【 Chapter Eleven 】
The girl looked up at her expectantly, blinking up at her with her hypnotic, serene blue gaze, calmness laced with something like mystical danger in her air - the mystical danger seeming to be in the aura of every one of them.
“Do you?” she repeated, her voice soft, and Amber tried to collect her thoughts, staring at her in wonder.
“Um - sorry, who are you?”
“I’m Ash Black,” the girl introduced herself patiently, a small smile tugging at the corners of her lips.
“I feel like I’ve known you forever already,” the girl continued, and Amber edged closer slowly, listening, “and I don’t even know your name yet. Is that strange? How long is forever, do you think?”
“I...” Amber struggled to find answers to the questions, her curious words sounding a little odd as she gazed at her innocently. “I’m here for a reason, actually. To answer your first question. Me and-”
“No,” Ash interrupted, her smile growing slightly as she shook her head. “No, no. No. Not what I meant. Do you know why you’re here? Why you? Why now?”
Amber shook her head slowly, frowning in confusion and light interest as she sat opposite her.
“Of course you don’t. You haven’t got that dull, common attitude other humans have. All wanting the same things. It doesn’t fit, and you don’t want it to, so it shouldn’t matter. But it does. I understand. I do. You can tell me anything. Wonderlands are energised with wonder. Didn’t you know?”
Amber listened, spellbound by her words, taking them all in.
“Your name? Do you have one?”
“Amber. Amber Obscura,” she replied, and Ash hummed, placing her cold hands on top of Amber’s, running her thumb over them in a calming way.
“See, I can show you. I could then, and I can now. Faries don’t grant your wishes. I do. Me, Amber. Always me. You want that, don’t you?”
Amber hesitated, almost completely captivated by Ash Black and enticed by her strange offer, though she knew it wasn’t what she was here for. But could it be as well?
“You’re thinking too much,” Ash spoke up again, shaking her head slowly. “What’s the point in that? See the apple,” she continued, taking one hand off Amber’s to pick it up, holding it to her face as the wintery light glazed over the deep red. “It has a symbol... of knowledge and temptation. Like me. Do you want your symbol, Amber?”
Amber nodded silently, and Ash’s eyes darkened little by little as she leaned closer.
“Let me show you,” Ash whispered, her quiet, intriguing voice blocking out the rest around Amber as her senses began to blur. “The questions that don’t come with answers belong to me... and now... they belong to you too-”
Cressela’s voice made Amber jump as she was shaken back into reality, and Ash suddenly grabbed her neck, shoving Amber to the floor and digging her fingers into the flesh as she choked. Cressela shoved Ash off in a second, clenching a fist, and electricity coiled around Ash’s figure and wrists, pinning her to a side of the grotto as she struggled and fought against the block, the glare she sent Amber sending a shiver up her spine.
“I told you not to get distracted,” Cressela said impatiently. “She’s a temptress. She’ll put you in a daze and rip you to pieces.”
Amber sighed, rubbing the tender areas of her neck. “Sorry, I was caught off guard. This is my first time for, well, any of this.”
“You’re not supposed to be here,” Ash hissed at Cressela. “Or her.”
“Neither are you,” Amber told her, getting up off the floor. “You’re not here willingly, are you? You’ve been waiting for a chance to get out. You sent Cressela and her family out to get help, find hope. It’s here now.”
“It comes and goes,” Ash replied, her calm facade beginning to falter. “Didn’t you know? Because of your friend Cressela, I was separated from my sister. No one will help you. Not after a thousand wishes.”
“You have to,” Amber tried again. “Come on, Ash. This isn’t living. It’s torture with a pretty backdrop. You won’t see your sister again unless we can reach Insanis and finish him.”
“You’ve got a plan? You don’t seem like the planning type,” Ash pondered. “How, exactly?”
“We’ve made it this far,” Amber said. “We’ve got to keep going. This could be your last chance. But we need your help. And I promise, we’ll find your sister, and we’ll reunite you.”
Cressela nodded in agreement, and Ash thought about it in silence, her expression not betraying anything before she rolled her eyes.
“Let me go, then.”
Cressela narrowed her eyes a little but did as she asked, watching her movements carefully as Ash brushed her midnight dress off with a huff. Then she bent down and picked up the mask from the floor, offering it to Amber.
“It’s for the second level,” she told her, as Amber took it and turned it in her hands, studying its detailed and eccentric patterns and design. “I’m doing this... for Cherri.”
“Cherri’s your sister?” Cressela asked, her gaze knowing and doubtful at the same time.
“Who’s Cherri?” Amber asked, puzzled, and Cressela grimaced lightly at her name.
“She’s... well, she’s stubborn. And nearer the last floor.”
“Tell her I want you to go,” Ash told them, surprising Amber. “I want to see her. It’s been a while. I miss her. And I miss home, wherever or whatever that is. I know I miss it. It’s been forever...”
Amber nodded with a thankful smile. “Thank you.”
Cressela nodded too, and the girls left the grotto, stepping back out into the wide-open forest. Amber glanced back the way they’d come, but Ash was already gone, no trace of the temptress anywhere. Amber chose not to question it.
“Angelita will meet us at the middle,” Cressela informed her, as they walked briskly onwards, weaving past trees and trudging through the thick snow. “She was in the other arch. The way to the second floor will be there.”
Amber nodded, looking at the mask in her hand. “It looks like something for a masquerade. What does it do?”
“It shields you from Luna Moon’s concentrated light,” Cressela said, and Amber’s eyes widened in appeal. “The eye holes look empty, but they’re sealed with what Ash calls Wishful Thinking.”
“So...” Amber tried to make sense of the statement, “it’s got some kind of power or energy charge that tones it down?”
Cressela shrugged and nodded. “Yeah. Look - there she is.”
And there she was. Angelita stood in the midst of the trees, spaced out around her in a circular shape, the snowy ground beneath her feet marble, patterned with swirls identical to the ones on Ash’s mask. Angelita herself looked almost angelic to Amber, if not for the crimson stain on her pure white dress, which hung down about her perfectly, the sleeves trailing down in thin white material, cloudy and dainty. She had what looked like pure, glowing pearls strung around her neck, and the same over the top of her head like a crown. Her hair was a slate blue colour, except for the front sides, which were streaked white - similar to Ash’s, but thinner and less noticeable. Her cheeks were rosy, and her eyes a deep ocean blue, as they shifted to Amber and observed her in thought.
“You’re a brave girl,” Angelita said with a hint of a smile, looking Amber up and down. “Determined. Just like Cressela. And here I was thinking you’d never dare show your face here again.”
Cressela shrugged uncomfortably. “I promised I would. I came back with help. I already told you.”
“You did,” Angelita agreed. “And I know that your name is Amber, right. Right. Mask to your face, eyes up.”
Amber frowned in slight confusion. but did what she said anyway. And a beautiful sight was opened up above her - the night sky of the level brought to life by a moon rose up in its midst, the glory of the Winter Wonderland as it punctured the intense blues with light, blinding, chalky-white light that illuminated the sky. And as Amber stared in admiration, she noticed a girl sitting in the moon - if that were possible. And if it wasn’t before, it certainly was there, because, as Amber realised when she progressed through levels, the word impossible was proven to be practically non-existent. The girl sat in a dreamy trance, legs dangling from the moon as she sat on its edge and leaned back in its centre, lacy black wings a strong contrast with the rest of her pale, pastel imagery. Her hair was chocolate brown, soft waves drifting down to her ribs, with the smallest light purple flowers weaved in random locks, a similar-looking flower crown on the top of her head like a halo, brightened immensely by the moon’s light. She wore a simple white dress and clutched a silver rose in one hand, which seemed even brighter than the moon itself, alive with power and unimaginables.
“Good luck to you both,” Angelita said with a nod. “Bring us our salvation, Cressela and Amber. Bring it to us.”
“Why don’t you come with us?” Amber asked, but Angelita shook her head, smiling softly.
“I’ll go no further. This is for you two to do, not me.”
Angelita’s calm expression snapped into one of acidic annoyance, and Amber stepped back warily. “I won’t go with you. No.”
“Calm down,” Cressela said with a warning edge to her voice, and just as quickly as Angelita had snapped, her calm composure was back, as if nothing had happened at all. “Thank you for the help.”
Angelita nodded with a smile before going off into the forest, making her way back to the grotto she was in before as the girls watched, Amber still taken aback by her sudden change in attitude.
“She gets like that sometimes,” Cressela told her with a light sigh. “She has a bit of a temper. You get used to it. And she’ll get used to you. Come.”
Cressela moved towards the stone circle Angelita was on previously, and Amber followed, looking back up at the girl in the moon.
“And here we were taught that there was a man on the moon,” she mumbled, before the girl’s gaze glided over to them. And in one swift wave of her hand, the rose she was clutching tracing its light over the edges of the stone ground, it opened up beneath them, breaking in half and parting before they had any time to react. Then they were dropped to the level below, and the ground they were previously on slid shut as they landed roughly on surprisingly soft, bottle green banks, the sky above them a little lighter, but still evidently indicating the night or very early morning.
“The second level,” Cressela said, and Amber watched, startled as the mask shattered into hundreds of black pieces, its Wishful Thinking worn down by the episode. “Whisperer’s Woods. And I say Whisperers because the guardians here are two Spirit Animals.”