By and by, Elise began to recover, and to take an interest in her surroundings. Her room was very pretty, with duck-egg blue wallpaper covered in a design of ornate keys. She slept in a four-poster bed of alabaster white, with a matching dressing table and mirror. There was a pretty writing desk, and all manner of adorable ornaments. There was also a lace-curtained window that looked out onto a beautiful garden full of a unique genus of rose that began blooming pink, and became yellow as it opened from the bud. When Elise could sit up for longer periods of time, Lilandra brought in a comfortable rocking chair for Elise to sit in, and scores of books for Elise to read. At first, Lilandra erroneously guessed that Elise would enjoy children’s books, but when she realised her error, she brought novels, with wonderful stories and dialogue. She spoke a lot to Elise, who learned much about Lilandra.
Lilandra adored animals, and always had a creature of some sort at her side. Sometimes it was a shaggy, salt-and-pepper lap dog called Ike, and sometimes it was an Abyssinian cat called Toby. Sometimes she brought a hamster or a guinea pig, and other times a grey parrot would sit on her shoulder and whistle the tunes he had learned before asking Elise to feed him a treat. She even brought a dwarf cuttlefish to visit in its bowl. Elise was fascinated by the friendly little creature. She had never met a fish that interacted so intelligently before. Ike the dog was most often with Lilandra, but Mabel the cat seemed happy to live with Elise, and became her unofficial pet.
One thing Elise could never learn was her geographical location. Lilandra avoided the question by telling her, ‘You’ll know in good time. I don’t want to hide it from you, but it is rather an awkward subject. Oh, don’t be alarmed. It’s not bad news, but it is … surprising. I think you’ll be very happy with it, and we won’t force you to stay, of course. Only, I want you to be well before you have to consider what you want to do next.’
Pyrel rarely visited Elise. He would occasionally poke his head through the door; generally when Lilandra brought milk and cookies to Elise. He would snort and ask, ‘How is your new pet today?’
Lilandra would roll her eyes, smile, and ask Elise, ‘How are you today, pet of mine?’
Elise would smile back and answer, ‘I’m feeling much better, thank you.’
Lilandra would turn to Pyrel and smirk, ‘She’s feeling much better, thank you very much. Here, have a cookie, old man of mine.’
Pyre would snort, take a cookie, and leave, munching contentedly.
After a while, Elise began to open up to Lilandra. Eventually, she told Lilandra what had happened, and why she ran away. She mentioned Mabel the cat leading her to a hole in the garden wall, and asked, ‘Is Mabel magical?’
Lilandra seemed surprised, and replied, ‘No, dear, she isn’t magic at all. I don’t know about the wall. Perhaps it was broken all along?’
So, Elise never found an explanation, but she was still grateful that Mabel had, as Lilandra put it, ‘Taken a shine to her.’ If she had not, Elise may have been doomed by her aunt and uncle’s plans.
Once Elise was entirely better, Lilandra brought her some clothes. There were several lovely dresses, but Elise chose the least ornate; a deep-blue dress with a white collar, large, puffed sleeves, a full skirt that fell to the ground, and white trim. She brushed out her hair, put on the fine leather boots offered to her, and spread some peony pink lipstick from the dressing table onto her lips. As she looked at herself in the mirror, she realised she looked nice. It had been so long since she had looked nice. It had, of course, been the least of her concerns since running away, but it felt good to be clean, well-fed and healed.
When Elise was dressed, and holding Mabel in her arms, Lilandra appeared with Ike in tow. Lilandra smiled and bade Elise turn around so that she could look at the dress, then proclaimed, ‘You do look lovely, my dear. Now, I think it’s time that you knew where you are. How about we start by opening the window. Here is the key.’ Lilandra took a ring of keys from a pocket. There were all manner of shapes, sizes and designs, some beautiful, and some plain. Lilandra took one which was enamelled the same colour as the wallpaper, and handed it to Elise. ‘Here, unlock the window and open it.’
Elise was puzzled, but did as she was bidden. The window had not been opened since she regained consciousness, and she had not thought to do so until that moment. She unlocked and opened the shutters.
Shocked, Elise watched the garden in front of her melt like wax, transforming into a kaleidoscope of cosmic colours. Elise started back, and noticed that, through all the window panes which were still shut, the garden seemed still to be there. However, Elise could not deny the proof of her eyes. She leaned out into the vortex. She felt nothing; no heat or cold, and no push or pull. She stuck her hand out. Nothing happened, except that her hand was now in a vortex. Elise frowned and closed the window: once again, the scene outside appeared as a beautiful garden full of roses. She opened the window, and it was gone again, replaced by a myriad of colours and patterns.
Elise turned to Lilandra and asked, ‘What is that?’
Lilandra smiled and replied, ‘We don’t know what it was called, if it ever had a name. We call it the web or the net, because it’s so intricate, like a spider web or a netted shawl. Come, my dear, there is much to tell you, but first, here is a ring for keys, and a copy of the blue key. Don’t lose it, for you can only return to, and access, your room if you keep the key safe and on your person.’
Lilandra led Elise out of the room and into a dark, imposing passage. Elise realised that, at each end of the passage, there was a vortex like the one outside the window.
Lilandra told Elise, ‘Now, make sure to follow me closely. Nothing will happen to you if you get lost. I should imagine you will be led back to me or your room. Nonetheless, I would rather make this easy until you learn your way around. Follow me!’
Elise followed Lilandra as she began walking to the right, talking all the while, with Ike trotting behind her. Lilandra explained: ‘Now, Elise, it all started when I was … oh, I think I must have been twenty-six. It’s so easy to lose track of time here. I was rather a whimsical, domestic soul. I still am, as a matter of fact. I wrote stories and cared for stray animals between cooking and sewing. I was rather admired by all the men in town, although I could never understand why. I’m quite headstrong, you know, and I had a very high opinion of myself. I could never get my stories published; too romantic and sappy. I believe that some people might call them “unrelatable”, but that wasn’t a word used in the time and place of my youth. Well, one day, I was out on a hill I liked, just outside town, thinking about a story I wanted to write which involved a knight and an enchanted, silver spoon. The hill was called Widow’s Peak; rather ominous, I grant you, but it was quite the opposite for me. I met Pyrel there, that day. I was standing on the hill, trying to decide if it would be proper to ask the chemist about the properties of strychnine – all for my story, but you know how odd that would seem – and suddenly, a handsome man stepped out of a door in a tall, thin building that appeared out of thin air. Pyrel was handsome then, you know. Of course, I looked a lot comelier myself when I was young. Well, being of a romantic mind, as well as very impertinent and very silly, it didn’t take long for him to woo me.
‘Unfortunately, Pyrel explained that he had a manner of travelling that took him far away. He said he travelled through the stars; not quite the truth, as you shall see, but then, goodness knows what he could have told me then that would have made any sense whatever. I did realise, of course, that if I were to marry him, I would have to leave my family, so I had to send him on his way the first time. He kept visiting, though, for five years. Then, there was an outbreak of cholera in the town, and my poor family passed away. There was little to hold me there after that, let me tell you. I grieved, then I went with Pyrel when I was ready. I’m glad I did, not just because I love the old grump, but because of what I’ve seen since.’
Elise noticed that, as they walked towards the vortex, it morphed into new shapes in front of them, and the passage fell apart into shapeless colour behind them. The new sector of passage was much the same as before, with high, vaulted ceilings and no windows.
As they continued to walk, Lilandra continued her story: ‘Pyrel found this place as a boy. I will let him decide whether he wants to share the tale with you, but I must tell you that I am impressed that he learned the workings of it. There were old texts; books and manuscripts that explained how to make it work, but not why or how it worked, nor the reason for its existence. His home life was not happy, so he left and started afresh on his own. He discovered that his life, his country, and his world were not the extent of the universe. You see, my dear, out amidst the stars are many, many worlds, which can only be reached by … well, for a lack of better word, by magic. Pyrel is no mage, but he has learned to wield a special power; the magic vested in this place by someone who was certainly a mage, and who, happily for us, left instructions. I can’t answer why, and the question has been driving poor Pyrel mad, but it has given us opportunities. We have seen much, and learned much, and have been able to help others; people and animals alike. Here, look upon the centre of the place.’
The vortex passage suddenly merged into a monumentally large room, which was shaped like a key. They walked into the prongs of the key through an arched door, turned right, and walked down a long, tall passage, like the stem of the key, to a round room, like the handle of the key. The round room was a mass of bridges above a deep, spherical pit. Although there was a durable, glass-like material in between each bridge for safety, Elise could see, deep below, molten lava and gushing flame geysers. In the middle of the bridges was a platform, to which Lilandra led Elise. The walk took a while, for the chamber was massive, but once on the platform, Elise found the journey worthwhile.
The platform looked down upon a giant contraption, which was a combined compass, clock and computer. Of course, Elise was not familiar with computers at that time, and would not have realised what that component was had it been particularly visible. However, she did understand compasses and clocks, and was mesmerised by the machine’s magnitude, design and workings. The compass was not pointing north; the needle was spinning wildly, as if there were a great, magnetic interference. The clock, on the other hand, was not working at all, for its three hands, as if tired of obeying gravity, had disconnected from its face to float in the air, serene as swans on a lake. The mechanical behemoth must have been a mile across from all directions, Elise thought. To fall onto it would prove deadly, for the compass needle was rapid and razor-sharp. The design of the face itself was hard to read, for although the numbers and points were all clear, the face was more of a reflection than anything else. It was like watching the cosmos; Elise could see constellations, many that she knew, and many that she did not. Sometimes, however, the stars and moons in the black sky would melt into an image of something from history. The first image was one Elise recognised; a vision of Ronine Gentry, who had been a martyr in the ancient religious conflict of the Fifty Years War. She was set against a blood-red depiction of the city of Londrine, and accompanied by one of the sacred carrier pigeons she had famously used to relay coded messages. The pigeon was bloodied and dead. However, it slowly dawned on Elise that it was not a painting. Elise could not recall ever seeing a painting of Gentry in that style. More significantly, the picture was moving. Elise realised that the redness of the city was, in fact, the city burning, and that armed battalions were moving in to capture Gentry. Before she could grasp what she was really looking at, the vision faded into another. Elise found herself gazing at a battlefield shrouded in smoke, where an army of soldiers in red did battle with an army of soldiers in blue, using horse, musket and cannon. Although Elise could not hear the fray, it was brutal and bloody, and she was relieved when the image changed again. To her surprise, the new picture showed two birds sitting on a branch with their backs to her. One was a tawny owl, and one was a nightingale.
Elise asked, wonder-struck, ‘What are these visions? They seem very incongruous with one-another.’
‘Indeed,’ replied Lilandra. ‘I don’t know what all of them represent. Some of them are visions of the past, present, and future of various worlds. Others … well, as you say, they are incongruous. Take the birds, for example. I have no doubt that an owl and a nightingale may be sitting next to one another, somewhere in the infinity of the universes, but I don’t know why that should be important. I’m afraid there’s a lot we don’t know, my dear. However, it is an impressive sight, is it not?’
‘Indubitably,’ replied Elise, awe in her voice.
‘I see you’re showing the girl the heart of the place. Of course, you have already shown her your own heart, so this must seem dull by comparison.’
Elise turned to see Pyrel mounting the stairs, smiling a little, which was a little more than Elise had ever seen him smile. Lilandra smiled back, and Pyrel kissed her fondly.
‘So, youngster, now that you’ve seen a bit of our life project, I have a proposition for you. My wife has taken to you, and, while I’m not as excited as Lilandra here, I like you. You could be a smart girl, and I’d say you have a good heart. I’ve been wrong before, but … You see, we could never have children. Tried, but it didn’t take. If you’d like to stay here, and you do a good job of all the tasks we give you, we thought you could be our spiritual successor.’
Lilandra snorted, and said sarcastically, ‘Spiritual successor, Pyrel? Good gracious, how welcoming! No, dear, we were hoping we could adopt you. I understand you are too old for the traditional approach, and goodness knows we don’t want to ask your family, considering what you’ve told us about them. However, if you want to stay and share our home with us, perhaps we can teach you the workings of the place. After all, we are not getting any younger, and, while we can only do good on a domestic scale, it would be a shame if this power were not harnessed at all. Who knows. Maybe you will be the one to unlock all the big secrets! What do you think, Elise?’
Elise was very excited, but found her voice trembling and teary as she replied, ‘A thousand yeses! I would so love to live here.’ She hugged Lilandra, and awkwardly tried to put her arms around Pyrel. He stopped her, saying, ‘No, I don’t do hugs, dear. Let’s shake on it. There, there, you silly goose, no need to cry about it. I’m not that terrible to live with.’ He was smiling.
‘I do have one question,’ Elise ventured. ‘Is it possible to help my mother and my sister, Marguerite?’
Lilandra and Pyrel glanced uneasily at each other. ‘Well,’ Lilandra began, ‘it might be, dear, but one cannot always say. Whatever the power of this place once was, it can be difficult to snatch people out of bad circumstances. You see, the place only gets one so far. We are just simple people; we were never heroes or warriors or rogues. You, on the other hand, may have the additional skills necessary for the proposed operation. We can certainly give you access to things that will help you, but it will be up to you in the end. Is that not correct, Pyrel?’
Elise wiped away her tears and nodded, stating determinedly, ‘I’m going to be the best adopted daughter in the world … or, in all the worlds? I’m a bit confused, to be honest. And, I’m going to rescue my mother and sister too!’
Pyrel nodded sagely, ‘That’s the spirit, Eglantine.’
Elise stared, bemused. ‘My name is Elise.’
Lilandra frowned. ‘Her name is Elise.’
Pyrel nodded again, ‘I know, but I’ve always loved the name Eglantine. I think I’ll call you that.’
Lilandra pouted, ‘You foolish old man! But I do love you so.’
‘Now hold your horses,’ Pyrel scoffed, tottering back down the stairs, ‘just because I said she could stay, doesn’t mean she’s my apprentice. You’ll have to prove yourself first, Eglantine. In the meantime, I’ve got to get on with things, but if you want to keep looking around …’ Pyrel trailed off, and clutched at the skeleton key on his chain, which had begun to radiate a sickly, green glow, and was vibrating in his grasp. ‘Oh, blast it!’ he exclaimed, running back up the stairs. He looked down onto the ever-changing picture, which now displayed a charming town nestled in a valley.
‘What’s the matter?’ Lilandra asked, leaning over to see what was happening.
‘The blasted thing is crashing again. At least we’re in a habitable region this time, but it will need fixing … Well, I suppose it is an opportunity for you to gather some supplies. We picked up Eglantine a while ago, and haven’t restocked since then. Perhaps you should take Eglantine shopping?’
‘It’s Elise, my dear.’
‘Yes, exactly. Take her shopping.’ Pyrel checked a pocketbook and tsked, ‘It’s a good currency on the exchange, too. Buy her a few dresses, and get yourself something nice.’ Pyrel handed Lilandra several coins and walked away down a passage, grumbling.
Elise was intrigued. ‘Is this a machine? It must be at least partially mechanical, if it can 'crash' from the air and 'need fixing'!’
Lilandra contemplated, before replying, ‘No, not a machine, dear, although it has mechanical operations. It’s more of a controllable state of being. If you can convince Pyrel you’re trustworthy, you’ll see for yourself.’
Elise was very confused. ‘But how can we get to other places if there’s no door?’
‘Well, my dear, there are some doors. In fact, Pyrel has learned how to build them himself, and we have several regular stops. You could call them back doors, but that sounds a bit dishonest, if you ask me. The difference is that places like this tend to have a temporary portal. You have to get back before it shuts. Fortunately, we have this.’
Lilandra withdrew a curious contraption from a pocket. It was as if somebody had taken a large number of mismatched, ornate keys of divers metals, and worked and twisted them until they were in knots, spiralled with one-another. All the stems were worked together, yet, somehow, all the prongs pointed to the middle of the round gadget. The body of the object was shaped like a lock, excepting that it had no key slot. Rather, at the top, which was shaped like the handle of a padlock, there was a recess with a little door like those on cuckoo clocks. Elise wondered how it worked. Lilandra soon explained: ‘Although I cannot begin to understand how it works, it will tell us to return six hours before the door is scheduled to disappear. It even counts down like an egg timer.’
‘Or a bomb,’ Elise thought, but said nothing aloud. She was loath to trust their wellbeing to a little-understood device, but suspected she would have to get used to it. Thus, she followed Lilandra, who pressed a button which lowered a platform towards the moving picture. Elise shuffled anxiously, and Lilandra soothed, ‘No fear, Elise. You can’t tell from above, but the needle doesn’t quite reach this edge. It’s safe to go down to the surface from here.’
Once even with the surface of the compass-clock, Lilandra stepped off. It rippled around her, like a pool. Elise guessed there must be stairs beneath the surface, because with each step, Lilandra sank further into the liquid image, until the top of her cap disappeared and she was entirely submerged. Quelling her doubts, Elise followed.
The image – or whatever it was – felt like nothing to the touch. It was most peculiar, for it seemed as if it should have been like water, or perhaps warm milk. However, it was like walking through air. Elise was correct about the steps; she took one, then the next, until finally her chin was level with the surface. Unable to forget her instinctual urges, she took a deep breath before dipping her head beneath.
Elise did not need that deep breath. She found herself standing in the open air, on a pleasant, green sward of grass. Above her was what appeared to be the rippling surface of a large, pond-like puddle, floating upside-down above her head. Elise looked to Lilandra, confused. Lilandra smiled, and suggested, ‘Why not play with it for a moment?’
Elise wondered how she would get back to the portal, for there were no stairs. Lilandra suggested, ‘Try jumping.’
Elise shrugged, and jumped up, hoping the portal was not suddenly solid. Her head went through, and she found herself standing on the steps, her chin on the edge of the moving image once again. When she ducked her head back under, she was once more standing in the open air near the lovely town.
‘How disconcerting,’ Elise said. ‘It’s one thing to walk through a portal, which I always imagined would be like a door. It’s quite another to be physically transported without feeling or noticing anything. Being on a stair one moment, and flat ground the next … why, I’ve never experienced anything like it.’
‘It is an odd experience, isn’t it?’ agreed Lilandra. ‘You will get used to it, in time. The portals we built are proper structures, and much more like the portals you imagined. Now, dear, let’s find you some clothes, shall we? Perhaps they even have a theatre here. Do you enjoy the theatre?’
‘Oh, yes, very much! I haven’t been since I was a little girl. After my father died, my aunt and uncle forbade it. They said it was “a house of sin”.’
‘Well, I think that depends on the theatre in question,’ replied Lilandra. ‘I certainly shan’t be taking you anywhere you shouldn’t be.’
Logan had showered, done his chores and eaten breakfast. Now, he was practicing coding again. However, he had a bad case of coder’s block, and was trying to decide what to do. He typed out a very basic C++ program, all the while considering what his bigger project should be. When the simple program was built, he ran it, and it asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He idly typed into the input line; ‘Duke Rocket’, which was a reference to one of his favourite video game characters. The next line of output asked, ‘What is your purpose?’ Logan typed, ‘To protect liberty and eat hotdogs.’ Logan still had no ideas for his own game, but he did decide that Duke’s catchphrase was actually rather lame for such a cool character. It reminded him of a way cooler character with a much better catchphrase in another game … Only that game must have been from a past life, since he just could not pin down what it was.