paused and bent down to give Kitty a peck on the head—a thank you for staying near to cheer her up—’I’d be eating strawberries to make me feel better. Preferably with ice cream. And chocolate sauce drizzled on top. Or poured, whatever.’ She murmured that last bit as she flicked out a hand to give Blackie a few pats on the massive head.

The dragon had appeared to be as emphatic as Kitty, or perhaps she liked to follow the grey cat’s behaviour. Those two had become best friends from the moment they met. Nadec was still getting used to having a real dragon around her, even if she was—as Wyny claimed—a small one. He thought she was probably still growing.

‘Comfort food,’ he nodded, looking at her from across the small fire. He raised his voice to be heard over the combined purring of Kitty and—mostly—Blackie. They were sitting with their back to the side of the large cave chamber. The rounded wall, if it could be called that way, reflected the heat and light of the fire into the rest of the chamber. Unfortunately it made the natural blue shine of the cave diminish into a dancing, orange glow. An opening above their resting spot removed the smoke well enough. In front of them, the large lake looked magical. She marveled at the sight of the bioluminescence reflecting on the water, mixing with the orange.

‘But, how can straw-berries be comfort food? They do not sound very tasteful at all. We have appleberries, delicious little green fruits, sweet and sour at the same time. So I assume strawberries to taste like straw and look golden?’ He shook his head. ‘It does not sound appetizing at all. What other strange foods do you have in your Realm?’

‘Strawberries don’t taste like straw, silly. They grow close to the ground so the ground is packed with straw as a cushion for the berries, to prevent rot. They’re delicious! There are a ton of varieties, but the best ones are mostly sweet, with maybe a hint of sourness.’ She closed her eyes, envisioning them while she spoke.

‘Many people like to add sugar to them, or eat them with whipped cream, but I prefer them just like that. Pure. Hmm.’

‘Or with ice cream and a sauce of chocolate,’ he interjected, pronouncing both foods strangely. She smiled and opened her eyes, looking at him. The fact that he remembered what she’d said before, while not even understanding the words, proved that he was really listening. She appreciated that immensely.

‘Exactly.’ Her smile turned into a grin. ‘I wish I could let you taste them. I’m sure I’ve seen them here before. Well, I mean, perhaps not here here, but in this Realm. They’re a conical shape, the length of an average thumb, or smaller, or bigger, and they have the most beautiful red colour. The funny thing is, their seeds—’

She broke off. His expression had changed dramatically. It had gone from interested, even curious, to wide-eyed and sickly-looking. And, was that a blush on his cheeks? Why was he suddenly embarrassed?

‘What?’ She prodded him when it was clear he didn’t intend to say anything. He was staring at the ground! What had she said that made him so uncomfortable?

‘Red,’ he cleared his throat so often, Nadec nearly got up to slap him on the back. Or on the face, if that’s what it would take to pull him out of his fit.

‘Red foods are not to be talked about and certainly not to be consumed in Paralelo. It is inappropriate and I do not know how I feel about you now that I know you eat those foods and enjoy them.’

Nadec gaped at him. He had blurted the words out so fast they’d almost blended into each other. His breath came as quickly as if he’d just ran a good distance. He doesn’t know how he feels about me now, because I eat red fruit? She strangled the laughter which was about to burst up, instead did her best to keep a straight face. It was obviously important to him so she would treat it that way. How’s that for adulting?

‘I’ll do my best to avoid talking about… those foods. I’m sorry, I didn’t know. If you… When you feel like you can, could you tell me why? Is there a specific reason, or is it merely a remnant of history?’

She felt very proud of herself for the way she’d handled that. It had been the right approach, as he appeared to relax. The tension in his stubbled face faded, and his eyes resumed their normal size. Satisfaction spread over Nadec’s body as a slow burning warmth. See, I am learning better socialising skills. The thought sounded smug in her mind.

‘Nozbexraper!’ She doubled up in pain. That had been a bad cramp. When it passed, she saw Wyny standing up, his hand outstretched and a wooden box floating above it, transforming into the L-shapes she’d seen before.

‘That,’ he told her while folding his sticks up, ‘was the most vulgar swear I have ever heard. I thought we were under attack!’ He sat down again, looking at Nadec curiously.

‘We’re not under attack, although my uterus feels as if it is.’

She mumbled that quietly, hoping he wouldn’t hear. Louder, she said: ‘Anyway, I think I should try to get some sleep, I’m looking forward to get answers from the zlurp. I especially wouldn’t mind knowing why that purple big shit kept referring to me as a princess. What, do you know?’ His face had changed when she’d said that. He did know something!

‘I can not be certain.’ The reluctance in his voice made her more curious.

‘Perhaps he has knowledge I do not have.’ He let a long sigh out. ‘Or perhaps he recognises your hairstyle as an indication of your rank.’

She groaned. Bloody great. No one has ever thought to tell her about the significance of hair in this Realm. She hoped it was only a local custom. The only reason why she french-braided her hair in three parts—one on top and one on each side, pulled together in a knot at the back—was to keep it away from her face. Not to mention avoid her adversaries to pull on it.

‘I’ll hear more about that of you tomorrow, mister.’ She tried to put a playfulness in her tone of voice, but another cramp caused her to grit her teeth, making it sound more like a threat. She tried to find the most comfortable sleeping position, but failed.

I wish I had my hot water bottle. That nice warmth always helps against the cramps. She almost considered plucking a warmed up log from the outside of the fire, when Blackie gently laid the arrow-pointed tip of her tail on her tummy. It was the perfect heat to ease her pains. She looked into the dragon’s face, Kitty settling in between them. The large, greenish yellow-gold eye blinked at her. Was that a wink?

The last thought before falling asleep stirred wonder in her, a feeling she took along to her dreams.

How had Blackie known I’d been thinking about wanting something warm on my tummy?

Chapter 14: Talking to a drunk guy

‘Will he talk?’

The dubious look Nadec shot toward Wyny spoke volumes; she already knew the answer to her own question. She had quite a few things to ask the zlurp. How much truth his answers would bring, remained to be seen.

‘I can not be certain of that. He might not even know many things. Perhaps he is merely an empty-headed minion.’

‘He mentioned a search warrant before. Maybe he’s a bounty hunter? Or a… You know what, it doesn’t matter, we should stop guessing and just wake him up. It’s the only way to know for sure what he knows…’ She trailed off as they stepped into a small cave room, thoughtfully looking at the purple creature. He was lying unconscious in front of them.

‘Hold on a second, I’ll be right back.’

She left the room to walk toward another one, where she looked around, picked something up and came back. The look on Wyny’s face made her grunt in amusement. He had no idea what she was doing. She stepped closer to the zlurp to place a cloak over his gender.

‘Much better.’

Noticing Wyny’s raised eyebrows, she added: ‘I’ve seen enough balls to last me a while, thank you very much. Anyway, don’t we need to tie him up or something first?’

Wyny chuckled. He chuckled! Was that for the balls comment or some ignorance of her? Whatever it was, he did appear much looser around her than in the beginning. He even seemed to start understanding her sense of humour, weird as it was sometimes. She’d never expected that in any royalty, no matter which world they were from.

‘I do not believe it is necessary to tie him up.’ He glanced toward Blackie, whose head peeped in while her body sat outside of the room. Kitty was asleep on top of it, curled in between the horns, like a fluffy cat-ball hat. ‘I am quite certain the dragon can wake him partially, which should make him too drowsy to stand up, let alone attack.’

‘And he might work along with us better too, being half-drowsy and such,’ Nadec mused, seeing the advantage.

The dragon started panting, just like a dog would. Although in her case it looked more like a sign of agreement instead of a need to cool herself. Nadec took it as a smile. A smiling dragon. What else will you astound me with? she asked herself purposely in her mind. She did wonder it, but she also wanted to test something. Blackie looked at her, and winked. This time Nadec was certain it was a wink, aimed at her! Test successful. The large animal had heard her thoughts and understood them. Well, bloody heavens take me, that’s pretty amazing.

She added mind-reading to the list of ‘special things dragons do’. The Dragon’s White Gas was on that list—with expansion because there appeared to be more to it than she first thought—and the ability to relief pain. When the dragon had put her tail onto Nadec’s cramping tummy, she’d thought it was only the warmth softening the pain. But when she woke up this morning from a brilliant sleep, she realised it was more than that. Even now the cramps were still reduced to a soft, nearly imperceptible throbbing. 

‘Ready?’ She jumped at hearing Wyny’s voice, she’d been too caught up in her thoughts about Blackie. He chuckled. Again! What was going on with that man? He’d been extremely uncomfortable the day before after the ‘red food is taboo’ thing. Was he trying to make up for the discomfort his discomfort had caused?

‘Yes. No, wait!’ She held out her hand to Blackie, who stood waiting eagerly to wake the zlurp. ‘One small question first. I need to know. Do you… have tomatoes?’

Wyny stared at her. His mouth fell open slightly, and he blinked slowly. She snorted at his expression and wished she still had her phone on her so she could take a photo. It had been blown up together with her couch though. His head shook, as if he needed to make himself physically snap out of it.

‘Tomatoes? No, I don’t have tomatoes here. Oh, you mean? Yes, we have tomatoes in Paralelo. What does that have to do with waking the zlurp?’

‘Oh, nothing. Just wondering. I like tomatoes.’ Their tomatoes must be yellow or other colours. She was suddenly very much looking forward to discovering Parallelogram, no, Paraleo, no, eh, his kingdom. Why was it so difficult to remember? He’d only just said it!

‘Well, what are you waiting for, go ahead!’

Nadec expected Blackie to stretch out her neck and burp again, the same way she’d make the zlurp pass out. Instead, she retracted her head, turned around, and shimmied her backside in. Both Wyny and Nadec had to move aside or be pushed out of the way. Blackie held her tail to the side, so it was still mostly outside of the room. She lifted it up at the base, in the way a cat would lift their tail when someone scratches their back at the very end.

The black dragon farted onto the zlurp.

It wasn’t a silent expulsion of gas either. It was as loud a fart as she’d ever heard. It sounded more like a trumpet. No, it was a tuba. Not a sound produced by a living being. It was actually impressive. 

No matter how impressed she was by the sound, Nadec wasn’t keen on getting the same extreme as a smell. She lifted up parts of her shirt automatically, hiding her mouth and nose in an attempt to filter the air.

When the dragon’s head replaced her ass again, Nadec noticed Wyny grinning at her.

‘It is quite alright, there is no nasty odour. Oh, there we go. He stirs.’

She tentatively lowered her arms and breathed a shallow breath through her nose. The zlurp groaned. She jumped and uttered a high-pitched aah. What in Frank’s name was that? That was the second time today that something surprised her enough to make her jump.

‘OOooOOh, Princess.’ The zlurp’s speech was drawn out and thick, his accent heavier, the gravel replaced with pebbles. ‘I still got you trap.’ He did his imitation-laugh, which surprisingly did sound more like a real laugh in his dazed state.

‘Dude, your sight must be seeing double, you’re our prisoner now.’

‘That’s not how I look at it! Welcome to my crib!’

The zlurp fell sideways, his whole body shaking with exaggerated shudders, hands slapping his thighs in too hard cracks. The movements made the cloak fall away from his sex. Nadec sighed, frowned and shared a glance with Wyny, walking over to him. The creature was trying to imitate laughter too forcibly. She nodded toward him.

‘What do you think that meant?’ Her whisper sounded a bit shaky. All of a sudden she had a bad feeling about this.

‘I do not believe it means anything. The creature is not all there, Blackie did not wake him up enough. It is alright,’ his voice softened as he grabbed her by the shoulders, ‘Come now, we will dig to the bottom of it and see if we can get anything reasonable out of this abomination. Just try to imagine you are talking to someone intoxicated.’

‘Like talking to a drunk guy hey. I can do that.’ She nodded, a short, curt nod.

‘I can definitely do that.’

Chapter 15: Flight

‘How do we get out of here?’

Nadec walked away from the room where Blackie burped the zlurp back to unconsciousness. She kept her stride firm, heart beat loud in her own ears. A glance to Wyny confirmed he was keeping up.

‘You believe him? Do you not believe we should discuss what he said? Think about it properly? You know he could have been lying.’

She shook her head, stopping to allow Kitty to jump on her shoulders. The things the zlurp had said… She wished she didn’t believe. It had rattled her to the core. She tried hard to hang on to calmness, but in reality she felt on the brink off hysterics. She hadn’t felt like this in… in three years. No, don’t think about that as well.

‘We can’t assume he was lying, there’s too much at stake. I’ll have to let you find your own way back.’ This statement made her even more upset—her perfect record broken, at least from her point of view. They entered the main caves. Sadness grew on top of the other emotions. In that brief time, she’d gotten attached to this place.

‘It’s too dangerous for you to come with me. My employers would kill me if I let you. They probably already do, after your disappearance. Oh.’ She stopped, staring out over the water.

‘Could they be the ones behind this? If what he said was true?’ Any other time, the intensity on Wyny’s face would’ve diverted her mind elsewhere. This was not the time for such thoughts though.

‘No, no, that wouldn’t make sense.’ She frowned. ‘Even if they aren’t happy with my uncompleted job—you, yes, you—they wouldn’t hurt me over it.’ She snorted at the ridiculousness. It sounded fake to her own ears. Come on, pull it together, keep making jokes, don’t let this get to you.

‘You realise I will refuse to let you go on without me, are you not?’

‘Are you trying to be the valiant hero, the knight in the night, the man who rescues all, the prince on the white horse, rescuing the damsel in distress?’ She’d meant for it as a joke, but it came out sounding bitter and annoyed.

‘I’ll have you know, I am the one who saves people here, buddy. I am the one they’d named the red knight. I am the one they send out to find missing people and do everything to get them back.’ She wanted to shout but couldn’t. Instead, her voice broke. The tears on her face were like a betrayal to the brave mask she worked so hard to keep.

‘They gave the responsibility to me! So don’t you think you can just come marching in and take over. I’ve been doing fine these past years by myself and I will keep on doing fine. Even if there is someone out there who wants to capture me or kill me because they—wrongly—believe I am some heir from a dead country. Bullshit! My parents were normal people. They were the best people. This is all horseshit!’

She inhaled, but couldn’t. Instead it became a broken sob. She turned away from him, keen to pick up Kitty. But Kitty was already on her shoulders.

‘It is alright, Nadec. It is alright. I will not leave you. We will figure this out together. Your employers can go eat goat dung.’

A sniffle-giggle escaped her—Wyny didn’t swear often. He enveloped her in his nice, strong arms. She returned the hug without hesitation. It had been too long since she had human contact like this. She allowed the tears, for now. Kitty jumped off her shoulders, but kept making an eight in between her ankles, headbutting and meowing.

‘We don’t have time for this.’

Forcing a stop to her pathetic behaviour, she pulled away from Wyny. His reluctance was obvious when he released her. The nod was confident.

‘I still am not completely convinced if we should go, I do not trust that creature. But,’ he held his hand up as she was about to protest, ‘I trust your judgment. We should be going. What shall we do with the zlurp?’

‘Leave him. He won’t wake up unless Blackie wakes him, right? Right. So we leave him. Not our problem anymore. I’m not in the mood for killing.’

As Wyny opened his mouth, she glared at him.

‘We go, now.’

She had to keep busy, anything to keep the whirlwind inside from getting out. Her little breakdown had been enough. No more of that now. Focus on the immediate threat, handle the larger issue later. Break it down in small steps, make the impossible, possible. She kept repeating those thoughts until she believed it.

‘Clothes. I need spare ones, can’t keep walking around in these rags all the time, do you need clothes?’

Nadec didn’t wait for his reply, she walked off straight away towards the room with the abandoned clothes. Many of those were not better than rags, but she selected several decent looking shirts, a skirt and trousers, which might fit her. She made a bundle out of them, and did the same for Wyny.

When she came back to the main chamber—after enjoying the luxury of the bathroom and its small waterfall one last time—Wyny looked ready to go. He had collected their blankets and put Kitty’s harness on. Blackie wagged her tail, panting with split tongue out.

The sight of her companions—one human, two non-human-animals—stirred something. As a ray of sunlight banishing a dark cloud. How poet, thought of that yourself? She did not appreciate her own self-mocking thought, but couldn’t help the sarcasm.

‘All good to go, I guess. Where’s the exit?’

‘Well, that is something I have not been able to tell you yet. There is no exit.’

‘What? How—?’

‘Let me finish. There is no exit we can navigate through with ease. Thus, we fly.’

‘We fly.’ Her voice was flat in every way. She looked from Wyny to Blackie. The dragon winked. Oh no.

‘Can she even carry us all? She’s not matured yet, she’s still little.’

At that, Blackie puffed up, standing tall with her chest out, front legs straight but ass down. Sitting like a proud cat. Nadec had to admit the dragon was not small. Although not as large as Nadec had imagined dragons to be, she supposed they would fit on the animal’s back. Flying on a dragon. That could divert her mind for a bit. It could also make their journey easier.

Not wanting to speak for fear of a tremble in her voice, she glanced at Wyny. The man had a grin on his face. Of course, he’d flown before, when she was unconscious. He gestured in a polite way. She shoved his bundle of clothes in his outstretched hand. She hoped he knew how much of an art it was, making a perfect and solid package out of clothes.

Blackie ducked down, positioning one of her legs so it made a step. When Nadec settled down on the dragon’s back, Kitty jumped and settled in front of her. Wyny climbed up and got very cosy behind her. She supposed the wings and all, made things a bit awkward. The dragon was pleasantly warm underneath her—Wyny pleasantly warm behind her—and almost felt like a massive, supersized horse. Without the hair and the smell.

Before Nadec could prepare herself, a jump and flap of the wings took them off the ground. The lurch tickled her tummy. They soared over the water, into a tunnel at the end of the lake. Blackie maneuvered around the cave’s obstacles, higher and lower, fast and slow. The bioluminescence a brilliant blue against the dark rock. Unlike before, she now noticed other colours too.

The unfamiliar yet incredible sensation of flying on a mythical winged beast was enough to make Nadec forget about everything else for the moment. Then they exited into daylight.

Nadec’s breath stopped in amazement.

Chapter 16: Descending

When flying, Nadec loved looking out of the window. The view was alway wonderful, but in truth, it never showed all that much. Endless patches of green, brown, blue. Sometimes only clouds. Pretty, yes, but she loved it more when the airplane was closer to earth, when the real beauty of below showed. Close enough to see details, far enough to see a lot. She had never flown over an area of pure nature as what she saw now, stretching endlessly beyond her vision.

When Blackie turned around—perhaps circling was an easier way to descend with humans on one’s back—Nadec could see the tunnel through which they’d exited the cave. The opening let out a stream of water, dropping into a flowing waterfall cascading over multiple rocks. Around that one were many more waterfalls; all coming from other tunnels in what appeared to be the side of a small mountain. The sight was mesmerising.

Sun rays hitting the falling water shattered into a million different colours. The base colour was a shining golden, but hidden in between were thousands of small rainbows, caused by all the different levels, depths, strengths, speeds, and widths of the waterfalls. Then Blackie’s circling turned them back around. Once again, Nadec’s breath hitched before letting it out in an outstretched woah.

Definitely nothing she’d ever seen from an airplane. Perhaps people who did all the base jumping, and craziness like that, knew how pretty things could be. But surely even they had never seen anything like this.

‘It is quite extraordinary, is it not?’

Wyny almost had to shout to be heard over the wind rushing past them, but still managed to find the perfect volume. She didn’t have to cringe in the way it sometimes went when someone at a loud party tries to speak and nearly breaks the other’s ear drum.

She merely nodded—she knew how embarrassing her voice sounded when she had to yell. She’d already embarrassed herself enough in front of him. There were no words to express the magnificence of the view. The magnificence of The Other Realm; this area of it anyway. Perhaps it was a combination of New Zealand, with its lakes and large hills, a bit of Australia—the outside, not the inside—with brilliant beaches along cliff sides. A piece of Brazil, with vast jungles, green and moist and colourful. There was such a variety of diverse landscapes, she wondered how that worked with the climate. This place has magic, so why wouldn’t the environment be magical? She accepted that thought for now.

The best thing of what she could see, was the lack of people. No human settlements, no human interference. Her heart warmed even more at the sight. She loved what technology could do, but she resented what it had done to Earth, the amount of suffering and death it had brought, to both people, animals and nature. She didn’t allow her mind to wander of in that direction, but relished in the bliss of seeing something amazing.

Kitty didn’t care about anything around him. He appeared soundly asleep in front of Nadec, head towards her, tail fluttering besides him. How could he be asleep? Somehow he managed to look comfortable while on top of the dragon’s spine ridges. This was one of those times Nadec wished she could take photos. 

Their flight soon came to an end. Blackie’s feet hit the ground. The landing wasn’t smooth, but none of them fell off during its bumpiness. Nadec slid off as soon as she could, almost before Blackie stood still. No matter how much she’d enjoyed the view, having solid ground under her feet did feel good.

Blackie had dropped them off next to a lake, formed by some of the waterfalls. The reason for her choice of landing spot became obvious immediately, as she stepped toward the lake and drank with big swallows, dropping on her belly as she did so. The flight must have exhausted her. So much for flying on a dragon to make the journey quicker, Nadec thought, with a relief she would never admit to anyone.

‘So, do you know where we are? Was there anything at all you recognised from the air? I know we’re likely not even near your Paralellogram kingdom, but you must’ve gotten a bit of general geography lessons, right? It would be easier if that zlurp hadn’t destroyed my bag with my map.’

She turned to Wyny while asking the question, grumbling that last bit. Her mouth stayed open after the last word, as he stood there with his upper body bare, in the middle of removing his pants. That was not what she’d expected.

‘I am not certain, but… what is the matter?’ He frowned at her. She realised she’d been staring and shook out of it, making a shooing motion with her hands. She was sure she saw a small smile before he ducked his head, to remove his underpants. He was naked once again.

‘Honestly, I would think you would be used to seeing me nude by now, you have seen me more without garments than dressed. I am taking a dip in the lake, it might make for an acceptable bath. The lake in the cave was too cold. This might be bearable. As for where we are, I am not certain, like I said,’ he jumped in the water, ducked down, and appeared again with a puff, ‘but I believe I did see the Spiralling Spinal Spine Pines. If that is so, we should go that direction. Not because I know where to go from there, but because there is a small city nearby and we could possibly find a new map there. And perhaps hear more about events.’

By the time he finished speaking, Nadec had also undressed and gone into the water, after making sure he wasn’t looking in her direction. It was cold at first—cold enough to evoke a small squeak—but quite good after a while. With her period in full swing, being in this much water was a treat. If only she could stay in the lake until it was over. She thought about what he’d said but didn’t have to ruminate on it for too long. There weren’t many other options.

‘Good. We’ll go there. I suppose you remember which direction they were?’

He gave her a look which said I am not an idiot, but nodded anyway.

‘It was where the sun sits now.’

Nadec tipped her hair back. She liked the crawling sensation on her scalp from the chill water. On the river side, Blackie had already snuggled up with Kitty. Nadec snorted at that. Those two slept whenever and wherever they could.

‘I never heard dragons are so odd.’

Wyny sounded amused and ponderous. He floated closer to her.

‘There, I do not have to speak quite as loud now. Dragons are elusive and not much is known about them. We know them most of all from stories. I do not believe I have ever heard someone claiming to have seen a dragon. Not anyone trustworthy. It is said that their numbers appear to be dwindling.’

‘Of course they are. It’s a classic, the dragons-are-rare-and-almost-extinct-trope. I should call this world Troponia instead of The Other Realm.’ She chuckled at her own joke.

‘Don’t look at me like that. You don’t even know what a trope is, but believe me, this planet of yours is full of them.’

His face contorted even more in confusion. ‘What is a planet?’

She rolled her eyes at him. Almost, she swiped her hands forward to splash him, but that was one trope she didn’t want to fall into, no matter how fun it might be.

‘If I tell you that, I’d have to tell you many other things and it would blow your mind. We have more urgent issues now beside mind-blowing. Let’s just say it has to do with the stars which are really all su—uh, doesn’t matter. Talking about stars, they might be one of my most favourite things here.’ She trailed off, stopping herself right in time from mentioning light pollution and the effect it had. That would’ve been even worse than telling him all stars are suns.

‘Maybe I can explain some things while we’re on the road.’ An idea struck her and she cooed. ‘Ooh, and perhaps you can teach me how to use that magic of yours. My employers have granted me with a little bit of magicness, enough to be able to skip, so maybe I could do other things too.’

Wyny had been coming closer to her, but she’d been steadily moving away from him. No matter what his intentions were, she didn’t want to take any chance. He’s hot and a ruler, but that didn’t mean she was going to throw away her rule of not sleeping with the guys she rescued. Even if they tend to invade her dreams.

‘I apologise, I would be more than happy to teach you.’ His face scrunched up, reinforcing his apology. ‘Only descendants of the Water Crown are able to use the power of the Squares, so I am afraid you would not. I can, of course, show you how it is done and how it works, but you will not be able to practice it.’

‘I should’ve expected it. Another trope, only royalty can use magic.’ She barked a laugh. ‘Classic.’

After making sure Wyny wasn’t watching, she climbed out of the water, and whispered something to Blackie. The dragon winked at her in understanding. She knew she probably could’ve thought it and Blackie would’ve understood, but that felt too uncomfortable.

About ten minutes later they set out on a walk, off towards the Spiraling Spinal Spine Pines. The name sounded familiar, she may have seen it mentioned on her maps. Not for the first time since talking to the zlurp, she wondered what her parents had been up to. Ensnaring Nadec in her own tropes. And now, Earth might even be in danger. 

The biggest trope of them all.

Chapter 17: Rocks

‘Where did Blackie go?’

The question slashed through the silence of their walk. It had been a silence of words, not a complete silence as the crackling of leaves and twigs under their feet formed an orchestra of wood sounds along with the tweeting birds. Wyny looked at Nadec, the question as much on his face as it had been in his words. He suspected she had something to do with it.

‘How should I know? She’s a free animal.’

His eyes narrowed at her. She rolled hers at him.

‘The last time I saw her was yesterday evening, right before falling asleep. It woke me up this morning, not having her by my side. I’ve gotten used to her warmth. And presence.’

She absently lifted her hand to stroke Kitty, who was riding along on her shoulder. Since their unexpected skip to The Other Realm—or Troponia, as she often called it now—her furry buddy had been holding up pretty well. Nadec suspected that meeting Blackie had much to do with it. The dragon and the cat had formed an almost immediate and super strong bond.

‘You had her go back to the cave to wake the zlurp, have you not?’

Nadec stopped in shock. She slowly turned her head toward Wyny. He stood there stoically. Even wearing peasant clothes, his royal bearing was obvious. His face was serious. Nadec felt herself shrivel under his gaze. She did not like confrontation, despite her quite violent jobs. But she also did not like to cower down before anyone.

‘I did.’ She met his stare eye for eye. Who did he think he was? She didn’t have to answer to him. Besides, she’d merely suggested it to Blackie, she hadn’t forced her to do anything. 

‘Why would you do that? You know what he had said. Blackie might be flying straight into their hands. She might be in danger. And once the zlurp is awake, he can tell them things.’

He was serious, wasn’t he? Nadec felt her face redden and her blood boil.

‘What can he tell them? Oh, huh, they took bunch of cloths and left me, eeuuh. We’ll be fine. Blackie will be fine.

But now doubt crept up to her, like a wriggling traitorous itch on her back. Had she sent Blackie to her death? No, the dragon could take care of herself. And there really wasn’t anything the zlurp could tell them. Except… except what he’d told her and Wyny. Would it be a disadvantage if they knew that she knew? Wyny was still looking at her, silent.

‘No, I mean, yes, she’ll be fine. You’ll see. The zlurp was probably too out of it to remember what he’d told us anyway.’ Damnit, she thought, when she saw Wyny shift. He hadn’t even thought of that yet. She’d have to give him something more, she didn’t want him angry with her.

‘I just couldn’t let him die. Too many have died by my hands already.’ Her voice was soft. She’d tried to keep it low enough so he wouldn’t hear.

‘Anyway, we should keep going, still a long way to go.’ The words blurted out when his face softened while taking a step toward her. She moved away from him in the direction they’d been going.

‘I’m sure Blackie will join us by tonight, we’re only three days away and she’s a fast flyer. At least, I assume she is. How long until we reach the city near the, what was it again, the Spiraling Spinal Spine Pines?’ The chuckle she forced sounded hollow. Perhaps it would’ve been a better idea to leave Wyny behind. It’s no good having people around, because that lead to talks, and those eventually—sometimes—introduced deeper talks. Wyny appeared to be a trigger for her.

‘Bloody ridiculous man,’ she murmured under her breath at the same time he said: ‘Yes, that was the name, I am not certain how far it still is. If Blackie was here, we could ask her to take us up long enough to get our bearing.’

She flinched as he put his hand on her shoulder. Oh no, he’s not! She knew what he was up to, once again he wasn’t letting go of the momentary weakness she’d showed. He liked to latch on to those moments, as if those convinced him she was a woman. Even worse, as if that meant she was a woman who needed a man by her side. Fool.

The underground crunched beneath her feet as Nadec swerved to the side, putting a tree between them, dismissing his hand in an effective and—she hoped—inconspicuous way. He wasn’t ready to give up yet though.

‘We will need to talk about it someday, Nadec.’

‘No, we don’t. I don’t even know what you‘re talking about. Just keep walking. We’ll listen to any rumours in the city first. I’m sure they’ll tell us the zlurp was lying.’

‘You do not believe that. I saw your face when he mentioned your parents. Were they really—’

He ducked in time to avoid the rock she threw at his head.

‘Perhaps,’ she bent down to pick several more rocks, ‘it wasn’t a coincidence,’ she aimed another rock at him, ‘that I was sent to rescue you. Perhaps,’ another rock, ‘it also wasn’t a coincidence,’ this one hit him on the shoulder, ‘that you skipped along with me. Perhaps,’ a grunt from a solid impact on his back, ‘it wasn’t a coincidence that my couch exploded while you were there.’

The last rock went flying over his head. She didn’t really want to hurt him. Much. Only a little. That felt good. Perfect vent for the frustration she’d been feeling lately. His own fault for insisting to talk. He gaped at her. She went down her knees, searching the ground.

‘No! That is not—you can not believe I have anything to do with that! Please, I would never hurt you.’

She shut out his pleas. It was good to hear him grovel. Was he too adamant about his innocence though? She shook her head. She didn’t suspect him of such a thing. Well, Frankdamn fucking shit. I suppose I really trust him. The thought surprised her.

When she straightened again, holding more rocks, he stopped babbling and steadied himself. He was going to take it like a man, it seemed. Although why he wouldn’t tell her to stop or even walk up to take the rocks away, or anything else to take control of the situation, was beyond her. Social difference between man-woman interaction on Earth vs Troponia, she supposed.

‘Relax, I’m done throwing these at you. Come have a look. Do these look man-made?’

Wyny looked at her warily but came closer anyway. The hewn marks were clearly visible on the rock, now that she paid attention. It had a special blue-pink colour, strata of both colours forming a mesmerising effect. She almost dropped them at the startling gasp coming from Wyny.

‘The statue of the Originals. It is supposed to be only a myth, but this colour. It is unmistakable. It is said that the statue was divided in eleven parts and carried away to other lands. The power of the complete statue was said to be too powerful. One of the parts must be… There!’

He pointed, but all Nadec could see was a hill with a funny protrusion at one end.

‘Oh’. 

The only thing she could say. Of course. Of course the part they had to come across was the middle. Of course she had to get the balls again.

Chapter 18: The statue

Nadec felt guilty about the way she’d treated Wyny. He had saved and taken care of her when she had the concussion. Granted, she’d saved him more often, but that was merely part of her job. He didn’t owe her anything, yet he had decided to come along with her and help. And what did she do? She threw rocks at him when he wanted to be supportive and figure things out. Smooth, Nadec, very smooth. He didn’t appear to be disturbed about it though.

She stuffed one of the colourful rocks—a piece of what apparently used to be an enormous statue—in her bundle. She ducked to avoid walking in a spider web—she knew how strong they could be by being caught in them several times before. Many things were similar to Earth, yet with subtle —and often not so subtle—differences to The Oth—Troponia. Her giggle earned her a glance backward from Wyny, who was leading the way closer to the statue piece. With another chuckle, a wave and a shake of the head, she urged him to continue.

Not long after, they reached the statue. Nadec estimated it had taken them only about twenty minutes—including weaving around the trees and dense shrubs. She dropped her arm in irritation. The habit of having a watch was still there, but her fitness tracker had also fallen victim to the zlurp. 

She looked up at the statue. Although she wasn’t happy about wasting time, it had been a good idea to check this thing out. Especially because of Wyny’s reaction, completely awe-struck.

It lay in a clearing, probably caused by its very presence. Big patches of moss covered the coloured strata on the sides. The top had grass and trees, even though it was almost as high up as the surrounding trees themselves. Nadec frowned at it. The shape was wrong, not what she’d expected a statue cutout of the pelvic area and butt to be. She could clearly see the male parts, and when she walked around, there was the leg, but instead of a buttock, another leg appeared to be attached. And that—Oh. 

She squinted and leaned closer.

‘They did a very detailed job on this. I could even get in there. Is that an actual hole?’

When she moved aside the vines growing down from the front, where she supposed two female legs came together, she saw it was even more detailed than she thought at first glance. After putting Kitty on the ground, she ducked and, snorting in amusement, popped her head in the middle hole. It was wide enough at the opening for her shoulders to fit. When she squeezed her arm up, she felt it get more narrow soon, yet there was no end to the opening, not where she could reach it.

Quite moist in here. The thought made her chuckle. Kitty meowed at her feet. Nadec ducked out of the cavern and patted him on the head before lifting him for a cuddle. 

‘I’m alright buddy,’ she whispered, ‘thanks for your concern’.

‘Is there anything else you know about this statue, Wyny?’ 

He stiffened at that. Pagewyn was what he preferred, and he didn’t care much for the nickname she’d given him. All the more reason to keep calling him that, she thought. He’ll grow to like it eventually. 

‘It was obviously a woman and a man, standing back to back. Why? Who were they? You said it had a lot of power and that’s why they pulled it apart and dispersed it. But how? How could they’ve cut those pieces and moved them?’

She kept walking around until she returned to the male side.

‘And why do they have holes in them? Anatomically correct holes for that matter?’

Wyny kept quiet for a while, studying her and the statue. She let him. If there was one habit of him she knew by now, it was his thoughtful manner. He liked to think and ruminate before speaking. Usually. He sighed deeply before replying.

‘I do not know the answer to many of those questions.’ He turned his head away and his shoulders came forward. ‘This has not been part of the lessons I received. I—’ he glanced at her, pulled his shoulders back and lifted his head up high again. ‘I will admit that I have not been raised to be a ruler. I, more than likely, received more education than many other people, but on a decent amount of topics, I lack an embarrassing portion of knowledge. Come to think of it, it is almost as if… No matter.

‘Here is the little I know of the statue. Evidently the things I told you before, and this: while it was still in one piece, it could enhance objects. Legend says that, for instance, feeding a weapon through one of their mouths, would improve it. I suppose I never understood this. I always assumed it was merely a manner of speech. But,’ he cleared his throat and his cheeks turned a shade more red, ‘I can see now how it would have worked. I believe the weapon would go through the body, receive its power, and come out the natural way.’ He managed to say that last sentence without tripping over the words from shame, even though the colour in his cheeks remained.

During his talk, Nadec had taken her halberd from her back, keeping the shaft short. She looked at it now, lost in thought. Ever-sharp blade. It sounded supernatural. Could it have been passed through the statue? If so, that would make the weapon even more special. She looked up.

‘You think…?’

He nodded. ‘I believe it is most likely one of the PPW.’ His eyes opened wide. ‘Well! I never thought much about that classification until now! PP—pee pee—W stands for powerpooped weapon. That makes a whole lot of sense now.’

‘Powerpooped weapons?’ Nadec’s voice was incredulous. Then she let out a deep and genuine laugh. ‘That’s the best thing I’ve heard in ages!’ Another bellow of laughter doubled her up, before she dropped back on the ground. ‘And I suppose not many of these PPW are left and it’s been considered a myth by many people?’

‘Well. If my opinion counts as the general opinion, then yes. I never thought they were real. When I saw your blade, I suppose it did cross my mind but I could not believe it. Until now.’

Typical. Another trope. Special, power wrought weapons, lost to most. It probably was connected to the statue and could be used to find all the parts. That would be the perfect additional trope. She snort-chuckled at the absurdity, but it broke off as she laid a hand on the blade. Stories from people feeling the blood drain from their faces had always seemed silly to her, but she believed them now. She felt herself grow a shade paler.

Wyny asked what was wrong, although his voice sounded muffled, as if underwater. The halberd’s blade was hot. Not warm from the sun heating it up, but hot as if it should be blazing red. Yet, it didn’t hurt her. She shook her head. No. She stood up and ran away as fast as she could, ignoring Wyny’s shouts. Faint rustling followed her.

She stopped after a minute and felt the blade again. It was still hot, but somehow she could tell it was less than before. ‘No.’ Her voice was quiet like whispers of a breeze through trees. The zlurp had been telling the truth. Heir to a royal family. Perhaps even a descendant of these Originals, connected to the statue. Or perhaps you’re being foolish, everyone could have been giving this halberd, it doesn’t make them royalty.

Yes, maybe it was a coincidence. But she trusted her gut feeling. She walked back toward the statue and Wyny, scooping up Kitty on her way, fussing with twigs which had gotten stuck in his lead. Her gut told her it was true; her parents had been rulers of a kingdom, not hard-working business people on Earth as she grew up believing. They’d been eliminated by throne usurpers. So much more made sense with that in mind. Their business trips. The sneaky looks toward each other. The obvious secrets they were hiding. She was a princess. Or, with her parents gone, was she a queen instead? No. No, no, no. One needs to be crowned first before being called a queen. What a mess.

She was a gorwakgutsing princess.

Chapter 19: A tiny Meow

With a rush of air, Blackie swooped down from above. She landed on top of the statue and began eating the grass. Nadec looked up at her, incredulity strong on her face.

‘She’s been gone for almost the whole day and just ignores us? I need to know what happened.’

Wyny glanced at her. ‘Well, you are the one who had sent her off in the first place, she is most likely quite hungry from the flight. It was a fairly large distance after all.’

Nadec grumbled. He was right. Partly. She hadn’t sent her off, she had suggested it and the dragon had agreed. Perhaps she disliked killing as much as Nadec did. Either way, she still wanted to know if anything special had happened. After discovering her true heritage—getting strong confirmation of the suspicion anyway—she’d sat down next to the statue to think. Kitty had taken residence on her lap. Wyny had sat next to her, in his own silent contemplation. He hadn’t said a word when she came back from testing the heat of the halberd’s blade. Perhaps he had realised she truly needed to be left alone with her thoughts. He was a good man. A little bit stiff at times, but that fit his ruler-trope-profile perfectly.

‘How do you think she would be able to tell you what she saw? It is not as if she can talk to us.’ He was looking up at the dragon, face contemplative and amazed at the same time. In a quieter, more thoughtful voice, he said: ‘It is still full of wonder, I never believed to some day meet a dragon. They are myths, as the statue of the Originals is supposed to be.’ His head turned toward her. ‘If I was a storyteller, I would never want to leave your side, you appear to attract all the wonder and adventure to you.’

She grimaced and groaned. The spark of an idea formed. Perhaps she could find a writer some day to write down her adventures?

‘Will you be my Loial?’ She had meant it in jest, but of course he didn’t understand it. The flippant tone of her voice grew soft. ‘If it was up to me, I’d rather not have these adventures. I didn’t mind my life… before all of this started. Days can go by without thinking of my parents. But then, there are the most random moments when the emptiness they left hits me like a… like a dragon running into me, but without losing consciousness.’

He opened his mouth and closed it again. Shuffling, he closed in and looked at her, his usual serious face made softer by his eyes. She’d never noticed it before, but they had a thin outer ring of golden yellow around the blue. Nadec could see something in them. Compassion. Curiosity. Guilt? Her thoughts straight away ridiculed herself. Bah, reading emotions in eyes is such goat shit, more chance of getting it wrong than right. What’s he trying to do though? She squinted at him sideways.

‘I understand you do not like talking about yourself. And I am not pressing you,’ he said that last bit in a hurry while holding up his hand. ‘But what happened? How did you become a… red knight? Is there anything you can, or want to share? I believe there is something I need to tell you, but I am not certain yet. I need more information.’ When she didn’t immediately answered, he added: ‘Even so, it is alright if you prefer not to say anything, Nadec.’

She shut her eyes for a moment. There were things she could tell him. Other things, she wasn’t allowed to say to anyone. Her employers were secretive, annoying as it is. Not that she had anyone to share things with ever since her ex disappeared—left her. She could trust Wyny. She did trust him. Opening her eyes, she let herself fall back and looked up. Blackie’s tail stuck out from the top of the statue, wagging like a dog. It was hypnotising, enough to distract her from what she was about to say.

‘My parents died.’ Her voice hitched up, but she focused on the wagging tail. It helped. ‘I suppose you already knew that. I moved out a year before it happened, to live with my boyfriend. Ex-boyfriend now of course, he left me not long after the funeral. Which never made much sense to me because they never got along with him and he always defended me. Actually, it was after a large argument with them about him that I moved out.’ 

She was rambling now. She didn’t care. It was the first time she told this to anyone. She never had many friends. The few she had, stopped being friends during her relationship with Frank. The story poured out. Kitty had moved from her lap to her tummy, in easy stroking distance.

‘Part of me still wants to believe he didn’t really leave me but something happened to him. Part of me never wanted to accept that my parents happened to be in the same airplane when it crashed. They went on business trips all the time, but almost never together. But… I suppose… They weren’t business trip after all. They were skipping back here, to rule their kingdom. Right?’ She sighed, not giving Wyny a chance to reply. It wasn’t a question meant to be answered anyway.

‘I didn’t even know them, why didn’t they ever tell me about all of this?’ She waved her arms randomly to point out The Other Realm. ‘Didn’t they think I was good enough to be their heir? Was I a disappointment? Ugh. Well, so, everyone was gone. I was in a very bad place when I tripped on the sidewalk. I crawled towards a wall and just sat there until I should’ve been dehydrated from crying. No one stopped to ask if I was alright. I wasn’t, no one would’ve been able to help me.’ She closed her eyes and was surprised to feel a tear roll down both of her temples.

‘Then, suddenly, there was a rustling to my right. So, obviously, I looked towards it and got greeted with the smallest, frailest meow of all times. A tiny kitten wobbled towards me. He let me pick him up, and a baby purr started up straight away.’ As if he knew she was talking about him, Kitty started purring, the vibration soothing through her belly.

‘I wiped my eyes and took him to the nearest vet. They said he was probably about 4 weeks and wouldn’t have survived much longer if I hadn’t found him. The thing is, I wouldn’t have survived much longer if he hadn’t found me. We saved each other.’

She gave Kitty a cuddle—as well as she could while lying down—and opened her eyes, moving her head to look at Wyny.

‘I suppose I got a bit sidetracked, I’ll get to the red knight thing soon. But yeah, from that day on, Kitty and me have always been together. Except, I had to leave him behind too often to do my duties, after they’d recruited me. But I also didn’t want to put him in danger. Half a year ago I decided to train him anyway. So, that’s where we’re at now. As for the red knight stuff, four weeks after my parents passed away, a—’

‘RUN’

The voice boomed in her head, loud enough to scare her upright. The flapping of massive bat-like wings couldn’t drown out the next sentence.

‘MUST, NADEC, YOU RUN. WYNY, LEAVE. KITTY, TAKE!’

Instinct kicked in. She picked up Kitty, grabbed her bundle, but stopped. Wyny looked at her in confusion. He hadn’t heard the voice. Why should she have to leave him, that didn’t make any sense?

‘NOT PANIC!’

Before she had time to process what that meant, the dragon’s feet—in a display of surprising dexterity—grabbed her around the waist. She lifted in the air, Wyny’s still confused face tipped back to follow her up.

‘No! Wyny, no! Please, Blackie, what are you doing? We can’t leave him! Oh no, who are those people? We have to help him, Blackie. Why?’

Chapter 20: Voices

‘You’re not going back to get Wyny, are you?’

Blackie’s reply was to shake her wings, rearranging them on her back, and flopping down on the ground. She’d been flying for a good half an hour, carrying Nadec away from Wyny and the people surrounding him. Nadec let herself drop as well. Grass softened the fall. Standing up at this moment was like standing on land after being at sea for a while. The trees on the edge of the clearing seemed to dance. She blinked hard several times. They kept wobbling but the woozy feeling diminished.

It was obvious Blackie was unable to fly any more. Nadec frowned when she looked at her. The dragon’s colour was back to the all absorbent black. Did the scales only do that outside? No, Nadec was sure they’d been iridescent those first days after coming out of the cave.

Kitty sat between them, completely unfazed about the long flight, carried in Nadec’s arms. He leaned back on his haunches, washing his tummy. Seeing that—the calmness the action radiated—relaxed Nadec somewhat.

‘What happened, Blackie?’ She kept most of her anger contained, but that made her voice sound tight. Surely Wyny can take care of himself. Those people wouldn’t hurt him, he was a king after all. ‘Why did we leave Wyny behind?’

Nadec knew that for the silly question it was. Blackie wouldn’t have been able to grab both her and Wyny.

She’d had to choose between getting either of the two humans out, or none at all.

‘Late too was I.’

The voice was startling inside her head. Blackie watched her, head resting on the ground. She winked at Nadec, but there was no levity in the gesture. Instead, it radiated helplessness and confusion.

‘Who else was late? Late for what?’ Nadec ignored the oddity of having a voice pop up in her head. A dragon’s voice, no less. The large horned head moved slightly.

‘Nay. Late I. Hungry. Needed first food. Expect not they so fast.’ Blackie let out a soft, deep growl. Nadec’s eyebrows lifted. She hadn’t heard that from the beast before. The curiosity of communicating with Blackie lessened the anxiety and urgency about getting back to Wyny, but only a little bit. Somehow Blackie managed to sound disgruntled in her head. ‘Not easy words. Learn I. Better will get. Show you I heard. Quicker is.’

Nadec had a hard time deciphering Blackie’s words.  While she was still working out what that last part meant, other voices sounded. She sat upright—would’ve jumped up if she didn’t still felt woozy from the flight. But no one would’ve been able to sneak up on them in the open expanse, surrounded by trees. If anyone was as close as the voices sounded, she should’ve been able to see them. There was nobody.

‘I told you splitting up was good,’ a female voice sounded, prim and with an unusual breath pattern in her speech, ‘She is not here, so must still be with him. He knows to keep her at his side. They’ll catch them. We can get clues here. Any luck with that zlurp?’ A murmured reply was obviously negative.

‘It must’ve been hiding a dragon, hah,’ a deeper, rumbling voice cut in, quiet and intent. ‘Where did it get the beast? Of course the dragon turned on it and used it’s Dragon’s White gas, hah. Do put that unbelieving face away, of course it exists. The dragon would never have bonded with a zlurp. That purple abomination will never wake up unless the dragon makes it, hah. I cannot say that is a big loss. We’ll leave it here, there is no reason to go through the effort of transporting it with us. Better to preserve the power, hah.’

‘That purple abomination is why we almost have her, Klappah. Staying so long in one spot gave us the beacon to get Pagewyn’s signal back.’

Nadec closed her eyes, annoyed that her suspicion about who the ‘him’ of the woman’s first sentence proved to be right.

‘I know that, be at ease, no need for unnecessary repetitions, hah. I admit that setting them out on different locations was a proper idea. It seems that I underestimated her severely. You know I expected her to get eliminated by the xlurps. You were right to set extra measurements in motion. Using the idiot king as a tracker worked like a charm. Pun intended, hah. Then again when I was convinced that blowing up her home would get it done. The calculations of where she could possibly skip to without preparation appeared to be brilliant. Hah. You did well, and I apologise for dismissing your idea at first.’

There was a silence. Was that the end of the conversation?

‘You do love to go on a tangent. And you always underestimate people. Apologies accepted.’ It sounded like a common thing for them. Whomever they were.

‘Well,’ the female voice went on, ‘tomorrow early morning they’ll get caught. The catchers might surprise them before they wake. Perhaps more difficult if they still have the dragon. But they’re our best. They’ll catch her. If we’re lucky they’ll kill her immediately. Saves us from doing it. Either way, Pagewyn can then be released from his bonds. He needs to get back on his throne. The advisor is getting restless. People don’t want to listen to her. They only listen to the king. Even if he is only a puppet.’ She uttered a humourless laugh, bringing goosebumps to Nadec’s arms.

‘Hah. Let’s go. I’ve been trying to keep track of it but you know that’s not what I do best. How much longer is it? 12 days left?’

‘It happens in 13 days. She has to be gone by then.’

‘Hm, point proven, my data tracking is still bad. Hold on.’

‘In time them heard. Stop I in tunnel above water. Me almost seen.’

Nadec’s mind spun, and not only from Blackie’s new skill. So much information, yet so many gaps. A swell in her chest made the sadness she felt at Wyny’s betrayal, a physical pain. It appears he wasn’t to be trusted after all. More so, he’d been working for them the whole time. But, who were they? The zlurp hadn’t been able to tell her. All he’d known was that the same people who’d been responsible for her parents’ disappearance—death—were also the same who were hunting her now. Wait, what did Blackie say?

‘You stopped in the tunnel above the water?’ Blackie nodded. Nadec squashed the tiny prick of pride she felt at understanding the dragon’s last words. ‘How did they get there then, how did they leave? Is there another exit?

‘Nay’.

At least that sentence was clear. No other entrance into the cave. They must have skipped there. How? She could only skip from The Other Realm to Earth and vice versa.

What she didn’t understand was why they waited so long to come after her. If she was such a threat to them, why didn’t they kill her the same time as her parents? Why thirteen days, what happens then? What was today’s date?

She gasped when she figured it out. It startled Kitty who was sitting on top of Blackie now, balancing while the dragon was curled up.

She knew. She didn’t know why it was significant, but she knew one thing about that day. 

Her birthday.

Chapter 21: Myths and legends

Nadec paced around the Blackie and Kitty doughnut, thinking. From what she could piece together about the conversation Blackie had heard, and what the zlurp had said, they were in serious trouble. Back in the cave—it seemed an eternity ago, but it had only been, what? Three days?—the zlurp had mentioned Earth and its destruction. He hadn’t been very coherent, and hadn’t know many details. Mostly rambled about ‘your world will be ruin’ and ‘they need to end your line’. She couldn’t say why, but all of the information pointed towards her birthday and the potential end of Earth being linked together. Her life was linked to it. It was obvious; if she died, Earth would die. If she lived, all would live.

‘A hero,’ she mumbled, ‘I’m going to need to be a gorwakgutsing hero. Shonk swallop in cod liver!’

She sighed and kept on pacing. What a mess. She needed to know more. Her employers had always been secretive. They’d never told her much, and to be fair, she’d never asked them much. She’d never cared. But they’d given her the halberd and the power to skip. They should have more answers. They might be able to help her. She needed to get in touch with them.

‘How can you talk to me in my head? No, that’s not what I wanted to ask. How did you put those voices in my head?’

She stopped in front of Blackie’s head, hands on hips. The dragon opened one eye and closed it again.

‘Know not.’

The voice felt full of wonder and petulant at the same time, the oddest combination. Nadec stared at her, watching but not seeing. Her mind drifted, swept away by the incomprehensible magnificence of the creature in front of her. She allowed herself to feel awe for a little bit longer, before shaking out of it. This was all as new for Blackie as it was for Nadec. She decided to try to keep pretending it was normal. She’d been doing that from the moment she first came to The Other Realm, so it shouldn’t be too hard.

However, it was too much. She couldn’t shake it off. The feeling of dread and immense responsibility threatened to push her down and flatten her to a useless flat blubbering mess of a human. She would tackle this the way she knew best.

She asked Blackie how far they were from the spot they’d fled, and the dragon’s opinions about their safety in their current location. And if she knew where they were. As she asked that last question, she knew how silly it was. Even if the dragon had an internal navigation system, how would she be able to say where they were without any point of reference? Nadec cursed at herself. Today was definitely not a good day in terms of self-confidence.

Blackie’s reply was careful but positive. She thought they were fairly safe right now and a good distance from the attackers. She didn’t know who they were. It took Nadec a while to figure out the meaning of the jumbled words appearing in her head. It did feel as if either she was getting better at it, or Blackie was improving.

They were safe for now, that was all Nadec needed to know. It was late afternoon, the sky’s light was already changing. It would be dark soon. It might get a little bit colder during the night, but not as much as needing a fire. At least, that’s what Nadec hoped. Building a fire without any tools was difficult; a skill Nadec had never mastered.

Even though she knew it was probably a bad idea, she wanted to scout the area. She told Blackie she wanted to see if she recognised anything enough to know where they were, so she stood up, muscles stiff.  If she found what she really wanted to find—different to what she’d told Blackie—she wouldn’t be cold anyway. She asked Blackie to stay put with Kitty, and walked away. The mental connection with the dragon appeared to work even from a distance, which comforted her slightly. She’d never admit to that of course.

She waded through the knee-length soft-tufted grass, keeping a straight and confident back. From the moment she passed the first large trunk of a tree, her chin trembled. With a burst of breath, she let it all go. It would probably be wise to keep quiet in this unfamiliar territory, but she didn’t care. She let a soft sobbing accompany her tears.

Wyny had betrayed her. He’d never been on her side. He’d played her for a fool. What a joke. Once again she got proven that it’s stupid to trust people. The deep and painful hurt she felt now wasn’t because she liked him. She did, but not like that. The pain was like when she tried to grow her nails and keep them manicured. Annoying at first, not sure why she kept it, but after a while getting used to it and liking it. Only to have them tear and rip out once complacency made her careless. The intensity of the physical pain that had caused was similar to what she felt in her chest right now, except a hundred times worse.

This depressing state of hers needed to be dealt with, so she kept on walking, sniffling and groaning, hating herself for the self-pity and self-loathing. She did have a goal for her little wander—it hadn’t only been to break down by herself. So she kept wiping the tears away, looking every way at once.

The trees sparked some kind of recognition. They grew a good distance from each other, not like the other dense forests they’ve been in before. They all looked ancient, like 500 year old fig trees. Beautiful. She navigated through the thick air roots, grown from many of the massive branches. This area had a special feel to it, and the awe spreading all over her body stopped her sputtering breath. The mad rush of random gulps and gasps steadied. Soon her tears stopped.

‘What ails you, my child?’

She knew the calmness which had settled over her wasn’t normal. Neither was the lack of surprise she felt at the voice. It was soft and melodious. Quiet yet strong. Confident yet curious. The first part of her walk was accomplished. She knew where she was now. Gorwak grove. What a frankdamn blonking coincidence. She’d never believed the stories of this place, few though they were. When she’d been taught about the places of The Other Realm and the creatures in it, this had been glanced over because no one believed it was real. But it had been mentioned anyway, as a myth. Myths and legends do have a way of proving themselves real here, she thought, wryly, but with a touch of fondness for Blackie.

Turning around to search for the creature the voice belonged to, she didn’t see anything through the labyrinth of prop roots. The gorwaks have been mentioned in legends, as elusive as their grove. Because of their mystery, there were no descriptions of what they looked like. Nadec didn’t know what she was looking for. Was it large, small? The colour of the soil, the colour of the tree? Or, was it the tree?

There! Something glinted near the trunk of the tree in front of her, surrounded by a thick wall of the prop roots. She slowly stepped closer, relaxed but prepared to grab her halberd from her back in case this creature proved to be dangerous. The underbrush crackled in the most wonderful way, and her steps disturbed it enough to release the earthy smell of the soil. She inhaled deeply while taking another step, closing her eyes briefly for optimal enjoyment of the aroma. When she opened her eyes again, the gorwak was in full view, in front of her.

It was… not what she’d expected. The appearance didn’t fit the sweet voice. The size of a capuchin monkey, with vaguely the same body features—long limbs being one of them. It also had a tail, but it was split in five, about a third from the base. It didn’t have hair, but scales. Fish scales, not reptile scales. There was an obvious layer of slime covering the moss-coloured body. It gave an occasional rainbow flicker in random areas.

‘Speak and I will hear you.’

The hands gripping the bark had only three fingers; two broad ones and one thin but disproportionately long. The black, liquid eyes staring back at her looked as if she could see every emotion in them, with their long eyelashes and round form.

The gorwak jumped. It stayed in flight on eye level in front of Nadec, the different colours of its four wings mesmerising in their translucent iridescence.

Nadec swallowed. There was so much she wanted to say; three years of build-up emotions, layers of insecurity and moments of doubt, the deep sadness of betrayal, old grief never overcome, abandonment, loneliness, the weight of responsibility. She blinked, squeezing her eyes hard until they felt tearless.

‘I’m fine.’

She turned around and left.

Chapter 22: Rum and rainbows

The soft, overlapping whooshing of the wings gained a franticness to them. Nadec felt a whisper of air push at her back. That damned gorwak isn’t going to leave me alone, is it? She rolled her eyes, and was amazed for a second to see the canopy of one tree shying away from the other. They synchronised in a perfect way, moving in the wind to keep a bright and narrow edge between them. Crown shyness was real, and apparently not only on Earth. With a sigh, she turned around to face the creature. She didn’t want to be rude—and she really was quite curious to know more about these mythical beings—but this wasn’t the time to pretend to be a researcher.

The gorwak was almost an arm’s length away when it stopped flying. It didn’t do it on purpose. It looked as if it slammed into an invisible wall, the impact sending rainbow coloured waves in the air.

It bounced back, fell down, and rolled over the ground.

‘What the fuck!’

A good old-fashioned Earthy curse was sometimes the best way to convey any current emotions. She wasn’t certain what to do next. If she went over to check if the creature was hurt, she’d be in a perfect position to get attacked. Ridiculous. Her inward scolding felt right; if the gorwak had wanted to attack, it would’ve done so before.

The creature untangled itself from its wings and unknotted one of the tails. It sat back on its haunches, looking at Nadec, mouth opening and closing. Ultimately, it scowled, jumped, and flew up again. It came closer to Nadec, careful, and at a slow pace. When it was again at arm’s length, it hovered in front of her. Those black, liquid eyes conveyed sadness.

‘What the fuck indeed.’

The gorwak’s voice no longer had the sweet quality from before. Instead, it sounded like someone who’d been smoking all their life.

‘I tried to burning be nice and help you with your burning emotions, but you grounding walked away. Very burning rude. You’re the grounding first human I meet in a burning fifty years, and you dripping even saw me yet you walk away. What the fuck is burning wrong with you?’

Nadec could only gape. If she was still on Earth, she’d look around to see if she was being pranked. She looked around anyway.

‘Close your dripping mouth, you look like a burning fish.’

‘I look like a fish?’ She laughed, incredulous, glad that she got her tongue back. ‘You’re the one with the fishy body parts! What the fuck is this? What happened to your voice?’

That was not the most urgent question she could ask, and she knew it. What she really wanted to know was everything.

‘Listen, sweetie, come back inside and I’ll burning tell you things. Being on the grounding dripping edge feels very uncomfortable.’

‘Don’t call me sweetie,’ she said. Her heart wasn’t in it though, her mind was occupied trying to figure things out. ‘What do you mean, come back inside? What fucking edge.’

The gorwak made an annoyed throat sound, pointed up, then reached its arm towards her. Before it was fully outstretched, it stopped, touching something she couldn’t see, spreading waves of rainbow colours. The waves had a specific direction. They followed along the edge of the tree’s crown—even moving along with it—as if something invisible drooped from outermost leaves.

‘I’m burning stuck here, kid. Now, you grounding coming? It would be dripping good to talk to someone.’

It flew backwards before flying up to make a loop in the air. After completing the loop, it looked at her, wiggled its forehead, and nodded towards the tree trunk.

‘I’ve got boo-ooze.’

‘Well, why didn’t you tell me that first?’

She trotted after the creature. The second reason for her little exploration walk appeared to come in an unexpected way. Alcohol was even better than the magic mushrooms she’d been searching for.

There was a gap in the massive trunk of the tree. It was easy enough for the gorwak to slip through, but Nadec had to go in sideways, and almost got stuck. Damn butt.

Once she’d wriggled out of the gap, she couldn’t see much. It was dark—which wasn’t a surprise because of being inside of a tree trunk, and it was twilight. She squeezed her eyes shut for a while. When she opened them again, she still couldn’t see much. A vague outline of something in some areas, but those could’ve been pieces of bark as well as a couch, for all she knew.

‘Why are you burning standing there like a grounding fool? Come here.’ The gorwak muttered something more, but either Nadec wasn’t supposed to hear, or it didn’t care. Surely it didn’t say that humans seem to have grown even more stupid?

‘I can’t see anything.’

She was getting annoyed at this creature’s behaviour, and she’d soon lash out. Or merely walk away again. That sounded like a brilliant idea. Kitty and Blackie might be getting worried, and they were more important than a night of drowning her sorrows.

She moved to put one leg back into the gap, but lights sprung on, one by one. She stared around in amazement. The space seemed too large. It must be a trick of the eye.

‘I forgot you can’t dripping see in the burning dark. Aah, this is my last grounding bottle. Should be good.’

One of the lights expanded, growing until the only thing she could see was the orange glow of the large insect. It filled her vision, destroyed her night vision, and forced her to duck down or lose an eye.

‘Those don’t always give light?’

She walked up to where the gorwak sat, and dropped herself on the ground in front of it. Fake it till you make it, she thought, snorting at the stupid saying. It glanced at her, gave a little shake of the head, and filled the two wooden cups between them.

‘They’re lazy—’it gave her a lopsided grin‘—fuckers, and I can’t burning blame them, there’s never a reason for them to turn themselves on.’

The crooked grin, though horrifying as it looked, reminded her of Wyny. A deep pit of sadness welled up in her chest. She lifted the wooden cup, cheered towards the strange creature, and chugged the whole drink in one go. The familiar warm feeling of a strong drink spread in her body, awakening her veins, tingles reaching her finger tips.

‘Rum!’

She held out the empty cup, eyes wide with excitement. The gorwack downed his own cup and filled both of them again.

‘I worked a long time with burning sailors, and this was the best burning rum around. Aah, those were the grounding times. Before everything went to the dripping grounds. Us gorwaks were—’

‘Nadec! Dark is. Right all you?’

The voice cutting through her mind shocked her enough to spill some of the rum. The gorwak stopped talking, noticing something had happened.

‘Blackie! Yeah, I’m fine, don’t worry.’

‘Worried Kitty.’

Oh, Kitty. Nadec felt like an idiot. She should’ve been back already.

‘I’m coming, tell Kitty not to worry, I’m on my way back.’

Nadec wasn’t certain if Blackie could speak to Kitty, but that didn’t matter. She looked at the cup, to the bottle, to the gorwak, and sighed.

‘I have to go. I don’t suppose I can, eh, take that bottle with me?’

‘Go? No. Bloody fine. Wait. I’ll give a burning summary. I’m the grounding last of the burning gorwaks and have been dripping put here to be kept safe. The only one who can burning release the safe zone, is a descendant or relative of the grounding fella who’d put it up.’ He gave her a significant look.

Rolling her eyes, she stood up. ‘Yeah, and I suppose I’m the one. Blonking shallops. Classic. I might as well accept my own tropeness. What do I do?’

‘Don’t you burning know? Don’t bloody look at me like that. Here, the dripping boy pressed his hand in the heart of the tree.’

‘Has anyone ever told you how annoying your curses are. So little variation…’ She trailed off as she saw the connection between cursing like a sailor and the start of his story. Balls, I should’ve seen it before. Not important. She stood in front of what the gorwak pointed at as being the heart of the tree. There was a hand print in rainbow colours, sunk into the wood. Shrugging, she put her own hand in there. It was warm. She eyed the bottle of rum, remembered her cup of rum and drank it. She didn’t believe anything would happen, it would be too coincidental.

‘Now what?’

‘Wait, let me burn—let me test something out.’

The gorwak flew out in a flurry of wings and tails, coming back soon, as excited and flushed as a cat after the zoomies. ‘That was burning it. It’s gone. I can go. I can burning go. I’m grounding dripping bloody free. Aah.’

‘Great. Enjoy your free life.’ She eyed the bottle again. ‘That was really good rum. I wanted to get completely hammered tonight, even if it was only on mushrooms. I guess that’s not happening after all, I suppose you’ll want the booze to celebrate your freedom.’ She made her way out of the trunk. 

‘You’re burning leaving?’

‘What? Did you want to come along? You did!’ She shrugged. ‘I suppose that’s alright. Bring your flying lights, and don’t forget the booze. I am pretty curious to know the rest of the story anyway. And why they use gorwaks as a swear word. Do you have a name at all?’

‘We made it as a burning swear? That’s absolutely dripping fantastic! Haa! You wouldn’t be able to pronounce my name. Patat will do.’

‘Patat? What kind of a name is that?’ She laughed, unable to keep it in, vanquishing the disconnect she felt earlier. That had been strange. She didn’t know what had happened in there. The gorwak must’ve been playing around, she hadn’t done anything at all. Somehow though, the feeling that everything was going to be alright crept up on her.

The rum was working its magic.

‘Be there soon.’ She thought towards Blackie. ‘And I’m not alone.’

Ch 23: The ritual of drowning

‘Dragon, meet the dragonfly.’

Nadec swept her arms in a grand gesture from Blackie to Patat. On their way back to Kitty and Blackie, Nadec had taken a few more good swallows from the bottle of rum. She’d found mushrooms too, thanks to the light-giving insects who’d decided to follow the gorwak. It claimed to be unable to order them around, so only three had followed out of their own free will. She’d nibbled on the mushrooms while walking.

She giggled at the empty expression on both of the creature’s faces. Patat was the first to say something.

‘What’s a grounding dragonfly?’ It flew up higher to look down and back, through it’s long legs—the bottle of rum hanging from one of his tails—as if looking for something. The four wings were the only graceful body part it had.

Nadec laughed at her own little joke and shook her head.

‘Never mind,’ she sat down, giving Kitty something else to headbutt instead of her ankles. ‘Blackie, this is Patat. Patat, this is Kitty and that’s obviously Blackie.’ She chuckled again. Tonight’s missive was working. She told the air in between them she was unavailable from now on until the morning, reached out and took the bottle from the gorwak, while mumbling: ‘Payment for freeing you.’

Blackie didn’t leave her alone that easily, of course. She asked in her mind what was going on. Nadec did her best to explain this was a ritual she needed to do, and Blackie shouldn’t worry, no matter what happened tonight. Tomorrow she would start fixing things and finding solutions, tonight she would be a mess. The dragon obviously didn’t understand, but agreed to let her be. Nadec ate more mushroom and took another swill from the rum. She didn’t bother using the cup anymore.

Blackie looked sideways towards Patat, who’d stopped flying and curled up to sleep. The dragon didn’t trust the gorwak. That was enough for Nadec to keep a sliver of mistrust for the newly found creature. For now though, she wouldn’t think too hard on what was true and untrue.

Her head felt blessedly floaty, and the emotions she’d been meaning to drown were all there, pushed to the extreme by the drunken high she was in. Tears spilled in an endless cascade, pooling on the ground to make a tiny river in between the grass. The gorwak had already passed out, breathing in slow and deep breaths. That was quick.

Nadec unlatched the halberd and its harness, and leaned back onto Blackie’s belly, cherishing the warmth. She tilted her head, looking up at the night sky, marveling at the beauty. It looked similar to the Earth’s, but she was certain none of the constellations were the same. She’d never been able to remember any but the most known ones, and neither of them were here. Did that mean they were in a different universe all together, or did they merely see a different part of it, deforming the patterns of the stars? Whatever it was, it looked magical. Without any light pollution, there were clusters of tightly clumped stars, as if seeing several milky ways on Earth. She let her mind wander and lost herself, sucked into the infinity of space and beyond.

The faint light of sunrise woke her. The expected hangover wasn’t there. That proved the exceptional quality of the rum. She yawned and laughed simultaneously as she crawled out of the middle of the curled up dragon. She’d been included in the dragon doughnut. As she stood outside of it, looking at Kitty settling himself on his usual place on top of one of the wings, she noticed Blackie opening one eye.

‘I’m all good,’ she whispered to Blackie. ‘There’s an idea forming, just need to think it over some more.’

She glanced at the gorwak. It was still sleeping, prone on it’s back, all limbs spread out, the tails like a fan to the side. Drool dribbled from its open mouth. It had small, square teeth on the upper jaw, and large, yellow ones at the bottom. She couldn’t see the rest of its dentures, but from what she saw of the front, she suspected this strange creature ate mostly plants, like grass and leaves. That would explain why it could have survived as a prisoner in one area; especially if that area is a giant tree with an endless supply of leaves—and perhaps the occasional fruit. One mystery solved, a million more to go.

Her stomach growled. Hot food would be wonderful. She didn’t mind living of fruit and other raw edibles, but eventually she always craved something more. Coffee would be amazing, although she’d settle for tea as well. She knew she could find herbs suitable to make tea with, but they had no hot water, so that was pointless. They didn’t even have water. It didn’t matter. They’d have food and drink soon.

About an hour later, she frowned at the gorwak while nudging it with her foot. Patat awoke with a start.

‘I swear it is the burning truth, please don’t open up my grounding guts!’

It sat up, liquid black eyes wide, staring at Nadec. Then it relaxed. What was that all about? Nadec hoped to some day get the whole story, to confirm her suspicions. She felt a bit guilty for interrupting it yesterday, but there were more urgent things to take care of first.

‘Wake up sunshine. Or should I say rainbow?’

Those small spots of rainbow on the glistening slimy skin looked decidedly odd. She realised the rainbows appeared on the places where it—if this was, say, a fish—would reflect the light the most. Such a strange little creature.

‘Are you still staying with us and coming along?’

She asked the question in a casual way, but relied on a positive reply for the rest of her plan to work.

‘Of course I burning am, I’ve been by my dripping self for long enough!’ His eyes narrowed. ‘You have a dripping plan, don’t you? Ah, I grounding knew it! When did you bloody come up with that?’

Nadec only nodded, unable to resist the tugging on the corners of her mouth. Blackie was looking at her curiously. The intensity of her look was spoiled by her stretches, in perfect synchronicity with Kitty.

‘Good. You will show us the way to my employers.’ One of her eyebrows lifted. ‘Close your dripping mouth, you look like a burning fish.’ She was relieved when that made it laugh, a short but loud harumph. Meeting new people—or, sentient beings she could communicate with—was always tedious in the beginning, figuring out if they could get along with her humour. She had high hopes for this one, but didn’t forget the mistrusting look Blackie had given Patat.

‘Burning good one, Nadec. Burning good one. But how do you expect me to grounding help you?’ It leaned down, broke some grass off with a combination tongue and teeth, and began chewing. Satisfaction of being right at its eating habits strengthened her confidence in her other theories.

‘I figured it out. Not completely, but enough. You knew who I was yesterday, at least, you knew my blood line. One of my ancestors had caged you, either to keep you safe and preserve your species, or to keep everyone else safe. I suspect the first option.’

Because she’d been keeping a close eye on the creature, she saw the effect her words had. It tried to hide it by maintaining its steady chewing, but she’d seen. Gamble number one had been true. Now on to gamble number two. She sank through her knees in front of Patat.

‘You,’ her voice was full of silent intent, ‘can tell me how to get to my employers.’

The gorwak snorted and jumped up to fly. That wasn’t the reaction Nadec had expected, but it wasn’t a denial either. Nadec stood up, but when she was at eye level with Patat, it flew up even higher. Did it do that for presumed dominance? That amused her, but she didn’t show.

‘That’s bloody ridiculous, I don’t grounding know what you’re talking about.’

‘Oh, but you do.’ She focused on keeping her voice confident.

‘We are all connected. You and me, and you and them. So like I said,’ she crossed her arms, her face smug, ‘you, can get us to my employers.’

Ch 24: Stories and a slap

The gorwak’s stunned expression contradicted the creature’s dominant bearing. At least, Nadec thought the way it stayed in flight above her, conveyed a certain confidence. Not to mention the no-nonsense way it spoke. The other things throwing the tough posturing out of balance were those mesmerising wings. 

‘Are you still burning drunk?’

The disbelief in its voice was too much for Nadec to stay serious. She snorted. A tight smile accompanied her still smug face.

‘I wish I was, but that’s beside the point.’ Because if she still was, that meant she could still forget all of this happening. ‘You sensed the DNA in my blood, didn’t you?’

‘What in the grounding seas are you talking about, what is a deeyenay?’

‘Never mind that. What I meant was, somehow you sensed my ancestry and recognised it to be similar to the one who locked you up. If you want to join us in our travels, honesty would be great. Who were they? King or queen? What was the kingdom or area called? Why did they take it upon themselves to preserve you?’

‘You make it bloody sound as if I’m some kind of grounding fine wine.’

The gorwak lowered himself to the ground while muttering, apparently no longer interested in trying to assert dominance. Nadec sat down as well.

‘Us gorwaks were the burning guides of dripping humans everywhere. Far and wide, gorwaks were regarded and revered for their grounding special attributes.’

‘What were those, cursing at and annoying everyone?’ Nadec’s interruption only made Patat scowl a little bit, the expression odd on that eyebrowless face.

‘Listen kid, I’m grounding answering your last question, do you want the burning answer? Burning truth is, your little quip wasn’t that grounding far wrong. Humans kept us around because we often spoke the dripping truth. You burning humans are too emotional and care too burning much about hurting each other’s grounding feelings. The exceptional human who did speak the truth had no grounding friends because no one dripping liked them. So they kept us around to burning tell the truth for them.’

Nadec changed to a cross-legged position, taking the time to think about what Patat just said. It was not wrong about people being afraid to say things straight out. She usually didn’t have such a barrier though, so her next question came easy.

‘Are you male or female?’

‘What?’ Its voice was so gruff-sounding, she wanted to think of it as male. But she knew from experience that things weren’t always what they seemed. Gendering Patat as it, annoyed her, especially now that they were getting to know each other better. Saying it to any sentient creature, signaled a lack of respect.

‘Do I call you he or she? Or they? Or something else?’

‘What does that burning matter? I don’t give a flying whale horse about that. You grounding humans with your burning labels. We have no gender nor sex, if that’s what you want to burning know, so I don’t care what you dripping use. Although I suppose being around those sailors have made me feel and act more like a human male.’

‘No gender nor sex? How do you reproduce?’

Sex—and talking about it—had never been an issue for Nadec, but her cheeks did light up a bit after asking that question. It sounded too intimate, as if asking people about visual details. Something Nadec would’ve only talked about with her best friends, back when she still had those. 

‘We aren’t as dripping messy as you humans. Gross. No, if we want to multiply, we grounding stay in the dark for a while until knobs grow on our tail ends.’

He moved his five tail ends up and down to bring attention to them. Kitty stirred next to Nadec. He walked around her, low to the ground.

‘When it’s dripping time, we burning cut them off and stick them in the ground.’

Kitty looked mesmerised at the tails. The front of his body pressed against the ground, his butt up in the air.

‘I suppose your grounding ancestor hoped I could grounding multiply, but I don’t dripping know when he ever intended to dripping release me.’ He looked towards Kitty, whose butt was now shaking left to right in rhythmic bursts.

‘But you didn’t… multiply?’

‘No, obviously I burning didn’t. I lost the ability because of spending too much grounding time at sea. Don’t burning ask me—’

Kitty jumped forward. Patat had anticipated it. With a whoop, he jumped and flew into the air, giggling like a small child. He moved his tails, enough to make Kitty jump for them, but kept them right out of reach.

‘Don’t ask me how that worked. Perhaps it was the salt, perhaps the water. Either way, something about those years has made me incapable of multiplying. In any way, that is my theory.’

Joy at seeing him play with Kitty—she noticed he hadn’t cursed even once—blended with a grief for his people. If he really was the last gorwak, then he was the end of the line. He flew up and down, enrapt in his game.

‘Don’t look so sad, kid. It happens. Creatures grow extinct. I’ve had fifty years to come to terms with it.’

He lifted his tails and grabbed them, hiding them from Kitty as he lowered himself on the ground. Kitty’s dilated pupils followed Patat’s descend.

‘So now you know why I was burning preserved in the grove. Humans killed my entire race. Don’t look so abashed, I don’t hold a dripping grudge against you. Some individuals weren’t grounding happy with getting the dripping truth flung in their dripping face so started the bloody rumour that our guts could predict the future. Nonsense of course. But you can burning guess what happened next.’

‘Gorwak guts,’ she muttered. She knew the origin of this curse now.

Blackie had been following the whole exchange while lying stretched out next to them. After Kitty had lost interest in the gorwak’s tails, he curled up next to Blackie’s head. Their combined purring filled the air.

‘Right kid, tell me what this dripping nonsense is about us all being connected and me getting you to your burning employers? First of all, who in the burning seas are your employers? Second of all, as a direct dripping descendant of the Ichau-lineage, why do you even have burning employers?’

‘Eesjooh? I’m Smith, not… oh.’ Of course. If her parents had lied about everything else, then they would’ve lied about her family name as well. She squeezed the bridge of her nose and closed her eyes briefly. Idiot.

‘Ee-sj-oh. Ichau.’ Patat narrowed his eyes. ‘I believe you have your own grounding story to tell because none of this is making any burning sense to me.’

Nadec waved a hand toward him. 

‘That can wait.’ She was getting really hungry now.

‘The only thing I need to get to my employers, is an invitation. Once I have that, I can skip us all there. Lucky for us, my invitation is right in front of me.’

Patat threw his hands up and let himself fall back in an elaborate arc. The gesture was dramatised more by a small hop backwards.

‘I don’t burning understand any of this.’

Nadec glanced at Blackie. Her head had perked up by Nadec’s last words.

‘I’m not too sure about how any of this works either, but I know how to make it work. And that’s all we need right now.’

‘Why don’t you just burning go to your family’s dripping castle, in Paralelo? Or does your skipping thing not grounding work like that? I’ve got to tell you, kid, this is the most confused I’ve dripping been in fifty years.’

‘You’ve been alone and away from everything for fifty years,’ Nadec said absently, ignoring her shock. Paralelo. Wyny’s kingdom. My family’s kingdom? The same kingdom? Did I almost have a small crush on my cousin or something? Gross! And then he went on to betray her.

‘Slap me.’ When Patat merely stared at her, she lifted an eyebrow.

‘I don’t like to repeat myself. You heard me. That’s always how they give me directions. Someone randomly slaps me and I somehow know where to direct my skipping. Yeah, It’s stupid, don’t give me that look. I didn’t invent it and it’s not like I always enjoy it. Do it.’

Nadec stood up. Without another word, Patat flew up to her level. He narrowed his eyes. She nodded. He shrugged.

He slapped her. 

The slap was nothing like she’d ever been slapped before. It was firm, hard and with a perfect aim. His skin felt dry, in direct contrast to the slimey look. Her head was still turned to the side—some unwanted tears prickling—when she felt the slap take effect. Her damn idiotic gamble of a plan had worked!

She gestured for them all to get a hold on her, picking Kitty up to perch on her shoulders. Her grin was genuine and gleeful as she bent through her knees. She bounced them—open, close, open, close—crossing her arms at half their speed. Right before Nadec and her group disappeared, she thought she heard several voice shout.

Ch 25: The Order of the Red Knight

Kitty meowed on Nadec’s shoulders as she and her company of cat, dragon and gorwak, appeared in the entrance hall of her employers. It wasn’t really the building’s entrance hall, but she entered that room every time she skipped there. She’d never been through the real main entrance. 

‘Everyone alright?’

With another meow, Kitty hopped off her shoulders and strolled over to Blackie. He gave the dragon two headbuts against the claw, before flopping down to wash his belly.

‘Odd. Queasy bit. Fine but. ’ 

Blackie didn’t look as at ease as Kitty did. No wonder. If she was nauseous like she just said, her position wouldn’t help with feeling good. Her long neck caused her head to be squashed up against the ceiling, where it came together in a tip. The circular room was not made for a dragon.

Patat shook his head. The orange morning light—first light of the day—coming through the plain, blurred window made his wings looks like a mesmerising, iridescent sunrise. Wherever they had been before, it must have been a distance from here. Enough to go back a few hours. Nadec cursed.

‘You might be stuck here, Blackie. I’m sorry, I should’ve thought of that.’

The window wasn’t large enough for the beast, and the spiral stairs were certainly not an option. Blackie replied by winking at her. She could probably break through the wall if she wanted to.

‘Stay put, let me see if I can find anyone.’ She glanced towards Patat.

‘Skipping can be brutal the first times, you should feel fine again soon.’

‘Kid, this is not the grounding first time I burning skipped along. I’ll be dripping fine.’

She acknowledged him with a grunt and poked at Blackie’s ass, making her shuffle aside enough to walk down the stairs. A flutter of butterflies stirred in her belly. Previous times, she’d always been invited. At this moment she felt like a trespasser. How would they react? She knocked down the small pit of doubt, the sliver of mistrust. They couldn’t have been behind the attacks on her life.

A brush of Kitty against one of her ankles brought her back from the self-doubt. 

‘Alright buddy, you can come.’ She grabbed his lead.

The next level of the tower had a high ceiling as well. Nadec had never been to any castle—or large manor—with a tower layout like this. It didn’t make much sense. The spiraled stairs went right through the middle of the floor and ceiling. A simple wooden balustrade on the floor had a small gate to prevent one from accidentally falling down. It amused Nadec as the stairs themselves had no protection on the outside; if she misstepped, she could fall off. At least in this room her fall could be cushioned by the plain plush carpet lining the entire floor. The familiar room looked the same as ever, with a table and a narrow, unmade bed, the walls bare. This was where she’d always been given food and a chance to rest, should she need it.

She went further down. The bottom room, at the end of the stairs, was only illuminated by the light coming from the stairs above and the slit under the door in front of her. She’d checked out this room before. It was nothing but some sort of storage space. She stepped towards the door. 

A deep breath in. And out. She’d never been through it. Her employers had asked her—not forbidden her—to respect their boundaries, and Nadec had never even thought of breaking her promise. It would probably be locked anyway. Silly girl—she pushed through her trepidation and turned the knob—too trusting towards people. 

The door wasn’t locked. She forcibly stopped talking herself down. An old habit she still sometimes struggled with. She set her jaw. She was a confident woman and her employers were going to reveal all of their secrets. No more miss nice gal. Enough had happened to her lately. Besides, she had a dragon in the room above. Perhaps she could use that as a threat.

A huge room revealed itself behind the door, stretching two levels—the ground floor and the first level. There was no doubt; this was the real entry hall. Nadec stood on the first floor, at the end of the open, balustraded hallway which went almost all the way around. She guessed she must’ve been above the entry doors. That was odd. Did it mean the tower was actually halfway at the front of this building—mansion or castle? 

The opposite end of the hallway stopped where the wide stairs started, in the corner, across the hall to her right. Those wide stairs went along the wall, turned the corner, and stopped nearly aligned underneath where her end of the hallway hung. Since there was no other way to go, she turned left to follow the walkway.

She only had to take a few steps to get to its first corner. She ignored the shut door in front of her and turned right. After another right turn, she was on the last stretch towards the stairs. She passed another door; this one ajar. Curiosity won. A quick look into the room revealed it to be a master bedroom, with large canopied bed as the eyecatcher. It was gorgeous. 

A side-room of the bedroom appeared to be a combination of washing room with a basin on a vanity, a tub in the middle, and a dressing room. There was a walk-in closet at the far end. There, a large, beautiful stand-up mirror caught her eye.

She didn’t care much for her own image. Pulling a face, she shook her head at the bad fit of her ugly clothes. The trousers did not flatter her wide hips at all. Frowning at herself again while trying to wipe away smears of dirt, she embraced the thought of ugly clothes being better than walking around naked.

A smell invaded all her other thoughts, leaving nothing but a rumbling stomach. Hot food.  

As she stalked down, she froze midway. Voices floated up. Balls. She barely registered the paintings hanging from the wall. Still, they tickled something in the back of her mind. She ignored it. The butterflies in her stomach were out of control now. 

At the bottom of the stairs, her earlier guess proved right. The heavy double door to her left sat underneath the walkway spot where she’d emerged from the tower. She put her back towards the doors, which made her look straight into another room. There they were. 

She could see them sitting at a table, eating. It wasn’t what she expected. She’d assumed this to be an organisation, with many people at the head, and many others like herself. This building wasn’t a large headquarters. It was a home.

Nadec pushed through her hesitation and continued towards them, her footfall dampened by the lush carpets. They weren’t wearing the rich, hooded robes they normally wore. Instead, their clothes looked as if they belong somewhere in the seventeenth century. Or earlier or later—Nadec didn’t know enough of old fashion styles to pinpoint the correct era. It could’ve been a combination of several different styles, this wasn’t Earth after all.

It was the first time seeing their faces. The woman looked familiar. The conversation stopped. Nadec focused back on them, her thoughts had been dwelling on what was so familiar about the woman’s face, who looked straight at Nadec now, jaw slack, eyes wide. Nadec imitated the expression. Her mom. The woman’s face looked like her mom’s.

The woman jumped up, and ran around the table, her chair hitting the ground as she closed the distance. Nadec’s reaction was slow. Before she could step back, the woman embraced her in a tight hug.

‘You’re alive, praise the Squares, you’re alive.’

She was sobbing. Nadec’s arms moved to push her away. They hugged the woman back instead. It had been too long since she’d had a hug like this. She violently repressed the memory of Wyny in the cave. That embrace didn’t count, not anymore.

The man gently took the woman by the shoulders, pulling her away. Something stirred in Nadec’s chest.

‘Come Kridec, let’s give her some room. Nadec, sit, please. Are you hungry?’

He motioned towards the table. As Nadec sat down, she noticed a servant standing at the side, who walked away after the man whispered something. Kitty jumped on Nadec’s lap. She stroked him with intent, glad to have him to hold her steady.

‘Kridec?’ Nadec’s voice croaked. ‘That sounds a lot like my name. Is that coincidence?’ She sipped the water they’d put in front of her. At least, she’d intended to sip it, instead, she downed the whole cup in one go. And the next two refills. She let Kitty have a drink too.

The servant came back with a bowl of something hot. Nadec’s stomach growled again with the smell of the lentil soup. Soup as breakfast was one of the best meals.

Kridec glanced at the man. She took a deep breath as he nodded.

‘It is time we tell her.’ There was a soothing quality to his deep voice.

‘You’ve only ever known us as your employers, from the Order of the Red Knight.’ Her eyes rested on Nadec’s, searching for something. They still dripped soft tears. 

‘That was a lie. There is no such thing as Red Knights. There is no Order. We,’ she hesitated, glancing at the man. He grabbed her hand and gave it a little squeeze, ‘made that up, to protect you.’

Nadec resumed spooning soup to her mouth, using it as a distraction. Doing everything she could to keep the anger at bay. It was difficult.

‘We are your family.’ The man jumped in, as the woman had choked on her next words. ‘Kridec is your aunt, she’s your mother’s older sister.’

The spoon stopped right in front of nadec’s mouth. Her hand trembled hard enough to spill most of the soup over the sides. She dropped it back in the bowl.

‘Keep on talking.’

 

Ch 26: Family and Foe

Nadec listened in stunned unbelief. No. She believed everything her supposed aunt and uncle were telling her. Stunned. She was merely stunned. Her parents had never told her about any family. They’d always claimed all relatives either lived too far away or were dead. She’d never pressed them for information, which felt silly to her now. In the modern day and age of Earth, being far away shouldn’t be an excuse not to communicate with others. In a way, they hadn’t even lied. The family had been farther away than she’d ever think possible. She kept her anger from before on a simmer, a low burning fire.

By the time she reached the bottom of the bowl of soup, she knew the summarised history of her aunt and why Nadec hadn’t heard of her before. Kridec had given the heirdom to her younger sister, Nadec’s mother. When she was seventeen, they performed a ritual to officially transfer the coming succession. She’d moved out of the castle, with sufficient funds to start a new life. Nadec wondered why she couldn’t stay, but a mouthful of soup prevented her from asking it out loud. Kridec talked right over her anyway.

‘I travelled around and saw the world. Years later, I came back here, with Stetem,’ she pointed her head towards her husband and gave him a slight smile. ‘We bought this mansion. By then, most of Paralelo’s population had almost forgotten about me, which was what we wanted. Everyone was doting over your mother as the next heir. She and I had always stayed in touch, secretly. Do you want more soup?’

Nadec nodded. Before the servant could grab Nadec’s bowl, Kitty jumped off Nadec’s lap and cried a loud and panicky meow. He stalked around, sniffing at places, his howls getting louder.

‘Guts, he needs a toilet. Do you have any loose sand areas outside?’

Nadec stood but Stetem gently pushed her back down by the shoulder.

‘I’m on it, you should listen to the rest of the story.’

He grabbed Kitty’s lead, and guided him away. Kitty sort of followed Stetem.

‘Your mother and father got married while I was still away. I heard it was a lovely wedding. I wish I could’ve been there. But, that’s what I chose, wanting to be away from all attention. Either way, Madec confided in me they had trouble getting pregnant. So much so that they turned towards old myths and legends.’

She stood up and took something from a drawer. The servant came back with the bowl re-filled with soup.

‘Here is something you can eat after finishing your soup.’

Her face held a mysterious —and mischievous?—smile. She held out her hand, palm down, and dropped something on the table. A small box, rectangle-shaped. Frowning at Kridec, Nadec slowly slid it closer. It had a simple mechanism for opening the lid.

The gorgeous aroma of chocolate wafted toward her, overwhelming every other smell. Sweet, earthy, faintly nutty. The chocolate was shaped like small triangles, stamped with a lighter square in the middle. Nadec couldn’t resist and popped one in her mouth. The rich and deep taste of the cacao was too much. She rolled her eyes back before closing them. The initial bitterness lingered while a sweetness overtook it, perfectly paired. By far one of the best chocolates she’d ever eaten.

When it was all melted away, she let the bliss take her a bit longer before opening her eyes.

‘Chocolate helped them get pregnant with me? Perhaps I should reconsider my chocolate-eating habit then.’ She muttered that last, not wanting to insult with her desire to not get pregnant.

Her aunt laughed. It sounded so much like her mother’s laugh, goosebumps spread over Nadec’s arms and her eyes welled up. She blinked it away before Kridec saw it.

‘Now that would be something!’ Kridec’s glee was still obvious when she resumed her talk. ‘No, if one is in certain circles, one would hear about the myth of Earth. It had always been a legend talked about in the Ichau family. Madec somehow found the way to Skip there. She brought me the secret to making chocolate. That’s how—’

‘You! I grounding recognise you. You’re Nadec’s burning employer? That either explains a grounding lot or makes it even more burning strange.’

Kridec’s eyes opened wide. So did her mouth.

‘Close your dripping mouth, you look like a burning fish.’

Nadec couldn’t help but snort at that, despite her surprise at both Patat’s appearance and his words. He recognised her?

‘You, you… you…’

‘Yes, yes, dripping me.’

Stetem came in with Kitty. Kridec slowly turned her head towards him. He looked at her, frowned, and dropped the lead when he saw Patat hovering in the air behind Nadec.

‘Gorwak. That’s a gorwak! They’re real? They were my favourite mythical creature, them and dragons.’

Nadec felt a mixture of guilt for not having told them yet about Blackie, and anticipation for their reaction when she’d tell them about her.  She exchanged a few quick telepathic sentences with Blackie to make sure she was alright. Blackie seemed to be more concerned about Nadec than herself. Kitty sauntered towards Patat, who landed on the floor to receive headbuts.

‘I’ve told you about our childhood friend gorwak.’ Kridec narrowed her eyes. ‘You never believed me, did you.’ She huffed. The indignation was muffled by the way she looked back at Patat. She rubbed her eyes.

‘You had a childhood friend gorwak, and it was this gorwak?’

Kridec answered Nadec’s question with a nod. Nadec sighed. That was too much of a coincidence to be a coincidence. Stetem walked in a daze towards the nearest chair.

‘Burning right it was this gorwak.’ Patat sat next to Nadec. His head barely came above the edge of the table. He furrowed his forehead and gave Kridec a meaningful look. She jumped up from her seat, strode into another room, and came back with big blocks of firewood. They lifted the seat up for Patat.

He reached out and pulled the bowl of soup towards him. Kitty jumped up, lying down on his lap. It made eating more difficult, and it couldn’t have been comfortable—Patat being only a bit larger than Kitty. He allowed it anyway, and stroked him while eating the soup in between talking. Nadec grabbed the little box of chocolate, content to eat those instead of the soup, musing over how wrong she was about thinking Patat only ate grass and leaves.

‘This is good. It’s been too long since I ate hot food. Human food.’

‘Fifty-two years since my brother ran away with you.’ Nadec’s aunt had a faint smile on her lips, remembering childhood memories. ‘He only told us what he did afterwards. We never—’

‘Wait.’ Nadec had to interrupt. She had to.

‘Brother? I’ve got an uncle too? What else? Do I have a lost sibling somewhere? Is the uncle still in the castle? Is he the king now?’ Before she finished her sentence, she already knew it was a stupid question. She knew well enough who ruled Paralelo right now.

‘Oh no, he has passed away. Don’t be sad, it was years ago. He was supposed to be the heir, so when he died, it came to me. I already told you what I did with that.’

‘When you were seventeen,’ Nadec mumbled, trying to piece things together. It was all a bit confusing. Kridec nodded.

‘Your mother was fifteen at the time. She still had thirteen years until the Wooden Water Crown would appear on her head, but she was already ready for it. And you know, she actually got the Crown while she was far into her pregnancy from you.’

The Wooden Water Crown. That had been part of Wyny’s ridiculous tiles.

‘Pagewyn,’ Nadec paused when Stetem uttered a small growl. Kridec’s face fell into a careful neutrality, which screamed disapproval in its suddenness. ‘Yeah, so, Pagewyn, he has the crown now, right, so is he a cousin? How is he related?’

A smoldering heat in her aunt’s eyes replaced the neutrality, emphasised by reddening cheeks.

‘He is a fool, a puppet, put on the throne by usurpers. He is not related to us, at all.’

Nadec’s sigh of relief felt like a betrayal to her aunt and uncle’s anger. At least that was one less thing to worry about. Not that it mattered much anymore. Her head already spun from the complicated family history and heirdom.

‘He doesn’t have the Wooden Water Crown yet.’ Stetem said right on top of Kridec, who continued.

‘The Wooden Water Crown only appears on the head of the person most suited to wear it. That means the first descendant of the Ichau bloodline, when they turn twenty eight. Or, if they’re not here at that time, or there aren’t heir anymore, then it goes to the person sitting on the throne. But that has actually never happened, as far as I know.’

It all fell in place. Partly. Nadec’s birthday was in a few days. If she was in The Other Realm then, the Crown would fall on her head. If she wasn’t, or dead, the Crown would go to Wyny. But why would that mean the end of Earth, like the zlurp had said? She had a suspicion.

‘What else happens when someone gets the Crown?’

‘They get full potential of the Squares, Triangles and Lines.’

Nadec bit back a curse. The full power of the magic. With the wrong intentions, that might well become the end of a world.

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