Two Mooses went Walking out among the worlds. Two brothers went Walking to see what they could see. The two gentlemoose Walked together, tall, elegant Mooses with identical carriage, very straight and energetic, with identical high, upright antlers that would never scrape on a door frame, and identically knotted bow ties. They varied to the eye only in accoutrement and coloration.

The darker brother, one Mandrake by name, wore his shiny, neatly groomed fur in a warm, deep, brown color with faint ruddy tones in the right light. He decided early on that tan antlers best suited him. When out and about, he usually carried a cunningly crafted walking stick of his own design.

At first glance, it seemed to be no more than a highly polished, dark stained piece of hardwood. It had a reinforced, steel-capped bottom, a bulbously rounded head, and narrow, rose gold bands wrapped around the shaft at even intervals along the length. Each section of the stick between band and band held a surprise, some far in excess of what might be expected to fit in the space. For example, while the head held only a moose compass (If you knew everything a moose compass could do, you would obliviate the word ‘only’ in any context save the purely size oriented), the top, straight section below this always held a pleasant midday meal for the brothers and anyone else they might encounter along the way. On one memorable occasion, this included a perfectly roasted turkey with mashed yams, stuffing, a lightly dressed salad, a diverse cheese plate, three pies, and a well blended punch bowl all at the perfect temperature with appropriate serving and eating tableware in a second section with a truly awesome expanse of dark green picnic blanket to accommodate all the food and the diners, but even Mandrake will admit that was a rather stupendous effort. Usually, that first straight section of walking stick held sandwiches, a thermos of cold tea, and a munchy sort of extra, but that should be quite enough when pulled from a hollow eighth of a walking stick which could easily vanish inside the thermos or be hidden beneath a sandwich.

Mathias, with his dark sand colored fur and warm ivory antlers chose to carry a tightly furled umbrella of a design far less everyday amazing than his brother’s stick. The cover of dove grey fabric gently complimented the pale oak handle. The solid shaft hid no sword, but could turn a battle axe without a scratch or tear in the cover. When open, the umbrella deflected a rain of arrows or bullets as easily as water or snow and always opened just as large as it need to be, including forming a dome shaped tent to protect a small crowd when it started to rain not long after the aforementioned al fresco turkey dinner.

These two gentlemoose brothers strolled along a forested country lane through a mingling of farmland, woods, and village, ready for anything the new world might bring them.

“That was quite a fun time we had on leaving the Valley through the Path of Trials. The test designs are far sillier when taken from the wrong end,” Mandrake said, striking up a bit of conversation after a long, comfortable bit of silence. “How long do you estimate it will take us to get to the Vale of the Blue Moogs?”

“That entirely depends upon how long we take travelling there. The entire point of Walking, my dear brother, is to see who we might meet, learn about, and possibly assist upon the way. If we were just travelling from point A to point B, we might have travelled by cloud, or taken a slide, or flown in a balloon, rather than make the journey upon our own two to four pooves,” Mathias responded logically if not informatively.

“So they are not expecting us at any particular date, and we have time to take a few side jaunts,” Mandrake responded with a satisfied nod. “How about we visit that hill yonder. It looks to be an interesting blue color.” As he spoke Mandrake pointed at a tall hill rising beyond the forested area to the left of the brothers’ current path.

“That sounds like a splendid idea. If nothing else, the elevation should provide us with a pleasant view, possibly a cooling breeze, and a spot where we might pause to take a drop of tea and a sandwich or two,” Mathias suggested. While it was true that Mandrake generally carried their provisions, Mathias usually suggested their production. It is commonly suspected that if Mathias had full control of their comestibles, the two tall, elegant mooses might have been a bit rounder.

Mandrake rubbed an antler, removing a bit of paint left over from their visit with the Goof Balls, a very colorful and energetic race who inhabited the forest just beyond the Valley. “With this new goal in mind, I suggest we take the left fork in the road ahead. It seems to meander through the trees in the right direction. I  suspect the forest stretches right up to the foot of our new goal.”

“And it is the odd forest indeed, which lies under the sun, untenanted. We might find one of Dr. Drake’s great old trees or an enclave of Monsters, or a rabbit warren, or anything in there,” Mathias said his voice warmed by anticipation. “Maybe even a raspberry thicket.”

Mandrake began to hum softly and twirl his walking stick as he picked up the pace of their stroll. Mathias followed, smiling faintly as he thought of all the interesting things or peoples they might find under the trees at the foot of a blue hill.

The gentle curve of the left branch of the road seemed far less traveled. The road builders had used a technique often times often found in splashy worlds. The road bed had been grated flat, then a layer of rock packed down hard into the dirt. A second layer of crushed rock mixed with cement had been laid atop the larger packed down rocks to form a nice, durable road surface. Even so, grass grew through cracks in the country lane and the brush grew thick and wild along both sides.

Mandrake took in the details a they walked. “It seems that we are the first to travel this path in quite a long time. It is a perfect place for part of a Moose Walk.”

“In some ways yes, but in other ways no,” Mathias mused. “If no one comes this way anymore, we are less likely to find new friends. Then again, one never knows where an adventure might lurk.”

“Ah, very true brother, either way it is a fine day and a fine road for a pleasant walk,” said Mandrake. The two intrepid moosen journeyed down the trail for awhile in silence. During that time they passed several homes that looked once comfortable but then abandoned and fallen into disrepair. The desolation of time caused paint to peel and vegetation to grow up all around and, in some places, through the old homes.

Mandrake turned to his brother. “This lane must have been quite nice when these quaint homes were occupied and looked after.”

“There must have been a town here about where the inhabitants might find things they could not grow or fashion themselves. I wonder, is it further along this way, or would we have encountered it down the better traveled track?” Mathias mused aloud as they strolled.

“The ground is still fertile, and what damage we have seen seems entirely due to time. What could have forced these people to abandon their homes, do you think? Could it be something with which we might assist?” Mandrake paused to exchange glances with his brother as they both considered the situation and possibilities. “Should we continue our stroll in a leisurely fashion to enjoy this bright day, or make more purposeful strides that we might reach the end of this lane the sooner? I admit that I am in favor of the latter, if for no better reason than the satisfaction of curiosity.”

“A swifter pace for some space of time seems an admirable idea. Even if it brings us no great discoveries or revelations, it should help us work up a suitable appetite for our incipient repast,” Mathias replied, stretching his legs to suit his words with a pleasant smile curving his mouth. As Mathias did not increase his pace, just the length covered by his step, Mandrake easily caught up and soon they slipped beneath the boughs of the first trees of the wood.

Once under the thick canopy of the trees, the atmosphere of their environs changed in subtle but marked ways. Mandrake turned his head to peer deep into the trees, seeking anything out of place within their shadows. “Brother, do you not feel a certain amount of apprehension and hidden menace in the air, mixed with a sense of sorrow?”

“Not to mention a distinct chill that has little to do with walking now in shadow after bright sunlight. I believe adventure is certainly in the air. Some degree of caution is in order. If it would please you, I shall bend my senses to keeping aware of what might be on this side of our path, if you should care to keep aware of what may hap on the other.” Mathias bowed slightly at the waist as he made his proposal, without slowing his pace. Even though the sky had been perfectly clear when they could see it, Mathias absently uncovered his umbrella as he walked, though he left it furled.

Complying with his brother’s request, Mandrake pulled a set of spectacles out of one of the lower sections of his walking stick, and placed them upon his nose. “I shall endeavor to watch my side of the path. Together we may find an answer or at least a clue as to what causes this forest to feel so strange and foreboding.” The glasses were a present from his mentor Erl. While it may not have been necessary for the moose to use spectacles to sharpen his eyesight, Mandrake preferred the comfort of using the physical object as a focus. It kept his mind upon his surroundings rather than the effort he put into observing them.

The two moose brothers strolled deeper into the woods. Their way grew darker and colder with each stride. When Mandrake spoke again, his words sounded dull and unworldly, as if the shadows tried to eat the sound as soon as it passed his lips. “Mathias, I believe the answers we seek lies ahead of us along this track.”

“I should not be surprised. It is difficult to tell from its current condition, but it seems that once this weedy way once served as a well-travelled and well-maintained thoroughfare, connecting the abandoned houses we observed to the town we deduced. I believe I can detect additional abandoned abodes under the trees, with these dark, old-seeming trees growing right through them. Moreover, though I am not at all within Dr. Drake’s league when it comes to identifying flora, but I have not seen a single tree whose type I recognize since we entered their shadows, have you?”

“Not one. These trees seem unhealthy and twisted in some way I can not quite describe. See how the lichen grows not on one particular side, but covers the tree like a foul blanket. I am aware such things as lichen and moss have their places within any good ecology, yet these species seem quite destructive.”  With a poof Mandrake pointed at one particular large, twisted, ash-colored tree. “See there, Brother? The trunk is oozing, but I know of no tree sap that glows a sickly yellow. I fear fel powers are involved in whatever befell this place.”

“Your fears seem fully justified, if not reassuring. Fel powers are not precisely our forte.” Mathias sighed, but only for a moment, then he perked up. “Oh well, we can do naught but our best. If we find something we cannot unravel on our own, we can always call for reinforcements. Once we have saved the day, we can have a party. Perhaps we might even have cupcakes,” Mathias sounded much more cheerful with the last thought than the first.

The thought of cupcakes caused Mandrake to miss a stride, but he quickly recovered, falling back into step with his brother. “I am unsure, but did we bring any of the cupcakes made by Matroness Moosette? While many of the pastries from her bakery are superb, her cupcakes are truly the best. My tongue sings with the very thought and anticipation of such bounty.”

“Look in your stick. Our provisions reside in the top section, as you well know.” Mathias huffed slightly, “You always claim that if I carried them, they would either disappear long before we stopped to dine, or there would be such an abundance that we should grow too round to do much walking.”

“Brother, today I find myself in your usual mindset to such treats. Let us solve this mystery quickly, so that we may stop and have a proper lunchtime repast in a the warm sunshine. It would behoove us to aid whatever victims of this sinister plot exist. That way we will have enough people and cause to make a proper celebration,” Mandrake gazed back over the woods, before pointing slightly off to the left of their path ahead. “Correct me if I am in error, but is there a bit of dressed stone wall back there, Mathias?  See the raised line of ivy and moss stretching parallel to the road?”

Mathias shook his head, smiling at his brothers logic, then turned to look where his brother indicated. “I believe you are correct. Shall we venture forth to investigate?”

“I think we shall. The wall is the first definite structure besides the road that we have encountered,” Mandrake responded, unconsciously adjusting his spectacles on his nose. “The stone wall appears to be hand-built.”

As the moose brothers drew closer Mandrake moved off the path to investigate, “I am correct. Yet the growths upon it are most dire and confusing. Such growths of lichen and ivy upon a stone structure like this would take decades at a natural growth rate, yet the road upon which we journey is not near that overgrown.”

Mathias picked a careful path under the trees to where Mandrake stood quite close to the overgrown wall taller than they by a good measure. “It is almost as if the plant life is trying to eat the wall. I should like to bypass this barrier and see what is on the other side, but I am somewhat leery of touching those growths. Perhaps, if we were to explore a little further along we might find a gate.”

“I believe your idea is an excellent one, Brother,” responded Mandrake. “Shall we seek along the wall, or make our circuit at some little distance from its base?”

“What do you think might be the benefit of added distance?” Mathias asked, tilting his head slightly to indicate real interest rather than sarcasm.

Mandrake pushed his spectacles up slightly with his right poof. “With our acute eyesight we shall be able to perceive any gate easily enough, but by preserving a little space between ourselves and the wall we shall be able to spy any activity of a suspicious nature without being seen ourselves and be better able to see any structure within its protection.”

“Is it in your mind that there might be people of a nefarious sort in the immediate vicinity? I have not heard so much as the rustle of a squirrel since we entered these woods. If so, we should, perhaps, try an elevated approach rather than a circuitous one? I should not like to try climbing any of these trees, but that is hardly the only route to elevation available to us.”

“That maybe the best approach. I have no real facts upon which to base my assumption, but I feel certain that within the confines of this wall we shall find clues vital to deciphering what has happened to this place,” Mandrake said, unconsciously rubbing one arm with the opposite poof.

“Should you care for the somewhat sordid role of peeping tom, looking over the wall into the foreground, or would you care to return to the road and see if you can get the broader picture of the whole area through the treetops?” Mathias asked, ready and willing to take on either part.

Mandrake mused for a moment, scratching his left antler with his walking stick. “I shall see what can be seen from here. You may have the view from the road. Do not be too fixated on this direction. An overview of the area as a whole would not hurt.”

“Then I shall go and see if I can detect anything to the point from above. Where shall we reconvene, and at what time?” Mathias asked, saluting his brother with the handle of his umbrella against his brow.

“As I have the more limited area of focus, I shall return as soon as I may to the road, your operational location with my report,” stated Mandrake.

“Does that mean I shall be the commander for this adventure? I do not remember whose turn it is.”

“I believe it is your turn, Brother Mathias.”

“Then let us be about it, my good Mandrake. There is the possibility of cupcakes hanging in the balance,” Mathias declared firmly, lifting his umbrella over his head to stab at the sky. Mathias turned to march straight back to his position on the road, but had to stop suddenly or walk into one of the trees. With a slight shake of his head, he picked his way over roots and around thorns at a careful, but hardly slow walk.

Mandrake watched his brother disappear back the way they had come before turning his attention to the wall. He approached the vine and moss covered pile of stones slowly and very carefully, trying to pay attention in all directions at once with his walking stick held in a defensive posture. Only when he was within an arm’s reach of the wall did he pause. Using his walking stick, he gently tapped the moss covered surface.

Only the slightest pressure on the unsightly yellow growth fill the air with spores, released upon contact with his stick. Mandrake took a quick step back and covered his nose, only just managing to avoid inhaling or getting any of the cloud on his fur. Mandrake crinkled his nose, and took another step back as the distinct scent of decay filled the air.

The spore cloud would hang in the air for several minutes, and he wanted to be about his task, so Mandrake moved further along the wall, stepping gingerly around a sickly tree in his path with bark thick with blisters for fear of what contact with it might release. One unpleasant experience was enough. Mandrake felt no need to court another.

Choosing a stretch of wall with more of the thick tangles of suspicious ivy vines and less moss, Mandrake stretched, and twisted, and gave a hop or two, trying to see over the wall. He could have jumped higher, but he did not want to call attention to himself or hit any of the tree branches growing overhead. After a moment of thought Mandrake picked a spot with the clearest space overhead and slowly stretched himself taller. He grew several feet taller but no wider over only a few minutes, until his chin rose higher than the wall.

What had been a very pleasant, two story abode with bright window shutters under high, pointed eves lay in the center of the walled enclosure, thickly entangled  within the same vines and moss as the wall, but that was not all. Blue tinted icicles hung from every point of the house, and all the windows were covered in frost. “This is most peculiar,” Mandrake stated to himself.

Mandrake searched the scene carefully for any sign of movement or life around the large, two-story house. Mandrake could see no immediate evidence of the fate of the residents, no flashing sign explaining everything, but he did see a patio and sitting upon the patio was a table. Upon the table lay dishes and silver that looked like a repast, hastily abandoned. Someone had been having tea or a snack when it was interrupted. Mandrake could clearly see the teapot and cups sitting upon their saucers. A careful adjustment of his spectacles allowed him to observe that some form of cake had also been on small plates beside the tea cup and saucers, all preserved under a thin layer of ice, but no trace remained of the people.

Mandrake peered closer, looking for any sign of where they went or what forced people to abandon their cake, half-eaten. What he found sent a chill down his spine, and stretched as he was he had a lot of spine for it to run along. Just at the corner of the gabled roof, Mandrake found the only living thing in the whole scene, discounting the plants. A songbird stood frozen with its wings spread wide, just before taking to the air. Mandrake thought at first that it might be a statue, but with his spectacles he could pick out every feather. Like the table, the house, and the ground, the bird stood poised on the edge of motion, totally encased in a thin layer of that same ice. Mandrake cautiously retreated from the wall, returning to his usual shape and size as he made his way back to the road.

While Mandrake made his observations within the wall, Mathias returned to the road. Only once both pooves stood upon the cracked surface did he lift his eyes from the ground to the arched branches and dense foliage above, looking for a path through. Slowly, Mathias started forward again with his eyes still raised, but his path did not go straight by any stretch of the imagination. Step by step, Mathias’ pooves traced a smooth, narrow, counter-clockwise  spiral up into the air, as if he climbed an invisible staircase. Once he reached a height, just under the arching branches where they laced together to block out the sun, the staircase flattened out into a raised floor wherever he chose to wander.

In this manner, Mathias closely examined much of the canopy overhead, but he could not find a place big enough for him to fit through without touching the vegetation. The closer the gentlemoose got to those leaves and branches, the more the pervasive smell of decay and corruption convinced Mathias that he did not want to do that. Eventually, the gentlemoose took several steps back down and unlimbered his umbrella with a determined expression.

When first opened, the umbrella matched its smooth grey cover. Mathias lifted it to rest upon his antlers, with the shaft held firmly against his cheek and chest, the grey began to fade out from cloth as it took on the transparent sheen texture of an odd cross between plastic and glass. When Mathias moved towards the canopy again, several things happened at once. The umbrella drooped down and around, slowly shifting from a ridged dome to a smooth sphere, completely enclosing the gentlemoose with no remaining sign of the handle or struts from the umbrella. But the umbrella did not change alone. As Mandrake had chosen to adapt himself, so did Mathias, but the paler brother grew smaller rather than taller. By the time the umbrella closed beneath his pooves, Mathias stretched less than a third of his original height and stopped walking, though the sphere continued to rise.

The branches, leaves, and ivy tried to cling to the floating sphere as it rose through the tangle. Though Mathias never actually saw it, he grew certain the plants moved, trying to bar his way whenever he glanced away. However, the smooth surface of the sphere had no flaws to gain purchase upon, and the force that lifted Mathias in his protective bubble could not be denied by plants that would not dare move where he could see.

Still, Mathias held his breath until he found himself in the sunshine and clear air, again. He continued his rise until he had a good view of the whole forest and the blue hill beyond. At first, his eyes picked out nothing but trees, vines, and brambles. Then he realized that the oddly peaked hill nearly directly beneath him had originally been the roof of a two-story house within the wall Mandrake explored.

Once he had that idea in mind, his eyes picked out another roof, and another. Dozens of them all around that first walled enclosure they noticed. All of the buildings were in similar or worse condition, some with trees growing right through their roofs. Abruptly, Mathias dropped out of the sky like a stone released above a pond, with none of the tentative exploration he used for his rise. Mathias had found the town which serviced the abandoned farms, and that was not all he had found.

Mandrake stood waiting in the road when Mathias came down to land with a loud thump that did not even jar him within the sphere his umbrella had become. “I see that you have been seeing the sights from on high, Brother. I have seen a few things as well, such as a meal interrupted. Whatever force overwhelmed the inhabitants of this abode happened suddenly and without warning,” said Mandrake.

“I found the town whose existence we deduced. The home you investigated is just the one of many. A good sized town lies all around us, though even from above you can hardly see it, muffled as it is with this unnatural greenery, but that is not all I found

“Someone or something took what looks to have been a very pleasant village market or fair and turned it into a grotesque mockery. In what is left of the town square, vine choked stalls are populated by dozens upon dozens of ice statues where the people and beasts had been. We need only to follow the road a little further along, and we will reach the edge of the frost under the ivy.” Mathias stood very rigid and erect if not very tall to relay his information. He stared off between the trees without seeing them, but distinctly unwilling or perhaps unable to face either his brother or the truth which lay just a little further down the lane.

Mandrake’s countenance grew very grim. “This is no longer just a pleasant stroll and Walk abroad. We have people who have been either harmed or even slain by someone or something. This will call for very deliberate and purposeful action.” Mandrake took his walking stick in a firm grasp. “Come, Brother, we have wrongs to right, and people to save,” Mandrake said firmly. The last word he added was so soft and sad that both brothers could pretend he never said, “Hopefully.”

Mandrake started down the road with a long stride, stiff with resolve while his brother floated along at his side. The two gentlemoosen came to a natural halt at the edge of the ice where it crept down the road. Vines of twisted, yellowish ivy stretched in all directions, but a breath of cold air could be felt coming from where the village lay under the ice and foul foliage. Mandrake’s usual manner when dealing with persons of all shapes and temperaments included nothing but polite civility livened by a touch of dry humor, but looking across the frozen and entangled remnants of that town he all but snarled out the words, “To whomever caused this travesty, be warned. Your foul work shall be undone and you will be brought to face justice!!” before he could regain control of his sudden and uncharacteristic flash of anger. Though Mandrake did not speak loudly, his voice momentarily held such force that it clearly penetrated every tangle and shadow of the wood.

In a much milder, slightly if bitterly amused tone Mathias added, “At the very least, we shall fix what can be fixed and see to it no such travesties are created for other intrepid travelers to stumble upon.”

Mandrake glanced over at his brother. He knew he was acting in a most unmoosey manner, but such atrocities appalled him to his very core.  The first steps were to find the source of trouble, correct the situation, and help those whom could be helped, as his brother had indicated. Mandrake raised his walking stick high over his head and brought it down sharply on the ice covered road. All the moosey strength of his mind and body went into the blow, but Mandrake made certain to focus the area affected very carefully. The sharp sound of the wooden stick striking the ice grew into a low rumble of rippling earth and shattering as a minor earthquake ran down the road ahead of them. Mandrake kept the effect as small but useful as he could. A major earthquake might topple some of the buildings and that would just be destruction without purpose. Mandrake invited his brother to lead down the newly cleared road with a wave of his stick.

“And hope that your efforts only shattered the ice upon the path, and none of the ice which contains the people,” Mathias responded but mildly, since he saw no evidence of such damage. Taking a deep, deep breath, Mathias blew out through a pursed mouth, expanding the bubble in which he stood like a balloon, though where he got the air to blow up a bubble from its interior was anyone’s guess. Mathias continued to huff and puff and blow, growing as the bubble did, until his size again matched his brother’s. Mathias paused, shook his head faintly and yawned widely before he took up his blowing again. Only when the umbrella sphere could comfortably accommodate both brothers did Mathias stop. He lifted an eyebrow in Mandrake’s direction.

“Would you care to join me? I can assure you that the atmosphere is much fresher in here. It shall protect us from ivy, spores, ice, falling debris, or other inimicable effects while we explore,” Mathias waved one poof and the bubble peeled back to form a snug, round door  between them.

Mandrake readily accepted Mathias’ invitation, climbing into the sphere which sealed itself with no fuss or prompting. “Very well, what now, Brother Mathias?”

“Now we explore and see what can be done about the current situation.” Slowly and deliberately, Mathias led out until his brother fell into easy step. It helps that they had legs of the same length. The town square quickly came into view, and they could see more clearly the grotesque parody of a lively village market done in ice and draped with vines or eaten away by moss.

The sight disturbed even two such experienced mooses with many Walks and much of Moose history to draw from. Even the village animals had not been spared. Mandrake pointed out a dog had been frozen leaning into its child’s caress, and where a cat had been frozen napping on a tree branch. Nothing living was spared. The result locked the whole town in deathly silence.

“Whoever did this was quite vicious and cruel,” Mandrake said, the heat of his anger melting into sorrow.

“Have you noticed that the wind chimes, and the more identifiable trees are thickly rimed with ice as well. Anything that moved suffered from this unnatural cold, not just anything living.” Mathias looked around, forcing himself to see the details, not just the horror of the scene as a whole.

“Have you noticed that in spite of the smell of rot and the spores given off by the moss, mold, and the strange trees, the only things they break down are the walls and buildings,” Mathias mused, glancing at his brother in search of his opinion. When Mandrake did not seem to understand, Mathias went on, “They are not actually decaying at all themselves. I do not think they are real plants at all, but constructs, just as unnatural as all the ice.”

“Do you think the ice is here to trap the life of the town, as a spider’s web entraps an insect; then the vines and moss are tools to feed on the trapped life, the spider?” queried Mandrake. “That might complicate the issue.”

“No, this assault does not seem even that personal. A spider in its web is feeding itself in the only way it can. I think the buildings here are simply being destroyed to get rid of them. Something seems to have…” Mathias stared intently around, groping for words to put his feelings into terms Mandrake might understand. “Someone or something hated this place. It wanted the people and the buildings and the, the Life of this place to go away. It raised the wood simply for the purpose of putting the town where it would no longer have to be seen.”

“You think the whole forest may be a part of…of whatever this is?” Mandrake asked, slightly startled. “We must assuredly save the people, but if this is some type of alien predator, we may be obliged to help see it home. It might not be native to this world.

“However, if your hypothesis is correct, we may have a truly dangerous villain upon our pooves, one who can control cold with a fine measure of finesse. Look at that tree. There are deposits of hard rime upon it, but look along that fence line. It is hoar frost that has developed there. Upon the roofs we have loose snow, while the streets have deposits of straight sheets of black ice which forms when rain hits a surface cold enough to freeze it, and yet none of the people here are dressed for cold weather.

“We must find the cause, and be certain, yet very cautious. We should consider calling for aid from allies more adept at dealing with such cold measures. We are historians and museum curators, not great adventurers, after all,” stated Mandrake with a certain measure of caution in his voice.

“First things first. Let us determine, if we can, if any of these statues can be revived, or if we are surrounded by a field of the dead locked in a semblance of life by the unnatural ice.” Mathias looked around for a moment. Then he pointed at nearby ice statue with a middle aged gentleman wearing a waistcoat and shirt sleeves, standing nearby. It might have been the bow-tie, very much after the brothers’ pattern, that caught attention. “How about him?”

“He is as good a place to start as any.” Mandrake agreed with a slight nod of his head. “I hesitate to simply begin thawing him out.”

“First we should examine him closely without touching, I believe. Then, if we find nothing to the point, we might try bringing him within our protective sphere. There might be something about this place that produces the effect, rather than something cast upon it that has lasted this long. No matter what else, this ice is not natural. It is far too warm, even here, to sustain snow and ice with no sign of melting.” Mathias bent slightly at the waist to peer closely at their chosen individual.

All of a sudden, Mathias stumbled back with such violence that he bounced off the back of the bubble and slid down to sit at his brother’s feet. “Look most closely, Mandrake. I believe that man just blinked at me,” Mathias said with wide eyes.

Mandrake attempted to peer through the front of his brother’s protective bubble. “I do not see anything, Mathias. But if you saw him blink then their frozen condition is an illusion. Instead they may be trapped within ice instead of frozen completely.”

“But how would they breathe and not have succumbed to lack of nourishment if they retain the ability and awareness to blink at me, or do you think that the ice simply slows them down to almost a stop and I just happened to peer at the right moment to catch the movement?”

“I think their sense of motion and time has been slowed to a crawl,” responded Mandrake.

“At least, we now can assume with a reasonable degree of hope that all the people and creatures in the ice live and should therefore be rescuable. Shall we isolate the gentleman from the unhealthy environment as we are? It would establish whether the effect was something directed at them directly, or something in the air. We have too little information, so there may be some risk of thereby harming the chap. I should not care to make the decision entirely off my own bat without consulting your considerable store of wisdom, knowledge, and experience, oh brother mine.”

Marmaduke studied their chosen figure as closely as he could from inside the bubble, even stretching it out briefly to get the view from as wide an array of angles as he could. “I believe we would be best to isolate him here, on site. That way we can remove one factor at a time, in a very precise, and slow sequence while retaining the ability to return him to the original environment quickly, if necessary.”

“Give me a moment to expand the bubble and then we can simply walk forward and let it envelope the poor fellow. If he seems to react poorly, we simply need to step back and roll the bubble away from him again,” Mathias said, suiting his actions to his words. This time, instead of blowing like a balloon, he put two pooves on the side of their protective shell and pushed against it, slowly stretching the surface until they had room between the brothers for the waistcoated gentleman to stand comfortably in between.

Mandrake leaned back against his side of the bubble while it expanded with his mouth twisted to one side in thought. “I think this might just work brother.” The surface of the flowed around the man with as much resistance as the surface of a still pool of water. They knew right away that they pursued the right thought, for only bare human flesh and ordinary clothing passed into the sphere, with no trace of ice. But, it was only when the bubble sealed behind their chosen individual did he show any signs of life, blinking rapidly in several short bursts.

The freshly animated no-longer-statue turned from one moose brother to the other and coughed slightly, deep in his throat. He rubbed his hands together more out of old habit than a lingering chill and then said, “Oh, hello gentle…beings. It is nice to see you in our fair town. How may I help you?”

Mandrake and Mathias exchanged startled glances. It took a few seconds before Mandrake found something to say. “Are you not aware of any enigmatic happenings recently? Any disruptions to the normal flow of things? Oh, and it is nice to see you as well.”

“Yes, it was in our minds to offer our services to you and yours rather than to ask for the same. I assume that as you call your town fair and seem to treat strangers gently that your people and your town do not usually look like this,” Mathias added gently and waved a poof to indicate their surroundings. Mathias’ gaze settled on a young lady nearby  more truly iced than any of the cakes displayed in her baked goods stall, crawling with vines. Mathias did wonder if any of her wares would still be good once they fixed whatever had been done to the place, but only for a moment.

Slowly, with determined thoughtfulness rather than anger or panic, the gentleman in shirtsleeves looked around at all his friends, all his family, the homes, and stores all encased in ice, being eaten by moss, swallowed by ivy, or some combination of all three. “It seems you are correct.” He stopped and cleared his throat and continued on in the same, even tone in spite of the way his hands closed into tight fists without consulting his brain, “This state of affairs is intolerable, and looks to have continued for far too long as it is.”

“Which shall we address first brother, the ice, the ivy, or the moss?” queried Mandrake. “Or we could each take up one problem and work on solutions in parallel.”

“Well, seeing as ivy is easier to trace to a root, we should perhaps start there.” Mathias glanced at the man in their bubble and then to the other people yet to be saved.

“You know, we are forgetting our manners in the heat of the moment. My name is Mathias, and the gentlemoose on your other side is my brother, Mandrake.” Mathias bowed with his hand over his heart since he had no hat to doff in such fine weather.

“I am called Nikola Markovic. I am,” the man paused and swallowed, but made an effort not to glance around. Nikola had more than enough information from his first glance to deal with for the moment. He did not need any more details to disturb and distract his attention, like where his wife and daughter might be, or the condition of his young son.

The Man straightened his shoulders and looked Mathias straight in the eye with his most authoritative mien. “I am the mayor of this town. It and the people here are my responsibility.”

“Then the decision as to what we should do first should rightly be made by you, of course,” Mandrake said with a slight bow.

“Yes, we stand ready to serve. We have no urgent call to be elsewhere and should be delighted to provide what assistance we may,” Mathias agreed with a nod.

“How is it that we three are free when no others here are?” Mayor Markovic asked, though he may have had to swallow a time or two before he could speak steadily. He had been mayor for a long time and knew very well that it would not do to make his decision with insufficient information, no matter what his emotions might demand.

Mathias explained as best he could about his umbrella turned bubble’s ability to block out all unwanted external influences. Mandrake followed up with a brief sketch of how the two mooses came upon the scene. Then the two filled in the details they had observed of all the changes, making deductions as they went for the Mayor’s comments and questions made it clear that the whole forest was part of what had happened to the town along with the more obviously parasitic growths. By the end of the moosey explanation Mayor Markovic was rubbing his forehead with the heels of both hands, trying to force himself to think before he spoke.

“My first instinct is to free my people as quick as ever you could, but I look around at what has been done to us, to our homes, to the very land which fed us, and I think that may be wrong. My time in ice seems to have done me no harm. I believe to let them linger a little while longer while we right what we can as far as our futures, so they need not emerge from ice confusion to be faced with the full impact of what has been done to us with the fixing yet to do, would only make our recovery more traumatic. Please, remove the vegetation eating at our homes so that we might see what the true extent of the damage might be and not just this nightmare when my people wake up.”

“We shall do our best, though I fear you will have to come along with us while we investigate, unless my brother has a spare bubble umbrella to lend you,” Mandrake warned the Mayor with an apologetic yet encouraging sort of smile on his furry brown face.

Mathias opened his mouth to say, “Of course I have a spare umbrella to lend. I always have a spare umbrella for a friend,” but the Mayor spoke before Mathias could get going so he just closed his mouth again with a faint, mildly superior huff.

“I would be pleased to go along with you. I may be able to provide some small assistance. I must admit that, in the usual sort of way, my people are a fiercely independent lot. We are quite ready to offer assistance to others but can be very stubborn when it comes to accepting help ourselves. However,” he looked sadly around his once neat, prosperous, well kept town square and sighed. “I must admit I cannot begin to figure out how to set all this to rights on my own.”

“Let’s go that way,” Mandrake suggested, pointing around the back of the bakery stall, down a thick tangle of ivy. They got the bubble rolling as politely as possible between the ice figures, stalls, and other obstacles before Mandrake responded to the Mayor’s admission. “That is perfectly understandable. We tend a little that way ourselves to tell the truth, but we truly enjoy helping.”

“Especially if there might be celebratory parties afterwards,” Mathias interjected.

“Yes, of course, parties are nice, but I hardly think…” Mandrake started repressively, but Mathias cut him off mid sentence.

“Especially if there are cupcakes,” the tan moose added with a wide grin.

“Of course, cupcakes are nice, but…”

Mathias leaned closer to the mayor and pretended to whisper “Do not let him fool you. He really likes cupcakes, too, and layer cakes, and sheet cakes,” as if sharing a secret.

“I never said I did not like…” Mandrake spluttered, but Mathias was not finished.

“Then again, if you let him fool you, that leaves more cake for us,” Mathias said thoughtfully. “Go ahead and let him pretend he does not like cake.” Mathias smiled happily at the Mayor.

“Now see here! Do not, for a minute, think you are going to get away with not sharing your cake with me!” Mandrake brought the bubble to an abrupt halt so he could scowl properly at his brother with fisted pooves planted on his hips.

Mathias winked outrageously at Mayor Markovic and told him with a grin, “See, I told you he likes cake.”

The look of outrage on Mandrake’s face melted away when Nikola Markovic broke down and smiled with a faint chuckle at the brothers’ antics. “Much better,” Mandrake said, patting the mayor on the shoulder. “Things will work out. You will see.”

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