Her first child, her son, was so full of darkness -
She could see it, she knew him, she loved him, and she could've taught him better if only he'd stayed -
And she can't bear another child, and her husband left too anyway, but she can take in orphans. She takes in a pair of little redheaded sisters who so adore each other. She can succeed with them where she once failed. She can teach them to love and be loved, she can teach them virtue and discipline. She can raise them on bedtime stories of wicked sons and weeping mothers, and fill them up with wholesomeness and purity and decency and love and goodness and light.
Kaylee's scared of her. She can tell. Kaylee's sweet but sometimes she says dark things, "why can't you just" when the answer is that's horrible, and Sybil hates it. So Vanessa hugs her and pets her hair and tells her it's okay, when Sybil does the thing she does, when she almost-cries and makes it your fault. But Kaylee is sweet, and a good person, and if there's anyone Vanessa trusts to carry darkness in her heart it's her.
Vanessa hates her. She can tell. Sybil tries to teach her right from wrong, tries to teach both of them, and Kaylee knows she's supposed to learn but it's all askew, and she doesn't know why, and it's like Vanessa has her own right and wrong that shines through her like the sun through a crack in a cold stone wall but she's just a girl, like Kaylee -
And she knows Vanessa has perfect unshakeable faith in her and she feels so ungrateful, not to feel the same way about Vanessa -
They take food, and clothes, and cash, and head for the empty house on the edge of town, where they're pretty sure Thomas hid out when he was running away. They'll catch the next bus into the city. They have an aunt, there - she couldn't take them in back when their parents died. Maybe she can now. Maybe.
The house is dark, and creaky, and cobwebby - and Kaylee hates spiders - but in good repair; Vanessa judges it safe to explore. Flashlights illuminate it feebly, Vanessa's in yellow and Kaylee's in pale white, leaving swooping green-violet afterburn in their eyes as they sweep over ornate old-fashioned wooden furniture.
It's a room full of dressers. Not normal dressers with drawers, but old-fashioned dressers with double doors and mirrors on the inside. Armoires, she thinks. (There is another name for them but the word is eluding her. She's tired.)
The room is packed full of them - not just against the walls, but lined up in haphazard irregular rows, to make the room a dusty, musty armoire-maze.
Dark, almost reddish wood, still shiny as though freshly varnished, with twining leafy viney designs around the edges of the doors and delicate little brass handles.
"There's no lock, and it's not nailed or padlocked or anything..."
She hooks a finger through one brass handle, pulls. It swings right open. Doesn't even creak.
She shines her pale white flashlight on the back of the empty armoire, the narrow little left-hand wall, the narrow little right-hand wall--
There's no right hand wall.
There's a little passage, a narrow corridor. Too narrow to walk through, but a child or a small adult could sidle sideways through it.
"But," she sighs.
She sets her backpack down and rummages in it for a ball of twine. She hands the ball to Vanessa, pulls out a thread, wraps it a couple times around her palm. "I'll tug on this twice, every so often," she says, "and you tug on it twice back. If I ever don't feel you I'll come back as fast as I can."
She reaches the light.
She called out to Vanessa one more time, before now, and Vanessa didn't answer. So she probably couldn't hear if she yelled from here.
The light is an opening in the wall, shaped more like something that grew that way than like something that was made intentionally or something that was broken. It looks out into - a forest in autumn.
She clambers through the hole.
From the other side, the hole is a gap in the bark of a hollow tree. It looks exactly like the shape as a gap in a hollow tree would look, from this side, though she didn't recognize the shape when light was shining through it into the dark.
She looks around.
That's a forest, all right. In autumn, which it isn't, and in the middle of the day, which it also isn't.
A great big bug floats through the air and comes to hover in front of her face. Not a frightening bug - it looks like it's an oversized lightning bug. And there is a tiny little person riding on it, with goldenrod skin and gleamingly black hair and a tiny little bow and arrow made out of a tiny little curve of wood and strung with gleaming silk, strung over her(?) back.
" - hello!" Kaylee says. She is thoroughly charmed, though she considers in the next moment that being thoroughly charmed by this person, who is asking basically reasonable and straightforward questions, just because they are tiny and little, is maybe condescending and prejudiced. "My name's Kaylee. I didn't know there was a forest here. I was following a passage through - what I suppose must have been a magic wardrobe - and it led to that tree - " she points. "Before now I hadn't believed in magic. I'm pretty - confused and astonished!"
"Casthanaea is the name of all the world under the dome of the sky, Springland and Summerland and Autumnland and Winterland, and Giantland in the center within the ring-mountains. And at the center of Giantland is Tower Axial, and at the center of Tower Axial is the Throne of the World, upon which legends say an eld-giant must always sit or the world will end."
"All right. The king of Casthanaea is the Witch-King Eldest-Giant, who has sat on the Throne of the World for all of living memory and history. He's cruel and uncaring and considers everyone in Casthanaea his playthings, and when he's not tormenting or enslaving us he leaves us to fend for ourselves. The only reason he's still on the throne is that he's an eld-giant and Casthanaea needs an eld-giant on the throne."
"Like a tiny little person, riding an oversized firefly. She called me an eld-giant. She said - she said the forest is in a land called Casthanaea, that needs to have an eld-giant ruling it or the world will end. And the eld-giant on the throne now is nasty, he - he tortures and enslaves everyone."
"...If Casthanaea needs an eld-giant on the throne... maybe the only reason they haven't already overthrown him is because he's the only eld-giant," Vanessa says. "We could go and say - if there's a rebellion or something, we can join up, and stop the world from ending after the old guy is taken out."
It's the rest of our lives, she wants to say, the whole rest of our lives...
But what will the rest of their lives look like if they don't? Hitching a ride into the city, hoping Aunt Sophie can take them in, hoping Sybil doesn't send anyone after them to track them down... and if Sophie can't take them in, then - then what? She can't imagine what, her mind goes blank, Sophie taking them in had been their only hope.
So she nods.
"Not yet," she says. "I shouldn't lead strange giants to Dozen Leaves on my own recognizance. But I'm going to head back as fast as I can, and they'll send some Rangers and a Most Honored Daughter to meet you properly. It might be a little while - though I suppose I don't know how eld-giants account a long or short time - maybe about an hour?"