80: Choose Your Destiny
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“Chosen by whom?” I asked.

The spellthing burst out laughing. “That’s the question that nobody asks, isn’t it? Everybody’s always so excited to be part of some grand plan, or annoyed to be part of some grand plan, or apprehensive about being part of some Grand Plan, that they so often forget to ask who makes the plans and why its their plans that get to be considered Grand. But in your case, dear, you have been chosen by destiny.”

“I don’t believe in destiny.”

“‘I don’t believe in destiny’, it declares in conversation with the prophecies, after six months rooming with a prophet, relying on her predictions.”

“I believe in cause and effect. I believe in predicting the future based on logic and experience – people do it every day. I believe that prophecies can see information humans don’t have and do calculations we don’t understand, to predict things that our normal methods can’t. But none of that is destiny.”

“Really? What is it, then?”

I was saved having to answer when the spellthing’s eyes widened and it painfully yanked my hand closer to itself. “Hmm. My apologies. It seems that I misread that after all.”

“You did?” I asked, feeling a little let down despite myself.

“Indeed. You are not the Chosen One. Yet. If I am reading this correctly – and I always do – it seems that you will be the chosen one. She hasn’t chosen yet.”

“Is that difference important?”

“Of course it is. She will only choose you, if you choose her first. So if you want to avoid being the Chosen One, don’t be the Choosing One. Simple enough, right? She won’t choose you if you don’t choose her.”

“Choose who?”

“Destiny! Haven’t you been listening?” It let go of my wrist.

“And if I don’t… choose destiny… who would it choose?” I asked, trying to keep up with the conversation while I rubbed life back into my hand.

“Well, to determine that, I would have to see their palms, wouldn’t I?” The spellthing emptied the kettle into a teapot and placed it on the table. “Any sugar in your tea, dear?”

“Actually, I think I hear the rain letting up,” I lied. I stood and inched my way over to the door while the spellthing set out two tiny cups and poured the tea (which hadn’t steeped nearly long enough, in my opinion) into both. I leaned on the door and… it was locked. Or stuck? There was no bolt or lock on the door.

“Drink up, dear.”

“Why won’t this door open?”

“Because you haven’t finished entering the building. You can’t leave until you enter, can you? That would be nonsense. When we enter somebody’s home, we drink tea.”

That was true. It was an old hospitality ritual, baked into basic manners for thousands of years; you crossed over the mantle and under the wreath, and once inside you drank holly tea together. It was supposed to represent goodwill and freedom from curses or evil intentions, and while nobody used holly water any more and wreaths these days were mostly decorative, the ritual remained. There was something funny about a bunch of spells inviting a cursed kid in and insisting on using manners designed specifically to weaken magic.

I leaned harder on the door, but it wouldn’t budge. I headed back to the table and, with some trepidation, picked up the teacup.

“To your health,” the spellthing said, raising its cup.

“And yours,” I replied, raising mine. I went to take a sip of what was basically just water (it hadn’t steeped nearly long enough, it had been in that pot for seconds, it was like the spellthing didn’t even know how to make proper tea), and stopped.

Something was wrong here, and I’d just figured out what it was.

I put the cup back down. “Thank you for your hospitality,” I said, “but I really must be going.”

The spellthing’s smile became a lot less friendly. “You thank me for my hospitality, but you won’t honour me with basic politeness?”

“How polite is it to try to trap your guests here forever against their will?”

“I’m sure I have no idea what you mean, my dear.”

“Really? You told me that I won’t be able to leave this place carrying that tracker, right before you dropped it in your teapot. And now you expect me to drink it?”

“Ah, so you did notice. Such a pity. You really are fun to have around.”

I tried the door again. Still stuck. “Let me go.”

“I told you, you haven’t finished entering yet.”

“So if I drink tea with you, you’ll open the door, but I’ll still be trapped in this forest anyway? If you wanted to trap me in the forest, why even tell me about the tracker in the first place?”

“Well, it’s hardly fun if you don’t have a chance, is it?”

“Your stunt with the tracker doesn’t give me a chance either. So how can it be fun?”

“Hmm. That is a good point. Alright, dear, how about this – answer my three riddles, and I’ll release you from your obligation of manners and open the door for you.”

Riddles? Oh no. That was more Max’s thing. Or maybe Kylie’s, with her experience with the Eye. I was toast. “Any other options?”

“Of course. You can simply stay with me forever.”

“I’d die of thirst within a few days.”

“Perhaps, but time means little here. It could seem like years.”

“Years experiencing the agony of slow dehydration? No, thanks.”

“It’s that or the riddles, my dear.”

“Fine. Ask your riddles.”

“Here is the first. If a collection of synaptic impulses is a thought, what is a collection of thoughts?”

Did that even count as a riddle? “Uh, a mind?”

“Here is the second. If a collection of thoughts is a mind, what is a collection of minds?”

“A society.”

“Here is the third. If a collection of minds is a society, what is a collection of societies?”

“Um… the planet?”

“Excellent. Those are my riddles, and I must inform you that you got all three of them wrong. A mind, really? A mind? What an arrogantly human answer! You see a barrier, here,” it tapped my head, “preventing the thoughts within from connecting with the thoughts without, and decide, oh, that must be meaningful. These thoughts are trapped together so there must be something special about them, and you bundle them together and call them an individual, decide that you somehow exist. A mind! Really! What is it about minds that delude themselves into thinking that minds are real, or important? I’m sorry, my little dear, but you lose. And I – ” The spellthing leaned closer, and in a panic, I blurted out the first thing that came to mind.

“You said you’d let me go if I answered your riddles! You never said I had to get them right!”

The spellthing leaned back, looking puzzled for a moment. Then its grin widened further, impossibly wide until it seemed like its whole head would split open, and it tipped back its head and laughed. “Oh! You are fun! But technically correct, which really is a pity. I suppose you must be going, but how about I give you a kiss to remember me by?”

“Uh… no, thanks.”

“Next time, then. Instead, for the entertainment, I will give you a gift – the answer to the first riddle. The other two, you will have to find for yourself.” It reached past me to push the door open, and whispered in my ear, “A collection of thoughts is a dream.”

I got the hell out of there.

Behind me, the spellthing yelled, “Travel safe! And move quickly, my deer; there are hunters out there bigger than me, with a stronger taste for venison!”

Once the cottage was out of sight, the rain let up. Okay, no more entering mysterious cottages. Although, if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have found out about letting go of home, so six of one, I supposed.

I kept following the river. The warm overhead sun dried me out pretty quickly, and my break in the cottage had rejuvinated me, or maybe that was just adrenaline from all of that what-in-the-chaos that had gone on in there.

I walked for another hour before realising that something was still wrong. I hadn’t expected getting out to be easy, but surely I should’ve hit the edge of the Pit by now? Surely I should’ve hit something?

After another hour, I started to get worried.

I flopped down on the riverbank and scooped up handfuls of water to cool myself. If I wasn’t making any progress, I certainly wasn’t going to wear myself out doing it. I’d tried everything! I’d climbed up off the circular path between the cliffs, I’d made sure to travel in a straight line only to run into the river preventing me from going any further, I’d talked to the creepy spellthing, I’d even symbolically got rid of my past. What did this place want me to do? Find a way across the river?

I lay back on the ground and took a few deep, calming breaths, like Max had taught me. I wasn’t going to wear myself out with yoga, but I needed to calm down and focus. There was a way out. That was the point. Everyone who went in had a way out.

Didn’t they?

Some people never got out – did they fail to find the way out, or did it sometimes just not exist?

I rolled onto my stomach. Something jabbed me in my hip – something small, in my pocket. I fished it out.

Chelsea’s tracker.

Why did I still have this? I’d thrown it away! It was back in the cottage.

Because you weren’t sincere, the quicker thinking part of my brain said. You know that that is just a symbol. Handing it over is not the same as letting them go. If you want to get out, you have to let go of your past.

Just like that? Just… everything we’d been through, everything we’d meant to each other? My friends, my parents, my world? I was supposed to just turn my back on it all to become a mage? That didn’t seem fair.

What was it that spellthing had said? That for a caterpillar to become a moth, it has to destroy itself first? Well, maybe I didn’t want to do that. Maybe I was happy being a caterpillar.

In which case, it was right – I shouldn’t have stepped into the Pit. I had brought this on myself. And there was no going back, which meant I could go forward, or sit here until I died.

I was actually going to have to do it, huh? I’d have to stop writing. Let my old friends drift apart from me. They’d be better off, anyway; and so would I, I supposed. Better off alive than dead, anyway.

Sorry, Mum and Dad. Sorry, Chelsea. Sorry, Liss. Sorry, everyone. I stood up and threw the tracker, as hard as I could, into the river.

Then, once again, I started walking.

Fifteen minutes later, I found the tracker in my pocket.

“Oh, come on!” I yelled at the river. “What do you want me to do, huh? I committed to this world! What more do you want? Am I supposed to forget they exist? Because unless you have some kind of magical amnesia potion lying around, that’s just not possible!”

I leaned against a tree and looked over the tracker. The rough tree bark scratched at my back through my robes. Over the past few hours, I’d finally figured out why the trees were kind of familiar; they were like the trees on Agreabla Insulo, surrounding Mae and Terry’s cabin. Which fit with the creepy spellthing’s cabin, I supposed. This whole place was maddening; familiar and strange at the same time, like a collage of stuff I knew from somewhere all patched together in new ways. And I didn’t know where I knew most of it from, so there was just this constant sense of maddening deja vu. I brushed a ticklish spell away from my cheek and turned the tracker over and over in my hands.

Hang on a minute.

This place was a dream. It was built from my mind, my memories, my insecurities and assumptions. Everything here was a reflection of me, a personalised trial for me.

So why was I treating any of it like it was real?

Why was I taking the advice of a bunch of spells that had transparently tried to trap me here? Why was I assuming that it had my best interests at heart when it told me to let go of the past? Nobody had warned me that that was a condition of entry, and Instruktanto Cooper, blind as he sometimes was to the specific needs of witches, would have thought to warn me of something like that. I’d seen how the other mages behaved, how Refujeyo saw itself as separate from and above other societies, and I’d been treating my decision to come here like a choice between worlds, a betrayal of everyone at home, even though I’d assured them it wasn’t.

I’d invented this game. I didn’t have to play it.

I picked a climbable-looking tree and scrambled up until I found a nice, sturdy fork to jam the tracker in. I wedged it in tightly, to make sure it wouldn’t go anywhere, and jumped down.

Then I reached into the bag I hadn’t been carrying a minute ago, to pull out the tablet I hadn’t brought with me, and opened the tracker app I’d installed so many years ago on my phone.

And then, I started to walk.

I didn’t bother with straight lines. I just kept moving away from the tracker. So long as the distance between us was increasing, I wasn’t moving in circles. Spirals, perhaps, but that was still progress.

The landscape kept trying to trick me, twisting itself and me around, winding the river in my path or giving me inviting little trails and slopes that looked like they headed in the right direction, but didn’t. But it couldn’t trick me; not while I had the tracker’s position to keep me oriented. I moved further and further away; the signal became weaker and weaker. And then I took a step, not onto root-choked forest floor, but onto flat, bare stone.

I was out.