The sun rise found the lone wizard's apprentice sitting in the middle of a field that was filled with green and blue flowers. It smelled like rain and early morning dew and that seemed oddly fitting for the ache in his chest. The sunlight that fell across his lap was just as warm as he remembered it being yesterday. The flowers as vibrant - bejeweled with dew and that faint glow of magic Yipper flowers held at their core. All of it seemed to bounce off his surface – the sights, the smells, the warmth; nothing could touch the dull ache that had taken up residence in his chest. Gikk was missing a vital part in himself due in equal parts to the magic that bounded him to Haru and the absence of her lively company. What really was the point, after all, of having such brilliant adventures if there was no one there to notice him being quite clever?
Far away, growling like thunder, chainsaws screamed to life, biting in to the trunks of ancient trees. Howl had explained vaguely that the South Kingdom considered this place to be beautiful and magical. Apparently that was all the justification the Eastern Kingdom needed to try and recklessly extend its boarders south. A curse or a spited lover was likely the root cause but war would come all the same. Nothing was ever straightforward in this world of wizards and witches.
In the meantime, Gikk tilted his head back, breathing deeply the smell of exhaust and burning timber. It should have been a vindication. He had to send her away. Better this way, of course. At least she was safe, not wrapped up in this nasty business.
A loud clap from behind drew him from his thoughts. He turned to see Howl come sprinting across the field towards him.
"South isn't a good choice, probably not for a long time." His master and friend commented once he was in range. "We'll head north, skirting the Wastes for now."
The man with the orange hair stood up, casting a forlorn glance back at the majestic forest. "We aren't helping, then?"
"No." Howl said plainly. "We aren't getting dragged in to another war. Not ever again. Our only goal is keeping our family safe and if that means running and hiding, I'm not too good to be a coward."
A series of explosions cracked through the morning air, followed by a distant stream of curses and screams. Small billows of black smoke drifted up over the tree line.
Gikk raised an eyebrow, regarding Howl, who shrugged innocently.
"So I may have enchanted the trees a little."
A fresh batch of screams cut the air as several air engines were frantically rev'ed to life.
"And maybe the squirrels." Howl consented.
The men stood side by side, watching as the air bikes rose in to the trees. Even from this distance, Gikk could see the pilots were covered in dozen of angry, waging tails. One of the harassed lumberjacks must have noticed his audience because he started signaling wildly towards Howl and Gikk from the back of his bike. Several of the machines cut off from the pack and started flying towards them, dropping squirrels all the way.
"We should probably run now."
Gikk gave an 'hmph' of agreement and the pair dashed off towards the thick wooded area was the castle was invisibly waiting for them.
"I'm going to kill him." Haru said earnestly, faced turned up to the sky. It was this perfect, cloudless blue day and singing with a warm spring breeze that promised new green life and rain. The weather had no right to be this perfect when inside her heart was fuming.
Three days – three days since he ditched her, acting like the chivalrous idiot he was. And it wasn't even that he didn't get it right and she was now the size of a child's toy – it was that he finally, finally kissed her before sending her away. The shrinking, the being stuck at the Sanctuary in the company of the odd little people called 'Borrowers', all that she could forgive because that was par for course. But the aching longing in her lips, that faint haunting warmth when she remembered being tucked close to him in a moment of unguarded intimacy…
"So dead." She huffed in growing frustration.
The few Borrowers milling around the center of the small town in the early hours didn't pay her much mind. They had quickly grown accustomed to the oddly dress woman who had a habit of cursing empty air. It had taken Haru considerably longer to get accustomed to them.
Her shock of finding the usually empty town that housed the Cat's Bureau filled with a city's worth of tiny people had left her speechless.
The young man who had lead her back in to the safety of the city had directed her towards the house the elder lived in – whoever that was- and left her with the caution not to be so careless. She could have been seen, which seemed to be the highest order of recklessness.
With no real other options, Haru had made her way to the elder like she was in a dream, stopping to stare often at the crowds. It was so otherworldly. This once familiar place now a busy market where children wearing bright clothing dashed around laughing and woman wearing giant barrettes in their hair chatted. Vendors all over sold doll house furniture and offered up food clearly 'borrowed' from nearby houses.
By the time she got to the small white house with the green door, she had collected a group of people who were curious about the woman who looked so different and who smelled like magic and the wilds.
The elder had been exactly what Haru supposed an 'elder' would look like. He wore tiny half-moon glasses and had a head of untamed white hair. With a shooing motion to the crowd that had gathered, he pulled Haru inside and shut his door.
What followed was one of the most pleasant and strangest conversations Haru had heard in a long time.
The elder's voice was light and he knew how to hold a conversation. Where had she come from? What was she? These probing questions had been asked with a kind and tender understanding. It was clear he was used to all kinds and had heard his fair share of outlandish stories.
It came so easy and in the rhythm of the conversation, Haru explained how her wonderful but stupid best friend had used a pocket watch to whisk her away back home but not. The entire time he nodded. As if magical mishaps were common and something he had to address every day. In return, he explained where she was.
The world used to be a lot bigger, he said. Room enough for everyone and all the magic a billion different races could dream up. But humans came and they turned out to be much bigger than most things.
As the number of the little people had dwindled over the years, they banded together to build a place of magic and safety for things that didn't have a place in the human world anymore. They called this wondrous city 'The Sanctuary' and it truly came to be.
How odd it was that Haru had never stopped to consider why the Creations had an entire city to live in, one filled with houses and fountains and shops. She guessed that because she had never seen anyone else, it had never crossed her mind.
"And so," The elder finished, as he poured her another earthy smelling cup of tea, "We've been here ever since, living in peace and prosperity alongside all the others, like your Creation friends."
Haru had asked why she had never seen anyone on her rare visit under the arches and he simply smiled, eyes sparkling and answered; "We're very good at hiding."
He invited her to stay in the community, living of course at Gikk's former house. With her being as she was, she was as good as a Borrower anyway and would have full access to the village and its protection magic's.
That was three days ago.
The shock had faded like a tide and it left a watermark of loss and determination as long as the shoreline and three times as pressing. Because there was something Gikk hadn't understood when he sent her away.
She'd find a way back. Didn't matter how many worlds she had to search because at the end of it all, he needed her and she needed him. Some things in life are just that impossibly simple. He had planted in her a seed of wild daring and it was about to surprise him as it bloomed in triplicate.
"Miss Haru!" Came a light voice from down the square. A plump, young girl of thirteen came running up to her, hair pulled in to bouncing pigtails. Haru looked up from her post at Toto's fountain. She spent every free moment at the fountain, constantly watching the empty perch and wondering when the crow would return. Maybe he had gone looking for them. If that was the case, he would be searching for a very long time.
"Miss Haru." The girl said again, sucking in to try and catch her breath. Her face was flushed and it was clear from the sweat on her forehead that she had been running for longer than she was used to. "Miss Haru," She tried again, swallowing thickly.
"It's ok, Pip." Haru hushed, getting up from the fountain ledge to lay a reassuring hand on the girl's shoulder. "Give yourself a second."
Pip shook her head stubbornly, sending a pigtail smack across Haru's concerned face. "It's about the spirit coin you gave the Elder."
Haru felt her heart rate increase. All she had left connecting her to the far away world Gikk was stuck in had been the clothing she was wearing when she arrived and the spirit coin she had tucked away in her pocket. All her hopes were riding on finding someone that could create a portal back.
"What did he say?" She urged.
"He says you should come see him."
"Thank you, Pip!" Haru called, instantly ready to do some running herself. Her feet pounded across the cobblestone pavement as she dodged pedestrians and carts with equal speed. To her credit, she only tripped up once, skinning her knee on a rough patch of gravel. By the time she reached the white house with the green door, she hardly looked better than Pip had, gasping and limping as she was.
The elder opened the door as she approached, looking aghast. "My goodness, Haru! Are you ok?" He asked, throwing the door open to help her in.
"Knee. Happens. Clumsy." She muttered between breaths. How was she still out of shape with all the running she had been doing? Maybe the altitude was different in this world, less oxygen, something.
"Well come in child, I'll get some tea and a cloth for that knee."
Haru could only nod as she was lead over to an overfilled, floral patterned couch that must have belonged to an elegant doll house at one point. She stiffly leaned up against the cushions, shaking a head at her knee and her uncoordinated feet.
"Looks like quite a fall."
Haru started. She hadn't noticed the woman sitting in the chair across the way, sipping from tea from a thimble. How Haru missed her, with all that red hair, was beyond her.
"Yeah, I was in a rush, not really looking." She said, folding her hands in her lap and tugging at her skirt to try and cover the scrape.
The woman smiled. "You must be Haru. I'm Lisa, Isao told me all about you. That's quite a fantastic story."
"Not so fantastic." She responded flatly. "I need to get back to my friend before I consider anything about it fantastic."
"Oh?" The woman, Lisa exclaimed, raising her eyebrows. "But isn't your home here? This is the world you came from, correct?"
"Well, yeah." She sighed, "For the most part, if you ignore the six-inch tall oversight."
"Is that what's bothering you?" Lisa sat her thimble down and regarded Haru with big blue eyes. "That can be fixed. That spirit coin of yours has more than enough magic in it to get you the right size in no time."
Haru bit her lip, sucking it in her mouth to stop herself from speaking the first thing that came to mind. The truth was, she knew the right answer was to find a way back to her mother and to pick up the life she was detoured from. Or if the 'right' answer could feel so wrong, that was it.
"But that isn't what you want, is it?" The red headed woman must have been able to read Haru's hesitation at the suggestion. "You want to get back to your friend more than you want to go home."
Not trusting herself with words, Haru gave a tight nod. "I know how that must make me sound. I'm the worst daughter in the world."
"My mom was the same way, you know. She had to choose between staying with her family and giving up her entire world to stay with the boy she loved. That didn't make her a bad daughter or sister. Your heart will always guide you down the right path, if you let it."
The Elder Isao came in, holding a washrag in his hand. "Sorry that took so long, no idea where the wife keeps the good linen. Now, hold this on to keep down the swelling." His eyes moved between Haru and Lisa. "You two been chatting have you? That's good. Haru, this is Lisa. She's a regular visitor to the Sanctuary. In fact, it's her magic that helps keep this place safe and hidden. Old magic, good magic, straight from the sea it is." He shot Lisa a proud smile as he pulled up an old pin cushion to sit on. "I think she might be the one that could put that spirit coin of yours to use." He added.
"Really?" Haru asked, dropping the cloth in her excitement. "Can you use it to get me back to Gikk? To the world he's in?"
Lisa sat thoughtfully for a moment, the sun catching her red hair in such a way it made it seem like it was shimmering in waves. "If that's what your heart is truly telling you, then yes, I can."
"Yes!" Haru shot up from the couch, and then quickly dropped back, grabbing her abused knee with a grown.
"But," Lisa continued, with a frown, "A choice once made always carries a price. If you want to leave this world behind and pursue your friend, it will cost you."
A/N ah yes, the cliffie bwahaha. I dedicate this chapter, in its entire crazy climax setting goodness to Catsafari. If it wasn't for your kind and thoughtful nudge in my inbox, this would have probably stayed in limbo forever.
I have one chapter left after this one and a curtain call before this journey ends. Wouldn't have got there without the continued support of the awesome few.