A sequel to the January tale Where They Can Be Found
By Damien McKeating
MAYA looked up. The crumbling castle was a patch of darkness against the night sky. Stars above her twinkled and drifted downward, surrounding her in a glittering snowfall of light. She reached out and the movement of her hand sent them spiralling away. Where they touched the floor their light guttered and went out.
What would happen when all of the stars fell?
She knew the answer to that, of course. When the moon came out they would evaporate back into the sky and form new stars.
Behind her loomed the forest. The trees were dying and crumbled like wicked old men. Their straining branches reached for her but were too weak to hold her even if they could catch hold.
She could feel something watching her. She peered through the trees and saw it. A darkness. A nothing. Past a certain point there was no more forest, there was just nothing. A blackness that covered everything. Maya watched it creep forward, the trees vanishing into its embrace and disappearing forever.
The only way was forward, she remembered that much. You keep running and, if you’re clever enough, you never get caught.
She was wearing her old boots, the kind she’d worn for most of her young adult life. She’d danced in them, ran in them, even found the right man and gotten married in them.
Now she stomped up the steep path, over fallen debris, and up towards the castle. Its tower teetered precariously, ready to tumble.
Over her shoulder she saw the nothingness reach the edge of the forest. As she climbed higher she could see the world around her. There was nothing left. The castle was the last island in a void.
With the stars still falling around her Maya stood at the castle’s shattered gate.
On the floor were two door knockers. They were the faces of beautiful women, cast in bronze, their necklaces designed to knock at the door.
“Help us! Take us with you!”
Their voices were lyrical. Maya remembered them; one always lied and one always told the truth. She used to know how to play that game.
She picked up the pieces of wood they were fixed to.
“What happened?” she asked.
“The soul of the princess is leaving and now the sky is falling down and soon the whole world will vanish,” said one.
“The king has killed his jester and now there is only night because laughter is the key to light,” said the other.
“Which one of you lies?” Maya frowned.
“She does,” they replied together.
“Useful,” Maya said.
“I am,” they both said.
“I used to know these games,” Maya said as she picked her way through the wrecked doorway.
“She did,” confirmed one of the door knockers.
“She didn’t,” confirmed the other.
Maya emerged into the courtyard and stood in front of a shattered fountain. Glistening coins had spilt from its shattered side, like blood from a fatal wound. They glittered amongst the star rain, forgotten wishes left to die.
She reached down, picked one up and went to put it into the pocket of her dress. With a laugh she realised she was wearing her wedding dress. She had thought about it when she thought of her boots and now there it was. The hem was stained with mud; they had been married in a field.
“We were in love,” she said.
“Everyone knew,” said one of the door knockers.
“Nobody believed it,” said the other.
“I still love him,” Maya said.
They didn’t reply.
Feeling the approaching nothingness at her back she ran into the castle’s ruined hall, the last of the falling stars pattering against her skin. She ran past shattered tables and chairs, over fallen masonry, and up the stairs.
You always ran up, she remembered. Up the highest mountain to see the dragon’s treasure; up the tallest tower to rescue the prince; up the biggest tree to see the raven queen.
She followed a spiralling staircase upwards. A door joined the staircase and she took a moment to look inside.
It was a child’s room. There was a crib, burnt black by fire, and on the floor lay scattered alphabet blocks. On a small white chair sat a knitted penguin, its flagging stuffing giving it a middle aged paunch.
“I met him,” Maya said. She picked the penguin up, turning it over in her hands. “I gave him away,” she looked at the crib. The soot from it hung in the air and she saw patches of her dress turn black.
“We shouldn’t be here,” one of the door knockers said.
“It’s better to see,” the other added.
Maya placed the penguin in the crib. There was a hollowness in her chest. For a moment she felt as empty as the nothingness creeping towards the castle. Drip by drip she felt sorrow and pain fill her up, sloshing around her insides. She wrapped her arms around her stomach.
“It wasn’t your fault,” one of the door knockers said.
“There was nothing you could do,” the other said.
“Be quiet now,” Maya said, her voice lower than a whisper.
She stumbled out of the room and further up the tower. There were tears on her cheeks and she wiped at them angrily. Tears had been important; that was something else she remembered. Tears could open the fairy’s grotto door. Tears could heal any wound they fell on. A mermaid’s tears would turn to diamonds in the light of summer’s first full moon.
Staggered by the weight of memories she fell to her knees on the stone stairs. Dozens of different lives overlapped in her mind and she had lived all of them.
Almost too tired to move she climbed the last turn in the tower and stared into the face of a badger.
“Princess Maya!” the badger cried.
The small badger rushed forward and embraced Maya in a hug.
“Gemma,” Maya remembered. She hugged the badger back. Gemma looked like she had always done, armoured and gruff but so passionate.
“Come and see them,” Gemma grabbed Maya’s hand and dragged her into the room at the top of the tower.
They burst through the door and two faces turned up to look at them. One was a kindly looking raven, his head tilted quizzically to one side. The other was a large moose, his antlers surely too big to fit through the doorway.
“Princess Maya!” the raven cried.
The moose licked her face.
“Clatterbeak,” Maya fell to her knees again and hugged the raven. “Melville,” she murmured to the moose as he nuzzled at her hair.
The four of them sat, holding onto each other in the bare room. Outside of a single window the stars were gone, the sky was black, and nothingness surrounded the lone tower.
“We waited for you,” Gemma said.
“You grew up,” Clatterbeak said.
“You grew old,” Gemma added.
“I…” Maya fumbled through her memories. “I meant to come back. I did.”
“You never said it was the last time,” Clatterbeak said.
“I never thought it was.”
“It’s the last time now,” Gemma said.
“No. Don’t say that,” Maya held onto them all.
“Princess; look,” Gemma slipped out of the embrace and pointed out of the window. “Everything is going away.”
Clatterbeak flapped feebly up onto the window ledge. “Soon there’ll be nothing left,” he said. “We’re the last.”
Maya stared out of the window and into the heart of nothing. She wanted to shrink away from it, she could feel her insides squirm at its vastness, but she made herself look. She clutched at the wish coin in her hand but wishes had no more power.
Melville nudged at the door knockers lying on the floor, making them wrinkle their noses in disgust.
“I’ll watch the stairs,” Gemma said. “It will be coming for us.”
“What happened to the Sun Knights?” Maya asked.
“All gone,” Clatterbeak said as Gemma left. “The sun doesn’t rise anymore.”
“The sun always rises,” Maya insisted. It was one of the things she knew. “What’s happening?”
“You’re dying,” said one of the door knockers, “and as your brain collapses the dream world is disappearing. Soon the nothingness will take you and you’ll be gone.”
“You’re dying,” said the other door knocker, “and as your brain collapses the dream world is disappearing. Soon the nothingness will take you and you’ll begin a new adventure.”
“Which one is telling the truth?” Clatterbeak asked Maya.
“I am,” both door knockers confirmed.
Maya looked at the door knockers lying on the floor and laughed. “I always assumed,” she said, “that one always told the truth and the other always lied. One of them told me that, but I don’t know which one.”
She stood next to Melville and rested her hand on the moose’s impressive flank. She felt his warmth and the steady rise and fall of his breathing. He looked at her like he had always done; full of eagerness and wonder, just waiting for her to lead.
“One last time,” she whispered into Melville’s ear.
He harrumphed gleefully as Maya climbed up onto his back. Clatterbeak hopped up behind her. Maya called Gemma back and offered out a hand to help the badger climb aboard.
“What are we doing?” Gemma asked.
“What we always used to do,” Maya replied. “We run.”
“There’s nowhere to go, princess,” Gemma explained.
“No,” Maya shook her head. “We’re running the way we always did; forward.”
“But we don’t know what will happen,” Clatterbeak cried.
“We never did,” Maya said as Melville crept through the doorway, his hooves clattering on the stones. “When we were lost in the satyr’s maze we didn’t know what would happen. When we went to find the clogs of127 wishes we didn’t know what would happen. When we sailed the cloud sea to the hatching grounds of the moon dolphins we didn’t know what would happen.”
Maya stared ahead of them. At a curve in the stairs she could see the nothingness edging towards them.
“Hold on tight,” she told them. “I don’t know what’s coming next but it better be ready for us because we’re going to be moving really fast.”
She gave a joyous cry and Melville charged forward. Clatterbeak cawed, Gemma bellowed and Maya, in that glorious moment before they ran into the nothingness and to whatever came next, remembered what it was to be young and to dream… impossible dreams… but true dreams, nevertheless.
© Damien McKeating 2016