Arnav was feeling extremely groggy as someone was gently shaking him.
But Arnav's head was pounding so badly and he was feeling nauseous that even the gentle touches of whoever it was, was hurting Arnav. Frankly, the way Arnav was feeling, he was sure that the Evil Queen, was pounding his head with a sledgehammer.
That image somehow scared Arnav so badly as he gasped for breath, pushing himself up. His headache if anything went from bad to worse and he was struggling to control himself when he felt a small hairy thing collide with his chest trembling, calling out his name gently.
The thing was small, and presented no physical danger to Arnav, but it terrified Arnav so badly that he was finding it impossible to breathe.
"Kid?" Arnav asked hoping this was wrong. This was just wrong at all levels. He was having a stupid dream and a killer headache. And right now, he really did not need to see Nandhini so scared, terrified and crying.
Among all the things in the dream, this was the only thing which freaked him out badly.
"Arnav..." Nandini sobbed hugging him some more. Kai was hanging on limply in Nandini's hands and even its features looked glum as Nandini was clutching it tightly. "I am scared! I want to go home. I want mummy," She stammered as she was unwilling to meet Arnav's eyes, as her hands were shaking.
Arnav pushed himself out of the large, crudely made wooden bed, as he was trying to get Nandini to look at him.
Arnav honestly was thinking of doing something really drastic to wake up from the dream. Until now, the dream was just a mild inconvenience and extremely embarrassing. Now watching Nandini crying, this was becoming into a nightmare.
"Kid," Arnav said as Nandhini hugged him even more tightly and sobbed. "What happened?"
The kid just would not stop crying.
"You are the bravest girl I have ever seen." Arnav said pulling up Kai from her little hands. "Remember you could even save Kai from the broken bridge," Arnav said trying to smile as he remembered their own haphazardly made Lego blocks bridge from which Kai had fallen. Nandini had dived into the Lego blocks to get the panda out.
"I saw the Shadow things hurting you," Nandini wept, stuttering mildly as she was hugging Arnav.
"What Shadow things?" Arnav asked struggling not to let anything show on his face. That Nandini had also seen it, was raising serious doubts in Arnav's head. Was the entire thing real? Or is he imagining even Nandini in his own dream?
Arnav resolutely crushed all thought process in that direction as he saw Nandini.
"I woke up and you were talking with some tall woman and big guy," Nandini said still hiccuping as she looked miserable. "I wanted to come near you and then suddenly the Shadow things came. I couldn't see them clearly. They were on the other side of something." Nandini looked at Arnav and was trembling. "When it came near you, you were shouting and clutching your head like it was hurting. I was so scared. I was scared that something bad would happen to you. Like what happened to daddy..." Nandini just could not continue anymore as she burst out crying, hugging Arnav as her little hands were clawing into his back.
But honestly, Arnav felt nothing. As of now, the fact that the kid was holding him was the only thing which was keeping him sane.
"We are going to get out of here real fast." Arnav assured Nandini though he felt no such hope within himself. And "here" happened to be a thatched hut of sorts. He was sitting on the floor with the largest furniture in the room behind him – the large crudely shaped bed. There was a wooden table nearby and it had so many things on it from glass beakers with purple coloured liquids to old scrolls and books, that Arnav's brain frankly even gave up identifying any of that. Arnav also saw that there was a staircase which led to the top of the house and from what he could see, the top of the house had more leather bound books and quite a lot of them too.
"Kid, I am fine," Arnav said trying to smile and frankly that was becoming impossible. "Look," Arnav said pointing at himself. "Perfectly fine and we will go back home very soon and we will have some chocolate milkshake." Arnav said lowering his voice slightly. Arnav could hear footsteps outside and he needed to listen to it.
"Mummy said no chocolate until test is over," Nandini said glumly. Her face still looked tear-faced but she was willing to move on and push through the blind panic she was feeling.
That was far more than Arnav expected from her.
"Do we always listen to mummy?" Arnav asked looking almost annoyed.
Nandini attempted to laugh which came out all wrong. But Arnav was willing to settle for that.
Besides, that was when he heard foot steps from the door.
Arnav thought he saw two huge potatoes walking inside. The image pretty much terrified Arnav as he was struggling to focus better because the last thing he wanted was to be squashed by potatoes.
And that was when a third person walked inside and Arnav found he could see properly.
He suddenly remembered the "Thou are surrounded" guy and all the other things connected with it. And though Arnav could see better, the headache was nowhere close to even becoming manageable. Nandini's hands were trembling against his hands as he clutched it tightly as she stepped behind him almost trying to hide herself from them.
"God, what is it going to take to get out of this dream?" Arnav demanded almost furious with himself.
The Shadow things whatever they were, they had nearly given Arnav a migraine. If even that mind numbing pain could not get him out of this damned nightmare, Arnav was seriously out of ideas about what else he could do.
And then Arnav saw that he could recognize one of the ladies.
"Doorbell!" Arnav muttered to himself, struggling not to sigh.
"Relax wizard," The other woman said as Arnav's vision was still pathetically bad. And that was when Arnav realized that he was really feeling weak. Too weak. At best, he could have pushed himself back, fallen on the bed and hit himself on the head, possibly rendering himself unconscious again. With Nandini here, Arnav was not in a mood to try all that.
"Wizard?" Nandini's head came up from behind Arnav and suddenly all her fear was gone. "Arnav is a wizard?" Nandini looked at Arnav with hurt filled eyes. "Why didn't you tell me you were a wizard, Arnav?" She demanded trying to get angry. "You know I won't tell mummy all this." She looked at Arnav as her eyes became bubbly again. "What magic can you do, Arnav? Please, please, please show me!" Nandini begged.
"I can give myself a headache kid," Arnav said getting annoyed. Once, just once in his life he would like to walk out a situation without completely embarrassing himself.
"Why do you need magic for that?" Nandini asked confused.
Arnav snarled angrily, which Nandini very wisely took as a "keep quiet" sign and nodded docilely, making her look more silly than needed.
"Look, I am running on a very short fuse and I got a kid with me and I need to get back home," Arnav told Doorbell lady and struggled not to get annoyed. "So just start talking and start talking real fast."
"Fuse?" Doorbell lady asked and she was looking very confused. "Is that thee magic instrument?" She asked.
Even Nandini was confused as she looked at Arnav. "They don't seem to know much about magic, Arnav" she said shaking her head at the idiocy of the people in front of her.
Doorbell Lady snorted angrily.
"I know I am going to kill someone today," Arnav muttered hoping no one heard him.
"We saved your life wizard and the life of your child," The Doorbell lady said angrily as she heard Arnav perfectly well. "Would thee have preferred it, if we left thee at the outskirts of the Restricted Region?" The lady asked angrily.
"Who is thee?" Nandini asked looking even more confused.
Arnav wanted to scream on top of his voice and run from the place. He would have even done it. Just that Arnav knew there was absolutely no place he could run to, so he stayed put.
"I have never seen thou before, wizard," an older, wiser voice from beside Doorbell lady told Arnav. This voice was calm, cool and feminine and Arnav turned to watch the woman and was actually, properly shocked.
The Doorbell lady and the older lady were standing side by side and were watching him with very curious expressions on their faces. Though Doorbell was younger of the two, the older lady was far more impressive. Though the old lady's face was wrinkled but her eyes were sparkling with intelligence.
"Are thou from around here?" the old lady asked, eying his shirt.
"Can you say 'you'?" Arnav asked as things were slowly coming into focus.
The beefy guy – Arnav thought his name was Nuran, or something, was looking at him angrily and Arnav's headache did not lessen, but this seemed like the best deal he was going to get right now.
"U?" The old lady tried with a smile.
Arnav sighed. "Too much work!" he said shaking his head. "What was the thing that attacked me?" Arnav asked watching the old lady.
"Do U have a name, wizard?" the woman asked with a lovely smile on her lips. "I ask thou...." the woman shook her head, still smiling. "...U, because when a man risks his life for me, I think I should know his name."
"He is Arnav," Nandini said with a smile, "And he is the most powerful wizard in the world," Nandini said looking at Arnav with genuine pride in her eyes.
Arnav sighed. "I am not an wizard. I just got caught here. And I have no idea where 'here' is. And I am very sure that if I go back to sleep, I will wake up in my own place." Arnav said looking annoyed at Nandini.
"You are not a wizard, Arnav?" Nandini asked looking glum.
Doorbell Lady snorted angrily. "He lies, little one." She said angrily.
"Is that the only expression she is capable of?" Arnav demanded almost whining, as he was thumbing at Doorbell. "Ever since I saw her she has been snorting or trying to bash my head with flowerpots."
Arnav was right. Leha snorted angrily. Again.
"Do not be unfair to her, Wizard Arnav." the old woman said. "Life has been hard on her."
"I like that!" Nandini said clapping her hands. "Wizard Arnav." Her eyes were twinkling and Arnav was sorely tempted to dig a hole and hide under it.
Arnav picked Nandini up and placed her in the only place in the table which did not have any glass jars or anything dangerous on it. "Kiddo, no talking." Arnav said and he was really serious. "This is not our place. And we need to get back. And I have no idea, what this place is. The sooner and better we listen, we can get out of here and go back home."
Nandini opened her mouth when for the first time Arnav was faster. "Otherwise we do not get chocolate milkshake." Arnav said looking very serious.
"That is cheating!" Nandini was aghast. "You promised me that you would get it for me." Nandini actually had the audacity to look hurt.
"That's life!" Arnav said, realizing that making deals with kids was probably the stupidest thing he could ever do. No matter what he did, he still lost.
Nandini said nothing as she looked furiously angry as Arnav turned his attention to the old lady who was actually looking at him with real respect.
"Rewind and talk," Arnav told the old woman trying to ignore the headache and another feeling. An important feeling - when the Shadow things had attacked, Arnav had felt something. Something powerful. It almost felt to Arnav like he should know that feeling. And now that Arnav thought about it, it terrified him. So he did what he usually did. Ignore it, all together.
"We are inside the Dome, wizard," The old lady said. "Many centuries back, the Dark Ones – the Shades, used to destroy our cities and consume all the people who used to live here and turn them into darkness. There was a time when we could stop the Shades with our own power. Because we were pure then. Our hearts were pure and white and the Shades could do nothing to us. But then we grew weaker. So to stop the Shades, we devised the Dome. The Dome was formed as a result of a powerful bit of magic. Centuries back, our queen used her own life essence and set up the Dome and she kept the Shades outside the Dome."
"So what is your problem now?" Arnav asked wondering whether he really wanted to know the end. Reading Once Upon A Time, once in a while was ok. Making it a full time job was just beyond his endurance.
"The Dome grew weak after the death of the Queen, wizard." The old Lady said tiredly. "Our Magis have tried strengthening it, but none of them are powerful. So having no other choice our Magis have done something else. Every century one of our most powerful Magi is sent outside the Dome as sacrifice to the Shades. The Magi gives themselves up to the Shades and the Shades use the power of the Magi and our realm is safe for that century."
Nandini gasped. "What happens to the Magi who is sent out?" She whispered.
Arnav would have clamped Nandini's mouth if he was fast enough. He specifically did not want Nandini to hear that part of the old woman's story. The eyes of the old woman told him that even he did not need to know it, let alone the kid.
"Kid!" Arnav said sharply. "Remember our agreement. No talking."
Nandini looked horrified at Arnav. "The Shades will hurt the Magi outside the Dome." She said as her brown eyes almost grew round as saucers and it honestly looked like her agreement with Arnav was not even worth remembering.
"No, they don't kid," Arnav said struggling to keep his voice calm. "The old lady does not know what happens to the Magi. The Magi goes out of the Dome and rules the Shades. That is how the Magi makes sure the Shades do not hurt the people inside the Dome." Arnav said hoping and praying that Nandini believed him.
"Oh!" Much to Arnav's relief, Nandini actually believed him.
Arnav let Nandini down the table, hoping that she really did not pay attention to the rest of their conversation.
Nandini looked at Arnav and then looked around the place.
But Nandini was still in hearing distance and the old woman mercifully got the hint well. She did not talk about the Magis and the Shades.
"Because of our faulty Dome, in the past there have been instances of portals opening across realms. Other realms. The portals are attracted to people with immense capacity for magic." The old woman told Arnav. "Today morning, we nearly thought that the Dome had broken. We could not find powerful Magis in our realms. So the Dome is faltering. Today morning, there was a power fluctuation in the Dome, twice. I am guessing that is how you came here...." The old woman was speaking.
"Arnav, look!" Nandini interrupted suddenly sounding thrilled as she pulled a thick book from the shelf nearby. "They also have a Fairy Tale Book here. The same as ours." Nandini happily brought the book over to Arnav as the old lady and the two people were speechless.
Arnav honestly did not like the way the three people were even looking as he hastily took the book from Nandini. The damned thing was the reason he was in this trouble. Arnav was almost sure that the book had managed to drag him here. The why's and how's were something that Arnav did not know and frankly he did not even care.
"Kid, no touching anything here." Arnav said as the old woman looked at Nandini with something close to idol worship in her eyes.
"The little one can see the Book of Prophecies. The book has the prophecy about destroying the Shades," The old woman whispered looking almost with awe. "Only the most powerful people in our realm can even see the book. Let alone see the prophecy."
Arnav ignored the woman as he opened the Book. It was exactly, as the one back at home – the stories, the pages, everything. Even the last page.
Bonded they are right,
They shall both enter together, the Kingdom of might,
One will choose the Dark and the other Light,
One shall pay the price for the other, with the final breath, in the final fight.
And suddenly a lot of things were making sense to Arnav. Far too many things.
And Arnav suddenly found everything around him fuzzy as he collapsed on the bed behind him.
"Nandini," Arnav tried smiling hoping his heart did not beat so hard. As it was, he was finding it difficult to breathe.
"Yes, Arnav!" Nandini said as her eyes were twinkling.
"Will you go outside and find me the best wood to make a bow? Take the big guy and the lady with you." Arnav said hoping he did not stutter. His heart was beating so hard that he was finding it impossible to concentrate on what he was saying.
"They won't hurt me?" Nandini asked looking at the huge Nuren, a little fearfully.
"You are the most powerful Magi of the land sweetheart!" Arnav said struggling to put on a smile. "He would not dream of hurting you."
Nandini looked enormously proud of herself as she thought about what Arnav had said and then she smiled. "Are we going to fight the Shades, Arnav?" Nandini asked as her eyes lit up with happiness.
"Yes kid," Arnav said swallowing painfully. "We are."
Nandini took Kai with her as Nuren and Leha walked out and Leha was looking curiously at Arnav. But Arnav looked nowhere near them.
"What is it wizard?" The old woman asked gently as they could still hear Nandini chatter loudly, proclaiming herself as Wizard Nandini.
"I need to get to the outskirts of the Restricted Region," Arnav said swallowing painfully.
"What is it, wizard?" The old woman repeated, looking slightly worried.
"You got yourself a prophecy!" Arnav said dully.