TBOS-OCT: Audition Story
Later, when she remembered the beginning (and she forced herself to do so regularly, lest she forget), she always felt that while she could not have predicted all the outcomes, she should still have known where things were headed. Later... after their story had been told.
Swiftsure was a pet on a mission. Nothing would stop him from accomplishing it. His tail flicked madly from side to side, until he suddenly realized that every time it swayed to the right it came precariously close to knocking over a pile of books stacked higher than his head. He forced his tail to hang motionless between his legs as he stalked on, ducking his head, sliding his paws slowly over the floor. He carefully sneaked around the corner, and finally his target came into sight.
Tigo was sitting in a chair by a desk, reading a large, old, boring-looking book. Her shoulders were hunched since none of her teachers were around to tell her to sit straight and she was chewing on her lower lip.
Swiftsure lowered himself to the ground, putting all of his strength into his hind legs, preparing to jump.
His muscles suddenly relaxed and the tension left his body, he slumped on the floor, head hanging low above his paws. The change had come 'some time ago'. He didn't know how long ago exactly, he'd never understood the concept of 'time'. But he knew that humans used that term to describe something important. Without warning his friend and owner, Tigo, had started to ignore him, spending more and more time with her head in her books, complicated thoughts filling her mind. She didn't laugh at his little pranks and jokes, didn't play with him, wouldn't even look at him most of the time...
... or use his name, when she talked to him.
He turned around, head still hanging low and slinked off, tail curled between his legs. With the change an unknown feeling had entered his short and uncomplicated life. It sat like a lump in his throat, tickled his eyes in an unpleasant way and tucked painfully at his heart. He had no name for it and Tigo would not explain it to him, she probably didn't even know it was there.
He curled himself into a tight little ball in the corner and closed his eyes, another sensation coming over his body. This one was like a heavy blanket covering him and pressing him into the ground, closing his eyes and controlling his breath until he faded into a frightening state of none-existence. As the darkness crept into the room, he dimly saw a black skirt and heard a clipped voice speaking in long sentences that seemed to encourage the creeping shadows to swallow him whole. His eyes closed on their own accord. If Tigo had a new teacher he would know soon enough, right now there was nothing more to...
Swiftsure was woken up by the feeling of thousands of needles piercing into his skin. He opened his eyes but the world around him was blurred and foggy. He jumped to his feet and howled in pain as the ground scorched his paws.
"TIGO!" He frantically scrambled towards the desk where he had last seen her, but the chair in front of it was empty, the book she had been reading was lying neatly in the upper right corner of the desktop. He whirled around and started running through rows and rows of bookshelves, the pain becoming worse with every second reaching into the core of his being. As he turned around another corner he suddenly spotted a large book lying open on the floor – the only solid, clearly visible object in the room, somehow unaffected by whatever was blurring the world around him.
When he reached it, his eyes were instantly drawn to one of the pages, reading the words written there without thinking about it, without even realizing that he hadn't been able to read before he had faded into darkness.
Aella Hunter was running on the university's track – feet pounding the ground rhythmically, air filling her lungs in long, even breaths. She looked calm and elegant as she finished another round, and made her way over to the stands. She picked up her amphora and emptied it in a couple of long gulps. When she put it down, considering whether she should go inside and get some more water or run another round, someone held out a full glass bottle of water towards her.
When she looked up, she met a pair of twinkling green eyes under a mop of brownish hair, belonging to a boy her age. He was wearing simple blue clothes, dusty from travelling the dirt roads outside the university grounds and the city beyond. She could feel her heart skip a beat. The boy had to be a member of one of the outer guilds, a salesman or a hunter, maybe even a messenger. She looked for one of the tell-tale emblems on his chest but found none.
She bowed her head in thanks and took the bottle from him, twisted the cap open and drank some more water. It tasted differently than the water in her amphora, less 'earthy', almost like the fresh water from a spring.
"I need to talk to you. Let's sit down." The stranger said, pointing towards one of the benches.
She sat down and stretched out her legs. "Why do you need to talk to me?" In her head a thousand questions about the world outside were having a mad competition about which one was going to be asked first.
"I need your help with something. But first... I have not seen anything like this around here." He carefully picked up her amphora, looking over the archaic letters etched into the neck, running his fingers over the hardened clay. "Where did you get it?"
"My adoptive father gave it to me a couple of years ago." She answered, her voice tinged with bitterness.
"So you don't know who your real parents are?"
"That's perfect." He held the amphora close to his face and murmured the word 'Provision'.
Aella gasped as suddenly bright colors, beads and decorative ornaments appeared and covered the dull reddish body of the flask.
"Why did you do that?" She carefully wrestled it out of his hands.
"You're gonna need supplies on your journey." He answered casually, hiding the glee he felt because she hadn't asked how he had done it, as most of the other people on this world would have.
Aella snorted. "What journey? In case you haven't noticed, I'm a university student. The only people who get travelling permits are members of the outer guilds."
"I can send you on a journey without a travelling permit, if you agree to help me."
"How are you gonna do that? If it has anything to do with the sewers, count me out. I almost drowned when I tried to get out that way a couple of years ago."
"It has nothing to do with the sewers. I'm not going to send you on a journey of your world, you see, I'm going to send you into the book." He explained, a mischievous grin appearing on his face as he thought of the perfect way to do it.
"Right. Into the book. Of course, why didn't I realize it sooner... you're nuts!" Aella got up and started to walk away when he jumped up and grabbed her arm stopping her.
"You want to see new things, experience new things, don't you?" She wanted to pull away but the intensity in his eyes seemed to freeze her movements. "You want to have answers for all the questions in the world. Why are people forbidden to leave the university? Who are your parents? Why did they leave you in the care of others? You are looking for meaning in your life, and I can give it to you, if you want it."
Aella took a shuddering breath. "Who are you?"
"I am called Mudd. I look after the book. All stories are written in it. Your story, that of 'Princess Gone', the story of how the universities came to be and why the gates were closed except for those with a travelling permit. All stories of your world and of all other worlds are written in the book." He paused, looking away for a moment, his facial expression unreadable. "I want you to go on a journey through the book, to give it meaning."
She frowned trying to wrap her head around the things he had told her. "Can I come back?"
"I don't know." He looked towards the library, then turned back to her and smiled at her. "Will you do it?"
Aella frowned. "I... I don't know." She unwittingly echoed his words.
"You need to make your decision, there's not much time left, if you don't want to go, say so, then I can go and find someone else." He started to look around the arena, seemingly checking out other students that were using the good weather to train outside.
She followed his eyes, watching her class mates as they made their rounds on the track or stood together in groups discussing stats. There was no way he was going to convince any of them to go 'on a journey in the book'. Most of them didn't even wish to be members of the outer guilds, were happy with being stuck within the ever-safe and unchanging walls of the university, their greatest dreams involving becoming an athlete, being famous and striding over the greens recognized and adored by all scholars.
Then her eyes drifted to the familiar buildings around her. The library in the middle of the campus, the lecture halls, school buildings and gardens in full bloom. The great auditorium where the university council held their public meetings and the smaller chamber behind it where the secret discussions of professors, teachers and leaders took place. All of the buildings were well-known, every nook and cranny explored in the days of her childhood. The stands of the arena encircling her, like a coop, a cage or a prison, holding her forever in this one place, that held no secrets and divulged no answers to the questions ever present in her mind.
Her fellow students, happily complacent, running around in circles all their life without wondering once whether life was meant to be more than this. Once again she felt discontent with the university's way of life tugging at her heart... the safety of finding 'new' knowledge without ever leaving the city, the fenced-in thinking of her elders and her peers, the set boundaries only a fraction of the people ever crossed – a fraction she had been told she would very likely not be a part of because of her gender...
This stranger was offering her a chance to explore the unknown and find answers. On her own. Could she really let this opportunity to escape the hum-drum of daily life pass her by? A little smirk appeared on her face. No way!
"Okay, I'll go." She turned back to him, looking him in the eyes, determination straightening her spine making her as tall as possible. "How do I get there?"
He held out his water bottle again. "Drink."
"Just, take a sip."
Aella took the bottle from his hand, uncapped it and lifted it to her mouth. When she swallowed she immediately started sputtering. The water that had previously tasted delicious if different from the water she knew, was now incredibly salty. A moment later the disgusting taste of the fluid she just drank was the least of her problems as water suddenly engulfed her from all directions and she was carried away from the arena, the university and the stranger who suddenly vanished from view, as the current pulled her under.
When she surfaced again moments later she felt sandy ground beneath her. She managed to get to her feet coughing and gasping, and stumbled out of the water. Aella looked around, slowly recognizing the place she was in from paintings and drawings she had seen in the library. She was on a small beach surrounded on one side by high cliffs and on the other by water. Her eyes were drawn to the entrance of a small cave fifty feet away, when something moved in the shadows. Just as she found her fighting stance, looking around for a weapon, finding none but the amphora still in her hand...
Swiftsure's eyes moved towards the next page, but he didn't get a chance to read more about the strange person as there was a sudden pull coming from the middle of the book, sucking him in as he clawed and scratched at the pages, trying desperately to find his footing.
"No. No-no-no. Tigo. Tiiii-GOOOOO!"
His claws gouged themselves into one of the pages and he tried to cling to it with all his might, seconds later there was a loud ripping sound as the page was torn out of the book and he plummeted into the depths. His screams rapidly fading into whispers and then... silence.
Princess Antigone carefully stepped around a rocky outcrop of the cave wall, ducking her head to avoid hitting it against a stalactite hanging like the sword of Damocles from the ceiling. She had to admit that this was not exactly the place she had imagined she would be send to when she had asked Lady Ink to take her to a part of the book that would be a good beginning for her quest. Antigone carefully touched the handkerchief in her pocket. It was wrapped around a small rectangular piece of metal, Lady Ink had promised her that it would take her back to the university at the touch of her hand. It had been important for the princess to know that she could return there if she wished to. It was her duty to serve her people by ruling as the queen when the time came and though she had loathed the idea since she had been a small child, she did not intent to shy away from it now that her training was almost completed.
She stepped around the last stony outcrop and took a deep breath, inhaling the fresh air as she stepped out of the cave mouth. It was salty, smelling of ocean, dried seaweed and sand. Antigone remembered the scents from the excursions she had been taken on when her mother had still lived with her at the university. Smiling at the thought of happy childhood days she looked around, taking in the sight of the high cliffs, the grainy sand and the dark green water. Finally her eyes landed on a young woman who was standing in the shallow water on the edge of the beach. The woman was wet from head to toe and staring at her in obvious disbelieve. Just as Antigone started to wonder if the woman might know her from some meeting she had long forgotten (and why she was dressed in such an unseemly way) a loud howl caused her to turn to her left.
Clambering over small rocks and stones was a white and blue creature, whining and growling at every step it took. "I HATE this place, Tigo... Can we please go home?"
Antigone frowned, surprised. "What are you doing here?"
"I don't know. I wish I wasn't here though. Where is 'here' anyway? Tigo, can we please go home? I promise I'll be quiet and calm and silent and--"
"Swiftsure! You're not even supposed to be here!" Her yell interrupted his whining.
"No, Lady Ink promised you wouldn't be able to follow me here, because she was sending me, not you." She explained, exasperation tingeing her voice.
Swiftsure blinked a couple of times, confusion clearly visible in his features. Then he turned his head and asked, "Who's that?"
"I'm Aella Hunter." The woman from the water's edge had made her way over to them and was now looking at Swiftsure like she had never seen a blue-and-white dog with a fish tail before. "What kind of animal is he?"
"I'm not an a-nee-mal!" Swiftsure protested just as Antigone blurted out, "You can see him?"
"Of course I can see him!" Aella rolled her eyes. "I can see you, too, you know. It's not like I'm blind."
"But he's not even real!" Antigone protested, thinking of all the times people had completely ignored the little imp even if he had busied himself by climbing bookshelves or pelting them with imaginary paper balls.
"Neither are you. You're just a part of the book. Funny, that you ended up somewhere by the sea. I always thought you'd made a run for the hills and lived with the outsiders. That's the usual way your story's told." Aella's eyes ran over the princess's dress. "You look exactly as on the picture in the old library." She added. "The one that was drawn right after you vanished."
"Vanished?" Antigone frowned. "I didn't vanish! I entered the book to prevent its unwriting. Lady Ink promised I'd be able to get back to the university. She said if I wanted to I could return to the time and place I chose."
"I don't know who this 'Lady Ink' person is, but Mudd said he didn't know if I could come back, and since you obviously never returned..."
"How do you even know that?" Antigone interrupted her.
Aella snorted. "You've been gone for over 250 years. There are book readings, poetic recitals and theatre performances about your sudden disappearance on any given day."
The princess frowned. "But Lady Ink said--"
"She probably lied." Aella looked around her. "Do you have any idea where we are?"
"We're at a good place to start our quest. And I am sure Lady Ink would never do such a thing!" Antigone protested. "Swiftsure, stop that!"
Swiftsure had been 'stalking' a piece of paper that was being blown about by the wind. Antigone's command reached him just as he was about to jump and catch it. He surprised himself and her when he jumped anyway and grabbed the paper with his mouth. "Ah gwodd 't!" He yelled through his closed teeth and jumped towards them.
"What?" Aella asked.
Swiftsure carefully trapped the paper under his paw and said, "I got it!"
"Can I take a look at it?" She asked and at his nod she carefully picked it up. "It looks like a page that was torn out of a book."
"Probably the big book that sucked me in." Swiftsure shuddered at the memory.
Aella shot him a skeptic look. "A big book sucked you in?" She repeated.
Antigone sighed. "Of course, that's how he got here." At Aella's questioning glance she explained. "The book has a mind of its own and when someone comes in contact with it, it sucks them in and places them in the story its pages are turned to at the moment. Swiftsure must have stumbled across it as it was writing about our meeting at this beach, that's how he got here. I suppose he's now a part of our quest as well, tough I have no idea how he could possibly help with it."
Aella frowned. "Wait a minute. I'm not here as part of some quest. I'm here because I wanted to get away from the university and see new things. So whatever it is you are planning on doing, I'm not going to help you with it."
"But you have to! I asked Lady Ink to put me in a place that would help me with my task and she put me here. Obviously she meant for us to meet and work together."
"Look, I'm not interested in 'working together' with anyone. And your quest or task or whatever it is doesn't matter to me. I'll accompany you to the next civilized place we can find and then I'm off. If I wasn't so sure that you in your little princessey dress and your little lap dog over there are completely helpless, I wouldn't even do that. Now let's find a way to get away from this beach, the water is rising, and I have a feeling it won't stop until it reaches the cliffs." With that Aella started walking towards a group of rocks at the far end of the beach, where the cliffs seemed to stoop lower to the ground.
"She's not very courteous, is she?" Swiftsure asked, looking up at Antigone.
"No, she is not." The princess answered, wondering how this could possibly be a good place to start saving the book and whether the strange girl had been telling the truth about her never returning to the university.