7.5 – The Penguin Queen (Part I)
This was going to be a Christmas special, but I got too busy and couldn’t finish the whole thing in time, so… Have part one of two?Lucas
“Here you go, kids.” Hana’s arm snaked round Kari’s door, more a tendril of flesh than a limb, and she set a plate of cookies on the floor. “Enjoy them while they’re warm!”
“Thanks.” The aroma of freshly-baked vanilla made Alex’s stomach rumble.
Teeth split across Hana’s palm and her hand smiled. “Oh, it’s no trouble at all.” She closed the door with a soft click.
Calis cleared his throat and loosened his collar but Alex didn’t so much as bat an eye. Three months had passed and Hana’s vague commitment to a coherent physical shape did not surprise him anymore.
Shub bleated and made a mad dash across Kari’s room for the cookies, her hooves clattering across the floor. Kari scooped the kid up before she could demolish the plate and Shub kicked her legs in the air indignantly. Evening stained the sky grey outside, rain blustering in from off-shore, but Kari had promised to walk Alex and Calis home so he didn’t worry.
“Mother likes having guests around,” Kari said.
“I know.” Alex swiped a cookie, still warm to the touch.
Kari’s eyes sparkled in a way that suggested she hadn’t just been talking about Hana. It was always Kari’s eyes that spoke, and Alex should have learned to read them sooner. Kari’s expression rarely changed, her face a porcelain mask, but her eyes waltzed and tangoed.
The cookie melted into Alex’s mouth and he hummed around it. “These are delicious! Calis, you should try them.”
Calis eyed the cookies warily. “They look sweet.”
“Just try them.” Alex rolled his eyes and handed one to Calis. Their fingers brushed. Alex pointedly ignored the shiver that ran across his skin.
Calis took a bite and tilted his head in acknowledgement. “They’re good.” His lips curled in that way they did when he was happy.
“Of course they are.” Kari nodded. “Mother spent centuries learning to cook and poison.”
Calis paused mid-chew. “Cook and…?”
“Poison,” Kari repeated. “It’s like cooking but in negative.”
Calis gulped. “Right.”
Alex laughed and sprawled back, resting his head on his arms. He’d spent almost a week with Calis and maybe, just maybe, Alex was getting used to having the incubus around. Calis was easy-going to the point of naïveté, but then he wasn’t even a year old. Alex’s house didn’t feel so empty anymore.
“What did Melody want to talk to you about?” Calis asked. “Before we went to get bubble tea.”
“That cultist from before.” Kari combed Shub’s coat with her fingers. “The Knights are worried more cultists will come investigate what happened.”
Alex’s heart skipped a beat and he sat up. “Aren’t you?” He rubbed his arm.
Kari shrugged. “Let them come.”
Was that supposed to be reassuring? Alex frowned.
“Besides, you’ve got me to protect you now.” Calis grinned and threw a lazy arm around Alex.
Calis’ touch was a line of warmth along Alex’s shoulders and Alex fought the urge to press into him. Calis smelled of wood smoke and cinnamon and crackling flames.
“What are you going to do, seduce the cultist?” Alex snorted.
“Hey.” Calis flicked Alex’s side.
Kari’s room felt colder when Calis slipped his arm off Alex, or perhaps it was a breeze. Cultists. Alex didn’t want to know any more; he didn’t want to think about an unfinished ritual and what might happen if someone traced it back to him. He lived in two worlds but he grounded himself firmly in the human one of school and rugby.
“This is not what I thought your room would look like, though.” Calis gazed at the shelves of manga that swathed the far wall.
Kari flicked her hair. “It’s avant-garde, I know. You may look through my collection. I permit it.”
Alex didn’t have much interest in manga but Calis picked up a volume, flicking through it at a pace implying he understood the Japanese characters. With a start Alex remembered the subject matter of most of Kari’s collection.
“This is cute.” Calis raised his eyebrow.
“Oh stop it,” Alex huffed, but when he peered over Calis’ shoulder he saw panels filled with cute animals, not porn.
“It’s first edition,” Kari said. “I got it signed by—” She froze, her eyes wide.
Alex tensed and Calis slid the volume back. “What is it?”
The atmosphere plummeted. “A volume is missing.” Kari’s tone was a knife-edge.
Alex followed her gaze to a gap on the shelf, stark between a black volume and a another a blood-red.
“Was it…” Alex swallowed. “Was it there before?”
Kari didn’t answer, instead stalking to the bookshelf. She sniffed. Her eyes narrowed.
“Uh…” Calis scratched the back of his neck.
Alex elbowed him. “Quiet.” There were two things you did not disturb Kari for: bubble tea and manga.
In a gunshot of a movement, Kari snatched something from the gap and held it up to the light. She gritted her teeth. Wind howled and the windows rattled.
Kari held a small feather, tapering from white to black at its tip. Alex sucked in a breath.
“Penguins,” Kari growled.
“I’m sorry, what?” Calis blinked.
“First milk, then bubbles and now…”
The air seemed to twist and writhe around her, light bending in a dread halo. Kari’s irises burned.
“これは la goutte qui faite déborder le vase.” Kari locked her jaw. “C’est 堪忍袋の緒が切れる. Novissimus camel straw.”
Alex had no idea what Kari had just said, but he got the gist of it. His stomach dropped.
“お母さん!” Kari clenched her fists. “Get the winter clothing. I am going to war!” She swept from her room and shot a glance behind her. “Toi aussi, come with me. They won’t be expecting an army.”
Alex jumped instinctively but hastened to follow her, Shub clacking at his heels. Penguins. Right. Okay. He wasn’t sure what type of penguins lived in Kari’s fridge, but they were intelligent enough to thieve.
“What’s a patience bag?” Calis whispered.
“I don’t speak French,” Alex said.
Calis frowned. “I thought it was Japanese.” His face was a masterpiece of bewilderment and Alex was glad he wasn’t the only one.
Kari slammed open the kitchen door to where Hana was laying out three sets of arctic gear on the dining table, complete with ski-goggles and boots so thick they could probably crush ice. Hana arranged the gear with loving care, fond smiles on her face.
“My baby girl, off to war.” Hana clasped her hands to her breast. “I knew this day would come.”
“You’re actually going to war?” Calis said. “With penguins?”
“You don’t understand.” Kari pulled on her coat in a single, fluid motion. “They’re giant penguins. Intelligent penguins. They’ve implemented a monarchy.”
Hana nodded. “Their queen is ruthless.”
Calis opened his mouth but Alex stopped him with a hand to his shoulder. “Sometimes it’s best to just accept things.”
Alex pulled the waterproof trousers on and slipped into the boots. They fit perfectly, but in the room-temperature of the kitchen their weight was already uncomfortable. He zipped up the coats and hung the goggles around his neck.
Calis dressed suave as ever, a picture-perfect arctic explorer, and Kari’s coats threatened to swallow her whole. A glance in the mirror told Alex he looked red and puffy. An army, Kari had called them. He certainly didn’t feel it. Just how giant was a giant penguin, anyway?
“Remember,” Kari snapped her hood up, “武士は食わねど高楊枝.”
“And what does that mean?” Alex asked.
Kari clenched her jaw. “They won’t see me cry, not this time.”
She thrust open the fridge door and a blast of cold air hit Alex in the face, biting into his skin. The fridge was a door cut into winter, a rectangle of ice and snow. Wind blustered and snowflakes settled on the fur of Alex’s hood. He fumbled to slip his goggles on.
Kari marched inside the fridge without a second word.
Calis bumped his arm. “Are you ready?”
“I guess.” Alex still wasn’t sure what he should be ready for, but when Kari started mixing languages you didn’t question her.
“Have fun on your conquest.” Hana waved with three hands.
With a deep breath, Alex plunged into the fridge after Kari. His boots crunched into the snow and the air stung his face, a sharp scent. He stood in a field of snow, gentle hills sloping around him. Nestled at his feet were bottles of milk and other foodstuffs, half-buried in the snow. He poked a bottle with his foot; the milk was frozen solid.
Fridge. The place felt more like a freezer than anything else.
Alex craned his neck to make out the strips of light above him, what looked like massive fluorescent strips hanging from a ceiling of what could have been frosted glass or could have been ice.
“The penguins’ stronghold is on the top shelf,” Kari said.
Shelf? Alex was fairly certain he stood in the arctic, but then the arctic didn’t usually have fluorescent light strips instead of a sky.
“How many shelves are there?” Calis asked.
“Three.” Kari pointed across the snow. “There’s a ladder over there you—I mean we—can climb.”
The trip in her words brought to mind something about Kari being able to spontaneously teleport, but Alex appreciated Kari’s sticking together. A fridge would be a particularly unglamorous place to die.
Kari ploughed her way through the hills and Alex followed, glad for the thick layers he wore. He brushed the snow with his gloves and watched as it flurried into the air. A smile. His parents had once taken him on a skiing trip to Canada, and although he’d done no skiing, the landscape had frozen itself in his memory.
What were Alex’s parents doing right now? He doubted there was snow in Iran.
“So how come you have this as your fridge?” Calis kicked the snow as he walked, a massive grin on his face.
“It was on sale.” Kari said.
“And it came with penguins?” Alex quite liked the sound of this shop.
Kari scowled. “The penguins moved in from the left.”
“I see.” Alex didn’t.
A wall loomed in the distance, glinting a dull white. Alex had no idea how long they’d been walking, the landscape the same whichever way he looked, and the wall wasn’t getting closer anytime soon. A hill soon covered the horizon, steeping the valley in shadow. All of this, in a fridge. A fridge.
“How long does it take to get to the top shelf?” Alex asked. It had been seven o’clock when they’d set out, and tomorrow was a Friday.
“At your pace?” Kari thought for a moment. “Perhaps an hour or two. It—” Something caught her eye and she twisted on her heels. “Quiet.”
Alex’s breath stilled. They stood in the dip between three hills, snow blustering off their peaks and shifting down the sides of the valley. A gust of wind and Alex sneezed.
A shadow behind a ridge of snow. Dark shapes crested the hills and Alex flinched backwards but Calis gripped his shoulder.
“We’re surrounded,” Calis said.
Penguins encircled the valley, the fluorescent strips on the ceiling setting their silhouettes alight. Their beaks were a deep crimson and they ruffled monochrome feathers, each penguin standing a good five feet tall. Each one staring directly at them, their eyes beading with a cold intelligence.
“Their queen is quite ruthless.”
“Thieves!” Kari shouted. “Barbari!”
“Hoonnnkkkkk!” honked the penguins.
Snow slid down the hills and Alex’s stomach twisted. Even with an outer god on their side, they’d still walked straight into an ambush.
“Kari, maybe we should…” Alex started to say.
“Return what you stole,” Kari demanded, her face twisted in righteous fury.
With a tumultuous cry the penguins raised their flippers. A rush of air, as if the very fridge inhaled, and the wind traced ice against Alex’s exposed skin. His nose stung, blocked and trickling both at once.
Calis gulped. “Oh no.”
The hills exploded. A scream and the snow gave way beneath Alex, an avalanche of white. Shit! The world crumbled and his stomach flipped the other way, bile jumping to the back of his throat. Calis. Kari, where—
He was falling before he knew what was happening, lost in an eruption of cold and ice. Someone grabbed onto him. Something hit his head.