I heard a voice ask me my name.
“Jean,” came the answer in my voice. “Jean V. Forster.”
What was I doing so deep in the woods?
“Looking for a book.”
What kind of book?
“The one with the other books inside.”
Why are you looking for it?
“I like reading books.”
“What do you mean?” asked the voice.
“Reading books is fun. Screw Plugin-readers. I’m not old fashioned, everyone else is just dumb.”
“Now you’ve lost me completely. I suppose it doesn’t matter, you’re lucid enough to wake up now.”
A wooden wall greeted me when I awoke. I shuffled under the blanket as the leafy mattress ruffled underneath me.
“I would advise against consuming lastwind berries unless you are trying to go out with a bang,” said the voice. “And if you intend to go out with a bang, please don’t do so on my front door, I just had my apprentice clean it.”
I turned to face the voice. It belonged to a blonde, middle-aged woman. Her bright green eyes caught my attention; they seemed to be swirling like a whirlpool leading to her pupils.
“Hello,” she said, snapping her fingers. I broke from my trance. What was that?
“Like I was saying,” she continued. “Now that you’re feeling better, you should leave before the –” She peeked behind the curtains that hung against the wall without a window. “Drat, the forest path is already closed. Guess you’ll have to stay the night. My apprentice should be back anytime now, she’ll take you to your room.”
“Thanks, but I don’t want to trouble you with –”
“Nonsense,” she said, sitting down on a chair beside the bed. “We rarely get any visitors. Even the folk from Sett don’t come into the woods anymore. Not since The Daily Scribbler ran that slanderous piece about the Raxxers.”
“They’re the cutest critters in the world, great for snuggling, and playing catch. They’re famous around these parts but I won’t blame you for not knowing about a monster so far from home.”
“Far from home…” I said. “Wait, where am I?”
“Really? Raxxers are one thing, but not recognizing the Broken Woods is a little strange, V.”
“V? My name’s not V.”
“One’s beard, don’t tell me you go by Jean? I’m so sorry, I assumed you were a Cleffan because you didn’t have any burn marks. I apologize, young Epilian, but seeing one of your kind this far on the other side of Illustair is quite rare.”
I was about to say something but she put a finger against my lips and shushed me.
“It’s okay,” she said. “Your secret is safe with me. I’m a Humanist anyways, so I don’t care what the Bitanists say, you Statisticians have as much of a right to Illustair as anyone else.”
Thoroughly lost in both body and mind, I decided to ignore everything the woman was saying and get a foothold to grasp what was going on. I asked, “Who are you again?”
“Dear me, I forgot to introduce myself,” replied the woman, tugging the green scale-textured scarf around her neck. “Witch Moxy Morgan Melsam, pleasure to meet you.”
Ignoring the fact that she had introduced herself as a witch, I offered her a hand which she shook incorrectly. “Jean V. Forster, likewise.”
“Yes, I know, you told me when you were waking up.”
“Wait, why were you asking me those questions anyway?” I asked.
“Just making sure you weren’t an Inlineman, honey,” she replied like it was the most obvious thing in the world. “Oh, and that reminds me, that book you were looking for –”
My eyes widened and my heart skipped a beat. In all the confusion between the bird monster and the witch, I’d nearly forgotten why I was lost in the woods in the first place.
“The House,” I said, practically leaping out of bed. “I have to find it. Him. I have to find him.”
“Demetrius. That bastard stole my book.”
“A book thief? One’s beard, even death isn’t kind to those sorts of people,” she said, a serious expression adorning her face.
“Damn it, he’s probably miles away by now.” I sat back on the bed and put my face between my hands. Rows upon rows of bookshelves came to the forefront of my mind, marble slabs and pillars, fountains and the giant blue dome, the largest collection of books I had ever seen, and I’d let it slip through my fingers.
I raised my head. “Yes?”
“Did you call it The House?”
“Yeah,” I said, burying my face in my palms again. “The House of Wisdom, that was the book’s title.”
“I see,” she said.
A brief silence ensued, in which I thought back to how Demetrius had taken the book from me. Remembering how quickly his personality had changed, I wondered if he had a multiple personality disorder of some kind. But he’d said something else too, something which made Moxy’s ramblings seem a little less crazy, but increased the overall craziness of the situation too high for me to digest.
“If it was indeed the House of Wisdom, then there is a way you could find it again.”
“Wait, really?” I asked, breaking from my train of thought.
“Yes, but first let me ask you, do you know what the Wonders are?”
I was about to reply in the negative but checked myself, recalling the conclusion I’d reached a few moments ago. “Yes, of course.”
“Then I should probably tell you that that book you found was no ordinary book. It was the tome of The House of Wisdom – one of the legendary Wonders.”
I feigned incredulousness. “Really?”
“Indeed,” said Moxy, staring at me with her whirlpool eyes. “Another little-known fact about the Wonders, is that they come in a set, with a predefined order and everything. And if you find one book in the series, you can use it to find the next one, then use that to find the next one, and so on.”
“Since the House of Wisdom is the third Wonder, if you find the second one, it’ll lead you straight to it.”
I was elated, even if Moxy’s facial expression suggested that this was not a reasonable plan at all, the tiniest possibility of being able to get back the House was enough to make me giddy.
“Do you know where the second Wonder is?” I asked.
Moxy laughed uproariously, making me jump a little. It took her a while to settle down, after which she replied, “Honey, if I knew where the Wonders were, do you think I’d be wasting away in a rotten old hut in the middle of nowhere?”
“I don’t know, maybe?”
“You make a fair point,” she said, suddenly serious again. “I would almost certainly still stay in my hut; civilized society is too mundanely exciting for a poor little witch like me. Tell you what, I may not know where the other Wonders are, but I do know a guy who does. And I’ll help you get in touch with him if you do me a little favor.”
“What kind of favor?” I asked.
“Nothing too troubling, in fact, it may be a blessing for someone so far from home. You see, my apprentice – who still isn’t back yet for some reason – has lived her whole life cooped up inside the forest. She doesn’t even go to Sett anymore, even though she used to love playing there as a kid. She’s like a daughter to me; I raised her since she was suckling Camcot berries, and I want her to go explore the world, but she’s probably too scared to go alone.”
“I see where this is going,” I said. “You want me to take her with me?”
“Sure,” I said. Why would I decline a guide, especially considering the conclusion I’d reached a few minutes ago.
There was a creaking sound from the front of the hut as a voice carried over. “I’m home, Mo.”
“Ah, that’s her,” said Moxy, getting up from her chair. “You stay here and rest, I’ll tell Elenor about everything. The two of you can get going early tomorrow morning, I’ll make the arrangements and prepare the supplies for the journey, don’t you fret.”
She left the room before I could stop her. I heard voices in the front of the hut, which, at one point, sounded like an argument. I couldn’t make out what was being said, but it dragged on for long enough that my head felt empty once the voices died down. Exhausted, I pulled the blanket over myself, and shuffled around the leafy bed.
Before falling asleep, I reminded myself of the conclusion I’d reached regarding my situation. Adding what Demetrius had said about ‘the way this new world works,’ and Moxy’s gibberish, I realized that not only had I met a real witch, I had also gone inside a wardrobe, of sorts. Years of reading had left my disbelief suspended in mid-air, so the fact that I was in a new world didn’t faze me as much as it should have.
What did disturb me was how hot it was under that blanket. I pushed it off, and went to sleep.