Soon Elsie was sitting on a painfully hard chair, trembling beneath a heavy blanket. She had been given a mug of soup, but as it tasted only of soot and hot water, she'd barely touched it.
The room in which she found herself was very small with little furniture, all broken and none matching. There were boxes scattered around the place with labels scribbled on in hopelessly illegible writing. A collection of rusty pots and pans sat in one corner, a pile of grimy mattresses in another. In the centre of the room was the fire, a meagre heap of coal with a few tiny flames peering through the gaps.
Also sitting around the fire were three young men. One was the ginger-brunette, now fiddling happily with his key. The person on his right was little more than a boy – tall, with blonde cherub-like curls framing a long, horsey face. Since Elsie's arrival, he had been chattering continuously, though with little substance. He seemed the most cheerful of the three, and Elsie found his presence a great comfort in this dark, frightening place.
The man furthest away from Elsie was a massive contrast; he sat half in the shadows, completely still and expressionless. He had sleek black hair and a ruddy complexion, which would have suggested a cheery nature in anyone but this cold creature.
After a period of silence to allow Elsie to recover, the blonde young man – unsurprisingly – began to speak.
"You're from the Mists, aren't you?"
"Honestly, Adrian," said the owner of the key with a friendly laugh. "She's not going to know what that means."
"Oh – of course. Let me explain –"
"Adrian," snapped the man in the shadows, making Elsie flinch. "She doesn't need to know."
"But surely the only reason we're fighting is –"
"They'll know when the time is right. For now, Merv can take this girl back. And maybe he won't be so careless with his Carrier next time." He leaned out of the shadows to give the owner of the key a harsh glare.
For a moment they froze like this. The tension was so strong that Elsie could feel it like a pulled muscle, and the pain and discomfort was increased by her confusion. Where was this place? Who were these people?
Finally, the owner of the key – Merv, they had called him – stood up. He held out a hand to Elsie to help her up; all she had to do was take it and she would be heading home. Back to the flower shop, back to her father and Alex, back to everything she loved, with today's fiasco forgotten. But also back to the everyday, back to the mundane, with all chance of adventure lost.
"No," she said shakily. "No, I want to know what's happening."
They all stayed motionless like a tableau. No-one – including Elsie – could quite comprehend what had just been said. And then, slowly, the man in the shadows rose from his seat and stepped over to Elsie. She shrank back in the chair; had she overstepped the mark?
"What's your name?" he asked, his voice much more gentle than when speaking to Adrian or Merv.
"Elsie," she replied, trying to appear confident and steady.
"Elsie," he continued. "Do you promise that everything you are told in these headquarters will remain secret, unspoken to any other until you either reach your grave or live to see our great cause victorious?"
It was a grand speech, and – though she didn't have a clue what this cause was – Elsie felt compelled to agree. She caught sight of Merv rolling his eyes, less impressed by the performance.
"Alright then," said Elsie with a nod. "But that doesn't mean I necessarily have to join you, does it? I can still go home if I don't like what I hear?
"Well, we'll see what you think," Merv said, pulling a large map from one of the boxes and flashing a trademark grin.
She had been staring at the map for a good few minutes, but still Elsie was baffled. It was split into layers like a cake – the middle layer was familiar to her. It was her homeland, with its mishmash of buildings and its grey, misty air. The label on the maps – 'the Mists' – was not one Elsie had come across before, but she quickly accepted it as making perfect sense. The other layers, however, were strangers.
Picking through Adrian's babble, she established that she was currently in the layer beneath this – 'the Depths'. Her memory of the outside world certainly correlated with the map's illustration; thick, red smoke smothering tall, black skyscrapers, without a single plant in sight.
"Nothing good can survive for more than a few minutes out there," Merv explained. "Only the Guiltless."
Elsie opened her mouth to ask what the Guiltless were, but Adrian interrupted to explain the top layer of the map. The colours were strange – pink skies and an orange ground. This ground, in fact, seemed to be the very top of her own world's grey clouds. With its little white cottages dotted around the landscape, Elsie thought it looked like a faraway land from the stories she would make up with Alex when they were younger. It was labelled, 'the Clouds'.
"And that," finished Adrian, "is the world."
"But why don't I know about these layers?" questioned Elsie. "How come you know and no-one in my – my layer does?"
At this point, the man with the black hair and the icy glare, who had been silent until now, spoke.
"Because the Guiltless don't want you to."