The Last Page: Part Six
That night, Jasar told me that we were leaving.
Wentha and the Bruce had already packed together their belongings, as well as a few priceless items that had been on display in the dining room before. Jasar hadn’t put much in his rucksack; only a change of clothing and a few packages of food, plus a one-way ferry ticket to Roo Island.
I packed nothing. I didn’t believe that I was going to go.
“Everything’s taken care of?” Jasar asked Wentha as the three sat around the servants’ table, discussing their plans. I was sitting in my window, trying not to listen to them. When had I become so focused on other people’s talk?
“Drew has been spreading the rumor of Thade’s insanity for a few weeks now, so the first foolhardy pets should be showing up soon,” she replied, business-like. “And you’re sure he won’t suspect a thing?”
“Thade’s hardly capable of forming an intelligible sentence, never mind paying attention to anything outside of his library,” Jasar said, smirking. “He’s nearly become the part we set him to play, anyway.”
“Well, then, the sooner we get out of here, the better.” The Bruce shivered, looking around at the stone walls. “I can’t wait until I can leave the Haunted Woods and never return.”
The two women stood up, and Wentha looked down at Jasar, her eyes wary. “Are you coming?”
“In a moment.” He glanced up at my window, and me. “Anny?”
I didn’t bother to look at him. I wasn’t going to budge, not until they had all left.
“Annelia, you can’t stay here.” He sounded patient, and far too sympathetic. “Besides, I’ve already found you a better place to stay, away from all this madness.”
I stared out of the window, out across the bare, slush-covered ground. There was some sort of icy mixture falling outside, but I couldn’t care about it anymore, couldn’t fall into the pattern of the weather like I always had before.
He watched me, wordless, then turned back to the others. “We’ll leave in the morning; I can’t leave the Woods ‘til then, anyway. You two go ahead. Good luck.”
He had a plan, I could tell, but I didn’t care. I wasn’t leaving, not without... and, with a clarity that I rarely encountered, an idea clicked into place.
When was the last time I had snuck through the faded hallways of the castle in the middle of the night, when every other living being was asleep? I had not gone out in the night since I was a child, new to the castle and uneasy at the constraints of a servant’s life. Now, as I walked, I trailed a paw along the stone wall, the floor sending cold shocks up through the soles of my feet.
Jasar had finally fallen asleep, and I was taking a chance. I stalled next to the staircase, glancing reflexively into the mirror; a strange yellow Acara looked back at me, her shoulders back in unusual determination, her face half-hidden in shadows. I looked away quickly.
It was easy to creep up the stairs, as I knew how to avoid the creaks, and especially easy to open the door; how many times had I entered or exited that room now? The hard part was forcing myself to peek into the room, to see whether he was awake or not. I didn’t even know which way I’d prefer.
Eliv was asleep, slumped over in his chair, frowning in his dreams. For a moment, I knew hesitation; my mind started to analyze myself, something I had never tried before, to find out why I was acting the way I was.
Then, there was a purpose. I knew what I had to do.
The book was lying on the table, glowing faintly in the dying flames of the fire. I crept to it and picked it up gently, holding it in my arms. It felt safe there, like that was where it belonged; its gentle heat chased away the cold night air.
I looked to my master again. If there could’ve been a way for me to continue working with him, to never have to leave... but I couldn’t always have what I wanted. That would make life fair.
Irrationally, I still wanted to wake him, to have him give me another puzzle to solve, to hear him talk in his enigmatic way, even if the words were so mixed up that I couldn’t understand them. I did my best to stop the urge as I turned away; he couldn’t be a part of my path in life anymore.
If I whispered ‘goodbye’ when he could not hear it, would I make a sound?
“We’re nearly there,” Jasar told me quietly.
Time seemed to be passing in short bursts, and I was barely aware of my actions for hours on end. I could remember leaving the castle, early in the morning, and looking back to see rays of sunlight tinting the towers green. I could remember hiding the book in my small bag, wrapping it in the few possessions I owned so that Jasar wouldn’t know I had taken it. And I was now walking beside him in silence, small twigs snapping under my feet as we made our way down one of the many paths in the Haunted Woods.
The trees ahead thinned out, and a small clearing with a cozy house in the middle appeared. It looked comfy, inviting; it was completely out of character. I followed Jasar up to the door, hesitant as he knocked. It creaked open, and a Halloween Cybunny peeked out, a black cape tied around her neck. She smiled at Jasar, revealing pointed teeth.
“Ms. Dracana,” he said, nodding solemnly. “I brought the Acara I told you about; can you take her in now?”
“Of course,” she replied, her voice too high-pitched for her looks. “Oh, look at the poor dear; she seems exhausted. Can she understand what I’m saying?”
“To a degree,” he replied quickly, “but she’s a good worker, and, obviously, never complains. Just be patient with her; it might take her a week or so to get used to the new surroundings.”
“Of course.” She beamed, and led us into the house; I glanced around, trying to determine its purpose. There were cages along the walls, and beady eyes stared out of some of them. A young Elephante was sliding bowls into some of the cages, grumbling as he worked.
“It’s so kind of you to make sure she’s taken care of, Mr. Broo,” she said, waving me off through a back hallway.
“She was the closest thing to a friend I had, after what happened to Thade,” he said grimly. “It’s the least I can do.”
“Gosh, they’re just Sludgies, ya dun need to be so antsy around them,” the Elephante told me, annoyed. Time had passed, again; it was the day after Jasar had left. I had discovered that my new duties included taking care of the Petpets that the store sold; I was uncomfortable with the creatures, for they inched away from me like I was something to be avoided at all costs.
I nudged the bowl toward the creature slowly; it stared back at me, oozing in its cage.
Jay (the Elephante had told me his name repeatedly when he had first met me, confused when I didn’t respond) snorted through his trunk and grabbed the bowl from me, slamming it down into the cage. The Sludgy flowed over to it, picking up tiny food pellets, and Jay wiped his hand on his pants without disgust.
“Such a wuss,” he muttered, clomping off to look after the Batterflies. I watched the Sludgy eat, but couldn’t find beauty in its darting motions.
I wanted to go home- but I didn’t know where home was.
When I found time to myself and opened the book, a scene not of my choosing flashed before my eyes. Jasar loomed above, a hand on the book, a strange smile on his face; he spoke a word, and the book gave off a brilliant light. When he picked it up, the book I held now was left on the ground; the other, a book that spoke more of dark power than it did of a puzzle’s magic, came away in his hand.
I could feel that something was wrong, very wrong, and I had somehow failed in protecting the book. The lines between reality and memory blurred; I tried to reach out, to stop him as he left the room.
“What’re ya doing?”
Jay was standing in the doorway, his ears quivering in indignation. I let my arm fall down, and stared at him blankly. I couldn’t move to hide the book; he took it from me with ease.
“Where’d ya get this?” he asked crossly, flipping through the pages and stopping in the middle. “I doubt ya can even read, yer so useless...” He stopped talking as he stared at the page, eyes fixed on the text.
When I took the book back from him, he was gibbering, talking truer nonsense than Eliv ever had.
I was running.
The Cybunny had shouted when she saw Jay, and I couldn’t let her take the book, so I ran out of the house, leaving everything else behind. I didn’t bother to stay on a path; I didn’t want to find other people. What had Wentha told me once, about finding me as a child in the Woods? I couldn’t remember. I didn’t think I had even known how to listen, back then.
Eyes glinted out of the darkness between the trees; it was dusk, and dangerous, but no one was more deadly than I was at the moment. I tripped over a tree root, and the book spilled out of my arms. Its pages flipped open, and the letters gleamed red in the moonlight.
The book. Why was the book so important?
I had been in the forest for... I didn’t know how much time I’d spent in the forest. I was eating whatever I could find, and drinking from streams. My lightweight shoes were wearing out, and my fur looked more grey than yellow.
I traced a finger over the red lines on the cover. It held knowledge, and power, but those two weren’t everything. I didn’t know myself anymore, I wasn’t in control...
It was cold. There was no snow falling from the sky, but it was cold, and I shivered continuously. The book’s warmth was dying out, and I couldn’t find a place to get out of the open air, no matter how hard I searched...
It was so cold...
The cold was gone.
I felt free, freer than I’d ever been before, in fact. The Haunted Woods was no longer a menacing concept, or anything like a cage. It was home. I’d found home.
And I knew things now, and knew them to be facts. I knew precisely where I was, in relation to any place I’d seen over my life, and many other places besides.
And I could think freely again, without constraint or hesitation; I could consider the way a tree’s bark rippled in so many patterns, or how a leaf flew as it fell from a branch. My thoughts raced much faster than they ever had before, and took enough twists and dives that I was sure I could remain engrossed in observation forever. I could go anywhere, see anything, the bounds had all disappeared.
Still, there was only one place I wanted to see.
I observed the Grimoire lying on the ground, its grey cover speckled with dew. It only took a thought for me to call it towards me, and have the pages turn to the back. The words no longer escaped me, for there was no constraint of letters; I looked, and perceived the idea. I took in the puzzle, and thought; I could still decode riddles subconsciously, it seemed.
I had the book close itself. Maybe the events that had taken place would have turned out more gracefully if he’d given me the puzzle originally; but Eliv couldn’t have lived with himself, if anyone had solved it before him. And, to be fair, my mind was nowhere near as quick back then. Perhaps I would have gotten stuck, as well.
I leapt to the castle. Travel now required nothing more than impulse; I was made more of thoughts than anything solid. I would have to experiment, to see what else I could do.
But- what had happened? There was mold growing on the walls, on the roof, and the windows were dark or broken. Only one remained lit, and I knew the room it looked into, knew it quite well. I couldn’t hesitate, as impatience was ruling over anything else I could feel, and I glided up to the library.
Eliv had changed, and not for the better. His hair was gone- he’d been vain of it, before- and the entire left side of his face was covered in a large white patch. It was sewn on irregularly, and his eye peeked out of the middle, large and red, inflamed. What he had done to himself, I couldn’t guess.
He was crouching over the table, writing furiously both on paper and the wood itself. He muttered to himself as he wrote, his words more confused than I had ever heard them before. I wanted to greet him, to at least see if he was searching for the answer in the right way, but I knew instinctively that he couldn’t see me, couldn’t hear. The thought weighed heavily on my mind.
But I could still help him once more, before I left. The book had taken on a slightly misty quality as I held it, as if it was fading out of reality. I gently urged it towards the table, and released it. It fell onto the wood with a quiet thud, essence restored.
Eliv whirled around to look at it as soon as it fell, and stared, speechless. He felt the cover, fingered the pages, disbelief clear on his face. The red lines blazed under his paws, and I felt that he was now the book’s master, now that I couldn’t fulfill its purpose.
He looked around the room, searching; of course, there was nothing to find. Then, slowly, and in a voice scratchy with wear, he spoke. “A- Annelia?”
But I was gone before the last syllable could leave his mouth.