Welcome to the eleventh installment of Chip and the Book of Rose Leaves. Chip’s journey through the land of Almea is almost at and end. I hope that, just as Chip does, you enjoy every moment you spend there.
He heard the sound of intent muttering and the echo of clinking glass just as he entered the unusual room, but it was the smell that had captivated Chip long before he found it. Never before had he encountered such a pleasing aroma, and he followed it eagerly to its source.
Briefly, Chip wondered if the smell might be like the false scent in the first cavern, which had nearly sent him and Alfeus down an even more dangerous path.
But no. That smell, while pleasant on the surface, had warned of rot beneath. What Chip was joyfully breathing in now was so purely fragrant that he instinctively trusted it would not lead him astray.
He had never supposed, however, that it would bring him to a sight unlike any he had ever seen. If Romulus hadn’t shared so much of the human world with him, Chip would not have had the words for what he was seeing.
An enormous funnel filled the far end of the room, and Chip watched in fascination as diamonds tumbled into it. Strangely, there was no clattering sound of jewel against metal. Chip would have found that odd if he’d had the time, but before he could blink, a fragrant dust poured out from the funnel, swirling into glittering clouds even as it began to shimmer and become liquid, before falling into a large glass bottle.
Just as it reached the bottle’s brim, the smell in the room – already incredible – became something even more wonderful, all fresh-blooming flowers and the warmth of rich spice.
Chip didn’t think he would ever be able to properly describe it, yet knew, in the same instant, that he would never forget it.
It was then that he noticed the other myriad bottles, of all shapes and sizes, covering the cavern floor. Some were empty, others full to the brim, but all reflected the brilliant light of the wonderful perfume they each contained, which seemed to produce a light of its own.
Chip leaned close to the nearest bottle, the curiosity of the liquid inside impossible to ignore. As he watched, the soft swirls of diamond dust rose and fell in the bottle, catching the light and reflecting it back to Chip’s wondering eyes.
After a few moments more of looking into the bottle, Chip turned away, hoping to learn something more by exploring the rest of the room.
He made his way through the many bottles, more than he could ever hope to count. Save for the soft splash of the mysterious perfume falling from the funnel, silence reigned in the room.
It was, of course, just as Chip thought to himself that the silence shouldn’t be disturbed that he bumped into the nearest bottle, sending a mighty clamor echoing through the cavern.
He froze, so still you’d have thought him a statue, and waited for someone – or something – to respond to the ruckus he’d caused.
Not even a whisper of movement reached Chip’s ears.
Nevertheless, he stayed where he was for what felt like the longest minutes of his life.
At last, when it seemed safe to assume that no one was coming, Chip began to weave his way through the maze of bottles once more. He travelled only a short distance before he came across a feather. It lay before him, plain for him to see, yet Chip could not fathom it.
What was a feather doing underground, he wondered.
Another one lay not far off, and Chip hopped towards it with great purpose, determined to solve at least one of the mysteries facing him today.
But the trail seemed to end at the second feather, which was in front of a very large bottle. Chip looked about from where he stood, but could catch no sight of a third.
Disappointed, he sighed, turned his attention to the bottle’s contents, and was horrified to find one enormous eye staring back at him.
With a great shout, Chip scrambled back, falling into a group of empty bottles and sending them clattering all over the cavern floor.
Over the noise, he heard a flustered voice cry, “Now, do be careful! You’re bound to break something!”
But Chip was so startled, he could not listen. Before he could comprehend what was happening or how to escape this new menace, he raced away, only to collide with the owner of the great eye. He looked up dazedly as two fresh feathers fell to the ground.
A large bird – a magpie, he believed – stood before Chip. After the disturbance he’d caused, he expected to find a gruff and decidedly disgruntled figure standing before him.
Instead, Chip was surprised to find nothing but tenderness, and, perhaps, a touch of sympathy, in the bird’s black eyes. Relief swept through him, and he stood up, though still a little tentatively.
“I’m afraid I gave you quite a fright,” said the bird. “As a Guardian, I can never be too careful. We get all sorts through the underground, and not all sorts are friendly. Now, for some proper introductions,” he continued. “I am called Oleander. What is your name, young one?”
“Chip,” he answered quietly, a bit in awe of the impressive figure before him.
“Quite right,” Oleander answered with a smile, gently brushing a wing tip against Chip’s left ear.
Without another word, Oleander began to lead the way through the cavern, and Chip followed expectantly, hoping that this new friend could help him on his way, and maybe even help him find his friends.
As they walked, Chip surreptitiously observed the large bird. Now that he looked more closely, he could see that the bird’s feathers were not only black and white, but were also covered in many shimmering shades of blue, which reflected the light in the cavern beautifully.
Briefly, Chip thought with a touch of trepidation that he was in the presence of a magpie, a bird that he had always been warned might attack him. It seemed unlikely that a bird of prey could be a gentle Guardian. But Chip supposed that it also seemed unlikely that a small creature like himself could take on a journey so great.
All things considered, Chip believed that Oleander was trustworthy, and so, he continued to follow him through the cavern.
But not, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, without asking a few questions.
“What are you doing underground, Oleander?”
“Whatever do you mean?” the magpie answered, looking quite confused.
“Well,” said Chip, wondering how best to phrase this, “you’re a bird. Shouldn’t you be living up above?”
Oleander gave him an appraising look, and then, apparently deciding that Chip was worthy of his confidence, continued. “Quite right. That is the usual way of things. But I was chosen for this Guardianship, and so, I call the underground my home. I do venture out from time to time, but there are no sights above that seem so fair to my eyes as these glittering caverns. More brilliant than stars,” he murmured, half to himself.
Still, Chip was confused. “But what exactly do you guard?”
Oleander only smiled and continued on. “What brings you here, Chip?”
Momentarily distracted by the question, Chip launched into his tale. “I lost my friends, Alfeus and Beauregard. A moth was leading us through the tunnels, but Alfeus got stuck, and when Beauregard tried to help him get loose, a great hole opened up and they fell. I was going to follow them, but the hole closed before I could, and everything went dark, and… I’m lost.”
Chip paused for a moment. “Have you seen them?” he asked hopefully.
A kindly smile warmed Oleander’s black eyes. “Never you mind about that. Alfeus and Beauregard will be along soon enough.”
“Then you know where they are? Can you take me to them?”
“One thing at a time, my friend,” Oleander said, chuckling. “You still haven’t answered my question. What brings you here?”
Chip frowned. “But I’ve just told you. I’m looking for my friends.”
At this, Oleander stopped and looked closely at Chip. “You and I both know that you’re looking for a great deal more than that.”
Realization dawned. “Oh. Yes. Abaline. You see –“
“Ah, ah,” Oleander interrupted. “I understand.”
He looked as if he meant to say something more, but then thought better of it.
They were at the opposite end of the cavern now, just past the last of the sparkling bottles. Chip could still smell the wondrous perfume. He was just opening his mouth to ask about the diamonds that seemed to produce it when a familiar sound reached his ears. It drifted towards Chip and Oleander from the tunnel just in front of them.
“It is decided, Beauregard! You are the most exasperating creature I will ever have the misfortune of knowing. ‘Follow your nose,’ indeed! How is that supposed to get us any closer to Chip?”
At that moment, the disgruntled chipmunk and his cheerful companion emerged from the tunnel.
Alfeus stopped short. “Chip!” he cried in shock.
Beauregard, to the chipmunk’s immediate annoyance, did not look the least bit surprised.
“You are an unapologetic show off,” Alfeus declared. Then, after a pause, “I’m sorry I doubted you.”
There was then much embracing as the friends celebrated being reunited. After a few minutes, though, Alfeus looked across the expansive cavern in wonder. “What on earth is this place?”
They all turned to Oleander, who only gestured to a tunnel that lay to their right. “There is no time to waste, my friends. Abaline is waiting.”
Without another word, the magpie led them partway down the tunnel before stopping. “Continue to follow this tunnel, and you will shortly be aboveground. No further surprises shall trouble you.”
Chip wanted to stall and keep talking to Oleander, but Alfeus and Beauregard were already moving, all too eager to leave the underground.
Oleander, seeing Chip’s hesitation, smiled and urged him on. “Farewell, young one. Safe travels on the end of your journey.”
And with that, he was gone, back to his bottles and diamonds and all the mystery they contained. Chip stood there for a moment, wondering.
There was so much he didn’t understand about the cavern below and all he had seen there. Briefly, he felt all his usual restless curiosity stir up. But then, all of a sudden, that sweetest of perfumes wafted over him, and he felt all his wonderings, for a time, rest.
There really was so much he didn’t understand.
Perhaps, he wasn’t meant to just yet.
Installment Twelve will be available next week, friends!