ZAUBER: the thread that binds us
"W-where are we?"
Paltar didn’t have an answer for her. His feet touched grass, but unlike the vegetation in the forest, it was dried and yellowed, cracking under his feet. Here, the sun glared down on them, and the air was stuffy. It took all of his will not to take off his shirt right now. Even Nanna looked hot.
"This is worse than the forest," she panted. "Take us back!"
That last part was probably directed at the wizard.
‘Is he watching us? Or has he already forgotten about us?’ Paltar wondered. Who could tell what a wizard was thinking, anyway?
"Let's just go," he said instead. "We need to get out of here as soon as possible."
He wiped his forehead as the first beads of sweat formed. It really was too hot.
Besides the small patches of dying grass, there were huge vines all around them. They were gnarled and old, yet surprisingly strong when he touched one. Worst of all, they were covered with thorns and spikes. Some of them were thin and as long as his arm, while others were only as long as his hand, but as thick as his arm. No matter how he looked at it, he certainly didn't want to get caught in them.
"So we have to fight our way through here, huh?" he said.
"I can fly up," Nanna suggested. "I'll scout the area."
"Good idea." He grinned at her.
They were getting good at that. Whatever the challenge, they would overcome it! Paltar was sure of it, as he sat down in the meager shade of the roots. He only wished it wasn't so hot here. How could he even see the sun? They were still inside the mountain, right? As he tilted his head back to watch Nanna fly, he noticed that there were no clouds in the sky. Even the sun itself seemed to be fake. Just like the forest. It made his skin crawl, and when Nanna was just a shadow in the blue, he quickly looked away.
Somewhere under the thorny thicket he could hear small animals scurrying away. He could understand that. If he could find a place in the shade, he would only give it up if a giant came. For a brief moment, he thought back to the creatures in the forest and wondered if they had a counterpart in this place as well. After all, where there were small animals, there were usually large ones as well. But right now, he couldn't see any. Even as he closed his eyes and searched for the strings, he could only find thin ones he could barely see.
He couldn't fly. If Nanna found a way out of here, he would still have to walk it, unlike her. So it was better for him to look at the vines and see how he could get around them. His hands touched the vines closest to him. Then, he felt something sticky against his hand.
He looked up and his eyes followed the vine. It was growing above him, casting a gentle shadow, and a liquid was running down the thick trunk. Paltar sniffed it, and then wished he hadn't. The rancid smell of rotten blood hit his nose and he stumbled back. On one of the thorns was the body of an animal, slowly drying out in the sun. He couldn't tell what it was, and to be honest, he didn't want to. Right now, he just wanted to throw up.
"Nanna!" he called out. "There's something weird here!"
He didn't want to disgust her, so maybe he should go somewhere else. But still, she should know. This place wasn't as safe as he had thought.
There was no answer from above.
This time he called for her louder. What was she doing? He tilted his head back, squinting against the sunlight. It was difficult to find her, but once he saw her silhouette, it was clear against the monochrome sky.
She was still circling in the air, scouting the area. If she did it like that, she probably wouldn't find an exit. Why did she not listen to him? Why did she not come down? Again and again, he called her name as his voice grew hoarse. This was bad. This was really bad!
Finally, she slowly drifted towards him.
"Nanna! Come here!"
His heart beat fast. There was no immediate danger, of course. But still there was a deep, wrong feeling in his gut, and he couldn't wait to have her close to him again. He opened his arms, ready to catch her.
"Paltar?" She called back. "What's wrong?"
He couldn't answer that. Not really. Still, the look on his face was probably enough to make her wary as well.
"Oh my, don't worry so much," she said, though she didn't sound as confident as she tried to. "I'm right here."
She fluttered, trying to navigate between the vines growing high above him.
"This is really difficult," she complained.
"But you can do it."
He smiled at her, even though he felt like throwing up inside. Maybe he needed to apologize a little. ‘So much for being the strong, dependable guy,’ he thought.
She was close. Close enough that if he stood on his toes and stretched his arm out, he might be able to touch her. And yet...
A shadow appeared behind her. It spread its wings, each one longer than Paltar was tall, and he could see the talons gleaming in the harsh sunlight.
"Nanna! Look out!"
But it was too late. Even if his words reached her, her pained screams blurred everything for him as he saw a few stray feathers flying toward him.
He caught her as her body went limp in his arms. He wanted to check her for injuries, but for now his focus was on the figure landing on one of the thorns, its beak as sharp as its claws.
"Gyahahaha! Fresh meat, fresh meeeeat!"
The creature looked even stranger than Husina. It was some sort of bird hybrid, with rust-colored wings flanking a white belly and gray back. Its beady eyes were lined with a black stripe, as dark as the eyes themselves.
"Oooh, what wonderful creatures have found their way here?" The creature sniggered. "No matter! I don't care! I have to eat, eat, eat!"
It flew up again, while Paltar clutched Nanna even tighter. She had still not said a word.
"Please..." he murmured.
They had to get to safety. Whatever this creature was, it was after them. And if he was right in guessing that the corpse on the thorn was his as well, it wasn't afraid to kill them.
"I'll get you to safety," he finally said.