Chapter 6: A Countless Number of Questions
Annabelle woke from a dreamless sleep.
Eyes still closed, she had that disoriented feeling of not knowing where she was that she sometimes had when she woke up from a particularly deep slumber. She wondered if she had really traveled to a new world, wondered if she had lost Grace.
She bolted upright. No, that had been all too real. A sharp ache pierced her stomach, and Annabelle fought the urge to cry, as it felt too much like a betrayal to Grace. If she had the energy to cry, she could figure out how to get Grace back.
A small fire crackled next to her, its dying coals illuminating the cavernous surroundings with a soft orange glow, combining with the eerie moss and throwing the burnt remnants of the Door in silhouette. She shifted in place, and the fur coat wrapped around her fell from her shoulders. There was a sleeping figure next to the fire, who Annabelle saw was Cid. He lay there peacefully, and Annabelle envied him.
“Good morning!” said a voice from across the fire.
Annabelle nearly jumped out of her skin. Her heart beating out of her chest, she saw the voice came from the girl who could summon fire. She sat out of the way, within the shadows against the wall of the cave.
“Oh, sorry!” said the girl. She tried to clamber to her feet and winced. Thinking better of her original plan, she said, “Didn’t mean to scare you. Only I saw you were awake. We thought we’d lost you there. I’m glad to see that we were wrong though!”
Annabelle took a deep breath to calm her nerves. She couldn’t help but like the girl, but not least because her voice reminded her of home. “I do remember fainting. What do you mean though? What happened?”
The girl paused, looking almost as if she’d been caught out. “Oh drat, I shouldn’t have said anything. It was a near thing, you see. Being in the Enemy’s realm causes all sorts of problems if you’re not careful. You fainted from the noxious miasma of the place. And much worse could have happened besides.”
Annabelle frowned. She had felt strange within that… “world”, for lack of a better word. “I see. But I’m fine now?”
The girl paused once more. “For now, yes. Seppo did what he could and poured some tincture down your throat. But you’ll need more before long, and our supply has run dry.”
“Oh.” Now that Annabelle thought about it, her mouth did taste of something bitter and foul. But that last part sounded worrying. “So I’ll need to take more medicine? But you have a way of finding more?”
The girl waved away her question. “Oh, of course. That won’t be a problem. We just need to get back home, and then we can fix you properly.”
A thought occurred to Annabelle. “But you and Seppo and everyone else are okay?”
The girl let out a small chuckle. “Well, not Cid, I suppose. Poor thing, he was in the Enemy’s grasp for so long. Too long! Seppo gave some medicine to him, too. And we made precautions before going through the Door, obviously.”
“Right. Obviously.” Annabelle scratched her chin, trying to understand the things the girl was saying, who seemed to think that Annabelle ought to know certain things as a matter of course.
Seppo and this girl both had mentioned someone called the Enemy. Was that the man who’d kidnapped Annabelle and her sister? It was difficult to think of someone in such stark, absolute terms, even someone who had done something so cruel.
“I’m Charlie, by the way.” Charlie smiled brightly. “I’d shake your hand, but my leg’s still feeling a little tricksome.”
“No, of course. My name is Annabelle.” Before she fell unconscious, Annabelle remembered Charlie mentioning her broken leg. Annabelle wondered if she should say something, but the way Charlie spoke of her leg gave Annabelle pause. “It’s good to meet you. But where are the others? Seppo, and the other boy?”
“Well, they should be coming back soon.” Charlie glanced over at a narrow corridor leading out from the cavern. “I think Percy wanted to stretch his legs, and Seppo knows the way best, so he went along.”
Annabelle nodded. “And where is home? Not here in this cave, I hope?”
She tried to make it a joke, but it came out rather blunt and ill-timed.
For her part, Charlie simply laughed. “No, of course not. We had to take a rather roundabout route. We’re worlds away from the White Tower.”
Annabelle had to assume that Charlie meant that literally. “You and everyone live at the White Tower?”
Charlie had a nervous energy about her, seeming to hop back and forth despite leaning against the cave wall. “Er, well, there are others who live there, too. They didn’t come on this trip. And of course there’s the Wizard.”
Annabelle’s breath caught. Of course there’s the Wizard. Despite hearing that previously, she wasn’t quite prepared to accept that fantastical stories she read were real, or that someone named the Wizard was connected to hers.
“The Wizard,” she said, realizing her tone was incredulous but unable to stop it.
Charlie nodded slowly. “Yes. The Wizard.” She said it like it was the most normal thing in the world. Then she laughed. “You’ve traveled to other worlds, but the Wizard is the most unbelievable thing you’ve seen or heard?”
It did sound a little bit silly when Charlie put it like that. “Well, can the Wizard—I mean, will the wizard help me? To get my sister back?”
“Of course!” Charlie looked up. “I wouldn’t worry about that. First, we need to get out of this cave and to the White Tower.”
That made a certain amount of sense. In the corner of her mind, Annabelle wondered if she would ever see her sister again. If she thought too much about how big and enormous that was, Annabelle knew she would really and truly cry. Concentrating on getting to the White Tower brought a certain focus to what she needed to do.
But first they had to get out of the cave.
“Oh, I think they’re back,” said Charlie, craning her neck back to the narrow crevice in the far side of the cave. She waved as two dark figures approached the fire. “Hallo, you two!”
Despite Charlie’s confidence, Annabelle felt her back tense in trepidation, only to relax once she could confirm their faces. The boy with the sword waved also, who Annabelle thought must be Percy, patting a rucksack slung over his back. He spoke with a strong accent. “We found mushrooms down the way, so we’ll eat well tonight, instead of old biscuits. Ah, our new friend is awake.”
Percy bowed low, sweeping his hand to the side, the picture of chivalric ideals. Annabelle could not help but smirk, for she had never seen anything like it outside of a book. The boy’s thick black hair fell across his eyes as he stood back up, and he flicked away the strands.
“I am Percival de la Marche,” he said. There was a self-importance to him that reminded Annabelle of her mother. But whereas it felt repulsive and off-putting there, here it was slightly amusing coming from someone like Percy. “The sleeping one is Cid, the one over behind me is Seppo, who you have met, and there by the fire is—”
“Charlie. Yes, she knows.” Charlie gave Percy a smug sort of smirk. “Unless you think we sat here and talked about nothing in particular.”
Seppo stood back, his face deadpan, neither amused nor unamused, only waiting in awkward silence.
There were some silences that Annabelle could allow to stretch on forever. The silence of the library as she read an old book. The silence of two people staring at each other and not talking as too much for Annabelle to let last for long. “Er, I’m Annabelle.”
“Hello, Annabelle,” said Percy, returning his attention back to Annabelle. “I am certain Charlie told you all that you wished to know, did she not?”
“Well, I suppose we only scratched the surface,” said Annabelle. She struggled to articulate into words just how lost she really was. “It’s just that I’m so new to this situation, and I don’t know anything. And you three obviously know so much already.”
Seppo, Percy, and Charlie shared a look.
“Where to begin?” said Charlie.
As Charlie and Percy talked over one another, whether in a bid to impress upon her how much they knew or in order to be exceedingly helpful, Annabelle began to form a picture of the cosmos in her mind.
There were many worlds, countless in their number. So many different kinds of every description that to number them was a task that would take many endless lifetimes.
“There are too many to count,” said Percy, repeating this point emphatically. “It is important to know the paths and ways between these worlds, else you could become lost.”
Normally, these worlds did not touch one another. However, there existed methods and ways to travel from one world to another. The method they had employed was the Doors.
“Just like any other door,” said Charlie. “You’re here on this side, and through the Door, on the other side, is another world. You step through and then you’re there.”
Seppo had said very little, instead choosing to look after Cid, to tend the fire, and prepare the mushrooms for dinner.
“You can create Doors then?” Annabelle asked. “You can go to whatever world you like through these?”
“Not as such.” Percival shrugged. “The Doors were made long ago. We only move them to where it suits us. That skill lies with the magi of old.”
Annabelle looked at the blackened remains of the Door that Charlie had destroyed. “You can move something that large like it’s nothing?”
“Oh, easily!” said Charlie, beaming with pride. “You shrink it to a manageable size, and then you can put it wherever you want.”
“I see,” Annabelle said with wonder in her eyes. She supposed that one must get used to doing such miraculous things eventually.
“It’s all part of our magi training,” Charlie continued. “We’ll take you to the Wizard, and then you’ll see. Maybe the Wizard will want to train you as a magi, too, and then we can go back and get your sister together and—”
“You should not make promises that are not in your power to keep.” Seppo glanced sharply at Charlie. He spoke in a quiet voice that Annabelle had no trouble hearing, despite the crackling fire. “We do not know if the Wizard will train her or not.”
Charlie narrowed her eyes. “I know that. But we have to take Annabelle to the White Tower anyway, because of the miasma.”
“And so we shall,” said Percy magnanimously. “But that will have to wait until you and Cid are both well enough to walk.”
“I can walk,” grumbled Charlie. “I can limp along at least. Just give me a stick or something to lean on.”
“Of course,” said Percival with some amusement in his eyes. “I must say Seppo, those mushrooms smell very good indeed. When do we eat?”
Annabelle sat there quietly, absorbing as much as she could while Seppo passed out bowls full of cooked mushrooms and stale bread, and Charlie and Percy continued to talk. She had a fuller picture of what was going on, but there were still holes in her understanding.
Who was this mysterious Wizard? And what were the limits of these magical skills of these magi-in-training? She looked over at Seppo, who seemed to be using mundane skills to tend to the fire and to cook and to render first aid. There as nothing so obviously magical about what any of them did, except for Charlie’s fire and the Door.
It was odd. She supposed that when she was reading these sorts of stories in her father’s library that the magical would seem so obviously magical.
“If you can walk, Charlie,” said Percy, “I thought we might break camp tomorrow morning and try to make for the next Door.”
Charlie paused. “But Cid is barely conscious.”
“Well, Seppo and I were talking earlier.” Percy had long since finished his mushrooms and handed the bowl back to Seppo. “We need to get Cid to the White Tower as soon as possible. Between Seppo and I, we can manage him. If you can walk, then we can make for the White Tower and get him the help he needs that much sooner. What do you say?”
Annabelle thought she saw a moment’s hesitation in Charlie, but she said, “Of course. We’ll go tomorrow morning.”
Annabelle spent most of the night lying on the hard rock floor, thinking about what was to come, though the future remained dark and vague in her mind. She knew that she must get out of the cave, and then to the White Tower, but that was all.
The following morning came after a restless, jittery sleep. Seppo and Percy together fashioned a sling that would allow one of them to carry Cid on their back. They had agreed to take this task in turns, with Percy being the first.
Charlie had found a stick to lean on, though Annabelle had offered to to help the other girl if she needed it. Charlie had waved this away, saying, “I will be fine. But thank you.”
However, Annabelle noticed that Charlie was careful never to put too much weight on her bad leg.
Seppo led the way. They went down a the same narrow moss-covered tunnel that Seppo and Percival had already explored. The path wended and wound down and then up and then sideways. There were forks and intersections aplenty, but Seppo seemed to have the route memorized, for he did not slow the pace or look to see if the others were matching his.
He spent many hours this way until Charlie finally got fed up. “Slow down a moment, Seppo! Some of us cannot walk as fast as you unencumbered.”
When Seppo offered to switch with Percy, he simply grunted, shifting Cid from one side to the other. “We must make haste. I can handle Cid until the next Door.”
For her part, Annabelle was unused to walking for so long and felt a stitch slowly creeping up her side as time went on. However, because she had no burden and no broken leg, she hadn’t said anything.
They marched onwards, though perhaps at a slower pace than before. Still, the going was rough, because caves were not as a general rule straight roads but a series of obstacles that must be navigated. The hard stone caught the skin, and many times Annabelle slipped and fell, slamming the palms of her hands raw.
But none of the others complained, so neither did Annabelle.
They finally came to a second cavern, which was dark, free of moss. Light instead came from the still lake taking up almost the entire space, except for the mouth of the tunnel.
How clear the water was, with nary a wave or ripple. Vibrant fish flitted through the waters, emitting their own inner light, and providing illumination for the entire cavern. At the center of the lake, with no visible support, was a doorway. This one was made from three slabs of rock, shaped from the same stone that seemed to make up the cavern. Inside the doorway was a stone Door with no visible hinges, and at the very center of the door was a keyhole.
Seppo walked forward onto the water. Instead of splashing through the water and stepping on fish, his boot seemed to find purchase onto the water, like it was solid ground. The others followed, though Annabelle hesitated at first.
“How is this happening?” she said in wonder. “You’re walking on water!”
“This world does not have the same natural laws as the one you are familiar with,” Charlie explained. “In some worlds, you can walk on water. In some others, you can fly through the air unaided. It all depends on the world.”
Annabelle bent down and dipped a small finger into the water. The movement alerted the fish, which all swam and flurried away. She took a step onto the lake, and her feet felt as if they were walking on solid ground. She took another small step forward, not trusting her eyes.
Charlie limped back and said, “We haven’t got all day, Annabelle.”
“Sorry!” Annabelle came forward in a rush, her feet flinging water drops every which way, until she rejoined the others at the Door.
From a pocket, Seppo produced a small iron key from a ring of different keys. This he inserted into the Door, which opened smoothly. Beyond the threshold was another world.
First Seppo, then Percival stepped through. Before going through herself, Charlie looked back at Annabelle. “Alright there, Annabelle?”
Annabelle shook her head. “I don’t know. This will be the fourth world I’ve been to. Everything is happening so fast. I’m feeling overwhelmed, I guess. And—”
Her throat caught. “And I wonder if I’m not going too far from Grace.”
Charlie’s face softened. “I understand. Is there anything I can do? Do you need a moment by yourself?”
“No, I think I’m alright,” said Annabelle. She did feel a bit better.
“Okay. Be sure to shut the Door behind you,” Charlie said as she limped across the threshold.
Annabelle took a deep breath. She looked back behind her, at the glowing fish, and the still water of the lake. Then, she stepped through the threshold and left the dark cavernous world for the new.