One Way: Part Five
I stood, trembling, before the mirrored wall. Almost every inch of me was covered in green and purple robes.
For one thing, I'd spent most of my life in burlap pants. For another, I'd never seen more than five folded outfits at once. And for another yet, nobody I knew even dressed in bright colors. But here I was, standing in the middle of the giant room full of nothing but clothes racks, in the least-garish clothes I could find that fit me.
"You look great," Egbert the speckled Pteri commented. Vario, his identical twin, nodded but remained silent.
"Thanks," I hissed through my teeth, unable to avert my eyes from the person I couldn't think of as myself.
"I still say you would have looked good in the rainbow robes, but your preference." Egbert shrugged.
"They didn't have holes for my wings," I lied, hoping I wouldn't have to try on the tie-dyed oriental robes in question. Thankfully, the Pteris believed me.
Where the heck did these two find plain white shirts and grey pants?! I internally screamed. Then my thoughts abruptly shifted to Faith. If she saw me like this...
"Well, the feast should be served in half an hour," Egbert commented. "If we go to the dining hall now, you'd have a long wait, but I don't think we have time to stay and comb your fur."
I shuddered. What do they think I'm going to do, live here?!
Benjai had offered. I'd declined, but the servants I'd seen so far acted as though she was going to get her way.
All the while, my memory had been taking blows. I felt holes gape in my mind where I knew there had to have been something, once. Still, I clung tight to the important faces, even if there were only two of them.
As the Pteris took my arms and escorted me through some empty gold corridors, I felt too jarred to fight them. I began to hope my friends wouldn't see me dressed like a flowering shrub, but then I realized that I'd be thankful to find them under any circumstances now.
I'm just glad they're probably treating Faith like this. I mean, I don't like being looked up to more than I deserve, but at least it means she's comfortable enough...
It was not cooking as I knew it.
Chefs, maids and servant boys crowded the uncomfortable kitchen. Sweat beaded under my thick fur, my ears ringing with the shouted commands of the head chefs. Knives thundered down on cutting boards, screamed conversations constantly ripped away my thought, and the hustle I went through made my head pound.
I'd started piecing some of it together. The Chomby was the head, of course, and she hoarded gold and servants in her gold castle in this glass forest. I didn't know how many people she had under her control or if she had any motives, but I had more personal questions.
I just wanted Cerulean and Rubia back already.
After a box of ruined tomatoes, I was told to sit down so I wouldn't cause any more damage. There wasn't much more to do anyways. I sat down against one wall, just behind some crates.
Most of the noise died away; they were wrapping up. I hugged my folded legs, my heart still pounding. My feet hurt, I had a few cuts from (trying to) chop tomatoes, and my stomach suddenly cringed with hunger. Something about being in the palace made me need food again.
When a chef who was ignorant to the fate of the tomatoes informed me I'd be serving three courses, I saw my opportunity. I might find Cerulean. Under my stress in the kitchen, I'd tried to keep one eye out for him, but saw not a glimpse of his burlap cape or comforting white feathers. Dinner was my next big chance. He could still be somewhere. At least I have my hope...
Five minutes later, someone handed me a loose-fitting servant's dress and told me to slip it on. I obliged. And then I was setting places on a table that was at least two hundred feet long.
There was no chair at the foot of the table, but at the head, there was a colossal, blocky golden throne. That could be for a million different people, I bitterly thought. Not.
The wall behind the throne had a huge tapestry. I quickly recognized the design – a Chomby with sunbeams coming off of her – from the anteroom I'd first entered into. This tapestry was larger than the engraving, though. This time I noticed that some of the creatures kneeling around were totally unrecognizable, particularly the one with four ears and the tall one with an ugly head.
The feasting hall was quiet except for the clatter of silverware. The table runner was embroidered with gentle flourishes. I felt my muscles tighten with tension. I constantly glanced across the table to see how the Gnorbu opposite me was setting her places. Three forks, two spoons, and two knives. I could never have figured out the pattern without copying her. But once I had it, it was pretty basic.
She folded her napkins into Quintilcs. I skipped that.
Then I saw another table-girl coming towards me from the other end one place setting at a time. She expertly pulled silverware from her basket when I fumbled, and she folded her napkins in mere seconds. Finally, she reached me and nodded.
All the way down the rest of the table, the places were set beautifully. A Gelert behind her put down clear goblets with Naleaps on them, wings outstretched, one by one on the corners of the woven placemats. My heart briefly twisted in envy at their skills. But then I realized that they probably had come from homes they wished to return to.
The Gelert looked at my work, smiled, and told me, "Do not be anxious if you lack the practice. You shall become a devoted neophyte given time."
Her speech felt foreign, an empty, distant noise. I took a deep breath and asked her, "So where are you from?"
She stared at me for a few seconds, as though she contemplating a risk. And then she leaned in and hissed, "I hail from Dalewood."
I was about to ask why she was talking so secretly, when the Gnorbu across the table leaned over and whispered, "Don't they teach young ladies how to set a proper table anymore? You're all crooked!"
These people have been here for years without aging!
I stared coolly at the gold-clad Chomby. She wore no gems, no crystals, not even a trace of silver. Just gold. She balanced her golden headdress on her skull perfectly.
I had been escorted to her dressing room. The walls were boxed with sideways poles, several dozen sets of robes hanging from each of them by golden hooks. Several guards lingered about. The room was, of course, gold: from mosaic tiles to the vaulted ceiling. A Lupess servant was attending to the Chomby, clipping on another one of her arm bangles here and there. The Chomby perched on a thick vanity chair, emotionlessly staring into the huge arced mirror on her golden dresser.
"Yes," she murmured, not taking her eyes from her reflection, "What is it?"
The Lenny servant who escorted me said, "This Hissi knocked at the door."
"You may be excused, servant. Hissi, yes, well, what do you want?" The Chomby mumbled. I narrowed my eyes as the Lenny brushed her way past me.
"Has a winged blue Xweetok come through here?" I questioned.
"Why... yes, yes, he has." Her voice sounded like I got her attention, but her reflection betrayed nothing. "Why... are you looking for him?"
"Yes. Where is he?"
She took in a breath.
"It is not in my interests to tell you that. I wonder how many more of your little party will show up – it may very well drive you crazy knowing he's not the only one who has wound up here. So as to not risk you meeting up with them..."
She raised her voice. "Guards. Throw her in the dungeon."
By the time I arrived at the table, people had begun to trickle in. All were dressed exotically, and no two guests looked the same. Suddenly I didn't feel so out of place in my robes. There were dresses meant to look like flowers, suits of gold and glitter, and robes embroidered with landscapes. The servants who brought us our appetizers were all in the same indigo uniforms. Like we're special and they aren't.
I glanced to my left, to the occupant of the throne. I couldn't look up past her hand.
Yes. She's intimidating. But you need to keep your focus on what matters, Cerulean.
Faith. The thought of her would have brought rays of hope gliding through my heart. Except without Faith, I didn't have a heart.
The Chomby laughed and boasted about everything; her jewelry, the food, the dining hall. Her gold bangles and beads would swing and clatter when she gestured into the air. Egbert and Vario had escorted me to the place by her immediately. When I asked them about it, Egbert said, "Queen's orders."
They hadn't even talked to her after she'd told them to escort me to the dressing rooms.
The appetizer was strange. Some sort of seafood which the guests delighted in. A thing called "fish." A small plate of it was placed in front of me. I tentatively nibbled at it, but finding it to be the most interesting thing I'd ever tasted, I shoveled the rest of it into my mouth before anyone else had three bites.
The table stretched down the dining hall, on and on. Most every seat was taken. I wondered who all the guests were. Where did they come from in the middle of nowhere? Was this the bottom of the universe, where the odd dimensional wanderer drifted in, but it was enough to accumulate?
Then came the tea.
The plates of fish were taken away. Some had left scraps left. Mine hadn't. Then a speckled Gelert leaned over to me and began to pour me tea from a huge pitcher she lugged around on one shoulder. The tea's green tone splashed into my Naleap glass.
Queen Benjai clapped her hands together and laughed. "Our famous angel tea!"
The sparkling green liquid winked at me. My lips trembled with dryness, as though I was just now thirsty. All the other guests were delicately sipping at theirs, so I confidently lifted the flask and began it as slowly as I could. I expected something rich, calming and altogether tasty.
I got sugar.
Maybe a few drops of green tea somewhere in there. But other than that, just sugar.
I felt my eyes strain as the sugar rushed into my bloodstream. That sparkling green ocean lapped at the sides of the glass faster and faster as my hand kept getting shakier. My fur rose with tension. The conversation blurred into energetic mumbles as I stared into the glass Naleap, willing its little emerald eyes to stop seeing into my soul.
My distressed face reflected in the glass startled me. The sugar effect had begun.
I felt ready to pass out, wake up, and find everything right with the world. I half remembered something: being with people named Callie and Bronco a year ago, before I knew Faith. They offered me root beer. I took it, not knowing the misery that awaited me. The next thing I knew, I woke up to Rubia telling me never to have sugar ever again.
A crashing noise snapped me back to reality. My glass was a fine crystal dust spread across the table, the miraculously-intact Naleap lying on its back. It looks dead! Taunting, sparkling green angel tea began to soak into my placemat.
Queen Benjai was looking at me funny. So was everyone else. My feet started to hop back and forth as I felt like I was flying through the sun.
The Chomby's voice sounded disappointed and... a little bit afraid. I couldn't make out what she was saying, though. She started shouting words I didn't hear. Panic and discomfort seared through me.
That was when I saw her.
Standing by the wall, staring at me, holding a platter with a lid over it.
I screamed her name, standing bolt upright all of a sudden. Queen Benjai shouted for her guards. I got hold of my senses and jerked the table runner to one side, pulling several glasses to the floor. Some of the nobles shrieked as they got to their feet, only to shriek again at the shards of glass in their feet. Most huddled on their chairs, but a few ran out of the room despite the pain.
Faith hugged her platter to her chest as a guard pushed her aside. He was trying to get to me, but I saw the push.
And I didn't like to see Faith being pushed.
I vaulted over the table, ducked between two guards, grabbed her arm, and pulled her away from the guards. She shrank close to my side, clinging tighter to her platter.
An armor-clad guard blocked the nearest exit. I grabbed Faith's platter and slammed it down hard on the guard's steel cap. The Kyrii didn't flinch, but raised his scythe. He stared, taking the time to aim just right...
I pulled the lid off of the platter and shoved it in his face.
Lettuce, bits of smashed tomato, and globs of salad dressing spilled onto the smooth gold floor as he screamed.
Faith whispered, "There's lemon in the dressing."
I instinctively thrust the platter's heavy lid right behind me. It struck another guard in the chest. He gasped, staggering away.
"Hurry!" I urged Faith as we hustle through the doorway. We could make it. Nobody was in the hall.
Faith yelped. I tore through the corridors despite a sudden heavy weight in my arms. No matter. Faith was miraculously keeping up with me. I twisted doorknobs, stumbled down stairs and squeezed through a revolving door. She yelped. Then she gasped. And then she just clung to me, trembling all over. They were right behind us at first. But then we lost them all at once.
Just to make sure, I kept running for awhile. Then I pulled Faith into a large storage room, surrounded by crates piled to the ceiling.
I looked down.
I saw a worn red Xweetok shudder in my arms, staring at me. Her hair was in a mess, and her clothes were torn. She finally managed a pitying smile.
"I'm so sorry," I whispered, stooping down. "Faith, I... I don't even remember picking you up..."
She got up and glanced away.
The world turned dark. I collapsed onto my face.
I ended up at the dungeons.
I emerged from the pipe at a part where the slush was gone and voices didn't echo down the metal tunnel. The disused part of the pipe had an exposed section rolled away. Old prison break?
It was a cold, quiet, calm hallway. Every inch was well-lit by magic. The wide pathway went on for several feet in either direction before curving sharply. The stench of rotting hay pierced my nostrils as my feet fell down on soft dirt that was suspiciously squishy. Glancing past rusted bars, I saw almost-barren skeletons and winced. But then one familiar, living voice called out, "Amadeus! Over here!"
"What is it?" I muttered, turning around. Then I slapped my face. Rubia was in a cell a few feet down the line.
Crossing her arms, she asked, "What does it look like?"
"Looks like I shouldn't bother."
"Aw, come on!"
I turned away from her.
"I know how you think. Look, I'm a medic. You know I'm a medic. That makes me useful," she called after me as I trudged through the darkness.
"Not too useful if you don't have supplies."
"...Yeah, that's kind of the reason why I'm not going to even go near you now..."
"You know I could've bitten you earlier if I wanted to!"
"I don't care if you're poisonous—"
"—Right now, because I'm still trying to get back into our world."
"Oh, yeah? Well, what a coincidence, me too. Why don't we work together again, even though we hate each other's guts? Maybe with our combined logical thinking, we can find the others INSTEAD OF WANDERING FOREVER IN THIS DEATH PIT. How does that sound?"
"This isn't exactly a death pit. How do I know it isn't my happiest dreams outside this dungeon?"
"Because there's this really big jerk who apparently separated Cerulean from Faith, and then tossed me in here so that I wouldn't be able to find either of them."
"And why is it such a terrible thing for you three to be apart from each other?"
"It's complicated. You don't know what it's like to miss someone anyways. And besides, I think I've figured everything out: if we're all together, including both halves of Cerulean, we might get back to our world, or at least irritate the really big jerk."
"You know what? I'm taking your word for it."
I approached her cell and ran my hands along the wall of bars. There didn't seem to be any lock or even a door. Rubia watched me intently as I felt for any possible disturbance in the magical composition. After several bars, I asked her, "How did they even get you in here?"
"They threw me in from a trapdoor ten feet above me. This place is crazy."
I muttered under my breath, "I can tell, because it's rubbing off on you."
"Nothing." My fingers stopped short. The bar felt like it had a seam in it, a crack of magic. "They didn't throw you in from above. You hallucinated the trapdoor. What really happened was they threw you in here and then used magic to make the bars materialize."
"How do you know all that?" Rubia sauntered a little closer, as though she was already out.
"Because I know what this magical flaw in this bar is. I can feel it. It's a very specific spell that can cause people's enemies to hallucinate. Of course, at forty-five words per minute, the name takes about eighty-seven days to pronounce..."
"Yeah, I think I know the one you're talking about. The one typically abbreviated as--"
"No! Don't try it!"
"Maybe we're not that different," I murmured, feeling warmth rush to my head.
Rubia paused to think, before burning me. "Well, after what you did to Faith, I sure do hate to think it."
My focus hand shattered, and rage flooded my mind. "Why's it always about her?"
"What do you mean? She's a good person. The fault is all yours. What did you think when you kidnapped her – that you were doing the world a favor?"
I scoffed. "The world? What do I care about the world? The world wasn't my problem. The initial reason I kidnapped her was for my own purposes: I was merely getting down to—"
I flinched. She was staring at me expectantly.
"What is it, Hissi?" I snapped, backing off. How could she look at me that way while I said what I did?
"Can't think of a better insult than my species name?" She tilted her head. "If you're a down-to-business person, why'd you bother stopping by my cell?"
"I... I thought you'd be a valuable addition to... the party."
"Liar. I had to convince you of that. Besides, what party?" Her voice wasn't angry. In fact, it almost sounded amused. "Now, how's about you try doing something about that lock?"
I retraced my fingers along the bar. When I found the seam, I relaxed all my muscles. I gripped the bar with both hands, focusing on the spark of cool magic within. It flickered out at me tauntingly. Immediately, I reached my conscience out to it and strangled the flicker. It struggled, but I quenched it with itself.
Somewhere within, I felt my heart awaken.
The bars evaporated in my hands. The thrill died, leaving me behind.
Rubia was free to go.
"How did you do that?" she asked, examining the frame where the bars had been. "You just knew exactly what the spell was, and you counteracted it without a drop of magic."
"Without my own magic. You have no idea how good it felt to get hold of a drop of magic after living for so long without it." I licked my lips. I wanted more. Right then.
"...You had the Crystal Boomerang for about a month or less, didn't you?" Rubia asked, snapping me back to reality.
"Oh, yeah... It felt like awhile. Besides, I had some magic before that." I shrugged. We started trudging down the hall.
"Amadeus," she said, "Magic isn't everything. In fact, if your priorities aren't straight, it's absolutely nothing."
"What?" I stopped.
"Sometimes, I really, really wish I had magic. But even if I had more magic than I could ever use, my children would still be my first priorities. I'd rather have them than a better me any day."
I shuddered at the thought of giving up magic. Every day, I found it harder to go without, but here was Rubia touting it as something material.
"How can you say that?" I sniffed. "You've never had magic. I need it. I don't like company – I just need magic."
"You poor thing. Hating people." Her voice rang firm in my ears. "Come on, let's go find Cerulean and Faith."
To be continued...