CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 License.
The second floor of the tower is like the first floor, completely empty and covered in dust. The only source of ventilation and light is tiny windows set high on the walls on each floor. The dim light, the dust, and the stuffiness combine with the heat, making him reluctant to explore, but he has nothing else to do so he presses on. Each successive floor is no different from the last until he reaches the top floor—there the room is brighter, because the stairs, continuing up to the roof, have sunlight pouring in from the top.
Emerging onto the roof he finds it’s considerably cooler than the tower, and the day feels less humid than it did in the morning. He sighs in relief, casting off his backpack and jacket, and sinks to the floor, resting. The top is open to the air so it isn’t covered in dust, though dirt and twigs collect along the sides, where battlements rise into a jagged half-wall. Judging from the sun it’s past noon, usually the hottest part of the day, but a breeze rolling over the top of the tower makes it surprisingly pleasant—especially compared to the stuffiness of the tower itself.
He can’t hear the creatures below him, but he knows they’re there, waiting. He pushes the thought aside, eats a food bar, drinks from his thermos, and tries not to fret over how little water is left. Then he turns his attention to the battlements with interest.
He’s never seen crenelations on a tower except in pictures. He’s surprised by how thin and flimsy they appear to be—for show, rather than for any practical purpose, perhaps? According to Buck the tower was built around the time of the Revolutionary War. Would they have served any practical purpose against a musket? Maybe they’d been thicker and more useful once, but have been worn down by weather and time. He walks to the edge of the tower, peering over and between them, trying to picture how they might be used during a siege. Glancing down, he is unpleasantly reminded that he is still taking part in one—the creatures stand silently, forming a ring that encircles the entire tower. There are far more of them than he expected. They make a convincing army. Again, he forces back panic. There’s nothing to be done. He’s trapped.
Nothing to be done yet. Trapped for now.
He briefly considers descending back into the tower but abandons the notion. It’s too hot down there, it feels too good up here, and at least from this vantage point he can keep an eye on the ragged army below. He sinks back down to the floor, places his back against one of the crenelations, and closes his eyes. When he opens them again, the sun is much lower in the sky. He’s fallen asleep; it’s evening.
He stands, stretches, eats a food bar, and drinks almost the rest of the thermos. He puts on his leather jacket, shoulders his backpack, and leans against the battlements to watch the sun slip behind the treeline, slowly spreading dark purple and orange across the sky.
Matthew feels a hint of chill in the air. He shivers in anticipation.
The sun sinks completely behind the trees. Stars appear in the sky, peeking through the fading purple and orange streaks, and all at once cold bites at his throat and lungs. He exhales sharply, and a stream of white breath emerges from his mouth. He grins, feeling a thrill of anticipation as the last light of the sun disappears.
Absolute silence settles over the valley. Matthew’s eardrums begin to itch.
The tower shifts, the world spins, and Matthew nearly loses his balance. He clutches at the battlements, only to find himself leaning against a large glass window. Gone are the stone floor and the too-thin crenelations. In their place is the uppermost room of the white tower—the tower he saw Simon enter the other night. He’s standing in the small room, the one with windows on every side that reminded him of the top of a lighthouse. The windows are closed, but the blinds are open, and he looks out over the valley to see the torchlit path leading to the entrance below.
The gray creatures are gone. The itching in his ears has stopped. Sound has returned, and behind him he hears the spitting and crackling of a burning log.
The top floor of this tower is a small, comfortably furnished study. Thick, well-made carpets cover the floor. A table sits in the center, piled with old parchment and leather-bound books. Set against one window is a large oak desk. Writing quills are placed on one corner, and more documents are stacked in various piles. At the far end is a small fireplace, a single log burning cheerfully as the tiny fire fills the room with a dim glow. Low bookshelves—coming up to the bottom of the windows, but no higher—wrap around the rest of the room, filled with books of various sizes. A globe of the earth sits on one shelf, and next to it is an armillary sphere. He examines the brass and glass construct, first with interest, then with confusion. Staring out the window, his confusion is both confirmed and increased: the constellations depicted on the ecliptic ring don’t appear in this sky.
Of course they don’t. This is a… I don’t know, exactly. It’s not summer here. This tower is not the other tower. I’m not in the same place.
He returns his attention to the room. Adjacent to the fireplace is a tiny spiral staircase descending into the rest of the tower. Matthew listens carefully. The fireplace is lit, and the room is obviously used, but there is no sound of life. He doubts he can hear anyone moving around in the rest of the tower, though, so he focuses on listening out for the sound of footsteps coming up the stairs.
He’s not entirely convinced there’s anyone there to listen out for. Anywhere else he’d assume the presence of a fire meant the place was actively inhabited, but the rules of this world—whichever world it might be—are different. He stands by the stairwell, listening in silence. Minutes pass. There is no sound below, nothing coming up the stairs. Finally he relaxes.
Over at the desk, he glances at each of the stacks of parchment. They’re all handwritten, the script is small and neat and clean, but while each of the letters is individually legible he can’t make sense of the words. An unknown language, but using the Roman alphabet. He’s certain it’s not Latin.
One of the stacks of parchment is covering something. He pushes it aside to reveal a polished rectangular box. He picks it up, examining it with interest. It’s a rectangular block of cherry-red, lacquered wood with an intricate pattern carved in the top. It’s light, roughly the size of a small book, and as he turns it over to see the bottom he feels something shift inside. He shakes the box slightly, trying to get a clue of what might be inside. It doesn’t rattle.
He sets it back down on the table, staring at the intricate symbol carved into the top. After staring at it for about a minute, something in his memory clicks into focus and he realizes it’s the same pattern he saw the night he saw this tower from the outside—the silvery pattern on the banners beside the doors.
Thinking back further, he thinks it might also be the pattern he saw Simon tracing in the air at the mysterious disappearing chapel on Bridge Road. But even making that connection, he feels the picture is incomplete. Has he seen any other patterns? He tries to remember. He hasn’t, he’s sure of it. Not in Daylight, at any rate. And at the manor… he catches his breath. He has seen a pattern at the manor. He helped create a pattern at the manor.
They were dancing. He’d never danced before, certainly not like that, and he was swept up in the joy of it, of dancing with Alice, and dancing with everyone else, and just as he sank into the rhythm and the music and the movement he could feel that their motion over the floor was creating a pattern, over and over and over again. And that pattern was very like the pattern Simon had traced in the air, the pattern on the banners framing the tower door, and the pattern etched into this box.
Very like, but not identical. It is actually closer to a counterpoint to the pattern he’s looking at now. Matthew realizes that if the two patterns were placed on top of each other it would create an entirely different, more complicated pattern…
Finger extended, Matthew touches the symbol on the box and traces the symbol of the dance over it. With each motion he feels a surge of warmth, as if a new connection between two points is completed with each stroke and energy surges through it. With each motion he recreates the pattern of the dance, and with each motion the surge of warmth grows stronger—never unpleasant or painful, but always stronger—until finally the very last arc of the dance ends at the top of the symbol, completing the shape.
Warmth surges and fades. The box clicks. Startled, Matthew jerks back his hand; the top of the box slides back, revealing a small book bound in dark leather, a symbol etched into the front, carefully drawn in silver-colored ink. The symbol, he realizes, is the one he just created. It is the combination of the symbol on the box and the symbol of the dance, two pieces joined as a unified whole.
He reaches into the box, withdraws the book, and places it on the desk. It is obviously very old. The leather binding and stitching are done by hand, rather than machine, but it doesn’t appear to have degraded much over the years. He opens the book to a random spot, and sees handwritten text covering the page. It is not the same handwriting as the papers on the desk, but it is similarly small, precise, and clean. And just like the papers on the desk, the words themselves—while quite legible despite their small size—are meaningless to him.
The very first page of the book reveals the problem. Printed on that page is part of a cipher… the entire book is written in code. Looking over the papers on the desk, it appears they are written using the same code. Two different styles of handwriting using the same code, so at least two people using the same code. And with only half the cipher on hand, it would be pointless to try to translate it.
Matthew grinds his teeth in frustration. He stares at the book for a long time, wondering if all the questions about everything are answered in those pages. Then, reluctantly, he places the book back in the box and carefully pulls the top shut. As soon as the lid covers the top, the seam disappears. Matthew pushes the box back to its original spot on the desk, and places the pile of paper back on top of it.
Not the time for that mystery, he thinks. Another day.
It’s time to leave the tower. It is, he decides, time to do so by taking a step ahead of this strange new world instead of being pulled along in its wake. He moves back to the stairwell, places a steadying hand on the rail, and closes his eyes.
Once, in the middle of a sickness he couldn’t explain, he found himself existing in two places at the same time: in the parking lot of Henry Lancie’s clinic, and at the old tower. Once again, when filled with desperation and longing, he actually moved from Buck’s dock to this new tower, a tower that appears to stand in the same place as the old tower, though the two are obviously different. And finally, once more, when filled with desperation and fear, moments away from being caught by one of the ragged gray things, he moved from the forest to the valley, in front of the old tower, in the blink of an eye. The first time this happened was confusing—is still confusing—but the second and third time he remembers everything.
He’s going to do it again. Deliberately. Closing his eyes, he takes a deep breath, and remembers.
A hill sloping south, dropping off abruptly into a broad valley. In the valley, a house, built in the fashion of a lord’s estate, untouched by the passage of time. Five stories, arched rooftops, tall windows. Around the manor house, a sprawling estate: a carriage house, stables, and many guest houses. Farther south, the front of the house, vast expanse of flat land with fountains at the end, covered in canopies and blankets where people gather and picnic under the chilly night sky. To the east, a hedge maze. To the west, a large circular pond, sectioned by four bridges meeting in the center, opening into a large, white gazebo. People gather there—beautiful people, impossibly beautiful, dressed in finery, laughing, dancing.
The world shifts.
He tastes cold air on his lips, hears music, and smells the scent of late autumn hay. He opens his eyes to see the moonless blue and purple sky above, thousands of stars shining down. He stands at the top of a hill, and looking down he sees the manor, hears the music, and sees the people dancing.
And there, standing exactly where he’d seen her that first night, is Alice, staring up at him.
He climbs down the hill, sure-footed this time, and cuts across the manor estates to the west grounds, toward the pond. The people notice him this time; the impossibly beautiful people fall silent as he passes and fall into step behind him as he continues on, watching as he makes his way to the north bridge, where Alice stands, dressed again in white, watching him approach.
He recognizes others as he walks. Alexander, Gyuri, Noelle, and Gregory are there, all smiling. He smiles in return, but he doesn’t stop until he reaches the bridge. Finally he stands he before her, grinning like a fool. She stares back, impossibly green eyes shining.
“I woke up during the day,” Matthew says. “I’m sorry.”
“And then you came back,” she says, voice soft.
“I did,” he says. “I hope that’s allowed.”
“Yes,” she says. She holds out her hand to him.
Almost shyly, Matthew reaches out and takes it in his own.
“Come with me,” she says.
She leads him around the pond, around the east wing of the manor, to the front. The expansive, well-groomed lawn stretches before them as she leads him up the cobblestone path, along rows of carefully sculpted bushes, toward the antebellum porch where lamps hang from the sides of Roman columns. Hand in hand, they approach the porch. More people fall in silently behind them. Matthew feels their anticipation, and he looks at Alice questioningly.
Alice smiles at him and shakes her head. “Come.”
The porch is filled with people. At the center, somewhat separate from the rest, is a man sitting in a wicker chair. He is old, but not bent, his long gray hair gleaming in the lamplight. His expression is both solemn and serene, and when he smiles at Alice it is kind, affectionate, and carries an air of authority. Then he turns his gaze to Matthew, and Matthew stares into clear, blue eyes.
Nobody moves. Nobody speaks. Alice squeezes his hand. Matthew marshals his forces, and presses on.
“Hello Simon,” he says. “Alice thought we should meet.”
Simon Wendell considers Matthew thoughtfully. Then he smiles and bows his head.
“Greeting, magician. And be at peace.”
Some of the tension leaves Matthew, and he sways in place. Simon stands, placing a steadying hand on his shoulder. Matthew can feel the man’s strength.
“You found us,” Simon says, “and then were lost to us. But then you found us again, and that alone is a remarkable feat. It is reason enough for our joy. You are welcome here. You are home here.”
A cheer rises up from the crowed, and Matthew finds himself surrounded by men and women shaking his hand, slapping him on the back, congratulating him. Welcoming him. Simon stands back, giving the others room, looking on as the others press in. Matthew loses track of time, but as it goes on each back slap threatens to knock him over.
Finally Simon raises one hand, and in response the crowd falls silent and steps back.
“This man is tired. Do we have room?”
“Yes.” Matthew turns to see Alexander standing at his right. “Gregory and I have room.”
Matthew shifts uneasily. “Don’t misunderstand me, I am tired. But last time… sleeping didn’t work out for me. Maybe we should talk first?”
His vision blurs a little. He sways. Simon returns his steadying hand to Matthew’s shoulder.
“There is no need to fear waking,” Simon says. “You will sleep through the day in safety, and will remain with us when nightfall comes again.”
“Then it’s settled!” Alexander says. “Gregory and I will set everything up.” He turns, smiles cheerfully at Matthew, and walks off.
Matthew opens his mouth, whether to protest or ask more questions he’s not entirely certain, but Simon simply shakes his head. “We will talk,” he promises, “but not tonight. You are exhausted, magician, more than you know, and it’s important we ensure you stay with us for more than an evening this time. Which we will. If I had known then…” Simon lets the thought trail off with a shrug. “No matter. You are here now, and there is much to do in the nights to come. For the moment… Alice, will you take Matthew to the cottage?”
Alice squeezes Matthew’s hand again. “I will,” she says.
Simon nods. “Good. We will talk tomorrow night, magician. I promise.”
He releases Matthew’s shoulder, and Matthew sways again. Perhaps rest is a good idea, after all. “All right.” He allows Alice to lead him away. They walk together, finally alone, around the east wing.
Alice stops, looks up at him, and giggles.
“What?” Suddenly Matthew feels very self-conscious.
Smiling, Alice reaches up and pulls something out of Matthew’s hair. Matthew sees a small twig resting in the palm of her hand.
“You still have sticks in your hair,” she says.