Alyson and I followed the pathway into the woods. As the bright sunlight faded into a gloomy twilight beneath the trees’ domain, my mood darkened as well. Why did Maestro insist we meet alone deep inside a forest? Was the topic we were about to discuss really that dangerous? Or did he have more sinister reasons for getting us on our own?
I stopped in my tracks and watched Alyson skip along the path in front of me. For an instant, guilt consumed me. Maybe I shouldn’t have brought her along. Then I shook myself. No. It was just as dangerous, if not more so, to leave her alone. How was I to know if all those Notes back at the Inn were trustworthy? Better to stick together I thought, remembering the mysterious reaction of the Notes upon seeing Alyson enter the Inn.
“A child! A human child!” they had whispered together, as if her presence was something altogether shocking.
“Ms. Stephanie, look!” Alyson called out, jarring me back to my senses.
My panic surged and pushed me forward into an all-out run. “What?” I panted, skidding to a halt next to her.
She pointed to the trunk of a tree next to her, where a coda sign had been carved into the bark. “It’s Maestro’s sign, just like he said!”
I swallowed my shame and nodded, telling myself I couldn’t panic like that again. I needed to keep a cool head if I was going to get us both home safe and sound.
“Come on,” I said with my jaw set.
We stepped off the path and plunged into the trees.
It was unnaturally quiet. No sound of life could I hear–no scurrying of small animals, no twitter of birds, nothing. After a few silent minutes, there at last came a new sound, like the buzzing of insect wings. This did little to comfort me though, since I couldn’t see the insects. The sound droned on all the same. It seemed to come from overhead, hidden somewhere in the treetops. Alyson noticed the sound too, and looked up with an expression of curiosity.
“What is that?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I replied anxiously. “Just keep walking.”
To my great relief, the buzzing gradually diminished into silence behind us. At least whatever it was wasn’t following us.
We walked for several more minutes without any sign of Maestro. With each new step, I regretted even more my decision to trust the unicorn. It was taking too long. I was certain we should have found him by now. He said it wasn’t far. Had it all been a great joke? Maybe Maestro had never intended to meet us here at all. Or–I stopped dead in my tracks and peered into the shadows on either side of me–what if he was here already, watching us at this very moment, waiting to spring an ambush? My throat went dry.
“What’s wrong?” Alyson asked, skipping back to me with a small yellow flower stuck behind her ear.
I looked around once more, then made up my mind. I refused to go any farther. If Maestro hadn’t shown up by now, something had to be wrong. We were going back.
“Hello again, Stephanie and Alyson.”
I jumped about three feet into the air the moment Maestro spoke. When I landed, I whirled around to see the black unicorn materialize out of the shadows.
“Thank you for coming,” he said quite calmly, as if meeting in the middle of a dark and creepy forest was perfectly normal meeting place.
“Oh, I…I didn’t see you,” I mumbled, a little embarrassed.
“I thought it best to keep out of sight until you arrived, just in case,” said Maestro without further explanation.
“Right. Well, we’re here,” I demanded, crossing my arms. “You said you’d explain how we get home.”
Maestro chuckled. “Very well. No beating around the bush with you.”
“I think we’ve been kept in the dark long enough,” I snapped.
“Yes, I do apologize for that,” said Maestro. “But there was simply no good time before. The problem is,” he looked around before lowering his voice, “our discussion will contain sensitive information, which could be dangerous if heard by unfriendly ears. That is why I couldn’t speak openly about it at the school.”
The only words I heard were “dangerous” and “unfriendly,” which did little to calm me down. I narrowed my eyes. “Are you saying we’re in danger?”
Maestro shifted his weight uneasily. “No, not exactly. Not yet.”
“What do you mean, not yet?!” I cried.
“It means you’re safe for now, because those who would seek to do you harm haven’t noticed your appearance yet,” Maestro answered in what was apparently supposed to be a reassuring voice.
I glared at him some more, wondering exactly who would want to harm us and why. But, I figured the safest thing to do for now was to not ask too many questions. “Fine,” I said. “So, how did we get here in the first place?”
“Well,” Maestro mumbled, avoiding my eyes, “only those granted passage by a Guardian can enter this world. When you opened the High Portal–that is, the Music Box–the Guardian let you in. Otherwise, nothing would have happened to you.”
“Really?” I said, genuinely surprised. “So, we might not be transported here every time we open the portal?”
“Okay…then why are we here now?”
Maestro pawed the ground and continued to avert his gaze. “I really couldn’t say.”
“Come on!” I blurted. “You were there the moment we arrived. Do you really expect me to believe that was a coincidence?”
The unicorn finally looked up at me, his gaze almost pleading.
I rolled my eyes impatiently. “You are the Guardian, aren’t you?”
Maestro leapt back as if he had been stung. He trotted around the entire clearing, glancing this way and that. When he stopped beside me, he muttered under his breath, “You must never speak of such things out loud again. It’s too dangerous.”
Taken aback, I said, “Sorry. My mistake.”
Alyson walked over, looked up into Maestro’s big, brown eyes, then threw her arms around his neck. She whispered into his soft black fur, “Thank you for bringing us here. I know it was you, even if you can’t say so. But I promise not to tell anyone.”
Maestro seemed to relax in her embrace, and he chuckled. “Of course, little one.”
“But, why?” I repeated, feeling far less grateful. “Why did y–the Guardian, I mean–want to bring us here at all?”
Maestro answered cautiously, “Perhaps the Guardian simply wanted a contact on the other side. A human willing to help if things go badly.”
“Badly?” I repeated, my mouth dry. “What do you mean?”
“What you have to understand is–”
He stopped abruptly and looked up at the trees. Something had made a sound above us. Maybe it was one of those buzzing insects again–or it might have just been leaves rustling. It happened so quickly that I really couldn’t tell. But if Maestro was worried about it, so was I. The unicorn trotted again in a circle around us, coming to a stop in front of me.
“Something isn’t right,” he said suddenly.
“What do you mean?” I asked, my panic rising again. “What isn’t right?”
“I’m not sure…” muttered Maestro. “I just have a bad feeling…like we’re not alone.”
“Excuse me?” I blurted.
“I think we should go now,” said Maestro.
“Back to the portal, of course. It’s time for you to go home.”
I wasn’t going to argue with that. “Right. Come on, Alyson, let’s go.”
The unicorn led the way through the forest, with Alyson and I close behind him. We walked quickly, anxious to get back out into the open. Every so often I would glance over my shoulder to make sure we weren’t being followed.
“Maestro?” I whispered hoarsely.
“What sort of things would want to cause us harm?”
“All manner of creatures,” he answered without looking back. “There is no time to describe them all now, though. We must hurry.”
The unicorn stopped abruptly, so that I almost ran into him. We had reach the pathway. Maestro looked in both directions first before stepping out of the trees.
“All clear,” he said. The three of us turned onto the path and walked even faster than before. We were nearly there. I could see the sunlight just ahead.
Something buzzed suddenly overhead, louder than before. Alyson and I both gasped.
“RUN!” Maestro shouted without warning.
We bolted towards the end of the forest. “What is it?” I yelled.
“An Accent!” Maestro yelled back. “Don’t let it sting you! They’re poisonous!”
I grasped Alyson’s hand and pulled her onward. “Don’t look back!” I told her. “Just run!”
We broke through the trees just behind Maestro. The bright white light temporarily blinded me before my eyes adjusted. I whirled around and looked back at the forest. Something flitted just behind the leaves of the nearest tree, but I couldn’t make it out clearly. It didn’t seem to want to leave the shade of the trees.
“It’s alright. We’re safe now,” panted Maestro. “Accents prefer the dark. They won’t come out in daylight.”
I glanced up at the sky and saw a sun starting to descend behind the forest. “Um, Maestro?”
“Does that mean they’ll come out after the sun has set?”
Maestro looked disturbed. “It is possible. At any rate, we shouldn’t chance it. You must return as quickly as possible.”
“I couldn’t agree more.”
We made our way to the Staff Road and walked inside the F space back in the direction of the portal. Maestro was once again in the lead, and I made sure Alyson walked in front of me so I could keep an eye on her. For several minutes, no one said anything. I forced myself to not look back. The sun was setting more quickly than I would have liked, and the light was getting dimmer by the minute.
The last light gleamed off of Maestro’s white horn, so that it was like a beacon guiding us forward. I followed it with what little hope I had left. We’re going to make it.
Then it happened.
All at once, the gleam of light on Maestro’s horn vanished. Twilight was upon us. The three of us quickened our pace without a word. My heart was beating hard against my chest and a low droning sound filled my ears. I shook my head violently. I couldn’t let my imagination get the better of me now.
But the sound wouldn’t leave my ears. It droned on and on like a far off chainsaw.
“Almost there!” Maestro called over his shoulder. “Just a little further!”
Relief pulsed through my limbs. We were going to make it! Still the droning wouldn’t stop. On the contrary, it seemed to get louder. I slowed down and, against my better judgment, turned around.
A single dark cloud hung in the sky above the forest, moving at an unnatural speed. I couldn’t recall seeing it there before. “Maestro?” I called. “What is that?”
The unicorn stopped as well and looked to where I was pointing. His eyes bulged and he reared up on his two back feet. “Accents!” He yelled. “They’re leaving the forest! There’s no time. Quick, on my back!”
Unlike the first time he offered to let me ride him, I did not question it for even a second. I helped Alyson up first, then climbed behind her onto Maestro’s back. As soon as we were settled, he bolted forward. We flew down the road, the drone of buzzing wings following us all the while. I glanced over my shoulder. The cloud was getting closer. There had to be hundreds of them. And they were gaining on us.
“Hurry, Maestro!” I cried.
He streaked onward. Just ahead, the brown building slowly came into view. We had almost reached the portal.
Closer and closer the door loomed before us, while closer and closer the cloud of Accents flew behind us. Suddenly, we were upon the door and I thought we would crash into it. But Maestro threw his head back and neighed loudly, and the door flung open just in time. We flew threw the entrance and the door slammed shut behind us. Alyson and I leapt off the unicorn’s back.
“Quickly, this way!” Maestro led us over to a circular platform just a couple of feet high. “Stand on this.”
Despite my fear, I hesitated and looked guiltily at Maestro. “What about you?”
“Yeah,” said Alyson, “can’t you come with us?”
“No, sweet friends,” said Maestro. “Only humans can travel through the portals. I’m only its Guardian.”
“But the Accents!” I said.
“Don’t worry about me,” Maestro replied quickly. “I can handle them. Now go.”
“Will we see you again?” Alyson asked, her eyes brimming with tears.
Maestro touched her forehead with his muzzle. “I hope so, dear one. I hope so very much.” Alyson hugged his neck and kissed his cheek.
I shifted my weight awkwardly from one foot to the other. “Maestro, I…” I stammered, not sure what to say. “I…I’m sorry I’ve been so difficult.”
“There’s no need to apologize,” said Maestro. “I understand.”
“Well…be safe,” I said.
“I will,” Maestro replied. “Just keep your portal near. I can contact you through that if needed.”
“Right.” I helped Alyson up onto the platform, then turned one last time. “Thanks, Maestro. For all your help.”
The buzzing was so loud now that it was almost deafening. “Are you sure you don’t need any help? I could stay–”
Something sharp hit the roof. Then another. Then another. It was like a hundred hammers hitting the wood, never ceasing.
Maestro reared up on his back feet again and shouted, “GO!”
I clambered up onto the platform without another word. Alyson grasped my hand.
“I’m scared!” she whimpered.
“Me too.” I pulled her close to me and held her in my arms. The hammering of Accents against the roof grew louder still. We fell to our knees and shut our eyes, too afraid to look.
“Farewell!” Maestro’s voice called over the racket.
The hammering rose to the intensity of a hailstorm. Alyson and I clung to each other. I could feel her breathing as hard as I was.
All at once, the noise stopped. There was nothing. No hammering on the roof. No buzzing of wings. Nothing but our breathing.
Slowly, fearfully, I opened one eye.
We were back in my house. We knelt on the floor beside the piano, still in each other’s arms. Alyson opened her eyes as well and looked around.
We dropped our arms and sat down on the floor. The evening sunlight glowed through the window, and the clock on the wall ticked away the seconds. Alyson and I stared wide-eyed at each other, neither able to speak.
We were home.
More adventures to come…