It was three more pieces of the metal knot before we set out for Laminate Pass.
“I’ve been keeping an eye on it,” Solange had said, “It’s as slippery as ever, but I can get you there, at any rate.”
This seemed to satisfy Flare, and Solange put her coat back on, and we set out behind her lumbering form. They weren’t talking as much as they had yesterday, but Flare’s eyes kept flicking over to the coat rather than the path.
Eventually, Solange said, “Over there,” and I saw it. Or, rather, I very nearly saw, since as soon as my eyes reached the place where Solange was pointing they slid straight off of it. I could only catch glimpses by looking at the Pass sideways, trying to scrape an image together out of the periphery.
It shimmered in a way that ice didn’t. The starlight bounced away from it in drunken angles, shards of reds and blues and greens glinted from just under its surface, and I couldn’t make out the exact details of the shape of the pass. The edges seemed unwilling to settle down.
“I’m surprised your coat works on this, too,” Flare said.
“You’re the one who showed me the charm,” Solange replied.
Flare twisted a charm together, saying, “Focus,” for my benefit, and then I could look at the pass. It still wavered in the starlight, but now I could drink it in all at once rather than with stolen glances.
“Oh, that’s how you dealt with it last time, isn’t it?” Solange said.
“Yeah,” Flare said. Then she elaborated. “Repel works as well as anything else, but it’s a general enough charm it might have unintended consequences.”
“Repel?” I asked.
Flare didn’t respond. Solange did, “The charm the coat uses to repel the cold. Needs monster help to be strong enough, but it works.”
The witch-stone’s light failed to melt through the not-ice of the pass. Solange strode onto it without hesitation, and where she did a network of cracks began to form under her feet, pulsing with faint color. Flare followed. I took a hesitant step onto the not-ice.
It wasn’t slippery, like I had thought. Instead, it was stable and solid, and caused something curious to happen. As I walked, I could feel my feet slowly starting to fall asleep, as though they were refusing to even register that they were walking on this stuff. I started to stagger my steps, shuffling around, trying to keep any leg from falling asleep too much to walk on. Neither Flare nor Solange showed any signs of being affected by it.
“Anywhere in particular you’re taking your apprentice?” Solange asked.
Flare didn’t respond.
“Anywhere you can tell me about that’s not one of those spooky witch-secrets?”
Flare said, “No, sorry.”
“Ah well, just curious is all. It’d be nice if I could be a witch, but you cant help not being picked out as a good candidate by those witch-secrets and their witch-secrety criteria you know? Whatever those might be.”
“Witch-secrets don’t choose people. Our secrets are just secrets.” Flare looked away as she said it.
“Ah, well whatever it is that makes you a good witch candidate, then. Is it brains? Your little apprentice took to the loop puzzles like they were second nature to her.”
“They were fun,” I offered.
“I can’t say,” Flare said.
“Is it a witch-secret?”
“It might be. Maybe.”
“Is whether or not it’s a witch-secret a witch-secret?”
“Please stop saying witch-secret,” Flare said.
There was a moment in which nothing happened. Then Flare said, “Well,” and I strained my ears to catch every syllable of what she said next. Then something exploded out of the wall of the Pass in front of us, without disturbing the wall.
“Shit!” Solange yelled, “I thought it was still asleep! It just ate!”
Light danced along the tips of Flare’s fingers. I stuck close to her. I didn’t want to leave the circle of the witch-stone’s light.
Ahead of us was a monster. Something maybe three times the height of Solange’s coat, moving with sharp, jerky movements. Its pointed limbs rang out like crystal bells as they tapped on the not-ice. The place where its head would be was a geometric tangle, and its long body was full of hard edges and sharp, distinct lines. It made no sound.
“Take my hand,” Flare said. I did.
The sound of Flare’s voice galvanized the monster into action. It didn’t slither or crawl, rather it reflected itself off the not-ice at us, colors trailing off it as though it were shedding water.
Solange stepped to the side. The monster didn’t even seem to notice her.
Flare’s fingers blossomed, and in rapid-fire she layered two charms on top of each other. I recognized silence. I didn’t recognize the other one, but whatever it was it slowly and silently began to slide us to the right.
The monster bounced past us and vanished into the not-ice, refracting smoothly inside and leaving no trace.
“I thought the boulders shattering the other night would be enough for at least a few days!” Solange said. The monster failed to burst out of the not-ice in response to Solange’s voice.
Flare shook her head. Then she looked at me, and she mouthed, “Silence.” I nodded.
“I’m sorry, you guys,” Solange said.
I jerked my head at her. Flare mouthed, “Later,” at me. We continued on. I didn’t hop to avoid the numbness creeping up my legs, in case that would be too much noise. Instead, I just walked. Once, I looked over my shoulder. I didn’t see any sign of the monster.
The pass was long. The silence made it longer. Solange had stopped talking, even though she seemed to be able to do so freely. I was losing the feeling in my feet.
My dozing foot hit a rock, and I stumbled forwards, into Flare. A grunt of surprise escaped my lips. Flare whirled to face behind us.
Sure enough, right behind us was the monster, refracting up out of the not-ice towards us. Solange said, “Well, worth a shot.” Flare’s fingers shone.
I stared up at the monster.