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Wizardy Herbert parts 1 and 2

a guest Jan 7th, 2013 7,855 Never
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  1. Wizardy Herbert and the Mobius Slipknot
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  4. The excitement in the air was so thick, you could spread it like custard on a crumpet. What a marvelous summer day it was to be a child, whisking through the knee-high rye, bounding over the hills with a smile challenging one’s face to contain it. What a marvelous day it was… for magic!
  5.         Scampering youths contributed to a gulf of human confetti. It was a surge of robes and floppy hats, broomsticks, mops, even a few dustpans and soap buckets. Giddy young hands clutched wands, scepters, staves, rods, switches, swizzlesticks, batons, and even an uncooked strand of spaghetti here and there. A menagerie of prospective familiars squawked and murmured a generic din of animal noises. The creatures were in various states of being caged, restrained, tame, disease-free, alive, and the opposites of all those things, in many, many permutations.
  6. The children had propped up makeshift tables and set kettles to boil, as the lads and lasses were not ones for sparing afternoon tea. The shrill cacophony of whistling kettles and clinking sugar spoons barely overshadowed the racket produced by no less than four dozen impromptu cricket matches. Wicked googlies sliced through the air and laughter, much like, let’s say, an elusive winged golden projectile fluttering about, oh, a field in a fictional magical sport played on brooms. It doesn’t really matter what it’s called.
  7. Quid itching to flee pockets and purses was wagered generously on games of skill and chance. Dartboards awaited darts whizzing towards them on trajectories perpendicular to the googlies. Union Jacks flapped gallantly. Giant pictures of Prince Charles and Margaret Thatcher were hoisted to the heavens, their likenesses made bleary through the children’s tears of pride. A vigorous vocal treatment of God Save the Queen boomed at a jarring volume, muffled patriotically through mouthfuls of meat pie and blood sausage. Somewhere in the crowd, several bobbies chased a man in fast-forward time to the tune of a humorous kazoo. The children were enamoured of their newfound lot in life, and savoured every moment of it.
  8.         This is exactly what happened. Every bit of it. Or that is, it is exactly what would have happened if the children were British. In fact, not a bloody one of them was British. They were all bloody Americans.
  9.         This requires admittedly a slight modification of the depiction of events thus far. It is not without chagrin that some of these accounts will be rescinded. Though let the record show that a certain easing into the possibility that a reality may exist in which young people who are not British may also be enamored (sensibly spelled, without a “u”) of magic and witchcraft. You are being asked, boldly, to peer through a rare looking glass into a strictly incredible universe in which the United Kingdom’s stranglehold on youth-based occult and whimsical childhood sorcery is marginally less like the grim vice grip of a pit-bull on a mailman’s groin. Much is being asked of you. This is fully conceded.
  10.         Though the abject silliness of tea and googlies and such may have been a cruel literary bait and switch, the rough picture still holds true (though there may have been a spare picture of Margaret Thatcher somewhere in the crowd by pure chance). There exists somewhere on a grassy landscape a teeming horde of youngsters, all sorcery enthusiasts and quite eager in a general sort of way. There is among this horde a singular boy who will be the subject of our attention. We will note two things in particular about this boy. Far from exhibiting the enthusiasm of his fellow children, he was mystified by the gayety, and more than a little alarmed as well. Additionally, far from hailing from Great Britain as the preceding deluge of bullshit might have had you believing, this boy was from the state of New Jersey.
  11. This boy’s name was Wizardy Herbert.
  12.         Herbert scanned the crowd from behind his eye patch. Was he missing something here? The robes, the floppy hats… Was this a pajama party? That kid over there, he was chasing after an iguana. And another was attempting to coax a very grumpy badger into a magnificently undersized cage. Between the jubilant cheers, outbursts of song, and dispersed chatter of nonsense one makes when speaking in tongues, Herbert concluded every one of these children must be on drugs.
  13.         He began noticing a common thread among the kids, aside from the shared trait of exhibiting clinically psychotic episodes. Most of them were armed with books. Children’s books. Tales of marvelous imagination and adventure, and above all, magic. The most popular series were there. “Rutherford Trick, Volume Three: The Whooping Ghoul of Flatulan”, “ALASHA-ZAMMM! UP IN SMOKE!!!”, and some volumes in one of Herbert’s personal favorites, “Vera Valera and the Secret Sorceress Sorority”. This was a clue. It all started clicking in his mind. It was all starting to make sense…
  14.         No it wasn’t.
  15.         Herbert thought about the uninspired contents of his suitcase. Clipboards, an adding machine, some yellow notepads, a visor… a visor, of all things. That kid over there was wearing a billowing rainbow-patterned hat. It would almost look Rastafarian, if it weren’t so flagrantly homosexual. He hadn’t thought to bring anything magically-themed. Not even in a half-assed way, like the kid over there in his father’s robe, with stars and moons smeared on it with asphalt paint from the garage. Why should he? He thought he was going to Accounting Camp.
  16.         But then, he suspected something was askew from moment-one, with kids prattling on about magic and the repeated mention of some guy named Thundleshick. The name rang a bell for Herbert. It might have been the name of the man he guessed was the head… accounting guy, or whatever you wanted to call it. But the way the kids spoke of him was not how one expected any Chief Accounting Honcho to be spoken of. Usually the phrases “great magician” and “wise beyond the great cosmic manifold” did not appear in sentences pertaining to accountants.
  17.         All aside, it was a beautiful day. High spirits and good cheer were abundant, and it was difficult to anticipate anything ominous. Difficult to anyone there, except for Herbert (who found himself wondering what Office Depot’s refund policy towards clipboards was). Call it intuition. Also right in lockstep with this grave intuition was a girl. Though you wouldn’t know it by the playful expression she wore as she approached Herbert from behind. She tapped Herbert on the shoulder.
  18.         “You look lost,” she said.
  19.         He turned, startled to see someone wearing ordinary clothes. “Me? No, not at all. I just seem to have misplaced my enchanted scepter. Not to mention my potbelly pig familiar. He’s all I have, and I’d be crushed if I lost him.”
  20.         “I know what you mean,” she commiserated in the silently agreed upon language of sarcasm. “My magical flamingo freaked out and just… took off. I’m Beatrix, by the way. Beatrix Tipplepot.”
  21.         “Wizardy Herbert. Nice to meet you.” She made a peculiar face at this, and Herbert knew what was coming. It was the story of his life.
  22.         “So, your last name is Herbert? Do… do people call you Wizardy?”
  23.         “No. They call be Herbert. It’s my first name.”
  24.         “What is Wizardy, then?”
  25.         “It’s like… a first-first name. A pre-first name, I guess.”
  26.         “So what’s your last name?”
  27.         “I don’t really have one.”
  28.         There was a moment of awkward silence, one to which Herbert was accustomed and heavily inured. He allowed it to pass like a noisy ambulance before continuing with the conversation.
  29.         “That’s a nice… uh…” Herbert wasn’t sure what it was hanging from Beatrix’s neck. A kind of locket? He was no jewelrysmith, nor was he sure such a trade existed.
  30.         “Thanks. I’m not sure what it is either,” she said holding up the odd accessory. It was a silver disc, hollow in the center like a donut, and very much did look as if it opened up like a locket. “My sister gave it to me. This ring too!” She held up her hand, flashing an ornate silver ring with a pink jewel. “… Before she died, that is.”
  31.         “Oh. I’m sorry to hear that. I’ve lost family too.”
  32.         “It’s tough, isn’t it? Getting by without parents…” she said with a conversational melancholy.
  33.         “Huh? I, um… I never said I didn’t have parents.”
  34. People were always assuming he was an orphan. Was it something about his demeanor? His looks? It was almost as if Herbert fit some profile for a type of person others needed to believe in. A person who’d lost his parents in a terrible, ominous event. A person who’d walk the earth as a lone, troubled soul, one day unraveling the threads of that event and colliding with destiny. One whose entire star-crossed existence would prove to be the epicenter of a dire evil which would either fall or flourish depending on the degree to which he’d realize his own inner greatness.
  35.         But he did have parents. They were two very loving parents who cared for him, and usually gave him what he wanted. When he revealed this to those who supposed otherwise, he was met with incredulousness, and frequently the additional query, “Are you sure you’re not adopted?”
  36.         “Oh… Are you sure you’re not adopted?” Beatrix asked, hemming.
  37.         “Very. Really, I wish I was sometimes.” Herbert said nonchalantly, as if to quell her flustered embarrassment by downplaying his attachment to his parents. She frowned. Herbert mistook it for sadness, and it was his turn to feel like a social imbecile. “Oh, sorry. I mean, no offense, if that is your situation. I kinda gathered you were implying you didn’t have parents, with what you said earlier. I hope I didn’t make you feel bad by saying I wished I didn’t, and… wow, I…”
  38.         Herbert didn’t have time to continue his ingratiatory blithering, because that is when some really exceptionally magical stuff started to happen. The grassy hills and blue skies were suddenly seen as if holographically projected onto luminous, all-surrounding silk drapes. Those drapes billowed and fluttered in a magical breeze, then dissolved, giving way to a new surrounding. It was now a dense forest, a lush, mossy, exceptionally magical forest. Gnarled vines and creepers wrapped about each other in taught spirals, tickling mammoth leaves, molesting bulbs and fondling toadstools. The thickness of the surrounding wood produced an element of claustrophobia, with all views obscured except directly upwards, which offered a look at the night sky so saturated with stars, it resembled a prolific thief’s cache of diamonds spread on dark velvet.
  39.         Herbert had to admit, it was magical. He noted all the other kids, including Beatrix, were as spellbound at the sight as he was. Or as he would be, at least, if he weren’t so cynical about magical affairs.
  40.         Through the splendor of illusionry and the muscle spasms of hysterical facial expressions, almost went unnoticed among the crowd was the silent work of nimble monkeys in dapper red suits. They efficiently gathered the children’s luggage, brooms, coats, wands, animal cages and the like, and heaped it all into one big pile in the center, ostensibly for later transport to somewhere else.
  41.         From above, echoing footsteps descended from a quietly manifesting stone staircase. It was as if a piece of a castle were being dangled from the sky, terminating with a stone platform suspended high above the pile of luggage.
  42.         A pair of old brown shoes clicked onto the platform. In those shoes were sweaty feet, and attached to those feet was a pair of chubby, elderly legs. Mercifully, they were mostly concealed by ancient rags you might have called a robe, if you were feeling daring with language. Emerging from rags was a chubby, smiling head with twinkling eyes and a greasy beard which had achieved dominance over the face long ago, and now only sought to make a perpetual and ostentatious show of military strength. It was as if someone had forced a gray Muppet through a paper shredder and glued it to the man’s face.  
  43.         “Thundleshick,” was a whispered chorus among the awed children.
  44.  
  45. Elwin Thundleshick was a kindhearted man of good humor and renowned benevolence. A special wisdom and tranquility had been etched deep into his soul, much like the lines etched deep into his paunchy face, both in ways that uniquely stem from countless years devoted to magic and children in a venerable life (a life which has lasted no fewer than ten thousand years, we are to believe unwaveringly). He was the type of sage who could say volumes more with his smile than his words, and sometimes even answered questions with the odors emitting from his body. Such was his magnanimity that he’d sacrifice all worldly pleasures if it meant the enrichment of even one benighted child. And it had seemed that such a barter arrangement had been made for the luxury of bathing some time ago.
  46.  
  47. The children stood in silence, their heads craned upward. Crickets had their say, for the first time not drowned out by the fanfare of excited youth. The scepter rested gently on the stone, while a doughy, spotted hand raised itself with the import of one belonging to a person about to speak. The children held their breath. Even the beads of sweat rolling down their faces came to a standstill at the pregnancy of the moment.
  48.         Thundleshick’s face broadened, revealing hard boiled egg yolk-colored teeth. “Children,” said a surprisingly melodious voice. “With the authority vested from the spirits of this sacred land upon this humble servant, and with all due pomp, ceremonious circyooitry, and pontifical profundosities, I hereby decree this summer camp of whimsy and the occult to be… in session!”
  49.         For a moment, you could hear a pin whistling through the air like a bomb. But you wouldn’t hear it hit the floor. Because at that very moment, the children detonated into a mushroom cloud of noisy exultation. Children’s interlocking arms served as axels for spirited pinwheel dances which broke out spontaneously like bar fights in a saloon. Jittering hands collaborated to hoist a crudely scribbled banner declaring, “WE LOVE YOU THUNDLESTICK!”
  50.         It wouldn’t come as a surprise that the kid whose luggage was filled with tools of the accounting trade was not among those celebrating. Herbert always had a distinct mistrust for those who claimed magical authority. The beards, the robes, the mystifying smirks, it all ran against the grain of Herbert’s good graces. He could never explain why, but it possibly was an extension of his general distaste for the idea of magic.
  51.         Herbert glanced at Beatrix. Though she was clearly bemused and titillated by the surrounding events, he could tell she shared some of his cautious reservations about what was unfolding.
  52.         Thundleshick, as if reading Herbert’s mind (magical fellows love doing that), turned and beamed at him like a satellite dish, channeling the full vector of his oily complexion towards him. And then, through the intractable thicket of hair, beard, and eyebrows, which long ago lost the right to distinguish themselves from each other (hairbeardbrows), he winked.
  53.         The wink squeezed out a white, pulsing dot of light. The light ambled lazily like a firefly, drifting downward. Straight downward, towards the luggage. It nestled in the heart of the pile, unnoticed to all but the boy and girl we’ve been observing.
  54.         The fireball was blinding, and the shockwave knocked each child to the ground. The mountain of belongings was instantly incinerated, one could only presume, inside the raging, blood-red bonfire. Herbert looked up to see Thundleshick and his floating castle-part vanishing into thin air. The children were too stunned to scream, or even contemplate fear. All that was heard was the roar of the fire.
  55.         The deafening sound of the explosion was suddenly one-upped by the clap of thunder overhead. Rain fell in angry, biting stabs, and soon all that was heard was a steady rush of water. The rain extinguished the fire, leaving behind dreary, black soot, and nothing remotely resembling a piece of luggage, a broom, a wand, a book, or a caged creature.
  56.  
  57. Beatrix adjusted the makeshift umbrella, providing relief from relentless barrage of ice water. The sound above was uncomfortably loud, like a stampede of tiny horses thundering across the cardboard. Herbert squeegeed his face as he surveyed the smorgasbord of human misery that was the legion of sopping, disappointed children. He didn’t merely pity them. In looking at these drenched kids in their silly ensembles, scared, cold and defeated, Herbert noted that pity had stepped up its game. A large, round boy a few yards from him, inexplicably dressed in a Sailor Moon outfit, struck Herbert as an acutely tragic case.
  58.         “I’m glad I travel light,” said Beatrix with a wry optimism regarding the incineration of their belongings.
  59.         “Wish I could say the same.” Herbert made an unpleasant face, but on thinking about it, felt he wouldn’t lose much sleep over a few clipboards and visors. But still, there was at least one thing he wished hadn’t burned…
  60.         “Let me guess. You don’t have a clue about what’s going on here, do you?” she asked.
  61. “You mean, like, the fact that this was some kind of magic thing?” He ventured. She nodded slightly and smirked.
  62. He continued, “You mean like a largely un-chaperoned magic thing? A possibly deadly, sort of child endangerment-themed magic thing? A kind of wet, hypothermia-oriented youth-jam magic thing? ‘Cause no, that all caught me by surprise.”
  63. “Ah…”
  64. “How about you? Did you know it was a magic thing?” Herbert inquired.
  65. “I had some idea,” she said. “I will say, the other stuff I did not see coming.”
  66.         “I don’t suppose many would show up willingly if all that stuff was billed in the brochure.” Nor would many kids in their right minds show up willingly to a camp celebrating the joys of accounting, thought Herbert.
  67. A nearby kid whose flesh tones could be seen through his moist, clinging white robe was sobbing heavily into his floppy hat, further dampening it with his tears.
  68.         “So what now?” Beatrix posed.
  69.         “I guess we stay dry until the rain stops. Look for shelter, find a phone to call home, then get the hell out of this place.”
  70.         “Sounds good. Except the part about leaving. I plan on staying.”
  71.         “What?” Herbert stared for a moment at the puzzling girl, who said nothing. His eye drifted upward to the surface of the cardboard overhead. Printed on the board was a corroded, mud-caked image of Great Britain’s former Primer Minister, Margaret Thatcher.
  72.         “Who’s that?” Herbert asked.
  73.         “I don’t know. Maybe one of the Golden Girls?”
  74.         Herbert nodded in tacit agreement. They both trudged into the damp woods in search of shelter. Herbert ruminated on his fate, and that of every child there. This was by no means fun, sure, but at least the rain would subside, and maybe as a whole they could figure out how to survive. There was probably not one child there who hadn’t fantasized about a Lord of the Flies situation, in which authority was absent, children ruled, and fun was rampant (bear in mind that very few of these children had actually read Lord of the Flies). Maybe they could do it. They could pick up the pieces after a cruel old man’s hoax, restore some basic humanity to their situation, and find a way home. At the very least, they did not seem to be in immediate mortal peril. Just a little rain. No wild animals, no lurking child predators, it seemed. It was not as if they were being hunted by a pack of ferocious skeletons.
  75.         Herbert almost began to feel optimistic.
  76.         That’s when the children were attacked by a pack of ferocious skeletons. Gigantic, shrieking, angry, angry skeletons.
  77.  
  78. On a balmy evening in a New Jersey suburb, a faint shuffling could be detected in the waning daylight. The kind of shuffling you might hear from grandpa in the middle of the night when he makes his way down the hall to the bathroom. This shuffling however belonged to a hunched form negotiating the sidewalk, pausing in front of a house. The form coughed, then opened the lid to a trash can. It picked something out of the garbage, smelled it, then tossed it back in. It turned towards the house and shuffled towards the door. A fat, ancient-looking finger squashed against the doorbell like a greasy sausage.
  79.         Elwin Thundleshick was a shallow bastard of a man, a man of dodgy morals and renowned pettiness. A special miserliness and rapacity had been etched deep into his soul, much like the lines etched deep into his paunchy face, both in ways that uniquely stem from countless years devoted to swindling children in a unprincipled life (a life which has lasted no fewer than ten thousand years, we are still to believe unwaveringly). He was the type of sage who could say volumes more with his staggering and brazen deeds of kleptomania than his words, and sometimes even answered questions with lewd gestures. Such was his conniving that he’d sacrifice the enrichment of all the world’s children if it meant easing the discomfort of the stubborn rash on his backside. And it had seemed that he was already working on the former without even the promise of the latter, as a kind of twisted pro bono arrangement.
  80.         A cheerful woman named Donna opened the front door. The ragged form on her doorstep animated itself and smiled, providing the first decent evidence that it might be a person.
  81.         “You must be Mr. Thundleshick,” Herbert’s mother said warmly.
  82.  
  83. A herd of Pikmin stormed across a log bridging a river, when a cluster of the band foolishly corralled themselves into the water. Falsetto pleas for help preceded a cascade of little ghosts elevating from the plant creatures’ tiny drowned carcasses. When the dust had settled, twenty-one were lost.
  84. Herbert muttered something vulgar. The sound of the doorbell did not divert his attention in the least from his GameCube playing. Something dreadful filled his nostrils. It must have been coming from downstairs, wafting beneath his door.
  85.         His parents earlier had mentioned something mysterious in passing about a visitor tonight. He hadn’t asked, but sensed the encounter had something to do with his fate. This sense tingled whenever others made plans for him behind his back. It happened often enough, usually involving his parents’ good intentions.
  86.         Herbert was reaching the age when the instincts for contrarianism were spiking. For most teens, to get through those turbulent times most easily, it helps to be in an environment which offers them actual problems. Things like being denied what they want, or being told to behave a certain way, or if it’s really not too much to ask, to be beaten once in a while. Such measures give a teen the feeling that his hormone-based antagonism complex is at least somewhat justified.
  87.         This was Herbert’s problem, though he didn’t know it consciously. His parents tended to give him what he wanted.
  88.         Unfortunately for Herbert, his teenage insurgency would take the form of an unwitting rebellion against fun itself. He rejected most of the predilections of his peers. He yawned as kids in his class chirped about their favorite books full of children’s magical adventures (though he did read one series, a guilty pleasure he’d never tell anyone about. There was something about a Secret Sorceress Sorority full of svelte, lightly-clad teen girls that spoke to him). Sure, he watched a lot of TV and played video games, but while those activities may appear recreational to most, to Herbert it was a form of self-imposed monastic vegetation.
  89.         In spite of himself, Herbert’s habits had the designed effect. It drove his parents crazy. They tried fruitlessly to get him involved in fun things hoping to rekindle some childhood enthusiasm. Herbert speculated their efforts had something to do with the absence of their other two sons, but he wasn’t about to crack the psychology books and sleuth that one out. It was certain that these kinds of shenanigans were afoot downstairs, but he wasn’t about to Sherlock that one up either. Though to be fair, the weird stench permeating the house was the most compelling case against the idea.
  90.         Herbert’s thumbs fidgeted as his loyal army slaughtered a hapless beetle and carried it home for sustenance.
  91.  
  92. “Would you like something, Mr. Thundleshick? Some coffee or tea?”
  93.         “Oh, do call me Elwin.” He wished she had mentioned scotch in the list. But he thought better of it to ask. Best to stay focused on the task at hand. “You are very gracious, but no thank you, madam. About this boy we spoke of earlier… your boy, Herbert?”
  94.         “Ah! There you are. Thundleshick, is it? So good to meet you.” William strode across the room to shake his hand. He was the kind of guy who would shake anyone’s hand, no matter what. “Donna, have you offered our guest a drink? Coffee? Or maybe scotch is your drink, eh, Thundles?” He said accompanied by a jocular pat on the back, releasing a cloud of particles which would make a HAZMAT team weep.
  95.         Thundleshick cleared his throat looking flustered. “You’re both so kind.”
  96.         “So, Elwin,” Donna began. “On the phone we were talking about your summer camp. It sounded quite… unique.”
  97.         Thundleshick was looking down at a coffee table which was host to a variety of domestic knickknacks. His eyes settled on some sort of ceramic frog. “Madam, I don’t imagine there is any other camp like it in the world.”
  98.         “And what was it called again? Your brochure didn’t seem to mention the name.”
  99.         Thundleshick scratched his beard and muttered something that sounded like “Camp Pawksa[inaudible]tucket.” Whenever anyone asked the name of the camp, he made up a vaguely Native American-sounding word and changed the subject. He glanced at a photograph behind them. “Is that your boy, there?”
  100.         They looked at the picture of Herbert wearing a goofy smile. “Yeah, that’s our guy.” While they were turned, Thundleshick stuffed the ceramic frog into his cloak.
  101.         “He’s a good looking boy. Good looking boy,” Thundleshick grunted with some effort.
  102.         “And about this camp…” Donna tried to piece together the coarsely muttered syllables in her mind, but didn’t want to risk repeating them incorrectly. “You say it really is a magical camp?”
  103.         Thundleshick seemed to light up. “Magical? Gadzooks! We’re up to our blasted necks in magic there, really. We’ve got magic coming out of our–”
  104.         “So you and the kids,” William interrupted. “You do magic together, then? You teach them magic?”
  105.         “Oh my, yes. And so much more. The kids earn their magical merit badges through great feats of wonder. They learn songs, and discipline, and about getting along with others and making friends. It promises to be an adventure young Herbert will never forget!” Thundleshick’s sudden enthusiasm might have been an act to get himself closer to a fine crystal swan he’d noticed on the windowsill.
  106.         “You don’t say?” replied William. “It sounds like a blast. But you should be aware, Herbert doesn’t know any magic, of course. And… well, the thing is, He’s a tough customer. He may not take to it very readily.”
  107.         “My friend, there’s nary a child I receive who knows a lick of magic. By the end of the summer, I promise your boy will be spitting out invocations like a veteran tobacco chewer. And his strength of wit and character will fill like a spittoon.”
  108.         The couple paused a moment to solve the peculiar analogy. Thundleshick, with wild eyes, gestured behind them again. “And those boys… who are they?”
  109.         The crystal swan disappeared into the mortifying abyss beneath his garment. The parents pretended not to notice. “Those… were his brothers.” There suddenly seemed to be a little less air in the room. Thundleshick wasn’t sure whether to feel the guilt of a thief, or the guilt of a social buffoon. He compromised by feeling neither.
  110.         “Thundleshick,” William broke the silence. “This all sounds wonderful. But I’m just wondering. Is there any way you can show us that this thing is… legit?”
  111.         “Hmm. You mean you would like to see a permit or a license or such?”
  112.         “No, no. I’m sorry, I don’t want to sound too skeptical, but before I go ahead and write this check, I was wondering if you could show us some… you know, magic.”
  113.         The mention of money was enough to put an additional spring in Thundleshick’s step. He clutched his scepter and scurried to the middle of the room.
  114.         “So it’s magic you want to see. Very well! If magic it is wish you to see…” He stirred the air with his scepter like an invisible batter. Wisps of glowing blue mist tailed its tip. “Then magic…” He raised the scepter above his head. “What you will see…” And pointed it at a cuckoo clock. “Will be it!”
  115.         An arc of blue caused the clock to vanish. A sudden, mysteriously cuckoo clock-shaped bulge manifested in his the back of his cloak.
  116.         William clapped his hands. “That was great! Well done, Thundleshick. To be honest, I’ve never actually seen that before. Magic, that is. It’s quite a treat.”
  117.         Donna glanced at her husband. “Yes, it really was. Honey, I think I will put some coffee on after all. Maybe you can help me for a second?”
  118.         “Sure, hon. What do say buddy, want a cup?”
  119.         “Ah, now that you mention it… I suppose I am feeling a bit… thirsty,” Thundleshick said while delivering a series a lip-licks and conspicuous blinks which was a kind of code a fellow drinker recognized as “I would like some booze, please.”
  120.         “Great,” Willam smiled. “I’ll open a bottle.”
  121.  
  122. In the kitchen, Donna was not bothering with the charade of threatened coffee-brewing. She stood with her arms folded.
  123.         “I know it sounds like a great time for a kid, William. But that man…”
  124.         “Thundleshick? Come on, dear. He’s just an eccentric.”
  125.         “The man’s a horse’s asshole!” snapped Donna, momentarily forgetting she was in a children’s book.
  126.         “A kindly old man. Reminds me of my grandfather. Wasn’t much to look at, but that codger knew how to boost a kid’s character.” He fondly recalled summers filled with lively games such as “Cane Fever!” and “Where’s Grandpa’s Colostomy Bag Now?”
  127.         Donna frowned. She knew she was avoiding the real issue.  “Herbert will never go for it. He’ll shrug it off it like all our other ideas to get him excited about something. Even if he finally agrees, he’ll begrudge it the whole time.”
  128.         “Ah-ha,” said William, “That’s what you think. I have a plan.” He fished through his jacket, producing a folded flyer. He opened it, handed it to his wife.
  129.  
  130. JUNIOR ACCOUNTING CAMP
  131. It really “adds up” for your child’s future!
  132. •     Spreadsheets
  133. •     Statistics
  134. •     1040EZ Forms for kids
  135. •     “And more!” …
  136.  
  137. At the Newark Municipal Court Plaza
  138. The fun begins June 3, 2004!
  139. Call (201) 555-8387 (ask for Gene)
  140.  
  141.         Donna scrutinized the document with charitable attention. The same you’d give a hobo if he rushed you into an alley for a furtive demonstration of his secret government espionage equipment, and with a finger to hushed lips, unveiled a dead raccoon. “I’m not following this. Accounting? What about the magic camp?”
  142.         “Herbert doesn’t even have to know!”
  143.         Donna’s face slightly relaxed with incipient comprehension.
  144.         “Ah-hurhur-AH-HEM.” William cleared his throat in a theatrical transition to a phony ‘serious’ voice. “Now Herbert, I think it’s time we had a heart-to-heart. You’re getting older, and with age comes responsibility. Responsibility is about paying the bills, and as such, it’s high time you acquired some real world, grown-up skills.”
  145.         Donna giggled. It spoke to their parental style that the mere insinuation of a heavy-handed approach was a major wellspring of comedy.
  146.         “The way I see it,” William said while pouring a glass of scotch, “he’ll go along with it and fully expect to be in for a long, boring summer of accounting. When he sees that it’s all really about magic and adventure and bonding with other kids, he’ll be so surprised, who knows, he might just let his guard down and have a good time.”
  147.  
  148. Thundleshick surveyed the DVD collection, leaving mysterious vacancies on the shelf. The “2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney: Women’s Gymnastics Competition” DVD was nowhere to be seen. Whether this was the case a moment ago will be left to the speculation of the reader.
  149.         “Mr. Thundleshick?” said William. Thundleshick sprang upright, causing the contents of his bulkier-looking cloak to jangle.
  150.         “No I wasn’t. I mean… yes?” His eyes, independently of the head, spotted the brown liquid in William’s possession.
  151.         “I guess we have a few more things we’d like to know. You know, this place, Camp Whatsit, it sounds really remarkable. I’m envious of Herbert. I never had the opportunity as a boy.”
  152.         “Anything, sir. What curiosity would you have me satisfy?”
  153.         “There’s so much to wonder, really. I would guess part of the fun would be reading about everything in Herbert’s letters, so I don’t want to spoil too much. Three meals a day, I presume?”
  154.         “Oh, goodness, yes. Feasts prepared in the blink of an eye with vapors of the ethereal. A bounty stretching to the horizon and back, thrice per day, plus once on the 4th of July. Your dear lad will be gorged with gorgeous plump turkey legs, surfeited with stuffing, and chockablock with chocolate tartles!” He had this bit down pat.
  155.         “Tartles! You don’t say!” William was easy to win over once descriptions of food became involved, and was rarely deterred when the dishes in question didn’t actually exist.  
  156.         “My mother’s embroideries are gone,” Donna hissed quietly to her right.
  157.         “Shh. It’s an unfortunate compulsive disorder and it’s not polite to bring it up. My grandfather had it too.”
  158.         Thundleshick was alert to Donna’s dissatisfied posture. This was where he really prided himself in working his magic, so to speak. With the ladies.
  159.         “Madam, I see your concern for your son runs deep. It is touching, and only solidifies my resolve to afford young Herbert memories he will cherish long thereafter. It is a promise this old man stakes upon his humble life.” From behind his back he produced an embroidered fabric featuring a violet. His dirty fingers fluttered with plump dexterity. He pulled the flower from the fabric, giving it the full essence of a real violet.
  160.         “Elwin, it’s beautiful.”
  161.         “Thundleshick, you magnificent bastard. I’ll tell you what. I can’t possibly think of anything better to spend this three grand on this summer.”
  162.         He pulled the check from his pocket, and seemingly by the most impressive magic trick yet, the check vanished from his hand and blurred into Thundleshick’s garb. No magic, however, was involved (except for possibly the fabled “Avarice Kedavrice”).
  163.         “This is wonderful. Herbert’s going to have a blast,” said William, with his oblivious hand still making the motion to offer the check it was no longer holding.
  164.         “You shall not regret it. Herbert is a lucky boy with tremendous parents. I owe much to strong guardians myself. Why, if I didn’t have parents like you as a boy, I wouldn’t have turned out to be the man I am today.”
  165.         “Worth drinking to! Your drink, sir. Have it before it evaporates,” William said, offering the glass. Thundleshick took the bottle from his other hand, and held it up with nod of gratitude.
  166.         “Then I’m off. I’ll keenly await meeting your son. Good eve!”
  167.         Thundleshick bounded out the front door and down the walkway with surprising agility for a fat old man. His loaded cloak jangled as curious-gotten trinkets spilled out and littered the yard. Each bound caught the underside of his cloak with a slight parachuting effect, revealing his corpulent alabaster legs, and for just a split-second, the porch light glinted off his bare bottom. Donna winced.
  168.         William beamed and threw back the glass of scotch. “It’s going to be one hell of a summer.”
  169.  
  170. A boy covered in mud swung a plastic bristled-broom pitifully at the air in front of him. He was flanked on all sides by 10 foot-tall skeletons, whose wet, black bones shined in the rain like polished onyx. Inside their ribcages were vibrant neon-green organs, which pulsated in mock-functionality. The bony assailants screamed through invisible vocal chords, sounding like a noisy vacuum cleaner might if it were part-cat.
  171. One skeleton swung its jaw open to the limit, and let forth a prolific gush of phlegm-like ooze onto the boy. The ample colon of another skeleton came to life like a hungry tapeworm, darting swiftly through a rhythm of complex muscle movements. Its ‘mouth’ flexed and swallowed a child whole. The stomach bulged beneath the ribcage, and two small hands could be seen pressed against the tissue from the interior.
  172. Legions of other skeletons stalked in the distance, performing similar acts upon panicking youngsters. Their dark forms were obscured by the night and heavy rain, lightning occasionally flashbulbing their silhouettes.
  173. “Skeletons… why… did it have... to be skeletons…” puffed Herbert through aching lungs. He’d had no prior beef with skeletons. But even on an unconscious level, it’s hard to pass up sounding like Indiana Jones.
  174.         He and Beatrix ran through the forest, stomping in puddles and being whipped by stems and branches. Herbert took the brunt of the wet snapback of plants, while Beatrix had an easier time wending through the foliage, not being depth perception-hobbled by an eye patch.
  175. “I’d like to ask you something which on any other occasion might seem strange. Well, maybe it’s still strange. In fact, I don’t think there will ever be a time I won’t feel ridiculous for asking it,” Herbert stammered, while Beatrix half-expected his query to be regarding what she is doing this Friday, and if she likes pizza. “Do you know any magic?”
  176.         “Of course not,” she puffed, hopping over a rock. “I actually had strong doubts about whether it existed at all.”
  177.         “That’s a shame. Some kind of invisibility spell, or skeleton-murdering spell might come in handy right now. Even though it’s all a bunch of silly crap.”
  178.         “Silly?”
  179.         “I hate magic.”
  180. The two children were sliding down a muddy path at an alarming velocity. Herbert noted how unlikely it was for someone to make a terrified getaway through a forest without sliding down a muddy hill by complete surprise. It was always like a ride, with twists, turns, scares, false stops, and sometimes full-blown rollercoaster loops. It was as if a band of bored Ewoks had spent weeks preparing this primitive mud-luge path for their own amusement. This is what Herbert mulled over, as we ponder the sagacity of a second reference to a George Lucas film in about as many paragraphs.
  181.         “I know a lot of a people think it’s cool,” Herbert elaborated while vaulting off a mud ramp. “I mean, no offense if you’re into it or anything. It’s just so dumb.”
  182.         “Dumb or not, it appears to be a legitimate aspect of the universe. You might as well curse other laws of nature and call them stupid. They are what they are.”
  183.         Herbert skimmed through his mental list of natural laws he had cursed before. The law that the buttered side of a piece of bread, when in freefall, will demonstrate overwhelming magnetism towards the carpet. The law about good deeds and the rock-solid assurance that they will never escape retribution. The law about witty Irishmen writing down cynical laws, and without fail, having each one proven to be correct through trial and error (mostly the latter). But maybe she had a point.
  184.         “That’s true. It may be real and part of God’s big plan, or whatever. But it’s still stupid. Laws of nature are really basic and discrete. There are just a few forces, only so many elements… it’s simple at a fundamental level, and complex stuff arises naturally from it all, you know? Nothing just appears. That’s what I think is stupid about magic. There’s something about it that always struck me as just lazy. At least lazy for a writer to put in a book. Yeah, sure, it’s so convenient if you can make anything at all happen, by just waving a wand or doing a dance or stroking a toad in a really special way. It’s lazy. Finding out it happens to be real doesn’t change that much.”
  185.         “I guess God is just a lazy bastard too, then,” she said with a defiant smirk, while zipping around a wicked bend on the luge path. “Lucky for both of us He doesn’t really exist.”
  186.         Hebert exhaled nervously. He was no church aficionado, and he contemplated the reality of God as little as he did with magic. The statement was the unmistakable kind of gauntlet thrown down by one raring for a debate on theology. Herbert was inclined to leave such heavy metal objects resting harmlessly on the floor. He opted to refrain from saying, “Well, until recently you didn’t think magic existed either…”
  187.         The speeding kids tumbled to a halt on a welcome stretch of flat land. That welcome, however, wore out about ten yards in front of them, where the land ended with a cliff. The drop-off into blackness was made all the less welcome by the fact that it served as the only escape route from the skeletons now gathering to surround them.
  188.         Herbert looked to Beatrix, who appeared frightened and vulnerable. He became aware of a foreign feeling, something male in him. A feeling that he ought to be charged with her protection, and if situation presented itself, dazzle her with deeds of mind-blowing bravery. He wasn’t sure why this was incumbent on him, though it might have had to do with the blunt reality that when viewed from certain angles (i.e. from behind the eyes of a teen boy), she was actually pretty cute.
  189.         The skeletons encroached, and Beatrix clutched his shirt. Now was the time to do something brave. He was going to die. It might as well be a gallant death. He grabbed a small but sturdy-looking tree nearby.
  190.         “Hey… skeletons!” His mind raced for an adroit quip to throw down. We should not underestimate the willpower it took to avoid the phrase “bone head”.
  191.         “Eat branch!”
  192.         He tugged at the tree, which held fast. He might as well have been trying to uproot a sequoia. Above his grimacing face, a skull issued an unpleasant gurgling. It puked an obscene volume of luminescent goo onto Herbert and the unfortunate sapling.
  193. He lay cocooned in the wobbling pile of bodily fluid. His nose blew a bubble from the surface of the mass.
  194.  
  195. Elsewhere in the forest, a pair of shiny shoes made a lively, rhythmic procession. Above the shoes was a dark form, blurred with sprightly maneuvers, vaulting over shrubs and ricocheting from tree trunks. It was trailed by a cape, tracing a liquid path in its wake. A glint of silver emerged from the form, like a silver needle, catching the moonlight.
  196.  
  197. A green colon whipped about Herbert’s phlegm-cocoon, his nausea-stricken face poking out and gasping like a fish. A mighty black claw held Beatrix, drawing her close to its permanently grinning face. Its eyes and nose sockets were sickening voids of misery, and stink spilled from the holes. She shut her eyes and waited for something awful to happen.
  198.         There was a pop. From beneath her eyelids, she could tell it was momentarily brighter. She opened her eyes. The skull was gone. The skeletal hand went limp and dropped her. She landed next to the disembodied skull.
  199. The headless skeleton staggered backwards. There was another pop. A stream of incandescent colors attacked the torso. It exploded, scattering splintered bones like morbid shrapnel.
  200. At the source of the weaponized color display was a boy. He struck a posture that conveyed a smug self-assurance in the same pitch-perfect way that a hunchback’s posture conveys a pressing need to go ring a huge bell. He held with elegant poise a long silver wand. It hummed noiselessly with magic, ready to strike, like an antique TV antenna might be ready to give you a static shock.
  201. “Craven zealots, hear this. Savor these evil deeds.” He made a steady, fearless stride towards the towering mob. “They will be your last. You are done for. That is, if shall be any deciding factor the merit of my…” The dramatic pause was practically an assault in itself.      
  202. “Majyyks!!”
  203.         The skeletons shrieked in unison, as their new dinner entrée taunted them. The boy flicked his wand as if cuing up an orchestra. “Mistral nymphs, heed this summoning! Arraign my foes with fingers of wind!”
  204.         His wand stabbed the air, denting it with a pulse of distortion. A bony torso hoisted into the air as if weightless. His wand leisurely directed the skeleton into another with great force. Bones clattered, sounding like someone dropped a bunch of wood paddles on the floor. The combined jumble sailed over the edge of the cliff.
  205.         A new aggressor lurched forward sending a heavy fist into a soggy crater, where the boy stood a moment ago. He was gone. The monster labored to pull its fist out of the mud.
  206.         “Control your humors, sir! Lest you should find someone willing to do it for you…” The boy sat on a high branch. He held out both arms like a scarecrow, moving his hands and fingers in a way one would manipulate an invisible marionette.
  207.         The skeleton promptly clutched its own plump organs. It ripped out a liberal wad of green viscera, and shoved it into its gnashing mouth, chewing, swallowing, and sending the masticated lump down its nonexistent throat passage and onto the ground. It then gripped its own skull and yanked it off. It dropped it on the ground and stamped it violently, crushing it like a Christmas tree ornament. The headless frame toppled over lifelessly.
  208.         One of its brothers opened its jaw, and fired a jet of slime like a fire hose towards the boy. He sprung to his feet and pointed his wand at the mucous geyser. “Please! Stay your foul offerings.”
  209.         The bilious stream dissolved into a hodgepodge of colors, fluttering, and wriggling. He hopped upon the cloud of butterflies, candy, and kittens, and rode the adorable current about the night sky.
  210.         The galloping kittens, et al, brought him in front of Beatrix. She sat on the ground, afflicted by some type of mesmerization at the spectacle.
  211.         “A token of consolation for a lady in distress.” He waved a hand. Lively pieces of candy danced through the air, accumulating in her cupped hands. One of the kittens absent-mindedly sidled up to her and purred.
  212.         A better look at the young man told her he was likely her age. He wore a smart burgundy suit with a vest and a white shirt. Rippling behind him was a velvet purple cape. Potent magics (or, excuse me, majyyks) emanated from him, surrounding his body as a subtle wind, teasing his clothes. His hair was a shining chestnut brown, looking as if the beneficiary of some truly unprecedented marathons in the salon. It danced in waves to the silent tune of his magic, like he was underwater. His smile was playful, yet profoundly confident and reassuring. His eyes sparkled with energy and kindness. He was probably the most attractive boy she’d ever seen.
  213.         He turned and strode into the bony melee. His mood for trifling games, his expression indicated, was threatening to expire.
  214.         “Armies of Odin, make your might my will!” he blustered, aiming his wand at the heavens. “Banish these accursed devils to toil the netherworld, forever!” Bolts of electrical current carved white-hot striations in the air. The heat and noise intensified, culminating in a jarring blast wave. Beatrix tumbled backwards, finding purchase an inch from the cliff’s edge. When the pyrotechnics subsided, there were no traces of any fully intact skeleton. All that remained were scattered, smoking bones. Some of them were actually melting.
  215.         Beatrix found herself being pulled to her feet.
  216. “It’s alright now, miss…”
  217.         She was too dazed to realize his pleasantry doubled as a request for her name. She just stood with her mouth open. The boy broke the silence. “The name is Clove. Russet Clove. I’d naturally prefer to get acquainted under a more hospitable circumstance. But there you have it.” He cleaned the silver wand with a handkerchief.
  218.         The distant shrieks of other skeletons beckoned Russet. He tapped with his wand a loose skull smoldering on the ground. It sprung into the air. He waved an arm to clear the smoke billowing from its eye sockets, then perched himself on it. He tapped it once more from behind, and rode it into the night sky.
  219.  
  220. Herbert grasped the small tree he’d attempted to uproot a moment ago. It was now horizontal, jutting over the edge of the cliff. Dangling from it was a slime-soaked Herbert.
  221.         This was something else he could have predicted. If you happen upon a cliff, particularly in the context of a chase, it is a matter of preordained magnetism. You might as well just put on your best pair of dangling gloves then and there.
  222.         An equally certain outcome in Herbert’s mind was his imminent rescue. He just wasn’t sure how his rescue would go down (a potentially literal phrasing), and he was hoping whatever natural forces were at play would get on with it.
  223.         He felt a hand grab his wrist. He looked up to find it belonged to Beatrix. This was the worst case scenario. He was going to be saved by the damned girl.
  224.         “Hold on, Herbert. Are you ok?”
  225.         “Pthhh…” He vacated slime from his vocal passage. “I’m doing just fine.” Again, we must celebrate the magnificent restraint involved in avoiding the phrase, “Hangin’ in there.”
  226.         “Who was that guy?” she posed conversationally to a dangling Herbert.
  227.         “Dunno. Someone who knew some really killer skeleton-murdering spells, I guess.” Herbert instantly felt remorse for talking up the guy who stole his hero’s thunder. Well, not so much that he stole it, but that he was so obviously prepared to back up the gesture with astounding results. The best that could be said for Herbert was that he backed it up with a profound demonstration of his ability to experience the sensation of sogginess.
  228.         “Yeah. He was pretty impressive, wasn’t he?”
  229.         “Can you please let me up??”
  230.         “Oh… right.” She pulled Herbert, but noticed his eye took on a different demeanor, and pointed in a different direction. She saw the tiny full moon reflected in his pupil. The white reflection was briefly covered by a darting, black form. Something was behind her.
  231.         She quickly removed the locket from her neck. “Here, take this,” she whispered.
  232.         A black, slippery entity wrapped around her midsection, and pulled her into the air. Her grip was pried from Herbert’s hand. She was carried away into the night by a zipping, serpentine shape. Herbert watched, mortified, but instinctually snatched the falling locket with the hand he’d been using to clutch the sapling. He and the locket fell into the abyss.
  233.  
  234. The shovel’s pressure against the sole of Herbert’s foot caused a sharp pain as he stomped it into the frigid winter earth. He’d barely made half a foot worth of headway beneath he surface.
  235.         “Seymour, you really smell. Can’t you stand over there?”
  236.         “Herb, I think that smell is the corpse,” offered a pale Seymour.
  237.         “You might be right.” Herbert deposited a puny shovel-full of dirt over his shoulder. Sprawled on the ground was an older boy, possibly in his later teens. He was stone cold dead. His face was a grim ivory mask of bloodless skin. His eyes were sunken, like two marks left on an overripe peach by a couple of firmly pressed thumbs.
  238.         Sweat came to a dripping bead on Herbert’s nose. He toiled furiously, but the hole did not get deeper. In fact, it somehow seemed to have more dirt in it than before. This type of thing was a mechanic of the universe that was created whenever Herbert dreamt. There was good reason for such an occurrence now.
  239.         This was a dream.
  240.         “Seymour, I don’t know, man. You’ve had some serious body odor issues lately. And this corpse funk… I’m just saying, when stenches compete, everybody loses.”
  241.         “Who is he, anyway?”
  242.         “Doesn’t matter. He’s worm food. Let’s just get him in the ground.”
  243.         After another stab at the dirt, Herbert found his shovel stuck, rooted in the earth. It was no longer a shovel. It was the small tree he’d previously tried to uproot. The world darkened around him, and grinning skeletons closed in.
  244. He tugged the tree, ripping it clean out of the ground. But to his surprise, it was not a tree. It was a Pikmin. Herbert found surrounding him a devoted band of googly-eyed plant soldiers. He blew his multicolored whistle, and the horde snapped to attention. Thousands swarmed around the skeletons, pounding the living (or undead) hell out of them. The skeletons were upended, brutally beaten to death (or unlife). The army carried their prizes to their base while humming a rhythmic marching tune.
  245.         His thumbs swiveled on both analogue levers of the controller. He was in his room again, playing the game. That smell. The knob turned. In walked Thundleshick.
  246.         “My boy…”
  247.         “Oh, hi, Thundleshick.”
  248.         “Having an enjoyable computer-box, are we?” Thundleshick eased his awful girth onto Herbert’s bed. “Boy, look here. I know you’ve been looking for this.”
  249.         He removed a spiral-bound book from his cloak. The cover was blank, apart from a strip of solid black, covering up where the title might have been. Herbert turned. He had been looking for that. In fact, he’d been completely infatuated with it.
  250.         “Where did you get that??”
  251.         “Now, now. We’ve all the time in the world for those questions. Come now. Join me for a look.”
  252.         Herbert, forgetting himself, sprung up and plopped on the bed next to the fragrant old man. The book was opened. Herbert peered in. His view was met with a full two-page spread of Thundleshick making a sly face. He was draped across a couch, completely nude.
  253. Herbert woke up screaming. Birds fled from nearby trees, flapping into the sunrise.
  254.  
  255. Beatrix could barely move a muscle. A cold, oily sensation wrapped around her, binding her arms to her body.
  256.         “You forget how good my sense of smell is, little girl.”
  257.         A large eel floated, as if swimming, over the thick brush of the forest. The daytime in this wonderful, magical place was at least more forgiving than the night. Pleasant even, if a little warm. Above them sparkled sunlight through an emerald canopy. Beatrix, however, found it hard to enjoy while she was coiled in the center of the eel’s long body. It spoke through a perfectly, upsettingly human face. It had a big nose and a well-groomed moustache.
  258.         “I think you must have me confused for someone else.”
  259.         “Nonsense. Your odor is unique. I picked it up the moment you arrived. In any case, I distinctly recall introducing myself before. My name is Hastings.”
  260.         Hastings’ sense of smell was unrivalled. So canny were his olfactory capabilities, he could sniff out minor fluctuations in the stock market by odor alone. He could even close his eyes and “see” the world with a sort of nasal sonar. In fact, this was mostly how he did navigate the world, since he was legally blind.
  261.         “Maybe it’s my perfume you smelled. A lot of girls wear it,” Beatrix posited.
  262.         “Yes, yes. Auspicious Breeze. I have smelled thousands of girls with this accessory. There is no confusion here. You’d have better luck getting a monkey to mistake a banana for a ballerina by dressing it in a tutu.”
  263.         “I guess it depends on the monkey…”
  264.         “In this case it is a very hungry, banana-savvy monkey!”
  265.         “And what do you want with this girl you think I am?”
  266.         Hastings rolled his eyes. “Why don’t we get on with this? Where is it? The artifact?”
  267.         “Artifact?”
  268.         “The one supposedly hung from a human neck.”
  269.         “You mean like a tie? Or a scarf?” she asked, remaining coy.
  270.         “Very well. We will see what my employer has to say about it.”
  271.         “You mean Campmaster Thundleshick?”
  272.         “Heh-heh… Ah-hahahaha!” The turbulence in his torso caused Beatrix’s head to bob up and down. “Yes, wouldn’t that be something! That preposterous coot! You should be so fortunate. My employer isn’t quite as nice to children as Mr. Thundleshick.”
  273.         Hastings grimaced. The thought brought his attention to the magnificent horror of Thundleshick’s odor. It was the perfect storm of olfactory abuse, and Hastings could smell it every moment as clearly as if it were in front of his nose. He grew accustomed to its omnipresence, the same way you became used to the smell of dog feces on someone’s shoe if you were stuck in a car with that person for a long trip. It became ignorable out of sheer necessity. But the moment the conversation turned to feces or dogs or shoes, the mind couldn’t help but wander back to the aroma. In this case, the entire universe was the car Hastings was stuck in, and Thundleshick was the crap on the shoe somewhere in the car.
  274.         Beatrix sulked. A familiar feeling was setting in. It was a feeling of futility and oppression. She sighed, almost forming a smile. For the first time since she arrived at this summer camp, she began to feel somewhat at home.
  275.  
  276. “Simon, what are you doing? You’re not thinking about eating those, are you?” Samantha said, referring to her brother’s small pile of stale bread. Every street urchin worth his salt kept a spare crust in reserve at all times, to be used only in emergencies.
  277.         “Nooo,” her orphan brother replied through a puff of chilly, visible breath. “I was just thinking that maybe I could use it to start a fire to make us warmer or if maybe I shouldn’t do that and just save it and eat it later. You know, in case of an emergency!”
  278.         Samantha shivered in her vintage Strawberry Shortcake T-shirt as she glanced around the frosty, anonymous warehouse. It certainly would have been nice to have a fire, but she maintained the air of big-sisterly disapproval towards her brother, who wore a vintage Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle shirt. Their cage held a third orphan. She was older than the two young siblings, had very long black hair and wore a pink-stoned ring. She was trying to pick the lock, an activity which had kept her busy for the last several days.
  279.         “I don’t think you can start a fire with bread, Simon,” Samantha informed. “And anyway, it sounds like a waste of good crusts to me.”
  280. “How do you know? I bet a good crust would make a really big fire like this. PCHOOO—FSSSHHHHHOOOO.” Simon’s fingers illustrated the concept dramatically.
  281.         “And how would you start it?”
  282. “I could rub my bootblacking brushes together, like this!”
  283. Beatrix interrupted Simon’s spirited demonstration. “It probably wouldn’t be a good idea to start a fire in here, guys. It would set off the sprinkler system, and then we’d just be colder.”
  284. “I told you! Now put those crusts back in your pocket for a rainy day, silly!”
  285.         Beatrix concentrated on the bit of bent wire she’d salvaged earlier from the sweatshop. She fished around the inside of the keyhole hoping to catch a tumbler, or some other mysterious lock component her admittedly limited knowledge of the subject might cough up. She heard distant footsteps.   “Darn! This stupid thing.” She hastened her efforts, redoubling her wire prodding and jimmying. “We’ve got to get out of here before he comes back. I swear, if I have to solder one more of those cheap iPod knockoffs…”
  286.         Unlike her two cellmates, and the hundreds of other children locked in adjacent rows of cages, Beatrix had landed herself in this pickle by choice. It wasn’t however to volunteer her time to help a large, unscrupulous thug manufacture “iPlods”, and help furnish bargain-savvy consumers with an MP3 player whose delicate interior circuits snapped like baby bird bones upon pressing the power button. She had her own agenda which was presumably important enough to warrant the trouble. But she was getting nowhere fast sitting in captivity all night, and it was becoming frustrating.
  287.         The wire snagged inside the hole and became stuck. The heavy footsteps were closer. “Argh! Why won’t you just open?” She slammed both fists against the bars. There was a click, and the cage whined open. Beatrix looked at the door with surprise, then at her ring, which she thought for a very brief moment flickered with pink light in the corner of her eye.
  288.         “You did it, Beatrix! That was so cool!” Simon marveled.
  289.         “Let’s go, guys,” she said. “I’ll need your help.” The hundreds of other caged orphans became excited, like monkeys at a zoo beholding one upstart monkey’s fecal-throwing defiance towards the zoological authority. Beatrix made gestures to settle them down.
  290.         “Shh! Please be quiet! You don’t want us to get cau…” She was interrupted, predictably, by being caught. Wrapping around her neck was hairy hand the size of a steak you’d win a plaque on the wall of a restaurant for consuming.
  291.  
  292.  “There’s something I’m wondering…” Beatrix searched for the right tone to her question, a blend of innocent curiosity and rhetorical bite. “You say your sense of smell is so good, you were able to find me. So why don’t you use that amazing sense of smell to find the artifact you’re looking for?”
  293.         Hastings bristled. He didn’t like even a vague insinuation that his nose might be anything other than an embodiment of olfactory perfection.  “I assure you I would have picked up its scent ages ago. I would have claimed the prize and would be engaged in much more fulfilling pursuits, you can be sure. I do have hobbies, you know. I like to watch sports on occasion. I paint model race cars, too. Wild goose chases with stubborn and dishonest little girls is very hardly what I would classify as a good time!”
  294.         She tried to picture Hastings with a paintbrush in his mouth, poring over a toy car with hours of loving attention. Even monstrous eel-men had to pass the time somehow, she guessed. “You would have found it… if?”
  295.         “If I had ever actually seen it before. Or smelled it, that is. It is more or less the same concept for me.”
  296.         “So you don’t know what it looks like. Or, um… smells like.”
  297.         “Ah, but I know what you smell like. You are my lead. And you will eventually lead me to it.” Hastings’ face spread itself into a smug grin.
  298.         Beatrix salvaged some comfort from this exchange. She was far from being as nasally gifted as her captor, but she had an active imagination. When she handed the locket off to Herbert, she tried to be discreet about it. But it was nevertheless hard to imagine the act could escape detection from Hastings’ masterful nostrils. Why he disregarded the exchange was unclear, but the front running explanation to Beatrix was that he wasn’t all that bright. The opportunity to mess with his head was hard to resist.
  299.         “I’m sure you’ll sniff it out eventually,” she said, sounding uncompelled.
  300.         “Oh, you doubt it?”
  301.         “I suppose I could hide an ice cube in a hot landfill and you could find it before it melts?”
  302.         “I could tell you if it was a cube or if it was one of those round ones with a hole in it!” Hastings was irked. Beatrix didn’t quite know where she was taking this “please don’t throw me in the brier patch” routine, but it never hurt to get the ball rolling on prodding his insecurities. “It doesn’t matter if you don’t believe me. It will be very clear to you soon.”
  303.         “How so?”
  304.         “I told you. I smell everything. I smell the confusion of the one-eyed boy you helped last night. And I smell the boy who is about to try to rescue you in a moment.”
  305.         This threw her for a loop. Boy? Not again…
  306.  
  307. Herbert—sore from his prior collision with a treetop and subsequent night’s sleep in it—struggled up a steep, ferny hill. He inspected the irregular piece of jewelry, mysteriously foisted on him last night by that strange girl. It was metal, maybe steel, tarnished with age or use (use for exactly what was anyone’s guess). Engraved around the outer ring was a pattern of interlocking loops, looking somewhat like infinity symbols. He flipped it open. Whatever fit inside the ring was likely secured in place when it was snapped shut.
  308.         He thought about Beatrix, and the hazy final moments before his plunge into the chasm. What was that thing that grabbed her? And why did she give him her locket? He found himself hoping she was alright.
  309.         She was probably fine, off having really incredible magical adventures by now. Herbert on the other hand, thought he’d be lucky not to starve to death at the bottom of a gulch before sundown. Maybe a good walking stick would make him feel better about his outlook. It might imbue him with a rugged, vaguely outdoorsy patina. He suddenly wished he carried a knife. He didn’t really know what outdoorsmen actually did with their fancy knives. Probably good just to have on hand in the likely event you had to amputate something.
  310.         He stooped over, haphazardly swooshing bits of organic riffraff about the forest’s carpet, looking for a walking stick. Maybe one that was gnarled fashionably, which might make him look like a cool wizard. With that thought, Herbert suddenly felt he would do just fine without a walking stick.
  311.         That’s when he noticed something poking out of a nearby thicket. It looked like a hand. A rather limp, dirty hand.
  312.  
  313.  “A boy?”
  314.         “Yes. Quite a handsome one, too! I regret that you will have to witness me relieve him of that attribute.”
  315.         Beatrix’s thoughts shifted to last night. Was it really the same one? She detected her heart rate elevate at the prospect by some inscrutable force she found herself unfamiliar with. Why should this idea produce excitement? There was at least, by her measure, the strong likelihood that if it was the boy she was thinking of, this dapper, self-important eel-strosity would probably stand little chance against his magic (majyyks!). But that didn’t seem to be the source of her biorhythmic fluctuation…
  316.         Hastings’ nose throbbed like a small creature trying to attract a mate. “His magic… it reeks almost as much as his hair gel! And his cologne. And moisturizing balms. Ho-ho, this is a vain one! Let’s see… I also smell… silver…”
  317.         Beatrix was growing more certain by the second. What was his name again? Something to do with a potato? Or garlic? And the curious heart-hastening… it persisted.
  318.         “Yes…” Hastings said, probing the air for additional textures. “This boy is attempting to get the drop on me. Setting a trap. Let’s do the lad a favor and try to act surprised when he shows up, ok?”
  319.         “Alright.” Beatrix said, even though she knew he was being facetious. She was beginning to take some joy in needling him when possible. Hastings slithered through the air trying to act casual, unaware that most people have no ability to read an eel’s body language as casual or otherwise. His lips circled around a whistled tune.
  320.         As expected, a cloud of red smoke swelled out of the air, sharply, like a kernel of corn popping. The wind carried it away, revealing a boy.
  321.         “Oh my God, I’m really surprised!” Beatrix mocked. But she found to her surprise that she actually was surprised.
  322.         Standing there was a tall young man. Handsome, yes, but not the one she expected. He was a little older, with dark, short hair and a preppy-looking outfit. There was similarity in demeanor, though. It was an effortless broadcasting of confidence with every action, and it didn’t seem to matter if it was justified or not. He was too handsome for it to matter. The boy held a silver sword at his side.
  323.         “That was a really… cool trick, young man. Radical, even. As you can see, I speak in your youthful vernacular. I trust this gains me enough credibility with you to put away your sharp thing and let us pass?”
  324.         “It doesn’t look like she has much say in where you’re going. That’s not very cool. Dude.”
  325.         “An impasse it is, then!” Hastings’ moustache puffed up like the quills of a threatened hedgehog. His smile revealed awful rows of razor-sharp teeth. The boy aimed his sword at the eel. A fierce howl of wind flowed from the silver blade. If you looked closely—and you didn’t have the time to—you would notice the jet stream was composed of many tiny swords, like a rushing school of glittering fish.
  326.         Hastings evaded the attack, uncoiling, dropping Beatrix in the process. He charged the boy, who raised his sword for an urgent rebound, but it was too late. Hastings’ face was already bearing down on him at impossible speed, making a hissing noise from his mouth, or maybe worse, his nose. Hastings’ teeth sank deep into the boy’s knee, his grip locked by surprisingly strong jaw muscles.
  327.         The boy dropped his sword. “Augh! Let go of me, you slimy son of a bitch!”
  328.         He swatted at Hastings’ head, messing up his neatly-groomed gray hair. Hastings’ shook his head back and forth like a coyote trying to snap the neck of a rabbit. It looked disturbingly instinctual. The boy’s nice khaki pants were soaking into a dark brownish color in the knee region.
  329. Suddenly, Hastings’ eyes shot open, bulging out like Ping-Pong balls jumping to the surface of water. His face froze. A dot of blood under his nose became a trail down his moustache. The eel-body flipped wildly like a fish in the background. It was no longer attached to its head.
  330.         Beatrix stood over Hastings’ severed head, which was still locked onto the boy’s knee. She held the silver blade, now covered in a dark, thick fluid.
  331. Eel sauce.
  332.  
  333. Smoke filled the warehouse, triggering the building’s sprinkler system. The water doused the bonfire of cheap furniture and even cheaper MP3 players. The children became soaked and would probably catch pneumonia, but they didn’t care. They were free.
  334.         In a secluded area of the building, away from the icy downpour and smoke inhalation hazards, Beatrix was sifting through the contents of a filing cabinet. The criminal mastermind who ran this facility kept extensive records on children of a certain ilk for the needs of his rather specialized business model. This mastermind at the moment was lying unconscious several yards from Beatrix and the two orphans.        
  335.         “How did you do that, Beatrix?” Samantha asked with unbridled awe.
  336.         “She was… she was like…” Simon stammered as he executed a variety of spastic movements. His dramatization of the incident was foggy at best.
  337.         Beatrix pulled a folder from the drawer, and slid a sheet of paper from it. As she read the document, her face of concentration dissolved into one of satisfaction.    
  338.         “So what now?” Samantha said, struggling to contain her excitement. “I’m looking forward to leaving here so we can all do fun things together. Doesn’t that sound great?”
  339.         Simon chipped in, “Yeah, it’ll be awesome! I can’t wait to show you the places Sam and me used to hang out! The train yards, the old bootblacking corner…” Most anecdotes originating from a homeless orphan usually had something to do with train yards or bootblacking.
  340.         “Sounds great, guys.”
  341.         “What is that anyway, Beatrix?” Samantha said regarding the document.
  342. Beatrix browsed the text again, which was blotchy from bad photocopying. Next to the text was a photo. A photo of a boy wearing a goofy smile. And an eyepatch.
  343.         She smiled, and tussled the orphan’s hair. “Nothing you need to worry about.”
  344.  
  345. Beatrix jimmied the sword between the teeth and the raw leg wound. There was an unfortunate popping sound, likely a break in the jaw bone. Hasting’s pale head tumbled away. The boy shouted, unable to remain stoic anymore.
  346.         “Don’t you know any healing spells or anything?” Beatrix asked.
  347.         “No. Never could get the hang of those,” the boy replied through a grimace of pain. He ripped the sleeve off his finely cut, snow-white shirt, and tied it around his wound. She detected a brief moment of silence as he mourned the fashion downgrade. “Name’s Grant. What’s yours?”
  348.         She introduced herself. As Grant listened, it seemed to Beatrix that he was studying her, scrutinizing her face as if he thought he knew her, but couldn’t place it. It was only a passing impression, as he returned to a standard social posture.
  349.         “Pleasure. I was just traveling the woods looking for my mate when I saw you getting manhandled by that foul thing. I felt it was only right to intervene, but…” He looked at Hastings’ lifeless eyes, forever frozen in his last moment of surprise. “In retrospect, maybe you had it all in hand!”
  350.         “Oh, not really. If you owe thanks, then so do I,” she said. Grant sliced the excess sleeve from his bandage, and used the spare material to clean his sword to a sparkle. She continued, “You said you were looking for someone?”
  351. “My friend. He went wandering off somewhere and I lost track of him. He’s sick, you see. I need to give him his pills. I suspect he’s out of them... not that he’s very mindful of taking them in the first place. Frustrating. That’s why I think he could be in bad shape. Have you seen anyone?”
  352. “I’ve seen lots of guys around. None since yesterday, though. Does he wear an eye patch?”
  353. “No, that’s not him. Never mind, I’m sure you didn’t cross paths.”
  354.         “I could watch out for him, if you described him.”
  355.         “Tell you what. I think we should stick together. So if you come across him, I will too.”
  356.         “Oh. Um…” She didn’t know how she felt about accruing another male party member, particularly one she knew nothing about.
  357.         “Yes, absolutely. We’ve got to stay together. It’s dangerous out here, and I have this troubling sense that you don’t know anything about magic. Am I right?”
  358.         “Sorry to say, yeah,” she confessed.
  359.         “And if we’re ever separated, and you do run into my friend, here…” He took something out of a pouch tied to his belt. It looked like a Russian doll. It was bright red, and very shiny. It seemed to glow, like a polished, precious stone.
  360.         He opened it. Inside was a smaller doll, which he removed. The smaller one looked just like its larger parent, but was half-red, half-blue, the colors divided down the center of the face and body. He held it with a hand on each color. A thin line of light separated the two colored halves, and the doll became two dolls. They were identical, except one was red, the other was blue. Grant handed her the blue one.
  361.         “Take this. You’ll be able to find me with it. Instantly!”
  362.  
  363. “Herbert, cut it out! God, what’s your problem?” Herbert’s fingers pulled at the edge of his older brother’s bowl of Captain Crunch. Seymour gingerly restrained the bowl in a delicate game of tug of war.
  364.         “Man, there’s no milk. It’s buried like an inch beneath the cereal. I can’t eat this dry crap,” Herbert griped.
  365.         “But I just split the last of the milk evenly. It was a fair split!”
  366.         “Yeah, but come on. You know you like your cereal on the dry side. I like mine to swim a little.”
  367.         “Ok, yeah, but I poured myself a bigger bowl. Proportionately speaking, there is already less milk in mine!”
  368.         “Nobody told you to have so much. You could stand to cut back a little, anyway. Maybe you’ll shed a few.” Herbert, in spite of his other passive qualities, was blessed with the mind of a bully. Unfortunately for Seymour, this virtue appeared to be making a critical spike at Herbert’s ripe age of ten (placing this moment, the keen among you may have already calculated, about four years ago). A true bully knows it’s not the size or age of your target that matters.  It’s his mind’s demonstration of willingness to be bullied. It is the combined displays of weakness, desire to accommodate, and scarcity of self assurance which any real bully will smell like blood in the water. The boys’ parents couldn’t bring themselves to police the behavior after the recent disappearance of their older brother, Louis. They figured children have their own ways of coping with loss, and these natural mechanisms shouldn’t be tampered with. It would work itself out in time.
  369.         “Alright, fine.” Herbert let go, sending the bowl’s contents onto Seymour’s lap.
  370.         “Jesus!”
  371.         “Oops. Sorry.” It was a sincere statement. Being a bully didn’t necessarily mean you wanted to make a big mess in the kitchen. It was more a creed of psychological harassment.
  372.         “Damn it, Herbert. Damn it! Now I’ve got to go change. Look, if the bus comes, can you just hold it up until I’m back?” Herbert gummed a mouthful of dry, razor-sharp Cap’n Crunch. It was like an endurance sport for the soft interior of the mouth. As he poured the remainder of Seymour’s milk into his own bowl, he idly gazed at the empty milk carton. It exhibited on one side something he’d grown accustomed to looking at. Text reading “Missing:” and things like “Last seen:” and “Eye color” and “Hair color”. Beneath this was a picture of their older brother, Louis. This image was going to change soon.
  373.         For the next four-plus years, Herbert would be looking at a picture of Seymour on milk cartons.
  374.         “I hope you choke on your stupid eye patch,” Seymour muttered as he hustled up the stairs to his room.
  375.         “Thaf doefn’t mafe any semse!” Herbert yelled with a mouth full of jagged grain rectangles. “Why would my eye fatch efen be in my mouf?”
  376.         That was the last time he ever saw Seymour.
  377.  
  378. Herbert looked down at the unconscious boy as if examining a heap of manure someone had dumped on to his front doorstep.
  379.         There was something familiar about him. He looked simply ghastly—almost stone cold dead. His face was a grim ivory mask of bloodless skin. His eyes were sunken, like two marks left on an overripe peach by a couple of firmly pressed thumbs. He was…
  380.         No, he wasn’t that person. This boy was alive. He was breathing.
  381.         The boy’s clothes were caked in mud. Maybe they were nice at one point, but not now. A brown suit with a vest and a possibly-white but now-brown shirt. Languishing underneath him was a velvet purple cape, also re-pigmented—amazingly enough—to mud brown. There was something tucked into his garment, something metallic, long. A wand?
  382.         No way, Herbert thought. That seemed even less likely than finding his dreamed corpse sprawled in the mud. There was something in his hand. Herbert carefully plucked it from the boy’s sleepy grip. It was an empty prescription bottle. It read:
  383.  
  384.         Russet Clove
  385.  
  386.         Divalproex 500 mg
  387.         Take one capsule by mouth
  388.         Two times daily for 30 days
  389.  
  390. It didn’t seem possible, but it was true. It was the same boy. He thought to himself, when some people crash, they really crash.
  391.         “You would like to eat him? He looks to be a very tasty young man, that is what you are thinking is what?” Someone was talking to Herbert. Herbert looked around, but could not find the owner of the melodious and strange question. It went on. “It’s his soft portions! That’s on which you have your eye on? Yes?”
  392.         Herbert saw it. It was a metal cylinder a couple feet tall. Halfway down the object was a pair of eyes, large and quite biological-looking, as if they once belonged to a horse. Beneath the eyes was a jagged mouth carved out of the metal and likely razor-sharp. It was twisted upward into a ludicrous smile. Beneath the mouth was printed in plain, black lettering, “LENTIL”. As in LENTIL SOUP.
  393.         “What? Uh… no?” Herbert said, vexed, as the phrase “soft portions” ran naked laps in front of his brain’s stunned audience. “I am hungry, yeah. But there’s no way I’m going to eat this guy, no. If that’s what you’re getting at.”
  394.         “A tiny nibble!” the can said, undaunted. “That’s all I will allow is all, should you accept my offer. The price I ask is the solution to my riddle is my asking price!”
  395.         Herbert’s face was blank. “No, I’m really not interested.”
  396.         “It’s smoothed and ceramic
  397. Like a whitened dish-cradle,
  398. It soothes like a hammock
  399. When invitened by ladle…”
  400. “Seriously, that’s alright. You’ve misunderstood…” Herbert feebly protested.
  401. “Be it a bouillabaisse bed
  402. Or a consommé cot,
  403. Be so tempted your head,
  404.         Recall a hat it is not.”
  405.         It looked at him expectantly, quite pleased with itself. Herbert hesitated, as the silence expanded into something of an idiotic face-off.
  406.         “Just ignore the damn soup. Tell it to go away,” Russet said, stirring in his mud crevasse. He made a face like he was nursing a migraine.
  407.         The soup can bounced towards Herbert. “Well?? What will you hazard?”
  408.         “It’s a bowl. A freaking bowl.” Russet now sat upright, barking at the can. “The thing you put soup into.”
  409.         “Yes!!” The can sprung into the air as if clicking its nonexistent heels.
  410.         Herbert was surprised to hear Russet talking, but not more surprised than hearing the same from a can of soup moments earlier, just to put things into perspective.
  411.         “He’s been pestering me all morning. Seems to be under the impression he needs to protect me,” Russet said, as he reclined again into the muck and leaves. He seemed content to catch a few more hours of sleep without so much as another word.
  412.         “Russet, huh? So that was you? The one who killed all those skeletons?”
  413.         “Yeah, yeah.”
  414.         “What happened to you, man?”
  415.         “Pfffffft.” Russet pulled his grimy cape over himself as a blanket.
  416.         Herbert laughed in recollection. “Arraign my foes with fingers of wind?”
  417.         “Look, cut me a little slack,” Russet sneered. “I’m not proud of myself, alright? Are you happy to hear that? I feel really damn silly about it all, and I’d like to forget about it and just lie here. And I would like you to go away.”
  418.         Herbert was still chuckling. “Wait, wait… what was that one about Odin? Odin’s might?”
  419.         “Oh, shut up. Just get out of here, will you? And see if you can lure away that dumbass soup can with you. Go!” Russet hurled a stone at Herbert. He sidestepped, watching the stone sail through a gap in the trees where the sky was visible. That’s when Herbert saw it, floating in the sky in the distance.
  420.         “What the hell is that?” Herbert gawked. It was hard to identify beyond its three obvious characteristics. That it was floating, it was twirling, and it was… him.
  421.         It wasn’t him, exactly. It was a picture of him, on both sides of a sort of digital token, slowly spinning like a coin on a desk. Underneath it was a blinking arrow pointing straight down, making it seem like a computer icon. It was also quite far away, as it started to dawn on Herbert, who would never find himself ahead of the curve in matters of depth perception.
  422.         “What’s what?” Russet asked. Just a drop of earnest confusion polluted his sour demeanor. “Is that… me??”
  423.         Herbert perplexed. “Don’t you mean me?”
  424.         “No. It’s me, you dolt. Can’t you see?”
  425.         “Huh.”      Herbert had a thought. “Hey, you. Soup. Lentil. Can you come here?” Lentil perked up, delighted to be getting attention again. “What do you see there? A picture of me? Or Russet? Or is it you?”
  426.         Lentil focused with all his might on the task. “I seee… a steaming bowl of clam chowder!”
  427.         Herbert frowned. “What?”
  428.         “No! No! It’s changing… It is a bowl of minestrone is what it is! And now… and now a hungry gourmand is drifting over slowly… and here comes the spoon! Drifting… drifting… there!”
  429.         “No, no,” Russet said. “You’re looking at the clouds, stupid soup. I don’t give a flying crap about what kinds of soup you think you see in the clouds. Do you see anything else. Anything floating, that is not a cloud?”
  430.         “I… am sorry.” His metal smile creaked into a frown. “I am ashamed to say I cannot answer your riddle is the thing I am ashamed of.”
  431.         “So he can’t see it, and we only see ourselves in it?” Herbert deducted.
  432.         “I guess. Yeah. Who cares.”
  433.         “Well, you know what this means. We have to go there and see what it is.”
  434.         “Oh screw you!”
  435.         “Come on. I’d go alone, but I’m sure I could really use your magic.”
  436.         “I’m not doing no damned magic, that’s for damn sure.”
  437.         “Come on, man.” Herbert pulled the boy to his feet in spite of a limp resistance.
  438.         “God, hey, let go, alright! Alright!” Russet struggled away from Herbert. “Jesus.”
  439.         “Look, what were you going to do? Lie in the mud all day long? That’s retarded.”
  440.         “Would’ve suited me fine.”
  441.         “Well, not me. Someone’s got to find a way out of this… summer camp.” The phrase was weighed down with enough irony to keep a fleet of hot air balloons grounded. “Even if it kills one of us.”
  442.         Russet looked back longingly at his groove in the mud.
  443.  
  444. “There’s not as much to it as one might think.”
  445.         “I guess you have to do a lot of reading? Memorizing spells and magic words and such?” Beatrix speculated.
  446.         “Nah, it’s simpler than that. And more subtle. Magic words in my experience are optional. They sound cool, I suppose, if you really want to be a showboat,” Grant explained. “And as far as books go, yeah, I guess it couldn’t hurt to bone up. But that’s not really how I learned the magic I know. It’s kind of an intuitive thing.”
  447.         Beatrix squinted, trying to absorb this. According to all the fictional material she’d been exposed to, magic was a complex affair rife with arcane babble and simmering cauldron sludge. There was intrigue in cryptic protocol, and such protocol invited a kind of comfort, the way a prisoner becomes acclimated to, and then dependent on, the stiff the prison regulations. But then, maybe this was a device fiction authors were apt to lean on for those very reasons.
  448.         “All you need is a decent imagination, and some concentration. Once you get the hang of it at a low level, the complexity of your spells builds from there. Oh… You need one other thing, of course,” he continued. “A magic item.”
  449.         Rats, she thought. She was starting to think she might be just minutes away from casting her first spell.       “You do? Why?”
  450.         “I suppose it’s a conduit for magic energies. Actually, I don’t know. All I know is trying magic without a decent magic item is like starting a fire with a couple sticks as opposed to a lighter. Possible for the proficient, but still awkward. And impossible for someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.”
  451.         “Are these items usually something like a sword? Or a wand?”
  452.         “Actually, they can be anything at all. A staff. A cloak. Even an ice cream scoop, if it was enchanted properly.” Grant paused, looking down at her hand. “Or… a ring. Like the one on your finger.”
  453.         She held up her hand to look at her ring. “You mean one like this one?”
  454.         “No, I mean that one. I’m quite sure it’s magic. You get a sense for these things.” He tapped the pink stone gently with the blade of his sword. The air rang with a sweet harmonic note as ephemeral sparks leapt from the collision. Beatrix was wrong. She was less than minutes away from casting her first spell.
  455.         “What do I do?”
  456.         “Start slow. Just concentrate on the ring. Then just think of… well, just magic, I guess. In the abstract.”
  457.         Beatrix closed her eyes, even though she wasn’t instructed to. She thought about her ring, then thought, in the most general way possible, about magic. Almost instantly, she felt warmth around her hand. She opened her eyes to see a mild glow surrounding the ring. “Wow. That was easy!” she said, laughing a bit at the favorable absurdity of it.
  458.         It was easy. But a mild glow was one thing. It might be useful when trying to illuminate a dark keyhole at night, or when faced with the need to impress a primitive culture of ape-people and make them fly into a fit of wild pant-hooting and bone-throwing. But what about something with a little more bite?
  459.         “So what else can I do?”
  460.         “Depends. Nothing too fancy for a while, I’d expect. But keep working at it. The forces at work tend to feed off what you’re most driven towards. Magic that helps you accomplish what you most want comes the easiest, and is usually the most powerful. It also depends on the makeup of your character, who you are, and all that.”
  461.         Beatrix nodded, holding out her ring-hand. She focused, as Grant went on. “There’s a variety of magic types, of course. Healing spells, curses, illusions… Hell, pick up a copy of the D&D manual. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you.”
  462.         “Illusions?” She didn’t know why this one jumped out at her.
  463.         “Yeah, they’re often easier than other kinds. Making the appearance of something, it stands to reason, is easier than causing the actual thing itself to come into existence, as with manifestation. Something about thought-energy-matter transfer, no doubt.”
  464.         Bands of light coalesced around the pink stone. First formless, but then became dancing wisps wrestling with each other like snakes. The snakes wove a material that morphed and rippled and folded in on itself, becoming convincingly like silky cloth.
  465.         “Wow, nice! Told you, not much to it. You’ve got a knack for it, I’d say.”
  466.         “Thanks,” she said, still concentrating on her thoughts. What you’re most driven towards… so that was the key. Beatrix’s purposes may have been hazy to her, but the images associated with them were sharp, and came and went from her mind’s slideshow as they pleased. The snakes of light tangled, composing as an impressionist painter would an image of Herbert’s face. They jolted suddenly, like a swarm of tadpoles reacting to a pebble thrown in the pond, and composed for an instant a portrait of an older girl with short black hair. Then she was gone.
  467.         Beatrix, startled, threw her hand behind her back, bringing to a halt her amateur magic act. She looked at Grant, who she was relieved to find did not appear to notice the last couple of illusions. He was looking at the landscape in front of them, at a hill. Behind the hill, there was the silhouette of a metal tower. Originating from somewhere near the tower was a rising trail of smoke.
  468.  
  469. “So what do people call you? Wizardy?” asked Russet, as the two boys traversed the rocky hills outside the forest.
  470.         “No. Just Herbert.”
  471.         “What does that make ‘Wizardy’ then?”  
  472.         “Let’s just drop it.”
  473.         “Sounds like a pretty moronic name to me,” muttered Russet. Herbert thought this place really was a magical land of miraculous wonders if it could produce a boy even more wretched and awkward than he was. It didn’t seem possible, but here he was in the flesh.
  474.         Russet nearly tripped over a stationary can of soup. Lentil sat in silent fixation on the path ahead, contained on either side by sheer rock faces. There was a brook of gurgling water along the path, and drinking from the brook was an elephant. Or to be more precise, an elephant’s skeleton.
  475.         Russet was paralyzed with mortification. It wasn’t exactly the sight of the ghastly skeletal elephant (which some may be tempted to refer to as a “skelephant”, a temptation which shall henceforth be resisted very little). What troubled him more was the fact that as a party their aptitude for discretion rested on the whims of a small metal creature with the rational temperament of a five year-old.
  476.         Not that their hiking impediment wasn’t all that ghastly. Twice the size of an African elephant, its black-boned frame carried an impressive girth of green organs. A great network of intestines bundled in its abdominal region, ending with a magnificent colon. The colon stretched from its rear towards its front, strung through its ribcage into the skull, and out the front of the skull where its trunk would be. It used its long mock-trunk to slurp water from the brook, and deposit it directly into its stomach by reaching into its ribcage. Whenever it did this, the two frightened children who were trapped in its ribs had to cower evasively from the appendage. If Herbert had binoculars (or simply an ocular), he might have seen the young boy and girl were wearing vintage Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Strawberry Shortcake T-shirts, respectively.
  477.         Lentil seemed to come to a conclusion about this obstacle. It was an obstacle he wanted dearly to engage, fraternize with, and perhaps pose a series of challenging riddles. He hopped towards the skelephant, causing Russet to let out a small yelp. “You get back here this instant!” Russet hissed urgently. Lentil bounced undeterred. Russet dove into a mad lunge and tackled the can, pinning it to the ground.
  478.         “It looks to be a fine new friend is what it looks…” Lentil’s voice was muffled by a large wad of Russet’s dirty cape.
  479.         “I’ll ‘fine new friend’ you. Shut your fat ugly mouth before I show you the business end of a can opener.”
  480.         “Russet, calm down, man.” Herbert sidled up to the caviling pair. “Hey, why can’t you just kill it?”
  481.         “Why don’t you kill it?” He was elevating his voice in spite of himself.
  482.         “I mean, weren’t you basically offing skeletons all night? This should be a piece of cake for you. Let’s see some of those magics, or majycs, or whatever. Come on, light him up.”
  483.         Russet fumed, turning red. Herbert tried to grab his cape, but was swatted away in a spastic flurry of panic. “Don’t touch me! Just keep your grubby paws to yourself, you busybodied cycloptic prick!”
  484.         “It’s just that this path looks like the only way through here. And those kids, they look like they need help. You like saving kids, don’t you? You are, like, really heroic or something, right?”
  485.         Russet was about to snort another angry volley at Herbert when he noticed he’d lost track of the soup can. Lentil was, as he feared, “engaging” the skelephant, possibly flummoxing the beast with esoteric verse about bouillon cubes. The skelephant however was not looking at Lentil. It was looking at Russet and Herbert while scraping the dirt with one massive foot, as if about to charge. And the “about to” part of that activity was looking to be very short lived. In fact, it had downright flat-lined.
  486.         “It’s running at us!” Herbert observed hysterically. “Stop dicking around, ok? Just kill it!” Herbert shoved Russet toward the raging locomotive of bones and organs. Russet was shaking, frozen in place. He held his wand tentatively, then closed his eyes and took a breath. The wand began to smoke. It became engulfed in a thin, yellow mist which rose like the aftermath of blown out birthday candles. A plaintive sound of flatulence crept out of the tip as the spell came to an ineffectual demise. Russet frowned, dropped his arms to his sides, resigned to what would come next.
  487.  
  488. Beatrix surveyed the acres of tarmac spread across the flat valley. There was hardly a square foot of it that wasn’t cracked and sprouting weeds from beneath. Hangars of corrugated steel had corroded to the point of being porous. Large planes, though otherwise not appearing to be historic or antique, showed the unmistakable disrepair of age. The rusting hulks had missing parts, broken windows, and only a flecked insinuation of the original paint job. Atop the control tower was a satellite dish which looked like it was supposed to be spinning, but no longer was. In piles initially viewed as scrap were caches of ancient artillery and ammunition. In fact, the more she surveyed, the more it didn’t look like a normal airport at all. Not like one a civilian would use. It was more like a military airport.
  489.         Conspicuous among the disintegrating metal was a small shack of corrugated rust with a flat roof. Not because it was a remarkable structure, but because there was smoke coming from a pipe in the roof.
  490.         “An airport? Why?” she asked.
  491.         Grant shrugged. “Could be any number of reasons. To facilitate air travel I’d say was the safest guess.”  She smirked at his possibly non-deliberately satirical reply.
  492.         “Well, don’t you know things about this place?”
  493.         “Not everything. It’s a big place, and I’m afraid the affairs of those who inhabit it can be somewhat… complicated.” Grant motioned her to follow as he marched down the hill towards the shack. His sword was slung around his back. The handle caught the sun, and the shape of the reflection lingered in Beatrix’s eye.
  494.  
  495. The skelephant had Russet coiled in its intestinal trunk, and flailed him about vigorously as if using him to battle a cloud of flies. Its trumpeting was exultant and victorious.
  496.         Herbert looked on with a mix of shock and disappointment. He was sure when faced with death Russet might snap out of his mood and put the beast in its place. Herbert began to suspect that maybe Russet had some sort of problem.
  497. “ThiiiIIiis iiIIiis aaAAaall yoOOour faAAUUult!” shouted the flailed boy.
  498.         “Perhaps it is a helping hand for which you would care for a hand with which to help you with?” Lentil was at the foot of the frisky skelephant.
  499.         “WhaaaAAAaaaAAAaaat?”
  500.         “Ah! But no free lunch goes unpunished!”
  501.         “ShuuUUuuUUuut uuUUuuUU…”
  502.         “Ahem…” Lentil modified his posture, as if preparing for a histrionic soliloquy.
  503. “Most trust has that broth
  504. In which steer places stock.
  505. Like a flame to a moth
  506. We race to its crock!”
  507. “UuuUUuurgh… BeeEEee quiiIIii…”
  508. “Whether bubbled in cauldron
  509. Or it’s simmered in kettle,
  510. Our taste buds are called on
  511. To put test to their mettle!”
  512.         The skelephant pressed Russet’s head against the rocky dirt, and twisted him around as if putting out a large, boy-shaped cigarette. “Mmmph! I don’t… pthff… PTHFFFT! I don’t know!”
  513. “Is it some kind of chili?” one of the trapped children suggested.
  514. “Oh! Oh! What about boot soup! It’s one of my favorites!” said the other.
  515.  “I don’t kn… ptfffff… know! I don’t care! Whatever! Soup! Something to do with soup! Just ki… thbbffthhh… kill this thing!” Lentil looked sad, as if his young son had just told him a lie when he’d given him one last chance to tell the truth.
  516. “If that answer is that which you provide my riddle with the answer to, then I am afraid I have little choice…” Lentil did a short jig. A sparkly aura filled the air, and two more identical skelephants appeared.
  517.         “Oh bloody… thhhhhhhbbpt… hell.”
  518.  
  519. “Each fort is a kind of residence,” Grant explained. “Sort of a community for kids attending the camp. Kids who come here, the luckier ones, I guess, will eventually find their way to one of them. Thundleshick established the forts at the onset of this thing, some time ago.”
  520.         Beatrix was almost startled at hearing something nearly regarding the existence of organization, however shoddy, for the summer camp. “Where are they?”
  521.         “Well… I’m not completely sure where we are now, but each one is roughly east, south, west, and north. Let’s see… to the east, you’ve got Fort Crossnest. South, that’s where Funnelbunk used to be. You don’t want to know what happened to that one. Uh, then west, you have Slurpenook. Stay away from that one at all costs. Just a warning. And up north is Pizzahut.”
  522.         “… Pizzahut?”
  523.         “Uh… yeah. It’s really just a name. Don’t get your hopes too high. But anyway, if you want to head that way, north, or to the east, those places are fine.” He pointed in both directions as he mentioned them. Beatrix caught something out of the corner of her eye as he said “east”. Something strange, floating in the sky. It was a picture of her, somehow, spinning on a disc. She turned to look at Grant. He was still prattling on about something, seemingly oblivious to the floating object. Surely he wasn’t simply failing to notice it. It was as if he couldn’t see it at all. This had her gears turning.
  524.         “Don’t you see that? In the sky?” she said, looking directly at him, careful not to be actually looking at the floating object itself.
  525.         “Huh? See what?” He looked all around, scanning the horizon. She thought for sure he would have seen it now. If he actually could see it. Beatrix took her eyes off Grant, putting into play a minor deception. She looked at the sky, but not facing east. She faced north, gazing at a vacant portion of the sky.
  526.         Grant watched her, then came around to her vantage point and scrutinized the patch of sky she was fixed on. “What do you see there?”
  527.         Beatrix appeared to snap out of it as a cloud passed in front of the thing she wasn’t looking at. “Oh. Nothing, I guess. I must be seeing things.”
  528.         “Well, what was it?”
  529.         “For a second there, I thought I saw myself! Must be exhaustion.”
  530.         Grant scratched his chin, looking a bit concerned. “Do you think,” he said after some time, “someone could be expecting you here?”
  531.         “I don’t know. I can’t imagine why.” She shrugged. More silence followed.
  532.         He looked pained, then addressed to his bloody leg. It appeared to be in worse shape from the hiking. “I’m no good out here like this. Maybe someone in here can help,” he speculated, as he again limped towards the smoking airport shack.
  533.         “What are you hoping for? A magic potion or such?” she asked earnestly.
  534.         “Maybe. Something like that.” They stepped onto the cracked, uneven tarmac. Heat radiated off the dark surface and started to bake them instantly. Beatrix wiped her forehead, and snuck a brief glance to the east. It was still there, floating and spinning. She allowed herself a mischievous, if hardly perceptible smile.
  535.  
  536. The two new antagonists took turns beating Russet with uprooted, prickly shrubs while the third beast held him aloft like a piñata. “Mmmph! Fthh! Gthh damph ith louthy mphthr fthckrth!”
  537.         Herbert watched Russet’s tragic embarrassment unfold. Whatever luster there was to Russet previously, the spring in his step, and indeed any positive attribute, had simply vanished. This was no longer a hero. He was a charity case.
  538.         Herbert rolled up his sleeves (mentally-speaking). Magic was not the solution to everything. In fact, he proposed in his own hazy, non-intellectual way, something to the contrapositive, which held that if magic was not the solution to everything, then anything but magic was the solution to, if not everything, then some things. He felt this situation might fall under the category of “some things”. He felt even more strongly that “anything but magic” was one of his strengths.
  539. The conspicuously not-magical thing Herbert did was pick up Lentil, and in a gloriously un-magical fashion, chucked him at the skelephant’s skull. The impact made a sound like a hammer hitting a coconut. “Elephant! Yeah, you, Dumbo! Aren’t you bored with that one yet? Why don’t you have a go at this!”
  540.         Herbert flashed a lewd gesture, then ran towards a wall of foliage. The ground shook with the stampede equivalent of six African elephants in pursuit. Herbert dove into the shrubbery, tucked and rolled. What Herbert knew which the skelephants didn’t, though, was that this was not a forest. The trees and bushes terminated abruptly only ten feet into it, opening to a steep, rocky hill descending into a gulch.
  541.         The monster stampede exploded through the trees like a huge, voraciously trumpeting cannonball, splintering the sturdy tree wood like it was cheap particleboard furniture. As the creatures made an inexorable rotation through the air, Herbert reached up and grabbed Russet by the foot, prying him away from the trunk’s grasp. The skelephants tumbled down the hill in one great tangle, while the sound of screaming orphans could be heard vaguely.
  542.         A limp, bramble-scratched Russet collided with Herbert, who took the brunt of Russet’s weight as awkwardly as possible. Herbert heard a ‘snap’. And then he heard pain. But in this case, “felt” would be more appropriate than “heard”.
  543.         “Augh… I think you broke my arm.” Herbert looked up, as if cursing whichever God was responsible. Perhaps Loki, the Lord of Mischief was the one who warranted his scorn. Not so much for the broken arm, but that Herbert’s one deed of breathtaking heroism would be wasted on this miserable loser.
  544.  
  545. Grant knocked on the door which responded like hollow metal drum. It opened, revealing a woman’s elderly face. But elderliness was only the beginning and most superficial of the misfortunes which had befallen her face. Her eyes were scarred closed. Her lipless mouth was a thin line amidst creases of age. It was seemingly fused shut, possibly from a burn or a surgical procedure. She wore earmuffs, which straddled a badly unkempt head of silvery hair. She was otherwise not an unattractive woman, possibly even glamorous if caught in the right period in her life (such as a fondly looked upon pre-disfigurement period, for instance).
  546.         “Yes, who’s there? What do you want?” Her mouth did not move. A voice could be heard from within the shack through a filter of radio static.
  547.         “Hello, madam, my name…”
  548.         “Dott! For heaven’s sake, get over to that door and let me see who it is!” crackled the static voice from the interior. The old woman felt around impatiently with waving arms, while Grant’s introduction was left in suspended animation. Beatrix, to no avail, tried to peer into the shack and get a glimpse of the voice’s owner.
  549.         Something caught their attention from below. It looked like a small child, not more than two feet tall. But it wasn’t a child. It was mechanical, with its clockwork and moving bits exposed, everywhere except for its face, which was a painted, polished metal face of a female doll. It had two sophisticated, perpetually focusing lenses for eyes. It looked up at Grant and Beatrix, and as it did so, the old woman looked up simultaneously, at about the same angle.
  550.         “There you are!” snapped the cheerful voice from inside the shack.
  551.         Grant, recovering from a bewildered expression, opted for another stab at formality with the blind woman. “Um, hello, ma’am. Grant Anonama, here. Pleased to meet you. This is Beatrix.” He offered his hand towards the woman. The small robot stared at his hand, lenses twitching and zooming furiously. The woman waved at the air until her hand found Grant’s, and completed a limp, inattentive handshake.
  552.         “Where is my radio? Blast, just one moment, children. Where the devil…” the radio voice spoke in a discombobulated tone. She stooped down, swatting the air in the vicinity of the robotic doll. The doll, or ‘Dott’, as Grant presumed might be its name, turned and tottered into the shack. “Please, don’t stand there! Come in! Get out of that heat!”
  553.  
  554. “So… how’s the arm?” Russet said, finally interrupting what was likely a long and chilly drought of conversation.
  555.         “Never been better,” Herbert said, cradling his blue arm. “I’m about to give it a real workout, in fact. Maybe some one-arm pull-ups, or a few handstands. I’m about to pump some major iron with it in a second, if you want to see a real show.”
  556.         “Well, um, Wizardy… for what it’s worth, I feel just awful about it.”
  557.         “So do I. Don’t call me Wizardy. I should have let you roll down that hill with those elephants.”
  558.         “Don’t think for a second that would not have suited me just fine!” spat Russet with sudden volatility. Herbert rolled his eye while trudging ahead. He briefly reaffirmed the position of the spinning icon. He thought he heard a weak sob from behind him. Herbert re-rolled his eye.
  559.         “Not even a ‘thank you’, huh?” Herbert muttered under his breath.
  560.         “Wh…” Russet said between poorly disguised sniffles. “What?”
  561.         “Nothing. It’s just that you’d think you might show some appreciation. For getting you out of that jam. That’s all.”
  562.         “I’m sorry. Yeah. I mean, no. I mean… big deal. Who cares!”
  563.         Herbert ignored him. He began to hear rushing water ahead.
  564.         “That is…” Russet continued, again withdrawing his combative tone. “I’m not much worth saving, am I?” He drew a heavy breath and kicked a small stone.
  565.  “Wow, you really are a miserable shit, aren’t you?”
  566. “Yes. Yes, I am a shit, aren’t I?” Russet’s face appeared to don a semi-earnest, semi-delirious sense of revelation with this statement, as if a burdensome shroud of ignorance was lifted from his eyes. Herbert had no interest in getting suckered into a pinch psychotherapy role on this hike, or ever.
  567.         “If you want to make it up to me, how about giving me your cape?”
  568.         “M… my… cape?” He began stuttering at the thought of shedding an important fashion accessory, even if it was a very muddy, wrinkly one. Somewhere deep in the ravaged recesses of his psyche there was still a very vain boy. “What on earth do you want with my cape?”
  569.         “Well, there’s a bridge coming up. See?” Herbert pointed to an upcoming ravine. Strung across it was a rickety-looking rope bridge with intermittent wood slats as footholds. “It doesn’t look all that stable, so I’m going to need a free hand to hang on to the rope.”
  570.         “Um… and this has what to do with my cape?” Russet was unconsciously caressing it like Linus did with his blanket in Peanuts.
  571.         “I can use it to tie my arm in a sling. The arm you broke, if you recall.”
  572.         “Oh. Right. Ahh…” He looked as if he was searching for the precise wording for the reason that excused him from surrendering his cape. Herbert advanced menacingly. “Whoa!” Russet jumped, suddenly terrified. “No, no, no! Of course not! Here, take it. Take it!” He handed over the cape with shaking arms.
  573.  
  574. “Mm-hmm, mm-hmm!” Dott squawked robotically. She was intently focused on the radio sitting on the table. She pointed, then looked deliberately at the old woman, then back at the radio, then back at her…
  575.         “Ok, ok! Goodness! Don’t get so overexcited,” spoke the static radio voice. “Now hold your head still, silly, so I won’t trip and hurt myself.”
  576.         “Ma’am, can I… assist you somehow?” Grant asked.
  577.         “Zoe, dear. Call me Zoe, and no. I’ll be just fine,” said the radio. “Please hold your horses for one moment. I’m having a little trouble hearing you from all the way over there on the table.” Grant watched the old woman, which he cautiously presumed might be named Zoe. She made her way to the table while fixed in the eerie, sterile glare of her little toy helper, navigating the through hovel of gadgetry that was her abode. The obstacle course consisted of wires, glass tubes, bubbling crucibles, hefty jars and barrels, hundreds of other unnamable knickknacks. She lifted the radio from the table and fidgeted with the knobs. “There, that’s better,” came out of the walkie-talkie-like device. “If you need to say something, please say it into this. I’m afraid my ears are currently operating its corresponding device!”
  578.         “Your ears?” Beatrix jumped in, sensing the same question on Grant’s mind. “Sorry if this is a dumb question, but who is on the other walkie-talkie? Who are we talking to now, I mean?”
  579.         “Oh! I suppose I should have introduced them. It’s just that, well, they aren’t even here to be introduced, so you can se how it would slip the mind. To answer your question, you are talking to me, Zoe. Or to put a face to it, that poor old soul over there scuffling by the heap of batteries, if you pardon me for a moment… (oof)… while I get to my blasted… stool. There!”
  580.         “Uh-Unn, Uh-unn!”
  581.         “Oh, right,” Zoe’s radio-voice said, “Of course I should have introduced you too, Dott. But you know perfectly well I can’t actually see you most of the time, so, without the slightest bit of offense, dearest, I tend to forget you are there. But…” Zoe lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “That is how I know you are doing a wonderful job!”
  582.  
  583. Russet’s pace progressed asymptotically to a dead halt before he was anywhere near the ravine. He made a grim inspection of the bridge, which seemed to him a generous appraisal of what the structure really was. “Crumble-tether” might have been better. “Plummet-rope” seemed more to the point still.
  584.         “No. I’m not crossing it. I just won’t do it.”
  585.         “It’ll be fine. We’ll cross one at a time, carefully.”
  586.         “Forget it. You’ve wasted enough energy on me. I’ll save you some right now. Don’t bother trying to get me on that absurd wobbly suicide-harness.”
  587.         Herbert sighed. “Ok, whatever you say. But I’m going first. I’ll show you it’s perfectly safe. If you still don’t want to, fine with me.”
  588.         Russet narrowed his eyes suspiciously, not wanting to commit to any devious bargains, even though the terms appeared to demand nothing from him. He couldn’t be too careful though.
  589.         Herbert held the rope with a white-knuckled grip. He focused on his footwork with heightened concentration to make up for the lack of his right arm. Under his foot, and the wood slat it stood on, roared the white rapids at the bottom of the ravine.
  590.         “See? Easy!” he yelled upon reaching the other side. “Now you cross!”
  591.         Russet hesitated. It was clear the bridge passed the test, but that only proved it was sturdier than his backbone. He reached for a rope cautiously. “I… don’t know!”
  592.         “Look, Lentil is there to help on that side, and I’m on this side! Nothing will go wrong!”
  593.         Russet turned to Lentil warily. “Listen, tin can,” Russet hissed with incriminating urgency. “You better not play any of your stupid games. No games, you hear? I’m watching you.” He did something with his fingers that made it clear that he was, indeed, watching him.
  594.         “What I am here to do is help you on this side is what I…”
  595.         “Alright, alright! God. Look, just stand far away from the bridge and I’ll go. Go over there. Further. Further. Keep going. Now stay there.”
  596. Russet inched to the center of the bridge like an elderly man in physical therapy. He wouldn’t dare behave more gracefully, even if it genuinely improved his stability, for fear of jinxing the procession. “That’s it. You’re doing it! Nice going, man!”
  597.         Russet almost hazarded a little smile. The cool air rushing up from the river was certainly a relief from the sweltering oppression of the day. He made the mistake of glancing down and almost threw up, but then rebounded nicely.
  598.         Russet thought about increasing his pace, when he heard a gnawing sound. He craned backwards to see Lentil chewing on the ropes with air-headed abandon. “Oh, now what the hell do you think you are doing?!” Russet blithered incredulously. “No, get away from that! I am not goddamned kidding!”
  599.         There was a snap, then a jolt under Russet’s feet. “I thought you were supposed to be protecting me! Does this seem very much like protection to you?? Does it, you tin of unfathomable excrement?! Does it?!” Mention of Lentil’s alleged purpose seemed to get his attention. He hopped onto the bridge to join Russet. There was not a shred of restraint in his bouncing advance.
  600.         “No! No! Off the bridge! Off the bridge!” Russet scrambled for security, striking a pose like he was playing an invisible game of Twister in midair.
  601.         “So be it your desire to have yourself saved is what you wish me to do? Ah-ha!”
  602.         “No! No save! Leave! No bounce! Leave bridge!” Russet stammered.
  603.         “Ahem…”
  604.         “Oh, I swear to God, if you start on with another friggin’ riddle…”
  605.         “Its steam billows up, like prandial phantom…”
  606.         “Aaaargh!”
  607. “Haunting its stew with character-noodles…”
  608. Russet put the can of soup into a choke hold and pounded its lid with his fist, making metal clonking sounds. “Shut up! Shut up you ugly son of a canned whore! Shut your miserable trap!” Clonk, clonk.
  609. “To the surface they rise, ordered any but random…”
  610. “I’ll kill you! I’ll wipe that hideous grin off your moronic face, you… you pea-brained, inconsiderate… turd merchant!”
  611. “Spelling— it’s true!—‘You’ll love it, but oodles!’”
  612.         There was a ‘snap’. The hopeless tangle of rope, soup and boy fell towards the rushing water below. Herbert merely watched in quiet disbelief. A “clonk-clonk-clonk” could be heard all the way down, until they both disappeared into a small, white splash and were carried away by the river.
  613.  
  614. Beatrix watched the powerful lenses poking out of the otherwise innocent-looking doll’s face. They whizzed and chirped with a kind of depth, a human soulfulness now that Beatrix began to understand that the images captured by them seemed to be channeled directly into this old woman’s awareness, as if they were her own eyes. Her own, albeit separately perambulating outside of her own head.
  615.         “And… the others? You mean, there are more of these little fellas to help you?” Grant said, as he began to catch on in his own way.
  616.         “Yes, the boys! Graham and Ferris. Troublemakers sometimes, but what boys won’t be? You are very kind, Ms. Zoe.” The voice from the walkie-talkie suddenly changed in tone.
  617.         “Who was that?” Grant inquired.
  618.         “That was Ferris.” The voice resumed to what they’d come to know as Zoe’s. “How goes the work, dear? Oh, fine, I suppose. My brother is completing a crosscheck and then we may retire for the evening and play some games.”
  619. It was becoming a tad confusing listening to a conversion between two people out of the same walkie-talkie, while one of the voices supposedly belonged to this perfectly silent elderly woman sitting in a stool. It might seem more confusing yet if it was known the two voices on the walkie-talkie were coming from the same source, the mouth of a small robotic doll.
  620.         “I have them both out in the hangar taking care of some busywork for me. No use dragging my old bones out there for this,” spoke Zoe’s voice again. “That one was vociFerris. He is my voice. And what a lovely voice he is. Aww shucks, Ms. Z.”
  621.         “And his brother? What does he do?” Beatrix asked.
  622.         “sonoGraham plays the part of my ears. He’s listened to everything through the radio on the other end to help me keep up with you kids, and he’s done a heck of a job too. He’s a shy one, though. Quiet as the wind. Heeheehee! Heeheeheeheehee!” Robotic giggling erupted from the walkie-talkie. “Ferris, for heaven—Heeheehee!—sake what are—Heeheehee!—about?”
  623.         Beatrix and Grant looked at each other. It was hard not to observe the exchange as a full-blown schizophrenic having a conversation with him/herself through a radio.
  624.         “Heeheeheehee—me mad—heehee! Just sto—heeheeheehee! Oh, I am so sorry (heeheehee!) Ms. Z. It’s Graham, isn’t it. Won’t you tell me what he is signing to you? You know I can’t see what he is saying unless Dott is there. Heehee… oh, I really shouldn’t translate. (snicker… stop it, will you!) I really shouldn’t!— I hope it is nothing vulgar. Really, that Graham is just too clever for his own good sometimes. Completely fresh. Heehee! Oh, it’s nothing. Don’t worry. I will make him shut up.”
  625.         “Mm-hmm, mm-hmm!”
  626.         “fociDott! Please, don’t encourage them.” Dott became expressively contrite. “And please don’t sulk! It’s all well and good for you to have your moods, but whenever you sulk I wind up with a lovely view of the floor! Thank you!”
  627.  
  628. “Madam Zoe, refreshments sound lovely,” Grant kindly replied. “But really, what I should take care of first is this little cut on my leg. I don’t mean to be a bother, but…”
  629.         The woman on the stool suddenly had a posture of alarm. “Dott! For goodness sake, go over there and have a look! My goodness, my goodness, if I’d known you were hurt… Dott, why couldn’t you have had a better look at the young man’s leg earlier? Oh, don’t show me the floor again! Go! Go!”
  630.         The little robot sprang off her pile of junk and skipped over to Grant’s leg. Through its powerful digital capture equipment, a rich, detailed view of Grant’s blood-soaked knee filled the space of Zoe’s optical awareness. It zoomed in closer as the software auto-adjusted the image for lighting. The makeshift bandage had obviously run its course.
  631.         “It’s just a flesh wound, naturally,” Grant disclaimed. “I was just thinking, perhaps if you had a special remedy or such? Potions or curatives?”
  632.         Zoe held her hand to her chin, becoming absorbed in mentally locating such a thing. “Yes, I think I’ve got just the thing. Dott, will you trot yourself on over to the bins behind me. Yes, that’s it. Take a right at my stool… no, no, the other right. There you go. It’s a gray metal box in there some where.”
  633.         Grant smiled uneasily at Beatrix, as if the gesture performed the function of a wink. She returned the smile with her own vintage of uneasiness. “Anyway,” she began in a way she hoped the old woman would interpret as a private conversation. “You were telling me about this camp. I’m curious, what else do you know?”
  634.         “What did you want to know?”
  635.         “Well… I mean, this obviously isn’t a real summer camp. It’s some kind of big trap. Kids are lured here and captured. So what does Thundleshick want with them?”
  636.         “I see what you mean. You’re sort of right, but not quite. It very much is a real summer camp, in many ways. Well, except for being able to leave if you want to.”
  637.         Beatrix didn’t seem satisfied with this. “What? Are you sure about that? So Thundleshick is… he is the one in charge, right?”
  638.         Grant was visibly hemming for something to say. The subject appeared to make him uncomfortable. “I… yeah. No, he’s the guy in charge. Technically, he did set the whole thing up, all the forts and whatnot. And he runs it all, in his own way.”
  639.         “And he was the one who came up with all those silly fort names? Pizzahut and such?” Her tone was sarcastic, but it was a legitimate question.
  640.         “Oh. I guess so. I’m not sure, actually.”
  641.         “So, why does he do it?”
  642.         “That is… a really good question.” Grant’s sudden ease of response, and look of relief, you might call it, made Beatrix think this was a question he finally felt he was “allowed” to answer freely. She decided to believe him.
  643.         “And why are you here?” she asked, masking her suspicion.
  644.         “Me?” Grant replied innocently. “Already told you. I’m looking for my friend, Russet. But now at least I have someone to help me look.” He produced the most disarming face he could muster.
  645.         The name stuck in her mind like a knife-thrower’s blade. Russet. That Russet? She opened her mouth as if to say something, but then closed it.
  646.  
  647. “Ah-ha! Got it!” Zoe shouted through her walkie-talkie. Dott held aloft a gray box triumphantly. “Good, Dott. Now please take it to the poor boy… or, I’m sorry. Mr. Anonama. There you are, boy.”
  648.         “Mm-hmm, mm-hmm!”
  649.         Grant took the box from the doll-faced robot with a smile. “Thank you very much, Dott.”
  650.         He sneered at the sudden awareness of his stinging leg. He’d been able to ignore the pain while distracted by amusing antics of robots/sensory aids and various kinds of chitchat. But now that he was about to treat the wound, the sharp throb placed itself front and center at the head of the line, like the fattest bum in the soup kitchen. He was looking forward to a splendidly instantaneous magical remedy, nice and tidy. Maybe a kind of thick salve coaxed out of the udder of a rare mystical breed, like a half-giant falcon, half-wildebeest. Or maybe the curative simply came in the form of a topical toad. A kind of tree-climbing variety, which would hug his knee with suction feet, while its enchanted belly absorbed any maladies and repaired his wound.
  651.         He flipped open the lid to see only wads of gauze, a syringe, a couple of bottles of alcohol, and some Band-Aids. “Oh. It’s a first aid kit. Wow.”
  652.         “Yes, you should get that old bandage off and clean the wound right away.”
  653.         Grant was already untying the knot on his bloody, severed sleeve with a look of distaste. “Yes. Um, I was just thinking, maybe you had some kind of remedy that was… a little more… magic?”
  654.         “Magic? Oh, no, I never was much for that sort of thing,” she confessed. Grant looked around again, rethinking his initial presumption about this shack and the one who inhabited it. It was full of oily rags, machine parts, and scattered doodads. This was the den of a kindly old grease monkey more than that of a sorceress. He felt foolish.
  655.         Beatrix looked out the small window, which she noted faced east. She noted this because from this window, she could see the mysterious floating icon she’d spotted earlier. It spun, distantly and silently, beckoning her.
  656.         Grant flinched as he pulled the bandage unstuck from his clotting wound. Without removing his eyes from the deep gouge, he held out the sleeve towards Beatrix. “Beatrix, would you mind, please find somewhere to throw this out so I don’t mess up the place?” She took it between two fingers, looking about, wondering how a single bloody sleeve could possibly elevate the disarray in this cluttered shack even one iota. With her other hand, she felt the cool metal on the underside of her ring with her thumb.
  657.         There was a sudden roar from the walkie-talkie, sounding like a rocket blasting near the receiver. It made the old woman jump. “Sweet Jesus Christmas almighty, if you boys are going to fire up the engine like that, Graham, at least have the decency to step outside for a second, or at least cover up your little ear-holes! I’m sor(static) Zoe, it wo(static) Graham’s almo(static)…” She strained to decipher the words from her own mouth. “What? Oh for Pete’s (static). I (static) hardly hear a word… (static)ut the eng(static)or the love of(static, static, static) cut off the damned engine! Are you trying to make your mother… Oh! There we go. He’s all done.”
  658.         Beatrix, amidst the commotion, flicked the bloody cloth in a way that looked rather convincingly absent-minded. It landed on Dott’s head, covering her eyes. Zoe shook her head, swatting at the nothing in front of her eyes by pure reflex, but was undeterred in her tirade. “Really, you’re going to overheat the thing if you’re not careful. Don’t make me second-guess myself about leaving you alone out there. I feel compromised enough here with only Dott to look after me, the silly girl.”
  659.         Dott finally tugged the bandage off her head, removing the bloodstained darkness from her, as well as Zoe’s, field of vision. Grant was applying alcohol with swabs to his leg with a great deal of focus. Beatrix stood looking out the window motionlessly, with her back to the room.
  660.         “Anyway, Beatrix, sorry if I wasn’t all that clear in answering your questions. There’s a still lot I don’t quite understand myself. And I was just a little distracted, what with this dang leg, and all… Really, what do you want to know? I’ll try to do better.”
  661.         She made no reply. He paused, assuming she wanted him to continue his train of thought. “Well, like I said, it is a kind of camp. But yeah, that is a loose term for it. For one thing, like I said, it is very… well, difficult for a kid to leave here. Just about impossible. The thing is, summer here is very… it’s a very long summer. You might say it lasts forever…” He looked up from his sentence, almost hopefully. He was trying to break certain things in a way that first of all made sense, but also in a way he hoped wouldn’t be too upsetting. He didn’t know why he felt he had to sugarcoat things like this, especially to someone like Beatrix, who he presumed might appreciate a straight answer more than the average girl. It was, he reflected in a grave half-second, part of his personality he detested. But then the alternative, the other side of things he noted with the other half of the second, was even worse…
  662.         She remained silent and still. Grant was growing concerned. “Beatrix? What is it?” He crept to her side. She didn’t budge an inch. He then hunched a bit, bringing his face closer to the window. He wanted to get a look at her face.
  663.         But she had no face.
  664.         It was blank, totally featureless. Grant took a step back, startled. He might have been worried for her, except the explanation was almost immediately apparent to him. He noticed a shimmering quality to her perimeter. The hair lacked detail, not discernable strand-for-strand, but somewhat blurry with gently dancing artifacts you’d see on compressed satellite TV. He waived his hand, which passed right through her body, leaving a misty trail of momentarily-dissolved clothing.
  665.         It was an illusion.
  666.         Grant hurried to the door. He swung it open and manically threw his head this way and that, but there was no sign of her at all. She’d managed to elude him without putting the slightest dent in his obliviousness.
  667.         Another thing which failed to put so much as a ripple in his tranquil pond of ignorance was the other occupant of that shack. The occupant who was neither a technologically adept blind/deaf/mute old lady, nor a diminutive neurologically-linked seeing-eye robotic doll. This occupant was in fact smaller than either of them, and remained perfectly unseen in the clutter.
  668.         The lid to a medium-sized jar slowly lifted. Under the lid, now wearing it like a hat, was the head of a very small horse. The tiny horse head scowled surreptitiously at Grant. It was a scowl far more menacing, far more expressive than you’d think a horse head was capable of. It disappeared, and the jar clinked shut.
  669.  
  670. With the accompanying sound of a great volume of mucous being forced through a large flailing colon, a half-dozen slippery children splattered on to the steel grate flooring. It was a kind of second birth, really, and if their fathers had known about it, they might be proudly pointing camcorders towards the dilating sphincters of the towering skeletons, with a cache of cheap cigars at the ready to be passed around. The parallel is not fully without merit, since these children were beginning a very new life indeed.
  671. In a closed loft above the floor, a young man occupied his computer station. His large, thin-rimmed glasses reflected the light from his web browser, while the sneer on his gaunt, sallow face similarly reflected some vague technical frustration. He wore black shorts with black shirt neatly tucked into them. Crossing his chest was a wide black sash, littered with rows of colorful badges sewn on to it. They were merit badges, signs that he was one of the very few in the organization, if not the only one, who took this realm’s institutional role of “Summer Camphood” seriously. There were a couple reasons for this. One very plain reason was that he carried the title of Camp Counselor. The other reason was that Counselor Slinus Marlevort was quite probably out of his mind.
  672.         He let out a noise of mild exasperation. “This internet connection is absolutely ridiculous.” In the browser, the lower edge of the image crept slowly. A downward-pointing snail stuck to the screen might have beaten it in a footrace.
  673.         “No, I wasn’t talking to you,” Slinus said into his cell phone. “What were you saying?” He wheeled away from the desk, rolling noisily on the fashionable, yet very sinister-looking brushed steel floor. He looked out the window without any purpose to his expression, surveying the gooey huddle of children.
  674.         “She killed him,” said the small voice on the phone.
  675.         “Killed him?”
  676.         “She cut off his head.”
  677.         There was a pause. “… That’s hysterical. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. I wish I could have seen that.”
  678.         A brusque silence came from the other end of the phone.
  679.         “Come on, Terence. I’m not worried same thing will come of you. I know you are in a different league from that eel man and his ridiculous moustache.”
  680.         “That’s very reassuring,” Terence snorted, “Anyway, I’ve lost track of the girl. But I’m on the trail of a boy. The one who calls himself Grant.”
  681.         Slinus removed the phone from his ear for a moment to register some amusement upon hearing this. “Oh, right. Him.”
  682.         “Anyway, he seems to know where the girl went. I’ll follow him, see if he leads me to her and get back to you.”
  683. Terence hung up curtly. Slinus snapped his phone shut, and turned in his chair to see a portly boy standing in the room waiting for his attention. His clothes were too small for him, as if he had grown out of them long ago. His face was dumpy and sad, and no trace of exuberance seemed to remain underneath his wispy preteen moustache and goatee. He wore a black sash with just a few merit badges sewn to it, and tucked into his belt was a comedically small wand with a star on the tip.
  684.         “There’s no sign of any of them in this group,” he muttered.
  685.         “I didn’t think so.” Slinus rested his head on his fist in resignation. “Just hose them down and prep them for orientation.” He swiveled, giving his new prizes on the floor below another nonchalant inspection. He suddenly looked as if he left his keys in another pair of pants, and the pair of pants in question was locked in his car.
  686.         “Where the hell is my skelephant?”
  687.  
  688. Grant limped across the rough terrain, muttering to himself about being outmaneuvered by his female companion. He was so preoccupied, he didn’t notice the faint scuttling noise behind him. The thing doing the scuttling though, to be fair, had little trouble evading detection since it was the size of a lobster. You might even say it was a lobster, if you disregarded the fact that it had the head of a tiny horse. He scowled as he clambered among the rocks covertly. It was, again, a surprising scowl, since you didn’t tend to see horses offering much expression with their faces. On closer examination, it was mostly in the eyebrows. He had marvelously well-defined and quite agile eyebrows.
  689.         Grant removed a small compass from his pocket and confirmed his bearings. He was practically certain Beatrix had gone north, the direction of Fort Pizzahut. He’d reassured her before that it was only a name, but when he thought about it again, the allure the name presents may overpower even the most stodgy intellect with conjured visuals of pepperoni and cheese-stuffed crust. But that wasn’t really why he thought she went this way. When she was watching the sky, he’d concluded she may have seen an invisible beacon designated for her, and simply didn’t tell him about it. If this was the case, there was no telling who had set up that beacon for her. Time was of the essence, now.
  690. North. That had to be it.
  691.  
  692. Heading east, Beatrix felt a renewed surge of wind in her sails. She looked at her ring with a sense of amusement, as well as certain gratification in her newfound abilities.
  693. The illusion… it was so effortless. She barely even thought about it, and in an instant, a complex spell that might taken a junior sorcerer years to master became manifest. And it all arose from a single, potent will of hers—the will to deceive.
  694. She bit her lip unconsciously, then became cross with herself for the flicker of guilt. Was it guilt? Surely she didn’t feel guilty for leaving behind Grant. Maybe it had more to do with what the spell said about herself. Was that really who she was at the root of her being? Someone so keen on deceiving others, the impulse was actually a form of raw, ethereal energy commanding the universe to change around it?
  695. She decided resolutely to dismiss the thought, and any disquieting effects on her conscience about ditching Grant. She operated better alone, and in any case, there was something about him. For one thing, she was inclined not to trust Grant Anonama because she seldom trusted anyone with such an obviously fake name. Really, he could have done much better.
  696. The icon in the sky was getting close now. Exhilaration at what she might find was creeping up on her, like a prankster with an inflated brown bag and a poised popping-hand, or like heart disease on the elderly (an effective prankster indeed). She’d be there in no time, certainly before nightfall assuming she wasn’t a total nincompoop.
  697.  
  698. Well after nightfall, Herbert walked on shaky legs through blackness, guided only by the pittance of light from the stars.
  699.         Cradling his aching arm, the fine velvet cape was muddy and clammy, and served to perpetually refresh his rancor towards that idiot Russet Clove. He thought, if only he’d get his hands around the neck of that miserable basket case… or rather, get one hand around it while using his other bloated arm to sort of limply flog him, like wielding a rubber chicken.
  700.         The floating icon was now directly overhead. It was by far the brightest object in his field of vision, fully self-luminous, though unfortunately for Herbert and his inglorious nighttime hiking follies, it cast no light on anything else. Whatever it was pointing to ought to have been right in front of him, but he couldn’t see a thing.
  701.         Then he saw something, just barely. As his eye adjusted, he could make out faint shapes that very much spoke a certain geometrical language. A tongue loosely in the ballpark of Buildingese. He couldn’t tell what kind of building it was, though. A castle, a bungalow, an architectural marvel like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water? He had the sudden dreadful thought that he might be stumbling into a magical abode, perhaps a palace, rife with whimsical enchantments, wizardly oddities, and infectiously excited children practicing spells and preening their familiars. Though if it came to that, he would give it a pass if it featured one of those really long banquet tables full of magically appearing foods, the kind that tended to have an absurd overabundance of colorful wobbly puddings.
  702.         He was almost there, though each step felt like lifting an obese howler monkey clinging to his shin. Now that he thought about it, he didn’t feel tired so much as legitimately ill. He searched his memory for the last time he felt this sick, but to no avail. We, however, would not have similar luck.
  703.  
  704. Jill Valentine emptied the remainder of her ammo clip into a zombie. Unfortunately, the salvo did not halt the monster’s sluggish advance, and she was forced to flee. As she foolishly jogged in place near an obstacle, her undead assailant helped itself to a greedy bite from her soft portions.
  705.         Herbert’s thumbs danced about the Playstation controller as he looked nervously to his side. His brother was less than two feet from his face, glaring at him with worried interest. Herbert squirmed under the scrutiny. “I don’t know how you talked mom and dad into letting you stay home from school. It’s not like you’re the one who’s sick.” He coughed, causing Seymour to flinch.
  706. “Are you sure you’re alright, Herbert? I could call a doctor, you know. Maybe I should…”
  707. “Well, no, I’m not alright. Do I look alright? But I don’t need a doctor, for Christ’s sake. Can’t you go find something else to do?”
  708. “I’m calling a doctor.”
  709. “Are you out of your mind? It’s nothing. What are you so worried about? Hey, put down the phone!”
  710. “I’m sorry, Herb, but I just can’t take the risk.” Seymour began dialing, undeterred by not actually knowing the doctor’s phone number. Herbert sprung to his feet and struggled over the phone with Seymour’s plump fists.
  711. “Seymour, put it down. Why can’t you just be an uncaring asshole like a normal older brother?”
  712. “Let go, Herb! Maybe he can write you a prescription or something…”
  713. “If you don’t put the phone down, I’m going to tell mom and dad. About you know what.”
  714.         “Oh, come on, Herbert, just ‘cause you found that girl’s gymnastics DVD in my room doesn’t mean…”
  715.         “Not that. The really bad thing. You know.”
  716. “You wouldn’t!” Herbert’s expression spoke to the contrary. Seymour was a literal person with little instinct for bluffing. “Come on, please don’t, Herbert! But seriously. This is serious. It reminds me of… it, you know? The same thing you’re talking about? That day?” He tried to stare as knowingly at Herbert as he could, hoping something, anything, would suffice in place of words.
  717. Herbert knew it was serious. He looked serious. A kind of robot-sent-from-the-future-to-kill-someone-serious. “I’m just a little sick. It’s got nothing to do with that.”
  718. “How do you know? That’s how it started, with really sick-looking people! And then with the coughing and the moaning and the dying—” As Seymour became more hysterical, his inner Jerry Lewis tended to surface.
  719. “You mean… our brother?”
  720. “Well… I mean…” Seymour anguished over a response.
  721. “Was Louis sick? Is that how it happened?”
  722. “Well… not… really…” Herbert watched his brother expectantly as he hemmed around the issue. “… but it’s all… related, you know?”
  723. “No, I really don’t know.”
  724. “Herbert, why can’t you just remember?” Seymour blubbered.
  725. “Why the hell can’t you just tell me?!” Herbert grabbed him by the collar and pushed him backwards onto the coffee table, as if making an urgent motion for an amateur wrestling match. A ceramic frog fell to the carpet. Seymour’s abject face quivered like a rubber mask.
  726. “Careful, Herbert, some of this stuff is valuable.”
  727. “Tell me how our brother died!”
  728.         “I…”
  729.         “Yeah…?”
  730.         “I…” He pushed Herbert off of him easily with his much greater but seldom used strength. He scurried to the Playstation controller and held it unconvincingly. “Look, why don’t we forget about all this doctor fuss and play our game! I’ll be the monsters and you can be the commando. Hey, look, I just obtained some sort of plant. How many points do I get for that?”
  731.         Herbert ignored the question, and stooped over the ceramic frog on the carpet, suddenly examining it with what appeared to be profound interest. Seymour hesitated, worried there might be a small crack in the supposedly valuable amphibian. Herbert twitched, then convulsed. He puked a warm geyser on to the frog.
  732.         On the screen, numerous zombies were huddled into a similar position over Jill Valentine’s rapidly deteriorating torso as the screen faded to red.
  733.  
  734.  
  735. Part 2
  736.  
  737.  
  738. If Herbert had only known what was contained by these walls, he might have sported a gait more sprightly than a pallbearer’s shuffle. For these walls, these magnificent, nay, pantheonic boundaries were custodial to…
  739.         Exceptionally whimsical enchantments!
  740. Towering gates of lucent crystalline splendor swung open. Out pranced two rows of rouge-cheeked youths in full magi-scout regalia. They fluttered on tippy-toed skips in their polished mithril hiking shoes as their phalanx bent gracefully into a spiral around Herbert. A chorus of sweet melody, presumably a patriotic hymn in praise of their beloved Fort Crossnest, filled the air and seemed to tickle it, a kind of lively persuasion which talked it, wooed it, into a dance. It, in return, swirled about the children, teasing their uniforms of titanium white. The golden kerchiefs around their necks billowed like liquid metal, and dapper, polished safari hats capped off their cheerful heads. Four lads rushed towards Herbert with the Palanquin of Valorous Merit, hoisted him upon it during a decisive pause in the musical composition, and hurried him into the gates as if he was a basin of water, and inside was their burning village.
  741.         Alas, no blaze was to be found inside, but for the warmth of good cheer and youthful camaraderie! Every whimsy the brave mind could dare to entertain found representation in these shimmering halls. Mirthful satyrs blew exultations into the mouths of their trumpets with no less gusto than what they’d use to resuscitate a drowned lover. Imps juggled opalescent orbs which, to even the most brusque imagination, looked as if they surely harbored entire universes, and which occasionally shattered on the floor in a likely well-rehearsed brand of contrived folly. Scribbling upon decaying scrolls were wrinkly creatures which looked sort of like deformed, little old men. They probably weren’t really men, but you wouldn’t dare ask what species they were just in case they actually were. Witches toiling over bubbling cauldrons recovered from their ghastly green swills glazed hams the size of award-winning pumpkins, and other such glittering comestibles.
  742.         The food. The aroma caressed Herbert’s nose, and through the same magic spell which affects hobos when in the vicinity of a pie cooling on a windowsill, Herbert found himself levitating towards its source. A stout race of servile mushroom creatures spared little haste in bringing food to the tables, using their spatulate mushroom caps as a kind of waiter’s tray.
  743. They were long tables. There would be no disappointment in at least the one of their three dimensions. But as impressive as the tables’ proportional shenanigans indisputably were, the real showstopper was what rested on their surfaces. Herbert squeezed in-between two vigorously dining campers and began filling his huge plate. He wielded a butcher knife like it was a battleaxe towards a Volkswagen Beetle-sized ham nearby, dealing critical hits to it and knocking off several whole pineapples which had been lanced into the mammoth meat-hock with hatpins.
  744. As much as Herbert took from the table, it was perpetually refreshed by servants with things that looked even better. Colorful teacakes stacked to a height beyond perception. More chocolate tartles than any sensible gourmand’s gullet could possibly account for in a lifetime. Meat pies so big they could be reclassified as mass graves for livestock, and piles of bloodsausage you’d need a bulldozer to realistically transport anywhere. And the wobbly puddings. Oh, how there were wobbly puddings. Wobbly puddings so copious you’d swear they’d started breeding, and so diverse in color and composition, any naturalist would stand agape at the depth of their gene pool. And wobbling, ever wobbling. A wobbling so soothing, so hypnotic, they might have used it to hypnotize an inquisitive rat long enough to engorge it, slowly dissolving its carcass with digestive enzymes, and who knows, probably did.
  745.         The crowd was riotous, bantering about magic and food and good times remembered. Herbert latched onto one bit of dialogue from the din. “Bertie, good bloke! Be a clam and pass me some of those spanking tartles, won’t you?” Bertie shifted in his spotless scout’s whites, assuming a smug position of advantage. “Oi then, Finny, wot’s innit for me, then? I wouldn’t right mind to seein’ towards somma them wob’ly puddin’s. Might force me to loosen the ol’ grip on these tartles, here!” Finny looked as if for the first time in his life a worthy adversary had found him. He beamed, “Well, why didn’t you say so, fine bean! The puddings are as good as yours, friend!” The two exchanged a couple of jocular winks and some magical gesticulations, and the desired menu items took flight and traveled to their respective recipients.
  746. On another day Herbert might have lampooned their personable affectations. But today, surrounded by warmth and friendly spirit, he ventured a smile. A genuine one, a throwback to something pure and boyhoodsmanlike, entirely in spite of himself. And as long as he permitted himself to bask in the succour of great times being had, and the fervour of strong male bonds, he submitted to another questionable train of thought. He would have thought a wizardly dining hall such as this would be complemented, or in fact crowned, by an overseeing wizard. But alas, there was not a wizard.
  747. There were twelve wizards.
  748. They surrounded the hall, spaced regularly, per the hours of a clock. They maintained a solemn, profoundly wise-looking vigil, though not stone-like, as their presence was invested with an all-assuring benefaction. There was Girgund the Stately, a plump little wizard with a red bushy beard, and a twinkle in his eye which possibly served as the only light in some distant, darkened realm. There was Frigglish the Jocund, a broad-shouldered wizard whose beard curled at its tip to nearly come back to his mouth, and whose mirrored spectacles were said to reflect ignorance back at its original projector in the form of frightening serpents. There was QuianZu the Auspicious, a frail man with a wispy moustache and a serene face, one undoubtedly kissed by the divinities of Buddha himself.
  749. And then there was Cloudspindle the Maven, a lanky figure sitting hunched, relaxed, almost stewing in his own wisdom. Herbert felt this wizard was looking at him and became locked in the crosshairs of his abstruse gaze. His eyes shined like diamonds, and the lines in his face deepened, blooming like a flower, as the wizard drew a wizened smile. His beard flowed like a gentle river of pure, silken white, as soft as the coat of an aggressively shampooed show dog. Herbert against all odds felt secure in his gaze, and felt he could swaddle himself in the man’s beard and sleep soundly in his lap. Maybe Herbert had it all wrong. Maybe he’d been harbouring unfair prejudice, and done little honour to the reality of wizards. Maybe, Herbert thought, wizards were ok after all.
  750.         Or maybe, he thought, wizards were not ok.
  751. Herbert hated wizards.
  752. Another embarrassing impasse has crept upon us, as it must again be admitted with the due fleet of dump trucks weighed down with industrial-grade chagrin. The author of this book has unfortunately established a track record of dishonesty. Any guarantee that no lies will stain the pages beyond this point would be a flimsy pact indeed. Comfort perhaps is taken in the almost sure prospect that not one of you for a moment bought the ludicrous hogwash appearing above this paragraph. If one did not pick up on the subtle shades of satire, or the uncharacteristic bit of good fortune befalling our hero, then surely those remaining stragglers of you were tipped off by the sudden turn to badly caricaturized Brit-speak, and the irrational placement of the letter “u” in words they simply don’t belong. And for those of you who until even this moment suspected nothing amiss, and were keen on finding out the names of the rest of the twelve wizards, being quite sure they’d play a huge role in the rest of the book, you’ll be allowed a moment to compose yourselves and pretend you knew it all along just like everyone else. (FYI, they were: Smarny the Quiescent, Dillfly the Sober, Executus the Spry, Bund the Laconic, Gastrell the Munificent, Zazzerpan the Learned, Ockite the Bonafide, and Cuttletard the Deft)
  753. It might further mollify the reader-author relations to suggest that the preceding horseshit-laden hoax, or fantasy we’ll now call it, may very well have been an exhaustion and hunger-induced fabrication in Herbert’s mind. This is a plausible enough explanation, and one we’ll stick to as we press onward.
  754.  
  755. Herbert’s awareness returned to unforgiving reality. Visions of tables festooned with piping meats had caused him to entertain sympathetic thoughts, fond thoughts even, about kindly old wizards. Normally an unforgivable lapse in judgment, this was something he’d just have to chalk up to overexertion, and not beat himself up about too much.
  756. The building was not a glittering palace or anything of the sort. From what he could decipher in the darkness, it was a stumpy building, featureless, like a concrete bunker. He got the impression by the way it was rooted that the bulk of inhabitable space existed underground.
  757.         The rusted metal door had a tiny, muck-coated window, and exhibited only traces of an ancient paintjob. He held little hope that it would be unlocked, but as he reached to touch the handle, he heard a “BUZZZZZ”, and then a click. The handle gave way to his inquiring grip, and the door opened.
  758.         Inside, the smell of age was dominating. It was dark, but not lightless. What there existed of illumination told him, as he’d suspected, that the primary direction to go in this building was down. The clanging metal staircase took him to a corridor, where the sickly flicker of fluorescent lights revealed peeling painted walls. Also painted on the walls were words, possibly a kind of utilitarian signage directing those who would navigate the building. They were written in an alphabet only somewhat similar to that used in English, and in a language barely similar to English at all.
  759.         Herbert gingerly placed his feet to avoid debris. The hall was strewn with litter, like broken glass, crumpled, moldy pieces of paper, and things Herbert hoped were just clumps of dirt, and not rat droppings. Was that a broken wand on the floor? It might have just been a bent TV antenna.
  760. As he made his way down the corridor, he passed a number of doors, some ajar. A noise from behind him caused him to jump and spin around. It was a faint scuffling coming through one of the doors, and suddenly Herbert suspected the stuff on the ground might not be dirt after all.
  761. He obliviously nicked a shard of glass with his shoe, sending it tinkling across the hall with an inescapable audibility. He tensed, and froze. “I’ll be right out! One second!” shouted a frazzled female voice from behind the door. “Gosh darn it! Just had it. Where is it?? Stupid!” hissed the self-scolding whisper. Herbert’s head floated into the doorway, allowing his unpatched eye a clear line of sight into the room.
  762. The voice belonged to a girl who was picking up clothes and shaking them without really looking at them, then tossing them into haphazard. Her hair was wild and unkempt, mercifully drawn back into a ponytail, and resting on it tentatively was a witch’s hat. She wore quite casual clothes which might have passed for her pajamas, and her legs were stuffed into a pair of black boots, one kind of crooked, like she’d just put them on hastily a moment ago.
  763. Herbert, having fully digested the innocuous laundry room scene, pushed the door open a little wider. “Hey. I’m Herbert. Who are you?”
  764. “Shh, shh, shhhhhh-zshhh-zshh-zshh…” The sounds became phonetically similar to the first sound in Zsa Zsa Gabor’s name. “Zshh, zshh, zshhhzshhzshhhhhhhzzzshhh—Herbert, I’ll be right with you, ‘kay?” She slammed the door.
  765.         Herbert located a piece of the floor free of rat turds and plunked down there, leaning against the wall, welcoming the chance to rest his battered, exhausted body.  “Take your time.”
  766. As if in defiance of his remark, the door that instant swung open again with violent metal yawn. Smoke poured out of the room as if a fire extinguisher had exploded in there. The girl pranced out with her arms raised and a bright smile on her face. It was the smile, it would prove, of a showman.
  767.         “Welcome! Welcome all, adventuring sprits! Welcome to the great Fort Crossnest, refuge for the Champions of Charms and the Sorcerialous… —shh! No! Ok…— Sorcerially Serious! Those serious about sorcery! You know what I mean!”
  768.         She was wearing something new, perhaps the target of her mad garment scramble. It was a sash slung around her chest, covered in badges. Herbert wasn’t any kind of summer camp aficionado, but to him, a lot of those badges looked really homemade. Some of them were small squares of paper with pen scrawlings on them, while another, quite clearly, was the wrapper to a piece of Starburst candy sewn onto the cloth.
  769.         “You’re all just in time for orientation. I’ll be your guide. I’m Camp Counselor Carmen Pearlskipper, but just call me Carmen ‘cause we’re on a first name basis around here. We’re all friends around here, ok? If one thing is paramount here, it is friendship. I must warn all of you that nothing outside the boundaries of excellent cheer and brotherhood will be tolerated. Stiff penalties of time-outs will be issued at the failure to comply! Is this understood?”
  770.         Herbert looked around, paying weary lip service to the implication that anyone besides him was being spoken to.
  771.         “Alright! Can I get a high-five?” Carmen held up her hand, and Herbert reciprocated with one of the weakest high-fives he’d ever given. And he was not exactly legendary for his gusto in that department to begin with.
  772.         “Then let’s go! Let’s get on with the tour! If you’ll just follow…”
  773.         “OWWW!” Herbert recoiled, but Carmen’s grip on his wounded arm was steadfast. “That arm is broken. Can you please let go? I’m being very friendly about it, see?”
  774.         She gasped, pulling her hand away like his arm was a hot stove. “I’m so sorry! —shh! Idiot! Stupid!— Sorry. It doesn’t really look like a sling.”
  775.         “Never mind. Can we just do this thing? The orientation, or whatever?”
  776.         “Is that a… is that a muddy cape?”
  777.  
  778. Somewhere in a desert, it was dark but for the light offered by a great display of stars, whose constellations would be foreign to any astronomer with a degree in the subject. With the dunes reflecting the cool luminance of the stars, Grant could see reasonably well.
  779.         Though seemingly there was no one around for miles, at times he thought he could hear a kind of scuttling from behind him, and occasionally, a very small whinny. He was strongly beginning to suspect Beatrix had not actually headed north, as he found it hard to imagine she could have outpaced him for so long.
  780.         He held the Russian doll in his palm, turning it over and over with his fingers. Should he just break down and use it? He had to find her soon. But if he did use it, he’d risk losing half of the doll in the swap. He began to wish he’d thought this whole thing out a little better.
  781.         As he put the doll away, something caught his eye up ahead. It was an indistinct shadow, trudging in one direction, slowing to a stop. Then it reversed directions, and slowed to a stop before reversing yet again Grant concluded this was because it was moving in circles. It was a clumsy form, kind of like a stumbling baby bird. But unlike a baby bird, as Grant could tell as he got closer, it was huge. The size of an elephant. Even bigger, in fact.
  782.  
  783.  “Behold, enchantments galore!” Carmen blustered, as she brought Herbert through another anonymous metal door somewhere in the bowels of the bunker.
  784.         “So what is this? A kind of rec. room?” Herbert puffed, still winded from their madcap procession through the twisting corridors.
  785.         “You’ll find all sorts of scintillating recreations here, yes. And each one a point of spellbinding wonder. This over here, for instance! A humble black box, yes? But no! Pictures, illusions, of living, moving, breathing things, talking, dancing, entertaining…”
  786.         “You mean the TV?”
  787.         “Yes! You’re familiar with Television? Alright! High-five!”
  788.         “Yeah, I’ve had a few encounters with it,” Herbert downplayed, while high-fiving. “Really, really magical stuff. Is that a computer over there?”
  789.         “Yes! You are all really sharp ones today, aren’t you? High-five!”
  790.         To Herbert, everything in this room looked so old, so coated in decades worth of congealed film, it was astonishing that any of it worked. But there was the computer, obediently playing its Windows screensaver on a faded monitor.
  791.         Carmen explained, “The way I understand it—mind you, I’m no ace magicker myself—is tiny druids of silicon use little pails to draw from wells of ether, and make their great pilgrimage at the speeds of light across…”
  792.         “And that’s a phone? Does it work?”
  793.         “Yes! It is a phone!” Herbert carefully observed she only answered his rhetorical question, and not the other one. “It takes the essence of your breath into small saddlebags and is carried off by ponies of wind through…”
  794.         “What’s that weird thing it’s hooked up to?”
  795.         “And this over here,” Carmen carried on, ignoring his question, “This is incredible. Great warriors at your command, fighting for your cause. Each shrunken and made one with great iron staves of agility. They spar and vie for one and only one orb of conquest and take no pleasure in anything but sweet victo—”
  796.         Herbert cut short her depiction of a dilapidated foosball table. “Carmen, sorry, that’s really great. Actually, all this is really nice. Maybe we could come back to this later. I’m just wondering if you have anything to eat around here?”
  797.         Carmen was silent, though her mouth was still moving, perhaps from momentum. Her silence segued into looking suddenly aghast. “Idiot! Dumb! Dumb, dumb, fool. Foolishhh!— Of course, how rude of me. You all must be half-starved, no doubt from your heroic and spellbinding journeys. What’s say we cut to the chase and hit up the mess hall, huh?”
  798.         “High-five?”
  799.         “High-five!” she agreed.
  800.         With that, another mad dash was on through a convoluted sequence of corridors. Herbert could swear she was sometimes doubling back in directions they’d already gone. “You won’t even believe your eyes when you see it! The whimsies of our magic kitchen, they will challenge your imagination!”
  801.         “Right.” Herbert felt that if the whimsies where anywhere nearly as challenging as the ones he’d just seen, he probably wasn’t exactly in grave danger of having a wonder-induced stroke.
  802.         They were welcomed into the kitchen by a thunder of pans, tins and other garbage being kicked across the floor by their motoring legs. Carmen threw Herbert’s arm out of her clutches and looked as if she hardly knew where to begin embellishing shamelessly upon this scummy, perfunctory-looking hovel of a kitchen.
  803.         “Oh! Oh! Now this… You see, this chamber, this… vault, it contains very agitated demons.”
  804.         “Uh-huh.”
  805.         “And you see, these, these cryptodigits, you press and listen to their song.”
  806.         “Yeah?”
  807.         “The song rattles the demons’ cage and they become very upset and produce heat…”
  808.         “You’re talking about the microwave, here?”
  809.         “Yes! High…”
  810.         “High-five, high-five, I know. That’s really cool. So what is there to put in the devil-box then?”
  811.         “In here, in the cavern of…”
  812.         “The refrigerator.”
  813.         “… winter, you’ll find anything your heart desires, and as much as you could ever want. So long as portion yourself judiciously. It is all strictly rationed, you see.”
  814.         “I do see,” Herbert capitulated, as he examined the uninspired mound of plain-looking frozen goods. “Are those frozen burritos?”
  815.         “Yes!”
  816.         “So what you meant was, anything my heart desires, so long as my heart desires a frozen burrito heated in a microwave?”
  817.         “Yes!! High-five!”
  818.         “Sure. How ‘bout you high-five me one of those frozen burritos over here?” Herbert grasped the sad, icy log. He smacked it on the counter, knocking off half its volume in frost, and tossed it into the microwave like a brick. The ancient machine lurched to life with a plaintive hum.
  819.         “Anyway, in the next leg of the orientation, you will all be pleased to know…”
  820.         “Whoa, whoa…” Herbert called off Carmen’s voracious dogs. He didn’t lose eye-contact with his burrito through the barely transparent glass. “Carmen, why don’t we take a breather from the orientation? Anyway, what’s with this ‘you all’ stuff? You know it’s just me here, right?”
  821.         Her eyes darted back and forth, which might have meant she feared the jig was up on some sort of prank she was perpetrating. Or maybe it was just one more symptom of a lurking mental disorder. “Dummy! You dunce! We’ve done it now!...”
  822.         “And that. Why are you doing that? Who are you talking to?”
  823.         Now that Herbert thought about it, maybe there were others here. Some unknown entities, hidden through some insidious affiliation with magic (which would be the first such affiliation of anything, appliance or otherwise, found so far in this dilapidated compound). Maybe they haunted this poor girl, and told her to do things. Then again, maybe she was just mildly schizophrenic.
  824.         “Oh, come on, Herbert. I know I’m only talking to you. You’re so crazy! High-five!”
  825.         “Do you?” he said with reservation.
  826.         “Yeah! All that ‘you all’ stuff, that’s just standard to the orientation. You know, usually more kids show up than just one.”
  827.         “Really?”
  828.         “Oh, yes! Naturally. But the truth is, you are not the only one here. Oh, no.”
  829.         Herbert tapped the glass of the microwave, rousting it from a momentary nap. “Is that so?” It seemed likely to him that her brand of eccentricity was the result of years of solitude. He couldn’t imagine anyone else living in this deteriorating, lonely bunker. “Where are they, then?”
  830.         She looked nonplussed, further evidence to Herbert that she was probably full of it. He continued, “I will bet you anything that there is not a single living thing in this bunker, Fort Crossdress or whatever it was, aside from you, me, and the legion of very intestinally-active rats.” The microwave beeped and ground to a halt. The subsiding hum gave way to the fiercely sizzling noise from the payload inside. Herbert knew enough about cooking with microwaves not to touch it unless he was an avid collector of third degree burns. “And this thing isn’t magic, you know. It’s just a crappy microwave. You know that, right? None of this stuff is.”
  831.         “What am I, stupid, Herbert? —Yes!— I know that. I’d have to be really silly —Yes! Shh!— to think all that. The orientation has always had to be, um, spiced up a little, since this place is a bit depressing, and truth be told, isn’t all that magical. We don’t want to disappoint people.”
  832.         “I’m afraid talking about a foosball table like it was the damned Lost Ark of the Covenant could only serve to do exactly that.”
  833.         “Maybe you’re right. I don’t know. But some kids really seem to like it!”
  834.         “You mean the ‘others’ who are here? Still kind of wondering where they are.”
  835.         “No, not ‘they’. She! A girl. She came in today. First one in a while! High-five!” Herbert was sure he knew exactly which girl she was talking about, even before he saw the girl in question suddenly peering in through the doorway. Beatrix gave a polite knock on the doorframe, then waved.
  836.         “Junior Camper Beatrix, this is our newest camper, Junior Camper Herbert.”
  837.         “Yeah, we’ve met. I think he’ll make for a fine Junior Camper in this outfit.” She said with a satirical smile.
  838.         “Ok, how about we not go crazy with all the Junior Camper stuff,” Herbert muttered.
  839.          “Idiot!”
  840.         “Beatrix, I don’t know if you’ve had the chance, but Counselor Carmen gives one hell of a spiel about this place. If you have a spare moment, I’d highly recommend it,” he said while blowing on his burrito, which he somehow managed to get onto a paper plate, a feat managed through a delicate procedure involving a number of odd utensils, including a wire whisk.
  841.         “Oh, I’ve had the spiel. It was something, alright. Quite illuminating.”
  842.         “Really??” Carmen was delighted to hear the rave reviews.
  843.         “Well, this is all fun and everything, standing around in this dirty kitchen, but I think I’m going to go eat this burrito before it gets cold. Or less than thermonuclear-hot, I guess. Carmen, bang-up job with the orientation, but you can get back to bed. You look exhausted.”
  844.         “Whew.” Carmen took off her hat and appeared to relax. She clomped away, ostensibly to go back to bed. “Shh! Dumbass!”
  845.  
  846. The injured skelephant issued a weak, pleading trumpet. A child’s voice came from its ribcage. “Hey, Mister! Can you please help us?”
  847.         “I have a marble in my pocket. You can have it if you just please help us!”
  848.         Grant came to a stop in front of the limping beast-slash-child prison. One of its legs was shattered, while another on the same side was wounded. This caused it to drag itself in circles, and from the look of the circular ditch in the sand, it had been doing so for some time.
  849.         “You can keep your marble, kid. I’ll get you out of there. How’d you get in that thing anyway?”
  850.         “He swalloweded us through his trunk! Like this! Sluuurrrrrp!” Simon mimicked cheerfully. For what these children had likely been through, they maintained positive demeanors, Grant thought. Maybe they were just accustomed to perpetual misfortune of one kind or another.
  851.         Grant crawled into the ditch and up onto the other side, standing on the central circular plateau. He walked along with the beast, eyeing it critically. He drew back his sword, and plunged it between its huge ribs. There was a final wail of trumpeted misery, then the massive green heart—which Grant found his sword piecing—stopped beating. He pulled the sword out, and in a continuous sweeping motion sliced several ribs from the cage, sending the orphans tumbling onto the sand.
  852.         “Thanks so much, mister! Here, you can have my marble anyway.” Samantha held up the humble sphere with a grubby hand. Grant shrugged, and took it.
  853.         “Alright. I’d be honored.”
  854.         “So what are we gonna do now, mister?” Simon asked.
  855.         “Well,” Grant said, suddenly gathering up the persona of the “fun babysitter”. “What do you kids think about becoming my sidekicks?” The two orphans looked at each other agape. It was as if they’d caught Santa Claus in their living room, and in pursuing him, a rip in the bottom of his sack deposited a trail of presents. “What are your names?”
  856.         “I’m Simon and this is my sister, Samantha! We’re orphans!”
  857.         “Simon,” Samantha scolded, “Ixnay on the orphanyay already, ok?”
  858.         “Sorry, sis.”
  859.         “Ok, Deputy Simon. If you and your sister don’t mind walking a little bit, I’m traveling north to a place called Pizzahut.” There was another exchange of agape looks. “It’s just a name. Don’t get too excited. Though I’m sure there will be things to eat there.”
  860. “Will there be dandelion stew?”
  861. “Ooh, ooh, will there be gruel cubes??”
  862. “Let’s keep our fingers crossed.” The orphans put their finger joints to the test. “Also, listen carefully, sidekicks. We’re on a secret mission, and we’re being followed. But the guy following us doesn’t think we know he’s following us, and we should keep it that way, ok? So if you hear any scuttling behind you, like the noise a crab or lobster might make when it walks, or if you hear any small whinnies, just pretend you didn’t notice anything, ok?”
  863. The two stood at attention and gave their most official-looking salutes. “Yes, sir! I don’t really know what a small whinny sounds like, so I’m sure it wouldn’t occur to me to notice it!”
  864.  
  865. In a sort of dormitory room, Herbert sat on a grungy bed, chewing. It was a surgical kind of chew, one adapted to the process of negotiating a food product that was scalding hot in some places, but ice cold in others.
  866.         “The burrito’s actually pretty good. You should go make yourself one.”
  867.         Beatrix made a face like a grumpy infant in the vicinity of a mall Santa. “Oh, I already tried one. It was… words fail me.”
  868.         Herbert took a swig of lukewarm orange soda, the only beverage available in the dysfunctional kitchen.
  869.         Beatrix sat across from him, on another grimy bed. The beds were made, but probably a long time ago, and had gathered little speckles of black fungus on the blankets. She cleared her throat expectantly, in as subtle a way as she could pull off.
  870.         “Oh! Right,” Herbert remembered. “I’ve got something that’s yours.” He reached into his pocket. He passed the locket to her. She looked happy to have it again, and wore it around her neck. “It slipped my mind, listening to your harrowing tale and all.”
  871.         “Oh,” Beatrix began, after a pause. “You might like to know, I did find out my ring was magic!”
  872.         Herbert choked on a particularly disagreeable clump of burrito. “Really.”
  873.         “And speaking of magic, since I know you’re so interested in the subject,” she said, camouflaging her sarcasm with a normal tone, “check this out.”
  874.         “What’s that?”
  875.         “Kind of like a Russian doll. There are smaller versions inside, and this one itself came out of a larger one.” She popped the doll open, and removed the smaller half-red, half-blue doll. “These separate vertically, and magically, I suppose. Like this.” The two-toned doll became two separate dolls, one of each color.
  876.         “Huh.”
  877.         “Then you take this one.” She handed him the red one. Herbert put the plate containing the grisly half-eaten burrito down on the bed, and took the doll. “Then I turn it. Like this. Hang on.” She twisted her blue doll, so that the top half was turned around facing the other direction.
  878.         Herbert felt the doll move in his hands, as if coming alive. It turned quickly to look at him, but its fit of animation was very brief. His ears felt pressurized, and popped. He looked up at Beatrix, who was still sitting there, but things were different. Slightly different, and he couldn’t immediately put his finger on how. He looked down, and sitting next to him were the two halves of the doll which once contained the smaller dolls. They had been sitting next to Beatrix a moment ago. Beside Beatrix was his mangled burrito. It dawned on him that the objects hadn’t moved. He and Beatrix had.
  879.         “See? The dolls swap positions, and so does anyone who’s holding them.”
  880.         Herbert was silent, feeling his torso to make sure all of it was still there. He’d never been teleported before, and he always thought he would be one of those people—assuming teleportation existed, which it apparently did—who had a phobia about it. He opened the little red doll. Another smaller half-red, half-blue doll was inside, which he felt leery about removing.
  881.         “Another thing,” she went on, “I determined it doesn’t work when one of them is open. See?” She demonstrated by again twisting her blue doll, but no magical event followed this time. “I suspect those two smaller dolls could be taken out and used in exactly the same way, if you wanted. But it would render the bigger pair inoperable, since the smaller ones have to be inside, and both pairs have to be closed for them to work. See what I mean?”
  882.         Herbert slowly nodded his head. The moment had the stink of learning something difficult, or something he didn’t particularly care to know. Not because it was necessarily uninteresting, but because, as Herbert feared on some level, all kinds of knowledge carried a type of burden.
  883.         “I don’t know how many dolls are inside the dolls. Or for that matter, how many bigger dolls there are out there. ‘Parent dolls’, I guess. But I do know,” she said, with a look of contained self-assurance, “that if you don’t want someone using the corresponding doll to teleport to you, all you have to do is keep your doll open.”
  884.         “Hmm.” Herbert eyed her, wondering if there might be some purpose in this observation. Was she hinting that she didn’t want him popping in on her unannounced via doll at the drop of a hat? “Do you think we can use it to get out of here? Like, teleport away?”
  885.         “I hadn’t thought of it, actually. If that is the case, we would at least need to find the doll’s parent.”
  886.         Herbert shrugged. “Why bother. I’m going to get us out of here soon anyway. I saw a phone in the rec. room. I’ll call my parents. Or maybe the police, I dunno…”
  887.         “It might not work. Everything around here seems in such disrepair. There isn’t even any running water. I was really hoping for a hot shower, too.”
  888.         “Can’t you fix it? With your magic ring or something?” Herbert proposed.
  889.         She looked as if it never occurred to her, in an honest, sort of sheepish way which Herbert found somewhat endearing. He was surprised to admit it, but since they’d been separated earlier that day, he found he missed her. In retrospect, she made for a quite reasonable companion for discovery within this rare circle of hell seemingly engineered for Herbert’s personal displeasure. She was good company, particularly when compared with other unpalatable travel mates he could think of. If he could just get his dad on the phone, and convince him to somehow haul his SUV through whatever planes of reality divided this realm from his own, he would consider inviting her back to his place to hit up the Gamecube.
  890.         But then Herbert recalled she had said earlier that she didn’t want to leave. He scratched his head, visibly perplexing at her.
  891.         She looked a little to his right, her eyes widening with surprise. There was a male voice from behind him. Herbert didn’t even need to turn around.
  892.         “I should have guessed it’d be the two of you. Methinks destiny’s put its vexing designs on us all, wouldn’t you say?” Russet leaned on the doorframe with crossed arms and a cocky smile.
  893.         Herbert sagged. “Oh, hell.”
  894.  
  895. It was, as it had been before, hard to believe it was the same person.
  896.         Russet stood in the room, radiant as ever. His clothes, miraculously, or maybe magically, were spotless and fresh again, wrinkle-free and quite fragrant. His black shoes shined like a freshly waxed sports car. His skin again was soft and vital, not sickly and grimy, and his features again were fair, yet commanding, not marred by haunting inner tortures.
  897. The only way he differed from his former self one night ago, to Herbert’s displeasure, was the lack of a cape. “And it was threatening to be such a nice evening…”
  898.         Russet vaulted himself onto a small table against a wall, crossing his legs into a sitting position. He placed his chin on top of his folded hands, and proceeded to besiege them with his effluent charisma. “Wizardy Herbert. Friend. It eases my soul to know you’ve found your way safely. Followed your guiding star, have you?” Russet snorted, continuing on a train of rapid prattle. “Ha! Imagine, navigating by one’s own face in the heavens! To think my visage belonged with the constellations, as if my ego needed it! Good grief!”
  899.         Herbert rolled his eye, and had a feeling he’d be resorting to that activity again soon.     
  900. “And the same sentiments of relief are in effect regarding your safety as well, miss. Though I do regret I was unable to obtain your name in my haste the other night. Perhaps, in this most leisurely setting we find ourselves enjoying this eve, you might favor me with it?”
  901.         “You’ve got to be joking.” Herbert said under his breath, but audibly enough. Between the mania of Carmen’s orientations and the turbulence of Russet’s weird moods, he wasn’t sure he could take any more helpings from the burgeoning buffet tray of psychological disorders.
  902.         “Excuse me, Herbert, but don’t you think it’s a little rude to interrupt a lady as she’s about to speak?”
  903.         “Oh. Sorry. Where have my manners gone? I should have introduced you. Russet, this is Beatrix. Beatrix, this is Russet, a complete nut-job.”
  904.         “Beatrix, then. Charmed and deligh…”
  905.         “Wait, wait, alright…” Herbert stood up in an agitated tizzy. “What am I supposed to do, here? Pretend this is all normal? Is that the etiquette for dealing with people as crazy as you? One minute you look like something fished out of the sewer. And now, you’re all ‘finding ourselves leisurely enjoying this eve blah-blah-blah’. You really expect me not to say anything?”
  906.         “Jeez, Herbert. What’s the matter?” Beatrix asked.
  907.         “No, no, it’s ok.” Russet spoke diplomatically. “Now Herbert… and Beatrix, I suppose it’s only fair that you know too. Earlier, Herbert and I encountered each other. And in a moment of weakness, I’m afraid to say… well, I became a little cross. Completely unjustified behavior, and I apologize.”
  908.         “A little cross?” Herbert echoed.
  909.         “A bit of a spoilsport, yes.”
  910.         “A spoilsport?”
  911.         “Yes, and I feel just rotten over it. What’s say we make amends right here and put it behind us? Put the old hatchet six feet under, so to speak?”
  912.         “Well, I saved your ass, and then you broke my arm. I’ll tell you where you can put the old hatchet.”
  913.         “The arm, of course! What a clumsy muttonhead I was! It wasn’t the first time I’ve found myself culpable of the offense. Dare I say, it won’t be the last.”
  914.         “Yes, it all sounds really innocent, doesn’t it. Almost charming. Like something out of an Oscar Wilde play, really. My God, I should be on my hands and knees thanking you for gracing me with your presence. Oops, I mean hand and knees.”
  915.         “Come now, buddy, lift yourself out of those dumpy doldrums! Why dwell, when you can…” Russet, in mid sentence, hopped to his feet on the table, then sprung off it like a diving board, doing a double somersault over Herbert’s head. In midair, he plucked the cape-sling free from Herbert’s limp arm. The cape was back around Russet’s neck before he landed from the somersault. “Dance!”
  916.         Russet’s pose complemented the word, as if he was about to begin a soft jazz tap routine. The cape was billowing in soft velvety waves, suddenly in perfect condition. And so was Herbert’s arm. It actually felt stronger than ever. He felt like he could halt a charging rhinoceros with that arm, or at least use it to punch out a smug son of a bitch in a cape. “What did you do?” Herbert asked, warily.
  917.         “Consider it a humble, and merely preliminary token of reconciliation for my boorish deeds, fine Wizardy.”
  918.         “Nice spell, Russet.” Beatrix commended.
  919.         “But I’ve only yet begun my repairs!” Russet slid his silver wand from its sheath, and with eyes closed, raised it like a conductor. He drew a breath, then shot the wand’s tip towards one of the moldy beds.
  920.         “We’re together! At last!” Russet swelled melodically.
  921.         “Ohhh, no,” Herbert protested. The bedding bloomed into a froth of pink blankets and satin.
  922. “Albeit a bit tardy!”
  923. “No, you are not starting a musical number right now. Not in here, not now. No way.” Another flick of the wand had the room in warm décor with a burgundy paintjob and dark trim, fully furnished. It looked a bit like a lounge, and now merely lacked an aging gentleman in a robe with a snifter to complete the effect.
  924. “Friends forever! And fast!” Russet grabbed Beatrix’s hands, swooping her up to her feet. Surprised, she had a look of nervous amusement, but played along. Russet spun her around in a mock-waltz.
  925. “Get that singing bullshit out of here!”
  926. “Me, Beatrix and WiiiZARDYYY!”
  927.         SLAM.
  928.         Herbert shut the door after their waltz swept them out of the room. He locked it, then crawled between the pink satin sheets and went to sleep.
  929.  
  930. Beatrix stood with her mouth slightly open. “That was quite a performance, Russet.”
  931. Russet, mid-bow, lifted his head and winked. “All in the due course of gladdening a lady.”
  932. Beatrix made a bemused inspection of the now well-lit corridors of the bunker. “And you certainly did wonders for the atmosphere in here.” She was referring to what transpired during his vigorous musical number, the full, dogged narrative for which we’ve been mercifully spared. Set to his tune though, rest assured, was an ensemble of lively cavorting, graceful Terpsichore, and, yes, majyyks, not the least of which was a handy spell allowing one to make up clever rhyming lyrics on the fly.
  933. The majyyks also called upon the environment to come to life. The frightfully peeling paint on the walls crawled like a kind of supple flesh, and smoothed itself into a seamless plane of pale green. The garbage tumbled through the halls in a horizontal avalanche, dissolving into nothing, leaving a polished, metal surface. Light fixtures above their heads sprung to life with new, steadfast bulbs, supplanting the impotent flicker of the decades-old ones.
  934. “I never did get to thank you for saving us. From those skeletons.”
  935. “And there’s simply no need. Our mutual acquaintance, Wizardy, has already returned the deed in kind, helping me out of my own pickle. You must forgive me if I stay discreet with the embarrassing details of the event, but in any case, he and I are square. Square as can be, as if we’ve taken our mothers to the prom! But from you, Beatrix, all I need to see is your smile to have the exchange turn in my favor. We are more than square. What is that slanty type of square called?”
  936. “A rhombus?” Beatrix felt herself blushing, the first time she could recall it ever happening over a conversation about geometry.
  937. “Yes, a rhombus it is, then. We are fully rhombussed in the transaction.”
  938. “I have to say, your magic is really impressive. You have a lot of talent.” Beatrix tensed her face with critical self-reprimand. “Sorry, I probably sound like a gushing fool.”
  939. “Nonsense! I’m humbled by your remark. Majyyks really are the spice of life, I find,” he said. “Second only to fine tailoring,” he added, after a sly pause.
  940. Beatrix nervously fidgeted with the belt loops on her pants. Despite her most noble efforts, it was proving hard to feel terribly self-chastising in the glow of Russet’s friendliness. “So, is that Cyrillic?” she asked conversationally.
  941. Russet looked to the wall she was referring to, and examined the painted letters with an air of one about to give really complicated directions to a lost motorist. “Umm… you know, I think it’s Russian.” He nodded, becoming more comfortable with this appraisal. “Yes, must be. That’s the one with all the backwards R’s and such.”
  942. “Yeah. Must be.” She stifled a yawn. Now that she thought of it, she couldn’t remember feeling so exhausted. Or dirty. “Say, Russet… When you tidied the place up… you know, with your magical song… did you by any chance fix the running water? I could really use a hot shower.”
  943. “I can assure you this facility, dear Beatrix, is now a veritable shrine to exemplary plumbing standards! The ablutions you crave may occur on your whim. And I imagine,” Russet’s voice escalated to a tenor of excitement, “you may be interested in doing a bit of laundry, no? Say no more, I can see it in your eyes. (Not to mention your clothes!)” He tapped his wand like he was ashing a cigarette. A medium-sized white satchel appeared in his hand. “Just put everything you want to have cleaned in there—darks and whites together even, it doesn’t matter—and give it a little shake, and it’ll all come out clean as the day you bought it!”
  944. “Oh, wow. Thanks!”
  945. “And if you care to have anything pressed, let me show you…” Russet went on with tittering glee at their indulgence in what was likely one of his favorite subjects. As extensive as Russet’s arsenal of magic (majyyks, dammit) was, you could wager dollars to detergent that half the spells related to the maintenance of a proper wardrobe.
  946.  
  947. The next morning, Herbert shuffled groggily down a corridor while rubbing his eye. In his slumber-addled state, it took him a moment to notice the place was tidier, less rat crap-infested. It didn’t take much more time to guess it had something to do with Russet and his Broadway shenanigans. It took even less time for him not to give a rat’s crap about it. Today, he had bigger fish to fry.
  948.         Though the rest of the fort was up to hospital sterilization standards, the rec. room was as dilapidated as ever. He wondered briefly why Russet’s magic hadn’t permeated this room, guessing rather linearly that there might be some anti-magic barrier surrounding it. The musty computer persisted in its loyal display of its banal Windows screensaver. The great shrunken warriors idled, pitched at angles on the foosball table, fused to their iron staves of agility. The bookshelf was jammed with moisture-crinkled, yellow-paged books. They looked like they were recovered from someone’s dead grandmother’s attic, but Herbert recognized many of them as contemporary titles. Most had been printed in the last five years, and in keeping with contemporary literary trends, most invoked a particular theme.
  949. There was an aggressive representation among the shelves of the most popular book series, arguably of all time, the “Rutherford Trick” collection. Rutherford and his friends sought out the Treasures of the Thousand Kingdoms, often dipping into their cache of devastating magic spells. In each book, it was not uncommon for the gumptious youths to bring entire kingdoms to their knees if it meant inching them closer to treasure. Despite heavy-handed overtones of sovereignty violation and militant conquest, the tales always sported a lighthearted, fancifully zephyrous breeze throughout their pages.
  950. Also smattered about the shelves were volumes of the hip, outrageous, and oft in-your-face series, “ALASHA-ZAMMM!” It chronicled the adventures of several rival gangs of youngsters who sparred for turf, riches, and something that rhymed with “riches” which would best be left understood as “women”, all fought out through the arcane, and often “dope” vagaries of street magic. The author, though given a slack leash in having tapped into a vein of “cred” with youth culture, was notorious for putting editors through the ringer with textual deluges of questionable material and profanity, all broadcasted through capital letters (“caps lock”, for the author, was not merely a keyboard key, but something to punch like a timecard, signaling the beginning and end of a day’s work).
  951. Herbert recognized those titles, but hadn’t read any of them. But one he had read was—to his sudden palpations—sprinkled on the shelves liberally. “Vera Valera and the Secret Sorceress Sorority”, a series of tales involving magically-inclined coeds, led by Vera, a vivacious and caper-savvy university socialite. Together they’d solve mysteries and become entwined with the affairs of the many eclectic secret societies on campus. Herbert, though he’d never cop to it, found all the characters and scenarios very charming. Fans of the series, however, would invariably have to endure the curiously salacious flavor to everything, from lengthy descriptions of the coed’s sorceress outfits, and the ways the scant material tended to hug the contours of milky, vitamin-enriched skin, to a narrative style which was absolutely fixated on details of a certain ilk, such as the way Vera’s slender hand would hover, almost trembling with excitement, over a heaving bosom as she revealed her theory on how old Dean Brimstale had fled the enclave with the Palladium Mortarboard.
  952. And then there was another book which Herbert didn’t recognize at all, called “Harry Potter”. Though treated to favorable reviews by a few publications, and indisputably housing some endearing tales about children and witchcraft, the series remained relatively obscure, and few kids had ever heard of it. But for those who had, the existence of the book itself would serve as a story of inspiration, reminding everyone that in this country, even a young black man from Harlem plagued by poverty and violence could shake off the shackles of the ghetto, and by dint of perseverance alone write one hell of a children’s book. As inspirational as that notion may be, and it is, the real world will always require its pound of flesh. Publishers, leery of frightening off potentially squeamish readers by peddling a book written by a black man from the ‘hood, or anyone with an unpalatably “ethnic-sounding” name, persuaded the author to truncate his credit to initials only, and when the issue was ever pressed, claim to be a young white woman from the U.K., as was a fashionable trend among such literature at the time.
  953. Herbert removed one of the Valera novels and, making sure the coast was clear, slipped it in his back pocket.
  954. He applied his attention towards the telephone, which was the reason for this visit. Though first, in a sort of double take, Herbert found himself looking at the bizarre gizmo the phone was hooked into. It was about the size and shape of a sidewalk mailbox, though it wasn’t metal. The case was composed of clear plastic, exposing convoluted clockwork inside. Two dominant interior features were a couple of thick discs, one big, one smaller, like gears on a bicycle. They spooled a kind of tape between them, perhaps magnetic. Between the discs was a label, which said “3π”.
  955. Concluding nothing about the device and surprising no one in doing so, Herbert picked up the phone. There was a dial tone, a sound he was relieved to hear. He punched in the number to his house, and waited with the phone to his ear.
  956. And waited. And waited some more. Just as he was about to remove the phone from his ear, he heard something. It was faint and low-pitched, but was gradually becoming louder, higher in pitch. The noise seemed to reach its peak, a sound like holding down the lowest key on an organ. It then began its sliding descent down the octave on the other side. It was as if Herbert had just rolled over a lazy hill of sound. He waited. And waited. And then exactly as before, it began again.
  957. Herbert hung up in disgust. He debated over whether to try again, which of course he would. Naturally, he thought, it couldn’t be that simple. It never was, certainly not in a place like—
  958. “I love those books.”
  959. Herbert jumped. “What?”
  960. “The book in your pocket! Vera’s so great.” Carmen was standing behind him. For someone responsible for such a clomping pandemonium in her boots the night before, she now seemed like the model of stealth. She could have garroted him if she wanted to, and Herbert invested no certainty whatsoever in the assumption that she didn’t. “Is that volume 18? Or no —Silly!— 19? ‘Soiree of the Pillowfight Valkyries’, I think it was?”
  961. “What? Oh, this. I just needed something to kill a spider with.”
  962.  
  963. Beatrix held the worn, folded piece of paper, still debating whether it should play a role in this encounter or not. She was nervous about bringing the subject up, but she had to start somewhere. And for some intangible reasons, as well as some quite tangible ones, she’d begun to trust Russet. And now that she thought about it, she wasn’t so much preoccupied by the matter of business at hand as she was with the idea of seeing him again.
  964.         Standing outside Russet’s door, she unfolded the Xeroxed sheet. Creases in the paper carved straight, toothy lines of white through the photograph of the boy’s face, intersecting through his black eye patch like crosshairs.
  965. She folded it up and made a motion to knock on the door, but found it ajar. “Hello? Russet?” A sleepy, grumbling noise wafted from within the room. “Oh, sorry… I didn’t know you were still slee…” She was interrupted by more guttural shapes of sound. She thought they were, very much non-lingually, conveying that the intrusion was fine. She opened the door cautiously.
  966.         She was startled by what she saw. The room was in horrible shape, worse than before his fit of tidying. Dust coated everything, the bed coverings were stained and moldy, and the one working bulb flickered pitifully. There was a rasping cough from under a soiled mound of bunched-up blankets.
  967.         “Russet?” She stepped closer, trying again. “Russ…” Russet bolted upright with a prize sow-caliber snort. She nearly leapt out of her shoes.
  968.         His eyes were clenched shut like shy clams, and his hair was like a nest prepared by mentally handicapped birds. He looked partly like someone with a world class hangover, and partly like something you’d find in a cemetery assuming you were equipped with digging apparatus.
  969.         “Let me watch a little more. This Epiphany Collection is just incredible,” he slurred deliriously.
  970.         Beatrix looked around, generously giving him the benefit of the doubt that he might be saying something coherent, but only briefly. She gently tapped him on the arm. “Hey, I think you’re still dreaming there.”
  971.         He took in a short breath and opened his lids wide, revealing bloodshot, darting eyes. They settled on Beatrix.
  972.         “Are you feeling alright?” she asked.
  973.         “Fine. Better than ever,” he said in a tone that would suit someone poised atop a dunking booth, filled not with water, but dead puppies. Beatrix hesitated, putting a finger to her lip. She thought about Grant, and his pursuit of his friend. Didn’t he say something about medicine?
  974.         “Well you don’t really look fine. Are you sure you’re not sick?”
  975.         “Pff. Yeah. Sick, that’s what I am,” he said with a sarcastic edge.
  976. She struggled to fathom the disconnect between last night’s Russet and today’s. Maybe some people just weren’t morning people, she thought. “What happened to this room? You cleaned everything up so well last night, and now…”
  977.         “Oh. I suppose the magic wore off. It happens. All kinds of stuff like that happens to me.” He sneered in an unbecoming way. Though Beatrix noted, contrary to last light, just about anything he did with his face this morning was unbecoming. It was proving to be a stubborn medium.
  978.         “Why do you think that?” she asked.
  979.         “Who the hell knows. God’s got a real bone to pick with me. Yeah, He really likes to gnaw on that bone.”
  980.         “Come on. That can’t be it. We all get a little down, sometimes.”
  981.         “What, don’t you believe in God?” He asked, with a hint of petulance. Beatrix faltered. On another occasion, this might have led to a whole debate on the subject, the kind of conversation in which she tended to thrive. Though at the moment, she was understandably trigger-shy on matters of theology.
  982.         “I… don’t know,” she said, toying with her hair.
  983.         “Well, what is it? Yes or no?”
  984.         “I guess not. No.”
  985.         Russet released a guffaw. “Sorry, don’t mean to condescend, you know,” he said. He flashed her an insecure look through his baggy eyes. “I’ve just never fully understood that point of view. I just don’t get it.”
  986.         “Why not?”
  987.         “Well, something’s got to have it out for me, I figure. If not God, someone very important then. A terribly vindictive prick.”
  988.         “That’s your reason? That’s awfully…” She shrugged instead of saying ‘specious’, usually one of her favorite words in such conversations. The fact was, it wasn’t even specious so much as it was merely pathetic.
  989.         “And somebody’s got to be responsible for making me into such a perfectly, elegantly miserable puke.” He reclined with some effort into his musty den of blankets. “I’m like an orchid in midnight bloom. Or the falls of Shangri-friggin’-La. If you can’t tip your cap to God for that, you simply have no sense of majesty.”
  990.         Beatrix breathed a heavy, but carefully soundless sigh. This was not at all how she’d intended the morning to go. She restively toyed with the folded paper.
  991.         “Are you hungry?” she asked, suddenly hopeful. “Maybe you could, if you feel up to it I guess, do some kind of breakfast spell?”
  992.         “Oh. Yeah. Well…” He pulled blankets over himself in a voice-muffling heap. “I hope you like burritos.”
  993.         She frowned, then looked at the paper. She slid it into her pocket.
  994.  
  995. “Contact with the outside world is a little tricky around here,” Carmen tried to explain to Herbert, summoning every ounce of her limited patience and attention span. “There’s a rift between this world and yours.”
  996.         “Is that what that weird contraption is for? Getting through the rift?”
  997.         “I honestly don’t know. —Stupid!—  But yes, I think so.”
  998.         “I think it’s a broken piece of junk. The phone doesn’t work.”
  999.         “Well of course not. —Shh!— Everything around here is really old, in case you didn’t notice.”
  1000.         “I noticed. So what’s this rift, anyway? Some kind of force field maintained by wizards or something?”
  1001.         “Wizards!” She laughed, almost choking from the sheer absurdity of the remark. “Of course not! —Shh!— Sorry.” Herbert silently awaited clarification. Carmen gathered herself. “Um, right. You see, this world is different from our world. Earth, that is.” Herbert was about to say something sarcastic, but she went on. “Hear me out! It has to do with the summer. It’s always summer here. And as such,” she leaned closer, as if imparting a jewel of wisdom which was guarded by a battalion of coy mountain-top monks for centuries. “As long as it continues to be summer here, camp will never end, and you will never be able to leave.”
  1002.         “What? Why?”
  1003.         “Because it is summer here, while it is not summer on Earth. —Er! What?— No, wait. That doesn’t sound right.” Herbert sighed. He was wondering why he ever thought trying to have a coherent conversation with Carmen was a good idea.
  1004.         Carmen shifted her glance towards the rec. room’s entrance. “Oh, hello, Junior Camper… —Darn!— I mean, Beatrix. Just Beatrix!”
  1005.         “Herbert, I think there’s something wrong with Russet.”
  1006.         Herbert made a series of overly animated head bobbing motions, squeezing as much sarcasm out of the body language as he could. “You think??”
  1007.         “He’s just… so different. I don’t know what…” Herbert interrupted her with a hand in the air, turning back towards Carmen.
  1008.         “Hang on a sec, Beatrix. We’ll talk about it in a minute. Carmen was just explaining something to me.”
  1009.         “Right.” Carmen regrouped. “The bottom line, I suppose, is…” Her hands addressed the frizzy disaster of hair above her as she searched for the words. “This rift in time between the two worlds, it makes it really hard to leave. But probably not impossible. I mean, we all got here, didn’t we? It stands to reason we can all leave. And I would guess Campmaster Thundleshick is the one to decide whether you stay or go.”
  1010.         “Thundleshick.” Herbert hissed to himself through pursed lips as he brandished a fist, the way Seinfeld does when cursing his portly neighbor, Newman.
  1011.         “So he just decides one day, on a whim, that we can go?” Beatrix asked, trying to connect some dots.
  1012.         “Oh, probably not. I’m sure he’s long forgotten about each of us, individually. He’s not really like Santa, keeping lists and such.”
  1013.         “I’d sort of gathered that,” said Herbert.
  1014.         “I’d guess if you wanted him to let you leave, or do anything at all for you, you’d have to do something for him.”
  1015.         “Like what…” Herbert said, as if responding to the exact same statement, only made by someone holding a rubber suit, a tub of Vaseline, and a poodle.
  1016.         “Like Camp Quests! —Shh!— Yes, that would have to be it.” Her revelation was met with silence, prompting her to continue. “If there’s one thing he seems to be interested in, it’s Camp Quests. You see, next to the bulletin board there,” she flailed in the direction of a cluttered board. “The computer. From time to time a quest will be posted online, and any camper who’s inclined can go on the quest. Of course, it’s been some time since anyone’s been around here to try. I’d go myself! —Shh!— But then, nobody would be around to hold down the fort here and provide orienta—”
  1017.         “What’s the point of these quests? Treasure or something?” Herbert asked.
  1018.         “Badges! Magical merit badges!”
  1019.         “Oh, well why didn’t you say so? It sounds like it’s clearly worth the effort.”
  1020.         “For each quest completed you receive one badge. You put the loot in the Vend-o-Badge over there, and it gives you your badge.” They followed her pointing finger towards the peculiar object which looked like a modified snack vending machine.
  1021.         “Ok, so, you get a badge,” Herbert reasoned, “and then you give it to Thundleshick? And he gets excited about it, for whatever sick reason, and then lets you go home?”
  1022.         “Possibly!”
  1023.         “Possibly?”
  1024.         “But I don’t think only one would cut it. I’d think he’d have to be sufficiently impressed. I’m guessing a whole book of badges would move him. I’ve never known anyone who’s collected a whole book, though. It’s hard!”
  1025.         “Alright. It’s a start, I guess. Maybe if we all work together at it, and put in the hours…” Herbert looked pained, as if he was already calculating the time budget. “How many are in a book?”
  1026.         “Three!”
  1027.         Herbert started to say something, then stopped. “Three? That’s it?”
  1028.         “M-hmm!”
  1029.         “Well, hell, we can do that. Can’t we, Beatrix?”
  1030.         She shrugged. “I guess so. We can give it a shot.”
  1031.         Carmen clapped her hands, bubbling up with energy. “This is great! It’s been ages since anyone went on a quest around here!”
  1032.  
  1033. The cardboard box slapped against the concrete floor. It’s hodgepodge of contents made it look like something you’d find on a lawn during a yard sale. At home on its face would have been a hand-written sign reading “50¢”.
  1034.         “You’ll need to be prepared before you go gallivanting on quests, ‘kay?” Carmen rummaged about the box, clinking and rustling through items.
  1035.         “We could pack some sandwiches…” Herbert suggested.
  1036.         “I mean magic items, silly. You’ll need to know your way around a nifty spell or two if you want to stand a chance.”
  1037.         “I’ve already got one. See?” Beatrix held out her ring hand. “But maybe there’s something in there for Herbert?”
  1038.         “Come on, I don’t need…” Herbert began dismissively.
  1039.         “Sure! Just have a look.” Carmen gestured towards the interior of the box.
  1040.         “Herbert, I know you have some weird hang-ups about magic, but it really is useful. Honestly, you should give it a try,” Beatrix said as she fiddled with her ring. The object, in its silent way, had endeared itself to her, and so had by mysterious proxy the art of magic. She now felt like an unlikely spokesperson for the cause.
  1041.         Herbert made a small noise of reluctance. Beatrix stooped over the box and delicately pulled out one of the objects. “What about this?”
  1042.         “Is that a flute?”
  1043.         “It appears to be.”
  1044.         “Let me make this perfectly clear. You will find me resorting to many desperate measures to leave this camp. Virtually any you can imagine. But what you will not do is catch me frolicking all over the place with a damn flute, I’ll tell you that much right now.”
  1045.         Beatrix replaced the item. She pulled out what looked like a little plastic toy monkey. She did not present the item’s candidacy to Herbert immediately, though. “Are you sure this one’s magic?” she asked in Carmen’s direction.
  1046.         “Oh, no. —Shhhh! — You don’t want that one. No, no. —Idiot!— Let me take that.” Carmen cradled the monkey, then put it back in the box. “No, the naughty monkey belongs in his box. There he goes.”
  1047.         Beatrix looked at Herbert with raised eyebrows. “Alriiight. Moving on then.” Another object surfaced. “What about this?”
  1048.         Herbert glowered at the ornately decorated Oriental fan, not dignifying it with a response. “Right,” Beatrix said, putting it back. She sat up, putting her hands on her waist. “Well, you tell me, Herbert. I don’t know. There are some spoons in there, there’s some kind of weird statue-thing, there’s a crowbar, there’s… I think… some kind of replica of a ship… there’s…”
  1049.         “What’s that?” Herbert peered into the box, suddenly fixed on something. He moved some objects aside, including a hand mirror, a whip, a power strip for a computer, and a really tall pepper grinder like they use in restaurants. There it was in Herbert’s view, plain as day. He lifted it out of the heap.
  1050.         “Is that a gun? Like a real gun?” Beatrix reacted.
  1051.         “It’s an M9 Beretta pistol. Yeah, it looks real.” Herbert was one of those guys who, for some inexplicable reason, knew things about guns.
  1052.         “Is that thing magic?” she asked Carmen.
  1053.         “If it’s in the box, then yes, it should be magic. Everything in there is.”
  1054.         Herbert inspected it with, in Beatrix’s judgment, an eerie facility. It was black, with various components plated in silver, the grip in particular. He released the ammo magazine, then slid it back in with an authoritative locking sound. “It’s loaded, too. Fifteen rounds.”
  1055.         “Oh. That’s… good. I guess.” Beatrix was never comfortable around guns. “Well, if that’s your pick, Herbert,” said Beatrix, who could tell the two were already inseparable, “why don’t you try some… magic?” She sounded unsure.
  1056.         “Oh. Alright,” Herbert said begrudgingly. In his mind, guns had nothing to do with magic. Performing incantations with a gun seemed like a form of disrespect to the weapon, a kind of misuse. It was almost as if he was being asked to keep his new Lamborghini under the 20 mph speed limit.
  1057.         He held the gun out, raised to an elevation slightly higher than his head. He then held out his other hand, as if he had the slightest notion about what he was trying to accomplish. “So… what exactly am I doing, here?”
  1058.         “Just picture something you want to achieve. Magically. Anything, really. But I guess try to start small.”
  1059.         “Small, huh? Gotcha.” Herbert focused. His face increased its strain. And harder still. Nothing at all was happening, not even a spark. He felt like a paraplegic trying to move his legs. In frustration, he started stabbing at the air with the gun. The other two crouched defensively.
  1060.         “Whoa. Watch it!”
  1061.         “Relax, guys. I’m not going to shoot anyone. Look, the safety’s on.”
  1062.         “Wow, that’s so unbelievably reassuring!” Beatrix mocked.
  1063.         “Well, there’s obviously something wrong with it. I don’t think it’s a magic gun.”
  1064.         “Are you sure you’re doing it right?”
  1065.         “Not even remotely.”
  1066.         Beatrix watched the M9 warily. She made the reluctant offer. “Here, let me see it.” Herbert shrugged. With his finger in the loop, he flipped it over adroitly and handed it to her grip-first. She took it from him, but halfheartedly, not properly holding the grip.
  1067.         The moment she made contact with it, the gun began glowing red and was hot to the touch. She held it up, and prongs of creeping flame spilled from its aura. The flame tendrils, giving her little time to react, grew larger and collected into a ball of fire in front of the barrel. The ball became bigger and hotter in fractions of a second.
  1068.         She gasped and dropped the gun. It instantly ceased its self-incanted spectacle. She held her fingers, which had felt as if on the verge of suffering burns. “I’d say it’s definitely magical,” Beatrix not so much remarked, as lamented.
  1069.         Herbert tried again, putting on some of his most fearsome “I am really using magic now” faces, though they came off more as “I am really feeling constipated now” faces. The weapon remained lifeless. “Yeargh…” Herbert let out as he surrendered. “What’s the deal? What am I doing wrong?”
  1070.         “I don’t know, Herbert. That thing practically exploded the second I touched it. It’s not for lack of magic potency inside it.”
  1071.         “I guess I’m just no good at magic.” He looked at her helplessly, as if expecting a theory. She held up her hands, like a hobo had just asked her for spare change.
  1072.         “You know,” Carmen stepped in. “Some people have trouble using certain kinds of magic. It’s like any talent, ‘kay? There are always areas that need work. But it’s also sort of a combination… you know, between the magic item’s capacity, and yourself. What’s inside you. So, if there’s something inside you that’s not quite right, then your magic doesn’t work quite right, ‘kay?” They nodded slowly. She continued, “Ok… like, say you have some fear. Like a fear of flying. Well logically, it doesn’t stand to reason you’re going to be doing any flying spells soon, right! But it’s more than that. If you’re a really good person without any bad stuff in you, it would be really hard for you to hurt someone with magic, or cast any ‘bad’ spells, kay? Or if there’s something dark inside you, something evil, then you won’t be able to do any good spells. Like healing magic and stuff like that. Get it?”
  1073. “Makes sense, I guess” Herbert said. “So what does that say about me?”
  1074.         “You?” she said, looking skyward, presumably at the onerous prospect of psychoanalyzing Herbert.
  1075.         “Yeah. What does it say about a person who can’t seem to use any magic at all?”
  1076.         “In that case,” she considered, “I might guess there was some very significant underlying issue. I hate to presume to know anything about you, Herbert. —Shh! Dummy!— But my best guess would be some kind of terrible incident in your past. Like a posttraumatic stress thing. Maybe.”
  1077.         “Hmm. Nope. I really don’t remember anything like that happening.”
  1078.         “A lot of times people don’t remember those things.” Beatrix suggested.
  1079.         “I dunno. It doesn’t really sound like me. I’ve lived a pretty boring life,” Herbert said as he pulled the gun’s holster strap out of the box. He looped it around his waist, fastened it, and holstered the M9. “Anyway, I think I’ll take the gun. I mean, even if I’m not going to be doing any magic with it, at least it is a gun, after all. One that shoots bullets.”
  1080.         “Hmm. Ok…” Carmen didn’t seem completely satisfied with this. It struck her as only proper that one should be, if embarking upon magical quests, armed with magic and not relying on things that fired bullets through such a literal, mechanical process. But it was clear Herbert was going to be a slow study. “You’re ready for a quest, then.”
  1081.         Beatrix, however, wasn’t ready. She was dwelling on something Carmen had said earlier, about those who had trouble with healing magic. She was starting to feel that some of her earlier intuitions were becoming justified, but rather than produce a feeling of satisfaction, it just made her worry. It was a worry she couldn’t pinpoint. Maybe it was mixed with newly percolating feelings of concern for Russet. Or maybe it was a reminder of the seemingly ever-expanding dominion of malefactors bent on her misfortune, for reasons she still didn’t understand.
  1082. She held the blue doll in her hand, giving it a pensive shake. Decisively, she opened it, then stuck both halves in her pocket.
  1083.  
  1084. Under the merciless morning sun, Grant and his two orphan deputies traversed desert dunes on lumbering mounts. The children each rode a more diminutive incarnation of Grant’s more nobly-proportioned mount, an 800-pound bull Frogasus. He’d originally had no intention of expending the magical collateral on any kind of transportation, preferring to marshal his reserves for a more pressing occasion. But listening to two orphans bemoan the discomforts of a lengthy march through a desert was just not something Grant’s conscience was going to permit.
  1085. Samantha and Simon were sound asleep on their smaller frogasus mounts, a sight which would almost look cute if the creatures weren’t drooling strands of white mucus. The frogasus, though durable and loyal to a fault, was hardly a premium summoning. It was better known for its economy. Tiny wings left it flightless, and a tough, bumpy back made it difficult to ride. A minor concession Grant did make, eventually, was giving them the legs of a goat. This was after the instantly apparent non-viability of traversing sandy dunes in great leapfrogging bounds for hours.
  1086.         Grant halted and dismounted his frogoatsus, and examined his map with a look of frustration. He held a compass up to the map as if it would be of the slightest benefit to his current navigational quandary. Samantha was rubbing sand out of a sleepy eye. “Why have we stopped, mister?”
  1087.         “We should have arrived by now.”
  1088.         “You mean we get to have pizza soon?”
  1089.         “No, no. It’s... never mind. There just won’t be pizza. Or probably not. I’ve never been to the fort, myself.”
  1090.         “Well, how can you know, then? Maybe there’s lots of pizza!” Simon was suddenly awake and offering his groggy pizza theories.
  1091.         “I guess you could be right, but don’t get your hopes up. As it stands, I can’t even find it, or even the village it’s supposed to reside by. It should be right here, but it’s not.”
  1092.         “Well, I’ll go back to sleep on my frog. Wake me when we’re there, unless I wake up first from the smell of pizza.” Simon rested his head on a collection of shiny warts.
  1093.         “What village are you looking for?” Samantha asked, and meekly added, “If there’s no pizza, will there be some food there? A crust, maybe?”
  1094.         “Probably. We’re looking for the village of Jivversport. It’s a nice place, and there’ll be accommodations. Well, there would be. If it was here.”
  1095.         “Where did it go?” she asked, as Simon initiated a low snore. Grant was silent. His mount inflated its chest, exhaled, and bent down to rest on the knees of its front quarters, exactly as a tired goat might.
  1096.         “Where did she go?” He rhetorically broke his silence with.
  1097.         “Who?”
  1098.         “Ok. I really have no choice now. It’s pretty clear she didn’t really go this way. God, how did she give me the slip?” Samantha was reluctant to repeat her question, but looked sympathetic nonetheless. Grant held his red doll, thinking.
  1099.         She ventured more curiosity. “What’s that?”
  1100.         Grant seemed to be composing his words carefully before he spoke them. “Deputies… Samantha, Simon, listen to this closely.” Samantha poked Simon. He was immediately upright, as if he’d never been napping. “I’m going to activate this doll. And when I do, one of a few things is going to happen. It might just… well, first it’s going to turn blue, and then…”
  1101.         “Turn blue?? Wow, why?!” Simon enthused.
  1102.         “It just will. That’s not important. Now listen. It’ll turn blue, and then I’ll disappear. Then it’ll just fall to the ground, on the sand there.”
  1103.         “Cool…”
  1104.         “Yeah. So if that happens, I want one of you to pick it up, and hang on to it. Keep it safe for me, ok?” They nodded. “Another thing that might happen… actually, this is pretty likely, so listen. What might happen is, it’ll turn blue,” he nodded towards Simon as he said the word. “And then a girl will appear where I’m standing.”
  1105.         “Is she the girl you’re looking for?” Samantha gathered.
  1106.         “Yes. Exactly. But I’ll be gone, so what I need you to do is…” Grant felt his head and winced, as if he was getting a headache. “God, I hate logistics like this. Let me think.”    The orphans waited with interest. “Ok, if she appears, just give her a message for me. Tell her to stay here, and just put the doll down. In the sand. Like, over here.” Grant marked an ‘X’ in the sand. “Then I’ll come back. Got it?”
  1107.         They bobbed their heads slowly. “How do we know if it’s the right girl?” Samantha asked.
  1108.         “Ask her if her name is Beatrix,” Grant responded. Samantha’s eyes widened, and turned to see Simon looking at her with a similar expression.
  1109. “Ok, here I go. Remember what I told you, deputies!” He twisted the top half of the doll. A few moments passed. Nothing happened.
  1110.         “It’s still red, mister.”
  1111.         “Yeah. I forgot to mention. This is another thing that could happen.” His posture sunk into dejection. He became lost in silent thought about this turn of events.
  1112.         Samantha took the opportunity to wonder quietly towards Simon, “You don’t think Beatrix is… that Beatrix, do you?” Simon didn’t respond, but had a goofy Christmas morning smile on his face.
  1113.         “Alright, here’s what we do now. Samantha,” Grant smiled, adopting an encouraging older brother tone. “I need you to be in charge of the doll.”
  1114.         “Ok. Why?”
  1115.         “Well, if Beatrix ever puts her doll back together, she may try it to come find me. And I need to be able to see her when she does, so that means I shouldn’t be the one to disappear. If you’re holding it, you’ll disappear and go to wherever she was.”
  1116.         “Disappear?” she said, looking at the doll with sullen reluctance.
  1117.         “Um… ok, I phrased that really badly. It’ll just be for a second. We’ll make sure you come back really soon and…”
  1118.         “I’ll do it!” Simon volunteered.
  1119.         “Great. Here you go, Simon. Be really careful with it. You have an important mission!”
  1120.         “Cooool. I can’t wait to disappear!”
  1121.         “Mister, what is that? Is that the village?” Grant turned around to see something on the horizon, something he hadn’t seen before. It was hard to see through the violent refractions in the hot air rising from the sand. It looked like a small building, maybe a cottage.
  1122.         “No, too small to be a village.” He looked closer. There were two figures on top of it. Human figures. They were waving.
  1123.  
  1124. “Questpro Plus v. 3.1” was a peculiar application, unlike any Herbert or Beatrix had used. The main window was complex jumble of lists and statistics on older quests. Some were completed, others were failed, while many had expired, never being taken up by anyone. Beatrix struggled to make sense of the application, a process made more difficult by the blurry, faded colors on the monitor. Though it didn’t seem possible, it had surely been running for decades.
  1125.         “This is such a strange program.” Beatrix complained. “I wonder who programmed it?”
  1126.         “Who the hell knows.” Herbert’s eye was scanning the cluttered bulletin board. The pinned-up documents showed their age even more than the computer. It all struck him as evidence of a once thriving summer camp organization. Lists of names, loosely catalogued notes on magic, tidbits on the lore of the realm—it looked like the trappings of a long dead bureaucracy. There was one document that was curiously more interesting than others in its simplicity, though he didn’t reach for it.
  1127.         “Actually, everything about this computer is weird. Even the fact that it’s here at all seems a little weird to me,” she said.
  1128.         “I know what you mean. How’s that thing get updated, anyway? I checked for an internet connection before, to send my dad an email. No luck, though.”
  1129.         “Maybe it’s a closed network connection? Or maybe it’s magic. I don’t know much about computers. Or magic, for that matter.”
  1130.         “Computers and magic are an idiotic combination, if you ask me.”
  1131.         “And the date’s out of whack. The computer thinks it’s 2055!” she said, as she opened the system clock. “So we got here on the third… that makes it the fifth today?” She muttered to herself. She applied the correct date, June 5, 2004.
  1132.         “Maybe the computer’s from the future,” he said dryly.
  1133.         “Yeah. Or maybe, unlikely as it is, someone just typed in the wrong date. Or maybe,” she sported, “someone took a modern computer back in time, to the year 1950 or so, and it’s been running here all this time with its clock ticking away.”
  1134.         “Huh.” It was a thought-provoking idea, even if it was facetious. It brought Herbert’s attention back to document he’d noticed on the bulletin. It was handsomely concise, and neatly written. There was something faintly familiar about it.
  1135.         The computer made a sound, one of those default noises meant to be perfunctorily informative of some event which was terribly important business from the computer’s perspective, but usually trivial to its human pilot. This event, however, was far from it. The Questpro Plus item in the taskbar blinked expectantly. Beatrix clicked it.
  1136.         “Wow. It looks like a new quest has just been posted.”
  1137.         “Oh yeah? What’s it about?”
  1138.         “Let’s see… It looks like it has something to do with wizards.”
  1139.         With this, Herbert redoubled his attention on the document, going as far as to pluck it from the thumbtack securing it to the board. He furrowed his brow as he concentrated on the text.
  1140.  
  1141. Things to remember:
  1142.  
  1143. 1)      Stay away from wizards. They are unpleasant company, and are to be avoided.
  1144. 2)      Dragons don’t exist.
  1145. 3)      There’s no such thing as time travel.
  1146.  
  1147. “Yeah? What about wizards?” he said, not mentioning the document. There wasn’t much to it, he thought, other than coincidentally addressing a couple of pertinent topics, with little elaboration.
  1148.         “I think…” she ventured, combing the window for information, scrolling through lines of poorly formatted text. “We’re supposed to gather ‘wizard’s whiskers’.”
  1149.         “Whiskers?”
  1150.         “I suppose it means hair. Like, his beard and such.”
  1151.         “Oh. How much hair?”
  1152.         She scrolled further.
  1153.         “Well?”
  1154.         “Three pounds.”
  1155.         “Is that a lot?”
  1156.         “It sort of sounds like a lot to me. Hair doesn’t really weigh very much.”
  1157.         “Yeah, and I bet an old wizard’s hair is extra fine and wispy. Like dandelion fluff. The bastards.”       Herbert reread item 1) on his sheet. He was beginning to perspire slightly. “I guess it doesn’t sound that hard. So we just find a wizard somewhere and ask him for some of his hair.”
  1158.         “What if he doesn’t want to give it?”
  1159.         “Then… I guess maybe we best him in a duel of magic or some ridiculous nonsense like that.”
  1160.         “Don’t you think that might be a little difficult? Wizards are known for their great skill in magic. We’d probably be done for if we challenged one.”
  1161.         From behind them there was an unmistakably sardonic “Pfff.” They turned to find Russet standing there. Though ‘standing’ would be putting it in a flattering manner. It was more of a hunched torso floating in midair, which only happened to be supported by a pair of legs underneath. His clothes were wrinkly, and his cape was on crooked. His face had deep scowl-lines, and might remind you of the face of someone’s cranky grandma who’d just been in a fight, and won. “Are you kidding me?” he spat.
  1162.         “Oh, Russet… hey.” Beatrix swiveled her chair to face him.
  1163.         “Yeah. Hey.” His face only marginally eased its sourness out of courtesy. “Guys, wizards don’t use magic. Don’t you know anything?”
  1164.         “Well, no. We don’t, actually. What do you mean?”
  1165.         “I mean, wizards…” he put his hand on his face, as if to regroup from a misfired attempt to explain something so obvious, he’d never considered putting it into words before. “Wizards are not the jolly old guys who have stars and moons on their hats and fondle big crystal orbs all day. It’s not like popular culture presents. I mean, sure, yeah, there are guys like that, with the hats and magic talking owls and stuff. They’re just not called wizards.”
  1166.         “What are they called?” Beatrix asked.
  1167. “Anything else, really. Are you guys serious with this? I thought only imbeciles didn’t know this stuff,” he said. Herbert nudged Beatrix and raised a furtive eyebrow in her direction, as if to validate his earlier remarks on Russet.
  1168.         “Go on…” she said.
  1169.         “Sorcerers, mages, illusionists, magickers, enchantment engineers, charm consultants or whatever B.S. titles they’re spinning out these days. But not wizards.”
  1170.         “So…” Herbert said, pausing, making a motion with his hand as if about to carefully throw an imaginary object into a waste bin across the room. “What does that make wizards, exactly?”
  1171.         “Wizards are disgusting, crazy old men! They don’t use magic at all. They probably don’t even have the mental capacity for it. They generally just stand around babbling incoherently, being dirty.”
  1172.         “Does that mean you qualify?” Herbert quipped.
  1173.         “Har, har.”
  1174.         Beatrix rested her head on her hand, looking puzzled, less so at Russet’s diatribe on wizards than at his erratic behavior, which she still couldn’t solve.
  1175.         “Wait… wait a minute,” Russet suddenly had a sinister look of amusement. “Do you mean to tell me, Wizardy Herbert, that you had no idea what the significance of your name was?” Herbert responded with a blank look. Russet erupted, “Oh my God, that’s so funny! I thought it was just some sort of ironic, self-effacing nickname! But it turns out you never knew all along! Ha!”
  1176.         It was true. Herbert never took pride in his unusual name, and in fact had spent the better part of his life nurturing an understandable umbrage about the whole situation. But he’d never guessed that in reality, or at least this sub-reality he found himself in, that his name was actually a form of slur. It was tantamount to wandering around with a name like Poopey Hubert, or Shitty Higgins. Or perhaps, within a more risqué quadrant, something like Tarty Walter, or Hussie Andrew.
  1177.         Furthermore, Russet was dead-right about wizards and what they really were. There are innumerable types of people who we might consider to be wizards, and even refer to as wizards in our naïveté. A character like Elwin Thundleshick who, despite certain ignobilities, might be thought of as a wizard, though he isn’t. He is in actuality a kind of bum who wields an advanced facility with kinds of magic most expedient to his petty designs. Or if you crave something from a pool of legitimate-sounding vernacular, he could be classified as a mid-to-high level rouge-thaumaturgist, with cross-class shades of the gnostic-swindler’s discipline. Other better-known examples such as Merlin or Gandalf would more rightly be referred to simply as sorcerers, though in reality very few individuals could be poured into such an archetypical mold. Instead, individuals are sprinkled diffusely across a wide spectrum of sorcerial classification. Examples can be produced copiously, both from within fiction and reality, citing for instance the esoteric hijinks of urban-legerdemancer, David Blaine, or the flamboyant creature summonings of beastmajyykers, Siegfried and Roy, or the slippery elusions of premier ephemera-shaman, Harry Houdini.
  1178.         None of these people would ever be called wizards, though. A wizard would more properly be likened to a kind of deranged hermit whose indigenous habitat tended to be deep within unpioneered forests. Herbert’s short document held sound advice, for you’d never want to get that close to one, even though in truth most of us have at some point. Maybe due to vanishing habitat, or a primitive and ornery stock of wanderlust, a stray wizard will occasionally find himself in more populated areas, including dense cities where he might occupy a street corner shouting unpleasant and incomprehensible things to himself and passers-by. It’s uncertain why the term “wizard” in regular parlance had come to take on a magical connotation. It is possible that the association became logical since so many who wield magic (such as Thundleshick) often exhibit wizardly traits, like terrible hygiene, unkempt facial hair, ratty attire and bizarre sociopathic tendencies. In truth, there is a lot of crossover between wizards and notable practitioners of magic, the way a sterile, dull mule has much intersection, though ingloriously, with the majestic kingdom of the equine.
  1179. For those interested in a more strict taxonomy of the subject, it’s true no pure wizard uses magic, but not all who are like wizards don’t use magic. This logic may seem odd, but once reconciled, there follows quite a sprawling, exotic tree of classification. Many a spare coin’s been pried from spontaneously generous coin purses by the Order of the Hobo-Magi. Few have ever been swept away in admiration for the pungent bouquet of the bindlestiff-grimoirians. Legendary individuals have arisen within the strata of these classes. The pungent kleptomaniac Thundleshick, the little grubby, doublespeaking swamp hermit Yoda, and of course no such list of notables would be complete without mention of the greatest vagabond-sorcerer of all time, Jesus Christ.
  1180.         Herbert smirked. “Go on, laugh it up. I don’t care if it’s true. It doesn’t bother me.” Russet continued his blustering amusement, but it quickly began to look forced. His impish laugh fizzled into a weak cough.
  1181.         “How are you feeling, Russet? If you don’t mind my asking?” Beatrix asked.        “Alright, I guess,” he replied in a way that suggested he was anything but.
  1182.         “Herbert and I are going to go out for a while. We’re going to look for this wizard. Do you feel up to coming along?”
  1183.         Russet milled towards the box of magic trinkets and gave it a small kick. “Going out and messing around with a filthy old wizard sounds like about as fun as getting mauled by a tiger. I think I’ll just hang tight here. Maybe watch some TV.” He stooped down, idly plucking something out of the box. It was a plastic toy monkey. Printed across its shirt was the phrase “Singe Vilain”. He looked at it abstractedly, as if he’d picked up nothing more than a dull stone.
  1184.         “I’ve got no problem with that.” said Herbert.
  1185.         “Ok, then,” Beatrix sighed. “Guess we’ll see you when we get back.”
  1186.  
  1187.  “Ahoy there, desert travelers! Avast ye, and rest your dune-weary feet!”
  1188.         Grant was never sure what the literal meaning of the word “avast” was, aside from being something generally piratey, which pirates said. This made sense though, because the boy who shouted it, along with his female comrade, did look roguishly nautical with their bandanas and their buckles and their swashes (he wasn’t sure what a swash was either).  
  1189.         Settling on the idea that the two teens were something like pirates, albeit in the middle of a blistering desert, Grant moved his attention to the ramshackle structure on which they stood. It was a cube of wooden planks, about the size of a two-storey house. There were no windows in the disorderly façade of planks. On the roof, a crooked wooden pole supported a torn, wind-whipped flag bearing, unsurprisingly, a skull and crossbones. Written on the façade in large letters with smeary black paint were words and phrases conveying a bravado characteristic of pirates. “DEATH TO SLURPENOOK!” swept prominently across the upper portion. “SPIES BE DAMNED” was another that stood out from the more singular expressions, including “HALT”, “BE WARNED”, and “AVAST” (there is was again). But most noticeable of all was “FORT PIZZAHUT” at the top.
  1190.         “Hearty salutations!” the boy persisted with his rugged seaman’s affability. He waved a short dagger as he spoke. “The shelter of our great fort can be considered yours, travelers. If ye can be sworn to claim no unfriendly allegiance, of course!” He gave them a dubious look from behind his long, partially braided hair in the process of having itself dashingly windswept across his face.
  1191.         “None whatsoever,” Grant replied. “So… this is Pizzahut, then? Really?”
  1192.         “‘Tis, mate!” he rebounded with cheer. The girl remained stoically silent, and glanced at her partner. She wore an odd, vaguely nautical hat, and had a telescope tucked into a waist-sash. “First officer Nemoira and I are its protectors. We’ll let no unsavories press the planks of these decks. Captain Counselor Daniel James at your humble disposal.”
  1193.         “Thanks, Daniel. I don’t suppose you’ve seen a girl around here recently?”
  1194.         “Would that I had!” He nudged Nemoira jocularly. “The sight of another fair wanderer’d prove a diversion not unwelcome!” Nemoira rolled her eyes at what was probably not the first bawdy remark she’d ever had to endure. “What use have ye with the lady?”
  1195.         “Just some business. It doesn’t matter.” Grant again sized up the building, which was no closer to being a spa resort than the shed of a serial killer. But anything offering shade at this moment would seem inviting. “Can we come in?”
  1196.         “Can ye come in?” Daniel echoed, smiling. “Can ye come in,” he said again, with further rhetorical inflection. He stroked a nonexistent beard. Grant waited for an answer. He glanced back at the apprehending orphans, suddenly becoming more aware of the acidic streams of sweat on his face. “I’ll tell ye what you can do. You can…” He raised the dagger into the air, then stabbed it into the wooden roof beneath him.
  1197.         “Die!”
  1198.         The two pirate youths vanished.
  1199.         “Where’d they go, mister Grant?” Samantha asked.
  1200.         “No idea. Strange people.” He felt the hilt of his sword presciently.
  1201.         The fort jolted. A cloud of sand blossomed around the base of the now trembling wooden structure. It grew out of the ground revealing hidden height to it, and then soon, hidden breadth as well. As it rose, it became a great edifice of similar box-like wooden structures cobbled together somehow, creaking deeply and frightfully from the stresses, as a loud but soft shushing could be heard from tons of white sand spilling from its recesses. A column of tangled wood, like an appendage, ripped itself out of the sand with alarming swiftness, and brought a mighty claw of planks down hard in front of the travelers. The thing had a massive arm. Another one made itself known in similar fashion. The peak of the mass, the original, now humble-looking fort, showed a cracking fissure across its middle. It opened wide to resemble a splintery, awful mouth. It roared.
  1202.         Daniel and Nemoira stood behind the ghastly thing at a distance. Daniel shouted over the shushing sand, “Slurpenook rogues! Regret ye will blackening our doorstep! Now reap ye the spoils of a woken clubhouse-golem!”
  1203.         The golem pounded the ground in front of the party with its monstrous limb, sending them tumbling skyward through a plume of sand and earth, dark from the depth from which it was dredged. The three frogasus mounts, spurred to courage through loyalty (or maybe through an intellect afforded by cashew-sized brains), operated their puny wings with all their might. They took to a wobbly flight and with a great earnest resolve, flew directly into the golem’s open mouth. The golem closed its mouth, and did not chew.
  1204.         With the brief distraction, Grant crawled out of a pile of sand, finding himself caked in grit which clung to his sweat. He hustled to a strategic position and waited with his sword at the ready. He stood in the path of another mammoth swinging limb, and at the last moment brought his blade in an arc over his head, severing the huge boxy claw at its wrist. The ponderous thing came crashing into the sand, making a sound like an antique boat hitting the ground after being slung from a large trebuchet.
  1205.         The monster roared at Grant, spitting splinters at him sloppily, though as the fragments rained around him, they looked less like splinters and more like crooked javelins. Grant dropped to a knee to brace himself for, judging by his expression, a substantial follow-up attack. He aimed his sword, steadied by both hands, at the beast’s heart. A beam of bright, scorching white struck its center as Grant bore the stiff recoil. A frosty cloud enveloped the flailing clubhouse-golem. Ice crystals sprouted all over it, making it resemble a tub of ice cream that’s been in the freezer for too long. Then all at once, it was enveloped by a huge block of ice which looked cut like a jewel, manifesting in a breakneck instant, much like the way an airbag deploys. The immobilized monster tipped, then thundered to the ground, becoming completely obliterated. All that remained were boulders of ice, dirty with soggy chunks of mangled embedded wood. Geysers of steam burst forth from the prolific rubble as the tremendous cold met with the heat of the desert.
  1206.         Grant kept his composure and approached the two pirates. He’d surely spent most of his magical capital on the impressive trick, but made an effort to convey there was more where that came from in case the aggressors were determined in their rapscallionism. Daniel and Nemoira appeared to bicker with each other frantically as he approached. Grant stopped in front of them, putting his sword in front of himself like a cane as a kind of portentous warning. “I’m sorry I had to destroy your fort,” he said, somewhat sincerely.
  1207.         Daniel squirmed in his frilly, loose-fitting attire. “That’s…” He stopped short of calling it ‘ok’. It was hard to view what had just occurred as ‘ok’. “Truth be told, mate, t’wasn’t our fort. More of a line of defense. And, I suppose…” A frown took over. “… a pet.”
  1208.  
  1209. In the thick forests surrounding Fort Crossnest, Herbert and Beatrix had set about tackling the unusual quest. An eastern region of the forest, near the base of the northern mountain range, was an area purported to yield a significant population of indigenous wizards. This was information retrieved from the Questpro Plus terminal, which they had little choice but to accept on good faith.
  1210.         They’d decided to set up a station at a clearing, a kind of wizard observation station, which would consist of little more than a hiding place in some shrubs with a clear view of their wizard trap. The trap itself would consist of little more than an elevated tree branch with a string dangling from it, and a twenty dollar bill tied to the end, where it would flutter in the breeze. Another indispensable tidbit supplied by Questpro Plus was that wizards, though volatile in manner and capricious in taste, could be counted upon to be swayed by cash. This bit of intel, again, they would have no choice but to invest with a blind, supremely abiding conviction.
  1211.         Herbert sat on a hefty toadstool which yielded pliably to his weight. He removed the bill from his wallet and looped the string around it, making it look like a bowtie. He’d figured this location was as good as any, admitting his wizard tracking skills was an area that could stand a little polish. He did notice nearby a deposit on the ground which might have been wizard leavings, but just as well could have belonged to a feral dog, and he somehow managed to suppress his woodsman’s remorse in not being able to tell the difference. Beatrix sat on a sturdy low branch of a tree with her legs crossed, hunched so her long hair draped over her knees. To Herbert’s eye, she looked bored, but this wasn’t exactly it.
  1212.         “What do you suppose is wrong with him?”
  1213.         “What?” Herbert said as he firmed up the knot around Andrew Jackson’s crumpled face.
  1214.         “Russet. I thought he might be sick. But I don’t think so. Not like a normal illness, like the flu or such. He just seems… sad.”
  1215.         “He is sick. And sad. It’s got to be a kind of depression. That, and he’s a jackass. Both things can be true, you know.”
  1216.         “I wouldn’t put it that way. I think he’s a good person.”
  1217. Herbert gave a sort of wobbly nod, the kind someone makes when politely agreeing to disagree. “He’s probably hopped up on pills. I found an empty prescription bottle by him, you know.”
  1218.         “Oh? What was it?”
  1219.         “Don’t know. Maybe some kind of methamphetamines. He probably downed the whole bottle and started hallucinating or something. And then crashed when it wore off, and started acting like a jerk. That’s what drug addicts do, isn’t it?”
  1220.         “I don’t think so.”
  1221.         “Well he’s on some kind of drugs.”
  1222.         “Don’t you think it might be a kind of medication to treat a condition he has? Maybe it was empty because he’s run out, and now he’s having these problems because he can’t take his pills?” she postulated, secretly armed with a bit of knowledge on the subject Herbert didn’t have. But then confessed, glancing off to the side, “Or, that’s what his friend seemed to suggest.”
  1223.         Herbert, still focused on his craft, replied, “Friend?” Then looked up after a moment. She said nothing. The only acquaintance of Russet’s that Herbert was aware of was a not terribly intelligent soup can, and he would hardly describe their relationship as friendly. Herbert was about to inquire further when he noticed something in the air. A sound. It was a soft whizzing sound, and didn’t last very…
  1224.         THWOP.
  1225.         The acorn ricocheted and bounced away from him several feet. He rubbed his stinging forehead. “Ow. What the hell was that?”
  1226.         Beatrix stared blankly, and slightly cross-eyed, at the red mark between his eyebrows.
  1227.         Whiiiiiiiz. Herbert stood up and looked around. “What th…”
  1228.         THWOP.
  1229.         This one hit harder. The small nut caromed off his head, sending him tipping backwards, but not quite enough to fall over. He looked around wildly. The dreadful whizzing began again. “Hit the deck! We’re under attack!”
  1230.         Beatrix stood up, looking confused. Then she spotted something. “What’s that? There, through the trees?”
  1231.         Herbert peered out from behind a rock like a groggy turtle, leaving nothing to chance. He saw what Beatrix was facing. It was a frail, filthy old man with a ratty beard and a loincloth. Before Herbert could register any more detail, the old man’s hand disappeared into a small pouch, and in a surprisingly athletic move, wound up like a Major League pitcher and sent it sailing with a blur of wrinkly arm skin.
  1232.         Herbert ducked behind his rock at the last moment, and the supersonic acorn skipped off his barricade just inches above his head. Herbert smelled a slight burning and ventured an inspection of the rock’s surface, which had a skid of scorched acorn residue across it.
  1233.         “It’s a wizard.” Herbert said, with a look of grave alarm. “It’s a damned wizard!”
  1234.  
  1235.  “I hope you don’t mind if I cut the pleasantries short,” Grant said with a sheathed sword and relaxed demeanor. “Wasn’t there a village nearby, or am I mistaken?”
  1236.         Daniel looked quickly at Nemoira, who shook her head slightly. “That…” Daniel paused. “It’s a funny subject, you know. Villages, that is. I don’t…”
  1237.         “And what about the fort? You say that wooden creature was not Fort Pizzahut. Then where is it?”
  1238.         There was more silent communication between the two. To Nemoira’s woe, Daniel conceded. “To hell with it, then. Our golem, as I made claim of earlier, was a trap. A ruse to catch Slurpenook flies. Turn ‘em back whatsuch they came, or not, if ye know what I mean. The real fort’s up in the village. Jivversport, I reckon ye know?”
  1239.         Grant nodded. Daniel turned to Nemoira and bowed his head in an unsolicited affirmative. She reluctantly drew her silver telescope from her sash and elongated it. She brought it to her eye and twisted the heavier end, while pointing it towards a vast region of empty desert. The moment she did this, blurry colored forms appeared across the landscape. As she brought the lens to a focus, so focused the forms into crisp shapes. Specifically, hundreds of house-like shapes with roofs, streets, walls, and most conspicuously, an ocean of cobalt blue. The ocean met with the town at a port, and docked at the port was an eclectic variety of ships, some quite old, others modern. It all looked like a striking optical illusion, but once complete, it was a convincing, colorful portrait of civilization brought into the desert. It was suddenly hard to imagine it hadn’t always been there.
  1240.         Samantha hoisted herself out of a pile of sand, becoming transfixed by the sudden colors of the town, jewel-like compared with the fierce desert bleakness. “Ooh… Simon, look!” Some distance away, too far to hear or be heard by his sister, Simon poked his head out of a sand dune.
  1241.         “Psst.”
  1242.         Simon tapped his head to knock sand out of an ear, and used his other hand to brush some off of his tongue.
  1243.         “Psssst.”
  1244.         It was coming from behind him. He turned to see the one attempting to conspire with him. He had to look down. Way down. The thing spoke. “Boy, listen to me. I would like a frank answer. Why do you trust that person you are following?”
  1245.         “Huh? Who’re you, mister?” It was only out of politeness, possibly as well as youthful orphan innocence, that he did not ask “what are you?”
  1246.         “Your new best friend.”
  1247.         Simon’s face took on delight at this, even though he knew deep down that friendship was something earned over a period of time greater than three seconds. He’d never seen a horse before, and the sight was welcome, even if it was a kind of perverse variation on the experience. He’d also never seen a lobster before, either.
  1248.         “Listen, boy. Leave your party and come with me.”
  1249.         “You? Why? Mister Grant seems awfully nice.”
  1250.         Terence grew impatient and his oddly elastic horse features scowled. “He’ll lead you to a swift ruin. Now quickly, this way.”
  1251.         “Gosh, I don’t know…” Simon’s worried hand felt in his pocket the doll he was charged with protecting. Terence’s eyebrows narrowed together and lowered, like two dragonflies making abrupt landings. His lower lip jutted forward and his nostrils flared, pointing upward. With an indignant snort, the air became faintly colored in a cloud around Simon’s head. Simon’s eyes unfocused, and rolled above his eyelids. He collapsed into the sand, sound asleep.
  1252.         There would soon be a boy-sized trail dragged in the sand, leading into Jivversport. The others wouldn’t notice it.
  1253.  
  1254. Beatrix hid behind her tree with her back flush to it. She snuck a peak through some leaves, keeping herself camouflaged. The wizard crouched low to the ground, as if examining it, but then perked up and made his way closer to them with a half-walk, half-insane-looking dance. His face twitched through a permanently worn look of menacing delirium. His eyes were wild, and seemed to glow extra-white in comparison with the soot-black filth smeared on his skin. He muttered to himself incomprehensibly, sometimes spiking in volume.
  1255. “Ok…” she spoke nervously. “What do we do now?”
  1256.         “Why don’t you see if you can distract it, and I’ll try to sneak up on it?”
  1257.         “How should I do that?” She didn’t sound thrilled with the plan.
  1258.         “Just… get his attention somehow. Use your magic!” Herbert urged.
  1259.         She thought for a second, then shrugged. “Alright.” She stepped into the open. The wizard brought his mad gaze to her at once with nostrils flaring, like a velociraptor honing in on some prey. Beatrix held her ring close to herself, concentrating. The gnarled, calloused hand clutched another nut between middle and forefinger, and let it fly. It bounced soundlessly off an invisible bubble around her. The wizard became startled, as if someone had set off a firecracker near his foot. He reached for more projectiles.
  1260.         Herbert walked in a swift crouch along an outward perimeter to flank the unpleasant old man. He watched as it drew back its arm, curiously sinewy and taught when the limp ancient skin settled around the muscles the right way for a brief instant. It ripped another acorn at Beatrix. In spite of her force field, she flinched. The nut again bounced off it without losing speed, but this time came right for Herbert.
  1261.         THWOP.
  1262.         “Aaaugh!!” Herbert crumpled to the forest floor, clutching his head.
  1263.         The wizard turned towards Herbert, muttering strange things in a tongue probably unique to him alone. “Thhgerrrunge! Ep, ep. Frrrrrrajerflaxus!” He plucked a hefty handful of nuts from his satchel, and winged them relentlessly at Herbert’s soft, vulnerable mass.
  1264.         THWOP-thwop-thwop-THWOP-THWOP-thwop-THWOP-THWOP!
  1265.         “Ow, ow, OW! Quit it! OWW!” Herbert’s body would later be peppered with small bruises.
  1266.         THWOP-thwop-thwop-THWOP-thwop-BANG.
  1267.         The wizard froze. His angry, rotten-toothed countenance melted into a look of tragic mortification. A strand of acrid smoke rose from the barrel of the M9, which was now out of its holster and pointed skywards. The smell of gunpowder, Herbert found, fit his current mood well. “Ok, that’s about enough of that nonsense,” he said, inching towards the trembling old man.
  1268.         “Herbert, don’t shoot him, ok?” Beatrix said, looking nearly as alarmed as the wizard, albeit ever so slightly more photogenically.
  1269.         “Relax. That was just a warning shot. He’s got nothing to worry about if he stays calm.” He raised his voice. “You understand that, wizard? Yes? No acorn, or bang-bang!” He sounded like an American trying to speak to a lost foreigner.
  1270.         The wizard nodded along with Herbert, who was demonstrating the proper responding gesture for him graciously. He settled on his hands and knees in the language of submission even madmen seem versed in when the timing is right. He spat some strange sounds, now with a more conciliatory inflection. “Thhburzz ef! Ef jrrrifflizbit shuuu…”
  1271.         “Hey, Beatrix. Come over here and help, won’t you?” Herbert was standing with his gun aimed nearly pointblank between the twitching eyes of the wizard, who was shaking like a leaf.
  1272.         Beatrix sidled up. “So this is a wizard?”
  1273.         “It’s gotta be. Fits the description.”
  1274.         “Somehow it still isn’t what I pictured.”
  1275.         “Well, the thing is crazy and dirty. It’s got a beard. I get the sense it doesn’t use any magic. Oh yeah, and it can whip and acorn like no one’s beeswax.”
  1276.         “Oh, so a textbook wizard, then,” she scoffed.
  1277.         “Ok, we’ve got to get his hair somehow.” The wizard sniffed, darting his eyes, possibly with a form of primitive comprehension. Herbert suddenly looked puzzled, automatically patting his pocket with his free hand. He cursed their lack of foresight in setting out to collect wizard hair without any kind of cutting implements.
  1278.         “How do we do that?” Beatrix asked.
  1279.         “Damn. I’m not sure.” He lowered his gun slightly, but brought it back to the ready when the wizard convulsed with something ghastly that might have been a sneeze.
  1280.         Beatrix tapped her foot thoughtfully, then made a fist with her ring hand. She closed her eyes and pictured forms, as if drawing their shapes with a pen in her mind. Two looping shapes, one bigger, one smaller. Then two long, pointy shapes, and an axel. And then the thought of shiny metal, and sharpness. She opened her eyes to find a pair of scissors floating over her ring.
  1281.         “Hey, nice!” Herbert congratulated. “Now just clip off his beard while I keep him at bay. That thing’s gotta weigh at least three pounds,” he said, referring to the monstrous thing on his face you might call a beard once you’d exhausted all other lingual options.
  1282.         Beatrix made a distasteful sneer, but at the same time sized up the project, like one might in the first few moments of a mission-critical hog manure shoveling gig. It wasn’t fun, but the scientist in her knew it ought to be done. She’d been curious about seeing what happens upon actually completing one of these ludicrous quests.
  1283.         She slowly brought the open blades towards the wizard’s face, which eyed the cold, surgical implement, but remained like a statue, aside from the nervous quaking. The beard was thick with hardened grunge and detritus. Foreign objects like twigs, plastic six-pack rings, and small ketchup packets were entwined in it. Herbert was probably right. It likely did weigh more than three pounds from the non-hair mass alone. The blades at their tips surrounded a bit of the hair, and she delicately clipped it. The wizard flinched on the clip, and she recoiled on the flinch.
  1284.         “Herbert, I can’t do this. This is just way too weird. It’s kind of disturbing.”
  1285.         “What? No, come on. You were doing great.”
  1286.         “I’m sorry, I can’t! I’m not cutting the beard off a mangy old wizard! If you want to, be my guest.” She held out the scissors.
  1287.         “Well… ok. Here, take the gun and make sure he stays in line.”
  1288.         “No way! Last time I touched that gun, it almost set me on fire.”
  1289.         Herbert sighed and felt his head, still aching somewhat from the nutty onslaught. It was all too often the he was called upon as the last resort to carry out dirty work in situations like this. (Not much like this, mind you. Few situations were.) He’d wondered if he’d been sentenced to a lifetime of squeamish companions.
  1290.         He flashed an ironic smile as he flipped the on the gun’s safety. He held the grip tight, and brought it down on the wizard’s head, knocking him unconscious.
  1291.  
  1292. It was a dark afternoon in the Eggwood residence. There was not a single light turned on in the house, except for one lamp in an unoccupied room upstairs. In fact, all the rooms upstairs were unoccupied, and so were all the rooms downstairs. The stairs themselves, however, were a different story, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
  1293.         Downstairs, photographs were hanging on walls and resting on various domestic surfaces. Most were portraits of goofily smiling boys. In a few years, there would be three boys in total. Two-thirds of them would be chubby lads, and among all three, they would boast a grand tally of five eyes. The names of the boys would be Louis Eggwood, Seymour Eggwood, and Wizardy Herbert. Herbert would later ruefully ponder why he, as the third child, had been spared the surname in favor of the somewhat less conventional naming syntax. But then on further reflection, the feeling was less of rue than of relief. Maybe “spared” was the right word, as an occasional shudder would travel his spine at the thought of the name Wizardy Herbert Eggwood.
  1294.         Yes, these are the photographs that would be there, portraits of three boys, if it were a few years later. But at this moment there were portraits of only two boys. Herbert’s parents had not yet decided to hang pictures of him, and they had a very good reason for this. This was not a reason Herbert could remember. Then again, there were many things, almost everything in fact, Herbert could not remember before the day of December 25, 1998, as well as many things during that day itself.
  1295. That day was today.
  1296.         The stairs, previously alluded to as the busiest part of the house, practically its peak-hour Hong Kong marketplace by comparison to other locales, was stage to some curious goings-on. Between two worried-looking boys was a bit of heavy freight which made a deliberate “Thump” with each stair traversed. At the lower end of the freight was Herbert, taking up the determined lead in bringing the freight downstairs. At the higher end was Seymour, who was pale and moist. His head looked like a white dewy melon.
  1297.         “Her… Herbert… say something, won’t you?” Herbert said nothing, continuing to stonewall his brother. Seymour anguished as two more Thumps marked the passing time.
  1298.         “Excuse me… Herbert…” he tried again, more politely this time.
  1299.         The freight settled heavily at the bottom of the stairs in the foyer. Herbert stood up and staggered backwards into the dimness of the living room, illuminated only through windows by an overcast afternoon sky. If Seymour could see him better, he’d notice his brother was pale too. Herbert shifted his eye around as if following an angry wasp. He rested on the arm of a sofa.
  1300.         “Herber…”
  1301.         “I heard you!” Herbert snapped. Seymour silently crept down the stairs, just as he had early that morning to see if there were any presents under the Christmas tree they didn’t have. There weren’t any.
  1302.         “What are you doing?” Seymour asked with a pleading whimper.
  1303.         “Weren’t you the one who said you wanted it out of the house?”
  1304.         “Um… yeah.”
  1305.         “Yes. A house is no place for such a thing.” The vacant look in Herbert’s face deepened as he paused. “… Why do you want it out of the house, exactly?”
  1306.         “Why?? Why do you think?! If mom and dad come home and see this…”
  1307.         “Mom and dad?” he asked honestly.
  1308.         “Yes, mom and dad. I know it probably doesn’t matter to you. Why would it? I don’t understand you, or really one thing about what’s going on here, but…”
  1309.         “Right. Mom and dad. And I imagine there will be trouble if they find this. Or if anyone does, for that matter.”
  1310.         Seymour looked at Herbert as if he’d just fallen out of the sky, and then pointed his finger at a dog, asking “what’s that?” Then, upon further clarification, was found to be not talking about the dog, but his own finger. “Trouble? Sweet Zombie Jesus! Are you kidding, Herbert?”
  1311.         “Yes… trouble…” The vacancy haunted his face again. It had especially staked claim on his eye, practically squatting in it like a beggar. He looked dizzy. He braced himself on the sofa cushion behind him.
  1312.         “You ok?”
  1313.         Herbert was whispering to himself. Seymour inched closer, trying to hear.       “… gotta [mumble] the damp. Wonder [mumble] damp’s in session…”
  1314.         “What was that?” Seymour thought he heard the word ‘damp’ several times, or at least perhaps a word that rhymed with it.
  1315.         “… [mumble] back to the dumber lamp…”  
  1316.         “Huh? Did you say ‘dumber’, or ‘summer’?”
  1317.         Herbert turned to Seymour with another look. It wasn’t a look of vacancy. It was hard to say exactly what it was, but the vacancy had been vaporized like a dry leaf in the stream of his new mood’s flamethrower.
  1318. “Well, are we gonna get this thing outside or what?” He sprung off the sofa arm and grabbed the freight by fistfuls of loose cloth. He suddenly handled the thing with ease, a thing which had to weigh at least 150 lbs. Seymour found it remarkable and sort of disturbing that a nine-year old could display such strength.
  1319.         From the back yard, it sounded as if a frightened boar was loose in the house, crashing into furniture and clinking various china objects. The back door swung open and the two boys spilled out with the bulky cargo. Herbert continued to muscle his way with the load toward the back of the shed. Jets of vapor blasted out of his nostrils into the cold air. He dumped the freight on the dirt, which was so frozen-solid, the contact made a cracking sound no different than if it were pavement.
  1320.         Seymour, breathing heavily with his own personal vapor clouds, stumbled to the shed’s rear. He looked down at the pitiable heap. “Get a shovel,” Herbert ordered.
  1321.         “What? You’re going to bury him?? Here?! Sweet Zombie Jesus, Herbert!”
  1322.         “Stop saying that. What’s that even from, anyway?”
  1323.         “Isn’t this…” Seymour clawed his face with stubby fingers. “Isn’t this crazy? Shouldn’t we call the cops?”
  1324.         “No. No cops!” Herbert became startled. He listened as the faint sound of sirens became louder.
  1325.         Several blocks away, an ambulance was followed by police squad cars. In the trailing vehicle, a portly officer croaked something into his radio through a thick New Jersey accent. He seemed jaded, not one terribly moved to alarm by the notion of a singular crime in the Newark area, and at this moment he paid little attention to his vehicle’s singular passenger. The nine year-old girl sat in the back seat with her hands folded in her lap. She had a vacant expression. A kind of vacancy that would be familiar to anyone who’d witnessed Herbert a moment ago. The vacancy was only briefly unsettled as the car passed by the Eggwood abode. She turned as it went by, apprehending it with a dim recognition. She then felt without looking at it the hollow locket around her neck. She did not notice the two boys in the back yard, nor did they notice her, but for the agitating noise her motorcade was bellowing.
  1326.         With held breath, the boys waited for the bellowing to subside, relieved they did not appear to be targets of the pursuit. Seymour exhaled. “Look, Herbert, I don’t know what’s going on… maybe you’re in some weird trouble I don’t know about. That’s fine, you don’t have to tell me. I don’t even want to know. But we can’t bury some dude here in our backyard! Pleeease let me call someone. They can take him away and we can pretend we didn’t know anything about it.”
  1327.         “No. Now you listen to me… uh… uh…” he stammered erratically.
  1328.         “Seymour?”
  1329.         “Yeah.” He pushed Seymour against the shed, pinning him there, again with a show of unsettling strength. “Seymour. Listen up. No one knows about this. Not the cops. Not any school teachers. Not ‘Mom and dad’,” he said mockingly, as if doing an impression of his older brother. “Understand?”
  1330.         Seymour shook like a wobbly pudding. Seemingly inherent in his fear, invisible, yet plain as day, was a nod of understanding. Herbert paused, mumbling to himself again inaudibly. When he halted and took a moment to think, he barely understood or remembered why he was angry or why this was all so urgent. He just knew he had to be, and that it was. He continued vehemently. “Otherwise, if anyone hears a peep, I’m going to pin it on you, and I’ll make it stick. They’ll get the cadaver dogs out here, and you know how they’ll know it was you?” he demanded, as he handed a garden trowel to Seymour, held between fingers like a cigarette. Seymour took it obliviously, and then Herbert took it back from him, holding it with the kerchief he’d been wearing around his neck..
  1331.         “N-n-n…”
  1332.         “Because your fingerprints will be on the murder weapon.” Herbert plunged the trowel into the corpse’s chest. Seymour began to cry.
  1333.         “Sweet Zom…”
  1334.         “Understand, Seymour?” Seymour, wiping away some snot, nodded gingerly and looked down at the body. It was male, older than they were, perhaps eighteen. On his white, lifeless face he wore a moustache.
  1335.         “Who do you suppose he is?” Herbert said, with a sudden strange casualness.
  1336.         Seymour looked at him with a little surprise. “Don’t you know him?”
  1337.         Herbert shrugged as he leisurely picked up a larger shovel. “Clothes are odd…” He examined them, again assuming an abstracted vacancy. Seymour agreed on that point. It wasn’t every day you saw someone walking around in—let alone deceased in—a burgundy suit, a white shirt, and a purple cape.
  1338. Herbert, drifting in some rarified mental space, became aware of something cold he was holding. He looked to see it was the handle to a shovel. He had momentarily forgotten what he was doing.
  1339. The sight of the body reinvigorated the urgency, although the nature of it was becoming more vague by the passing seconds. He wasn’t even sure what had just happened five minutes ago. Something about some stairs? It was all slipping away.
  1340. He had to dig.
  1341. The shovel’s pressure against the sole of Herbert’s foot caused a sharp pain as he stomped it into the frigid winter earth.
  1342.  
  1343. The stainless steel letters, in a font that might appear in a 50’s diner, spelled out “Vend-o-Badge” at the top of the machine. Occupying the majority of its surface was a plate of glass, through which could be seen many rows of brightly colored square badges, held up by metal coils which undoubtedly twisted to surrender their prizes to gravity. It might have been remarked that the machine resembled a large prophylactic dispenser, if the children were more seasoned in such matters.
  1344.         On the side of the machine was an unassuming hatch. It was unlabeled, but Herbert and Beatrix surmised that this was where one was supposed to place the loot, in lieu of depositing coins, to release a badge. The loot in question was a grotesque four-foot severed wizard’s beard, which Herbert clutched in both arms like a pile of dirty laundry. The thing easily weighed more than three pounds, and Herbert would swear if it didn’t weigh at least twenty pounds, he’d eat the thing right then and there. He hoisted it into the hatch putting the kind of oomph into it one uses to heave a large bag of dirt over a fence. A metallic thud signaled the beard’s arrival at the bottom.
  1345.         “Alright. Here we go.” Herbert stood back and watched for interesting developments. Beatrix too waited, scouring the merit badges for signs of the slightest jostle. Moments passed, but the machine remained as inert as it had been before it was fed a pile of dirty whiskers.
  1346. The two were surprised, and Herbert was a little surprised to find himself surprised. Ultimately, what had they just accomplished besides the equivalent of hoisting a homeless man’s beard into a kind of metal dumpster? (It would surprise no one if the beard had actually visited such a location regularly in the past.) If they really expected anything amazing to follow such an act, Herbert thought, weren’t they guilty of harboring foolish, downright wizardy expectations?
  1347. “What gives?” Herbert muttered. Beatrix threw up her hands.
  1348. There was a beep. A button on the side panel became illuminated. ‘E6’.
  1349.         Herbert and Beatrix were suddenly covering their ears. What they were attempting, in vain, to prevent from entering their ears was a robust rendition of John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever”, played at a volume no doubt intended to roust the patriotism of long-dead American presidents. The machine was suddenly dancing to its own tune, hopping around on its little peg-and-coaster feet, much like the way the toaster danced when they laced it with spooky slime during that scene in Ghostbusters II. Its metal slot at the bottom gnashed open and closed like an excited mouth.
  1350.         Then it stopped, and there was silence. Position ‘E6’ uncoiled, and a bright green badge fluttered to the bottom.
  1351.         Herbert reached for the metal flap to retrieve the badge, but stopped when it again clanged open and shut. It repeated this behavior vigorously, and it was hard for Herbert to tell whether it was an act of aggression, or of overexcitement, like a small dog yapping at its master. Herbert looked around and spotted by the coffee table a box full of old VHS tapes. He picked up one labeled in badly faded ink “GB II”, and lodged it into the flapping maw. He then slipped his hand in and out of the chamber, recovering the badge, pulling it out of the slot a millisecond before the flap shattered the cassette and chewed the plastic pieces and magnetic tape.
  1352.         “Nothing’s easy, is it?” Beatrix commiserated.
  1353.         They both huddled over the shiny green badge. It was an attractive item, in its way, and boasted a kind of quality craftsmanship. It was made of an odd material, not quite cloth, not quite leather, but something in between, and reflected with a metallic sheen. There was a peculiar aura around it which made it feel heavy, or not heavy so much as resistant to being turned in certain ways, the way two magnets can behave stubbornly when held near each other at like poles. Through intricate stitching on its surface was a rendering of a lively wizard dancing in the woods, nude.
  1354.         “Ok, one down,” Herbert said. “What do you think Thundleshick likes about these so much? You’d think he wouldn’t covet them considering he’s probably the one that made them in the first place.”
  1355.         “Maybe he’s more interested in the achievements they represent? Getting kids to rise to a challenge? Teamwork, and all that?”
  1356.         “He’s a real sick son of a bitch, isn’t he? If I ever meet him I wouldn’t mind giving him a piece of my mind.”
  1357.         “We’ll have to collect two more of these if you want the chance. No use in going to see him without the book.”
  1358.         “The what?”
  1359.         “Three badges.”
  1360.         “Oh. Right.” Herbert looked into the machine which was simmering down from its fit. He browsed the badges, each bearing an icon depicting some inscrutable triumph of child over magical absurdity. “I think that’s enough for one day. We’ll try another quest tomorrow. I’m beat.”
  1361.  
  1362. Russet rubbed his eyes with his sleeve. He paused to take another swig from a bottle of lukewarm, near-flat orange soda before addressing Beatrix’s question.
  1363. “I’ve never been better. I was actually just thinking, just this moment now, about the majesty of life and all things. Each breath is a gift. A nectarean treasure pumped from the billows of sweet Mother Gaia Herself. A kind of gusty ambrosia which…”
  1364.         “Ok, ok…” Beatrix said, yielding to his sarcastic volley. If anything could be said for Russet, it was that he could really lay it on thick no matter what mood he was in. “It’s just, finding you down here all alone in this…” she trailed off, her gaze becoming lost in the cavernous surroundings. She made her way back to a view of Russet’s dangling feet, his nice shoes clicking together. She gulped. “I know it’s none of my business, Russet, but… it’s your medication, isn’t it? You need more, right?”
  1365.         His shrug appeared to serve as an affirmative.
  1366.         “Maybe I can help? I ran into your friend. He’s been looking for you.”
  1367.         He looked up this time, surprised. “You mean Grant? Where is he?”
  1368.         “Yes. I’m not sure where he is at the moment…” She felt a little swell of guilt at the thought of first having ditched his well-intended friend earlier, and then not getting around to mentioning it to him until now.
  1369.         “Well…” he sunk again. “Don’t worry about it. You shouldn’t trouble yourself on account of me. I don’t know if I feel much like seeing him anyway.” She started to respond, but idled. She found herself relieved that he wasn’t terribly eager to see his friend, which might have further fueled her guilt. But still, she was a little frustrated by his reluctance to accept her help.
  1370.         “How did you find me down here, anyway?” he asked.
  1371.         “I… heard you,” she admitted sheepishly. It was just a moment ago that Beatrix left the rec. room, debating with herself over whether to go right to bed, or to venture a visit with Russet to check on him. She’d nearly talked herself out of the idea—perhaps due to the mysterious inertias pertaining to gathering the will to approach certain members of the opposite sex—when she heard noises. They were a faint blend of whispers and muted sobs, coming from vents along the corridor floors. Beatrix charted a route to the lowest point in the bunker, which lead her to this room.
  1372.         Though ‘room’ would be about as apt as referring to the inner volume of the Goodyear blimp as a ‘nook’. It was a vast space, damp and dimly lit. The concrete floor was sloped slightly towards the center, like a shallow funnel. It was wet, and streams of water trickled towards the middle, spilling into a large circular hole, about the size of an impressive park fountain. Russet sat perched at the edge of the hole, with his feet swinging freely over the ledge.
  1373.         Beatrix approached the opening, then halted, shuddering at the drop-off into darkness below. Clinging to the cylindrical interior was an iron ladder, which emerged from the pit and bent over the edge to meet the floor. “What were you saying, anyway? Before I came in?” Russet remained silent. She risked another look into the pit. Holding her breath, she reached for one of the ladder rails, grabbed it for support, and sat down on the ledge.
  1374. “This soda is horrible. Sometimes not being able to use magic is a real pain in the ass.”
  1375.         “I’m sure it doesn’t help that it’s not cold. Unfortunately the refrigerator doesn’t seem to be able to do anything other than keep things frozen.” They both made unpleasant faces, as the mention of it brought their awareness into the domain of hideous microwaveable Mexican food. “Maybe you should have something hot instead?”
  1376. She caught herself, and gave her forehead a scolding slap. “I’m sorry, I’m probably sounding like your mother. I’ll give it a rest, I promise.”
  1377.         “That’s alright. I never had a mother. Except for Grant, of course.” He paused, and then leaned on an ironic note. “He’s about as maternal as they come, you know.”
  1378.         “Oh? I didn’t realize…”
  1379.         “Yep. I’m an orphan. Never knew my parents. We’re talking some seriously Dickensian shit, here. Terribly tragic.” Russet took a breath, halting his overly animated volley self deprecation before it spun out of control. “Anyway, how about you? I gather by your obviously well-adjusted nature that you have a rich family life. Something in an aristocratic vein? Big house with a tennis court and swimming pool? Dog named after some literary figure? Wait, don’t tell me, I’m really good at guessing these things. Was his name Tennessee Williams?”
  1380.         “No,” she smirked.
  1381.         “Vonnegut, then? I can just picture it now. ‘Here, Vonnegut! It’s time for your Saturday constitutional, and then you may join us for a light supper on the sun porch!”
  1382.         “No!” she laughed.
  1383.         “Oh, yes, I think so. His name was Sir Edgar Allen Bones, and he wore a little canine’s frock as you trotted him from one box social to another to cause your elite circle of friends to swoon with envy over his championship pedigree and his exquisitely shampooed coat.”
  1384.         “No, it’s nothing like that at all!”
  1385.         “I know. I’m just messing with you. It’s never like that for people like us.”
  1386.         “Like us?”
  1387.         “Well, kids. Kids on weird, miserable adventures. We’re always orphans, you know. I suppose you’re going to tell me you’re an orphan too, then?”
  1388.         “Um… yes, actually.”
  1389.         “See what I mean? Kids like us. I’m telling you.”
  1390. “Herbert says he’s not.”
  1391. “Yeah, well, Herbert’s not a lot of things.” She nodded. It was a fair enough point. Russet stirred, not content with the direction of topic. “So did you ever know them? Your parents, that is?”
  1392.         She hesitated. What purpose did it serve to keep it from him? At times, her need for secrecy verged on the dysfunctional, she felt. She wanted to tell him. Even so… “I have vague memories of family,” she stated noncommittally. “What about you?”
  1393.         Russet looked away. He clicked the plastic of his soda bottle. “I think you’re right. I could probably go for something hot. Maybe some cocoa.” He made a motion as if about to chuck the undesirable beverage into the pit.
  1394.         “Wait. Let me see it,” she interrupted. He offered it curiously. She sized up the bottle carefully, then raised her ring and closed her eyes. She opened them right away, though, startled by how quickly the spell took effect. Unlike the assiduous process of mentally sculpting a pair of scissors, it happened nearly all at once. The bright orange liquid flushed into a dark brown. Its plastic cocoon became malleable, as if melting, and fell away into a sturdy, white, open-topped vessel. It sprouted a loop for a handle. Steam elevated gently from the mug’s open top.
  1395.         “You’re really getting good at this, aren’t you?”
  1396.         “I guess so.” This belied her own satisfaction. It had been more natural and effortless than any spell she’d previously “cast”, if that really was the right word. It began to seem that it wasn’t, though. “Casting” spells was something you did in RPG video games, like Final Fantasy. This was more like a fluid engineering process through imagination. “Imagineering”, if you wanted a term that smacked of corporate lingo-babble.
  1397.         Russet accepted the reconstituted beverage. “Thanks.”
  1398.  
  1399. Herbert was looking forward to a time of decompression and solitude, even if it was confined to a disheveled rat’s nest of a rec. room, which could have grabbed a featured spread in Good Housekeeping’s special edition, “Domestic Bloopers, Tidying Boners, and Egregious Hellholes of 2004”. Before properly unwinding on the couch with his burrito, he double-checked the Questpro Plus terminal. Seeing no new quests posted, he quit the application and reclined in the chair.
  1400.         Amidst the clutter of the desk, a blinking green LED light caught his eye. The light was embedded in a small object, about four inches tall, conical in shape, resting on top of a dusty VHS cassette. It was made of black plastic, rounded at the tip, with a small hole pointing up at the ceiling. There was a cord coming out of the base. Herbert followed the cord to the rear of the computer, where it was plugged in via USB port.
  1401.         Herbert, having an idea, reached down to unplug the cord, then plugged it back in. The computer supplied its characteristic plaintive chime, alerting the user to some new hardware found on the system. A window opened, recommending an application. Herbert clicked it.
  1402.         The application’s window was small, quite plain and unlabeled. The only features were a checkbox labeled “Active”, which was checked, and a sliding meter from a scale of 1% to 100%. The marker was currently set to 80%. Herbert dragged the marker down to 50%, which seemed to have no effect. Then, with the spirit of experimentation most of us are born with when it comes to technology, randomly dragged the marker back and forth rapidly. Out of the corner of his eye, and just above him, he saw something flicker in the room. Something bright, and fast.
  1403.         He looked up. There was nothing there.
  1404.         He then dragged the marker slowly, and quite warily, down to 10% as he looked up. There it was, but not flickering. It was fixed in space, poking out of the ceiling as if it was stuck in the concrete. It was rotating slowly.
  1405.         Again, cautiously, he lowered the marker further, to 5%. The object unstuck itself from the ceiling, shrunk by half, and lowered, hovering halfway between the desk and the ceiling, directly above the plastic cone device.
  1406. It was now immediately recognizable to Herbert. It was the spinning icon displaying a picture of his own face. It appeared to be a type of hologram.
  1407.         He dragged the marker the rest of the way, and the icon reduced to the size of a silver dollar, hovering just over the tip of the cone. Herbert picked up the cone, and the icon moved with it. He found the bottom could be unscrewed. He opened it. The base, once separated, was like a small dish. There was nothing inside.
  1408.         But Herbert looked again, noting it wasn’t quite empty. There were a few strands of hair inside. Herbert pulled them out, and identified three separate strands, two short, one long. Respectively, they were brown, sort of dirty blonde, and the long one was black. In the interest of science, he removed them and closed the device. The hologram did not reappear. It reappeared, as he suspected, once he placed the hairs back into the device.
  1409.         He was about to place the device back where he found it, but hesitated, placed it to the side, and picked up the VHS tape. “Seinfeld: season 5,” it read. He swept enough dust off its surface to ball up into a wad the size of a quail’s egg. The tape looked old, the way an antique VHS tape would look if they’d been invented in the 1950s.
  1410.         In any case, he hoped the tape worked. Seinfeld was one of his favorite shows. It was one of those syndicated programs you could count on seeing if you flipped the TV on at nearly any hour of the day, and Herbert feasted off the aggressively regurgitated comedy without compunction. His imagination at times dwelt in the vacuous canon of Jerry, Kramer, George, and Elaine’s lives, and their frequently intermingling crises, which were always superficial, but highly amusing. Herbert related to it all in some absurd way that could only possibly make sense to himself.
  1411.         He tucked it under his arm and assessed the condition of the burrito he’d left to cool. He was encouraged. It had only burned through three layers of paper plates.
  1412.  
  1413. “It’s good, then?” she inquired, regarding the conjured cocoa.
  1414.         “The finest I can remember having.” He rebounded for another sip, and his mouth behind the mug—she almost, almost thought—cracked a smile. “If you must know…” He placed his mug on the concrete thoughtfully. “I was praying.”
  1415.         “Hmm?”
  1416.         “When you heard me. Before you came in.”
  1417.         “Praying?”
  1418.         “Yes, I know how it must sound. To a girl like you, who doesn’t believe in God. No, you’re too smart for that, I guess.”
  1419. She searched his tone for derision. It was the kind of sentence that usually carried it. But couldn’t detect any. “I wouldn’t put it that way.”
  1420.         “You don’t have to. In any case, it doesn’t matter how you put it, or which diplomatic cap you propped on it. It’s true. Hell, maybe if I were smarter, I wouldn’t believe either.”
  1421.         “Isn’t that sort of a contradiction? If you actually think believing in God is illogical, or something unintelligent people do, then why bother?”
  1422.         “It’s not that simple. In a way, I feel it’s all I have. Well, that and the Home Shopping Network.”
  1423.         She started to reply, but snickered at his oddball addendum. “So it’s more like a dependency thing? I’m not trying to talk you out of it or anything. It’s great to have a passion for something. But just because something fills a personal void, does that give it credibility as truth?”
  1424.         “Again, that is a very logical assessment. But here’s what I’m trying to say. During those more pressing times, when life pukes on you, as it inevitably always will, something in you gets worn down. Something you guard with your horde of treasures like pride and dignity and such. I mean, those things are long gone, mind you, but one of the last things to fall are basic ideas about the way everything has to be. You might call these ideas part of the intellectual faculty.”
  1425.         “I would think that would be important to hang on to in times like that. Once that’s gone, you’ve really lost it all, haven’t you?”
  1426.         “To some extent, yeah, you don’t want to turn into a gibbering madman, or God-forbid, some kind of dirty wizard. I’m talking about what happens when certain assumptions are let go of, or driven out of you by circumstance. This isn’t even about atheists, either. It could also happen to someone who believes in God, but until it all hits the fan, he didn’t quite know he believed. Or really Believed, you know what I mean? Haven’t you ever felt chewed up by life, and found yourself looking inside?”
  1427.         “Yeah. I think so. I can’t say… I can’t say it’s driven me to see God, though. Is that what you see when you look?”
  1428.         “Not God per se, but I think it is a perceived cusp of some great, all-around benevolence. That’s what I mean. When hard times soften some of the rigid features of yourself, it gives you a different view of things. And that has to be a good thing, right? And I feel what I’ve experienced, that benevolence and all that jazz, points to God for sure. Also that God’s word is spoken through His son, Jesus Christ.”
  1429.         She almost laughed. “Whoa, that’s quite a leap, isn’t it? Why Jesus?”
  1430.         “Well, you pick a horse and you stick to it, you know? I’m sure there are lots of fine horses out there. But when you pick a horse and bet on him, suddenly there’s no other horse in the universe. It must be glory and victory for my horse, and all the other horses can go eat hay for all I care.” For a moment Russet became very animate with a lively jockeying pantomime. “That’s how I think about it, anyway. I suspect you’ve seen more than you give yourself credit for. I’m sure you pride yourself in staying analytical and whatnot. That’s great. It’s who you are. But not everyone can stay alert one hundred percent of the time. I’d bet glimpses of understanding seep through sometimes.”
  1431. Beatrix considered her response carefully. “Maybe. If whatever it is seeping through really is understanding, and not something else. Like some kind of delusion. I’ve never been sold on the idea that a complete understanding isn’t accessible through rational thought. And maybe the conclusion that God doesn’t exist is wrong rational thought. Like, faulty logic that could eventually be demonstrated. But it’s hard to imagine rational thought itself would be an impediment to understanding.” She seemed to be ruminating on what she’d just said, and then switched gears. “So what happened to all that ‘God responsible for making you miserable’ stuff?”
  1432. “I was just being a dick.”
  1433. “Oh…”
  1434. “I don’t really believe that. Well, maybe sometimes I do when I’m really tanking. I’m only human, you know.”
  1435. Beatrix wanted to respond to the broader thread of the conversation, but found her usual avenues on the subject unsatisfactory. Russet had caught her off guard. She was finding him not only difficult to categorize personally, but religiously as well. In any case, she had the strange feeling he was getting inside her head, and against all odds, managing to make her think about her own beliefs. Maybe the truth was, at her most honest level, she didn’t quite know what she believed.
  1436.         “If you don’t mind my asking,” Russet breached the silence. “What do you think about Jesus?” She looked into space abstractedly. It was an odd question, one that more often than not was answered with something on the order of, ‘Ok, I’ll take your brochure, but I have something on the stove inside and must go now.’
  1437.         “I think he was likely a great person. Compassionate, probably a tremendous philosopher of his time.”      
  1438. “Well,” Russet nodded, after a moment. “That sounds good enough to me.” He then, startlingly, produced a smile. It soon dissolved though, and the dark circles under his eyes resumed their dominance over a gloomy face.
  1439. “You should get some sleep,” she said.
  1440. “I will. In a bit.”
  1441. She stood up carefully, backing away from the dark void, and before she turned to leave, said, “So you were praying to Jesus, then?” He nodded.
  1442. “About what?”
  1443. “I was just praying that…” he said with a deadpan expression. “He would give me the strength now to stop myself from jumping into this pit.”
  1444.  
  1445.  
  1446. JERRY
  1447. Hey, my parents are just as crazy as your parents.
  1448. GEORGE
  1449. How can you compare your parents to my parents?
  1450. JERRY
  1451. My father has never thrown anything out. Ever.
  1452. GEORGE
  1453. My father wears his sneakers in the pool. Sneakers!
  1454. JERRY
  1455. My mother has never set foot in a natural body of water.
  1456. GEORGE
  1457. Listen carefully...
  1458. Herbert laughed, as George paused with the serious magnitude of one about to play his trump card in a critical dispute.
  1459. GEORGE
  1460. My mother has never laughed. Ever. Not a giggle, not a chuckle, not a “tee-hee”. Never went “Ha!”
  1461. Herbert continued to guffaw at the exchange of family dysfunction. No one was ever going to one-up George when it came to a showdown of hard luck or neurosis. He wore his achievements in those fields like medals, or patches, or maybe something sewn onto a sash as a symbol of merit. Herbert admired that, for some reason. In fact, he admired a lot about George. He always thought it would be great, in his own strange way of romanticizing stupid things, that if he ever had to live a humble life of quiet failure, he’d like to model some of his affectations after George Costanza. It would all be terribly eccentric in some grand way to wander around pretending he was an architect, and when things didn’t go his way, shout funny trademark phrases like “You’re killing independent Herbert!”
  1462.         This was only one of numerous quaint ambitions he harbored. When he saw shows on the Discovery Channel about space and astronauts, it really stirred his inspiration, and with stars in his eyes he imagined, one day, with enough hard work and dedication, he might be able to land a job at space camp. Preferably something in upper-management, though he would operate one of the rides if he was asked. He even began entertaining vague ideas about a future in accounting while he was packing for his trip to summer camp. If he gained enough real world skills over the summer, he might be able to parlay that into an internship with the IRS when he turned 16. It might look good on a résumé later. Nowhere on his list of ambitions, you’ll note, was the notion of having magical adventures.
  1463. He aimed low in life, preferably trying to take out its knees. This was a conservative assault tactic, and in a harsh way, merciful.
  1464.         The din of typical sitcom noises continued in the background of Herbert’s awareness as he spaced out at the coffee table. The paper plate of caked-on burrito residue rested there. Next to it was the M9, dormant in its holster.
  1465. That gun.
  1466. The more he got to know it, the more he felt a strange sense of presence from it. And by the same token, the more he felt a disturbing ease with it. It was comfortable in his hand. The balance felt perfect. Aiming and firing was proving to be an act which suited his nature as well, which was simultaneously exhilarating and unsettling. He wondered whether there was a type of Bourne Identity thing going on. He recalled the summer he saw the film in the theater with his parents. He’d found it entertaining enough, but now chuckled at the notion of a George Costanza-like character playing the lead, rather than the ever-assured tough guy Matt Damon. George with a killer’s instinct sounded like a force to be reckoned with. If they didn’t believe he was an architect, he’d make them believe.
  1467.         In becoming acquainted with the gun on a personal level, whatever that meant, he’d learned more about its unique characteristics. After firing the warning shot to keep the wizard at bay, he later checked the clip. He found no rounds spent. He later fired more shots to verify his theory. He then emptied ten clips worth of ammo into a nearby oak, while Beatrix covered her ears, looking impatient. The M9 had a marvelous rhythm of rapid fire, with fluid semiautomatic action. He might have kept firing, but stopped upon hearing a crack from the badly eaten away tree trunk. As the great oak toppled, he checked the clip. Sure enough, all fifteen rounds remained unused. It truly was a magic gun, or at least had a magic ammo clip.
  1468. He went to polish the grease from the silver grip when he noticed another detail. There was a tiny engraving, “F.H.C.”, perhaps the initials of a previous owner. Speculating about this person was fascinating to Herbert, and served to deepen the weapon’s mystique. He suspected the more time he spent with it, the more it would establish a subtle power over him. Even when it wasn’t at his side, it probably wouldn’t leave his mind in peace.
  1469.         Herbert exhaled, and tuned into the show again with the not-terribly-keen kind of awareness one treats to an episode you’ve seen two-dozen times already. He was simply happy to be engaged in the familiarity of vegetative inactivity again. As long as his vision’s funnel stayed on the TV, he could imagine himself sitting at home.
  1470. KRAMER
  1471. You know that Leslie is in the clothing business? She's a designer.
  1472. ELAINE
  1473. Oh?
  1474. KRAMER
  1475. In fact, she's come up with a new one that is going to be the big new look in men’s fashion. It's a puffy shirt.
  1476. Herbert snickered, as the low-talker made an inaudible clarification on the subject. The puffy shirt episode got him every time.
  1477. KRAMER
  1478. Well, yeah, it's all puffy. Like the pirates used to wear.
  1479. ELAINE
  1480. Oh, a puffy shirt.
  1481. JERRY
  1482. Puffy?
  1483. KRAMER
  1484. Yeah, see, I think people want to look like pirates. You know, it's the right time for it, to be all puffy, and devil-may-care... BZZ.
  1485. BZ-ZZZZZZZ... ZZZ... ZZZZZZZ
  1486. FSHWERRRRRR... RRR... RRRRBERT, OR WHOEV...
  1487. ERRRRR... FSHHH... HAVE FOUND THISHHHH...
  1488. SHHHHHHHHHHHHH...
  1489. Herbert sat up, alarmed by the sudden lapse in tape quality. It had already been nothing to write home about (assuming that was actually an option). It was now an erratic display of noise, distorted images and fluctuating sound. Though the image was no longer clear, one thing was. This was no longer an episode of Seinfeld. Instead, it appeared to be footage of some guy sitting in a chair.
  1490. SOME GUY
  1491. FZZZZZZ... confusing to you... ZZZZZSHH... ZZZ... you’ve already... ZZZZZSHH... by now, if you’ve made it here.
  1492. On closer inspection, though not much closer, since it was plainly obvious, the guy was wearing an eye patch.
  1493. SOME GUY WITH AN EYEPATCH
  1494. You’re here for... FZZZZ... don’t just mean here, now, in this place. This underground ZZZZSHH...ever it is. ZZZ... ZZZ... FSHHH... alive... FSHHHHHHHH... this world for a purpose, unlike us. Unlike... ZZZZZSHH... cruel mistake. Some terrible... FZZZZZ... going to die because of... ZZZ... very important. You all... ZZZ...
  1495. And on the subject of the obvious, Herbert could not escape noticing this guy bore a striking resemblance to himself. Or what he very well might look like in a few years. The young man had short, dirty blonde hair, and wore a rough stubble, which bloomed at the chin into a modest goatee. The eye patch covered the same eye. And there, slung in its holster around the guy’s waist, was the M9.
  1496.  
  1497. Beatrix sat up in her bed, leaning against the wall. It was a monastic space she’d carved out, with no personal effects in the room (a possible side-effect of having one’s luggage incinerated). But it was beginning to take the shape of her personality, as lived-in spaces do.
  1498. On a table there were notes she’d taken on preceding days’ events. Resting on the scraps was her ring, as if a tiny paperweight. It didn’t weigh much, but whatever potency the piece of jewelry concealed, it made you suspect those pages might hold fast in a stiff breeze.
  1499. On a sheet in her lap, she was drawing. Her pen made trails of ink, which took the shape of quirky doodles, reflecting what was on her mind. There was a cartoon sketch of an eel with a human head. Next to it was a bearded old man in hysterics, tossing enormous stylized acorns. In the corner was a more detailed rendering of Herbert’s face. Not immaculate, as it was done from memory, but enough character put into the expression to be convincing. There was a similar rendering of Russet, which she was scribbling away at now. Unlike Herbert’s expression which rankled with some unaccountable aggravation, Russet’s was calm, permitting a more careful flattery of his fair features. She concentrated on their lines, as if gently sculpting the whitespace they bound.
  1500.         She wrinkled her brow, turning her thoughts to him. She shuddered at the thought that he might hurt himself, and gritted her teeth at the prospect, as if serving as a prayer of dental self-sacrifice to ward off the event.
  1501.         She wondered what he might do. (Well, no, not that He.) He always seemed to be facing adversity himself, whether legal trouble or financial woes. He never let anything distract him from his creative projects, never lost sight of his dreams. It struck her, in his absence especially, that he’d been as much a father figure as any she’d had. He encouraged her to be creative too, and keep pursuing her art. She wondered if she’d ever see him again.
  1502. But… what would he tell her now? About Russet? What a tragic waste it would be if he didn’t get help. She had to help him. That’s exactly what he would say. You’ve got to do anything you can to help a friend who’s in trouble.
  1503.         She felt like a charlatan. Like barely a person, even. Would anyone else have given it even a second thought in helping him get his medication the first moment it was possible? Wouldn’t Herbert have done that? Even a guy who didn’t seem to like him? Why did she hide it? Why was she hiding everything from everyone? Why couldn’t she let Herbert in on at least the basics about her situation? And his? Maybe she didn’t even deserve to like someone like Russet.
  1504.         Her neck sagged under the weight of her head. She felt exhausted thinking about it. She put the paper aside and flipped the light switch beside the bed. She tried to drift to sleep, unable to stop tormenting herself, her eyes threatening the strain preceding tears.
  1505.         The darkness was interrupted by a faint trim of light around the door’s edge. It was coming from the corridor outside.
  1506.         She forced herself out of bed, finding it hard to move. She felt like a bag of cement with arms and legs. But she needed to know what it was. There was something otherworldly about the light. The hinge squealed as she opened the door. There was nothing there, but the light was moving. It seemed to have just disappeared around a corner.
  1507.         She followed, but the source of the light remained elusive. The fort was silent. She crept after it, not wanting to disturb the silence, fearing she might scare it away. It led her to the surface, out the main entrance, and into the woods. Outside, there was no sign of the glow, or anyone she may have followed. The woods that night seemed different than they had before. Especially still, not a breeze or sound, and the starlight gave all the trees and plants a soft, milky quality.
  1508.         There was someone behind her.
  1509.         She turned around. There was a tall man standing there. He had long brown hair and a beard. He wore a simple white robe. All around him, where his edges met the darkness of the forest, there was a subtle shimmer, one that seemed to vanish if she tried to examine it directly. He had calm, deep eyes. It seemed as if they were fixed in space, and while everything in the world around them moved and changed, they would remain a constant.
  1510.  
  1511.  
  1512. HERBERT?
  1513. FZZZ... guess I... ZZZFSH... the obvious point. FZZZZZ...fusing one... FSHHHHHH... look like you. Well, that’s... ZZZZZZ... Sort of. No, not a clone. FSHHHHHH... future, e...  ZZZZSHH... same... FSHHHH... later in... ZZZZZZZZZ... I know, I know, it doesn’t make any... ZZZFSHH... promise. I just don’t... ZZZZZZZSHH... it. Dying... ZZZZZZ...
  1514. Herbert watched with the stupor of an experimental lobotomy recipient. The older boy ranted through a cacophony of magnetic tape faults, then paused. A female hand presented him with an object from off-screen. It looked like the locket Beatrix carried, only it had something in its center. Herbert couldn’t make it out clearly.
  1515. HERBERT?
  1516. This... ZZZZZ... Mobius Slip... ZZZFSHHHH... this world, how we all... FSHHHH... how, just list... FZZZZZ... when it’s assembled. It co... SHHHHHH... locket part with one of... ZZZZZFSHHH...edallion part with ano... ZZZ... ZZZ... leave a copy of... FZZZSHHH... help you figure some of this stuff out. Don’t have a... ZZZZ... ZZZZZZ... you probably got it by now... FZZZ...
  1517. Herbert looked around wondering if there was anything obvious he’d missed, which might have been a “copy of” something he “probably got by now”. Nothing jumped out at him.
  1518. HERBERT?
  1519. ZZZZZ...portant it stay sep... FSHHHH...den. That’s why we’ll... FZZZZZZ... you guys... SHHHH... book. The... ZZZZZ... keep it away from Slinus Marle... FZZZZ... killed us, in case you didn’t... ZZZZZSHHHHH... cure before then. God, I hope... FSHHHHHH... cover our bases, and that’s why... ZZZZZZ... he’ll be looking... FZZZZZZZZ... security of the world depends on it. Yes, big surprise, I kn... ZZZ...
  1520. The boy grew more agitated as the tape progressed. He spoke hastily, short of breath, either due to nerves or some anomaly in the medical sphere. It made him even harder to understand, even disregarding tape quality. Herbert brought his listening resources to such a focus, you could fit them on the head of a pin.
  1521. HERBERT?
  1522. ZZZZZZZZZ... We’ve been trying for some... FZZZSHHH... what happened to us. FZZZZZZZZZ... who can help you... ZZZ... Slinus’ agents. God only knows... SHHHHH... figured it out yet, time... ZZZ... ZZZZZZZZZ...
  1523. FZZZZZZZZZZZZSHHHHHHHHHH...
  1524. Here, there was a long interruption of indecipherable noise.
  1525. HERBERT?
  1526. Speaking of time, ours is run... ZZZZZ... a few notes on the... FZZZZ... this for you here as well. Good luck. Enjoy... FZZZZSHH... love the puffy shirt episode.
  1527. His older doppelganger lumbered from his chair, visibly perspiring. He removed the gun from the holster, showing to his audience, and slipped the harness from his waist before moving off-screen.
  1528.         Jerry and Kramer were suddenly on the screen, hashing out some hysterical misunderstanding. Herbert watched the rest of the episode blankly, quietly. It was similar to the feeling of noticing the car radio still running right after a major accident, playing something cheerful like a Beach Boys tune.
  1529. JERRY
  1530. I... I can't wear this puffy shirt on TV! I mean, look at it! It looks ridiculous!
  1531. KRAMER
  1532. Well, you gotta wear it now! All those stores are stocking it based on the condition that you're gonna wear this on the TV show! The factory in New Jersey is already making them!
  1533. JERRY
  1534. They're making these?
  1535. KRAMER
  1536. Yes, yes. This pirate trend that she's come up with, Jerry. This is gonna be the new look for the 90's. You're gonna be the first pirate!
  1537. JERRY
  1538. But I don't want to be a pirate!
  1539.  
  1540.  
  1541. Beatrix stood in unapologetic stupefaction. She had the impression that this was sort of what it was like to run into a huge celebrity in the grocery store. Like hearing someone clear his throat behind you, and turning around to discover Tom Cruise with a host of polite questions about produce.
  1542.         “Do you know who I am?” He asked. The voice was deep, and kind. She shook her head slowly, though not very convincingly. He continued, “I was a great sorcerer in my day, before I Rose.”
  1543.         “Rose?”
  1544.         “The Rising is a profound incantation. Few are more difficult. You may be ready for it one day. It all depends on what’s in you.” He smiled. His smile had the same strange quality his eyes had. Gentle, but potent, and completely arresting.
  1545.         “I don’t think there’s much good in me.”
  1546.         “Why do you say that?”
  1547.         “I…” She hesitated, but knew immediately that she could not lie to this man if she was inclined to. And perhaps most amazingly, she wasn’t. “I’m not a very honest person. I lie all the time. I feel like a phony. I don’t think there’s anything genuine or redeemable about me. Even all my good acts have been selfishly driven, I think.”
  1548.         He offered a nod of compassion. “My Father has given men words to live by. He’s enumerated the sins, guidelines for those choosing a path of devotion. But it is not the only path. For those travelers walking a more independent road, it does them well to travel light. There is only one true sin to bear in mind, from which all others follow. The one great sin is not to realize who you are.”
  1549.         “Your Father?”
  1550.         “And yours.”
  1551.         “I hope this doesn’t sound like a silly question, but you are… Him, right?”
  1552.         “I’m a man who did what His Father asked of him, who did what was necessary for mankind. I didn’t have to die that day. I had more than enough powers to elude my enemies. I died because I had to. For you. For everyone.” The man paused, then his smile took on a different meaning, one surprisingly playful. “Besides, as you can see, death is not all it’s cracked up to be.”
  1553.         Beatrix’s head was spinning in a way that made her feel clueless about everything she thought she knew. It was not an entirely unpleasant experience, but at the same time, she felt foolish and childish for daring to think she had ever had anything figured out.
  1554.         “So, what is it I really am, then?”
  1555.         “You are not selfish. Your heart is in the right place. You genuinely wish to help your friend. He knows this, and I can tell you he does appreciate it. To him it is uncommon kindness. You are not a liar, or a phony, or any of those things.”
  1556.         She felt somehow that just having him say it, it instantly became true. A previously unknown weight had been lifted. The real answer to the question suddenly seemed like it didn’t matter. No hardship mattered at that moment. Everything was ok.
  1557.         “You are not your sins. They become nothing in the light of the divine. They wash away like stains, perhaps with a bit of club soda, or some white wine, leaving the fabric of your soul white and spotless.” He felt his pristine garment between his thumb and finger.
  1558.         Amidst her spellbound face, an eyebrow crept upwards. “Huh?”
  1559.         “Yes, I’ve gained much acclaim regarding matters of the spirit, but not many are familiar with my miracles in the realm of laundering. Did you know I once got Worcestershire sauce out of the shroud of Turin?”
  1560.         She leaned forward just a bit, examining the man suspiciously.
  1561.         “OxyClean is phenomenal stuff, too. I once thought about purchasing it in bulk from the Home Shopping Network. I would give it my full endorsement, though I’m afraid such gestures present a conflict of interest for me. There are too many in the world already who believe I pick sides.”
  1562.         “… Russet??”
  1563. At once, the bearded man morphed through a display of intense luminance into Russet. He stood with his hands in his pockets and a broad grin, simmering magically. By the signs of his tailoring, his cheerful demeanor, and his devastating good looks, he was back in rare form.
  1564.         Beatrix was catatonic with surprise. She tried to say something, but the words bottlenecked in her throat. The bottleneck was then cleared by laughter. She laughed—harder than she could remember laughing in recent memory—at the absurdity of the charade. Russet laughed too.
  1565.         “Oh, wow.” She paused, yielding to the final throes of laughter. “You actually had me going there.”
  1566.         “Nothing terribly duplicitous intended, I assure you. Other than, you know, convincing you I was the Son of God. But other than that, all in good fun.”
  1567.         Beatrix looked like she wanted to ask another question, or maybe she wanted to ask every feasible question at once. She settled on the tone one uses when addressing an incorrigible prankster. “So, was this supposed to be some kind of religious awakening or something? Like, to really open my eyes?” She chuckled a bit more at the notion.
  1568.         “I guess I sensed you were in need of… well, I dare not presume what. Faith, belief, it’s all your business of course. A friend, I suppose. But, you seem well now, yes?”
  1569.         She did. She nodded, and evaluated herself more discerningly. She actually felt quite good, sort of cozy and warm even though standing in the cold night air. Then she noticed it wasn’t really cold, but for the idea that it was. And now that she thought of it, she couldn’t really feel her body at all. Not in the usual sense. She looked around. It was all stunningly quiet, and the visuals were crisp. It was all surreal.
  1570.         “This is a dream!” she realized.
  1571.         “Yes!” he nodded.
  1572.         “Are you really here?” she asked, suddenly looking slightly worried. “Or is my mind just imagining you? And all this?”
  1573.         “Do you figure I’m really ‘there’ when you’re awake? What about that?”
  1574.         “I don’t know. Maybe that’s a good question. But… come on, seriously. Are you?”
  1575.         “I will at least give this assurance. I’ll be fully aware of this encounter in our waking lives. In fact, I will be there to greet you when you wake, if you would like.”
  1576.         “Ah! So it really is you!”
  1577.         He nodded again. “I’d supposed the concept of such an encounter would come over as less… obtuse, played out in the comfort of your own mind. Though I hope, on the flipside, you did not find it invasive or impolite.”
  1578.         “No. Not at all.” She thought about it. If anyone had mentioned their plans to do something like this in advance, it might have seemed creepy to her. But in the timeless here-and-now of a lucid dream, it was perfectly comfortable. A pleasant rendezvous point, in fact. “And I would like,” she added.
  1579.         “Hmm?”
  1580.         “For you to greet me. When I wake up.”
  1581.         “Grand.”
  1582.         “Hey… all that Jesus stuff… you’re not actually that serious about it all, are you?”
  1583.         He shook his head slightly with a devious smirk. “Nah.”
  1584.         “You have a pretty strange sense of humor.”
  1585. He pleaded guilty as charged with a subtle expression.
  1586. “I like it,” she said with an expression to match his coy brand of guile.
  1587.         He reached for her hand, and held it.
  1588.         She was suddenly sitting up in bed in darkness. It barely felt as if she’d been asleep at all. Her mind was still bubbling in a way, feeling vibrantly fertile from the experience of the dream.  
  1589.         There was a polite knock on the door. Her lips curled into a little smile.
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