Chapter 1: An Unexpected Journey
Nearly collapsing against the wall as she finally entered her apartment, Emma took her shoes off. What an exhausting day it had been; again. But tonight was different. It was supposed to be different: today was Emma’s twenty-eighth birthday. The accomplishment of another year: something to celebrate, even if she had no friend or family to be with, as this Ryan had reminded her during the previous hour; having his head slammed against the steering wheel was all he deserved. Sighing, Emma tried to forget about him and took out of the bag she was carrying a gourmet cupcake; cinnamon cupcake, her favorite kind, freshly bought at the bakery across the street. Carefully, she put a star-shaped candle on it and lit it. Resting her chin on her crossed arms, she looked at the flickering light.
“Another banner year,” she whispered.
Shutting her eyes, all she could wish for was not to be alone anymore. She did not believe in birthday wishes becoming true; this would be magic, and magic did not exist. But everyone she had ever met, all of them without any exception, had ended up letting her down. She was not losing anything by making the wish that this would change. Emma blew out the candle and kept her eyes closed for a few seconds. Everything remained silent in the room. Nothing had happened, of course, what had she been expected? That someone would just come and knock on her door? Shaking her head again, she stood up, removing the candle. At least, she had the cupcake.
Looking up, this was when she saw it: at the end of the table, on the top of the stack of mail, was a large book. Her eyebrows raised in surprise. She did not remember seeing it. Probably she had been tired and had not paid attention enough when retrieving the post in the morning; this was the only possible explanation, it could not have appeared out of nowhere. Her cupcake in hand, she skirted the table and reached for the book. It looked too good for an advertisement. Perhaps one of the neighbors had ordered it and the postman had inadvertently slipped it in the wrong mailbox. But there was no indication of the addressee. The only words written on the cover were ‘Once Upon A Time’. Eating her cupcake, Emma looked through the pages: a fairy tales book. The last time she had read such stories dated back to a very long time ago, when she was still in the foster system. Quickly, she had realized those stories were nothing like reality and she had not tried to read such stories again. But right now, the idea of escaping her reality by reading a fairy tale did not sound so bad. The idea was even appealing; it would allow her to forget about Ryan or all these people whose happiness was issuing from, in the meantime reminding her she had no one. Usually, loneliness was not affecting her so much. But, celebrating her birthday alone once again, tonight was one of these times when she could barely think of anything else than of how lonely she was.
After changing into more comfortable clothes, trading her skin-tight dress for black sweatpants and a red tank top, Emma settled herself in the armchair with the book. She started to read about an old man living in a secluded house, in the forest of a far-off land. There was a picture on the second page. The blonde trailed her fingers over it, examining the verdant forest and the stone cottage standing at the end of the path. Something in this cottage caught her attention. It appeared too small to allow her seeing it in details, but what looked like the door frame was gleaming. Examining it more closely, she trailed a fingertip over the golden glow. It then happened in a matter of seconds: the gleam intensified, to the extent that Emma was blinded. She could not see anything else than this bright golden light, and felt like she was falling down. Soon, the fall stopped as she landed on the ground with a thump. The bright light had faded away and Emma opened her eyes. The next second, she had got up, looking all around her at the verdant forest and at the cottage at the end of the path.
“What the hell is that?” She kept looking around and her eyes landed on the book, lying in the grass. “I’m dreaming, I am about to wake up.”
The day had been so exhausting that she had probably fallen asleep, and would wake up any second to find herself with her head resting on her crossed arms, facing her cinnamon cupcake. This fairy tales book had been made up by her imagination. Standing in the middle of the path, Emma closed her eyes and waited. When she opened them again, she was still in the forest.
“Wait a bit longer and you’ll wake up,” she whispered to herself.
But no matter how hard she tried, whenever she opened her eyes, the view remained the same. Feeling her heart beat faster, she looked from the book to the cottage, and to the book again. She picked it up and opened it. There was no doubt about it: the cottage on the picture looked exactly like the one standing at the end of the path. Losing hope that she would wake up, and panic striking, Emma ran down the path, the book under her arm, ignoring the tingling due to the twigs and the pebbles under her bare feet. Panting, she hammered on the door. She didn’t need to wait long before hearing it being unlocked.
A bearded man with long hair opened. He looked her up and down before asking. “Can I help you?”
Emma was just staring at him in silence, catching her breath. How was she supposed to explain what had happened, when she did not know herself? How could he believe her if she said she was reading a book in her apartment in Boston and suddenly found herself lying on the ground in the forest, in this scenery she had seen in the book? The forest was not the only similarity with the story: the man also perfectly fitted the description.
“Are you the Apprentice?”
The old man smiled. “This is an accurate way to describe me. You know who I am but I don’t know who you are. Rare are the ones venturing to this place, where are you coming from?”
His eyes seemed to linger with curiosity on her outfit; her black sweatpants and red top tank. But Emma did not notice: she was looking around, trying to stay calm. In her entire life, she had rarely felt so lost.
“I didn’t mean to come here, I am from Boston. Swan, Emma Swan,” she said fast, still a bit breathless. She kept looking around, trying to understand what had happened.
The man’s face seemed to light up and he opened the door wide. “Emma, what a lovely name!”
“Thanks.” Emma stared at the man, her eyebrows raised in surprise. The man had obviously no idea about what was happening: she was lost and all he could say was that her name was lovely?
“Would you come in? I just put a kettle on the fire, join me for tea.”
Emma glanced around once again. “I am not sure this is a good idea, I should…”
“…find out about where you are. You surely have many questions, Emma. I can help you. Why don’t you come in and talk to me about this book?”
Her eyes were full of surprise. Perhaps the old man knew more than she had expected. She had nowhere else to go, anyway. Hesitantly, she entered the cottage and glanced around the room. A fire was crackling in the hearth, a kettle was heating up. The bed and the table were taking most of the place in the room. A ladder seemed to lead to the attic. A stone archway was leading to another part of the cottage, where the floor was cluttered with straw. Emma was paying more attention to details than usual, looking for any sign of threat. But there was none and she focused on the man again, who indicated her one of the chairs.
“Who are you?”
The old man looked surprised.
“The Apprentice,” he replied on a tone implying it was explaining everything, while filling two cups with tea. “I can see you have many questions, Emma. And I happen to have many answers. I can tell you everything that you want to know. Or at least everything that you need to know: it is my duty to lead you on the way to your destiny.”
Was this supposed to help? What was he talking about? His duty? Her destiny? Emma was even more confused now, which the man seemed to notice. He looked amused, his smile reaching his eyes while he sipped his tea.
“Ask me anything that you want to know.”
Emma was staring again, and asked the first question which came through her mind. “Where am I?”
“The fact you arrived here with the book makes me think you’ve read it and you know exactly where we are. You know the book brought you here, in the Enchanted Forest.”
“But it makes no sense.” The words came out instantly.
“Now that’s interesting.” The Apprentice slightly leant over the table, obviously enjoying this conversation. “Tell me, Emma, why would it make no sense?”
“Because a book is just a book, it is not possible that…” She didn’t even know what to say and shook her head. “I must be dreaming. I will wake up anytime now, in my apartment in Boston.”
“Your imagination would be very creative may it be able to create such vivid dreams. All of this is real, Emma. And you are mistaken: this is more than just a book. Now, I don’t think you’ve told me why it makes no sense. The fact it happened should be enough to make you believe it is possible.”
This was the point: whatever had happened, she did not believe, because there was no rational explanation. Emma was wondering where he was going with all these enigmatic words.
“It makes no sense because no science can explain this.”
The man seemed satisfied with her answer, his eyes were twinkling. “Why should it be explained by science when it can be explained by magic?”
“Magic does not exist,” she replied bluntly.
For one moment, she had thought the man would be able to help her. Obviously she had been wrong.
“The fact you don’t believe something is true doesn’t make it unreal. And if I am right, even if you’re not aware of it, deep down you do believe: using the book to arrive here requires believing in magic. This is the only way you could have travelled so far.”
Emma stared. She was losing her time. She pushed the untouched cup of tea towards the man and got up. “I should go.”
The old man did not try to hold her back, but simply asked. “Do you have any idea where to go?”
The blonde sighed. He was right, she had no idea where to go, and did not even know how far the closest town was. She sat back down.
“Before you leave, there are things that you need to know.”
“Tell me, then.” Because of exhaustion and the fear she might not find her way back, her words were imprinted with annoyance now. Instead of telling her he had things to say, could he not just say them?
“I’m coming there. But for what I’m about to tell you, I need you to believe in magic. Or at least to pretend that you do. Can you do this?”
Emma shrugged, more and more wondering whether the man in front of her was sane. “I’ll try. Tell me, then. What is this all about?”
Her annoyance was clearly audible again. She just wished he could just stop being so mysterious and tell her everything. He seemed to read her mind, as he explained in more details.
“I wanted to tell you about prophecies, this is why you need to pretend you believe in magic. Prophecies are written by sorcerers, and it is very rare when they are not accomplished. Generally, prophecies define one moment in the life of the ones they’re about, usually a key-moment. Now you may wonder why I am telling you this. I am the Apprentice, and I know most of these prophecies. You probably noticed how I reacted to your name? There is one about you, Emma.” Again, she was staring at him, but she could not find anything to say, so she just listened. “This one is about a woman coming from another realm and trying to find her way home. Your name was written all over the parchment. When I saw you at my door, carrying the book and looking so lost because you were so far from home, you reminded me of this theory. Then you told me your name, and I knew it was you.” The man paused, giving her some time to take it in. “Emma, you are not here by accident. This book did not appear to you by chance.”
“Are you going to say I landed in this forest because of fate?” Emma was truly annoyed now, angry towards herself that she was still listening to him, wondering why she had not left yet.
“Exactly,” the man beamed, obviously thinking she was finally getting the point. But Emma stood up.
“This is crap.”
His smile faded but he stayed calm. “You don’t want to believe,” he assessed.
“Why is it so important to you that I do? I didn’t ask for any of this.”
“Because you have to believe to find your way home, and it is my duty to guide you.”
“Let’s assume I believe in these prophecies, which I don’t: how is that supposed to help me go back to Boston?”
A smile brightened the old man’s face again. “I have told you there was a prophecy about you. You didn’t give me time to tell you what it says. You know how my duty is to guide you. I am guiding you by telling you this: according to this prophecy, there is someone out there who can help you find what you’re looking for.”
“Someone can help me find my way back to Boston?” Now, that sounded interesting. “How do I find them?”“I can tell you this: his name is Killian Jones.”