by Serena W Sorrell

The next two days were remarkably more peaceful with the danger she had thought was following her hopping beside her. She had let the jackalope free when they’d gone over the first hill, out of sight of any riders. And it seemed content to lope along at her pace and, curiously, knew the exact way to the Monastery of the Black Iris that Triv had taught Janus. Conversation was light between Janus and the jackalope, that is to say, it was nonexistent. Janus knew the jackalope understood her and could answer in the affirmative in any case. But any time a question came to mind Janus looked at the jackalope and it seemed to be in such deep thoughts of its own she found she could not interrupt. In that way they passed over the ten hills, around the dried marsh, and climbed halfway up the first mountain, which was really more of a very big hill. Halfway up the two walked counterclockwise to the opposite of the mountain and straight down. Janus even knew the precise number of steps to take. At the bottom, in the valley between that mountain and the next was a toppled old well. Moss and ferns covered the stones and partly rotted wooden cover. Janus took some comfort in thinking that if a dragon did fly overhead they would have to be looking very hard to see the well.

The jackalope already hopped upon the ledge of the well as if to lead her on when she knew the way. She even knew what to do had this entrance been gone. But it was not. Janus sat on the ledge next to the jackalope and swung her legs over the cold stones. And then she fell. It was not a very long fall. Barely five seconds and she was ready for the icy water that broke her fall. Even being prepared though she still gasped from the chill upon surfacing. The jackalope then landed upon her pack, apparently ready to be ferried to shore. Well, it had traveled this far with her and this was as far as she knew to go. It was a short swim to the stairs leading up to the black stone surface. Sconces held to the wall cast an odd glow against the stone, almost violet. Janus took one down to light their way and found the fire cast no heat. She tested it further by holding her hand in the flame. The orange flames licked her skin and yet she felt nothing but cool, damp air.

The jackalope seemed nonplussed by the odd fire and turned away from Janus even as she still boggled at the torch. The parlor they had surfaced in had only one door. A heavy iron door of twisted orchids and fanciful beasts frolicking in the black shadows the fire made. from the center of the door bloomed one iris, though hewn from iron, it looked real enough to give off fragrance. And Janus was shocked to find it indeed did. Before her eyes the petals bloomed, withered, and fell away. In the place of the black iron iris was a small keyhole. One Janus knew was made for her skeleton key. The door clicked open with an easy turn of the key and Janus pushed open the door. Which was not at all heavy as she had expected, but as easy to move as paper. No sooner had she stepped over the threshold than the jackalope dashed from her side and raced down the long hallway, out of sight, leaving Janus alone.

She had come this far by herself, even if she would not have found the key without the jackalope’s aid. She would go the rest of the journey by herself. That was just the way things were sometimes. Jackalopes—and mothers—just left you in the middle of the journey, in the dark, alone. There was no sense in thinking about those things now. Janus carried on down the corridor, torch in hand even though the walls here were lined with the ghostly fire sconces as well. Janus liked having something to hold; sword in one hand and torch in the other.

Janus had yet to pass a single turn or staircase or door. And the corridor seemed to stretch on into darkness forever dotted with smaller and smaller fires. Safe or not, magic or not, Janus did not fancy a life in a corridor. Not to mention how hungry she was. Two days now on half a crust and the meager blackberries they had discovered in the hills yesterday. Her hunger was poor company. The jackalope’s stamping came from the floor. Janus looked down and sure enough there it was. In spite of herself she smiled.

“I thought you left me to wander in the dark.”

A quick shake of the head told her that had not been its intent. Janus was heartened by the jackalope’s presence and took a step forward. The jackalope held her other pants leg in its teeth. It raised its haunches and dug its feet into the floor in what seemed to be an attempt to stop her. Janus turned back and kneeled down to make herself as close to eye level as her guide.

“But we have to keep going.”

The jackalope looked left. Janus looked left at a dark wall. The jackalope stamped and stepped through the wall. Janus heard another stamp from the other side. It meant for her to go through the bloody wall! Her mother had made no mention of ghost walls. Ghost fire was quite enough for Janus. The jackalope reappeared, head first and squeaked at Janus. It had the distinct sound of telling her to stand and hurry it up. At this point she had come so far. Going back was not an option. In fact, leaving this place was not an option after the drop into the icy pool. She had trusted the jackalope this far, and it had found the key for her.

Janus took a deep breath in case one could not breathe inside walls that one could walk through. The jackalope disappeared once more and Janus, with eyes shut, followed. Crisp salty air brushed her cheeks and caressed her like coming home. When she opened her eyes Janus gasped and the cavern gasped back at her. She stood on a short wooden platform inside a massive sea‑filled cave. And anchored just a short swim away was the biggest, most beautiful ship Janus had ever seen. Nothing that had ever come to port in her town could even compare to the beauty of this masterpiece. That familiar stamp shook Janus from her reveries and she looked down at the jackalope.

“Needle! Come on!”

The jackalope had a distinctly deeper voice than fit its image. The jackalope had a voice. The jackalope had spoken. Janus lost her own voice. A great spiraled horn rose from the waters until at last a narwhal’s head bobbed on the surface of the waves it had made.

“Jack! You’ve returned! She’s Triv’s? Oh, look at her…practically grown up now. She’s lovely.”

“There’ll be time for all that later. Take us across if ya’ please. Not much time. We saw Caelus and Mercury on our way.”

The narwhal blanched at the names and bobbed underwater before recovering. The jackalope hopped onto the narwhal’s back and turned back to Janus.

“Well, hurry on then. I just said we haven’t got much time, Janus.”

“You…this place…what is happening?”

“Eloquent. But expected. I couldn’t talk to ya’ before. Too far from The Menagerie. I’m Jack and you’ve done real good getting this far, but whatever answers you’re looking for are probably onboard, in your mother’s quarters.”

“My mother?”

“Aye, so hop onto Needle’s back, and don’t worry none. She could carry more than us on those wings.”

With those words Janus peered into the turquoise waters and saw the truth of Jack’s words. Needle had no fins, not in the traditional sense. Instead great feathered wings arched and pedaled through the water. Janus was presented with two possibilities; this was reality or it was not. Either way she had no way back and so she boarded the winged narwhal with the jackalope, both of whom could speak.

Needle swam extraordinarily fast. Or at least Janus supposed so having never ridden a narwhal before. The ladder leading up to deck was solid and Janus was ready to make a grab for it when Needle left the water entirely, fin‑wings flapping in constant arcs. Even her tail was feathered. Needle hovered above the glistening deck. Jack hopped off and Janus after him. Janus was just considering whether or not she ought to thank Needle for the ferrying when Jack interrupted her thought.

“Janus, welcome to the pirate ship Menagerie.”

When Janus made no reply, instead gawking at everything around her Jack coughed to regain her attention.

“I’ll take you to your mother’s cabin then, aye? No one’s touched it since she left. I hope you find what you need in there.”

Janus followed Jack to the captain’s quarters but stopped before entering. Janus entered alone and closed the door. Her mother had been here? Her mother had captained a pirate ship of magical talking animals? Janus drew her fingers through dust to reveal the polished rosewood the captain’s chair was made of. In front of the chair was a box. There was nothing else on the desk. Janus blew the dust off the box, which proved not enough to clear the surface. After several sneezes and wiping away what certainly could be fourteen years of dust Janus read the tag on the box.

It read, ‘To my dearest Janus.’

           Janus knew her mother’s writing well enough to feel the sting of tears. Not caring about her damp clothes or years of dust Janus sat in the captain’s chair and opened the box. Inside was a stack of parchment held tightly together by a brass paper clip embossed with an iris. Janus read:

‘If you have made it this far and I am not by your side, I am sorry. And I love you. Never forget that I love you, Janus. I would say you might find these pages incredible, but no doubt you have met at least one of the crew. They will undoubtedly add credibility.

          The short of it is that I was the captain of the very ship you stand upon, The Menagerie. She is a wonderful vessel full of amazements and magic in every plank and every nail. But nothing of the ship could ever equal the splendor of the crew, though please do not tell them I said so.

          Oh, Janus. I write this now with you beside me sleeping in your bassinet. You are a sweet babe. And that is why I will leave The Menagerie and her crew. I must protect you and the ship at any cost; the cost is for me to leave the sea I loved so dearly. Because I love you, my sweet girl, more than the life I have always known. And I owe the crew more than the life I have left.

I so wish that I could have always kept you safe. And I wish that I did not need to keep secrets from you. But keep them I will. My secrets are the crew’s to tell now. I am always with you, Janus. Wherever you go. Whatever you choose. I am with you.

          All of my love, to the darkest depths of the deep,
Your mother; Captain of The Menagerie; Triv.’

(part one) (part two) (part four) (the end)

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