Chapter 1. Snow Day--Part Two
It didn’t take Pierard long to realize that he was in over his head. What was supposed to be a simple errand was now turning into a monumental task. A minute ago, the sky was overcast with just a hint of sunshine. Now it was full of dark, menacing clouds, and there was another meteorological condition—snow, and it wasn’t in a light flurry either.
Pierard soon found himself wondering why he ever volunteered in the first place. Why did he eagerly venture into this unpredictable weather when he could have stayed home by a nice crackling fire, and let someone else take the risk of fetching a good plumber.
Now the wind was picking up and he was being pelted by millions of freezing hazelnut-sized flakes. Pierard opened his beak to screech out his frustration, but choked on a breath of snow instead.
That’s it! he thought angrily. To heck with this fetching the plumber business! I’m going back!
Twicky was in command of the bucket and towel brigade. She was very good at getting things organized and boosting community spirit. Pierard’s party guests soon regarded the gushing faucet crisis as a game, and eagerly searched for things to stem the rising flood. This was far more exciting than studying for exam or cleaning house. Had it been Pierard giving the orders instead of Twicky, there would have been great dissension among the ranks.
Tris came out of her room just as everyone was joining in some dam building. “Hey, has anyone seen Pierard?” she said as she walked towards them. She then stopped dead in her tracks and stared at the floor.
The first thing she noticed was a soggy mound of towels and rags blocking the bathroom doorway.
The door was opened and she could hear the sound of rushing water coming from inside. A thoroughly soaked Pascal was squatting next to the pile, trying to mop up the water streaming underneath.
“Twicky!” yelled Pascal over his shoulder. “These paint sheets of yours aren’t helping one bit!”
“There are more sheets in that linen closet next to the bathroom,” said Twicky, dodging other helpers mopping and sponging.
“But Twicky,” Pascal insisted, “I don’t think sheets or anything else is going to help alleviate this situation! Couldn’t we at least shut the bathroom door?”
“Well, that would help if we had a watertight door like the kind you find in a submarine,” Twicky answered. “But most people just have the ordinary wooden sort.”
She halted at the top of the stairs. “Hustle, hustle, people,” she hollered. “We need more buckets and sponges!”
Tris heard someone holler back, “Coming!”
“How’s Cheryl’s company coming on with the search for the shut-off valve?” asked Twicky.
“No luck yet!” came a reply.
“Great,” Twicky muttered under her breath. “Just great.” She then called back, “Well, keep on looking! It’s got to be around somewhere!”
There came a strange noise from downstairs, like someone groaning. Then Tris heard Cheryl call out, “Twicky?”
“Yes, Cheryl?” said Twicky.
“Why am I doing this?” Cheryl cried. “I should be composing odes and sonnets about the unusual weather we’re having, but instead, I’m looking for a lousy shut-off valve!”
“I’m sorry, Cheryl,” said Twicky apologetically, “but since we’re in danger of being flooded out of house and home, everyone’s got to pitch in to help stop the water.”
“Yeah, but why me?” Cheryl protested. “I’m a poet, not a plumber. Shouldn’t Gregory be doing this instead?”
“Well, Gregory’s got the job of finding something to plug the broken faucet,” answered Twicky. “And since Pierard’s off trying to find a plumber, I’m afraid you’re stuck with stopping the water instead.”
“Oh, very well!” Cheryl replied huffily. “C’mon, everybody; we got a shut-off valve to find.”
“Okay, Miss MacGibbon!” Tris heard someone yell, probably one of the Frizzle Frack.
“Don’t call me that!” said Cheryl menacingly. One of the things she hated the most was being called by her last name.
Just then, a Kludge rat bounded up the stairs, clutching several large towels and blankets.
“Sorry, Twick,” he said, turning to her, “but we seemed to be out of sponges. All I could find are these towels.”
“Well, I guess they’ll do,” Twicky said with a shrug. “Better give them to Pascal then. If anyone’s in desperate need of towels, it’s him.”
The Kludge rat ran over to give Pascal the blankets and towels.
“Here you go,” he said.
“Thanks,” said Pascal absently.
He looked more closely at one of the blankets.
“Now, wait just a minute!” he suddenly yelled. “Where’d you get this?”
“From the wash,” replied the Kludge rat, rather puzzled at Pascal’s outburst.
“You can’t use this!” cried Pascal, standing up and waving his blanket in the air. “This happens to be my security blanket!”
“But it’s dirty,” the Kludge rat muttered, not really seeing what the fuss was all about. “Besides, aren’t you a bit old for this blanket-carrying stuff?”
“Nonsense!” exclaimed Pascal. “If people have magical charms and nightlights to keep the monsters away, then I don’t see the problem with having a security blanket!”
Tris then cleared her throat. With a start, Pascal looked up.
“Oh, hi, Tris,” he said, quickly whipping the blanket behind him. He ruffled his feathers in embarrassment.
“Howdy do, Pascal,” drawled Tris, stepping carefully around the wet awful mess to join him. “So, what’s up with the plumbing? No wait… don’t tell me!” She started grinning mischievously. “Some booby thought he could actually fix a simple leak with just a monkey wrench and a hacksaw.”
“How’d you guess?” asked Pascal, not the least bit amused. “Put your ear to the woodwork?”
“Don’t make me laugh,” said Tris, looking pompous. She tapped one of her ears. “We Churcka got really excellent hearing. Why should we go through all that trouble of listening at the door when we can just sit back and prick up our ears?”
She surveyed for a minute their sorry attempts at dam building.
“Nice job,” she remarked gleefully. “What is it?”
Pascal grimaced in disgust. “It’s supposed to be a dam,” he muttered.
“Dam?” Tris exclaimed in dismay. “Looks more like a wet pile of laundry to me.”
Pascal rolled his eyes and sighed wearily.
“Yes, I quite agree,” he said patiently. “It’s crude and leaky, but what do expect when you’re in a hurry and the only materials you have to work with are towels and dish rags?”
“Don’t forget blankets,” the Kludge rat chimed in.
Pascal glared at him.
“Well, I’ll be seeing you dweebs,” said Tris, chuckling. “Sure hope Cheryl finds that shut-off valve in time, or we’ll all end up with gills and webbed feet like those folk in Kraken Port.”
Chortling merrily, she then turned and headed for the third floor stairs.
“Sheesh!” exclaimed an Elf, watching her go. “Is she always that snarky?”
Twicky glanced at him, then shrugged. “You should see her on one of her bad days,” she said softly.
What a murderous storm! thought Pierard as he hobbled up the winding road towards the house. He could barely see it behind all these thick, swirling flakes. Too windy to fly; too cold to walk, and you can forget about hailing a cab! This is the Torian Coast for goodness’s sake! It’s not supposed to snow here! We’re too zarking close to the freaking ocean!
“What en Yarblick waz that?” he squawked. All the feathers on his head were standing straight on end. Pierard heard the appalling wail again, this time through the large overhanging willow trees bordering the path. “The wind,” he muttered, “just the wind. Sounded more like a Banshee to me.”
Cripes, he thought, suddenly remembering Cheryl’s stories about these Celtic harbingers of doom. If that was a Banshee I heard, then my goose is totally cooked.
Chapter 2. Tris the Private Eye
Tris found Gregory in his room, carving on a large stick of wood. Piles of wood shavings littered the carpet as well as his feet.
“It’s supposed to be a plug for the leak,” Gregory explained. “I tried using potter’s clay first, but the water melted right through.”
“Yeah, I was wondering what that icky stuff is splattered all over your sweater,” muttered Tris.
Gregory said nothing. He just concentrated on his work.
Tris looked at what he was carving and shook her head wonderingly.
“That’s supposed to be a plug?” she said. “Looks more like something you use to destroy a vampire with.”
Gregory put down his jack knife, and gave her a sour look.
“Tris,” he said wearily. “Do you have anything important to tell me or are you just being a nuisance?”
“Nuisance?” Tris sniffed. “Don’t get snarky with me, pal, or I won’t tell you about Pierard’s discovery.”
Oh, no! thought Gregory in despair. Not another treasure map! Can’t we ever have a day without surprises and silliness?
“Look, can’t this wait?” he said impatiently. “I got a faucet to fix.”
“Oh, all right,” said Tris, a bit irate. “I’ll wait here while you shove that stake into that wretched faucet.”
“Not shove, pound,” Gregory corrected. He got up and went over to his worktable. “I’ll just use one of these,” he said briskly, picking up a large wooden mallet. With that, he walked out the room.
Moments later, Gregory returned, more heavily drenched and exhausted.
“Well, how’d it go?” asked Tris.
“Don’t ask.” Gregory set the mallet back on the worktable and slumped down in his chair.
“Well, what happened?” Tris insisted in exasperation. “Did it work or didn’t it?”
“It did,” said Gregory grimly, “after several maddening attempts. What jolly fun I had; sloshing through icy-cold water, getting sprayed in the face, nearly squashing my thumb with the mallet, but finally, I pounded the wretched thing in. Now it’s all up to Cheryl to stop the water permanently.”
“Listen, Greg,” said Tris. “Since you’re done with the faucet; I’m going to tell you about what Pierard found in the dining room fireplace.”
“Well, since my day’s nearly ruined anyway,” said Gregory with a resigned shrug. “What did Pierard find that’s so important?”
“This!” Tris exclaimed dramatically, pulling out a small brass plate from her pants’ pocket.
“What’s so unusual about a piece of metal?” asked Gregory, frowning.
“It’s a nameplate Pierard found while he was cleaning up the remains of Twicky’s newest paperweight,” Tris explained. “He claimed the one he just busted belonged to the wickedest magician in all of Toria.”
“Hal Gresham?” grumbled Gregory. “You have got to be kidding. The authorities confiscated all his black magic equipment after he was imprisoned at Kennicott Asylum. I’m afraid Pierard’s greatly mistaken.”
“No, he wasn’t,” said Tris, shaking her head. “Cause if you look carefully,” she held the plate unnecessarily close to Gregory’s eyes, “you will see the letters of that most infamous name… G…R…E…S…”
“Give me that!” shouted Gregory in annoyance at being forced to read something without his reading glasses. After putting them on, he examined the brass plate carefully. Finally he handed it back.
“That still doesn’t prove anything,” he said, frowning skeptically. “There're a lot of people named Gresham.”
“Yeah, but how many of them have a heraldic crest of a skull smoking a cigar?” asked Tris sharply.
“That’s supposed to be a skull?” said Gregory, looking puzzled. “I thought it was a snarling monkey’s head?”
“I think you need better glasses,” Tris muttered. “The point is that this is an evil wizard’s symbol, and the paperweight was once the property of the infamous Hal Gresham.”
“Yeah, and I’m a spring onion,” said Gregory, still unconvinced. “So what’s Pierard suggesting, that Twicky broke into Gresham’s house and stole the paperweight?”
“Either Twicky or one of her fellow collectors,” replied Tris thoughtfully, rubbing her chin.
“What a load of cow pies!” exclaimed Gregory furiously. “Pierard’s got some nerve accusing Twicky of thievery. So what other evidence did Inspector Numskull tell you?”
“That not all those marvelous things she has are from honest deals and auctions,” Tris went on. “That menagerie of hers; those aren’t just cute little pets, they’re clever little thieves, specially trained in the fine art of robbery. Turns out Twicky’s a trickster, just like me, but she doesn’t specialize in harmless practical jokes.”
“I wouldn’t call all your practical jokes harmless,” Gregory grumbled, remembering incidents when Tris tripped people into ponds and mud puddles. “You actually believed all this hooey Pierard told you, based on a confounded paperweight? Well, you certainly didn’t convince me, Tris. I wouldn’t be surprised if that parrot’s leading you on a wild goose chase.”
He got up and headed for the door. Tris caught hold of his shirt, pulling him back.
“Listen to me,” she hissed frantically, “there’s still more. Pierard said he broke Twicky’s paperweight accidentally, because he saw something inside that scared him really bad, something like a dragon. He also thinks that Twicky might have some more stuff of Gresham stowed away somewhere.”
Ice-encrusted and numb with cold, Pierard fumbled at the knob. Finally, much to his relief, the door opened.
As he staggered in, he saw blearily that he was in the dining room and it was crowded with people. They were all looking at him in astonishment.
“The wind blew me head-over-heel, and I ended up in a snow bank,” he wheezed. “Took a while to get my bearings and find the house.”
“Cripes, he’s like a feathered icicle!” someone cried. “Quick, somebody get ‘em some blankets!”
“Well,” said Pascal resignedly, “guess he can use my blanket then. I won’t be needing it at the moment.”
Wrapped up in the warm blanket, Pierard was then led to a cozy chair next to a welcoming fire.
“Sit down here and warm yourself,” said Twicky soothingly, “and here’s a cup of warm cocoa.”
“Thanks,” said Pierard. He thought about asking Twicky about the plumbing, but then decided the problem was finally taken care of.
Everyone was sitting close to the fireplace, discussing the strange winter weather and sipping their warm drinks. Grateful, Pierard drank some of his cocoa and watched the dancing flames.
“Do you think this is really necessary?” Gregory hissed through gritted teeth. “This is ludicrous, Tris! Simply ludicrous!”
He was tugging at Tris’s sleeve as they neared Twicky’s room. On the door there was tacked a placard that in big bold letters:
ARE PATROlLED BY
“Well, if you’re so scared of spiny striped rats,” Tris replied, “you can go help the others in the battle with the troublesome faucet. You didn’t have to volunteer as the detective’s bumbling assistant, and why in the world are you whispering? There’s no reason to whisper! Everyone’s downstairs mopping up or trying to find the shut-off valve!”
“Hey!” exclaimed Gregory. “The real reason I came is not to assist you on this half-baked quest, but to pull you out of a fix should Twicky get back!”
“Well, Twicky doesn’t have jet propulsion like those humans in your science fiction collection,” said Tris matter-of-factly. “So we have plenty of time to search her entire room.”
“She may not have the ability to go super fast,” reminded Gregory, “but she’s a Klantahern, and Klantaherns often have a keen sense of smell.”
“Well, don’t all nonhumans have a keen sense of smell?” replied Tris offhandedly. “That’s what distinguishes us from that destructive simian species that overran our first home world.”
“I’m not talking about noses stronger than that of humans,” growled Gregory. “I’m talking about noses that exceed those of most living creatures.”
Tris stopped in her tracks.
“You mean she could smell the scent that comes off our fingers and clothes?”
Gregory nodded. “Yes,” he said, “and she could smell out a dragon standing a block away.”
Tris thought about this for a few minutes.
“Look,” she said finally, “see if you can find some dish-washing gloves, waders, raincoats, lotsa mothballs and potpourri.”
“We don’t have a lot a potpourri!” argued Gregory. “And why bother wearing protective clothing when our scent’s just going to go right through them anyway?!”
“You’re right,” agreed Tris. “I wonder what can we use to hide our scent.”
“Well, I read in a book that red pepper makes dogs sneeze,” Gregory vaguely recalled.
“That’s it!” Tris exclaimed excitedly. “That’s it!” She grabbed Gregory by the paws and spun him around several times. “Greg!” she cried. “You’re a real help!”
Then she scurried down the hall. Gregory glumly followed, wishing he’d kept his mouth shut.
Chapter 3. Inside Twicky’s Room
Pierard was now fast asleep, and the guests were discussing in quieter voices. They were trying to decide whether they should go home as soon as the blizzard stopped or have some fun in the snow. Already the Frizzle Fracks were off amusing themselves, having magically shifted their shapes into creatures with thick winter coats.
“Now if only they’ll go home,” Pascal muttered.
Tris and Gregory came back a while later, clad in protective clothing. Both wore raincoats with plastic hats fastened on their heads, matching trousers stuffed in galoshes, and their hands were encased in rubber gloves. When they opened the door to Twicky’s room, both were amazed. An ornate carpet with floral patterns covered the floor. Masks and beautiful paintings adorned half of the entire wall, but what they found most amazing was what was covering the other half. Stacked upon row after row of shelves were various things from books to boxes full of antique knickknacks.
“This must be where she stores her small stuff,” Gregory murmured. He picked up a crumpled piece of parchment that resembled a scrap of rubbish, left by some absentminded janitor or sloppy rodent. He caught a whiff of the odor that rose up from the ancient page.
“Aach!” he said disgustedly, dropping it back into its box. “Smells like it’s cursed or improperly cured!”
“Better sprinkle some red pepper over it,” instructed Tris. “Even with gloves on, we have to make sure our smell is covered. Remember what you said earlier? Klantaherns can smell the slightest scent rubbed off from your fingers and clothes. You don’t want Twicky to know you were rummaging through her stuff?”
“I don’t see what good this silly superstition is going to do!” snarled Gregory. “If she can smell us through all this red pepper! Are you listening to me, Tris?”
“Sssshhhh!” Tris hissed. “I think I hear something!”
“Probably Twicky,” Gregory muttered. His large brown eyes flicked nervously about.
“Oh, will you quit worrying about Twicky!” Tris snapped. “And anyway, Twicky wouldn’t make such loud snorting noises!”
The “snorting noises” they were hearing happened to be the snores of the creature curled up underneath a pillow. For the past hour he had been steadily gaining his bulk and energy from the large breakfast he had.
“It’s probably one of her pets!” said Gregory impatiently. “Come on, time’s-a-wasting. Let’s look for some clues and get out of here.”
“Right,” said Tris, shifting her attention away from listening to poking around. “You search those shelves of antique toys,” she instructed, “and I’ll search these shelves of ancient artifacts.”
Gregory wasn’t put off. He had noticed that all too familiar gleam in Tris’s eyes.
“Tris,” he said gruffly, “we’re here in search of a bag of stolen loot, not to steal gold and jeweled artifacts.”
“Must you be such a worrier, Greg?” Tris sneered. “You make Twicky sound like she’s going to come storming through the door at any minute now.”
“That’s what I’m most afraid of,” Gregory growled.
“Well, quit worrying about it,” suggested Tris, “and help me find some of Gresham’s stuff!”
“All right,” said Gregory briskly, “I’ll take the sovereigns from beach combing, and you can take the odds and ends lot.”
Tris started to protest, but promptly shut up when Gregory gave her a serious, no-nonsense, behave-yourself look.
Pierard was having a nightmare involving a giant purple caterpillar.
“Help, Cheryl! It’s after me!” he shouted. “Quick, give me a broom!” Thrashing himself free of the blankets, he fell out of chair and woke up.
“Whoa, relax, neighbor,” said an elderly Growlzer, helping him to his feet. “You were just having a bad dream.”
“I did?” spluttered Pierard, before quickly composing himself. “Oh yes, I did. It was awful. This huge, hairy purple caterpillar was comin’ to eat me.”
“Did it happen to have green tusks?” inquired the sorcerer, Zeph Nesbit. He was a bone-thin bespectacled man with a goatee and tattoos stitched across his bald scalp.
“Yes, it did,” replied Pierard. “Do you know what it was?”
“Sure do,” said Zeph, quickly slipping something in his jacket pocket. “That was an Awd Goggie, a well-know bogie whose main purpose in life is to keep thieving children away from the fruit orchards.”
“Well, I’m definitely not a child,” Pierard muttered thoughtfully. “So I haven’t the slightest idea of where I came up with such a ghastly critter.”
“Perhaps Pascal’s blanket‘s resenting being used to keep you warm,” Zeph suggested, grinning.
Pascal wasn’t there to raise an objection to this comment. He happened to be in the kitchen, fetching more warm drink for everyone.
“Aye,” muttered Pierard, gingerly nudging away the blanket with his foot. “That could be it.”
Like many Relmaries, Pierard possessed the long-held belief that many inanimate objects come with their own individual minds and personalities.
“So what’s the latest news on the busted faucet?” Pierard asked, anxious to change the subject.
“Well, Gregory plugged it with a sharpened piece of wood,” Twicky explained.
“So it’s fixed?”
“Now I wouldn’t say it’s fixed; it’s just not spouting up a storm anymore.”
“The faucet’s still not fixed?” greeched Pierard. “Bilge and barnacles! Well, why’s everyone sitting around here then? Hop to it, people!”
“We can’t hop to it,” Twicky replied, exasperatingly. “We don’t have the proper plumbing equipment, plus no plumber’s going to bother coming here through all this blinding snow.”
“Oh, what do you know about plumbers anyway?” grumbled Pierard.
“Enough to know that they don’t come when you need them the most,” said Twicky brusquely, “and when they do come, they charge an exorbitant amount for their services.”
“Well, I’m goin’ to get one anyway,” Pierard announced determinately, “even if I have to walk twenty-two miles to Port Bognar to do it.”
He glanced towards Zeph. “Unless Mister Nesbit here got some special spell to miraculously fix the faucet.”
“Sorry, but when it comes to magically making household repairs, I’m afraid I’m insufficiently versed on the subject,” informed Zeph. “That department is best left to the qualified wish-granters and home repair specialists.”
“Some magic,” Pierard grumbled, storming out of the room.
“That parrot needs to go soak his head,” Zeph remarked gravely.
“He already had a good soaking in the river,” said Twicky, putting more wood in the fire, “and what good did it do? He’s still the same ole obnoxious Pierard.”
The Growlzer didn’t say anything. He was looking suspiciously at Zeph. “What have you got hiding in that jacket of your?” he asked.
Zeph gave a nonchalant shrug, and said, “Oh nothing extraordinary, just a box of night crawlers for my upcoming fishing trip.”
The Growlzer’s eyes narrowed to slits.
“A bit cold to go for a fishing trip, don’t you think?”
There was uncomfortable pause before Zeph replied, “Yes—Well, it’s for much later. When the snows eventually clear up.”
The Growlzer then held out his furry paw and said, “May I see that box of night crawlers?”
“Certainly!” replied Zeph cheerily. “Congratulations, you just won first prize! A box full of squirming, reddish-purple nematodes!” With that he produced from his jacket pocket a small cardboard box full of small rustling things.
The Growlzer took it, opened it up, and looked at what was inside. Then he sniffed the squirming pile.
“Your illusions don’t do too well when it comes to smell,” he said gruffly. “These aren’t worms, these are dreams; bad dreams to be more precise.”
Zeph’s thin cheeks burned a bright crimson red. Now everyone was looking at him accusingly.
“Now, sir,” growled the Growlzer. “What did you want to give that poor parrot bad dreams for?”
“It was an accident!” insisted Zeph. “I swear!”
“Accident!—you numbskull. You mean it got loose on its own?”
“Yes. By the time I found out about it, it was already crawling into one of Pierard’s ears.”
“Well,” said Tris after poking through the last box of antique salt and pepper shakers, “that’s that lot.” She jabbed her thumb at the shelves bearing inscriptions such as “History, Poems, Ballads, Philosophy, Music,” and so on. “What say we check out the library.”
Her friend looked up from the box of idols he was examining. “If you so much as finger a single page of those,” he growled, “I’ll tell Twicky just as soon as she gets back.”
“Which might not be for another hour,” Tris said cheerfully. “You really got to learn how to lighten up, Greg. You’ll get thin and your fur will fall out in patches unless you stop being so lily-livered and worrisome.”
Gregory shook his head gloomily. “The sooner we leave, the sooner I’ll stop my griping,” he said.
“Well, I hate to rain on your picnic,” said Tris exasperatingly, “but we can’t leave now. The loot’s got to be among those books. It sure as hork’s not in that trash pile you’re rooting through now.”
“How do you know it's books?” Gregory asked irately. “Magic objects aren’t always books. They could be nearly anything—twigs, twine, pieces of bone, colored yarn, feathers, watches, fish hooks, spoons, coins…”
“I’m not saying it has to be books,” replied Tris. “It could be something else. Something that Twicky wants to keep separate from her usual junk collection. We won’t know for sure until we conduct a through search.”
“Maybe it’s a book after all,” muttered Gregory caustically. “A huge ugly Agrippa with rattling chains and fiery breath.”
Tris gave him a puzzled look.
“An Agrippa,” Gregory replied. “It’s a large, obnoxious, magic book named after a famous human philosopher. This thing’s tall as a man and with a temper to boot. You’re supposed to keep it padlocked, and suspended by a chain from a crooked beam in an empty room.”
“Naw,” said Tris, shaking her hand. “Twicky wouldn’t be that crazy to filch something like that. No profit in trying to sell something that could raze a house or blow you to smithereenies. It’s got to be something smaller and easy to handle.”
Seeing Tris was still intent on exploring the bookshelves, Gregory sighed and gave in.
“Okay,” he said, “you can search the books. I’ll continue with searching through the mishmash of baubles. Make sure you put everything back where they belong… And don’t sprinkle any of that flaming red pepper on the pages! They’re antiques for Cripes’s sake!”
“Of course,” said Tris jovially. “Call me Sam the Sneak. I promise I won’t leave the slightest little clue that showed we’ve been here.”
“More like Big-nosey Nincompoop,” grumbled her friend, turning back to the trinkets.
Tris didn’t hear him; she was too ecstatic. Somewhere in this mass of hoarded knowledge was a bag of treasure (golden trinkets hopefully) hidden away in some hollowed-out book. With great care, she took down a most likely disguise from the Archeology shelf. It read in tarnished gold letters; The Pharaohs of Ancient Khei by Doctor Evelyn Scatterbones.
“Hhhmmm,” she said, flipping through the yellowed pages. “Interesting. I wonder if it has something on how mummies were made. I always wondered how they got the brain out… Whaa?… Aruughhh!!!”
Tris slammed the cover down and stuffed the book back into the shelf, for it was at that moment a hand, that was just parchment skin and bone, came groping out of the illustration.
Gregory raced to her side.
“The heck happen?” he quivered.
“I was nearly throttled by a grubby old corpse!” Tris jabbered. “That’s what happened! By the whiskers of an elderly Banderzate! That bloody mummy book’s haunted!”
“Well, maybe they’re all like that,” said Gregory, looking worried. “Maybe it’s some new security system… You know, keep nosey parkers from sneaking a peek at all the priceless books.”
Tris shook her head, collecting her senses. “Yeah,” she said finally, “but why just the library? Why not the whole dratted collection? Nothing jumped out at us while we were rummaging through those blasted boxes. In fact, I haven’t seen or heard any of her furry sentries. There’s usually one or more lurking about somewhere.”
Gregory shrugged. “Who knows, maybe they’re all asleep? Maybe she’s trying out some new magical defense that specializes in attack book.”
Tris glanced at the other shelves. “Ahhh, they might not be all like that,” she said. “I think I’ll try another, only this time, one with fewer pictures.”
She walked over to the shelf labeled “History.”
Gregory followed, whispering nervously.
“Tris,” he hissed. “We’ve done enough ransacking today; there’s no evidence that Twicky’s a common thief! If she’s really practicing witchcraft; well, that’s her business then. Let’s get the blazes out of here!”
Tris ignored him, choosing a reddish-brown book. The white lettering said, A Biography of Akabar Jones by Lucius Dozoio.
“Hey, I’ve heard of him!” she exclaimed. “He was that pirate who roamed the Khelsi Sea in the year 1718 A. I. Clever bloke, but totally psychotic.”
“Hey, don’t mess with that!” warned Gregory. “If that thing’s magical, it might choke you… or else, give you a severe scorching.”
A gleam of amusement twinkled in Tris’s eyes.
“Yeah, sure,” she said, jokingly. “This is a pint-sized version of the Agrippa. Trust me, Greg. This old book is about as powerful and dangerous as a freaking pot holder.”
Whistling tunelessly, Tris began flipping through the pages full of brightly colored illustrations of dramatic oceanic battles and designs showing the various ships from merchant to marauder.
Then one the pictures began moving before their widening eyes.
“What the…!” Gregory began. “How the…?”
“Magic, my friend,” said Tris softly.
A severely crippled merchant ship wallowed in the swells off a tropical island. Her mainmast was splintered in half by a broadside; her outnumbered Elfin crew were desperately fighting to repel a swarm of boarding pirates, heaving grappling irons, grenades, and sulphur stink bombs. Billowing gray smoke from the battle rose up from the page. Tris wrinkled up her nose.
Gregory shuddered as an Elfin sailor ignited a powder keg to explode in the faces of the onrushing horde. At the head of the charging mob was a nightmarish figure in unkempt clothing, slashing about with a dagger and cutlass. He was lanky with a long gaunt face; wide, pale, penetrating eyes; long, black, stringing hair, and a smiling, slash-like mouth. It was Akabar Jones himself; howling, raging, and cackling like a half-crazed leekarul bird.
Just then there came an ominous whistling sound and a round black object shot up out of the smoke.
A cannonball! Gregory thought, leaping back in terror. Tris, however was too stunned to move. She merely gawked as the as the once distant speck loomed larger and larger.
“Shut it!” Gregory cried. “Shut it for Cripes’s sake!” Backing hastily away, he tripped over a chair, and fell backward with a yell of fright.
The sound of her partner hollering brought Tris to her senses, yet instead of just closing the book, she quickly flipped the page over. A large round bump appeared on the opposite side making the projectile’s point of impact. The page bulged out like an immense bubble, then flattened slowly back to its original form.
“That was freaking close,” Tris said, wiping her brow and grinning with relief. Noticing her friend flat on his back, trembling, she said. “Really, Greg, the fuss you make. You treat a few lively animated books as if they were hideous limb-ripping monsters. I’ve never known anyone who’d panicked like you just did. Keeping calm is simply a matter of quick wit, the ability to keep your head tightly screwed on in a crisis.”
Gregory didn’t answer; he just laid on the floor groaning.
“Are you all right?” asked Tris.
Gregory glared up at her. “Oh fine, just fine,” he said sarcastically. “Simply marvelous. Never enjoyed myself more. Apart from having my face nearly flattened by a bewitched cannonball, bruising my shins black-and-blue, and the fact that my spine and the back of my skull are probably busted. I’m having a wonderful, happy-go-lucky-day.”
He then hauled himself up, refusing Tris’s offers of assistance, and limped towards the door.
“Where are you going?” Tris asked.
“Going? Where do you think I’m going? I’m quitting this bloody half-baked treasure hunt.”
“Quit?” said Tris aghast. “You can’t quit now! We still have to find where Twicky stashed the loot from Hal Gresham’s house! We’ve got to expose her! Show Pierard the evidence! She’s nothing but a common crook on her rise to becoming a worldwide criminal with the help of Gresham’s stolen equipment!”
“Really, Tris,” said Gregory with a sigh, “is that really your intention? Exposing Twicky as some criminal mastermind, or are you really after the heap of treasure which Gresham reportedly stole from the various museums and temples around the world?”
“Oh, come off it, Greg,” said Tris aggrievedly. “You’re just as suspicious as Pascal. What do you think I am, a thieving magpie? I wouldn’t even go rooting through her stuff for a few bits of spare change, let alone a supposedly buried treasure! I’m not that daft…”
She stopped. Feeling movement under her fingers, she glanced down at the book to see what it was, and from that moment on everything promptly went from order to utter chaos.
Tris let out a howl of terror as Akabar came surging out of the page with the rapidness of a charging kraken. Before she could move, a bony, crook-nailed hand reached up and caught the front of her raincoat.
“Gotcha!” shrieked the pirate, dragging Tris down towards the page, its once smooth surface now a raging whirlpool.
Gregory groaned aloud to himself. Oh, why couldn’t we just have a humdrum, ordinary day for a change? He thought in despair.
Chapter 4. What Pierard Found
Pierard went up to the attic to search for some cold weather clothes. If he was going to embark on a polar expedition to the plumber, he would have to prepare himself first.
Where to start? He frowned as he looked about the cluttered corners of the attic. Pierard wished he had brought along some extra help, but then they’d probably make a mess or simply tell him he was crazy for trying to travel in such weather.
I never thought it would be this messy." Pierard wandered over to an old-fashioned, pedal-powered sewing machine that had several wicker sewing baskets stacked on top. A long time ago, someone had used it to make clothes. He wondered whom exactly. He also wondered how trouble went into hauling it up here. It was a really heavy, bulky thing consisting mostly of cast-iron.
Pierard lifted off the lid of one sewing basket and examined the contents with interest. Numerous glass eyes on long silver pins stared blankly back at him. He opened some more baskets; there were scissors shaped like storks, a bunch of small-carved monsters, old bird nests full of glass-eyed insect buttons.
“Weird,” said Pierard, turning away. “I wonder if those once belonged to a loony dressmaker.”
He went to one of the trunks and tugged open the heavy lid. The first thing that caught his eye was a medium size book of dark tropical wood. He took it from the trunk and opened it. Inside he found a shriveled monkey mummy, which some person had cleverly fastened to the tail of a large perch, making a most unpleasant-looking mermaid. On the underside of the monkey-fish was a paper sticker, which read Souvenir of Bombay 1910.
Ruffling his feathers in disgust, Pierard set it aside. Next he found a cricket bat, a small leather-bound book by Par Voltaire, a pith helmet, a moth-eaten snakeskin (probably that of a python or an anaconda), a gold watch chain without a watch, and a dusty pair of half-moon spectacles. Finally the trunk was empty of everything except the bottom layer of dust and long-dead insects.
Pierard, knowing a little bit about hidden panels and pockets, searched the inside of the lid. He didn’t find anything though.
Pierard sighed. It was too bad he didn’t find a pair of snowshoes, or better yet, a heap of hidden wealth. Oh well, he thought, not every chest is full of pirate gold. Maybe something might turn up if I look a bit harder.
Without putting everything back in the first trunk, Pierard went the next trunk. The first thing he saw were clothes, but they weren't the kind that were suitable to wear in cold weather. They were thin silk and lace, hardly enough to dust a fiddle.
Pierard dredged up one such costume. If the dress wasn’t a bright chartreuse I could cut it up for handkerchiefs, he thought, shaking his head in disgust.
Dumping the dress to one side, he continued rummaging through the clothes pile. He found some men’s garments, but they were all very old fashioned and long out-of-style.
“Dress-up, dress-up,” muttered Pierard to himself, “nothing but dress-up.”
He wondered if he had found some of his great Aunt Abigail’s stuff. She was his grandmother’s youngest sister, and wherever she went, she always wore kid gloves and jewelry. She had been a famous actress long before his time.
After some more searching, Pierard finally hauled out some interesting things: a dozen handcrafted walking sticks, a fancy tobacco pipe, and a large photo album with a dark-red velvet cover. Its pages were filled with ancestral pictures of parrots, some of them with labels identifying them. Most of them seemed to have followed nautical occupations; one had served on a warship in the battle of Bamborgoo, which had happened at the turn of the previous century. Another had worked for a sail maker, and one had worked in a store selling supplies to sailors.
Pierard’s eyes lit up with excitement as he turned page after page. It seemed he wasn’t the only one with the urge to adventure on water. Soon he forgot all about preparing for his winter walk to the plumber. The plumbing could take care of itself for all he cared.
As he reached the middle of the album, the pictures became color and more recent. Pierard recognized several people, including his mother, father, and twin brother, Perry. There were pictures of him and Perry when they were small, pink, prehistoric-looking babies, when they were just getting their pinfeathers, and when they were starting school. There were even pictures of the family on vacation. Several of them were taken in Greever, an old ghost town near the windswept beach of Garmirin Split. Pierard had thought the town was great, and would have done his own exploring if given the chance. Perry absolutely hated the place. He said he saw “things”—shadows shaping themselves in corners, wisps of fog with glowing red eyes, faces glimpsed in the woodwork. He also spoke of a lurking presence and an impending sense of doom.
Pierard continued leafing through the remaining pages. When he got to the end, he saw a yellowish envelope taped to the back of the album. Excited, Pierard opened it, half-expecting some money or some rare stamps. What he pulled out instead was a tarnished brass key.
Pierard sighed heavily. Why did it have to be a key, and such an ordinary-looking one too. It looked very similar to the key for his parents’ laundry room.
He was about to slip it back in the envelope when something caught his eye. What had once a moment ago been a blank wall was now a paneled door.
Pierard blinked several times and shook his head. Then he pinched himself, but he wasn’t dreaming. Pierard rubbed his chin as he pondered the strange event. He knew the attic had only one door, and that was for entering and exiting. There were no neighboring houses connecting this one.
Odd, Pierard thought. Could this really be the Secret Room I was looking for for so long? If it is, then I wonder if this key had something to do with it appearing. Cautiously, he walked over and stuck the key into the lock. It turned with a sharp click.
The door swung open, revealing a brightly lit hallway. For a moment, Pierard looked down the passage that lay before him. Then he stepped confidently over the threshold.
Chapter 5. Meanwhile, Back at the House
By now, Akabar had shifted his hold from Tris’s raincoat to around her neck. She choked and struggled to break free, but to no avail; those skinny arms were surprisingly strong.
“Quick… quick …do …something!” yelled Tris, leaping and flailing about. “He’s pullin’ me into the maelstrom!”
“Keep calm!” hollered Gregory. “I’ll hit it with something!”
Looking frantically around, he spied the pillow on Twicky’s bed, and snatched it off the astonished creature that was resting peacefully underneath. Before the sudden disappearance of his warm shelter, the creature had been dreaming. He had dreamt of coyotes, cacti, and of weathered rock formations. He also dreamt of a name; Grixlirr. At this he became excited; Grixlirr! Grixlirr! Yes, now I remember who I am, I’m Grixlirr!
Now he was irritable and a trifle annoyed at being woken up in such a rude fashion. Peering around, he soon spotted what had become of his pillow. A mouse, garbed in yellow rainwear, was using it to clobber a strange, cackling, scarecrow of a monster that remained rooted by its tapered end to a book. It hung, swinging to and fro around the neck of a wild-eyed and wild-haired Churcka. Furious at the treatment it was receiving from the mouse, the monster then seized the pillow and tore it apart with clawed fingers. A cloud of white feathers billowed up into the air, settling over everything like newly fallen snow.
Since everyone was too busy fighting to explain things to him, Grixlirr assumed the people (judging by their waterproof costumes) were fisher folk, and they were being attacked by a Djinn who was enraged at being shut up in a book for so long. Grixlirr was rather puzzled by this “Djinn’s” outfit. Instead of being richly dressed in fine silk clothes and expensive jewels, it wore a billowing black cloak with a three-cornered hat.
After some thought, he came finally to the logical conclusion that Djinns tend to differ in parts of the world , and this particular fellow happened to be one of the more monstrous varieties.
“For Kuriki’s sake!” greeched the Churcka. “Hit ‘em with something harder!”
The mouse, acting on these instructions, seized a leather-bound book from a shelf, but just as he was about to swing it, he paused.
“What are you waiting for?” screamed his friend hysterically. “Hit ‘em with the bloody book!”
“Stand still, for cryin’ out loud!” roared her partner. “I don’t want to hit you!”
The Churcka either didn’t hear or didn’t believe him, for she went on jumping about and waving her arms.
“Go on, man!” she shrieked. “Hit the blooming blighter!”
The mouse sighed, thoroughly exasperated with his colleague, as well as the “Djinn” cackling fiendishly away.
“All right,” he said. “Here it comes!”
He swung the hefty thing… Hard. It missed its target completely, but succeeded in knocking his friend down flat. Amazingly, the Churcka sprang right up. Screeching and still carrying her captor, she raced around the room, overturning furniture and knocking various stuff from the walls and shelves. The mouse rushed after her, shouting and swinging his book.
“Hold still, you fool! Hold bloody still!”
Fearing for his life, Grixlirr decided to retire downstairs. Leaping off the bed, he bolted out the door. As he scurried down the hall, he met a bespectacled Whirlblee coming from the opposite direction. The bird glanced at him curiously, but much to his relief, continued on in the direction of the loud crashes and howls.
By the time Pascal arrived to Twicky’s study, the room looked as if it been hit by a tornado; spilled books, boxes, and overturned furniture lay scattered all round. Tris was collapsed in a trembling, disheveled heap, while nearby, Gregory; muttering wrathfully, was trying to close a book on a snarling, snapping, shaggy-maned head. Finally, he slammed the cover down hard and shoved the still battling book into the shelf.
“What’s going on here?” Pascal demanded, staring in dismay at the mess. “I thought the whole kitchen ceiling was about to collapse!”
Before Gregory could reply, Tris suddenly sat up, caterwauling.
“It’s that bloody Twicky… she’ll be the death of us all! Every book in her sodding library is stuffed with some hideous beastie waiting to snap our heads off! I just now escaped from being mauled by a malevolent Khelsian pirate!”
“But not before trashing Twicky’s room first!” quippled Gregory moodily.
“That’s weird,” said Pascal, mystified. “I always knew Twicky kept watch beasties, but never watch books. Anyway, what were you doing sneaking through her things?”
“‘Sneaking’? We weren’t sneaking!” Tris exclaimed indignantly. “But when Twicky fills every book in this house with bloodthirsty pirates and what not, I think I got just as much right to complain!”
“Oh, do shut up,” said Gregory gravely. Turning to Pascal, he explained,
“Tris thinks Twicky rifled some lethal magic equipment from Hal Gresham’s house…”
“‘Thinks’?” interrupted Tris, springing to her feet. “‘Thinks’? I say she did! How do explain that… that …seagoing scallywag snatching me by the throat? How do explain this?”
Dramatically, she produced from her pants’s pocket a small, brightly polished object.
“A belt buckle?” said Pascal doubtfully.
Tris then eyed it, looking puzzled.
“Ahh… ha-ha,” she said, turning scarlet. “Uhh… Well …Yes. Funny…”
Frowning, she started emptying out her pockets, scattering the contents over the already cluttered floor. “I knew I had that thing somewhere here,” she muttered.
“Here,” growled Gregory, pulling the brass plate from his shirt pocket, and tossing it to Pascal. “Tris gave this to me; said it came off a paperweight Pierard broke.”
After scrutinizing the nameplate, Pascal said, “Well, even if Twicky did steal a paperweight, she couldn’t have stolen a wizard’s arsenal. She wouldn’t know what to do with it in the first place. The only magic she does have a knack of is guessing the right age for an antique.”
While he spoke, Gregory made a half-hearted attempt at cleaning up. Picking a book off the floor, he glanced at the cover. On it was a drab picture showing some edible mushrooms and the title; Mushroom Growing for Fun and Profit. Flipping through it, he paused, eyes narrowing.
“What is it?” asked Pascal, coming over.
“It’s a mushroom ranching book, of course,” said Tris. “What else do you think it is?”
“Well, on the outside, it’s a mushroom farming book,” said Pascal, peering at it closely, “but on the inside, it looks to me like a magic book. In fact, I think it’s one of the most malevolent ones.”
“Which one?” asked Gregory. The Agrisa?”
“No,” replied Pascal. “The Tongue of Basoth. It’s so powerful that at close range, any bit of its essence could animate pictures, as well as statuary.”
“So that’s how she hid them!” exclaimed Tris excitedly. “What a jolly good idea! Hide them under drab boring covers, and let the books guard themselves. No need to stuff your bedroom with malevolent fauna waiting to pounce.”
“Hey, speaking of animals!” exclaimed Pascal, looking around. “Where’s Twicky’s watch beasties?”
“We haven’t seen or heard any beasties while ransacking the place,” replied Tris, fidgeting and looking about the room for feral eyes and twitching, hungry snouts.
“Oh, enough about the beasties!” squeaked Gregory. “What I want to know is what are we going to do about those bloody magic book, and if we got enough time to clean up before you-know-who shows up?”
Pascal soon noticed the curtained door; he cautiously lifted the cloth and poked his head through.
“Careful!” screeched Tris, waving her arms. “Something might snap your head off!”
Pascal soon reappeared, head intact. “You won’t have to worry about anything snapping your head off,” he said soberly, “or any other portion of your anatomy.”
“Really?” said Gregory. “Why is that?”
“Are they all locked up?” inquired Tris, somewhat hopefully.
“They were,” replied Pascal, “but now they’re all gone; gone down someone’s gullet, that is.”
Both Tris and Gregory looked at him, perplexed.
Pascal lifted up the curtain and gestured towards the entrance. “Take a look for yourself.”
The two went in and looked.
“Bores and bailiffs!” exclaimed Tris, eyes widening. “All gone! Nothing left, not even bones! Just bits of fur and feathers!”
“Oh Cripes,” muttered Gregory, staring at all the empty cages. “Twicky’s going to have a fit when she sees this.”
“What do you think it was?” asked Tris, looking questioningly at Gregory. “A cat?”
“A cat wouldn’t have eaten all of the animals,” replied Gregory. “It wouldn’t even been able to open the cages’ doors.”
“Well, whatever it was,” said Tris tentatively, “I’m sure it’s something not to be scared of… if it only eats small stuff.”
“Uhh… I wouldn’t be so sure of that,” said Pascal squirming uncomfortably.
“Why’d you say that?” asked Gregory nervously.
“Because what did that used fingers,” replied Pascal, “and the thing I saw a few minutes ago running down the hall had hands as well as fingers, and I’m quite sure it wasn’t one of Twicky’s pets.”
“Ehh… Why is that?” asked Tris panicky-like.
“Because Twicky prefers pets that are not of the species draconis,” Pascal pointed out.
“Ah Guhk!” Tris choked, turning as pale as plaster.
“What’s the matter with you?” Gregory demanded, fur bristling.
“That thing Pascal saw!” Tris gasped. “I think I know where it came from!”
“Well, where did it come form?” Pascal exclaimed impatiently. “Was it hatched?”
“No, it came from the paperweight Pierard busted,” Tris spluttered. “The snow globe Twicky claimed to have gotten from a flea market.”
Hurriedly, she told them Pierard’s story. How the fake snow formed itself into a “dragon-headed snake” that sprang at the glass, causing him to drop the cheap orb. How the snow mysteriously disappeared when he went to sweep up.
“What are we gonna do?” Tris wailed. “It’s growing, you know, and I don’t think it’s gonna stop. We’re all gonna be et by a snow globe monster!”
“Look,” said Gregory firmly, grasping Tris by the shoulders. “Just relax now. There’s nothing to worry about. It’s already had lunch, and I’m sure it’s not going to get any bigger.”
Then whispering frantically to Pascal, “What are we going to do now? First demonically possessed books, now a dragon running loose somewhere!”
Pascal fidgeted nervously and looked at his feet. He wasn’t good at fixing things; the plumbing episode was proof of that. How could he possibly help find a solution to these problems? After some thought, a solution did come.
Pascal cleared his throat. “I’ll tell you what we’re going to do,” he said firmly. “First, we’re going to tidy up Twicky’s study…”
“And those ghastly magic books?” quavered Tris.
“Put them back where you found them,” Pascal answered, feeling quite brave.
Gregory could hardly believe his ears.
“What?” he exclaimed. “Just leave them here… not take them to the authorities?”
“You have got to be kidding,” said Tris, shaking her head.
“I’m sorry,” said Pascal, trying to look wise and solemn, “but I just can’t believe Twicky would all at once start practicing black magic. I think she brought those books, thinking they were just regular books. If I were you, I’d leave them alone. Let Twicky find out for herself.”
“I hope you’re right,” Gregory said dismally. “So, about this snow globe critter?”
“The monster hunt’s going to have to wait,” Pascal replied. “First priority’s cleaning Twicky’s room.”
“But what about Twicky’s pets?” Tris insisted. “We just can’t have their remains laying out in plain view for her to find. Maybe we could bury them… say, they escaped…”
“No,” said Pascal, shaking his head. He looked grimly at banquet table. “Better leave them where they are. She’s got to find out sooner or latter.”
Cheryl glared out of the window of her room.Outside, the view was all the same- white flakes whirling around everywhere. She was angry because the water-valve was in a most inconvenient spot. It was located, after an arduous search, underneath the house and the only passage to it was a crawlspace which was approximately eighteen inches from the floor joists to the ground, just enough room for a person to scoot along on his or her back. However, there were people in this house that were smaller than the average person, but they absolutely refused the job of turning off the valve.
“We don’t want to go down there!” they shrilled, shrinking away from the opening. “It’s dark and ooky, and it’s full of horrid things that would eat us in one gulp!”
Cheryl couldn’t blame them. The hole did look kind of dark and ominous-looking. She was about to go down there herself when someone stepped from the covering crowd. It was a dragon-like beast, about the size of one of those Chihuahua dogs. The newcomer, however, wasn’t as cute as those little dogs, and those bright purple eyes gave Cheryl the willies.
Cheryl watched as the creature bowed deeply to her, and then without further ado vanished down the crawl space. There was a long pause before the squeak, squeak, squeak of rusted metal turning was heard. Before long, the creature emerged and everyone applauded- everyone that is, except Cheryl, who merely looked speculatively at the small reptilian helper.
“Wait!” said Cheryl when it began to skitter away. “I haven’t seen you before. I’m Cheryl, by the way. What’s your name, or do you have a name?”
“My name’s Grixlirr,” it said, “and you’ll probably see me again pretty soon.”
What a weird critter, she thought, staring out at the falling snow. Would Pierard invite such a beastie and where is Pierard anyway? Probably snowed in somewhere between here and Tyee City. The numbskull.
Chapter 6. Welcome to Wadsworth Inn
I’m like Slausen the Explorer, Pierard thought excitedly, or maybe Eliza in Bamboozle Land.
He took his time looking at the luxurious interior. The floor was an ornamental arrangement of different colored wood; Pierard couldn’t remember what it was called at the moment. There were also fancy tables displaying priceless vases and bowls, and paintings that shimmered to life whenever he examined them closely. As he stood there, watching the moving pictures, he heard something in the distance. It was a woman’s voice singing—a soft, bell-like sound.
Whiffleberries taste so neat
Crispy crunch and sweetly sweet
Beady eyes and skinny feet
I like to crush their tiny bones.
Not a very pretty song if you ask me, thought Pierard. Nice-sounding voice though. Wonder if the singer’s as lovely--looking as she sounds.
Walking in the direction of the voice, he soon came to an open door. Peering inside, he saw a kitchen awash with soft light and appetizing smells. A woman stood at the stove with her back to Pierard. She was busy stirring a kettle of bubbling something that looked like soup. Pierard thought she looked a bit like a Gypsy. She wore a bright flowery dress and red scarf bound back her long dark hair.
The woman turned and looked at him. She had a delicate, pale face and large, sea green eyes.
“Well, come in, young friend,” said the woman, motioning him to a chair. “You must be starving.”
“Ehh, begging your pardon,” said Pierard politely, “but I didn’t mean to intrude. I sort of came here accidentally.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” said the woman, beaming. “Everyone’s welcomed to Wadsworth Inn. Come in, come in, and don’t be shy.”
Hesitantly, Pierard walked in and sat himself down at the kitchen table. He heard his stomach grumbling and realized he was hungrier than he thought. Within a few minutes the woman set before him a steaming plate full of crayfish garnished with chopped tomatoes and herbs.
Pierard ate his meal at a leisurely pace, savoring each tender and tasty little tidbit. This was an entirely different dish from one Pascal served a while back. That was a huge platter of crawdads that had been boiled whole in water flavored with white wine, bay leaves, and several different spices. Although they were lavishly decorated with sprigs of parsley and tiny halves of cherry tomatoes, they were a nasty, muddy-tasting mess. Apparently Pascal thought shelling and cleaning the crayfish was a very tedious job, so he decided to dispense with the difficulties by boiling and serving the things whole.
“Hey, this is good!” he exclaimed. “I never tasted anything more delicious!”
“Not too spicy?”
“It’s excellent,” said Pierard, delighted. “Thank you.”
“You’re very welcome,” said the woman with a gracious smile. “Would you like something to drink?”
Pierard nodded. “Sure,” he said. “Oh, by the way, my name’s Pierard.”
“Delighted to meet,” said the woman. “Mine’s Mirian Linele. I’m the proprietor here.”
“Oh,” mumbled Pierard. “Well, should I call you Miss or Mrs. Linele then?”
“No, Mirian’s just fine,” Mirian replied. “I’ve not married, and I hate having to use those formal titles of address. They’re so… what’s the word I’m looking for?”
“Stuffy,” suggested Pierard.
“Yes, that’s it!” exclaimed Mirian. “Stuffy!”
She soon brought him a brimming mug of wine, and then sat down opposite Pierard. The parrot took one sip from his mug. His eyes grew wide.
“This is great!” he said. “It’s so spicy and tingly!”
Mirian smiled. “The wine’s favored by the fruit of the flappernog tree,” she explained. “The groves are guarded by Snallygaster birds; hence the name of the bottle- ‘Snallygaster’s Roost.’”
Pierard looked around with interest. “So where exactly is this Wadsworth Inn?” he wondered.
“At the top of Rivkin Hill,” Mirian replied, “just across from the Gilford Lighthouse.”
“Rivkin Hill?” Pierard cried in amazement, “Why, that’s where all the posh places are! Now I really must be dreaming…”
“How’s your appetite?” inquired Mirian abruptly.
“I have less of an appetite than when I started,” replied Pierard, “though I just might have room for a second helping.”
“Then what you’re experiencing isn’t a dream,” said Mirian. She made a sweeping gesture with her arm. “If all of this was a dream, you wouldn’t to be able smell or taste that delicious meal.”
“No illusions,” said Pierard thoughtfully. “That’s good.”
After he had finished eating, Mirian took Pierard on a tour of the place. He stared in awe at the palace-like furnishings. This was more like a first rate hotel than a modest inn, Pierard thought, suddenly feeling apprehensive. Only the upper crusts are allowed here. The rest of us crumbs get to stay in the cheap leaky shacks along the shore.
“How come I never heard of this place?” he asked as he followed Mirian up the grand staircase.
“We have a very exclusive clientele,” she replied.
“No common folk, I suppose,” Pierard murmured regretfully. “Too bad I left my wallet at home.”
“No payment is required for your visit,” said Mirian with a chuckle. “It’s absolutely free of charge.”
“Really?” said Pierard, astonished. “Why’s that? Is it because I’m your one thousandth customer or something?”
"No, because you’re special,” replied Mirian, sweetly.
“You came by the Secret Way.”
“The Secret Way?” said Pierard quizzically. “All I did was find this old brass key.”
“That opens up the Way for you,” said Mirian with a little smile.
“Do you have a lot of guests who come here by the Secret Way?”
Mirian shook her head.
“Just a few,” she replied. “There are other ways of getting to Wadsworth Inn, but most people are just too busy to notice them.
They reached the top of the stairs, and headed down another corridor lined with portraits. A spectacled girl with short red hair and large amber eyes was coming in the opposite direction.
“This is Claire Vandemar,” Mirian said, “She’s a famous poet.”
“Hello,” said Claire, coming over. “You must be Pierard.”
“How’d you know?”
“Word gets around.”
“Did you come here by the Secret Way?”
“No. I came here by bus along with an assorted collection of odd balls. The driver came close to having a nervous breakdown on account of the loud bickering and singing.”
“One of my roommates is a poet,” Pierard told her. “She had stuff published in the local newspaper. Maybe you two could get together sometime and write some sonnets.”
“Well, maybe I should,” Claire replied thoughtfully. “I’ve been having one of my periodic dry spells. That’s why I came up here in the first place. To get some inspiration.”
“Maybe you could get some inspiration from this weird weather we’re having,” suggested Pierard.
Claire gave him a smile.
“You know, that’s the first good idea I’ve heard all morning,” she said. “I’d better go get my notepad. I’ll see you around, okay?”
And with that she sauntered off down the hall.
“Miss Vandemar’s really nice,” said Mirian, as they resumed walking. “Her family’s really old. They got roots dating back to Pre-Roman times. I forget which country it was; it’s either France or Belgium.” Anyway, they all had to emigrate on account of the witch hunters.”
“Humans,” muttered Pierard, shaking his head glumly. “Nothing but murderous, vicious brutes.”
Curiously, he glanced back over his shoulder, but Claire was gone. What he saw instead was a large fox looking back at him. Pierard eyed the creature warily. He wasn’t overly fond of foxes; they were such unpredictable creatures. Even if this one was a household pet, who’s to say it wouldn’t revert to its foxy instincts and snatch him up in its jaws.
He was about to voice his concerns to Mirian, when he heard the faintest of whispers in his ear. “It isn’t me you should be worried about.”
Pierard felt his feathers standing on end. When he glanced back again, the fox was gone. He looked around fearfully; each shadow seemed to hold a menacing shape and they seem to change when he looked away. He heard a high-pitched grating noise, which seemed to be near. It was the sound of his own beak as he grated it in nervous fear.
Then the shadows were suddenly all around him, crowding in closer and closer. Cringing, he wrapped his wings around his head and shut his eyes tight.
“Go away!” he screeched. “Leave me alone!”
“Pierard?” a voice called out. “Pierard!”
“No, stay away!”
“Pierard! It’s all right!” someone was shaking him hard.
Blinking slowly, Pierard opened his eyes. The hallway was bright again. Mirian was gripping him gently by the shoulder.
Still trembling, Pierard removed his wings from around his head. Looking left and right, he found that the shadows had vanished.
Relieved, he took a deep breath and pulled free of Mirian’s grasp. It was only my imagination overacting, he thought.
“You’re safe,” said Mirian kindly, rubbing Pierard on the head. “The ghosts won’t hurt you.”
Pierard stared at her in amazement and horror. “Those are ghosts? I thought they were demons!”
“Silly parrot,” Mirian chided him “Would I keep demons in an honest establishment like this? You think I’m a slomgath—a dark witch?”
“Sorry,” said Pierard quietly. “I didn’t mean to criticize. It’s just that they all seemed rather malevolent.”
“They’re just playing with you,” assured Mirian. “Torian ghosts have a reputation for being mischievous.”
“Well, that’s a relief to hear,” said Pierard uncertainly.
Mirian looked at him with utmost sincerity. “I promise, I won’t let them bother you.”
Chapter Seven. A Winter’s Tale to Tremble By—An Interlude
The dining room was now chock-full of Pierard’s friends. They all crowded cozily around the warm stove, some sipping their hot cocoa or coffee in quiet contentment, others chatting how this strange weather was affecting their lives and how there was going to be trouble when the snows started to melt. Even the Frizzle Fracks came in, shredding their wintry personas as polar bears and white wolves for the prospect of warm chocolate and a spot beside a roaring fire. Few if any wondered where Pierard was at the moment; the warm, pleasant atmosphere made everyone too lazy to speculate or care.
“Twicky, tell us a story!” said a Porcine named Cecil. He was a small pig like fellow with a tuft of bristly brown hair and a turned-up snout with a silver ring in it.
The Klantahern ruffled her feathers in annoyance. All she wanted to do was relax and drink her coffee in peace.
“Why are you always badgering me for a story?” she said. “Why don’t you ask someone else? What about Cheryl? She knows a lot of old ballads. I’m sure you’ll find a lot of them amusing and memorable.”
“Cheryl’s in her room taking a nap,” replied Cecil.
Probably feigning sleep to keep people from bothering her, thought Twicky grumpily.
“Well, what about Captain Yar?” she said impatiently. “I bet that ole steamboat specter knows all kinds of exciting adventure stories.”
“I think Yar went home,” a Whirlblee told her. “We went to look for him for a game of poker, but we couldn’t find him anywhere.”
“Well, what about Smoky there?” said Twicky, jerking her head toward the elderly Growlzer. “He knows a lot of great stories—mostly bawdy though, but you might enjoy them.”
“He’s snoozing,” said an ugly cat-like Gibblian named Garth.
“It would be rude to wake him,” informed his equally hideous sister, Greta.
“Yes,” chorused the others (the Frizzle Fracks making the loudest demands). “Tell us a story, Twicky!”
“Oh, all right,” said Twicky, as soon as the clamoring died down. “I’ll tell you a story. One with plenty of sunshine to drive away the winter blahs.”
“No, I’m sick of those kinds of stories,” said Cecil peevishly. “I want to hear some really scary stuff, and no plain old ghost stories. I want to be scared stiff, not bored to tears.”
There were a few gasps of amazement and some whispering.
“Isn’t it bad luck to tell creepy stories during the winter,” a Faun finally asked.
“Who says?” said Cecil sullenly.
“The Elders say,” said Twicky, giving him a serious look. “In the summer when Windigos are hibernating and the night creatures are at their Hundred Monsters Festival, then it’s okay to tell such stories. In Winter, we only tell comedies and nonsense tales.”
“Traditional dramas and mysteries too,” clucked a chicken like Kikimora.
“Sheesh!” Cecil cried in disgust. “Are those the only choices? I’d rather have my ears pierced and painted puke-green than listen to some lame-brained story about spring blossoms and swan princesses.”
“That’s too bad,” said Twicky sternly, “but you know the rules. No tale spinning about strange macabre things, else they might overhear and come by for a visit.”
“Oh, like they’re going to drop by in the middle of a raging blizzard,” said Cecil sourly. “They’ll be frozen dead-solid before they ever get to the front porch. Look, Twicky, this is the right time to tell monster stories. The monsters around here have either migrated to warmer parts or are snowed in like us.”
Encouraged by Cecil, everyone then began pestering Twicky for a suitable scary story.
“Okay, okay,” said Twicky, finally fed up with her noisy compatriots. “I’ll tell you a story I heard from a Gerdin last summer. But I must warn you, while I’m telling it, I don’t want any interruptions. No questions, comments, or loud boorish talk. The first person that interrupts has to help clean the house. Is that understood?”
Everyone nodded. No one wanted to be stuck with cleaning duty—or in Zeph Nesbit’s case, cooking duty. This was done to keep him out of further mischief.
Twicky then told them a story about three clueless brothers who, upon returning from a party, discovered a drunken demon rollicking about in their house. When she was done, everyone gave her a standing ovation.
Everyone that is, except Cecil.
“It was okay,” he said, frowning deeply, “for a traditional folk tale twice as old as the mountains and nearly as old as the sea.”
“Okay, wise guy,” said Twicky, rather nettled at Cecil’s disparaging remark. “Let’s hear your monster story then.”
Cecil snorted loudly.
“With pleasure,” he grunted. “I’ll tell you a ghastly tales. It’s called ‘The Baxter Street Horror,’ and it’s all true too.”
Then he immediately launched into a weird and frightening tale about a house his family had once owned. It was haunted, of course, but not by any ghost. The haunter was something scarier—a large, rat-like thing with matted gray fur and a long snaky snout.
When Cecil was finished, there was silence, followed in a few minutes by murmurs of awe and some hesitant hand clapping.
“Chez, that was scary,” said a Frizzle Frack
“Totally scary,” agreed another.
“I’ll never look at household pests the same way again,” yelped a Growlzer.
“I’ll think twice before going into the crawlspace of my house!” shrilled a Whirlblee.
“Or my attic,” muttered the Faun.
“I sure hate to think what would have happened if that critter landed on my head,” laughed Garth weakly.
“Probably mess my pants!”
Twicky, however, wasn’t impressed.
“I can’t believe this,” she said, eyeing Cecil skeptically. “You all had to move out on account of a mutant possum?”
“Hey, it wasn’t a mutant possum!” said Cecil indignantly. “It was an evil spirit!”
“Uh-huh,” muttered Twicky, not quite convinced.
“We all had to pack up and get out because of its creeping and stinking,” Cecil went on. “And this was after several attempts to exorcise the place.”
Leaning back in his armchair, he heaved a heavy sigh as he exclaimed:
“There isn’t enough money in the world that would make me go back to that place again!”
“Know any more chilling tales?” a Kappa asked him.
“I told my share,” answered Cecil, still recovering his nerve after his harrowing narrative. “Let someone else have a go at it.”
“Anyone else got a creepy tale to tell?” asked the Kappa, looking around the crowded circle.
“I know a phantom hand in the soup story,” chirped a Griffin.
This prompted a chorus of groans and comments like “Boooorrrrring” or “That story’s so old that it’s one the trilobites told to each other.”
The hubbub promptly ceased when they all heard a soft, cooing voice say, “I know a good story.”
They all turned round.
Seated near the middle of the cluster was a person they didn’t remember seeing before—a young, pretty woman with bright green eyes and wavy black hair tied back with a red handkerchief.
“Hi, “I’m Mirian Linele,” she said cheerfully, “but you could just call me Mirian.”
Twicky stared at her in surprise. “Say, I don’t remember you at yesterday’s party.”
“That’s because I was one of the latecomers,” explained Mirian.
“Meaning she snuck in,” Garth snickered.
“Now, Garth,” said Greta sternly, “don’t you start pointing fingers. A lot of people snuck in.”
Cecil regarded the newcomer speculatively. “You said you have a story?” he said finally.
Mirian nodded. “I do,” she said, “and it’s a really frightening one.”
Cecil narrowed his eyes to slits and folded his arms.
“This better not be a typical monster story,” he said sulkily. “I heard enough same-olds where the whatever’s going around eating people and leaving the leftovers lying around in plain sight.”
“No fearsome monsters with a taste for people flesh in this one,” Mirian reassured him.
“And this story isn’t going to be about an old creepy-looking house or graveyard?” barked a Growlzer.
“Wait and see,” suggested Twicky, shushing him.
“Now that I have all your attention,” said Mirian, as soon as everyone had quieted down, “I will now tell you a tale that will not only arouse your fickle interest, but will also give you plenty of shivers. It’s called The Inn of Shadows... or---”
At this point, she said the words in an eerie, whispery voice---‘The One who waits.’
Twicky frowned as she nervously fiddled with one of her side-whiskers.
“Chez, I hope this isn’t going to be one of those appalling ‘jump’ stories,” she said under her breath. “If she jumps at me, I’ll probably end up spilling hot coffee in my lap.”
“There was once this girl named Arianne,” said Mirian, “and she lived with her parents near Garmirin Split.”
Cecil’s eyes widened. “Garmirin Split?” he burst in. “Hey, I’ve been there! Really creepy place it was. It’s got this totally cool ghost town…”
“Hush up!” shouted Twicky, losing her cool. “I want to hear this!”
Mirian continued, “Arianne was always carrying around a notebook for jotting down ideas. She wanted to become a famous writer one day, to be able to write best-selling stories and make a whole lot of money. But such a career was hard to come by without prior knowledge and experience, and Arianne wasn’t able to focus on one idea long enough to write even a short story.
“It was a warm autumn afternoon, and Arianne was in the woods behind her house, searching for inspiration. Both of her parents were in town shopping and looking at secondhand stores. Before they left, they had asked if she wanted to come too, but Arianne had said no. She was much too busy working on her latest project—a suspense tale. As usual, she couldn’t think of a good beginning. She just stared at the blank paper, totally stumped.”
At this moment Smoky, the old Growlzer, woke up with a snort.
“What I miss?” he said, yawning loudly and showing all his stained and yellowed teeth.
Greta carefully recited to him what had just been told. A gleam of interest crept into his eyes. “Oh-ho, a hair-raising tale,” drawled Smoky, sitting up. “About time someone tells us one of those.”
Mirian waited patiently until Smoky was done stretching and scratching himself, and then continued.
“After an hour of pondering, she finally threw down her notebook, and started pacing back and forth.
“‘Hey, watch it! You nearly stepped on me!’
“Bewildered, Arianne looked down and to her surprise saw a white weasel glaring up at her.
“‘Sorry, so sorry,’ she muttered apologetically.
“‘I can’t believe this,’ thought Arianne. ‘I’m actually talking to a weasel.’
“‘Why are you walking back and forth like that?’ the weasel asked. ‘You lose something? Your brain, perhaps?’
“‘No, my inspiration,’ answered Arianne stiffly. ‘I got a severe case of writer’s block.’
“‘What a rude little beast,’ she thought.
“‘Writer’s block, ehh?’ the weasel said thoughtfully. ‘You should try the Wadsworth Inn. It’s full of interesting things to write about.’
“‘What sort of things?’ asked Arianne, somewhat skeptical.
“‘Oh, wondrous things of every imaginative type, enough to satisfy your every whim,’ the weasel replied brightly. ‘Enough to get that dried up creative fountainhead of yours flowing once again.’
“‘Is this place very far from here?’ said Arianne.
“‘Not far at all,’ the weasel replied, ‘just across these woods.’
“‘I don’t know,’ said Arianne uncertainly. ‘My parents said they were going to be home pretty soon.’
“‘Suit yourself,’ said the weasel, turning away. ‘If you don’t want any help with your writing, that’s fine by me. I’ll just go find more promising candidate for this adventure.’
“‘Wait!’ said Arianne. ‘I want to come. I really do. But only for a few minutes.’
“‘Good,’ said the weasel, its mouth curling into a wide smile. ‘You won’t regret it one bit. I promise.’
“So off they went, the weasel leading the way and Arianne trying to keep up. After walking for some time along a path overgrown with scratchy brambles and sword ferns, they finally came to a gap in the trees. Ahead of them was a large gorgeous house surrounded by velvety green lawns and neat flowerbeds.
“‘Is that it?’ said Arianne, staring in disbelief.
“Arianne shook her head in bewilderment and walked out of the forest. ‘It looks more like a mansion than a simple inn,’ she said.
“‘Not all inns are simple,’ informed the weasel.
“‘So all I have to do is knock on the door?’ muttered Arianne, nervously surveying the garden.
“‘Yes, all you have to do is knock.’
“‘What if they don’t like the way I’m dressed?’ said Arianne faintly.
“The weasel sighed. ‘Look,’ he said firmly. ‘There’s a woman who owns the place called Nellie Mairim, and she’s expecting you. Not only can she give you the very best food and hospitality you can find, but she also know the answers to all your problems.’
“‘Sort of like an oracle?’ said Arianne.
“‘Better,’ answered the weasel.
“‘And all I have to do is knock on the door, and she’ll let me in.’
“‘You got it.’
“Arianne started walking toward the house, but then she looked back.
“‘Hey, aren’t you coming?’ she asked.
“‘Can’t,’ the weasel replied. ‘I’m awfully busy.’
“‘Well, okay then,’ said Arianne brightly. ‘Thanks for guiding me here. Maybe I’ll see you again. So long.’
The weasel watched her as she walked up slowly up the brick walk leading to the front porch.
“‘No,’ it said with a mirthless laugh. ‘You won’t be seeing me at all.’
Then it ran back into the trees, and with every step it took, it grew a little bigger and a little less furry. Its limbs lengthened and so did its stride; its body straightened and changed. By the time it stumbled out of the forest behind Arianne’s house, the last traces of white fur had vanished from its human form. Looking up at the blue sky, it let out a triumphant shriek that sent the pigeons flapping from the trees overhead.
“‘I’m free!’ shouted an exact twin of Arianne.
Cecil had drawn up his knees to his chin.
“Blimey,” he said under his breath. “That’s pretty scary.”
Mirian heard him. “It gets even better,” she said with a smile. “While the weasel was shifting its shape, Arianne had just climbed the porch steps and was now knocking on the front door.
“‘Good afternoon,’ said a pale, dark-haired woman who answered the door. “You must be Arianne.’
“Startled, Arianne leaped back nearly falling off the front porch.
“‘And you must be Nellie Mairin,’ she said tentatively. ‘Am I right?’
“‘Yes, I am,’ the woman replied cheerfully. ‘Please, call me Nell. It’s much better-sounding than Nellie or Miss Mairin.’
“‘Okay,’ said Arianne meekly. She hesitated for a moment. ‘Ehh… I’m here because this weasel told me you could help with my writer’s block.’
“‘Oh, yes, Natasha mentioned you to me,’ said Nell. ‘I hope she wasn’t too rude when she brought you over here.’
“‘She wasn’t,’ murmured Arianne with a shrug.
“‘Well, come on,’ said Nell, standing aside and holding open the door, ‘and I’ll try to help you with your writing.’
“She led Arianne inside, and then prepared a splendid lunch for her. After Arianne had finished eating, Nell led her to an upstairs study on the third floor. It was a fine and spacious room with large round windows. A black lacquered writing desk adorned with inlaid dragons of Mother-of-Pearl sat facing one window.
“‘This desk was used by many famous writers and poets during their stays here,’ Nell explained. ‘Over the years, some of their life essences have seeped into the wood.’
“‘So what do I do exactly?’ asked Arianne. ‘Brush the wood and hope some of this essence-stuff rubs off?’
“‘Just sit down and write,’ Nell replied. ‘Write down anything that comes to mind. It helps the inspiration more if you use that inkstand and dragon quill pen. You can stay here as long as you want.’
“‘Thanks, but I can’t stay long,’ said Arianne.
“‘You do whatever you wish,’ Nell replied before walking out.
“Arianne sat down at the desk, and within thirty seconds had filled up the first five pages of her notebook. She wrote fast, flicking tiny droplets of ink over herself as well as the paper. ‘This is incredible,’ she muttered to herself. ‘I’m actually getting something done.’
“Time crept by, and Arianne had just completed several short stories, including a really scary one. She was scribbling away on the very last page, when she happened to glance up. Through the window, she saw the last glimmer of sunlight fading before the rapidly growing dark.
“Swearing, Arianne snatched up her notebook and stumbled out of her chair. Having become too absorbed in her work, she had forgotten about the time. Her parents were probably having hysterics by now, and the police were probably out scouring the woods, as well as the surrounding countryside.
“Arianne staggered and lurched to the door. She was so stiff from sitting for so long that it took awhile to regain her coordination. Opening the door quietly, she stepped out into the dimly lit hall. As she tiptoed toward the stairs, Arianne wondered why Nell didn’t come tell her that it was getting late and she needed to go home. Maybe the innkeeper became distracted with the arrival of some new guests. Maybe in all the hustle and bustle she had completely forgotten about Arianne. That would definitely explain it.
“It was really quiet. The only sound she could hear was the rustle of her feet against the carpeted floor, but somehow she got the nagging feeling that she was being followed. Looking over her shoulder, she saw to her dismay that she was being followed after all. They were coming out of the rooms on both sides of the hall—sharp-nosed people with bluish-black hair and bright yellow catlike eyes.
“Arianne quickened her pace with growing alarm.“Then she heard a chittering sound directly above her head. Looking up, she saw a rippling swarm of white weasels scurrying upside down on the ceiling. They seemed to glow in the dark, and their gleaming red eyes seemed to burn like coals in a blast furnace.
“With a burst of energy, Arianne plunged toward the stairs. As she was rushing downstairs, she happened to glance over at a mirror hanging on the wall. A chill ran down her back. The mirror reflected her face—and someone else’s.
“It was the most ghastly face she had ever seen. The slimy green skin was drawn tightly over narrow bony features. Thin, fish-pale lips formed a wide grin over long gleaming teeth. The eyes were wide, piercing, and of a luminescent green, and in place of hair was a wriggling mass of tentacles with toothless mouths.
“With a shrill scream, Arianne ran down the stairs and into the front entryway where she crashed right into Nell.
“Nell dropped to her knees and gave her a comforting hug. ‘What’s going on? What happened? I thought you left hours ago!’
“‘I saw… saw strange things,’ stammered Arianne, tears running down her face.
“‘What did you see?’ asked Nell gently.
“‘Ah,’ said Arianne, trembling all over. ‘I saw weird beaky-nosed people with eyes like cats.’
“‘Oh, those are just some of the guests from Boulderville,’ said Nell with a blasé wave of her hand. ‘They’re really harmless.’
“‘Then I saw a bunch of white weasels running along the ceiling!’ gasped Arianne.
“Nell gave her a reassuring smile. ‘Those are just some of my servants. Nothing to worry about.’
“‘But… but the worst thing of all I saw in the mirror above the stairs.’
“Nell’s eyes narrowed slightly. ‘And what did you see in the mirror?’
“‘I… I… saw a rotting green man!’ Arianne croaked out. ‘He had eels instead of hair!’
Suddenly she froze. She stared as the greenish patches appeared all over Nell’s face and hands. Stared as Nell’s lips pulled back into a maniacal grin, showing teeth as sharp as saw blades.
“‘Ah ha,’ the Nell-thing said, its voice growing deep and metallic-sounding. ‘So you’ve seen a Garkain’s true face. Well, allow me to introduce myself then. I’m Allien Mierin, dweller of the dark and lonely places, snarer and swallower of souls, devourer of the unwary… and the innocent.’
“Terrified, Arianne tried to run, but she couldn’t break free of those bony arms and the nest of snaky locks. Within seconds, all that remained of her was a dried husk and a notebook, which the Garkain finished with the appropriate words:
There was silence in the dining room. All eyes were on Mirian. Twicky sipped her coffee. It was cold, but she sipped it anyway to make sure her hand was still functioning properly.
“Geeze!” Garth finally exclaimed. “That’s creepy!”
“Really creepy!” muttered Greta.
“First-rate!” said a Frizzle-Frack.
“I quite agree,” said the Kappa. “That story deserves first prize.”
“Is it real?” the Faun asked nervously.
“Of course it’s not real,” Cecil told him, frowning. “It’s all made up. If it was real, it would have all been in the paper.”
“I don’t think you’ll find too many monster stories in the paper,’ said Twicky, stretching lazily.
“That’s because most of the witnesses get eaten,” remarked Smoky sagely.
“I still think it’s real,” the Faun muttered. “Maybe we should go back home.”
Garth grinned at him. “Whatsa matter?” he chortled. “You a Fraidycat?”
“No, I’m not!” the Faun said, indignantly. “I just don’t like being around after a scary story just been told, because I know something bad going to happen.”
“Mew-mew-mew-phtt!” Garth mocked.
“Stuff it!” the Faun scowled.
“Careful, Garth,” the Kikimora cackled. “The Garkain might be with us right now, waiting to suck out your innards.”
“Aw, you guys are a bunch of lily-livered puss willows,” Cecil snorted.
“Well, what about you, Cecil?” reminded Twicky. “I saw you cringe a few times.”
“I wasn’t cringing!” Cecil snapped. “I was… I was swatting at those pesky little flies!” He began swatting at invisible flies, “Nasty little blighters! Look at all of ‘em!”
“Would you like to see a big surprise?” asked Mirian.
Cecil instantly ceased his swatting and slapping. “Trick?” he said, “Oh… Ah …Sure. Go ahead!”
“First, I need a pencil and paper.”
A pencil and paper was quickly procured.
“Now watch this,” Mirian fluted. With a flourish, she wrote down the name:
“Well, what’s the big surprise?” Cecil muttered. “It’s just the alias of that monster innkeeper in the story.”
“Shh, there’s more,” Twicky whispered to him.
Everyone watched as Mirian wrote down another name underneath the first:
“That’s really smashing!” said Greta.
“Very clever,” Twicky remarked.
“Hey, I get it now!” exclaimed Cecil. “It’s an anagram.”
“Very good, piggy-wiggy,” crooned Mirian. “Now watch the pencil carefully. Here comes the big surprise!”
The she added a third name to the list:
Everyone stared at the name in growing disbelief and horror.
“So the story’s true then,” gasped Twicky.
“You’re… you’re… tha… tha… that… thing from Wadsworth Inn!” stammered Cecil. “The Garkain!”
“Quite right, lil’ piggy!” Mirian laughed, her voice suddenly become hard and raspy. “I’m Nellie Mairin, and I’m Mirian Linele…”
Her green eyes were now glaring brightly, and her hair wiggled about like a squirm of worms. Then Mirian’s human form vanished and something monstrous stood in its place. It was just like in the story- the long octopi hair, the green skin oozing with slime, and that hideous toothy grin. However, the story made no mention of a fancy suit and bow tie.
“…But my real name’s Allien Mierin, if you hadn’t already guessed.”
The tentacles lashed out to wrap around waists and ankles. Everyone began to scream at once.
Chapter 8. The Cavalry Arrives
Pascal, Tris and Gregory were still trying to clean up the mess in Twicky’s room. It was proceeding very slowly because Pascal kept finding interesting books to read and Tris had found a collection of throwing knives and stars and was practicing sticking them in a dartboard. Gregory was scolding and fussing at the other two when they all heard the shrieks from the living room.
Pascal jerked his head up from his book; he looked at Gregory in bewilderment. “Do you hear that?” he asked.
Gregory nodded, furrowing his brow. Boy, he thought, and I was just thinking of how nice it would be to go downstairs for some peace and quiet.
Tris glanced toward the door. “Sounds like Pierard’s throwing another party,” she said, shaking her head sadly. “It’s a shame I’m too busy drudging to join in with the fun.” Then she went back to trying to extract a throwing blade from the board. Cursing, she wrestled with it, ignoring the fact that the star was deeply embedded into the wall.
“Try not to ruin the board,” Pascal advised.
“Hey, come on, Tris!” Gregory exclaimed. “Leave that nasty thing alone! We got to find out what’s happening downstairs!”
“Leave it? Leave it?” Tris screeched. “Is your noggin working properly, Greg? Leaving it would be a really big mistake! You want Twicky finding out we’ve been in her room?”
Just then a familiar voice cried out. “Help! Help!”
Tris’s ears perked up. “Hey, that sounded like Twicky,” she gasped.
“Help! Somebody!” the voice cried again.
“Crikey, I wonder what her problem is,” said Tris, shaking her head. “You think Zeph Nesbit might have released a swarm of pincer-feet caterpillars?”
“I think it’s something much more serious than plain-old garden pests,” Gregory replied gravely. He selected a sword from an umbrella stand and headed straight for the door. “Pascal, Tris,” he glanced back over his shoulder, “grab a weapon.”
“Right,” Pascal replied, picking up a heavy mace.
Tris grabbed a handful of throwing stars and fell into step behind them.
In the hall, they ran into Cheryl, who was wielding an umbrella. She looked at them curiously. “Let me guess,” she said finally, “you’re all going downstairs to battle the Medusa-haired monster also?
Tris, Gregory, and Pascal exchanged startled glances. This place was quickly becoming a loony bin.
“Is that what’s causing all that hysteria downstairs?” asked Gregory, looking really confused.
“Yes,” said Cheryl briskly, “but the questions can wait. Now, come on, we’ve got to move fast.”
“Excuse me,” said Tris as she followed Cheryl down the hall. “If this is a Gorgon we’re going to fight, shouldn’t we be armed with a large mirror?”
“Garkain,” Cheryl corrected.
“Excuse me?” said Tris.
“The monster is a Garkain,” Cheryl pointed out.
“Garkain?” said Tris. “It sounds like it could be related to the Kraken.”
Suddenly, there came an immense uproar of yells and screams.
“Just listen to that,” said Pascal in despair. “I’d like to know how on earth we could get rid of this malefactor before she consumes everyone.”
“The Garkain’s a he,” Cheryl replied, “and I don’t know for sure how you permanently get rid of a Garkain. My guess is if we give him such a clouting, he’ll think twice about trying to devour respectable house guests.”
“You didn’t think they were so respectable two hours ago,” Gregory commented.
“Well, I changed my mind,” said Cheryl flatly. “Besides, think about the grisly mess that’s going to be left behind, and explaining it all to the police.”
“I clearly see your point,” Gregory muttered.
“How’d you find out about this Garkain-thing?” Pascal wanted to know.
“Grixlirr told me,” Cheryl answered. “Woke me out of a good sleep too.”
“Who’s Grixlirr?” Pascal asked.
But Cheryl didn’t answer. She bounded down the stairs and headed in the direction of the living room. Pascal and the others followed closely behind. They ran into the living room and found a scene. Chairs and tables overturned, people wrestling with long purple tentacles that coiled across the floor. However, Allien Mierin was too preoccupied to reel in his catch; part of his catch was fighting back. While Zeph Nesbit was smacking away with a rolling pin, the Frizzle Fracks were biting and clawing away in the forms of lions and other fierce beasts. One had even broken loose and was now dive-bombing Allien as a skua.
“Do you think they need our help?” Pascal asked, covering his ears. Allien’s screams of anguish were really ear piercing.
“Well—“ Cheryl started to say when Tris cut her off.
“Outta my way, wimps!” she screamed, barging past them. “Hang on fellahs, help’s-a-comin’!”
Screeching like a banshee, Tris darted forward, throwing stars left and right.
Cheryl shook her head in dismay. “I don’t know which is scarier,” she muttered. “The monster or Tris with Ninja stars.”
Ahh, now this is the life, Pierard thought as he floated idly about on a giant lily pad. Nothing like taking a siesta in the hothouse pool after a good meal. On a neighboring lily pad sat a pitcher of ice tea and a half-eaten cake of spicy raisin walnut.
Pierard sighed contentedly and closed his eyes.
“You know, she’s just fattening you up for her Winter Feast.”
Pierard sighed heavily and opened his eyes. “Claire,” he muttered, “could you please stop with the doom-saying prophetess routine?”
“Your brain’s going to be swimming in wine sauce pretty soon,” Claire whispered urgently, “unless you get off your feathered hiney and work on escaping.”
Pierard grimaced. For much of the afternoon, Miss Vandemar followed him about, admonishing him on his overeating and making frequent references to Mirian’s birthday, which happened to coincide with the Winter Solstice. Pierard thought that her warnings had merely arisen from prejudice, since he was neither wealthy nor very well bred.
“Claire,” he said wearily, “is this really necessary right after tea time?”
“This can’t wait,” she hissed. “Now’s the time to act. Mirian’s not here, and most of her minions are off-duty, playing poker.”
“I think you mean her helpful staff,” Pierard replied stiffly, “who were most helpful at waiting on me, wing and foot.”
“Her ‘helpful staff’ is nothing more than Lontaqas and Timmertams, creatures of darkness,” Claire countered. “You want to know Mirian really is, Pierard?”
“What, a bloodthirstily sea witch?” he said jokingly.
“Not even close,” Claire replied grimly. “She, or rather I should say He, is a Garkain.”
“Mirian? A Garkain?” Pierard snorted. “That pretty lady? You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“That pretty lady you see is only a mask,” Claire said matter-of-factly. “Garkains can assume the shape of just about anybody.”
“Well, how do I know you’re not a Garkain yourself?” Pierard inquired suspiciously.
Claire pointed down at the water. “Look at my reflection,” she said.
Reluctantly, Pierard looked down into the pool. His eyes soon widened in astonishment.
“Well, what do you see?” Claire asked.
“A f-fox,” Pierard stammered. “You have a fox for a reflection.”
“That’s right,” she said, nodding. “I’m a werefox, or what the Japanese call a kitsune. Now if I was a Garkain instead, you would have seen a monstrous green thing with lotsa sharp teeth and worm-infested hair.”
Pierard reflected for a moment on what Claire just told him. “Well, I did think it was kinda funny that I couldn’t find a single mirror around here,” he muttered. “Mirian said that someone swiped them all a week ago, but then why bother stealing mirrors when there’s so many other stuff to choose from?”
“My point, exactly!” Claire exclaimed.
“And all those servants,” Pierard went on, “talk about strange-looking! They’re all the same—either beaky nosed with blue-black hair or thin and pale, with a small head and beady eyes.”
Claire nodded solemnly. “Now you’re beginning to spot things,” she said.
“Well, if you knew this inn was run by monsters,” Pierard squawked, “then why in tarnation are you here then?”
“Like I told you earlier,” Claire replied, “I came to get some inspiration.”
“What, from looking at monsters?” said Pierard, incredulously.
“Don’t be absurd,” Claire replied, giving him a dirty look. “I came because the Wadsworth Inn’s got this magical writing desk that inspires dried-up talent.”
Pierard stared at her. “You come here often to use this magic desk?”
“Whenever I get stuck on a sonnet or hung up on a haiku, I come here and sit down,” she answered, “I only come during the off-season when there’s fewer people—less distractions.”
“And you’re not afraid of Miri… I mean this Garkain?” Pierard asked.
“Sure I’m afraid of him,” answered Claire, “but seeing as I’m a paying customer, he doesn’t bother me. An innkeeper’s got to make a living; it’s only the guests who arrive by the Secret Way who end up as Garkain chow.”
“The non-paying variety, that is,” muttered Pierard disgustedly. “If you knew all of this was going on, why didn’t try warning these other ‘guests’?”
“I tried several times,” Claire replied darkly, “but they never believed me. All they see is the sweetness and spectacle. They don’t see the evil lying underneath, but you’re different—you see things, even if they were in brief glimpses.”
“Maybe it’s because I’m a parrot,” said Pierard smugly. “We’re noted for our razor-sharp wit and cleverness.”
Claire stared at Pierard for a moment. “Maybe,” she said, shrugging, “but the main question is: do you still want to leave here as a noble parrot or stay here to grow fat and lazy as a roasting chicken?”
Outraged, Pierard stood up on his dangerously wobbly craft. “Parrot of course!” he yelled, hysterically. “What do you take me for? A barnyard fowl fit for the chopping block?”
No sooner did he say that, then the lily pad bobbed forward and Pierard pitched backward into the pool.
Claire rolled her eyes and sighed. What a klutz, she thought as she leaned over to pull Pierard out.
Chapter Nine. Return to Wadsworth Inn
Tris landed squarely between Allien’s shoulder blades. “Kowabunga!” she cried.
“Help!” Allien squealed as he went sprawling flat onto his face. “What are you doing, you crazy Churcka? Somebody get her off of me!”
“No use resisting, buster!” Tris snarled in his ear. “We got you surrounded! Your people-eating days are over. Squirm, and we’ll give you a close shave!”
“No, not my tendrils!” Allien cried. “I can’t live without my tendrils! Do you know how long it takes for these things to regenerate again?”
“A couple months?” Pascal hazarded.
“A full year,” Allien replied. “Even if their regrowth could be quickened by eating the fruit of the thrimblix bush, but it’s a hothouse plant in these parts. Too expensive for the likes of me.”
“Well, you should’ve thought of that before you grabbed us!” Tris said in a low growl. “We don’t take any guff from treacherous people-grabbers like you.”
A smirking Frizzle Frack produced some scissors and handed them to Tris. She held them up dramatically and clacked them several times. Allien winced at each clack.
“Noooooo!” he shouted, struggling to free his tentacles from the dozen or so Ninja stars and angry houseguests. “Don’t snip my precious tendrils.” I’ll be branded as a nerfrak.”
“A what?” queried Pascal.
“A pariah,” Allien explained.
“Well, that’s too bad!” Tris cried. “The game’s up, Garkain. Your snaring days are numbered. Time to meet the snipper!” She dug her fingers deeper into Allien’s writhing scalp to get a firmer grip. He gave a yelp as he tried to shake her loose, but Tris held stubbornly on.
“That’s enough Tris!” Cheryl shouted. “Get off his back!”
Tris gave Cheryl a look of total befuddlement. “Why?” she asked.
“Cause you’re acting like a complete twit!” Cheryl retorted.
Tris snorted as she loosened her hold. “Well, he started it,” she ranted. “Can’t I just snip off one lock?”
“Please,” Allien gasped, terror quivering in every tentacle, “it was only a joke. I wasn’t really going to eat anybody, honest.”
“Tris! Off!” Cheryl commanded.
Tris growled and jumped off Allien’s back. Then she suddenly turned and faced him. “You haven’t seen the last of me, bucko!” she shouted. “No one snares my friends like rabbits and gets away with it!” She clacked the scissors at him a few times, and then she strolled calmly away.
Allien heaved a deep sigh of relief and fell to his knees. “Thank you,” he said to Cheryl. “Thank you for saving me from that fury.”
“Be also grateful you didn’t get your teeth knocked in,” said Cheryl coolly. “Tris can sometimes fight down and dirty as a human.”
“We want some information.” Twicky interjected.
“What kind of information?” Allien said weakly, hanging his head in defeat.
“The whereabouts of our friend, Pierard Conure,” said Gregory gruffly.
“Oh, he’s safe,” Allien answered, shrugging. “He’s relaxing in the pool at my house.”
“He better be,” Cheryl muttered softly, “for your sake as well as his, cause if any harm has come to him I’ll sic something much worse on you than Tris.”
“Wha… wha …what?” Allien stuttered, lifting his head a little.
“This,” Cheryl answered, pulling something out of her pants’s pocket and thrusting it toward him. The eyes of several onlookers lit up in recognition. It was the same dragonish creature that helped them save the house from imminent flooding. Allien’s eyes were filled with mounting terror instead.
“Take it away! Take-it-away!” he shrieked as he reeled back from Cheryl, his taloned hands thrown up before his face.
“Why all the fuss?” said Gregory, astounded at Allien’s reaction. “It’s just a baby dragon.”
“It’s not a baby dragon!” Allien cried, peering fearfully between his fingers. “It’s a Taisin!”
“A Taisin?” exclaimed Pascal. “What the heck’s that?”
“If there’s one animal we Garkains fear the most, it is the Taisin,” moaned Allien unhappily. “Just one bite from one of those things, and we turn purple and swell up, eventually bursting with a disgusting pop—ugh!” He shuddered violently at the thought.
Pascal grimaced. “Well, what about us?” he asked, eyeing Cheryl’s little friend with great suspicion. “If we get bit by a Taisin, will we bloat up and burst too?”
Allien shook his head. “No,” he assured him, “with you folk, it’s not as bad. The worse you could get is hair loss and blotchy skin.”
“Well, that’s pretty bad,” Pascal remarked with a slight shiver that ruffled his feathers.
“Oh, it is,” Allien agreed, “but not as bad as bloating and blowing up.”
“Allien, we are waiting,” said Cheryl, the tip of her tail tapping the floor impatiently.
- Allien got to his feet with a groan. He looked down at his suit which now hung in tattered shreds from his tall, rail-thin frame. “Sheesh, my best suit,” he said indignantly. “Did you have to be so rough
Cheryl cleared her throat noisily.
“Okay, okay,” he said hurriedly, “I’ll take you to Pierard, but you got to promise to keep a tight grip on that little devil.” He pointed with a claw at Grixlirr who was perched comfortably on Cheryl’s shoulder.
“Don’t worry,” growled Cheryl. “Grixlirr’s not going anywhere.”
“That’s the very same animal I saw coming out of Twicky’s room,” Pascal whispered to Gregory. “I think that’s the very same culprit who ate up…”
“Ssshh! You want her to hear you?” Gregory warned, jabbing his thumb at Twicky.
They all followed Allien up the stairs and through the attic door. He then led them to an unpainted door which he opened, revealing a dark and dusty staircase with thick cobwebs hanging from the ceiling. As they started up the stairs, Pascal muttered to Cheryl, “How do we know we can trust this guy? He may be leading us into a trap.”
“Don’t worry, we got Grixlirr to protect us,” Cheryl reassured him, “as well as several dozen people holding tight to Allien’s clutching hairs.”
“But I don’t recognize these stairs,” Pascal whispered nervously, “and since when did we have so many spiders?”
“I think this is the old servants’ stairway to the Wadsworth Inn,” said Cheryl, running a curious finger along the angular balustrade. It left behind a line in the thick dust. “A lot of big old houses have them.”
“But shouldn’t we be going through the front entrance instead?” Pascal insisted. “Seems rather fishy to me that we’re going around back.”
Cheryl thought about this for a moment. “The pool’s probably out back,” she said finally.
“But if this is a swimming pool we’re going to,” said Pascal, getting a trifle impatient, “shouldn’t it be outside?”
“Not always,” Cheryl replied calmly. “They can be indoors too.” She gave Pascal a reassuring smile. “It’s all right, Pascal. Soon we’ll find Pierard and get out of here.”
“But what if--,” said Pascal, starting to panic. “What if it’s already too late and we find him with all his juices drained out?”
“Relax, birdie,” said Grixlirr, who was listening in on the entire conversation. “Pierard’s fine. I happen to know a lot about parrots- how they’re really brainy and are good problem-solvers.”
“You don’t know Pierard the way I do,” Pascal said, shaking his head in disgust. “He’s a real disgrace to parrots everywhere.”
“Really?” said Grixlirr, arching a scaly eyebrow. “You mean like felonious stuff—like cat burglary and forgery?”
“Naw,” Pascal replied wearily, “just making a total fool of yourself… and getting your friends into deep peril—that kind of stuff.”
“Oh,” said Grixlirr, nodding understandably. “I see.”
They stopped in the front of some massive double-doors at the top of the stairs.
“We’re here,” said Allien.
Cheryl studied the doors, her long whiskers twitching nervously. “Open it,” she said curtly.
Allien pushed open the double-doors. A shimmering green haze came from within. There was a rush of warm, humid air heavy with the delicate scent of blossoms and damp greenery. Allien turned to Cheryl and gestured toward the open doors. “Ladies first,” he said with a thin smile.
Cheryl didn’t move. “No, I think you should go first.”
Allien’s smile soon faded.
“Hey!” exclaimed Cecil, still clinging tenaciously to one of Allien’s locks. “I’m not going in there with him! Are you out of your freaking mind?”
“Yeah,” grunted Garth, “he’ll turn on us as soon as we let go of his hair.”
“I can’t agree more,” added Smoky. “Are you familiar, Cheryl, with the human saying about not letting go of the tiger’s tail?”
“Great, what are we going to do now?” Cheryl whispered to Gregory. “We let him go, and he might do in some of us before Grixlirr gets the chance to stop him.”
“I have a good idea,” Grixlirr piped up.
“You do?” said Cheryl, picking up her ears.
“Why don’t I just sit on Allien’s head, than your friends can let go of his tentacles. He won’t try anything with a Taisin on his head.”
“What?” cried the startled Allien. “You can’t do this! I object to this whole wretched arrangement!”
But it was settled. Allien had to walk in first while wearing Grixlirr like a kooky hat; the rest sidled cautiously after him.
There were gasps of amazement. The room contained an enormous rainforest, home to soaring tropical trees and flamboyant plants. Curving paths of pink flagstones threaded their way through this vast floral arrangement interlacing in intricate patterns.
“What is this place?” Pascal asked after he was done gaping. “Another dimension?”
Twicky shook her head and muttered, “No, it’s got glass walls. It’s a conservatory.”
“It’s the size of our house!” Gregory exclaimed, looking around in disbelief.
“Bigger,” said Twicky.
“Oh, great,” said Cecil disgustedly. “How are we going to find Pierard in a humongous place like this?”
Every one turned to look at Cheryl, evidently hoping for her to provide a brilliant solution to this problem. She was silent for a moment and then she said, “Well, it’s simple really. We all split up and look for a pool with a parrot soaking in it.”
Pascal looked at her in dismay. “But is that plan really wise?” he said nervously. “There might be wild things lurking in there… and what about you-know-who?” He cast a quick anxious glance at Allien who gave him an impish wink. “Maybe we should all stick together.”
“You’ll cover more ground if you all work in teams,” Cheryl murmured. “Me and Grixlirr will keep an eye on Mister Medusa here while you’re at it.”
“But Cheryl,” Pascal stammered, “I don’t think two guards are enough.”
“Trust me, Pascal,” Cheryl said, exasperated by his constant worrying. “We can handle this guy.”
Chapter Ten. The Way Back Home
Pierard let out a shriek of frustration as he pounded on the wall.
“The door was here!” he squawked. “It was right here in this very spot! You probably don’t believe me anyway—“
“Hey, I believe you,” said Claire, setting down her suitcase. “I really do.”
“You really think so?”
“Of course. How else did you find your way there?”
“But why isn’t the door there anymore?” Pierard snapped, flapping his wings furiously. “I want to go home right now. Why can’t I find the way back?”
“I don’t know,” said Claire, frowning deeply. “But maybe we should be discussing this more quietly.”
Pierard clamped his wings to his beak. “You think our ‘host’ and some of his minions are spying on us this very minute?” Pierard whispered, eyes darting around in all directions.
“There’s a good possibility,” Claire whispered back.
Pierard stared into space for a while. He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. A gleam of insight soon arose in his shiny eyes.
“I know what we could do!” he exclaimed excitedly. “We could bust out of here! Rivkin Hill isn’t very far from my house. If we could get outside without being seen, then our chances of escape are good.”
He scratched his head, pondering, “Of course, there’s the freak snowstorm raging outside, but there will be other houses nearby. All we have to do is get downhill.”
“Pierard, this isn’t—“ Claire began.
“We’ll get help,” Pierard jabbered on, “and the police will deal with that ghastly crew up at Wadsworth—“
“Pierard, listen,” said Claire impatiently.
“I got pretty strong feet,” Pierard mused. “Maybe if you changed into your fox-form I could carry you—“
“Pierard!” Claire barked.
“What?” squawked Pierard peevishly.
“We’re not at Rivkin Hill!” Claire fumed at him. “We’re not in any rich people’s neighborhood!”
Pierard blinked at her dumbly. “We’re not?” he muttered.
“No,” she replied, “we’re not.”
“Well, where are we then?” grumbled Pierard, impatient to get on his way. “The human world?”
Claire put a hand on Pierard’s shoulder and led him to a window. She threw open the drape.
Outside was a weird and desolate landscape of old dilapidated buildings.
“Hey, I know the place!” exclaimed Pierard, remembering his old family photo album. “I was here once when I was a fledgling. It’s a ghost town called Greever.” Puzzled, he scratched his head. “But, this can’t be real. It’s got to be an illusion.”
“It’s not,” Claire reminded him, “and it’s a thousand miles away from your home town—much too far to fly or walk. If we’re to find a way out of here, then we must find it within this very building.”
Allien was lounging comfortably in a wicker lawn chair, seeming obviously to the stifling heat and humidity of the place. Twirling a small brass key around on his forefinger, he hummed a tune to the song of “Oh, Susannah!” Cheryl wished he would stop doing that; it was driving her up the wall. Grixlirr already looked half there, ready to bite off some of Allien’s “precious tendrils.”
“How are you doing, Grixlirr?” she asked, wiping her sweaty face.
“Oh, I’m doing okay,” he said brightly.
No wonder, Cheryl thought sourly, you’re not wearing a fur coat.
“It feels kind of weird though, Grixlirr continued, gazing down at his odd perch, “like I’m sitting on a bed of eels.”
Allien stopped humming and let out a hiss of disgust. “Eels,” he said, rolling his emerald-green eyes. “You should be ashamed of yourself—poking fun at a man’s tendrils.”
“And you should be ashamed of yourself for trapping people for food!” said Grixlirr, sternly. “Eating people is a felony, and you’ll get death for it.”
“So is slander,” Allien sneered, “as well as gorging yourself on people’s pets! Ha, that’s six months all together!”
“What?” gasped Grixlirr, reeling in disbelief. “How’d you guess that?”
“Simple, sonny,” Allien replied with a smirk. “I can read your mind.”
Cheryl felt a chill coming on despite the sweltering heat.
“You can read minds?” she stammered, staring wide-eyed at him.
“That’s right, sweetie,” he drawled. “I can read minds as easily as you read a newspaper. Nothing remains hidden from me for long.”
“He’s lying,” Grixlirr broke in. “Garkains aren’t really mind readers. They just like playing mind games, that’s all.”
“So how did he know that you were really the one who ate Twicky’s pets?” Cheryl asked, looking frantically for the search party.
“Smelled it, of course,” said Grixlirr flatly. “The guy’s got a nose like a bloodhound.”
He glared furiously at Allien. “No more stalling, squid head! Produce the parrot or prepare for demise by Taisin bite!”
“Parrot?” said Allien, acting amazed. “What parrot? This is such a strange request. You know most tourists who come here clamor to see my collection of Elfin-made marbles.”
“Quit the cock-and-bull,” Cheryl growled at him, “Either fork over my friend or face the consequences!”
“You accuse me of stealing a parrot and hiding him somewhere in this inn,” said Allien haughtily. “I did no such deed. Produce the proof of this purloined parrot, if you please.”
“He’s here somewhere in this jungle,” Cheryl replied, glaring around. “Plenty of places to hide a parrot.”
Allien blew a scornful snort. “You still have to prove it.”
“Oh, we’ll prove it,” Cheryl said determinedly, “even if we have to tear this whole place apart to do it.”
“You do that,” said Allien softly, “and I’ll have you all arrested for breaking and entering and destruction of property.”
Cheryl leaned forward. “You do anything like that,” she whispered ominously, “and we’ll have you arrested for kidnapping along with assault, battery, and attempted murder of innocent party-goers.”
Allien smiled unpleasantly. “Such brave words from so sweet a little mousie,” he said.
“Okay, that does it,” grunted Grixlirr, seizing hold of a tentacle. “I’m through with being nice.”
“No, wait!” yelled Cheryl, but it was too late. Grixlirr had already pierced Allien’s skin with his venomous teeth.
Allien gave a horrible scream and shot out of his chair. He lay on the ground, thrashing and convulsing wildly.
“Why’d you do that for?” Cheryl shouted, angry as well as frightened. “He could have told us where Pierard is!”
“But he didn’t,” Grixlirr replied gravely, picking up the brass key that Allien had dropped. He scurried up to perch on Cheryl’s shoulder. “He was just stringing you along for his own amusement, and you all fell for it like mullets on a snipe hunt. Garkains are like that—always telling lies and keeping whatever promises they want to keep. They’re worse than even humans or Djinn.”
“Well, that still didn’t mean you had to go and give him a fatal bite!” Cheryl fumed at him.
“Well, we didn’t have much of choice,” Grixlirr told her. “Even if you did try to reason with him, he would never let any of you go. As the old human saying goes, a leopard can’t change his spots.”
At that moment, the rest of the search party ran up.
“What’s going on?” asked Pascal, looking fearfully at Allien’s violent twitching. “Did Grixlirr…?”
“Yes, Pascal,” said Cheryl, nodding her head dismally. “He did.”
“What should we do then?” a bewildered Gregory asked.
“Nothing we can do,” Twicky replied darkly, “except get out of the way when he finally goes off.”
Everyone shrank back in horror and disgust.
“Well, let’s make a break for it!” shouted Cecil, hopping around in sheer desperation. “I don’t want to get splattered by globs of Garkain guts!”
“But what about Pierard?” Cheryl insisted.
Gregory shook his head. “We didn’t have time to search the entire greenhouse,” he said mournfully.
They ran for the door, but were met with a blank wall.
“What is this?” Cecil squealed, rushing forward. He began pounding on the wall with his fists. It was rock-solid all the way through. “Is this some stupid joke or something? Where’s the door we just came out of?”
A hideous grating sound from behind made his fists freeze in mid-air.
“Oh no!” he croaked. “His death rattles! We’re all going to get splattered for sure!”
He started running up and down the side of the room, frantically feeling for a door, a sliding panel, anything he could use to hide in or escape through.
Everyone else closed their eyes, bracing for the hail of Garkain guts. Minutes ticked by, and still the unpleasant noises continued.
Cheryl listened in disbelief. The Garkain was really taking a long time—could he possibly be delaying his explosive death just to wear on their nerves? Slowly she turned around; so did everyone else.
Allien was standing up; he was very much alive, and he was laughing at them.
“What foul magic is this?” Smoky demanded, staring at him in astonishment. “A Taisin’s just bit you, man! Why aren’t you a purple, bloated-up corpse?”
“Not foul magic, old dog,” Allien explained cheerily, “merely misunderstood. You see; I’m a wizard as well as an innkeeper. So I know a lot about the concocting of various plant compounds. Well, it just so happens, I developed an antidote to Taisin venom.”
“I knew it!” Pascal exclaimed hysterically, gesticulating furiously. “I knew there was something funny from the very start! But did anyone ever listen to me… Heck, no! Now why is that, I wonder? Could it be because I’m a nerd and not cool?”
“Pascal,” the Kappa hissed, nudging him in the ribs. “Pascal, cut it out—“
“So all that desperate pleading and carrying on earlier was just a performance and nothing more?” Gregory shouted. “You planned this whole thing from the start—tricked us into coming here, like you did to poor Pierard!”
“Of course,” said Allien with a sly grin, “I’m a Garkain, remember? It is in my nature to be tricky.”
“Why are you doing this?” Pascal asked, his beak chattering loudly.
“Because Winter’s coming on,” Allien replied softly, “and I haven’t be able to find enough wild game to fill up my larder. The only things available for me are livestock and swarms of juicy naive tourists.”
“Let us go, Allien!” cried Cheryl, bristling with fury. “We’re not farm animals and we’re certainly not tourists; we’re Torians! Remember what happened last time? Torians don’t give in to anything, not even to fiends like you.”
As she spoke, The Frizzle—Fracks changed into various large and terrifying beasts. Growling fiercely, they planted themselves between Allien and the huddled crowd.
Allien said nothing for a while. Then he said quietly. “Look up, everyone. Let me introduce you to some friends of mine.”
Warily, everyone looked up. A gasp of horror soon arose from the crowd. Clinging to the wood-and-glass ceiling and from the tangled branches were Allien’s servants—weasel-like Timmertams and beaky-nosed Lontaqas. They all were staring down hungrily at the terrified onlookers.
Allien folded his arms, quite pleased with himself. “Still interested in taking me on?” he said, tilting his head to one side. “Why not just give up? If you choose to fight it out with my servants you will all be eaten alive. Whereas I can offer you a much quicker and tidier death. Make your choice.”
Cheryl made no reply; instead she took hold of a heavy wicker armchair. “Cover me,” she whispered to Grixlirr.
“Right, kid,” Grixlirr replied, “But just be careful, okay?”
“Don’t worry, Grix,” she reassured him. “I’ll take care of this.”
Holding the chair in front of her like a shield and keeping her back pressed against the wall, she inched toward the nearest window.
The servants weren’t bothering to chase them. They simply stayed where they were, watching and whispering to one another. Maybe they were certain that there was no way of escape, or maybe they were afraid of Grixlirr’s venomous bite, or just maybe they were awaiting Allien’s signal to attack.
Allien watched their progress with growing admiration. “You people don’t give up easily, do you?” he said.
We’re Torians, she thought, crabbily. What do you expect?
However, she remained silent and kept her gaze fixed firmly on the window. Like all the windows in the conservatory, it was large, stretching from the floor to the ceiling.
I hope I make a big enough hole, she thought. Don’t want anyone getting stuck.
When she got within a few feet of the window, she raised the heavy chair over her head and aimed carefully.
“Hey you!” a voice called out suddenly. Don’t try breaking the windows. It’s Elfin glass. It can’t be broken.”
With a start, Cheryl turned to look at Allien. He was staring at something over her right shoulder. His expression was one of complete bafflement.
“Ahoy there, matey,” squawked a familiar voice. “Over here in the wall?”
“Pierard?” said Cheryl, her mind reeling in confusion.
She turned back to the window. Her eyes grew wide as billiard balls. A small round door had mysteriously opened in the wall next to the window. Two heads were sticking out of the opening. One was a girl with short, red hair and glasses; the other was Pierard.
“Quick,” the girl cried, “get everyone in here!”
Cheryl didn’t waste any time. Dropping the chair, she turned to holler for her friends to hurry.
Allien blinked in befuddlement as the crowd beat a fast, yet orderly retreat through the secret door. Cheryl waited until everyone had clambered through before turning to face the stunned Garkain.
“I guess you have to stick to roast beef and mutton from now on,” she grinned.
She half-expected the usual shaking of a fist and shouting of horrible threats and foul language, but instead Allien gave her a wintry grin.
“I know where you live,” he said in a singsong voice.
Cheryl gulped loudly as chills ran up and down her spine. Pierard quickly grabbed her by her sweater and yanked her through.
As soon as Cheryl was safely through the portal the red-haired girl slammed it shut and secured it in place with an iron bar.
“We’re safe as long as we keep quiet,” the girl whispered. “One small noise and they’ll hear us for sure.”
“Who are you?” whispered Gregory, twitching his nose at the smell of fox.
“Claire Vandemar,” she told them. “Now come on.”
Everyone followed cautiously. They were in a really narrow passage with rough-stuccoed walls. Cobwebs hung like sticky stalactites from the low ceiling and a thick coat of dust covered the floor. The only source of light came from the kerosene lantern, which Claire held.
“It’s a secret passage,” she explained as she led the group through the twisty tunnel. “Me and Pierard found it while we were searching for a way out of this place.”
“Are you a servant?” Pascal asked her.
“A guest,” she replied. “I’ll tell you all about it as soon as we get out of this dump.”
They took a sharp right-angle turn and came to a halt in front of a mildew-spotted door. Cecil barged forward and grabbed the porcelain knob. The door rattled but didn’t open. “Oh, well,” said Cecil, shrugging resignedly. “It’s locked. We’re doomed.”
“I have a key,” said Grixlirr with a triumphant smile.
A minute later, they stumbled across the threshold into a messy, musty-smelling attic.
“Where are we?” Claire asked, looking around curiously.
“Home!” squawked Pierard in relief. “We’re all safely home!”
Twicky was peering through a clean patch she had made by rubbing her thumb on the dirty attic window.
“Pierard?” she asked. “Does your parents’ house look out over a dark, purplish sea, with a dismal forest growing close around it?”
“Of course not,” said Pierard in a loud voice. “Don’t be ridiculous, you know what my house is like.”
“I don’t know where we are,” said Twicky, “but safely home it’s not.” The rest of the group pushed close to the window and took turns peering out and uttering groans or gasps as they saw the outside.
Tris helped herself to more of Zeph Nesbit’s rabbit stew. It was very delicious. She wondered where the magician got the rabbit from He couldn’t have whisked himself off to the store in this sort of weather. Probably cooked one of his prop bunnies, thought Tris. She glanced up at the kitchen clock; it read 3:15 p. m. Tris gave a small satisfied belch. If they hurry back in time, they might get some of this wonderful stew.
Written by Mmpratt99 deviantart