Part 2: Answers
Collins smiled. “Shall we?” he said pleasantly, gesturing to the darkness.
When neither Kari nor Tomas moved, he shrugged and walked boldly into the black. Curious, Tomas ventured a couple steps beyond the threshold, but couldn’t go any further for lack of sight. Kari stayed resolutely where she was.
There was the sound of a wooden drawer rolling out, then a bit of rummaging, followed by a small, satisfied sound from deep in Collins’ chest. Some footsteps, then a small noise preceding the striking of a sulfur match against the stone wall. Collins flared into view, with the match inside what looked like a tiny street lamp hanging from a sconce. When its wick caught, he blew the match out and pulled another from his pocket. Lighting it from the lamp, he hurried around a big wooden desk, now able to see with a degree of success, and lit another lamp directly across the room from the first.
The light revealed a surprisingly cozy office. A thick rug covered most of the floor, and three of the walls were dominated by shelves stuffed full to bursting with all manner of books, maps, scrolls… [Anything that could store information from generation to generation, folks. Tomas didn’t even know what many of the objects jammed among the books and things were.] The fourth wall was practically bare besides a moderately ornate fireplace with the necessary tools and a mantle sporting various rocks, all different dull colors. Tomas recognized the bluestone immediately, and the chunk of brown rock next to it reminded him of the towering building surrounded by people.
It was the desk, though, that dominated the room. Tomas was confused by a drawer set into one of the short sides before he realized it was flush with the corner closest to the door. A big, comfortable-looking chair sat behind the desk, facing the door. Oriented around that chair were all manner of notebooks, heavily inscribed printed books, and innumerable loose papers.
Collins gestured to the two chairs in front of the desk as he knelt to light a fire on the charred logs in the fireplace.
The fire crackled happily to life as Collins settled into his big cushioned chair across the desk from Kari and Tomas. With all the light and warmth, Tomas was almost able to forget how deep underground they were. [Almost.]
Collins sat forward, elbows on his desk, fingers interlaced. “So…I suppose you’ll first be wanting to know about what this place is.”
“It certainly seems like a starting point,” Tomas said, wondering how much of the uncertainty he felt was audible in his voice.
Collins didn’t seem to notice. “I’ve already told you we’re knowledge seekers. That’s true.” He gestured around himself. “You see the fruits of our searching all around you. Many of us—like Ana—devote our time to learning about the definite: the physical world in which we live. Others among us…” here he sat back pensively. “We study the, well, the less physical.”
Tomas’ eyebrows came together. “Like…language and the workings of people’s minds?”
Collins nodded slowly. “I know people studying both of those things. That being said, I personally focus on what could be called…magical.”
Kari and Tomas both sat up a little straighter at this.
He shook his head. “I dislike that term for this exact reason.”
“No! The man in red, I think he put a curse on our Home.” Tomas sat back, looking at his shoes. “Or something like that…” Kari’s hand alighted on his shoulder. He leaned into her touch but didn’t look at Collins.
“Now curse, that’s a term I’ll use without hesitation.”
Tomas looked up.
Collins nodded gravely. “My aversion to the term ‘magic’ is purely semantic. We do believe the world is magical if you look closely enough, but the word has a…mysterious feel to it that, I feel at least, is unproductive. Anyone who’s watched a flower unfurl or seen a baby bird fly for the first time has seen something magical take place; it doesn’t have to be levitation or seeing through walls or some such.”
“Yes, curses. I’ve seen friends fall mysteriously ill or people’s luck dry up one day after someone claiming to have cursed them.”
It was quiet for a moment before Kari spoke up for the first time.
“Monsters are real too.”
She did not look at Collins as she said it. She looked at her hands, not seeming sure when she’d clenched them into white-knuckled fists.
Collins nodded compassionately. “Your hands. They’re bothering you?”
Kari nodded. She looked him in the eye, but her face said nothing.
Collins held his hands out, open above his desk. “May I?”
Hesitantly, Kari took his hands from across the desk.
Collins gripped them lightly for the space of a deep breath before letting go. He leaned back in his chair, tapping his chin and nodding thoughtfully. “You’re staying in Northgate, right? Came through a smaller gate up near a broken-down tower? Right by the Lake?”
“Right then,” he said, standing up and snuffing the wall lamp behind him. “Let’s get you back. I’m happy to help you—if you’d have it—but there is much, much more we need to discuss before I’ll know how best to do that. We’ll have time on the walk back to begin that process.” He used an iron poker to spread the fire out into a pile of shimmering coals.
Kari and Tomas moved toward the torchlight outside the door as Collins’ office continued to darken.