Breathe in. Breathe out. Cock the elbow back. And, snap.
Through the blaring music, I hear the satisfying crack of the knife notching into the board. I smirk; it’s right on the bullseye.
As it should be, granted that I’ve been practicing this for four hours now. Alone in the training room, I watch the sun of Campestris grow level with the horizon, with the waning red hours of light streaming in through the few windows. Since the hours here are fifteen minutes behind, I realize that back home the sun would be down by now, casting the cold winter air down ten more degrees. December bites back home, but here it’s always sunny.
I pick up another knife from the small table that has eight knives lined up neatly and the remainders of my dinner. There’s a fridge in the lounge area filled to the brim with these just-add-water meals, apparently a must for wegferends. I stare down the target at the opposite end of the room. Flipping the knife a little in my hand, it occurs to me that it’s my three month anniversary of becoming an apprentice. Three months spent in this training room, sparring with all kinds of weapons, climbing, running, strategizing. I’ve even got in the habit of being here by myself, like I am now. Even though I’m not technically supposed to be here.
I refocus on the target, and I position myself, absentmindedly muttering the words to the song playing. Right when I move my hand back, though, I realize something’s off. I take inventory: arm up, legs apart, muscles tense, head straight. Oh. The music is gone.
Relaxing my muscles, I roll my eyes. “That one was good, you know.”
Finn stands behind me by the couch with my phone in his hands. “No, it wasn’t. They overplay it every year.”
I walk over to him, feeling small in my oversized sweater and leggings. Holding my hand out, he sets the phone in it, and I turn back on the Christmas station, softer now for Finn’s benefit.
“What are you doing here?” Finn laughs a little.
“Me?” I place the phone back down on the couch and turn away from him, still fingering the knife I have yet to throw. “What about you? What are you doing here?”
“Well,” he says, and I hear a creak and a groan that means he’s sitting on that old, worn-out couch, “I was told my apprentice was training on the night of Christmas Eve, and I thought maybe I should come see why.”
“Ah, well, how responsible of you.” I mutter.
A silence falls between us, the music trickling out from my phone the only sound. But it’s not one of those awkward silences, exactly. Before I can fully judge it, though, Finn breaks it.
“Let’s go.” He says, stepping in front of me with eyes suddenly full of fire.
I study his face, confused. “Where?”
He shrugs. And I realize that’s the answer I was looking for.
The next minute, we’ve gathered up everything and are striding across the empty plateau, the sun finally sinking under the horizon. I can barely keep up with Finn, and I wonder vaguely how he knew I was training. Then, I wonder if he didn’t. Maybe he was planning on going out tonight anyway.
More thoughts begin to flood in my mind without my approval. I know Finn has a small house in our realm, but he never talks about his family. I really don’t know that much about him, even after three months of spending most of my time with him. Does he have somewhere to spend Christmas? People to be with? I stare at his back, racing in front of me between the Doors. I’m just avoiding my family, too many people, too many questions, and just…too much over the holidays. But I realize I have no trouble picturing Finn weaving between dimensions on Christmas, looking for fights to pick and people to save, running from the holidays. My cheeks burn.
“You’re lagging! Come on!” He yells in front of me. I shake my head a little and skip to catch up.
We reach the opposite edge of the plateau, on the far side of our building. Finn finally stops in front of an odd looking stone statue. The stones are different than the others, a deep grey that almost looks blue, four stones stacked neatly on top of one another.
“So,” he starts with bright eyes, “before Campestris, which obviously has Doors to like a bunch of realms and not just a bunch of realms but a bunch of important ones, there was Malacia.”
He pauses, looking at me expectantly. “Um. Okay?” I say.
Finn gives a quick smile then runs, disappearing through the Door. Staring after him, I chuckle a little. He’s so happy. It’s weird. My smile disappears. Too weird. Slowly, I step through the Door after him.
“Wait, before you go on.” I’m scribbling furiously, and she’s glaring. “Did he?”
I look up, and she’s gone pale.
“Did who what?”
I am looking at her directly, but she studies the carpet she has seen a million times.
“Did Finn have someone, anyone, for Christmas?” It might be a little harsh, but she did agree I could write down everything.
Curled up on her chair, Elizabeth looks as small as she probably felt that Christmas Eve.
“Well, Hayden,” she says after a minute, her color back, “I didn’t know at that point, so, really, should you?”
Clenching my jaw and massaging my writing hand, I realize she’s right. Like she always is.
“I suppose we will cross that bridge when we come to it.” I sigh, picking up my pencil once more and adjusting my notebook on my lap.
“Can I get back to the story, please?” She says curtly, still acting like she isn’t dying to tell her story on the inside.
“Yes, please continue. Through the Door on Christmas Eve.”
When I step out on the other side, in a different world, which always makes me take a little gasp, I see Finn looking at me expectantly, bouncing a little on the balls of his feet. Then, as I assess our surroundings, I give a little laugh.
We’re standing in an…amphitheater, I guess. A great stone structure, we’re on almost the top level, looking down on rows and rows of seating areas, reaching around in a vast circle. In the center, there’s just an empty, circular platform, as if someone would perform a play there for a huge audience. The stone everywhere is a plain, dark grey, and the structure looks old, like a blueish version of the Colosseum. I feel pinpricks of cold, and I see the light snow falling on the amphitheater, so light it melts before it reaches the ground. It’s night, but not really dark, and when I look up, I gasp again.
Shining through the puffy dark clouds dispensing the snow is a huge moon. Or it’s just much closer than ours, about as big as my fist if I hold it about a foot from my face. The amphitheater is cloaked in a blue moonlight, and I wonder briefly if it affects the gravity.
“So,” Finn says as I turn back to face him, “this is Malacia. Every level you see houses hundreds of Doors, many marked only by these.”
He kneels down, pointing to a few dashes carved in the platform we stand on. In front of the Door we came out of, the markings must in some way mean Campestris. But when I kneel down to study them, Finn’s already bounding away, along the level off to a staircase.
When I finally catch up with him, nearly falling when running down the stairs, he’s taking the stairs two at a time, looking left and right down the various levels of Doors.
“What exactly are you looking for?”
He halts abruptly, and when I follow suit, I almost tumble down the stairs, barely catching myself. “I said that many Doors had those markings. But most have none at all. Most have never been entered or explored. Ah!”
He passes in front of me, heading off to the left and passing in front of the Doors. As I follow, I realize none of the ones on this level have markings. After a minute of me trailing behind him, leaving Doors shimmering slightly when we walk past, Finn halts again and waits for me to catch up.
“Why this one in particular?” I gesture at the slice of vibrating reality.
He shrugs. “Not sure. Ready?”
Before he gets the chance, however, I smile and jump through first.
Well, I don’t know how he did it, but Finn somehow stuck with the theme.
My boots crunch onto less than an inch of newly fallen snow. I take a deep breath of cold air, and immediately I smell something delicious. I have no idea what it is, something grilling probably, but it doesn’t matter. I want it.
Refocusing when Finn appears behind me, I notice under the snow is a stone platform, raised up a few feet with stairs directly in front of me. A small elevated circle around the Door, probably to ensure people don’t just stumble into it. Two tall lamp posts, shining bright in the heavy darkness of night, stand on either side of the stairs, and with tufts of snow piling on them, they look straight out of A Christmas Story or something. Small cottages surround the area, made of brick and mortar, at least six right next to each other. Beyond the lamp posts, a gravel path leads through the houses which surround the Door and its platform.
I jump off the platform, over the stairs, and stand on my tiptoes to peek inside the glass-paned window of the closest cottage. Inside, the cottage is one room, a small kitchen and fireplace and three cots off to the left. Personal touches lay here and there: a rattle, a coat, a few hats, and a painting of three people laughing together. It’s small, but cozy, and I can almost picture a young family making this a home.
“Well, nobody’s home.” Finn says, looking in the window of the cottage next door.
“Do you smell that?” I ask, my stomach audibly rumbling.
He nods, looking above the houses to the dark sky.
“Look.” He points, and, stepping back to him, I follow his finger with my eyes and squint.
“I literally see nothing.” The only light is coming from the lamps, no stars or moon to guide the way.
Finn gives me a look. “It’s smoke. Come on.”
I’m focusing on the black sky, leaning forward to try and see this supposed smoke. I don’t notice for a second when Finn nearly bolts down the gravel pathway, and then I sigh and follow.
At a brisk jog, I follow Finn’s back as it turns and weaves through the cottages, the gravel flying out from under his feet. Then, I turn a corner and run smack into his back.
“Hey!” I say, stepping to his right and glaring. He didn’t even move an inch when I ran into him. He doesn’t even look at me, just staring straight ahead. Finally, I follow his glance.
The first thing I notice is the heat on my face, as the frigid wind whips at my hair from behind. A huge bonfire blazes in front of us, raised upon the same sort of platform the Door stood on. It lights up the…courtyard we’ve found ourselves in. And all else I can see is people.
All around the huge gravel courtyard, people were milling about and talking and eating and more often than not dancing. Each person wears a long, robe-like outfit, with varying pastel and dull colors, with knit hats and scarves and mittens and coats. Mismatched tables are set up off to the right, with all sorts of meats and vegetables lined up delicately from end to end. Children run around everywhere, yelling and laughing. Most of the teenagers and adults were doing some sort of dance in front of the bonfire which switches between a line dance and a couples’ dance. Music of some kind trickles out from the left side, but I can’t see the source.
Before I can look any further, the music stops, and people halt, looking around curiously. It takes me a second to realize that they’re looking at Finn and I.
“Oh. Um. Hello!” Finn says, which could not have been any more awkward.
An old woman waddles up from amidst the crowd that soon gathered around us. Hunched over a wooden staff, I immediately could tell she was in charge, as the crowd parted respectfully moving apart to let her through. Her silver hair pulled back in a tight bun, she stares at Finn and I intently, and I notice for the first time that each person has pale orange eyes and silver hair.
“Who are you?” The lady has a rough, defensive voice, which I don’t blame her for considering since we just waltzed into her town.
“Ah, yes, well,” Finn glances at me quickly, and I give the old lady a small smile, “my name is Finn, and this is Elizabeth.”
“Where did you come from? The Door in town?” Less a question and more a command, the lady’s eyes narrowed.
“Yeah, yeah, we’ve come from the Door, we…”
“No,” the woman says before Finn can explain, “you couldn’t have. No one has ever come through that Door.”
Finn tries to explain. “Well, yes, but we’re…”
“Unless.” She studies us, up and down, for a minute. Like almost a full minute of just silence. “Are you…wegferend?”
“Yes! I didn’t know any have been here before, because that Door was unmarked, but…” Finn says, unsure of how to explain.
Man, he’s bad at making excuses.
“We thought we might come and experience a festival from another world. Finn thought it would be a good learning tool for me. You know, as a wegferend,” I flash her a huge smile and add a little softer, “who you know about. Somehow.”
“So you brought her here. We have not had traveler in twenty years. They still talk about our Heims Solstace Festival here in Litatio.”
Finn and I share a delighted look. She just gave us everything.
“Yes,” Finn says, “of course! The Heims Solstice Festival.”
The old lady judges us for a few seconds, and then she gives a small nod. “Perfect. You are acceptable. Welcome, even.”
She turns and hobbles back to a chair beside the food table.
As the crowd begins to dissipate a little, people going back to their dancing or eating, I lean into Finn and ask out of the corner of my mouth, “Have you actually heard of this place? I thought no one’s been here because there were no markings in front of the Door in Malacia.”
He considers for a minute. “I think, maybe. The name Litatio sounds familiar, but I can’t place it. Perhaps people traveled through a different Door, or someone removed the marking in Malacia.”
“Is that possible?”
Before he can answer, two women walk up to us and offer some sort of foamy drink. Following Finn’s lead, I accept, sniffing it warily, but once they walk away, Finn dumps his out in a swift motion, giving me his ‘can’t be too careful’ look, so I set mine down on the nearest table.
By now, the dancing has restarted in full, now some sort of twirling couple dance. I watch, entranced by all the people laughing and singing along to the upbeat music. Finn walks off as I watch, probably to the food. Then, after a few minutes, a young man, probably about my age, from off to the side strolls up to me, face red and hand outstretched, offering for me to come and dance. I look warily first at his hand then around for Finn, who has disappeared into the throng of people. Glancing back at the boy, who gives me a little smile, I nod and place my hand into his.
Dancing turns into a blur, faces and people and spinning and stepping. I flow perfectly into their dancing, like a spot was left specifically for me. I catch glimpses of Finn every now and again, talking with the locals, but every time I go to join him, someone twirls me away, back into the dancing.
The blur of people and dancing gradually turns into a blur of colors. People twirl in circles around me, their robes and silver hair melting into grey smudges. The music pounds at my head, buzzing and thumping. Something’s wrong.
“Fuh…Finn.” The words come out of my mouth softly. I’m stepping around my feet in a circle, trying to find him, to call to him, but suddenly my tongue takes up all of my mouth. My head is pounding, my eyes are blinking furiously, but my hand can’t find my sword. I barely register the fact that it’s gone, no long in its sheath at my hip. I feel a hand in the small of my back, stopping my movements.
“It’s alright, wegferend girl.” It’s the boy that asked me to dance. My eyes lock onto his, the pale orange of his burning into my head.
I see his mouth forming more words, but the music is so loud now. I close my eyes to shut it out, but the minute I do, I feel my body falling backwards into the boy’s arms, and that’s the last thing I feel before I’m unconscious.
Tune in Next Thursday for the finale of Through the Door on Christmas Eve!
Featured Image found at: https://pixabay.com/en/bonfire-flames-wood-logs-snow-925359/