Johnny Thornburg turned down his grandmother's driveway with another twitch of annoyance. His plan had been to leave for Montreal with his best friend Sam last night, but family got in his way. His grandmother wanted him to visit, and when he protested, his father looked him in the eye and said “the car you're driving belongs to her; if you don't visit, she'll report it stolen” and unfortunately it was probably true.
It hurt to be so annoyed, though, because he truly loved his grandmother. He usually enjoyed visiting, too, even since his grandfather's death.
But today was his eighteenth birthday, and he and Sam were supposed to be in Montreal where they could legally go to bars and drink alcohol. So he had delayed his visit as long as he dared, arriving after dinner was usually finished. He felt guilty but stubbornly proud of himself.
He parked in front of the enormous house; it was seriously overgrown and had some curious architectural identity issues. The house was rather old and had belonged to the Thornburg family for decades if not centuries; the inconsistent style choices were the result of many of his ancestors building yet another addition.
Johnny stood and stared up at the house as he had nearly every single time he had visited.
When he shut the door behind him, he heard his grandmother call out “don't bother with your shoes; I'm in the dining hall!” and he stood back up, startled. He had always had to remove his shoes before entering the house.
Passing through the vestibule, he entered the dining hall – a room so big, it didn't seem possible for it to fit in even this massive house. It felt nearly the size of a high school gymnasium. Yet again, Johnny caught himself wondering how many people used to live here. Now it was just his grandmother.
“Come, sit,” his tiny grandmother waved from the other end of the room. She patted the empty seat to her left. “Happy Birthday, Jonathan. I'm sorry to hear this visit interrupted your plans with your friends. You'll be on your way soon enough. Here, you must be thirsty.”
Johnny took the proffered stein, an old beaten metal affair. Johnny didn't recognize the drink; it had a thick greenish head to it though. At his hesitant glance to his grandmother, she looked at him expectantly and held out a glass of wine. He gently touched stein to glass, and took a gulp of whatever she had given him.
It was minty. He took a second swallow; it started like spearmint but with a peppermint aftertaste.
“Oh, is that the time? You'll have to finish that as we walk, I'm afraid. Come, I'll take you to your present.”
Johnny was confused. She hadn't given him an actual present in five years. Just money in a card, usually. And why didn't she have his present here? That painting looked like it was moving. It was ridiculous, really, as the man depicted was dressed like Abe Lincoln but Johnny swore he was now doing the Macarena.
“Where is Mel?”
“Do try to keep up, Jonathan,” his grandmother called. She was at the door already. She didn't move that fast. “It would have been better if you had drunk that on a full stomach, but we're a bit pressed for time. Yes, keep drinking; it'll help you in the long run.” They went through the kitchen and down into the original root cellar.
He didn't see how she did it, but his grandmother opened a secret door and they went down some stone stairs. He and his cousins had scoured every inch of this house and found many 'secret' rooms, hiding places, and passages. Including a convoluted one leading to the old barn. How had they missed this one? Were there more? He slammed his foot down too hard, reaching for a step that wasn't there. They were at the bottom, and he had missed it. He staggered a step and stood back up, looking around. He couldn't see anything until his grandmother lit an old oil lantern.
“Here, put this on.” Johnny shook out what he was handed, and it wasn't encouraging. It looked something like one of those blankets with arms you see on TV, or the robes the evil cultists wear in movies. At least it was nice and soft, like a new sweater, not like burlap. He shrugged and put it on; he was clearly dreaming now. She buckled a belt around his waist, “no time for you to do this yourself as cloudy as your head is now,” she muttered. There was a dagger on his left hip. “Over there to the alter, ring the bell.”
Johnny's mouth dropped open. Sure enough, there was an ancient stone alter in the middle of the room. Or was this a cavern? It was definitely cave-like. He walked over to it, nearly tripping a few times on the uneven floor. He tried to drink out of the stein, forgetting it was empty. He transferred it to his left hand so he could pick up the bell and ring it.
He nearly fell over backwards when a puddle against the far wall erupted into a mass of frantically waving tentacles. One whipped down and wrapped around his left wrist, slamming it down onto the altar.
“Cut it off!” his grandmother yelled at him.
“But I need it!” he yelled back.
“The tentacle, not your hand!”
“Oh,” he muttered, clumsily drawing the dagger. It slid through the tentacle like butter; he had expected it to be tough and rubbery. “Now what?”
“Tuck it somewhere for safekeeping and climb up on the altar.” He jumped; he had thought she was still on the other side of the room.
He sheathed his knife and stuffed the bit of tentacle down into the stein before climbing up onto the altar. There was a deafening shriek Johnny thought sounded an awful lot like an old steam locomotive, but that wasn't possible. The whistle sounded again, and now there was a blinding light approaching fast from his left. There were brakes screeching but the train didn’t have wheels; it wasn't on tracks, it was flying!
“Jump!” his grandmother yelled at him, but he hesitated. The train was moving! She pushed him.
Much to Johnny's surprise, he landed softly on stairs that didn't feel like they were moving. “Well get up, lad, your seat is in here.” An elderly man in a deep blue robe ushered him into the car and gestured at a seat. Johnny sat down, certain he was dreaming now.
But as he stared out the window, he got bored. You weren't supposed to get bored in dreams. The thought that he may not be dreaming was slightly terrifying; the effects of that drink his grandmother gave him must be wearing off. Recent events played through in his head a few times, and a detail he hadn't noticed at the time kept intruding: a familiar voice had thanked him when he cut off the tentacle – Mel, his grandmother's only companion. He swore it came from the puddle though.
“It's really not that bad, nothing to be scared of.”
Johnny jumped and nearly dropped his stein of tentacle.
“And just so you know, you didn't have to bring your own cup. Snack for later?”
Maybe he was dreaming after all. A cute girl was sitting in the seat next to him, smiling. She had her arm up on the seat behind him, leaning in. She was wearing a dress … no, that was another cult robe. Damn.
“Things were a little rushed; am I dreaming?”
“Nope, not a dream. But I'm not supposed to be in here talking to you. Here's a bit of advice: try not to stand out too much tonight. No showing off.”
The girl started to get up and leave. Johnny couldn't help but give in to temptation. “Wait–”
“Stephanie. And you'll see me again, soon. Bye.” With that, she was gone.
Johnny puzzled over her words for all of five minutes, and then went back to staring out the window. Not that there was any point; it was just darkness. He soon dozed off.
“Wake up, lad; it's time to get off.” Johnny woke to the blue robed man shaking his shoulder.
“Are we going to stop for me?”
“Of course we're stopped! We're at the castle. Don't go no farther tonight.”
He stood and stretched, yawning. The stein was still in his hand. He groggily disembarked, rubbing his eyes and walking awkwardly in the unfamiliar and ill-fitting robes. As he stood on the platform, people started to stare. Some pointed and smirked, others whispered to one another. A crowd started to form, lining a path to a large wooden door. A man gestured towards it with a bow.
Nervous looking teens were disembarking the train and milling around him – so he started walking. He did his best to ignore the dozens of robed figures he was passing, though. By the time he made it halfway to the door, he changed his mind: there must be hundreds of them. Some looked menacing, others bored. There was hair of all colours and cuts, more beards than he had ever seen in one place, and handlebar moustaches everywhere. Piercings and tattoos could be seen on many of the folks gathered.
A giant man with a face like melted wax and patchy black hair opened the door as he approached and waved him through. A glance over his shoulder told him those who had arrived on the train weren't very eager to follow him. He kept walking.
Inside was a hall about the size of a skating rink. The lighting was a bizarre selection of colours haphazardly placed throughout. Johnny followed the path that continued to open up for him, and found himself at the other end climbing up the few stairs to a raised platform on which sat a rectangular table with robed elders seated along one side.
“Name?” an elderly woman asked gently, patiently waiting with a forced smile on her face.
“Jonathan Thornburg,” he replied. About halfway down the table a head turned and looked at him. They locked eyes, and Johnny's heart started pounding.
“Finally come to raise hell with me, eh son?” It was his grandfather. His dead grandfather.
“Hell? This is hell?” He tried to take a step back, but he was already on the edge and nearly lost his balance.
“No, son, this is the Castle Unknown! You're here to claim your seat in the school.”
“But ... you're dead. We had an open casket funeral, and I was a pall bearer!”
“Really? The old bat always was one for theatrics.” One of the other men looked like he was having a heart attack at that, and another started coughing. His grandfather froze for a second and cocked his head with a concerned expression and asked “Didn't she explain any of this?”
“N-no. She drugged me, took me through a secret passage where she gave me this robe and had me perform some sort of ceremony, then shoved me at a moving train! Said something about 'no time'.”
“Take a seat, Johnny. I see you've my father's tankard; would you like a drink?” Johnny sat and set the stein on the table.
“No thanks, unless it's from a clean glass. This one is full of severed tentacle.”
“It's still a tentacle? I wonder what ... wait. What did she give you?”
“Something green and minty with a head.”
“That's her favourite, but it can be a bit troublesome. Look in the tankard again.” Johnny tipped the stein toward him and actually looked in it for the first time in hours. A tiny kitten was curled up in the bottom. “Still a tentacle?”
“No ... now there's a kitten in there.”
“A kitten? Really? Unusual, but practical at least. That will be your familiar, if you were wondering. Now, down to business.” He pushed a pile of papers toward him. “Legal business. It's all filled in, just needs your signature. Feel free to read it if you'd like.” Johnny just signed wherever indicated. He trusted his grandfather. He wanted to be done with this as soon as possible, and he didn't seem to have a choice but play along. His grandfather took back the papers smiling. Then he handed Johnny a folded page with a battered old brass key and a pen sitting on top. “Sorry for the riddle, but some traditions have to be upheld, even for the grandson of a Grandmaster. Go, enjoy the night. Meet your fellow students.”
Johnny left the stage hesitantly, though the next person behind him seemed even more hesitant to approach the stage. He caught sight of a familiar face as he reached the floor, and heard his grandfather call out “Stephanie, show Johnny to the fountain, would you?”
“Yes Master,” she said with a slight bow. She stepped toward Johnny and grabbed his elbow. “Told you you'd see me again,” she said in his ear, and added “I'm your grandfather's apprentice.” Stephanie steered Johnny to a massive installation off to one side that after a moment of staring Johnny realized was a drink fountain. She laughed and handed him a cup. “Water, both hot and cold, over here, while these are all juices. These are all your varieties of soda pop, and while they come from a fountain, they taste like they're fresh from a can. Oh, and these are milks. Goat, soy, and almond as well as your regular cow ... and flavoured ones too. This is an ice dispenser, and now we're moving into your ales. So many different ones; don't go trying to sample them all in one day! There are also wines here, several reds, whites, and fruit wines. Also, mead and cider. After that is your liqueurs; I can't name them all so don't ask. Then the hard liquor. Tea, coffee, cocoa, hot chocolate, herbs ... syrups, honey, salt, sugars, fruit slices. Even olives and cherries and little umbrellas!”
“Why isn't anything labelled? I don't like it. How do you keep it straight?” She laughed again as he poured himself a drink and tasted it. He may not be in Montreal with Sam, but at least nobody was questioning him putting what he hoped was vodka in what he hoped was lemonade. He was pretty sure he was right, but it was too strong so he made a face.
Stephanie then proceeded to drag him around, introducing him to people whose names he forgot and faces blurred together. He was feeling warm and fuzzy from the drink, though part of him was still raging at being here. He became curious about the riddle, wondering why he was meeting people he didn't care about instead of working on getting home. At the first chance he got, Johnny slipped away and out of the hall through a door he had noticed with an open book engraved on the keystone above.
He found himself on a staircase, so he started climbing. His head started to clear by the time he made the first landing, so he stopped and unfolded the page to read it. It was a lexicon. With questions such as “pig-like: 7 letters” and “cow-like: 6 letters”.
Three large guys pushed past him as he stood there reading the page and stood in front of him with their arms crossed. “Oi, where do you think you're going, newb?” one grunted.
“Was hoping this led to the library,” he said, looking up into a porcine face. “Porcine!” he said aloud.
“What you call me?”
“Think you said I look like a pig!” The porcine fellow reached over and shoved Johnny.
“I did not. Please, may I just get past?”
“I don't think so.” He gave Johnny another shove.
A paw reached up out of his stein and took a swipe at the three bullies, like something from a cartoon. The paw seemed to stretch comically, unrealistically. Then the kitten curled up in the stein again. All three had tears in their robes and five parallel scratches, but the middle one, the leader, had blood pouring out. The two lackeys grabbed his arm and hauled him down the stairs again.
Johnny changed his mind yet again, deciding he must be dreaming.
At the top of the stairs, an immense library stretched away. Johnny smiled and gazed around in wonder, turning slowly and looking up to the top of the shelves and the skylights that lit the room in starlight. Johnny staggered slightly as he attempted to move out into the open area without watching for tables. He snapped out of it when he smacked his shin into a table leg, and his gaze immediately locked onto a map.
The map was taller than he was, and wider than he could reach. Johnny was almost positive it was a map of the castle he stood in.
His suspicions were confirmed when he found the dot labelled 'you are here'.
Putting the lexicon back into his pocket, he held up the key, inspecting the engraving on it. An eye in a maple leaf, with the number 357 underneath. One entire section of the map was marked with the maple leaf, and in that a smaller wing with the eye. And sure enough, on the third floor of that wing was a room 357.
“Why do they bother with the riddles?” he wondered out loud, not realizing he wasn't alone.
“Because most students need to be forced to think,” said an elderly female voice. Johnny turned to see a conservatively dressed woman who looked as if she could be his grandmother's best friend stepping out of the shadows. “The party is downstairs, is it not?”
“Yes. Is it always like that here?”
“Most nights there is a party somewhere, yes. I quite enjoyed them when I was your age, if you could believe it. But for the party to be in the Great Hall, that only occurs on special nights. Such as welcoming new students.” One eyebrow raised and the faintest traces of a smile could be seen on the opposite corner of her mouth.
“They may celebrate our arrival, but I personally want out of here as soon as possible. Don't get me wrong, I miss my grandfather a lot ... I just had other plans for my summer. What is a Grandmaster?”
“You are young Jonathan Thornburg, eh? Yes, I see your grandmother in you. I suspect there is more of your grandfather than you care to admit as well. My name is Arabella Writ, though these days I am more often known as either Grandmother or Miss Librarian.” She paused and pulled out a chair, sinking in. “A Grandmaster is the highest rank we have. You're a mere Initiate. Complete the Challenge and you'll become an Apprentice. From there you become a Journeyman, and if you're lucky, Master. Both your grandparents are Grandmasters, though, so you certainly have potential.” She sized him up. “Ironically you can't leave without becoming an Apprentice. As an Initiate, you know enough to get yourself into trouble. We need to know you've trained enough to control yourself before we allow you to go back out among the general public.”
“But I don't actually know anything about this place. What is the Challenge?”
“A simple test, really. Though that is rather like claiming a triathlon to be a simple exercise and suggesting toddlers attempt it. Most Initiates don't understand what they are capable of. Tomorrow is soon enough to start learning, child. It is late and I must find my bed. I suggest you do the same if you are so determined to get out of here.”
“Goodnight, Grandmother Writ. I'll be no stranger to your library.” The old woman smiled as she left.
Johnny looked back to the map and quickly determined what he thought to be the quickest route to his new room. Soon enough he stood at his door, and was almost surprised when the key turned and the door swung open. He dropped everything on the desk, shut the door, and flopped down on his bed. He was asleep in moments.