7.6 – The Penguin Queen (Part II)
The last part of the Christmas special is finally up! (I lowkey hate this but have fun~)Lucas
Considering the last thing Alex remembered was being hit by an avalanche, he was decidedly warmer than he should be. He blinked the snow out of his eyes and was met by a patch of black, flinching before realising the black wasn’t feathers but the breast of a coat. Calis’ coat.
Calis, whose weight was currently pinning Alex to the snow with his arms trapped against his chest. As far as Alex could tell, they were completely buried, a small pocket of air the only oxygen they had.
Alex gulped down a breath and wriggled, but Calis didn’t so much as stir.
A surge of panic. “Calis!”
Alex strained to push Calis off him but he couldn’t get enough leverage with the snow slipping under him. Shit! What was the point of rugby if Alex couldn’t even move one lump of muscle? He grunted in frustration then yelped as a flurry of snow fell into his hood.
“Alex?” came a muffled voice.
“Kari!” Alex yelled. “We’re here!” Thank goodness she was alright.
A gloved fist punched through the snow right next to Alex’s head and a flicker of light broke through. Alex caught his breath. Kari pulled Calis from the snow with one hand and held him effortlessly above her head, staring down at Alex with a grim expression.
“You’re alright,” Kari said.
“Calis isn’t moving.” Alex stumbled to his feet and clutched the edge of the hole, snow crumbling through his grip. The avalanche had levelled the hills, the landscape upheaved, and there was no sign of any penguins. A nervous flutter in Alex’s stomach.
“He’s fine.” Kari dropped Calis and he jumped awake, his eyes wide.
“Kari?” Calis blinked. “Alex? What happened?”
“I was careless.” Kari gritted her teeth and her eyes flashed emerald. “I let my guard down and the penguins ambushed us.”
Right. Penguins. Alex shook the snow out of his hood and shuddered at the cold air. He’d been attacked by penguins and he’d lost. Admittedly, the penguin had somehow caused an avalanche, but that was beside the point.
“What do we do now?” Calis brushed himself off.
“We need more information,” Kari said. “I’ll scout ahead. Meet up with me on the third shelf.”
“Kari, wait—” Alex started.
He blinked and Kari disappeared. Teleported.
“She left.” Alex gaped.
Kari couldn’t be gone. Without her, the fridge became a wasteland, a desperate place where no one would find his body.
“She’s scouting ahead.” Calis shielded his eyes as he scanned the surroundings. “You heard what she said.”
“She left us.” Alex’s breathing hitched. “She didn’t even wait, she just left.”
“Alex.” Calis grabbed his arm. “Chill.”
Alex caught himself in Calis’ eyes, a warm brown that didn’t seem to realise the ridiculousness of being trapped in a magical fridge with no idea how to escape.
“Really?” Alex frowned. “Chill?”
“Kari trusts us to make it to her.” Calis squeezed Alex’s shoulder. “Third shelf, remember?”
Alex glanced at the wall in the distance, visible again due to the flattened snow. Now that he was closer, he could see great ridges that lined the ice, or perhaps massive grooves to hold in shelves.
Alex was inside Kari’s fridge, which technically meant he was still inside her house. And the penguins did steal her manga.
“Let’s just get going.” Alex sighed.
He trudged along with his hands stuffed in his pockets, a scowl on his face. Alex really wished he hadn’t been knocked out, because now the absurdity of what he was doing had snapped into focus. It was a Thursday night and he should be resting up for rugby tomorrow; instead here he was, in an impossible space.
Calis whistled as he walked, an upbeat tune.
“Could you please stop?” Alex said.
Calis’ whistling trailed off mid-note. “Sorry.”
They continued on in silence, and was it Alex’s imagination or was that wall not getting any closer? Kari should be here. This was her world, her madness, and Alex didn’t know if he could process it without her.
“You know,” Calis hesitated, “with magic I could—”
“Nope.” Alex clenched his fists and ploughed a couple of feet forwards.
“But Alex, I…”
“I said no.” Alex turned on Calis. “You’re not using magic.” His breath came in icy clouds and the air stung his throat.
“I can help,” Calis insisted. “I can take us straight to Kari.”
He could? All Alex had seen of Calis’ magic was fire and ash.
No, damnit. Alex couldn’t let him.
“You’re not using magic.” Alex gritted his teeth. It was the one thing he asked of Calis, Alex’s one request. He wanted to be normal, and Calis was soul-bonded to him. It was the logical conclusion.
A flicker of annoyance across Calis’ face. “Right. Just pretend I’m human.”
“It’s not…” Alex huffed. “I don’t mean it like that. You know how it is.”
Calis shook his head. “Don’t worry about it.”
They continued on but the silence between them was strained, awkward. Alex could feel the frustration pulsing between them, each heartbeat pumping hot through the soul-bond. It wasn’t Calis’ fault they were in this situation, but at the same time Alex couldn’t…
“Look,” Calis said.
Alex glanced up and blinked. The wall was only a few hundred metres away and he could see the ice on it clearly, crystals glittering like the frost on an ice-cream tub. Alex’s stomach rumbled.
“Hungry?” Calis teased.
A wry smile. “I should have brought some of those cookies with me.”
As Alex approached he scanned the wall for the ladder, but nothing stood out. It wasn’t built into the ice, was it? Colour splashed against the snow, however, and Alex’s stomach sank. Calis swore.
On the floor pooled a rope ladder, its ends roughly severed. Alex knelt and picked at the coils, the rope about half as thick as his wrist. A black feather poked from one of the severed ends.
“Figures.” Alex gritted his teeth. “Damn penguins.”
“Hey, they left us two ice-picks,” Calis said. He picked one up with a grin. “Kind of cool, no?”
The ice-picks were carved from a dark wood, with a metal spike at one end and an axe-head on the other. At least now Alex knew how the penguins had cut the rope.
“And how are they going to help us?” Alex said.
Calis flipped the pick in his hand. “I doubt the penguins took a strong guy like me into account.”
In a burst of movement Calis struck the pick into the wall, burying it to the hilt. He gave it a tug. It held.
“I reckon I can climb with these.” He nodded to himself.
“What about me?” Alex craned his neck to glance upwards. The next shelf was within view and there was a small hole by the wall, but it still looked like an awfully long way to fall.
Calis picked up some rope and looped it around his waist, tying a knot. He handed the other end to Alex.
The rope looped around Alex’s waist and legs in a makeshift harness and he clung to it with a racing heart, his muscles frozen into a rigor mortis. They’d passed one shelf already; just one more to go. The second shelf was indistinguishable from the first, snow upon featureless expanse of snow. At least inside the fridge there was no wind, a small mercy.
Calis toiled relentlessly, not having taken so much as a break in the hour they’d been climbing. An incubus’ strength, huh? Did that count as magic? Alex decided it didn’t. He’d be helpless without it. But then, allowing things only when they were convenient was even worse than taking advantage of Calis for his magic.
Calis jerked another level upwards and the rope bounced. Alex’s breath caught in his throat.
“Is… Is it supposed to give like that?” he said.
Calis paused to look over his shoulder. “No?”
Alex gulped and stared at the rope bouncing before him, strands of string dusted with frost. He hung just below Calis, the length of the rope limited to how ridiculously tight the knots in the ladder had been.
A strand snapped. Alex’s heart skipped a beat.
As if to spite Alex’s cry for help, the rest of the rope snapped at once and he shrieked. A split-second and Alex’s life flashed before his eyes, but Calis grabbed his arm and Alex’s shoulder jerked in its socket. He hissed at the pain and adrenaline burned through him, his feet dangling over nothing.
“Thanks.” His heart thumped against his ribcage and hands trembled, not just from the cold. If it weren’t for Calis, Alex would have died.
In a fridge.
“Hold onto me.” Calis pulled Alex up so Alex could loop his arms around Calis’ neck. “We’re nearly there.”
Alex clung onto Calis tighter than he needed to, blood rushing in his ears. He was safe. He wasn’t falling. The fridge wouldn’t kill him.
“You sure you’re good?” Calis asked.
Alex could feel Calis’ voice rumbling through his chest. “I’m sure.”
Alex pressed his face into the crook of Calis’ neck to shield from the cold and Calis’ breath hit him in a cloud of warmth. Alex’s nose dripped. He sniffed. Calis’ scent pressed into him, a musk too sweet to be human. Too rich.
Alex closed his eyes and tried to remember what Nathan smelled like, tried to picture Nathan’s smile, but all he saw was Calis. Calis, who could never really love Alex, not through choice. A whirlwind swirled in Alex’s heart and he didn’t know what he was supposed to be feeling, anymore.
Nathan. He wanted Nathan, he wanted to be in love with Nathan. A human.
“I don’t want to pretend you’re human,” Alex breathed. “I… This is Kari’s world. Melody’s world.”
A beautiful, wonderful chaos. Alex had almost died at least four times, but he wouldn’t change it for anything else. He had friends now, real ones, and even a hobby. A plan for the future, however vague.
“I… I want you to be mine,” Alex said. “I wish you were from my world.”
Maybe then, Alex would have been allowed to like Calis’ cooking, his stupid whistling and his crooked smile. Calis being perfect wouldn’t be a problem if it was a coincidence. If it was natural.
A shower of ice as Calis pulled an ice-pick free and stabbed it upwards.
“I am yours,” Calis said. “That’s what the soul-bond means.”
“That’s a slave pact.” Alex shook his head. “It’s not real.”
“I…” A pause. “I guess so.”
The altitude must be making Alex dizzy. He didn’t know why he was sharing so much, his words verging dangerously close to honesty. Calis slept in his spare room, for goodness’ sake. Alex couldn’t make things awkward.
Calis reached the third shelf before Alex could say anything else. With a grunt Alex pulled himself onto the shelf and collapsed onto the snow, a laugh escaping his lips. Calis fell back next to him. Close. So far away.
Alex opened his mouth but didn’t want to disturb the moment, whatever it was. Exhaustion broke over him and if he closed his eyes, he could pretend he was lying on his bed. His wind-swept, sub-arctic bed.
“Where do you reckon Kari is?” Calis’ voice rose Alex from his dream.
A castle loomed a short while away, a monolith of ice that looked carved straight out of a Disney movie.
“If I had to guess, I’d say there.” Alex pointed.
“Right.” Calis jumped to his feet. “Let’s go find her, then.”
The corner of Alex’s lips curled in a smile.
The nearer they drew to the castle, however, the more Alex’s gut twisted. Turrets and castellations stuck out at odd angles, sharp yet smooth at the same time, and it took Alex far too long to figure out they were all mashed together, the castle more like a misshapen ice cube than an actual building. Alex swallowed. It was as if the castle was only what a penguin’s mind thought a castle should be, and the mockery of human architecture was terrifying to behold.
“There aren’t any guards,” Alex said.
“You don’t…” Calis hesitated. “You don’t think Kari teleported straight in there, do you?”
Alex’s mind flicked back to the steely determination in Kari’s gaze before she’d left. Direct. If there was one word Alex would use to describe Kari, it was that.
“She’s definitely in there,” Alex sighed. With any luck, Kari would already have her manga back and they could leave straight away.
A drawbridge without a moat led into the castle’s depths and as soon as Alex set foot on it, he felt tremors rumbling up his legs and the sound of a great something pounding through the air.
“What’s that?” Alex said.
Calis’ eyes narrowed. “Stay behind me.”
Alex followed Calis into a scene from a nature documentary’s nightmare. The air reeked of wet feathers and Alex covered his nose with a cough, his eyes watering from the sudden boom of body heat. Hundreds of penguins huddled in the centre of a gigantic room, their feathers bristled and each one stamping its feet on the ground to create a terrible cacophony.
Alex shrunk away but when Calis strode up to the penguins they parted, a path emerging to an ice throne in the heart of the colony. On the throne sat the Penguin Queen.
She poised a head taller than her subjects, with a streak of turquoise dashed through her beak and a ring of gold feathers around her neck. The queen’s eyes beaded with a cold intellect and Alex shuddered, his gaze shifting to anywhere but her.
Above the queen hung a cage, its contents out of view, and below the cage Kari stood with her arms folded and her hood puffed.
“There are two-hundred-and-seventeen penguins here,” Kari said. “They’ve amassed their entire military strength in this room, for reasons unknown.”
The penguins glared at Kari with open hostility and Alex swallowed a laugh. “I can’t imagine why.”
The penguins inched forwards, their stomping drawing to a crescendo, and Alex backed into Kari and Calis. Sweat beaded down his back.
“I thought you said you were scouting ahead,” Calis said.
Kari nodded. “This is the best vantage point. All I had to do was wait for you to arrive.”
“Let’s just get this over with.” Alex shook his head.
The penguins’ stomping cut off so abruptly Alex flinched and Calis growled. The queen straightened in her throne, her feathers bristled.
Kari snapped into a battle stance and pointed her chin to face the queen. Instead of speaking, however, she let out a massive honk, so loud Alex had to cover his ears. The penguins screeched and the queen honked back, short and sharp.
“What are you saying?” Calis said.
“I told her to give back what she stole,” Kari growled. “She refused.” Kari clenched her fists. “Bloodshed is the only path left.”
The queen honked again, a flicker of annoyance, and Kari snorted.
“She basically refused,” Kari said.
“Basically?” Alex quirked his eyebrow.
“The penguins want autonomy, and they’ll hold my manga hostage until they get it.”
“Autonomy?” Alex frowned.
“This fridge has no ecosystem, so they rely on stolen food to survive,” Kari translated. A glare. “Theyshouldn’t have moved in in the first place.”
Alex rubbed his temple to gather his thoughts. So the contents of Kari’s fridge was enough to sustain both a hundreds-strong colony of giant penguins and Kari’s bubble tea obsession? Surely Hana must be stocking the fridge with extra food on purpose. Oh wait, yes. That’s where the autonomy came in. They needed a way to make food themselves.
“Have they tried leaving the fridge?” Calis suggested.
“They don’t want to,” Kari said.
“Then you’ll have to compromise,” Alex said. “Kari, can’t you and your mum introduce some new species here?”
Maybe Hana could dig a puddle and put some fish in it, or something. Goodness knows it wouldn’t be the weirdest thing inside their fridge.
“Of course.” Kari folded her arms. “Mother’s sphere of control is fertility.”
Calis blanched. “Wait, Hana is the goddess Nagga—”
“Yes,” Kari cut him off with a glare that made the air jump.
Calis shut up, an expression of confused terror on his face, and Alex shivered despite himself. Even the penguins huddled backwards in face of Hana’s real name. Nagga-something, goddess of fertility. Alex didn’t understand Calis’ reaction; Hana’s touch was so warm.
“If we do this, do you promise never to steal again?” Alex addressed the queen. He didn’t know what kind of ecosystem Hana would implement, but whatever it was it’d be better than nothing.
A long silence, then a despondent honk.
“That’s a yes,” Kari said.
Calis grinned. “Problem solved.”
The penguins scattered in a burst of excited penguin noises and a winch squeaked through the air as the queen reluctantly lowered the cage. A clack of her beak and the bars broke open.
Kari snatched the manga volume, then paused. She cleared her throat. “Thank you.”
The queen ruffled her feathers in a dismissive acknowledgement, then waddled away with her beak held high.
Kari cradled the thin volume, her eyes bright. “Safe at last.” She held it out.
On the cover was a blood-red figure with curling horns and six-pack abs, surrounded by flickering flames. A familiar figure. Alex’s stomach dropped.
“By the way, what’s with the horns and tail?” As much as he wanted to, he couldn’t get that image out of his head.
Calis shrugged. “You must have got it from somewhere.”
“Oh,” Calis said.
Kari glanced between them, her expression blank. “What is it?”
“I didn’t mean it.” Heat rose to Alex’s face. He didn’t even like manga.
Calis laughed and brushed his arm against Alex’s. “Your subconscious did.”