The bright, dusty glare of Titan’s Crown gave way to a fairytale wonderland. Madeline gaped in awe at the forest around her, filled with bobbing lights of all sorts of colors. The leafy canopy above was so dense that no light entered from the sky, and yet the forest itself was quite open, with trees spaced far apart from each other and a springy, clear grassy bed throughout. Flowers bloomed here and there, but there were no weeds, no leafy shrubs, no vast undergrowth to bar Madeline’s way.
The Wood of the Wisps was a clear, beautiful, safe place.
The bobbing lights must be the Wisps. But… what are they?
It would have been nice if he’d had more time to explain things. But I suppose it’s all right. I just need to follow the map.
The route to her exit was easy – even though there were no paths in the Wood, it was clear where she needed to go. In fact, she could see it from where she’d entered.
“That archway of branches, huh?”
Forward she went. The Wisps, which had been far away when she arrived, started to come closer. They were strange sort of blobs of light, ranging from the size of a baseball to nearly the size of Madeline’s torso. They weren’t any singular shape, either, each one squishing and stretching, and all constantly bobbing through the air.
There was a faint breeze now and then, and Madeline thought she could hear a distant song on the wind.
One of the Wisps, about the size of a volleyball, bobbed its way over to Madeline. It gleamed a lavender color, and as it came closer Madeline realized it wasn’t formed of light. In fact…
“You look like a Summon, don’t you?” she asked.
She didn’t have much experience with Summons, but they all had the same somewhat furry texture that this Wisp exhibited. It bobbed closer, and Madeline reached out a hand to touch it.
That first contact sent a jolt like electricity through her, a sudden flash of emotional intensity that ripped through her and vanished into the night.
Elation. Sorrow. Fear. Confidence. Hope.
Madeline found herself grinning from ear to ear, and yet tears rolled down her cheeks.
“What are you…?” she asked softly, wiping her face. She watched the Wisp who bobbed up and down a foot away, not coming closer or moving away. When she took another step towards her destination, the Wisp followed, maintaining the same distance. “Attached to me, huh?”
Roderick said that much, at least. That the Wisps tend to get attached to visitors, and visitors to the Wisps.
But he never said if that was good or bad. Just that I shouldn’t waste time.
“How far will you follow me?” she asked. She started walking again, slow at first but speeding up as she got farther.
The lavender Wisp maintained the same distance, bobbing along after her.
Halfway to her destination, Madeline stopped and placed her hands on her hips, regarding the Wisp with a serious look. “I’m not sure what to make of you,” she said. “But you probably shouldn’t follow me. I have places to go – I can’t stay. You should stay here with your other Wisps.”
That last statement had a visible effect on the Wisp that followed her, which jolted three feet higher into the air, bristling all over for a moment as if in…
“You don’t… want to stay here?”
She reached out tentatively, and the Wisp responded just as tentatively. When they touched, the emotions that flew through Madeline came gently, greatly reduced in intensity and speed.
But they’re the same. A sense of joy, but also fear. A sorrow, mixed with hope. And a strange sort of… confidence.
“You can’t use words, huh?” she asked softly. She felt a strange impulse mix in with the emotions, and she laughed, feeling a little giddy. “That is… so weird. But I think… I understand you? At least a little bit.”
But you don’t want to stay here with the others. It’s not even a stubbornness or childish sort of impulse, either. It’s like… if you were to stay here, it wouldn’t mean what I think it means.
“Staying with the other Wisps… isn’t what you’re meant for?” Madeline shook her head. “Did I get that right?” A little flutter that felt like assent buzzed through her arm. “So then… if you can’t follow me, you’ll just be here waiting for someone else to come along?”
The Wisp bristled, darting back and then returning in a jittery zigzag. When they reconnected, Madeline was taken aback.
“It… has to be me?”
The Wisp bobbed up and down, as if it were nodding.
For a while, Madeline didn’t know what to say. Then, slowly, she smiled.
“Do you want to come with me, then?” she asked. “I’m not too bothered by being alone, but I think I’d enjoy your company.”
The Wisp flew upwards in a circle, and though it had no face, no way to distinguish between top and bottom, front and back, Madeline thought that it was doing a sort of celebratory cartwheel, and she could imagine a smile on the glowing blob’s faceless body.
“Well, we don’t have time to waste, then,” Madeline said, starting once more towards her destination as she checked her watch. 470:23:44. Plenty of time.
It didn’t take long at all to cross the rest of the distance to the wooded archway. Worried she might leave her new Companion behind, she held out her arm, and the Wisp clung to it, its emotional impulses feeling like cozy happiness.
With that sense of joy buoying her, and a smile on her face, Madeline stepped through into the next Location.
Immediately she sensed the difference. Following her warnings, she started off by shutting her eyes and tilting her head towards the ground. Her arm pulled the Wisp into a protective embrace.
The Unfathomable Emptiness…
Roderick wasn’t mincing words. I can feel it already, reaching out to me, like…
Like nothing I’ve ever felt before. It’s as if I’m a magnet, drawn to a far larger, more powerful magnet. A piece of driftwood in the tide.
“We have to be very careful,” she said softly, hugging the Wisp tighter. “No matter how it feels, we aren’t powerless. Just stay focused on our goal.” The Wisp sent her signals of encouragement. It already trusted her completely.
Her eyes still closed, Madeline Conjured the map of the Unfathomable Emptiness. Slowly, she opened her eyes, locking them onto the piece of paper in her hand.
It took a great force of effort. Every second, every fraction of a second, she felt that unfathomable, immeasurable pull. It came from her right, but also from below – down, down, down into a bottomless, yawning depth.
“The path’s pretty straightforward,” Madeline said. Speaking her thoughts aloud helped calm her, and it was easier to think out loud than in her mind with such a great force clawing at her. “But we’ll be very close to the edge. I think we have a bit of room for error, but… we should follow it as best we can.”
She didn’t dare look up, nor let go of the Wisp. The little blob of light seemed so fragile, so weak, it would likely be yanked away effortlessly by the Emptiness, no matter how much it fought on its own to stay by Madeline.
The ground around Madeline’s feet was grey, ashen, cracked. Dust rose and fell around her feet with each step, and the sound of her footsteps echoed round and round.
The air was dead. There was no wind, not even the slightest hint of a breeze. But there was… something.
It certainly sounded as if there was a wind, howling at a great distance. But the howl was deep and alien, and separated from any sensation of wind on her skin, it couldn’t be wind.
It was more like…
“A great beast,” she said softly. She stumbled slightly against her will, her steps carrying her momentarily to the right. She caught a glimpse of darkness, of rocks crumbling away over a precipitous drop.
Frantically, she stepped back to the left, not looking up, not daring for a moment.
Like a great beast singing a wordless, inviting song. Powerful, tempting, manipulative.
“We can’t listen to it,” she said, glancing at the lavender blob tucked against her chest. “Right?” The Wisp fluttered, sending a feeling of confidence that felt strangely familiar.
Madeline kept walking. Each step felt heavy, heavier, the heaviest of any steps she had ever taken. Twice more she stumbled, as if her sense of balance suddenly vanished, and each stumble sent her to the right, towards the drop, towards the chasm, towards the great unknowable force in the darkness far below.
When she judged she was about halfway to her destination, she began to feel a sense of dizziness. Her head felt light, and her vision blurred. She blinked, shook her head, and her vision came back. But nausea crept in, and a tightness in her chest. It was hard to breathe. She thought she might be sick. And she was ever so tired…
Something jolted through her, emotional bolts of lightning that forked together to form a single, powerful word. Madeline’s eyes snapped open, and she suddenly stepped back.
She’d been right on the very edge, facing inward towards the chasm.
Swiftly pulling the map up to hide the landscape from view, she turned herself slowly so that the emptiness was to her right, as it should be. Then she petted the fuzzy Wisp lightly with her thumb. “Thank you,” she said softly.
On they continued, and Madeline did her best to keep hold of her sense of direction. The exit was at a point with a sudden right turn – a turn towards the chasm, towards the thing she mustn’t look at, mustn’t listen to. Her exit was well and truly on the very edge.
“It widens out to our right just before,” she said. “If I hold the map just so, then I can see it in my peripheral vision.”
It can’t be much farther…
She hoped not, for the nausea hadn’t abated, nor the lightness in her head. Her vision blurred once, and she came to a complete stop, blinking and refocusing until she could see clearly.
She was terribly, dreadfully tired. A massive weight of exhaustion was strapped to her shoulders, and with every passing moment it grew heavier, yet also cozier, comfier, beckoning her into sleep.
She stopped once of her own volition, carefully rubbing at her eyes in such a way that she didn’t look at anything she shouldn’t. The second stop came when the Wisp sent her another jolting No!, saving her again from walking straight out and over into the chasm.
It was that second stop that also brought Madeline to a painful realization.
She’d gone too far.
Carefully turned around, using the map as a shield to guide her peripheral vision, she saw that the line of the chasm’s edge traced a curve behind her.
“Our exit is right after the curve,” she said, shaking her head. “At least we didn’t go too far. We’re almost there.”
Her very first step on the return journey was the hardest so far. As soon as her foot hit the ground, she dropped to a knee. Her head swam, her stomach did flips, her vision blurred into a mess of fuzzy grey. Her chest was tight, and breaths could only come short, gasping, desperate. She felt cold all over, especially in her face.
“No,” she said in a pained whisper, shuddering as a wave of sickness coursed through her torso. She knelt for a moment with bated breath, desperately hoping she wouldn’t vomit onto this wasteland, or pass out, tumbling the wrong way into darkness.
But she was a piece of driftwood on the tide. When she went to stand up, she only tilted to the left, stopping herself with the hand that held the map, barely keeping her hold on it. The ground was rough and gritty against her skin.
Just stand. Walk. Don’t sit here waiting to be swallowed up.
But for many long, anxious moments, she found she could do no more than struggle for each new breath. Her legs were immovable, boneless globs that refused to answer her brain’s commands.
The precipice to her left seemed to draw closer, as if to say: “If you can’t come to me, I’ll meet you halfway.”
“Stay back, you,” Madeline said, her voice a hoarse whisper. “I have… to keep going. For…”
She halted on that sentence.
For what? For whom? For…?
“What…?” She swayed on her knees. Her mind was a liquidy mixture of barely-formed thoughts and memories, snatches of words and images that floated away whenever she grasped for them.
The yawning abyss drew closer. Madeline swayed towards it, reciprocating.
And then, a single bell rang out in her soul. A clear, beautiful, hopeful tone that carried with it a singular word.
Madeline gasped as her lungs suddenly opened up, and she could draw a proper breath. She looked down at her Wisp, and felt a flutter of understanding and confidence.
“For Fae,” she said softly, nodding to the little lavender ball. She rose to her feet, a sudden strength coursing through her.
But that strength was a fleeting gift. A great force of nature railed against it, and it wouldn’t be long before that strength once again crumbled.
“We’re almost there,” Madeline said, steeling herself. She started forward, holding her Wisp tight.
For the first time, she realized the Wisp was warm. Warm, soft, cozy, comforting in her arms.
“Thank you,” she said softly.
A dozen steps. That’s all that remained between her and her exit, and she crossed that distance swiftly, not even thinking of looking at her watch.
Either we’ve made it in time, or we haven’t. Either way, we have to leave this place.
There was the widening of the edge she sought, and Madeline stepped out onto it. For the briefest moment…
She looked up.
She’d expected to travel to a new Location. And she did, indeed she did, but not before she caught a proper glimpse of the Unfathomable Emptiness.
Even when the sight was gone, when she stood in a brand new place, she still saw it. The sight sent a chill through her spine, and a shudder through her soul.
And, for a moment – too long of a moment – it continued to call out to Madeline.
She took a deep breath, then let it out. Her Wisp in her arm did the same in time with her.
You aren’t home. Whatever you are…
I’ll never come to you.
As if in response to her determination, the image of that great, impossible chasm fled from her mind, and she could see her new surroundings clearly.
She stood in a great hall. The ceiling towered over her, a great many dozens of feet above. Glittering crystal chandeliers hung from reflective chains, casting a pale white light about. Ahead of her, the hall went on and on for what was likely miles, black marble floors polished to a shimmering sheen, ending in the faint distance at a set of stairs looping upward and around to an out of sight higher floor. Many halls branched off from this one, but where Madeline stood felt like the main hall, the primary thoroughfare for this building of impossible magnitude.
To her right, to her left, and on pedestals throughout the hall, were mirrors.
The Hall of Reflections.
Madeline dismissed the map of the Unfathomable Emptiness, Conjuring now the map of the Hall of Reflections. She eyed it for a moment, but that was all that was needed. Their path forward was simple and easy.
“The first hall to the left,” she said, looking up at the mirror-filled hall. “Easy enough.” But communication from her Wisp made her pause.
Her Wisp sent her messages, built on impressions and emotions rather than words, so they took a bit to translate.
“You… need a name?” she asked.
The Wisp floated up into the air in front of Madeline and bobbed once in a sort of nod.
“And then you’ll… become…” Madeline puzzled over the impressions she was getting from her Wisp. When she started to understand, her eyes widened. “You’ll turn into a Summon?”
Another bobbing nod.
“So that’s why the Wisps have that same texture and glow…” Madeline chuckled, shaking her head. “I probably could have figured that out a lot sooner if I hadn’t been in such a hurry. But then why me? I’ve never asked for a Summon, and I don’t really know all that much about Summoning Magic.”
Her Wisp spoke to her in that strange, wordless way it had, and Madeline found herself stunned to silence.
“Because we need each other?”
That’s what you’re saying?
“Maybe you’re right,” she said. “I don’t know why you need me, but… I wouldn’t have made it this far without you. So… a name, huh?”
She checked her watch, then nodded. “Well, we have time. I think I’ll call you…”
It took a while to settle on something. Naming her Wisp… there was a permanence to it, a permanence that hadn’t existed before. The glowing blob that had been along for the ride would have a name, a proper form, and be a part of Madeline. She knew that much about Summons – they and their Summoner were bound for life.
After a moment, she smiled.
“Raven,” she said in a clear voice, excitedly watching her Wisp. “Your name is Raven.”
The glowing lavender blob sang then – audibly, not merely through an inner sort of voice. It was an exultant song, high and clear, and as she sang, she warped and twisted, suddenly bursting with bright light that shielded her entire form from view. When the light faded…
Madeline stared in awe.
Raven was exactly as she’d hoped and expected: a lavender raven with resplendent wings, a dignified bearing, and yet an air of mischief to her. She flapped her wings lightly, hovering in the air, watching Madeline with black, inquisitive eyes. Madeline stretched out her arm, and Raven flew forward with a happy trill, landing lightly on her Summoner’s forearm. She was a small bird, not quite a foot tall, but she was a beautiful creature, glimmering with a livelier, healthier sheen than when she was just a Wisp. And she leaned her head close, nuzzling against Madeline’s cheek for a moment, before looking forward and trilling lightly.
Madeline nodded. “You’re right. It’s time to go.”
She moved ahead briskly, and Raven flew up and around, relishing in the vast space in the Hall and her new wings that let her surge upwards, bank sharply, and then dive wildly at amazing speed, pulling up just in time to avoid crashing into the floor.
Madeline kept her head high, her eyes fixed on her destination and nothing else. She wouldn’t look at any of the mirrors.
Whatever they have to show me is unimportant. I know what I’m here for.
She turned the corner, hurrying on even faster…
Or so she’d intended.
But when she turned the corner, she came face-to-face with…
She stared in shock at the woman staring back at her. It was her mother, the same as she’d looked the last day Madeline had seen her. Dressed the same, against the same beautiful snowy backdrop, with the same wonderful, marvelous smile on her face.
Madeline’s heart caught in her throat.
She knew that. It wasn’t possible. And yet…
And yet there she was, plain as day.
It was only in a mirror, a mirror on a pedestal in the middle of the hall, directly in front of Madeline when she’d turned.
But she was there. And she was beautiful.
One step after another, Madeline approached the mirror. Her footsteps, once sounding so loud on the marble floors, now seemed silent. When she reached the mirror, she held out her hand and touched the cool, glassy surface.
It felt like snow.
Her mother wasn’t the only one there. She turned, laughing as a snowball barely missed her. A girl came into view, nine years old and spunky as could be, with a mischievous grin on her face as she packed a new snowball. She threw, and her mother dodged it. Before little Madeline could pack another projectile, her mother had raced to her, tackling her in a hug that knocked them both into the knee-deep snow. Though the image through the mirror made no sound, Madeline could still hear the soft, fluffy thwump the freshly fallen snow had made from that fall. Though the mirror made no sound, she could hear her mother’s laughter as clear as yesterday.
Madeline stood watching that playful day in the snow for a long while, longer than she knew she should.
I’ll never have this chance again, will I?
Raven glided down to land on her shoulder, sending a little hum of emotions through her. Through teary eyes, Madeline nodded. With an effort, she pulled her attention away and to her watch.
“We still have time,” she said softly, closing the watch with a solid click. “Let’s keep going, but…” she brushed her fingers against the mirror tenderly, “not too quickly.”
The mirror on the pedestal had four sides, and Madeline walked around to the left side. There it bore an image earlier than the snow day, one of Madeline and her mother in her mother’s workshop at Crowley Manor. Mother was teaching daughter how to make clothes – not just sew, but imbue fabrics, buttons, zippers, laces, and all else with magic of their own. Clothes could be designed to last a long time, to resist the elements and even hostile magics, to grow with the wearer, to bear greater burdens than their fabrics would normally allow.
Little Madeline was wearing the same black pea coat that the Madeline of the present wore, and it was quite oversized on the young girl. She could remember the silent conversation happening in the mirror so clearly.
“But if clothes can be made to grow with the wearer, shouldn’t you have made the coat so that it fits properly?”
“Every article of clothing is different. And you mustn’t criticize a gift.”
“I’m sorry. But why’d you make it this big, then?”
“Some things are meant to be grown into. And besides… it’s extra warm and cozy like that, isn’t it?”
Little Madeline had giggled to that and agreed.
Present Madeline smiled as the tears that swam in her eyes finally broke loose, tumbling gently down her cheeks.
More memories with each new mirror, all involving her mother. There was the first Lunar Festival she was old enough to properly remember, a goofy grin on the little girl’s face as she held her mother’s hand and gawked at the amazing sights.
There were drawings, bedtime stories, play dates, mealtimes, special events…
What was a distant, tiny part of Madeline’s life now came rushing back to her with the images shown in the mirrors. What so often felt like too brief a period cut suddenly, heartbreakingly short now looked full to bursting with love, laughter, and life.
There were glimpses of her father, too, at times – a father that Madeline didn’t recognize. A Jacob Crowley who smiled, who laughed. A Jacob Crowley who let his little daughter ride atop his shoulders, who sang her silly songs, who played in the snow with her and his wife.
“That day changed everything,” Madeline said softly. She wiped at her face, and then a glowing wing wiped at her tears, too, its touch warm and gentle. She lifted a hand to pet Raven in thanks, but then found herself pulling her close in an embrace, finding hope in the comfort that provided. “If she were still with us… our lives would be so different.”
With a heavy sigh, Madeline started on again. There lay her destination: an archway at the end of the hall, through which she would pass into the Plains of the Fallen.
But as she approached the archway, she noticed a new sight in the final mirror of the hall. Once more, her heart caught in her throat. Once more, she stopped to stare.
There was her mother, but she looked different, in a way that Madeline had never seen her. She looked how she would look if she had lived to see Madeline grow up, and her image in the mirror stood with a wonderful smile and a light in her eyes next to present-day Madeline’s reflection. She opened her mouth and spoke, and for the first time, Madeline heard sound escape from the mirror.
“I’m so very proud of you.”
Her mother’s voice. Just as she remembered it, yet different at the same time.
A fresh batch of tears wet Madeline’s face, but she smiled wider than ever before. She couldn’t find words, nor the strength to speak, but the look in her mother’s eyes said it all.
She didn’t need to say a thing.
Grief, joy, and love mingled and flooded within her, and propelled her forward. Through the archway she went, ending her solitary journey with a new companion and a heart grateful beyond measure.