Nadec second draft

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.

Ch 27: Emotional connection

‘So, correct me if I’m wrong, but I suppose I’m the most rightful heir at this moment? So all I have to do is stay hidden until my birthday, make sure I stay here with you in The Other Realm, and in twelve days the Crown will be mine. It would just appear on my head?’ 

The concept sounded strange to Nadec, and the solution to the threat of the end of the Earth too easy. A sinking feeling settled inside of her, and she almost faltered mentioning the Crown being hers. She definitely hadn’t had enough time to come to terms with all of this. Only yesterday she confirmed to herself she was a princess, and in 12 days she would be something like a queen? And inherit a bunch of all powerful magic.

Despite her internal turmoil—and the other smouldering emotion in the background—she didn’t miss the look between her aunt and uncle.

‘What?’

Kridec nodded towards her husband. Stetem still shot awkward glances at Patat, his eyes blinking, swallowing roughly whenever he did. Patat was aware of it but ignored it. For once he didn’t utter any rude words, but pretended to be absorbed in petting Kitty. Nadec had seen his shock at hearing of her uncle’s death, so she knew he followed the conversation closely.

‘We’re very happy to see you alive, Nadec, and you are welcome to take a bath and stay the night.’

He paused, looking over at Patat again before glancing towards Kridec. His wide eyes eventually rested on the table. ‘But it wouldn’t be a good idea to stay here longer. This is not a good shelter. They—we don’t know how—obviously have figured out something about you and the Red Knight rouse. They might know of us, and, you see, this is our house. You understand? We’ve been living here in relative peace for a long time. We’ve always promised your parents to take care of you and followed their instructions meticulously. But we can’t put more at stake. We’ll give you the box they left us for you, and much of what you need to know is in there.’

‘Surely you understand, Nady?’

Oh, that nickname. It slapped her right in the face. Her mom used to call her that. How dared her aunt use it? How dared they do this to her? They’d just abandon her? After all this, after lying to her for three years, they wouldn’t even let her stay in their home? No support at all. This is supposed to be family.

‘Coming, Nadec. You helping will I.’

Blackie’s voice boomed in her head. Before she knew what it meant, a thunderous sound came from above and outside. The grumble and clatter of bricks on the ground overwhelmed every other sound. People screamed. A whoosh of wind preceded the head of Blackie barging through the open window, splintering the frame and breaking the glass. A few bricks came loose, tumbling along a side table to the floor in slow motion. Dust pelted the air. Pots clanked in the kitchen next door.

Stetem fell back and smashed to the ground, chair included. Kridec ducked down, taking shelter beneath the table before Blackie’s head came through the window. Kitty dug in his claws, making Patat yelp. Nadec blinked. She waved her hand in front of her, dispelling the dust.

She quirked an eyebrow at Blackie, who looked sheepish now that she saw Nadec wasn’t in any trouble. Nadec didn’t know how she always managed to convey a world of emotion in her reptilian face. Blackie plonked her head down on the table. It creaked in distress, but held on. Stetem knelt behind his toppled chair, peeking out from behind.

‘What happened, Blackie?’

Nadec asked it out loud, making it clear to the others that she could talk to the dragon, and —despite destroying part of their house—she was friendly.

‘Heat felt I. From you. Pulsed did it. Never felt before, you in trouble. I thought.’ The sending hesitated. ‘Not real heat, it was?’ She slightly cocked her head—still on the table. Kitty detached herself from Patat’s lap, gave Blackie’s snout a couple of head buts, climbed on top and formed into a fluffy cat ball between the horns. It won Nadec some time to think.

Anger. Blackie had been feeling Nadec’s rising rage. Another new development in the dragon communication. She wondered if Blackie would be able to feel emotions from everyone if she wanted to, or if they had a special bond. Would that—

‘Burning grounds! What did she do that grounding for?’

Patat jumped in the air to fly and vibrated his whole body, ridding himself of the dust. Stetem still hid behind his toppled chair—much good that would do against a  dragon—and Kridec slowly crawled from under the table. She appeared to have regained a modicum of control, although Nadec could see it was merely a facade.

‘You,’ she swallowed, purposely keeping her eyes on Nadec, ‘you can communicate with the dragon?’ Nadec nodded. ‘Unbelievable,’ the other woman whispered. ‘The Ichau blood must be very strong in you.’

Stetem’s voice came from behind the chair. ‘What does that mean? Surely this is nothing but a dream? None of this can be real. Truly. First a gorwak, then a dragon? Can you stop pretending to talk to that gorwak now, those harsh sounds can’t possibly mean anything.’ He sounded overwhelmed and on the brink of hysteria.

‘Not a dream,’ Nadec mumbled, at the same time Patat said: ‘Burning right they can understand me when I speak gorish.’ He rolled his liquid, black eyes. When he spoke next, Nadec could hear something had changed, but couldn’t say what exactly.

‘I forgot most humans don’t burning speak our dripping language. That’s what bloody happens when you get isolated for so grounding long. I should’ve burning realised that’s what’s burning different about you.’ He glanced at Nadec. ‘Perhaps that’s how I guessed you were from the same dripping blood as Jodec.’

Jodec. Her late uncle, she assumed.

‘So, languages are easy for us?’ She addressed Kridec again, who’d carefully righted her chair and sat down, a good distance from the table.

‘Yes. Yes, Ichaus naturally have the ability to understand and speak all, or many, of the languages. But that’s not important right now. Why is there a live dragon’s head on my table?’

With that, her calm mask broke a little. Her voice sounded almost more hysterical than Stetem’s. She uttered a nervous giggle. ‘Seeing Patat was a surprise, a big surprise, but I could still accept that. I knew he was real before. But this. Dragons aren’t supposed to be real! Certainly, it’s always been said that one of our family’s Lines was talking to dragons, just like you have the Skipping Line, and I have the Need Line.’ She was talking really fast now, as if that could make up for the situation she was in.

‘Everyone of us has one, two or three Lines, like a little trinket of the Squares, Triangles and Lines, all but the one who gets the Wooden Water Crown, they get it all. So I suppose you have the Skipping and the Dragon Line but that is not what it’s called. I don’t remember the actual name of the Line because they were supposed to be a myth. Not able to break my house!’ Her tone of voice gradually rose at the last sentences, with the last word sounding more like a shriek.

‘Dragons and gorwaks.’ Stetem stood up. He was no longer hysterical. Awe had replaced it. ‘It’s real, all real. Can I touch him?’ He reached out a shaking hand, but pulled it back when Blackie’s eyes focused on him.

‘She’s a her, not him. She says she’s never had this request before, and she’s amused, but she accepts. Don’t overdo it though.’

She couldn’t keep some venom out of her voice. These people were going to kick her out. Family she’d never known, the only family she still had, were abandoning her, just like that. Blackie sniffed, stirring up a cloud of dust, causing Stetem to cough.

‘Again feel it, heat. Why?’

‘I’m angry,’ Nadec said in her mind. She continued out loud.

‘They’re the ones who put me through everything I’ve been through these past years. They should’ve told me the truth. The people I saved, was that all a set-up? So much violence. Why make me—‘ She gasped as realisation for the core of her anger dawned on her. A guilt she’d been carrying, slumping her shoulders, like a weight pressing down. She whispered.

‘Why make me kill all those people and creatures for a false reason?’

Ch 28: Tradition and ritual

The silence of the room expanded until a servant—the same one who’d brought Nadec the soup—opened the door. He peeped in, the white around his eyes growing more stark at the sight of Blackie’s head poking through the destroyed window. Shouting in the background forced Nadec to wonder how many people had seen the dragon.

Guts, if this is a closely populated area, this might have attracted an audience. She slapped away a tingle of panic. Other things were more important. The intensifying connection with Blackie. Kridec’s ramble about the Lines. She needed to hear more, but her furiousness didn’t allow to ask about that. For now.

‘Oh Nady,’ Kridec finally said. She cringed at the look Nadec gave her.

‘Never call me that again. You have no right to use my name that way.’

‘I… I’ll try to. Forgive me if I misspeak, I’m so used to hearing your mother say it.’

Nadec snorted. The snort conveyed a multitude of emotions. Sadness for the mention of her mother, anger for this conversation, hopelessness for this whole situation, unbelief for her aunt’s obvious lack of understanding, ridicule for asking forgiveness for this small feat and not all the rest.

Kridec glanced at Stetem, who’d been staring at Blackie and Patat, his head swiveling from dragon to gorwak. Blackie ignored him, content with her head on the table. Patat didn’t. He pulled a different face each time Stetem’s eyes fell on him.

‘Stem, you look as if your head is about to fall off. Perhaps you should go outside and put everyone at ease.’ Kridec nodded towards the servant, who was still peeking in the room through the half open door. She followed Stetem with her eyes as he walked outside on unsteady legs.

‘Don’t worry, we live outside of the city and we have walls, there aren’t many neighbours who could’ve seen this. There are only our servants.’

Nadec started. The words were obviously aimed at her, but how had she known it was something Nadec had been thinking off? Logical deduction? Or something else? She felt as if she couldn’t trust herself anymore. Her thoughts were certainly a mess. There had been too much information at once.

An unexpected hug pulled Nadec back out of her thoughts. Shonk swallop! She knew she was supposed to return the embrace, but her arms stayed plastered in her lap. A hug wasn’t going to fix her anger.

‘We never wanted to do it,’ Kridec said silently in Nadec’s ears. Crying? ‘We never wanted to, we always thought it would’ve been better to tell you the truth, instead of this elaborate plan. It wasn’t only you who was being put at risk but us too.’

She let go and sat back down, wiping her eyes.

‘I’ve always wanted to remain in anonymity. The royal life wasn’t for me. I was happy enough to stay in the background when Jodec was still the heir, but when he suddenly disappeared and it was all going to fall on my head, literally so, I knew I had to get out. I’d rather say goodbye to everything I knew, than having to bear the responsibility. And it worked. When I came back, with Stetem, people on the street never mentioned me anymore.

‘Madec secretly came to me one day, about half a year before her Crown receival. She’d been telling me they were having trouble conceiving. The day Madec came here, I knew she had something important to say. She confided that she had found a way to Skip to Earth, about a year earlier. Somehow the healers there had helped her to get pregnant. At first I didn’t believe it. Earth was a myth! She gave me the gift of chocolate. It was incredible, I still remember the first time I tried it.’ A twinkle in her shiny eyes proved her remembrance.

‘She said she’d give me all the knowledge to produce chocolate and build a blooming business out of it. On one condition. I had to promise to take care of you if something happened to them. She said she’d change the instructions yearly. And so she did. I thought it was all a bit silly and paranoid.

‘It had been so long, I never thought it was actually going to happen. But every year she brought me two boxes, one with instructions for us, the other to give to you after a designated amount of time. The Red Knight rouse had been completely their plan. We jeopardized our safety and anonymity to protect you.’

‘To protect me? You mean, to have a chocolate business, to make money. Not to protect me.’

Kridec flinched. ‘That’s not how it was. Whatever you want to believe, the fact is we did it, so that’s that. It’s probably already too late for us, I believe they’ll come for us soon, searching for you. That’s why you need to go. Stetem explained it in an unfortunate way, he didn’t mean it so harshly. We care. We do. But we know this isn’t safe for you. They’ll find you. Especially now. We don’t have that many servants here, and our chocolate production is elsewhere, but they are gossips. They’ll talk about the dragon, perhaps even the gorwak. We’ll do everything we can do buy their silence, but it might not be enough.

‘Oh, there is so much I wish I could tell you, but we should get ready. I’m afraid a bath won’t be possible at this moment. I’ll give you dresses, money, and my most trusted servant, Melia. I suggest you make your way to the city, and hide there, until the day of the Crown. With a few full purses and the dresses, you can pass for a wealthy merchant. Wealthy enough to afford a good room in a decent inn. I’m really sorry I can’t do more. We’ll have our own mess to clean up here.’

Nadec had let her talk. She saw the sincerity in her aunt’s face. Despite her earlier feelings, and an ever-lingering smoulder of anger, she trusted her. Although she couldn’t help the sarcasm in her voice.

‘Good speech. I can’t go into the city though, there’s no way to take Blackie and Patat with me. Besides, it doesn’t make sense to get into a city, better to hide away in a forest until the Crown appears on my little head.’ She moved her hands around her head.

‘You’ve got that snarkiness from your mother. Yes, I’d advice against taking them, and even your cat—whatever you do, don’t walk him outside where people can see him. It would be too much of a novelty. As for the other two… I might have a solution, but I need to talk to Stetem first. The only issue would be sneaking them in. If only we had Jodec’s Line of Deception. But, no matter. We’ll find a way. Little help though it may be, I will give you that.’

She leaned forward and grabbed Nadec’s hand, who pulled hers back. Even though Nadec had calmed down, she was still upset. But the constant stream of information kept her from focussing on the anger. The Lines of deception, she mused. Something tickled in the back of her mind. She breathed in sharply.

‘Wyny. I mean, Pagewyn. He can do the Squares and Triangles thing. What’s up with that? You said he’s not related, how could he have power?’

Kridec tsk-ed. Her face showed disapproval.

‘Your parents really should’ve taught you all of this, it was the wrong decision to wait. But they wanted to uphold tradition and keep you safe. Traditionally, the heir who’s bound to receive the Crown, would be prepped, starting three years earlier. No, let me speak, I know it sounds odd. Royalty should get prepared from the moment they’re born, right? That’s how they do it in other kingdoms. In Paralelo, all siblings get a basic education. The Crown receiver gets an extra education, and that is mostly to teach them about the powers they’re bound to receive. Your parents were going to start teaching you about three years ago, but then they passed away. I always thought they should’ve introduced you to this world from childhood, but anyway, they had their own silly reasons. As for that fool Pagewyn, no one who doesn’t have the birth right can sit on the Throne without a proper ritual, handing over the intent for them to become the Crown receiver. So when your parents died, certain people somehow knew about that ritual and performed it with fool Pagewyn. It’s complicated and I don’t know the details about how it all works and what it does exactly. I assume the ritual grants the usurper one of the Lines. I think he should lose it once you get the Crown.’

That was again a much larger explanation than Nadec had thought she’d get. Nadec’s aunt certainly liked to talk. Even in situations like this. Kridec continued.

‘To come back to what you said previously, there are no forests in which you’d be able to hide in this area. Besides, I don’t want you to live in discomfort, you’ve had a hard enough time as it was. And I am certain it is the best idea to be in the city when the day comes, nice and clean, looking like a proper queen. That way you can have the people validate you straight away, and you can make that fool look like a genuine fool.’

Nadec had only been listening with half an ear, her thoughts still on what Kridec had said earlier. However, she perked up at the last sentences.

‘What? The city. Pagewyn is in the city you mentioned before?’ Her skin crawled. ‘I should’ve asked this before. Where exactly are we?’

‘Oh, well, I thought you’d have guessed by now. We’re only half an hour walk from the walls of Hexago, Paralelo’s capital city. I told you I came back here after my travels. I couldn’t live in the city of course, but I found a nice secluded mansion not too far away, and…’

Kridec kept babbling on, oblivious of Nadec’s shock. She really should have figured it out earlier. But her brain was too overloaded, it had trouble keeping up. The capital city of Paralellogram. So close to Wyny.

Staying hidden in the forest did seem like a bad idea now. She should go into the city and go check things out. After all, it was going to be her new home, right? For now, she conveniently ignored that there were people trying to kill her, and they were probably in the city. Besides, perhaps she could figure out more of them there. Rumours were always in abundance, if you knew where to look for them. She tapped the table and booped Kitty on the nose. It was time to discover her capital city. 

Ch 29: Hexago

‘Burning grounds,’ Patat said after Kridec left the room to help Stetem calm their servants down—bribe them—and discuss the idea she had to get Blackie and Patat in the city.

‘I could’ve grounding told you much of that. I’m burning sorry, kid.’

Surprise lit up Nadec’s face. He apologised?

‘Don’t burning look at me like that. Gorwaks were supposed to burning be the ones who told humans everything. Not really, but multiplying isn’t the only thing I’m burning bad at.’

If anyone would say such a thing, it would sound self-deprecating and a poor attempt at vying for compassion. Coming from Patat, it was a statement of truth. 

‘I grounding forgot a lot of it either way, hearing it being said revived my burning memories. Going into the city feels like the best burning idea, I’ve got to agree with burning Kridec on that. Yes, I can burning curse on her name, we go back a long dripping time. I’ll need to dripping tell you the complete, fuller version of my story some day.’

‘You better be holding Kitty when telling that story,’ she muttered, not knowing what else to say. There were too many questions, but this wasn’t the time to look for answers, not from Kridec nor Patat. 

A servant entered. The tall woman lifted the hem of her dark, wide skirts in a slight curtsy. The movement emphasised her slim figure. Although her face was covered partially by the blonde hair, Nadec thought she saw an expression on her face which didn’t quite match the subservient look Nadec hated. She always felt uncomfortable when people lowered their own value compared to hers. Her own outside confidence only served as a mask. Still, she kept pretending. Nadec squinted at the woman. She looked familiar.

‘Mistress Ichau, my name is Melia. Madame Ichau has told me I’m to get you ready to go into the city. She said I would be going with you. She also said it was preferable to leave as soon as possible, so we should get ready. It is still late sunrise so we should be able to get there and find an inn before late noon.’ She kept her eyes down the entire time. Her hands rubbed her skirts in a constant movement. ‘Madame Ichau also said to tell you they’d certainly have a solution for the dragon,’ her voice faltered a bit at that, ‘and the gorwak.’ She sounded as if she didn’t belief she said those words.

That accent, Nadec thought. She wasn’t sure about anything concerning languages anymore—she wanted to believe Kridec had been joking when she said Ichaus know all of them. That’s why she didn’t know if Melia was speaking her own language—with Nadec naturally understanding it—or if she spoke Nadec’s language, but with an accent. Whichever it was, it sounded too familiar. Nadec almost had it, the reason on the tip of her tongue, when Patat flew up, startling the servant.

‘Aah, I might as well burning see if I can help them with something. Blackie, you grounding coming too? You dripping broke the building, so it makes sense to give them a burning paw. Not literally of course, no need to also start a burning fire.’

Blackie looked abashed before lifting her head and falling into a deep yawn, tongue rolling out. She laid her head back on the table to wait until Kitty climbed off. He chose the long route, along the snout and taking his precious time, with stretches in between. 

‘Come on Kitty, let’s see which clothes they have.’

Several hours later, Nadec tried to tug at her corset. Again. She was getting annoyed with it, and couldn’t even touch or move it through the deep maroon fabric of the dress. It shimmered in the late afternoon sun. She was the first to admit the dress was gorgeous, but preferably on someone else. Seeing the few stray cat hairs on it already made her regret the decision to leave Kitty behind. Hopefully tonight everything would go well.

A bump on the road jolted the rickshaw, and she cursed. Melia flushed. She was walking along beside Nadec. The cart was pulled by one of Kridec’s strongmen. Although Nadec called it a rickshaw in her head, the local people did not. They had named these types of carts quins. It had two large wheels and two handles at the front, in between which the person who pulled it—preferably a strongman—would position themselves to tug the cart along. There was also a wide strap of sturdy fabric which made for some kind of halter fitting around the chest. 

Nadec had wanted to walk, and let the strongman pull the chest. But Kridec and Stetem insisted she didn’t. Something to do with rank and standing. 

‘Mistress, we should see the city walls soon. If you would want to see the city, perhaps you would like to lean out a little?’ Melia glanced at her and said more quietly: ‘it would be proper enough to do so. For many first-time visitors the first view of the city is a spectacle. It has become some sort of ritual. So in fact, it would be more proper to lean out and watch.’

‘It would be proper.’ Nadec’s voice was flat. Her natural instinct wanted to stay seated as she was and not go along with what was proper. But, she had a new reputation to make and it wouldn’t do to mess it up from the first minute of being out in public. She sighed, scooted closer to the edge of the seat, and stuck her head out. 

‘That’s different,’ she muttered. 

Massive towers formed the corners of the—what she assumed—hexagon-shaped wall surrounding the city. She was close enough to see brass bells in the tops of the closest of the six round towers. The terrain inside of the walls sloped up to end in a large pyramid shape. At least, that’s what she thought it was. From her vantage, it appeared as if there were multiple walls inside the outer walls, dividing the city in several sections. She couldn’t call them rings, because they had definite corners. They seemed random. Each corner had a tower, which turned smaller closer to the centre.

‘Mistress, your face. I apologize, but people are watching. You don’t look truly impressed.’

Nadec scowled at Melia, who ducked her head but made sure Nadec could still see her roll her eyes. It wasn’t an annoyed eye-roll. Instead, it served as a way of pointing around without pointing.

She softened her scowl when she saw the truth of Melia’s words. There were more people around them than Nadec had expected, and everyone who wasn’t staring at the city was shooting glances her way. 

‘I got caught up in trying to figure out the layout of the city,’ Nadec said. ‘Perhaps you can tell me some of it. Maybe that way I can express proper amazement.’

She flinched at the tone of her voice. She should keep her frustration to herself, not work them out on this poor servant. Melia didn’t give any sign of being bothered by it. She nodded. Her eyes lit up.

‘Yes, I can do that. It’s utterly marvelous, a true mathematical wonder. Everything is man-made, nothing about the shape is natural. Of course, there are always the linists, who insist that it is all natural. They claim early Hexagoers—citizens of Hexago—built the walls and buildings following the natural shapes and slopes. Nonsense of course. Nature can be smart, but when it comes down to mathematics, nothing beats humans, right? Right.

‘Yes, that’s a proper bewildered face, keep that up. The outer wall is a hexagon shape, all sides have the same length. The moat surrounding it is a perfect circle. It has an equal width all around, and only touches the corner towers with its water. Against the sides of the wall, quarter-moon shaped areas ensure the equal moat width. If you’d see the city from above, it would look like a hexagon in a circle, corners touching. Not that anyone has ever seen the city from above except for birds. But how wonderful must it be, to be able to see it from above, see the perfectly aligned shapes and—’

‘The city, Melia, how is the city divided? I still can’t wrap my head around it. Would you prefer I call you by your real name though? Fluetza? Or was that also a fake name? Don’t look so shocked. Do you really think I wouldn’t remember someone whom I’ve rescued only a few months ago? My carpets were a mess when I came home from that one.’

Nadec hadn’t remembered until Melia began the passionate talk about maths.

‘It’s fine, we’ll talk about how you got here later if you want. Keep talking about the city, we’re getting closer really quickly now’.

And they were, the downward road in between the bend they’d come from and the city gates, was only a small stretch. At this pace, it was a matter of minutes to join the line-up into the city. 

‘I was covered in mud so, no, I didn’t think you’d recognize me.’ Nadec almost snorted at the truth of that. There had been so much mud. ‘But you are right, we’ll discuss it later. In brief, the first inner wall is a pentagon, the second one is square-shaped, and the third is triangle-shaped. The ground slopes up, following the outer shape. So in between the hexagon and pentagon, the ground slopes up following the sides of the hexagon. In between the square and the triangle, the ground slopes up following the square. It sounds like that should make for some awkward angles and streets, but you’ll see once inside, it’s hardly noticeable. The triangle wall surrounds the castle’s gardens and the castle.’

‘Yeah, I thought I saw some green at the top, but I wasn’t sure.’

‘You were right. The gardens are on an extra steep slope. In fact, the castle itself has many levels completely and half buried underground. It is a circular, tiered tower in the centre—the precise centre of the moat circle actually—and has three extensions pointing towards the triangle wall’s corners. These three points also have towers, and the tops of those—’

They halted, having reached the line into the city, to Nadec’s relief. Without any map or ground plan in front of her, the description of it all spun in her head. What an info dump again. 

Nadec leaned back in her seat and closed the curtain. It went all around the front and sides of the rikshaw—the quin—to enable the passengers complete privacy if they wished it. She’d had it open at the side so she could talk to Melia. Apparently the front section was seldom left open, although it would’ve been easier for looking at the city instead of leaning out from the side. Perhaps they didn’t think it proper to have to look at the strongman’s backside. From what Nadec had seen before, it wouldn’t have been a bad thing to look at. 

The line moved swiftly. Soon she heard a male voice ask to ‘state your purpose’. Nadec’s skirt rustled as she shifted, annoyed at not being allowed to face the guard herself. Letting the servants do much of the talking was another strange custom here.  

Before Melia could answer, the guard spoke again, this time to apologize for listening to someone mumbling to him. 

‘All right,’ he shouted, ‘everyone can go in freely. Let it be known! The gates are open to everyone. Festivities for the coronation are to start tomorrow! The royal highness Pagewyn has decided to add an extra day to the traditional ten days. Come on, move along!

Coronation festivities? Her aunt hadn’t said anything about those. She hadn’t thought it possible, but she looked even more forward to opening the box her parents left her. 

What secrets would it reveal?

Ch 30: Skipping is easy

‘Coming!’

Blackie’s voice in Nadec’s head loosened up a knot between her shoulder blades. She glanced around the corner of the alleyway she was in, towards the city’s main gate. The lanterns around it gave enough light to see the two guards standing near the guard post at the bottom. The two towers next to the gate each had one guard at the top. 

‘Says Kridec, ready get!’

The guards on the ground turned their heads in the same direction, as synchronised as if rehearsed. They walked away from their post, oblivious of anything else but the Need to investigate. Before the top guards noticed the absence of their fellows, both of them slumped down.

Nadec ran towards the gate. She turned the wheel connected to the chain to lift the two heavy beams. Once they were released from their supports and floating in front of the gate, she tugged the tow chain—a short length of chain attached to the bottom beam. The beams moved out of the way. She unbolted the five heavy locks while wondering why it needed such a heavy security.

When she swung open the gates, a welcome meow was the first thing she heard, followed by Kitty jumping on her shoulder. A serious-looking Kridec nodded at her.

‘Well done. Come, let’s get this done. My Need can only do so much. I’m stretching it thin already. Blackie, make them wake up in two hours. That should be enough to get into the building and sneak back out.’

A vague outline of a shadow moved in the lantern light. A thin squeak of escaping air filled the otherwise silent night. 

‘How did you know she could adjust her wake-up farts?’ Nadec mumbled, partly to herself, partly to Kridec.

‘I didn’t. It was a good guess.’

‘How did you cloak her? Are we hidden too?’

‘No, only her. If anyone were to look out and see us walking about, it wouldn’t raise that much suspicion. A dragon is a completely different thing. I enveloped her in a cloud of Need. It makes anyone looking in her direction feel the Need to see a shadow instead of a dragon. It’s one of the more complex uses of my Line. This way.’

‘Mind manipulation. Huh.’ Nadec followed her aunt into the city, baffled by the options of the Line. She assumed all the Lines had such a broad array of uses. If everything went to plan, she’d have access to all those different Lines soon. She’d really be all powerful. It scared her to think about. She’d have to somehow learn about them all. But if she were to fail… The people who controlled Wyny were up to no good. She remembered what the zlurp had said. They want to conquer Earth. With all that power, there’s a good chance they’d be able to destroy it completely.

‘This is one of our stock houses.’ 

Kridec’s voice flustered Nadec. She didn’t know how long they’d been walking, so caught up in her thoughts she’d been. She stopped next to her aunt, in front of a large building. Kridec opened up a double door.

‘Blackie might have to squeeze a little bit, but once through the doors, she should have plenty of space to stretch out. The stock house is empty right now because we’ve been wanting to rebuild the interior. We have a big plan, providing indoor rooms for several different shops. People would be able to come here on bad weather days and do all their shopping in a controlled environment, without getting wet or cold.’

It was pitch dark inside. The streets didn’t have lanterns or any other lighting. The two moons—the smallest one full, the other half full—gave enough light to see by on the streets, but didn’t reach inside of the building. The sound of flint and steel was followed by a small bright flash, and the steady flame of an oil lamp. Kridec must have dropped her Need around Blackie because she appeared like a black dragon-shaped void. The void filled the doorway, trying to push in. 

Blackie spoke to Nadec, making her gasp. 

‘What about food and water? And, even more important, poo and pee? I can’t believe I didn’t think of that before.’ Nadec rubbed her forehead in annoyance. 

‘Don’t worry, I did. One of the best features of this building, is that it’s built around a well. See?’ She walked towards the middle of the open space. There was indeed a pool of water. ‘We want to make this into a key feature in the middle of the shop house. Integrate it with sculptures and the like… But that’s not important now. The well is neverending, so there’s your dragon’s water. I’ll have one of my city servants bring food daily. And carry off the bodily waste.’

Nadec gaped at her. This plan felt foolish. She felt foolish. She didn’t want Blackie to be locked up like this, even if it was only for a long week. She turned to face Blackie which made her aware of the sound of creaking wood, reverberating in the otherwise silent night.

‘Shhhhh, Blackie, hush.’

Blackie stopped wriggling.

‘Fit not.’ Her voice was petulant and slightly panicked in Nadec’s head. Kitty yawned, jumped off Nadec’s shoulder, and head butted Blackie’s chin. He swooned down and rolled onto his back, playfully touching the chin with all his toe beans. 

‘Balls. Kridec, the doorway’s too small. We’ll have to hide her outside after all. I don’t think it would’ve worked to keep her here anyway.’ Someone bringing a load of food—and removing massives piles of dung every day—would be too conspicuous.

Kridec shook her head before Nadec finished the sentence. 

‘I told you before, not an option. Our home will get invaded soon, and once word gets out—which it probably already has—every area of the forest will be searched.’ She frowned at Nadec. ‘Just Skip her inside. What a fool I am, we could’ve done this all along.’

‘I can do that?’

‘How else did you skip to our home? Of course you can do that.’ She grabbed Nadec by the shoulders, but released immediately ‘I don’t have time to explain everything so I’ll try to make it quick. Whenever I had someone slap you, I reached beyond Realms to grab the closest person near you. It’s complicated, but let’s say it’s all to do with fine tuning my Need. I transferred the Need of the task I had for you, to you, right at the time I made the person slap you. That’s how you could feel where to go and what to do.’

‘You injected me with the Need of the task?’ Nadec was incredulous. It sounded complicated, there should’ve been an easier way. Like, just telling the truth.

‘Something like that, yes. It doesn’t matter. Point of it all is, with the task ahead of you, you knew where to Skip. We made you believe that’s the only way you could Skip, from Earth to here and back. But your options are endless. I won’t get into it now. I’m sure the box your parents left has more answers than I could ever give you. Have you opened it yet?’

‘Yes, but it was too random. And I guess perhaps I wanted to take a quick nap which accidentally turned into a very long nap. Anyway, Patat is having a look at the box’s content right now. He asked if he could and I said it was alright. He might be able to order everything in rank of what’s most important to know.’ 

Nadec’s mind spun while she talked. She could skip everywhere? To soften the feeling of being overwhelmed, she thought back to what Patat had looked like when releasing him from the chest which brought him into the city, as part of her baggage. That had been funny.

‘How did I skip to your home? I had Patat slap me because I thought that’s how I’d know where to skip to, and it worked. But it doesn’t feel like that should have worked, with what you just told me.’

‘I can’t be certain. Perhaps you knew all along and it gave you the confidence you needed. You’d skipped many times to that same place, so it is ingrained in you. Now, enough talking, let’s get this beast inside. Let her touch you—you’re able to transport others without touching and even without skipping yourself, but it’s not a good idea to try it now—activate your Skip, and keep the middle of the building firm in your mind.’

Blackie looked miserable. Her head, neck and shoulders were inside. The rest seemed really stuck. Nadec lifted Kitty up, pecked him on the head, and moved him away. There was no need for him to skip along. No need to take the risk. Kitty sauntered over to a pile of sand in a corner and started digging. Nadec chuckled and got in position. She touched her foot against Blackie’s snout, and almost jumped when something wet touched her leg. 

‘Really?’ She sent to the dragon.

‘Sure be. Want not you lose me.’ Blackie held her tongue firmly in place, wrapped around Nadec’s leg.

Hands on knees, Nadec began the process. Slamming her bent knees together while crossing her hands, she felt the energy build up. She focused on the spot in front of her, the center of the building, next to the pool.

They Skipped.

Ch 31: Dresses are stupid

Water enveloped Nadec. Her dress engulfed her, making it hard to swim. The need to breathe became stronger. She swirled her arms around, trying to gather the skirt. Her legs kicked harder when they were somewhat freed. Panic almost flooded into her. 

She broke the surface. Nadec took a deep breath and sputtered as she sank again. The skirt opened up around her as she let it go, struggling to use her arms in an attempt to aid her burning legs. 

When one of her hands hit a solid edge, she turned and clung to it. Before she could wipe her eyes, a hot liquid slammed over her, accompanied by a terrible roar. It stung her closed eyes and smelled vile, as putrid as… as the spit of an alpaca. Like bile made of grass. 

‘Apologies.’ The weak voice of Blackie in her head.

Nausea curled Nadec’s stomach in a knot. She swallowed repeatedly. Keeping a hand on the edge, she ducked under water. Her other hand pushed the water above her head away. She hoped that would give her a somewhat clean area to emerge from. She broke the surface again, wiped her face, and opened her eyes. Her vision was blurred. The sting was awful. The smell was worse.

Her dress was too heavy. She couldn’t lift herself out of the water. Her arms protested, her leg muscles seized up. Darkness. A tightness around her chest. She left the water. The tightness disappeared and the faint, blurred light of the lantern was back. A dark looming figure towered above her slumped form. 

‘Clean I. Hold.’

The feel of Blackie’s tongue licking her was something Nadec hoped she’d never have to experience again. At least she wasn’t naked this time. For a moment she didn’t have the strength to do anything but let it happen. When Blackie jostled her enough to turn her around, she got to her hands and knees.

‘Alright, enough already, enough.’ 

Blackie stopped licking her, but continued licking the ground. Nadec purposely didn’t look at it, although her vision had improved. Her stomach was still unsure about the surrounding smell. She crawled a little out of the way, and sat down with a sigh. Kitty nuzzled her. 

‘You mis-aimed by a meter. You had the area for Blackie right, but forgot to count yourself in. Don’t worry, you’ll get better. The dragon will get better at handling it too. This one wanted to jump in after you.’ Kridec gestured towards Kitty, whose leash she was holding.

Was that everything Kridec had to say? Nadec almost drowned and had been vomited on by a dragon, and she commented on the Skipping? Weird, weird woman. Definitely family. 

‘Do you think this stupid dress is salvageable? If I hadn’t been wearing it there wouldn’t have been an issue for me in the water, but still, it would be a shame to see it go to waste since it must’ve been expensive.’

‘Oh, don’t worry about that. This was an old one, it doesn’t matter. I’ve put enough coins in your purses to commission several new ones. Melia knows to take you to my tailor tomorrow. What? What’s wrong?’

Nadec’s eyes widened. She jumped up, failed, fell over, but straight away tried again, slower this time. She frantically searched for the skirt’s pocket hole on the right side. Balls, I hope I didn’t lose it. When she found the slit, she shoved her hand in, opening and closing her fingers wide to get through the wet fabric. There it was. She brought her hand back out, holding the piece of the statue. The blue and pink strata were more vibrant because of the wetness. 

‘That—where did you find that?’ Kridec’s hand shook as she outstretched it towards the piece. 

‘We found a statue, a part of it. I’m not sure why I didn’t leave it in my room for the night, it just felt right to take along.’

‘You found a part? Which part of the statue did you find? Which part?’

‘The asses. I mean, the middle. You know, hips and male and female body parts and all.’

‘The Bottoms. You’ve found the Bottoms.’ Kridec sounded on the verge of laughter or hysterical tears. Perhaps both. ‘ Did you have your halberd? Did it react?’

‘It did. It turned hot. What did it mean? It’s made by the Statue, isn’t it? Wyny told me it was called the Statue of the Originals. But because it was too powerful, they somehow divided it in parts and dispersed those?’

Nadec’s aunt blinked. It caused tears to jump on her cheeks; she absently wiped them away.

‘It’s close to the truth, but not complete. I was always certain the halberd was a PPW. I knew I was right. Can you bring me there? You’ve been there, so you could skip back.’

‘Now?’ Nadec barked a laugh at the incredulity of the request.

Her aunt snorted. Nadec snorted in reply, surprised at the unexpected sound.

‘Of course not. I’ll come back tomorrow around noon. I’d suggest you take Blackie along too. You could probably leave her there, it should be safe, if it’s far enough.’ The dancing light of the lantern cast a dramatic shadow on her questioning face. ‘There truly is no reason to keep her locked up in this building. I’m embarrassed I hadn’t thought about the solution your Skipping could bring.’

Blackie sniffed. Both Nadec and kridec jumped. 

‘She doesn’t want to stay away from me, she wants to stay here.’ Nadec was astonished at Blackie’s attachment. It was a pleasant sort of amazement. She was glad the large beast wanted to stick around. ‘She doesn’t like the thought of Skipping several times a day to eat and everything else, but she likes it better than being stuck in here with her own waste. I’m sure the sickness after Skipping will improve after a while.’ She said that last mostly for Blackie. ‘You should probably get going, before the guard wakes up. Can you help me undress first?’ 

Turning her back towards Kridec, she began unlacing the strings of her skirt.

‘Undress? What?’

‘You don’t think I’m going to walk through the city with this wet dress, and take it into my room to stink out the whole place, do you? No, come on, get this thing off me. You’ll just have to place a temporary Need on me like you did with Blackie. I have to go with you to the gates to close them again, remember?’

Silence was the only answer she received, and a tugging at the back of her dress. Fortunately, undressing wasn’t as arduous as dressing, although it still took a decent amount of time, enough for Nadec and Kridec to feel the urgency. When Nadec prepared to also remove her undergarment, Kridec stopped her and announced she wouldn’t be able to use her Need on Nadec. She had used her limit today, if she used more, she would fall in a spontaneous and unwakeable sleep.

Nadec almost took it all off anyway, but then decided to leave it on; for now. She made sure Blackie was going to be alright. The black beast had already curled herself up in a donut—it looked empty without Kitty in the middle. They would be able to maintain their mental connection from a distance, which was a comfort. She walked Kitty towards Blackie for a last head butt, and out they went.

They ran. Kridec’s breathing grew heavy after only a few streets, but she persevered. She didn’t stop at the gates. A quick goodbye yell at Nadec who didn’t pause before slamming the gates shut. Heaving the beams back in place was more difficult than removing them—it was a two-man job for sure. She managed it at the same time she heard clanging from above. She pushed herself against the wall, sneaking the opposite way from where the other two guards returned. 

She got lost several times before finding her inn. To be certain, she checked the sign. The original dragon. That was it. Kridec claimed it was one of the inns most loyal to the Ichau family. Nadec wasn’t certain what to think of the name. It certainly felt fitting. 

She retreated across the street, to an alleyway. The location of her room was in front of her, on the second level. She removed her under garments; she did not want to bring them in her room, the acid smell would be impossible to remove. Only then did she remember to have a look around for other people. 

Kitty hissed at the same time, emphasising Nadec’s idiocy. A scruff-looking man straightened from where he’d been lying, too close. The light of the single lantern on the inn’s front door didn’t reach far enough to see the fellow’s face. Despite that, it was obvious he was up to no good. 

‘Very kind of you to undress, girl,’ he cackled in a high-pitched voice. 

‘I am no girl.’ Nadec kicked out with her left foot, hitting him right in the stomach. He doubled over, bringing his face in perfect placement for her knee. He fell backwards.

‘Come Kitty.’ She scooped him up, putting him on her shoulders. ‘You better be gone from this alleyway by tomorrow, creep.’ She turned around, bent through her knees, going through the motions of Skipping, focusing her destination in her mind and view. A shuffling behind her warned of the man attempting to jump her again. ‘Gross.’ The last letters of the word sounded like a hiss coming from empty air.

 

Ch 32: A bath and a reputation

Kitty jumped off Nadec’s shoulders as she lost her balance from appearing halfway on and off the bed. She picked herself up from the floor at the same time Melia came through the side door—a door giving access to Nadec’s room from the tiny attached servant’s hole. Nadec had felt disgusted at it. She’d suggested paying for a full room further, but everyone who heard had regarded her with shock. 

‘Mistress? Are you all right?’

She said she was fine, and asked Melia to get a bath filled. When the tall woman said she wasn’t certain if it was possible in the middle of the night, Nadec implored her to take a deep breath. After Melia stopped gagging, Nadec told her to wake other servants if she must. 

‘Just make sure to pay them sufficiently for their troubles,’ she added, not wanting to be too much of an inconvenience. 

When Melia left, Nadec paced the small open space she had. Her legs yearned to sit, but she didn’t want the bed sheets to reek of vomit. The oddity of having a bath drawn in the middle of the night would give her a reputation of being odd and demanding. Fine, she thought, that’s the role I’ll play. They’d decided to forego the wealthy merchant ruse, and instead do a visiting noblewoman act even though she hadn’t been certain how to act as a noblewoman. But it required no merchanting skills, which was good because Nadec had none of that.

‘You lucky little thing,’ she mumbled towards Kitty, who’d curled up on the bed to sleep. Nadec resumed her pacing. At least one question had been answered now. If she’d Skip somewhere and misaimed—say, in the middle of a wall—she wouldn’t materialise inside of it. The knowledge made her feel more at ease with the magic. 

About half an hour later, Melia walked in to announce the bath was ready. Nadec walked to the door, but the tall woman kept standing in the doorway.

‘Mistress? You’re naked. You can’t go out like that.’

Nadec snorted. 

‘Of course I can. I doubt there’s anyone awake to see me. Come on, move aside. Make sure to close the door to keep Kitty in. Where do I go?

‘Down the hallway. But mistress—’

Not completely insensitive to walking through a public hallway in the nude, Nadec picked up her pace. Ajar doors, with dancing flames and shadows behind them, peeking eyes and whispers, proved her wrong. Plenty of people were awake. Struggling inwardly, she kept a straight back. Merely adding to my weird reputation. The thought made it easier to maintain perfect composure. 

The sigh of relief upon entering the bathing chamber, was not only caused by the wonderfully hot steam rising from the tub. She eased into the water, sinking in chin deep. The tub was large enough to have her whole body submerged. It bespoke of the inn’s wealthiness. 

Her muscles relaxed one by one. She loved showers, but taking a bath was on a completely different level. Her eyes closed. Her mind drifted. This was the first time in more than two weeks she allowed herself to relax completely. Not counting the week she had been in the Blackie-induced sleep. 

So much had happened. She’d almost spilled everything to Patat when they first met.

Water splashed over the sides of the tub as she sat upright. Patat. Where was he? He hadn’t been in the room when she returned. 

‘Melia,’ she barked, ‘where is Patat?’

The servant woman cringed where she stood, a meter away from the tub. She fidgeted her fingers as she spoke with hesitation. 

‘I apologise mistress, I do, I tried, I really did, but I couldn’t keep him back. It. Her. Them.’ She choked on her words, trying to come up with a proper pronoun for the mythical creature. 

‘What happened, where did he go?’

‘I… I don’t know, mistress. He said he’d been locked up long enough, he wasn’t going to stay locked up again. When I refused to open the door, his voice changed. It became so very sweet. He said he merely wanted to look around the city to see what had changed. He promised me he’d stay out of sight. No one would see him. And then I,’ she faltered and lowered her eyes. She continued in a whisper. ‘I moved away from the door and opened the window. He flew out. I don’t know where to. I also don’t know why he didn’t open the window himself.’

The news brought new tension in Nadec’s muscles, too much for the hot water to relieve. There wasn’t anything she could do about Patat at that point, she thought, so she tried to enjoy the rest of her bath time. She couldn’t. She left the water before it cooled down. Melia offered her a bathing gown to wear for the walk through the hallway. This time, Nadec accepted. It had been a little bit too uncomfortable before.

Back in the room, she unhooked the rushlight from beside the door and used it to light the one sitting on the small desk in the corner. With that extra light, she saw the spread-out pages. Kitty jumped on Nadec’s lap the moment she sat down. Nadec glanced at Melia, who’d put the door light back. 

‘Extinguish it and then you can go to bed, if you want. I won’t need you anymore, and you should probably get some rest. And, I’m sorry for yelling at you earlier. It would’ve been better if you’d immediately told me about Patat but I understand. It’s probably my fault, with my demands for a bath.’ She wasn’t actually sorry for asking for a bath; she knew she’d needed it. But sometimes the reality doesn’t matter when apologising.

‘Mistress, it’s all right. You should never apologise to me, that is not how a noblewoman treats a servant. Besides, you truly were in need of a clean. At least there was no mud this time.’

Nadec snorted. ‘You should’ve seen my carpets. I also wasn’t kidding when I said it felt as if I had mud everywhere. Days later, mud would still appear in areas I was sure I’d washed thoroughly before.’

‘Yes, I know what you mean.’ Melia chuckled. ‘Madame Ichau wasn’t impressed when she found flakes of mud on her slice of bread.’

That made Nadec laugh out loud. She’d forgotten how well she’d gotten along with this woman, even though they hadn’t spend much time together. About a week perhaps, longer than Nadec had expected the rescue to take. 

She wanted to ask Melia—Fluetza—what had happened after that, why she’d stayed with Kridec and Stetem. And as a servant nonetheless. Nadec knew she hadn’t been a servant before, not at all. But she also knew this wasn’t the time nor the place for such a conversation. There were other matters to concern herself with. Patat, what trouble are you getting yourself into?

It didn’t feel as if Patat would take the risk of discovery for no reason. Not merely to go sightseeing. Nadec hesitated. What did she really know about him? He was an old and mythical creature, he should have common sense. Was he old? Nadec doubted herself. What had Kridec said? Fifty-something years since her brother had put Patat in the tree? So Patat was at least that age, but how old had he been before that, and most importantly, what is considered old for a gorwak? For all Nadec knew, he could be nearing the end of his life, or he could still be a teenager.

Sometime during Nadec’s musings, Melia bid her goodnight. It prompted Nadec enough to snap out of it and have a look at what was spread out on the desk. The contents of her parents’ boxes. She had been so keen to open them when entering the city. But by the time they’d found the inn and had settled in their room, Nadec hadn’t wanted to deal with it. Once a procrastinator, always a procrastinator. 

That was something her mom had told her, half in jest, half serious. She’d said it wasn’t hopeless, there were ways to push through the apathy invoked by the task ahead. She even had invented a ten-step process to conquer the need to procrastinate. Oh mom, Nadec stroked Kitty, getting comfort out of the ritual, you always went above and beyond to help me, even if I was being a lazy piece of shit.

Nadec pushed through the will to go to bed, and examined the sheets of paper on the desk. Patat seemed to have been busy ordering them. From what she could see, most of them were written by her mom. She had a terrible handwriting. Nadec and her mom— and dad—often joked about how it was a secret script only they could read. Now she wondered whether it was intended as such. Occasionally, she could see her dad’s flowing, beautiful script. It befitted a king, Nadec could see that now. 

What was that? One of the sheets stood out. The type of paper differed from the others, the text on it short and obviously scribbled in a hurry. 

Dear Nady, this is a quick extra note. We do not know if it has any significance, but I insisted we add it to the box. Hopefully we can do it without Kridec noticing us. Oh, how I hope you will never have to learn of these boxes. We have discovered something almost unbelievable. I shall not tell my sister yet, not until we are certain (I have already piled enough burden on poor Kridec, I do not want her to worry for no reason). Somewhere in these notes I talk about our brother and his death. Your father and I now have strong suspicions, incredible as it sounds, that he is still alive. Jodec is alive. Possibly. We will investigate more and when we are certain, we will update the box officially and notify my sister, your aunt. May you never see this note. We love you with all our heart.

Stunned, Nadec sat back. 

Jodec, her uncle, could still be alive. That must’ve been the reason Patat flew out. But, where to? Oh no. Turning in her seat while cradling Kitty, she looked out of the window. There, in the corner, she could see the outline of the large surrounding walls of the massive building on the hill. It made the most sense. The castle. That’s where Patat went.

 

Ch 33: Urgent release

Horns, bells, music, and shouting. Nadec woke from all the noise coming through the ajar window. She yawned, blinking. That had been a perfect sleep. Kitty mimicked her movements, yawning and blinking. There was no sign of Patat. She’d trusted in him finding the way back. Her face scrunched up in worry. She looked through the window, but wherever the noise came from, it wasn’t on her street. She squinted towards the alleway across from the inn.

When Melia threw open the door, Nadec jumped and cursed. 

‘Good morning mistress. Oh, did I startle you? I apologise. I brought your breakfeast up because I assumed you wouldn’t want to eat it in the common room.’

‘Breakfast, you mean. And yes, you were right.’

‘No, no, mistress, breakfeast. During the coronation festivities, it is named that. Mistress? I left a shift out for you to wear during the night?’

Nadec had forgotten that she was naked. 

‘That’s the way I always sleep,’ she muttered, and put the shift on to help against the draft while eating. Kitty jumped on her lap as she sat down. She asked Melia what she knew about the festivities. It wasn’t much. While fetching the breakfeast, she’d overheard that the parade would go through the whole city during the morning. It would stop around noon on the Square Market, in front of the Triangle Gate.

‘How far is the market square?’

‘The Square Market, apologies, mistress. Not far at all. We are already in the square section of the city, not f—’

‘Nadec, me hear?’ Blackie’s voice cut through what Melia was saying.

‘Yeh, I hear you. You alright?’

‘Hungry. Thirsty. Release need. Urgent.’

‘Balls. Hold on. Melia, how fa—’

‘Not can hold. Now need release. Now.’

Somehow, Blackie managed to send a string of feelings towards Nadec to emphasize her meaning. Nadec’s eyes opened wide with the urgency for a bathroom visit.

‘Got it, coming!’

‘HURRY.’

‘Mistress? What…’

‘No time to explain. We have to go to Blackie, as quick as possible. Can you choose the dress which takes the least amount of time to put on? And then put it on me in even less time? It’s urgent, very urgent.’

A surprisingly short time afterwards, they walked down the stairs. Nadec was relieved there had been a simpler dress. Although it still looked intricate enough, this design had less parts and instead of a skirt with many layers, it used a hoop made out of wood. While Melia had been tugging at Nadec’s corset and took care of the other parts of the dress, Nadec fixed her hair. She couldn’t do her regular hairstyle with the three french braids and knot because that signified royalty. Instead, she let the bottom half flow free, while arranging the top section in an intricate pattern of 2 braids crossing each other. That was a style accepted for the noblewoman she was portraying.

Crossing the common room was awkward, although she pretended to be oblivious to it. Conversations stopped and, although many patrons didn’t look her straight on, many stared at her from the corners of their eyes. 

‘Lady White,’ the inn-keeper began, ‘I trust you enjoyed your night bath time and you had a wonderful sleep. Is there anything at all I can assist you with?’

‘Yes. If I can use a quin and your fastest strongman, I would appreciate it immensely.’

‘Of course my Lady, of course, Lazyhorse is our best. I will urge him to get ready. Please have a seat, he will be here in twenty minutes.’

‘Lazyhorse? He doesn’t sound very swift. In any case, twenty minutes is too long. I need it now.’ She twirled a coin in front of him.

‘Yes, my lady,’ he snatched the coin out of the air when she tossed it. ‘He claims his name is the name of an animal, yellow with black dots. It’s supposed to be one of the quickest animals. That’s what he says, my lady.’

He ducked his head before walking off. Nadec watched him go while she said to Melia: ‘It’s a good thing he’s fat, or I wouldn’t have trusted him.’ When Melia looked confused, she added: ‘Never trust a skinny innkeeper. It’s a wisdom I learned from reading many books.’

Only a few minutes later, the quin stopped in front of the door. Nadec and Melia rushed in—dignified, of course. Nadec opened the front curtain.

‘The Circle, as quick as possible. Don’t worry about bumps.’ She tossed him a coin as well. Despite being strapped in to quin, he plucked it from the air with ease. 

‘Yes ma’am. Better tighten yourself in.’

He nodded towards the sides and middle of the seat. Before Nadec could knot the two ends of the ropes together, the quin moved. The acceleration threw her back. Melia reached to shut the curtains, but Nadec stopped her and opened up her side curtain as well. She wanted to see the city. She wanted to see her city.

Streets and buildings rushed by. They hadn’t lied about the man’s speed. He shouted for people to get out his way. They did. Melia squealed more than once when it was a close call. Nadec couldn’t stop laughing. The people—her people—looked gorgeous in their variety. This was obviously a richer area. The women’s dresses shone luscious and the skirts were wide. The hairstyles had complicated braids but never with all their hair. There wasn’t a black piece of clothing in sight, everything had colour.

The men’s clothes were the best. They wore tightly fitting breeches which stopped at their knees. Below that, white, fine tights with thin, square-pointed shoes. The upper parts of their outfits was even better. Nadec suspected it to be one of the many reasons she couldn’t stop laughing. She tried to decide whether the large puffy sleeves were the funniest, or the pieces of fabric in front of their manhood, many of them shaped as if the men were happy to see the women.

At the precise moment they drove through gates—one of the minor gates in the square wall—Blackie contacted Nadec again, in full blown panic. Nadec tried her best to distract her, assuring her they were almost there. She didn’t know if they were even close, but then Lazyhore stopped his quin. Nadec all but jumped out, thanking him for his haste and hurried away. She was several steps further when she realised she didn’t know where to go. 

The Circle was a round, open space, surrounded by larger buildings. Melia tugged at Nadec’s sleeve, directing her towards one of the streets radiating out from the open, circle-shaped space. A moment later she opened up a door from the large building. Nadec felt as if Blackie could almost cry from happiness. It was an utterly strange picture to imagine for a dragon. Blackie whimpered as they entered. Nadec didn’t waste any time and immediately gathered the energy. They Skipped.

Before Nadec could take a breath, Blackie jumped up and spread her wings. She tilted to the side and tumbled in a head spin back to the ground. She used the momentum of getting out of the roll to run out towards the trees around the clearing. She wobbled, and misstepped, hitting the first tree she came across. It shook. Several branches tumbled down but Blackie was already disappearing from sight.

‘Me see?’ Blackie’s thought was riddled with panic.

‘No, you’re gone, can’t see you.’

There was no reply. Instead, a massive roar sounded from Blackie’s direction. The relief it exuded was palpable. Nadec looked around the clearing as she chuckled. The clearing made by the presence of the piece of statue dropped there, ages ago. She clicked her tongue in annoyance for not yet reading all the pages left by her parents. Perhaps they’d mentioned the statue. It would make sense since her bloodline came from the Originals, whom the full statue was supposed to depict. 

She walked over to a bundle laying on the ground, and squatted down next to it. Wyny’s bundle. Of course he left it, what was he to do with some handed down scruffy clothes. He probably had tons of fancy garments in his castle. My castle, Nadec thought, with a possessiveness which surprised her. It was eerie how fast she’d accepted her role as a princess and saviour of Earth. Both were interconnected. If she’d take up her right as a Ruler, Earth should be safe.

Easy as that. She snorted. Easy, yeah, taking up the responsibility of a Queen and heir to some legendary couple. 

Blackie returned, landing in front of her. She said she found a good source of water and food—Nadec did not need to know the water was a popular drinking spot which meant there was plenty of poo around. Blackie also said she wanted to have more grass to avoid getting hungry until tonight. Nadec sighed. It would be better for Blackie to stay here. Nadec wouldn’t be able to hurry through the city every time Blackie needed a toilet break. Staying here would be better for the dragon. Nadec told her so.

Blackie resisted, of course. She didn’t want to be separated from Nadec, whose heart filled when Blackie said she wanted to be there in case Nadec needed protection. After some back and forth, Blackie gave in. She admitted it wasn’t fun to be locked up in a dark building, and being out here would be better. Neither of them knew if their connection would work from such a distance—neither of them knew how much of a distance it really was.

Before Skipping back to Hexago, Nadec picked up Wyny’s bundle. Perhaps she could fetch a few coins with the fancy fabric some of the clothes were made off. And if not, in the least she might be able to hand it to people who needed it. As she picked it up, she felt something strange. Curiosity winning, she opened the bundle and gasped. There was wood inside. It was rectangular. After a little tinkering, Nadec figured out it could be folded open, forming into an open box. 

A memory of the time they’d spend walking, in between fleeing the cave and finding the statue, came back to her. They’d been talking about getting to a town or city, and how awkward it might be for Kitty. She’d explained about litter boxes after he asked how it went when she lived in the tower—he’d meant her apartment. The conversation moved along from there. 

She turned the box around. Wyny had made a litter box for Kitty. She didn’t understand why he’d done that, knowing he was only springing a trap. Why had he pretended to care?

Back in the building, Melia didn’t give Nadec any time to settle from Skipping. 

‘Mistress, I went outside to listen to the street gossip because I knew I had time before you came back. And, it’s… Oh, perhaps it’s nothing, perhaps it’s another creature.’ Nadec’s heart skipped a beat. ‘Mistress, they say Lord Pagewyn has been gifted a magical creature who will help him predict his future. They will show it off at the coronation festivities’ official opening, the one at noon on the Square Market.’ 

‘Patat. It has to be Patat.’ 

The gorwak seemed to have gotten himself in some real good trouble. Nadec hoped showing him off didn’t mean ‘opening his guts’.

Ch 34: Caged

Using a random quin from the street, Nadec and Melia returned to their inn. Only then, Nadec realised she could’ve Skipped from her room to Blackie and back. It would have been quicker, and Blackie wouldn’t have had to wait so long for them to arrive. But, she decided it had been better to leave her room the normal way, as they’d done. After all, if she’d never be seen to do so, who knows what the innkeeper would eventually do?

In the room, they dropped off the litterbox for Kitty and fed him. Nadec had filled the box up with sand from around the statue. The grey tabby immediately used it. Nadec wanted to stay longer and cuddle—especially since she couldn’t take him anywhere with her in this city—but they had to go to the Square Market. The place would be crowded already.

They could only use a quin for a limited distance before the streets became too crowded. They walked the rest of the way, pushing in as they went. Nadec managed to barge her way in, to the very front of the line. Guards made sure to keep people at a distance, leaving a large open space in the middle of the Square. 

One of the guards came up to her to offer a seated place. Apparently, she looked wealthy enough to be considered important enough. Or perhaps to be able to afford it. Nadec glanced at Melia, who gave a slight shrug. Nadec followed that with a nod towards her, prompting the servant to speak for Nadec and accept the offer. It was such an odd custom to let the servants speak, if one ranked high enough, but Nadec kept to it. 

After payment, the guard led them to an area with seats on a four-tiered stand. It was nearly full. She sat down on the third tier near the middle, while Melia kept standing in an area designated for the servants, next to the seat stand. Nadec would have preferred Melia to be close to her, to have someone to talk to. She didn’t feel at ease, sitting in the open like this. It was a bad idea. She tried to justify it by thinking she looked different than before. Did the people who’d been looking for her even know what she looked like?

Not long later, the sound of horns, bells, music and cheering grew stronger. Nadec’s uneasiness about sitting in such a prominent spot became too uncomfortable. She needed to leave. 

She stood up. The older woman next to her gave her a dirty look, and rearranged herself so Nadec couldn’t pass by. She turned the other way. There was another woman. This one looked younger than Nadec and was chatting excitedly to the man next to her. She didn’t notice Nadec standing up until the man nudged her. 

‘Do not push me, what… Oh hello, how are you? What are you doing? You want to pass by? I suppose that works but do you really want to do that? The parade is about to come, and Lord Pagewyn looks exceptionally dapper today. Indeed, he always has looked good, especially after being offered the throne those years ago and accepting it, his handsomeness has certainly improved. I always knew he would do well in life, makes me wonder why I did not accept the marriage proposal. Of course, I do not actually wonder that, we all know why I did not accept.’ The woman stopped for a longer breath. Someone behind Nadec yelled in a friendly way for her to sit down. Nadec sank back down on her seat, captivated by the thought of Wyny wanting to marry this woman, who leaned towards Nadec and lowered her voice. Not enough to be silent, but enough to make it clear she was pretending to tell a secret which wasn’t a secret. 

‘I do not like men that way, you see, and lord Pagewyn knew that. He merely thought our bond would be perfect to strengthen both of our families and he said he preferred to marry his best friend rather than some unknown chit. But as we all are aware, no chit has come along just yet, although rumour has spread that the advisor’s court has presented him with several options to choose from. They shall want him to make a choice soon after the coronation, I’d fathom, because Paralelo has never been ruled by only one person, it has always been a woman and a man. Even a woman and woman, and man and man on occasion. 

‘Such a shame the old Ichau line has been ended so abruptly, where you here when the announcement was made? Oh it was a shock to everyone, we all mourned for months, what an unbelievable event, no one ever thought the Originals’ bloodline would ever be broken. There had been rumours about there being a child from the late Queen and King, but if that is true, then where is she or he? Either way, it was good for lord Pagewyn, certainly, and his coronation shall lead in a new start for the kingdom. Poor man has a mountain of responsibility on his shoulder, I wish they’d still allow me to see him. I miss my friend, and I am certain he could use a friend like me, but there is not much I can do about that, I tried. I hope his future wife will be the friend he needs. I am sorry, what was your name?

Nadec blinked at the onslaught of words, floored by the unexpected question. It took her a moment to collect her thoughts. She must be thinking I’m slow-witted.

‘Cedan White, nice to meet you.’ Before she could offer her hand, the woman wrapped her in a hug.

‘A pleasure to meet your acquaintance, Cedan. May I call you Cedan?’ Nadec nodded. ‘Good, good, good. I am Aybahbery O’Dinazs, and this is my father: Zimal O’Dinasz. You may call me Ayba. Do you like men or women?’

Zimal harumphed. Nadec wasn’t sure whether that was for the shortened name, or the question. 

‘Oh daddy, you know I favour the shorter version of my name, it’s much easier.’ She turned back to Nadec. ‘When I meet a new woman friend, I prefer to know straight up what I can expect. It is a rather awkward situation when I try to flirt and the other’s squirming looks like she’s flirting back.’ She threw her head back and laughed loudly. Not very ladylike. Nadec started to like this woman. When she was done laughing at her own memories, she repeated the question. ‘Well, what is it? Come now, do not be shy.’

Indignation coloured Nadec’s cheeks. Of course that would seem as if she was embarrassed. She wasn’t shy. She merely wasn’t certain if she should be truthful or not.

‘I like both.’ She cringed inside, annoyed at her honesty. She knew this could open up a whole lot of complications. So she added: ‘But I may have the fancies for someone else, so I’m not sure if you and me would be a possibility.’ She tripped over her words. Not good. Not good at all.

‘Oh, we shall see about that.’ Zimal was hidden behind Ayba for the most part, but Nadec could still see him roll his eyes. He must be used to his daughter acting this way. Ayba reached up to put a hand on Nadec’s cheek, and slowly traced a finger down towards her lips. Balls, this woman just does what she wants, doesn’t she? 

‘Aybahberry.’ Her father’s voice was quiet but intent. Both women turned to him before looking towards the Square. The parade had arrived while they were talking. Wyny’s quin—a fancy one, and with five strongmen to pull it, dressed up with large hats—had stopped only about five metres from the tiered seats. 

Wyny stared at them while a woman prepared a platform next to his quin. Nadec’s breath stopped. A longing entered her chest. She wanted to reach out, run to him, hug him, ask him why he’d betrayed her. She wanted to be enveloped in his strong arms and forget everything else. She forced all those emotions back and focused on the betrayal. He had betrayed her. With that, she was able to see him.

He looked… ridiculous. She’d seen the way the richer men dressed here. His clothes were similar, but even more exaggerated. The tightly fitting, maroon breeches were so tight they looked like embroidered stockings, the embroidery the only thing distinguishing it at the knee down from his actual pantyhose. His shoes were bright blue rectangles. The puffy sleeves of the rich golden fabric were embroidered with shiny red thread. Each sleeve was larger than his head. The codpiece—on their way to the Square, Melia had told Nadec that’s what the pieces in front of the manhood were called—was immense. It had the length and girth of his forearm and pointed upwards. How he managed not to bump it against everything, Nadec didn’t know. It had a bright yellow colour—as if the size wasn’t enough to draw the attention—and embroidery in a dark thread. It mimicked veins.

Nadec snorted and lifted an eyebrow, indicating towards it with her eyes. Wyny shrugged and lifted an eyebrow as well, his eyes flickering towards Ayba. Nadec shrugged. They shared a smile.

The woman finished her preparations and spoke into a cone, strengthening the sound of her voice. The placement was perfect. Nadec could hear what was being said crisp and clear, even though she sat behind them. Wyny started and shook his head. He moved to look around him. For a moment, his face showed a panicked expression before returning to neutral. A king’s face. He mouthed something to her. She’d never been trained in reading lips, but she understood it clearly. ‘Go, run, it’s not safe. Leave. Hide.’ He gave her one last look, and turned to take his place on the platform.

Patat was there, caged. Oh no. An arm pulled her to the side. She complied, leaving the tiered seats. Blinking didn’t help to absorb the wetness in her eyes. It spread around them, like unwanted tears, not enough to drop down. 

She thought it had been Melia who pulled her away. Instead, the blurry vision of Ayba kept pulling her arm, taking her behind the seats, towards the crowds of regular people. Nadec resisted. She had to get to Melia first. As if on cue, the tall servant appeared. 

‘Thank fuck,’ Nadec murmured. 

Ayba frowned at her from where she’d been setting herself up between Nadec and Melia. Had she been preparing to defend Nadec? The idea both amused and amazed Nadec. 

‘My servant,’ Nadec said. ‘What are you doing?’

Ayba grabbed Nadec’s arm again. Nadec shook it off. Despite her gut feeling claiming it was alright, she wasn’t certain if she could trust her. She might be pretending to be friendly, but in reality be one of them.

‘Do you think we have time to squabble? I saw the anxiety in lord Pagewyn’s face when he told you to run and hide. Come.’ She moved towards the crowd again. Nadec followed. What else could she do? She had to trust someone. Somewhat. She indicated Melia to follow as well.

‘I have never seen him look at anyone in the way he looked at you. The connection you share with him is unique. Special enough for me to know I should help you. You can tell me all about how it happened later.’ Nadec wanted to say nothing happened, but Ayba talked right over her. ‘Is he the one you fancy? He must be, both of you had seemed to forget everything else around you. That might be interesting, once this mess you’re running from is cleared. Surely you shall invite me along some day, hmm,’ she managed to caress Nadec’s cheek again, even while pushing through the people. ‘I assume you are not one of the brides to be they have lined up. Is that why we are running, did you have a secret relationship and they discovered it but you are not good enough? I would not know why they would not think you are not good enough, you look mighty fine to me. Cedan? Come now.’

Nadec stopped. There was a brief opening in the mass of people, giving a clear view of the platform with Wyny and Patat. They’d uncaged Patat, forcing him to fly up by whipping him. Chains around both of his ankles kept him from flying away. 

‘He’s my friend, I can’t leave him like that. I can’t just let them kill him.’

‘Kill him, what in the Originals’ name are you talking about? No one is killing lord Pagewyn.’

‘I know that,’ Nadec snapped. ‘It’s not him I’m talking about. The gorwak. I can’t let them open his guts.’ The opening in the crowd closed, cutting off Nadec’s sight of Patat.

‘The gorwak is your friend? Woman, you have many stories to tell. Do not worry, they shall not do it now. Come now, you can’t help him if they catch you. Come.’

Nadec followed. 

The comforting hand of Melia on her shoulder brought back the tears in her eyes. She felt like a coward as she followed Ayba towards presumed safety.

Ch 35: The skinny housekeeper

‘We are safe here, Erioc, the housekeeper, is a friend of the family. This private dining room gets used often by father. It’s—’

As if on cue, the housekeeper came in, carrying three cups of a steaming, dark brown liquid. Nadec sniffed it. Chocolate? 

Melia shifted in her seat, uncomfortable about sitting down instead of doing servant tasks. 

‘Food will come soon, miss O’Dinasz.’

‘Thank you. Is Deneria not working today? I was hoping to see her, I love getting served by her.’ Ayba turned to Nadec. ‘She is lovely, and pretty. You might have liked her too.’ She winked.

‘Oh no, miss, I allowed her to go watch the parade and opening ritual for the coronation festivities. Everyone is there now, I don’t need any help, but I did tell her to come back before it finished because I expect a rush of people. Everyone will want to celebrate.’

‘Oh, good, we might see her before the day has ended.’ Ayba kept talking as the housekeeper left. ‘Do you enjoy you caca? It is the specialty of this house. Molten chocolate mixed with nut milk and a hit of liquor. There are more ingredients but Erioc keeps them secret. I always ask for a double hit, because it gives a wonderful bite. It is delicious, is it not? The food is delectable here as well, you will see. Now tell me, how did you fall in love with lord Pagewyn?’

Nadec nearly choked on her next swallow of caca. 

‘I am not in love with him,’ she said slowly. ‘I mean, maybe I like him, but that’s not love. Why are you looking at me like that? We don’t even know each other well. We just had a little adventure together, that’s all.’

‘That is all?’ Ayba laughed and took Nadec’s hand. ‘Dear Cedan, that is certainly not all there is to that story. The look between the two of you spoke of much more. Come now, you can trust me. A friend of lord Pagewyn is a friend of me.’

‘Why do you keep calling him lord? If he really is such a good friend of yours, you should just call him by his name alone.’ Nadec withdrew her hand from underneath the other woman’s. She reassessed her earlier thoughts about Ayba’s age; she might be slightly older instead of younger.

‘Why, it is proper to do so. They made that clear enough when I saw him last. If I sound a tad bitter, I will not apologise for it. I truly do miss my friend. But—’

Erioc entered, carrying a large plate of roasted potatoes and a basket of sliced bread. He put it down in the middle of the table, saying the rest of the meal was on its way. His eyes lingered on Nadec, long enough to notice the oddity. 

‘Ladies, please, do not stop your conversation because I enter. I will return with your plates swiftly.’ Before he left, he gave Nadec another side-eyed glance.

‘Does he always look at people like that?’ Nadec asked Ayba, frowning at the door. 

‘Like what? I have not noticed anything strange. Perhaps he is taken away by your beauty, as I am.’

That was too much. Nadec burst out laughing. She was relieved when the other woman laughed along with her, indicating she had been joking. If she had meant it as a way to distract from the possible tension, she’d succeeded. Nadec appreciated people who could use humour to relieve serious situations. 

They hadn’t finished laughing when the housekeeper came back in, this time carrying three plates. He said it was Ayba’s favourite, balls with tomato sauce. The sauce was yellow, reminding Nadec of how Wyny had reacted to merely mentioning red food. Poor guy will never know the delight of eating a strawberry. 

The housekeeper went on to explain Nadec how the balls were made. He bragged about how the special process they used on the mixture of nuts, flour-wash, and herbs, made the balls taste as good as they are. He mentioned this level of food—and the service he provided, of course—made the difference between a common inn, and a house, like his. The sneer when he said inn made his thin face look particularly evil. 

He scooped each of them a spoonful of potatoes on their plates, even Melia’s. Ayba told him she’d like to have privacy now and would ring the bell if she needed his service. It was only then Nadec noticed the small rope hanging next to the door. 

They dug in their food. With all the excitement of the morning, Nadec had gotten hungry. She hadn’t realised it until she put the first bite in her mouth. It was delicious. The balls were soft with the right amount of chewiness on the inside and crispness on the outside. The tomato sauce was possibly the best she’d ever eaten, never mind the odd colour. And the potatoes. She loved potatoes in all their forms and sizes, prepared in every way possible. These were amazing. Everyone was quiet while eating, focused on their meal.

She was cleaning off her plate, using pieces of bread to soak up the last of the sauce, when Melia surprised them all by speaking. 

‘I do not feel so well, mistress.’ 

Before she’d finished the sentence, Nadec’s head spun, as if she’d dropped 20 metres down at once. 

‘You tricked us.’ She wanted to sound accusing and in control, but her tongue was doing funny things. Her hand reached out towards Ayba, aiming to grab her by the throat. It fell in the woman’s lap instead. Ayba looked at it, wide-eyed.

‘If you did not sound unexplainably drunk, I’d encourage this, but what is wrong? Tricked you how? Cedan?’ 

Nadec stood up. She could barely keep upright, her legs wobbled enough to need the support of the table. Melia had fallen to the ground, still open eyes trickling tears. Nadec attempted to walk towards her but realised after one failed step it wasn’t possible. The door slammed open. 

‘What is going on here, what did you do?’ 

The genuine question and shock in Ayba’s voice made Nadec reconsider her part in this. Perhaps she was innocent. Perhaps she wasn’t. Nadec had trouble keeping her thoughts from straying. She bent through her knees. They almost buckled completely. She leaned her head on the table. It supported her enough to keep from toppling over while putting her hands on her knees. 

‘The Order is searching for her, miss. They got word of you running away from the opening ritual with her, although they only had a vague description. They’ve been searching for this one for a long time, miss. You’ll be thanked for bringing her here.’

‘I… brought her here because I thought it was supposed to be safe here. No, do not go near her. What is wrong with the Order, chasing innocent women?’

‘If the Order wants her, she is not innocent, miss, you should realise that. What is she doing with her knees?’

The energy took longer than usual to build up. Nadec suspected her legs were moving slow, too slow. She wanted to go over to Melia, to touch her and take her along. She swore she’d come back for her. That would be two people—well, a person and a gorwak—she needed to rescue from imprisonment. Surely they wouldn’t have any need for Melia? Surely they’d let her go? From the moment there was enough energy, she focused on her room. She Skipped.

 

Someone touched her shoulder. Nadec flinched from the sharp pain in her head as she moved it. She opened one eye to a slit, followed by the next. Kitty was there, licking her face, the purrs a comforting sound. A little while later she managed to open both eyes fully. Her left leg was up on the bed, her right one dangled on top of the bedside table. The rest of her lay on the floor in an awkward angle. Melia’s head leaned over her, arms hanging down, the rest of her body on the bed. 

Several careful movements later, both of them were sitting. Nadec leaning against the bedside table, Melia leaning against the bed, after tumbling off it first. Attempts to talk were made, but unsuccessful. Finally, they succeeded to walk around and drink water, improving their lethargic state a lot. 

The sunlight outside had diminished and disappeared completely by then. They’d lost the whole afternoon and a big portion of the evening by the drug-induced sleep. Blackie’s broken thoughts sounded panicked when they got through to Nadec. The thoughts were like a long-distance radio transmission. But still enough to be able to communicate. 

Blackie had felt Nadec’s distress at getting drugged and had tried to talk with her ever since. Poor dragon must have been a ball of stress, not even being able to get to her. At that thought, Blackie interrupted and said it was not true. She could feel the general direction of Nadec’s whereabouts, and would be able to come to her. The disappointment was obvious when she followed that up by saying it would take her weeks to fly that distance. 

When Blackie was set at ease, Nadec began to think through the events. The wonder of having Skipped Melia along without touching her, kept intruding. Her Line was getting stronger. 

The Order was the largest mystery. Which Order? Who were they? Where they the same ones as the voices from the cave? If so, they were also the same ones who’d returned Wyny to his castle. Which meant they were the ones with all the control, possibly using Wyny as a pawn. Remembering what the voices had said, they didn’t think highly of him, calling him a fool. But, a fool to whom the people did listen and look up to. Nadec wanted to conclude Wyny really had nothing to do with this all, which meant he hadn’t betrayed her. She still refrained herself from making that assumption.

She did believe Ayba didn’t have bad intentions. Her reaction to the poisoning by the housekeeper had been genuine. Nadec kept playing the scene over and over in her head. The more she did so, the more she was convinced of Ayba’s innocence. She decided to trust her gut feeling in this. She could have an ally in the woman. It might be good, but risky, to attempt to meet her again. 

‘Melia, I’ll need you to help me figure things out. I need you to stop being the servant when we’re in private, I don’t like that submissive shit anyway, and be my assistant. I know you’re smart enough. I need your brains. Can you do that?’

Melia nodded, eagerness obvious. 

‘Good.’ Nadec hesitated. ‘Eh, could you just maybe, eh, first get us dinner from downstairs, I’m starving. Proper, unpoisoned food might be good to flush away the last of the toxins. And a jug of wine. Good toxins to replace the bad.’

Melia grinned and gave a mock curtsy. 

Nadec settled herself at the desk. She was ready to push through all the pages her parents left. It was clear she couldn’t keep in hiding for another ten days, with Patat captured and her face known. It was time to dig deep and come up with a master plan.

Ch 36: Uncle Jodec

The box didn’t teach Nadec much about the Lines. The pages didn’t explain how all the powers worked, nor how many there were and what they did. Her parents merely referred to several book titles and where to find the books. They were in the castle of course, in some sort of secret room. They did disclose that the room could only be entered by someone having access to the full powers. This was a safeguard which had been built in by their ancestors, to prevent anyone else from learning about it. They mentioned it was a reason for why they couldn’t speak too much about it in the pages they left. It had also something to do with the tradition of starting the specific heir education only three years before the Coronation.

Because of the lack of information, the box was a big disappointment for Nadec. She’d thought she’d learn about what was to come, but no, she would have to wait until the Wooden Water Crown dropped on her head to know more. They didn’t even give her anything about Skipping, even though they said they suspected it was one of her basic Lines. 

The more Nadec leafed through the pages, the more frustrated she got. There were too many strange little rules and customs here in parallelogram. Paralelo, she reminded herself, forcing her mind to forget the mock name she’d given it.

Some of her questions did get an answer. Why she’d never heard of this area before, for instance. Her parents had left Kridec and Stetem with precise instructions on what to tell Nadec. That included a fake map and incomplete information on creatures and cities. The map had been mostly true, but they’d erased her kingdom and had drawn a massive lake instead. Nadec shook her head, comparing the fake map with the real one they’d included. The differences were obvious now. The strange geography of the fake map didn’t make much sense. She should’ve seen it before. But then, this had been a completely new world. She couldn’t have known what was possible. 

Despite the lack of the magic explanation, Nadec and Melia still spent late into the evening reading many of the pages, sorting them into order of importance, and trying to come up with a plan to rescue Patat and stay safe inside of the city. They went to bed with a rough outline of what they’d do. 

 

‘Ten more days.’ 

Nadec sat at the desk again. She tapped the pencil against the sheet. ‘It doesn’t mention when it happens. Is it at midnight. Is it at noon? Is it random? Or is it at the time of my birth?’ 

‘I would expect it to be the last, mistress.’ Nadec glanced at Melia. ‘Oh, apologies, I mean, uh, Cedan. It is all so very complicated, the way the Crown drops and the rules which go with it. So if everything would be normal, and your parents were still ruling, the crown would automatically fall on your head. Your parents wouldn’t be able to stop it, not unless you agree. In which case a ritual has to be performed to stop you from being the heir. It is what Kridec did. She didn’t want to be the heir after Jodec disappeared, so they performed a ritual, effectively making your mother the heir. 

‘However, according to that hastily scribbled note, he might still be alive. Death would have automatically transferred the heirdom to Kridec, which is what they assumed. But if he was still alive, he should’ve been the one to receive the crown either way, because the Transfer ritual wouldn’t have worked. One cannot transfer heirdom if one isn’t the real heir. So the only way that could have happened is if…’ Melia looked up from the note. Nadec was content to let her talk for now. It felt good to give her own brain a little rest. ‘If he wasn’t here at the time of his supposed coronation, or performed a Transfer ritual himself. But why would he do that?’

‘What had Kridec said about his Lines?’ Not thinking wasn’t an option for Nadec apparently. What had her aunt said about him? Not enough. Not enough by far. 

‘Here, these are the pages your parents wrote about your family.’ Nadec frowned at Melia. Pages about her family? She didn’t remember reading those last night. She squeezed her eyes shut and pinched the bridge of her nose. Not enough information by far, but still enough to give Nadec a headache. 

Melia continued, seeing the confused expression on Nadec’s face. ‘You merely placed them in a separate pile yesterday, you didn’t read them. I believe your words were: I’m too buggered to get into family drama right now. I do not know what bugs have to do with this, but we went to bed not long after that. Remember?’

‘It’s an expression, it means being exhausted. Don’t ask me where it came from, I wouldn’t know.’ Nadec grabbed the pages, leafed through them and speedread the one about Jodec. Lines of Deception and Skipping. 

‘That’s what she mentioned about him, the Line Of Deception. I can imagine what that one does. But I might be completely wrong too. He can Skip as well… That’s interesting. He would be able to teach me a lot, having done it for all those years. If we ever find him.’ And if he is on our side, she added in her mind. ‘Which is not something we’ll add to our to-do list, it’s challenging enough as it is. It feels as if there is something more, some connection I should see. Frankdamn, my brain isn’t working properly.’

She took a sip of her tea and almost spat it out. It had grown cold.

‘What’s the time? We’ve been working on this for longer than we were meant to, haven’t we?’

‘The castle’s bells have struck ten a while ago. Oh, you were supposed to meet with Madam Ichau at eleven. She’ll be surprised to see the dragon is no longer in the building.’

‘Okay, I’m leaving.’ She stroked Kitty, bent towards him, and whispered: ‘sorry buddy, I have to go. Aw don’t give me that look. You’re so cute, but I need to get up. Oh no, don’t purr, that’s not fair. Come, off the lap. Ugh, fine, I’ll take you along.’ 

Melia’s eyes grew wide. ‘But, mistress, …’

‘No mistress-anything while we’re in private, remember? Anyway, I’ll make it work. I can make a bag out of this sheet or something…’ She looked around the room for a solution. The best solution was to leave him behind, and Nadec knew that. But it didn’t feel right. Kitty would be happy to get out of this room and visit Blackie. She put his harness on.

‘I’m an idiot.’ She slapped her hand against her forehead. ‘I can just Skip to the stock house, there is no need for us to go outside. This Skipping thing really hasn’t become second nature yet. You coming along? Of course you are. Hold on.’ Nadec froze at her own words. They brought back a memory. A memory which could come with an awful conclusion, if the suspicions it conjured proved true. She had another reason to visit Blackie now. 

‘Wait, I need to practice. I Skipped you once without touching each other. I have to try doing that again.’ She lifted Kitty on her shoulders, and began gathering the power in the usual way. ‘In case I don’t manage to take you along, you could take a quin and meet me there. Or buy me some dre—’ She Skipped.

She avoided ending up in the well this time. Skipping was easier without having to transport a few tons’ worth of dragon. She cursed as she noticed Melia wasn’t with her. She checked inside the well, just to be sure. No, there was no tall servant-like woman drowning in there.

Kridec wasn’t there yet, so Nadec settled in to wait. She waited until the bells of eleventh hour sounded. She waited until she had to change her position. She waited until the gong of the half hour sounded. She waited until the doors opened, and Melia entered. They waited until twelfth hour rang. They waited until Nadec’s stomach growled loudly enough for Kitty to jump up, his tail thick, the hair on his back up, pupils dilated. 

‘Sorry buddy, it’s okay, come.’ She comforted Kitty while talking to Melia. ‘I suppose she’s not coming. Perhaps she changed her mind about seeing the statue.’ Or perhaps something bad happened. ‘I can’t wait any longer. Do you mind staying here while I go to Blackie? Or no, it is probably better that you go back to the room, since they saw you leave. They should see you come back as well. If they ask if I’m alright because they haven’t seen me yet, tell them it’s none of their business.’ Melia’s eyes widened a fraction. Nadec sighed. ‘Not the proper response, I suppose? You just tell them whatever believable and acceptable thing you want then.’

‘Do you believe Madame Ichau is all right?’ Worry painted Melia’s face. ‘She is not the kind of person to not uphold an agreement.’

‘Yeah. Yeah, she’s proven that. She’s a woman of her word. And Stetem, him as well, I suppose. Don’t worry, I’m sure they’re fine. Go back to the inn. I’ll see you there.’

Nadec Skipped with Kitty to the location of the statue. Blackie welcomed them with a wagging tail and tongue out. Kitty meowed towards the dragon, giving her all the headbutts and purrs. Nadec asked the dragon if she could replay the voices she’d heard in the cave. It confirmed her new suspicions. 

They Skipped back to Hexago, straight to their inn’s room, leaving Blackie behind once again. Melia jumped up from the desk seat as soon as they arrived.

‘I have news from Madame Ichau. She’s sent Farenk here with a note.’ Melia’s voice trembled. ‘I’ve read it, mistress, I could not hold myself, I needed to know because I worried. They have left the mansion as a precaution, under the guise of going on vacation. Farenk is being kept in charge of the main chocolate production, as he’s been doing for the past year. So that is still the same.’ She smiled. ‘They are all right. It is all good.’

Nadec took the note from Melia, giving it a swift read. She nodded. 

‘That is all aunts and uncles accounted for then.’

Melia scrunched up her face in confusion. Nadec grimaced, something between a smile and a pout.

‘I know where my uncle Jodec is.’

Ch 37: Laws and rules

It made sense in Nadec’s head, and even more so as she explained it to Melia. No one else could have any of the Lines but members of the Ichau family. Nadec didn’t have siblings. Kridec and Stetem didn’t have children, if they hadn’t lied about it. Theoretically, Jodec could have had children after his disappearance, but that was a detail Nadec ignored for now. The male voice from the cave spoke about not taking the effort of transporting the zlurp, better to preserve the power and said hold on. There had been no other way to enter or exit the cave. He must have been talking about Skipping. The man’s voice—the one the woman had referred to as Klapper—had to be Jodec. 

‘Your uncle tried to kill you?’ Melia looked sad when she asked her question.

‘I… yes, I suppose he did.’ The day before, Nadec had given Melia a brief summary of the events which led to her appearance in the mansion. ‘It doesn’t make sense though, does it? If he works now for the same Order who wants to kill me because they want the power, why didn’t he remain on the throne? He could’ve had all of the Squares, Triangles and Lines years ago.  And if he had kids then, the first one would’ve inherited it all when turning twenty-eight. Even if he hadn’t had the throne, wouldn’t it happen anyway? Or would that depend on when I was born? This whole inheritance system is too complicated.’

‘It most certainly is. But I do not believe it matters right now, what matters is that you are the current real heir, and they—whomever they are—do not want that. Are we still doing the plan as we have decided last night? It was very late and we did not know all the details.’

Nadec smiled. She liked this woman—Fluetza, her real name was Fluetza— much better as an active part of the team than servant. It somewhat relieved the pressure Nadec felt on her shoulders. 

‘Yes, still the same. It’s crazy but I like it. It will work. Knowing that one of my enemies is my uncle doesn’t change anything. It’s even better to be aware of it. Too bad he won’t be able to teach me. You are sure about breaking the laws here?’

‘It was one of the first things I studied. From the moment I knew this was to be my new home, I asked Madame Ichau to teach me all of the laws and rules. I didn’t want to be locked up for something easily avoided.’ 

‘Smart move. And good for me, glad you did. Let’s do this.’

 

It felt good to wear trousers again. The breeches Nadec wore, stopped midway her shin, not on her knees like most other men’s. The puffiness around the hips was perfect to hide her obviously female curves. Instead of white stockings, hers were red, like a little wink to what she was about to do. The jacket, shirts, and undershirts, were loose enough to not feel trapped, unlike the upper part of dresses. Her complete outfit differed enough from the local males to exclaim her as a foreigner. The large floppy hat on her head obscured some of the white curly wig she wore to hide her long hair. Wigs weren’t as much in fashion here, but people didn’t give her the side-eye for it either. 

She would’ve liked it even better if she had her halberd on her. But there had been no point in carrying it along, as the guards might be taking it off her when they caught her. She did have two small knives hidden in her sleeves. If Melia had it right, the guards wouldn’t pat her down to remove any hidden weapons she might be carrying. Not for the kind of offense she was about to do. 

The Square Market buzzed with activity. All of Paralelo’s performers had gathered here, filling the Square with colourful balls being tossed about, swirling capes, and sparkling outfits. All of that drew a large crowd, most of whom stared wide-eyed around them. For many of them it was one of the rare times they were able to see these acts all at once. Guards roamed around, heads swiveling to catch possible pickpockets and other law-breakers. 

A pair of the blue-liveried guards strolled in Nadec’s direction. The perfect moment. Time to get arrested. She lifted the red apple out of her pocket and took a bite, nearly eating her fake moustache and dripping juice on her short beard. Chewing slowly, she made sure to keep the apple up high. The shocked faces of passerby reminded her of Wyny’s reaction in the cave, when she’d explained strawberries to him. She chuckled at the same time one of the guards held her wrist, while the second one grabbed her other arm. 

‘Sir, red food is forbidden in Paralelo. Under the law, we have to take you into custody. You are not from around here, we assume?’

‘Of course I am not.’ She tried to modify her voice, to make it sound more like a man. It made her sound slow-witted. 

‘Can you not squeeze quite so hard? Thank you. What is this nonsense about red food? Let me just dispose of it—I’ll quickly eat it—and pretend it never happened. You go on with your day, and I go on with mine, and that is it. No need to keep me captive.’ She managed to give a little shake to her voice. 

‘We cannot do that, sir. Do not worry, I will personally make sure they treat you right. Though you will have to spend the night in the dungeon. In the morning, you will be given an induction to the Paralelian laws.’ The guard plucked the apple from her hand, with the help of a handkerchief. Nadec almost snorted at his unwillingness to touch the apple. Ridiculous.

‘This is preposterous,’ Nadec exclaimed. ‘You are locking me up for eating an apple? How was I to know of such a rule? Can I not be left free with the promise of going to that induction in the morning?’

‘Please sir, let us not make this difficult.’ Both of the guards each grabbed one of her arms and moved forward. ‘If you do not cooperate, we shall have to manacle you. The law is the same for everyone else. Do not worry, you will get one of the better dungeon rooms. Do you have any relatives here with you who may need to be notified for your absence?’

Nadec pulled her arms out of the guards’ grips, putting on the most gruffest face she could. She slid a hand over her face, momentarily shocked as she felt the moustache and beard. She’d already forgotten about those. She held up her palms toward them.

‘I will work along, there is no need for manacles, please. To answer your question, no, there is no one who would be looking for me, not even a servant. Where I come from, it is not a custom to have one.’

The main guard nodded. They didn’t take her arms again, but Nadec could see there were vigilant and prepared to hold her if she’d try to run. She wouldn’t. So far, her plan went perfectly.

 

Sitting in a dungeon room bored the life out of Nadec. It had happened to her before. Even though she’d wanted it this time, the boredness didn’t change. The guard hadn’t been lying when he said they’d put her in one of the better rooms. Nadec had never heard of a dungeon with a variety of rooms, but Paralelo had proved before to be different in many ways.

Her prison had a large, barred window, without glass. It looked out on an open shaft-like hole, across which she could see other windows. There weren’t many. Nadec suspected they must have a mirror system kept in place to provide these cells with light. The sun had gone down a while ago, but the dungeon hadn’t grown dark. A different type of light had replaced the natural sun. It wasn’t bright, but enough to prevent prisoners from sitting in the complete dark. 

Nadec had tried to look up and down the circular hole. It hadn’t worked. Extensions above and below her window prevented her from seeing much. It didn’t matter. She sat down on her bed. It wasn’t merely a hard wooden plank like her previous dungeon experiences. This one had a soft stuffing on top, almost like a proper mattress, and sufficient blankets to keep her warm. There was a small chest-high wall, hiding the chamber pot from the prison bars. It was the only place for privacy.

Footsteps echoed, the sound getting stronger with each step. Nadec flipped the sheets open and got herself busy fluffing the pillows. They didn’t fluff. She kept her facial expression indignant and frustrated. Two guards passed by, shining their lantern light briefly in her cell before continuing on. She heard them laugh about silly foreigner nobles who don’t know the local laws. Before their voices faded away, one of them dropped the word gorwak. Nadec strained her ears but couldn’t hear more of what they said. Perhaps she should’ve been paying more attention to what they’d been saying instead of giving all her focus to undressing and stuffing her clothes underneath the bed sheets. 

The man’s outfit she’d been wearing—including the hat and wig—hadn’t only been chosen because it proclaimed her as an obvious outsider and disguised her as a man. It had also been chosen because of its bulkiness, perfect to use as a pretend sleeping form. Not to mention the ability to wear other clothes underneath. 

When she was satisfied with the outline of a supposed figure under the sheets, she remembered the fake beard and moustache. Snorting quietly, she pulled those off, hiding them under the sheets too. She checked the hallway. No one there. 

She skipped, and appeared outside of her cell. Keeping to the shadows, she moved through the hallways. The sleek black clothes she wore, blended in nicely with the darkness. The hallways seemed to go in a circle, following the central shaft around which the cells were built. Most of them were empty. She returned to her own cell. Patat wasn’t on this level. Time to look further.

An hour later, frustration overwhelmed every other emotion. She hadn’t found even a clue of where Patat was kept. By then, she was sure she’d been in about every corner of the dungeons. She suspected there were some deeper parts of the dungeons, but she doubted Patat would be there. She’d tried following the guards for a while, hoping for a hint. The only thing that accomplished had been near discovery, when they’d unexpectedly turned and she had to Skip away in a hurry. Sighing, she left the dungeons and headed into the castle. Perhaps they’d put him up as a display somewhere.

Stalking around in the richly carpeted corridors, she lost track of where she was. The castle’s halls were like a labyrinth.

She froze. Voices. She sneaked closer. The sounds were coming from behind double doors, one ajar. She popped her head through and almost choked. There was Patat, in a cage, in the middle of what Nadec guessed as the throne rome, with the presence of a large throne on a dais. In front of Patat, an old man of average height paced up and down. Except for an eyepatch, he didn’t have many special features. 

The large hall reverberated enough for Nadec to clearly hear both of their words. When the man spoke next, he gestured wildly with his hands, giving Nadec another feature of recognition: he missed several fingers. But that didn’t cause her gasp. She recognised his voice and manner of speech.

Her uncle.

Ch 38: The End

‘I grounding wanted to smack your head, that’s why I burning flew over here to find you.’ 

‘Hah. You should not have done that.’ Jodec’s voice sounded calm and uncaring, but Nadec could still hear a tension in it. ‘I didn’t give you that safe zone and went through what I went through just so you could eventually fly into your own death. Squares, ‘Tat! What were you thinking? You couldn’t even have been certain I was here, hah. Tell me how you got here. Who released you? I believe I have a suspicion, hah.’

‘I’m not burning telling you anything. What has grounding happened? First I grounding hear you’re dead, only to discover suspicions of you still being burning alive.’

A sound at the end of the hallway from where Nadec listened in startled her. It wouldn’t do for some guards to discover her eavesdropping. She eased the door open a bit more, enough to slip through, into the throne room. Neither Patat or Jodec saw her sneak towards the closest column. While cursing herself for being stupid, she slipped from column to column until she was as close to the cage as she could without being seen. 

By then, Jodec had also heard the sounds coming from the hallway. He cursed, uttering surprise. He did something with his feet. Nadec blinked. Was he dancing? He stretched out his right foot to the side twice, repeating it with the left, followed by his right foot stretching forward, also twice. This was again repeated by the left. His face looked pained and shone with sweat. He kept repeating those same movements, as if dancing to an unheard melody. At the same time the doors opened, he changed. Taller, with dark, curly hair to his shoulders, a royal bearing, ridiculous outfit. Nadec’s uncle had transformed into Wyny.

The four guards entering the hall stopped beyond the doorway, confusion littering their faces. 

‘Sire.’ They all bowed. ‘This is unexpected. It is the change of the guards. Where are the others?’

Wyny’s face lifted his eyebrows, looking as arrogant as ever.

‘I apologise for questioning you sire.’ A small bow again. ‘You sent them away to be alone with the creature?’

The imposter gave a slight nod while keeping his chin up high, managing an annoyed and haughty expression. 

‘And you want us to leave you alone as well. We will return in a half hour, sire.’

The fake Wyny turned his backs to the guards, claiming satisfaction at their words. Nadec was impressed at the way the guard had been able to guess his supposed king’s wishes, but why hadn’t Jodec said anything? Perhaps he couldn’t change his voice? That sounded silly to Nadec. Surely the Line would include such an option? Jodec, with his years of experience, should have the skill to use it. The guards left. 

‘I dripping expected you to be an expert at your Lines by now. You were already a burning master when I saw you last, despite your grounding young age. What has burning happened to you?’

Jodec, still wearing Wyny’s body, began pacing in front of the cage again. When he spoke, his voice was his own.

‘Let’s just be glad the guards guessed what their ruler wanted, hah. It is not easy to properly work the lines with body parts missing and others not working as they should.’ He slapped his left leg. ‘I learned to walk without a limp, but the lack of a full set of toes makes certain things more difficult. Hah.’

‘What grounding happened to you? Third time’s a burning charm. Burning answer me.’

Jodec stopped pacing. His appearance turned back to himself. Nadec expected him to lash out at Patat for his demanding question. Jodec’s face twisted, but not in anger. 

‘They caught me ‘Tat. They said they knew where you were. They threatened to kill you if I didn’t abandon everyone and everything to work alongside them. They made me do the renounce ritual. Hah.’ His voice turned silent. ‘They broke me. They utterly and completely broke me. I needed to keep you safe. I did everything I could to keep you safe. It’s been so long,’ he trailed off, massaging his forehead. ‘I actively helped the Order to try and kill my own niece. She outsmarted us all, hah, for which I’m grateful. I think. Am I?

‘But they know she is in the city. She should’ve kept hidden. What was she thinking, going out in public like that? At least I managed to keep my sister safe, hah. She won’t be bothered while on vacation, I made certain of that.’ His head perked up, and he stared at Patat.

‘Hah! It was my niece who  released the Deception on your safe zone and brought you here, wasn’t it? Of course it was. I cannot let her have the throne, ‘Tat. She will never do what we want. She could ruin everything we’ve worked for the past decades.’ Nadec frowned at the sudden change of demeanor and tone of voice. He sounded harder, more determined, less emotional.

‘They will gut you in four days, on the midpoint of the coronation festivities. They will read your guts and they will confirm what the Order of the End has known for more than 50 years. This Realm will come to an end soon. The apocalypse is near. It has been predicted.’ His wide, open eyes added a craziness to his face, fitting with the insane words.

‘Burning, grounding drips. You of all grounding people should know it isn’t burning true, the gorwak’s guts can’t burning tell the future. Someone couldn’t handle the burning truth we threw at them and grounding started that rumour. You burning know that. You grounding, dripping know that, which is why you dripping kept me safe.’

‘Hah, is it, is it truly? Is it truly merely a rumour? I am not as certain anymore. But do not worry, my friend,’ the crazy light in his eyes dimmed, ‘I will not let them kill you. I do not need confirmation of the prediction. I will free you before it happens, even though I can not do it now. It will not matter much, you will perish when this world comes to an end. Perhaps I can find a way to take you with me to Earth.’

‘Burning Earth?’ Patat interrupted him. ‘Isn’t that where Nadec comes from?’

‘Yes, indeed, that is where she was raised, hah. It was I who guided my sister to find her way there. She never knew, of course.’ He laughed, sudden and barking. ‘In a way, my niece owes her life to me. Hah. Either way, burning Earth is an appropriate way of saying it. Because when the time comes for us to Skip there to establish ourselves, it will burn.’ He laughed again. 

‘I will return tomorrow. Stay strong my friend.’

Jodec wobbly Skipped, and disappeared. Nadec waited a moment longer to make sure he didn’t come back. She walked up to the cage. Patat had slumped down into a miserable pile of slimy looking, rainbow reflecting, capuchin long-limbed heap, his five-ways split tail curled around himself. His four wings appeared less iridescent.

‘He’s mentally not all there, is he?’ Her voice startled Patat enough to jump. ‘He’s probably as confused as some of his words are.’

‘What are you grounding doing here?’

‘Oh? I thought you’d be happy to see me, after the predicament you put yourself in. What were you thinking, coming here? But if you don’t want me, I’ll just leave you.’ She bent through her knees. Patat stretched out his arms.

‘No, don’t burning leave. I am grounding glad to see you. But it’s burning too dangerous.’ He furrowed his forehead. ‘How much did you just hear?’ When Nadec told him she heard about everything, he burst out in a wide grin. It looked scary. ‘Good, I won’t have to burning repeat it all. Jodec certainly changed since the last time I grounding saw him. They dripping messed up his head. He doesn’t grounding know which side to be on. I can’t burning accept he is stupid enough to believe a prediction made from gorwak guts, after all he’s done to protect me. He did much more than I grounding thought I knew.’

Patat stared ahead of him, no doubt thinking about Jodec’s missing eye, fingers, and apparently toes, as well. Nadec didn’t know what to say. It had been more than fifty years since the gorwak and Nadec’s uncle saw each other last. Of course people change during such a time. Although Jodec’s change may not have been for the best.

‘Ready to go? I’ll Skip you to my room. I should be back there tomorrow around noon.’

‘What? You’re not dripping coming along with me? I doubt there is anything else you can burning do here.’

‘There is,’ Nadec said slowly. She hadn’t thought of it before, but now an idea popped in her head. ‘I already planned to stay the night here so I could go to the law induction tomorrow, bu—’

‘Law induction? What in the burning grounds is that? It doesn’t sound very burning safe to expose yourself.’

‘I let myself be arrested to get here—under disguise of course—and the guards who arrested me said I had to go to an induction about the laws and rules of Paralelo. I think it would be a good introduction to what’s soon to be my kingdom, wouldn’t you think?’ She grinned at Patat, who carried a look of utter perplexity.

‘You had yourself arrested on burning purpose? That’s burning brilliant.’

Nadec blinked. That was not what she’d expected him to say. 

‘While I’m here, perhaps there is something else I can do. My parents’ notes say there is a room in the palace, full of books and notes on the full power of the Squares, Triangles and Lines. Only accessible by someone with all the power, as a precaution to safeguard all the information in there. I can try and find it. Perhaps I can get in, regardless of how much power I have.’

‘Don’t be burning stupid, it’s too risky. Aah, I recognise that grounding stubborn look. Fine, listen, dripping Jodec returns here tomorrow, I can dripping try to tease the location out of him. If he hasn’t dripping managed to get in himself and given all the books to his burning Order.’

 A familiar sound came from the hallway.

‘Guts, the guards are back. What’s that scowl for?’ She trailed off. ‘Sorry, wrong choice of swear. I can’t leave you here, Patat.’

‘Kid, I’ll be burning fine. Come back for me tomorrow, now that you’ve grounding been in this hall, you should be able to Skip straight back here. Go, go!’

Nadec hesitated, but the gorwak looked determined. She growled softly and Skipped, back to her cell.

Ch 39: The real heir

Nadec’s heart jumped in her throat at the ratcheting sound made by the guards, rattling the butts of their swords against the bars of the cells. A moment of dazed confusion fogged her sleepy brain as she stiffened under the sheets. When her mind caught up to the current events, she inhaled sharply, touching her face and head. Her wig was still in place, somewhat, and her fake beard and moustache felt straight enough. She thanked her past self for getting back in her male character outfit before going to bed.

‘Time to wake, the induction starts in ten minutes,’ one of the guards shouted. 

Yawning, Nadec hauled herself off the padded wooden plank. Stretching sore muscles, she reassessed her previous thoughts about the bed. She groaned as she realised she could’ve Skipped to her room, spent the night in a proper bed, and Skipped back before dawn.

Her stomach growled when she saw the tray sitting on the outside of her cell. By the time she finished the small breakfast and other morning necessities, two guards came to escort her to a room.

There were only 5 other people there, of whom only one woman. A triple row of benches looked towards a smooth, dark wall. Nadec sat far enough from the others to avoid speaking to them. Two men on the first row were having an animated discussion, one gesturing wildly with his hands, switching between putting them in his lap and pointing towards the other man. Nadec couldn’t see what he did when they were in his lap—the other man blocked her view—but it involved a lot of movemenr.

‘Good morning lady and gentlemen, I am the lady O’Dinazs, welcome to your induction on the Paralelian laws.’ Nadec twitched as the woman she met two days ago—the one who’d let an innkeeper drug Nadec and Melia—walked into the room. Nadec slumped down, keeping her hat low. ‘This is a courtesy towards you, as you have been caught doing something against those laws. As an outsider, the Paralelian court prefers you to be educated instead of locked up, so here you all are. If you get caught with an infringement again after this, you shall be properly punished. But we all know that shall not happen right? Right.’ 

Ayba smiled as she looked around the room, lingering on each of them. Did she squint her eyes slightly when looking at Nadec? 

‘You are all too spread out, come closer, come now, I shall not bite. Especially real men have nothing to fear. I’ve heard yesterday’s induction was full to the brim, due to the first day of the Coronation festivities. Today is better.’ Nadec reluctantly moved closer, while Ayba addressed the two men who’d been squabbling. ‘What occupies you two gentlemen? Now, now, do not deny it. I saw when I entered. Best to get it out of the way before commencing.’

‘My brother, my lady,’ said the man who’d done all the gesturing, ‘doesn’t believe me when I say I saw someone disappear last night, right in front of my eyes. I swear I saw it. A black figure followed the guards, but then did something with their hands and knees, just like this, and disappeared.’ 

Nadec froze halfway to the bench, hovering above it. Ayba’s eyes flickered towards Nadec as she continued her descent on the bench. If Ayba had recognised Nadec, which seemed to be so, there wasn’t anything Nadec could do about it now. Ayba could put Nadec in the hands of the people who’d been hunting her. Nadec felt sweat gathering under her wig. Ayba merely gazed at the man in a thoughtful manner, making him squirm and mumble he was telling the truth.

‘I believe you,’ she said with a nod. ‘The coronation festivities lead in a joyous and magical event. Myths and legends have a way of finding their place during these days. Do not distrust your own eyes when you see something you would before have thought impossible. Magic is all around us. It is called the Squares, Triangles and Lines. Only the royalty knows much about it, so I am afraid I can not tell you about that. What I can tell you, is to avoid shaking hands with certain people, like guards, innkeepers, …’

And so the induction started. Nadec lifted her eyebrows on some occasions—not only red food was forbidden, but also anything square, yellow-speckled, burnt, or shiny. At the end, she was glad she’d chosen to stay for this, if not for the extra information, then for the entertaining way Ayba explained things. 

‘Now, go forth and enjoy yourselves in Hexago. Remember, many of these laws count for everywhere in Paralelo, although some towns have their own little peculiar rules added onto it. If you want to stay safe, go to the mayor of the town and ask about it. They should be more than happy to tell you their special rules. It is also a good way to get in their good graces.’

Everyone got up and moved to the door. Nadec attempted to quickly scuttle away, keeping her head down, but Ayba grabbed her by the arm. ‘A word with you, please?’

Nadec frowned at her. ‘What, you’re going to betray my trust again? Let go off me.’ 

She yanked her arm out of the other woman’s grip. A twinge of guilt surged up as she saw the hurt look on Ayba’s face. ‘I had too much betrayal lately,’ Nadec muttered, trying to justify her action to Ayba, and herself.

‘I am extremely sorry for what happened, Cedan, I did not know he would do that. Please believe me. After you disappeared, I questioned Erioc why he did what he did. He only knew the Order had sent out an urgent message to all supporters to keep an eye out for me, and specifically anyone with me. They’d even added a description of you, based on what you looked like when we fled the Square. Please, sit. Let’s talk.’

‘They worked fast. Stop trying to get me to sit, I’m not staying here any longer than I must. I’m keen to get out of the castle. And out of this disguise, you have no idea how itchy this wig is. The beard and moustache are annoying too.’ She looked at Ayba sideways. ‘I still don’t know if I can trust you, but—’

‘You can, I swear. You can.’ Ayba looked almost too eager. Nadec held up a hand.

‘But you may be able to tell me about that Order. The Order of the End, is it?’ Ayba nodded. Nadec thanked Jodec for that little piece of information. 

‘Is there any way we can meet somewhere? Or… ugh, I suppose I could stay in this disguise for a little  while longer. Would it be suspicious if you and I have an early lunch somewhere?’

‘No, it would not be. I have done so before, giving private lessons about the Paralelian laws to people who weren’t satisfied after an induction. For a price, of course. Not that you have to pay, not at all. Although I wouldn’t mind a different payment, hmm.’ She wiggled her eyebrows, but reverted back to serious straight away. ‘Whatever trouble you are in, I am on your side. And if that goes against the Order, then I am doubly on your side, if that is possible.’ She stroked Nadec’s cheek with a finger. ‘I have to say I do prefer you without all that fake hair, it makes it hard to see your lovely face. Come now, there is an inn across the Square where I always give these private lessons. With luck, it is not too busy yet. After yesterday’s heavy celebration evening, many people only get active by the afternoon.’

‘Let’s go then. Wait, one more question.’ Nadec had wondered about it ever since she saw Ayba enter the room. ‘Didn’t you say you hadn’t been allowed in the castle anymore after Wyny’s ascend to the throne? Why are you here? How?’

‘Wyny?’ Ayba doubled up from laughter. She wiped her eyes as she straightened, an occasional giggle interjecting her speech. ‘That’s the best thing I’ve heard in awhile. Oh, now I truly hope I get to talk to him again some day, if only to tease him with that.’

The laughter was infectious enough for Nadec to fail at keeping her lips neutral. She crossed her ams to try and convey at least a modicum of seriousness. This was not the time to get into a hopeless fit of laughter. 

‘This part of the castle is almost separate to the rest of it, as a measure of security. I volunteered for these inductions before lord Pagewyn became the ruler. And because I am good at them and not many nobles like to do it, they allowed me to continue. I expected him to come and see me here. That was silly of me. He most likely does not know I am still allowed to do these, or they do not allow him to come. He is the king, but I do not believe he is the one controlling the kingdom. Come now, what are you waiting for? We should not linger here.’ She winked at Nadec and led them out of the castle proper, across the Square, and into an inn.

‘Ah, lady Aybahberry, another private lesson today? The small dining room is available and ready for use, if you wish.’ The innkeeper led the way. Nadec had a better feeling about this one. For one, she wasn’t skinny. For another, she wasn’t pompous enough to declare her inn as a house. A normal innkeeper in a normal inn. Hopefully without connections to the Order.

Hours later, after a decent meal and several drinks, Nadec knew more about the Order, and Ayba knew more about Nadec. 

Upon hearing who Nadec really was, she went down on one knee and, as formal as can be, swore fealty to Nadec, who thought she’d burst from embarrassment. Ayba proved to be resourceful, so Nadec’s masterplan—which hadn’t looked further than rescuing Patat and hiding until C-day—turned more elaborate. 

Before the end of the next nine days, the common people would be looking forward to the return of a real Ichau on the throne.

Ch 40: Prophecy

A hopeless, tense, ball of stress. That description fit Melia perfectly as Nadec returned to her room. Upon seeing her, Melia slumped to the floor mid pace. 

‘I probably should’ve sent a messenger to let you know what was going on,’ Nadec said, helping her up. ‘Sorry for that.’

‘Mistress, please, don’t apologise to me. I am glad to see you unharmed. Are you? Unharmed?’ She narrowed her eyes, inspecting Nadec’s whole body.

‘I am more than alright. I met Ayba again—’

‘That treacherous little wench, what did she do now, try to stab you in the back? Again?’

‘That’s a bit uncalled for, isn’t it?’

Melia’s face contorted into a blend of unbelief and anger. ‘Uncalled for? She lured us into a trap and got us poisoned. That’s enough for me to mistrust anyone.’

‘She had nothing to do with that, she didn’t know that housekeeper would do it.’ 

Nadec tried to make Melia sit, but the tall woman didn’t want any of that. She pushed Nadec’s hands away and began pacing the room again.

‘I can not believe you have faith in her. How can you believe her? I can not look kindly upon anyone who tries to harm me. Nor should you.’

‘I believe her because she explained things to me about the Order of the End, things which helped me understand it all better. And she improved our plan. Which, if you remember, didn’t go much beyond saving Patat. No, he’s not free yet. Let me speak.’ Melia shut her mouth, pouted her lips and drew down her eyebrows. ‘And in Frank’s name, sit, do you know how annoying it is to follow your nervous back and forth? That’s better. Shut up and listen. When I found Patat, my uncle Jodec was talking to him. I listened and waited. When he was gone, I went up to Patat, but had to decide in a hurry to leave him in captivity for another night.’

Melia shifted, but didn’t say anything. 

‘It was his suggestion. I mentioned wanting to find the hidden chamber of information to him. He thinks he might get Jodec to tell him tonight, so I’ll go back tonight. But I won’t be freeing him just yet. If he is fine with it. If he wants to be released, then I will obviously help him.’

‘Why?’ Melia slapped both of her hands over her mouth, eyes wide. ‘Apologies,’ she mumbled through her fingers.

‘Well, if he wants to be free, I can’t possibly leave him there, can I?’ Melia shot her a nasty look. ‘It’s a joke, I know what you meant. So, I met Ayba in the morning at the induction course, she was the one teaching it. We went to lunch afterwards, because she’d recognised me. That’s when she told me about the Order, and when we decided to invent a prophecy about me. If all goes well, rumours should already be spreading. So by the end of these Coronation festivities, people will be looking forward to the prophecy coming true. They’ll be looking forward to the return of a true Ichau.’ 

Nadec gloated, lifting her arms up, making elaborate bows, pretending to respond to cheers by doing small queenly waves. She dropped her arms and shook her head. ‘Even though I wish it didn’t have to be me. You can speak now.’

‘What does that have to do with the gorwak’s imprisonment?’

‘Oh, right. We made him part of the prophecy, together with Blackie.’ Kitty, resting on the bed, lifted his head at the mention of the dragon’s name. ‘Listen to this.’ Nadec scraped her throat and spoke in a clear voice.

And it shall come to pass, the Ichau-line shall not be broken. When all hope seems lost, and a puppet of betrayers seeks the throne, the Crown will find the true heir. Do not despair, as these signs shall announce their presence.

On the first day of the CorFest, one day too soon, the last legend of the truth shall be humiliated for ye all to see. 

The third day, this prophecy shall find the way to ye hearts.

On the fourth day of CorFest, a myth shall appear in the Square sky above, and ye shall all bow in awe for the magnificence. The coloured void shall judge ye all from the highest tower.

On the double sixth day, six days of CorFest and Six days till Coronation, the coloured black myth will drop brown gold which can not be spent.

Five days before Coronation, the myth shall prevent a fake prophecy. The legend shall appear on the myth.

The tenth day of Corfest, two days before the Crown finds the Queen, she shall appear amongst ye, as one of ye, carrying a PowerPooped Weapon.

The eleventh and final day of the Coronation festivities, ye shall all remain away from the centre of the Square, whence a miracle shall reveal.

In the morning after the Corfest ends, the day the Wooden Water Crown returns to the rightful heir, all shall be right, and all shall rejoyce.’

Melia had nothing but a blank stare for Nadec, who dipped her head with a little shake, urging the blonde woman to speak.

‘It’s… uhm… elaborate? It feels like a lot of work. Dramatic. What does it all mean? The coloured void?’

Nadec smiled, even though she had flutters in her chest from acknowledging the idiocy of all this. She should just lay low. Go to the statue and wait there until the day comes. There was no point in risking it all by staying here. The chances of getting found—and killed because of that—would only get higher by the day.

But, she thought about what that would be like. To hide like a coward. To wait until it all falls into place. What then? Come into the city and expect people to accept her? They didn’t know her. They didn’t even know of her. The people liked Wyny, she’d heard that from many sources. They wouldn’t accept someone swooping in and taking the throne, not even if it was the rightful heir. Wyny had somehow crawled into their hearts. Nadec had to convince people she deserved a place there as well. If not in place of Wyny, then at least next to him, on the same level. The idea of making people like her—love her—strengthened the flutters. 

‘All I want to do is hide and wait until it’s all over.’ The tremor in Nadec’s voice annoyed her, but there was nothing she could do. ‘But I need to take responsibility. I need to act like the queen I’m apparently destined to be.’ 

She blew out a long breath, looking up and flapping her hands to her face. ‘I can’t do this alone. I’ve got Ayba, and I want to trust her, but I’m still wary. You, on the other hand, you, I trust completely. I remember what happened in the muddy marshes, even if we’ve always danced around and ignored it. I know you’ve saved my life, even though you had a chance to get away and set things right in your home. You gave it all up for me. And now you’re here still, and a servant, which makes my debt to you even greater. I’m sorry I’ve got you into this life, Fluetza.’

Melia’s mouth hung half open. It opened more when Nadec went down on one knee and enveloped Melia’s hands in hers. 

‘You have proven your fierceness and loyalty. I humbly ask you to extend the loyalty to me as a true heir to the Wooden Water Crown. When I am Queen, it would be my honour to have you in my… what do they call it? Retinue. My main servant who is also secretly my closest defender. Or, I mean, we can discuss it of course, perhaps you’d prefer something else. Maybe I can help get you back home.’

‘My lady, my Queen, the honour would be all mine.’ She laughed, wiping her eyes on her shoulder. ‘I couldn’t imagine a better position to be in. My home is here now, it has been years since I felt like I had a true home. I knew there was more to you when we first met.’

‘Great!’ Nadec released Melia’s hands, who used them to wipe her eyes some more. Nadec dabbed at hers as well. She slapped her hands on her thighs and stood up. 

‘Let’s make sure I actually become the Queen. Not only in name and position, but also in reverence from the people. This is what the prophecy means and what we have to do.’

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