ZAUBER: the thread that binds us
It took a long time until they finally parted. When Paltar looked at Nanna, he was almost ready to cry again. But instead, he swallowed all the feelings that threatened to rise inside him and stood up.
“We made it,” he whispered.
Nanna remained silent, but her weight against his leg was familiar. He stretched and put on a smile he didn’t quite feel yet.
“Come on, then. We rested enough, right? At least I feel awake now.”
“That’s not funny,” she grumbled.
For a moment, the smile left his face.
“I know,” he whispered. “Still, we should go.”
He gave her one last hug before he got up. If this was the first of many trials to come, what would happen next? The exit, stone doors carved into the mountain, were decorated with complicated details, but when he pushed them lightly, they opened as if they weighed nothing. Paltar turned to Nanna.
“Are you ready, Your Highness?”
“More than you,” she muttered and fluttered off into the darkness.
He quickly followed her, but he was not fast enough.
“Hey, where are you?” her voice came out of the dark.
“Here,” he replied, even though he couldn’t say where ‘here’ was.
Behind him, the doors slammed shut with such force that the sound rang in his ears as the dust around was stirred up. Paltar coughed and stumbled forward.
“This is...” He couldn’t finish his sentence.
His eyes were filled with tears, but he noticed that the room was getting lit. With rapid blinks, he cleared his vision and found Nanna, who was already by his side again.
“That was nothing,” she grumbled. “He’s just trying to scare us.”
“I mean, I almost died back there.” He coughed. “But, yes. We’re here now.”
He blinked again, and saw that the dust had settled. Still, there was a strange taste in the air, heavy like overripe fruit. He tried to get it off his tongue, but to no avail. At least he could see where they were now. Compared to the labyrinth and the cave they had just left, the room they were in now was small, though the ceiling was still so that the lights above them looked like twinkling stars. There were magical torches on the walls, their soft light flickering in a gentle breeze. There was even some furniture, but it looked strange even to Paltar. He blinked. Large stone pillars and fallen logs, along with a huge bed and high shelves, were all he could see.
“Strange,” Nanna commented.
Paltar nodded. But what was even stranger to him was that this room felt… familiar. Why did he suddenly think of Satsuki?
He looked at the bed next to him and brushed softly over the fabric. It was well made, and like Reod’s appearance, didn’t quite fit into this world. When he took his hands away from the fabric, he noticed a lot of golden hairs clinging to his palm. He shook his hand, but the stuff wouldn’t leave him alone.
Then he remembered.
He wasn’t thinking about Satsuki. Rather, it was Mikan – her fat pet cat who had loved him more than her whenever he came to visit. Once he thought that would make Satsuki like him – wo wouldn’t love a husband who was good with animals? - but maybe it had been one of his many shortcomings in her eyes, instead. Paltar let out another sigh.
“It’s a cat,” he said.
“What do you mean, it’s a cat?” Nanna hissed. “What cat needs such big furniture?”
She was right. This was strange. The furniture here wasn’t cat-sized. Instead, even Paltar and Nanna together would have no problem stretching out on the big bed or climbing the cat tower-like sculpture.
“I wonder what this is all about,” he said out loud.
Somewhere above them, he heard a laugh, reminding him of a roar.
“You made it here,” a soft voice purred. “I’m glad.”
Paltar didn’t say anything. Instead, he tilted his head back to watch as a figure nimbly descended from the shelves, her shape and movements clearly feline. But too big.
Even as the cat-person came into view, Paltar could hardly believe his eyes.
Once, in another life, his parents had taken him to the zoo when he was little. He had loved seeing all the different animals from all of the world, but there was one that had stayed with him. Paltar blinked, but he couldn’t shake the image of the lion sitting right in front of the glass, its huge paws crossed as it opened its mouth and licked over the sharp teeth inside. It was probably the first and only time he had ever known true terror.
The creature before him looked like a lion, but it had to be bigger than that. The whole body was feline, and the fur shone like gold, but there was a human face framed by golden brown locks. She smiled with lion’s teeth, and looked at Paltar with honey-colored eyes that were not human. Paltar felt as small as he had back then when he looked up at that huge face. The lion-person smiled, and there was a human sparkle in her eyes. Paltar could help but look for support as he began to shake all over. He loved house cats. But this cat? She terrified him.
He was going to die.
Nanna gave him an alarmed look, but now Paltar couldn’t even bring a fake smile to his face. His eyes were glued to the sharp teeth sticking out of the cat’s mouth. Still, he watched as Nanna puffed herself up and stood in front of him.
“Don’t come any closer,” she roared at the lion. “Don’t you dare!”
The lion let out another booming laugh.
“Poor little thing,” she said. “You’re not happy with your form, are you?”
Nanna tilted her head.
“I don’t care what you have to say,” she hissed. “You will let us go, unharmed!”
The lioness shook her head, and her hair shook with it.
“I would love to,” she said. “but only under one condition: solve my riddle. Otherwise...”
Once more, she roared and Paltar flinched. He was more than happy to let Nanna do the talking.
“I’m sure you can imagine.” She stretched, showing off her claws in the process. “In all my years of living here, no one has ever solved my riddle. It’s become quite boring, honestly. But I’m sure you will be a tasty delicacy.”
Paltar stumbled a few steps back. Of course. That thing would eat them!
But Nanna wasn’t so easily frightened.
“You can try,” she hissed. “But you have to give us this riddle, right? We’ll solve it, for sure!”
“I’m glad to hear that, little one,” the lioness replied. “For your bravery, I will share one secret with you: I am Husina, one of the last sphinx.”
She stretched and slowly approached, which earned her another hiss from Nanna.
“You’ve already been more interesting than the last adventurers that dared to enter the mountain,” she said.
With that, she made herself comfortable on the bed, her tail flicking around idly. Paltar, on the other hand, put as much distance between them as he could.
“Are you ready? Do you want to hear my riddle?” Husina said with a grin.