Was it possible? Was Ancilly trying to tell her how to escape?
Well, Alice had no idea, but trusting Ancilly was her only option at the moment, as Paramint was still holding a butcher knife within slicing distance. Alice was out of options and fully tapped of time but she’d not yet lost her hope. So she took a deep breath and whispered,
“Fall, Oliver, fall.”
And they did.
She and Oliver clung to each other as they fell, and in her mind Alice was already apologizing to him for being the reason he died. Alice was half hope, half horror, split vertically down the middle about her chances at survival. She wanted to believe there was merit to Ancilly’s song, but how could she? She was currently plummeting to her death. Worse still, this didn’t feel anything like flying. This felt like dying. Though at least this death, Alice thought, would be a less brutal one. Alice had no interest in being eaten.
So there they were: falling to their deaths.
Neither one of them screamed (as it seemed to serve no purpose), and all Alice saw were Oliver’s eyes, wide and scared and sad, so she closed her own, wrapped her single arm more tightly around his, and prayed for a quick, relatively painless exit from these worlds. But no matter how dramatic they tried to make the moment—muscles tensed, whispering quiet good-byes to the ones they loved—their imminent demise was running a bit late.
Eventually Alice opened her eyes and found that Oliver had, too. They were indeed still falling, and there was indeed a ground coming up beneath them, but something strange was happening, too: The farther they fell, the slower the fall, and soon they weren’t rushing to the ground at all, but floating; floating, gently and steadily, all the way down.
They landed on the forest floor with their feet flat on the ground. She and Oliver were so surprised to still be alive that they spent the first few moments just staring at each other.
“Are you alright?” Alice finally said. Oliver was standing on his own now, and he looked wide awake. “Are you feeling okay?”
Oliver nodded. “I think that just scared the sick out of me.”
“Well, thank heavens for small presents,” Alice said, now feeling weak in the knees. She sank to the ground.
“You don’t think they’ll jump after us, do you?” said Oliver.
Alice looked up, startled. “I don’t—”
“They might,” said a voice she didn’t recognize.
Alice jumped straight up and back and hit her head against Oliver’s chest. His heart was beating as hard as hers; he steadied her shoulder against him, and they both looked toward the stranger.
The voice had come from a woman, the likes of which Alice had never seen before—except perhaps in a mirror. She was pale as moonlight and exceptionally tall, and she wore a cloak made entirely of golden leaves: vibrant yellow, dingy mustard, lemon and honey and saffron and sunlight. The leaves layered together looked like a collection of slivered wings, creating the illusion of something both monstrous and beautiful, all at once.
The lengths of the stranger’s robes dragged beneath her, swallowing up her arms and legs; only her hands—paler even than Alice’s—could still be seen. The hood of her cloak, also created from leaves, did not mask her face; she wore her hood only halfway, and the long, impossibly yellow locks of her hair—nearly indistinguishable from her hood—fell to her shoulders, and her face, ghostly white, was lit only by a pair of matching golden eyes.
“They might,” she said again. “So you’d do best to come with me.”
There was something terrifying about her—glowing and beautiful and looming over them—but there was something else about her, too; something in her eyes. This woman had felt true pain before, and somehow Alice knew this was true.
Again, Alice thought of Ancilly.
Ancilly, whose song had saved their life.
I saw a lady reach for me
She told me not to fear
I saw a lady speak to me
She told me help was here
“Who are you?” Alice finally managed to ask.
“I am Isal,” she said. She did not blink. “Would you like to die?”
“No,” Oliver said quickly; Alice could hear his heart quicken. “Of course we wouldn’t.”
“Then come with me,” she said, and turned away.
As she walked, she left a trail of golden leaves behind, like a snail that could not help but make a map of its travels. But Isal was no snail; that much was obvious, and Alice envied her steady, quiet strength. She wanted to follow her.
And anyway, they had no other choices.
She and Oliver marched along behind her, sending each other sideways glances that did little more than remind them that they were not alone. They followed Isal deep, deep into the maze of the woods, but walking wasn’t without its challenges: The forest floor was zigzagged by giant trunks of gigantic trees, the tops of which made up the land of Left. The roots that covered the forest floor were monstrously large; they were among the widest and tallest Alice would ever see; these trunks were thicker than most homes. As she and Oliver did their best to scramble over the mountain-sized roots, Alice was suddenly grateful for Isal’s colorful cloak—without it, they’d have lost her long ago.
Finally, they reached a small clearing where a dilapidated cottage had been shoved unceremoniously against a tree trunk wider than the cottage itself. The home was simply made; the exterior whitewashed a dull shade. There were two windows cut into a wall not obscured by the tree, but the glass looked dingy and yellow, like the ancient windows had never seen a breeze.
Tall, wild grass grew up the sides of the house, and the roof looked like it’d collapsed a bit, right in the middle, and Alice could see why: Five forevergreen trees had planted themselves on top of the cottage, nearly suffocating the slanted brick chimney, while haphazardly grown tufts of grass and roots gripped the roof in a proprietary fist. This home seemed to have been planted here. It was as if it had grown in and within the forest itself.