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Chapter 1--The Visitor From Curtisville

She was so quiet when she sat down at the sun bleached, driftwood bench that they didn't even notice her. It wasn't until she cleared her throat that they turned to look at her.

"Have you ever hated someone so much? Someone you would do anything to obliterate, even if it means paying a high price for vengeance?"

The speaker was a scrawny looking girl who might have been as old as fourteen or sixteen. Her mousey hair hung limply over her thin face, and her muddy-brown eyes peered out hollowly through wire-frame spectacles. She wore a baggy gray hoodie jacket over ragged faded-down jeans. Although she looked at her two startled companions seated across from her, it was like she didn't see them at all. She had the thousand-yard stare commonly associated with battle-weary soldiers and inmates just serving out their long-term sentences.

A long tense pause followed as bottled rockets whistled and popped overhead, and motley hordes of humans and Faire Folk swarmed around several smoking grills and luau pits.

Seemingly oblivious to the Midsummer festivities going on around her, the hollowed-eyed, wraith-like girl continued her morbid inquiry.

"Have you ever wished the most agonizing death ever upon the one you hate?"

The purple-haired goth girl shrugged. "Meh, countless times back in middle school." Meg, or Megaera as she liked to be called, was a sophomore at Hogan's Bay High School. She also worked at the Pizza Palace downtown as a cashier and pizza garnisher. "But now I just ignore," Megaera went on causally. "They're just a bunch of ignorant little snits not worth the trouble to swat."

The girl seated next to Megaera set aside her shish-kabob plate. Her name was Kes; she was a delicate brown-skinned girl with fluffy white hair and golden cat-like eyes. She was a Gerdin, an outworlder of about Megaera's age, which was sixteen. She wore the orange and gold robe of an Oriim pilgrim/tourist celebrating the summer solstice.

"I have met some pretty annoying people back in my world," Kes mused, wiping the meat sauce from her clawed fingertips, "but never once did I wish them any ill will."

Megaera stared at the stranger with pale yellow eyes. "Hey, what's this about anyway? Someone giving you a bad time?" Her purple ringlets immediately began to ripple and writhe over her head as if the wind blew it from all sides. Yet there was no wind. "You just give me their names and I'll go sort it all out for you."

Kes drew back, startled by this Medusa-like display, but the thin girl just sat there, as still as a statue, her slow breathing the only indicator that she was of the living.

"It's not that," she said dully.

"It's not?" puzzled Megaera, her living tresses instantly reverting back to floppy stillness.

"No," the girl continued in the same flat tone, "the one giving me trouble is not some cold-hearted, clique bitch, but an extremely immature, obnoxious, brain-cell-deprived teenybopper who thinks the world revolves around her and her money."

"Oh gawd," Megaera rolled her eyes heavenward. "Not one of those fruitcakes."

"Teenybopper?" Kes looked puzzled. "What's a teenybopper?" As a first-time visitor to the Human Territories, the Gerdin wasn't up-to-date on the native lingo.

"Oh, people who are basically freaking idiots," Megaera scowled as she snapped her fingers. Three reefers appeared in her hand. She held two out for the other girls to take.

"Sorry, but I don't smoke," the thin one said.

"Uh, none for me, thanks," said Kes politely, picking up her paper plate again. "Stuff might spoil my palate."

Megaera nodded, snapping the extra reefers out of existence, and replacing them with a book of matches.

"So teenybopper's a derogatory term then?" asked Kes.

"Depends on who you talk to," Megaera replied, as she lit up her 'peace cigar.' "To my Ma and Grandma, a teenybopper just meant some circa 1950s - 60s teen chick who was into an actually decent band or artist. Now it's just applies to these teenie beenie, Brainus Minimus posers who are totally obsessed with crappy pop music, tacky clothes, faux celebs and the latest tween idol movies." Tossing her bright purple hair over her shoulder, she added scornfully, "They're a freakin' travesty to mother earth, and deserve to be dropped feet first into a swamp full of ravenous crocodiles...or failing that, a good mosh pit ass-whupping."

"You really hate those people, don't you?" said Kes, chewing her shish-kabob thoughtfully.

"Yeah, I hate all those freakin' bops with an effin passion," said Megaera as she inhaled the acrid fumes of her reefer.

The stranger's vacant eyes narrowed slightly. "Hateful enough to put a curse on them? A curse that cannot be removed once inflicted. A curse that is guaranteed to cause extremely negative things to happen to the targeted persons, one that will cause irreparable damage to their genetic blueprint as well as to their sanity?"

With a faint rustle, the shish-kabob plate dropped out of Kes's hand. For a moment she sat staring open-mouthed at the strange girl. Then she blinked and choked out, "What the flarb are you talking about?"

"I was just asking the Goth Gorgon if..." the girl began.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. I heard you the first time!" exclaimed Megaera irritably. She was rapidly becoming annoyed at the manner of this unexpected guest. "What's your name, kid?”

"Ellery Wilcox."

"You live around here?" asked Kes curiously.

"Naw," Ellery shrugged her bony shoulders, "I'm from 'Oklahoma by the Sea.'"

"Oklahoma by the Sea?" Kes glanced at her friend, mystified.

"She means Curtisville," Megaera explained, "four miles North of here. It's got this persistent image problem over the years, because the people who settled it first during the Depression were of the rural working class, hence the name--Oklahoma."

"Oh," Kes nodded understandingly. "One of them No Magic, No Mystery, Mundane sort of places?"

"Yeah, it's pretty mundane as it can get." A flicker of annoyance crossed Ellery's sharp pale face. She dragged her hand through her long stringy hair, pulling free a small tangled clot. Frowning, she glanced at it before flicking it into the fire. "Not a smidgen of magic anywhere, unlike here."

Kes's nape fur tingled, her golden eyes widened, as she beheld the burning knot of hair. Oh Gods! Did I just see a piece of scalp sticking to that knot? she thought, feeling her stomach tightly clench and her gorge rise. However, reason soon took hold and she was able to shake off that awful vision. Get a grip, Kes. It was just dandruff. The girl's just an unhealthy slob, not a zombie.

Still she didn't like how the shadows seemed to gather in Ellery's already deep sunken eyes and how her cheeks looked gray and hollowed. Either she was an anorexic or a junkie, maybe even both. Kes now wished the girl would just go away and haunt some other campfire. All she wanted to do was to just sit back and enjoy the fireworks, the lively conversation and the food. She didn't want to know whatever demons it was that brought this teen to the nearly-dead state she was in. But then Ellery started to talk again, in that dull, flat voice, and Kes, despite her squeamishness, began to listen.

“I came here because I need this curse cast on the girl I mentioned earlier.” Ellery took a picture out of her jacket pocket. She leaned forward and handed it to Megaera. “It takes a lot of psionic energy to make a powerful spell, and unlike us foreign-born mundies, you Nye have plenty of that energy.”

Holding the reefer between her right thumb and index finger, Megaera studied the photo carefully. “Ugh, looks more like a weeaboo to me,” she said with a grimace before handing the photo to Kes.

“Another one of her newest fads.” Ellery’s bony finger traced out a pattern in the woodgrain of her seat. “People tell her she looks positively atrocious. But does she listen?”

Puzzled at what exactly provoked such a negative reaction, Kes scrutinized the photo in front of her.

It had been taken in what looked like a crowded shopping mall. In the foreground stood a pudgy, mischievous girl of about fifteen. Her hair (if it was real and not a wig) was honey-blonde and hung in long springy curls. She had enormous blue eyes and pink, puffy-looking lips. The outfit she wore was somewhat reminiscent of Victorian children or porcelain dolls, only with much more pink and larger bows. Clutching a melancholy pug dog in her right arm, she had her left arm clamped tightly around Ellery’s shoulder. While the doll-girl flashed a dazzling smile, a less emaciated Ellery just stared blankly at the camera. Kes nervously wondered what exactly she had been thinking when this picture was taken. Her face seemed to say, if this photo ever gets out, I will seriously hurt you.

Pursing her lips tightly, Kes handed the photo back to Ellery. “That’s just disturbing and wrong on so many levels,” she declared, leaning back in her seat. “Really, really disturbing.”

“Yeah, pretty horrendous, isn’t it?” said Ellery, stuffing the photo back in her jacket pocket. She studied her for a moment. “I take it they don’t have any fanime conventions where you’re from?”

“No, we don’t,” Kes replied, shaking her head. “We have annual festivals where people dress in traditional costumes, but nothing ridiculous and over-the-top like what that girl was wearing. Hell, even our clowns have dignity.”

Ellery barked a bitter laugh. “Yeah, dignity’s something sorely lacking in Lolly Mcclaren’s philosophy. Also respect; respect for people’s property and personal space.” A scowl slowly broke over her face. “If there’s one thing I hate more than lack of dignity, it’s lack of respect for private property and personal space.”

“So she’s a thief and a glomper as well as a jackass?” Megaera nodded, exhaling puffs of blue smoke. “Why doesn’t someone just kick her ass then?”

Ellery shrugged, her scowl fading to a tight frown. “Because whenever someone tries to take out their hostility on Lolly Mcclaren, they soon get really weak and drowsy.” A few minutes of silence followed before she continued, “She tends to sap the energy from anyone who comes in really close contact with her.”

“There’s a word for that type of thing,” Megaera told her. “Psychic vampirism.” She twisted a lock of hair and studied Ellery closely. “Is that what happened to you, you tried messing with her and you wound up looking like an extra from a George Romero movie?”

Ellery shook her head. "No, it was something else entirely, although it was sort of connected to Lolly." She looked down at her feet, causing her glasses to slide down her narrow nose. She pushed them back up again and furrowed her brow. "Last weekend, me and some of my friends met...well, a bit of an accident."

Megaera puffed some more on her reefer while eying the girl curiously. "An accident, huh?"

"Accident?" Kes stared wide-eyed in disbelief and dismay. "What accident? You mean like an auto wreck?"

"No, nothing like that," said Ellery, shaking her head a second time. She slowly pulled her knees up to her chin, wrapping her arms around her bony ankles. "Though I really wish it was a car crash, might have made things a hell of a lot easier for us."

"Why do you say that?" the still wide-eyed Kes asked. She soon noticed the multiple bandages that layered the teen's ankles. It couldn't be anything really serious, she thought, the girl's still walking around okay. It was then she caught a glimpse of gauze sticking out from beneath Ellery's jacket sleeve. What the hell?

Ellery looked grim. "Cause the 'injuries' I have now can't be fixed by any regular earthly treatment."

"Hmmm. Maybe you should start from the very beginning then," Megaera suggested, shifting her reefer to the other side of her mouth.

Ellery hesitated. "Is this absolutely necessary? I have to go look for a powerful Nye wizard, one that will help me get a curse underway."

"Of course it is absolutely necessary," the Goth insisted in a business-like manner. "We can't have any adequate curse made without first hearing about the history of the victim/whack-job."

Kes looked from one to the other, and felt a slight chill run down the back of her neck to her sandaled feet. This was just like a scene from The Sopranos where the hoods were discussing a hit list of potential targets.

Chapter 2—The Newcomer

Ellery let out a sigh as she gazed into the crackling fire. She looked so sad, so full of despair. An experience of severe stress and strain was deeply etched into the grooves on her face.

Kes felt a surge of pity which was then followed by deep anger at the fluff-rag idiot for making this poor girl’s life a living hell.

“Before I start,” said Ellery. shifting her dull gaze to Megaera and Kes, “I have an important question to ask.”

“Uhh...okay,” said Kes, scratching her white-maned head.

Megaera shrugged nonchalantly. “Sure, go ahead.”

Ellery took a deep breath. “Are either one of you big fans of Bruce Springsteen, especially his Oscar winning 1993 song, ‘Streets of Philadelphia’ or of the various Philadelphia sports teams?”

Baffled, Kes and Megaera glanced at each other. This girl was most certainly a kook.

“I’d rather watch the entire High School Musical film series while trapped on an elevator with a diarrhetic wart hog,” Megaera replied stiffly, “then attend a packed Springsteen’s concert. No offense intended to diarrhetic wart hogs. And no, I consider myself an Oakland Raider fan just like my dad.”

Kes’s delicate brows wrinkled. “I’ve only been here like three days and I still don’t know much of anything about human entertainment.”

The sickly girl looked at them with a brooding eye.

“Good,” she said abruptly, “I’m glad you’re not fans of Philthydelphia... it’s pretty much a freakin’ hellhole, that city. City of Brotherly Love, my ass; more like Brotherly Hate. My family first moved there from Great Britain and half my childhood was nearly destroyed living in that squalid cesspool of a city.”

“Isn’t the whole Philly Sucks Bigtime thing like a cliche?” asked Megaera. “Even the famous comedian W. C. Fields poked fun at Philadelphia through his show biz career. One of his quotes went--'First prize was a week in Philadelphia. Second prize was two weeks.’ Evidently had a low opinion of Philadelphia.”

“I really wish it was,” Ellery scowled, “but you won’t find one shred of hospitality or even normalcy in that part of the USA. I’m just glad my parents finally came to their senses and moved me and my youngest siblings out of that godforsaken dump. You know, coming to Curtisville is like taking your first breath of fresh air or finding your long-lost dog and receiving a lot of tail wags and face licking.

“Sure, it’s not perfect. There’s some crime, and some people who are complete morons when it comes to driving and letting their dogs wander loose, but overall it’s a pretty decent place to live. Even though it could get pretty boring at times, it’s still way better than living in Philly.”

Meanwhile the sun was setting over the ocean, casting long shadows across the beach, spilling over the hummocks of dune grass and scattered driftwood.

The overnight bus from Curtisville rubbled off the freeway and crept into the forested outskirts of Hogan’s Bay. After it arrived at the downtown bus terminal, a procession of frantic passengers hurried off, some of them pinching their noses while others peered frantically over their shoulders. The only one not fearful and wild-eyed was an energetic, heavily-perfumed girl of about fifteen, wearing the frilly blue and white dress of a Gothic Dark Alice and a matching PawStar hat. Clutching a Hello Kitty backpack and a miserable pug, she bounded off. Then turning, she waved furiously while yelling “SAYONARA, BUS DRIVER-SAN!”

The burly ogre-like driver (a former sideshow performer and rock musician of People With Chairs Up Their Noses and If Pigs Could Talk Would You Still Eat Them) watched her stride purposely towards the distant lights of town. Troubled, he shook his bald, heavily pierced and tattooed head. “Not a good time to be hassling those Faerie Folk, Girlie, especially when you’re dressed and smelling like a French tart."

As he sat staring after the receding figure, the remaining passengers frantically waved their hands and magazines in front of their faces. Some quickly got up and slid open the windows to let in some fresh air. Finally, with most of the windows opened, the cloying smell started to dissipate. Looking green around the gills, they soon fixed their gaze on the furthest rear seat once occupied by that malodorous brat and her pathetic-looking dog.

The driver was about to slide the doors shut when a scream shrilled from behind. It was followed shortly by muffled cries and shouts of sheer disgust.




“Holy Mother of Funk! ...Is that... is that... blood?!”

“No, man... It’s more like Black Oil...You know, that creepy stuff from The X-Files.”

“Oh my God... there’s things moving in it... Are.. are those maggots?”

“No, they’re like... tiny centipedes.”

"Where the freak did those scary-ass bastards come from?"

"I have no freaking idea... I think it might be that freaky fangirl that put them there.”

“Or that mangy lil’ mutt...”

“Eww, you mean like parasites?”

“Wait, there’s something else squirming around in there!”

“Well, whatever the hell it is, don’t touch it! Remember the movie Alien? Dude touched something he shouldn’t have!”

“What the bloody hell is going on back there?” Cutting the engine, the driver glanced up in the rear view mirror and saw a small crowd had gathered around the left rear-corner seat. A few of the people turned and stared back goggle-eyed at him while a couple more reeled back, reaching out to steady themselves on the nearby seats as they emptied out their stomach contents. Probably a bit of road kill that lil’ turd-head left on board as a retard prank. He furrowed his metal-encrusted eyebrows as he snapped off his belt and lurched out of his creaking seat. No more was he going to put up with any more of this morbid nonsense on his bus. Those fanime types are going to have to goddamn well better sit still and mind their freakin’ manners like everyone else, or they could get the ride in the back of a police cruiser. Biting his lower lip, he trundled his mountainous bulk up the aisle and pushed his way through the white-faced onlookers, their hands clenched tightly over their mouths and noses.

That was when the smell hit him, powerful like a head butt to the nose. It was an entirely strange smell now, different from the one permeating that loud-mouthed delinquent that just got off; a sweetish aroma like potpourri spice mingled with decaying meat. Bile choked his throat and he retched, swallowing back the urge to vomit. Eyes watering as he gulped down fresh air, he slowly took in the nightmarish scene. Viscous puddles of a sticky black substance coated the rear corner seat nearest the window. Swarming through this liquid were a mass of squirming creatures and pulsating clusters of veins and organs, many of which had clusters of misplaced fingers, eyes and teeth.

Head reeling, the driver's knees buckled, before he finally toppled over in shock, leaving the responsibility of calling 911 to one of the more tougher-fibered passengers.

Chapter 3--Ellery’s Story

There was a dog cleaning up the shish-kabob that the Gerdin had dropped earlier. It was an exceptionally large dog, yellowish-brown in color. Curiously, Kes studied the animal as it noisily scarfed up the stray bits of barbecued vegetables and lamb flesh. Maybe a wolf hybrid or a Malamute-cross, she guessed. Whatever the ancestry of this furry Hoover Vac, it didn’t come alone. The place was now swarming with people, either seated around the bonfire or milling about the edge. Although there were a few human faces, a good many of these people were dark fae, bird witches, vampires, and lamia.

“Uhh... Megaera,” Kes’s voice rasped nervously as she tugged on the goth girl’s leather sleeve. “Exactly where did all these people come from?”

“Don’t worry, they’re harmless.” Megaera took her reefer out and studied it carefully. “Mostly latecomers.”

“Harmless, huh?” Kes stared at the new arrivals, not entirely convinced by her friend's breezy assurances. Part of her wanted to run back to her hotel room and barricade herself in the closet, but another part of her didn’t want to wuss out without listening first to Ellery’s story. Besides, the campsite looked pretty cheery despite the strangeness of the assembly. People were playing guitars and tapping on various drums. There was a tinkling of leg bells and shrill piping of a fife. Dogs and other things were running around grabbing people’s food, and a full moon was shining.

Pricking up her ears, Kes decided to stay put and listen. For a while, Ellery didn’t say anything, and Kes kept casting nervous glances at Ellery’s impassive face, wondering if the girl was even still alive.

At length, Megaera stood up on her seat and made motions for quiet. After the din of chatter and loud music died down, she sat back down and turned to Ellery, “Okay, you can start now.”

“Thanks,” said Ellery, before plunging in.

“I was nearly twelve when I first moved to Curtisville,” she began. “Since I didn’t get a chance to finish out the sixth grade at my previous middle school, it was decided that I should repeat the sixth grade. Naturally, I wasn’t too pleased with the whole arrangement, and wanted so much to be transferred straight to 7th grade- not because I considered myself mature for my age, but because I thought suffering only two years of pure hell was much preferable than having to endure three.

“The reason for my very sour attitude was because the place I went to in Philly was just horrible. It was an absolute hellhole, which probably wasn’t at all surprising seeing this was in Philly Tons of posers, pervs, sluts and wannabe emos. Tons of fights, more teasing, less individual acceptance (even though everyone was really too young to fit into any 'group’).

“I won’t go into any more detail about this hellish place because that’s all in the now distant past, and I don’t want to make myself further depressed reminiscing about it.”

Many of the crowd nodded in sympathy, having suffered similar experiences of woe in That Dark City Of Major Angst and Attitude Which Must Be Avoided At All Cost.

“So on my first day to my new school,” Ellery went on, “I was totally nervous, half-expecting to be given wedgies, noogies, swirlies and have my lunch money stolen, but the day ended up great. I met a lot of cool people, and most of the teachers there were cool too. Eventually, after two weeks, I made some new friends. For a while things were great, I enjoyed my classes, there were field trips and prep rallies, school dances and water balloon fights. There was even a Seagull Day...”

“Seagull Day?” a cyber-gothic guy asked, a puzzled expression on his masked face.

“Basically when hundreds of seagulls were flying over the school during lunchtime,” Ellery explained. “Then they started jettisoning their load and the next thing you know, everyone was running for dear life, trying to not get hit by the bombs of guano.”

“Oh,” the cyber-goth nodded. “Cool.”

“Yeah, it was pretty cool,” Ellery replied as she uncurled from her slouch and straightened up. She stretched slowly while all those who had fixed their eyes on her waited impatiently for her to continue.

“It was a few months into the school year that my ride into crazy town first started. The unusual Indian Summer, with its clear balmy skies and cool nights, had just given way to the freezing chilly cold and gray of a typical Humboldt winter. I still remember that particular day when it all started, there was a storm- not one with hurricane-forced winds, mind you, although it still caused the crab boats to plunge heavily in the surf and a stingy rain mingled with sleet to irritate and chill the hands and feet.

“It was my first stormy day I had experienced in my new town. The school looked dismal and dreary, and the hallways that I passed through felt chilly as a tomb. The draughts that formed in those narrow hallways were horrible. They formed criss-crossing currents and tornado-like whirlwinds that lifted the hair on the back of my neck and turned my exposed face and hands to ice.

"It was lunchtime, and while some students decided to brave the elements to trek or catch rides to the nearby restaurants and grocery stores, others huddled like wet rats in any available dry and warm campus space they could find.

"I was among the later, having chosen Al Philips's English/Journalism classroom as a refuge. Despite the cold rain pelting the windows and the wind howling banshee-outside, inside was really upbeat. There was a lot of laughter and conversation going on. In one corner of the room, a game of blackjack was in progress with coins and various knick-knacks in place of chips. In another, a large group was gathered around an armoire, watching the Marble Hornets DVD on the television.

“In case you don’t know what Marble Hornets is, it’s an indie YouTube series produced by a couple of film students about a mysterious (possibly murderous) entity known as the Slender Man.

“My friend Veronica Zollife, who was into weird horror and sci-fi movies, had brought the DVD for everyone to see. She had just gotten it as a present for her twelfth birthday. Her family was a bit eccentric anyway, but since this was Humboldt County, there was nothing really unusual about that. They were both professional Nye artists who had spent nearly thirty years building the museum/dwelling, Seaview. This meandering masterpiece had recently become a world famous historical landmark, appearing in several newspaper and magazines as well as on CNN.

"I soon quit watching Marble Hornets after I got so creeped out, and concentrated instead on my latest comic strip that was going to be in the school paper. Recently, I had just got hired for the position of cartoonist after the long-running artist Hugh Lambert finally graduated.

“When I first turned in my first strips for the job competition, I never thought I was going to be a celebrity as big as Hugh Lambert. But then over the intercom, the morning announcement came that I won, and suddenly, people were coming over telling me how really cool my comic was and wanting my autograph. Eventually, at my parents' encouragement, I entered some of my artwork in local galleries. I even got on deviantArt so people now know me from far and wide.

“Yet I was careful not to let all that fame go to my head and alienate all my new friends. So I decided to just act like my regular self, and not as an attention seeking Paris Hilton-type.

“Flash forward a few months later, I was just minding my own business putting the finishing touches on my newest strip when the classroom door suddenly burst open. Everyone looked up, half thinking it was the wind, while the other half thought it was the Slender Man. Instead a horde of Scene Kids tumbled across the threshold, yelling at the top of their lungs.

“‘Hurry up! Come on! Move it already!’

“‘Damn it, Beamis, quit shoving me! I can’t move with my butt on the floor!’


“‘Uurrrrrrggghh! It’s so rancid! I nearly hurled!’

“‘Ohmygawd! It’s soo horribawful! I can’t even describe it!’

“Everyone watched googled-eyed as the motley crew with multicolored hair, piercings and tight clothing untangled themselves and scrambled to their feet.

“‘HOLY CRAPPIN CRAP!’ a boy in a small dinosaur tee and tight pants yelled. ‘I think I left my cell phone up there!’

“‘Fergit about it!’ yelled a girl with poofy, teased hair. ‘Your life is more important than a few free minutes!’

“‘Did you notice I broke two nails!’ wailed another girl in brightly-colored animal-prints. She glowered at a boy in a Pokémon shirt. ‘It’s all your fault, Beamis! You owe me!’

“‘My fault!’ exclaimed the one named Beamis. ‘You’re the one who took thirty minutes to get through the freakin’ door!’

“‘Well, I would have moved much faster if you hadn’t knocked me down in the first place--’

“‘Will you stop bitching about your nails, Lydia!’ exclaimed a girl with raccoon-inspired eyeliner . 'I break mine all the time! But you don’t see me crying! At least not on the outside.’

“‘F’crying out loud!’ snarled a blue-haired girl. ‘Shut up with the freakin’ arguing and help me block the stupid door! You want that thing to get in here and kill us all?!’

“There was a mad scramble as the Scenes bolted the door and began piling empty desks in front of it.

“‘Hey, what’s going on?’ Nadine, who was running the blackjack ‘table’ shouted.

“‘What the hell!’ snapped her gruff assistant, Brenda. ‘Hey, you freaks! Quit doing that! You’re going get us all suspended!’

“‘Shh! Quiet!’ the blue-haired girl whispered sharply. ‘Don’t talk! Don’t make any noise! It might even save your life.’

“Veronica raised her delicate eyebrows as she put the movie on pause. ‘From what?’

“‘I don’t know,’ the scene girl replied as she stared at the barricaded door. 'But whatever it was, it wasn’t human.’

“‘Was it the Slender Man?’ Keith Nielsen asked.

“‘Slender Who?’ Blue Hair gave Keith a wide-eyed stare.

“Keith then pointed at the dark-suited, faceless figure frozen on the TV screen. 'That dude.’

“‘No, it was something completely different,’ Blue Hair replied, still staring at Keith. ‘Something totally un-human and disgusting.’

“‘What?’ I asked, not sure what to make of this girl’s ravings. Either she was totally freaked out on something or she really did see a monster.

“‘I don’t know for sure,’ said Blue Hair impatiently, 'but it was this slimy, gross kind of stuff, like snot and spaghetti all mixed together.'

"Brenda gave one of her derisive horse-like snorts. 'You dumbasses probably just saw someone's spilled Alfredo dish.'

"'No, this was something else,' said a black-haired boy with red bangs. 'Something huge, something alive.'

"'And it was crawling out of a locker,' blurted out a girl with funky hair clips and bows. 'Great big slug thing, it was...like Jabba the Hutt, and it was heading right for us!'

"The Dino Tee Boy glanced uncertainly at the girl. 'I don't know, it looked more like a velvet worm to me.'

"'Say whaaaaaaaat?!' I spluttered incredulously. My pencil slipped from my limp grasp and clattered to the floor. 'What locker?'

"'The one upstairs right across from the library,' Blue Hair replied quickly. 'The one that's supposed to be haunted and causes bad luck.'

"There was now absolute silence all around. People stood or sat motionless where they were and stared at each other in a state of shock.

"'What?' I practically screamed in frustration. 'There's a haunted locker? How come I never heard about it before?'

"Veronica regarded me curiously. 'What? No one ever told you about Locker 490?’

Chapter 4--Past History

Town (1)

A herd of twenty licorn glided out of the surrounding forest, spiral horns and fluffy silvery hides glinting in the moonlight as they clattered across the cobblestone streets. They splashed in and out of a shallow creek that meandered through the front yard of one of the stately townhouses, throwing up liquid moonbeams from their flying deer-like hooves. Finally growing weary of their wild games, they broke up into small groups, wandering up the hedge-bordered streets to graze on lawn grasses and clover. Suddenly one licorn snorted, as a sickly oily odor filled its delicate nostrils. Its mane bristled all the way down its spine as the scent awoke a deep primal fear. Others soon sensed it too and panicked, and the whole herd quickly turned and vanished into the trees as silently as they had appeared.

Lolly Mcclaren’s stride slowed as she made her way down the main street of Hogan’s Bay. In spite of the balmy evening and the bright festive atmosphere, she felt a cold tingle at the back of her neck. Every step she took, it felt as though glacial eyes were boring into her back, into the very inner depths of her soul.

Lolly jerked her head around, causing her PawStar hat to come sailing off. Tucking Pocki, the fussy little pug under one arm, the girl bent down to pick it up, and stiffened when she first saw the gray riding boots standing nearby. Then the gray silken trousers, and then the long trailing end of a gray cloak. Warily, she looked up, but her eyes soon fell on empty air.

Shivering, Lolly stood up and clipped the bow back in place. It’s just your imagination playing tricks on you, she told herself firmly. That’s all. Nothing to worry about. You haven’t done anything wrong, have you? The fairies can’t hurt you if you’re carrying a Token.

Then a voice inside her head said, “It’s not your imagination, and it isn’t even your Token, you pocky-eating, art-thieving, soul-leaching weaboo!”

Her eyes scrunched shut as a barrage of images flashed through her mind--children shrieking and scrambling for dear life as she bounced high on a large trampoline, a little red-haired girl looking at her accusingly while cradling a dead kitten, an angry store clerk riffling through her book pack and pockets for stolen Anime merchandise.

“Evening, Miss,” said a burring, rather pleasant voice.

Lolly jerked and blinked a few times, and then found herself looking up at a tall, imposing figure dressed in the high cut frock coat and stovepipe hat of a Nye constable.

“Everything all right?” he asked, eyeing her through his dark round spectacles.

Funny how the police around here seemed to dress like characters out a Steampunk fantasy novel.

“Huh? O-oh... Yeah,” Lolly stammered, feeling her cheeks flushed beneath her layers of heavy makeup.

The constable placed a reassuring gloved hand on Lolly’s shoulder. “Well, there’s a lot of spirits around tonight,” he said kindly. “But don’t worry, they won’t hurt you... unless your soul’s like a dark, damp, vermin-infested basement, which hopefully for your sake, Miss, you don’t have.”

“Don’t worry,” Lolly assured him with a dimpled smile. “My soul’s so shiny and bright that it attracts unicorns.”

Moon Agate Beach (2)

The yellowish-brown dog was now sitting on Kes’s feet and leaning its heavy weight against her legs. She made no effort to dislodge the beast; large dogs tended to make her nervous and judging from the official-looking star hanging from its collar, this was a police dog.

Kes wondered if the dog was off-duty or if it was actually helping out the local constables check for kids who were either dangerously intoxicated or high on something potent.

Megaera, on the other hand, seemed blasé about the huge hairy copper relaxing just a couple feet from her Demonia Combat boots. She sat really still and watched Ellery as she spoke, smoking her steadily diminishing reefer.

Ellery Wilcox had the kind of voice you wanted to listen to--calm, thoughtful, and compelling. She drew you in, and you wanted to catch every word even the story she was telling probably involved horror that iced over your spine and shriveled up your gods-forsaken soul into cold ashes.

Locker no 490 (3)

“Because the middle school was so large,” Ellery explained, “it was divided into three different ‘academies’ (6th, 7th, and 8th). Sixth grade (where I was) was housed downstairs while the 8th grade and most of 7th was housed on the second floor.

“The library occupied both stories, and it was on the second story that infamous Locker no. 490 was located.

“After Nadine, her burly friend/bodyguard Brenda and a few others in Rm. 105 ‘persuaded’ the Scenes to unblock the door and put everything back in perfect order; Veronica finally told me the story of Locker no. 490.

“It was a famous school legend, about as popular as the legends of Bloody Mary, the Tri-cycling Gas Mask Ghost of Sunset Court, and the Skull Headed Collie of Sutter Road.

“I was too busy being a model student and making new friends to pay any attention to local ghost lore.

“According to the legend, the curse started way back in the 1970s. Back then Curtisville wasn’t the gentrified bedroom community it is now. It was mostly a sprawling backwater chiefly consisting of trailers, humble shacks, ranches, nurseries, and a wrecking yard.

“At that time, Curtisville Middle School wasn’t quite as large and luxurious--just 13 classrooms, an auditorium/lunchroom, and a much-smaller library. Every single locker there was long and full-sized, no top and bottom at all. And many a small seventh-grader suffered the indignation of getting crammed into one by the school doofuses.

“In an effort to combat the town’s growing image problem and promote better tolerance and understanding, the school decided to host a group of exchange students from Okinawa.

“Things went surprisingly well, despite the language barrier and some cultural differences, perhaps because several reporters including world famous Walter Cronkite commented about this exchange program on the news, and the town’s folk didn’t want to appear badly with the eye of the world watching them.

“It wasn’t until the middle of August that the inexplicable, hideous tragedy of Locker 490 first came into play.

“The seventh grader who was using the locker was a Japanese student by the name of Marina Yamauchi. She started hearing noises at first--faint rustling and creaking like someone or something was moving around inside. Yet whenever she opened her locker to check, there was nothing unusual to be found. Everything was where it should be, books and binders stacked in proper order, her jacket hanging in one corner, her book bag with her lunch inside lay at the bottom untouched.

“Since there was a maintenance room right near her locker, Marina eventually decided all the strange noises she had been hearing were due to the janitor working next door.

“The strange sounds continued, and then the weird smells began, as well as the sensation of being watched. It was like someone was standing just a few feet away staring with huge unwavering eyes. Common sense told her that no one could be there; it was impossible for anyone to hide in that cramped narrow space let alone move around without her noticing. Afraid, Marina stopped using her locker altogether and instead, carried her stuff with her everywhere. But even this precaution didn’t help; the sensation of being watched persisted, becoming more intense. Now the watcher was coming after her, staring at her with wide unblinking eyes.

“Marina knew that somehow this disturbing experience was connected to that locker. Even though she wasn’t a superstitious person, she knew two of the locker numbers--'4' and '9'-- were considered unlucky in Japan.

“Four was pronounced ‘shi,’ which was the same pronunciation as ‘death,’ while nine was pronounced ‘ku,’ which had the same pronunciation as ‘agony’ or ‘torture.’

“She also noticed when the numbers--‘4,’ ‘9,’ ‘0’ were added together, they came up with another unlucky number--‘13.’

“But even though she desperately needed someone’s help, she didn’t tell anyone. Even though she wasn’t a shy timid person, she wasn’t sure people would believe her.

“Plopping down at a cafeteria table with a weary sigh, Marina listlessly picked at her lunch.

“Several of her friends walked up, and the one named Via Nakada, a seventh grader of Hawaiian-Japanese and Nye descent, asked her, 'What’s wrong, Marina?”

“‘Nothing, it’s just...’ Marina paused. ‘It’s nothing,’ she sighed again.

“Concerned, her friends glanced at each other. This wasn’t like Marina, trying to hide her feelings whenever she was upset or sad.

“‘No, really, Marina, what’s wrong?’ Via persisted.

“Reluctantly, Marina looked towards her friends before glancing back at Via.

“‘I think my locker might be haunted,’ she muttered. Then she told the others gathered around the table about the weird things that were happening to her.

“Nobody snickered or laughed, they just stayed silent, giving her weird looks. None of them ever heard about anything paranormal happening at the school before. No mysteriously moving photographs, no overwhelming feeling of dread (unless you count visits to the principal’s office and Mystery Meat Day), no wispy apparitions, glowing orbs or unexplained sounds. There was not even a case of unusual death, suicide or sudden insanity.

“Compared to other middle schools, CMS was pretty normal, full of ordinary kids with ordinary preteen problems. It would have still gone on being perfectly normal if it hadn’t been for that damn locker.

“‘But that’s impossible!’ one girl exclaimed. ‘There’s no ghosts here! It’s probably just your imagination over-reacting.’

“‘Well, I think someone’s playing a trick on you,’ another more reasonable girl said. ‘There’s some real jerks around here, it must be one of them. You should go to the office and complain.’

“Still others started trading guesses on what the thing was that was haunting Locker 490 might be. Some guessed it was a ghost, while a few (having just seen The Exorcist) insisted that it was demon.

“In the end, Via offered to trade lockers with Marina, insisting she wasn’t afraid of any spook--supernatural or otherwise.

“Relieved, Marina quickly agreed, and right after lunch, did the change.

“Things immediately returned to normal, and by the end of August, the events of Locker 490 had receded into the shadowy recesses of Marina’s mind, although they weren’t completely locked away and forgotten. Then two weeks before Thanksgiving Break, Via just...vanished.

“I stared at Veronica, feeling my eyes grow really wide. 'Va...vanished?'

“‘Yep,’ Veronica affirmed with a nod, ‘vanished this very same month, right after fourth period. Right in the middle of school rush hour. One minute she was walking towards her new locker to get her gym clothes, the next minute she was gone, the locker door half opened.

“‘No one thought it was weird at the time, so many kids left their locker unlocked and sometimes even open when they were chatting with their friends.

“‘Later, when the police started interviewing people, some of them told how it was very odd that Via would go off leaving her locker open and unlocked since she worried a lot about theft.

“‘A massive search involving hundreds of volunteers and police canvassed the surrounding area. Via’s face soon appeared in every newspaper and missing person poster across the country, but not a trace of her was ever discovered. To this day, her strange disappearance remains unsolved.’

“I took a bite of my Saint Benoît Yogurt as I speculated on this. In the background, I could hear over the sound of rain and wind, Marble Hornets playing again and the faint rustling of cards and clink of ‘poker chips.’ However, Rm. 105 was emptied of half of its participants, most having gone upstairs to see if they could find any trace of this supposed ‘Locker Monster.’

“'Maybe she just decided to run away,’ I suggested. ‘Probably was really unhappy at home, had a lot of arguments with her folks.’

“‘No,’ Veronica shook her head, ‘on the day she disappeared, Via was really upbeat. Had a lot of positive things going on in her life; why should she suddenly leave like that?’ Veronica licked the mustard from her fingers before continuing, 'Then there were the creepy noises that people claimed to have heard coming from the locker, as well as this weird perfumey kind of gross smell .’

“‘Wut?’ I leaned forward. ‘What weird smell and noises?’

“‘Well, this is where it starts sounding like something out a Stephen King story,’ Veronica quietly told me, ‘but according to some of the eyewitness accounts, shortly after Via went missing, distant screams were heard coming from inside the locker. There was also a funky smell, and these sticky-sounding footsteps walking away. The sound grew even fainter as if going down some vast unseen hallway, though the locker was narrow and really cramped and people couldn’t see anything strange in there.’

“I sat riveted to my seat, goosebumps tingling all over. I suddenly recalled on my few visits to the library how people would always give this one set of lockers wide berth.

“‘When the screams and footsteps faded away,’ Veronica somberly explained, ‘the smell soon disappeared.’

“Suddenly, a brilliant, blinding flash of lightning lit up the entire room and a second later a huge crash of thunder followed. This totally freaked me out and I jerked, immediately flinging myself out of my seat, and then the overhead lights started flickering before going out entirely. Amid the panicked shouts and swears, I heard the door fly open with a crash that shook the walls, then felt a blast of freezing wet cold.”

Chapter 5--Bad Omens

Kes, who had been staring at Ellery in frowning concentration, raised her right hand. "Uh...'Scuse me," she said hesitantly, "but when is this Lolly Mcclaren character going to show up?"

"I was just getting to that part," muttered Ellery, rubbing her nose tip.

"Oh..okay," said Kes, nodding briskly as she lowered her hand.

It was then that a sudden unmistakable stench drifted into her nostrils.

Ugh, who let one? Kes wondered, appalled.

Her delicate nose traced the acrid smell to the now embarrassed-looking canine cop still sitting firmly on her feet. Now other people were noticing, rubbing their noses and looking in her direction with raised eyebrows.

Oh, great, she furrowed her brows irritably. The dog just farted on me, and now people think I did it...and why is my left hand all numb and clammy?

Glancing over, Kes noticed she was holding hands with one of the demonic-looking cyber goths.

"Uh...hullo there," the fearsome-looking creature stuttered. His onyx orbs soon dropped to their tightly clasped hands. "Uh, wow. Sorry." Releasing her hands, he rubbed the back of his spiky neck awkwardly. "Uh, really sorry there." His gaunt cheeks took on a rosy pink as he looked at the ground. "Don't know what came over me exactly. Must have been a nervous reaction to that creepy locker part."

"It's alright," Kes muttered, squirming slightly in her seat. "No problem..." she quickly turned away, a bright flush coloring her feline features.

She shuddered. Oh... mah... GAWDS!!! I was holding hands and being all lovey-dovey and stuff with some crazy, heavy metalist guy in a fall-out bondage suit.

Seemingly oblivious to what was going on, Ellery continued talking. "As I scrambled to my feet, I was startled by another crack of lightning. A glance at the nearby window revealed that the storm was really packing a wallop. The rain now came down in a blinding torrent, rippling in the driving gusts of wind.

"More lightning split the sky, while thunder continued to crack and boom deafeningly. At this point I was starting to feel sorry for all the poor sods who were caught out there.

"Nadine was screeching at the top of her lungs, 'For Gods's Sakes, someone shut the freakin' door!'

"A blast of cold wind was rushing inside, scattering stuff in all direction--my cartoon strip pages included.

"As I scrambled around, trying to grab the fluttering pages, I happened to glance at the door. It was very dark out in the hallway, but I was still able to make out the shape of a person standing in the doorway. The small figure wore what appeared to be an orange rain poncho and clutched a Pikachu-shaped backpack. I couldn't make out a face due to the darkness and large hood the figure wore.

"Shivering, the figure said in a small burbly voice, 'Hey, can I come in, nyaaaamm? The cafeteria's like jam-packed, and Mrs. Turner doesn't like people eating in the library.'

"'Yes, come in! Come in, whoever the hell you are!' shrieked Nadine as she and the others snatched at the cards fluttering around them like butterflies. 'And shut the damn door while you're at it!’ Her piercing gaze darted towards the visitor. 'Oh, and by the way, my name's Nadine. Not Nyaaamm!'

"Since the newcomer seemed to have trouble wrestling the door shut, Veronica decided to help. As they pushed the door closed, her fingers accidentally brushed one of the visitor's pink, pudgy hands. Immediately, she drew back, an unmistakable expression of revulsion crossing her face. For a moment, I stood motionless, wondering what just happened. Then the lights flickered back on, revealing the mess and our unexpected visitor.

"I had at first thought the person was a little kid because of the size, the high cutesy voice and the rather ridiculous choice of backpack. It wasn't until the mysterious guest pulled off the drippy poncho that I got a better look.

"My first thought was the girl looked like a cross between Shirley Temple and that Usagi Toukino character from Sailor Moon. She even wore a similar, sailor-style school uniform, although it would look much better had she been much taller and less chunky. My second thought was that she looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn't place her. She was not the sort of person I would normally hang out with.

"We all stared dumbfounded as she plonked down at the nearest desk and started picking at some prepared sushi with lacquered chopsticks. The only crazies we knew about that dressed like total morons were the teenyboppers and Scenes. There were also some extreme anime fans, but none of them to our knowledge ever dressed up like total attention whores.

"'So, what's going on, nyamyam ?' the girl chirped, oblivious to the chaos she just caused.

"I frowned, puzzled. What the hell is a nyamyam?

"Veronica gave her a look as she furiously wiped her hand.

"'We were just talking about Locker 490,' she muttered, tossing the hand wipe into a nearby waste basket.

"'Oh,' the girl nodded. 'What about it?'

"'It's supposed to be cursed,' said Nadine stiffly. She and a few other people were helping me retrieve my comic masterpiece. So far we found only twenty-nine pages; thirty through thirty-nine were still missing.

"'Geeze, Ellery!' Garth Shelden fumed in frustration. 'Why didn't you just use one sheet of paper?'

"'I was trying to do a serial book thing,' I explained impatiently, 'like Asterix the Gaul or Tintin.'

"'Dude, I think you're way over your head,' said Pete McFarland, who always referred to people (no matter their age or gender) as 'Dude.' 'This is a school paper, not some major graphic novel.'

"'I know, man,' I said, picking up heaps of school papers, posters and books. 'I was going to introduce small segments at a time. Make sure you watch where you step while you're moving stuff, I don't want them getting smudged or shoe treads on them.'

"'Hey, what's this about a curse?' the fashion victim piped up.

"Nadine gave her an annoyed look, then shrugged. 'Well, according to the story, back in the early Seventies, some girl got pulled into her locker by some monster, and ever since then weird stuff keeps happening to anyone unlucky enough to use that particular locker.'

"The girl's already huge eyes widened. 'REAAAAAAALLLLLYYY?!'

"'Oh, yeah,' Nadine went on casually, 'stuff like strange accidents, illness, weird smells, plagues of frogs, lice, tarantulas, giant banana slugs, centipedes...'

"'Oh,' said the girl, absentmindedly scratching behind one ear with her chopsticks. 'Is that why there's all these cops, firemen and ambulance guys upstairs?'

"We all stopped what we were doing and stared at her.

"'Huh? What?' I inquired.

"'I was just asking Mrs. Turner if I could eat in the library,' the girl explained in a rush, 'and I happened to look over, and see this huge crowd all around those lockers just across the main hallway. The police were like keeping everyone back so I couldn't really see anything. So I asked this one kid about it, and he said that the bunch using those lockers all suddenly came down with some nasty stomach bug.' She looked at us with concern growing in her already bulgy eyes. 'I sure hope this curse thing's not spreading, 'cause my locker's at the far right end in that row.'

"We all looked at each other in a state of shock.

"'So who has Locker 490 then?' Nadine finally asked.

"But before her question could be answered, Al Philips came to the door and announced that we needed to go straight home because of the storm. Apparently there was a funnel cloud spotted near Murrelet which was nine and a half miles from here.

"Any other day, the teacher would have freaked about the mess made to his classroom. But today, he just looked at it and didn't really seem to really notice it. That was how worried he was.

"When I mentioned the lost half of my comic strip, Mr. Philips said he'd keep an eye out for it. I was grateful for that, but at the same time I felt it wasn't going to make much of a difference anyway since school was going to be closed and my artwork was already stolen or totally trashed.

"I also asked Mr. Philips about the emergency upstairs, but he just shrugged and hurriedly shooed us out. Just before the door closed behind me, I happened to look back over my shoulder and saw what might have been the hem of a blue-white skirt darting behind the podium.

"I narrowed my eyes. What was that little twit up to?

"Then the Principal came over the intercom saying that the school would be closing due to bad weather, and that everyone should leave straight away. He made no mention about the sudden flu outbreak, however.

"I gathered stuff from my locker in a daze, still pondering over how quickly the day was rapidly becoming strange. First hysterical Scene Kids screaming about seeing a huge monster upstairs, then Veronica's Locker 490 story, then the sudden changes in the weather and the coming of the Anime Geek who informed us that several students (all using the same locker block) were suddenly taken ill. Finally the mysterious disappearance of half my artistic masterpiece.

"Got to be a curse, I thought, slinging my pack over one shoulder as I closed my locker. What else can it be? Then the logical part of my brain spoke up. Don't be ridiculous, Ellery! You need magic to work curses, and this town's about as mundane as a mud puddle.

"Walking towards the front, I looked around for Veronica, but couldn't find her in the mass confusion. I reflected for a moment on her odd behavior as she was helping the Fanime Girl with the door. How she drew away in disgust after an accidental touch, the same reaction you get if you brush up against something really gross--something dead and rotting.

"Weird, I thought, as I surveyed the swarm of students milling about. I wondered about my other best friend, Nina Amra, the first friend I made shortly after moving to Curtisville. About a month ago, she and her family abruptly pulled up stakes and moved to Faire Haven. Something about 'trouble with the new people down the street' was all she would tell me over the phone. Although she was rather vague about what these new people were exactly, other then they were rich and hailed from the rolling hills of West Virginia--horse and wine country, what I did know was this--her family wasn't the only one to suddenly pack up and leave.

"Hmm, I wonder if...I mused. At this point, I suddenly walked into somebody.

"'Hey, watch it,' the guy wheeled around, glaring.

"'Sorry,' I muttered apologetically as I stepped back.

"I looked up at the ginger kid I just ran into, and both our eyes widened in recognition.

"'Hey, you're in my art class!' I exclaimed.

"'You're that Ellery girl who does the school newspaper comics,' the ginger whispered, a look of awe on his strangely pale face.

"'Uh, yeah,' I nodded, blushing a little. 'How you're doing, Hoturu?'

"'Ryuu,' he corrected. 'Hotaru's the one with the sunglasses.'

"'Oh, right,' I said lamely. I keep getting those two confused.

"Ryuu and Hotaru O'Breen were part of a set of triplets which included their morbid, monster-obsessed sister Arisu who, in spite of her sheer weirdness, seemed to have a lot of friends. They also had a little brother named Ken and an older albino brother named Yukiko, who was also a world famous rock star.

"'I'm doing great.' Ryuu got a few more things from his locker before shutting it. 'And you?'

"'Uh, not good, not good,' I replied, shaking my head. I quickly told him about all the crazy stuff that had just happened.

"'Wow,' Ryuu muttered as he zipped up his pack. 'That is really damn weird.'

"'Yeah,' I grumbled. 'Freaky damn creepy's more like it. Right after Veronica got done telling about that haunted locker, the whole mess happened.' I nodded over my shoulder. 'Now half my bloody story's lost in that room, and I can't look for it because of a freakin' tornado warning.' I sighed, loudly and exasperatingly. 'Been working my arse off on that cartoon and it's just soooooo bloody frustrating!'

"Ryuu nodded sympathetically. 'Sorry to hear that.' He gave me a puzzled look. 'You got rough sketches of the missing stuff, don't you?'

I frowned. 'Yeah, but it wouldn't be the same starting all over a second time.'

"'Oh, I don't know,' he said with a shrug. 'Leonardo De Vinci did a lot of sketches before he started on the final stuff. Look how great the Mona Lisa turned out.'

"Personally, I thought the Mona Lisa was rather overrated. It was still art, but by far not the greatest painting ever. Still I nodded and said I'd take his sketch suggestion under consideration.

"'Hey, don't worry about it,' said Ryuu reassuringly. 'You got plenty of time to redo it. Nothing to get panicky about.'

"'I suppose you're right,' I said, shrugging my shoulders resignedly. But I was feeling a little better.

"As we headed for the parking lot, a distant voice called out. 'Ellery-chan!'

"We stopped in our tracks and looked at each other.

"'Did you hear that?' I asked.

"Ryuu nodded. 'Yeah, did.'

"'Ellery-chan!' the voice cried. It seemed to be getting closer.

"I raised an eyebrow. 'Why would anyone call me Ellery-chan?' I asked, bewildered. 'Are there any Japanese transfer students around here?'

"'A few,' Ryuu replied with a puzzled frown. 'But none of them sound like Minnie Mouse on helium.'

"'Hoturu! Ellery!' the voice called again.

This time there was no mistaking it.

"'Hey, Ellery,' Ryuu was looking back over his shoulder. 'Look, who's coming.'

"'I then turned. 'Oh, gods, no,' I groaned in recognition.

"A familiar figure in a blue and white outfit was careening straight towards us, waving a manila envelope high in the air. Bemused students paused to watch her barrel past. Bystanders too slow to get out of the way were immediately sent sprawling to the ground. Despite the swearing and furious shouts from several teachers to slow down, the girl hurtled on.

"Eventually, she skidded to a halt in front of us, grinning widely and thrust the envelope into my hands.

"'Mr. Philips told me to give you this!' she announced cheerfully.

"My gaze drifted down to the bulging envelope. When I opened it, I was in for an even greater surprise. "'Hey, it's my missing cartoon pages!' I cried. 'Cool! Thanks--' I gave her a confused look. 'Uh... what’s your name, exactly?’

“‘Lachlann A’alona Haviland,’ the girl chirruped. 'I’m a High Elf, by the way.’ She brushed back her corkscrew hair to show us her rather oversized pointed ears."

Kes gave Ellery a puzzled look. “But I thought you just said her name was Lolly Mcclaren?”

Megaera nudged her friend gently in the ribs. “Wait and listen.”

Ellery paused long enough to stretch her arms and rotate her shoulders. “Now I have seen Elves, typically Scandinavian-looking with mostly blonde hair, pale skin and blue or green eyes. Generally, they were tall and slim with sharp delicate features and long pointed ears. Although the girl didn’t strike me as rather Elven-like with her stocky-build and rather geeky looks, I figured she must be a British or German variety of Elf, which were small and were often mistaken for faeries and short humans. But before I could ask her more about herself, Lachlann promptly let out a fan girl squeal that made me and Ryuu jump.

"'Hoturu-chan,' she screamed, her shrill voice sending tremors into our very souls. ‘Did anyone tell you, you look a lot like Ichigo Kurosaki! ZOMG! THAT'S SO SUGOI KAWAII!!!'

"I stared dumbfounded as the blonde girl bounced forward, wrapping her pudgy arms tightly around the stunned Ryuu.

"'I'm Ryuu!' he yelled, trying to shake the girl off. 'Hoturu's my twin brother! Hey, cut it out! What the freak's the matter with you!'"

Ellery studied the people sitting around her staring back at her, many of their eyes glowing eerily in the reflective light of the moon and waning bonfire. Then, after a moment of silence, she continued, “So there you have it. How Ryuu and I met the weeble teenie beenie who came to be known as Lolly Mcclaren.

“How 'touching’ it would have been to wind up this bizarre episode like an after school special by telling you how this strange, special creature was just another misunderstood kid with gawky looks and low self-esteem, that she came from a troubled home where her parents had divorced after years of constant fighting and she was trying to fill that void in her life with fantasy anime. This perfect little fable would finally end with her washing away the accumulation of body odor and filth and getting a more acceptable change in hairdo, diet and wardrobe.

“Unfortunately that was not how things went.

“Even in a pretty ideal world such as this one, where crime and war is few and the environment is largely unspoiled and unpolluted, there are people who actually believe themselves to be the reincarnations of magical beings and anime characters. Japanese pop and Otherkin culture are literally religions to them. It’s no joke, unfortunately. They are the ultimate example of how utterly batsmerge insane a subculture can become.

“I may be a geek, but there are levels of geekdom that I will not even cross, such as the weaboo and otakukin freak shows. Lolly Meeker was a freak show unto herself, and this glomping incident would only be the start of her insanity.”

Chapter 6--The Very 'Special Snowflake'

Megaera's sharp yellow eyes scanned Ellery's wan and pale face. With a brisk twitch of her wrist, she pushed a squirming lock of purple hair behind her ear. "So her 'good deed' of returning that lost artwork of your story was obviously just an excuse to glomp one of the O'Breen brothers?"

Ellery squinted at her through the fire and wood smoke. "I think she had no idea until she saw Ryuu walking besides me. What we didn't know at the time was she was Hoturu's assigned lab partner in Biology, and she had developed this really massive crush on him." She then added with a shrug, "Hoturu, being the macho, jock, silent type that he was, kept quiet about it. Perhaps he was even embarrassed and was blatantly ignoring her in the hopes she would eventually give up the chase."

Kes cleared her throat. "I'm wondering if that was really your actual story you got back?" she asked. "Or was that all just an illusion done by magic and hypnosis--like the tanuki's leaf-money trick."

"Yeah, it was my real story," Ellery muttered, "and looking back at it, I think she really meant to steal it, but Mr. Philips caught her sneaking it into her pack and threatened her with detention unless she returned the comic strip. I think he also told her about the security cameras embedded in the walls and ceiling."

"There are watch cams everywhere at your school?" Kes's eyes opened wider. Electronic surveillance permeated almost every aspect of life in the Oriim Archipelago. What scared Gerdin children the most wasn't the boogeyman or the dark, it was the Ongrank sometimes known as the Thought Police.

"Pretty much everywhere you go, there's watch cams," Megaera responded with an all-too-casual shrug. She inhaled a brief puff from her reefer before it was swiped by a colorful finch-harpy. Seemingly obvious to the theft, she continued. "Cooperate with the Northern Commonwealth, or else you'll find yourself listed as a subversive or troublemaker with no way to clear your name unless you submit to a mind wipe. Next thing you know, they'll be implanting GPS trackers under everyone's skin."

Kes didn't find the last comment very funny seeing that there was a similar device embedded in the back of her neck. "So what happened next?" she asked Ellery, wishing to change the subject.

Ellery regarded her with a vacant stare. "Plenty," she said, before continuing, "since Ryuu was fluent in both his parents' languages, I heard a lot of interesting Gaelic and Japanese curses; some of them you wouldn't usually find in a formal language dictionary. For example, 'Busiku' was the worst Japanese word to say to a girl while one rather mild Gaelic curse went: 'Go n-ithe an diabhal do cheann (May the devil eat your head).'

"All the while Ryuu was kicking her shins, trying to unpin his arms. Despite being a short and pudgy thing, she was surprisingly strong. Also the whole concept of personal hygiene seemed to be a great unknown to her. I soon found that out while trying to pry her off. I let her go pretty quick as soon as I noted the disgusting odor and the fact that what I had at first thought was REALLY bad dandruff was actually the 'motorized' kind of the biting variety."

Kes hissed, a Gerdin's way of expressing disgust.

"Man, this Lolly/Lachlann's a real creep," the masked cyber goth muttered. A loud chorus of agreement soon followed from the surrounding crowd.

Ellery nodded before continuing. "Just when I was about to whack her with my umbrella, I heard the gravelly voice call out. 'Hey, Blondie! Lay off my lil' bro!'

"A sinewy, white hand suddenly came down on Lachlann's shoulder just as she was about to plant a wet, slobbering kiss on Ryuu's grimacing mouth.

"Immediately, she was yanked backwards. Lachlann's arms flailed back and forth frantically as she soon lost her footing and landed hard on her derrière.

"Everyone in the hallway let out a stunned, collective gasp when they beheld the hand's owner. Finally someone screamed, 'Ohmifreakin' gawd! It's Yukiko of Moog Vagrant!'


"Yukiko O'Breen was a sight to behold--tall, lean, muscular with long white hair that spiked up in a flame-like haircut. He had high cheekbones, a sharp pointed chin, and a dyed black goatee that contrasted sharply with his winter-white skin.

"'Ryuu, you okay?' he questioned, bending down and looking at his kid brother with concern.

"Ryuu nodded weakly, rubbing his arms. 'I-I...' he stammered. 'I'm fine. She just freaked me out a bit. That's all'

"Yukiko nodded, smiling reassuring at him. 'Well, you let me handle this, okay?'

"Ryuu nodded again, clutching his backpack tightly.

"Clapping his large hand on his younger brother's hair, Yukiko ruffled it slightly before straightening up. His piercing yellow eyes then stared fixedly at the girl gaping up at him like a stranded goldfish. When Yukiko spoke again, his voice had taken on a harder edge. "'What the hell were you were harassing my bro for?'

"'I... I... I just wanted to give him a small gloomp,' said Lachlann with a hangdog expression on her puffy face.

"'Gloomping, ehh?' Yukiko's eyes narrowed to hard slits. 'Well, you just save that body slamming stuff for the contact sports, you dig? Not everyone thinks that a weeaboo flying tackle/hug is cool.'

"Lachlann went rigid, her large eyes widening and cheeks flushing. 'But I'm not a weeaboo!' she said indignantly. 'I'm a dragon goddess/wolf angel/demi-god/High Elf from Japan.'

"'No, no, you're just a small human being with a serious attitude problem.'

"'I am not a human being! I am not an Urth Bound! I am a non human being! I am a Highborn!'

"'Now listen to me, Goldilocks, and listen good because I'm not going to repeat it again,' the rocker hissed, thrusting a bony forefinger a few inches from her stubby button nose. 'You are not a dragon goddess. You are not a wolf angel. You are not a High Elf. And you are especially not an anime character from Glorious Nippon Fantasy Land. You... Are... An... Urth... Bound... and also... a really annoying weeaboo.'

"The otakukin responded by jumping up with an outraged squeal. 'HOW DARE YOU CALL ME BY THAT MEAN, HATEFUL WORD! I AM HIGHBORN, NOT A MUDDY-FUDGY, BAKA, URTHBOUND CHURL LIKE YOU! I AM PRINCESS LACHLANN A' ALONA HAVILAND. THE LONG LOST YOUNGEST DAUGHTER OF A POWERFUL ELVEN JAPANESE SORCERESS. I WAS SENT AWAY TO URTH SO THAT YOKAI YAKUZA BADDIES WOULDN'T FIND ME!' She dug frantically into her Pikachu backpack and pulled out six brightly colored medallions joined together in bracelet. 'Oh,' she said casually, 'did I mention that I have more magical abilities than the most powerful canon characters, and all powered by these dragon's blood resin talismans? I can see the future better than anyone else and I also can fly, shapeshift, control the weather... like what I'm doing right now, and heal people. I'm also part alicorn, kitsune, mermaid, and white tiger...!'

"'Hey, wait a minute,' a pimply-faced 7th grader named Ron Welkiss interrupted. 'Those "talismans" you're holding up there look a lot like six Sage Medallions from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.'

"'Yeah, they do,' agreed a stubble-faced 8th grader. 'You can get them off of E-Bay.'

"Clutching her pointed ears, the Sailor Moon spectacle yelled in a nasally, shrill screech, 'NYA! BAKA-GAJIN! QUIT POKING FUN AT MY ESTEEMED ANCESTRY!!! BAKA ANATA WA BAKA DESU!'


"At the same time, there came a deafening peal of thunder that shook the school to its foundations. This caused some of the more timid students to lose their nerves and scurry for the nearby exits. Even Lachlann seemed rattled by it though she still held her ground.

"'There, you see?' Yukiko folded his long arms and glanced up at the ceiling. 'Even the gods agree with me. Everyone you know in your fluffy pink sugoi world is brain-rotting, ape turd, fandom rubbish. Everything you do related to your weeabooish interests is absolutely worthless when compared to stuff in the real world. Your life, Missy, is a homogenous grey expanse of stale Japanese junk food, cheap "kawaii" merchandise and losey cosplay.' He then eyed the sullen pouting blonde speculatively. 'Of course, you don't know what the hell I'm talking about,' he went on flatly. 'I get that smerge a lot from otakukin freaks like you. How could I begin to fathom the life of a wolf queen goddess forced to live in the body of an unwashed, self-loathing, tweenage jackass? They all get this goddamn-batsmerge-in-the-belfry-insane crap in their heads and it sticks like cement, doesn't it? Special Lil' Snowflakes, my ass. Cultist sheep is what they are!'

"Her mouth agape, Lachlann began sputtering, ' No, no, no, no, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO!! It's not true. It's not true. You're makin' it all up. I am a non-human. I am a god. It's you who's wrong and messed-up, you fucking troll speciesist! Not me!'

"At this point, several parents showed up to pick up their kids. Some of them quickly cupped their youngsters' ears and steered them out of earshot of any new expletives. I grinned, having already learned some new words from Ryuu. 'I'll kill you! I'll kill you!' Lachlann turned a bright-beat red and shook her fat fists. 'I'll tear your goddamned chin whiskers off and shove them down your throat, I swear to God! You're freakin' dead! I swear you are so dead!'

"Yukiko's wintery voice interrupted her rant. 'If you're going to be staying here at this school, then may I suggest you start behaving yourself. You are in a different human Territory right now. I don't know how you act where you're from, but over here things are much different. Manners are very important here and it shows you are raised from a proper civilized family. If you continue to act like a rowdy, loud-mouthed brat, you will find yourself making lots of enemies--and not just human ones.'

"Ryuu and me looked at each other, and then at the seething Lachlann. We slowly shook our heads. There was just no way that cool businesslike logic was going to get through the glorious J-pop haze surrounding her brain. Having delved too far into that wacky world of Bishie Sparkle and Magical Girl Warriors, she actually believed that she was from that world.

"Finally, she lost it completely. She started yelling at Yukiko and stamping her feet, calling him things like 'baka-oni-gajin' and 'kurotare' and 'yariman.'

"Now Yukiko, being half-Japanese himself, understood all of what Lachlann was ranting and simply raised a penciled eyebrow. He then proceeded to correct her atrocious pronunciation, thus enraging the otakukin further. In my opinion, he shouldn't have really done that seeing as you can't argue with a crazy person--no matter what kind of firebrand religion they follow.

"'BAKA USARATONKACHI!' Lachlann lunged forward in a vicious charge despite the fact that:

"(A) Yukiko was a celebrity billionaire who could afford an army of bodyguards.

"(B) These bodyguards were around seven foot tall and heavily muscled beasts, clearly a force to be reckoned with. Capable of nearly inhuman strength and entirely devoted to Yukiko, they obey his every command without question, and would not hesitate to punish anyone who crossed him, his fellow band members or any of his immediate family.

"(C) Some of them, judging from their jagged yellow teeth, claws and massive, hairy, wart-covered hands, were quite possibly of ogre and oni extraction. They looked quite capable of snapping up a small middle-schooler in just two mouthfuls. Yet I think they would have gotten food poisoning from eating Lachlann due to her poor personal hygiene.

"Thankfully for all of us, Lachlann was yanked to a halt by the bony fist of Vice Principal Ms. Holiswood, a rather frightful, witchy crow of a redhead who even made the stoutest of Yukiko's minions shiver in their hobnailed jackboots.

"'That's enough,' she rasped.

"'But he started it,' protested Lachlann, choosing to play the poor, misunderstood, persecuted otherkin. One look on Holiswood's pointed face was enough to stifle that role.

"'Really, Lolly Mcclaren, I expected way better from you.'

"'Lachlann,' the girl insisted pathetically. 'Lolly's a human name, and I'm a Highborn Elfen princess.'

"'Don't be freakin' ridiculous,' said Holiswood, refusing to be swayed. 'I've seen your folks and siblings, all of them perfectly ordinary humans. Not a trace of royal blue blood--mortal and otherwise.'

"'But I'm a changeling?' said Lolly miserably. "My real parents were assassinated by the yokai yakuza, and I was adopted by humans.'

"'Don't give me that Lil' Orphan Mary Sue crap.' Holiswood increased her vise-like hold on Lolly's plump shoulder. 'I've seen this escapist, cultist craziness far too often to keep quiet about it.' Before she could say anymore, she was seized by a convulsive fit of coughing. Pulling out her handkerchief, she clapped it to her beaky nose.

"'What's that bloody awful smell?' she inquired muffledly.

"Then her glance soon fell upon Lolly's greasy mass of matted curls with its clinging load of 'passengers.' Her eyes bulged as her thin face took on a sickly yellowish-green hue. She gasped as quickly released her grip. 'Young lady, when was your last wash?'

"'Uh... last week,' said Lolly sheepishly.

"'Last week?' Holiswood repeated disgustedly, her face twisted into a grimace as she quickly wiped her hand. 'More like last year. Do your parents know all about this disgraceful state of hygiene?'

"'Uh... Well, they're... they're kind of busy,' Lolly stammered, wincing under the penetrating hawk-like gaze, 'with Sylvia's violin lessons and Thomas's soccer practice. Anyway, my dad says we're all covered in little bitty mites and bacteria, and they never hurt anyone.'

"Holiswood shook her head slowly. 'Nuh-huh, honey. Those aren't mites, those are lice, and they have a nasty tendency to spread. You're going to have to wait in the office while I call your parents.' Again she coughed and wrinkled her nose as another strong whiff of unwashed human wafted over to her. 'This whole mess should of have been dealt with much sooner.'

"'Yes, but--'

"Clapping her thin hands, Holiswood shooed her ahead like a stray hen. 'No more talk, now move it!'

"The moment Vice Principal Holiswood mentioned the dread L-word, everyone stopped chatting and turned to look as the two hurried down the hall. Everyone's face, with the exception of me, Ryan and Yukiko, wore the same expression: wide eyes and a mouth agape.

"The next five minutes was complete silence. Then the whispering began

"'U-Uh... did Ms. Holiswood just say lice?'

"'Yeah, she did,' one of her friends nodded slowly.

"'Oh, Snapz!' a boy cried. 'Not another lice epidemic--!'

"'And right before Thanksgiving Break too!' added another. 'Freakin' great!'

"'I bet that weeb's spreading lice on purpose!' declared Heather Mabius, a nerdy, snooty 7th grader who played clarinet in the school band.

"'Yeah,' agreed her equally snotty friend, Tasha Chickerie. 'Some girl tried to do that to me in the fourth grade.'

"'She did that?' the people next to her exclaimed in shock.

"'Oh yes,' Tasha nodded grimly.

"'Can you believe that? She even said they were special faerie lice called 'pixie winks' and they even sparkle and made you do magic!'

"'Wow, sparkle lice,' Heather muttered. 'That sounds just as bad as sparkle vampires.'

"'Oh hush up, you two!' Nadine spat. 'There's no such things as pixie winks, sparkle lice... and people don't purposely spread lice. I mean, come on! Why would anyone do something that moronically stupid to risk their reputation? It sounds like something straight out of a South Park episode!'

"But it was already too late. The rumor mill had begun to spin wildly and no rumor spread faster through a school or a group of anxious parents than word of a massive lice infestation.

"I darted a worried glance at Ryuu who then looked worriedly at Yukiko.

"'Y-You don't suppose some of us caught some of her cooties,' I managed to stammer out.

"'Wouldn't hurt to check,' Yukiko wrinkled up his aquiline nose. 'That girl's a freakin' train wreak. She may look cute and innocent at a distance, but up close, she's just a freak and a creep. No sugar and spice and everything nice, just poison, pestilence and lies. She sprinkles it around, thinking its confetti or pixie dust.'

"'Uh... Ryuu,' I said nervously, 'your brother's starting to scare me.'

"'What the frak's going on here?' a familiar voice suddenly piped up behind us.

"We all turned and there was my dad standing there, staring owlishly at us. I was so engrossed in the weeb vs. black metal musician drama that I didn't even notice my dad walking up.

"My dad seemed less impressed by this tall lanky specter surrounded by leather-clad muscle. His kind of music was Folk and 60s rock, the kind that supposed to blow your freaking mind, not your eardrums. 'Aren't you guys on a bit tall to be in middle school?' he inquired, squinting suspiciously.

"Yukiko gave him a reassuring smile. 'Don't worry, Mr. Wilcox.' He threw a long protective arm around Ryuu. 'I'm just helping out the family by picking up my little bro and sis.'

"My dad stared at Yukiko, astonished. 'You're related to this little guy?' His startled gaze then shifted to Ryuu who turned several shades pinker.

"Yukiko stretched his already wide mouth into a toothy grin. 'Yeah, it's pretty crazy, huh?'

"My dad pursued his lips thoughtfully. 'I'll say. If you ask me this whole neighborhood's getting to be a bit strange.'

"'Well, that's Northern California for you,' he said with a shrug. 'Foggy days, neighbors with Gluer cars, flying bicycles and kinetic sculpture... ghostly submarines... merfolks and Elfin smugglers just off the coast.'

"Dad gave Yokiko a really baffled look. 'Scuse me,' he said, 'but did you just say "Elfin smugglers"?'

"'Ah, yeah,' Yukiko nodded darkly, his face now deathly serious. 'Very dangerous lot. Forty years ago, it used to be you couldn't go out into the woods, because of the pot growers with all their booby traps. Now that they legalized drugs, it's the Elfin smugglers you have to worry about.'

"Dad gave him a funny look. 'Hmmm, that's probably explains why I haven't seen any bears around here.'

"Yukiko stretched his mouth into a wide mischievous grin and shook his head. 'Naw, the jaberwockies ate all the bears.' He then let out a loud guffaw so I took it as really meant to be a joke. Although with Yukiko, you never could tell if he was really telling the truth or spinning this really tall yarn.

"Just as I was about to ask him about what exactly was it that the Elves were smuggling in, Hotaru came running up.

"'Hey there, Hotaru,' I called to him, before noticing the pale and sick look on his face.

"Yukiko and Ryuu noticed it too and emerged from the wall of bodyguards. As Yukiko comforted the trembling twin, I caught only a few stuttered words, just enough to made my mind focus and listen.

"'Hospital' and 'appendix' and 'Locker 490.'

"The bodyguards soon surrounded them and the phalanx then moved down the hall, clearing a path. Dad and I watched them disappear down the hall.

"'I wonder what all that was about,' Dad muttered, furrowing his brow.

"I shrugged. 'Probably had something to do with Locker 490.'

"'Locker 490?' asked my father, looking at me curiously. 'What's that?'

"'It's this old locker upstairs,' I explained, 'right across from the library. The story says that it's supposed to be haunted and causes anyone who uses it bad luck.'

"Dad cocked a bristly eyebrow. 'Sounds like something from a Japanese horror movie.'

"I nodded gravely. 'Yeah, well... this is more scary because this story is actually true.' Then while I told Dad the story that Veronica just told me and strange stuff that happened shortly afterwards, we entered the swarm of people all heading in the same direction.

"I didn't find out what really happened upstairs until late in the evening when Veronica texted me.

"It seemed like shortly after lunch started nine people were suddenly and inexplicably stricken with acute appendicitis. All of them were using that same block of lockers right across from the library."

A moment of silence followed. Then Kes asked, rather shakily, "So...w-who was it that had Locker 490?"

Ellery frowned. "The only girl of the O'Breen Triplets--Arisu O'Breen."

"Chez," Megaera hissed under her breath. "Did she die?"

"No," Ellery answered in a low drawl, "but someone else did....I didn't find out about it until much later...when she told me."

"Who told you?" asked Kes, her wide golden eyes fixed on Ellery's face. "Veronica?"

Ellery smiled darkly and shook her head. "No, the dead girl."

Chapter 7--The Sin-Eaters

On Lolly's last visit to Hogan's Gap, they wouldn't let her take any of the golden sun apples from the sacred orchards, nor any of the whistling stones or butterfly fish. They said that she didn't deserve any of these gifts because she was an "irresponsible, unclean, thieving brat," made even more despicable by her unhealthy obsession with anime fetish comics and the occult.

Ever since the Sparkle Lice and Locker 490 incident, she was forever grounded and had her privileges withdrawn...well, at least until she turned eighteen. Her books of spells and sorcery had been confiscated by the authorities, her consumption of Japanese cuisine and anime merchandise completely restricted on orders of her parents and therapist, her once exuberant life now reduced to a simple humdrum existence of strict, "straight-home-after-school" curfew and helping around the house and doing odd jobs for the Seventh Day Adventists.

Under current Mcclaren circumstances, her little planned nighttime escape would have been completely impossible. But then when her parents unexpectedly got called away on a family emergency, leaving the twins Thomas and Sylvie in charge, a plan began to take root in her mind. Had everyone all been at home, Lolly would never have risked it, but with just the easily distractible twins, she knew she had a chance of succeeding. And she did succeed thanks to her rigorous stealth ninja training. Memorizing all those Naruto manga had proved useful after all.

"If you ever go back there, you might never return," her father had sternly told her. "The Faire Folk take offense easily, especially to those who act like whiny, self-obsessed princess-brats." But why would she want to remain in the Mortal World with its countless narrow-minded mundane rules? According to popular Otherkin lore, it was said in this city half-way between between Faerie and the Human Territories, there were parties and festivities of all kinds. Even though the streets weren't paved with gold, there were arcades full of free food along with ornamental gewgaws and fashionable clothing to wear. Here, anyone was welcome to set up shops, no matter their class or origin. Here, all your desires and dreams would eventually come true. And if you stay here long enough, you could even become a citizen of Faerie.

“Ay ee ay,” Lolly sang out happily as she skipped along the newly-washed cobblestones. “I’m going to be an elf and go live in a tree house, and make a big profit on my super-cool kawaii art. Tee hee! Everyone on deviantArt will be jealous and I’ll be rolling in magic and dough!”

Those that passed her paused in her tracks and looked back with puzzled frowns. One or two even jerked their shoulders, as though shrinking from something disgusting. Soon a hundred or so pairs of eyes followed Lolly as she strutted up the Main Street. Some people exchanged glances. Then the whispering started, angry and concerned buzzing whispers.

“You smell that?” one asked.

The other wrinkled his nose. “Yeah. What the hell? Smells like something just died.”

Another person covered her nose with her sleeve. “Gosh, that girl really stinks... like... like someone just poured perfume into last week’s garbage.”

A couple more people spoke up: “Yeah, the smell was coming off of her, all right.”

“It must be that oily black stuff spilled on her dress.”

Now everyone was gawking at the guy who just spoke. There was a long silence, and then someone asked, “Did that girl look a bit sick to you?”

Meanwhile, Lolly did not notice the old chimes of the town clock as it sounded off the hour of ten, she did not notice the revelers recoiling in disgust as she pranced happily by, swinging her Hot Topic pack like a ditzy school girl in one of her favorite anime, and she did not even notice the pug Pocki being dog-napped by some sympathetic street urchins dressed as old-fashioned newsboys. Although her eyes were open, and she stared straight ahead, her mind had wandered away to a sunny happy place where life was sugoi and there were no worries or pain.

Things would be much easier if she was a real elf, she reasoned. Elves were like so perfect. They have incredibly keen senses, vast knowledge, enchantment and ethereal beauty. Everything she didn't have, everything she wasn't, all because someone Upstairs screwed up and her real self was stuffed inside this grotty human shell. But she was going to fix all that.

She looked down at the Token she cradled in the palm of her right hand, only it wasn't just any ole Token you shoved in a slot of a subway turnstile. It was a key, only it didn't look like a key. For one thing, it was spherical. Who'd ever heard of a spherical key? Certainly not Lolly, and she knew keys, having swiped a few dozen of them herself. It was silver, this sphere, small enough to be concealed in a tightly closed fist, and its entire surface was inscribed with delicate characters that looked like Elvish writing. It was beautiful, it was intriguing, and she had a feeling that there was a lock nearby that would fit this shiny little key.

Vaguely, Lolly searched around, taking in the crowded circus atmosphere. Only then did she realize that this quest was going to be lots more difficult than she had ever predicted. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to stop and ask someone, thus sparing her a vain and fruitless, week-long search to find the door that fitted this key perfectly. She froze in mid-step, feeling cold breath ruffling the hair on the back of her neck. Holding her breath, she slowly checked over her left shoulder. Nothing but empty air. She forced out a nervous little chuckle, You’re just being paranoid.

Meanwhile, the little voices at the back of her head were telling her what she was doing was wrong. They were telling her to turn around and go back home. They were telling her that something was terribly wrong here. They were telling her she was being an idiot, pining away for a lost life she would never have, instead of learning how to cope with her present reality.

With a snort of disgust, she pushed those voices to the back of her mind, along with any worries about the now missing Pocki. That pug was getting tiresome anyway with its high pitched, overexcited barking, its lumbering and trembling gait, and its constant, wheezing, coughing and farting. As soon as she became an elf, she would get some faerie hounds--milk-white and lean with ruby-red eyes and ears. Together they would roam through shadowy forests and flowering meadows, and she would be mounted on a snowy unicorn with a silvery-gray falcon resting on her delicate gloved hand.

She was then distracted by something red and furry that darted across her path. A large wolf with two fluffy tails and very familiar flame-like markings. “Ruby Rose?”

The animal glanced back, blinking its bright amber eyes.

“RUBY!” Lolly was ecstatic. It was her. Her Spirit Wolf. An auspicious sign from her Other Worldly Ancestors.

“Lolly!” a crystal voice chimed within her head. “I’ve been looking all over for you!”

To which Lolly replied, “Wow, really? Cause I’ve been drawing and dreaming about you for years!”

“You’re late.”

Lolly blushed. “Well, I would have come here sooner,” she muttered, “but I was grounded.”

Ruby was so stunning, Lolly thought, especially with those beautiful amber eyes. Wolves truly have eyes that mirror the soul... most beautiful when they’re Spirit Animals. No way was she going to embarrass herself in front of such a regal goddess.

“Never mind,” said Ruby. “Come! I know what you seek.” She began to move swiftly away, darting in and out among the crowds.

Lolly’s pulse quickened. “Wait for me,” she called her.

Ruby Rose turned her head briefly, and went on.

Lolly started forward, determined to catch. Excitement and hope filled her soul, and her only goal now was that Doorway of the Round Silver Key, after which the transformation that would make her life fully complete. She did not stop to think why people hastily moved to get out of her way, why she earned confused and scared looks from townsfolk and tourists alike, why the interior of her dress shoes suddenly felt cold and soaking wet like she ran through a puddle.

As the last gleams of sunlight faded from view, other figures began to emerge, slinking out of the growing shadows until a multitude of them followed the black, slimy, fetid substances that dripped and pooled in the teenager’s wake. Tourists and curious residents hovered a discrete distance away, some wondering why there was a parade of shadowy people in Victorian period and plague doctor apparel strolling down the main avenue.

One observant British tourist was especially struck by their tall, rail-thin appearance. On the ones who weren’t masked or veiled, he could make out their sharp, ghostly faces. Dark glasses hid their eyes and tight leather gloves hid their spidery-looking hands.

“Stand closer, Benny, and use your stick if they attack; I have my brolly.”

“Benny, they simply reek,” said his friend Harvey. “Do you think they are deceased?”

“Well, they look and smell as though they have been out of circulation for a long time, and I don’t want any of them biting me.”

“I don’t think it’s them that’s reading,” an elderly lamia woman interjected. “I think it was that Alice look-alike that passed by here a few minutes ago.” She pursed her wrinkled lips in disgust. “I used to think some of my little grandchildren’s habits were disgusting, but those now look trivial compared to the girl.”

The one called Benny was puzzled. “Really? That bad?”

The lamia grandmother scowled. “Oh, yes,” she nodded darkly. “She looked awful, more like a creepy clown doll than an actual human being, and that smell. I remember back in my days as a pre-nursing student, and for the lab portion of the Anatomy Class, we had to dissect a cat. It emitted a very similar smell--this odor of death and preservatives that seemed to cling to everything, very sickening, it was.”

The one called Harvey looked concerned. “Shouldn't we alert the police?”

The lamia shrugged and stared over their shoulder. “What good would that do? She’s already ready reached the Adh Seidh Bridge.”

Both Englishmen followed the direction of her gaze. The vast, arched timbers of the immense arched structure gleamed eerily in the moonlight. They expected to see a blue and white form with a bright pink pack walk confidently into the yawning structure—but there was nothing ...just solid blackness, which seemed impossible because the moonlight would pierce the latticework windows in the bridge, revealing the walkway inside.

“Yeah, creepy place, isn’t it?" she said, noting their growing looks of confusion and fear. “The locals will make no mention of who exactly built it, its original name or even the exact time of its construction. In fact, almost nothing is publicly known about the circumstances in which that bridge got its infamous history. Whatever the facts may be they are obviously a dark secret known only to those with the inside scoop. No-one knows exactly why the Adh Seidh covered bridge is haunted, or who was it exactly that cast the curse and made it a dwelling place/checkpoint of the demonic Adh Seidh. Yet the fact remains it is haunted and in order for you to get to Faerie from here, you have to cross that thing... and only at night. In the daytime, it’s just a regular covered bridge.”

The color had gone from the Englishmen’s cheeks, but maybe it was just the really bright moonlight.

“For humans and half-breeds alike, in this part of the world, at least,” the woman went on, “ the bridge is a test, a sort of rite of passage. Those with a clear conscience have nothing to fear from the Adh Seidh Guardians of that particular Gate.”

She gave the Englishmen a piercing stare. “But the corrupt of our society, the ones who manage to evade mortal justice on this side of the river, if they even set one foot on that bridge, something horrible will happen to them...”

Benny pricked up his slightly pointed ears. “What thing?”

“Yes, what about their fate?” demanded Harvey, his cat eyes narrowed.

The old lamia shrugged and raised her scaly eyebrows. “I have no idea, seeing as I’m not a terrible person. I haven’t even a clue of what these Adh Seidh look like, for they could only be seen by damned and darkest souls. But according to local legends, such people never make it to the other side. They just seem to vanish into thin air--perhaps they are dropped into the deepest pit of Hell or suffer a change of identity in which the punishment fits their crimes.”

She glanced at the bridge again and then added in a low voice: “No one really knows for sure what happens to them exactly, but time and time again, traces of them turn up from time to time.”

“You mean like personal effects--clothes, watches, wallets?” asked Benny, his eyes now wide as saucers.

“Nuh-uh,” the lamia shook her head. “I’m talking about things like hair, teeth, nails, a few small lumps of cured and tanned skin. Nothing really large like what you see in horror movies--a huge bloody chunk of flesh or a severed limb. No, these things would be crafted into some form of jewelry: bracelets, brooches, earrings, whatnot... creepy, Victorian Memento Mori sort of things, but at the same time, very beautiful. A lot of time and effort was spent making these.

“Some people even collect them, even though it’s seen as rather bad taste and a sign of a dark magician. Most people around have enough good sense to let those things lie where they’re found, and let the forensic guys collect it. They even have a special storage unit for such morbid things.

“Even when on such rare occasions when the DNA can be identified, and the sinner’s loved ones (if they have any) are located, the remains aren’t even secured a churchyard burial or place on a mantelpiece; rather they are buried on a special bonfire.” Her hard, solid black eyes peered at the listeners between narrowed lids. “They say bits of their souls still reside in these macabre artifacts, and should you touch one of these with your bare hand, that fragment might escape by taking control of your mind.”

“You see,” said Harvey, turning to Benny, “you can’t believe everything you hear in the pub. Especially when it's coming from some random dead guy.”

“I didn’t say I believed him,” Benny replied testily. “I just think it’s worth looking into, that’s all.”

The lamia looked a little disgusted. “Him?” she said sarcastically. “They aren’t hims or her, they’re its. Do you even know what ghosts are? I mean, what they really are?”

“Of course,” muttered Benny, giving her a puzzled look. “They’re people who’ve died and can’t move on. They’ve got lost--”

“Wrong,” hrumphed the lamia, “they’re empty shells. Hollow shadows. Mocking caricatures. They’re all the nasty and spiteful bits of the soul that can’t get into Paradise or even Perdition. They’re just so much slighted ectoplasm with a long memory or a complete inability to forgive. Next time one of the wretched things starts shooting its mouth off, do yourself a favor: stick your fingers in your ears and start whistling the theme tune from Laurel and Hardy. They really hate that.”

Behind them, an organized procession was now underway. One by one, the somberly-dressed figures shuffled through the avenue and up toward the looming bridge, where one by one they vanished silently into the darkness. As the last one disappeared, a thick bank of fog rolled in from the Pacific and enveloped the moon. The moonlight quickly faded and the bridge became a looming mass of shadow. But the lamia had recognized the tallest and palest one among them from his pictures in the magazines; it was, of course, Yukiko O’Breen of Moog Vagrant.

Chapter 8--A Series of Strange Occurrences

(1)Terrapin Junction, Zelmak District of Hogan’s Gap

It was ten o’ ten and Grandma Esme’ was feeding her cats. There were twenty of them, but only Cinder and Felina had the run of the house. The rest of them stayed in a large playroom with access to an outdoor pen; the only time they were let out was to be fed or for monthly veterinarian visits.

It was always pandemonium at mealtime. All of the cats were dancing impatiently around the kitchen as Grandma Esme’ started taking the cat food cans out of the cupboard. They all started yowling and rubbing against her legs as she spooned out portions into their separate plates.

“Now settle down, everybody!” Grandma Esme’ hollered. She was always hollering during feeding time, even though it didn't accomplish much. “Fiona, you’ll get your share in a minute. Felina! Quit stealing Fauna’s dinner! Ouch! Felicia, cut that out!” The Siamese had jumped onto Grandma Esme’ ‘s head and was bopping her ears and nose with her paw. It was quite a scene.

Meanwhile, Kiki, her nine-year old granddaughter, was in the guest bedroom seated on the lower bunk, an opened parchment book sitting in front of her on a small coffee table. Her large almond eyes stared at it for a few minutes, then carefully set a cylindrical mirror down on the center of one of the distorted pictures. Then she waited, pursing her small mouth and scratching her long beaky nose.

Within minutes, an image gradually formed inside the mirror-an impassable wall of dense foliage. Suddenly color began seeping into the scene, illuminating her walnut-brown skin and high cheekbones. She saw a perpetually green expanse, where aerial plants perched by the thousands on a latticework of branches. This was a tropical rainforest.

Just then Kiki’s sister Tullugaq came in from brushing her teeth. The sixteen-year old Churcka teenage misfit wore her bunny slippers and her flashy checkered pajamas that matched her red-streaked, spiky black hairdo. Stopping dead in her tracks, she gaped in utter amazement. “I don’t believe it!” she exclaimed. “I don’t freaking believe it! That blasted thing’s magical after all!”

“Of course,” muttered Kiki grimly, “and I finally got it to work... after four hours!” She looked up, frowning. “Four hours,” grumbled Kiki. “Enough time to finish a large picture puzzle nonstop.”

Tullugaq gawked at her in surprise. “You mean you’ve been trying to decipher that book for four hours straight?”

Kiki sighed wearily and rolled her eyes. “No, I had to take a few breaks, of course,” she grumped. “My eyes felt like they were about ready to pop.” She then grinned triumphantly. “But I stuck to it, I didn’t give up. I finally broke the code. Grandma was wrong when she said this was nothing but a hoax to lead you on a wild-squeeple chase. This puzzle’s for real, and I just found the solution!”

“Well, good for you, Miss Science,” Tullugaq chuckled. “So, enlighten me with your fabulous solution. How did you finally get that book to work? Did you burn some magical incense, and say things like ‘Open, Sesame,’ or ‘hocus-pocus,’ or was it just plain ole willpower?”

Kiki laughed scornfully. “Ha! I didn’t use any magic to get this book working. Now, watch carefully.”

She then moved the mirror over the next page. The lush jungle scene was soon replaced by a stark landscape of dunes and rocky outcrops.

“Presto!” exclaimed Kiki. “Anamorphosis at work!”

Tullugaq looked puzzled. “Ana-what?”

Kiki explained patiently as if to a slow-witted child. “It’s an image that’s distorted so that it can only be viewed from a certain angle or, in this case, by a chimney-shaped mirror,” she glanced down at the book, and muttered. “All this time, the answer was right under my nose. I can’t believe I didn’t spot it earlier.”

“Oh, now I see,” muttered Tullugaq, feeling rather like a moron. “So the pictures take form inside the mirror and come to life. Well, what does the wretched thing do to the text then?”

“I was just coming to that,” said Kiki eagerly. “It translates the cipher writing into our language.”

“Well, I’ll be zarked,” said Tullugaq, amazed. “I guess we can try out some new incantation then.”

Kiki’s feathery hair stood straight up. “Twhistle, are you out of your mind?” she squeaked. “This happens to be an ancient book of unsavory magic! Read some spell out loud, and you might get turned into a jar of creamed spinach!”

“Gee, I was just making a joke,” said Tullugaq, grinning mischievously. “Kiki, has it ever occurred to you that maybe you take things a little too seriously?”

“Strange things should be taken seriously,” said Kiki sourly, “especially if they’re downright dangerous. That’s why I’m only doing the illustrations- no monsters going to pop out of those. Unless they’re really tiny, of course.”

Tullugaq was about to say otherwise, but she soon became distracted by the miniature picture. “Hey!” she exclaimed. “That looks like the Snorak Desert!”

“Nope. That’s not the Snorak,” said Kiki, peering closely. “It’s gray; this desert’s yellow.”

As they stared, the desert scene grew brighter and more sun-baked. Wavering lines of heat shimmered over the forbidden wasteland. Suddenly several columns of yellow dust swirled into view.

“Whoa!” Tullugaq whooped. “Check out those mammoth dust devils!”

“Well, it’s hard to tell how big those things really are from over here,” said Kiki thoughtfully. As she spoke she began to look a little uncertain. Uhh...are you sure those are dust devils?” she said, somewhat nervously. “They look vaguely like people.”

Tullugaq snorted skeptically. “They’re just plain, ordinary dust devils. You’ve seen dust devils before, haven’t you? How they get all that dust and stuff whirling up inside them, sometimes they make funny shapes.”

“Yeah, but skeletons?” said Kiki in a faltering voice.

“Huh?” said Tullugaq, utterly puzzled. “What do you mean ‘skeletons?’”

She then looked at the mirror.

The dust devils were gone; where they once whirled stood a bunch of gleaming white skeletons. As the sisters stared wide-eyed with jaws dropped, the sand surged over the bones, putting forth muscles, developing internal organs, wrapping them up with skin. As the sisters retrieved their jaws, the skeletons had disappeared, replaced by several tall gaunt figures. They were all dressed in old-time frontier-style outfits. For a minute or two, the things stared back with strange silvery eyes. Then they all smiled, showing their long teeth and really red gums.

“Trippy! Ghosts!” exclaimed Tullugaq excitedly. “Didja see all their insides, Kiki? These guys do better special effects than those ghostly Weiner Twins at the Dozois Mansion!”

Kiki snatched the mirror up. Immediately the whole scene disappeared.

Tullugaq glanced irritably at her. “Hey, why’d you do that for?”

Kiki grimaced as she slammed the book shut. “They’re gross!” she snapped. “You saw how they transformed!” She scowled, shaking her head. “It’s disgusting,” she went on. “Their hearts and lungs throbbing and heaving in plain view! All that bloody, yucky tissue!”

“Well, it was still kinda cool,” Tulllugaq muttered.

Kiki shuddered. “And their teeth! Their teeth were nearly three inches long!”

Tullugaq looked doubtful. “I think you’re exaggerating,” she said thoughtfully. “Their teeth look much shorter to me.”

“And their gums!” groaned Kiki. “Their gums were like...raw meat!”

Tullugaq shrugged. “So they probably had gingivitis.” She then climbed up into the upper bunk.

Kiki glanced uneasily at the mirror. “The mirror’s like a key,” she said quickly. “Each time I put it on a page, it activates a place or magic formula.” She looked up at the upper bunk. “Are you listening to me?” she shrilled.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m listening!” replied an annoyed voice from above. "Look, you don’t have to shout!”

“I can’t help it, Twhistle,” growled Kiki. “This book bothers me. Remember what Grandma said. She said that the words aren’t arranged like that in a regular book. They’re all in a sort of code!”

Tullugaq sighed wearily. “So, what’s your point?”

“Don’t you get it?” exclaimed Kiki in exasperation. “You just bought a trap, only this thing doesn’t use food for bait; it uses puzzles instead.”

Tullugaq laughed. “You’re getting the heebie-jeebies over a bunch of ghostly wizards who live in a desert far, far away. Big Deal! What are they going to do? Come crawling out of the mirror to whisk you away on your mattress?”

“I don’t think those creeps were wizards at all,” said Kiki curtly. “They were probably demons, and they were probably waiting for us to unlock the doorway to their dimension.”

“Uh-huh,” said Tullugaq, yawning. “Look, if you don’t like it, then quit fiddling with it.” She peeked over the side at the fuming Kiki. “We can trade it off at the Festival of the Spells, Saturday,” she suggested. “We might even get a bargain for it.” She then drew back from sight.

Kiki continued to stare up at the upper bunk, pouting. After a few minutes, Tullugaq mumbled, “Hey, Kiki, how ‘bout putting out the light?”

Kiki growled. She looked squeamishly at the objects on the table. “Uh... okay,” she said. “I just need to... brush my teeth first.”

“I thought you’d already brushed your teeth?” muttered Tullugaq.

“Did I say ‘brush’?” said Kiki hastily. “I mean floss.”

She waited several minutes, then cautiously picked up the book and mirror. Holding them at arm’s length as they were something dead and rotten, she padded down the hall and stairs. Passing the bathroom, she could hear the faucet running as Grandma brushed her dentures.

Henry, Grandma’s lab-mix, was flat on her back sound asleep, twitching her paws in the air. Probably dreaming about chasing rabbits, Kiki thought as she walked quietly into the kitchen. Next to the pantry sat several recycling bins, Kiki opened the one labeled “food scraps.” It was empty except for a pile of dirt and wriggling mass of slimy, blue omniverms.

“Hey, guys,” Kiki whispered as the worm-things gleeped in great excitement. “I got something for you.” She quickly dropped the book in. “Eat up quick, before my sister finds out.” Shutting the lid, Kiki then dropped the mirror in the glass bin. “There, that takes care of the bad magic.”

Somewhat relieved, she hurried back and crawled into bed. By now Tullugaq was snoring like a lummox in a mud pool.

(2) Moon Agate Beach, 10:13 P.M.

Megaera added some more kindling to the fire. She glanced over at Kes who was shaking her head, trying to clear it of sleep. Nictitating membranes flickered briefly over her grave, luminous eyes. Unbeknownst to the Gerdin visitor, she was being watched. Lurking just behind her right shoulder was a rather diminutive gentleman almost hidden under a long black cloak. In the dim moonlight, she could make out a pale triangular face and long ringlets of silvery hair half-hidden under a gold-trimmed tricorne.

When she saw his yellow-green eyes shining in the foggy dimness like lighted crystals, she knew what he was. Her purple locks immediately began to ripple and squirm, writhing thick and worm-round. Then the mass lengthened, twisting into a thick and heavy coil. With blinding speed, the tentacle streaked over Kes’s shoulder. A gaping mouth lined with needle-like teeth appeared at the end.

With a terrified squeak, the dandy reeled back, covering his face with his gloved hands. Trembling, he rapidly dissolved into vapor. Ribbons of this iridescent mist streamed upward to merge with the foggy night air.

“Hey, why’d you do that for?” Kes exclaimed, now fully awake and annoyed. “You nearly took my ear off!”

“Sorry,” said Megaera as she retracted her hair. “Had to deal with a little pest problem there.”

“All that just over a mosquito?” said Kes indignantly. Obviously, she didn’t see the “pest” in the question stalking from behind.

Megaera grinned sheepishly. “It was bloody huge, whatever it was.” She turned toward Ellery who was staring at her in baffled silence. “Sorry for the interruption, but you said something about being visited by a zombie?”

“Ghost actually,” the girl answered. She was holding a glass of lemonade that someone had handed to her. “I was also visited by something far worse than any mere ghost or demon.”

Ellery dipped her drink slowly while the audience around her waited impatiently.

“I’ll skip ahead to the part where I’m lying in my bed, listening to the storm noises outside. Today had been a most peculiar day, and I couldn’t help but think about the strange events that had happened. I even jotted down the events, describing the facts in perfect order.

“So what facts did I have? A seventh-grader named Via Nakada disappeared in the early 70s, right in the middle of the crowded hallway. People claimed they heard muffled screams coming from Locker 490--that was one. Forty years later, some Scene Kids spotted a huge Slugzilla thing crawling out of the same locker. That was another.

“Then later at lunch, nine people, who were using the same row of lockers that included Locker 490, suddenly came down with acute appendicitis. Everybody in that group, except for that weeaboo, was afflicted. Why was she spared? All these proven facts led straight into that gaping maw of darkness known as Locker no. 490.

“And I was the only investigator.”

(3) Beyond the Void

“I don’t remember falling asleep, but the next thing I knew I was walking down a long, winding road. It was smack dab in the middle of nowhere, in an endless ocean of wheat. There was no one else around, but me. Even though I walked, I didn’t feel tired. I walked for what seemed like miles, and even though menacing clouds loomed large in the darkening sky, and there was no sound other than the wind swaying and rustling the stalks, I wasn’t afraid.

“Then eventually, I came to a crossroad where a huge oak stood in the middle of it. A girl about my age stood on one of the topmost branches, shoving something into one of the large tree-holes.

“She then smiled. ‘About time you showed up,’ she said. Then she vaulted effortlessly off the branch, landing gracefully in front of me. I soon recognized her as Lyra Bisbee, a freckled-faced blonde girl that often hung out with Hoturu’s bunch. She was something of an artist herself, though unlike me, she was mostly into doing fan art and portraiture of various wildlife. Despite her rather plain Jane looks, she was one of the popular kids.

“I guess it was because she was always cheerful and had a great sense of humor. It could also be that she had developed early and her family was very wealthy, the result of having constructed much of the architecture around the Murrelet area.

“‘Hey, Lyra,’ I said, somewhat surprised. ‘It’s good to see you.’

“‘It’s good to see you too,’ she replied, ‘just wish it was under different circumstances.’

“‘Huh?’ I said, utterly mystified. ‘What are you talking about? What is this place?’

“‘One of the in-between places, places between Urth and the Otherworld.’

“‘You mean like Faerie?’ I asked.

“Lyra shrugged. ‘Or Hades. Who knows for sure.’ A worried look crossed her freckled face. ‘Anyway I got something to tell you. Something very important.’


“‘You know that Mcclaren kid?’

“I nodded, recalling that buggy-eyed, baby-faced brat who thought she was a Nipponese elf goddess forced into permanent exile.

“‘She’s in your house right now,’ Lyra replied in a low voice.

“‘But that’s impossible! I was just there,’ I insisted, though I felt cold chills race up and down my back. ‘It’s a pretty small house, not a lot of hiding places, and anyway, my parents would have spotted her.’

“‘It’s her spirit I’m talking about,’ Lyra whispered hoarsely. ‘The thing she could send out of herself...that part of her that isn’t human anymore.’

“‘Well, what is she then?’ I asked her, absolutely baffled. ‘A demon? A witch? A tentacled-monster, space alien?’

“Lyra frowned. ‘I think she’s a damned fool,’ she said finally, ‘but a clever fool and that’s what makes her even more dangerous. She’s probably made a deal with somebody... or something, and this person/whatever only gave her a small amount of magic in exchange for a big chunk of her soul. That’s why she acts like a total moron at times. Of course, it could also be due to hormones...’

“‘But what is she doing in my house?’ I interrupted. Is she robbing the place?’

“My friend shook her head. ‘No, she’s planting something.’

“‘What? A listening device? A hidden camera?’ I was getting more paranoid by the minute. What did I do to deserve all the weird smerge?

“‘A Ouija board.’

“‘What for?’ I wondered, utterly baffled. ‘I’m not even into that kind of spirit woohoo stuff.’

“Lyra looked back over her shoulder. Following her gaze, I noticed off in the distance a tall, skinny figure coming toward us. It looked like a guy in a top hat wearing a dark business suit.

“‘Crap!’ muttered Lyra, turning back to me. ‘Look, I don’t have enough time left. But you got to find that Ouija board and get rid of it.’

“‘Not enough time left?’ I stammered in bewilderment. ‘What are you talking about?’

“‘Look, you don’t understand,’ Lyra replied urgently. ‘That board’s cursed, really cursed. I’m not telling you a load of garbage here. This thing’s the real deal. It was built in Faerie, used by actual wizards in their ritual.’

“‘So what’s it doing over here then?’ I exclaimed. ‘And why is Lolly hiding that thing in my house?’

“Lyra shrugged. ‘I don’t know. Maybe it got stolen and was smuggled here. Lolly could have gotten it from the Black Market.’

“‘There’s a Black Market for Faerie Stuff?’

“‘Sure,’ she was watching the approaching top hat guy worriedly. ‘If you ask the right people and got enough cash. But that’s not important right now. What’s important is you find that thing before it activates and invites Him in.’

“‘Who’s Him?’ I asked anxiously. ‘The Gray Man?’

“‘Worse,’ Lyra turned back with a grim face. ‘You can deal with the Gray Man, maybe buy some more time. But not his son, the Rose Prince. There’s supposed to be nine sons, all princes and demons. But He’s the youngest and most dangerous of the bunch. He makes the Marquis de Sade look like a wussy Ken doll.’

“‘Oh,’ I said as I absorbed this worrisome bit of information. I pointed toward the mysterious man in black. ‘Well, is that Him there coming?’

“‘No, that’s a shinigami,’ my friend replied. ‘Don’t worry. They’re friendly.’

“I had no idea what a shinigami was, but ‘friendly’ certainly doesn’t cover this guy. He reminded me of a super creepy Victorian undertaker I saw in a recent horror movie. Nevertheless, I stood my ground. I wasn’t going to get intimidated by some damned dream monster, especially when I’m getting an important message from one of my friends.

“‘Uh, Lyra,’ I said, keeping one eye on the slowly approaching menace. ‘You still haven’t told the reason why Lolly’s hiding that Ouija thing in my house.’

“‘She’s jealous,’ she explained, 'cause unlike you or me, without her precious Microsoft Paint and tracing paper to help her, she can’t draw worth smerge.’

"She glanced up nervously as the shinigami shuffled to a halt just a few paces from us. I swear to gods it was that very same guy from that movie. He even had those same bright red tattoos on the back of his bony hands. They kind of reminded me of compass designs, only with wavy lines, like sun rays or maybe like octopus tentacles.

“Before I could study them further, my friend took me by the arm and led me around the oak. As soon as we were out of sight, Lyra turned to me.

“‘Once you touch that board with your bare hands, you can’t resist toying with it. Then He comes and pretends to be your friend, while slowly draining your soul, and in return grants the board’s original owner good luck, magical knowledge, wishes and whatnot. Once you die, the Rose Prince would drag you down to whatever hell He came from, and the cycle starts all over again.’

“‘How do you know all this?’

"Lyra shrugged. ‘I read about it on Creepypasta and Scary For Kids. It’s a pretty popular urban legend.’ Then abruptly, she changed the subject. ‘Once you find this thing, you got three choices on how to get rid of it.’

“I nodded. ‘I’m listening.’

“‘Take it to a graveyard at midnight on a full moon, bury it and don’t ever look back.’

“‘Uhh...yeah,’ I said doubtfully, ‘that might present a problem since it was stormy outside and there are really big trees crashing down all over back at my place.’

“‘Throw it into deep running water,’ said Lyra, ignoring my remark. ‘Make sure you weigh it something heavy like rocks or bricks.’

Okay, that might work, I thought. Now if I could only get out to the river without being zapped by lightning or hit by flying debris or getting creamed by a car.

“‘Cover it with salt or sacred oil, wrap it up tight with silk. Then bury it at a distant crossroad.’

“‘Gotcha.’ Now if I could only find a crossroad that isn’t paved over concrete.

“A sudden gust of wind swept across the field on our right, sending cloud of dust puffing over the road. The air around us became filled with black birds, thousands of them, their beating wings sounding like rain coming down.

“Lyra’s face suddenly paled. ‘Whatever you do,’ she stammered, ‘never touch that board with your bare hands, and never ever let the Rose Prince in.’

“‘But what if someone else finds it before me?’ I had to raise my voice over the black bird noise. ‘One of my parents or my kid brother or sister?’

“‘He’ll still come after you...’ Then I lost sight of Lyra in the cloud of birds, although she seemed to have vanished, melting away into the tree behind her. Her voice grew fainter and fainter; already it was far overhead with the wheeling birds and rushing wind.

“‘Cause you’re the one with great talent, and that’s what demons like best in their prey.’

“The voice, along with the wind, died away. Darkness rushed in and filled the entire scene, and I was suddenly whisked through the air. When I came to, the first thing I noticed was that I was in bed fully dressed. I could have sworn when I went to bed, I was dressed only in pajamas. My pants and shoes were caked with yellow dust, and my feet throbbed and ached.

“I sighed wearily as I whipped off the covers. Great! I thought, stumbling out of bed. Now my dreams were becoming real. It was all going to be like those stupid Nightmare on Elm Street movies, except instead of Freddy Krueger, I’m going to be worrying about being whacked by that weeb Lolly Mcclaren! I shivered and stared around the pitch blackness. And what the hell was up with the freakin’ temperature?

“My room was ice cold and I could even see my breath streaming out. As I fumbled around the side table, trying to locate the lamp, I soon realized that there was another person standing near me in the dark. Of course, I couldn’t see anything, but my fingers felt the jumbled pile of books, sketch pads and drawing utensils with something soft that immediately withdrew. It was cold and slimy like a dead fish. I could have sworn it was a hand. My skin instantly began to crawl.

“‘Who’s that?’ I exclaimed.

“There was no answer, but at the same moment I heard someone moving away from me in the direction of the closet door. The footsteps were rather heavy and lumbering-sounding, and there was also a rustling of fabric as it brushed against the floor. In a split second my hand made contact with the lamp switch and I pushed it. The glare of the lamp illuminated an empty room.

"My hair began to rise and I instinctively backed against the wall lest something should approach me from the rear. However, I soon recovered enough to cross the room and throw open my closet door. What greeted me was the most horrible odor I had ever had the misfortune of smelling. I had smelt the extreme BO before when that unwashed braggart Lolly was making a gawdawful spectacle of herself in the school hallway, but that was only just a whiff. This was ten times as worse; this was sheer horrible horribleness. It reeked of rotten garbage, of death and wasting disease. For a minute I wondered if someone had died in that very space in the past, and what I was experiencing was a psychic echo. Just when I was thinking of running and rousing my parents, the smell faded as did the cold.

"I spent the rest of a miserable night, seated in the middle of my room, clutching a hockey stick and flashlight, watching and listening for any other unpleasantness, but nothing else happened."

Chapter 9--Seeing is Deceiving

(1) The Space In-Between 10:22 P.M.

Lolly paused to rest, and to empty her dress shoes of reeking black ooze. She had no recollection of splashing through a filthy mire during her long run from the Main Boulevard, and she wasn’t entirely sure where she was exactly. Perplexed, she stared as she carefully wrung out her soiled socks. Typically when one was crossing a covered bridge, one would expect to find an interior resembling that of an old fashioned barn with its interconnecting framework of beams and posts. One would never expect to find an entire city inside, complete with noisy throng of people and beast-drawn vehicles.

Frowning, Lolly considered her surroundings with narrowing eyes. Where were the soaring lavish palaces, all ablaze with light, and glittering with gems and gold? Where were all the enchanted forests or magical lagoons full of splendor and luxury, with all the joyous music and song and dancing and laughter? Most worrisome of all, where was her spirit guide, Ruby Rose? Try as she might, she could not catch up to the wolf. Ruby had always remained just in sight, and once or twice, pausing almost mockingly, as if to wait for her, but always she would be gone just when Lolly came within speaking distance. Lolly soon regretted stopping and began to fret, hoping that the familiar would come back for her and this quest would soon be over and done with.

If this was Faerie, she thought, wrinkling up her nose in disgust, it must be the freakin’ slums.

Tall, grimy, half-timbered buildings lined the major streets, which were lit by feeble gas lamps. Even though it was night, the narrow boulevard was crowded by various traders and peddlers raucously hawking their wares or services. What language she did recognized seemed to be in French and English.

“Wortlefly lanterns! Sturdy wortlefly lanterns!”

“Fresh oysters in the shell! Fresh oysters newly caught!”

“Chocolat et café! Chocolat et du café frais!"

“Rush brooms for sale! Sturdy and long lasting!”

“Bellows or buckets to mend! Bellows or buckets!”

"Fromage frais licorne! Obtenez votre fromage frais licorne ici!”

Lolly grimaced with distaste. The air reeked of stale spirits, the fumes of cigar and hookah smoke, and the scent of pungent food and perfume. The street was strewn with muddy straw and refuse. The stone stoop on which she sat had patches of lichen and scattered piles of cigarette ash. Her hands and feet felt clammy and cold, her eyes scorching hot. Her heart thumped like a muffled drum.

Sweating and breathing heavily, Lolly closed her eyes and held them tight, then counted to fifty. When she opened them again, it was still the same dismal scene. The squalid street still thronged with low-class people walking in all directions; everyone was in a terrific hurry--except one.

He stood on the other side of the street, glacial-still amid the tumult of life racing about him. A tall and gaunt man, swathed in an odd costume that seemed like a cross between a medieval nun and a surgeon’s outfit. His arms were tucked behind his back. His veiled head was held high, his sharp chin thrust forward. The man’s face was long and bone-thin; the skin, in contrast with the bronzed passerby, was a livid white. Piercing yellow eyes fastened on her own, cold and burning like the flickering phosphorescence over a bog. His thin mouth curled into a smile that held not a tinge of human warmth or merriment or even sympathy.

Icy rivulets of sweat ran down her puffy face, along with trails of a black slimy substance. She tried to move and run, only to be held back by stark terror. She tried to scream, but her voice was choked back by the growing lump in her throat.

Suddenly, the street lamps flickered like matches in the wind, before steadily growing dim. Lolly sat frozen, watching the darkness slowly seep in. Darkness that seemed to conceal innumerable figures dressed all in black, some of them wearing eerie bird masks. Then the light flared back up, brighter than before. There was no longer any tall pale man to be seen nor any creeping shadows.

For a long time, she crouched against the stoop, too afraid to continue on or even to turn around and go back. Finally she let out a shudder that shook her entire body. Slowly she straightened, blinking and refocusing her dry eyes. Then she grinned with relief.

Didn’t get me this time, she thought. If that thing glowering at her was who she thought it was--she must never lose that sacred silver Token. As long as she kept that round key in her possession, she was safe from things like him. Anyway, it was time to get on with her journey and not fritter and waste her time on sitting and waiting for that inattentive spirit guide to get back to her.

(2) Terrapin Junction, Zelmak District of Hogan’s Gap 10:24 P.M.

Tullugaq stopped snoring and waited. When she was certain Kiki was fast asleep, she slipped out from underneath the bunk bed. Moving cautiously and quietly, she opened the bedroom door and stepped into the hall. As she tiptoed down the stairs, she started grinning to herself; her grand scheme was going to work.

She had followed Kiki out of curiosity, and then watched carefully from the foot of the stairs as she disposed of the souvenirs. At first Tullugaq was appalled by Kiki’s actions, but then she thought: Why, here’s a good chance to try out this new magic myself. And I don’t have to go through the trouble of sneaking the stuff out of the bedroom. I’ll just sneak myself out.

Hurrying back, she made a dummy, stuffing all her dresses under the blankets, along with a black feather wig she found in the closet. After that was done, she then hid under the bed and did some convincing-sounding snoring. Evidently all those Drama classes had done some good.

Tullugaq didn’t need a torch to see where she was going. The moon peering through a gap in the fog was unusually bright tonight. Had it been pitch black instead, it wouldn’t have made any difference to her. Unlike humans, Churckas have a higher concentration of rods and cones in their retinas, allowing for superb night vision.

Crossing the living room with ease, she went into the kitchen. Felina looked up as she came in, then went back to crunching another mouthful of dry cat food.

Tullugaq went over to the food scrap bin and opened the lid. “Mine...” She pulled out the old book and inspected it carefully. Aside from a few streaks of blue slime, it was intact. “Sorry, fellas,” she said as the omniverms rustled indignantly around in the dirt, “but this happens to be an antique.”

After retrieving the mirror, she sat down at the kitchen table and opened up the book. She skimmed through a few passages, translating with the mirror as she read: “To transform a whalebone into a swift sturdy ship, one must...” Well, that might be fine and dandy, she thought as she turned a few more pages, but where am I going to store such a huge ship anyway? “To conjure up a rich banquet from out of thin air...” No thanks; I want to keep my figure. “To command and guide the winds for seafaring...” Nope, weather-working just isn’t my style.

At that moment, Henry padded into the kitchen, wagging her tail. She had heard Tullugaq moving about in the kitchen and decided to keep her company.

“Yo dawg, s'up?” the Churcka said as soon as the mongrel padded in. “How’s it hangin’ with you?”

Henry moseyed over and laid her head on her on her knee.

Tullugaq scratched behind the dog’s droopy ears. “Sorry, Henry, Ole Girl,” she said, “but I can’t play with you now. I got to study this really cool book.”

(3) Overhead Moon Agate Beach 10:27 P.M.

In his misty state, the Rose Prince watched, flicking out numerous fog-tentacles in agitation. Damn that gorgon-haired, Vinegarroon girl for interfering in his quest for companionship. He didn’t think it was fair at all that the heavy hand of Faerie should stretch out protectively over the Gerdin pilgrims, and that dreadful penalties would overtake him should he dare so much as lay one finger on the golden bronzeness of a Gerdin maid.

Damn all his older brothers thrice times over, especially that know-it-all Zrith for getting him interested in these exquisite Gerdin beauties and then suddenly forbidding him from interfering or even holding hands with one.

Bloody freakin’ Hell! They wouldn’t even let him get a mental foothold. Maybe it was his human half, but he suddenly found himself actually caring for this particular Gerdin. Despite her alienness, she seemed more human than all the rest, more approachable, more personable--much more real than an elf or even a goddess. So now he contented himself with just watching, and waiting for his chance.

Although ever vigilant, the powers of Faerie weren’t all-powerful and omnipotent. That purple-haired pizza wench couldn’t always be by the pilgrim’s side. Having lived so long, he could afford to be patient. He knew it was just a matter of time before someone screwed up and he could claim his prize. Thinking about that, he let out a dark little chuckle before swiftly drifting with the sea mist in the direction of the elaborate tree homes of the Faire Folk and the lantern-lit mansions of the elves.

Save for a rainbow iridescent glimmering in one, both sorts of mists were identical.

Chapter 10--Through a Glass Brightly

Kes fidgeted with her hair and robe, impatiently watching as Ellery slowly sampled her lemonade. She would have shuffled her feet if it hadn’t been for the heavy police dog still lounging on them. Sighing heavily, she ran her clawed fingers through her hair for what seemed like a millionth time and scowled. Just because this homely cur worked as a town constable didn’t give it the right to use her feet as its personal pillow. Hell, by the time tomorrow rolled around, she’d be lucky if she had any working feet left!

Bristling irritably, she turned to address Megaera on the matter only to find the space between them now occupied by a total stranger. The person squeezed into that small cramped space was a youth of maybe eleven or thirteen. He had short blonde hair and a faint sprinkling of freckles scattered across his pale face. His choice of garb was rather strange, even though this was Humboldt County where the fashion tended to be rather eccentric. It reminded her of a famous portrait by John Van Eych in 1435 (towards the end of the Medieval period) showing a rich nobleman and his wife dressed in the typical fashion of the day. Like the man in the painting, the youth wore a fur-trimmed velvet gown over a black, padded, long shirt that had gold embroidery around the edges. He had black stockings covering his legs, and a large-brimmed hat rested in his lap. The only difference was that the youth wore a bright red scarf around his neck.

Catching her eye, he smiled. “Lovely evening we’re having,” he said in a posh British accent.

“I suppose,” said Kes politely. Actually, she thought, it had been a lovely evening until this beastly fog crept in. There was a light breeze in from the forest-side of the river, but this pea-soup fog moved against the breeze, slowly multiplying into many thick questing tendrils. Nervously she watched out of the corner of her eyes as the fog mass came wreathing around the beach gathering, its tendrils swaying like poisonous snakes preparing to strike. Then as if rebuffed by the noise and bright fire light, the fog shrank back several dozen paces before its tendrils in the direction of the town.

“So what’s going on?” The youth glanced around the overcrowded beach gathering. “Are you all having a round robin?”

“Round robin?” Kes asked blankly.

The youth nodded, smiling steadily. “Where someone starts a story and then people each take turns adding parts to it.” His bright green eyes regarded her quizzically. “Is that what’s going on?”

Kes frowned and shook her head. “No, just one story from one person,” she replied, shifting uncomfortably under that intense stare.

“Oh,” the youth nodded slowly. “Is it scary?”

“Very,” purred the Gerdin. She shifted her attention to Ellery, wondering when the girl was going to finish sipping and continue her story.

“Is it really scary...like this?” Something dry and scaly brushed her right ear lobe.

Kes instantly froze. Holy frack, was that a snake? Did that kid just hold a snake to my ear? Slowly, very slowly, she turned her head to the side. OH GAWD, the Gerdin’s eyes bugged out to the fullest in horror. THAT’S NO SNAKE!

Instead of a scarf, there was now a venomous-looking centipede curled lightly around the youth’s neck. Its steel armor-like segments and legs were of a vibrant red-orange and purple. Immediately, it reared up like a cobra, watching her with tiny, insatiably curious eyes.

Kes stared at the youth as he fondly stroked his repulsive “pet.”

“That’s my familiar, Celia,” he explained cheerfully. “I found her in the park outside the Bartelzoff Arms Hotel. She was eating a dove...”

At that moment, Kes fell forward in a dead faint.

The murmuring of the crowd stopped. Heads turned. The police dog immediately stood up and started licking Kes’s face.

Megaera turned, flustered and irate, to her kid brother. “Dammit, Gully! You know you weren’t supposed to bring that pesky hell pet to the designated tourist area!”

Gulliver “Guliver” shrugged as a couple of cyber goths hauled the limp girl up and gently carried her through the crowd. The police dog followed closely behind, carrying the bright orange moccasins in its mouth.

“Sorry, I didn’t know she was going to freak like that.”

“And what were you trying to do? Create a diplomatic incident?” Megaera’s face grew red. “Gerdins are a lot like cats. They’re very dignified, sensitive folk that don’t like being startled!”

“It was only a little prank, sis,” Gully insisted, “and it’s not like she’s an ambassador or a princess.”

“Well, still you shouldn’t have done that,” Megaera argued. “They’re protected, those Pilgrims. They’re like the cats of Ancient Egypt- mess with one and the next thing you know, you’re takin’ an extensive dirt nap.”

Gully made a face. “Don’t be silly,” he said. “You don’t get the death penalty for just playing a harmless prank on a Gerdin.”

“Giant mutant centipedes aren’t harmless,” Megaera retorted, sternly folding her arms and glowering down at her little brother, who barely reached to her shoulder, “and if you think I’m going to be afraid of your lousy killer scarf, you better think again. My tentacles will shred your bug like a barbecued shrimp.”

Gully smirked, completely unperturbed by her rage. All the while Celia lounged, turban-like, on his head. “And then I’ll be sad and I will cry, and then you’ll be grounded and have to attend group counseling with spoiled wannabe Barbies and Disney Princesses.”

“And that’s where you’re wrong, twerp.”

Megaera started to reply when the late night air was broken by a voice coming from a car’s loudspeaker: “This is the Hogan’s Gap Police. This beach is now closed.”

“Hey... what’s... what’s happening?” Megaera whirled towards the main pathway. A police car sat in the middle of it just behind the seawall with all its emergency lights flashing.

Megaera was stunned as well as everyone else at the circle gathering. She quickly checked her watch--it was just past 10:30 P.M. The beach didn’t close until 11:00. There was nothing serious going on that could possibly explain this given order to go home.

“Hey, what’s all this about?” the Vinegarroon asked her equally-shocked brother.

Ellery, who had been sitting quietly throughout all the excitement, finally spoke. “Sounds like a curfew to me.”

“What d’you mean a curfew?” A thoroughly confused Megaera turned to look at Ellery and gasped. “Hey! What th’ frack! You’re no zombie!”

“Didn’t say I was,” an entirely different Ellery replied as she pulled off her stringy--haired wig and then the leg and arm bandages. Unpinning her coiled-up plaits, she freed her wavy chestnut hair. Her now clear eyes never wavered from Megaera’s face as she flipped the tumble of tousled curls over her shoulder. Tossing the wig and bandages into the fire, she added scornfully. “I’m not afraid of Lolly Mcclaren anymore.”

(1) Terrapin Junction, Zelmak District of Hogan’s Gap 10:38 P. M.

After some more searching and page turning, Tullugaq found the passage that caught and held her attention-- "To procure the riches of a long-dead king...”

Now here’s something interesting, Tullugaq thought, reaching for a nearby note pad and pencil. She carefully copied down the spell, then placed the mirror on the opposite page. A black-and-white picture of a treasure trove instantly flickered into view. Color soon washed over it and a warm golden light soon filled the kitchen.

The Churcka stared in awe for a few minutes. Then she looked carefully around, hoping Kiki hadn’t woken up and followed her. But there was nothing in the moonlit silence of the downstairs to indicate that a small child might to watching.

Finally reassured, Tullugaq pushed away any misgiving she had, and began reciting the strange-sounding gibberish: “Hear me, Ongurine, Philacater, Angirone and Ogool. Hear me and obey, Fittergee, Samiken, and Wolderan. Show me how to find what I seek, quickly, and correctly. Ikeahao eahtakhih yolyaa hlauahurl oihar auryesoh ftyaeyu hleahelyus euioirl uiurew aowyulair!”

Following the directions, she didn’t look at the mirror as she chanted, but looked instead at the moon that was shining through the kitchen skylight. Just as she was completing the last line, something extremely odd happened. A pearly beam of light shot down from the skylight, and landed on the mirror. Looking upward, she could see its glistening length trailing away into the night sky.

“Zargle Finches,” Tullugaq murmured.

Gingerly, she reached out and touched the moonbeam. It felt cool and slippery like dew frozen on a spider’s web, and there were sparks of blue light that made her think of falling diamonds. Then the light vanished abruptly as if it had been switched off. She hurriedly pulled her hand back, and glanced at the mirror. It was now blank and had the same color and brilliance as a burned-out light bulb.

Felina halted her grooming and glanced towards the table. Noticing tendrils of iridescent gray mist streaming from under the mirror, the cat then ducked behind the couch.

Henry whined quietly to herself.

Tullugaq glanced down at the dog. She seemed nervous, she thought, but I suppose a lot of dogs are when you’re dealing with magic--Wait a minute?

She looked nervously into the living room. Had something moved in that corner? No. It must have been her imagination.

With a loud whine, Henry dashed from the kitchen.

Tullugaq gave the retreating dog a puzzled look, then shrugged. “Scaredy-cat dog.” Turning back to the book, she waited, and she waited some more. She spoke the same formula again and again, but not so much as a coin appeared. She surveyed the living room again but, there was not a pile of treasure to be seen anywhere.

“What, that’s it?” said Tullugaq in disgust. “No shower of gold, no sparkling silk, no precious gems or porcelain? Not even a mere minin? What kind of Glazarotsnatz book is this, anyway?”

Muttering unpleasantly, she wadded up her copy of the spell and tossed it over her shoulder--where it was deftly caught by a shadowy something. “What’s the point of having a spell when you can’t get it to work anyway?”

Suddenly she froze, her long nose rapidly twitching as she caught a strange scent... almost like wet roses mixed with cinnamon.

Tullugaq frowned, feeling a bit confused. There were no rose bushes or spicy floral perfume around anywhere. So why was she smelling the stuff?

Icy fingers brushed her head. She felt a rush of numbness and sheer cold horror. Then there was a prickling on the back of her neck that wasn’t goose bumps. A voice with a haughty French accent hissed in her ear:

“Ahh, but vhy ave uh shover of gold, hen yoo ken ave me instead?”

Turning her head a little, Tullugaq then gave a gargled squeak. Hovering just a few inches from her face was a gray nebulous hand. It was attached to a long, tube-like arm, and there was even more arms squirming around.

Whimsically, it tweaked her nose with its bony fingers.

Tullugaq sat for a couple minutes, rigid with shock. Then she threw herself away from the table. In her panicky haste, she fell backwards in her chair, pulling the whole tablecloth after her. Various things hit the floor and skidded into the corners of the kitchen. Scrambling to her feet, Tullugaq ran into the living room. She stumbled over a footstool, and then crashed into the phone table, but she kept on going. She heard the muffled thumps of big furry paws on the stairs ahead as the dog bounded up, heading for the relative safety of the second floor.

Just she reached the fourth step, a cold hand closed around her ankle. With a gargled squeak, Tullugaq lunged forward, frantically trying to break free of its grasp, but to no avail. It held her fast like a snare. Tightening its grip, it dragged her slowly and unerringly down the stairs. She struggled and clutched at a banister, crying: "Let me go! Let me go! I'm not going back with you! I'm not going back!"

Desperately she summoned up all the strength she had left, and charged.

A distant racket from downstairs woke Kiki. For a few minutes, she stared sleepily at the moonlight streaming through the bedroom window. Then she got out of bed and glanced up at the upper bunk.

“Hey, Tullugaq,” whispered Kiki, anxiously. “Wake up! I think we got burglars!”

The bulging pile of bedclothes showed no signs of stirring, which wasn’t at all surprising. Tullugaq slept as soundly as one of those mummified kings of Saaribadha. If a squirm of earthworms were to suddenly drop from the ceiling and spread across her face, she wouldn’t have as much as twitched an eyelid.

Kiki sighed despairingly, and thought about climbing up and giving her sister a vigorous shake. She soon dropped the idea however, remembering that rousing Tullugaq was like rousing a hibernating dragon; both could become wrathful if prematurely awakened.

“You can be really impossible at times, Twhistle,” she murmured as she put on her slippers.

No sooner did she do so, a muffled scrabbling sounded from the hallway. Kiki squeaked in alarm. It sounded like a bear. Worse yet, it might be a Barzeenbash. No, that’s silly. How could a Barzeenbash break into the house without the dog finding out about it? Not unless it ate the dog.

She thought about hiding in the closet, but she couldn’t budge.

The scrabbling was now outside; quivering with fear, Kiki stared at the door. There came a frenzied scratching; the doorknob rattled sharply.

“Who’s that?” Kiki managed to croak out.

A pitiful whining answered, followed soon by more frantic scratching and knob rattling.

“H-Henry?” she stammered. Cautiously, she moved to the door and opened it slowly.

The door jerked forward violently as a black-and-white form barreled in with a huge marmalade cat close behind.

“Eeeeooowwww!” screeched the cat as it darted through Kiki’s legs. Henry succeeded only in bowling the small Churcka over.

“Henry!” Kiki yelled as she picked herself up. “What’s with you, you crazy dog?”

Trembling, Henry whimpered loudly and pitifully.

Kiki perked up her ears in alarm. “Is there something nasty downstairs?” she asked in a nervous whisper.

Henry whimpered some more, then woofed.

“Oh, great!” Kiki muttered. “Terrific! What a way to start summer vacation!”

Turning irritably towards the bunks, Kiki cried, “Tullugaq, get your butt out of bed! We got problems!” The blankets showed no signs of life. “TULLUGAQ!” she yelled, stamping her bare foot. “DO YOU HEAR ME? GET UP!”

“I hear you,” groaned a voice near the table. “I’m already up.”

Kiki glanced down. “What are you doing on the floor, Twhistle?”

“Fell out of bed, of course,” said Tullugaq, thoroughly annoyed of having bungled the jump, for carelessly leaving the bedroom closed, and for Henry arriving ahead of her. Slowly, she got to her feet. “What’s all this about, Kiki? Hollering your lungs out in the middle of the night, and making me fall out of bed?” She felt the side of her face and winced. “It better just be a bad dream.”

“It’s no dream, you dolt! If you don’t believe me, look at Henry!”

“Now, don’t you be calling me a ‘dolt,’ Little Sis!” said Tullugaq sharply. “And don’t you start that nonsense about seeing ghosts and demons in every corner. I’m sick and tired of hearing your ridiculous theories about how that book’s bad for our health.”

Meanwhile, she was mentally kicking herself. If I hadn’t been so zarking curious, I’d have sold that Muhulish Librarian that infernal book and mirror.

“Sorry,” said Kiki annoyingly, “but just look at Henry for a minute, please.”

Tullugaq regarded the trembling, whimpering canine with growing alarm. Zarkit, Henry! Why did you have to scratch at our door? “Hey, you’re right,” she said, trying to repress a shiver. “Something really scared her, all right. A bear, you think?”

Kiki snorted loudly. “Bear, my nose,” she said scornfully. “We would have heard it, and Henry would have been barking her head off. Do you know what I think?”

“No, what?” Tullugaq replied, feeling rather uncomfortable.

“I think something came out of that book! That’s what I think?”

“But we would have seen it,” said Tullugaq uneasily. Yeah, I saw it all right, she thought grimly. It’s probably standing outside the door this very minute waiting for one of use to open it.

“No,” said Kiki, thinking, “not unless it’s smart. If it ate Grandma, and us, someone would find out about it sooner or later... I just don’t see how could it have gotten out. I didn’t read any of the spells--”

Tullugaq watched her closely, wondering if Kiki was going to say more, eventually spilling the beans on her attempted book dumping. She was debating whether she should go barricade the door or go tell Grandma everything, when the door suddenly swung open.

Kiki promptly gave a shrill scream and dove under the bed.

“It’s here!” she shrieked hysterically. “It’s going to eat us all!”

Tullugaq flinched at the sound, which, in her opinion, would have driven a banshee into hiding.

Grandma Esme’ reeled back, her hand clutching at her heart, her mouth forming a horrified O. “Chobrattasbrotton!” she gasped.

“GRANDMA, GRANDMA!” screamed Kiki, scrambling out from underneath the bed. She darted into Grandma Esme’ ’s arms, nearly knocking her backwards. Verging on tears, Kiki pressed her face against her grandmother’s nightgown.

“What in blue and scarlet blazes’s going on here!” Grandma Esme’ demanded, as soon as she pulled herself together. “I came out here to find what all the ruckus was about. The next thing I know, someone screams bloody murder, and I nearly have a coronary!”

“Oh Grandma!” said Kiki woefully, hugging her tightly. “I thought you were the Thing--”

Bewildered, Grandma Esme’ hugged her back. “Thing?” she said. She turned her baffled gaze from Kiki to Tullugaq. “What’s this ‘Thing?’”

“Oh, it’s nothing,” said Tullugaq crossly, still recovering from Kiki’s latest screaming bout. “Kiki thinks there’s a monster downstairs because the dog just had a nightmare and wanted to sleep upstairs with us. You know how Henry is; she always gets spooked easily.”

“You lie!” Kiki cried, turning and looking furiously at her. “There is too a monster. Henry wouldn’t have come running if it had been a burglar. She would have stayed and barked!” She looked back up at Grandma Esme’. “It’s all Tullugaq’s fault!" she said shrilly.

“Me? What did I do?” Tullugaq exclaimed.

“You brought that book and mirror,” Kiki replied pointedly.

“Well, it’s your fault too!” protested Tullugaq furiously. “You showed me how to work the blasted things!”

Kiki’s eyes widened in horror and disbelief. “Tullugaq!” she shrilled. “You didn’t!”

Tullugaq closed her eyes and groaned. Oh smerurge, she thought. Slip of the tongue. She was really in for it now; tears and screams from Kiki, words of condemnation from Grandma and the Folks--plus sixteen months of community service and a one-way trip to Redwing Reeducation Center for Wayward Juveniles. Oh, and there’s that ectoplasmic menace lurking downstairs, getting ready to entangle them, and eventually the world, in its creepy cold tentacles.

“Well, it wasn’t my fault, honest!” she said defensively. “I wasn’t thinking--”

“That’s right!” Kiki shot back. “You weren’t thinking at all!”

“Honest, it really wasn’t my fault!” protested Tullugaq, quickly coming up with a solid-sounding excuse. “I couldn’t help myself, it was... like I was possessed or something--”

“That was like me, Grandma!” Kiki interrupted. “I had to know how to figure out the book of puzzles, so I worked on it for nearly four hours.”

Grandma Esme’ looked at Kiki in amazement, her eyes nearly popping from her head.

“Of course, I had to take a time out,” Kiki went on, “but I always came back to those puzzles. I couldn’t help myself. It was like I was hypnotized. Some mean and evil spellbinder musta bewitched that book and mirror, and they’re making us do crazy stuff!”

“Zarkel’s Bones,” Grandma Esme’ muttered. “I don’t believe this. I really don’t believe this. These things really are magical. But how... I didn’t smell any magic on them...”

“When they’re by themselves, they’re harmless. Ordinary,” Kiki told her. “But put together...they make magic. It’s Anamorphosis...the mirror makes you see the pages clearly, like able to understand the words or see what the pictures really look like. Also the pictures move around, just like the ones in that turning wheel thing you see at the fair...” She looked at her grandmother for the right word.

“Sorry, dear,” said Grandma Esme’, shaking her head. “But the only turning wheel thing I know of is the Ferris wheel.”

Tullugaq cleared her throat. “They’re called tachyscopes.” Grandma Esme’ and Kiki turned to look at her. “I think that’s what they’re called,” Tullugaq went on. “They had one at the last fair I’ve been to.” She didn’t mention the part about sneaking in without paying.

“Yeah, that’s right,” said Kiki, nodding weakly. “Thanks, Twhistle.”

“Don’t mention it,” muttered Tullugaq. She turned her face towards the wall, and wished for a knothole big enough to hide herself in.

“The mirror showed different places,” Kiki continued in a low voice. “One was a desert...there...were these monsters...like...like people, but they were dead-looking. They grew out of the sand...they started out as skeletons...”

Grandma Esme’ gently took both of Kiki’s hands in her own. “Kiki," she said, “where’s this book now?”

“I...I threw it in the food disposal,” Kiki stammered.

“And the mirror?”

“It’s in the glass bin... I thought it could be...” Kiki furrowed her brow, realizing something. “Wait a minute,” she said, turning to look at Tullugaq. “You couldn’t have known where I put them. You were fast asleep when I did it, so you couldn’t have known...” Her eyes soon narrowed to a squint. “Unless...” Wait a minute, Grandma doesn’t have an orange cat!

Tugging herself free from Grandma Esme’ ‘s grasp, Kiki marched to the bed, climbed up and whipped the covers off the top bunk.

“Ah-ha!” shouted Kiki, snatching up the wig and clambering down. “The old ‘dummy in the bed’ trick.” She thrust it at Tullugaq’s nose. “Zark it! I should have known! Now you can see where Twhistle’s Trickster ways are getting us, Grandma. We’re scared out of our wits, and we’ll probably get eaten or turned into zombie-killer slaves!”

Throwing down the wig, she began jumping on it, all the while yelling and bristling her hair.

“Good grief,” Tullugaq muttered, rolling her eyes.

“All right, that’s enough!” shouted Grandma Esme’, startling them both. When she had their full attention, she declared, “If what you’re saying’s true, and there’s really is a monster from beyond lurking downstairs, then I think it’s up to us to stop it before it trashes the neighborhood.”

“You’re serious, right?” Tullugaq said with a nervous chuckle. “You really think we should go after this thing ourselves?”

“I’m very serious,” Grandma Esme’ said sternly.

There was a long silence. “So how do you propose we catch it?” Tullugaq finally asked.

Unbeknownst to the three, a webby strand of fog hovered near the ceiling of the hallway and then wound its way back round the corner and down the stairs. As it retracted, it shrank to a nerve-thin cord, pulsing as it moved along the nourishment of fear and information to the main body waiting patiently in the living room.

The Rose Prince cocked his ghostly head ever so slightly as the tendril was re-absorbed into his mass of undulating curls. The girl’s worrisome question still echoed through his head: “So how do you propose to catch it?”

His Cupid smile turned up into a Cheshire grin and then he could not suppress the giggles. He went over the last two phases in his mind. Catch it.

Despite being startled by the sudden transformation of his prey into a ferocious grizzly bear and then a large orange cat, the Rose Prince snickered. That Changer girl’s question of how to catch an eldritch entity like him suddenly struck him as hilarious.

“Nghehe...hehehe...heheheeeeeeeeeee...” the Rose Prince could scarcely control his hysterical spasms as he reconstituted himself and carefully made his way over to the kitchen table.

The Siamese glanced out from behind the couch, a puzzled look in her blue eyes.

Picking up the fallen pencil and note pad, he carefully wrote out a few lines, emphasizing every fancy loop and curl.

“En France, les chats attaquest les oiseaux, patte nid?”

The Rose Prince burst out in hysterical cackles, thoroughly enjoying the joke. In the next instant, every spilled and scattered object snapped back to where it had once been before the treasure spell screw-up.

Minutes crawled by. Moonlight filtered through the windows lining the kitchen and living room, tracing faint criss-crossing shadows everywhere. Dust particles danced a slow spiral in the still night air. Eventually, Felicia emerged from her hiding place and looked cautiously about. Everything seemed fine and in perfect order once again. Startled, she saw her reflection in Grandma Esme’ ’s old antique mirror, and just when she was beginning to relax and think of raiding the food bowl once again, she was suddenly scooped up by someone or something not visible in the silver tinted glass.

"Bonsoir mon petit chéri, ma belle fourrure," said an all too familiar voice. A slender hand gently stroked the cat behind her ears. Despite herself, Felicia made herself comfortable in the crook of an elbow and began to purr.

Chapter 11--Journey Among Mysteries

Slowly rising from the depths of oblivion, feeling returning to fingers and toes, Kes grunted, rolled over and curled up more tightly, hugging her knees between her arms.

Something about the atmosphere around her didn't seem right, so cautiously opening one eye she quickly scanned her surroundings.

Awareness came in a flash. This was not her comfortable hotel room nor was it the Moon Agate Campsite. Instead, she was in a cathedral of sorts, the distant, vaulted ceiling barely visible through a veil of rusty clouds. There were things up there, between clouds and ceiling: winged, serpentine, vast.

It was too much. Kes had to look away. She focused her attention on the distant walls, but there was no comfort to be found there. The great blocks out of which the building was made were somehow both solid and fleshy; muscular. They seemed to expand and contract, as if the place were breathing the slow, deep breaths of a slumbering animal.

Sitting up, she quickly noticed the 'floor' of this immense building was actually a field of very tall grass. The only light was from the moon, which was now waning fast behind the ominous, rust-colored cloud bank. Neither the high ceiling nor the dragon things were visible now.

"Probably a storm coming,” she muttered as she leaped to her feet. This was quite bewildering; she remembered fainting after seeing that weird kid's monstrous pet, but she had no memory of waking up and walking out into the wilds somewhere. Yet, here she was, shivering with cold and buried up to her waist in rain-soaked grass. Then came another surprise: when she looked at the slowly breathing walls of the cathedral again, she saw nothing but grass stretching onward towards the horizon.

For a moment she stood staring open-mouthed. Then her eyes popped and she choked, "Wha...What... th'... the hell!!!"

Kes looked about frantically. What had happened? How did she get here? Where exactly was here? Why was she...? So many thoughts scrambled themselves to the surface in panic that a thin film of perspiration began to form on her brow and upper lip. Fear was setting and there was nothing she could do to stop it, no comforting words or thoughts; nothing reassuring came to mind.

An icy wind began to murmur through the grass, making it rustle unpleasantly. Kes’s scalp crawled, and her stomach became a tight, icy knot. She held her breath as she peered into the darkness, half-expecting to see something large with glaring eyes and razor-sharp teeth.

But nothing was visible except the moonlight flickering between the clouds and the waves of wind rolling through the long, whispering grass.

Kes shook her head vigorously, but the scene around her didn’t go away. This can’t be happening! This can’t be happening!

“Oh, but it ees,” a velvety, amused voice whispered in her left ear. “But don’t vorry, perdu chat. Zhere’s notink to be afraid of.”

Kes jumped as another voice whispered in her right ear, high-pitched and scratchy this time. “Stay wiv us orwhile, luvly.”

“Vill take care of you," a pleasing, song-like voice, neither male nor female, spoke right above her head. “Ve only vant to be your friends.”

Kes froze as the moon broke through the heavy clouds, bathing everything in pale blue light. Then a shadow loomed over her, not a human shadow. She could just make out the outline of massive half-folded wings, numerous writhing tendrils, and what seemed like three finned-maned heads on long serpentine necks.

A thick, bone-chilling mist closed in all around, cutting off all sense of direction. She could hear somewhere close behind her a dry slithering and a kind of scratching followed by a hiss. Panic shot through her. I’m going to die out here! She thought. I’m a scrawny sixteen year old lost in some nightmare world of endless grass and flying monsters. Pretty soon there won’t be anything left of me but some well-chewed bones.

Tendrils of sparkling iridescence swam into the corners of her vision. Blossoms of velvety purples and flaming crimson opened like miniature parasols revealing green-gold eyes. After what seemed like an eternity of close scrutiny, the eye-tendrils withdrew.

“Non, ma chère fille,” the velvety voice said. “You’re not scrawny at all.”

“Well, right, yer’re obviously skinny,” the unbearably shrill, grating voice cut in, “but it’s not like yer’re scrony or 'ave emaciated or anyfink skeletal.” The voice sounded like it was either coming from a midget or a weasel.

“Unlike zhat misérable petit gamin des rues ve met earlier,” the neutral voice murmured. “Comme incarné mort.”

“No, right, not Deaff,” the shrill voice disagreed. “More like Pestilence.”

Cold sweat trickled down Kes’s face. She wanted to run, but morbid curiosity soon got the better of her. She turned slowly, half-expecting to see a monster, maybe something similar to that three-headed dragon from one of those old Godzilla movies. Instead what met her eye were three oddly-dressed gentlemen. The taller of the three was dressed in lab entire. At least Kes thought it was a gentleman until it turned to look at her. It was a gynandromorph, split down the middle into male and female halves.

The second was a handsome youth dressed in the fashionable dress of men in the reign of Louis XIV. Gold predominated the elegant costume; even his tightly curled hair was as golden as a silkworm cocoon. While the Gynandromorph pulled its lips in a wide-toothed grin, the youth gave her a cheeky, dimple-filled smile.

The third person was a small boy dressed in the top hat and frock coat of a Victorian chimney sweep. He looked about six or seven but the soot encrusting his hands and face made it impossible to be sure. Between pinched finger and thumb he held one end of a length of green string. The other end was tethered to the ankle of a wailing winged infant, equally grimy, that fluttered a few feet above the boy’s head. The boy smiled at her with brilliant-white teeth.

“I won ‘im at the bleedin’ funfair,” he said, his voice shrill and gravelly. “Yer wanna come ter the bleedin’ funfair, isit? Yer can win all kinds of stuff.”

The infant stopped wailing. “Don’t listen,” it said. Its voice, like a glass bell, was soft and chiming and Kes felt herself go a little weak at the sound of it. “Don’t listen to a word this lying little toe-rag says. He’s filth and dirt through and through. Don’t listen.”

“All kinds of stuff, right luvly,” said the boy.

Kes swallowed nervously. “Uh... maybe later...” Then turning to the other two, she asked, “What do you mean by ‘gamin des rues?’”

The Gynandromorph scowled darkly. “Uh street urchin, un incredibly ugly creature, uglier than almost anyone I ad ever met. Uh zhin, withered, leprous zing.”

“C’était terrible,” the Princeling agreed, nodding grimly. “Cancer de l’oeil ville. And her manners... tres atroce! She made even the man-eating suarius and cynocephali people look civilized--”

“It just makes you sick!” the infant broke in. “I feel debased just knowing that such aberrations actually exist in this world, that there are people who are more parasite than sapian. People who are simply too vile to pity, people who take great pride in all the worst things and have no grasp of basic decency, people who enjoy rotting where they are.” It cleared its throat unhappily. “They even give demons like these guys a bad name!”

The little chimney sweep yanked sharply on the green leash. “That will do, Ralphie.” He scowled up at the quivering infant, before returning his stare to her. He shrugged resignedly. “Oh, well, luv. Right. Yer’re were about ter find out about it sooner or later.”

“Whoa, what the frack!” Kes took a quick, backward step, her eyes fixed hugely on the misfit group. “You guys are demons!”

“Of course,” the Gynandromorph grinned, its mismatched eyes sweeping over her. “Vhat did you zink ve vere?”

Kes shook her head slowly, then shrugged. “Oh, I don’t know... faeries?”


Ralphie flapped his wings indignantly. “I happen to be a CHERR-RUB!”

“Faeries?” The Princeling studied her, his head tilted to one side. A giggle bubbled out of him.

“Faeries?” The Gynandromorph’s mocking smile widened, its shoulders shaking with undisguised mirth.

“Faeries? Struth!” The Chimney Sweep shrilled. They regarded her for a long moment before finally breaking down into cackling fits of hilarity. Both Kes and Ralphie watched in stunned fascination as the Princeling and the Gynandromorph collapsed to the ground, clutching their ribs and giggling helplessly. The chimney sweep staggered about, great tears rolling down his sooty cheeks, gasping for breath and incapable of holding the kite string.

Ralphie wafted into the air, his chubby face beet-red with anger and exertion. Glancing down to Kes, his expression softened and then he mouthed the word--RUN.

Glancing around wildly, Kes noticed the thicket of underbrush and darted for it. She glimpsed a shadow from high above, and it wasn’t a cloud. There was a heavy rushing sound and she ducked in just in time. A massive dragon alighted, silvery white and gunmetal gray, all teeth, writhing tendrils and dagger-like claws. Its lantern-like eyes glowered as it surged forward to the trio still in the throes of side-splitting hysterics.

Seeing a monstrous maw of sharpened fangs looming above them, the Gynandromorph screamed shrilly. The others immediately ceased their laughter and froze with terror.

Kes shrank back against the furthest end of the thicket, her eyes searching the thickly tangled brush for possible exits of escape. Her heart pounded in her throat. Great! Now I’m never going to get the chance to hear the second half of Ellery’s story.

First pleas and moans reached the Gerdin’s ears.

I might not even have a chance to have breakfast again.

(1) Terrapin Junction, Zelmak District of Hogan’s Gap 10:48 P. M.

Grandma Esme’ knelt down and pulled an old wooden trunk from underneath her bed.

“Stupid rotten things!” she muttered as she wrestled with the rusty latches. “Why don’t you bloody move!”

Finally she got them to pop open and raised the heavy lid. The rusty hinges groaned loudly, and a heavy acrid aroma filled the air. Tullugaq and Kiki crowded forward to have a look.

“Leaping Lemurs, Grandma!” Kiki yelped, as she stared pop-eyed at the cache of dried herbs, potions, and charms. “I didn’t know you did magic!”

“I don’t,” said Grandma Esme’, rummaging through her collection, “but your grandfather did.” Hurriedly she snatched up some amulets and slipped them around her neck. Then she turned to the others. “Okay, girls,” she said. “Pick out some stuff and put it on, and while you’re at it, I’ll go look for the Morathes.”

“The what?” Tullugaq looked confused.

Kiki eyed the talismans skeptically. “Grandma, do these things really work?” she asked. “They look a bit… brand new to me. Do these come with… you know… signed documents stating that they’re not tourist trinkets?”

There was an awkward silence.

“Uh, well… that’s the problem,” said Grandma Esme’ finally. “These things don’t come with any documents.”

Kiki looked at her in shock. “So…does…does that mean they’re all dust?” she asked in a quavering voice.

Grandma Esme’ sighed and shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know,” she said glumly. “Grandpa got these from a traveling salesman who was down on his luck, and needed some money to continue traveling again. I thought it was all a load of useless bric-a-brac since I couldn’t smell anything magical about them. But Grandpa, being a wizard and possessing a much keener snout for magical scent, vouched for their reliability.”

“So these talismans might work?” Tullugaq asked nervously.

Grandma Esme’ shrugged again. “I honestly can’t say,” she said. “That’s why I’m looking for something else that will help protect us when we finally go downstairs.”

With that said, she crawled under the bed again. The sisters heard a lot of cursing about cat pee and hairballs, interrupted by the occasional dust-induced sneeze.

Eventually, Grandma Esme’ emerged, red-eyed and nose dripping, clutching a small mahogany chest.

“Oh Zog and Zargle Finches!” exclaimed Grandma Esme’, getting to her feet. She coughed, sneezed, and spluttered violently. “Would someone please take this? I must attend to my allergies.”

“I’ll take it, Grandma,” cried Tullugaq.

“No, I will,” said Kiki. “I’m more responsible.”

“The box’s too big. You’ll drop it.”

“I will not.”

“You will too.”

“Will not!”

“Will too!”

“Grandma!” cried Kiki. “Since Tullugaq opened up a doorway to an evil universe, I don’t think she should handle the magical stuff.”

“Okay, I’ll put it on the bed then,” muttered Grandma Esme’ . “You gals grab as many of those charms as you can carry, and let’s try to get through this as calmly as possible, please.”

Dropping the chest on the bed, Grandma Esme’ yanked a fistful of tissue from the Kleenex box on the nightstand. Burying her nose deep in the wad, she gave a honking blast.

Kiki suddenly perked up her ears. “Hey, what’s that?” she exclaimed, tugging at the back of Tullugaq’s pajamas.

“Ye gawds!” Tullugaq squealed as she spun around. “Don’t do that! I’m scared enough as it is!”

“Sorry,” whispered Kiki, “but I heard something.”

“Yeah, Grandma blowing her nose,” snapped Tulllugaq, still trembling with shock.

“Not that!” There was a tremor in Kiki’s voice. “Listen. Listen.”

They all stood dead still, straining their ears. At first they heard only chirping crickets and a little breeze rustling the bushes outside. Then a faint pitter-pattering sound began to reach their ears. Tullugaq felt herself grow cold, all the blood draining from her skin.

“What in blue barnacles--,” spluttered Grandma Esme’, becoming alarmed.

Kiki’s eyes grew wide with fright. “It’s the book monster!”

The noise, which sounded like it was being made by something small and dainty, came towards Grandma Esme’s bedroom.

Jamming her knuckles against her teeth to stifle a scream, Kiki fixed her eyes on the door. She went to huddle next to Grandma Esme’.

Grandma Esme’s eyes narrowed. She turned to Tullugaq. “What do you make of that?” she asked.

“Sounds like ghosts,” said Tullugaq hopefully. She was hoping it was just ghosts, and not the you-know-what. Ghosts were easier to get rid of than the you-know-what.

“Ghosts, huh?” said Grandma Esme’, eyeing her dubiously. “Sounds awfully small to be a ghost…”

And it’s coming this way,” squeaked Kiki, burying her head in grandmother’s sleeve.

“Is that door locked?” Tullugaq whispered. Grandma Esme’ nodded. She frowned deeply as she looked at Tullugaq. “Honey, when you ran out of the kitchen, where did you leave that mirror?”

“Uh…on the book,” Tullugaq blurted out.

Grandma Esme’ stared straight at her and said quietly, “Where exactly on the book?”

Tullugaq swallowed hard. “The page,” she admitted awkwardly. “But when I left, the mirror…"

The tiptoeing footsteps halted just outside the door. Everyone stiffened, ears pricked and quivering. But no more sounds came. No knob rattling, no breathing, no knocking, nothing. Grandma Esme’ chewed her lip as she stared at the door. On the wall above the bookshelf, the hands of the clock slowly approached ten-forty.

“Humph! I had just about enough of this?” Grandma Esme’ muttered finally. Gritting her teeth, she fumbled open the chest and pulled out a turnip-sized top, brightly painted and crawling with mysterious symbols. Walking forward, she wound the string around the peg, tying the end to middle finger. Raising the garish device, Grandma Esme’ unlocked the door and threw it open.

They found themselves looking into a pair of greenish-gold eyes staring curiously back from about a foot off the floor.

“Dear gods!” cried Grandma Esme’. “It’s Felina!” She stooped down and gathered up the animal in her arms. The cat immediately began to purr. “She must have been hiding downstairs somewhere.”

Shaking with fear and relief, Tullugaq sat down on the floor. It was nothing but a cat, she thought, just a wretched cat. Everything’s going to be all right now, I think. I hope

“I can’t believe it!” cried Kiki. “I can’t believe we got scared over a cat! It’s like the ending to a really lame ghost story.”

“Better a cat than what I saw,” said Tullugaq quietly.

Kiki looked at her inquiringly. “What did you see downstairs?” she asked sharply.

“Never mind that now,” said Grandma Esme’, plunking Felina down on the bed. “We got a big job to do if we’re ever going back to sleep tonight. Kiki! Grab some charms!”

“All right, Grandma,” Kiki replied eagerly, promptly picking out several specimens of promising portents from the ornate pile.

"Tullugaq!” Grandma Esme’ cried. “On your feet, quick! Grab the chest. It’s got those Morathes inside.”

Almost in a daze, Tullugaq did as Grandma bade her. “Now what?” she asked in a desperate effort to stall for time.

“You’ll see,” said Grandma Esme’, heading for the door. “Just keep behind me.”

“Zarkit it,” muttered Kiki as she inspected the back of her hand. “I bit my knuckles and now there’s teeth marks all over!”

“This isn’t the time to worry about that now!” Tullugaq growled under her breath to her. “We might all end up as blue-plate specials on account of your loud complaining.”

“Phooey to you,” Kiki lashed back. “If you hadn’t been messing with black magic, we wouldn’t be worrying about becoming monster chow!”

“Yeah?” said Grandma Esme’ darkly. “And if we do catch it, what do I tell the authorities, or for that matter, your parents?”

“Yeah,” agreed Kiki reproachfully.

“Geez, don’t I get a reprieve?” Tullugaq muttered.

Chapter 12--In Which Kes Allyntahl Learnt Several Interesting Things

The Gynandromorph had fallen to its knees, clasping its arms around its head. The Princeling and the Chimney Sweep were huddled together, making small whimpering noises. While in the nearby brush, Kes crouched watching, nervously awaiting a blast of fire, but none came.

Instead the dragon leveled a huge, scalpel-shaped fore-claw at the pop-eyed trio. “YOOOOOOUUUUU!” It hissed like an overheated boiler. “ALL OF YOOOOOOUUUUUU!”

Kes felt a shiver trickle down her spine. She could feel the rage radiating from that massively powerful body like waves of heat from a blast furnace. She wondered what exactly did those demon-twerps do earn the murderous ire of this beast. Something very bloody stupid no doubt.

“Oh, what am I going to do to you?” the dragon continued on in a much quieter tone, still filled with malice. Its snarl curved into a wide, menacing leer.

Cripes, Kes thought. Sure hate to be that thing’s dentist.

“The word ‘anger’ doesn’t even come close to what I’m feeling right now.” Suddenly there was a bright flash of lightning that momentarily blinded the startled Kes. A great pealing roll of thunder followed; a wash of ozone and hot metal soon filled the chill air.

Oh, so now we’re having big pyrotechnics and stuff? Kes set her teeth tightly. What’s next on the list? A squadron of singing Valkyries?

The Gynandromorph started groveling and kowtowing like mad. Finally it burst out. “Please Favver, don’t urt us!”

Kes’s jaw dropped with disbelief. Father?

“Aye, right, Guv’nor,” the Chimney Sweep broke in. “Don’t chop us up into wee bits and eat up!”

“Tais-toi, imbécile!” The Princeling swatted the lad across the back of the head. “Zis ave been zometink you zid, bratling!

“Ow!” The Chimney Sweep rubbed his head and readjusted his hat. “Not me!” He shifted his glare to the prostate Gynandromorph. “Must ‘ave been this weirdie. Yeah, always leavin’ a right nasty mess for us to tidy!”

The Gynandromorph flung a burning glance at the sooty lad. “Knock it off, brat! Ve know you’re uh liar and uh thief!”

The Chimney Sweep simply smirked. “Eh up, I may be a fief and a liar,” he retorted snidely, “but I'm bloody well certainly no corpse-grbbin', right, doctor of anatomy 'oo's also involved in weirder stuff that most blokes wouldn't dare experience.”

“Oh, you’ll make quite uh fine anatomical specimen,” the Gynandromorph hissed, rising slowly to its feet. “You’ll do quite nicely in my chamber of dissection.” There was a wet ripping sound as a dozen or so razor sharp tentacles erupted from its back and streaked towards the stunned Chimney Sweep.

The hell--? A scream caught in Kes’s throat.

With a yelp, the would-be-medical-specimen leaped aside, narrowly avoiding his elder sibling’s murderous clutches.

“Sorry! Blimey! Sorry! Blimey! Sorry!” The boy yelled, quickly dodging around the place.

Barking a Gallic oath, the Princeling ducked behind a nearby knoll. “Arrête! Arrêtez cette folie!” he cried shrilly. He looked frantically over at the ferocious hell-beast. “Zire, make zhem ztop!”

“Yes! Honest guv! Yes! Right! Dad! I need rescuin’ right, please! Right!” the boy pleaded desperately. He ducked as a tentacle snatched off his top hat. “Crap, that were close! Oi! Make ‘im put the mockers on! Honest guv!”

“ENOUGH!” the dragon boomed. A taloned claw seized the Chimney Sweep by his coat tails and hoisted him up. It then flicked its tail at the Gynandromorph, catching the creature in a choking embrace. The dragon regarded its captives for a moment through dangerously narrowed eyes. Then it spoke in a voice as cold and hard as glacial ice.

“I give you one simple task to do... one small, simple task. Watch the Fools’ Gate until the Guardians come back from holiday. Kill any intruders that pass through it, be they human or animal.” It studied them for a few more minutes before continuing, “Surely that isn’t a very difficult order to follow.”

“Dad, please...” the Chimney Sweep pleaded.

The dragon favored him with a steady basilisk glare before continuing, “But what do I find instead? All three of you gallivanting around like school boys at some two-bit carnival.”

“Zire, idze vasn’t mon idée!” the Princeling cried desperately as he crept out from behind the knoll. “Honest! Zhey dragged me along! Ize zidn’t vant to go!”

Kes crouched in her hiding place, watching and listening tensely. What the freak is going on? Is this Hell? And what could this Fools’ Gate be? Nothing that could possibly concern her, but why on Urth would she be here in the first place? And as the speakers went on, Kes began to feel dizzy and sick to her stomach. What if they discovered her hiding place?

“Do you mean to tell me,” the dragon began with a faint hiss, “that while you were chatting with this parasite, no attempt was made to seize and eliminate her? None what-so-ever?”

All three brothers stared at the ground.

“Ve couldn’t,” the Gynandromorph finally replied in a frightened squeak. “She vas carrying zome ken of protection--uh ken of trinket.”

“They call it a Token in the chuffin' Mortal Realm,” the Chimney Sweep croaked, flailing his arms and legs helplessly. “That wee filffrag were showin’ it ter us, and boastin’ ‘ow this wee fin’ were gonna allow ‘er ter get into Faerie.” His tiny face twisted into an expression of grimacing disgust. “She didn’t deserve that bloody damned fin’. I’ll get out me spoons.”

“Vell, yoo zhould ‘af dun zant much earlier,” muttered the Gynandromorph, squirming and twisting in the tail’s grasp. “Meebe ve vouldn’t ze en zuch uh mezz zhen!”

“But you didn’t,” the dragon said as if it was reading off a sentence of death, “even though you should have killed her the minute you knew what she really was--a psyhoner.”

Kes was utterly dumbfounded. They sounded just like those Sopranos gangsters...and what the hork is a psyhoner? Is that like a fuel-siphoning thief? Man, I sure hate to be in that girl’s shoes at the moment. I wonder what makes this Fools’ Gate such a heavy taboo?

“You could have just knocked it from her fingers,” the dragon went on, “but instead you did nothing. And now this filthy flesh vessel of stolen lives is in the Other Reaches of Erebus. Probably cause a major breakdown of reality due to her lucid dreaming.”

“Uhh--Zire,” the Princeling fidgeted.

“Well,” the dragon glowered even more darkly. “Is there something else that I should know? Something else you haven’t told me yet.”

“Uhhh--” the Princeling swallowed nervously.

“Well... spit it out, Dauphin.”

“Zat gel haz zometink elze en er possession vhich could--” the youth shuffled his feet and fiddled with a lock of golden hair, “--uhhh--make zings--uh--zlighty more difficult for uz.”

“And what would that be?” the dragon asked icily, leaning its great head closer.

The Princeling gulped, taking a couple steps back from the heavily armored snout.

“She ‘as the bloomin’ glitter dust plague! Right,” the Chimney Sweep blurted out. "She were just crorlin’ wiv glitter lice! Struth! And they were eatin’ ‘er alive! Honest, dad! Honest, guv! I'm not makin' this up! Right!”

The dragon drew back, flashing its teeth in horror and disgust. It promptly dropped the boy, then quickly released the Gynandromorph. Both brothers, although weak-kneed with terror, were unharmed. But then suddenly, the dragon threw back its massive head and howled. The ghastly shriek swelled in the cold stillness. It echoed across the grassy knoll and hillock; it poured into the thick brush of the thicket.

Kes winced and slumped to the ground, clutching her ears. Her skin crawled and her heart raced as every nerve in her body cried out for her to run, but she couldn’t. There was no escaping that hateful sound.

Even as the howl faded, she remained in the same spot, huddled quite still, barely breathing, the vibrations still ringing in her ears, nerves and bones. She heard a rush of heavy wing beats overhead, and numbly watched as huge forms took to the air, powerful wings stretched wide and tail lashing.

There were three serpentine beasts wheeling around, one mottled black, the other reddish gold and the other strangely split between smoky-gray and bronze. They seemed to be at play for they soared and tumbled like long-tailed stunt kites, their scales shimmering in iridescent colors under the pale moonlight.

"I guess they just got a slap on the wrist," Kes muttered weakly.

A hiss, as if from an immense bonfire, cut through her half-conscious thoughts like a razor. The great silver and grey Sire ascended with a thunderous clap of wings and the smaller dragons immediately scattered in three separate directions. The dragon seemed to pause over her hiding place, but much to her relief dwindled to a dark silhouette before disappearing behind a cloud.

For several minutes there was silence, then Kes heard the sound of numerous fluttering wings. Silence again, followed by soft murmuring and the rustling of branches being brushed aside.

“Huh?” Kes sat up. Her eyes opened wide as she realized suddenly she wasn’t alone. For a moment, she looked about in panic.

A large crowd hemmed her in on all sides, looking down with strange, unnerving faces. Some of them wore beaked masks. Their robes, legging, hats, and gloves were all made of black leather.

Kes wondered how a large crowd could possibly fit inside such a small thicket and where exactly did all these eccentrically-dressed people come from. She could make out individuals--at least among the unmasked figures. There was a short, stocky Dwarf woman with brown wavy hair, a chunky goblin boy with straw-like hair, a thin, blonde half-elf girl with a pretty freckled face, and a troll-witch woman with bright red hair and a hairy wart on her pointy chin. They were all dressed in old-fashioned clothes ranging from Medieval to Victorian to Edwardian.

Kes swallowed and bit her lip, not liking these strange, silent figures in musty-looking costumes.

Someone asked hollowly, “Is she dead?”

And then someone else replied, “No, quite the opposite.”

Then a third person spoke up. “She has a very long life ahead of her, unlike the other one.”

“What other one?” Kes looked widely around. “Who are you people?”

Suddenly she felt soaking wet and ice-cold and began to lose consciousness. Just before passing into darkness, she noticed there was now a dense circle of birds around her--ravens, crows, jays, black birds, magpies, starlings, rooks, jackdaws, herons and egrets.

She woke to various concerned faces hovering overhead and with cold water dripping from her head.

Megaera’s form suddenly came into view, one gloved hand clutching a small bottle with a yellow tag. She peered down at Kes, and then scowled at the now embarrassed cenobite goth holding a pitcher once filled with iced tea.

“You didn’t have to do that!” she huffed. “I just got the damned smelling salts!”

(1) Terrapin Junction, Zelmak District of Hogan’s Gap 11:23 P.M.

Grandma Esme’ pored over the scrap of paper she had found stuffed in the flower vase. After a while, she made a hmm sound. “Read this.” She held the paper out for the girls to see.

Kiki grabbed it before Tullugaq had a chance a look.

“Hey!” Tullugaq yelled in annoyance. “For all we know that could be a demon in disguise!”

“Yeah, right,” Kiki replied, rolling her eyes. She stared at the note for a moment, clearly puzzled. Never wanting to admit defeat, she began to read it aloud even though the meaning escaped her. “En France, les... chats... atta-quent... les... oi-seaux,... patte... nid??”

Grandma Esme’ nodded. “En France, les chats attaquent les oiseaux, patte nid?” She eyed the note that Kiki was now holding. “My French teacher back in middle school was a lifelong fan of puns and would give us examples of various jokes and clever wordplay. One of those happened to be that particular phrase.”

“So that thing’s a pun?” Tullugaq asked. “What does it mean exactly?”

“Well, it means, ‘In France, cats attack birds, nest paw?’”

“Nest, paw, ehh?” Tullugaq frowned as she stared at the note Kiki was holding. “Who do you think wrote that?”

Grandma Esme’ shrugged. “Presumably, by the same person (if you can it a person) who tidied up the mess and took away the tome and looking glass.”

Kiki stared wide-eyed at the note for a minute. Then she quickly dropped it like it was something really disgusting.

A minute of silence followed. Then Tullugaq, her voice barely above a whisper, asked, “You don’t think that ‘person’ might come back, do you?”

“Or...or is still hiding around here somewhere?” Kiki added nervously, grasping her sister by the arm.

Again there was silence in the living room as the three Churckas glanced uneasily around.

“I don’t know,” Grandma Esme’ finally said, having made up her mind. “But I mean to find out.”

She then reached into the Morathes chest and brought out one of the top-like devices. Giving its string a yank, she sent it whirling across the floor.

Chapter 13--A Restless Night

(1) Terrapin Junction, Zelmak District of Hogan’s Gap 12:00 A. M.

Ann Mcclaren lay awake in the darkness in one of the fourth-floor bedrooms with the high narrow lattice windows. Her parents had let her chose it herself since she was now fifteen. The reason she wanted it was because its huge arched windows faced out over the massive courtyard with its numerous topiary hedges, flower beds and flagstone paths. Ten-year-old Dylan and twelve-year-old Gerry were further down the hall in their own bedroom (much to her relief) while right next door slept her parents.

Minutes slowly ticked by. It was now half past midnight, but Ann was far too giddy and restless to sleep. It had been an exciting and wonderful evening. The Faire Folk had served them dinner in a huge dining room adorned with wreaths and flower garlands, corn dollies and silk and gold sun symbols. Ann was amazed how delicious the food was--shish kebab and stir fry, curried meat and seafood, salad greens, cheese, pumpernickel and pumpkin bread, and fresh fruit, lemonade and ginger ale

Afterwards, they visited the various festivals in town until close to midnight, listening to all the great music artists, talking to the various costumed revelers, walking around the many bonfires, watching as the many Faerie and Yokai Folk joined in the festivities. Even Yukiko O’Breen was there, moonlight and stage lighting glittering on his snow-white skin and crazy, teased-up hair. The huge crowd around the makeshift wooden stage whooped and cheered to Mauve Vagrant’s incredible rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”

As the roar of applause died down, and guitars throbbed and drums clicked, Ann’s mom waved her arms as she sang along with the lyrics. For a long time, Ann lay awake in the darkness, straining to catch the musical sounds of the Festival. There was only quiet and she thought back to the sight of her mother joining in the celebration. It was really nice to finally see Mom as her easy-going self once again, and not fretting about the work still in progress at their new place or whether or not the darkness that had once enveloped all their lives back in Curtisville would suddenly pull up stakes and follow them here.

Ann shivered as she recalled every crystal-clear minute of that disorienting move--Mom ushering them right out the back door in the middle of the night to the waiting, already-packed car. Mom had scooped up Watson, their scruffy Persian-mix, in a blanket so he wouldn’t run. Their only dog, a mongrel Airedale named Sherlock, was already deceased, having passed quite mysteriously two months before summer break.

“An aneurysm,” the vet who conducted the necropsy informed them (which didn’t make any sense since Sherlock was an absolutely healthy five-year-old, and only hours before was running around the local dog park having a blast).

“I just don’t understand it,” said Mom incredulously. “He just had a check-up last week, perfectly fine.”

“Well, he must have been sick,” said Dad awkwardly, “because he reacted badly towards Lolly. Dogs don’t just suddenly develop deep hatred for someone in such a short period of time.”

Ann bit her lip as they recited a sun prayer over the grave and added a bouquet of flowers. No, dad, you’re wrong, she thought as she fought back tears. Sherlock didn’t die due to some brain defect. He died because he was cursed, because he knew something was not quite right about the Lil’ Orphan Catskill Cousin.

The very same reason why the normally friendly cat soon deserted the bright roomy den to huddle in the musty confines of the garage, the same reason why six months earlier, Ann’s aunt and uncle died in that mysterious house fire, and why nine kids simultaneously came down with appendicitis shortly before the Thanksgiving Holiday, ending with Lyra Bisbee not making it through surgery, and why Lolly seemed to drain the energy from people, growing more plump and cheerful while everyone else slowly slid into fatigue, depression and lower cognitive abilities.

Funny, she thought, how it took a series of disasters and near-tragedies in order for the rest of the family to open their dream-misted eyes and see Lolly for what she really is--a lying, hateful sneak-thief and murderous witch.

From the moonlit stillness outside, an owl hooted a couple times, while in the surrounding fields came the gentle chirping of night crickets.

Suddenly she felt a surge of fury race through her. And yet what does that freak get for causing all that pain and heartache? The teen’s grim musing continued. A one-way trip back to New York State? A permanent vacation tending the flower gardens and shrubs at Wyndale Sanitarium? No... instead that lil’ bug-eyed plague rat gets a year in juvie, followed by hours of community service and therapist visits twice a week. Still living with us, I’m afraid, because Mom and Dad still care too damn much to throw her out on her arse. But what’s the point of caring for this supposed ‘human’ who is actually lower than a human or even a deer tick? Waste of precious time, money and resources, that’s what! Tens of thousands of dollars a year, all of it out of our own pockets... to be her jailers/zoo keepers. That is... until she turns twenty-one and gets that big inheritance money that Uncle Fritz and Aunt Marie left her.

For a moment, she stared up at the darkened ceiling. Then she sat bolt upright in bed as the realization set in. Wait...What the hell was I thinking just now? We never had an Uncle Fritz and Marie!

Ann’s eyes almost popped out of her head as more memories came flooding back. The visions of a bald-headed, prune-faced man and an equally-disagreeable blonde woman were replaced by a cheerful, bear-like man with a bushy beard and a big, hearty, smiling lady with apple cheeks and a freckled tan. What the freak? She shook her head, bewildered. My aunt and uncle’s names are Gerald and Lisette; they’re neither rich nor dead. They’re all alive and well and living in a hippy commune in Eugene Oregon!

From far away came the faint keening sounds of sirens. She listened, blinking against the heavy blackness that surrounded the bed. The sounds soon faded, and silence crept back once more. "Wyndale Sanitarium?" she said aloud. "Why did I ever think of that name? Lolly’s locked up at the Sempervirens Facility down in Union Town. She’s heavily medicated and stuffed in a straitjacket. No freakin’ way is she getting out! It was...it was like there was someone else thinking right through me!"

(2) Excerpt from Tullugaq’s Journal 6/20/3273

The Morathe- thinga-ma-jigger sure did its job well, spinning around like a psychedelic tornado on steroids and sucking up all the dust bunnies, cobwebs and other crap in long swirling clouds. And then when it was all done, it simply shut off the flashy disco light show and hopped back into its box to join the rest of its slumbering chums. Felina, during all this, simply curled up on the sofa and promptly fell asleep. We, however, didn’t sit down nor go back to sleep; we thought it was much safer standing and keeping watch. If something did happen, we’d be able to get away quicker.

We heard a few coaches and lorries pass by, and then a dog barking in the distance. But nothing scary happened... other than Henry letting out this big loud fart. Okay, my dog Kuma farts a lot!! Lol. But at least she doesn’t make this pure death stench like Grandma’s dog. I mean it was real, real bad!! But it was so funny too and it helped us get over much of our jitteriness. So after we were done laughing and opening some of the windows, we got something to refreshing to drink.

“Anyone care for a cup of cocoa?” said Grandma.

“I’ll have one,” said Kiki.

“Sure,” I said. “Why not?”

So we each had a cup of cocoa and at twelve we had another look around. We found nothing, of course. The monster, elder thing, whatever it was, had already gone and what demonic residue it left behind was already vaccuumed up by the Morathe.

I pretty much told them everything, well... except for the part where I tried conjuring up some treasure. I didn’t want them finding out that I used the book out of my own free will. As was expected, Grandma was rather upset over the whole thing--not so much over me for accidently buying cursed goods, but for not informing her as soon as the weird smerge started.

Kiki couldn’t help but feel a twinge of guilt for her part in this trouble. After all, she was the one who first made the very big mistake: finding out how that hocus-pocus book and mirror worked.

“Am I in trouble too?” she asked timidly.

Grandma shook her head. “No, dear,” she said gently. “You’re not in trouble.”

“Is Tullugaq going to have to go to reform school?”

I groaned loudly, rolling my eyes. Trust Kiki to bring up a sensible topic at a time like this.

“No,” Grandma replied, “because it wasn’t her fault to begin with. Anyway, everyone seems okay here, so whatever it was is gone and so is that book and mirror.”

“Or maybe it hasn’t left,” said Kiki, looking doubtful. “Maybe it’s hiding somewhere in this very room, waiting for us to go back to sleep. Tullugaq said it was like mist, so it’s probably hiding in someplace small like an inkwell or a pickle jar.”

Grandma shook her head, “No, I think it’s gone for good, and it took those antiques along with it. I say good riddance!”

“Yeah,” Kiki grumbled. “Wretched book and mirror. Nothing but danger and trouble.”

“Uhh... yeah,” I meekly agreed.

“Let’s go somewhere else to sleep,” begged Kiki. “Somewhere nice and safe with no monsters or ghosts.”

“Great idea,” Grandma agreed.

So after we collected some blankets and pillows, and settled down at a comfortable tree house for some long overdue sleep.


Ann Mcclaren huddled up against the headboard of her bed, the blankets pulled around her head. Gods, I must be losing my mind, although I’m probably not the only one. Living with Lolly or whatever-the-hell-her-name-is would certainly do that to you. I wonder why she kept calling me ‘Sylvia?’ Hell! She almost got me believing that I was someone else--that I played the violin and had a twin brother named Thomas who played soccer. That I even had a Siamese kitten named Jasmine when I was smaller...a kitten that ended up...

She felt her eyes suddenly filling up with tears.

“Witch!” Angrily she brushed her eyes. “Witch! Messing with our lives like it was one big puppet show! I hope that weeb bitch rots in that cell at Sempervirens!”

She shook her head back and forth. “I got to talk to someone, I got to talk to someone about all this psychic crap that keeps happening.” Wet with sweat, she fumbled around and switched on the bedside light. Grabbing her cell phone, she flipped it open and shakily dialed the numbers. She was greeted by a static crackling and hisses of white noise. Crap! Ann cursed to herself. Crappity crappity crap! Magical interference. Should have known this was going to happen. She sighed. Now I got to use that phone in the main suite.


Beyond the high stone wall that surrounded the Bartelzoff Arms Hotel, in the deepest part of the woods, the sounds came, as of someone in great mental anguish or pain. They eventually came within earshot of one of the guest musicians lounging on one of the fifth floor verandahs.

The tall goblin, Reuben, took the small cob pipe from his mouth, and cocked a pointy green ear. “Shh! Yer 'ear that?”

“Wot?” asked his shorter, blue-haired companion called Neff.

“Listen.” It soon came again, the unmistakable, high-pitched squeals of distress. “Over there, towards the river.” He pointed with his pipe.

Neff squinted in the direction indicated. Now he could hear it too, shrill cries as well as branches thrashing. “Sounds ter me like a Guvnor Todd or Guvnor Stoat 'as caught 'imself a long-ears.”

Reuben was now gripping the balcony, his fiery-red hair standing straight on end. “Sounds orfully large ter be a rabbit. Wouldn’t fink a wee bunny would make so much of a racket.” A note of fear crept into his voice. “Or makin' sobs and pleads like a condemned man.”

Neff shrugged. He adjusted his striped, tasseled party hat. “Yer’d be surprised at the bleedin' sounds a trapped rabbit makes--like a baby squeakin', cryin' and screechin' like a banshee. Not a right pleasant noise.”

“I tell yer it sounds more like a kid.” Reuben looked back at him, a paler shade of green. “Maybe a gel even.”

His roommate nodded as he scratched his pug nose. They stood still and listened carefully, but heard nothing.

“Well, it’s gone now,” said Neff mildly. “Yer’re just spookin' yorself, man. It’s just an animal finally meetin' its maker, nuffink at all ter worry about. Just nature's way of weedin' out the bleedin' weak or the sick.”

Reuben nodded. “Yeah, I guess yer’re right.” He threw one last nervous glance over his shoulder before following his fellow rocker back into their suite.

“Any road, so it’s late,” Neff yawned. “We got an early mornin' gig tomorrow at The Ziegler. Right. Time ter hit the sack and 'ave some pleasant dreams for a change.”

“Yeah,” Reuben muttered. “Pleasant dreams...right.”

Chapter 14--What Little Remains

(1) Terrapin Junction, Zelmak District of Hogan’s Gap 12:56 A.M.

Tiptoeing down the hall to the main suite, Ann carefully unhooked the decorative receiver from its delicate cut-crystal and brass base. Pressing it tight against her ear, she dialed 0.

“Good evening,” said a nasal female voice. “This is Miss Rose, your Zelmak City operator. How may I help you?”

“Yes,” Ann whispered, “I’m trying to reach someone named Ellery Wilcox. She’s staying at the Golden Onion Inn. I don’t know the number of the place, just the address--507 Ziiwi Avenue.”

“One moment, please,” the operator said in a parrot-like voice. “I shall contact information.”

Ann waited nervously as she listened to the weird clicks and buzzes signifying a possible connection. A second voice came on, sounding equally parrot-like. As the two operators conversed, Ann suddenly imagined a vintage switchboard being operated by large macaws wearing period dresses, microphones and headsets. Then she heard a faint ringing of a phone and waited tensely.

“Hello?” a woman spoke irritably. “Hello? Who is this?”

“Hello,” Ann stuttered, trying to control her chattering teeth. “I’m Ann McCleary (No way in hell was she giving her real last name, not after Lolly dragged it through the mud for so long). Ellery was one of my classmates at CMS.”

“Well, hello, Ann.” The woman now sounded a trifle less irritated. “How are you doing?”

“Uh...okay,” Ann swallowed nervously. “Could... could I speak to Ellery, please?”

“Well, I’m afraid that’s going to have to wait till tomorrow,” the woman said finally. “She’s asleep now, and it’s too late to be calling her anyway.”

“I know,” Ann blushed and spoke hurriedly. “Sorry. I’m just really worried about her. I heard there had been a terrible accident a week ago... a bunch of kids getting in a wreck.”

“Well, yes, it was a wreck,” the woman told her, “but they just witnessed it. My daughter was with a group of friends and they were crossing the main avenue in order to get to the video store. Well, they had just made it across, and there was this lorry coming with this load of amphibious sucker stink-fish...”

“What?” said Ann, startled.

“Amphibious sucker stink-fish,” the woman explained. “It’s a type of Faerie fish, very popular in human-world aquariums, although personally, I wouldn’t want one in my fish tank.”

“Oh, why is that?” Ann asked blankly.

“Well, like what their name describes,” the woman continued, “they basically stink. It’s a defense mechanism. When they get frightened, they evacuate their bowels, making a horrid, gunky, stinky mess.”

“And this lorry truck lost control and spilled its load, coating everyone with stinky fish poop?”

“Yes, it was terrible,” the woman replied. “Everyone had to go to the hospital due to a severe allergic reaction on account of the crud. Faire Folk aren’t susceptible to the effects, but it causes really nasty hives in humans and some Yokai Folk.”

“Wow!” Ann exclaimed. “Well, I hope everyone’s okay now.”

“Yes, well, the good news is Ellery and all her friends are fine,” the woman said immediately. “They just got released yesterday... though I can’t say the same about the driver, still in hospital, or about that girl that caused the whole mess in the first place.”

“What--” Ann stammered. “What girl?”

There was a long pause, and when the woman spoke again, it was bitter and full of contempt. “Oh, it was a girl that was a real troublemaker,” she said. “One of those creepy, clingy, socially awkward types- actually made middle school utterly unbearable for my daughter and her friends. Followed them everywhere they went, trying to be their best friend, and when that didn’t work, she then resorted to threats of blackmail and black magic spells. Did you know she even snuck a Ouija board into the crawlspace of our house? I learned much later it was actually a stolen Faerie artifact, capable of great damage at close proximity. You probably heard of what had happened to those nine kids three years earlier.”

“Yes,” Ann mumbled. “I was there on that day. I saw it happen.”

“It’s like being in a horror movie,” the woman grumbled, “clueless modern family unwittingly moves into a new house that’s possibly haunted... only it’s not some deformed killer or demonic boogeyman doing the haunting... but a kid... a crazy idiot kid!”

“How did you find out?” Ann asked nervously.

“An exterminator found the place where that crazy was hiding and practicing the Craft,” the woman replied shortly. “Ellery had started sleeping on the couch because of the strange smells and noises she kept hearing in her closet. Me and Paul thought it was rats or raccoons at first, something that took refuge during those big November storms. Anyway, to make a long story short, we ended up hiring an exterminator who found this hidden crawlspace inside the closet. And when he eventually found that board along with those demonic symbols on the wall as well as these half-melted candles, we then realized that the problem was far more bigger than a mere wildlife problem. Crap! That damned freakin’ pillock could have started a bloody fire and killed everybody!”

“That’s awful,” said Ann awkwardly. “What happened to the board?”

“The police have it now,” the woman murmured, “as well as the other hex things that repulsive brat snuck into other people’s houses. Real scary stuff of the Otherworld variety not some cheap, hippy knock-off you can get off the Internet. And then there was the spree of things going missing, first at the school then around the neighborhood. Even the houses with watch-dogs and high-tech security devices got targeted, lots of expensive stuff taken and not a speck of evidence. If it wasn’t witchcraft that was she using to spirit away the things, then she was working for some really sophisticated group of cat burglars like you see in movies like Ocean’s Eleven.”

“So how’d she get caught?” Ann asked, feeling a little guilty about the deception.

“Well, from what I heard, the family she was staying with finally got suspicious of how she was able to afford all her massive amounts of anime junk. She even bought a pedigree dog--a pug. Her excuse for that was it was to make them feel better after the dog they had suddenly succumbed to some illness."

Yes, I remember the pug, Ann thought grimly. I liked it, so long as it kept its distance. Even though it had a friendly personality and it loved just about everyone. (With the exception of Lolly; it didn’t seem happy around her) I never liked it. I did not ever want to touch it because, unlike Sherlock, it didn’t seem like a real dog, more like something cooked up in a mad scientist’s laboratory--a wrinkly, obese alien thing with bulgy eyes and a short, pushed-in face. It needed constant attention just like Lolly. We didn’t shed many tears when she finally left with Puggle, although she called it something else more ridiculous.

"However, she wouldn’t say if she had any help with her crime spree,” the woman went on. “Personally, I think she had. Some people were saying they were even elves; how else they were getting in and out without leaving a trace? I heard we got a lot elf smugglers around here, from the High Elf side of the family. Lot of degenerates due to royal inbreeding, I hear.”

“Mmmm... That’s rather interesting,” Ann mused. “That makes kinda makes sense and would explain a lot.” Then changing the subject, she said, “I heard she was actually an orphan, that she lost her family rather tragically?”

“Well, from what I heard, they all died, got burnt up in a fire while she was attending boarding school. Parents never left her a single cent, which makes you wonder. Went through two other foster homes before she ended up in the Wilds of Humboldt County. Really felt sorry for the Mcclarens...”

“Really?” Ann interrupted surprised. “You don’t blame them at all for all the mess that their adopted daughter did? Including attempted murder for cutting the brake lines on Yukiko’s tour bus?”

“No, no, of course not!” the woman exclaimed. “Thank gods that bus went into that ditch before coming to that steep drop off. No, I don’t blame the Mcclarens at all. At least they tried so hard trying to instill some discipline and human decency in that crap-sack of moral decrepitude. Oh, they tried but it was to no avail. She was already lost to the Abyss, and after she ended up in Juvie, they just up and moved away suddenly in the middle of the night.”

In the background, Ann heard a male voice mutter drowsily, “Annette, is this really necessary that you tell her everything? She can just go down to the local library or look it up on the Web.”

“I know, Paul,” the woman whispered, “but it’s really important that she knows about these important current events. I mean, who knows what sort of neighbors could be moving in next door? They could be serial ax murderers, or worse, Scientologists!”

“Well, can you at least hurry it up?” came the grumbled response. “It’s really late.”

“Uh...Mrs. Wilcox,” Ann asked hesitantly. “Do you know if that Lolly girl used some witchcraft device in order to cause the lorry accident? Maybe something to cause the driver to lose control and crash into those kids?”

“No, it’s was just an unfortunate accident caused by human error and simple stupidity,” was the reply. “She wasn’t practicing witchcraft anymore since the police confiscated all her equipment, plus that Seventh Day Adventist group that made her their pet charity case didn’t allow for that sort of thing. Had to attend their school ever since she got kicked out of her regular one, but that didn’t stop her from hounding her former classmates...even to high school.”

“So what happened exactly?”

“I was just getting to that--they had just started summer break and to celebrate decided to go rent some movies. Well, they reached the other side of the intersection, and the lorry was making a left turn. Then all of sudden, Lorry darted out into the middle of the crosswalk. The driver braked, and then tried swerving but he ended up hitting her and then upsetting his load as he skidded into a tree.”

“So she’s dead?” said Ann softly. Thank the gods for that. Now we don’t have to worry about her trying to find us.

“Yes, dragged along with the lorry, then buried under so much wreckage and what have you, ” Mrs. Wilcox confided. “Really awful way to go, and to have no friends nor relatives to see to the funeral arrangements.”

“Yes--really tragic,” returned Ann gravely. But the somberness in her voice was not reflected in her eyes.

“Ann, I’m going to have to hang up now,” said Mrs. Wilcox abruptly. “I’ll tell Ellery you’ve just called, but before I go, I need to warn you about something.”

“Warn me?” Ann asked, baffled. “About what?”

“Now, I wouldn’t have believed all those strange rumors myself,” said Mrs. Wilcox hesitantly, “not until I looked up more about this particular fish on the Web.”

There was a long pause. “And?” Ann prompted.

“Well, seeing as it’s a Faerie fish, its excrement naturally has magical compounds,” Mrs. Wilcox continued haltingly. “It’s used as a powerful perfume fixative as well as antibacterial dyes, pollutant traps for sewage treatment plants, and creating furniture and super-strong silk-like fabrics. However, in its unrefined state, it has the ability to bring the recent dead back to life. ”

There was an even longer pause.

“Hello... Ann? Are you still there?”

“So my friends are eventually going to turn into ravenous flesh-eating zombies?” Ann finally asked, now thoroughly alarmed.

“No, fortunately, it doesn’t affect the living, only the recent dead. The 'zombie' in question will still have full recollection of their lives as well as free will. They might not even realize that they’re even dead. However, this ‘raw byproduct’ of sucker stink-fish doesn’t restore complete life functions so they will gradually become, uh...a 'necrotic aberration' of their former self.”

“You mean--!” Ann stared at the phone. “That she--” A chill swept over her as the awful realization sank in. “You don’t mean--she's going to--?”

“Not right away,” came the reply. “Hopefully, the coroners would have prevented that by washing the body, and anyway, it takes a lot of that stuff in order for reanimation to take effect. But if I were you, I would bolt the windows and lock the doors, and should you hear a familiar voice pleading to come in, ignore it.”

(2) 1:30 A.M.

The moon slid briefly behind a cloud, and in the rear of the Bartelzoff Arms, something rustled and shook the juniper bushes growing thickly near the barred cellar windows. The watchmen patrolling the grounds failed to notice the small, stealthy movements in the topiary as one of the cellar windows was being forced open. Bars highly eroded by rust bent easily under the pressure of thick, pudgy fingers which for years had traced crude pictures from various anime magazines, adjusted many a tacky wig and committed various felonious acts that would have earned their owner a lengthy prison sentence had it not been for her juvenile status.

Finally, when the opening was wide enough to accommodate their chubbiness, the hands slowly squeezed through and lightly dropped to the dusty stone floor. The sky outside the window lightened as the moon reappeared behind the ragged edges of the cloud. It soon flooded the interior with soft silvery rays, revealing nothing above the hands, just ragged, torn, dripping stumps.

(3) 3:45 A. M.

Someone seemed to be in trouble.‭ ‬Arthur Gerhardt, First Class Professor in magic and spells, could hear the faint cries coming through the blankets surrounding his balding head. ‭“‬Gerhardt‭! ‬Wake up quick‭! ‬I need help‭!”

“Mmmnn,‭” t‬he old elf said as he crawled further under the covers. There was a hammering coming from somewhere,‭ ‬loud and urgent.‭ ‬Arthur’s first impression was that there was a donkey stamping and braying in the hall‭, ‬and then he discarded the thought as simply ridiculous,‭ ‬and that it had to be something terrible like fire,‭ ‬or an earthquake,‭ ‬or else a plague of demons.‭ ‬Then it began to dawn on him that there was a maniac knocking on the walls and doors with a crowbar.

‭“‬Ah,‭ ‬you bloody idiot,‭” ‬Arthur muttered to himself as he pulled the covers up over his head.‭ ‬He lay there with his eyes screwed tight,‭ ‬waiting for the police to come and collar the freak. There was complete silence.‭

Well,‭ ‬that was quick,‭ ‬Arthur thought.‭ ‬Not at all like the police to come so quickly‭; ‬must have been the hotel detective. No sooner did he poke his head out then the noise started all over. “‬Ahh great,‭ ‬not again.‭”

Now the nutter was knocking with what sounded to him like a sledgehammer. ‭“‬Gerhardt,‭ ‬pleeeese‭!‬ Are you there‭? ‬Let me in,‭ ‬quick‭!”

Groggily,‭ ‬Arthur sat up and rubbed his eyes.‭ ‬Slowly it dawned upon him that the raving lunatic banging at the door was none other than his ghoulish colleague and often-times rival, Wilkie Grierson .

‭“‬Get up,‭ ‬you bony old goat‭! ‬It’s after me‭!”

“What‭!” ‬Arthur sprang his shriveled frame out of the bed.‭ “‬Who does‭ ‬he‭ ‬think he‭ ‬is‭ ‬calling‭ ‬me a‭ ‘‬bony old goat‭?’”

“Hurry, Gerhardt,‭ ‬it’s coming‭!”

“I’m coming,‭ ‬I’m coming‭!” ‬Arthur sung out.‭ Thrusting‬ on his carpet slippers, he muttered to himself,‭ “‬What’s that dunder-head trying to do‭? ‬Rouse the whole hotel‭?”

“Please, Gerhardt‭!” ‬Wilkie whimpered.‭ “‬Help me.‭ ‬Please help me.‭” ‭

The door rocked on its hinges.

"Alright,‭ ‬I will‭!” ‬Arthur shouted irritably as he stormed to the door.‭ “‬Just hold your horses‭!”

Throwing open the door,‭ ‬Arthur found a pale and shaking Wilkie in his nightshirt,‭ ‬wringing his purple-striped nightcap.

‭“‬Here‭! ‬What’s all this about‭!” ‬Arthur demanded.

“There’s a damn ghost after me! That’s what!” the ghoul gibbered, his short red hair and whiskery mustache bristling on end.

‭“‬Well,‭ ‬I’m not surprised,‭” ‬said Arthur indignantly.‭ “‬This old hotel happens to have a history of hauntings.‭ ‬You must have annoyed one of the permanent guests.‭” ‬He eyed the door critically.‭ “‬At least you didn’t damage any of the woodwork.‭ ‬I… Hey… Leggo‭!”

Wilkie grabbed the lapels of Arthur’s pajamas and shook him until his gold teeth rattled. ‭“‬It chased me right out of bed and out of my room,‭” ‬he said reproachfully.‭ “‬You took a bloody long time answering the Glazarotsnatz door‭! ‬That wretched blighter pinched me on my face and bum‭; ‬I’ll be lucky if I don’t develop bruises by next morning‭!”

“Leggo of me‭!” ‬Arthur squeaked,‭ ‬struggling to free himself from the grasp of the panic-stricken Ghoul.‭ ‬There was a sound of tearing fabric.‭ “‬Ahh,‭ ‬look at my shirt‭!” ‬he said disgustedly.‭ ‬He glared up at Wilkie.‭ “‬Pure Virian silk it was until you grabbed hold of it‭! ‬You should get those daggers of yours trimmed or else wear gloves‭!”

“To Draumgurgle with your shirt‭!” ‬said Wilkie belligerently.‭ “‬What about my goodnight sleep‭?”

“What about my goodnight sleep‭?” ‬retorted Arthur‭ ‬despairingly.‭ “‬What about‭ ‬the other guests’ goodnight sleeps‭?” ‬He gestured across the hall to where a number of doors had their peepholes opened.‭ “‬You’ve gone and woken everyone up with your hysteria over a mischievous little spook.‭”

“Mischievous‭?” ‬said Wilkie,‭ ‬bristling indignantly.‭ “‬It attacked me‭!”

“So go sprinkle it with some of Snarvo’s Special Spirit Repellant,‭” ‬Arthur suggested,‭ “‬chant a few protective spells,‭ ‬and call me when you have completely collected your senses.‭” ‬He stepped back into his room.‭ “‬Just don’t come running back to me for help.‭”

Before Arthur could close the door,‭ ‬Wilkie scrambled across the threshold,‭ ‬shoving him aside. ‭“‬Oh no‭!” ‬Wilkie yelped as he slammed the door shut.‭ “‬You’re not leaving me out there‭! ‬There’s a Hand-of-Glory after me‭!”

“Hey,‭ ‬I paid for this suite out of me own pocketbook,‭ ‬and I have no intention of sharing it with…Hand-of-Glory‭?” ‬Arthur looked at him blankly.‭ “‬What Hand-of-Glory‭?’

“That thing that attacked me‭!”

Arthur regarded him skeptically.‭ “‬Don’t be absurd.‭ ‬It takes the right hand of a gibbeted criminal to make such a device,‭ ‬and anyway,‭ ‬gibbeting went out of fashion centuries ago.‭”

“Still it could be done,‭” ‬Wilkie pointed out,‭ “‬and who said it had to come from someone who’s been hung‭?”

“What do you mean‭?” ‬asked Arthur.‭ “‬What did it look like‭?”

“Stubby,‭ ‬pink,‭ ‬and plump,‭” ‬Wilkie answered,‭ ‬glancing around uneasily,‭ “‬like a little kid’s hand.‭”

“Little kid’s hand,‭ ‬huh‭?”

‭“Yeah,‭ ‬that’s right.‭ ‬Disembodied but smooth all over except for the wrist part which had a ragged cut.” The ghoul shuddered. Who would do that to a kid?‭ “‬The ghastly thing was toying with the blankets when I woke up. Smelt pungent despite its rather healthy appearance. Personally, if you ask me, I like my carrion to be a little lively. ‭”

“Gee,‭ ‬that’s weird,‭” ‬muttered Arthur,‭ ‬not sure what to make of Wilkie’s story.‭ “‬The ones I’m familiar with are large,‭ ‬shriveled,‭ ‬and grotty-looking.‭ ‬This sounds more like a ghost to me.‭”

“Or a sending,‭” ‬Wilkie suggested,‭ ‬glancing nervously around the room.

‭“‬Don’t be bloody ridiculous,‭” ‬said Arthur scornfully.‭ “‬You got yourself a ghost.‭ ‬Who’d send you a sending in the first place? You haven’t offended anybody.‭” ‬He gave Wilkie a curious look.‭ “‬At least I don’t think you’ve offended anybody,‭” ‬he went on.‭ “‬You haven’t by any chance tore apart a Chic Charney’s‭* ‬nest‭?”

“Ahh,‭ ‬get real,‭ ‬Gerhardt‭!” ‬Wilkie snarled.‭ “‬We all know who’s to blame for all this‭!”

“We do‭?”

“Of course,‭ ‬it was that Niamth A.K.A. Fire Witch Woman‭!”

“Oh,‭ ‬Her,‭” ‬said Arthur,‭ ‬feeling a bit ill.

‭“‬Oh,‭ ‬yes,‭ ‘‬Her,‭’” ‬said Wilkie,‭ ‬scowling ferociously.‭ “‬The one who nearly swallowed you back in Octopus Bay when you were buzzing about as a bothersome horsefly‭…”

“Must you remind me of that?‭” ‬said Arthur acidly.‭ “‬Anyway,‭ ‬what’s she got against you‭? ‬You only met her for like a few minutes.‭”

“I saw her true face in those few harrowing minutes,‭” ‬Wilkie replied.‭ “‬So I suppose she’s after me because of that‭.”

“Oh,‭ ‬come now,‭ ‬old chum,‭” ‬Arthur retorted.‭ “‬I think your imagination’s getting the better of you.‭ ‬I don’t think Niamth would draw attention to herself with a ghostly warning display.‭ ‬That would compromise her plans,‭ ‬for sure—whatever they may be.‭ ‬If you ask me,‭ ‬I think you just have a lively ghost in your room.‭”

“So what are we going to do about it‭?” ‬asked Wilkie irritably. ‭

“‬About Niamth or about the ghost hand in your room‭?” ‬queried Arthur.

‭“‬Both‭!” ‬Wilkie snapped.‭ “‬But right now,‭ ‬I’m more worried about the uninvited guest.‭”

“Oh,‭ ‬well,‭ ‬just take my advice and go sprinkle it with some spirit repellant,‭” ‬said Arthur casually.‭ “‬As for the slomgath situation,‭ ‬it could wait till tomorrow.‭” ‬He jerked a thumb over his shoulder.‭ “‬As for me,‭ ‬I’m going straight to bed.‭”

“WHAT‭?” ‬shouted Wilkie,‭ ‬as Arthur pushed him towards the door.‭ “‬You’re not going to help me‭? ‬You’re just going to hit the sack while your dear ole friend and colleague’s going to be murdered in his sleep by spectral proxy‭!”

“Oh, quit your worrying,‭ ‬dear boy,‭” ‬Arthur reassured him.‭ “‬Just follow my advice and you’ll soon have a peaceful night sleep‭; ‬I quite guarantee it.‭ ‬That Niamth would have to be pretty desperate to attempt something like that.‭” ‭

As soon as Wilkie disappeared completely from view down the hall, Arthur slammed the door, locking it tight.

Pah! All that fuss over a wee little ghost! ‭He sighed wearily as he crawled back into bed and switched off the light. Typical for Wilkie to make a great to-do over such a small matter.

‭Soon he found himself yawning, his eyes getting heavier. He hadn’t been fully asleep for several minutes when he heard a muffled rustling in the coverlet beside him. ‭Mouse, thought Arthur. Or perhaps even a rat. This old hotel’s full of them.

He would have paid it no mind had it not been for the sudden odor filling his nostrils--a mephitic scent tinged with the smell of moist earth and forest. ‭For one long moment, he laid there with wide fixed eyes, clamping his gold plated teeth tight until he tasted the iron of his bitten tongue. Then he slowly reached out behind him and fumbled about the bedclothes. His groping fingers soon closed around something, something soft, something cold and rubbery. It felt like--

‭Then something tightly clutched his wrist. ‭

Back in his room, Wilkie was having a hard time getting back to sleep. The current whereabouts of his ghostly roommate as well as the uneasy thoughts about Niamth’s intentions wore on his nerves. ‭Now, just when he was getting ready to doze off and drift into dreamland, there came that infuriating knocking. ‭

Thinking it was the spook returning, he snapped, “G’way, haunt someone else for a change!” ‭No reply came save for more persistent knocking. ‭Wilkie grew livid. “Can’t a person doze in peace around here?”

‭Bolting up, he stormed to the door and squinted through the peephole. He stepped back in startled surprise. Peering right back was a drawn and haggard, yet familiar face. He threw open the door. ‭“Arthur--?”

‭“Outta me way!” The elf barged past him, clutching a pillow and a couple of blankets. “I’m bunking with you tonight!”

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