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The Hobby on the Headland--The Testimony of Alex Thompson[]

Author's Note-- This is the longer extended version of The Hobby on the Headland It portrays a more in-depth look into the original characters as well as a new one.

1– Just a Little Get-Together[]

I was around twelve, a short gawky kid with acne who was not very bright when I suddenly embarked on an adventure that would forever remain etched in my memory.

It began innocently enough on a bright sunny autumn afternoon, three weeks before Halloween. The town was bustling with people out enjoying the pleasant weather or carrying market bags full of fresh market produce or a wide range of bulk candy with a black and orange theme.

My parents weren't home at the time, having decided to spend the weekend touring the antique sales downtown, and maybe do bit of exploring of the neighborhood Halloween-themed door décor and yard competitions.

I was under strict orders not to invite anyone into the house while they were gone. No sooner was my parents' Pathfinder out of sight than I preceded to invite a couple of my closest neighbors and buddies, Tod Winnokur and Bill Dobbins.

Tod was a lean and lanky kid, with wispy blond hair, and a tendency for mean practical jokes, while Bill was short, chunky with brown curly hair with a penchant for snacking, Hawaiian shirts, and a collector's mania for archiving comic books, magic card games and live creatures (some of which were used in Tod's malevolent pranks).

There was yet another kid at this impromptu party, William Tahl or Willie for short, who was invited by Bill and not by me. He was even more socially awkward than I was, with a scrawny, pasty physique, thin-rimmed glasses that kept sliding down his long nose, and a hideous bowl cut rather similar to the one Jim Carrey sported in that 1994 movie– Dumb and Dumber. To add a major insult to injury, Willie also had asthma and struggled with a diminished, self-esteem due to his mother's constant belittling. As a result, he mostly spent time with his dad and stepmom, who provided him with the support and understanding he sorely needed.

While Bill and I let him hang out with us mainly out of sympathy, Tod was not as welcoming, usually giving Willie the cold shoulder whenever he was with us. At this particular visit, Tod was sneaking glances at Willie over his mug of hot chocolate. Then he would glance over at me with an expression that seemed to say, “So whose idea was it to invite this loser?”

I glanced over at Bill and saw the disappointment in his pink face. He had been hoping Tod would make a connection with Willie, but it seemed like his efforts weren’t going to be rewarded. I shrugged back in sympathy, but Bill just looked away, embarrassed.

Once we even tried to talk to Tod about his issues about Willie, but he just seemed to shut down, his eyes growing cold and distant. So we just dropped it entirely.

Tod was always the cool one, with his athletic build, charming smile, and effortless confidence. He couldn't understand why we would include someone like Willie in our group. Willie was the kind of kid who was always seemed to constantly get himself into embarrassing jams, whether it was having his pants run up the flagpole, being used as a human Hot Potato by the older kids or having a major spill out in the cafeteria. He wasn’t particular ‘brain-savvy’ either since he seemed to be struggling with his schoolwork and was never able to keep up with the latest technology or video game.

However, we saw something in Willie that Todd didn't. Despite his awkwardness, Willie had a heart of gold and a great sense of humor. He may not have fit the typical mold of a cool kid, but he brought a unique perspective and kindness to our circle.

Well, anyway, after a while, we grew bored with the same ole horror drama, slasher/gore rubbish that was on the regular movie channels.

So Bill and Willie were talking about what to watch next. I suggested that they to get on Japanese Netflix and watch some of the new Anime that hadn’t been released yet on the Commonwealth version. Willie was a bit hesitant since he had never seen an Anime before, but Bill convinced him to try it out.

So, they logged onto Netflix and started scrolling through the selections of Anime. The titles were all in Japanese, but that didn’t deter them. After a few minutes, they finally found one that caught their eye. It was called ‘Beastars.’

The plot seemed pretty intriguing a murder mystery involving Furries with major personality problems, kind of likes BoJack Horseman. They decided to give it a shot.

Meanwhile, Tod was shooting steely glances around my shoulder at the two. Now if there was one thing he could barely tolerate more than Willie ‘the Wet Blanket’ Tahl, it was furries.

“Hey, why you watching that weird Japanese stuff?” The disgust was apparent in Tod’s voice.

“Dude, leave us alone,” Bill frowned. “It’s got a good premise.”

“It’s about furries. Gross!” He gave them his most Toddish of looks (which was ultimate righteous scorn), and the two cringed heavily beneath it. “You know that the Japanese consider the furries as abomination. They are trying to get rid of the furry scourge in their country.”

“The majority of Japanese don’t think that!” Bill protested again, his voice raising slightly. “And will you just stop with this Imperialist Space British crap!”

“No, seriously, it’s the truth,” Tod insisted sternly. “And really, Bill, you could have made a way better viewing choice for Wilkie than furvert stuff.”

“Oh, like it’s your own business anyway!” Bill bravely countered. “And who are you, my disapproving Dwarven mother?”

“No, thank the Gods!” Tod cried with a deep sigh of relief. “If I had a Spud Spawn like you, I’d of sued the hospital for medical malpractice!”

Bill flushed a bright beet red and opened his mouth to fire off a withering ‘Keebler’ epitaph when I decided to step in before an all-out civil war broke out.

“Yeah, well, we got Yokai as well as First Nation Spirit Folk living around here,” I rushed in without stopping to take a breath, “and some of them are Anthrop, and I don’t hear you complaining about them.”

Much to our relief, Tod was quiet for a moment as he mulled over this bit of info.

“Yeah, well, that’s not the same thing.” He shook his head finally. “Yokai and North American ‘Spirit People,’ those are like demigods or Faire Folk, but furries are just really awkward-cringe-weird and annoying imitations.”

“Well, don’t you have any complaints about humans dressing up as High Elves then?” Bill couldn’t help asking. “I mean, isn’t that like cultural appropriation?”

“That’s different!” Tod shot back. “It’s not a fetish-fashion thing, it’s like Halloween or the various winter ceremonies around the multiverse people dressed up in masquerade to dance and make magical revery as a defense against the dark forces released by the solstice season.” He sank back down on the couch and sipped his remaining cocoa thoughtfully.

I regarded him with a very perplexed look on my face. I wondered what he would think of the whole elf on the shelf thing?

“Also, at least those mummers don’t look like pervy humans in an animal costume.” He added sharply.

Willie, who had been quiet throughout the whole tirade, suddenly spoke up. “Hey, how about we do something else that we can all agree on?”

“Like what?” I asked, slightly relieved at the change of subject.

“Well, we could go fishing down at Candy Rock Creek,” he suggested.

Tod’s gray eyes lit up. “Fishing? How about hunting?”

His dad just happened to be an avid sportsman when he wasn’t ‘ headhunting’ for a major biotech firm.

“We can go fishing and hunting,” I cautiously offered. “There are fish and rabbits out in back.”

“Oh, wait,” Tod muttered, fumbling around in the pockets of his expensive bomber jacket. “Forgot to bring my sling and shots, so we’ll have to leaving it at fishing then.” “Alright, that’s a start,” I muttered as I stood up and squared my narrow shoulders. “The fishing poles and lures are up in the attic.”

I saw Bill breathed a sigh of relief as he switched off the wall screen. Even though he wasn’t a vegan, he greatly disapproved of Tod’s randomly annihilating defenseless wildlife. Still, he didn’t want to be labeled as a wuss . . . or worse yet, a hualau (e.g., ‘ null-human,’ ‘people of dust’).

“Okay, let’s get our asses out of here, and let’s do this shit!” Tod grinned enthusiastically, springing up from his seat.

I glanced up at the living room clock. Only 12:48 P.M. That was still enough time.

2– Something Old, Something Blue[]

We all sprinted upstairs, and Bill and I searched around the dusty, useless artifacts and tattered furniture left by previous generations of Thompsons. Finally, we located the scattered fishing equipment and supplies shoved deep into various spider-infested recesses of the jumbled attic. While we were rummaging around, we also found a dusty puzzle box simply marked “Mystics” that my older brother Derek forgot to toss shortly before moving out the house.

“Hey, check this out!” I announced, wiping layers of cobwebs and grime away with my palm.

Bill took a look at the scribbled label, and was intrigued too.

“Mystics?” He asked, narrowing his eyes as we stared down at the rather intriguing-looking object. “Like Dungeons & Dragons board games stuff? Hey, those vintage ones could go for like $1,500.00 on eBay.”

“Or ‘Mystic Journey,’ as in Bong Wizard stuff,” Tod commented with a snide chuckle.

“Nah,” I shook my head. “Derek would have taken his bongs with him.” I mulled over the box for a few seconds before sliding it open. “And besides, he wasn’t much of a stoner.”

I peered inside and found what appeared to be a bunch of old hand-sewn corduroy pillow sheets, each neatly tied in pairs with red twine. I removed a couple and carefully opened them. Inside was what looked folded pieces of thin brown parchment.

“Hmm,” Tod muttered, studying them. “Hey, if those are pinups, can I have some of them?”

“Not a pinup,” Willie carefully opened one out then narrowed his pale bespectacled eyes. “It’s a map.”

He spread it out on the floor and we all huddled around it, staring in amazement.

I squinted at it closely then scratched my head. “Wonder what it’s for? A surveyor, you think?”

“It’s a freakin’ treasure map, of course!” Tod burst out.

Everyone turned to stare at him.

He shrugged. “What? You didn’t know that?”

I stared back at the map. It was drawn by hand and appeared to be several hundred years old, judging from the thin parchment. The red and black ink had faded a bit, but the letters and landmark shapes were still clear and familiar-looking for it depicted the surrounding area from the Swanwick Forest to the nearby towns between the River Orth. and the Glyph Fallout Area.

So you’re saying that this might lead to real life treasure?” I asked skeptically.

Tod snorted. “Well, what else could it lead to? Starbucks”

Willie, who’d been studying it closely, glanced up at him. “Well, it’s pretty old,” he stated philosophically.

Tod nodded eagerly. “Of course!”

Willie just blinked at him, like a sleepy tortoise.

“What?” Tod snapped impatiently.

Willie simply shrugged as he adjusted his glasses.

“It might even be a clever reproduction,” he pointed out. “Alex’s brother was into Dungeons & Dragons role-playing as well as the Society for Creative Anachronism.”

“Yeah, and he was also into geocaching,” Bill piped up, “which is also like treasure hunting.”

“You see? You see?” Tod gestured wildly in Bill’s direction. “That’s proof enough.”

“Well, if it’s a real treasure map, that means there’s real treasure to be found,” I said thoughtfully.

“Yeah, and since we’re all here,” Tod went on matter-of-factly, “and have nothing else to do today, we should go on a hunt for it.”

“But what about my folks?” I insisted. “They might come back at any minute!”

Bill and Willie gave me a sympathetic look, while Tod shook his head impatiently.

“Well, what do we care? Let’s go find that treasure!” he cried.

I frowned at him. Typical Tod.

“I’ll go get the shovels,” Willie said, hurrying past me.

“We need to prepare some snacks too,” Bill reminded, always thinking of his stomach.

“Yeah, we’re also going to need some ice drinks too,” I added gruffly. “It’s going to be hot.”

“I headed downstairs to grab some sandwiches and drinks for the road. When I came outside, I found everyone waiting impatiently.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” Tod said, tapping his foot. “Let’s go already?”

I glanced down at the map he held clenched in his right hand.

“All right,” I said with a curt nod. “Let’s get going then.”

3– Into the Woods[]

So the four of us started off. We were just like those adventurous kids in The Goonies or Stand by Me.

We weren’t a gang, because we weren’t mean enough (unless you count Tod).

I’m not trying to be cute or sentimental here, but it was really like something out of an 80's movie, or a Stephen King book,

Four friends, heading out for the great unknown, looking for a treasure trove or hopefully, in this case, some reward money for finding a geocache.

I thought it was funny that I was the only one who hadn’t really wanted to go, yet I was the only one who really had a good excuse for staying put.

It wasn’t just because of my parents coming home soon, it was also because of Swanwick Forest’s reputation as a mysterious and dangerous place.

My brother, Derek didn’t trust Swanwick and always took the long way around when he went out to surf. He told me on several occasions to stay out of Swanwick, but he wouldn’t say why exactly– just that it would fuck me up big time if I ever ventured in.

Now, the four of us were going to cross a little bit of it in order to find the Red X Spot.

I could tell you a lot of things about Swanwick.

I could tell you it was once a big game hunting ground for the rich people back in the 1800's, and that it was the first national park in the area.

I could tell you it’s 113,440 acres (the part the Commonwealth shared with Faerie) was mostly old-growth forest with giant redwoods and Sequoia trees, or that there were a few cabins built back in the early 1900's, but now were all abandoned, yet somehow still maintained by some ‘entity’ not affiliated with the park service.

I could also tell you that the few outsiders who dared set foot into Swanwick without an armed ranger escort often never came back out . . . or on the rare occasion they did; they didn’t stay around for very long.

I knew all this, but I never really paid much attention due to the ‘gold fever’ I was feeling.

Speaking of gold, the quaking aspens on the forest’s border were all turning gold, really cool-awesome too. We all took that as a good sign and continued into the dark forest.

It was dense inside and filled with towering conifers that seemed to lean in close to whisper dark secret to one another. As we ventured deeper, the air grew cooler and wetter, and the bright sunlight struggled to penetrate the thick canopy above. But even in the hushed atmosphere, we saw signs of animal life–banana slugs, olive-yellow snails (some of them six inches in length), small flying insects, tiny songbirds darting through the dense undergrowth, squirrels and Steller’s jays scolding us from the canopy, even saw several deer prancing along up ahead of us.

After what seemed like a couple hours of trudging along, we stopped for a breather and some snacks.

That was when I noticed the air had gotten very cool, cold even.

Nearly all of us, except for Tod, were wearing light clothes, but I seemed to be the only one shivering due to the chill.

It was a warm day outside the forest, almost like an Indian Summer, but here in Swanwick, it was like being in a walk-in freezer.

Now there were no birds or animals in sight or sound, but something was making my skin crawl, my heart was hammering away and my teeth clicking away.

A sudden gust of wind blew up behind me, lifting up my shirt and blowing my spiky hair every which way. It felt like ice-cold finger reaching out and I let out a yelp of shock.

All my friends looked up from their lunches in confusion.

“What’s wrong, Alex?” Tod asked, his eyes crinkling with amusement.

“Nothing,” I muttered, rubbing my arms. “It’s just so frickin’ cold here, dude.”

“Are you shitting me?” Tod said, and he laughed, “It’s hotter than my mom’s sauna in here, man!”

“Yeah, dude,” Bill agreed. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you were just pulling our leg.”

“Or maybe I’m just coming down with something,” I replied with some concern.

We soon got through with snacking, and stood up, brushing the pine needles and dried leaves from our clothes. Then we continued on our way.

We were now walking through towering redwoods and showy wild flowers. Every possible walking space seemed to be taken by carpets of shrubs, mosses, lichen, and fungi. Our footsteps were hushed on the spongy jumbled floor.

There was no cell service, which was kind of weird, but I wasn’t really paying attention to that. My mind was brimming-full of images of gold and silver coins and greenbacks and what I could get at the mall or eBay with all that loot.

I had just found a nice-sized branch for a walking stick and was admiring how it made me look like a real adventurer, when like in a Looney Toons cartoon, I ran straight into a huge dead tree trunk.

I bounced off of it like a pinball and landed right on my back in a wet boggy spot. Whatever things were living in that moist patch were now wriggling up against my soaking backside. They moved lightening fast like snakes on steroids, and seemed to have little legs. I was really hoping they were just salamanders and not centipedes. I absolutely hated centipedes as well as spiders, especially the massively huge tropical kind that with all those ugly ass legs and looked like absolute hell spawns.

“Dude! Are you okay?” Bill was leaning over me, and Willie was peering anxiously over his shoulder.

Dazedly, I nodded and let them haul me up.

“Yeah, I’m okay,” I muttered. “Thanks.”

“You sure you didn’t hurt yourself?” Willie asked me in a small worried voice.

“Nope, I’m fine,” I told him as I hurriedly swatted at my muddy clothes. It’s just my pride that’s bruised. Then rubbing my forehead, I felt a lump already forming. Shit!

I could hear Tod laughing like a hyena behind me, so I turned to glare at him.

“Stupid jerk bag elf,” I muttered as I started toward him with tightly clenched fists, but Bill grasped my arm tight.

“Don’t waste your time on that idiot,” he reminded me. “We need to get back at finding that loot.”

I let Bill tug me away, but kept flipping off the Highborn, who was still laughing his scrawny ass off.

“Hey guys, look!”

Everyone turned to stare at Willie who now held the map, and then in the direction he was pointing.

There was an overgrown trail leading off through the thick brush.

“It’s included here,” he explained solemnly at us and then back at the trail.

Before anyone could react, Tod immediately snatched the map away.

“Give it here, peasant,” he said with disdain.

Bill and I were both taken aback by Tod’s derogative slur. We all went to the same school, lived in the same neighborhood and no one had even been called a “peasant” before. It was just as bad as being called a hualau or null-rat. We were about to confront him when we suddenly heard noises off in the distance . . . like high-pitched laughing, singing, and hooting and hollering, but they were distorted. It was as if hyena, fox, bobcat and other weird eerie animals sounds were being played together through an ancient stereo system that hadn’t been tuned properly.

“Just some coyotes,” Tod brazenly assured.

We could tell by the way he spoke that even he wasn’t quite sure.

The hairs on the back of our necks stood on the end, and our skin crawled it had been covered with fire ants.

I could see goose bumps forming on the bare arms of Bill and Willie.

They were terrified.

I could even hear them whispering to each other.

“I don’t like this, man,” Bill muttered, “I think we should go on home. Sounds like a skin walker or wendigo meeting.”

“Yeah, I think so too,” Willie agreed. “This whole quest-thing seems poorly planned from the start.

“Oh, come on, guys,” Tod cut them off. “It’s just a bunch of coyotes. We’ll be fine.”

So we kept going, determined to reach our destination and to prove to Tod that we weren’t of poultry ancestry.

It was like after thirty more minutes of navigating through the prickly undergrowth, we stumbled upon a hidden path, overgrown with clumps of brambles and bracken ferns.

The path led us through a series of hairpin turns and steep slippery climbs, each more challenging than the last.

Minutes turned into more hours as we delved deeper into the forest, our frustration growing with each aching step. Our anger too, due to Tod for loudly berating Bill for eating the remaining food although Bill swore that the food pack never left his side, and then for accusing Willie for purposely misplacing the shovels and slowing down our progress with fake asthma attacks.

By now, we were about to thrash Tod, for his entitled stupidity and arrogance, for picking on Bill and Willie for something not their fault . . . if we could only catch up to him, when the winding path finally ended at the crest of a small, oak-covered hill.

As I leaned forward, grimy hands on scuffed, scratched knees, panting heavily and glanced around, the rest of the ragged team stumbled in behind me to follow my tired gaze.

There in the distance was our destination, the Orth bubbling and flowing through red alders and fern-lined banks.

“We made it!” Bill wheezed, throwing his plump fists up in a victory stance.

“Not so fast!” Tod exclaimed, barging past us.

“Huh?” Bill furrowed his brow, dropping his hands.

Willie gave a resigned sigh and folded his thin arms.

“Look over there.” The Highborn jabbed his long pale finger.

Wearily, we followed the direction Tod was pointing.

In the pristine valley scattered with mossy ravines and gnarled oaks, on the other side of the river, was a second set of hills.

“Are you freakin’ kidding me!?” Bill wailed.

“No,” Tod murmured, wide-eyed and damp with dew and sweat. “That’s what I saw when I was up on the ridge.”

“What ridge?” I asked irritably.

“This ridge,” Tod admitted, pointing down. “When I got up here, I went over this hill to look and saw this.”

“What?” My yell made Willie cringed. “Why the hell didn’t you say that earlier?”

Tod squirmed a bit under my glare, reminding me of a cornered fox . . . or maybe even a weasel. “I didn’t want to discourage you,” he finally spoke with a faint catty smile. “If we can get across the river, it shouldn’t be too far a walk, and we’ll probably get there in time.”

“Oh yeah?” I grunted. “Well, what time is it then?”

Tod glanced at his watch.

“It’s 4:35.”

“Shit!” I spat.

“What?” Willie said shakily.

“My parents are probably home by now,” I groaned quietly. “As well as everyone else’s parents.”

Tod frowned deeply as he studied the map closely. “If we get to the river and cross it, and then get to the top of those hills, and they aren’t as high as these, we won’t get to the treasure cave until about 5:30.”

“What the hell do we do then?” Bill fretted. “The sun’s going to set soon and we don’t even have the shovels now . . .even for protection!”

“Well, let’s get the river first,” Tod suggested brightly. “And we’ll think about it then.”

“What’s there to think about?” Bill threw me a panicked look. “I mean, we’re not gonna go back home now?”

“Bill, stop worrying!” I advised. “You’re just wasting energy. Also need to conserve your water.”

Bill took a few measured deep breaths. “Okay, okay, you’re right. So just do this one thing at a time.”

“Right,” Tod looked up with a smile.

“How the hell are we supposed to cross that?” Willie demanded, his shoulders sagging as his shaky fingers raked his dopey haircut.

“Just take your shoes and socks off,” Tod snidely suggested as he started down the hill.

4–The Hobby on the Headland[]

In the end, we didn’t need to take our shoes and socks off because after what felt like an eternity of slogging, we stumbled upon a hidden culvert concealed behind a cascading waterfall. The hollow sound of rushing water filled our ears as we entered the damp metal tunnel, our hearts pounding with fatigue and cautious anticipation.

Yet instead of exiting into an enormous Aladdin cave of sparkling jewels and ancient gold artifacts, we came out on a grassy headland, nestled between towering jagged cliffs and crashing murky waves. There was not a tree or bush to be seen, just wind-swept yellowish-brown grass stretching in all directions. At it's very center was a spiral formation of gray driftwood and polished white stones where the pattern converged was a hobbyhorse.

For several long minutes, we just stood there, staring at this peculiar thing. A foreboding aura seemed to emanate from its desolate form, as if it were a vessel of ill-fortune, abandoned by the whim of fate.

The once vibrant colors had now faded, resembling the pallor of a long mummified corpse. The wooden frame, once sturdy and proud, now bore the weight of the elements, its joints creaking with each gust of the wind. The large eyes, once filled with painted life, now stared vacantly into the abyss, as if they had witnessed the darkest secret of the universe.

How this wretched thing came to be trapped in such a desolate place, we could only speculate. Perhaps it had been abandoned by a child who had unknowingly summoned up a malevolent force to possess this innocent plaything. Or maybe it was a prop in a sinister ritual, discarded by some malevolent cult that reveled in the suffering of others.

As we cautiously approached the spiral, a shiver ran down our spine, for we could not deny the palpable presence of a dark otherworldly energy. We dared not touch it, for fear that an unknown curse might latch onto our souls, forever binding us to its tragic spot.

Then the sky, which had been a dull silvery-gray, suddenly darkened like a bruise. We quickly left, heading for the culvert as a sudden downpour began soaking us through. With our long legs, Tod, Willie and me made it across the now swelling tributary, but portly Bill wasn’t as lucky.

“Man down!” He called out, tripping halfway across. One of his sneakers had wedged under a heavy rock, and in the face of the rapidly rising water, was forced to abandoned it.

The icy wind started whistling as it blew through the curved stretches of driftwood barrier, swaying the hobbyhorse like a metronome. It seemed to whisper tales of woe and despair, its voice following us back from the now half-flooded tunnel.

Days of grounding and revoked privileges followed, but still, the image of the cursed hobbyhorse continued to haunt me. Eventually, the unrelenting curiosity soon overtook my fear, and when Halloween night came with my parents distracted with the ringing doorbell and giving out treats, I snuck out as a ninja, racing past crowds of trick-or-treaters with parents in tow, heading for the forest. This time, I brought with me a flashlight as well as a shovel, determined to uncover the reason behind its curse.

This time I went alone. Bill, under terms of his parental probation, wasn’t allowed out on Halloween alone. He was ordered to accompany his twin kid sisters and parents to the various G-rated, family-friendly costume parades/festivals sponsored by local businesses and community members. Willie, fortunately, was still with his dad and stepmom, and happily helping around the house as well as at his maternal grandparents’ sushi shop. As for Tod, all he got for his misadventure was just a slap on the wrist, and from what I heard on the school grapevine, he still had plans on dressing up as one of the Shinigami characters in the Bleach anime series.

I had no map to follow this time since that was lost during our retreat back through the culvert, but I had a good sense of direction. Fortunately, there was a full bright moon overhead and I didn’t need to use the flashlight much as I quickly made my way between the massive trunks of the redwoods. As I hurried, I glimpsed many eyes of creatures glittering in the shadowy under bushes, and I heard rustling and scratching noises. Once I heard a deep, guttural growling that nearly caused me to freeze in my tracks, but nothing came out and I ran on. By the time I got to the moonlit Orth, I was shivering with cold and fear, but I pressed on until I came to the waterfall and the hidden tunnel.

However, someone else had arrived long before me, for the hobbyhorse was now strewn all over the place. It appeared as though it had been trampled by large heavy work boots after being broken up by an ax. The surrounding spiral, which had originally been painstakingly crafted, now lay scattered in uneven fragments.

Still I had to find out what was hiding at the very heart of the center . . . so I started digging. As I dug deeper, a sense of unease crept over me. The claylike soil seemed to resist my efforts, as if it were protecting a deeply hidden object from my prying eyes. But I persisted, driven by a desire to unravel the mystery that lay before me.

And then, as if by some unseen force, the earth gave way, revealing a hole no bigger than a badger's burrow. Setting my shovel aside, I shined the flashlight done into the hole. The yellow beam revealed gleaming objects set in niches on the curved walls and on the packed earth floor below.

A chill crept up my arms as a faint acrid smell came from the opening. Nevertheless, I put one foot into the burrow–and slipped down into the earth.

With a bone-jarring thud and a heavy shower of clods, I landed in a low chamber smelling of damp moldy earth and festooned with twisted roots.

My hands shook as I stood up and shone the flashlight around. Lining the walls and floors was a vast collection of vintage circus toys. As I crept closer, I noticed that they were intricately crafted and each had a unique aura to it. A clown on a unicycle seemed to be grinning menacingly at me, while a nearby acrobat hanging from a trapeze looked like she was about to fall any second.

Then I noticed an old steamer trunk at the center of the room. Stepping in for a closer look, the bright beam revealed streaks of mildew and rust half obscuring circus and travel tags. I could make out words–Bazaar of the Bizarre, Shadow Zones and the Grande Masquerade.

My foot nudged something that clinked. A chain? Eyes widening, I noticed two more chains lying nearby as well as several padlocks.

Then I noticed the locksmith tool set as well, rather familiar-looking too. Didn't Tod's dad own a similar sort of kit? Didn't he keep it locked up in a tool cabinet down in his massive garage?

And then I heard it. Faint rustling and then scratching. A sickening stench immediately hit my sinuses. Pressing one hand over my mouth and nose, I fought back the urge to vomit and then suddenly realized the sounds were coming from inside the trunk.

I leaped back, scattering toys as I flattened myself against the far wall.

The stagnant air around me was more heavy and oppressive, as if the toys themselves were alive and watching me suffer. The painted grins seemed wider, more ominous, while others were twisted into expressions of terror.

Meanwhile, the trunk rattled and shook as something large shifted about.

"Last lock better hold," I whispered.

The noises abruptly ceased.

All I could hear was my breath heaving in and out and my teeth chattering. Then the trunk lid cracked open with a grinding screak, revealing a crack of pitch darkness. A suffocating wave of the putrid stink soon washed over me, causing me to choke and gag.

That was when long white arms slowly came out with bony hands feeling carefully about, finding the tool set, delicately selecting a suitable pick, and then the spidery digits starting to work. Expertly inserting the pick into the heavy padlock, turning it this way and that.

After that, everything became a total blur, a runny mix of deepest dark, oozing muddy brown and deepest green that gradually resolved themselves into sharp distinct shapes–the huge larch tree I was in, the figures of my dad (still in his Merlin costume) and two police officers in a cheery picker, trying to persuade me to let go of the trunk–trying their damndest to convince me that there were no monsters in trunks and that I wasn't still trapped in a dark pit somewhere surrounded by cursed toys, with cold white hands tightly clutching at my throat.

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