ChrisAnn didn't know where they went. All she knew was that, as soon as she was awkwardly situated atop the bear's back, everything around her melted into a blur of sound and color. She gasped; how could they be moving so fast?
And then she realized they weren't moving at all. There was no sense of motion, no wind in her face. Instead, the world moved around them.
It all became too much for ChrisAnn. She squeezed her eyes shut and let go of the bear's fur to cover her ears, trying to find some peace and quiet, though that didn't seem to be forthcoming. Still, she knew if she were to open herself again, she would probably be sick, at the very least, and she didn't think the bear would appreciate that too much.
And then, just when she thought she was going to be sick anyway--for the sound and color persisted, though a bit muted, even with her eyes closed and ears covered--it stopped.
Chris slowly opened her eyes, wondering what had happened. She found that she was still sitting atop the bear's back, but the scenery around her had changed drastically. Instead of being in the middle of New York City, she found herself staring at a pair of mountains, the profiles of which looked vaguely familiar. A clear lake stretched before her, separating she and the bear from the mountains. "Where are we?"
"That's not what I meant. Where are we?"
"Cannot…say." There was a long pause, and then the bear asked, "Are you afraid?"
ChrisAnn, staring at the mountains, barely heard his question. "What? No," she said in reply, before she had fully realized what he had asked. When she did realize what he had meant, she found, with a bit of surprise, that she had told the truth. She wasn't afraid. It was a curious experience, and she was a reluctant player in whatever game she had entered, but she wasn't actually afraid. Perhaps fear would come later, but for now….
It was still night, and the area around them was deserted. Even though they followed a path, complete with signs and bridges, they saw not another living soul. Chris tried to peer at the signs once or twice, in hopes of divining their location, but all she could make out in the moonlight were pictures of flowers and lines of words in small print.
She was just beginning to become accustomed to the strange gait of the bear when he stopped once more. She frowned. "Why are we--"
She stopped abruptly when she realized they had come to the base of one of the mountains. She gulped, staring up at the peak, thousands of feet above her. "We don't have to climb that, do we?" she asked, her voice suddenly sounding very small in the night.
"No." The bear said no more words that she could understand, but instead let out a guttural stream of sounds, more than half of them resembling a growl or a quiet roar. The sounds sent shivers up Chris' spine; they were exactly the type of sounds she would expect from a wild animal about to eat her.
And then the most extraordinary thing happened. The mountain opened. It was as if an immense expanse of rock had simply vanished, revealing darkness. But then, the darkness wasn't. Lamps flared to life, illuminating a long hallway. Chris stared in wonder as the bear shuffled forward, across the stone threshold. When she turned to look over her shoulder, she saw only an expanse of rock; the mountain's side had returned.
"What is this place?" she whispered breathlessly.
"Northern Palace," came the reply.
This time, ChrisAnn didn't argue or ask for more information. Instead, she slid from the bear's back and walked forward, her eyes wider than they had ever been. "It's magnificent." Indeed, it was. Paintings and tapestries adorned the walls, lit in just the right manner by the soft light of the lamps. Before her, the corridor seemed to branch in several directions, and from one of them wafted the delicious smell of freshly-cooked food.
Before she was fully aware of what she was doing, Chris started down the hallway from which the delectable scents originated. She was starving.
She reached out to open a set of elaborately carved doors, only to have them swing open before she had even touched them. She stared in awe at the room before her. It was plainly a dining chamber, from the long table groaning with food at its center. The table could have easily sat fifty people, perhaps more--but there was only one place setting, at the very head of the table.
Chris took a few tentative steps into the room, hearing the echo of her movements rebound from the walls, high ceiling, and hardwood floors. She suddenly realized that, even though she had wandered quite a distance to get to this dining room, she hadn't seen or heard another person; she hadn't even seen a sign of another living person. Looking at the food arrayed before her, too perfect to be real, she was suddenly overwhelmed with the feeling that she was walking through realm belonging to the dead.
Directly behind that came the feeling that it was she who was the ghost.
She whirled around, to see the doors had closed behind her. Panic swept through her, and she stumbled toward them, banging on them, expecting them to open for her. They remained stubbornly shut. "Let me out!" she cried. "Please! Someone! Anyone! Bear! Help me!" Tears of frustration, pain, and fear welled up in her eyes, and she threw all of her weight against the doors, hoping they would grant her freedom.
Half an hour later, she was slumped against the doors, unable to do anything more than cry. All the fight had gone out of her, replaced with a deep feeling of despair. What was she to do? She hadn't thought she would be a prisoner here, even if she was to be a well fed one. Obviously, agreeing to come had been a horrible mistake, and one that it was too late to rectify. She would likely die here, and she did…well, then the bear would come. That was to be her fate.
Half an hour after that, she was sprawled on the floor, having cried herself to sleep.
"You didn't eat."
ChrisAnn opened her eyes to find herself sprawled in the snow, looking up at Matt. He extended a hand to her, and she gratefully took it, allowing him to pull her to her feet. "How do you know I didn't eat?"
He raised an eyebrow. "I'm part of your dream, ChrisAnn. Just a figment of your imagination. You made me up, so of course I know you didn't eat. You should, you know. You must be starving, after what you've been through. You're all right? I'm worried about you."
"I'm fine," she replied automatically.
"Freaked out, insecure, neurotic, and emotional?"
"If you want to put it that way, yes."
"Let's sit down." Abruptly, there was a red velvet couch sitting in the snow. Matt sat down, and Chris gingerly lowered herself to sit on the other end.
"Why are you here?" she asked. "Why am I here? Why is any of this happening?"
"I can't answer your questions," Matt said, shaking his head. "Just know that you are very, very important, and that by agreeing to the bear's request, you have given someone hope."
"But why you? I hardly even met you! I don't know you at all! Why are you in my head?"
"I already told you, ChrisAnn: I can't answer your questions. Please don't ask me again." There was an immense sadness in his face, and it was enough to silence Chris.
"Promise me you'll eat," he said after several long minutes of silence.
"I promise," she grumbled.
"Good. Now wake up."
Chris snapped awake to find herself sprawled on the dining room floor, her body aching from sleeping in such an awkward position on the hardwood. She groaned and stretched, working out the kinks in her muscles, before she slowly pushed herself to her feet.
The food which had been on the table, a lavish dinner, was gone. Instead, there seemed to be breakfast foods: oatmeal, waffles, pancakes, even name brands of cereal and cold milk. "Where does all of this come from?" Chris muttered, walking the length of the table and surveying bacon, eggs, sausage, and potatoes.
She didn't particularly like breakfast food; she never had. Nevertheless, she was starving. She had neglected to eat the night before, and she didn't know how long the strange journey had taken, not to mention how long she had been sleeping. She finally made herself some sausage and biscuit sandwiches using the appropriate foods and ate them, accompanied by the fresh orange juice she found in a pitcher. As she did so, she made a slow circuit of the room.
The walls were hung with tapestries and oil paintings of people Chris didn't recognize, not that she found that surprising. She did shimmy behind several of the tapestries, looking for secret passageways, but found none; she suspected something might be hidden behind at least one of the paintings, but they proved too heavy for her to remove single-handedly.
No sooner had she finished off her food and orange juice than there was a loud click, and the doors which had been locked for so long swung open.
ChrisAnn ran out into the hallway, terrified that if she lingered too long in the dining room, she would be trapped there again. Once in the hallway, she caught her breath and looked about her. The hall was brightly lit by lamps which seemed to be electric, though she couldn't tell through the frosted glass if there were bulbs or not. But the light didn't flicker, reassuring Chris somewhat.
She began to wander the halls of the strange palace in the mountain, wondering why she had been brought here. She hadn't seen anyone since she had arrived, not even the bear. She was more than a little lonely, and extremely bored. She had poked her head into several rooms, but she didn't want to go in for fear of being locked in.
Finally, though, Chris opened a door which looked onto a room filled with nothing but clothes.
If there was one thing ChrisAnn Belmont loved, it was clothes. She had spent long days shopping in Los Angeles, when she hadn't had classes, and even longer days crawling through shops and boutiques at home in New York. Her closet had been one of truly impressive size, but this room put even that to shame.
Chris stepped into the room, and the door swung shut behind her. She immediately stiffened; she'd forgotten about the locks in the delight of discovering the clothes. She whirled and ran to the door, tugging on it--it wouldn't open. A sob tore its way out of her throat, and she turned around, pressing her back against the door with the intent of sliding down it to the floor.
She discovered intentions weren't everything as she went tumbling out into the hallway.
Of course it would be a 'push' door, she thought sullenly. Still, she was grateful she hadn't been locked in, and quickly picked herself up and ventured back into the room.
Silk, satin, linen, Egyptian cotton, velvet, wool, suede--all of them passed beneath her fingers as she ran her hands over the fine clothes. She threw open a closet and gasped at the wide array of shoes inside it. This was obviously paradise.
There was a scratching at the door, and Chris whirled, the silk gown she had been holding falling from her hands to pool at her feet. In the doorway stood the bear.
How did he open the door? It's not like he has opposable thumbs or anything.
"Clothes are yours," he said. Once again, Chris thought there was something familiar about his voice, but once again she couldn't place it.
"I have a—" she started, but the bear turned and was gone before she could finish. "I had a question!" Chris yelled after him. "Damn it, come back and answer me!"
But there was no response.