Chapter 5: Beyond the Doorway
The cold blue sun overhead provided no solace as they forged ahead. The ground was hard and slippery, and it was difficult for Annabelle to gain purchase on them in her leather toe shoes without falling and scraping her hands or jarring her arms in some way. Yet on she went without complaint, grimly following the boy, who seemed to have no difficulty, even with his burden.
The boy kept a brisk pace, yet Annabelle’s mind wandered as they went, going from one question to the next. But she thought better of asking any to this strange boy. She understood all too well that they were not yet clear of the danger. Whoever or whatever providence had provided that burst of fire could only have proven to be but a momentary distraction. Though she looked back frequently and saw no signs of pursuit, Annabelle could not shake that their footsteps were dogged by the man in the dapper coat.
The boy led them to a natural outcropping of rock further down the hill, and Annabelle saw what looked like a very conspicuous doorway. It was a crude configuration of logs with their green bark stripped bare, a pair of columns spread apart with a flat log spanning between them, all lashed together with thick strands of rope. A thin sheet of wood nestled between these three wooden logs, adorned by a simple metal handle. Several strange symbols traced the columns and the door itself in a twisting pattern.
The boy patted the wood with a gloved hand and breathed a deep sigh. Then, he set down his companion onto the ground and took out a canteen of water from his fur coat, whispering a few words of encouragement.
“I—” Annabelle’s voice felt thick. She cleared her throat and tried again. “I want you to know that I’m thankful to you. For saving me. For trying to save my sister—” This proved to be too much, and she couldn’t continue. “I don’t even know your name.”
The boy looked at Annabelle with such a blank stare and for so long, that she wondered if she’d run into the language barrier once more.
“I am called Seppo,” he said finally. “And this is Cid, my friend.”
“I’m Annabelle. Grace is my sister.”
Seppo nodded his understanding.
Until now she had been bracing against the flood of questions, trying to hold them back. But the dam finally broke. “Why are you here? And who was that awful man? And why did he want my sister and me?”
Seppo listened in stoic silence, waiting until Annabelle’s questions dwindled to nothing. Then, he shook his head. “But there are many things I cannot tell you on this side of the Door. I will explain what I can soon, but—”
“But you can’t say anything yet,” Annabelle finished for him. She understood what he was saying. Sometimes there was a time for questions, and then there was a time to put them aside. But her ignorance gnawed at her, and she tried to still her nerves, taking a deep breath.
“Can you at least tell me what we’re doing here?” Annabelle gathered that the doorway was an important site. Maybe a meeting place for whatever friends Seppo had also back at the house? “But shouldn’t we put more distance between us and that house?”
Annabelle looked back the way they came, wondering if and when the shadows would swarm over the hill and come after them. Seppo seemed to understand her mind.
“We will go soon.” His voice was tight. “I only wait for the signal.”
Seppo sighed, lifting the canteen. Cid had let only a few drops to pass his lips before sinking back to the ground. “I also left friends behind at the house. But we agreed beforehand that whoever came here first would wait for the others. But only for a short while. Then, we must go through the Door and destroy it behind us.”
Annabelle felt dismayed at this news. “But then your friends will be stranded!” A thought occurred to Annabelle like a bolt from the blue. “Maybe your friends were able to save Grace! Maybe she’s with them now. We can’t leave!”
It was a slim hope, of course, kept alive only by a whisper of kindling. But it was there.
“We must,” said the boy. He did not shout, but his voice held the force of authority. “If we do not, the Enemy might gain access to another world, one very close to the Wizard’s demesne. My friends know this, and we made preparations in that case.”
Annabelle blinked. Despite herself, despite what she had experienced that day, albeit in a very short time, she had not prepared herself to imagine that there might be a bona fide Wizard involved in all of this!
That was her first thought. After further thought, she supposed that what she had seen done that day might qualify as magic, from the man in the dapper coat tearing the world asunder to that burst of fire. And so Seppo invoking a Wizard did not sound so strange after all.
And his words had further confirmed some facts, at least to her mind. They were in another world, there could be no doubt. In fact, there might be many different worlds. And this doorway led to another one of them. And the man who had kidnapped Annabelle and her sister was opposed by the Wizard, perhaps, and by Seppo and his friends.
“I see,” she said slowly, still trying to make sense of it all. “But why can’t you go back and bring this Wizard and have him deal with all of this? Have the Wizard come and save my sister?”
The boy shook his head. He sat there not speaking for several moments. Annabelle could see his mind working. “There is more at work here than you know, and I cannot explain it to you all until we are beyond the Door. I may have said too much already.”
Annabelle felt a first stab of anger upon hearing his words. She took a deep breath and counted the moments as they passed.
“Fine,” she said shortly. “But I want answers as soon as we’re through.”
The boy nodded, turning back to his friend to try to get him to accept a little more water.
Annabelle felt a restless energy that she could not shake off. She prowled around the Door, looking closely at the symbols that were etched into the wood and finding them gibberish. The perpetual chill still clung to her, no matter how many times she slapped her arms or rubbed her cheeks.
Suddenly, Annabelle felt a thick blanket enveloped her. She looked around, confused, until she saw that Seppo had wrapped his fur coat around her shoulders. Beneath the coat, he wore a dark green tunic embellished with silver buttons, which Annabelle thought looked rather archaic and old fashioned.
Seppo shrugged and looked back up towards the path they’d taken down the hill. “I think it is time.”
Annabelle didn’t ask what he meant. “Can’t we wait just a few more minutes?”
Feeling hot tears stinging her eyes, she looked away. She could hear him sigh. “Perhaps a few moments more. But let me venture a little over the hill and see if I cannot spot them. Stay here and be ready.”
Seppo’s long, rangy strides got him over the hill before too long, leaving Annabelle alone with the unconscious Cid.
She took the canteen, which was made of boiled leather, and then tried to lift Cid onto his feet, but it was beyond her strength to manage alone.
“Cid,” she said softly. “Cid, please wake up. We have to keep moving. They might be back at any moment.”
Cid’s eyes rolled open. “Right,” he said hoarsely. “Of course.”
“Up we go.” Annabelle grunted with the strain of it, but together Cid managed to stand on his own feet, swaying this way and that.
“Where is Seppo?” he asked, looking at the coat that Annabelle was wearing. “Unless you’ve managed quite the transformation, my friend?”
Annabelle could feel herself blush bright red and go tongue-tied. “No, I’m Annabelle. Seppo’s just gone to check on his friends. Your friend. Your other friends. He should be—oh there he is!”
Indeed Annabelle could make out more than one figure cresting the hill, and her heart leaped to her throat. But no—she did not see her sister’s blonde hair, and her heart fell.
Seppo was shouting. “Go! Through the Door!”
Behind him, along with two other running figures, came the horde of shadows following in their wake. Annabelle’s eyes went wide with fear, and she turned and hurried to the Door while carrying Cid.
All of a sudden, Annabelle realized that she didn’t know how this worked or what to expect. Was she supposed to say a password, like one of the Forty Thieves? She almost blurted out that famous phrase, except she felt it must be wrong.
“Ah! how do you get through? What am I supposed to do?” Annabelle could now hear the skittering noise of the shadows laughing in near unison.
“Open the Door, and walk through it!”
Of course it would be so simple. Annabelle scolded herself for overcomplicating things and turned the handle. Quite without meaning to, the Door swung inwards, pulling herself through the threshold with it.
Annabelle fell into a heap onto a soft mossy bed along with Cid, followed closely by Seppo and two others. Picking herself up, Annabelle could see scores of red glowing eyes racing towards them.
Seppo and his friends shut the Door closed. One of his friends, a girl with curly brown hair, pointed at the Door and a line of bright fire burst from her finger and lit the wood in flames.
There was a long moment of silence interrupted by heavy breathing as everyone tried to catch their breath in that dark open cavern, with an eerie sort of moss illuminated by the burning Door. They glowed in colors Annabelle had never seen before. She was glad of the darkness, which was a different sort of darkness from the world they’d just left, one which permeated to the bones and the soul.
“Well! That was close,” said the boy who’d come running through the Door with Seppo. He spoke in a vaguely familiar accent, though Annabelle couldn’t quite place it. He was almost as tall as Seppo, with a thick mop of black hair. He wore a sword cinched at his waist. “And I see we’ve rescued two prisoners instead of the one. Excellent news!”
“It was too close! But I’m glad that the plan went almost as expected,” said the girl with the fire. She had a mischievous smile that Annabelle thought was rather infectious. The girl wore clothes that Annabelle thought were more normal, as opposed to the boys who seemed rather more from a different century: slacks, long sleeves, and a vest, with her long curly hair tucked beneath a tatty newsboy cap. The girl winced as she shifted on the ground. “Still, I didn’t get away unscathed. I think I broke my leg.”
Seppo sprang into action, looking over the girl’s wound and tending to it with careful thought. Annabelle felt like an intruder, which wasn’t that far from the truth. Without her sister, she was alone among four strangers. She didn’t know what to say or how to stand or what to do with herself.
While Seppo busied himself with administering aid to the girl, the boy with the sword inspected the remains of the burning Door. “What about the Door on the other side? We failed to destroy it.”
Seppo said in a tense voice, “It is done. We will have to deal with that later.”
Annabelle understood that they were speaking about important matters. Her own problems felt small in comparison, but if she didn’t say anything now, she thought the moment might pass her by.
“Did you see my sister?” she said. “Do you know if she’s okay?”
The girl looked up at Annabelle and nodded solemnly. “I did see her, but I couldn’t get to her. And there were so many shadow-children that we were both overwhelmed. I’m sorry.”
Annabelle felt her vision swim and run together all in a blur. She heard someone say, “Are you well?”
And she thought she heard herself answer “Yes,” but then she fell face forward towards the ground. There was a great clamor from the others as they rushed to help her, but the darkness swallowed her up, and she felt nothing.