ZAUBER: the thread that binds us
The air around them was dusty, and so thick that Paltar could taste it on his tongue. As his eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness, he looked around.
"Where are we?" Nanna whispered beside him.
Her words echoed down the long hallway before them, wthe end of which Paltar couldn't see. As they walked down further, it was illuminated by strange lights, emitted by sea-blue gems set into the walls around them. Above them, there was only darkness. Paltar couldn't even tell if there was a ceiling or not. Apart from the sounds they made themselves, there was nothing to be heard. No buzzing insects or other small animals hiding away in the cracks and crevices, not even a falling pebble. It was so quiet that Paltar's own breathing was too loud for his ears.
"Let's go," he said instead, his voice sounding strangely hollow.
Even though everything felt suffocating, they couldn't turn back now. The only way was ahead of them. Behind him, he could hear the pat-pat-pat of Nanna's feet hitting the ground.
"We have to be careful," she hissed.
"I know," he replied.
Suddenly, the path in front of them split into two. He stopped, and looked at Nanna. In the strange light around them, she looked ethereal, almost like a ghost.
"Which one should we take?" he asked her.
"I don't know." She shook her feathers. "Why should I know that?"
He shrugged, and then went down the left path.
She had to run to catch up with him.
"What were you trying to imply with that question, huh? You think just because I'm cursed I know the wizard's secrets? I wish!"
"I didn't say that," he sighed.
"But you were thinking it," Nanna insisted.
Paltar shook his head.
"I just asked you if you had a preference," he explained. "Why can't I ask you something harmless?"
Nanna fell silent.
"Hmph. If you say so," she finally grumbled.
Paltar looked at her when she suddenly sped up and ran down the hallway in front of him. He shook his head. Was this her idea of an apology?
They walked silently down hallways after long hallway, but there was no exit to be found. Finally, Nanna stopped and turned to him.
"Can we maybe take a little break?" she huffed. "This is more tiring than I thought."
"Sure," he agreed.
Maybe this was for the best. After all, they had no idea where they were, and it didn’t seem to help them to just keep going blindly. He sat down, and the sounds echoed through the blue-lit corridor.
"Is there any food left?" Nanna asked before he had even made himself comfortable.
Paltar was thankful that the wizard had transported him with his bag. He rummaged through the contents, and found the last leftovers from their lunch. Only half a slice of bread and a small piece of salami remained. It was basically nothing.
"Here you go," he said to Nanna. "I'm not hungry."
Without another thought, she ate it all, barely having enough time to breathe between bites. It was the only sound they could hear, until Paltar's stomach decided to rumble and growl. Nanna glared at him.
"I hate liars," she said, wiping some breadcrumbs from her beak.
"No, I'm really not hungry..." He sighed. "I'm sorry."
"We could have split!"
He wanted to reply, but hesitated.
"I think this place is getting to us," he said instead. "Let's find a way out of here, okay? I'm sure we'll find something else to eat, then."
"Sure." She rolled her eyes. "Like we could just fly over there and..."
"You're a genius!" He laughed. "Come on, fly up and see if you can find the exit."
Nanna made a small, annoyed sound, but still did as he asked her to. She spread out her wings and flew upwards, until she looked more like a star than a bird against the darkness above them.
"Over there," she yelled.
"Turn around," she instructed him. "And then turn right... no, your left."
Now it was his turn to just do as she said. But a small smile crept across his face. They were finally getting somewhere.
"Now right," she called from above.
After that, he didn't need her instructions anymore. In front of him was a hole in the wall, the outside decorated with carved stone ornaments. But there were none of the strange glowing gems around. He hesitated. There was a draft coming from the hole, warm like the breath of a beast waiting to pounce. And didn't it also look like an open mouth?
"Are you sure this is the right way?" he asked.
"How should I know?" She fluttered down and landed beside him.
She quickly shook herself, making the dress swish. “Not quite so easy to fly in this,” she muttered. Then, she looked at him.
"Do you have a better idea?" she asked, as if she expected him to say yes.
But of course, he didn't. Still, as he looked into the dark hole, he couldn't help but wonder what dangers might lie behind it.
"Let me check this out first," he finally said.
Paltar took a deep breath and closed his eyes. This place was old. He couldn't say how old, but it was clear that the paths had been made centuries ago. The rock around them was old enough that a fine layer of life threads covered it all, semi-transparent like spider webs. There were other life threads, too, winding through the labyrinth they had just left. Some were relaxed, others taut, and Paltar didn't dare to touch any of them. They were obviously not alone in here.
But the threads didn't lead to the hole. Perhaps they were safe in there.
And what other choice did they have, after all?
"Let's go in," he finally decided.
Nanna didn't move.
"What's wrong?" he asked immediately.
"Nothing," she hissed back. "Just go."
He tilted his head. She hadn't moved at all since she landed, her eyes fixed on the darkness.
"Are you sure you're alright?"
"I am," she hissed. "Go. Now."
He stared at her. Something was wrong, and she clearly didn't want to talk about it.
"I'll be right behind you," she said. "Come on, move."
He smiled at her.
"Then it's all good," he said. "You'll watch our backs, right?"
Maybe she was afraid of the darkness. Maybe his heart was beating so loud that she could hear it. But maybe, they could get through this together.
Nanna pressed against his legs as he slowly stepped forward. The darkness engulfed him. And this time, he couldn't see anything, no matter how many steps he took.
"Paltar?" Nanna croaked behind him.
"I'm still here," he said.
He could still feel her touch. It really was a pity that she was a goose. If she was in her human form, he could have grabbed her hand, just to hold on to something. As it was, he had to trust that Nanna wouldn't simply disappear, that her familiar weight at his side wouldn't vanish. He took another step forward.