The Impossible Children

Chapter 14: An Opening Expedition

Annabelle awoke from a fitful slumber to find Amelia’s heels digging gently into her ribs and the covers snatched away by the bed’s other occupant. Quietly, she pulled herself up and out of bed.

Someone had left a lamp at the foot of the door, which must have been Amelia from the night before. With no clock to tell her the time and no window in her room to observe the sky, Annabelle guessed it must be early morning, though she supposed she had no way to know for certain. She looked over at the still sleeping Amelia and felt a twinge of homesickness.

During the journey to the Tower, Annabelle had to contend with one thing after another, with little moment for rest. But now that she was alone with her thoughts, she had nothing but time to think of what she had lost.

She had thought that she’d resigned herself to not seeing her sister for a long while, but being reminded only brought the enormousness of the problem to the fore. It was like a great weight had pressed down onto her chest, crushing the life from her until she almost couldn’t breathe.

Tears prickled at her eyes and threatened to spill over, so she wiped and scrubbed her face with the palms of her hands and took a deep steadying breath.

Feeling suddenly the urge to explore, Annabelle got up out of bed and picked up the brass lamp and inspecting the device as she had not had time to inspect it before. It gave off a soft, warm light from a still burning wick.

It certainly looked like an oil lamp, but the light it gave was constant and did not flicker. Suddenly she wondered if the lamp used a different mechanism than what she had assumed. There did not seem to be any knob or other moving part in order to feed the wick closer to the oil, though she could see some sort of translucent liquid within the font of the lamp.

It seemed wholly mysterious to her.

Resolving to ask Charlie or Seppo about it later, Annabelle opened the door and slipped out into the hall.

Once again, Annabelle was taken aback by how incredibly massive was the White Tower. There seemed to be no end to the number of books within its walls, and at any other time, she might have picked one to take back to her room and read.

Out of the corner of her eye, within the reach of her strange lamp’s light, Annabelle thought she saw a cat with a snowy coat of fur. She saw its busy tail curl behind a shelf before it disappeared from view down the stairs. She thought she heard a meowing sound far off in the distance.

“First a dog, then a cat,” Annabelle said to no one in particular. “Hungry for some breakfast, I’ll expect.”

She herself felt the first stirrings of hunger that morning and might have ventured downstairs after the cat, but she felt a stronger desire to see more of what this wondrous place had in store. It was a rare moment that Annabelle was actually awake before anyone else, and she felt she should make the most of it. Books and breakfast could come later when she was for the first time in her life in a literal Wizard’s Tower!

So Annabelle hitched her skirts and made her way up the stairs.

The stone steps felt cool to the touch on her bare feet. She made several circuits and made sure to keep very quiet when she came to Jenny’s level. She could not rid the image of Jenny the aggrieved schoolmarm out of her head, and somehow knew that she did not want Jenny to discover she’d sneaked out of bed to explore the Tower.

Annabelle let out a sigh of relief when walked past what she assumed was Jenny’s door.

“First door two levels up,” Annabelle muttered to herself.

The shelves here, as elsewhere, lined the walls, filled to bursting with leather bound books, old scrolls of lambskin parchment, fragile-looking ceramic weights, vases, brass statuettes, and other curiosities.

Spaced unevenly apart in between the shelves were wooden doors, though Annabelle did not attempt to open any them. That could come later, she thought to herself, and Annabelle was far more interested in reaching the top and perhaps look down at the Tower’s dizzying height.

Every so often, Annabelle came across an odd nook instead of doors, each one with a small desk and chair. One such nook was filled almost to bursting with papers, books, scrolls, and emptied inkwells, the glass pots already long since dried out.

Idly, Annabelle picked up a sheaf of paper and flipped through the pages. She recognized the words for they were written in English! Scanning briefly through, she thought that these were the notes of one of the others, though who she could not guess. Perhaps Charlie or Percy? It was rather disorganized.

Annabelle did not think Seppo would leave his desk in such a state at least, especially to travel on a long journey with no promise of return. And English did not appear to be his first language, in any case.

Setting the notes back onto the desk, Annabelle continued her explorations upward. The light from her lamp cast a warm glow, and she felt very much like a tiny globe blanketed by a heavy darkness. Though it did not feel quite the same as the encroaching darkness of the Enemy’s country, it did feel feel smothering. Twice, she found herself yawning, though only a few minutes earlier she’d been wide awake.

Squeezing her hands tight until they almost hurt, Annabelle marched upwards, putting one foot after another, ignoring all else. It felt much like when she was back on the Road, with several aches and pains through her body, and she could only see the backs of her traveling companions several meters ahead of her.

Somehow, she recognized that some unseen force was drowsing her to sleep, and Annabelle fought against it with all her might. One foot in front of the other.

Quite suddenly, Annabelle bumped into a wall which now barred the path up the Tower. This wall was cold and bare and plain, with no shelves full of books like its brothers on either side of it.

Peering out from the edge, she saw the length of it was far too thick to even attempt scaling it, though the long drop down to the floor meant she would not have even tried such a foolhardy thing.

“This can hardly be the end,” Annabelle said, balling a small fist and knocking it into the wall, much to her chagrin as her knuckles scraed against the hard stone.

She looked up and saw she had not even reached the halfway mark. And yet there was this great big wall in her way. Annabelle leaned against the wall and slumped down to the floor, drowsiness and sleep all but forgotten.

Further down below, Annabelle saw a small globe of light bobbing up and down as it made its way up the stairs. Someone was making the same trek up the Tower, and Annabelle followed round and round as they went. She waited there against the wall, her arms folded into her chest.

It was Seppo.

“What?” said Annabelle rather testily as he rounded the last bend.

Seppo looked at the wall, then back down at Annabelle. His expression was inscrutable, but Annabelle thought she could see the corners of his mouth quirk upwards. She was sure she imagined it, for she had never seen Seppo laugh at anything.

“I was looking for you,” he said.

“Well, you’ve found me,” Annabelle saidi bitingly. She didn’t like how her voice sounded like a petulant child, but after such a long journey, this wall felt like a cruel joke.

Seppo seemed to have guessed what was causing Annabelle’s ire. Gently, he set his own lamp down onto the floor and crouched down next to her with his back to the wall.

“The Tower blocks the way of any it deems unready,” he said, as if that was explanation enough.

Annabelle took a deep breath. She wasn’t mad at Seppo, but his explanation was infuriating. Slowly, she asked, “What do you mean?”

“The Tower is more alive than you think,” said Seppo. “It can be very tricksome, the Tower. It will throw up walls, erase landmarks, repeat certain halls, and more of the same. Measures meant to block access to wonders far too perilous for the inexperienced, or so the Wizard says.”

“Wait,” said Annabelle, a thought suddenly occurring to her. “Is that why I felt so sleepy walking up here?”

Seppo shook his head. “That is not the kind of trick the Tower plays.”

Annabelle looked up towards the ceiling. The light outside began to grow stronger, with beams of sunlight shining through the thin slitted windows, making their own lamps unnecessary. Morning had finally come.

“What’s up there that’s so dangerous?” said Annabelle.

Seppo hesitated. “It is where the more difficult texts are located. Dangerous artifacts are kept in vaults under lock and key. And—”

“Hullo!” said Amelia. She had flown up the central space of the Tower and was now hovering above them. It did not seem the Tower made any attempt to bar her from flying too high, Annabelle noticed. “What are you both doing up here?”

“Exploring,” said Annabelle, her voice glum. Seppo stood up and held out a hand. Sighing, Annabelle took it and heaved herself up onto her feet. “But time fore breakfast now, I think.”

“Splendid!” said the young flying girl. Her natural state seemed to be gently floating along currents of air, for she never stayed still. “What are we having? I think I want some eggs and perhaps some—”

KA-BOOM!

Suddenly, a great explosion rocked the upper levels of the Tower. Annabelle did not see it or hear it, so much as felt the bedrock of the Tower shake and reverberate through her bones. Shrieking, she fell down to her knees and sought in a small nook, recognizing that a falling book could knock her unconscious easily enough.

Down below there came a great barking, like a wolf baying against an oncoming storm. Several moments later, they were plunged into darkness, as if the sun had been blotted out from the sky.

“What was that?” shouted Annabelle. She finally noticed that Seppo and Amelia had not reacted as much as she had. They might have jolted in surprise, but they were still standing there in the middle of the stairs and not seeking cover.

Amelia waved away Annabelle’s distress. “Oh, it’s only Arwium. Now, about breakfast—”

“Hallo?” came a familiar voice. A few moments after, a faint, flickering light came bobbing up, floating from down below the Tower.

“Hallo?” said Charlie, her hand aglow. Her foot was cleanly wrapped in bandages, and she leaned heavily upon a simple wooden cane. “Are you alright up there?”

“F-fine, I suppose,” said Annabelle, her teeth chattering from fright. “But what was that?” she said, waving her hands in the general direction of the ceiling.

“Come on, let’s go down and break our fast,” said Charlie, glancing at both Amelia and Seppo. “We’ll explain then.”

#

Back downstairs in the dining hall, the four of them prepared a small breakfast together. The only other creature awake, it seemed, was Typhon, who began licking at their faces as soon as they arrived.

“Mmm, it’s been a long while since I’ve had one of Penny’s eggs,” said Charlie, smacking her lips. Seppo had brought with him a bundle of eggs.

“And I milked Gretchen this morning,” he said, placing a wooden jug at the center of the table.

So Annabelle hadn’t been the first to wake up. She didn’t know why, but she felt a little annoyed by that realization. She took a flat-bottomed pan from one of the metal hooks, reaching for it on her tiptoes, and placed it atop one of the iron furnaces. Seppo placed a few logs inside after starting a small fire.

“Do we have any fat?” she asked, looking around in the kitchen.

Seppo pulled out a package of bacon, which he said he got from the pantry. Typhon had been paying special close attention to him and now began lunging for it.

Annabelle took the bacon, which had been cut into thin strips, and tossed a few to the great hound, who gobbled them up almost immediately and looked around wanting more. She put the rest of the bacon into the warming pan and waited for the fat to render out.

After a few short minutes frying bacon and eggs, Annabelle brought the pan out into the dining hall and to the table, where the others had gathered some hunks of cheese and bread and a bit of fruit as well as some wooden plates.

They spent a few minutes passing food back and forth. When no one said anything, it Annabelle spoke up first.

“What was that explosion?” she said as she spread butter on a piece of bread.

“It was Arwium,” repeated Amelia, who was at the moment tearing her bacon into tiny pieces with her fingers.

Annabelle sighed. Getting any information out of these people seemed at times to be such a laborious process.

“What’s an Arwium?” she said slowly after a moment’s pause. She took Amelia’s plate and began to cut the bacon for her with a knife and fork.

Amelia choked and laughed into her cup, spraying milk onto the table. “Arwium’s a person, not a thing!”

“Oh,” said Annabelle, feeling abashed. “Then, who is he? Or she?” she added, not wanting to assume incorrectly.

“He lives in the upper levels of the Tower,” said Seppo, who was peeling the skin off some fruit and placing slices into a wooden bowl for the others eat from.

“So, he causes explosions? Why?” said Annabelle, completely bewildered. He must do it very often if they all thought it was completely normal.

“Happened on my first day, too,” said Charlie, breaking the golden red yolk of her fried egg and slathering it on her own slice of bread and onto her bacon. “If there’s an explosion going off, it’s got to be Arwium mucking about in the upper levels. He’s a shy chap, doesn’t like being seen. I don’t know if I’ve ever gotten a good look at him myself. But you get used to the occasional firework.”

Annabelle supposed that if she was now living in the Wizard’s Tower that she might have to get used to a bit of strangeness. “Well, what about the darkness all of a sudden? I could swear I saw the sun earlier.”

Amelia, Seppo, and Charlie shared a look.

“It means she’s awake,” said Amelia, trying to make her voice sound spooky.

“She means Kaguya,” Seppo said, giving Amelia a lazy cuff to the back of the head, but she dodge nimbly to the side so that his hand passed harmlessly an inch or two from her cheek. Amelia grinned and stuck a tongue out at Seppo, who only shrugged and continued eating a slice of fruit.

Annabelle knew the name Kaguya from an old Japanese folk tale, where a bamboo cutter and his wife found a princess no larger than a thumb and adopted the tiny girl as their own. She wondered briefly if this Kaguya was as tiny, though she thought that was a little bit silly.

“And she lives in the upper levels, too?” she asked instead. Both Seppo and Charlie nodded through mouthfuls of food. “How many people live up there?”

Charlie shrugged. “Just those two, I think.”

“You think?” Annabelle raised a brow.

Charlie finished chewing her food and swallowed. “They never come down! And I can’t go up there, obviously.”

“I can!” Amelia said smugly, gesturing with her hand swimming through the air. Or flying through the air, Annabelle supposed. “But yes, it’s only them. They keep mostly to themselves. They don’t like if when I’m up there.”

“Why is that?” What could make even people who lived in the same Tower strangers from each other?

“Who knows,” said Charlie, rolling her eyes. “Probably stuck up or something.”

The door to the dining hall opened, revealing Jenny in her somber grey and blue robes. She looked round at everyone and said, “Good morning.”

“Morning,” said Charlie.

“Good morning!” said Amelia.

Seppo only nodded, while Annabelle mumbled through a piece of fruit.

Charlie pointed at the pan, adding, “Breakfast? There’s bacon, eggs, and more.”

“Perhaps a little later,” said Jenny, though she also picked up a piece of fruit and took a bite. “First, I’d like to speak with Annabelle.”