A very domesticated day. John Feste came by and enlisted the ladies’ aid in cleaning up his house. He had a new restfulness about him, a sense of purpose with far more potential for hope than the darkness driving him before.
While the humans cleaned and talked inside, Merrylegs, Marius, Maximus, and Magnar lounged around the backyard fountain.
“Did you share our suggestion about Lynne and her father with Mr. Feste?” Maximus asked, watching the back of the house.
“Of course,” Merrylegs said. “And Jimmy came by last night for a long talk, too?”
“How did Jimmy know…” Magnar started, and let the thought trail off.
“A friend of his mother’s, or something like that.” One corner of Merrylegs’ long mouth twitched.
“So are they cleaning to prepare the house for guests?” Magnar asked.
“I don’t think that would work out very well, do you?” Merrylegs asked.
“Mrs. Hillary is not the type to let anyone get out from under her thumb without a fight, and things have not been going over well for her lately,” Merrylegs said, with deliberate stress on the understatement.
“It would not be horrible if the woman broke cover and did something that landed her in jail for a good, long time, but it would be awful if that something hurt anyone else,” Maximus said.
“So they are cleaning the house for the real estate agent,” Marius said, speaking for the first time. “And this is going to be goodbye.”
“Not quite yet,” Merrylegs sounded wistful. “The master is going to make dinner for us all, but, yes, he is dropping out of the game.
“Somewhere along the way, associating with your ladies and the Hillary situation reminded him that though he (would have gladly)? given his life for his family’s, they would want him to make the best of that life in their memory.
“He has also seen past his own pains, and can not stomach all the other lives and families the opening would shatter.”
“He will continue to have bad days,” Marius warned.
“I think everyone involved knows that, but he will no longer have to face them alone,” Merrylegs responded.
“Good,” Magnar said.
“But we will miss having you around for the final confrontation,” Maximus said.
“Yes. I hoped that we would be able to have you on our side for the end,” Marius added.
“I think you will have things well in hand when the time comes,” Merrylegs said, and this time both corners of his mouth twisted up. “Or should I say well in poof?”
“Whatever do you mean?” Marius asked while the others stared at the frog.
“Jimmy’s mother’s friends may have chatted a bit with the master too.” Merrylegs’ twists grew into a full-blown grin. “I never would have figured it out from your names, all things considered, but A Gran’s Tale was one of my young mistress’s favorite stories. I recognised Myra right off. From there I have made some guesses, but they explain so many of the oddities of this game that I am absolutely certain I am right.”
“In that case, we can only wish you good luck,” Marius said in a very dry tone.
“We will get in touch next month and let you know how it all turns out,” Maximus offered.
“That way, you will have a story to tell Lynne,” Magnar added.
“How will that work,” Merrylegs asked, unspecific if he meant the getting in touch, or managing to tell stories to Lynne who should be asleep from midnight to one.
“I am as certain as you are about that ‘poof’ business that the Bureau of Child Protection will be taking a close interest in Lynne after all she has been through. The agent they assign will take care of things.” It was Marius’s turn to sound smug.
“The Bureau of Child Protection?” Merrylegs asked. “Are they like Child Services?”
“Not much, no. Myra can explain.” Magnar laughed.
“Oh,” was all Merrylegs could say. He would find out before long.
What with one thing and another, my friends and their friends decided that having one person of each sort alert in the house at all times might be a good idea for the rest of the month. Consequently, Jan and Magnar sat chatting quietly in the living room not long after midnight when a quiet tapping came at the back door.
They both knew that a pair of officers still lurked at the Sallus end of the street, so the back door was not a bad idea for game business, but it had been a particularly…exciting few days. Only when a particularly canine voice called softly through Magnar’s private entrance did they rise and go to investigate. “Maximus, Marius, Magnar?” Then he (at least, it sounded like a he and familiar in cadence if not tone) muttered, “They said someone would be awake.”
Under the circumstances, Jan did not turn on her studio lights, and with the things from the mirror still regathering their strength, they no longer kept the outdoor lights on. Still, they could detect three figures through the glass. Neither Jane nor Magnar recognised either the man or the dog at first, but the sight of Lynne shivering barefoot in her pajamas set Jane hurrying forward to unbar their way.
With the visitors safely in the kitchen with the house secured again, Magnar was surprised to recognise the big man standing there. At first, he saw only a powerfully built, confident, alert male human with lines of ancient greek letters and diagrams inscribed on all the visible flesh. He had a lot of that, too, since the man wore nothing but a short skirt of leather strips pendant from a wide belt of the same material. Only when Magnar looked closely at the structure of the face behind the decoration, and took it in context with how closely Lynne clung to his side, did the bunny recognise the hunch shouldered, quiet simulacrum of Mr. Hillary in that legendary figure.
With that revelation, it did not take any thought at all to recognise the great wolf, too big to even use Magnar’s entrance, as Jimmy’s other form. Magnar realized Jimmy had been speaking while the bunny stared, and paid attention. “I do not know how long it will take for her to wake up and discover their escape, but my advisors assured me that a way to break trail so that the evil old…” Jimmy remembered his audience and changed his next word to, “witch would not be able to divine where her prisoners had gone.”
Something Jimmy found in that house had obviously turned Jimmy’s disdain and contempt hot, or perhaps it was a side effect of the shape change, but it did not seem to be the time to ask about it. Jimmy had not stopped talking. “They assured me that the best way forward could be found here.”
With ordinary human prejudices, Mr. Hillary, Lynne, and even Jimmy in his condition looked at Jan. Jan, who knew better, looked down at Magnar. Only when he had the attention of them all did Magnar nod his head. “Take them down to the circle. I will be along in a moment. This will take all of us.” Without waiting for questions, or to see if he would be obeyed, Magnar hopped for his private exit to get Maximus from the forge.
Regathered in the basement, Jimmy and his two charges stood to one side studying the two antlered things standing in the circle. One small, stocky, and all in fur while the other stood tall and slim in a flowing, greek gown that could have been cut in the same period as Mr. Hillary’s skirt.
Janet, in a heavy, velvet robe the same purple as the streaks in her short hair, leaned against the wall nearest the circle, watching with a faint smile in her eyes. Jane shuffled sleepily around the mats in the background where her emerald sleep suit with the feet, over long sleeves, deep cowl, and silver accents would not be a distraction.
Marius and the slim, antlered thing held a brief, quiet consultation in a language the humans felt they could almost understand, yet did not recognise. Then Marius turned to Jimmy. “When you think the moment is right, step into the circle. Make certain that you three are all touching one another, and do not touch either the circle or one of us. Understood?”
“How will we know when the moment is right?” Jimmy asked.
Marius looked at the gowned thing, who just smiled and shrugged. “We are not certain how it shall translate, but you will know.”
“What will happen if we touch one of you or the circle, or if we lose contact with one another?” Mr. Hillary said in a surprisingly musical, energetic, and engaging voice for a dead man.
“You will make things more difficult for us,” the taller thing responded in a low, strangely accented tone. There was something about the thing that discouraged any further questions.
The three animals and two things took up equidistant points around the circle, the animals on the outside and the things on the inside, the short one between Magnar and Marius, and the other between Marius and Maximus. As one, all five bent down to touch the circle.
At first, nothing seemed to happen. So slowly that one never noticed it start and only realized later that the change had been going for some time, the surface within the circle began to swirl and gain depth. Once they noticed, what began as a shifting of shadows grew quickly to a spinning, gurling tunnel that seemed to be formed entirely of water and sunlight.
Without prelude, or fanfare, the aqueous flow washed the two things away to an unimaginable distance, though their posture and demeanor never flickered, even as they disappeared into the distance.
“Well, that was clear enough,” Jimmy said with a cough. He started to say something to Maximus and the others, but their concentration was so absolute, Jimmy knew he would not be heard.
Instead, he looked to Janet, across the circle. “Well, it has been interesting meeting you ladies, and your friends.
“We’ll have to get together sometime next month and exchange stories.”
“It’s a date,” Janet responded with a grin.
Before they could get wrapped up in pithy badinage, Lynne took a firm grip on Jimmy’s tail. Recalled to duty, the wolf stepped carefully between Maximus and Marius. The grey-furred body stretched immediately into the distance, but without tugging at Lynne, so that she could step across the line at her own pace and by her own choice. Mr. Hillary followed easily with a grin for Janet and a wink for Jan. (Jane got nothing, as she still prowled around behind him)
With them gone, the circle and its things settled back into its default state and the animals stepped away.
Jane finally joined the remaining figures on the circle end of the room and stretched. “I am going back to bed.”
Apparently, the action did not stop when the thing from the wardrobe took Jason Sallus home. The household was still at the stumbling around and showering pre-breakfast phase when a heavy knock on the door followed close upon the peal of the doorbell.
Janet, as the only human dressed and ready to greet visitors, took point. She had, in no way, forgotten what happened with the last caller, but the thing in the steamer trunk rested peacefully under his cover, and the thing in the wardrobe had only two legs and stood in its confines, inanimate once again. Consequently, when the caller declared himself to be, “Police!” she opened the door, and if she had a hammer in one hand, out of his view, that was only prudent.
Their little cul-de-sac was awash in vehicles that morning, many with strobing lights, and Janet could immediately see why. The majority of the front wall of the corner house seemed to be cluttering up the front lawn that morning. Several of the upper rooms had become far better ventilated than they had been the evening before.
“Whatever happened down there?” Janet asked with perfectly genuine surprise. The thing from the wardrobe left the evening before, and in the light of morning it was hard to tell that the house had ever had a front porch.
Unfortunately, Janet asked the very question the officer hoped the ladies might answer. Jimmy, Sallus’s nearest neighbor spent the night with his father in St. Louis, again, and had not yet returned.
The officer did not want to believe none of the ladies could help him, but they sat with him on the front porch with Maximus on his feet and Magnar against his knee, and plyed him with hot buttered wild berry muffins and cocoa with cinnamon and real whipped cream (he did not like coffee) until he went away relatively content. Marius went out to explore the damage and avoid any animal conservation questions.
There was surprisingly little furniture in the house. Jason Sallus had not so much moved in as camped out in the house for the duration.
A movement in one of the trees in the neighboring yard caught Marius’s attention, so he drifted away from the swarming humans to perch in the upper branches. “Good morning, Highwire,” Marius said with a little bow. He was getting quite good at his owl bow. His legs were far longer than one might suppose to look at his feathers, so the tilt came high enough that less knowledgeable people might mistake it for a nod, but Marius imagined that the sentiment came through clearly either way. “How goes it with you?”
“Nevermind that,” Highwire insisted, climbing up as close to Marius as she could. Her coat had new patches where skin and fur had been removed, and she could neither sit completely still, nor keep from glancing around as they spoke. “You have to go stop him, quickly.”
“Stop who from doing what?” Marius asked, trying to radiate calm, at least enough so that the monkey might make sense.
“Look, I am not a volunteer in this game. I do not support Yates out of any loyalty or choice, and I am neither as dumb nor unobservant as I encourage him to belive. I know about the watchers. I know about the teams who have been preventing any of the players from finding sacrifices or violating graves. And I saw the red bunny nod to you after the collapse of the Dark Fae’s house.
“But the one thing your teams have not been able to stop is willing sacrifices, or nasty things that were done before the game started, and if you are not quick, Nipper is going to do just enough volunteering to cost him his life if you do not get to him before he gets into our house. I know you can’t do anything after that without messing up the game.” Highwire twitched and jerked as if her body could not decide whether to try to grab Marius and drag him bodily to her house, scramble down the tree and run to get Maximus and Magnar as well, or just run away entirely and try to save herself.
On second thought, there was another cause to her strange movements. Something actively hurt Highwire with every move and every word she made that ran contrary to her master’s best wishes. Marius could see it, and recognised Highwire’s bravery for the heroism it really was.
“If we are going to have to do any physical intervening, we will need Maximus and Magnar. Come along. You can explain on the way after I fetch them.” Marius pushed off his branch and disappeared in the direction of his house.
I could see Highwire worry about the extra time this might take as she looked after the owl, and then back towards her own house, but she need not have worried. By the time Highwire dodged the inquisitive humans, Maximus, Magnar, and Marius had already gathered on the front porch.
With her appearance, Magnar hopped off to lead the way down their shortest path to Dennis Yates’s place. “We could try to intercept Nipper along his way, but we assume he has a head start, and we have no way of knowing what path he might take, so we will try to interfere at the end of the line, instead of along its length,” Maximus explained.
“Now, what exactly is going on? Does this have anything to do with what happened to Sallus’s house?” Marius asked.
“No,” Highwire started. Then she contradicted herself, “Yes, well, at the beginning anyway.
“I was watching your place last night when the man in the golden armor decided to come calling. I did not see what happened inside the house, but I did observe your golem returning the chastised man to his home.” Highwire paused in her explanation to scramble over a fence Maximus scraped his way under. She was already panting a little as they ran. Dennis Yates did not keep her well fed, but when Maximus started to slow a little to accommodate her, she would not let him, and kept up with her story as well.
“I did not get the whole conversation, as the discussion got rather…heated along the way, but apparently, some of Yates’s family had been looking for him, and something about his altercation with you pinpointed his location.
“I don’t know if they had some way of coming all the way from England to get him, or if they were already in the area, but two more gold armored individuals showed up to drag him home. They managed some sort of shield to keep the noise and conflict contained within the property, but Yates did not go quietly. They used some sort of big old sheers to peel Yates out of his armor, and even the collar went, too. After that, it was pretty much over and they carried Yates off.”
Highwire had to stop talking for a block or so in order to catch her breath, but then she got to the point. “Unfortunately, they left Nipper behind. I don’t know if the other armored people did not know about the fellow, or if they just didn’t care.
“He and I talked a little after they departed. He did not want to give up on the game, even if his master has scratched. He knew better than to turn to Mrs. Hillary as a new supporter. We all know about the animals her cult mutilated, and they had a few wacks at him, too.
“Unfortunately, he does not realize that my master has been more and more desperate for a new sacrifice to placate and direct his demonic support with. There is only so much he can do with our blood and flesh, and he can not afford to sacrifice me before the final confrontation.”
Real pain, far more than the mere physical infirmity that Yates’s power inflicted as punishment for going against his wants. “In spite of what I am managing now, I can not go against direct orders, and I am on standing orders to acquire a sacrifice for him when and if I can manage it, so I could do nothing but encourage Nipper to join us.
“Of course, with that contrary soul, it meant forbidding and denying the possibility in as strong a term as I could manage. I even told him the truth about what would happen to the poor, stupid fox if he voluntarily joined my Master’s menage.” Nipper sighed, at least I think it was a sigh, not just more panting. “Surly cuss did not believe me.”
The rescue team was only just out of sight of the house when Highwire came to a sudden stop. Magnar and Marius came back for a moment but she waved them on.
“What is it?” Maximus asked.
“I will not be able to do anything to help you, and if Yates sees me involved in this… His self control has never been good. He may no longer be able to wait until the thirty first.” Highwire did not, could not, come out and directly say that her master intended to kill her on the final night, but it came through clearly enough.
Maximus did not waste any more time on speech. He gave Highwire an approving nod and set off at a dead run. A flicker of silver fur flashed by ahead. Sometimes, one must manage one rescue at a time.
Nipper was not at all grateful, at least out loud, but before Maximus caught him by the back of the neck and dragged the smaller fox away, Nipper got a good look at the demon in the corner. He saw the cruel intelligence in those eyes, and the hungry anticipation as it stared. Nipper got a good enough idea of what would have happened next, that he decided he did not want to keep playing the game after all. He could have tried John Feste, but having to team up with Merrylegs did not appeal.
Dennis Yates was hopping, foaming at the mouth mad, of course, but Highwire had sense enough to stay out of his way until he calmed down. One more rescue down. Three to go, and then the world.
Everyone slept rather later than usual that morning. Janet dismantled the fountain and restored the cover onto the trunk in her workshop. Jane brought home an over-sized compact with a lock so that Magnar could start hunting down the things in its mirror, if he found the time. However, the thing in the wardrobe came out to help Jane, again, so something else was sure to happen. It is said that bad news always comes in threes.
Magnar and the others stopped by Jimmy’s house to bring him up to date. He had heard about the fire, but the news of Magnar, Maximus, and Marius’s involvement distressed him until they reassured their friend that no lives were lost, and there would not even be any scarring if the nasty cultists refrained from breaking their blisters.
“Fire is just such a horrible weapon,” Jimmy said, suppressing a shudder.
“That is only when it is let out of control,” Maximus explained. “When one uses it to cook food, heat a room, purify and soften metal or glass for shaping, to push the pistons in your car engine, or many other things, fire is an indispensable tool. I assure you that from first spark to the final collapse of ember into ash, we had that conflagration under complete control.” “We made certain to cleanse that place of every tome, every item of power, and all tools of nastiness, and there really was no better way to get that done,” Marius said seriously. “There will be no more unnatural sinkholes swallowing anymore houses in this game.”
“Item of power,” Jimmy echoed. “Did they have any of the game tools?”
“No,” Maximus barked, turning away from Jimmy in an attempt to cut short that line of questioning, but Magnar could not quite contain a snicker.
“Come on, you know you can trust me,” Jimmy coaxed, kneeling down in front of Magnar so the bunny would not have to answer as loud if he chose to explain.
“Well,” Magnar started, but Maximus cut him off.
“We have them,” Marius interjected quietly before the conflict could really get going. “The rules say they are part of the game, so they are here, but kept safe, where they can not be used to hurt anyone.”
“I thought we were not going to tell anyone,” Maximus humphed.
“Jimmy is right. We can trust him, and it is only fair that we give him the relevant information before we ask him for help,” Marius said firmly, distracting Magnar from what he meant to say next.
“We are asking him for help?” Magnar asked, but Marius kept his focus on Jimmy.
“We have been thinking about Lynne,” Marius said.
“True,” Magnar admitted.
“And Mr. Hillary,” Marius went on.
“About Mr. Hillary,” Jimmy repeated in surprise. “But he’s dead. Dead and embalmed. I know I mentioned it.”
“Dead yes…technically,” Marius responded. “But I have a couple friends who think they can help with his condition, if we can get him away from his wife.”
“Lynne has been and is going through more than enough for this game to end up saved but lose her father, too.” Marius stopped to let Jimmy think about that for a while.
“I am pretty certain that we have someone for them to stay with, who will help out while Mr. Hillary recovers as much as he can,” Marius said.
“We do?” Maximus started to ask, but then he remembered and huffed a little apology for interrupting.
“The trouble is, if we, as members of the game, go sneaking away a player’s intended sacrifice and her slave, we could open the way for metaphysical retribution by the powers involved in the game itself.” Marius would have scowled at that thought if his face allowed.
Maximus took the pause as a legitimate turn to speak. “The outcome of the game involves the whole planet full of little girls and their fathers, so it has to come first.”
“But that does not mean we can stand around and do nothing,” Magnar insisted.
“Right,” Marius agreed. “So, we wondered if your mother still has a way to contact those friends you think we might have in common.”
Jimmy rolled back to sit on his heels and blink at this apparent non sequitur. “Yeees,” he said at length.
“You should call your mother.” Marius said with more intensity than the advice usually merits. “I am certain she would enjoy hearing from you.” “While you talk, you should ask her to convey your greetings and well wishes to Myra and Mecate,” Maximus added, with the same strange mix of the off-hand and the intense.
“Myra and Mecate,” Jimmy repeated.
“Yes. They are very wise and knowledgeable people and can give advice and help with some truly improbable situations.” Marius stared hard at Jimmy.
Light dawned in Jimmy’s face as he put together the start of the conversation, the limitations Marius and his friends labored under, and the advice. “You are right. My mother would like to know what has been going on with me, with us… It is a good thing I am not actually a player.”
“Just a friend of the game and rescuer of the innocent, like your great-grandfather before you,” Marius agreed.
The four sat grinning at each other for awhile, then something occurred to Jimmy and he asked, “I wonder about the timing of things.”
“The Neighborhood Watch is going to have to scramble to keep up with any of their self-appointed duties now that their headquarters has burned down,” Magnar said, after exchanging looks with Maximus and Marius.
“It would be a shame if something else happened to make their reorganization even harder for their leader,” Maximus opined, valiantly restraining an urge to snigger.
“Indeed,” Marius agreed.
Jimmy stood up and started brushing grass from his trousers. “Confusion to our enemies!” he offered by way of a mingled goodbye and proof understanding.
“Indeed,” Marius said, again, and they watched Jimmy stride into his house before continuing to check on the remaining players.
With that exchange in mind, Magnar put some extra bounce in his hop when they went past the Hilalry house. Mr. Hillary was in the front yard, again, raking this time. It was very strange to see Mrs. Hillary glaring at the cheerful bunny from out of her husband’s face. Then they went home to take a nap.
It began to rain just as night started to get a good hold on the sky. One hopes that the river might not rise too high with all the extra rain that drama insisted the landscape absorb during the moments of crisis in that game. Flooded fields would go extra hard on the farmers so close to the time for harvest.
Marius watched Jane pack up her work in progress. It was her turn to make supper and about time that should get started, but when she tried to shoo the thing back into its wardrobe, it went stiff, head tilted to listen.
Jane stopped, one hand up, resting against the broad, stone chest. She looked at Marius for guidance. The thing suddenly shook itself, knocking Jane back a step, mostly in surprise, but she kept backing. The obsidian… thing, which had been humanoid in aspect had sprouted heavy, raptor wings. It stretched up for a moment and seemed to fall forward though the head did not fall below the original height. Instead, the spine had lengthened and bent. It now stood on four feline feet instead of the original human-like two.
Before the second pair of legs touched wood, Marius was in the air. He flew, full tilt, into the big red button on the wall by the door way. No alarm sounded, but the power cut on Jane’s sewing machines, and the overhead light turned red and started blinking. Similar changes for safety and alert happened throughout the house. Unfortunately, before Marius left his perch, they already heard the doorbell ring.
Marius bounded off the button in a practiced move, and flew down towards the front door.
The warning went out in time to stop Jan from opening the front door, but she had unlocked it, and that was enough.
The door slammed open with entirely unnecessary force. Jan was already backing away, so it did her no harm. And the problem with slamming open a door is that, unless you manage to embed the handle in the wall, the door tends to bounce back, especially after Janet and Jan get done with it.
The door to the face gave Jan the time to escape the front hall altogether, leaving Magnar to face the intruder, for that one moment of surprise from the failed ambush was all they got.
When the door opened the second time, a golden, featureless humanoid stalked into the house. Menace screamed loudly in each slow, silent step. Magnar sat in the hall and scratched one ear with a hind foot, blatantly unimpressed, even though the suit of golden armour blazed with other worldly energy to anyone with the eyes to see it properly.
The invader, when completely enshrouded in his armor, was used to strolling through walls and having bullets bounce off without so much as a ‘ping’’ to acknowledge their impact. He had no intention of being stopped by a mere rabbit, even one of unusual size. He made for the stairs after Jan, planning a little punt-the-pet along the way, probably with fatal results, and oh wouldn’t that be a shame.
Therefore, it came as a total shock when Magnar jumped from the floor, torqued in mid air, hit the suit of armor with all four feet to the chest, and the armor not only rang, but fell backwards. Before the golden figure could even think of catching his balance, something he never before lost when ensuite, but his claves caught against something close behind, and the suit of armor landed on its back, legs over Maximus’s stocky body, and head out on the porch.
The dog scrambled free and moved to watch from the arch to the living room while Magnar sat on the stairs. Marius drifted down to perch on the newel post while the invader fought to regain his breath, his feet, and his dignity, though I think that last may been beyond recall.
Then a calm, deep voice rumbled into the hall as if the earth came loose from its moorings beneath our feet and dropped down from the guest room (or perhaps the attic) to have a word. “Jason Sallus, you have not been invited into this residence. You may depart in peace, or you shall be evicted, but either way, you will not be allowed to harm anyone here.”
The thing from the wardrobe, which was now much too large for that confine, strolled down the stairs as easily and smartly as I might cross a flat stretch of floor. That was especially impressive considering his four paws were each too big for the steps, and he had to stoop slightly not to scrape his head along the ceiling.
“Just who is going to stop me?” Mr. Sallus’s voice echoed almost unrecognizably from within the blank mask. “I have faced down far worse than a golem and a bunch of animals in my time.”
“I am sure you have,” the thing responded, stepping, carefully, past Magnar down the last few stairs. “But there is worse. There is more powerful. And then, there is more effective.”
The armor and the thing stood face to face, filling most of the wide entryway. Without telegraphing, or a hint of warning, Jason Sallus threw a punch at the things head. A blow like that would go right through a cinderblock wall, much less a human head. The thing did not even bother to block.
Its hand shot out in a blur. Obsidian fingers sunk into the columnar golden throat as easily as a bowl of water. The black, stone hand tightened into a fist. The golden armor split and flowed up from the feet and fingers. The retreat moved only slowly, in fits and starts as the armor fought for every inch, until Jason Sallus hung from the things grip on the heavy golden circle around the ordinary (ish) human’s neck.
Mr. Sallus stank of alcohol, unwashed human, and misery. His breath came in ragged pants, and when the thing lowered the human feet to floor level, the legs collapsed.
“I will carry you home, Mr. Sallus,” the thing offered. “You have had a very tiring evening, and I would hate to see you come to harm on your way in the dark.”
In a few steps, the thing and its burden disappeared into the darkness. Marius and the others went upstairs to tell Jane it was ok to start dinner.
I know that Janet, Jane, and Jan could only understand what Maximus, Marius, and Magnar said between midnight and one, but if ALS sufferers can type and use computers with only the movement of their eyes, there is no reason why the animals could not do it, too. Technology can be wonderful, but, like fire, it needs to be kept under control.
After the excitement the day before, careful attention was paid to the things this morning, but nothing new manifested. The attic thing was back fidgeting in its wardrobe, though Jane propped one door open while she was on hand to watch. The fountain in the forge had stabilized temperature for the time being. Instead of staring at the bare patch of wall where the mirror used to hang, Magnar went down to talk to the thing in the circle. It wore bunny ears, like Magnar’s, but it seemed more puppy in outline, and far smaller.
When the three met up in front of the house, Maximus found a small box on the front porch. No sign of a note or shipping label adorned the cardboard surface. It could be a present. It could be a trap. It could be the opening move of a nasty spell. Being more of a size to contain a ring than a bomb, after a brief consultation with the others, Maximus carried it around to the back porch of one of the empty houses, just to be safe.
The area seemed suspiciously placid as Magnar, Maximus, and Marius checked on the remaining players. What few Neighborhood Watch members they encountered seemed focused on watching their progress rather than their more actively obnoxious activities. Merrylegs was not to be seen at John Feste’s house, so they stopped by Jimmy’s place to bring him up to date.
“Have you noticed the cultists acting more strangely than usual today?” Magnar asked, turning his back so he would not have to see the middle-aged couple walking down the street behind them for the third time during.
Jimmy did not look at the stollers either, but he did smile. “They do seem rather focused on you three today, don’t they. They set up at least three cameras watching your house, last night after Sallus stopped by their hidden human watchers, blowing what cover they thought they had.”
“They do not seem to be very good at subtle,” Magnar sniffed.
“We may be doing them an injustice.” Maximus watched the walkers turn around at the dead end before their gate, and head back up the near side of the road. “It could be that they are used to dealing with the less gifted and more normal humans rather than those with unusually acute perceptions like us.”
“I wonder why Mr. Sallus decided to interfere. I should think that he would find Mrs. Hillary’s minions more entertaining than distressing,” Marius mused.
“He probably objected to having the lurkers on his street more than anything else,” Jimmy said with a wry smile. “Still, I think you and your ladies should be extra cautious. It seems Mrs. Hillary is finally gearing up to express how much she appreciated your part in the adventure of the missing officer.”
Maximus and Magnar both looked at Marius, who took the news calmly enough. “I am more than willing to hear anything the lady might have to say to me.” Marius spoke both to those looks, and in response to Jimmy’s words. “If she chooses to be indiscriminate in her response, I trust she will live to regret the decision.”
Though Marius used no particular threat or menace in tone or words, Jimmy gave him a long, thoughtful look before nodding. “What shall we do to entertain your watchers?” he asked.
“We should probably check out the new center, for appearance’s sake,” Marius said, turning his head to watch the walkers start their fourth pass behind him.
“Will this be the spot with, or without me?” Jimmy asked, opening his front door to grab his keys before locking the portal from the outside.
“With your home so near to Mr. Sallus’s and our own, it hardly makes a difference one way or the other,” Marius said with a shrug.
“No smartphone?” Magnar teased.
“Not this month, no.” Jimmy grinned. “Those things are far too easy to track, hack, or jam when you might rely on it.”
“The ladies take turns carrying a cell phone, when they go out, but I must admit that they prefer the old fashioned sort that records far less information, and only put the battery in when they have a use for it,” Maximus said as Marius took off to lead the way.
“When the networks drop the lower capacity phones from their support like they are threatening to do, and force the ladies to upgrade to a smartphone, Janet plans to make a lead case, or a faraday cage for the thing to live in except in case of applicable emergencies,” Magnar added.
Marius perched on a post of a board fence, waiting for the others to catch up. Jimmy stood nearby and looked around. “Is this it?” he asked, deliberately turning to look at Marius instead of letting his eyes linger on the couple coming up behind. Their neat appearance had slipped some over the journey. Jimmy had longer legs and a brisk stride, so their walk had become more of a trot in order to keep up.
“Not exactly. The center lies somewhere in that wide depression over there,” Marius said with a wave of his wing to indicate the exact spot.
“I see,” Jimmy said, not quite laughing. “That explains why you were so certain this is not the proper center.” As one might expect in such flat terrain, so close to the great old man river, the depression was full of water.
“I can not see anyone trying to hold the ceremony on a raft or under the surface somehow, even if the pond turned out to be sacred to something or someone.” Jimmy snickered.
“It might be an interesting puzzle,” Marius mused. “Just how would one manage the banefire on a barge or in a boat?”
“Would we all be better on the same raft, or should we each have boats of our own?” Maximus added.
“We could put all the humans in floatation devices, like inner tubes, or those inflatable arm things, with their tools on little rafts around the fire on a bigger one,” Magnar proposed, stretching the absurdity of the idea a little further.
“Do you think we have exhausted the possibilities of this little adventure? Or should we let our unwanted tails collect themselves a little further before moving on?” Maximus asked.
“I wonder just what Mrs. Hillary is up to,” Marius mused. His tone frowned, even though his lips were not quite up to it.
“Judging by the condition of her husband, and her position in the local cult, I suspect that she would prefer to be the only player left standing at the end. She seems to prefer servants and slaves to allies,” Jimmy said.
“That kind of explains her plans for Lynne,” Maximus mused in a growly tone.
“What do you mean?” Magnar asked.
“A modern teenager must be profoundly… irritating to that sort of personality, especially a step-daughter.” In spite of the words, the dog’s tone left none of his listeners in any doubt as to what he thought of that sort of attitude. ‘Disapproval’ did not begin to cover it.
Marius gasped, staring back past the others. On the end of the inhalation, a prolonged, grinding rumble had the others spinning to stare in the same direction. It was not a loud sound, but Marius had prepared the others to react.
In the near distance, a cloud of dirt, dust, and debris floated above the trees and rooflines. “That is not near as high as you described the cloud over the collapsed mine,” Maximus said with the grim clarity of one determined to think before he reacts. The cloud was at least a mile distant. If a few seconds were going to make a difference, it would be long over by the time they could get on scene.
“But much, much wider,” Magnar said, more stunned than stoic.
“That is about where the Dark Fae’s house should be,” Marius pointed out, after a little thought.
It was difficult to figure out who yelled, “Medea!” It may have been several of them at once. Whoever it was, the sound acted like the pistol shot at the beginning of a race. All four sprang into motion, at top speed, in the direction of the cloud, even Jimmy who barely knew the cat in question… Their unwanted observers never had a chance.
Okay. They did not quite go at top speed. The runners went at Jimmy’s top speed, which was higher than one might think to look at him, but in spite of their concern, they kept in sight of one another.
The wind took care of the dust cloud well before Maximus and the others arrived, and the crowd was still only beginning to form, but the sirens heralding the official first responders came hard on their heels.
A great, ragged-edged hole yawned widely where the Dark Fae’s Victorian house used to be. The great oak tree in the front yard still stood. Even the fencing stayed standing straight and tall, but the house itself had vanished.
Marius winged ahead, straight over the top of the hole before circling back to the others. Before the owl could alight on the far smaller cousin of the great tree by which the others paused, another figure streaked across the road. It ran right into Maximus’s side. Luckily, it shed enough momentum in the last few seconds, so that neither missile nor target took any real damage.
Jimmy, slid forward to interface with the other humans while Magnar and Maximus huddled around to comfort Medea, and try to get some sense out of her. (She was the missile, of course. Anyone could see that, even before impact.)
Maximus wrapped himself around as much of the trembling cat as he could. “Medea, cherie, whatever happened here?” he asked, trying to give her somewhere to start.
When it grew clear she needed more time, Maximus looked up at Marius, instead. “That is not a natural sink hole. The edges are too even, too square, too neatly just big enough to drop the house into and no more.” Marius paused, considering whether to share the next observation. “The building collapsed as if it were made of playing cards instead of solid Victorian construction. The hole is not even that deep.”
“Medea…Little one, was the Dark Fae in the house when?” Magnar probed gently.
Her answer came as little more than a breath. “Yes… so was I.”
Marius and the others fell silent. It is unclear whether they could not think of anything to say, or if the swell of sirens and shouting people had risen too high to make themselves heard. Without another word, Jimmy rejoined them and lifted Medea carefully into his arms, and led the way towards quieter environs. There was nothing left to do for anyone in that house, except to clean up the mess.
When they could once again hear themselves think, Medea stumbled into speech, sharing what she knew. “We heard the sound of a crystal bell, and a storm sprang up out of nowhere, cutting us off from the rest of the neighborhood. My master ran for his place of power in the attic. I don’t know if he made it, though I did try to follow him.
“I think the ghost lady knew what was going on, or at least had a better idea than I did. My master already found that the ground floor doors and windows were all sealed. She picked me up and flew up the stairs to one of the spare rooms at the front of the house, and threw me out the window…just before the house started to fall.
“It was like the trebuchet all over again, but this time without the bag. I landed in the tree all right, but with the house falling almost right from under me, it felt like I flew a very long way.” Medea mewed, and Jimmy started to pet her as he strode along.
A bunny, much smaller than Magnar, but with soft, long ears stood at the corner of a nearby house as they passed, with one long ear covering one of her eyes. Now, bunnies were not extremely uncommon in that area, but this one had dark, shiny red fur. She waited until she caught Maximus’s attention. He nudged Magnar, and looked up to make sure Marius noticed as well. When the red bunny had the attention of all three, she slowly, and deliberately winked the one visible eye. Before the lid completely reopened, and before Jimmy or Medea noticed her, she vanished from sight. Some of the tension which had infused the three watchers evaporated, and they turned their whole attention to the present and the future, without worrying anymore about the past.
“Would you like to come stay with us now?” Maximus asked. “I am sure that the ladies would love to have you.”
“I just want to go home,” Medea sobbed. “I miss my real Mistress and her husband and her friends. I have had enough of this game and all the horrible things that go with it.”
“Fair enough,” Maximus agreed gently. He looked up at Jimmy. “We should go home. Would you explain to the ladies what has happened, so that they can start making arrangements to get Medea home? That way we do not have to wait until midnight to get things started.”
“Of course,” Jimmy rumbled and Medea yelped.
“He can understand you during the daytime?” she demanded of Maximus. Then a thought struck her and she turned to ask Jimmy, “Can you understand me?”
“I can indeed,” Jimmy smiled at her. “It is a long story. I am sorry for your loss, and that the game has treated you so roughly.”
There was not a lot Medea had strength to say in reply to that. Jimmy carried the stricken manx all the way. Once the ladies had the story, and what needed to be done, Jimmy excused himself and went back to try to learn who had done just what with an eye toward prevention of any repeat performances. It did not occur to either Jimmy or Medea to wonder just how they knew to call a certain mechanic’s shop in Washington state, and who to talk to there to make the arrangements, not until well after everything was over.
While the ladies saw to Medea and Maximus guarded the ladies, Magnar and Marius went out to check on the other players. Jason Sallus lay drinking in a hammock in his back garden, with Nipper on guard beneath him. Nipper’s eyes were wide and blank as she watched Magnar pass, but Mr. Sallus’s sneer was both knowing and cruel.
Dennis Yates was not in evidence at his residence, but Highwire huddled on the roof of the front porch, running her tail carefully through her hands.
The Hillary house showed a relatively peaceful, normal face to the world. Mr. Hillary knelt in the front lawn, weeding one of the flowerbeds, though it was somewhat late in the year for such an activity. Lynne stood staring out one of the upper windows, watching her father. Venomtongue lurked as well hidden as he might be for someone of his coloring at that time of year, behind a trellis grown over with old fashioned roses, heavy with thorns.
Two hops into the newly harvested field at the edge of the village, a soft ‘pfft’ of explosively expelled air sent a tranc dart through the air to bury into Magnar’s soft fur. He stumbled forward half a hop, then took off at top speed away from two humans in camouflage gear who stood up out of an unnoticed hollow. The dart fell free as Magnar fled. When he showed no signs of slowing, one of the humans swore, but the other waved a hand high over his head.
“Magnar, look out!” Marius screeched, too late. A third human rose into sight. This one had a weighted net. Once the humans had Magnar pinned, it did not take them long to subdue him. They paid no attention to Marius as he followed them to their destination, though they should have. Professional hunters would know how uncommon it is to see a screech owl flying about at that time of day.
Magnar was not happy, but also not surprised, to wake up in a large room, surrounded by people in hooded robes. The stone upon which he lay was both cold and smelled of old pain and blood. He was not too fond of the way the ropes pulled him uncomfortably splayed upon his back.
One of the hooded robes approached with a long knife held in one manicured hand. Mrs. Hillary pushed back her hood with her free hand and smiled nastily down at Magnar. She wanted to gloat and brag before getting down to business. He did not listen to much. After catching the bit where she decided to turn the majority of Marius’s friend into rabbit stew and leave the mutilated remains to be found and wept over later, Magnar tuned the ranting lady out. She wanted to scare Magnar before hurting him, and he had better things to do.
Marius kept his nose alert, and listened hard for the first sign that would let him know what form his rescue would take, just in case there was something he could do to help. Without thinking about it, Magnar shifted one of his ears to listen better. Mrs. Hillary grabbed him and twisted this convenient handle, but it did not matter.
Magnar caught a hint of smoke in the air, quite different from the torches and blood candles that lit the room. This waft of smoke smelled of cinnamon and peppermint oil, and even before Mrs. Hillary finished her twist, the electronic scream of the fire alarms in the mundane, public parts of the building penetrated into the subterranean sanctum.
Even limited as her skills may be, Mrs. Hillary recognised the happy grin on the bunny face. The silly woman yelled down into the furry face instead of something more practical. “What are you doing?!”
Marius had brought the thing from the metal trunk to deal with the cult. Usually, the thing was a not over large, shiny, black salamander with bright red spots and stripes on his back and a fondness for high temperatures. However, at need, or when he got upset, his internal rose, sometimes to quite extraordinary heights. He had several other talents as well.
The door to the ceremony chamber was a hollow, steel, firedoor, designed to keep heat, smoke, and fire on one side of the door from disturbing anything on the other. The light knocking on this sturdy construction could barely be heard over the blaring alarms and Mrs. Hillary’s screaming.
Then again, perhaps it was not exactly a knock. The fire door sagged in its frame as the steel started to glow and run around the edges, until it fell in and collapsed. Smoke and heat billowed into the room, instantly reducing visibility to near zero and making breathing a trial for almost everyone. As the thing ambled across the room, the temperature continued to rise. Cloaks caught fire, and metal grew hot enough to blister skin.
Mrs. Hillary swore and dropped her knife before clawing her way free of the smoldering robe, perforce releasing her grip on Magnar’s ears as well. When she groped through the smoke to regain purchase, the questing hand found bare stone, but no bunny.
The headquarters of the Neighborhood Watch burned to the ground that day, no matter how much effort the local fire department put into quenching the blaze. Not one scrap of paper or gear survived, but somehow, all the people emerged with nothing worse than a little smoke inhalation and a few blisters. Also, the fire did not touch the plants outside, or any of the neighboring buildings.
Needless to say, Maximus and Marius got Magnar out safely. Then they went home for a long nap.
Husband Minion wrote the extra dimensional sequence for this chapter, and it still needs work to get it to match the rest of the book, but it gives the right idea.
The three animals split up to check on their ladies, and the thing in each workspace. Maximus had no need to use his private way into the forge. The original, double garage doors stood wide open to any passing breeze which might care to visit. Janet stood, bedecked in her heavy, burn-scarred apron with tongs in one hand and a hammer in the other, banging away on a glowing bar of metal, and occasionally her anvil.
Mingled with her rhythmic percussing, however, a steady hissing, as of Venomtongue and perhaps several dozen of her closest friends and nearest relations gathered to complain together. The fans no longer sufficed for the thing in the trunk. Janet had replaced them with a steady spray of water. The unorthodox indoor fountain had no need for a catch basin. The water evaporated well before it could reach the floor.
In the attic, Marius found the wardrobe door wide open. The thing from inside sat in one corner of the room, leaning against the wall, by the window, contentedly sorting cloth squares for a patchwork of some sort, while Jane pinned the finished ones for sewing.
Marius perched nearby, and tilted his head to one side until Jane looked up and saw him. She glanced at the thing, then turned back to smirk and nod at the owl. She had everything under control there, too.
The mirror in the greenhouse had been uncovered for the day, of course. When Magnar rose up as tall as he could stretch to stare into the depths, the few edges of shadow seemed to writhe with activity, and the population seemed to have risen as well, which should not be possible.
When Magnar, Marius, and Maximus meet up at the circle in the basement, the thing inside has taken an antlered form again, but this one is much shorter, even than Marius, and its torso runs down to the ground, without any hint of a leg. The little thing broke into a detailed yet brief dialogue as soon as the third listener appeared. When it was done, the thing collapsed for a moment into a little puddle, then swelled into the undifferentiated blob that used to be the normal thing shape. Magnar, Maximus, and Marius went out using their various paths to patrol the area in a pensive mood.
They stopped by Jimmy’s place first, hoping for an exchange of updates, but the mid-sized sedan sat out front once again.
“I hope he is not going to get in trouble for helping me,” Marius worried aloud.
“I am certain that, whatever happens, Jimmy will handle it. He is a clever young man, and his family would not have chosen Jimmy to stand guardian of the world in this conflict if he had not proven best capable,” Maximus responded.
“You think he was chosen and sent on purpose?” Magnar asked.
“Oh, I am sure he volunteered first, but look how quickly his fathers and brothers showed up when Jimmy anticipated the need for an alibi, even in this time of restricted travel and pandemic paranoia. One brother had to fly to manage it. That meant two weeks of quarantine when he got home for less than twenty-four hours of being useful,” Marius pointed out.
“There are not many people on these splashy worlds who can drop that much time and money on almost no notice if they had not planned for such contingencies in advance.”
Marius flew in a low, thoughtful loop around his friends. “I am fairly certain that Jimmy’s father is still in St. Louis, just in case… I hope he knows we will help, too, if he needs or even wants us.”
“If he does not, I am certain his mother will remind him,” Magnar said with a complacent smile.
Setting aside their chat with Jimmy for a more opportune moment, Marius led the way off, careful to take a different route to cover all of the key areas, as they did each time. No need to make it easy for an enemy to set up an ambush by falling into patterns.
On their return here, they found Merrylegs communing with the pond frogs outback. He quickly excused himself and hopped out when Maximus rounded the corner of the greenhouse.
“Maximus!” Merrylegs called. Then he added, “Magnar, Marius, there you are!” with some show of relief.
“Hello Merrylegs,” Magnar said, his tongue moving fastest than dog or owl, as usual.
“Have you been calculating?” Merrylegs asked, hopping forward to stand in the middle of the trio, looking from face to face, not certain which one he should be asking.
“Only in a desultory, mental way,” Marius admitted.
“The accepted pattern is still not quite right, though.”
“Oh,” Merrylegs sank down into the grass. “Your center is unsuitable too. I hoped that with the Curse Keeper’s other locations, we would be able to settle things now.”
“Poor little froggy,” a sharp, high voice called from the other side of the gate. “Are those big, nasty closers ganging up on the little opener?”
“Perhaps you should come home with me. I know the Master has several French recipes that he would love to try,” Nipper added when Merrylegs did not respond.
One foot at a time, Merrylegs turned his back on the silver fox, who laughed nastily, but did go away in the end.
“Why did Nipper’s offer to feed you come out sounding so threatening? Magnar asked.
“He was not offering to feed me. He was talking about eating me. The French are somewhat famous for cooking things like snails and frogs legs on purpose, not just because they are hungry and have nothing else,” Merrylegs sneered.
“Oh, like traditional Korean cuisine and dog,” Maximus said with a grim huff of exhaled air.
Magnar snorted. “I do not know that either of you have anything to complain about. Almost everyone, everywhere eats rabbit.”
Three hard stares turned on Marius, who just shrugged. “Do not look at me that way. I am certain that humans somewhere have made a habit of eating owls, too. They just have not gotten the same kind of press.”
“Speaking of eating and food, your ladies have taken my master out for dinner and shopping, so we are on our own for the evening,” Merrylegs said.
Maximus sprang to attention “We should check on the things inside.”
“Would you care to come in?” Marius offered. The sky which had been grey and blustery all day chose that moment to start leaking.
Maximus sent Marius and Magnar inside with a look; Marius so that his feathers would not get too wet for flying, and Magnar to check on the mirror with dark coming on so early, and no humans around to see to covers and lights. The leak was only slight at the moment, but it could (and probably would) turn into a flood at any moment.
“Are you sure?” Merrylegs asked, surprised both by the offer and the sudden disappearances.
“Certainly,” Maximus said. “I know that you are rather fond of the damp, but we always like company.”
Merrylegs nodded his acceptance, and Maximus led the way into the house through Magnar’s tunnel, instead of employing one of his more secret ways.
They need not have worried about the mirror. The ladies knew what they were about. Someone, probably Jan, had put the cover on the mirror before they left, and the outdoor lights were on a sensor which clicked on even as they entered. Neither Magnar, nor Marius was in evidence, but after only a few minutes, they rejoined Maximus and Merrylegs in the warm, moist greenhouse, smelling of herbs, flowers, and… clay for that project at that time. It might as soon have been stone dust.
With a great, eye searing flash of lightning almost directly overhead, the sky opened up to flood the earth. As if that great eruption of sound and light formed a long awaited signal, several things all happened at once. In the stygian blackness that followed the blinding light, almost completely lost in the roar of the sky, a bang that would have been loud in any other circumstances heralded a complete loss of electricity in the house, and the outside lights went dark. Though in that moment, no one could possibly have heard the small snap and slither, with something more visceral than ear or eye, all four animals felt the elastic break and cover of the mirror fall to the floor.
“Oh no,” Magnar whispered.
A lesser flash of lightning lit the waterlogged scene beyond the windows, and added another problem. Three of the stone seraphim who had been haunting the neighborhood, disappearing its children stood just beyond the glass, no longer crying.
“What pointy teeth those statues have,” Merrylegs muttered into the rain. “They can’t get into the house, right?”
“I would not count upon it,” Marius said, his tone far dryer than the weather.
The next flash of lightning showed the statues around at the door end of the greenhouse. “Perhaps we should retreat to the forge,” Maximus suggested, stepping forward to put himself between the threat and the others. “If we wake the thing, we will have light that no one and nothing can put out.”
“That is not a bad idea, but I do not think we have that kind of time,” Magnar said. “You have forgotten the things in the mirror.”
Maximus kept his eyes focused on the patch of darkness that had to contain the seraphim, but Marius and Merrylegs both turned to see what Magnar meant. The odd thing was, they could see it. In the textured darkness of the rest of the room, lines of faintly glowing characters danced over the surface of what had been mere glass only minutes before.
A strangely monotone and artificial yet familiar voice cut through the sounds of rain and thunder yelling, “Warning! Warning! Danger, Companions! Danger!” as if the warning were needed. The strong, purple light backlit the stone statues from a small, convex metal dish that had sprung from D/OG’s forehead was most welcome, however. Unfortunately, he stood in the mouth of Magnar’s tunnel, between the seraphim and the door.
Even more unfortunately, all four original figures on this stage now stood too close to the mirror. Long, claw-tipped arms stretched out from the surface and dragged them toward what no longer even remotely resembled glass, with the seraphim, no longer forced into immobility, following close behind.
D/OG broadcasted a demand that the hands, “Release my associates!” but the sound waves barely had time to form before the last soft feather vanished from sight. Before D/OG could move, the last stone feather was gone, as well. With no hesitation, it leapt and plunged through the portal before it could close.
To experienced travellers between dimensions, the passage presented no particular features of interest, though it tickled. The clawed hands released their grips soon after each transitioned fully through the former mirror’s surface, and shortly Marius and the others found themselves in a vast, open space.
Though fully enclosed, the round room stretched at least one hundred meters in diameter. The stone floor felt warm under paws and feet, and the air was filled with a sourceless light as of a desert afternoon. Instead of walls, swirling sand flowed and shifted in slow, rasping currents like a golden river over unseen rocks, curving up into a dome high overhead.
Magnar picked himself up and scratched at an ear with his back foot. “I do not think we are in Illinois anymore, Maximus,” the rabbit said, paraphrasing Dorothy.
Marius stood up and shook himself, fluffing his feathers back into place after their clawed crushing. “About as far from Illinois as Oz was from Kansas,” the small screech owl agreed. “I wonder what happens next.”
Maximus stood, facing back the way they had come. Though he did not speak, his very silence drew the attention back to see what had his attention. At the edge of the stone floor, just proud of the swirling surface of sand, a round hole into darkness drifted in the air. The same lines of characters that decorated the mirror before it sprouted hands ran across the inky depths, but the three seraphim from the greenhouse blocked the path.
In that new place, the Crying Seraphim no longer resembled statues. Their wings glowed an actinic, translucent blue, their skin seemed scaly and a pale orange color, and their robes a poisonous green.
“I do not think those escapees from the top of a Christmas tree will let us pass just because we asked nicely. We may be in for a fight,” said Merrylegs.
“I fear you are right,” Marius replied. He turned to D/OG. “Do any of your sensors detect anything useful.”
D/OG stepped away from the little group, towards a stone chair which had flowed up from the center of the floor. “Scanning. The floor is limestone. The chair is limestone upon a granite dais. The roof reaches thirty meters at the apex. The walls averages one hundred twenty meters apart, though this dimension shifts constantly. Particulate flow moves at an average velocity of 12.5 km/sec.
“Luminous assailants scan as only partially solid. Number is 20. Three at room entry point, seventeen located at various points near the room’s ceiling. Warning. Another presence approaches!”
D/OG pivoted to look off to one side as he exclaimed his warning. All the animal companions turned to await this new arrival. A female form surfaced through the sand. The Seraphim may have been carved from her pattern, though she had no wings. She wore a purple evening gown, at least the start of one. Her torso and the gown dissolved into a cloud of mist and vapor below the waist. Long black hair flowed down her back. The stone floor flowed like the sandy walls as she drifted over it in curves and darts until she swirled around the chair, coalescing again on the seat.
Magnar hopped forward a short distance and said, “Good evening, Madam. I think there has been some misunderstanding here. Your acquaintances here have abducted us. We now request you allow us to return to our proper place, so we can continue our mission.”
The woman leaned forward in her chair to study the unusually large hare. A sinister smile spread across her face. “Oh, there was no mistake. I know exactly what your mission is. And I have no desire to see it completed.”
Marius looked over at Maximus and shrugged, letting Maximus take the lead if he wanted it. Maximus stepped up parallel to Magnar’s position. “And we know who you are, too, Discordia. I am sorry, but we can not allow you to stop us from proceeding with this mission.”
With a whimsical gesture of mock surprise, “Why! You have heard of me? I should be flattered. I must insist that you stay and tell me all about myself. I think we can quite comfortably entertain each other for…oh say eleven days?”
“While we thank you for your hospitality. We have urgent obligations elsewhere,” Maximus apologised. Beside him, Magnar bowed his own apology.
Discordia sat forward in her stone chair, looking down at the companions like a queen gazing down with disdain upon willful subjects. “I think not. I know what you and those three sisters are attempting, and I find the alternative outcome much more to my amusement!”
Merrylegs shuffled forward, “But what about me, magnificent lady? My master and I work to foil the plans of these three and their ladies, and all this dry heat really is not good for me.”
“You keep strange company for someone with such goals, and your master as well. Say the word, and I shall turn you over to my lovely Sallus’s keeping, but until month’s end, I think your master can do better without you.” Discordia’s grin was just as sharp as Nipper’s had been.
Merrylegs hopped back to his friends, and Maximus gave him a lift up from the sandy stone. Marius took wing for a brief moment to flap the short distance over and land on Magnar’s ear before saying. “You are not a Player and have no right to interfere. I would strongly advise you to cease this unwarranted and unhelpful interference.”
All the movement of the three animal companions and their bold words had keep Discordia focused upon them, Meanwhile D/OG had moved around to the right of the whole gathering so he stood off away from the animal companions and the throne. Now they did not think they could trick Discordia with just such a simple trick as ambushing her in her own throne room, but they had a more subtle plan in mind.
Pointed a long finger with elegant red nails at Marius. “YOU have no say so in this matter. You are my prisoners! This year the Openers WILL win! And all the Earth will be plunged into night, chaos, and madness!!” Then she made a sudden chopping gesture and a trapdoor opened beneath the animal companions on the stone floor.
All three animals fell suddenly through the space opened beneath them. After a few moments of tumbling they found themselves standing in an oubliette. There were 3 dim lanterns on the wall of the enclosed space, casting minimum lighting around the oubliette. Maximus looked up and called to those above. “YOu will not be able to keep us here. This is a very unwise decision!”
A lyrical feminine laughter echoed down the hole followed by, “I will let you out next month. Until then you three are my guests! So make yourself at home in my little cell!”
Magnar spoke up for the first time. “You better not harm our friend!”
Discordia responded, “What…this toy dog? It is not even alive. I’ll throw it out in the sand dunes with all the other castaway trash! Now enjoy your stay!” The trap door slammed shut, sealing the three animal companions in the oubliette.
Maruis shook himself, getting some of the sand that lay all about the floor of the oubliette out of his feathers. “Is everyone alright?”
Magnar spoke up, “I’m fine. The drop was expected. How about you, Maximus?”
“I am good. I think that went exactly according to plan,” replied Maximus.
“Yes, she even agreed to discard D/OG, just as we thought,” stated Magnar
Marius added, “She is quite predictable. I would say though we should just get comfortable. We will have a wait of a few hours.”
The animal companions made themselves comfortable on the sand strewn floor in the dim light from the lanterns and set themselves to nap and wait.
D/OG stood idle and seemingly inactive as DIscordia ordered her light seraphim to take its still form and throw it outside of her palace into the howling sandstorms of her kingdom.
It lay motionless as the beings picked it up and carted it out of the throne room. Soon they had exited the palace and dumped him unceremoniously out among the howling sands.
D/OG waited for 45 minutes after his audible seasons first heard the howling winds of the sandstorms. Then it powered itself fully back up and looked around with his sensors. This was sufficient time for the guarding light seraphims to depart and no longer pay attention to him.
D/OG scanned his full surroundings. It sensed the howling sandstorm but his combination of sonar and radar senses were able to detect details of stone ruins all around him. It hopped up and began moving. It had its master to seek out., who had been pulled through the mirror days ago and now very likely was a prisoner of Discordia.
It detected the signal of his master’s acoustic wrench, a tool its master never was without, and began to travel through the thick sand dunes toward the signal. The travel was slow, but he was designed to operate in all types of terrain and environments
Tracks stretched behind D/OG as it moved across the landscape. D/OG moved on as straight of a line as it could, dodging statues half buried in sand, and collapsed buildings,now just in ruins.
Soon D/OG found the path toward its master blocked by a large stone door embedded in the side of a sand dune just outside the outer wall of Discordia’s palace.
D/OG deployed a beam emitter from its back. The strange device looked like a small communication dish, but this one transmitted very dangerous energy.
The emitter began to pan back and forth as a beam of purple energy radiated out of the emitter. D/OG broadcast the beam for several minutes before effects began to appear on the door. Cracks began to form where the beam played most across the doors surface, and then spread out to all edges of the door. The door soon crumbled and fell to rubble. D/OG made his way over the rubble and down the deep stairs toward the palace’s dungeon.
Two flights down and the floor leveled out, cells all around. D/OG moved down the dark hall, following the signal of his master’s acoustic wrench. Soon it was before a cell door. D/OG turned his purple beam emitter on this door and soon had it crumbling to dust. There hanging from manacles mounted on the wall was his master. The master’s things were in a pile in the corner of the cell. The signal from the acoustic wrench came from that pile.
“Master, I have come as you told me to do. Are you well?” spoke D/OG.
The prisoner looked up. “Ah, D/OG. I knew you would come in time. I am well. Now do what you can to get me free of these manacles. My acoustic wrench is over in my coat. Could you pass it here?”
D/OG approached the Master’s coat, then deployed a grappling arm from inside its body. It grabbed the acoustic wrench from the pocket and with a well aimed flip tossed the wrench up to its Master’s right hand. With a brief adjustment with one hand the Master had activated the acoustic wrench and caused the right manacle to pop open. With a free hand and the acoustic wrench he soon had the left manacle open. “There much better. “
The Master picked up his coat and then turned to D/OG. “Thank you for the rescue my good companion. Where to next? “
“Master, there are associates to rescue from the throne room before departing through the mirror portal,” replied D/OG.
“Good Good. then lead the way, faithful one. “
D/OG and Master retraced his steps and soon were sneaking through the palace to the throne room. “Where are your associates being held?”
D/OG moved over to indicate the trap door where the animal companions had been dropped. A few quick actions with the acoustic wrench and the trapdoor was sliding open.
Maruis looked up at the sudden increased lightning in the oubliette. “I think our plan has its climax.” The other animal companions responded to his voice and awoke from their nap.
Soon the Good Doctor and his companion the D/OG had the animal companions out of the oubliette and they were fleeing through the portal mirror. As they exited the mirror, they heard the distant voice of Discordia ordering her angel servants to rush to recapture them. The acoustic wrench proved useful by cracking the mirror and sealing the portal.
The things were still behaving oddly. Jane had to replace the drawstring meant to keep the mirror cover in place with elastic because not even their most secure knots would stay tied and keep it in place all night. The thing in the wardrobe never stopped moving anymore, though it still did not knock on the walls. Janet had to set up fans in the forge and ditch the trunk cover all together, even with the dropping temperatures outside. The thing in the circle started to take on definite shapes of its own, even when no one stood nearby to mimic. After making their rounds, the three companions went over to visit Jimmy, and bring him up to date on the game so far. They found him in the back yard raking up leaves under an old oak tree that survived the clearing and construction of ten years previous.
“Good Morning, Jimmy,” Magnar called out in the near silent language of rabbits. Jimmy looked up immediately. For an instant of surprise, they, all three, saw the wild looking out of Jimmy’s eyes. It did not seem to phase anyone and passed as soon as it came, so they could all pretend it stayed away.
“Good morning to you as well,” Jimmy said with a wry twist to his lips.
“We are wondering if you had any more official visits, or heard anything more about the investigation into the officer’s misadventure,” Marius asked, settling on a low trailing branch, not far over Maximus’s head.
“Most of the activity in the area seems to be focused on the disappearing children, though there is some speculation that the disappearances are linked.
“Other than Special Agent Whitfield’s visit to discuss botany, I do not seem to be of any particular interest to either the federal or local authorities. The Neighborhood Watch are not-so-subtly keeping an eye on me, but they are trying to do that with all of the major characters in this particular drama, with varying degrees of success.”
“I wonder what effect all this searching and surveillance has had on the Curse Keeper and Mouche,” Maximus barked.
“I imagine if you checked today, you would discover he has moved.” Jimmy smiled.
“Really?” Magnar asked. “Why?”
“He is a very clever man. Even given his unfortunate condition, he would not have neglected to plan for some sort of pursuit under the circumstances.” Jimmy’s smile grew a bit more pronounced.
“And you are not going to tell us what it is,” Magnar accused. Jimmy did not respond to him either. The three companions left the man to his rake, leaves, and secrets, and went looking for Merrylegs. Maybe the frog would be able to find a way through the organic barrier to check on the Curse Keeper. Unfortunately, Neither Maximus, Marius, nor Magnar could not find so much as a damp footprint. Eventually, they gave up and headed toward the Dark Fae’s Victorian dwelling.
No immediate signs of life manifested there either. Marius perched on a window ledge and exchanged a few words with the ghost beyond the glass. Well, maybe not an exchange. He spoke to her, but I do not know if she spoke back. In any case, when Marius stopped she disappeared. A very short time later, Medea came streaking around the house with her fur bushed out as much as her short coat would allow.
Medea stopped dead at the end of the drive, staring at Maximus and Magnar. She yowled and jumped straight up in the air, coming down with her back arched and spitting at Marius when he spoke to her from the other direction.
“Are you all right, Medea? She did not hurt you did she?” In spite of the way Medea reacted, concern filled Marius’s gentle voice.
“She?” Medea hissed. Stress shaped every line of her body, but she clearly fought to regain her feline calm.
“I asked your house ghost to let you know we were outside wanting to talk to you,” Marius explained. “Unfortunately, it is hard to tell just how much a ghost will understand, and how much he, she, or it is capable of doing on such a limited acquaintance.”
Medea stopped arching and bushing to an extent where the others felt safe in approaching to a more conversational distance. She started to lick her fur into order, speaking between licks in a passable version of her usual feline aplomb. “In spite of the usual,” lick, “feline affinity for spirits,” lick, “and ghosts of all sorts,” lick, lick, “I was unaware that this house was haunted.”
Medea turned to attend to her other flank for a time, until Magnar, at least, fidgetted, wondering if she had finished. Maximus and Marius waited with supreme patience and good manners while Medea put herself back together.
“A pair of very cold hands, that I could not see, picked me up from my catnappery on the couch. Invisible, and implacable arms, ditto, carried me through the house to the backdoor. This portal opened without the sort of creak one might expect, and I was deposited on the back porch, and nudged in this direction.” Finished with her ablutions, Medea stared up at the clear blue sky.
Eventually she added, “In retrospect, the handling was polite and gentle. Next time…if there is a next time…I shall keep that in mind.”
“Are you all right, Medea?” Marius asked. “I would not have asked for her help if I did not think that you should take the ghostly interaction in stride.”
Medea stiffened, just a little, but enough that Magnar shuffled over to press a big, warm flank against hers. Medea tried to scowl up at the rabbit of unusual size, but he did not mind.
“My Master has had some more… disagreements with the Neighborhood Watch. They seem to think that they have something in particular over him. I honestly think that if they were one whit less afraid of the Master that they would not hesitate to move against him openly, confident that they could weather any public or official censure.”
“It is nice to feel certain,” Maximus said, matching Medea’s offhand.
“Even when one is entirely wrong.” Marius added.
“It might be nice to see those nasty cultists get what is coming to them, but I am just as happy if they stay frightened,” Magnar admitted, rubbing his chin over Medea’s head.
Medea batted at the big bunny with both forepaws, though she kept her claws sheathed. Medea turned her back on the insult to her dignity, though she did not step away.
“Did you gentle beings have some purpose to this visit? Or is it just to add… spice to my day?”
“We wondered if anything came of your idea to discover the Curse Keeper’s other pied-à-terre,” Maximus said, following the change of conversation without resistance.
“Yes, it did.” Medea sat up straighter in pure pride. “You were quite right about his… orientation, Mouche I mean, and his manners. I put that together with some of the stories I know about games past, and what you let slip about your suspicions about who he and his master might be… Then I just asked the next time I saw Mouche.
“He and his master are far more isolated than Mouche is really comfortable with for this game. Once I assured him that I was on his side, and I would not trade or give away the information to anyone I was not sure shared our inclinations, he traded me both the other pre-moon death sites in exchange for as much as I know about the Officer Affair, and everything gathered on Mrs. Hillary and her cultish friends.”
“Modest requests, all considered,” Maximus mused.
“Are you willing to share or trade for the locations?” Marius asked with a little bow.
“He said that I should share. He mentioned you three by name, specifically,” Medea said. She shrank down to her usual, slightly uncertain posture. “Shall I show them to you? I meant to go by your place with the information this evening, but I have time enough now, if you are free.”
“We would be delighted to accompany you,” Magnar said, but Maximus turned so that he could look back towards their own domain.
“If the cultists are growing more aggressive again, after their initial checks; I think one of us should go back and keep an eye on the ladies. I would hate to see anything happen to any of them because of all this.”
Medea tried not to goggle at Maximus, but his attitude did not phase anyone else.
“That is not such a bad idea,” Magnar agreed. “Make sure to give Jan a big, slobbery dog kiss for me when you check on her. It should make her laugh.”
“We will escort the good ladycat along her way while she helps us to the information we were not clever enough to gather for ourselves. Go ahead and see to the ladies we leave behind at their work,” Marius said, bowing first towards Medea, then back in the direction of their house.
“Right,” Maximus barked.
“Thank you for your help, Medea.” Maximus said, turning back for a bit of eye contact to make the sentiment proper. Then he trotted off on his errand.
Medea looked after Maximus for a long moment, then she turned to the bird and bunny watching her. She could not quite find the words to ask or comment on how odd she found Maximus’s…‘concern’ might perhaps cover the idea, though ‘priorities’ might suit better.
Though no real expression showed on the feathery face, Medea grew certain that Marius would be smiling at her if he had anything more mobile than a beak for smiling with. “He is a very good guard dog, protective.” Marius said, and with that semi-explanation, she made do.
“Lets go to the southern site first. It is the closer of the two,” Medea said at last, and walked off. Magnar hopped sedately at her side, leaving off any of his more energetic antics while Marius ghosted along overhead.
After a couple miles, Marius and Magnar crossed into territory new to them. Marius sank in the air to drift along near the others. “How much further is this first site this way?”
“Several miles yet,” Medea half-appologised.
“And the second,” he asked.
“Not much further to the south, but a good distance to the east.”
“Well drat,” Marius said, with some force, but no real heat.
“What is it?” Magnar asked, more because tradition demanded someone to ask the question than because he could not figure out the answer on his own.
“I will have to do all my calculations again. These will pull the center well away from the East Wood Haven wood, and it had such a promising depressed circle running under those trees.”
Marius drifted back into the sky. A major road where it crossed the ‘T’ of another in the middle of a bunch of fields ahead. He needed to scout out a gap in the flow of traffic or a better path for the earth bound to cross. The area was lightly accented by a filling station and a half dozen shops in a small strip-mall tucked into one corner of the intersection, but this was hardly the sort of area to have an animal crosswalk available.
Medea and Magnar cut through one corner of a field of dry brown soybean plants, whispering against their fur and onto a sunken, muddy track that may once have been either dirt road, or an old stream bed long diverted to irrigate the surrounding fields until the banks collapsed into a near flat hollow.
They drew near to another patch of scrub woodland left wild between field and field. “It is in here,” Medea announced, following the almost track where it plunged into the trees.
After the bright sunshine, the new gloom fell like an unwelcome blanket over the head, and it took a little time to shake it off well-enough to see properly. In almost the exact center of the little wood someone, somehow had left an old, single-wide trailer, overgrown with blackberries until it blended into the rest of the greenery, only just growing visible as the growing chill stripped away the veiling leaves.
“Is he inside?” Magnar asked, his voice a little too loud for the private-feeling gloom of the place.
“He shouldn’t be,” Medea whispered. “Mouche said they should be at the other location today.”
“I will go check,” Marius volunteered. He perched among the thorns, peering into every window before returning.
“The place looks empty, but it is far better appointed inside than you might think from the exterior; Wood paneling, heavy velvet curtains, very good furniture, et cetera. If one had learned to be comfortable without electricity or running water, one could do quite well here.”
“That sounds about right,” Magnar nodded.
Medea did not have an opinion to share, so she turned to lead the way to the second location.
“The last location is more like the first. The Curse Keeper opened up another part of the old mines. Instead of burrowing horizontally into the side of a hill, this opening was a deep shaft stabbing deep into the earth. The Curse Keeper set up housekeeping in a cross tunnel about twenty feet down,” Medea explained as they walked.
“I hope they have an easier back entrance,” Magnar said after a little thought. “Dogs are not famous for their climbing abilities.”
“True,” Medea agreed, a little smugly.
Medea, Magnar, and Marius knew something was afoot well before they reached the old mine shaft. They had reached a real stretch of woodland among all the farms, and the shadows under the trees contained a small army of uniformed humans.
First, the three animals had to slip through an outer ring of local police. These mostly faced outward, tasked with keeping out civilians.
After that, Marius ranged ahead, guiding his friends away from teams of scouts, and others detailed to guard or seal ventilation and secondary access points. When they found the knot of federal agents, state police, and local authorities quietly organizing the operation, Medea led them off to one side and into a little knot of bushes, comfortable enough for persons of their size, yet safe from the semi-random trampings of the intent humans.
“I don’t know how much closer we can manage and still avoid notice,” Medea mewed, watching one little group all in black and body armor checking their weapons and other gear while another group prepped a squat, tracked robot with its own gear and a complicated climbing, or perhaps lowering, harness to get it down to the tunnel entrance.
“It does look as if the Curse Keeper and Mouche will be too busy with guests to have much time for additional visitors,” Magnar quipped, trying to disperse some of the tension in the air.
“Where, exactly, is the mine shaft?” Marius asked from his perch overhead.
“About two hundred fifteen yards in that direction,” Medea said, pointing beyond the softly chattering knots of humans with a thrust of her nose.
“Then, we should have all the information we really need,” Marius said.
Even though both Magnar and Medea agreed with that assessment, they lingered on scene, anyway. The two advance teams moved out, and the scene grew more still and quiet except for muttered comments, and the occasional report filtering in through their radios.
“Have you noticed Special Agent Whitfield over there?” Magnar whispered.
“No, where?” Medea hissed her reply, a soft exhalation of sound.
“He is standing at the back of the van all filled with monitors and other equipment, with the other people wearing bullet proof vests over ordinary civilian clothes.” Magnar nudged her gently in the right direction.
“I did not recognise him without the purple scarf and purple mask.” Marius admitted.
“It’s too warm for a scarf today,” Medea complained. “The weather in this place can not seem to make up its mind whether it is going to step forth boldly into Autumn, or hang back in late Summer for a…”
I am quite certain that Medea intended to finish that sentence with ‘little longer’, but she did not get the chance.
A sudden, deep rumbling shook the landscape, felt as much through the feet as through the ears. A great plume of dust and dirt fountained into the sky from the direction of the mine shaft, with lesser eruptions from several of the other guarded entrances, and at least two spots that took the authorities completely by surprise.
After less than an instant for shocked surprise, Agent Whitfield and two of the others started shouting the rest into frenzied, yet somehow still organized, motion.
Marius all but fell to the ground where he could exchange speaking glances with Magnar.
Medea focused too hard on the unravelling scene to notice, without thinking she mewed, “Oh, poor Mouche,” a sentiment that would have quite surprised her only a few days before.
“We should go,” Magnar urged while Marius hopped his way up and out of the brambles to a spot where he had enough clear air for flight.
“Hmm?” Medea asked, turning her head towards Magnar, but not quite managing to pull her eyes off all the activity.
“We need to go.” Magnar emphasised the words with a nudge. “This area is going to be overrun with humans and emergency vehicles soon, and we do not want to get squished.”
“Oh, but…” Medea pled with her eyes when she could not find the words.
“Marius will stay and let us know what happens, unless you want to find a tree branch of your own from which to observe,” Magnar offered.
Medea gave the idea some serious thought, but eventually departed with the bunny.
When they had progressed well past the humans’ outer perimeter, and crossed the main road on an overpass designed for the local light rail, Medea reopened conversation. “Do you suppose the collapse was natural, some defence of the Curse Keeper’s, or an attack by one of the others?
“There are several players who probably don’t understand the meaning behind the phrase ‘collateral damage’ and at least one or two who would rejoice in additional bloodshed.”
“We are not even certain what happened yet, much less who is responsible,” Magnar pointed out.
“But we have to do something,” Medea said, surprising them both more than a little.
“We will do something,” Magnar said with absolute certainty.
“To start with, we shall exercise greater caution.”
“Pff! Then what?”
“If I come up with anything you can help with I will let you know, if you will do the same.”
Medea agreed with a grunt. Thoughts of just how or what they could do about just what exactly occupied Medea the rest of the way and past where Magnar left her catnapping on her own back porch.
Magnar went home to report new developments to Maximus, but found the house empty except for things and projects neatly set aside. After a brief consultation with two things, one with broad antlers and the other on two feet with quite small ears, who waited for him in the circle, Magnar traced the missing to John Feste’s back garden, and the remains of quite a good picnic.
Maximus took the news as a good, stoic, dog should. “Mr. Feste came over to borrow a cup of coffee, and the ladies decided to feed him. He did not want to intrude on our space, and could not, in good conscience invite us into his, so we ended up out here. There is talk of a joint shopping venture sometime soon.
“Jan and Jane are threatening to descend on the poor man for a thorough house cleaning. Mr. Feste tried to pass off his lack of hospitality as game and power secrets to protect, but the ladies quickly got him to admit that the place is just too messy for company. The poor man has trouble finding energy for housework these days, and the dirty house just makes the depression worse.”
“I hope Mr. Feste knows that he has nothing to fear from Jan and Jane’s threats.” Magnar watched the poor man almost smiling as he sat as the center of the female chatter.
“Right. It is when Janet decides something needs to be done that things will start to happen,” Maximus agreed.
“And she will not bother to threaten and give him time to assemble any defences.” Magnar smirked. Janet looked over at Maximus and Magnar, lifting one eyebrow, and they decided to change the subject.
“Is Merrylegs around?” Magnar asked.
“I have not seen him,” Maximus said, as if admitting to a dereliction of duty.
“We will have to warn him, later,” Magnar said, and Maximus nodded.
The wind picked up later in the day, so Marius stayed on watch at home while Maximus and Magnar went frog hunting. Along the way, they saw the mid-size sedan with government plates stopped at a stop sign, facing them. Special Agent Whitfiled idled there, taking the time to catch the eye of both dog and rabbit. Neither one stopped, and eventually the car drove on.
Magnar and Maximus found Merrylegs swimming idly around his fountain, and it occurred to me that the fountain could be a hopeful sign. John Feste could not find it in himself to upkeep his own quarters, but Merrylegs’ fountain was kept clean and well maintained.
“There you are,” Magnar said, bounding up to the fountain edge.
“Here I am,” Merrylegs agreed.
“We were looking for you earlier,” Maximus explained.
“I noticed all the picnic leftovers in the kitchen, but I was out sleuthing,” Merrylegs crawled up onto the edge of the second tier basin.
“Upon whom did you bend your inquisitive eye?” Maximus asked.
“I got word that Mrs.Hillary would be in the city for most of the day, so I went nosing around her place as well as someone with my disadvantages might do.” Merrylegs smiled an impressively wide, froggy smile. When Magnar started to look puzzled, Merrylegs added, “Having no real nose to speak of.”
Magnar snickered and Maximus asked, “Did you go inside?”
“No, I just peeped into every window I could find. I had an exciting moment or two when I thought I caught sight of the pentacle bowl on a desk, but the details were wrong.” Merrylegs looked disgusted.
“Have you noticed that none of the game items seem to be around? Either that or people who have them are being unusually sneaky. We have not caught a hint of either wand, the ring, the icon, or the bowl.” At first, Merrylegs sounded disgruntled. Then a wave of fear washed over his face. “I hope that doesn’t mean someone has found them all, or even most. That could go particularly hard for anyone else.”
Magnar started to say something, but Maximus bumped him. “Did you find anything else of interest in your search?” Maximus asked.
“The Hillarys’ daughter sat on the floor in a bare upper room. She was leaning against the wall reading and petting her father’s head on her lap like a dog. She had been crying.
“There is something very wrong with that man.”
“I wonder if the spell animating him is wearing down, or if what she puts him to has broken down part of his personality,” Maximus mused. Then he had to explain about Mr. Hillary’s lack of humanity and independence.
“If that is true, I am surprised that the girl is still alive,” Merrylegs said, piling on the blasé to subdue the rising horror.
“She is of far more use to Mrs.Hillary alive and healthy, at least until the thirty-first,” Maximus said with a distinct growl rumbling under the cool tone.
“Oh no,” Merrlegs said, his green skin paling. “You mean a sacrifice. My master is going to go insane when I tell him.”
“You may tell him,” Maximus growled.
While he took a deep calming breath, Magnar put in, “With absolute certainty.”
Maximus glanced at Magnar then finished the sentence. “That the sacrifice will not be allowed.”
Magnar nodded. Then he turned to stare at the back of John Feste’s house for a bit. “You might also point out that, after her rescue, Lynne might need someone to look after her, if you think it might help.”
Merrylegs froze for a long time as a dozen different reactions fought it out in his head. Finally, they settled into a temporary truce, and Merrylegs murmured, “That is a thought.”
Maximus and Magnar left it there, and offered a distraction in the form of their news about the Curse Keeper. Merrylegs said very little, though he gave enough feedback to reassure them that he took the information in cleanly.
When they ran out of news, Magnar and Maximus left the frog in peace and walked home. Scattered bands of cloud streamed across the growing face of the moon.
After some time checking in on the increasingly restless things and a good breakfast, Magnar and the others went out to collect Merrylegs for a walk in the woods. Once again, small and hoppy rode atop the canine head. As they went, they talked, automatically forgiving the lack of eye contact.
“It occurs to me that a person of the frog persuasion, such as yourself, might pay a special attention to the legless reptiles in their area,” Maximus said in a round about fashion.
“Do you want to know if I keep an eye out for snakes?” Merrylegs asked after thinking about what Maximus said for a bit.
“In a way, but I think it is more important to make certain that you shall, if you did not already make it a habit. We saw a rather large, and definitely non-native individual of a serpentine aspect hanging around the Hillary House. A friend tentatively identified the slithery one as a Chinese Green Tree Viper, and I fear he may be Mrs. Hillary’s companion. If their dispositions are at all similar, a snake that venomous could get up to some seriously revolting mischief.”
Merrylegs stared down at as much of Maximus as the frog could see from between the short furred ears, frankly amazed that such a burly dog could sound so extremely prim without being silly.
After sorting through several possible responses, Merrylegs settled on, “Edith kept a boa constrictor called ‘Hug’ and we always got along rather well, but I will keep an eye out for a new snake in town.”
“I do not doubt that some snakes can be perfectly charming individuals, but the company this one seems to keep makes me… cautious.”
Maximus tried to increase his pace while keeping his head steady. Marius, no doubt, flew relatively nearby, but Maximus could not look up to see, and he had lost sight of Magnar as well among the drying soybean plants. That took some doing since both Maximus and Magnar were taller than most of the plants. Everyone knew the way, but Maximus felt responsible for his friends, even when he was not.
By way of self distraction, Maximus asked, “Who is Edith?”
“She was Nina’s older sister,” Merrylegs said with just the faintest stress on ‘was’ with an echo of profound sadness swelling larger than the original words should be able to contain.
“Oh,” Maximus said. He would have apologised, but he thought that might just make things worse.
Maximus underestimated Merrylegs, however. “Their mother had a severe allergy to furred animals, so when her children grew old enough to want pets and be able to take care of them, she helped find friends who would suit everyone.
“Someone even gave Young John a kookaburra, and didn’t that start a ginormous hullabaloo. The birds are illegal to trap, sell, or export in their native Australia, and one of the neighbors who had been born ‘down under’ tried to create a huge, international legal stink and got everyone involved arrested for having to do with animal smuggling and a host of other things, even though there was nothing illegal about keeping poor Steve, the kookaburra, in our house.
“He was not even an illegal import, but had been bred in the US, just like generations of his family back to when there was nothing naughty about a family of kookaburras immigrating to America.” Merrylegs gave a soft croak that sounded amazingly like a huff from a more nasally endowed individual. “She never did apologize for all the trouble she caused, or any of the nasty things she said about our humans.”
“Did she just pretend it never happened?” Maximus asked, trying to wrap his head around human behavior.
“No, she continued to scowl and glare like they did something wrong. Nina’s mom laughed and started giving the sour lady home made sweet things every week or so. Hug, however, was working on a plan for getting into the lady’s bed for a good… surprise, though Hug worried about the aftermath.”
Merrylegs fell silent then. It may have been he ran out of things to say, or it may have been the way Maximus froze and crouched at the end of the field until the two men wearing Neighborhood Watch t-shirts and reflective sashes strolled past and out of sight.
“I wonder why they want to bring the old gods to this world?” Maximus mused, still looking after the two men.
“Sometimes when you have nothing else left in your world, burning the wreckage and starting over with something totally new can feel like the only option.” Merrylegs sounded both sad and resigned.
“And sometimes angry people enjoy kicking down other people’s sand castles,” Maximus said, moving on their way again.
“My master is not like that!” Merrylegs said hotly.
“Oh, I know. I was still thinking about the cultists, and maybe their leader. Your master just needs to rediscover joy and hope for something more than dissolution.” Maximus said in his most soothing tones.
“That would be nice.” Merrylegs sighed. “None of his family would approve of what we are doing, and they would absolutely hate to see what has become of him.”
Maximus opened his mouth even though he was still searching for some sort of honest reassurance. Luckily, Merrylegs changed the subject.
“I think that must be the wood in question.” The frog pointed with one webbed foot to indicate where Magnar sat under a Marius bedecked branch, though it did not do Maximus any good.
“Either that or they missed our company,” Maximus responded. Then he called out in a louder voice, “Everything all right?”
Magnar looked up at Marius, who glanced down and shrugged his wings. “We were wondering that ourselves,” Magnar said, letting his chin drop. “We have been waiting for some time now,” Marius agreed.
“We encountered a Watch patrol and decided it might be… easier to let them pass without noticing us,” Maximus strolled up to Magnar and laid his head on the ground so Merrylegs could dismount more easily.
“You know how those cultists can be,” the frog said brightly. “If once they get a hold of you, they will talk your ear off, or a leg, and another leg, and a nose, and some skin.”
“They are not nice people,” Marius said very seriously even as Magnar groaned and rolled his eyes, a maneuver that produced quite an interesting effect on a face with eyes on either side rather than facing front.
“Keeping their ‘not nice’ness in mind,” Maximus put into the pregnant pause which followed. “Shall we do our exploring in pairs, or trust in our relative smallness and swiftness among the trees and under-brush and split to cover the space more quickly along four paths instead of two?” He and Magnar both looked at Merrylegs for the answer.
When the little frog started to look uncomfortable, Marius interceded with a third proposal. “You three should split up and explore things at ground level. I will take overwatch. This wood is neither very old nor very large. I should be able to trail any human explorers who might come along to explore and from there I can interfere in anything nasty they attempt.”
Merrylegs looked up at Marius thoughtfully. The owl did not have anything like the mass times acceleration of the other two, but beak and talons were not to be lightly dismissed. Also Merrylegs knew the screech that went with Marius’s owl could be both a warning and less violent weapon.
“Are there any dogs about? This is a farm after all?” Merrylegs asked, looking at Maximus.
“I think it is better to say that it was a farm,” the canine consultant responded. “There are some signs, but they are all quite old. I think at some point around when they decided to open the house to paying guests, the resident dog moved out or passed along and was not replaced for the sake of visitors with allergies.” Maximus’s tone stayed dry and remote giving no hint as to what he thought about such a decision, or about prospective guests who would go to stay in a farmhouse with allergies, though there must have been something.
Without discussion, the four did a quick circuit of the wood before splitting up to follow their separate paths with quick wishes for luck and care from each to the others. Magnar sat looking off towards the farm house for a long breath or two after the others moved off. He still sat there when a high, nervous voice addressed him familiarly from a nearby tree. “Here to check out the oh so inquisitive Special Agent, Magnar?”
“Highwire,” Magnar acknowledged. “Something of the sort,” Magnar turned to address the tree, though the monkey was difficult to pick out in the shadows of the trees Autumn finery. “It never hurts to be well informed. How about you?”
“Something of the same,” Highwire said, jumping to a lower limb. “He is not a player though. The master is almost sure of it.”
“You have met him?” Magnar asked, more to be polite than out of surprise.
“Yes. He visited the house yesterday. The master dismissed the Special Agent as no threat to the game or his plans.” Highwire’s voice had something in its tenseness that she tried very hard, but could not quite agree with that assessment.
“What is it,” Magnar asked with such sympathy that Highwire’s control slipped for a moment.
“The master had a… servant penned in a concealed circle in the main room. No matter that I knew it invisible to ordinary eyes; No matter that the Special Agent never so much as glanced at that corner; I felt certain that he was just as aware of its presence as the Master or I. The Master disagrees, and he is the Master.” I got the feeling that Highwire started to shrug then, but some injury made her stop as quickly as she started.
Magnar took a deep breath and held it, repressing something, then he changed the subject. “Has anyone warned you about Mrs. Hillary and her cultish Neighborhood Watch?”
“Medea mentioned the lady in passing, and the Master knew about the cult in the area. The signs were very obvious to someone of his talents, even before they broke out their civic duty costume.” The last bit sounded almost like a quote, and Magnar wondered briefly if the sorcerer was the type to rant about his own greatness when unobserved.
“I thought you and Medea were not on good terms,” Magnar said instead of asking.
“That had more to do with our masters than ourselves, and they have since smoothed things over, at least temporarily.” Highwire almost shrugged again, but caught herself in time.
“Humans do some of the strangest things for the strangest reasons.” Magnar shook his head.
“Isn’t that the truth,” Highwire said with her whole heart. “Anyway, after hearing about the new player, the Master insisted that I go check her out. I met her companion.”
“The Chinese Green Tree Viper?” Magnar asked.
“Yes. I… decided on the direct approach and introduced myself. Mrs. Hillary calls it Venomtongue, though it does not seem overly impressed with the appellation.”
“It?” Magnar asked with a cocked ear.
“Well, Venomtongue is too long to say over and over, it did not say, and it is a snake, I could not exactly tell…” Highwire sounded defensive.
“Male I would think,” Magnar said, considering all his available sources. Females have white only stripes down the sides, and Venomtongue has bright orange over white.”
“Anyway, he, she, or it did not seem to know much, but we managed to trade a bit. He only wanted the current list of players, so I decided to take what she had, since shed get it out of someone. It already knew about your three sisters, the canine and owl. He does not like you three, especially Marius…” Highwire let the information dangle in the air, inviting Magnar to give up the explanation like an unwary fish tempted by a well baited hook.
“I think I know why that might be, if you have anything to trade for it,” Magnar offered with a hint of a laugh.
“She gave me something on the Good Doctor, if that will suit,” Highwire said, crouching down on her branch.
“Oh lovely. We have not heard anything of him or D/OG in sometime.”
Magnar described, as best he could at second hand, the midnight ceremony, and how Marius interrupted the cult’s intended sacrifice of the once missing and now found police officer. The rabbit of unusual size even added the information from Merrylegs indicating that Mrs. Hillary had traced the interference to their feathered friend, or at least to someone at their address.
“Yes, I can see how that might engender some little bit of hostility, even for someone one has not yet met,” Highwire responded at length. “I am surprised there has been no retaliation yet. Most of the players have grown more than a little…tetchy as things have gone along. No one seems to be having any luck gathering any ingredients which involve descrations or injury done to another.”
That bit of conversational bait dangled even more temptingly than the other, but Magnar saw no harm in snagging it. Some information, while absolutely true, could be more misleading than a lie. “Neither the ladies, nor my companions and I have managed to produce anything of the kind, either,” Magnar admitted, trying to sound suitably aggrieved instead of smiling at the thought.
I do not think he did a particularly convincing job, but before Highwire could ask about it, Magnar prompted, “So what did Venomtongue have to tell you about the Good Doctor?”
“He was the one other that the snake seemed to know about. He insisted that there were three people living in that odd blue shed, not just the Good Doctor and his D/OG.”
“Oh?” Magnar asked blandly, managing not even a hint of a snigger this time.
“The Master and my own investigations had produced no hint of any others, so I went to investigate. After all, how would they even fit in such a space, much less sleep, but would you believe it, I came along in their field just in time to see the Good Doctor, a red haired lady, and a man in some sort of ethnic or historical garb that included a shortish skirt instead of proper trousers, running along towards the box. The Good Doctor ran a bit in front of the others and got the door open some way I could not quite see. Light flooded out through the aperture and they all three ran through full speed. You would think they would all slam together against the back wall and each other, but there was not so much as a thump. Their footsteps continued far longer than they had room for on something with a metallic ring. Then the door closed, and the box was just as quiet and innocuously odd as it was before.”
“Did D/OG have anything to say about this?” Magnar asked.
“I am not sure exactly what he is up to, but he rarely seems properly interested in the doings of the game the way the rest of us are. I can’t say that he is stupid, but he seems to have something else on his mind that distracts him from the main issue.”
“Maybe it is a byproduct of dealing with someone with a digital mind,” Magnar suggested.
“Perhaps,” Highwire admitted. “Anyway, I would keep an eye out for Mrs. Hillary and her associates if I were you. The fact that she has not yet retaliated makes me far more worried than I should be if she had done something right away.”
“Thank you, we shall,” Magnar said, meaning it.
“Oh and Highwire,” he called out as she climbed higher in preparation for making her way to her next destination.
“Yes?” Highwire asked, her whole body tensing as if expecting an attack.
“If you ever need somewhere to just rest, maybe get a bath or a bite to eat, and be safe for a while, stop by our place. The ladies always love having someone new to feed up and coddle.” Magnar watched the monkey out of one eye as he turned to face the farm house again. He saw Highwire shudder as a plethora of competing emotions ran through her malnourished frame.
At the last, Highwire could think of nothing she could say, for fear of her Master somehow reading it in her mind or posture, and she vanished again into the branches. However, Magnar knew that she heard the offer, and recognised it for the genuine offer of sanctuary that it was. It was all he could do for the moment, so he turned back to his original task.
Magnar bounded toward the middle of the trees, intending to spiral his path outwards from there, but he did not even make the middle. Standing in one of the paths between straight lines of trees, Magnar found Special Agent Whitfield standing with Merrylegs balanced on the palm of one purple gloved hand.
Marius looked around quickly, and found Marius where he perched in a nearby tree, and then Maximus where he stood half concealed behind another. Merrylegs did not seem to be in any particular distress. In fact, the Special Agent seemed to be running a purple finger along the damp back, as if he knew that oils, soaps, or lotions, and especially the hand sanitizer that lurked everywhere those days, on his hands might hurt Merrylegs, and donned the gloves specifically.
“You are an awful long way from your home, Merrylegs,” Special Agent Whitfield was saying. “I wonder if I should give you a lift home.”
The Special Agent barely seemed to glance around him, when he smiled a surprisingly childlike expression. “Oh, I see. You already have a ride. Come here, please, Maximus. I do not want to make any aggressive moves that you might misinterpret, but I should like to surrender Merrylegs into your custody.”
Maximus considered it, though probably someone who did not know him near so well as I do would not see it. In the end, he sat down and started biting at his hip, ignoring the human completely.
“Very well,” the Special Agent said, not discouraged. “Perhaps next time.” He bent to place his frog laden hand down on the ground where Merrylegs could easily dismount. Merrylegs did not give satisfaction either, but hopped off into the gap between where Marius perched and Magnar stood, instead of heading to any of the others. Magnar hopped around the human, continuing his original path. After a bit more biting, Maximus wandered off in the direction opposite Merrylegs, at an angle from Magnar.
At length, Marius followed the Special Agent back to the mid-sized sedan with government plates and watched him drive off. Like Highwire, though the human never looked back, Marius flew off with the sure certainty that Special Agent Spencer Whifield knew just who followed him, and that Marius, like the others, was far more than he seemed. What Marius would dearly like to know, however, was just how much Mr. Whitfield knew, and what he intended to do with what he knew.
Magnar, Maximus, and Marius went exploring the next morning, checking on the abodes of the interested parties, and the three sobbing statues located so far. Even with the officer’s return the heavy police presence remained on the streets, if more vehicular and less nosy than before. Children were still disappearing, if more slowly than before.
The three paused sadly under a bush to watch yet another patrol car drift down the street when a mottled scrap of shadow purred, “Good morning, gentlefolk.”
Marius jumped back into the sky with what speed he could manage to search for possible threats while the larger two went to investigate.
On closer inspection, they quickly picked out a familiar face and scent. “Good morning, Medea. Are you feeling any better?” Magnar asked, crouching down so that their faces were more on a level.
“Oh yes,” Medea said with a sad little laugh. “I will manage to stick it out, I think. Thank you for listening to me, and your help the other night with the Watch.”
“We were glad to be of use,” Maximus exchanged glances with Magnar and asked, “Were you going anywhere in particular?”
“Not really. I was just watching the patrols. Another child vanished last night, but I do not see what help the official road traffic will be.” Medea gave her shoulder a meditative lick.
“Do you know if they have any theories?” Magnar asked, silently sharing the cat’s doubts as to what good the vehicular patrols might do.
“All the local police know that the Curse Keeper is in the area, and they seem to think he must be involved, somehow, even though none of the offenses he is being hunted for involved children.” Medea sneered and the others stared at her.
“You are surprisingly well informed on the subject,” Maximus pointed out gently.
“Oh that?” Medea huffed an absurd little sound through her nose. “My master has secreted a number of surveillance devices in the Watch headquarters. They are not involved with the official investigation, but they have someone on the inside who is. The Master feels it only prudent to keep track of the investigation, in case they get inquisitive about the wrong things.”
“Speaking of the Watch, have you seen much of Mrs. Hillary about the place?” Maximus asked before Magnar could do more than open his mouth.
“Oh yes. She is quite the organizer, and she seems to make some quite nice baked goods,” Medea said, tilting her head to one side.
“You do know that the local cult to the old ones and the Neighborhood Watch are the same organization, right?” Magnar asked.
“Of course.” Medea’s fur bushed out, just a bit, and just for a few seconds.
“Mrs. Hillary is the head of both, no matter how things may appear.” Maximus’s tone was firm.
“Oh dear,” Medea said, sounding more disappointed than surprised.
“What is it?” Magnar nudged Medea with his nose.
“I guess that means that we probably can not get her recipe for chocolate raspberry muffins, and would not be able to trust it if we did.”
This time it was Magnar’s turn to cut Maximus off, before the dog chased that particular conversational rabbit too far down its twisty hole.
“I hope that the Curse Keeper’s other abodes are better hidden than the first.”
“You don’t mean to say you think he has more than one?!” Medea yowled, as if the idea had never occurred to her.
“I would certainly have more than one, if I had as many people searching for me as he does. It only seems to be good sense,” Maximus responded.
“That will make a mess of the pattern. Maybe it would be easier to just turn the poor man into the authorities,” Medea hissed.
“That would make for finding the places more difficult, and if he is who I suspect, then he has played before, many times, like your Dark Fae. You would be giving up a powerful ally,” Maximus pointed out.
Medea spat, just a little, as cats do when grumpy, “So Marius told you about that…” She turned half away, as if to end the conversation. Then a thought struck her. We all saw it hit, knocking the cat sideways half a step before she turned to share it.
“Is it true that soon everyone will know who is on which side?” Medea asked.
“The diviners will know first, but it should spread from there fairly easily. Each side can only be strengthened by working together, and if nothing else, that sort of collaboration will show.” Maximus smiled, but Medea may not have recognised the expression.
“I don’t think that my master is much of a diviner, and I would so much like to know that we are not alone. I know what you said about the Curse Keeper, but that is only a suspicion and with the authorities hunting him, he has little choice but to be anti-social,” Medea broke off there, before her tone grew too pleading. She very carefully did not look at any of the others, giving her shoulder a nonchalant lick or two, but the question she did not ask rang in the silence like the memory of an unstruck bell.
Magnar stared hard at Maximus, who pretended not to notice.
“Would you like to come along with us? Marius has figured that if we include all of the shady characters suspected of being player in the Great Game, that puts the center of things in the big, abandoned building near the Curse Keeper’s known abode.”
Magnar huffed and stamped one big hind foot a few times, but he went along with the dog’s decision. “Our information indicates that it once served as an asylum.”
Medea paused to lick her other shoulder before answering. “And you need to know if it had a chapel, or a graveyard, or some other bit of consecration. Of course, I’ll come. We will need to know. Too.”
“Oh good, It is a big place and we will cover the terrain much more quickly if we can split up.” Maximus led the way off, using the under fence tunnels Magnar dug on previous journeys to good effect.
Medea had to abandon feline dignity and run a bit to cath up. “Why do you need a fourth in order to split up? Is there something in you calculations against odd numbers?”
“There are a number of individuals and at least one group in this area who do not play nicely, so we prefer not to explore isolated areas individually, to many opportunities for ‘accidents’,” Maximus’s said, his off-hand tone at odds with his words.
“I would not like to be caught by Mouche nosing around so near to his master’s best known hide away.” Medea admitted, paradoxically walking closer to one dog for comfort when touched by fear of another.
“I think you can count on Mouche to react in a gentlemanly fashion as long as you are polite and follow the rules,” Magnar said, bouncing around the slower pedestrians.
“That is all right for you, there are three of you. I am on my own playing my part in this game.” Medea batted at Magnar as he passed in front of her, but her claws were not out.
“You do not seem to be on your own at the moment,” Magnar pointed out. “Friends should stick together.”
“Magnar,” Maximus chided sharply.
Medea would probably have let the declaration of friendship pass as nothing more, if Maximus had kept his yap shut, but instead she missed a step and yowled if softly. “You are? Really? All three?! Hooray!”
“Well, hrmm, yes. There is no need to broadcast it to the whole neighborhood,” Maximus huffed, but amusement lightened the rebuke into something else, entirely.
“Right,” Medea agreed without a fight, eventually, there were no houses near but Magnar and Maximus could hear her purring softly for the rest of the trip.
I might as well tell you now that the trip was a waste except as a source of negative information. For an abandoned building with such a dark reputation, the old asylum was kept in surprisingly good repair. The wrought iron gate was chained shut with a newish lock, the lawns were kept mowed relatively short, and the few broken windows were neatly patched with plywood, so that finding a way in proved the most exciting part of the adventure.
This is no to say the building was unhaunted, but even the unhappy unstable shades in that place found little to object to in their furred and feathered visitors. It took a while, but though they explored every room on every floor, no trace of a chapel remained if it ever existed, the same with a graveyard in the grounds.
“Well, that was anticlimactic,” Medea said outside the gate, licking her fur straight where icy, unseen fingers had stroked not quite the right way.
“At least, we can check it off our list now,” Marius said, working hard to sound off hand. The ghostly attentions had, perhaps been hardest on him, as bodiless caresses can make flying through corridors more exciting than it needed to be.
“What does that mean?” Medea asked.
“Either we are including at least one person who should not be included, or this is proof that the Curse Keeper and/or others have abodes established before the death of the moon that we have not yet found,” Marius shrugged.
“So now we have to come up with some sort of watch rota for Mouche and the Curse Keeper,” If Maximus sounded a little disgruntled, one can hardly blame him. The three were only just getting used to the slower pace after shepherding the officer back to his friends and family.
“You think we can count on Mouche reacting like a gentleman?” Medea asked, more thoughtful than fearful this time.
“Oh yes, I am almost certain you do not have to worry about an attack if he notices you following him,” Magnar sounded more certain this time.
“No, that is not it,” Medea mewed. “Let’s leave off the heavy surveillance for a day or two. I have another idea. If it pans out, I will share, but I want to think about it a bit, first.”
“As you will,” Marius agreed.
Maximus, Marius, and Magnar escorted Medea back to the Dark Fae’s porch to snack, nap and think, then headed towards home.
“Well, look at that,” Maximus said, sitting suddenly to stare at the government license plate on the back of a black, mid-size sedan parked in front of Jimmy’s house.
Marius looped forward to buzz the front windows before coming back to land on a mailbox by Maximus and Magnar.
“Special Agent Whitfield and Jimmy are talking in the front room. There are cops and a plate of muffins on the table, so it looks civil enough,” Marrius reported.
“Do you think they traced Jimmy’s car?” Magnar worried aloud.
“You two go on,” Marius said. “I’ll stick around here and check in with Jimmy when the Special Agent leaves.”
“Why should you be the one to stay behind alone?” Magnar asked.
“I am the smallest, so it is easiest for me to hide, and I am the only flyer in the game, so I can stick to terrain the rest of you can not easily reach,” Marius pointed out.
Magnar opened his mouth to argue, but instead he sighed and took a long careful look at the neighborhood around them. The rabbit must have found what he was looking for, because he nodded and hopped on, if not with quite the energy he displayed on the way out.
“Say ‘Hello’ to Jimmy from us,” Maximus said with a nod before following the fluffy tail.
At their front, Maximus gave a half bark and dropped his nose to the ground. After a few good sniffs, he moved off at a fast trot, his nose still low, circling around the house on the greenhouse side. The trail led to the pond, and then off through the back gate into the fence row.
Maximus and Magnar found Merrylegs sitting in the center of the leafy depression where the dogs and bunny first saw the distressed policeman. The frog watched them without shifting.
Maximus split up as they approached, stopping where Merrylegs could still watch them both at once, but the furry ones both had room to move if they needed to do so.
“Hello Merrylegs,” Maximus said and Magnar nodded a greeting as well.
“I have decided to be straight with you fellows,” the frog said, skipping the greeting, “I have not forgotten about the bowl.”
“You do not owe us anything for that,” Magnar started, but Merrylegs cut him off.
“When the Neighborhood Watch mobilised to join the hunt for the missing officer, this is the first place Mrs.Hillary and her search partner went, even though it was nowhere near his last known position. I think you can assume that she knows you and Marius rescued the poor man. She will not take it well, especially with the frustration everyone is having over getting the usual ingredients.”
“Have you heard anything about his version of what happened?” Maximus asked.
“He was taken from behind, and people in hoods and masks. If they manage to bring anything home, there is little hope of it happening before the month’s end.” Merrylegs shrugged.
“I have a feeling that woman is going to be trouble for more than just us before this month is out,” Maximus sounded grim, and the others nodded.
“Is there anything we can give or do for you in exchange?” Magnar asked, shuffling his paws. He liked Merrylegs and felt profound sympathy for the human who lost his whole family in a car accident that spared him. Unfortunately, anyone could see that John Robert Feste was left with a profound antipathy for the world as it was. That he should bestir himself to this extent just to keep the world unchanged seemed profoundly unlikely, and that would make Merrylegs and the Widower opponents in the Great Game.
“Well,” Merrylegs thought for a moment. “Do you know anything about the tribes who used to live in this area?”
“Tribes?” Maximus asked with a hint of amusement.
“Well, I am not certain if I should say Indians or Native Americans. It seems to be different from tribe to tribe or even person to person. Almost anything can be offensive if you put it in the right tone of voice or context. At the same time, you can rob anything of its sting by refusing to accept the anger, bitterness, or whatever the speaker loaded into it.” Merrylegs shuffled his webbed feet and looked away.
“I think that around here they were Mississippians. Are you thinking about what bits of sacred ground they might have left behind?” Maximus glanced at Magnar.
Merrylegs shrugged and nodded and shuffled all at once as if he could not decide how to respond and got caught up in several all at once.
“Well, we know about Monk’s Mound and the others over at Cahokia,” Maximus said, probing just a bit.
“No, mounds won’t do. The area is too flat,” Merrylegs said, scowling at nothing.
“Not far from the mounds, excavators found the remains of at least five circles they call the Cahokia Woodhenge,” Maximus said with a stiff upper lip. “We are going to go explore the wood by the old farm house for something of the sort tomorrow, if you would like to come along,” Magnar added.
“It is not just a farmhouse. These days it is a Bed and Breakfast as well, called East Wood Haven,” Merrylegs said, tacitly accepting the invitation.
“How do you know that?” Magnar asked in surprise.
“Special Agent Whitfield mentioned the place when he was visiting the master earlier.He is staying there,” Merrylegs said.
“What did he want?” Maximus asked.
“I am not certain. They mostly talked about classic cars.”
They exchanged looks and sat in silence for a while. Magnar broke first, “So we will come for you tomorrow morning to go exploring when there is plenty to see by.”
Merrylegs said, “Sounds good,” and hopped off in the general direction of his house. Magnar and Maximus continued their patrol. The only other encounter of note was finding the sedan with government plates had moved to the street outside the Hillary house, and they noticed a long, bright green snake stretched along the sill of an upper window.
“A snake that brightly colored almost has to be highly venomous,” Maximus said as they continued on past the house under that flat red gaze.
Maximus, Marius, and Magnar went out in the cool, crisp early morning to nose around the Watch Headquarters, checking for any new outrages on their behalf.
They happened upon Merrylegs as they went along in companionable silence.
“Hello Merry,” Magnar said, hopping right over the frog and then back. He sometimes got restless keeping his pace down to something Maximus could match.
“Hello Mags,” Merrylegs said in the same tone, hopping left out of Magnar’s path. “How is our officer friend?”
“Safe and sound. We delivered him into Special Agent Whitfield’s custody in the city last night,” Marius said as he drifted silently over the ground bound trio.
“Oh good,” Merry legs said, bouncing a little in place. “All the watch people suddenly disappeared off the streets last night. There was a lot of activity in there. I was afraid they recaught him.”
“There were a few moments…” Maximus acknowledged.
Merry legs gave a deep sigh. “We have to be careful what we talk about now, don’t we?”
“I do not really see why,” Magnar said, and Maximus rolled his eyes.
“What?” Magnar drew himself up to his full height in indignation. “Merrylegs is our friend. Even if he is playing on the other side, we can still talk to him and trust him. If there are things his human told him not to share, he just has to say so, and we will not be offended. We have things we are keeping to ourselves, too. I can not see any of us trying to trick another into giving away something he should not.”
Maximus turned his head to one side briefly, then nodded and asked baldly “So, how is it going?”
“Not too well, to tell you the truth,” Merrylegs said with a shrug.
“Problems finding the center?” Marius asked.
Merrylegs gave another sigh. He looked hard at Magnar then said, “I should not say.”
“You are taking into account the Hillary house, I hope?” Maximus asked, nodding his head at the headquarters building.
“Not Michael Hillary!?” Merrylegs half-asked, half-begged.
“No, Elaine,” Magnar corrected. The three companions exchanged stories the night before, so they were all up to date. They suspected that Special Agent Whitfield had to go straight from the cemetery to the city to be in both places when they saw him, possibly to report.
“No, I don’t think we counted her, but that woman and her friends are not safe to be around,” Merrylegs said sternly.
“I would be careful around him as well,” Magnar thumped back down. “You never know how much influence spouses can have over one another.”
“True… Since you warned me, I have something small I can give you. It can’t be in that parking lot. The master has access to some very specialized libraries, and he has found good reasons why not.”
“Thank…goodness for that. Can you imagine trying to build a bonfire and all the other things without the human authorities interfering? I know the place is shut at night now because of the pandemic and everything, but the police still have surveillance cameras in that lot.”
“Let us hope that wherever we end up, it is somewhere a bit more secluded,” Merrylegs agreed.
“With good ventilation,” Maximus added.
A rueful laugh fluttered around the little group, then it drifted apart.
Marius drifted off to his favorite thinking perch in that artificial village within the suburb, to think. If he had more durable plumage, Marius should have liked to perch on the steeple of the smaller, more overtly religious, and yet unused village church, but that only suited him on windless days. For the rest of the time, Marius sat in a little nook up under the steeple roof where the bricks were not quite lined up right, which was sheltered from the weather in most directions, but still gave him a good view.
“I wonder if we should warn all the others about Mrs.Hillary,” Marius wondered aloud, talking to himself, or possibly to me.
“I cannot imagine that anyone has missed the threat posed by the ‘Neighborhood Watch’ to the game, even if they were just honest citizens roaming the night in an effort to keep the children safe. Most of the players have questionable habits that can not stand so many nosy neighbors with anti-socially inquisitive habits.”
Marius sat quietly for a few minutes, then he said with finality, “We can just mention her in passing to any of the others we meet, just in case. We would draw too much attention if we went out of our way to alert the others out of an unbelievable concern for their well-being.”
With a sigh, Marius launched himself into the air. He swung in a large, high circle, slightly wobbly as the air currents added unexpected twists and bends to the smooth line. In his mind, Marius drew lines across the landscape connecting all the commonly accepted players’ homes.
“Let us see,” Marius hooted softly. “If we do not include friend Jimmy’s abode, the center of things lies… somewhere in that wood over there, by the farm house.”
Marius wobbled another circle then drifted in that direction to get a somewhat closer look.
“I do not know of anything to signify under those trees, but the place is worth exploring anyway. Civilization, using the word as it originally was meant in having to do with cultures that built cities, may be relatively new to this country compared to places like Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, but there were still people here who may have left bits of sacred ground suitable for the final conflict far less obvious than a church or even a ring of standing stones.”
Marius returned to wobbling around the empty steeple, redrawing his lines. “If we all decide to count Mr. James Talbot as a full player, even without a companion of his own, the so sought after center shifts to the big old ruin near the Curse Keeper’s hiding place. I think it was a sanatorium at some point, so it may well include a chapel. It, also, must be investigated.” Marius drifted that way, as if drawn by an invisible string. Then a gust of wind smacked the small bird off course. He flapped wildly for an exciting few breaths to regain altitude.
“Tomorrow, it should be explored tomorrow, and all together. There is speed as well as safety and some comfort in numbers, and buildings can be easier to explore for details on the ground, anyway.”
Marius returned to the house through his private entrance under the roof. The attic was dark, but not as quiet as it should be. Marius drifted across the room to perch on one corner of the wardrobe. Then he could feel as well as hear the massive thing inside shifting. The movements must be small, for it did not knock against the walls, but they were constant. A worried bird flew down to find his friends.
Marius found Maximus and Magnar in the living room while the three sisters made interesting smells in the kitchen. Magnar sat in a compact lump in one corner of the couch like an over-sized, furry cushion while Maximus was still crossing the floor to the fire from his own entrance to the room.
Without lifting his head, one of Magnars ears perked up and turned to track Marius’s path while watching the dog. “Did you have a nice flight?”
“I have two candidates for the center for us to check out,” Marius said, settling on his branch.
Maximus wuffed noncommittally, and Magnar’s ear resettled.
“The… thing in the wardrobe is active. We need to be wary,” the bird added.
“The power is starting to build. Things can only get more tense from here on out, until everything is settled,” Magnar pointed out.
“ True, but Janet had to replace the cover on the trunk in the forge because it was starting to smoke,” Maximus said, and a speaking silence drifted between the three crammed full of things they did not say.
Abruptly, the furry cushion on the couch flowed into a great bunny on the floor. “Maybe I should check on the mirror,” Magnar said, and the others followed. The outdoor lights clearly lit the landscape beyond the sunroom windows, but the fitted cover Jane made had somehow shifted askew. None of the reflective surface was uncovered, but one corner of the wide frame showed past rumpled fabric like a corner of a mattress escaping from fitted sheets.
Without a word, Magnar stretched up to tug the cover back into place with careful teeth. With exaggerated non-chalance, Magnar parroted Marius’s earlier conclusion. “We need to be wary.”
To which Maximus added only a deep. “Indeed.”
So close to the new moon, the three shadows that met in the corn were very shadowy indeed, only to be picked out from the corn dancing under the wind’s caress by the stillness of two, and the way the one, largest shadow, moved contrary to the figures of the dance.
One shadow said, “I do not like this. We are deliberately misleading the others about who is and is not playing the game.”
Another shadow said, “That was our intention from the first, and we have not lied to anyone.”
One shadow said, “No, we are just letting them draw the wrong conclusions, and not correcting them. It still is not very nice. Some of them are our friends, and we are telling everyone about Mrs.Hillary.”
The last shadow said in a voice lost in the whispers of corn and wind as it drooped with fatigue. “Mrs.Hillary is different. She is a threat to everyone, with all of the helpers that she can call upon, she has already shown that even our friends and surveillance can not stop her from hurting anyone all the time. The other mistakes about the player lineups are unlikely to hurt anyone, and we have the whole world to protect.”
Another shadow agreed. “Besides, the longer people spend working out the mistakes we could correct them about, the less time they will have to figure out the things we do not want them to know.”
One shadow said sadly, “I guess that is so. They are going to start trying to hurt each other in earnest now, are they not?”
Another shadow said firmly. “Some will, but we shall assure that no more harm is done,”
One shadow said, “This is not a very nice game.”
The last shadow said, “No, not a nice game, but if only the bad people played because the game is not nice, then everyone would lose.”
Another shadow added, “Besides, this is just another, more complicated application of our Cape waving and Showmanship skills.”
One shadow asked, “Is that why the bowser, the bunny, and the bird are exploring sites they know can not be the actual center?”
“The ‘bowser’?” Another shadow asked, faintly offended.
“I could not think of a better term for a dog starting with ‘B’, and I like alliteration,” One shadow admitted.
“It is better than ‘Bow wow’.”
Another shadow may have humphed, but the wind swallowed it. “Yes, we do not want the others to guess they know things and pursue the three sisters and their friends instead of the red herrings others dragged across the true path.”
One shadow sighed with the corn. “All right.”
The last shadow said, “Only twelve more days until we can go home.” I did not hear any answer to that, but it must have been enough, because all three shadows blended into the dark and were gone.
Moon Death night, and the last chance to relax before everything starts in earnest. Instead of something game related, the three ladies decided to host a picnic lunch for Jimmy, and then get started on their new projects. Tales were told, drinks drunk, and cakes consumed by bipeds and quadrupeds alike (with plenty left over for later) until Marius felt called upon to go check on the officer. Magnar and Maximus escorted the humans to their homes. Only then did they go out to check on the greater neighborhood, or perhaps to walk off some of their dinner.
Either by luck or some unobtrusive advice, the postprandial perambulators found themselves on the edge of an obscure, old cemetery just after dark. Let me tell you, there is not much above ground as dark as the night of the New Moon away from electric lights, so even I did not quite see everything. The stars can only do so much, and both low-light vision and heat vision have their drawbacks when it comes to details.
What I think happened was this:
Magnar and Maximus drew up at the cemetery gate and Maximus asked, “Where do you think we should go now?” looking through the bars at the grave stones. The grass had grown a little long, but someone still kept the markers clean and in good repair, including flowers on several plots.
“I am not entirely certain where we are now,” Magnar admitted. “So whichever way we go has an equal chance of being a good choice, as far as I can tell.”
How Maximus would have responded will have to wait until I get the chance to ask him, for at that point the sound first of shovels, and then low voices started springing up from different points inside the stone wall.
“You are faster,” Maximus whispered urgently. “Run around and see if there is still an occupied vicarage or caretaker around while I go in and see just who is doing what.” Maximus opened his mouth as if he desperately wanted to continue his expostulation, but Magnar did not wait. Time might be important if they wanted a chance to keep the graves only messed with instead of truly violated.
Some people may consider what those stone markers guarded to be the equivalent of cast off garments, but we have a ghost friend, so could not dismiss the possibility of hurting or otherwise distressing the vitality challenged denizens of that place. Not to mention the effect finding a great hole and grandmother with bits missing might have on someone visiting a lost loved one.
Maximus started to worm his way under yet another gate, when it slipped forward on silent hinges at his slightest touch. A whiff of fresh oil in the air explained things well enough. One of the invaders entered that way, and left it open in case of emergencies.
Maximus paced carefully along the inside of the wall, trying to locate, or at least count, the anti-socially distanced little convocation. Maximus thought he recognised most of the voices, but he could not be certain. It seemed to the dog that he walked nearly a mile and a half over a two-year time span while listening to those quiet, insidious sounds, and that each hole must reach half-way through the earth’s crust before anything happened. However, he had not even reached the first corner, and it takes longer to dig a six foot deep hole with a shovel than one might think, especially if you want it wide and long enough to be of any use opening the coffin at the bottom.
Suddenly, the deep voice of an unfamiliar hound trampled over the softer sounds near at hand. As if that first great howl were the first note of a canine cantata, it was quickly joined by a number of others. Bright light sprang up beyond the wall ahead of Maximus, sliding through the bars in a second, wider gate, and he almost added his own howl, a joyous, “Hooray,” to the blend of voices when he saw it. Beyond the wall, a door slammed open, and a male human voice joined the canine clamour, followed by the grumble of an engine, a basso note uplifting the rest of the choir.
By the time that the entire cacophonous chorus and some of the brightness began their approach, all digging had stopped, and most of the diggers were in full flight. One tall figure in a long coat stood his ground by his chosen grave until the strengthening light clearly outlined his silhouette and that of his pointy-faced, canid companion. One dark fist clenched around his shovel more as a weapon than a tool. Then, when the light stopped for the opening of the gate, the shovel slashed through the air with what would probably be a curse if it could be heard, and the last remaining pair of invaders fled after the others.
Grinning madly as only a bulldog could do, Maximus followed, careful not to get too close to any of the defenders or invaders. He did not want to have to explain his presence on the scene, either.
On the outside of the gate, Maximus almost bounced down his own back trail, since it was the only one without recent traffic. The path he and Magnar used had been too small for human sized traffic. Magnar hopped up to amble alongside after a little while.
“That was very well done,” Maximus said as if he never paced and worried along a stone wall in his life. “How did you manage it?” “It was not hard once I found the kennel. I just had to explain what was going on to the hounds, and they took care of the rest.” Magnar managed to shrug as he hopped, though one had to be looking for it to notice.
“They did indeed,” Maximus agreed, huffing a laugh. They travelled a time in contented silence. “Maximus… Did you notice, in the trees beyond the wall…?” Magnar stopped and started a couple times as his mouth outpaced, or at least did not trace the same path, as his thoughts.
“Special Agent Whitfield was watching. Yes, I saw him. Someone has been indiscrete.” Maximus nodded.
“Do you think he would have interfered if we had not?”
“I do not know. One skinny man hardly makes the same impact as bright lights and a pack of hounds. He could hardly take on them all, and at least one was inclined toward violence even as things were.”
“I wonder what it might do to the geometry if an intended player gets arrested tonight and spends the rest of the month in jail,” Magnar wondered after a few more hops.
“It would certainly make some things simpler,” Maximus said with a sigh.
“Simpler is not always better,” Magnar pointed out.
“Simpler is not always easier,” Maximus agreed.
While Magnar and Maximus were out playing in the cemetery, Marius got the police officer a little further along, but the patrols took a lot of dodging. Eventually, the small owl had to stash the poor man in another shed so he could go back to check on Jan, Jane, Janet, house and the various ‘things’ in their assorted containers: wardrobe, mirror, chest, and circle. It is true that Magnar and Maximus would be checking on them all, too, but Marius was a very responsible bird.
When Marius returned to the shed, something on the ground made him hesitate. He circled it twice before landing soundlessly on the roof. The man leaning against the closed shed door stepped away to look up at the owl, anyway.
“Hallo, Marius. I’m glad to see you.” Jimmy smiled easily. “At first, I thought I might be hunting down Mouche, or whatever he calls himself these days, but this makes much more sense in the current set up.”
Marius perched on the edge of the roof and studied the young man. He thought about Magnar’s theory and fervent hope. As an avid reader and explorer of the written word, Marius knew even more about ‘Larry Talbot’ than the large bouncy one. However, Marius knew that very nasty things could lurk behind innocent, young, smiling faces. Sometimes children would come out totally different from their parents or grandparents. As other people had said, that month was not the time to take chances.
Then again, Maximus and Magnar were very good judges of character. Marius nodded slowly to Jimmy, and gave it a shot. “Hello, Jimmy. Were you really looking for me?” Marius would have loved to lift an eyebrow to punctuate the question, but he had to settle for slightly closing one eye and just as subtly widening the other to convey the same effect. His feathered face did not have the same range of motion as humans took for granted.
Jimmy’s smile widened at the same time as he ducked his head in acknowledgement. “No and yes. I was tracking the gentleman in the shed, but if you or one of your friends did not show up, I would have switched targets.
“I assume there is some reason you three have been spiriting him carefully westward across the landscape, possibly related to why he has not simply walked off to rescue himself? This shed is not locked.” Jimmy lifted the heavily furred skin that commonly graced his brow ridge with only the faintest, teasing smirk on his lips.
Marius opened his beak to put out his tongue as far as it would go (not very), then he explained about the sacrifice attempt and the unintentional side effects of the sabotaged spell.
After a little thought, Jimmy asked, “Why didn’t you just explain what happened to your lady friends, and get one or more of them to drive the distressed officer across the river, most of the way to the enforcement enclave of your choice, without talking to the man?”
Marius shuffled his feet and resettled his feathers, then half-answered. “I am only mostly certain that he will not remember anything. You humans have gotten very clever at helping people remember things they would rather not, I have no idea just how much Special Agent Whitfield and his friends may be capable of, and I have never crossed from theoretical to practical in this sort of thing before, so I do not know if I may have missed any other quirks.” Marius sounded both defensive, and as if he was making up excuses on the fly, neither of which were at all like him.
Jimmy obviously thought that getting human help had never occurred to his feathered friend and that Marius did not want to admit it, though Marius might still have a point in his excuses. Jimmy was too polite to point out the former, so he responded mostly to the last. “All right. How about I go get us some wheeled transport. Then you can entice our all-too-sought after friend out of his hiding place. You guide him into the back seat of the vehicle and into his mask. I shall wear mine, too. Then casual observers will be less likely to recognise him, and he is less likely to recognise me.
“I will transport us to the hotel parking lot nearest the FBI building some time between midnight and one AM, so that you can direct him to walk himself over to that haven in words that he can understand. The building will be officially shut, and there is a fence around it, so he will have to find a call button on the box by the gate. Even if there are no agents in the building, security should provide the human voice address to break the spell in a position far enough from our lovely Neighborhood Watch and their sphere of influence for him to be safe.
“After he makes it to Market Street, we can keep an eye on him from the bank across the street and make certain the man does not get waylaid on the home stretch.”
“Will it be safe to leave a wounded officer of the law, in uniform, in downtown St. Louis, alone at night? We kept hearing about all those awful burnings, shootings, and riots in cities around this country before we moved here and had other things to pay attention to,” Marius asked, suddenly wondering if they would need to find the officer new clothes and a way to get him changed into them before letting the man out of their paws and talons.
“”There have been a few riots locally, but not nearly so many as in some places, and not recently. He should be safe enough, and we will be there to intervene if he is not,” Jimmy said, and there was that in his toothy grin that said even a full blown riot might have trouble if Jimmy Talbot chose to oppose them.
“So what do you think?” Jimmy asked, spreading his hands and bowing his head, a big young man, awaiting the pronouncement of the little night bird.
“That sounds like an excellent plan, but even without the man’s memories, the officials may track him back to your vehicle, and from there to you,” Marius worried aloud.
“If I am asked, I shall tell the truth. I joined with many others in the search for the missing officer. Finding him in this shed, injured and only semi-responsive, obviously the victim of some assault and untrusting of the local population, I took him to the only non-local law enforcement outpost I knew the location of, and not wanting to get further involved in the investigation, I let him do the last of the journey to safety on his own.”
Jimmy gave his toothy grin again, and we could see his internal wolf laughing at those who would be his enemies. “I spent most of the day and all of the night on which the poor man disappeared in a big hotel across the river, visiting with my father and two brothers, well within the excellent surveillance blanket of the establishment. Our family talent for anticipating things told us all that I might have a need for an alibi for that particular span of moments.”
Jimmy must have had his vehicle parked nearby, for he left and returned again after only a very few minutes, even though the shed stood miles from his house. After days of sneak, scout, and scramble, the remainder of the rescue went with ridiculous ease.
From across the broad street, under the trees, Marius and Jimmy watched the young officer approach the dark gate between its white pillars with slow, sleepy steps. He stood looking at, or at least facing the gate for a subjective eternity that could not have lasted more than an objective sixty seconds. Then the disheveled dark uniform shuffled left a few feet. A clumsy hand lifted to do something to the dark faced pale box on a pole standing there.
In a gesture clearly visible to both of the unusually sharp pairs of eyes watching for it, life and reason flowed into the lone man at the gate. Shoulders and spine straightened. Hands moved to straighten a three-days-lived-in uniform, and only then lifted to investigate the angry wound at his throat, all the while looking around at his surroundings.
He must have kept talking, or said something of particular interest, because the inquisitive hand had not yet dropped when a tall, slim figure, no less recognisable without his purple scarf came striding out of the utilitarian building to take charge of the no longer missing officer.
Marius let out a sigh bigger than his whole body when Special Agent Whitfield had his new charge within the fence, and the two watchers retreated to a moderately nice car to head back across the river.
“It is fairly obvious, since you rescued their intended sacrifice, that you know all about the connection between our ‘Neighborhood Watch’ and the cult to the old gods, but I just mention it to make certain,” Jimmy said, slowing his speed to match the changing limit. Even at that time of the early morning, cars wizzed past, but at least the interstate population was low enough that driving legally did not constitute a traffic obstruction, and a mortal gamble.
“Not all about it. We are pretty certain that there is a player at the back of the cult and the thin veneer of legitimacy they try to spread over their nasty little plans,” Marius said from where he nestled in one of the vehicle’s cup holders. A seat belt would probably do more harm than good at a screech owl’s height and weight.
“Mrs. Hillary is the player,” Jimmy pronounced with certainty. “I have often found a bright green snake with red eyes and a narrow white stripe down the sides in the area when Mrs. Hillary is being particularly obnoxious.”
“Oh good,” Marius responded, without thinking about it.
“Good?” Jimmy asked, glancing down with that single eyebrow raised again.
Marius shuffled a little uncomfortably in his makeshift nest.
“Well, maybe good is not quite the appropriate word, but I have been having a hard time not assuming that she is the opener, even though there were a good number of cultists to choose from. I feared that my personal distaste for the woman’s manners and actions were prejudicing my judgement, since I had no real proof. It was Mr. Hillary who wielded the knife, and a group of chanters in robes bespelled the officer.”
“I think you can safely jot down anything Mr.Hillary does on the docket of Mrs.Hillary’s misdeeds,” Jimmy said, swerving just a little to turn into their exit, as due to insufficient signs he only noticed it at next to the last moment.
Marius coughed slightly and resettled himself again asking, “How is that?”
“I do not think you could count Mr. Hillary as properly alive. He is certainly not even as human as I am. He smells more of rubbing alcohol and lemon than any fauna I have ever encountered. On four feet I have done some watching of my own, and Mr. Hillary only has as much free will as she allows him, to keep up appearances.” “I see,” Marius responded slowly. “Owls are not famous for our sense of smell, and either Magnar nor Maximus have gotten near to the semi-gentleman, so I will have to take your word for it.”
“Not to change the subject or anything, but I was going to hunt you down for more than just news of the cult. The officer was a bonus, and we are running out of road,” Jimmy sounded just a little embarrassed.
“Hmm,” Marius responded, obviously thinking about something.
“Will you tell me where the big ceremony is to be held? I have tried to learn how to do my own calculating, but no matter how carefully I do my figures, even for the very simple things, they always feel wrong or even distorted somehow.” Jimmy made a face and turned down the long, gradual exit from the interstate onto the local roads.
“You have to take all the layers of mines below this area into account, and that does make things difficult” Marius said. “I will tell you where everyone will meet up for the final moves of this Great Game with pleasure.”
“Thank goodness that I do not have to worry about identity questions. I just need to find out if anyone has any homes away from home that I need to include.” Marius hopped out of the cup holder. “If you will open the window at the next light, that would be lovely.”