Samantha, the oldest at the age of nine was a respectable year and a half older than Gale, but her advanced age did not help her to understand what was so hard about waking up Great-Gram. When her mother woke her up, all she did was shake her and say "Get up!" Old people, Samantha thought, must be extraordinarily hard sleepers, but instead of yelling at her or shaking Great-gram to get her to wake up, all the adults spoke in whispers, and that was confusing. The only other time that had happened was when Gale had flushed Samantha's hamster down the toilet, when Samantha had pulled on her long, flaxen hair.
The other problem was the weather. Since it was the middle of January and Montana was officially colder than the surface of Mars, Samantha could not go outside. She was just told to, "Watch Gale. Don't let her run around. Please."
Of course that had not stopped Gale from chasing Samantha, which as far as Samantha was concerned was fine. They banged, slammed and crashed their way around the old house, sliding on the worn wood floors whenever they could. Eventually, her mother said, "ENOUGH!" in that tone, and grabbed both girls by the arm and marched them in front of an old black and white TV that had the old knobs, like Samantha had once seen in her cartoons. It had a huge rabbit-ear-antenna on the top, but it only got three stations, all of which had nothing but boring people talking on them.
"Why do we have to sit here?" Gale asked, as she squirmed in her designated spot.
"Because we are supposed to be watching T.V.," Samantha said.
"But there’s nothing on. Why can't we use mom's iPad and watch something on it?”
"Because she forgot it at home."
"He lost it in the snow when he was tying to dig the car out."
"Well what are we supposed to do?" Gale asked, as tears started to well up in her eyes.
"Don't know," Samantha said, "but if you cry, then we are both gonna get in trouble. You see how weird everyone is acting."
"Why are they doing that anyway?"
"I'm not sure. I think Great-Gram died."
"Then how are they going to wake her?"
"Don't know. But they are all acting weird, and mom is already mad at us, so don't cry."
"But what are we going to do?"
"We can watch TV."
"But there are only three channels, and they are all in black and white. Look!" and Gale bounded up and started twisting the huge knob on the TV. But when she got to the fourth click, something happened. The screen glowed with brilliant colors that swirled and spun like water spinning down the drain. Gale stopped and looked at the screen, but it was nothing she recognized. She backed away so she was not blocking the screen, and as she did the image changed. Suddenly the TV showed an inky sky full of stars that twinkled and shone with such an intensity that both the girls felt they could reach out and touch them. Then suddenly, arms shot out of the screen and faster than a striking serpent, reached out and pulled the girls through the screen.
Both the girls screamed, but the elephantine sounds of adults coming to investigate the ruckus did not begin. Meanwhile, the colors were swirling again, and both Gale and Samantha felt themselves being pulled down at breakneck speed. In response to this sensation, both girls shut their eyes, yet this made everything seem to go all the faster and made the whole thing even more frightful. Then suddenly everything stopped.
"What's going on?" Gale asked in a voice that was the same pitch as the squeak a mouse makes when a cat's claws pierce its hide.
"I don't know." Samantha said, her voice nearly as high pitched and her eyes still shut, "but I want mom."
"I know you both want your mother," said a voice that was was both smokey, dark, and sweet, like a rich barbecue sauce. "However, you are quite safe here. So open your eyes, the both of you."
Both girls did, and they both noticed different things as their vision rushed back in on them. Gale saw a woman with raven-black hair who was wearing what she thought was a costume, like the one she had seen the princess in the Disney move Aladdin wear, only it was not blue. It was black and a deep burgundy, and the woman had on what looked like a golden crown with a large jewel set into it.
Samantha noticed that the woman was beautiful. But she was wrong. It took Samantha a moment to say what exactly was wrong about her, but then she noticed it. It was like the woman was not entirely three-dimensional. Parts of her were, but other parts were perfectly flat. But everything still moved like it should, which was rather odd.
"Now then girls," said the woman, "do you know why you are here?"
Both Samantha and Gale shook their heads.
“Well, I shall explain. But please, close your mouths. You look like baby birds, and you are most certainly not that." The woman waited for the girls to comply and then continued. "Now, you were asking yourself what you should do when you have no machine to distract you. The answer to your question is, you must rely on yourself for your happiness and not some machine. You must cultivate your inner life, like a farmer carefully growing corn or tomatoes. Do you understand?"
Both girls nodded yes, as they knew it was usually better to just agree with adults, but this woman just frowned. "No. You clearly do not understand. But then, that is why you are here. So that you can learn.”
"Um. Where is here?" Samantha said, her voice still squeaking, and she added, before she lost her nerve, "Who are you?"
The woman smiled. "True, I have not introduced myself yet. Well then, manners must be observed. I am Scheherazade. Perhaps you have heard of me?" The mysterious woman asked, with a glimmer of hope in her amber colored eyes, but both the girls shook their heads, and the light faded. "Typical," Scheherazade said, raising an expectant eye-brow.
The flummoxed girls didn't move or speak after that, and neither did Scheherazade. This went on for over a minute before the older woman said firmly, "You should at least tell someone your name after they have told you theirs. It is only polite."
Both the girls flinched a little at this, despite the fact that Scheherazade had not moved at all. Then they both spoke at once:
"Well now, Gale and Samantha, it is a pleasure to meet you, and I do want to commend you on the caution you showed in sharing your name. You would do well to remember to always act so judiciously as you proceed."
"What's that mean?" Gale asked, at a loss as to the large words this woman was using.
"It means that you must use your brains and decide for yourself what is good and bad, dear" Scheherazade said, though not unkindly. "It also means that as you proceed on your adventure, you should take care to whom you speak to and what you tell them."
"What kind of adventure?" Samantha asked suspiciously.
"Ah," Scheherazade said as a smile spread over her face. "It is an adventure to find that which you have lost."
"But we haven't lost anything." Gale said. "Dad lost his phone, but we have everything we came with."
"And you're sure of that, are you?" Scheherazade asked. Both the girls nodded vigorously, which seemed to cause the strange woman’s smile to grow. “Well then, this may be a very short adventure. So let us see.” It was then that Scheherazade pointed to something behind the girls. “The door to get back to your mother and father is right there, and all you must do to return to them is to unlock the door and step through."
Both the girls whirled about, and saw a plain wooden door, that was so ordinary it positively stuck out like a hyena at a tea-party. The room they were in had magnificent silk carpets that hung on the walls in every different color and pattern that you could think of, but instead of being overwhelming, it was soothing. It was as if there was some larger design the room was conforming to that remained just outside of their comprehension that, nonetheless, really pulled the room together into a whole. The door, though, broke this pattern with its very respectability.
The two girls ran to the door, which had a brass knob that was otherwise unremarkable. They both grabbed ahold and gave a mighty tug. Yet no matter how hard the girls pulled or which way they turned the knob, the door never moved. It was as if it has been cemented shut.
Gale looked down and saw that underneath the knob, there was a keyhole, but it was covered by a small brass plate. “Wait! Wait," She said, grabbing her sister's arm and then pointing at the plate. "We need a key."
Samantha turned around then to look at the strange woman and said as politely as possible, "Scheherazade, can we please have the key?”
But the woman shook her head. "I'm afraid that it is not my key to give. You see, the only way to find the key is to find what you have lost."
"But you haven't told us what that is," Gale said, "And we didn't have a key before so how can it be a key?"
Scheherazade smiled. "You are very clever, and that is good. But to answer, no, I have not told you what you have lost, as it is not something that can be told, only discovered, and you will know it when you find it. But," Scheherazade said, holding up a finger to forestall any questions from the girls who both looked angry and on the verge of tears, "I will tell you how to find it."
"How?" Samantha asked.
"You may notice, there is another door behind me," Scheherazade said, "which leads out to lands long forgotten and largely unmapped. To find what you have lost, you must go through the door, and overcome three great obstacles. First, you must climb the Great Ice Mountain and slay the Ogin."
"What's an Ogin?" Gale asked.
But Scheherazade did not answer that question. Instead she said, “Next, you must cross the Uncharted Sea, and find Ma Liang. He is a painter, and he will give you a magic paintbrush if you prove yourself worthy.”
"But there is no such thing as magic," Samantha said, despite her current predicament.
"Third," Scheherazade, said firmly, while ignoring Samantha's outburst, "you must visit Azuraky, the city in the sky. There is a man who lives there who is a master key-maker, who will be able to help you, but he will need something in return, which is why you must visit him last."
"But there are no cities in the sky!" Samantha said.
"Or unmapped seas," Gale said. “There is GPS, we just need to find a computer, and we will know right where we are.”
"I'm afraid there are no computers where you are going. I would also point out that you don't know where you are, so in a manner of speaking you are already lost."
"But you did not answer any of our questions. What's an Ogin? How can a paintbrush be magic?" Samantha demanded.
But while Samantha talked, Gale walked up to Scheherazade for the first time since arriving and tentatively reached a hand out. Very carefully, she touched the woman's skin with just the tip of her finger, and then she snatched her hand back. Scheherazade made no move to stop her, and in fact, smiled at her.
"Are you a bad woman?" Gale suddenly asked.
Scheherazade smiled. "I'm not sure I know what you mean little one. But I don't think I'm a bad woman."
"Then why did you bring us here? Why won't you let us go home?" Gale asked seriously.
"My dear, you brought yourself here, and I hate to make anyone upset, so I would send you home right away if I could, but I can't. I cannot do it because, like you, I don't have the key, and I can't go where you came from or where you are going. I only live here in this room."
"Why is that?" Gale asked.
"I'm being punished," Scheherazade said.
"Like you're in time out?" Gale asked.
"Something like that," Scheherazade said.
"But how long do you have to stay here?” Samantha asked, still keeping her distance.
"Until my time is up," Scheherazade said simply. "But come, we are wasting time here, and you two must be on your way if you are to get home." Then without another word she reached up and grabbed the jewel in her crown. This she tossed to Samantha, saying, “Here. You will need something to trade when you get to Ice Mountain for warmer clothes and food. Remember, it is very valuable, so keep it hidden, and only speak to Mr. Morgan. He is not overly nice, but he is fair. Also, tell him that I gave that to you, and that if he is not nice, such a curse it will bring on him and his family that he will not sleep well for the rest of his days.”
Next Scheherazade reached behind her and from behind one of the huge cushions of her couch ,took two necklaces. Each were made of plain black silk, but each had an amulet on it. The one for Gale looked like a giant axe-head, except on the ends, where there should have been points, the ivory it was made of looped back on itself in a spiral design. The one for Samantha was made of silver and shaped like a bird in flight. The metal looked like silver and it was etched with feathers and a beak. As the amulet rotated on the silken thread, just for a moment, the bird looked alive.
“Now,” said Scheherazade, “these are very important and you must wear them at all times. They each have their own power, as I’m sure you will discover, but for the time being, what you need to know is that they have been enchanted in such a way that if you should become separated, they will always see to it that you find one another. So, whatever you do, don’t lose them.” Then without saying more, she passed the girls their necklaces, and watched as both girls put them on and then slipped them under their clothing.
“Oooh. I can feel you!” Gale said to Samantha with an excited grin on her face, and it was true. Both of the girls felt a little itch or tick in their mind. It was so light that it was hardly perceptible except when they concentrated on it, but as soon as they did, it was as if they could see through one another’s eyes.
“This is weird,” Samantha said, and reached for her necklace to take it off, but as soon as she did, she remembered the words of Scheherazade and dropped it back beneath her clothing.
The woman watched both of the girls for a few moments, and once she was satisfied that they would not take the necklaces off, she said, “Good. Now, one last thing remains. I have warned you to use your wits, and I have told you what you must do, but I have not told you how quickly you must do it, and the answer is quickly. Today is the first day of winter where you are going, and you must have all of your tasks done by the summer solstice.” Then seeing that the girls were not sure what she meant, she added, “That is the longest day of the year, and it is right in the middle of summer.” Everything must be done by then, otherwise you will be stuck in that world forever.”
Before the girls could argue, the door behind Scheherazade opened and a great wind began, only instead of pushing the girls this way and that it began to suck the air out of the room, like a giant vacuum. Both girls screamed in terror, and ran to grab a hold of something, only there was nothing to grab. Other than the couch that Scheherazade sat on, there was not a stick of furniture in the room, except the rugs, but they were being sucked though the door. Suddenly, Gale fell down, as the rug she was standing on was pulled out from beneath her and with a shriek, she went hurdling through the door.
Samantha did not wait. She ran after her sister, but as she went through the door, she heard Scheherazade say, “Remember, it must be done by the summer solstice,” and then the door slammed shut.
As soon as Samantha was through the door, she found herself falling from a great height, as if she had been thrown out of a plane. Instantly she began plummeting towards the ground. She was so scared that her mouth opened to scream, but no sound came out. Down she plunged, the whole time, the wind ripped at her clothing, which snapped and popped as she plummeted to what she was sure was going to be a very quick and flat end, when all of the sudden an owl the size of a building swooped by her and then snapped its wings open. The bird seemed to stop falling in mid-air, but Samantha landed right on its back. She was about to vomit when she heard a stern and dignified voice say, “If you are going to be sick, please wait till I land, will you. It’s just that I only finished cleaning my feathers earlier today, and I don’t want to have to do it again.”
Samantha didn’t say anything to that (although she did close her mouth), instead she just clung to the bird underneath her. The owl’s feathers were black as onyx except for right at the tips, where they were a brilliant, electric blue, and when Samantha didn’t answer, the owl turned its head to look at her, and she saw that its eyes were the same color blue. “Not to worry,” said Samantha’s ride, “I promise a soft landing. Still hold on will you,” and then the great bird tucked its wings close to its body and began to dive towards the ground in a way that made Samantha think she was no better off than when she had been falling alone. The ground rushed up to meet them, and just when Samantha thought there was no possible way for them to land safely, the owl snapped open its wings, which sent both the owl and Samantha rocking back upwards a bit. Samantha’s stomach however, kept moving downwards, and this time she was unable to keep herself from being sick.
“Ugh.” Said the owl. “I thought I asked you not to get sick.”
“You did.” Samantha replied weakly, “but you didn’t tell me you were going to do that. Still. Sorry.”
The owl grumbled a bit, and then, in a slightly testy voice said, “Hold on.” No sooner had it finished speaking the words than it tilted its wings and began to circle downwards, to a large clearing between tall trees. There another owl like Samantha’s (only with an emerald green at the end of its feathers) was waiting with Gale, safe and sound.
Samantha’s owl landed near the other great bird, and as it did, Samantha heard Gale shouting “Again! Again!,” and Samantha had a very nasty feeling that she was talking about riding the owls.
The owl that was with Gale only said in a rumbly, male voice. “Not today hatchling. You’ve had quite enough excitement for one day, and you must rest. The Ice Mountain is not far from here, but Thurftlas is a perilous place, even for the most cautious, and you do not know its ways."
“And where exactly is Thurftlas,” Samantha said, as she dropped off the owl that she had been riding, and it was her owl that answered her in the same stern, but markedly female, voice.
“Why it is here, and there, and all around you. All the known lands are Thurftlas,” said the owl, “although there is much beyond it that we do not know about.”
“Right,” said Samantha, and suddenly she wished the only problem that she had was trying to figure out how to wake up her Great-Gram.