(Look, Dear Reader! I am beginning at the beginning!)
We arrived at the academy quite late last night. The driver helped carry our things to the building, then left us at the front door. We knocked only once before being let in by a very sleepy-looking little chambermaid, making me think she had been quite near the door to answer so quickly. When we told her our names she woke up in a hurry. "Stay right there," she stammered. "Don't move." She scurried off, leaving us in the chilly front entrance. After a moment, we put our bags down.
"Do you suppose she has gone to fetch Mrs. Dogwood?" I asked Zebediah in a whisper, wondering why the housekeeper herself had to be brought down to show us to rooms with which we were already familiar. He only shrugged and took my hand, for which I was glad.
We heard footsteps a minute or two later, but the person who appeared in the doorway was not the chambermaid, nor the housekeeper, Mrs. Dogwood; it was Professor Eberhart. "Follow me," he whispered. "Don't make a sound." He turned back around without waiting for an answer. Bewildered, Zebediah and I had no choice but to pick up our bags and comply.
He led us past our former rooms and all the way up to his office. Once we were both inside, he shut and locked the door, then gestured for us to sit. Rather than shake a lamp to light it, he lit a single candle and placed it on his desk, giving the room an air of mystery. He sat down behind his desk, wrapped in a green velvet dressing gown with an odd little cap on his head. I suppose it was fashionable, for a man of his stature and age. His expression was still as stern as ever, though, and his mechanical eye whirred quietly as he looked back and forth between Zebediah and I. His gaze stopped for a moment on our clasped hands, which rested on the arm of my chair, but he did not remark upon it.
"You must go as soon as I have told you why," the professor said in his low, Germanian accent. "It is no longer safe here, for either of you." I suppose I must have looked as though I would protest, because he added, "I know you are tired. I know you have experienced much hardship, and you shall tell me all, in time. I, too, shall fill in the blanks with which I shall leave you tonight."
He studied us a moment more, then his expression changed. "Ach. Forgive me, you must be hungry and thirsty after your journey. You came all the way from Johnstown this morning, yes?" I nodded, wondering how he knew, or if he had only guessed. "Forgive me," he said again, and went to the rope on the wall to, presumably, ring for tea.
"And now," he said, returning to his chair behind the desk. "Mr. Troxill wired me the night before last to say you were coming." That would explain the speedy answering of the door. "I knew you would only have to flee again once you arrived, but thought it better I tell you so in person. Let you see a familiar face before becoming fugitives once more, yes?" He nodded, answering his own question. "He told me a little of what had transpired whilst you were at his home, and once you left it and returned." He gave us a calculating stare. "Very interesting. But more on that at a later time.
"I must presume that the reason you never returned to the academy after going into Madison that day is because you saw the Erebos." I nodded. "It is a wonder they did not catch you in town. Captain Belleclaire sent several men into the city to search you out, yet somehow you evaded them. I knew you intended to purchase clothing, so I told them you were in search of paper products and food, so that they would begin their hunt at the wrong end of town. I believe that may have helped you."
"We didn't see anyone while we were there," I told him. "Not that I noticed, anyway." I looked at Zebediah, but he just shook his head, still looking a little bewildered.
"Good, good," the professor murmured. "To continue: once they had thoroughly searched the school for you and caused quite an uproar, the dirigible left along with its crew. They sent a couple of men into the forest to search for you, thinking it most likely you fled there, rather than across the fields or back into the city. It appears they were unsuccessful, however, as you are both still here."
"They... were unsuccessful in capturing us, sir," I said slowly, "but... we did come across one of them."
"Oh?" the professor asked, and leaned toward us.
"Yes, sir." I felt Zebediah's fingers tighten around mine, giving me strength to go on as well as drawing comfort from me for himself. "Mr. Miller... took care of him."
"You mean he killed the man?" His voice sounded neither accusatory nor triumphant; he simply seemed curious.
"Yes, sir," I said in a very small voice. I hoped that he would not ask for any more details, and thankfully he did not.
After a pause, he said, "I am glad you are both alive and well," and left it at that.
The young maid appeared again with a tray in her hands, a pot of still-steeping tea and three cups upon it, as well as a couple of cold sandwiches and some slices of apple. She was a very efficient, productive little thing, I thought, to bring this so quickly. She left the tray on the desk and disappeared silently, and Professor Eberhart continued with his tale while Zebediah and I ate and drank.
The Erebos had only been gone for a day before another airship approached the school. This one did not even take the time to land, only let down a handful of men from ropes dropped over the side. They slid down and entered the school during lunch time, trapping everyone in the dining hall, and sent out a couple of the men to bring anyone who was elsewhere into the dining hall as well. They said they were searching for any children who were Illuminated, which was, of course, met with both shock and disbelief. There had been no one truly Gifted at the academy, or anywhere else, for more than two centuries! Or so everyone believed. Still, the men were insistent. They had some sort of device with which they tested all the students, who submitted to it tranquilly under the orders of the professors.
To everyone's great surprise, there really was a group of Illuminated students at the school, though I had known about it since that night one of them interrupted my lesson with Professor Eberhart. Once the men had all of them separated from the rest, they intended to subdue them and take them aboard the airship which was still hovering nearby. However, before that could happen, Professor Eberhart gave a signal, and the Gifted students lashed out with all the force they could muster, knocking the unsuspecting men unconscious. There was, understandably, a great commotion, students and teachers alike running about and shouting, confused, frightened, in shock. But the professor said they had been prepared for this for some time. All of the Illuminated students gathered a few things from their rooms and fled in the confusion. A cave high up in the mountains had been set aside for just such a time as this, and it was to this place they all went. A few of the especially talented ones were able to create an illusion so the crew of the airship above would not be able to see them as they hurried into the forest.
"And that is where you must go now," the professor said to me. "I have a plan which will enable me to join you all there after the Yule holiday, but until then, you are to follow all orders from Lucas Jenkins and Ivy Means, do you understand?"
I nodded, and recalled that Lucas was the boy who had interrupted one of my lessons, what seemed like ages ago. And if I remembered correctly, he had said something about a girl named Ivy. "What are we to do there?" I asked.
"They will tell you the rest of the story, I am sure, and answer any of your considerable amount of questions which they are able," he said with a slight smirk. I felt he was mocking me, but I knew how curious I could be, and how insistent with my questions, so I did not mind.
I finished my tea, then said, "I suppose you should tell us how to get there, then."
"Us? Miss Gardener, you must go alone."
The shock of hearing my true name after hardly thinking about it for several weeks delayed my answer by a second or two. "Alone? No, sir, that I cannot do." I took Zebediah's hand again, firmly set on the idea that he would accompany me.
"He is not Gifted, Miss Gardener. He will be of no help to the group in the mountains, and, forgive my bluntness, but I believe he will be a distraction to you as well."
To that, I did take offense. "He saved my life in the forest, killing the man that had been sent after us," I said with a frown. "He will not be of no use. He is... the most useful person I know!" The professor opened his mouth to protest, but I went on. "We are promised!" I declared. "To... to each other." It was unnecessary to add that last part, but it made me feel a little better, making it so clear. And it was the first time I had said it aloud. I gave Zebediah a small smile, which he returned, and my heart felt a little lighter.
Zebediah squeezed my hand once more, then gestured to the professor, asking for paper and a pen. It was procured and handed to him, and Zebediah scribbled hurriedly: YOU CANNOT KEEP ME FROM HER. I GO WHERE SHE GOES. BESIDES, I ALREADY KNOW ALL THE SECRETS: ABOUT HER ILLUMINATION, AND THAT OF THE OTHER CHILDREN. I HAVE SKILLS THEY DO NOT. I CAN HELP AND PROTECT THEM ALL.
Professor Eberhart sighed, his mechanical eye scanning the paper once more. Then he looked up and nodded. "So be it," he said. "But take care, Mr. Miller." Zebediah nodded solemnly, and it seemed that was enough for the professor.
He sketched us a map, telling us of landmarks which would help us along the way: large stones, oddly-shaped trees and the like. The trek through the forest would be relatively easy, as it followed a path for most of the way, but we would certainly slow down as we climbed the base of the mountain. The cave was partially hidden by shrubbery and rocks, but he told us what to look for in order to find it. Then he bid us farewell, and we went on our way, back into the dark and the cold, crunching over days-old snow until we reached the forest.
The journey was uneventful but for one time we got a little turned around. Zebediah soon set us straight, however, and we made it here a couple of hours before dawn. I shall describe the place and the people tomorrow. For now, I am too exhausted and excited at once to continue in any coherent manner.