Nick stared open-mouthed, in shock at their surroundings. He and Lene had emerged from the cavern at the bottom of a deep and narrow chasm that was dark all around except for the patch of grass on which they sat. A stream of sunlight trickled down from high above, shining into the ravine like a spotlight. Outside of that little circle of light was a darkness so black and thick with fog that the sunlight couldn't penetrate it. An illuminated pathway branched just beyond their patch of light in one direction around a bend, in the other down a long, narrow trail.
"Where are we?" Lene whispered, looking up in wonder.
Nick shook his head. "I dunno, kid, but I don't think we're gonna be able to climb our way out of this one." He followed Lene's gaze up the cliff face that stood towering on both sides above them. The sheer canyon wall shot straight up beyond the dark mist, stretching as high as he could see, and was too smooth to climb. Nick realized that they must have fallen beneath the apple tree for the longest time to have arrived here, and the only way out would be to follow the path of the ravine until they came upon an exit. But which way to go? They were supposed to be heading for the castle in the distance, yet Nick had no idea which path would lead them towards it. Since they couldn't see the castle from their location, they might easily choose the wrong direction.
Well, things could be worse, Nick decided. They could be back inside the cavern, trapped with those creepy crawly roots.
"It looks like we're going to have to pick a path," he said, looking over at Lene.
She clambered to her feet and looked back and forth between the two options that the trail presented. "Well... since we're going to the castle, we gotta go this way." She pointed to the path that disappeared around the corner.
"You're sure? How can you tell?"
A strange expression crossed the girl's face. "I just get this feeling about the castle sometimes. It's like..." Lene stopped and her expression returned to normal. She lifted her arms in a shrug."I dunno, Nick. I just know somehow. Magic, I guess?"
Nick was curious about what she had been about to say, but he knew that Lene couldn't always explain the way her powers worked so he decided not to press her. He got up and took her hand, and they began to walk along the narrow lighted path. Just beyond the bend the trail continued with twisty, turny curves edged in shadow and swirling mist.
They stuck close together, not saying much for a while until Lene asked, "Do apple trees always swallow people like that, Nick?"
"As far as I can remember, that's the first time I've ever seen that happen. But it was pretty freaky right?" he shivered, remembering the way the root had curled around his wrist. "Don't think I can ever eat an apple again... or sleep in the dark. Lucky for me, I got you for a night light, huh kid?" he joked. "How'd you do that anyway, that ball of light? Think you can tell me?"
"Hmm..." The pink tip of Lene's tongue peeked out from her mouth as she thought about it. "I kinda thought of something warm and bright and I held it in my hands until it just appeared. I can show you how to make one," she told him brightly.
"Really? That'd be awesome." Nick thought a power like that would come in handy, especially since he never could seem to find a flashlight.
"Sure! I'll show you when it gets dark ‘cause they're kinda hard to make in the daytime."
Contrary to their plans, however, the day refused to turn to night on their little path, and sunlight continued to shine down on them unwavering. Nick and Lene walked the entire time with only a short break for lunch. As the hours crept by; Nick began to grow suspicious, and with a moan he adjusted his backpack. "Geeze, it feels like we've been walking forever."
"How much longer until we get outta here?" Lene asked.
"Hopefully not too long. We only have enough food for a day or two. After that, we'll have to eat squirrels," Nick joked. The girl's eyes grew big and with a laugh he told her, "I'm just kidding, okay? I won't make you eat a squirrel."
Just as Nick spoke, a bushy gray-tailed squirrel scampered along the grass in front of them and stopped right in the middle of the path. It cocked its head to one side, observing them, and then ran off the trail into the shadowy mist, disappearing completely.
"Whoa, did you see that!" Lene exclaimed. She let go of Nick's hand and ran over to where the squirrel had vanished, examining the fog with curiosity. The little girl reached an arm out and waved her hand through the swirling air. "Brr! It's cold, Nick! That's so weird ‘cause it's all warm and sunny over here."
He joined her and cautiously reached an arm out to find that Lene was right. The shadowy air was freezing cold, like ice. Pulling back, he said, "I don't think we should mess around with that fog, kiddo. That's pretty weird."
"But don't you want to know where the squirrel went?" she insisted. "It just disappeared."
"Nope," Nick said resolutely. "I think you and I have gotten into enough trouble for one day. Let's stay on the trail." Putting his hand on her shoulder, he began to gently steer her away from the spot where the squirrel had vanished when something caught his eye. "Did you see that?" He turned back, narrowing his eyes as he tried to peer into the fog.
"See what, Nick? Was it the squirrel?"
"No, it was... like a flicker of light." He stared into the misty darkness, hoping to catch another glimmer but saw nothing. "You know what? Don't move. I wanna check this out."
"Okay, I'll come with you!" Lene announced.
"No, you stay right here. I'll only be a minute, okay?" Stepping forward, he walked into the mist and let himself be enveloped in its darkness. It was cold, even colder than when he had reached his hand into the shadow. Nick hugged his arms around himself and tried to let his eyes focus, but in the dark he could barely make out his own frosty plumes of breath as they got snatched away into the fog. Glancing behind him, he saw no sign of Lene or the sunny path from which he'd come from. Nick carefully took a few steps forward then stopped because he had no idea where he was going. For a second he wondered if he should turn back before he lost his bearings. After all, there was no sign of whatever it was he had seen earlier.
Nick felt the fog rolling around him, cold and damp like a wet shroud. Damn, I wish I learned that night light trick from Lene, he thought just before he felt something tug on his sleeve.
"Ahh!" Nick jumped. A small figure threw itself at his legs and held on tight. "Lene, is that you? I thought I told you to stay put!" he yelped and pried her off.
"I did, but you were gone forever. I started to get worried so I came looking for you."
"What are you talking about? I wasn't even gone a minute. Jesus, you scared the friggin' crap out of me!" He kicked at the ground to let off some tension, and ran his hands through his damp hair. It took him a second to realize that Lene was crying. Turning to her in the dark, Nick knelt down to the girl's height and put his around her. "Hey, what's wrong? I'm sorry I yelled, okay? You just freaked me out is all."
"You weren't gone just a minute," she sobbed. "I waited for an hour! I got s-so scared that something happened to you, or that you left me..."
"Huh? ...An hour?" Nick shook his head in disbelief. There was no way an hour could have passed, unless time flowed differently here in the darkness than it had back on the sunny path. "Well, I'm sorry, kiddo... I wasn't trying to scare you, and you should know that I would never just leave you, okay? I swear, over here it only felt like a minute. Time must've gone screwy on us."
She sniffled. "It's cold in here..."
"Yeah, like a freezer, right?" Nick stood up. "Come on, let's look around for a bit and maybe that thing I saw will come up again. If not, we'll head back before we turn into popsicles."
"Want me to make a light? S'dark in here!"
"Nah, not right now. The light might wash out that thing that I saw. There was like this flicker-wait, over there." He groped for Lene's hand in the darkness and pulled her along with him. They walked towards the little glimmer of brightness, their clothes growing soggy from the mist, and somehow managed not to bump into anything. Although not too long before they had been trapped in a narrow canyon, they now seemed to be roaming across a wide, endless plain with only that beacon of light to guide them.
Gradually the light grew stronger and bigger and solidified into the shape of a tunnel, which they walked through until they emerged from the fog in a low valley. The sun had just begun to set behind huge mountains capped with snow, turning their peaks purple against the fading red and orange sunset. Mist billowed all around Nick and Lene, and it poured from the tunnel behind them into a grassy meadow below, eventually dissipating into the wind.
"Hey, look! Over there!" Lene tugged excitedly on his hand and pointed. Nestled deep in the meadow between two mountains was a cottage, its windows dark in the fading light.
"Do you think they have a fridge?" Nick grinned. Eager to find out, they took off for the little house at a mad dash, running through the tall grass until they arrived breathlessly at the front door. The cottage was picturesque, with a thatched roof and walls covered in ivy. A small stone well stood in the garden beside it, which was overgrown with fruits and vegetables that had long been unattended. Nick had to admit that the whole scene was rather, well, pretty-for lack of a better word-and looked like it had come out of a painting.
The wooden door of the cottage had no lock, just a latchstring, which Nick tugged on and then pushed the door in. "Honey, I'm home!" he jokingly called into the dark room before turning to Lene. "Hey, show me that light thingy of yours, will ya?"
With a nod, the girl cupped her hands together and when she opened them again, she was holding a little ball of light that steadily glowed brighter and brighter. The inside of the cottage filled with light, and as his eyes adjusted, Nick saw that it was one big chamber. There was a large stone hearth in front of the fireplace, a wooden table with little wooden chairs, and a big bed in one corner. All along the walls were shelves covered with knickknacks and tall candlesticks, as well as wooden trunks on which stood short thick candles. Digging through the pockets of his backpack, Nick fished out a lighter, which he had uncovered back when they were going through various houses unlocking things, and he carried it around the room lighting candles one by one.
Lene shut the door of the cottage and grabbed one of the already lit candles to help Nick finish lighting the room, and before long everything was bathed in warm candlelight. "I don't see a fridge," she said with a frown.
"Yeah, you're right," Nick agreed. "But I bet there's a pantry or something. Maybe... in here?" he said hopefully, checking a cabinet not too far from the hearth. It revealed a small, empty closet with bare shelves. "Oh, I guess not."
"Nick!" Lene ran over to stand beside him. "You forgot to unlock it," she reminded him, shutting the door and pulling it open again to reveal a pantry stocked with food. On the floor there were bins of potatoes and onions and bulbs of garlic, while the shelves were lined with jars of red and orange and green fruits and vegetables, and a huge smoked ham hung from the ceiling.
Nick's mouth watered as he eyed all the food. "I'll take one of everything."
The sound of a log crackling in the hearth as it split in two woke Lene in the middle of the night. The fire that Nick had lit to cook their supper had burned down to a soft glow, and in its dusky light she could see him curled up on the floor on a makeshift bed of thick quilts, which he had dug out of one of the trunks. Lene sat up in bed, wrapping her own quilt more tightly around her body as she thoughtfully studied Nick's sleeping figure. He had kicked off his covers during the night, and she could see the strong lines of his tattooed arms, the shape of his broad back, and the curve of his spine as it disappeared into the waistline of his pajama bottoms. Watching him, Lene contemplated all of the time they had spent together and how Nick had grown to be just as dear to her as her own parents were.
She didn't understand how she could have such vivid memories of being raised by her mother and father when she knew that she'd been travelling with Nick since she was a baby. It also didn't make sense that he had discovered her all alone in an empty house. If Lene's memories were correct and her parents had been murdered, then Nick should have found her with Günter because he had been the one taking care of her after her parents' death. Surely Günter wouldn't abandon her in that house for Nick to find, but how else could she have gotten there?
Lene also didn't understand why she was aging so fast, how one day she could be five years old and the next day she could be nine. Nick had assured her that there was nothing wrong with her, yet still Lene wondered. He was the same age from one day to the next and didn't make any weird and sudden age jumps. Assuming she was from Other World-which she did, considering that Nick had found her here-maybe people from this place matured faster than people did where he was from? Lene didn't have anyone to ask about it since all the inhabitants of Other World had vanished, but it made sense. Did this mean then that she was going to grow old very fast? That she would die before Nick did?
The thought scared Lene. She adored Nick more than anything, and she didn't want to be separated from him. Nick was her best friend. He was nice, he was so funny, he told her bedtime stories, and most importantly, he always looked out for her. She could remember not having a lot of friends while growing up because her family was always moving around, but Nick had always been there for her, and she knew that he always would be-or at least he would until he went back to where he belonged.
Nick had told Lene where he had to go in order to get back home-Nightingale Hill. And Lene knew that it was her duty to lead him there. Something deep inside told her that she needed to show him the way to the castle in the distance, which called for her like an imperceptible tug on her body. Yet that castle scared her. Sometimes at night when Lene couldn't fight it, strange images invaded her dreams, and she saw herself running through palace corridors, staring at beautiful tapestries, hiding behind tall suits of armor. When had she been there before, and why was Nightingale Hill calling for her?
Lene didn't want to go there, not if that place would take Nick away once and for all. Of course, she wanted to help him, she really did, and he seemed so eager to get back home, wherever his home was. But why couldn't they just continue on here in Other World and stay together always? The thought of losing Nick, the only person Lene had left, was too much to bear. Without Nick, she would be left all alone in Other World. Who else did she have to turn to?
Günter, the thought came to her uncontrollably. Lene shook her head. She was just as confused about Günter as she was about everything else. Her memories told her that he was the nice man who had saved her when her parents were murdered, but Nick kept insisting that Günter was a bad person. Nick said that the castle belonged to Günter and that he was trying to hurt them. Lene supposed it made sense that the castle belonged to him, especially since he sometimes appeared in her dreams of running through the castle halls. But it was difficult to reconcile the bad things Nick had told her about Günter with the positive things from her own memories. How was it possible that he could be their enemy? Besides, if Günter really was a bad guy, and the castle belonged to him, then why did they need to go there?
None of it made any sense. All Lene understood was that she didn't want to lose Nick. Earlier that day when she had sat in the canyon waiting for him to come back, she had gotten so scared as time passed that he had left her. She'd already lost her parents; she couldn't stand to lose him, as well. But so far Lene had only been leading Nick closer and closer to the castle, which would separate them forever. It had to stop. Somehow, she had to find a way to keep Nick from Nightingale Hill.
He had told her he would never leave her. She just had to make sure he would keep his word.