Title: Rites of Passage
Author: Mir
Date: January 9 – January 28, 2008

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Authors Note: Here's the next part of the adventure. Honestly, I thought it was going to be more of a comedy when I started out. Little did I know that the story would just grab back its plot-line and gallop away from me. Anyhow, at least it's seems easier to write than anything else I've tried my hand at recently.

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Part Two: And Continues in the Snow

Apart from noticing Millie's presence beside him, Christopher's next semi-conscious thought was how thoroughly cold it was in… well, wherever exactly they happened to be. The ground was frozen hard with winter frost, and his breath lingered in the air in icy white puffs.

"Christopher?" Millie asked, shivering as her fingers wrapped tightly around his arm. "W-what just happened?" She was wearing a light-weight linen dress perfect for a mild autumn morning and a frilly mostly-lavender apron trimmed in dark purple ribbon. Neither was much use in the dead of winter. "And w-where are we?"

The two stared across at each, neither quite sure what to do. Then Christopher, proving that he could indeed be a gentleman when he put his mind to it, struggled out of that dreadfully dull gray jacket and wrapped it snugly around Millie's shoulders. He was so thoroughly focused on projecting reassurance that he didn't see her flinch. "Don't worry. We'll get back to the Castle somehow," he announced loudly in way that didn't quite hide his uncertainty. Needless to say, being unexpectedly whisked away from one's own place and time is always a disconcerting experience.

He twisted his head this way and that and became more disheartened by the second as he surveyed the landscape. Rolling snow-draped hills beneath endless expanses of ominous clouds stretched onward as far as the eye could see in all directions. Here and there, the odd gnarled tree jutted upward from the colorless carpet and twisted its way skyward in lopsided juts and spurts as through misshapen by centuries of harsh winter winds. It was all-in-all definitely notreassuring.

"Do you reckon we're still in series twelve?" Millie asked, thinking perhaps that Christopher might know better than she since he'd had more experience traveling through other worlds.

It was tempting to think that they'd arrived in series six—the one still stuck in an ice age—but Christopher had learned long ago not to jump headfirst into assuming the obvious. He hmm-ed in a thoughtful, non-committed way that could have very well been a statement on the bond market, household expenses, or the latest cricket scores. White flecks of snow collected on his shoulders and melted in his hair. "Perhaps…" he replied at last, not sounding in any way convinced. He shuffled his feet though the powdery whiteness and kicked it into the air with his toes. There was something about it, something almost fakeabout its color, its texture, its soft weightlessness. But he couldn't quite put his finger on it, so he kept that nagging feeling to himself because he knew he wouldn't be able to explain it properly.

Actually, the situation reminded him of an incident several years back when the Castle staff had been vacationing together in Kyoto, Japan. Oddly enough the trip had been Gabriel's idea, though it was Flavian who had ultimately chosen the destination. "When it comes to experiencing the culture of the far east," he'd remarked over dinner while absently pushing his food in circles around his plate, "there's just nothing quite like Kyoto." The broccoli took another lap. "Tis a pity that Japan sunk into the Pacific in some of this series' worlds."

One might think, Christopher mused as he ate in silence further down the long table,that the place was in danger of vanishing in this world as well—the way he goes on about it. The subject lasted all of two nights before Gabriel took the hint and arranged for a house to be rented at the government's expense in a suitably quiet section just north of Japan's ancient capital.

They'd arrived en masse on a drizzly Friday afternoon—an eclectic bunch of British tourists huddled at the far end of the train station like wet ducks suddenly dropped into the middle of a desert. Christopher was thankful at least that his parents were happily ensconced in Tokyo. He hadn't informed them of the Castle's vacation, and it would have been rather awkward to run into them by chance.

Thankully Christopher had managed to avoid most of the fabulously historic excursions that Flavian raved on and on about. He, Conrad, and Jason would slip quietly away while the rest of the staff was otherwise occupied and eagerly set about exploring the city's less-historic backstreets. By the third day, Christopher half-suspected that even Gabriel was consciously turning a blind eye to their adventures in order to give them some breathing room away from the adults.

And they took full advantage of their new-found freedom. Romping through busy streets past noodle shops and temples, stores selling dark indigo kimono fabric and others offering odd white pasty sweets, and ladies carrying buckets of tofu and men on their way to the public baths… everything was a whirling blur of colors, scents, and sounds.

"Let's stop for a moment," Conrad gasped one afternoon after the three had chased each other (much to the priests' dismay) across over half a dozen temple grounds. "You and your long legs—" He was talking about Christopher, of course, since the other two boys were more or less the same height. "—I have to take one and a half as many steps to keep up."

Christopher simple raised an eyebrow, a gesture that might have seemed genuinely condescending from someone else. "It's not my fault you've stopped growing," he remarked with characteristically dry humor. "Shall we stop for tea?"

The three ambled onward in search of a teahouse, something that should have easy to find in such a city, but they must have strayed into one of the more seedy districts because after several minutes of searching the only half-likely place they found was a run-down storefront that smelled vaguely of strange spices and wet dog.

A look passed between them—but it only took a moment for thirst to overcome hesitation, and soon they found themselves inside a small semi-dark room face to face with a wizened gray-haired woman. She scrutinized them from head to food then wordlessly led them to a small table against the far wall. It teetered uncertainly on its knobby wooden legs, but the stern set of the woman's jaw and her cool, glistening eyes seemed to suck any complaints right out of the boys' mouths.

They squashed themselves together in the chairs, elbow to elbow, knee to knee, and when they'd finished jostling each other as boys are apt to do, they began to glance around and take in their surroundings. It was quite unlike any other Kyoto restaurant they'd been in thus far. Where most interiors were understated, simply-decorated, and almost minimalist by European standards, this one was positively bursting with paintings and carvings and statuaries and the oddest little knickknacks packed together along row after row of narrow shelves that encircled the room like train tracks. There were stone dog-like lions and odd rounded wooden heads with no eyes and folded-paper animals and a whole manner of things that seemed to blend together in a rainbow-colored rippling blur.

Christopher began to feel almost cross-eyed as he tried to take in everything at once and actually jumped in surprised when the woman deposited a teapot and a small plate of baked sweets onto the table before him. The latter were hard and crumbly and not particularly good.

"Look at this stuff," Conrad said not quite under his breath. "And it's all charmed too." He reached up and pulled a little wooden figurine off the nearest shelf above his head. It shifted in his hand, slipping in and out of focus until it became a puce-colored paper balloon. It slipped from his fingers, fell straight through the table, and vanished before it hit the ground. At the boys' exclamations of surprise the old woman poked her head around the kitchen doorway and glared at them. She retreated again without a word.

"This place gives me the creeps," Jason said with a shutter, not even trying to keep his voice down. "Let's go." Christopher shrugged and began to rise—but found his feet were stuck firmly to the ground and his pants to his chair and knew that if he yanked and tugged physically he wasn't going to be able to budge an inch. There are advantages, though, to being an enchanter, and it only took a moment to will himself and the others free.

They leapt from the table and stormed toward the kitchen, intending to show the woman (who was obviously a witch) what they thought of her tricks, but when as they passed through the wooden doorway, they found themselves alone in a deserted back alley filled with nothing but upturned rubbish bins and weeds. And when they whirled around again to face the teahouse, it was only a rickety old building with upswept floors, grimy walls, and one decrepit table surrounded by four teetering chairs shoved against the wall. Oddly enough the shelves were still present, but instead of glittering knickknacks, they were lined with an incredible amount of Japanese calligraphy—single strips of creamy white paper each marked in flowing Japanese script. It didn't take much witch-sight to see that all together it created an extremely effective illusion.

"I wonder what we ate," Conrad remarked, sounding a little sick. "I hope it wasn't sewage water and dust mites—"

"—Where did that witch go?" Jason interjected, referring to the old woman, of course.

Christopher scanned the room, half-expecting to find her hiding in a pocket of invisibility along the walls. "Gone," he replied with a shrug. He knew he'd be able to sense her if she'd still been there. After witnessing a person's magic once he never forgot the unique magical signature. "Let's go. I'm still hungry." The others grumbled irritably, but it was useless to argue with Christopher when he was in that kind of mood, so the three wandered back into the more touristy neighborhoods in search of a real restaurant.

And as his mind settled back into the present with a jerk, a thought suddenly hit Christopher in the head like a lead weight. It's not just that the deception is familiar, he mused as he ground his teeth together in frustration. It's the signature itself. So that's where I felt it before. Armed with this new knowledge he wrapped his arms around his chest, feeling slightly better that he wasn't nearly as muddled as before but unsure as to how he could use this new-found connection to his advantage.

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It was by unspoken mutual consent that they abandoned the spot where they'd arrived—Millie had torn one of the ribbons from her apron and tied it to the bottom branch of a nearby tree, but as they walked away from the scrap of purple flapping dejectedly in the breeze Christopher didn't really believe they'd ever be able to find that tree again once their footsteps had disappeared in the falling snow. He did know, however, they'd certainly freeze to death if they didn't start moving.

At first they'd tried walking directly into the sun, or whatever it was that washed light across the barren landscape, but as the terrain became steeper and steeper, they found themselves drifting sideways until the sun was shining almost completely off to their left. The flat plains had turned first into rolling hills, then into craggy cliffs that offered some protection at least from the wind. Millie and Christopher continued on wordlessly—there was nothing really to say except that they were undeniably lost, cold, and hungry.

It was Christopher who first spotted the cave, but it was Millie who found the path that wound them halfway up the rock-face to reach its jagged opening. The interior was dark but dry, and after Christopher had conjured just enough fire to make sure it was uninhabited, they collapsed exhaustedly onto the floor to contemplate their situation.

"Do you think it gets dark here?" Millie asked as she stared outside at nothing in particular.

Christopher shrugged, less concerned about the weather now that they had found a little protection from the elements. "At the extremes of our world, it's light and dark for months at a time," he said at last when he realized that Millie was still waiting for a response. He really couldn't see any good way out of their predicament unless the Castle staff could locate them. They hadn't encountered a single other living being, and the emptiness, both seen and unseen, continued onward for as far as he could reach out with any of his senses. It was so blank—rather unnaturally.

"Do you remember that time," he remarked in a rather bored, off-hand sort of way after they'd been sitting across from each other for almost half an hour, "that time when you finally put your foot down and made me stop referring to Conrad as Grantonce and for all?"

Despite the cold, Millie managed a small laugh at the non-sequitur remark. "You say that like it's ancient history," she replied evasively.

Christopher shrugged and continued, "I was always surprised by how well he and Jason got along together. Just like two peas in a pod from very the start."

Millie nodded distractedly and hugged her bare knees closer to her chest as though trying to stay warm. It was clear she wasn't very interested in either Conrad or Jason at the moment.

Christopher studied her silently, his lips pressed together in either annoyance or contemplation. Then he stated in his flattest, most serious of tones, "It was actually Jason that gave me the final ultimatum about using Conrad's real name." He paused as through trying to control the flicker of anger that flashed briefly across his face. "And the two of them hated each other when they first met. They could barely stand to be in the same room for more than a few minutes at a time." He scrambled to his feet and towered above Millie as she cowered in a heap on the ground. "Who are you, and what have you done with my Millie?"

He'd expected her (or rather, her imposter) to leap up in anger or lash out at him with magic, but she simply sat where she was and looked up through her eyelashes with those big, brown not-quite-Millie eyes. "We'd hoped you wouldn't find out until later," she admitted at last as she unfolded her legs and relaxed her arms as though she'd never been cold to begin with. "We need you desperately, you see."

"Need me for what?" Christopher demanded indignantly, images of human sacrifice and the like coming to mind.

The not-Millie continued as if she hadn't heard him. He voice had changed slightly—it was somewhat higher-pitched and more distant now, as though a portion of her mind was occupied elsewhere. "We thought you wouldn't have come willingly, and it was my duty to guide you through that snowstorm to the meeting place." She gave a frustrated sigh. "And this isn't really your jacket, is it?"

"Well, no, but…" Christopher found himself replying before he could stop himself.

"It has such a strong anti-magic spell woven into it I didn't see how you could possibly stand to wear it." She wiggled her shoulders until the offending jacket slid down her back then pulled her arms through the sleeves and handed it back to him with her nose crinkled in disgust. "There, that's better. Now I can think properly again."

Christopher took the jacket from her rather reluctantly and eyed it with suspicion. Why hadn't he noticed it himself when he'd put it on that morning? He rubbed the fabric between his finger experientially. Yes, now that he knew what to look for it was as clear as daylight—but it wasn't quite as the not-Millie had said. Rather than an anti-magicspell, the jacket had been charmed to prevent its wearer from being affected by ambient magic cast in near vicinity (a much more subtle spell). The thing was wound so tightly into each individual threat that Christopher doubted it would have been possible to remove it without destroying the garment entirely. Gabriel must have had his reasons…

He was so absorbed in his thoughts the he barely noticed when the girl rose to her feet and began pacing in an odd sort of half-circle slightly off to the left. Her fingers fluttered as she murmured words in some high-pitched tongue, and before Christopher could intervene, a shimmering portal opened in the stone wall beside her. It glistened like sunshine over still water and looked stable enough to be a permanent fixture, not something hastily constructed from scratch.

"I suppose there's no helping it now," the not-Millie muttered with a sigh. "C'mon, I can't keep this gate open all day." She spoke as though Christopher had no choice but to obey, and when he actually weighed his options, they were pitifully few—either remain in the cave and wait for the Castle to find him (possibly freezing in the process) or try his luck wherever this girl wanted to take him. She doesn't appear particularly threatening

"Where does it go?" he remanded a little more forcefully than he'd intended.

"Why, back to civilization of course," she replied evasively. "No one lives out here in the wastelands."

Christopher glared in disapproval. "And is civilization just as cold?"

"Oh no, not at all," she said with a shake of her head that made her brown hair bob in a way so like Millie's that Christopher was all of a sudden quite homesick.

"You'd better drop the charade," he accused before she could continue. "I know perfectly well that you're not Millie, so there's not point continuing to masquerade as her." She has no right, he thought to himself, to wear Millie's face as if it were her own.

"But it's so much fun," she retorted as her hand shot out and grabbed Christopher by the wrist. With a great tug she yanked him off his feet, and together they fell tripping over each other's feet into the portal. Her voice echoed around Christopher's head as his stomach dropped through the floor. "I always wanted to know how it feels to be so dreadfully plain…"

"But she's not plain—"Christopher thought he heard himself call after her as he tumbled through the pulsing arch, though it might have just been an echo in his mind.

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When, for the second time that morning, his feet hit solid ground he was quite taken aback at the scene before him. This was not, as he'd expected, some barbaric court, nor was it a stuffy drawing room, or even a well-stocked magician's workshop or dingy dungeon. Instead, it was a perfectly ordinary British parlor—though perhaps a decade or so out of fashion. The scattered furniture had a "homely" and "lived-in" feel, and the fireplace gave off such a gorgeous warmth that the whole place was almost surreal.

"Where are we?" he demanded, trying his best to sound both indignant and bored.

And the girl, to his surprise, glanced around this way and that as though she was not exactly sure either. She quickly hid the moment of confusion beneath a haughty "humph," and became incredibly busy flicking imaginary flecks of dust from the front of her dress. It was blue now with a tight-fitting bodice and long, flowing sleeves, and her face had shifted into to what Christopher could only guess were her own features. She sat primly on the edge of a large beige armchair and brushed a fluffy wisp of honey-colored hair from her forehead. "Grand May will be here soon. She'll tell you what you need to know."

Christopher had half a mind to simply walk over to the door in the far wall and leave before this Grand May or whoever else showed up, but before he could take more than a step or two in that direction the door opened, and a tall matronly woman filled the doorframe.

"Ah, you must be Christopher," she remarked as she inspected him with the same sort of glare a school teacher reserves for under-performing pupils. "You're awfully young." She stepped fully into the room, and the door swung shut behind her with a dull thud. "But I suppose you'll have to do."

Do for what? He wanted to shout back in annoyance, but instead he took a deep breath and met her gaze with his blandest, most disinterested expression. "That's quite impossible," he said flatly. "I'm not going to help anyone."

It was as though this was exactly what they'd expected him to say. Neither the girl not the woman looked the least bit surprised. And that was, Christopher thought, all the more infuriating.

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End Notes: Apologies for the rather long Kyoto "interlude" in the middle of this chapter. I inserted it on a whim, and it just kind of got away from me. Perhaps it's my brain's way of telling me that it's time to go back and pay the city another visit…. If you're trying to visualize the interior of the teahouse, think of Howl's room in the Miyazai anime Howl's Moving Castle (yes, the adaptation of the DWJ book), and change the bobbles and such to daruma and origami and the like. As for the calligraphy that all the stuff changes into, they're essentially ofuda (御札)—Shinto talismans, which in anime/manga are often magical.

I meant to get this chapter out sooner, but everything's been really busy of late, and I couldn't find a good way to end it. By way of a preview, I'll say that the real Millie will re-emerge in the next part. Thanks for reading!

01.28.08

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