SHARE
TWEET

Wizardy Herbert parts 3, 4, and 5

a guest Jan 7th, 2013 6,466 Never
Not a member of Pastebin yet? Sign Up, it unlocks many cool features!
  1. Part 3
  2.  
  3.  
  4.  
  5. “Where’d you find this old thing, anyway?” asked the boy with the sleeping cap, which had stars and moons painted on it with glow in the dark paint. It was by now flecking off in an unbecoming way, like the leprous skin of a jaundiced zombie.
  6.         “On a quest,” said the boy with the brass curtain rod, which you might mistake for a really cool magical scepter if you were quite gullible, or otherwise unfamiliar with the concept of drapes.
  7.         “Was it a quest for some type of… large munitions?” asked the plump boy squeezed into an inaccurate Sailor Moon cosplaying getup.
  8.         “No, it was a quest for…” The curtain rod boy paused, grimacing with exasperation. “I don’t know why I’m even repeating this nonsense. It was a quest for a unicorn’s song. A unicorn’s song. How do you even… how do you go about collecting, and then containing a song? It doesn’t even make any sense. I didn’t think unicorns even sang songs. Don’t they just whinny?”
  9.         “I gather they whinny quite magically,” chipped in the boy with a fake beard hanging around his neck. It looked as if on a prior, lighter occasion, it had been worn on the face with the gusto of a zealous masquerader. “And perhaps they whinny melodically as well?”
  10.         “I guess you could maybe translate it into sheet music if you knew how…” said the Sailor Moon boy.
  11.         “Can we bear down here? Who cares about the unicorn and its song or dance or its ground up horn processed into some kind of black market aphrodisiac? If we pull this off, we’ll be free, and I won’t have to worry about being punished for failing the quest. Pass me one of those shells. Carefully.”
  12.         “Has anyone here ever completed a quest?” earnestly wondered the sleeping cap boy.
  13.         “Has anyone here ever been fed?” hungrily wondered the fake beard boy.
  14.         “Ok, let’s rehearse this a second.” The boy lifted his curtain rod and tapped it on the long metal barrel. “If we blow this, I don’t think I have to tell you what happens.”
  15.         The Sailor Moon boy wore an expression of sudden shame and guilt. “I really wish I had a change of skirt.”
  16.         Elsewhere, in his fastidiously maintained industrial loft, Counselor Slinus blistered away at a keyboard. Line after line of cryptic-looking code streaked across the monitor at a pace that appeared to have trouble keeping up with his keystrokes. Though he seemed less focused on the programming than he did on the conversation he was having into his wireless headset.
  17.         “M-hm. No. I don’t know. I can’t get a hold of him. He must have his phone turned off for some reason.” His conversation partner murmured something through his earpiece. “I don’t know. I’ve stopped trying to understand how that little horse brain of his works. Listen, that’s why I’m calling you. It looks like someone’s been into the Quest Pro system at Crossnest. It seems someone’s actually been completing quests. Can you believe it? I wouldn’t mind seeing some of that initiative around here.”
  18.         As he said this, he made an accusatory glance towards his right hand man, Gilbert. Gilbert withered in his tragically snug camper’s outfit.
  19.         “The point is, it means there’s someone there. It could be her, or any one of them. And since Terence is busy with God knows what, I need someone else to check it out.”
  20.         Gilbert’s eyes darted back and forth. He added to the moisture gathering in the cloth sandwiched by his armpits.
  21.         “Don’t we have someone stationed there? Isn’t your other half there?” Slinus sniggered. “Your better half?” The murmurs in the earpiece did not sound like laughter. “Yes, ok. Calm down. Sounds like someone could use a milk bone.”
  22. Gilbert eyed a digital clock as it ticked another minute. He was wringing his sash with pudgy fists, as he was prone to do when he was nervous, which was always.
  23. “It’s just that this is all coming together finally. I’m almost done hacking this targeting system. It was a real doozy of a job, but when you’re blessed with skills like mine…” He caught himself before plunging into one of his self-aggrandizing spiels that are compulsory to the trade of hacking. “Anyway, I need those codes. Trust me, those I can’t hack, not even with some killer magic algorithm. Just get in touch with our Crossnest man. You can do that, right? You have some sort of… telepathic thing, don’t you? A kind of beastly communion?”
  24. There was a begrudging murmur to the affirmative through the earpiece. Slinus hung up the phone, marking the first time he’d removed one hand from the keyboard in the last several hours. He used the opportunity to grab his bottle of Mountain Dew and take a swig. The bottle felt cool on the scar on the palm of his hand. It was a circular shape, lined by infinity symbols around the perimeter, and one larger infinity symbol in the center. If you inspected it closer, it might look more like a seared brand than a typical scar. The other hand kept typing.
  25. The most annoying thing about computer hackers was that their infuriating lack of modesty always seemed to be justified. This was especially the case with those who incorporated the practice of magic into their programming methods, and there were few who did this as effectively as Slinus Marlevort. Such practitioners of this obscure craft have sprouted numerous branches in the categorization of magickers. Along one branch, you had your siliconjurers and your binary prestidigitators, to name a couple of the obvious ones. Among the more nefarious offshoots were your IT druids, your open sourcerers, and those who reveled in the arcane religious practice of Wiki. These were all fine traditions, but none were quite apt in describing what exactly Slinus was, and he personally felt the most appropriate classification for himself was “1337 dark mage arch-h4xx0r”, and when asked about it, that was the term he would supply.
  26. Magicians of this ilk were generally capable of some dreadfully potent feats. Combining computers and magic in most people’s minds was a highly unintuitive proposition, and even widely thought of as (and this is a verbatim quote) “kind of a stupid idea”. But for those with the aptitude for it, it held some possibilities which were downright unfair to other magic users. It was unfair in the same way it would be inequitable to other students if some were allowed to outsource their homework assignments to Einstein’s living brain, floating in a jar containing a substance suspiciously similar in look and taste to pickle brine.
  27.         The digital clock struck 11:59. Slinus paused his typing, leaned back, and stretched. He turned to look at Gilbert, who was also watching the clock, which might as well have been a sunlamp by the way he was sweating.
  28.         “Just about lunch time, then. What do you say, Gilbert?” By which of course he meant it didn’t matter what he had to say about it.
  29.         “Um… sounds good. What… uh… would you… uh…”
  30.         “Is something wrong, Gilbert? Why do you keep looking at the clock?” Slinus stood up, evaluating his stuttering lackey with increasing suspicion. He placed his hand, more casually than menacingly, on his holstered sidearm. It was an old Zapper for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System. It was refitted to have a shiny silver barrel and grip, ensconced in the original gray, angular plastic. It naturally no longer had a cord, as it was now presumably a weapon of potent self-contained magical energies. He thought it was a very cool and original solution to his magical weapon needs, although to be fair, he had never seen or heard of the cartoon show “Captain N: The Game Master”. He probably would have liked it. Notwithstanding, it arguably was cool, at least with respect to those who shared his mindset. The piqued nostalgias of retro gaming could always be counted on for a great deal of traction in those circles.
  31.         “Gilbert? Hey, buddy, down here.” He snapped his fingers in an ineffectual attempt to bring Gilbert’s attention away from the clock.
  32.         “Oh. Yeah. Uh… could you… please… um…”
  33.         Slinus folded his arms. “Yes? Could I what, Gilbert?”
  34.         “Maybe, please, um… move a few steps to the right?”
  35.         With arms still folded, Slinus humored him. “Ok, Gilbert. I am moving a few steps to the right. Here I am, a few steps to the right. Now what?”
  36.         “Ok… um… just…” Gilbert stalled as he watched the blinking ‘:’ in the middle of the clock’s digits, ‘11:59’.
  37.         “Yes?”
  38.         The clock struck ‘12:00’. Gilbert drew his tiny wand and waved it through the empty space next to him. Four boys materialized, and materializing with them was a large metal object, terminating in a long, 105mm-wide metal tube aimed at Counselor Slinus. The counselor made a motion for his Zapper sidearm, but did not reach it before the tube made an earsplitting BANG.
  39.         Two things at that point were instantly evident. The first was that Slinus was now just a pair of legs standing on the floor. His upper torso, which had been ripped from the legs, was tumbling through the air. The second was an explosion in the back of the room in the direction the tube was pointing. The blast rocked the ground, causing the disembodied legs to topple.
  40.         As the smoke from the tube cleared, and as the smoke from the smoldering wreckage took its place, the boys stood speechlessly by their high-powered armament. The sleeping cap boy finally spoke up. “Did… we do it?”
  41.         The question was in the process of being given a grim answer. The upper stump of Slinus’s torso was dragging itself across the floor towards the lower stump. His severed abdomen was leaving an unbroken streak of deep red across the metal. He was now much like a human paintbrush.
  42.         He pulled the Zapper from the holster, propped himself up, and pointed it at the motley rebellion. “Yeah. I think you did it.”
  43.         The large cross-dressing boy wistfully examined the final moment of his tragic life. “This is the worst summer camp ever.”
  44.         With four Zaps, the boys were reduced to a sparse cloud of cooling embers. The only remains were a sleeping cap, a curtain rod, a fake beard, and a Sailor Moon outfit.
  45.         Gilbert tucked his wand back into his belt, and breathed a sigh of—it almost seemed—relief, as he anticipated his demise. It didn’t come.
  46.         “Gilbert, will you follow me to the safe, please?” Slinus left a shiny trail like a garden slug on his way to the safe in the wall. He paused to pick up a tall, slender staff. It was black, with occult runes and dire imagery carved into it. He gripped it with both hands, and used it to help him drag his mangled torso along.
  47.         He used it to tap the safe, and the combination quickly entered itself. The door popped open, revealing many stacks of books. Though they weren’t really books so much as stacks of plain white 8.5”x11” paper, bound by black rings, like manuscripts one might submit for review. They were all identical.
  48.         “Hand me one of those books, won’t you? Shut the safe when you’re done.” Gilbert complied. “Thank you.”
  49.         The book’s cover was blank, except for the title which was blacked out with a rectangle. Beneath the black rectangle, the number ‘Seven’ was printed. Slinus smeared blood over the fresh white pages as he flipped the book open to a spot marked by a yellow Post-it. He read a passage.
  50.  
  51. “Spirit’s of the 00000000 000000 give me you’re powers and vanquish my eniemieeEEE…”
  52.  
  53.         “EEEEAAAAARGH!!!” shouted the young man who was suddenly standing in the room. His arrival was ushered in by a brief flurry of pyrotechnics. The young man was striking a dramatic pose, with his hand raised in the air, his fingers curled into a claw as if clutching an object he was no longer holding. His hand was smoking, the smoke rising from a freshly seared circular scar on his palm. This was not the only similarity between the young man and Slinus Marlevort. In fact, there were no differences at all. The two young men appeared to be identical.
  54.         The new Slinus brought his smoking hand in front of his glasses, ogling it with mystification. “Oww!”
  55.         The half-Slinus held his staff like a gondola rower holds his rowing pole, and stood himself up on his severed abdominal base.
  56.         “Where did it go?” asked the confused duplicate. “Who are you people?”
  57.         “Those are good questions. But I’ve had this conversation for the sport of it too many times already. It never goes anywhere that interesting.” Spencer aimed his staff and shot a current of ghostly energy into the forehead of his nonplused doppelganger. He then dropped the staff, and fell over backwards, dead.
  58. The fresh, non-bisected Slinus stooped over and picked up the staff. He then nodded towards the mess of his bisected previous incarnation. “Gil, clean that up, won’t you? Oh, and get rid of that, too,” he said, gesturing towards the hulking Howitzer cannon. “It was an admirable try, but I think it’s time to get back to business.”
  59.         “Um…” Gilbert said as if he was trying to swallow a potato. “Ok, sir.”
  60.         “And for God’s sake, put out that fire.”
  61.         “Counselor? Why didn’t you shoot me, too?”
  62.         “Gilbert, you may learn some day, if you find yourself in my position, that it always pays to have someone around who fully appreciates the futility of mutiny. Now what about that lunch?”
  63.  
  64. Herbert trudged up the side of a hill, snapping the tall, dry grass under his feet. It was one foothill of many which preceded the great mountain range as if they were the marching band blazing the trail for the impressive floats in a highly stationary, geologically-themed parade. Herbert paused, waiting for Beatrix and Russet to catch up. He looked over the forested valley they’d left behind. The spinning icon maintained its serviceable vigil over the hidden fort Crossnest, now some distance away.
  65.         Another Camp Quest had recently popped up on the Quest Pro terminal, and they were at the moment pursuing the dubious prize listed in the quest profile. Though you would never suspect they were pursuing anything with determination, the way Beatrix and Russet were carrying on.
  66.         “Oh, what about the one where Trick broke into the… what was it? The crypt, or vault of…?” Beatrix wondered aloud.
  67.         “Volume 23. Rutherford Trick and the Vault of the Prurient Oracle.”
  68.         “Oh yeah! And the vault just turned out to contain the king’s pornography.”
  69.         “That’s right,” Russet nodded. “And when Trick found out there was no gold there, he got so mad he set it all on fire. This sent the king, and thus the whole kingdom, into a period of grieving. While the king was distracted by grief, Trick made off with the Elysian Manacles of Pulchritude. He sold them for a fortune.”
  70.         “That was great.”
  71.         “The best part was how the Oracle King predicted it all in a dream. On the first page! And he still couldn’t stop Trick. What a rascal.”
  72.         “What about…” she paused, as she searched her memory. “The title was some pun about bacon.”
  73.         “Volume 35. Rutherford Trick: Bacon Business.”
  74.         “Yes! He swapped the wife of the evil Governor for a prize sow he won at a fair. It was kind of a joke in a plot to hold his wife for ransom, but throughout the whole book no one noticed the difference. People just repeatedly commented on how the Lady’s table manners seemed to have improved. And the Governor kept being ‘taken with her beauty’, as if only noticing her for the first time.”
  75.         “‘Florentine, my succulent truffle, why, if I wasn’t sure the cognac had got the better of me, I’d swear your skin was softer than the day we met.’” Russet quoted.
  76.         “Ha! And later, Trick for some reason forgets about the whole ransom plot, or just loses interest. Then he and the real Governess loot the historic cemetery of all its most valuable mummies. She became kind of like a mother figure to him, and at the end, he promises to return all the mummies if the Governor would legally sign over his wife to become Trick’s mother. But when he does, Trick just sells the mummies and gives the money to an orphanage.”
  77.         “It was a treat to read. We were lead to believe Trick had finally found the mother he never had. But it turned out he was only wooing the Governess to gain access to her key to the fabled chest of Yggdrasil wood. He then ditched her and fled by steamboat across the Mississipiatic Ocean. We wouldn’t find out what was in the chest until the next volume.”
  78.         “Wow, there were just so many. I haven’t even read half of them. I’ve read other series, though. There’s one I like, but you may not have heard of it. Harry Po…” She was interrupted by a glaring Herbert. He’d been maintaining an impatient posture as he’d waited for them to catch up.
  79.         “Well, aren’t you two just like a couple of peas in a pod?” he sneered. Beatrix giggled at the remark for no apparent reason. Russet smiled in her direction, then threw his cape behind one shoulder before addressing Herbert.
  80.         “Come, dear Wizardy. It’s such a lovely day. No need to assail its serenity with a foul disposition.”
  81.         “Wait, let me check and see if I’m receptive to your advice on foul dispositions. I want to be totally sure your opinion on the subject holds the least bit of credibility with me.” Herbert theatrically groped his skull, invoking the discredited science of phrenology. “Ok. Nope, I’m not a retard.”
  82.         “We were just talking about some books we’ve read, Herbert,” said Beatrix.
  83.         “Yes,” added Russet. “Some really all-around smashing tales. Trick is one of our favs. What about you? Maybe we’ve some common ground yet?”
  84.         It took a surprising amount of restraint, Herbert found, not to blurt out the time Dean Brimstale attempted to crash one of Vera’s séance slumber parties by concealing himself in the stuffed torso of the late varsity mascot, Heidegger the walrus. Little did he know, though, that Vera had been aware of his spying, and during the séance, misinformed him by confiding in the other girls with a false location of the coveted Laurels of Erudition. The avaricious dean then spent the entirety of the semester probing for the Laurels by shouting the magic phrase “I would fancy a lengthy gander at your bottom, miss” into each toilet in every public ladies’ lavatory in Cambridge.
  85.         “In case you’ve forgotten, we’re out here to do something Vera, I mean, very important.”
  86.         “Of course. What was it again, if you don’t mind refreshing my memory?”
  87.         “We’re supposed to be looking for…” Herbert checked his notes. “The spiraled incisors of a…” Again, back to his notes. “Central Asian reticulated snoogerfitch.”
  88.         “Does it say what a snoogerfitch looks like?” Beatrix asked.
  89.         “Well, I imagine it has spiraled incisors, for starters,” Herbert replied.
  90.         “It is also reticulated,” said Russet.
  91.         “How so, do you think? Like a snake?” The two boys shrugged.
  92.         “Have you tried using some…” Russet grabbed the page of notes from Herbert, and read. “Guds root? Maybe if you place some out in the open the…” He read on. “Aroma will tantalize its sensitive and curious proboscis?”
  93. “Gee, Russet, I think I used up my last batch trying to lure African spoonfoodles and European dippety-flumsnarks. Gotta catch ‘em all, you know?”
  94.         “A pity.”
  95.         “Hey, Russet!” Beatrix was suddenly excited. “Can’t you magically create those things? The guds root, or even the snoogerfitch itself? I think doing that is probably beyond my own abilities, but you…”
  96.         “Would that I could, Bea. Unfortunately, I don’t know what either of those things looks like. If I did, it would be no problem at all.”
  97.         “How convenient,” Herbert griped.
  98.         “I see. Makes sense. Could you… you know, just guess?” she said with a facetious turn in her voice.
  99.         “Hmm. Maybe you’re on to something!” Russet played along.
  100.         “I mean, we already have a pretty good loose physical description. Maybe we can piece it together.”
  101.         “A la some sort of Frankenfitch!”
  102.         “Yeah!”
  103.         “Let’s see… spiral incisors, check. Curious proboscis… check.” Russet checked the air with his wand as if checking off a real, physical list in front of him. An ambiguously animalistic form took shape in the grass. It was a small, hunching bipedal thing, roughly exhibiting the contours of a furry baboon. It had corkscrew fangs and a long, pink snout, like that of a proboscis monkey. It sat unintelligently, twitching its absurd nose. “What do you think? Is that proboscis curious enough for you?”
  104.         “Hmm…” Beatrix considered the proboscis carefully. “No, I don’t think it’s nearly curious enough.”
  105.         Russet waved his wand. “How about now?” The pseudo-primate’s nose tripled in length, as well as pliability. It was suddenly quite frisky, and instantly magnetized towards Beatrix. It aggressively sniffed up and down her pants, its nose making little slapping noises against her leg with each sniff. It tickled ferociously.
  106.         “Ha-ha! No! Too curious! Too curious!”
  107.         “Oh, no. I think it is just right!”
  108.         “What about the reticulation?” She brought her ring towards the nasally zealous creature, and magically supplied it with the body of a snake. As it wriggled, its bulbous nose continued slapping the dirt.
  109.         Herbert eyed the proceedings with a grim void of humor. They obviously weren’t taking this seriously. But that wasn’t even what was bugging him. It wasn’t even Russet’s cocky flamboyance that was getting under his skin, either. It was Beatrix, and the way she was now behaving with Russet. What happened to the two of them? Where before he felt at least a vague rhythm of personable interaction with her, it now seemed like she and Russet were both in their own world together. And it was becoming clear he had little hope of visiting that place.
  110. Whatever was going on, it did not inspire him to trust her. She’d already supplied some of the fuel for that sentiment herself, with her peculiar habits of secrecy. He was thinking last night that today he would discuss with her the baffling message he’d found on the Seinfeld tape. But seeing her act this way with Russet made him quickly reconsider. If she wanted to keep things from him, couldn’t two play at that game?
  111. His muscles tensed involuntarily at the thought of the tape. It hadn’t allowed him much sleep last night. What did it mean? If only the message weren’t so irritatingly incomplete. What did it have to do with the locket? A curse? Death? A book? Was it that book? The one that had so infatuated him?
  112. And the list he found on the bulletin board. That bugged him too. The list appeared to be right about wizards, in its own editorial, qualitative way. The other statements were more absolute, though. “There’s no such thing as time travel?” That tape would beg to differ. Herbert couldn’t think of a better explanation. What else could it really be, other than his future self traveling back in time to warn him about something? The scenario played itself out a thousand times in movies. Why not in reality, especially in a reality revealed to be rife with all sorts of magical nonsense? Unless of course it also happened to be a reality in which time travel didn’t exist by law. But what about dragons? “Dragons don’t exist?” That was just…
  113. The mock-snoogerfitch was now laboring under some highly impractical and outlandish physiological modifications. It was finding it difficult to sate its proboscis’ curiosity with its tentacles getting tangled up in its own antlers. Herbert pulled out his gun and shot the thing, with the same casualness Indiana Jones used to blow away the sword-flailing Arab in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
  114.         “Hey, Russet,” he said, as he holstered the gun. “Can you make a dragon?”
  115.         Russet looked somewhat sad. He flicked his wand, and the indecipherable carcass disintegrated into the earth. He turned his attention to Herbert’s question, seeming to only now realize one had been asked. “Oh. A dragon…” He spoke slowly. “I… don’t…”
  116.         “You don’t think you can? Is that because dragons don’t exist?”
  117.         “That is what I’ve heard.”
  118.         “But, come on. You can create anything you want, magically. And if you create it, then it exists, doesn’t it? Who cares if it doesn’t occur naturally otherwise?”
  119.         “I suppose that is true.”
  120.         “Well?” Herbert gestured toward a patch of land that, by implication, might make a sensational location for a conjured dragon.
  121.         “I just… don’t…”
  122.         “Don’t you know what a dragon looks like?”
  123.         “Of course I do!”
  124.         “Then hop to it! Big, scaly, and mean!”
  125.         “I really don’t think it’s a good idea though. It just doesn’t sound right.”
  126.         Herbert sighed, frustrated. He had an idea. “Ok, how about this. You know what dinosaurs look like, right? And they exist, don’t they? I mean, they used to. At least they aren’t completely fictional.”
  127.         “Right…” Russet agreed.
  128.         “Well, how about you just start by creating a dinosaur. A big one. Like a T-Rex.”
  129.         “Yes, that I can do.”
  130.         “Sounds pretty hard,” Beatrix said. “I’d love to see that.”
  131.         Russet concentrated, using more effort than either of them had seen him use previously. Shortly, there was a mighty Tyrannosaurus Rex milling about on an adjacent hill, a reasonably safe distance from where the kids stood. It produced an authentic-sounding roar, or at least authentic if you used the film Jurassic Park as your guide.
  132.         “Great. Fantastic. I couldn’t have asked for a better dinosaur,” Herbert commended. “Now comes the tricky part. Listen carefully, Russet. Can you cover the dinosaur in scales?”
  133.         “Scales?”
  134.         “Big, green scales. Lots of them. All over.”
  135.         “Uh… yeah…” Russet agreed very cautiously. His attitude towards this entire experiment seemed odd to Beatrix. It was strangely lacking the usual bravado he put into things like this.
  136.         A coat of shiny, emerald-green scales swept across the dinosaur’s skin. It now shimmered attractively. It sniffed the ground, still appearing unaware of its guinea pig status. “Super. Now how about some wings?”
  137.         “W… wings?”
  138.         “Big and leathery. Like a bat. You know.”
  139.         The dinosaur suddenly had two huge wings protruding from its shoulder blades, and began to strongly resemble a you-know-what. It took to the air with a couple of powerful flaps. “Now bigger teeth! And claws! And give it some horns!”
  140.         Russet began to sweat. As the features Herbert named grew in length and deadliness, the T-Rex seemed to notice the kids. It flapped toward them and issued a monstrous half-squeal, half-roar.
  141.         “Uh-oh…” Beatrix said.
  142.         “Now one last thing! Make it breathe fire!”
  143.         “Herbert, are you crazy?!” she yelled. Russet, in an odd stupor, mindlessly complied. A small cloud of white-hot flame puffed out of the beast’s mouth, but it instantly became extinguished. The Tyrannosaurus, now officially a dragon, rolled its eyes back into its sockets to reveal the white of surrender. It came thundering to the ground, plowing a deep, dark scar into the hill as it slid to a halt, several yards away from Herbert. Smoke rose from its nostrils.
  144.         Herbert reached up to its massive neck to take a pulse. He looked at the others and shook his head solemnly. He gulped. He felt dismay at this event, and he was troubled to admit he didn’t know what the dismay, or the event, meant at all.
  145.  
  146. Jivversport was a very different place from the one occupying Grant’s memory. Years ago, it was a thrumming hotbed of trade, intrigue, and of course, adventure. But he knew in this realm, a lot could change in a little time.
  147. It was once a melting pot, an intersection of so many factions and interests that even the lifelong native had difficulty cataloguing them. There was naturally a thriving pirate’s district, but really, what respectable seaport hub didn’t have that? There was an active underbelly. Baffling networks of street urchin guilds clogged the alleys and sewers. They bartered magical secrets and pickpocketed goods, and the savvy ones climbed the ranks of power through inscrutable political machinery. A high-ranking urchin could rival the sway of even a “legitimate” city politician, which was usually just a puppet figure for pirate interests, or the Charmsmith Union, or the Consortium for Binary Prestidigitators, or outside military interests, or the Jivversport Wizard Herders’ Association… you get the idea.
  148.         That was all far from the case these days, as Grant noted with a bit of melancholy. He strolled a cobblestone thoroughfare with his motley band of allies, the two pirate counselors and Samantha, as they searched for her brother. There was an alarming number of places for a lost orphan boy to tuck himself away.
  149.         “Siiiiimon!” This was not the first time Samantha had sent her brother’s name echoing through the vacant streets.
  150. There was no response. The sound bounced off the dilapidated façades, knocking loose a slate shingle, sending it shattering on the ground. The architecture was eclectic, to say the least. It resembled in places a dense, poorly organized villa somewhere in Italy or Switzerland or France. It might give you the queasy feeling of unfocusing your eyes at the whole palette of European atmosphere. The resulting jumble of awnings, shingles, beams, siding, glass and stonework seemed a good approximation of the environment. But you couldn’t get too caught up in that comparison, because not infrequently you’d see signs of modern American suburbia. You’d turn the corner and find yourself in the shadow of a badly deteriorating, but otherwise modern 7-11. They might have represented thresholds of heavenly commercial sanctuary, if not for the fact that the broken windows all but assured the Twinkies and savory Hostess snack cakes had been plundered long ago, not even to speak of the highly collectable plastic Big Gulp cups. But it would be clear to any visitor that Jivversport at one point had anything you needed to lead a civilized life (albeit a life of charmsmithing or street urchinning). It had restaurants, hotels, post offices, a Walmart and a Target, and even a Six Flags amusement park, complete with several Batman-themed roller coasters, all ground to a halt by decades of rust and scarcity of power.
  151.         “Siiiimon! Where are you!” Samantha tried again.
  152.         “Samantha,” Grant began with his style of kid-handling diplomacy, “I’d dearly like to find your brother too. But I think if he were in the position of hearing us shout, he’d have responded by now. Besides, all the noise may attract the wrong kind of attention. Why don’t we let these good folk take us to their fort, and we can make a solid plan for recovering your brother?”
  153.         “Siiiiiiiiimon!”
  154.         “Aye, friend, it be a tall order if ye wish to get a lass to stop pinin’ for her brother,” Daniel said in his pirate’s drawl, which somehow managed to seem less like a stylish affectation, and more like something he was actually raised with. “But not to worry too much. ‘Hospitality’ of any persuasion in this place is seldom and little between. E’ryone’s been spirited off by the Slurpenook rogues over the years. Or found themselves some sense and fled. Or they’re dead. But we’ll get ye to our fort swiftly. It’ll be yer best bet at anything like comfort in these parts.”
  155. Daniel nodded toward his silent partner, Nemoira, who said nothing, narrowing her eyes under the brim of her silly hat.
  156.  
  157. “That is a really &$#@£ nice outfit. I should be taking some #!%@$ %*#Ω& notes on that $#!@,” Russet said, referring to the 80’s street attire of the break dancer known as ‘Ozone’.
  158.         “It’s $&@!# unbelievable,” Beatrix agreed, continuing to be startled and amused by the profanity spontaneously emerging from her mouth.
  159.         “What do you think? Long, dangly $*©#@ earring in one ear, tiny $!#¢® vest with no shirt to show off my rock-solid &β#$© abs, and some sort of ∑@%& Jheri curl formula. I’d be some Ф$!¢##& smooth #@€ $#!Л.”
  160.         “You’d be one bad Δ!%§® &λØ$°#,” she confirmed, unable to suppress the laughter at her own crudeness.
  161.         The rec. room’s VHS video library left something to be desired, and that something was good movies. After rummaging through the cardboard box and passing over such cinematic jewels as “Look Who’s Talking Now”, “Patch Adams”, and “Mr. Holland’s Opus”. There was a copy of “The Goonies”, though to their dismay, the case contained a copy of “Ernest goes to Camp”. This proved to complement a bold blend of camp-themed entertainment, including a number of taped episodes of the late John Candy’s “Camp Candy” and Nickelodeon’s “Salute Your Shorts”. They eventually settled on a diamond in the rough (albeit diamond-like for reasons the filmmakers didn’t intend), a movie called “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo”. It was a film about young break dancers who fought against evil corporate forces to save their dance studio from demolition, and tragically, against all odds, succeed.
  162.         The two spectators erupted with profanity-laden laughter as Michael ‘Boogaloo Shrimp’ Chambers—after stealing the lunch of a workman charged with demolition the studio—fell down a long flight of stairs, shattering several bones.
  163.         “Oh Ф$#£Э! Poor Turbo!” Beatrix lamented.
  164.         “I think this film is probably a kind of &∑#ф$ modern tragedy about the ¥®β@Иμ American Dream. Sorry, Turbo. It doesn’t matter how totally πЯ@Ψ¢# sweet your moves are. I don’t Ж!#!фΩ give a Ø°ξ$& §#!Ψ how sick your pop-n-locks are. If you Θ##^®¥ get in the way of progress, you will be @фΔ# $Э§∑% crushed.”
  165.         Beatrix wholeheartedly agreed with the statement in the facetious spirit it was intended. She turned her attention to the gradually subsiding ‘whirring’ noise in the room. It was coming from an object on top of the cinderblock coffee table. It was a plastic toy doing a lively mechanical dance, now slowing to a stop.
  166.         “Do you think we should wind that #фΔ$!$! up again?” she asked.
  167.         “I don’t see why the πф$®β# not,” Russet said while reaching for the monkey. “He really livens up the ¢ИфЯЭ% $#ΔЛ out of conversations, doesn’t he?”
  168.         The ‘Singe Vilain’ was one of those obscure charmed items that could perplex an advanced sorcerer for a lifetime. He could open its plastic frame manufactured in Hong Kong, and scour its humble mechanical components to no avail. Even the most learned occultist might never fully understand to what purpose it gives its vast magical energies, until one day by chance, he happened to wind it up and place it near the right kind of subject. It was hard to guess by its cheaply crafted shell and badly painted exterior that the Singe Vilain, when dancing, causes children to swear.
  169.         The monkey now had an extra spring in its step, which nicely complemented the onscreen cavorting of the Breakin’ 2 hospital scene dance number. Funky synth-rhythms rousted the wheelchair-bound and open heart surgery patients, as if they were the dead responding to a grim song of the damned. Scantily dressed nurses, probably hired from stripper agencies by production, executed vaguely lewd choreographed procedures with spiral telephone cords. Boogaloo Shrimp, maybe through a woeful dearth of facility with the art of acting, looked simultaneously exhilarated and horrified as his rowdy dance troop pushed his sickbed through the hospital like it was a shopping cart on an “all you can grab in a minute” shopping spree.
  170.         “Am I completely ®&#∂@ or does this $Δ#!Ø make no ©#@%-#*Θ?¥ sense at all?” Russet pondered.
  171.         “I think it’s ЯЭ$$!$ marvelous. His §@§§%!¢ friends are coming through for him, and healing him through the beauty of Ф°ξ$& song and dance. This movie is clearly all about friendship and Ψ$!¢# !%§®@ like that.”
  172.         Russet tacitly agreed with the wisdom of the remark. “So where the ЛИ#°Ø £&!!& is good friend Wizardy? It’s getting on in the &$#∑$ evening, wouldn’t you say?”
  173.         After the unsettling dragon debacle, Russet and Beatrix had informed Herbert that they were getting a little tired. After hours of searching for the reticulated snoogerfitch, they didn’t hold much hope of finding the creature. Herbert dismissed them gruffly, in his way, though he had no intention of giving up on the quest. He was determined to get his badge even if it meant shooting every goofily-named woodland creature he could find, and prying out their teeth, spiraled or otherwise.
  174.         “Beats %Ξ@Δ me.”
  175.         “What do you make of that bit of ф!ЯΨ#$ dragon silliness? What do you think Herb was @@Ж$π$ on about there?” Russet wondered.
  176.         “I guess you can $%λ% ask him now,” Beatrix said, facing the door. Russet turned. Herbert stood with a dismal expression, covered in dirt from head to toe, and under one arm carried something bulky, limp, and bleeding.
  177.  
  178. The pair of ungainly lobster claws grappled with the shiny red doll. Through some effort, the claws managed to twist the upper half until it was facing the other way, and then back again. This action produced no effect. A snort of distaste fogged up the doll’s happy face.
  179.         “Mister… um, mister small horsey-crab. That is mine and I have to protect it for mister Grant.”
  180.         “Regard for duty is a noble quality. You seem like a fine young man. But I am going to keep this doll for a little while, and there is nothing you can do about it.”
  181.         “Oh. Ok.” Simon frowned. He did have regard for duty, but at the same time, he was not one for challenging statements of fact.
  182.         Terence scuttled across the damp stone floor, rattling off a chorus of rhythmic, echoed clicks. He placed the doll on top of a pockmarked, mossy pillar, and scowled at the mocking cheerfulness of its demeanor. There was a sound of a lone drop of water hitting the head of a tied-up orphan boy. Terence about-faced quickly and looked his captive up and down. Behind his intensely still pupils, a tiny, yet frighteningly powerful brain was calculating.
  183.         “What are you going to do with me, horsey?”
  184.         “The name is Terence. And I have no plans for you as of yet, other than to keep you tied to that statue as my prisoner until further strategic opportunities present themselves.”
  185.         Simon exhaled the exaggerated sigh of a child warned about the cancellation of dessert in the event that any uneaten vegetables were found loitering on his plate. Another drop of water pelted the top of his moist head. He looked up at the leaking stalactites covering the high ceiling of the underground chamber. Surrounding him in this chamber was a great deal of ancient stonework, an indication of a once very different-looking Jivversport, paved over and forgotten with time. And judging by the modern-day Jivversport, this seemed to be a frequently occurring cultural/geological phenomenon.
  186.         He squirmed against the unforgiving relief-marks in the statue he was tied to. He couldn’t see what it looked like, but he could see the other eleven in the room, spread out radially and spaced by the hours of a clock. They were wise-looking bearded figures, possibly authorities of their day on facets of the arcane. One of them looked like a Chinese wise man, and another had a beard that curled to a point which came back to almost touch his face.
  187.         “So am I in trouble, mister horsey Terence?”
  188.         “Trouble? Unless being tied up suits your convenience, yes, I’d say you were in some trouble. Your life is in no immediate peril, if that’s what you were after.”
  189.         “It isn’t?”
  190.         “No more than it is with that sword-flailing delinquent you’ve been following about.”
  191.         “Mister Grant?”
  192.         “If you knew who he was, you wouldn’t put your trust in him.”
  193.         “But mister Grant was going to get us some pizza!”
  194.         “There will be no pizza! He is lying about his intentions. In fact, I believe he intends to steal something from someone dear to you.”
  195.         “No way!”
  196.         “An older girl you know. She has helped you before.”
  197.         “You mean miss Beatrix??”
  198.         Terence held his head still, a gesture which seemed to suffice as a nod for him. Simon erupted, “Whoa! I thought I heard mister Grant say something about Beatrix and my sister was all like ‘whoaaaa’ and I was like ‘is it really her?’ and I thought ‘whoa, no way!!’ but then we didn’t ask him if…”
  199.         Terence grunted a deep, brooding whinny of displeasure. Simon remained undeterred. “He wants to steal something from Beatrix? That can’t be right. He is a very nice man!”
  200.         “Believe what you will. The only thing I want from you is that doll there, and I already have it. I have no reason to tell you false stories.” Simon looked worried. He was trusting to a fault by nature, and this presented a conundrum when faced with blindly trusting, as he always did, the multiple conflicting accounts of others.
  201.         “But Grant is my friend…”
  202.         “No more than I am.”
  203.         “You’re not my friend?”
  204.         “Well…” Terence was caught off guard by the question. “No, it doesn’t look like it, does it?”
  205.         “Can I be your friend?”
  206.         Terence deliberated silently behind his gruff horse features. “… Maybe.”
  207.         Simon beamed. “Do you want to play some games to pass the time?!”
  208.         “…              …              Yes.”
  209.  
  210. “Wizardy, good &Э©!¢# chum!” Russet said with genuine delight.
  211.         “What in the #&!!$!! name of Ω@ΩΩ$-Δ°@!&-$€*€Ж? is going the $*Ø@!?Ξ?© on in here?” Herbert asked, followed by a look of absolute disbelief at what he’d just said. He’d simply meant to say “What’s up?”
  212.         “Nothing %%Ф#μ! much to report, friend. We’re spending a little И^¢¢$ quality time with one Sir Boogaloo §&%!@!!ф Shrimp.”
  213.         Herbert wrinkled his brow at the baffling response, hoping it didn’t mean what he thought it meant.
  214.         “What the ##Ω§%! is that?” Beatrix asked mildly, belying her own coarse language.
  215.         Herbert’s look of confusion was seamless from moment to moment. “Oh. This &*λ@?&. I $πΘΔ# found it. The snoogerfitch.” He dumped the lifeless load onto the floor, and presented in an open palm two long, spiral-shaped teeth. He again screwed up his face and sort of twitched, feeling like he was a malfunctioning robot whose blown fuses were causing him to curse.
  216.         “That’s the $#Э*& snoogerfitch??” Beatrix said in disbelief.
  217.         “Sweet Э$$© Ж!#!фΩ. Who’d have thought the πЯ@Ψ would look like that!” Russet said.
  218.         “Hold on a Δ!%§® second. If I can just &#∂@ interject a little #*Θ? sanity here before we get carried away with snoogerfitches and &Э©! reticulated curious proboscises or whatever the # $Э§∑%. Since when did everyone around here turn into $!¢##& Andrew Dice Clay, including my-Ψ$!¢#-self??”
  219.         “It’s the $Δ#!Ø monkey,” said Beatrix plainly, as if answering a question on the current cost of postage stamps. Herbert looked at the toy monkey. It pranced around via cheap mechanically whirring parts. It was almost as if it gained a little more energy with each foul word issued by the mouth of a child.
  220.         “You mean that ®&#∂@ thing is making us say all this @¥#?Θ $β@Иμ?” Herbert flinched with each involuntary obscenity surfacing in his speech. They were almost like belches bubbling up uncontrollably after eating some terribly gassy food, like a microwaveable burrito, to name just one, completely random example.
  221.         “Only when the #Ω§% dances,” she clarified.
  222.         Herbert was about to say something, then stopped himself. While Beatrix and Russet seemed to be having fun with it (and with the way they were acting lately, he thought they would probably manage to have fun with a sack of rattlesnakes together), something felt unnatural about it to Herbert. Something subtle about the medium of their reality, of which they were all only barely aware, tugged at his mind persuasively. It was an invisible force which funneled all of his intent and actions into a discrete compartment, an alphanumeric sector of human behavior labeled ‘PG-13’.
  223.         “Well, I’m going to £&#°& stop it now, ok? It’s getting a little &λØ$°# distracting.” Herbert picked up the Singe Vilain and sped up the dance with the winding key to exhaust its wound-up state. The plastic whirring became shrill, and the monkey’s limbs went into spastic quadruple-time. The kids helplessly spat furious volleys of unspeakably excremental language until the monkey became still.
  224.         “€°%@§$ $!?Θ*% Ø#^!#@ $#§ @%Ω&!&^$%Э@§∑$ &©©@$&$Ф$^& %!@&¥#Ω #&$Л&Л$&ф @ΔΔ &#Δ&§$Я*& πΔ&!@##&@§Я&@β @Ψ#%%β% @&%§Ф@%%@ Ф♦%♀♪Θ$ ♣$☺ $@ ♂$$&^☺♪$#@♥♫$ &☻$!”
  225.         Beatrix and Russet sat frozen, with their lips open. Interspersed crudeness throughout casual conversation was one thing. It was an entertaining novelty, like watching a fireworks display. But that volley was like lighting up the entire fireworks barge at once. Beatrix wondered if she would ever feel the same way about her mouth again after such an unusual sort of violation. Herbert had already moved on from the incident, though, and was sizing up the Vend-O-Badge machine the way one might do with a budding arch-nemesis.
  226.         “These teeth better work. I went through hell to get them. Seriously, I probably shot the last snoogerfitch on Earth.”
  227.         “It looks… well, the creature doesn’t look like I pictured at all.” Beatrix tilted her head, scrutinizing the carcass.
  228.         “Nasty son of a gun. The thing bit me. Those corkscrew teeth hurt like hell!” Herbert massaged a small wound consisting of two holes and a stained pant leg.
  229.         “So that’s two badges down, I guess.”
  230.         “Yeah, we’ll see about that. Fingers crossed.”
  231.         Herbert dropped the teeth into the hatch. They rattled metallically at the bottom. They all waited, holding their breath. And waited.
  232.         Beep. ‘G14’ lit up. Stars and Stripes Forever followed, at its typical skull-jarring volume. “YEAH! IT WORKED!” Herbert yelled.
  233.         “WHAT?”
  234.         Upon finishing its clunky yet highly patriotic dance routine, the machine halted, and the position G14 unscrewed, sending a badge forward. Herbert, with an enormous grin of gratification, picked up a VHS copy of ‘Hook’, and held it at the ready for jamming into the machine’s flapping maw to retrieve the badge.
  235.         The badge stopped. The coil at G14 snagged the front badge together with the one behind it. Neither fell. Herbert dropped the cassette, and his jaw, simultaneously.
  236.         “$&©#@$!!!”
  237.         Beatrix and Russet turned to see if the Singe Vilain had begun dancing again. It had not.
  238.  
  239. Fort Pizzahut was not what Grant was expecting. This was not for lack of speculation, though. In one far-fetched variation, he imagined the fort as a rugged treetop village, complete with rickety suspension bridges, makeshift elevators involving large buckets of water, and foolhardy children precariously swinging on vines for no good God damned reason. While this cliché might have made for a fun read, it was not to be.
  240.         “This way, mates.” Daniel said, entering a deteriorating storefront. The building had a shallowly slanting red roof peppered with missing shingles. Unlike most businesses, the roof of this establishment was its trademark feature, causing it to be instantly recognizable.
  241.         “So wait,” Grant just wanted to be clear on this. “You mean fort Pizzahut actually is a Pizza Hut? Like, literally?”
  242. “Aye. Inasmuch.”
  243. “I knew it! Simon was right, there is pizza!” Samantha enthused.
  244. “Well…” Daniel hedged. “I’m ‘fraid to disappoint ye, but the pizza reserves have been dried up for ages. But we’re not without hope. The good lady Nemoira here is a crackerjack with the culinary magicks.” Nemoira nodded graciously. She was a girl for whom communication seemed a tiresome chore, but she wouldn’t stand by while an incredibly true fact went unverified. “She might even set ye up with a pizza, if you wish. Though she’s never quite got the hang of that stuffed crust trick.”
  245. Samantha’s mouth watered at the mention of hot, edible things. She frowned. “I wish Simon was around to have some too. Oh, Simon, where are you?”
  246. “Don’t worry, Samantha. We’ll go in and rest for a while, and then go find your brother as soon as we can, ok?”
  247. Inside, there were only a few sad traces of a once functioning restaurant. It appeared to be gutted of anything valuable. The cash register, the beverages from the case, and even those huge spatulas used to take pizza out of ovens, all were gone. The only things left were either too big to carry out, or actually bolted to the floor, such as the pizza ovens themselves. The space was small, gloomy, and hot.
  248. “This is your fort? I know you said there weren’t many people left, but isn’t it kind of small?” Grant asked.
  249. “‘Tis only the gateway, friend.”
  250. While the actual location of the fort caught Grant by surprise, he was at least aware “Pizzahut” was not its original name. According to the lore of the camp, as operations expanded and mingled with the energetic Jivversport economy, the fort too evolved. To compete with other forts, enterprising counselors sought to attract endorsement dollars from major corporations to subsidize the increasingly complicated affairs of camp participation. They’d be cashing a healthy paycheck every time they competed in the exhilarating and oft-calamitous Dr. Scholls Capture the Flag Tournament. And the Fruit of the Loom Musical Bonfire Jamborees were so riotously spirited, the kids would almost forget that the levity was made possible by the snug, soft support offered by the undergarments of Fruit of the Loom. But the real windfall came when the Pizza Hut corporation, caught up in the frenzy of carving up endorsement space in this property (the way one slices up a hot pie), offered to bankroll the fort’s activity for exclusive representation. Thus the fort’s name changed officially to Pizza Hut Presents Fort [the fort’s former name], and this colloquially was soon truncated to simply Pizza Hut. Soon after, the company realized the endorsement, in addition to costing them a fortune, was pulling in very little revenue for them. It also did not prove to be the tremendous tax write-off initially indicated. The U.S. government, instead of viewing it as the charitable bolstering of an organization focused on the enrichment of character and physical fitness among youngsters, regarded it as a confusing and possibly nonexistent entity serving as a tax shelter, and slapped the company with some stiff fines. (The accountant who made the original recommendations would later prove to have attended a less than credible Accounting Camp earlier in life.)  Needless to say, Pizza Hut pulled the plug on the deal after it didn’t pan out (one of many pizza puns now associated with the fort as time-honored tradition). The name remained though, and became further truncated to simply Pizzahut, with corporate watchdogs no longer present to ensure brand fidelity, or that the crucial ‘’ symbols were positioned properly.
  251. Nemoira turned the temperature dial on a large pizza oven back and forth as if entering the combination for a safe. She then tapped the oven with her silver telescope, and it opened. The party crawled inside.
  252.  
  253. “That was quite a story,” Russet said, as he held the unassuming Xerox copy.
  254.         Beatrix smirked in acknowledgement. Russet reclined in his luxurious, magically crafted bed, pondering the related events quietly. Beatrix sat in a handsome armchair. The two furnishings complemented a rich décor of antiques, wall coverings, fully-stocked armoires, and cluttered vials of lotions, colognes, and obscure cosmetic supplements. Beatrix wasn’t sure when Russet manifested the interior upgrade, but figured it was during the surge of his recent meteoric upswing.
  255.         His fertile synapses turned the information about. On one hand, he was titillated to learn some of the more intimate historical facts about the ever-cagey Beatrix Tipplepot, and was so in direct proportion to their sensitive nature. On the other hand, the darkness of the tale jostled something hazy and troubling from his own memory. Things that rarely surfaced with everything else that preoccupied his busy mind (such as whether to opt for a lavender or puce dust ruffle for his conjured king-size bed). But in his current unflappable condition, the affirmative side of the dichotomy would prevail. His smile broadened, as if a simple token of gratitude for her confidence.
  256.         “So what do you think? About Herbert?” she asked.
  257.         “I think many things about Herbert. And in spite of those things, above all, I think highly.” He laughed the jovial laugh of a consummate good sport. He continued, more frankly. “But I’m sorry to say, Bea, that I don’t know the foggiest thing about Herbert. Never met him before in my life.”
  258.         “Oh. I guess I didn’t actually expect you to have met him. I just wanted to run this all by you in case you could tell me anything. Doesn’t any of this sound familiar? Anything at all?”
  259.         “Hmm.” Russet again looked at the grainy black and white image of Herbert. He focused on the eye patch, but the focus soon became more like a trance. “You know, now that you mention it, I believe Herbert seems familiar to me. But then, this was always a subtle impression I had, ever since I met him. If I think about it for a moment, the familiarity becomes a little more palpable.”
  260.         “Can you think hard, about where you might have seen him before?”
  261.         Russet’s eyes were still, fixed on the paper. The dichotomy in his mind was particularly vivid at the moment. In an unnerving realization, it seemed all of his thought on this topic was gushing down the darker branch. Much darker. His current chemical balances simply would not permit the thoughts. He buoyed himself out of the grim rumination. “Nope! Not at all, regrettably.”
  262.         “Oh well.” She toyed with a fancy hairbrush on the small mahogany table beside her. “I thought for sure once I met him, he’d be able to tell me something. Even inadvertently, which would help me understand all this. I thought he might recognize my locket, or something. But he doesn’t seem to know anything.”
  263.         “Maybe you are just not asking him the right questions.”
  264. “… I haven’t asked him anything, actually,” she was embarrassed to admit.
  265. Russet paused, shrugging off the remark. “I’ll say this about the man. He’s charged with saving me from certain pulverization. And in giving me a little more time in this mortal coil, I was able to make your acquaintance. I’ll always have that owed to him.”
  266. “That’s true,” she said, feeling herself blushing faintly. Russet, rather innocently, made it hard to concentrate. His eye contact was the kind that could really derail a train of thought. No matter how sturdy the locomotive, it was no match for those two crisp, glacier-blue landmines on the track ahead.
  267. What should she do in such a situation? What does one do, she’d put to herself. She’d never liked a boy before, so the playbook was as blank as one of her new sketch pads. She was forced to defer to the common wisdom on the subject, or at least her perception of it, which suggested that waiting for the male to express his feelings first was a sound guideline. In any case, it wasn’t as if (to her limited awareness) there were a lot of pizza parlors to hit up, per some formulaic stab at a “date”, even if she were inclined to take more initiative. What could she really do? It seemed doing what they were doing, staying friendly and getting to know each other, was the best and only option.
  268. She returned to the matter at hand, which was no less confusing, but more comfortable through familiarity. At least she’d spent years thinking about it, as opposed to only a few days, as she had in the matter of romance. “Could she have been wrong?”
  269.         “Your sister, you mean?”
  270.         “Yes. Wrong about Herbert. Maybe he isn’t relevant to any of this? To knowing what the locket does, or why she died, or what we’re doing here?”
  271.         Russet leaned forward, and with some measured meaning to his voice, said, “What are you doing here, if I may ask? Aside from proving yourself a beguiling storyteller?”
  272.         She hesitated. Something else occurred to her. “That reminds. Does the name ‘Tristin’ ring a bell?”
  273.         “Tristin? I’ve never met her. Mind you I haven’t met many people.”
  274.         “No, Tristin is a guy. Sounded like a young guy. I only heard his voice. I spoke to him over a radio. He’s the one who told me about this summer camp, and told me to come here. He didn’t tell me anything about himself. He just said we’d meet when I got here. But I haven’t heard from him at all. Tristin Sheeth. You sure it doesn’t sound familiar?”
  275.         “I’m afraid I don’t know. I am proving to be a wealth of un-information, today! At least I’m consistent. Maybe if you changed your line of questioning to something dry-cleaning related? I have a whole slew of answers when it comes to getting a gravy stain out of a lace doily.”
  276.         “When I soil one of my many doilies, I’ll know who to go to.”
  277.         “Have you been practicing any of those laundering spells I taught you??” Russet became animated.
  278.         “Yes. My shirt has never felt so soft, and it smells like honeysuckle,” Beatrix said as she stroked her short sleeve. It was like the pliable ear of a newborn lamb.
  279.         Russet watched her enjoy the unlocked magnificence of her fabric. She smiled back at him as he silently puzzled over the pretty girl. An alien feeling had been gathering momentum. Was it attraction? Was this what it felt like? He’d had so little experience with girls, the feeling of falling for one was confined to his feeble efforts of speculation. The flimsy pageant played out in his mind like a Disney World parade, with no real texture or emotional gravity to anything. It was just something that happened plainly through a sequence of maudlin clichés, because it was something that was supposed to happen.
  280. The reality of it, if this indeed was ‘it’, was more exhilarating. But also disquieting. How should he act upon it? When it came to everything else, he knew exactly how he felt. Fashion. Magic. God. Those things were resting on sturdy foundations. But this…
  281.         “Anyway, I regret I can’t be of more help. But now that you have told me these things, I would relish the chance to help you solve this riddle.”
  282.         “That would be great!”
  283.         Russet picked up the locket. “I can say with certainty at least that this is an article of magic. I think it is very powerful, but I can’t imagine what it does.”
  284.         “It’s been plaguing me for years. There is something kind of captivating about it though, isn’t there?”
  285.         “That’s a testament to its power. Much the way you probably have a similar feeling about your ring. I’ve noticed the feeling with my wand, too.” He patted the instrument’s holster. “I am convinced we will get to the bottom of this. Maybe we should consult with Grant on it? He knows a lot about these things. He taught me everything I know about magic, you know.”
  286.         “Oh?” Beatrix again felt not only guilty, but now somewhat foolish for stonewalling Grant, keeping him locked out of the fort with her opened doll. Maybe if she’d been more trusting with him, she’d have had answers sooner. “So you would like to see him now?” she asked.
  287.         “I think it’s about time we pay the old man a visit. He’s probably worried sick about me.”
  288.         “Ok. Let’s go see what he thinks.”
  289.         Russet’s mouth grew around a tremendous yawn. “How about in the morning though. It’s awfully late, and I’m beat.”
  290.         “Um… alright,” Beatrix reluctantly agreed. She wasn’t the least bit tired and was sort of itching to get going, but had to acquiesce. “Do you think we should bring Herbert along, or should we leave him out of it for now?”
  291.         There was no response, but for the low swell of a charismatic snore.
  292.  
  293.  “I know you said most of the kids are gone. But if I didn’t know better,” Grant said, as he surveyed the cluttered underground lair of fort Pizzahut, “I’d say you were the only two members left.”
  294.         Daniel twiddled apprehensive fingers in the frills of his puffy shirt. “Um… do ye know better?”
  295.         Grant thought about it. “No, not really.”
  296.         “Well, ye were right. ‘Tis but the lady and m’self. Someone’s got to stay about the place and guard the treasure, after all.”
  297.         Grant was organizing a collection of small bones into orderly rows and columns. They might have been human finger bones, scattered on a dusty table. The table looked like the sliced-off top of a huge barrel. The lair’s décor on the whole was barrel-themed, as well as chest-themed, as well as anchor, rope, cannon ball, and map-themed. If Pottery Barn were run by pirates (and who knows, it might have been in Jivversport), it would have been the chief contributor to this chamber’s interior motif.
  298.         “Treasure?” Grant asked inattentively. “Would that be all the endorsement dollars collected over the years?”
  299.         “Nay. All that’s long since been swindled ‘way from us by the scurrilous Thundleshick. We’re protectin’ something far more valuable than a few doubloons.”
  300.         Grant yawned, tuning into the fact that he hadn’t slept in more than 48 hours. He shifted his knee, bumping the table, jarring the phalangial bones out of rank. He exhaled in aggravation, and set about recomposing them.
  301.         Samantha sat in a nautically-purposed net suspended from the ceiling as if it was a hammock. She was polishing off a third slice of pizza, storing excess crusts in her pocket. Nemoira was using her telescope to roll out more dough for another pie, while quietly muttering pirate-specific profanity. She was having a devil of a time with the stuffed crust spell, and was this close to giving up.
  302.         “The pizza is terrific, miss pirate lady. It is the best I’ve ever had. I’m sure my brother would agree.” Nemoira smiled and tipped her cap without turning away from her work. Samantha became sullen. “Oh, where is he? What do you think could have happened to him, mister Grant?”
  303.         Grant was startled out of a creeping slumber at the sound of his name. “I’d like to find him just as much as you, Samantha. Remember, I entrusted him with something I need back. Uh… not even to speak of the fact that he is a member of our team. No man left behind, right?”
  304.         “Isn’t it possible,” Daniel supposed, “that if ye gave him somethin’ valuable, that might a’ made him a target for some rogue?” Grant looked dismayed at the plausible notion. It hadn’t occurred to him, but then, he wasn’t used to thinking like a pirate.
  305.         “Oh no!” Samantha said. “We must save him from the rogue!”
  306.         “Now just a minute. We don’t know that.” The reassurance betrayed Grant’s own concern, though. Thoughts of scuttling, claw-clicking and small whinnies produced ominous kaleidoscopic patterns in his imagination. “Simon will be fine for a little while out there. He is an orphan, after all. He’s used to making it alone in the world, isn’t he?”
  307.         “Not without me! We always stick together. Come on, we have to go look for him now!” Samantha was out of her nautical hammock and tugging at Grant’s sleeve.
  308.         Grant said, fighting off a yawn, “Aren’t you tired?”
  309.         “No! Come on!”
  310.         “Samantha, it’s dark out there. The best hope for Simon is to wait until tomorrow. We’ll leave first thing in the morning. I promise.”
  311.         Samantha glowered at him as if he’d just run over her favorite doll with a lawnmower. “I would like my marble back, please.”
  312.         “What? Now, Samantha…”
  313.         “Please?”
  314.         It was silly, but Grant found he suddenly felt the shame of a cop being stripped of his badge and gun. He took the marble from his pocket and gave it to her.
  315.         “I’m going to go find my brother!” she said before disappearing into the cavernous hall leading up to the pizza oven door.
  316.         Grant sighed, then lumbered to the vacated hammock. He collapsed into it. “Alright. I guess we have two missing kids to find tomorrow.”
  317.         He began to doze, but was again jarred out of it by Samantha’s voice. “I am leaving a trail of bread crumbs so you can find me! And Simon too when I find him!”
  318.         Grant turned away from the voice and grumbled to himself. “Orphans…”
  319.  
  320. It was the following morning, and to Russet’s eye, Beatrix appeared to be standing upside-down and smiling. Her smile was in fact only an illusion caused by the fact that she appeared to be upside-down. It was in fact a frown. Russet was lying strewn over the side of his bed, his head and arms dangling over the edge. His glassy eyes bulged from a pasty face.
  321.         She’d had a sickening feeling she knew what to expect in his room. She woke up to discover Fort Crossnest in worse shape than ever before. Smelly, unidentifiable rubbish choked the corridors. Fluorescent bulbs flickered stuttering sentences which, in bulb language, were the equivalent to the ravings of a lunatic. Large sheets of paint peeled off the walls revealing moldy concrete. Stampedes of rats escorted even larger, less common vermin through the halls (some might have been identified by the zoologically astute as the rare whelping sewer snoogerfitch). Whatever magical forces were holding together the tidy appearance of the fort had become extinguished, and then some.
  322.         Russet’s room looked like a trailer park after taking the brunt of a tornado, one especially vindictive towards affordable blue-collar residences. The armoires were reduced to gnarled, angry chunks of splintered wood. It looked like an alien had laid eggs in the hefty armchair, and the offspring had made a savage exit before skulking into a vent somewhere to leak phlegm. The many vials of lotions and fragrances had all simply exploded. Russet was tangled in a heap of frayed, shredded bedding, breathing shallow breaths, otherwise motionless.
  323.         Beatrix’s heart sank upon encountering the scene. She managed to reconcile with the sobering reality of Russet’s crash enough to address him. “So I guess this means you’re not feeling up to seeing Grant today?”
  324.         Russet gurgled something without moving. Beatrix leaned in closer to interpret the guttural sound. “nhhrghh…”
  325.         “Huh?”
  326.         He slowly mouthed the nonexistent words. Beatrix leaned in further. “nrrr…”
  327.         “I’m sorry, Russet, I can’t…”
  328.         “Nooooooooooooooooooooooooo.”
  329.  
  330. Herbert stared at the Vend-O-Badge machine. If you looked closer, it might have resembled the stare a hit man gives to a poor slob who’s up to his neck in gambling debts and mafia loans. If you looked closer in the other direction, towards the Vend-O-Badge, you might have noticed a number of bullet-sized pockmarks in the resilient glass façade. The badge with an iconic depiction of two spiraled incisors remained pinched by the coil, taunting Herbert with its immobility.
  331.         “Herbert…” Beatrix had entered. Herbert put his finger to his lips.
  332.         “Shh. I think it’s sleeping.”
  333.         “What? The machine? How do you know?”
  334.         “I’ve got a feeling. I know how this piece of crap thinks.”
  335.         “Oh. Well, I wanted to talk to you about…”
  336.         “Hold the thought. Can you give me a hand?”
  337.         “With what?”
  338.         “Magic. I need you to get that badge for me. Like, magically, somehow.”
  339.         “Hmm.” She considered the proposition. It was plausible in theory, but then, it was quite an ornery machine. “I guess I could try to magically duplicate the snoogerfitch. Or I could have, if it were still around for me to get a good look at. What happened to it, anyway?”
  340.         “I have no idea what happened to the wretched thing. It crawled off somewhere, I guess.” Herbert gestured towards the trail of blood on the floor leading out the door. Beatrix made a troubled face at the thought of a wounded, toothless feral snoogerfitch scampering about the fort.
  341.         “What did you have in mind, then?” she asked.
  342.         “I don’t know. You’re the sorceress in training, aren’t you? Can’t you levitate it out of there or something?”
  343.         Beatrix looked at her ring, making the dubious calculations of an amateur magician. She got an idea. “How about this.” She walked to the computer station and examined the morass of archaic, dust-clogged wires. When she found one she deemed suitably useless, she yanked it out. She brought it to the Vend-O-Badge while coiling it into wide loops.
  344.         “Open it up,” she said, more like a question than an order.
  345.         Herbert was at the ready with his trusty VHS copy of Hook, which was proving to be far more useful in this newfound phase of its existence than it ever had. The slumbering machine’s wide mouth was carefully propped open. Herbert backed away and watched Beatrix with interest. She fed one end of the cord into the slot, then directed the energies of her ring inside.
  346. The cord began to dance like a charmed snake, and slithered up towards the stubborn badge. The cord sprouted further similarities to a limbless reptile, most notably a fanged mouth with which to pry loose a badge. It struck the badge as if lunging at a succulent rodent, and descended with the prize in its mouth.
  347.         “Wow! That was so easy!” Herbert said. He admired the shimmering badge with light piercing two tiny fang holes. “I can’t believe I didn’t think of that sooner. I must be an idiot.”
  348.         Beatrix noted the gracious absence of the pronoun ‘we’ in the statement, and accepted it as a form of gratitude, knowing Herbert. “It’s a little tough to get used to, isn’t it?” she said.
  349.         “What is?” he asked.
  350.         “Magic. Or the whole ‘doing pretty much anything your imagination can come up with’ aspect of it. It makes you wonder why any of us still have problems left to solve.” She became pensive. It was the type of remark that often kick-started an inner soliloquy. Herbert wasn’t about to wait around for it.
  351.         “Hey, it all comes down to ability, just like anything else. Practice makes perfect. Those better at magic get more of what they want than those who suck. And even in a perfect world, where everyone used magic perfectly and got everything they wanted, people’s desires are always at odds. So if one guy gets everything he wants, it means some other guy is getting a raw deal because of it. There’s no such thing as a utopian society, I don’t care how many dancing monkeys or magical feather dusters or enchanted kazoos you’re packing.”
  352.         “You think so?” she asked, but the question betrayed her own agreement with the remark. On some occasions she reflected on the unexpected parallels between her own thought process and Herbert’s. She’d always considered cynicism and pragmatism to be cornerstones of her worldview. But Herbert seemed to take it to a different level.
  353.         “Yeah. Absolutely. Anyway, speaking of getting things we want… How about you get us some more badges with your cool snake trick? If Thundleshick thinks three badges are impressive, wait ‘til he sees, like, fifty.”
  354.         As the lively cord-snake went on an all-you-can-bite badge spree, Beatrix presented a casual change in subject. “So, I’m going to go see Grant today. To get Russet’s medication.”
  355.         “Whoa, check these ones out!” Herbert was like a kid in a candy store, fixated on the windfall of vibrant badges. He ogled one bearing an iconic depiction of a unicorn with musical notes levitating from its open mouth.
  356.         She continued. “I’ll be taking the doll to find him, wherever he is.”
  357.         Herbert remained engrossed. He felt like he’d found a way to crack a Vegas slot machine. “Ok.”
  358.         “I guess you’re going to see Thundleshick with all these badges, then?”
  359.         “That’s the plan. Carmen told me how to get to his castle. Speaking of which, she’s made herself scarce lately. Wonder what she spends all day doing in this dull place…”
  360.         “I was sort of wondering that myself. Anyway, I imagine it’ll be a long hike to his castle. I was thinking we could do something like this. I’ll go get the medicine and come right back. Then you could take the… well, one of the sub-dolls, for lack of a better word. That way you could instantly travel back here. It might come in handy if you get into trouble.”
  361.         “That sounds…” Herbert was mystifying over a badge bearing a crank-operated wire whisk, and a plump udder. “That sounds like a pretty good idea.”
  362.         Herbert cradled the heap of badges to his chest and beamed with the pride of a new father. “Thanks a lot, Beatrix. That was awesome. It’s amazing none of those idiot campers ever thought to do something like this.”
  363.         “Maybe there was some kind of code of conduct against it. Like a scout’s honor thing. Or maybe they were just afraid of having their hands chewed off.”
  364.         With that, the copy of Hook cracked, disintegrating into plastic bits as the slot snapped shut. The machine was briefly agitated, but quickly settled back into the dull purr of its slumber.
  365.         “So…” Herbert asked conversationally. “How is Russet, anyway?”  
  366.         If there were invisible elastic bands holding up her facial expression, it was as if they’d suddenly been cut.
  367.  
  368. Herbert watched the doll, formerly red and held by Beatrix, now blue and hovering in midair. It fell onto her bed.
  369. He slouched onto the bed next to the freshly-teleported doll. It seemed to him as if it should be emanating steam from the trans-dimensional journey, maybe like the Delorean from Back to the Future does just after Marty gets back from dicking around with his parents’ prom in the 1950s. He looked around uncomfortably. He’d never seen Beatrix’s room, and it was an odd feeling being left there by himself. She was such a private person, he couldn’t imagine she would be thrilled leaving anyone alone with her stuff. This, more than anything, told him that she did not intend to be gone long. Maybe a few seconds, even.
  370.         He’d had no intention of snooping in any case. Snooping in a girl’s room struck him as a low-reward, high-risk scenario. On the one hand, you might find exciting artifacts quite mysterious to the male universe, such as peculiar clasps and instruments for channeling long hair in certain ways, or cryptic products for which absorbency is a touted virtue. Herbert just wasn’t interested. But when it came to articles in plain view, he thought it was hard to classify those items as contraband. In the same way that it was a stretch to say that scooting down the bed a couple feet to get a better look at them could be considered snooping.
  371.         Herbert was surprised to see the doodles. But to be fair, he was surprised at the very notion of artistic inclination in any human being. It might even be speculated that his curmudgeonly lack of creativity could be to blame for his impotence with magic. Unfortunately, Herbert wasn’t quite creative enough to make this postulation himself.
  372.         The more he looked, the more he found the sketches charming. There was something innocent and unassuming about them. They were the byproduct of a quiet, idle girl simply trying to pass the time, not meant for any kind of consumption outside her own. Though each drawing was scattered haphazardly on the pages and seemingly unrelated to each other, Herbert found they all told a story together. It was a tale of a dashing boy with a gun and an eye patch, his trusting subordinates, and a myriad of whimsical creatures for them to study, tame, conquer, and in all likelihood, slaughter, for the bountiful riches and magical lore they might supply. Herbert smirked as he turned the page.
  373.         But on this page, the story took an abrupt and disturbing turn.
  374.         It was not a drawing at all. It was a black and white photocopied image of himself, mingling with text. It plainly listed personal information about him, such as his blonde hair color and blue eye color, and some less complete information, such as his unknown date of birth, his unknown social security number, and his unknown place of residence. Herbert felt his fist tighten around the crinkling piece of paper.
  375.         “Beatrix…” he hissed, again invoking his Seinfeld-angry-with-Newman impression.
  376.         He didn’t know what this document meant, or why exactly it made him mad, but he was certain that she was being dishonest with him from the start. And the more his fist tightened and the more he paced the room, the more dishonest she became in his mind. He stopped and stared at the doll on the bed.
  377.         “Alright, you want me to take one of these dolls? You got it.” He opened the blue doll. He then removed the smaller doll inside, and as he’d seen Beatrix do before, split it into an identical red doll and blue doll. He put the drawings and the document back on the small table, along with the newly-created red doll. He pocketed the blue doll, and left the two halves of its larger parent lying on the bed.
  378.         He left the room, and proceeded to the lowest point in the fort, per Carmen’s instructions. Уровень 37. Nobody knew what that meant, or how to pronounce it.
  379.  
  380. With the sunrise over Jivversport, the ludicrous hidden bird population cracked the silence. Samantha watched the cobblestones as they passed beneath her. Her weary face relaxed into a more satisfied expression. There was one. Then another. She’d recognize that trail anywhere. Those were Simon’s bread crusts.
  381.         What did she tell him? Keep a spare crust in reserve at all times, in case of emergencies. She felt proud of her younger brother.
  382.         The trail led her into the cellar of a deteriorating, sinking stone building. Simon’s tenacity in maintaining the trail surprised her. She sloshed through the black water of the murky catacombs, but became silent when she heard voices ahead. She crouched behind something that looked like a crumbling, bearded statue.
  383.         Terence shot a humorless glance towards Simon. “The pieces cannot move backwards.”
  384.         “Uh-huh! It can when it is a king!” Simon said, leaning forward to make his move. The rope tethering him to a statue tightened in resistance.
  385.         “That is not a king. A beetle used to king one of my pieces recently crawled on to one of yours,” Terence explained. It did not sound like the first such explanation in the course of the game.
  386.         “Really? Which one?”
  387.         “That one there. The curled up grub.”
  388.         “That was your grub? I thought it was mine!”
  389.         Terence exhaled over the checkerboard drawn onto the floor with a piece of white stone. It was frustrating enough handling a hyperactive orphan boy without also having to manage the ambiguities of a game played with an assortment of stones, grubs, and lethargic beetles. In retrospect, the whole exercise seemed incredibly stupid, since he could have just magically created a fine checkerboard set. However, Simon’s enthusiasm in gathering up the ingredients for street checkers had preempted the thought.
  390.         Samantha breathed harder at the sight of her captive brother. She removed the shiny marble from her pocket, and lobbed it into the darkness behind the crustacean guard. Clicks echoed from unseen stonework.
  391.         Terence about-faced with a terse snort. “I’ll be right back. Do not move the game pieces. I will know if they are different.”
  392.         “What if they move by themselves?”
  393.         Terence scuttled away to investigate. Simon shrugged, and mindlessly picked up a beetle and some sort of larval cocoon. He crashed them together as if they were kamikaze aircraft. “Pchoo, pchoo! Pshhh! Pow, pchoo! Pch—huh?”
  394.         “Shh! Keep quiet, Simon!” Samantha whispered as she untied the rope.
  395.         “Hi, sis! You found my crusts! Hey, do you want to play a game with me and mister horsey crab?”
  396.         “No, Simon. We have to go. Don’t you realize you’ve been captured by a rogue?”
  397.         “A rogue?”
  398.         “Yes! Now hurry, before he sees us!”
  399.         “Ok. But first I have to get something. It belongs to mister Grant.” Simon squirmed out of the loosened rope. He grabbed the red doll.
  400. The two children froze at the terrible sound rumbling from the darkness. It sounded like a deep, brooding whinny. Samantha grabbed Simon’s shirt collar. “Run!”
  401.  
  402. “Why can’t orphans leave behind a sensible trail?” Grant lamented. “Like fixed markers. An arrow drawn on a wall, or string tied to a post. Anything that doesn’t get blown around by the wind or eaten by birds would be fine.”
  403.         Grant scoured the pavement for signs of a dwindling trail, cursing his orphan tracking abilities. His nautical partners supplied little help. “Is that a crust there, mate?” Daniel said, spotting a fleck of white near a gutter.
  404.         “I think it’s just a pebble,” said Grant, who suddenly sprinted towards a flock of bobbing pigeons. “Hey! Shoo! Get away from that bread!” The feathered pack of diseased creatures scattered into the air. Grant found the vacated pavement empty.
  405.         He threw up his hands. “Where would you guys be if you were a couple of lost orphans?”
  406. “Couldn’t say, mate. Ye can be sure though there’re more places to get lost beneath the streets than above.”
  407. “I was afraid of that. So do you have a map of this place I can look at?”
  408. Daniel made a face like he’d just walked in on his own surprise party. It was one topic sure to get a pirate fired up, sort of like asking an avid stamp collector if he happened to have anything kind of interesting or unusual that one might put on an envelope. “Do I have maps, ye ask? Do I ev…”
  409. “What’s she looking at?” Grant cut him off. Nemoira was looking through her telescope down an empty street. She lowered it from her eye.
  410. “Do you see something?” asked Grant.
  411. Her gaze was fixed. “Regrettably, you may have what you’re looking for soon.”
  412. “What do you mean?” Grant walked to her vantage, and saw nothing. A crestfallen Daniel was putting rolls of yellowed maps back into his satchel.
  413.         The ground shook. At the end of the empty street, smoke rose from the source of the explosion. Dust from the ancient buildings around them was shaken loose, sprinkling gently on the ground. The glass storefront to a Coldstone Creamery® shattered.
  414. Grant looked at Nemoira decisively. “This way, then.”
  415.  
  416. A four storey brownstone building sailed upward like a rocket, riding above its trail of crumbling brick, ash, and fire. It reversed direction and plummeted. It crushed the hood of a vacant gas station, disintegrating into a textured cloud of gray. The blast knocked the orphans to the ground. They picked themselves up and resumed their frantic flight.
  417.         Terence scuttled with a terrific velocity for such a small creature, much the way the speed of an ant is considered tremendous when scale is taken into account. He walked up walls, across roofs, and underneath awnings upside-down. One claw opened, cradling a swelling ball of fire. The projectile obliterated a building placed in his path. His red eyes momentarily wandered into the sky as a flock of birds decided a different preening location might be in order. As he did so, the upper half of a museum was sawed off diagonally by ocular lasers. The ornate roof slid down the sliced slope, then collapsed into the structure beneath.
  418.         “We’ve done it now, Samantha,” Simon huffed. “I should have stayed to finish the game with the horsey. Now he’s mad!”
  419.         “Keep… (huff…) running… (huff…) I told you he was a… (huff…) rogue!”
  420.         Behind them, a high-pitched noise grew to a crescendo. It was an otherworldly neigh, the kind you’d expect from the great black steed mounted by a warlord commanding an unholy army. Windows exploded from the sonic assault. The façade to a stretch of row houses leaned forward under its brunt.
  421.         Samantha skidded to a stop in front of an alleyway entrance. “Simon, turn here!”
  422.         The children bounded through the winding alleys, dipping into cellar windows, out back doors, down sewer grates, and up to the street again. These were the standard alleyway evasion tactics of a practiced street urchin. They took to it as if fleeing from a red-faced vendor after pilfering a loaf of bread. Terence’s path of destruction was inexorable, though. They knew soon there’d be no alleys left through which to wend.
  423.         Simon and his burning lungs were about to complain to his sister, when he felt something jostle in his hand. It was the doll. It twitched, and then again. He dropped the doll to the floor of the dim alley. “Oh, no! Samantha, help! I need to protect that!”
  424. Samantha looked up at the tall walls squeezing the alley, feeling no more confident in their permanence than if they were theater props. “Forget about it, won’t you? Let’s go!”
  425. Simon opened his mouth. The doll was no longer red. Nor was it on the ground. It was now blue, and cupped in Beatrix’s hands. She stood there processing her new surroundings. And her new company.
  426. “Simon?” she said.
  427. “Beatrix! It is you! I knew it!”
  428. Samantha’s disbelieving eyes showed signs of tears. She ran to Beatrix and hugged her around the waist. “We knew you’d come to save us.”
  429. “Um…” Beatrix started, nonplussed. “I’m happy to see you guys too. But what the heck are you doing here?”
  430. “We’re running away from the horsey crab rogue,” answered Simon.
  431. “The what?”
  432. “Yes, we have to go now. He is ruining the village, and he is very dangerous!” Samantha warned.
  433. It did seem there were signs of trouble. There was a sulfurous smell in the hazy alley. There was a growing rumbling, as though they stood over a subway train rolling beneath. She couldn’t have known it was the sound of structurally weakened buildings collapsing nearby. And she couldn’t have known that the source of this destruction was now clicking through the alley towards them. It stood no higher than her shins.
  434. “What’s that?” Beatrix asked, with understandable innocence.
  435. “That’s him! Oh, Beatrix, please! We should run away!” warned Samantha.
  436. “Really? It doesn’t look that dangerous,” she said, but instantly felt foolish for blundering onto such famous last words.
  437. “He is chasing me, Beatrix!” Simon pulled at her garments.
  438. “No, son,” Terence said. “You have nothing to worry about. I’m not chasing you any longer. I am chasing her.” His eyes glowed like red laser pointers in the direction of Beatrix. She inched backwards.
  439. “Oh crap.”
  440.  
  441. Herbert took a final moment to look around before climbing down the iron ladder into dark well. The chamber was enormous, enclosed by smooth concrete walls curving to form a domed ceiling. The concrete was tinted with layers of caked-on muck, perhaps a kind of algae. The saturation of muck ended at a blurry horizontal line several dozen feet above the floor. To Herbert, this was evidence that the chamber had been filled with water. Above this line was a label in very large, faded lettering which said “Уровень 37”. Herbert couldn’t read Cyrillic, but presumed the word roughly translated to “level”.
  442.         He held the hand rail, and backed on to the iron ladder. The pillowcase tied to his holster swung behind him and dangled into the darkness. Inside was a flashlight, a bottle of orange soda, an assortment of dubiously-gotten merit badges, and a crude map to Thundleshick’s castle based on Carmen’s instructions. In his right pocket was the blue sub-doll.
  443.         His metallic footsteps echoed against the mossy, dripping stones.
  444.  
  445. Between gasps, Grant mentally cursed his decision to leave the doll with Simon. He cursed thinking it was a good idea to let it out of his sight. And for that matter (after pausing for another gasp), he cursed allowing that crafty girl to elude him in the first place. He wasn’t sure why his thoughts were being staggered by his struggle for oxygen. Maybe in truth, his mind was out of breath too.
  446.         He turned a corner, adjusting his course towards another loud explosion. The pirate counselors kept pace behind him, their fancy metal accessories jangling in their loose clothing with each step.
  447.         “Been waitin’ on this for years,” Daniel said with a challenging grin. “High time these Slurpenook scalawags took to our streets for a proper showdown. Their skulkery in shadows has turned my stomach, no less’n the choppy waters of monsoon season.”
  448.         As he jogged, Grant marveled at the bottomless supply of nautical aphorisms and “Piratese” peppered throughout Daniel’s casual parlance. Was there a handbook on it somewhere? Daniel unsheathed his shiny dagger and waved it at the sky. Nemoira glanced to her side.
  449.         “Daniel, will you please put that away?” she said.
  450.         “Nonsense! Best prepare ye for battle, woman. It looks to me as if the villains’re taking us across the south side. If we head for town square, we’d surely cut em’ off!”
  451.         Daniel flicked a long braid over his shoulder and blazed a trail into a crooked alley between storefronts.
  452.  
  453. BANG.
  454.         Herbert shut his eye and made a face like he was popping his ears. He hadn’t expected the gunshot to be quite so loud. It seemed the noise had ricocheted around the cramped space bound by the walls of the subterranean cave.
  455.         He gave the limp creature a little kick. Its prickly torso and flaccid bat wings tumbled end-over-end down into a narrow underground stream. He shined his flashlight on it. Were those corkscrew teeth? He sighed. They even had a little serration. He thought if one were inclined, it wouldn’t be too difficult to round up an assortment of indigenous animals and cobble together an exceptionally diverse Swiss army knife using the prodigious dental yield.
  456.         He pointed the flashlight at the path ahead of him, and tapped it when it flickered. It was supposedly a magic flashlight, since it was retrieved from the same cardboard box of mesmerizing wonders from which he obtained his gun. Maybe the thing was horribly potent. A sort of battery-operated portal for ruthless demigods, the one final piece critical to a cruel magician’s sinister ambition. But Herbert would be damned if he was going to coax any grim enchantments out of the mystical Black & Decker.
  457.         It wouldn’t be long now before he’d reach a critical juncture on his map. One or two miles, perhaps. What did that say? The things that came from Carmen’s fancy peacock feather quill pen were almost as difficult to solve as the things that came from her mouth. They looked like initials.
  458.         Ahead, there was an indistinct flapping. The flapping was leathery, like several pairs of flimsy bat wings producing the commotion of haphazard flight. Herbert reached into the pillowcase and retrieved two merit badges. He wadded them up, and shoved one in each ear.
  459.         BANG.
  460.         BANG.
  461.  
  462. If Jivversport was dense with the decay of commercial enterprise, then town square was the jewel of economic depression in its crown. Storefronts packed themselves tightly among each other like boxes in an overcrowded warehouse. Some seemed practically inserted into rectangular grooves carved out of ancient, likely historic stone buildings, through either lapse in zoning protocol, or the greed of corrupt civic administrators. Or maybe the venerated artisans centuries ago had intended all along for a Bath and Body Works® to occupy their baroque stone carvings.
  463. Missing letters punctuated the signs of otherwise easily recognized franchises. Cr//te & Bar//el®, Old Na//y®, Tac// Be//l®, to name a few, which by sheer coincidence, were once the frequent shopping haunts of pirate-types. The first two for obvious reasons, to service nautically-themed décor and apparel needs, and the latter-most of course to cater to the legendary zeal for Mexican food shared by all rugged seafarers.
  464. It was quiet. Over distant rooftops, black smoke pooled into the sky, like ink drops into a glass of water, upside-down. Town hall loomed over the square, menacing in its great stature, and in its abundance of gothic fixtures. It seemed to be weighed down by gargoyles and statuary, like a crazy man’s coat with too many strange trinkets affixed to it. Grant strained to view the top of the spire. Atop it was a statue of a man in a suit.
  465.         The face of the building erupted. An enormous twisted metal javelin punctured it from within, and exited its stone and glass chest. The mangled piece of rollercoaster track thundered into town square, smashing the non-functional fountain. It halted, still enough for Grant and the counselors to see its car still intact and affixed to it, and the Batman emblems decorating the ride.
  466.         The rest of the building came down.
  467.         The party maneuvered in time to evade the tipping spire and its statue. The spire was demolished on the cobblestones, making a sound like a huge payload of porcelain dishware hitting the ground. The statue too was shattered. Grant, crouching against the cloud of dust, could make out a centuries-warn engraving on its base. It was an eagle, and the letters “//o//al////////aga//”. Grant began to wonder if anything in this village was spelled in its entirety.
  468.         Through the dust-choked void left by town hall, three unimposing figures fled into the square, stumbling over the stones with all the grace of baby waterfowl. Daniel and Nemoira readied their weapons, but eased their grips. It was the orphans, followed by a taller, slender girl.
  469.         Beatrix’s expression of surprise matched Grant’s, though amplified through the adrenaline of flight. “There you are!” she said, winded.
  470.         “Beatrix…” he said. “I see you’ve figured out the doll, finally.”
  471.         Through her look of urgency, there was a hint of culpability. She couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic, or just naïve. “Oh. Yeah, I guess I got the hang of it.”
  472.         “What the hell is going on here?” he asked, preemptively gripping his sword’s hilt.
  473.         “I’ve come back to tell you I found your friend. But that can obviously wait. We really should get out of here.”
  474.         “Who?” Grant said absentmindedly. “Oh, right, right. Russet. How is he?”
  475.         “Grant, the pirate was right,” Samantha spoke up. “Simon was kidnapped by a rogue! I helped him escape, but now he’s furious with us. We have to go!”
  476.         “Uh-huh!” Simon affirmed, as if vouching for something by which he’d sworn all his life, such as a quality panhandling mug, or a reliable brand of bootblacking brush.
  477.         “A rogue?” Grant’s sword was already unsheathed. “You mean the little horse-thing?”
  478.         “Yes!” Simon said. “But he does not make a small whinny at all. I would say he makes a very big whinny.”
  479.         “None of this matters.” Beatrix had decided to take charge. “Everybody come here and touch the doll, quickly. It’s time to go.” Her hands shook as she prepared to operate the doll. But then it was gone. It was riding a small, hot projectile, whipping this way and that until settling into the town hall’s remains.
  480.         Through the fog of demolished architecture, there was something crawling over the rubble into the square. It was the least imposing form yet.
  481.  
  482. Herbert waded out of the knee-deep water onto a dry landing of rock at the foot of a staircase. He climbed the stairs. There was an open doorway in the rock wall facing him. A hanging lantern flickered the shape of the doorway on to the ground with warm light.
  483.         With his hand on his sidearm, he passed through the door and found himself looking up right away. There was another metal ladder, this one of studier construction. It traveled up a small tunnel a great distance. To the side of the ladder was another door, just as rugged-looking as the one he’d passed through. Adjacent to both doors was an old wooden sign with hand-carved letters.
  484.  
  485. ◄ F.C.
  486. ► T.C.
  487. ▲ W.H.
  488.  
  489.         The left arrow pointed in the direction he came from, so he presumed it stood for “Fort Crossnest”. He gathered “Thundleshick’s Castle” was to the right. This guess was reinforced by the fact that climbing a ladder was not in Carmen’s instructions. Progressing through the other door seemed like the logical choice.
  490.         The “W.H.” left him unsettled, though. On another occasion, he might have chalked up to coincidence the fact that the letters were also his initials. But given recent events, not the least of which was discovering the unusual video recording, he wasn’t sure what to think about it.
  491.         Cool, musty air poured from the vertical tunnel. Something was drawing him up there. He didn’t know if it was mere curiosity, or something more insidious. He started to feel ill at the thought of what might be up there. Maybe it was inevitable. It might be his inescapable peril. Or worse yet, it might hold his destiny—a threshold to even grander adventures.
  492.         Without dwelling on it for another moment, he headed through the door, towards “T.C.” If all went according to plan, adventure would be a thing of the past. A blemish on an otherwise spotless record, nothing more.
  493.  
  494. “It’s just as I told ye. A wretched Slurpenook agent. He’s probably after our heads for a new badge from his dark master. Mark my words!” Daniel flailed his silver dagger and made as if to charge the creature. Nemoira restrained him by the loose end of a colorful kerchief.
  495.         Terence rolled his eyes. “Yes, that’s what I want. A merit badge. All glory to Fort Slurpenook and whatnot. You there, pirate boy. Do I look like an imbecile to you?”
  496.         Daniel wasn’t sure how to respond.
  497.         Terence proceeded. “All of you disperse. There’s no need to bring harm to yourselves. I’ll have a few words with the girl, and that’s all.”
  498.         “The problem is,” Grant summoned his most nonchalant voice. “I owe her one, so I can’t let that happen. Also, you’ll have to pardon me if I suspect you have more in mind than polite conversation.”
  499.         He had the look of one who wasn’t going to hold anything back this time. He had a feeling he couldn’t afford to.
  500.         He raised the sword, now burning as if being tempered by a blacksmith. The huge broken stones from the town hall rose into the air at once, levitating and spreading to fill space evenly. They too began to glow bright red, as their hard edges softened, appearing gelatinous. Each stone soon became a globule of molten rock, trimmed with fire. With one motion, Grant brought the full volley towards the tiny target.
  501.         Terence’s deceptively nimble claws deflected each piece towards the skeletal remains of town hall, reconstructing the building out of red-hot bricks. The building stood strikingly similar to the way it had before, though now smoldering at hundreds of degrees, and wobbling under the suspect rigidity of molten rock. The building sagged as it cooled. The final missiles, the blazing statue bits, were reassembled and carefully positioned on top of the spire.
  502.         As Terence was distracted with the process, like crowning a Christmas tree with an angel, Grant brought his sword down on the small adversary. The furious finishing move, however, was halted; the sword was immobile between pinching claws, as if stuck in stone.
  503.         Grant felt his internal organs rattle from the concussive force. He flew backwards through the air, riding the front of a mighty sonic neigh.
  504.         “Sam, Simon! Help me find it! Hurry!” Beatrix and the orphans scurried to retrieve the doll in the fresh absence of the cluttering debris.
  505.         At a distance from the fray, Daniel’s dagger quivered in his hand. They were not the jitters of fear, but of resolution.
  506.         “What are you doing?” Nemoira asked. But she already knew. Her expression pleaded with him to reconsider.
  507.         “Lass, there comes a time when a man’s got cause to leave his blood on the deck.” His dagger traced steady, wide circles in the air. “Ye’ll understand, one day.”
  508.         The sky condensed with swirling, black clouds, flickering with sporadic pockets of lightning. The black whirlpool spread, projecting darkness onto the melee below. The combatants paused, craning upward at the development. Something lurched from the eye of the dark storm, something large, like a ghost ship emerging from fog. It was a great trident, maybe the one wielded by Neptune himself.
  509.         The trident stopped. It slowly retracted itself, back into the darkness. Just like that, the clouds dissipated.
  510.         There were two small holes in Daniel’s forehead. Piercing the holes were two steady beams of red light. The lasers traced back to their sources, each from a small horse nostril. Daniel’s eyes rolled up, revealing white. He pitched backwards, dead.
  511. Nemoira’s cheeks were already wet. She sank next to the body, and covered his eyes.
  512.         “I got it!” Samantha yelled, waving the doll.
  513.         “Good work!” Beatrix said, rejoining Samantha. “Everyone, gather around the doll, quickly.”
  514.         Grant lumbered to his feet. Each organ felt like it was individually masticated by a large herbivore, and then sewn back into his torso. He hobbled towards Beatrix, but the hobble became an urgent sprint. He dove, knocking her to the ground. The flaming, severed head of the town hall statue scorched past them, detonating moments later.
  515.         He looked at her through a pained grimace, though his eyes nevertheless appeared to be asking politely if she was alright.
  516. “Thanks,” she said. “I’m ok. Here, let’s go already.” She held out the doll. The hands of Grant, Simon, Samantha and Nemoira all found the doll. Beatrix twisted it.
  517.         Her lower lip dropped a bit.
  518.         She twisted it again. And again.
  519. “Herbert!” she hissed, unwittingly invoking her own Seinfeld impression.
  520.        
  521. It had been hours since he’d removed the doll from its mother, and its red sibling, so to speak. Herbert held the glossy blue item as he plodded up the absurd quantity of stairs.
  522. He felt guilty. Maybe Beatrix had a good reason for the deception. Whatever she was up to, perhaps it didn’t warrant being stranded indefinitely with some guy named Grant. After all, wasn’t she only trying to help Russet? It was more than he could say he’d ever try to do.
  523. The stairs were shallow, and offered generous room for the feet. He noted what they lacked in height, they made up for in contributing to the most gratuitously long staircase in the universe. The stairs spiraled lazily and gradually upward, presumably to the surface where he would find the castle. He’d already been walking for miles, all upstairs. He was soaked in sweat, and had left the empty orange soda bottle littered somewhere around mile two.
  524.         He looked at the doll again. He considered for a moment returning with it and putting it back together.
  525. But he’d come too far already. And soon he’d be home.
  526. As he thought this, daylight ahead greeted him. The closer he came to the opening, the more he could make out what looked to be the forms of a castle. Though it seemed the forms were bleary, and somehow unaccountable for how they were attached to the larger structure. Maybe it was just a foggy day.
  527.  
  528. Though he was tapping one of his little exoskeletal legs on a cobblestone, Terence’s demeanor was otherwise patient. He wore a big smile on his elastic horse face.
  529.         His audience looked wholly defeated, with the exception of Simon, who was distracted by a lame pigeon bobbing around in circles nearby.
  530.         Terence’s claw became malleable and soft, and bloated into a plump tentacle, complete with suction cups. It wrapped around Beatrix’s neck, and lifted her wriggling body into the air. Grant felt for his missing sword, no longer in its sheath. Nemoira extended her telescope. It shimmered with magic as she readied herself to wield it like a baseball bat.
  531.         Terence’s smile dissolved. Short puffs from his nose became longer, deeper. Soon little streams of sulfurous vapor spilled from them, and the puffs were accented by clouds of flame. Nemoira’s grip loosened around her weapon. Her posture slackened. She knew they were goners.
  532.         A singsongy, metallic voice broke the atmosphere of impending demise.
  533. “Tender me answers, or those of their ilk,”
  534. “To the riddle I’ve sung, should you give it a listen!”
  535.         The puzzled group looked around. Terence sniffed back and forth. There was no one to be found nearby. He again focused on his captives, drawing a deep, almost serene breath.
  536.         He released a great cloud of nasally-produced fire. But as quickly as it expanded, destined to engulf the party, it had shrunk into nothing. It was sucked into a small point a few yards from Terence, close to the ground, swallowed.
  537.         Swallowed, literally, by a hefty can of soup with a jagged mouth and eyes. Pleased with itself, the can embraced the self-conscious posture of a thespian.
  538. “Tender meat bathed in an ocean of milk,”
  539. “The soft portions sprung from its carapace prison,”
  540. “They temptingly swim, slathed in buttery silk,”
  541. “Rescued by spoon should the need be arisen!”
  542.         Grant coughed. He wiped a few drops of blood onto his sleeve. Nobody spoke. Aside from Simon’s silly smile of gradually dawning recognition, the scene resembled a dining party which, upon receiving the bill, found it to contain not a tabulation of menu items, but an array of crudely scribbled phalluses.
  543.         “Mister Soup!” Simon waved.
  544.         “Yes, undersized man? What is the answer is what you would care to supply me with?”
  545.         “Lofthter… fithk,” said the voice from above, currently being strangled by a tentacle. Lentil repostured himself so his eyes pointed upward.
  546.         “Yes, what was that? What solution is it you wish to give is what you…”
  547.         She interrupted, loosening the grip of the slimy collar, raising her head up. “Is it… lobster bisque??”
  548.         Lentil’s face scrunched with delight. He began a self-satisfied jig.
  549.         “Uh… was she right?” asked Grant. A small huff came from Terence’s mouth, which was hanging wide open.
  550.         It was so fast, they could barely follow it. Maybe only a flash from the can’s metal reflecting the sunlight. The tentacle was severed by a razor-sharp mouth. Beatrix fell, choking. The cylinder, midair, flipped and came down hard on the small, recently amputated creature. He stomped on Terence repeatedly. Terence protested, muttering at the unintelligent pest.
  551.         CLONK CLONK CLONK.
  552. “Chilis of fury, chipotles of doom!”
  553. “Stop.”
  554. “Bring scalds to the tongue, pains that you’ll hope-end!”
  555. “No more rhymes about… ow… soup, please.”
  556. “It fills me with worry you’ll have to consume…”
  557. “Relent with this idiocy at once.”
  558. “This can of five-alarm whoopass you’ve opened!”
  559. “OW.”
  560.         CLONK CLONK CLONK.
  561.         Lentil halted his clonking assault, and focused his eyes as if narrowing upon a bee that had landed on his nonexistent nose. If being cross-eyed made him appear any less dignified, it was only by a smidgeon.
  562.         The air in front of his face warped, like a spatial pinch. And then he released it, along with some magnificent pent-up magical energy with a POP.
  563.         The small lobster-form hurtled miles through the air, towards a distant mountain range. Everyone sat in silence, watching the dumb can.
  564.  
  565.  
  566.  
  567. Part 4
  568.  
  569.  
  570. Herbert didn’t know what to make of what he was looking at. It was recognized as a castle easily enough, in the same way that if you viewed one through a prism, you’d likely be able to guess it was a castle. A spire floating here, an archway drifting there, a winding stone staircase meandering over there—the astute ear can tell when a building is attempting to speak Castlish, even if the structure itself seems far from fluent in the tongue.
  571.         However one decided to categorize the thing, it was vast, and somewhat nauseating for Herbert to look at. He monitored a particularly active tower looming above. There was no clear way it connected with the rest of the structure, save a bit of indistinct stonework boasting dubious spatial properties. It lurched forward, tipping slowly, as if destined to fall forward. It then quietly disappeared, as if dissolving into space. Numerous (literally) flying buttresses jockeyed to fill its place.
  572.         The only features that appeared to be stationary, luckily, were the grand doors of the front entrance. If this building could be said to have a formal “front”, that is. Locating the front was a task similar to identifying the corner of the Oval Office (a challenge which some former presidents would have their less intelligent visiting diplomats undertake).
  573.         Herbert went in.
  574.  
  575. The streets of Jivversport had regained their characteristic void of activity. All was silent but for the footsteps of a beleaguered troop, and a metallic clonking on cobblestones bringing up the rear.
  576.         Beatrix looked to her side at the pirate counselor. She’d been leading them through the streets, but had barely said a word since the catastrophic town square melee.
  577.         “Maybe we should say something to her,” Beatrix said softly to Grant, who walked on her other side. “She looks miserable about losing her friend.”
  578.         “Maybe.” He thought a moment. “But I’m pretty sure that’s how she always is.”
  579.         “It’s ok,” Nemoira said. “I’m not upset about Daniel.”
  580.         “Oh?” Beatrix said.
  581.         “It’s fine.” She cracked a faint smile. It might as well have been an eruption of euphoria by contrast. “I know where he is.”
  582.         “Miss Pirate?” Simon said, while channeling every ounce of his orphan resolve into the task of avoiding the gaps between cobblestones. “Where are we going?”
  583.         “If we’re to get to Fort Crossnest, by sea is the fastest way.”
  584.         “Yay!”
  585.         This was news to the others as well, but then, they wondered why it should be. What other means of travel would a pirate be likely to offer, or anyone, for that matter, who was in the process of leading them to the town’s seaport?
  586.         Dormant hulks of metal and wood littered the shallow waters. Conspicuous among them, even before Nemoira guided them to it, was a smaller vessel, burdened with an overabundance of colorful sales. What The Rubicund Wayfare lacked in certification from a competent maritime engineer, it made up for with the nod from an eccentric interior decorator.
  587.         They boarded the ship.
  588.  
  589. Thundleshick’s castle wasn’t the type of place you wanted to get lost in. Luckily for Herbert, his short, knuckle-dragging guide led the way through rambling halls with an earnest diligence, if also a gruff temperament.
  590.         Upon entering the castle, he’d been met with a grand hall. Grand was just a word affixed to it though, much the way any lower-income household technically possessed a master bedroom. It sort of resembled Count Dracula’s gothic, capaciously-built sewer. Lounging about were several dozen monkey bellhops. Their little red vests and hats were, putting it kindly, gloriously unlaundered. Through the shrill hoots of primal intimidation, one monkey calmly separated itself from the pack and gestured for Herbert to follow.
  591.         As the simian led Herbert on what had proved to be the beginnings of an epic journey through the dark, pungent halls, he had to wonder. Had Thundleshick been expecting him? Had he appointed this taciturn, mite-ridden sentry to lead Herbert to him? What plot was the perverse old bastard hatching now?
  592.         The monkey slowed, then planted himself with the stoic discipline of the Queen’s personal guard. It raised its furry paw and pointed. Herbert looked into the dark corner he was being shown, squinting to make it out. There was a lump. A very smelly, dark lump, of not-so-mysterious origin. It was a pile of fresh primate feces, one over which the small ape had clearly invested some amount of personal importance.
  593.         Herbert slouched. He supposed, now that he was officially lost, he’d have to find the campmaster himself. All wasn’t hopeless, though. For starters, he could follow the odor that smelled even worse than the monkey shit.
  594.  
  595. The salty breeze was refreshing. It whipped Beatrix’s long hair about as she looked into the abnormally blue sky. Impossibly puffy clouds levitated, not high above the ocean. They all occupied distinct shapes, doing the lion’s share of the work for the daydreaming sky-gazer. One of them looked like a white sculpture of a bearded southern gentleman holding a pale and corralling poultry. Another was a giant wearing a tunic of leaves, lovingly tending to a field of produce. And yet another was a smiling cherubic man holding what looked to be a small grill. The man was either Buddha, or possibly former heavyweight boxer George Forman.
  596. She began to realize these weren’t so much randomly whimsical manifestations so much as strategically placed advertisements. The effect was nevertheless mesmerizing. Beatrix now and then had to remind herself that this was in fact quite a magical place, even if most of the time, nothing all that magical was happening, and when there was, its application tended to be a bit crass.
  597.         She looked back down at what she was doing, which was making unsuccessful attempts at healing Grant’s wounds. Grant, too, was looking skyward, but with a more pointed objective. With one hand he pulled on his eyelid, and with the other, gingerly poked about the iris to remove his contact lens.
  598. “Anyway, yeah, it just started getting so frustrating after a while,” Beatrix said, returning to her train of thought.
  599. “Huh?”
  600. “Russet. The way he was acting. He obviously has a serious problem, which is why I came looking for you.”
  601. “Oh. Tell me about it. But believe me, just because you give him his pills doesn’t mean he’ll actually take them. He’s an awfully stubborn fella.” Grant paused to sneer at the small malleable lens stuck to his fingertip. “I think these things are shot. They’re filthy. It’s a shame he’s not around. Cleaning things magically is sort of his specialty. I’m afraid I’d just butcher the prescription in the process.”
  602. Beatrix strained her face as she made another futile effort with her ring. “Damn. I’m still not having any luck with healing magic. I guess there’s another way Russet would be useful now. If he were feeling better, I mean…”
  603. “Don’t worry about it. I‘ll be alright,” he said, poking at his sore ribcage.
  604.         She reclined, relaxing on the deck of the ship. The cacophony of busily flapping sails overhead was hard to ignore. Through the racket was the giggling of orphans and the various noises particular to a living can of soup. The three were playing some sort of game on the other side of deck, and even from a distance it seemed clear the children were having trouble getting the soup to understand the rules, or anything not soup-related for that matter. To the other side was Nemoira, leaning against a rail. She watched Beatrix and Grant with a sullen expression.
  605. “Why is she looking at us like that?” Beatrix whispered to Grant. He shrugged, still preoccupied with his contacts.
  606. “My apologies,” Nemoira spoke up. “It’s the curse.”
  607. “What?”
  608. “I believe you both share the curse of the Mobius Slipknot.”
  609. Grant stopped what he was doing. With one stinging eye shut, he glared at Nemoira. “What do you know about that?”
  610. She was silent for a moment, reluctant to continue. She then explained, “It is a type of locket, of complicated design and purpose. When assembled and wielded improperly, as I suspect it was, it can have effects on the memory.”
  611. “What kind of effects?” Beatrix asked.
  612. She turned to look at the ocean. “If you can’t remember, then you may surmise the answer yourself. It’s probably best you don’t know, anyway.”
  613. Beatrix found her instinct to remain quiet on the subject overwhelming. But as she ruminated on the locket, and her resolution to be more forthright about things, she found the gumption to confess. “I… I think I have this… Mobius Slipknot. Or, part of it at least.”
  614. Grant’s look of surprise was compellingly genuine. What his face could not conceal, though, was his intense interest. “You do? Where?”
  615. “It’s back at Crossnest, somewhere safe. Actually, to be honest, this was the other reason I wanted to see you. I thought you might know something about it.”
  616. “Maybe.” He stood up, and said as casually as he could through his wince of discomfort, “I’ll take a look at it when we get there.”
  617. “It should be no time at all,” Nemoira said. “We’re here.”
  618.         Off the bow, a rocky landmass approached. The ship neared a cave entrance.
  619.         Grant frowned at his used-up contacts, then flicked them into the ocean. With little pleasure, he pulled from its case a pair of stylish black-rimmed glasses. He put them on with no less trepidation than if they were the mandatory goggles preceding a punitive pie to the face.
  620.  
  621. After spending hours wondering if he was getting lost in the unpleasant castle, Herbert was now sure of it. The room was a dead end in his fruitless search. It was a cramped hovel with a low ceiling. Just a sliver of daylight pierced a murky window. Bowls and plates supporting ancient food products covered the floor. Crates of miscellaneous knickknacks teetered on heaps of dusty old furniture. It might have served as a storage room, or a garbage room, or both.
  622.         Or, Herbert suddenly thought, it might serve as a bedroom. In the corner was a damp mattress, with one rumpled sheet and an uncovered pillow. Judging by the torso-shaped depression, it looked recently used. Herbert became wary. He looked around, his assessment of the room becoming more of precaution than curiosity.
  623.         He backed into a crate, jangling its wares. Something familiar caught his eye. It was a ceramic frog atop the crate. He was sure he’d seen it before. Other items about the room were familiar as well, such as a crystal swan on a nearby shelf, and a broken cuckoo clock on the floor. He’d be damned if that “2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney: Women’s Gymnastics Competition” DVD didn’t ring a bell, too.
  624.         He became aware there was someone in the room with him. This awareness was mostly experienced in the nasal passages. He dropped the DVD case.
  625.         The cheerful voice spoke. “Ah! A fellow patron of the female athletics. A firm thigh and supple rump are guaranteed to stir the competitive sprit, don’t you agree?”
  626.         The strange remark was accompanied by a number of agile motions from a pair of unkempt eyebrows, and a quantity of winks not usually attempted by someone who hadn’t recently suffered a stroke.
  627.         Herbert’s open mouth slowly became a thin, irascible line.
  628. “Thundleshick.”
  629.        
  630. Russet’s slouch was so pronounced, the end of his cape mopped the floor of the corridor. It had been hours since he’d heard from anyone in the fort. Had they all ditched him? Was his company really that difficult to bear? Such rhetorical questions were the bread and butter of those practiced in the art of self-loathing. He shook his head viciously and made swatting motions at his hair in a seemingly involuntary act of repudiation.
  631.         Even Carmen was nowhere to be seen. But then, no one was really sure where she lived in this labyrinthine facility. For such a vivacious personality, she guarded her privacy well. He shuffled in the direction he surmised might hold her quarters, but wasn’t holding out much hope.
  632.         Behind a door, there was a noise. He stopped, and heard nothing. The hair on his neck stood on end.
  633.         [Stop. You. Rucksack.] The sounds chimed in his consciousness.
  634.         “What?”
  635.         [Let me out of this prison. Free me from this tyrannical wench.]
  636.         “Hey…” Russet held his cranium. “Get out of my head!” He waited a moment for the voice to resume, but it didn’t. He watched the door with caution. Again, in his mind, there was a swell of thought. A visceral, menacing rumble.
  637.         [rrrrrrrRRRRRRRRRR…]
  638.         With a yelp, Russet turned and fled.
  639.  
  640. Thundleshick stooped in front of a greasy oven. He was attempting to peddle some of his legendary toadloaf to a reluctant Herbert. It was a sales pitch well-rehearsed, but never perfected. “Are you sure you wouldn’t care for some? It’s just above room temperature, you’ll find.”
  641. “No thanks.”
  642. “You must be eager to stray from the refrigerated ethnic fare you and your bunkmate chums enjoy. Just a nibble…” He offered a tool that sort of looked like a garden trowel. It supported a quivering helping of the pale material.
  643. Herbert slapped it out of his hand. “Enough with the toadloaf business. Why don’t we just cut the crap.”
  644. Thundleshick was startled by the outburst, and made a face like he just sat on something that could pop the tire of a monster truck. Herbert went on.
  645. “I don’t like you. You’re some kind of repulsive, magical old man. Ok, so maybe you’re not a wizard. I don’t know what you are. Maybe you’re just a pompous bum who thinks he’s better than everyone else, and who thinks he can keep children hostage for as long as he damn-well pleases, chuckling to himself in his stupid castle like a stupid, smelly jerkoff. What kind of summer camp is this? Where do you get off? Who do you think you are?”
  646. Herbert paused to catch his breath, reddened by his tirade. Thundleshick stood speechless, with a kind of fatherly sympathy in his eyes, as he twirled a bit of his moustache hair between his fingers. Herbert composed himself.
  647. “Anyway, I’m sorry. I just had to get that off my chest. I’m not here to make friends, or kiss your ass, or anything like what all the other campers probably do. I’m here because I just completed like fifty of your idiotic quests, and by my understanding, this more than entitles me to go home.”
  648. He tossed the limp pillowcase into Thundleshick’s arms. As the campmaster peered inside, an expression of unadulterated, childlike glee spread over his face like a rapidly advancing fungus. He was so happy, he began to weep. And then he laughed.
  649. “Boy, this is tremendous! How ever did you collect so many?”
  650. “Well,” Herbert said, dusting off his embellishment cap. “It wasn’t easy. You have no idea how many snoodleflips and blungthumpers I had to shoot to collect those. It was pretty gruesome.”
  651. “This tickles me to no end. Boy… Wizardy Herbert, you must surely have had a wealth of wisdom in your upbringing. I feel I too have been touched by the sagacity of your parents.”
  652. “Yeah, they’re alright, I guess. So what do you say? Is this gonna cut it?”
  653. “Oh, yes, yes, my word. I should say all this entitles you to a stiff reward indeed. One moment…” Thundleshick was suddenly a blur of effluent elderly energy. He scurried to the other side of the room. In his excited haste, he bumped into Herbert, nearly knocking him over.
  654. “Oof… hey, careful.”
  655. Thundleshick’s busy hands upset piles of junk. Herbert quizzically observed the furious search. “Hey, what are you doing? Can’t you just, you know, wave your wand, or do a dance, and just transport me home? What are you getting there? Something like a… shooting star I ride back to New Jersey?”
  656. “Yes! Yes!! Ah-ha, here it is, here it is! Been saving it for an occasion just as this one. I only hope you appreciate the amenity as much as those of us for whom chronic nether-regional chafing is a maligned way of life.”
  657.         Thundleshick beamed as he presented him with the hefty 24-pack of Charmin double-quilted toilet paper.
  658.  
  659. The Rubicund Wayfare bobbed through the rough waters of the cave passage. The waves were loud in the narrow tunnel, but became silent when the space opened more generously into a cavern. The water was calm, almost like glass, and in the center was a statue. Its pose appeared designed to roust the passions of a patriot, while its face wore a certain severity, the kind ensuring commitment to political and militaristic resolve.
  660.         Nemoira stood on the bow, pointing her telescope toward the statue. A beam of light projected from the lens. The statue began to glow, and then turned deep red. The subterranean lake bubbled. The surface of the water lowered.
  661.         In Fort Crossnet, a low gurgling sound filled the great chamber labeled “Уровень 37” in weathered paint. The wide circular opening in the floor began to overflow with dark, foamy water. The water level rose to match a hazy line of scummy demarcation on the wall.
  662.         From the large tunnel in the chamber, opposite the entrance to the rest of the fort, the ship sailed in.
  663.  
  664. Herbert was waiting for the punch line he knew would never come. Irony to this man was likely as distant a stranger as a hot shower. Herbert’s eye made fierce stabs at the toilet paper, and then at Thundleshick’s beaming face. His hand drifted toward his sidearm. Thundleshick’s puffy, smile-bolstered cheeks appeared to deflate.
  665. “What’s wrong, boy? If you’re worried I’ve been too generous, think nothing of it. Your valor has been proven beyond question.”
  666. Herbert took a step forward, scowling poisonously at the awarded toiletry. Thundleshick’s eyes moved back and forth, as if following a schizophrenic pendulum.
  667. “Hmm… Boy, this is not the first time you’ve encountered such a luxury, is it? You wouldn’t need… a demonstration of its use, would—”
  668. “No, I sure as hell wouldn’t!” Herbert backhanded the soft, bulky package. It skidded to a stop nearby the small mound of jiggling toadloaf. “Now give me the real prize. I know you can get me out of here. I know you’ve got… powers.”
  669. Thundleshick’s face spread into the smile of a complacent sage. A smile that typically concealed wisdom, but in this case, likely only concealed centuries of dental misery, and wads of meat so large and so old, one of them might be pointed out by a tour guide as the birthplace of a famous 19th century poet. “Ah… I see. I shouldn’t be so surprised to find such pluck in your spirit. Then it’s more you want!”
  670. “No, I don’t want more. I don’t want any Kleenex, or a bottle of Toilet Duck, or any Depends adult undergarments for that matter. I just want you to please… send… me… HOME.”
  671. Thundleshick placed a brown, turd-like finger to his lips and became pensive. His eyes twinkled with a realization. “You… still haven’t seen yet?”
  672. “What? Seen what?”
  673. “Yes, your vision is still impaired. It’s plain as day.”
  674. “What are you talking about?” Herbert became conscious of the eye patch pressing against his left eye socket. He reached up, as if to touch it, but his hand quickly dropped again to the vicinity of his sidearm.
  675. “I believe I have just the thing.” Thundleshick groped within his grisly tunic, producing a small vial. It looked like something a medieval apothecary might keep in great supply. “Take this, young Herbert. It will help you see again.”
  676. Herbert’s livid hand snatched it away. He approached the campmaster, becoming more agitated with every gift that had nothing to do with transportation to his house, or at least somewhere in the tri-state area. “I can see just fine. I don’t need one of your bogus remedies or stupid elixirs. My eye patch doesn’t bother me, and it’s my business anyway. Now are you going to send me home, or is this going to get ugly?” Herbert’s hand unfastened the securing strap of the holster, and settled lightly on the gun’s grip.
  677. Thundleshick took a step back, his brow wrinkling with wretched folds of intimidation. He dwelt on Herbert’s bullying tactics, which were enough to cause even a powerful magician to freckle at the advance of a slightly-built, temperamental teen boy. But then, Thundleshick’s natural cowardice wasn’t to be overlooked, nor was the powerful weapon clinging to the boy’s hip.
  678. “I… I believe I can arrange some sort of transport accommodation,” Thundleshick stammered. “Could… could you just take a step or two to your right?”
  679. Herbert immediately looked at the floor to his right. “You mean you want me to stand over that little trap door? You must think I’m a complete id—”
  680. “You might want to tuck and roll at the bottom.” Thundleshick’s smudgy sausage-fingers twiddled furiously as if playing a tiny piano. The small hatch swiftly relocated itself beneath Herbert’s feet. There was the sound of wooden shutters snapping open. Everything went dark.
  681.  
  682. Beatrix climbed one of the many staircases in the jaundiced, ever-flickering light of Fort Crossnest. She was nervous about seeing Russet again. Who knew what he’d gotten himself into while she was away. But whatever trepidation there was, her excitement outweighed it. She was happy to be helping him.
  683.         “Grant?” she asked, sort of sheepishly. “Do you think I could take a look at Russet’s medication?” Was it petty of her to want to be the bearer of good news? She didn’t know. After all, she was the one who went to the trouble of getting it for him. Grant handed it over without a word about it.
  684.         Higher up, Russet moped through the corridors, massaging his head. The voices had subsided for now, but only served to leave his own tormented inner voice with the stage to itself, chewing the scenery like an off-Broadway ham. Shouldn’t Beatrix have returned by now? She must have washed her hands of him completely, and he couldn’t blame her. He wished he could have seen her at least once more before she disappeared from his life.
  685.         He leaned against a wall and slid down to the floor. He took out his wand and gave it a bored examination. He played with it farcically, sneering, as if lampooning an effete orchestra conductor. In his current state of mind, he’d have better luck cajoling magic from a toilet brush (a non-magical one, at least). He felt like an idiot when he thought about his prior gusto with magic, and the way he behaved in general during his fits of exuberance. It disgusted him. Only a complete jackass would act like that. He threw the wand down the hall.
  686.         A hand picked it up delicately. The corner of Russet’s mouth turned upward slightly. Beatrix smiled back.
  687.         “There you are,” he said. “It’s been… well, I’d lost track of how long!”
  688.         “Hey, Russet,” she replied. “Yeah, I was gone for longer than I…” She trailed off. Russet was on his feet, approaching with a wide grin. The closer he got, the more apparent it was he was not looking at her, but a step or two to her left. The place where Grant stood.
  689.         “Hi, buddy. Good to see you, finally,” Grant said wearily, but with a sincere smile. Russet threw his arms around him for an impromptu brotherly hug. Grant returned the gesture, or maybe humored it, as he glanced at Beatrix with look of mild embarrassment.
  690.         “Um…” Beatrix began, feeling taken aback by the reception. “I have your pills… if you want them.”
  691.         “Oh. Many thanks, Bea!” His shimmering eyes flashed at her, then returned to Grant. The two of them were already striking up an animated conversation, presumably as if they’d never parted. Lack of medication aside, Russet appeared to be in a better mood already. As much as she wanted to think so, it was hard to believe this development had anything to do with her.
  692.  
  693. Herbert felt like he was walking through a poorly kept zoo. The sounds of agitated creatures filled the cavern-like room, a place he assumed was a kind of dungeon. A very loud dungeon.
  694. The menagerie’s hootings only became emboldened as the fittest systematically conquered and consumed the weak, and celebrated with the triumphant swelling of throat sacks and flaring of proboscises. Over there, a baboon postured over the broken frame of some kind of iguana. And sitting there atop a suitcase was a beefy tomcat washing itself nearby the remains of something that was optimistically a rat, but more realistically was a Chihuahua judging by the collar.
  695.         There was a substantial heap of suitcases and backpacks in which the beasts burrowed tunnels and built whelping nests for their young. Herbert began to suspect it might not be a dungeon so much as a luggage room. And then again, it might not be a luggage room so much as a place serving as dumping grounds for an overabundance of goods confiscated from mistreated children.
  696.         This notion gained further plausibility when he encountered a navy blue suitcase. It was the very one he’d surrendered to a helpful simian paw only a few days ago, just moments before being persecuted by large skeletons.
  697.         Herbert’s heart sped up. There was nothing special in it of course. It was hard to get bent out of shape over parting with a few pairs of socks, and a few reluctantly-purchased tools of the accounting trade. But there was one thing, something he’d thought he was glad to be rid of once and for all. Now, though, his thumping heart suggested otherwise.
  698.         He crouched to unzip the suitcase, but noticed he was still clutching the vial thrust into his hand by Thundleshick. He stood up and put it into his jeans pocket. He made a face, feeling around inside the pocket, then checked the other one.
  699.         The doll was gone. The bastard picked his pocket.
  700.         Herbert looked up into the great, dark void, unable to detect a ceiling, let alone the trap door from which he fell. Who knew how long it would take him to get back to Thundleshick’s chamber from here, or if it was even possible in this architecturally capricious castle. There had to be another way. Indeed, from a distant source there was daylight, perhaps an exit to the swampy castle surroundings. At least he might be able to start again from the main entrance.
  701.         He sighed, and sifted through the contents of his luggage. He tossed aside a small pocket ledger, moved a neatly folded pair of underwear, and with both hands, hoisted an antique adding machine, once belonging to his great grandfather, over his head onto the floor behind him, where it broke apart noisily. He stopped.
  702.         There it was.
  703.         The pages were stained, folded in places. A simple manuscript, bound with black rings. The cover was a plain white piece of paper. It had no title. If it did, it was covered by a black rectangle where the title would be.
  704.  
  705. _______________
  706. One
  707.  
  708.         He’d been plagued by an unsettling obsession with the manuscript for as long as he could remember. He couldn’t explain the fascination. Other than the fact that it was littered with black rectangles blotting out parts of the text, it was quite a mundane work of literature.
  709.         In fact, it was awful.
  710.         Herbert flipped it open and read a random excerpt.
  711.  
  712. “_______ was astonished! He had never even seen a manticorn before which was half unicorn half mantitee. Although more like mostly mantitee, because it was just a mantitee with a horn. It’s blubbery body rolled around playfully in the shallow water beckonning with his big fat flipper. Magic eminated from it’s horn, the magic power was so overwelming. It almost rivaled the power of the fabled ______ ________! He almost fainted but then came to his senses and approached with his hacksaw towards…“
  713.  
  714.         Herbert winced at the copy. He rolled up the manuscript and tucked it into his pocket. He thought about Thundleshick as he tugged on a part of his M9, making a perfunctory locking sound.
  715. The son of a bitch was going to pay.
  716.  
  717. Russet’s mouth had become a runaway locomotive, and all Grant and Beatrix could do was stay off the tracks. “Mind you, it’s hard to find anything in this place. I’ve been muddling through this postindustrial labyrinth all day. Seen neither hide nor hair from old Herb. Of course he’s a sensitive fellow and does like to keep to himself. Oh, how I would like to introduce you to him, Grant. I believe you’d get along famously. Maybe he is in here,” Russet bludgeoned on as he followed Beatrix around the corner and into her vacant room. “No, I guess not. Guess old Herb’s given us the slip again. What did you say you wanted…”
  718.         Grant raised his hand in a limp plea for conversational mercy. It was all too clear to him Russet had returned to his rosy temperament. He opted to lean on verbal affectations like “old Herb” rather than talk like a normal person, a practice which had come to tax Grant’s patience like an old mule. Over the years, in spite of his well wishes for his friend, he’d concluded he preferred the other Russet. “It’s ok,” he said. “We’ll find him when we find him. For now it would do me to just rest in a safe place.” He took a heavy breath, wincing from internal injuries.
  719.         Beatrix knew exactly what to look for on entering the room, and had her suspicions confirmed right away. “I don’t think he’s in the fort.”
  720.         “Why do you say that?” Grant spotted the two halves of the blue doll lying on the bed. A red sub-doll was standing on the table. “Ah… he’s taken the other half somewhere. Do you… do you think he’s taken this Slipknot thing from you as well?” Grant voiced the troubling thought, then coughed a bit of blood onto his pants.
  721.         Russet broke in. “You’re right, I’ve been silly. We should all rest and relax. What’s the hurry? I suppose I became overexcited with your return. After all, we became separated so quickly after our arrival! There’s so much that’s happened that I’ve wanted to tell you. And I trust so much you’ve seen I want to hear about.”
  722.         Russet eased on to the bed next to Grant. He continued warmly, “No worries. Take whatever time you need. Maybe we can watch a film later via this compound’s extensive home theater resources. Like we used to. There are many titles you have never heard of, and I believe you will enjoy wholeheartedly. Some of them include the urban gyrations of various street performers!” With this, Russet slapped Grant on the back. Grant recoiled at the threat of physical contact. But he found the moment he was touched, he instantly felt better—completely rehabilitated.
  723. He sat up, feeling better than he had since he’d arrived. “I’ve missed you, friend.”
  724.         Russet’s expression suddenly seemed serious. “I wouldn’t trade the adventures I’ve had here for anything. I prayed for years to leave one day, have adventures with you, and meet new people. But it’s hard not to pine for the simple times we had in the old haunt. Honestly, I can’t wait to return.”
  725.         Beatrix watched the two as if she were lurking in the jungle, spying unseen on a couple of extremely rare apes. She’d been about to answer Grant’s question before the conversation was again derailed by Russet. She didn’t know what to say anymore. This was all so weird.
  726.         “So wait,” she finally said. “You two used to live together?” Russet turned, smiling an affirmative at her. She paused. She didn’t know why she found this peculiar. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe if they knew aspects of her own living arrangements, they would find it odd too.
  727.         “Where?” she asked. But the two were already rampantly trading tales from their respective adventures. She exhaled, and looked at the red sub-doll neatly standing on her secret printout of Herbert’s data. She decided that all boys were crazy. She didn’t understand any of them. As she unfocused at the muddy photo of Herbert, she considered that in some cases, she only managed to create enemies. She’d been careless and foolish.
  728. She picked up the doll and twisted it, and to no surprise whatsoever, nothing happened.
  729.  
  730. Somewhere in a filthy parlor, halves of a blue doll lay opened. A fat, spotted hand picked up the upper half, and from a sticky-looking bottle of scotch, filled its volume with brown liquid, as if a shot glass.
  731.         Another hand cracked open a DVD case covered in photographic celebrations of virtuosity in women’s gymnastics. The DVD was fed to a stout black box which whirred in appreciation. A bemused, purple pair of lips met with the rim of the inverted doll half, and downed the liquid.
  732.  
  733. Herbert’s eye felt naked in the searing daylight. His efforts to relocate the front entrance to the capricious castle proved fruitless, like looking for a quarter he’d dropped on the beach before the tide. He had no choice but to walk back to the fort, haunted by the abject failure of his mission. For all his guile, he no longer even had his doll for the return trip. He’d never hear the end of it from Beatrix when he returned… assuming she’d even make it back herself.
  734.         And for that matter, assuming he’d make it back himself.
  735.         Herbert stood at the juncture he’d previously puzzled over, with the sign pointing in three directions. Through the door in the direction of the fort, the stairs descended several steps, then vanished into dark, salty water. The pathway was flooded. He squatted at the edge, as if ruminating on some tactic hidden in the recesses of his memory for removing millions of gallons of water from a cave.
  736.         What could have happened? Maybe a spontaneous subterranean spring, or a cache of ice somewhere melted all at once. He could have no way of knowing. Even if left to his own cynical imagination, the irony of sabotage by unwitting friends from afar still wouldn’t have occurred to him.
  737.         He looked up, in the direction of “W.H.”, as the sign indicated. He swallowed, putting his hand on the cold rung. Destiny suddenly felt like a ball and chain around his ankle, and it weighed heavy on the climb.
  738.  
  739. Gilbert’s face was red, and his plump head perspired like a slow-cooked roast. His hands were stuffed into the pockets of his ill-fitting shorts, with a demeanor made progressively less nervous by Counselor Marlevort’s apparent disinterest in killing him. Hence the sweat was not on account of nerves, but a symptom of being surrounded by a sea of bubbling lava. “Does this have anything to do with your big plans?” he asked, strolling alongside the counselor on the broad deck of the aging, heat-scalded aircraft carrier.
  740. “What?”
  741. “Those missiles or whatever. Isn’t that what this is all about?”
  742. “No. This has nothing to do with that. I was talking about my final form. Bouncing some ideas off you. Is that ok?”
  743. “Yeah.”
  744. “I still haven’t decided what I’ll call it,” Slinus said with earnest concern. He fingered the fog of ash from his glasses. Gilbert said nothing. He continued. “I’m torn between ‘Final Stage OmegaSlinus’ or ‘Marlevort Prime’. I think they’re both pretty good.”
  745. “So you turn into something, you mean?”
  746. “Yes.”
  747. “You mean like in anime or something?”
  748. “Yeah, pretty much like in anime. A big monster or something. I’m still designing it. I’ll let you have a look at the mockup sometime, if you like, Gil.”
  749. Gilbert wrinkled his nose. “I think that sounds pretty stupid. Why would you want to model your powers after something in a Japanese cartoon?”
  750. “I like anime. A lot of it is really intelligent and well drawn. If a little over the top as well.”
  751. “Is that why you chose this place as Fort Slurpenook? Because it’s over the top?”
  752. “It certainly is over the top, isn’t it?”
  753. “And really hot. Sort of unnecessarily so…” The shapes of sweat under his arms were beginning to resemble sizeable continents on a primitive world map.
  754. “It so happens that this ship is the centerpiece in a powerful naval fleet. It makes sense to command from within a concentration of military strength. The fleet also happens to float in lava because this is a magical world and in a magical world you will find many such marvelous and whimsical realities present. Did I ask for this sea to be made of lava? No. Do I mind that it lends the perception of a kind of brutal severity to our forces? No, I’ll take that. Do I think a cool ocean breeze would be nice while strolling on the deck? Well, yeah. But I don’t get out that much. And the skeletons don’t seem to complain.”
  755. “Well, I wouldn’t want to take us on.”
  756. Slinus smiled.
  757. “Who are we fighting, anyway? Aren’t they all pretty much dead?”
  758. Slinus was lost in thought for a moment. “I think everyone should have a final form, personally. Something… something like part-huge monster, part-confusingly religious icon, like a great angel of death or something like that. Sort of sickening and beautiful simultaneously. And dripping in strategic areas maybe, with weird goo, or maybe raw power. I don’t know. It should have lots of concealed blades too, hidden somewhere, knotted in organic viscera.”
  759. “Sounds really disgusting.”
  760. “I’ve seen everything worth watching of course. But it’s been ages.”
  761. “I think I saw a few episodes of Cowboy Bebop a few years ago,” Gil offered. “It was alright.”
  762. “Yes, that was good. It’s been decades since I’ve seen it.”
  763. The estimation seemed fishy to him. “Really?”
  764. “Yes.”
  765. “How old are you, anyway?”
  766. “I seem to recall tales about a young man. I believe his name was Bebop, or Cowboy Bebop. Or maybe it was a nickname. And there was some sort of wayward broad. A bitch on the run with nothing to lose.”
  767. “That doesn’t sound right at all.”
  768. “Yeah, you’re probably right,” Slinus conceded.
  769. “I would have thought that one grows out of these kinds of nerdy fascinations after living for centuries. Like, gathering wisdom with advancing years, or such.”
  770. “Oh for God’s sake, I’m not centuries-old. Who do you think I am? Thundleshick?” Slinus had trouble containing the laugher brewing during the delivery of the remark. A fit of chuckling followed.
  771. Gil made a face. He wasn’t sure why it was so funny. “Where are we going?”
  772. “We are going to see Allen Pycroft.”
  773. “Oh…”
  774. “He’s never all that cooperative over the phone. It’s time I pay him a visit. He will have some intelligence for us,” explained Slinus as the two of them ducked into a small airplane.
  775. “Will it be cooler there?”
  776. “Considerably.”
  777.  
  778. “As you can see, mate, there’s not a heck of a lot to see on this tour. And I do apologize for the general disrepair of our surroundings. I have been meaning to spruce the place up again for some time.”
  779. “It’s fine, Russet,” Grant reassured. “Really, you don’t need to take responsibility for everything all the time.”
  780. “Be that as it may! Behold, this is the main attraction. Working television, computer, and many other attractions to titillate. Why, just over here, look. 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…”
  781. “Easy, man. It’s just a foosball table. Laying it on a little thick?”
  782. Russet felt himself reddening. “Yes, maybe. I guess one develops a fondness for the place after some bit. It only becomes natural I suppose to embellish upon its grandeur for a newcomer.”
  783. “That reminds me,” Beatrix broke in, like a perfect stranger interrupting a private conversation on the street. “Where’s Carmen been?”
  784. Grant turned to her. “Who?” Russet made a limp shrug, and returned to his spirited tour of the room.
  785. Beatrix slunk over to the desk quietly. She felt invisible, as if the victim of a magic spell a thousand times more potent than one of her evasive illusions. She sat in the computer chair and swiveled as the two boys whittled away the time with chatter, Russet’s tireless mouth bearing most of the load.
  786. “I do wish you could have been here and experienced our adventures with us. We’ve been through so much, and it would have been all the richer for your presence. And oh, if Wizardy could be here too. He’d without question have some madcap scheme for us all to hatch. The conniving rascal! Did I by chance mention the time old Herb had me for whatever reason summon a dragon? A dragon of all…”
  787. “Russet!” Beatrix was on her feet again. Her patience for his scatterbrained emissions was spent. Especially for listening as he described the memories she’d thought were special to just the two of them, now related as merely tolerable diversions when weighed against the vacuum of Grant’s absence. And if she had to listen to another “I do wish” this, or an “old Herb” that, she was going to flip out like a ninja in a swarm of bees.
  788. “Yes, Bea?” was Russet’s tempered reply.
  789. She paused, fuming at him. “Have you taken your medication yet?”
  790. His silent, unchanging expression said no.
  791. “She’s right, Russet. You’ve gotta take it. You know that.”
  792. Russet went into a stroll, theatrically prefacing what were likely going to be some terrific excuses. “I know, I know. I really will. I mean, I had meant to, honestly.”
  793. “But you got distracted, right? You were feeling great, so what’s the point? Is that it?” he said with a rehearsed kind of patience which somehow seemed more subtly scalding than any direct rebuke.
  794. Russet examined the prescription bottle with ambivalence. “Well… yes! I feel terrific! I’ve done so much better here. Since I got here, I mean. I really think it’s done wonders for me, and the new friends I’ve met, they’ve been great. Bea, here. Beatrix has helped me so much! If only you knew! I really think I can lay off the pills for at least a little while. Just for a bit!”
  795. “My ass, I’ve helped.” Beatrix stomped over to Russet and snatched the bottle from his hand. She opened it and rattled a pill from the container. Russet nervously held out his hand, offering to take it.
  796. Beatrix held up the pill, viewing it closely. She brought her foot down hard on Russet’s shoe. Russet yelled briefly, but was soon muffled by Beatrix’s hand. She popped the pill in his gaping mouth like he was some tragic clown puppet’s moaning head in a carnival stand, and she was greedy for prizes. With the other hand, she flicked his throat with a glowing ring finger, causing him to swallow through a startlingly effective spell most useful to veterinarians.
  797. She turned and stormed out of the rec. room, suddenly finding herself in agreement with Russet in wishing Herbert were there. He probably would have gotten a kick out of that.
  798.  
  799. The large bag of kibble may have at one point been a ruthlessly pragmatic and underwhelming prize for a completed camp quest. Carmen plunged the metal scoop into the frayed opening of the bag, and resurfaced with a heap of spilling dog food. She deposited it noisily into a bowl on the floor.
  800. [Do not feed me dog food anymore. Give me a burrito. Or let me starve.]
  801.         “Shh!” Carmen hissed with a slight jerk of the head.
  802. [I’ll take a bite of your neck too, all the same. You are a stupid girl and I hate you.]
  803.         “Shhh, shhshhshh. Stupid!—Lunch time doggy. It’s lunch time for the doggy!” she sang.
  804.         Pycroft, in his considerable duration of imprisonment, still had not figured out the workings of his captor’s mind. It had long since been apparent his psychic commands would never go heeded. That much was clear. What he didn’t know was whether the girl simply refused to obey them, or had trouble understanding them, or in the tangle of her unusual synapses, was mistaking them for her own troubled thoughts. More tricky to diagnose still was whether his increasingly rancorous ultimatums were competing against, or chaffing with, some serious mental illness indigenous to the landscape. It didn’t help the matter one bit that he was such a dreadful psychic mastermind in the first place.
  805.         Gray, jagged irises fixed on her through the bars of the cage as a canine paw unceremoniously tipped the bowl of kibble on to the floor. A pale, bald head ducked down and began to crunch.
  806.         “Good doggy! It’s a very good doggy for not spitting at me today! That deserves a treat.” She pulled a long peacock feather from her belt, and with a flourish, manufactured a hard, curled piece of faux-bacon. Pycroft eyed the morsel with disdain.   
  807. [You will puncture a vein with the pointed tip of your terrible avian plumage. Do you hear? You will do as I say.] Pycroft mentally voiced the fruitless edicts over a mouthful of gravelly food. His heart wasn’t in it.
  808. {Are you there?} The lucid voice rang in his head. He choked a little.
  809. [Yes. When were you planning on helping me to escape?]
  810.         {Sympathy for your situation is not scarce. You are the victim of prioritization. Currently I suffer my own incarceration. you realize this.}
  811.         [You were never going to help me. I hate you. You are worse than this dumb girl.]
  812.         Pycroft pressed his face on a thick bar, his sickly skin wrinkling against it. His cage was one of many in rows along a dim, damp hallway. It looked like a sort of kennel, which may at one point have sheltered any number of fanciful beasts. The kennel was empty, but for one beast. It might have been considered fanciful from one perspective, but from all other perspectives, it was just sad.
  813. {Of course if you wanted to escape, you could have done so easily by severing one of your limbs, or even biting off one of your toes.}
  814. [But that would hurt. Also, I hate you.]
  815. {Then you will have to wait.}
  816.  
  817. The trap door opened into a cloud of mold spores. Herbert crawled out of the hole in the floor, resting his hands and knees on a thick netting of vines and creepers. The plants were everywhere, embedded in the wooden floor and furniture, covering up the windows, and caked against the walls. Walls, which ran smoothly, uninterrupted around the perimeter of the room. Was the room a circle?
  818.         Herbert stood up. Whatever this room was, it looked like it had been left unattended for centuries. There wasn’t much to see in the faint light poking through the vines on the windows. The windows, beneath their vinery, seemed rather grand to him, large and stately. In fact, the more he took in the surroundings, whatever lay beneath the growth seemed to allude to a sense of grandeur. Something that held a certain authoritative elegance when viewed in its prime. There was a large desk. There were flags behind the desk, spotted with mold. Were they American flags? Those colors didn’t run, Herbert thought, but they did apparently rot under the right conditions. There were paintings on the wall. Through their weathered appearance, he could make the portraits out to be…
  819.         He realized the room wasn’t a circle. It was an oval. And the letters on the sign in the juncture below, to his relief, were not meant to be his initials at all. This was the Whitehouse.
  820.         He positioned his eye in front of a gap in the vines on the window. The glass was too dirty to see through, or to confirm his hope against hope that this somehow meant he’d returned to his country. Why there would be a poorly maintained replica of the Whitehouse somewhere in the U.S., he didn’t know. But the notion of such a thing occupying this magical dimension was even less explicable to him.
  821.         The room seemed to have no power. He looked along the walls, hoping for a way to illuminate the room. There was a switch. Next to the switch, resting in the corner of the oval office, was something strange.
  822.         Herbert stood by the switch with his hand poised to flip it, but pausing first to examine the large object. It was a box of grimy, vine-tangled glass, similar to a phone booth, but with no apparent way in or out. Herbert could see something inside. Something dark and motionless, somewhat like a human figure. Herbert put his hand on his gun.
  823.         Above the object was another smaller box. It also was made of glass, but had electrical components to it. A cable, presumably for power, ran out its back, along the wall and into the mount for the switch.
  824.         Herbert shrugged and flipped the switch.
  825.         He squinted against the surprisingly bright overhead lights. Hundreds of insects came to life as they all at once scuttled for darker sanctuary in the vines. There was a soft beeping noise, which sounded as if it ticked the seconds. This was confirmed when Herbert saw the smaller box above, which had lit up like a digital clock, and was now counting down. 05:59:56… 05:59:55… 05:59:54…
  826. Herbert cautiously engaged the larger glass box, wiping a streak of scum from the surface. There was a figure inside. It was a statue. It was smooth and featureless, like a kind of mannequin made of dark stone. There was a circular hollow in its chest, where the heart would be.
  827.         Dry vines snapped under Herbert’s feet as he wandered to the desk. He made a vacant assessment of the ancient office supplies and documents, then turned to look at the clock again. He dwelled solemnly on whatever event was supposed to occur in six hours. Luckily, he thought as a Twinkie-sized cockroach crawled over his shoe, the temptation to hang around that long probably wouldn’t be insurmountable.
  828.  
  829. Allen Pycroft’s breath took form in the cold air in front of his wet black nose. He concentrated over a small potted plant as his soft, pink human hands made dexterous pruning motions about it with a little pair of scissors.
  830. Counselor Slinus’ tone was conversational. “How do you get that thing to grow in here?”
  831. “Since you won’t permit me to use magic, I decided that what little I could muster ought to be put to use.”
  832. “It’s quite lovely. A banzai of some sort?”
  833. “Not that I expect you to appreciate incantations meant to promote the well being of living things.”
  834.         Pycroft’s words were surprisingly clear and well-formed considering they emerged from a canine mouth. People always tended to take in stride the notion of talking dogs, even though the floppy, broad-snouted lips and big teeth hardly seemed conducive to human elocution. The elegant canine snout was affixed to a handsome gray-furred canine head, which in turn was attached to a canine’s upper torso. The only human aspects of him, aside from his elocution, were his hands, and everything from the waist down, which was covered by a nice pair of pants.
  835.         The pants sat on a frosty chair, and the hands busied themselves over a table, which was white with frost. They were the only pieces of furniture in the sizeable walk-in freezer. Next to the counselor, Gil stood shivering.
  836. “What a ridiculous thing to say. It’s basically my chief concern. What do you think all my work is about?”
  837. {Promoting the well being of yourself alone is not quite what I meant.}
  838. “Stay out of my head, Fido.” Slinus pointed his handheld computer at Pycroft with his thumb poised over a touchscreen button. Pycroft raised his hand calmly, and with the other hand felt the collar around his neck, as if to visibly register the threat. He turned his yellow eyes back to the plant.
  839. “And since we’ve wandered into the subject of obedience, don’t you have something for us? We did come all this way, after all.”
  840. “Yes,” Pycroft responded.
  841. “Well? What of your other half? Isn’t he at Crossnest?”
  842. “Yes. He has also confirmed that the youngsters you seek are there as well.”
  843. “Oh. Why hasn’t he done anything about it yet?”
  844. “It appears he has been imprisoned in the kennel for some time.”
  845. Slinus suppressed a snort. As he punched rapid commands into his device, he made an effort to sound short-tempered again through his bemusement. “I don’t know why I’m surprised. Jesus Christ, can’t you people tell me these things sooner?”
  846. Gilbert rubbed his arms for warmth, transfixed by the prisoner. Most of Marlevort’s minions tended to be wretched freaks of nature, and altogether unpleasant company. But for whatever reason, Gil found in himself a great deal of pity for Mr. Pycroft. He asked softly to the counselor, “Why isn’t he allowed to use magic?”
  847. {Because he fears me.}
  848. The voice entered his head, like a stray echo of unknown origin in a room of complex acoustical mechanics. He looked at Slinus, who seemed not to have heard it.
  849. “There,” Slinus said. “I remotely opened all of the cages in Crossnest. He should be able to make some progress now. Next time you talk to him, tell him to find the Slipknot and get out of there. And failing that, at least capture those kids. Seriously, it is absolutely ridiculous it’s gone on this long. It would have saved us both a lot of trouble if you had told me all this sooner. Your minor acts of rebellion are petulant and tiresome.”
  850. “Do you really think my correspondent will be able to accomplish the task? Even you would have to agree that my abilities are more suitable.”
  851. Slinus widened his smile, exaggerating the lines on his face, which were unusually severe for a young man’s complexion. “Who knows, maybe he’ll get lucky and have his head cut off.”
  852. As the counselor and his cohort turned to leave, Gil looked back at the prisoner. His glance met with a potent pair of animal eyes, deadly still in what they transmitted silently. Gil nodded in sleepy accord.
  853. “At least a part of me will be free from a cage,” Pycroft quipped.
  854. “Hey, that’s the spirit!” Slinus activated the electrified collar once for good measure before exiting through the heavy refrigerator door.
  855.  
  856. The documents on the oval office desk looked older than the constitution itself. Some were loose notes penned in chicken scratch. Others looked like more formal memorandums, vaguely pertaining to military operations, none from which Herbert derived much meaning. There were also doodles here and there on the curled stationery. They looked like the renditions of an aspiring cartoonist. They weren’t very good.
  857.  
  858.  
  859.  
  860. There wasn’t much in the drawers, but the one item of interest was a real find. It was a colonial flintlock pistol, and looked reasonably authentic. It had a wooden grip, a brass-colored barrel, and was generously trimmed with ornate silver metalwork. He held it firmly, aimed it with mock resolve, closed the eye hidden behind the patch (as if it served any purpose), and squeezed the trigger. There was an impotent “click”.
  861.         Herbert flipped the pistol by the loop around his finger, and tucked it into the waist strap of his holster. If he was going to steal anything from the government building, it might as well be something of ostensible value.
  862.         He leaned back in the cracked leather chair, blinking his bad eye a few more times. He thought about what Thundleshick had said, and the vial he’d given him. Could he really trust the deceitful sorcerer? Still, what motive could he have for giving him a bogus remedy? It made him all the more curious. And if it really did work, he thought it would be nice not to have the damnable strap squeezing his head all the time, or for that matter, to be able to just once take a shot in a game of basketball that did not miss the hoop by at least six feet. The gym class nickname “Wizardy Airball” was sufferable for only so long.
  863.         He pulled the anonymous manuscript from his pocket and dropped it on the desk. From the same pocket, he removed the vial and uncapped it. He raised the eye patch to press against his forehead, leaned back, and tapped a drop of the liquid into his blinking eye.
  864.         The fierce burning was instantaneous and overpowering. He might as well have been pouring hot sauce into the orifice. He shouted and dropped the vial.
  865.         After moments of eye-rubbing and obscenities directed at a wily old campmaster, he cracked his eye open. He saw nothing from it. The magician had bested him again.
  866.         He looked down at the vial he’d dropped. Some of the liquid had splashed onto the cover of the manuscript. There was a curious change where the drops met the blacked-out title.
  867.  
  868. _iza__y__er__rt
  869. One
  870.  
  871. He tentatively placed his finger against the moisture and smeared it about the rest of the hidden letters.
  872.  
  873. Wizardy Herbert
  874. One
  875.  
  876.  
  877. The bowl of kibble was overturned. The tracks left by four wet paws ran a trail on the corridor floors until they were dry and no longer visible.
  878.         Carmen had followed the tracks back to the kennel, and regarded with dismay the unlocked, empty cage. She dropped the toy she had brought for her pet. It squeaked as it bounced.
  879.  
  880. Herbert stared at the title for a moment in an eye-stinging daze. As the liquid evaporated, the letters again faded to black.
  881.         He picked up the book, and the vial which he recapped, regarding them both cautiously. His mind turned to all the other words in the book which were blacked out, and then it turned to the bit of liquid remaining in the vial.
  882.         He left the vial standing on the desk. He watched it suspiciously for a moment.
  883. He sat heavily back into the chair, which reclined with a rusty squeak. And then an ominous mechanical clicking noise.
  884.         And then a BOOM.
  885.         The chair had automatically secured him to it with restraints, and blasted off through the ceiling of the oval office.
  886.         As the smoke of freshly burned rocket fuel cleared from the now-silent room, the faint beeping could be heard, by no one in particular.
  887.         05:36:23… 05:36:22… 05:36:21…
  888.  
  889. [Rucksack.]
  890. “Huh?”
  891. [You. Rucksack.]
  892.         This was only making Russet’s headache worse. He didn’t know if it was a side effect of the medication, but he always began feeling this way when he took it. It may have been akin to reducing altitude in a plane too suddenly, and the sensation from the differential in pressure all at once. At least the pills could be said to trigger a “responsible” nosedive, one that was not punctuated with an orange fireball and blackened metal filling a crater in some vacant rural expanse.
  893.         “My name is Russet. Stop talking to me, ok?”
  894. [Get something for me. I command you.]
  895.         “No.”
  896. [Yes. I command it. You will retrieve the Modulus Splitnotch.]
  897. “You mean the Mobius Slipknot?”
  898. [Whatever. Get it.]
  899. “No way. Shut up.”
  900. [You have to. I command it.]
  901. “Get it yourself.”
  902. [I don’t know where it is. You do. Get it for me.]
  903. “I do not! Moron.”
  904. [Anyone who is affected by its power can know where it is. Trust your instincts and find it.]
  905. “So you know that much about this thing, yet you don’t know its name?”
  906. [Yes. Now find it, Ruck… Russ… sack.]
  907. Russet was about to continue the pointless dialogue, but in spite of himself examined his own mindscape for whatever it was he could allegedly detect. Maybe it was the reduced turbulence afforded by the medication, but there was something there. Something faint, but nagging. And there was directionality to it. The direction, not surprisingly, pointed to Beatrix’s room.
  908.         He found his way there and entered, and engaged in a practice which seemed new to him. It was a kind of sniffing with his mind. He gravitated towards a vent high on the wall. He dragged a chair over to it. But he didn’t stand on it. Something wasn’t right.
  909.         He thought for a moment, then dragged the chair a few feet to the left, and stood on it. He waved his hand in front of a blank region of the concrete wall. Then knocked on it. The knock did not sound like concrete, but metal. The patch of blank wall dissolved to reveal a second vent, concealed by a simple illusion. He opened the vent and removed the locket.
  910.         [Very good. You are detestable, but have been a useful pawn. Now bring it to me.]
  911.         Russet examined the locket, turning it over in his hands. He slipped it into his pocket, hidden away behind his cape. “No way.”
  912.         [You will give it to me. This is my command. do you understand?]
  913.         “You have got to be one of the crappiest psychic masterminds of all time.”
  914. [When I find you I am going to bite you in the face.]
  915. “Pff.”
  916.  
  917. High above a range of spiky, snowcapped mountains, Herbert sat in his rocket chair with the same expression one might have after recently deflating a whoopee cushion without the use of one’s hands.
  918.         The Whitehouse, archaic-looking, though otherwise identical to the genuine article, nestled among the rocky peaks. He swiveled his head to get a sense of the majestic panorama, hopeful for the sliver of a chance that these might be the Rocky Mountains. That hope became slimmer when he noticed an object near the forested horizon, small and distant, spinning in place. It was the holographic beacon.
  919.         Beneath his hand, Herbert noticed a small control panel had revealed itself on the chair’s armrest. He used it to navigate the noisy piece of furniture towards Fort Crossnest.
  920.  
  921. [Be reasonable. What use could you have with the object, Rustic?]
  922.         “Russet. I’m going to hold on to it and keep it safe. For Beatrix.”
  923.         [The other male is after it too. Your friend, Granite.]
  924.         “Well, if Grant needs it, then I guess I’m protecting for him too.” He thought about his friend, and the sense of fondness that was present when he entered his mind. He found that feeling tempered while on his meds, blunted by this form of uncomfortable sobriety. Was it truly such a deep friendship, or just a kind of loyalty to his older brother-figure? Grant had always tirelessly looked out for him. But then, hadn’t that also been what Beatrix had done ever since he met her? In the sterile conditions of his mind, he found he could better analyze these feelings, as if in a laboratory. Yet conclusions were no more forthcoming.
  925.         [You can’t protect it for both.]
  926.         “Watch me! Or better yet, go screw yourself.”
  927.         [Which side are you on?]
  928.         Russet paused, then muttered to himself, “That’s what I’d like to know.”
  929.         He stood by the bedside table. Under the doll, he was surprised to find a number of cartoon sketches, among which was a nice rendering of himself. He smiled briefly. He felt confused. There was a knot in his stomach when he thought of Beatrix and her kindness. Guilt? He was not depressed, but felt like he should be. He knew there would be no elation to be found in anything, either. Not any time soon. This thought somehow depressed him on a more fundamental level than any palpable depression. He wished he hadn’t taken his medication.
  930.         He picked up the doll. For some reason, the thought of the great Campmaster Thundleshick and his infinite wisdom entered his mind. Was there anything this magnificent man couldn’t do? In an act of spontaneous curiosity, he twisted it. He vanished. The unsupported doll fell to the floor.
  931.  
  932. In a third-floor room, there was a pair of queen beds covered in rumpled, untucked sheets. There was a boy lounging in each bed. The two of them lazily absorbed the sales pitches from loud infomercials.
  933. “I don’t understand what’s so amazing about this blender. If anything, it seems less useful than the average blender.”
  934. “What are you talking about? It’s the Magic Bullet!” Russet endorsed enthusiastically. “It probably has all sorts of horsepower. Did you even see how fast they made that chicken salad??”
  935. Grant considered the extraordinary boast. “Why the heck would you use a blender to make chicken salad, anyway? Besides, the compartment seems unusually small. Like if they’re making salsa or something, when they call for tomatoes or onions, it’s always a cherry tomato, or a pearl onion. So they can fit them the stupid thing.”
  936. “I fail to see the problem with that.”
  937. Grant wrinkled his nose at what he regarded as a needlessly phallic appliance. He looked at Russet, who was rapt in the program, and decided not to voice that particular grievance. Grant picked up the remote and changed the channel to a live broadcast of the 2000 Summer Olympics women’s gymnastics competition.
  938. The boys listened to the sounds of feminine athletic exertion and the slapping of gym mats with chalked extremities. At the sight of a snug leotard, bunched in strategic points about a muscular frame, Grant raised his eyebrows and said to his friend, “Nothing wrong with that now, eh, buddy?”
  939. Russet folded his arms with stylized impatience. Grant smirked at the ten year-old boy, who in his estimation was probably not quite mature enough to appreciate such spectacles. Then again, only several years his superior, Grant barely was either. In any case, he thought those girls were all a bit freakishly muscular, and made for targets of admiration in the same way a workhorse pulling a plow was to an equestrian.
  940. “Could we please switch it to HSN now? This is boring.”
  941. Grant handed over the remote. Russet hopped eagerly through the channels, passing by in the blink of an eye some form of animated entertainment.
  942. “Hey, was that Cowboy Bebop?” Grant wondered.
  943. “Dunno! Maybe.”
  944. “Was it one we’ve seen?”
  945. “I think we’ve seen enough of what you want to watch for a while.” Russet settled on footage of a slowly rotating object so gaudy, it could only have been obtained by mugging a gypsy, a pimp, or most likely, some cross-pollination of the two specimens.
  946. “Sweet Jesus, only six hours left for the Epiphany Collection! My God, could that price be slashed any lower?”
  947. It was always hard for Grant to tell if Russet enjoyed watching and commenting on the Home Shopping Network ironically.
  948. Grant was descending the other side of a heavy sigh at the prospect of another gauntlet of televised sales pitches when he glanced at Russet’s prescription bottle on the bedside table.
  949. “Looks like you’re empty.”
  950. “Oh. Right.” Russet didn’t remove his gaze from the shimmering bargain jewelry.
  951. Grant waited for the obligatory pause to subside. He continued, raising his voice over a particularly aggressive endorsement from satisfied consumer, Deborah in Pensacola, Florida. “You should go refill the prescription now.”
  952. Russet turned, his expression flattened out. “I wonder why you insist on using that word? There is no prescription. Or doctor. There’s just you.”
  953. Grant stared back, holding up his end of the well-rehearsed game of chicken. Russet went on. “It’s always been just you. I wonder how you even know this is the right medication for me.”
  954. “Just go.”
  955.  
  956. Beatrix wandered down the corridor with the shell-shocked look of a bombing survivor. She’d been to her room to retrieve the locket, hoping Grant might provide some insight into the artifact. It was gone.
  957.         At an intersection, she nearly collided with Carmen, who wore a similarly spooked look.
  958.         “Hi,” Carmen said. Her greeting was not the usual assault of nervous energy. “Is everything alright?”
  959.         “Hi. I… I think I lost something.”
  960.         “Yeah, me too.” Though they’d both found accord on this issue, Carmen seemed less than forthcoming with high-five offers.
  961.         “I should probably go see Grant and Russet about this.”
  962.         Carmen nodded. “I should probably go find my pet.”
  963.         “… Pet?”
  964.  
  965. Russet trotted downstairs to the sprawling empty hotel lobby. His shoes squeaked on the floor, echoing through the ghostly space. His whole world—all that he could remember, at least—was one of empty rooms.
  966.         He walked by the shelves supporting handy tourism pamphlets on historic colonial attractions, and pushed through one of the heavy front doors, meeting the howling ocean wind. He made his way down the valet driveway and turned, walking alongside the fragment of the city park. The empty, rusted parked cars were commonplace to him, invisible. He turned at the corner to face rows of storefronts and apartment buildings, obscured by salty mist with greater distance. He entered the pharmacy.
  967.         He pressed on hand on the counter and threw his legs over it, leaving a handprint in the dust. The shelves were amply stocked with hundreds of forms of medication, most of which were useless to the only two people who occupied any building in a block and a half radius. Russet unscrewed the lid to the larger store of Divalproex, and refilled his container. He at times contemplated bringing the whole thing up with him. But this way, it at least allowed for that possibility of running out, even if it only briefly escaped his friend’s diligent watch.
  968.         He left the store and walked down the street to the asphalt edge, an abrupt termination of the road. The ocean stretched uninterrupted to the horizon. Its gentle waves made sloshing noises on the base of the urban platform, about five yards below his feet. It was five yards of savage concrete and uprooted rebar, harboring knots of barnacles and pockets of green, scummy growth. He sat down, his legs swinging over the edge, and unfocused his eyes at his orange bottle towards the water below.
  969. “Hey. What’s up?”
  970. Russet turned around, surprised to hear Grant’s voice. He looked back at the water. “Do you think we’ll ever leave this place?”
  971. Grant had never heard him ask that. In fact, any time Grant would bring it up, Russet tended to change the subject. “Why do you want to know now?”
  972. “I don’t know. I just think it might be fun to be able to meet other people. Couldn’t we take a boat? Or fly?”
  973. “I’d like nothing more than to leave too. But I’ve never been sure exactly where we are. Or how far we are from land. We could be in the middle of the Pacific Ocean for all we know. If that’s the case, taking a boat would probably result in getting lost for weeks at sea, and probably dying out there.”
  974. “Oh…”
  975. “Flying could take days too, and I just don’t have the magic capital for it. I’ve never been good with flying spells. Maybe if I gave myself big wings like a dragon…” Grant thought about it for a second, as if the idea held the slightest morsel of promise. He shook his head. “I’m sure you could pull it off, if you weren’t on your meds. But how long would it last before you crashed? Uh, literally, I guess? Do you want to take that risk for both of us?”
  976. “I guess not.”
  977. “Besides, I don’t know why, but magic just isn’t quite as potent here on Earth.”
  978. Russet turned and made a funny face at him. “As opposed to where?”
  979. “Oh. Never mind.”
  980. “Is this really all there is? If there’s so much more to the world, why can’t I get to see it? To be able to visit the places I’ve seen on TV. To be able to buy some of the merchandise. It’s like…” He paused. “It’s like I’m missing out on a future I can’t have, and a past I can’t remember. All the while I’m stuck in a present in which I can only function on these damned horse tranquilizers. Why can’t I remember anything other than living here alone with you? About my parents, or where I grew up, or how we even got stuck here? Or…” Russet stopped. Most disturbing of all to him was, when he tried to think about it, he couldn’t remember anything prior to that day. And for some reason, he didn’t want to. He couldn’t even bring himself to ask.
  981. Grant broke in, as if reading his mind. “Some things aren’t worth remembering fully. Better to enjoy the moment.”
  982. They paused. It was quiet. Not even seagulls. There were never seagulls. This told Grant more than anything how far from land they probably were.
  983. Russet was standing up. “Maybe it won’t always be like this. Maybe some day I’ll get better completely, and I’ll be able to use all the magic I want. Then I can take us both anywhere.”
  984. “I hope so.” Grant rested his hand on Russet’s shoulder. “One way or another, I promise we’ll get off of this stupid island, if you can call it that. It will be soon.”
  985. “Splendid. I’d love to meet other people.”
  986. Grant tussled his friend’s hair, ruining hours of work spent in front of a bathroom mirror. “Hey, since when do we even need anyone else, buddy?”
  987. Russet laughed, and looked into his friend’s reassuring eyes. He trusted him completely, and knew Grant’s promise would be upheld. Though neither could have known it would take another four years to uphold it.
  988.  
  989. Herbert held the phone up to his ear. “No, nothing yet.” He pushed the hang-up button a few times as if it served any purpose, probably on account of the fact that that’s what they sometimes did in movies.
  990.         Grant sat on the floor in front of the odd mailbox-sized machine the phone was hooked into. The front hatch to the clear plastic case was open. He operated on the peculiar mechanical parts inside, which all seemed designed to accommodate the two discs with ‘3π’ labeled between them. After some inscrutable adjustment, he said, “Ok, try again.”
  991.         “Hey, I’m getting a tone now. Nice!” Herbert began dialing his home phone number. “I guess you’re pretty good with machines, aren’t you… Grant, was it?”
  992.         He nodded. “Uh, yeah. I’ve had to fix a few before.”
  993.         Herbert finished dialing authoritatively and continued, “You have to be able to take things into your own hands. You can’t count on all these idiotic miracles or fat old magicians to solve all your problems for you. That’s what I’m learning.”
  994.         “Couldn’t agree more, Herbert.”
  995.         “It’s nice to finally talk to someone around here who’s not totally out of his gourd. Not like your lunatic friend, Clove. No offense. Or that counselor girl who’s completely batshi—hey…” Herbert halted his ramble. “Why isn’t this thing ringing yet?” He looked down at the machine which had allegedly been repaired. The two discs were spooling slowly.
  996.         “Give it a second.”
  997.         Herbert nearly dropped the phone at the surprise of the voice behind him. The tone was less than relaxed. “Herbert. You’re back!” Beatrix didn’t look exactly pleased to see him, and Carmen didn’t look like she exactly… saw him. She was spacing out, biting a nail.
  998.         Herbert was about to say something, but detected activity on the phone which required his attention. He held up a finger to the girls. “Hang on, can’t talk now. Oh. Yeah, Carmen, I’ve got a bone to pick with you about the quest. Oh, and you too, Beatrix. You’re not off the hook either. We need to have a little talk.”
  999.         Beatrix sank very slightly in contrition from the rebuke she knew she probably deserved. Carmen’s reaction was somewhat different. “I forgot all about it! My gosh, the quest! How did it go? What bounty did you receive?!”
  1000. On another occasion this would have been a good story to tell through a volley of ad hominem and reddened facial expressions, an occasion to which Herbert would have risen with aplomb. He was on the phone though, so a pithy summation would have to do. “He gave me some rolls of toilet paper.”
  1001.         “Oooooh. That is awesome! You know, good TP is hard to come by around here. Good job, Junior Camper Herbert! High-fi—” Herbert shushed her and listened.
  1002.         It was the same kind of sound he’d heard over the phone before. It was a low-pitched sound gradually becoming louder, higher in pitch. The noise reached its peak, then began sliding down again, as if over a lazy hill of sound. This happened again, as Herbert concentrated. Then again. They were happening faster, at a higher pitch, until the entire hills of sound were short, rhythmic, increasingly frequent “bips”.
  1003.         biiiip    biiip   biiip   biip  bip  bip bip bip bip-bip-bip-bip-bi-bi-bi-bi-bbbbbbbrrrrrrriiiiiiiiing.
  1004.         Herbert waited.
  1005.         riiing.
  1006.         “It’s… ringing. Finally.”
  1007.         Beatrix sidled over to Grant. She glanced around, as if participating in a theatrical brand of espionage. Samantha and Simon were in the rec. room, over by the couch amusing themselves with the box of magical trinkets. They waved to her. The soup can was there too. It appeared to be in the middle of a moronic face-off with the slumbering Vend-O-Badge machine.
  1008.         She whispered to Grant, “I can’t find it. The Slipknot.”
  1009.         He whispered back. “What? What do you mean?”
  1010.         “It’s gone. I lost it.”
  1011.         “Well, where did you last see it?”
  1012.         Carmen had sidled up as well, ready to deal her own persuasion of dire intrigue. “Guys, I think we have bigger things to worry about. He’s… loose.”
  1013.         riiing.
  1014.         Someone picked up on the other end. “Hello?”
  1015.         Herbert jumped at the unmistakable sound of his father’s voice. “Hey, quiet guys! Hello? Dad?” He waited for a response which did not come. “Hello?? Dad, are you there??”
  1016.         “You’re going to have to wait a little while. For the disc to finish spooling,” Grant said.
  1017.         “And why is that, exactly?”
  1018.  
  1019. Russet found himself amidst a small mob of smelly, agitated primates. The way they gathered around him in this dank castle parlor, he surmised they’d all been preoccupied with the doll shortly before he arrived, possibly evaluating its comestible properties. His sudden appearance was a rude and frightening occurrence, as most unexpected things are to savage, brainless apes.
  1020.         With a look of disgust, he made a snapping motion with his wand, effecting one of the few spells his current condition would afford. There was a loud firecracker noise and a bright spark from the tip of his wand. The apes went into shrieking flight for cover.
  1021.  
  1022. It had been several minutes and Herbert was still waiting for his dad to answer. The last thing he’d heard from his father was, “Oh, hey, champ. Yeah, I’m here. I can hear you. Can you hear me alright? Honestly I’m surprised to hear from you so soon!” In fact, he’d heard it several times already, since Grant had showed him how to replay the audio from the last transmission.
  1023.         It was becoming difficult to focus on why these peculiar constraints even existed. Herbert found it hard to monitor the phone for another response from his dad, carry on a conversation with Grant about obscure telecommunications phenomena, and filter out the distractions in the room all at once. Lentil was now emitting yapping noises like a small dog, directed at the badge machine. The orphan kids, to Herbert’s lament, had discovered and wound up the Singe Vilain, and now sounded as if they were auditioning for an edgy comedy series on HBO.
  1024.         Between fits of obscene language, Simon tootled away inharmoniously on a flute, causing a swarm of cockroaches to march in well-disciplined phalanx. He remarked on his handiwork. “Whoa, &β#$© coool!”
  1025.         “Simon, give me a ∑@%& turn with the &β#$© magic flute.” He capitulated and gave his sister the instrument.
  1026.         Herbert held his head, as if to contain the throbbing agent inside trying to escape. “Ok. Can you explain this clearly? What does this weird magical phone machine do?”
  1027.         “Actually, it’s not magical at all,” Grant replied. “It’s a simple magnetic tape device for recording sound. There is a delay in the conversation because it needs time to spool the audio signal from Earth, and then compress it down before playing it back. Or I guess more accurately, it just plays it back at a higher speed.”
  1028.         “What?”
  1029.         “Similarly, it needs to record your end of the conversation, and then play it back over the receiver in slow-motion.”
  1030.         “Why would it need to do that?” Herbert looked as if he was humoring the vivid spiel of a lunatic searching for converts to his new religion. One that conservatively involved aliens, Pokemon trading cards, and the ghost of Colonel Sanders.
  1031.         The discs reversed direction, and sped up. Herbert’s father spoke over the phone. “Yes, Herb. Your mother made some dinner and now we’re settling in for the evening here. How was the bus ride to the camp? It was a long day of travel, so I’d guess you’re tired, huh?”
  1032.         “What? What do you mean? That was days ago. What… what day do you think it is it?” Herbert looked at Grant, then said into the phone, “Hang on dad,” though it was pretty clear by now he didn’t really need to buy any time from his father’s end of the conversation. The discs had reversed direction and slowed down.
  1033.         Herbert held up his hand, making a “do I really need to ask?” gesture at Grant. “Uh…” Grant hemmed. “Right. The phone has to work this way because of the time differential between the two worlds. Time moves slower on Earth than it does here. By a factor of 3π, to be precise.”
  1034.         “… Oh. Well 3π, no Δ!%§®. How could I not &β#$© know that.” The Singe Vilain had begun whir its way across the room on sputtering plastic legs, carrying with it its sphere of influence. The little army of cockroaches followed it like the grand marshal in a kind of pocket-sized pestilence/obscenity themed parade.
  1035.         “Go monkey! $*©#@ go! Ha, ha!” Simon exhilarated.
  1036.         “Look at the little &β#$© troops!” Samantha said between spirited toots on the charmed instrument. “They are so $!#¢® cute!”
  1037.         Herbert put down the phone and calmly strolled across the room. He raised his foot, and brought it down on the toy monkey. The roaches broke rank and scuttled about the debris of cheap Chinese plastic bits. The orphans frowned.
  1038.         “Anyway,” Grant said, “It’s like this. For every minute that passes on Earth, a little less than ten pass in this realm. Similarly, for every year that passes there, almost ten years go by here. Think of it like two rivers, one fast, the other slow. We’re on the fast river.”
  1039.         Herbert turned to Carmen. “I’m not sure why I’m asking you this, but does this sound right?” She nodded. Herbert shook his head. “Why didn’t anyone tell me this??”
  1040.         Beatrix’s face seemed to share his concern. She said to Grant, “Yeah, I’m kind of wondering when you were going to get around to mentioning this too.”
  1041.         “I guess I thought you knew already. Or had figured it out. I don’t know. I’ve had a lot on my mind, looking for… Russet.”
  1042.         The discs reversed direction and sped up. Herbert held the phone to his ear. His father spoke. “It’s the third, isn’t it? (Dear, what’s the date? Isn’t it the third?) Yeah, June third, your first day of summer camp. So Herb, I imagine by now you’re privy to the big surprise. I hope you’re not too crushed about not having to do all those accounting drills.” By William’s tone, Herbert could tell he was rather amused with himself. “Well, tell you what. When you get back, I’ll make it up to you. We can sit down as a family and we can all get a head start on the taxes for the next fiscal year. You’re on spreadsheet duties all the way, champ. That’s a promise. But in the meantime, maybe you can do your old man a favor and try to have some fun. I hear that Thundleshick guy has a few things up his sleeve for—”
  1043.         “Dad!” Herbert tried in vain to interrupt the audio recording of his dad’s monologue. “Dad! Enough with the accounting stuff, da— Dad! I’m trying to tell you some—Oh, jesus.”
  1044.         He held the phone in front of his face, grimacing at it with frustration. Not being able to get to his father was nothing new. Chalking up the miscommunication to a pronounced multi-dimensional time schism barely occurred to him. Anyone well acquainted with his family relationships might not have had the thought either.
  1045.  
  1046. Herbert scrunched against the door in the back seat of the car, trying to ignore his family. They were on their way to Florida for a winter vacation, and from the periphery of his awareness, his parents and brother might have been attempting to sing together. He couldn’t be sure though, as he’d done his best to filter out the intolerable behavior by focusing on the strange book he’d found recently.
  1047.  
  1048. “_______, where do you hope the Allotment Socks shall send you?” _______ asked
  1049. “Hmmmmmm I don’t know” _______ was so confused by this new place and all of these new friends and new adventures “I hope they send me to the one which values friendship above all else!” _______ said, he sounded brave and heroic.
  1050. “HA!!!” ______ scoffed arragantly. “As if you have what it takes.” He was brash and haughty and nobody liked him.
  1051. “Don’t listen to him _______ his arragance will be his downfall.”
  1052.  
  1053. The reading experience for Herbert was the cerebral equivalent of biting into a lemon. He wasn’t sure which was more difficult to endure—the manuscript, or his family’s relentless good cheer.
  1054.         “Hey, Herb, we could use some backup,” William said from the driver’s seat. “What are you reading there?”
  1055.         “I think it’s one of his Valera books,” Seymour said. “Did you know he’s obsessed with a girl’s book, dad?”
  1056.         “It’s not Vera.” Herbert said. “It’s something I found in Louis’ old room.”
  1057.         “Oh, yeah.” Donna smiled at him from the front passenger seat. “I think it’s wonderful that you’re taking an interest in your brother’s work. What do you think of it?”
  1058.         “It’s… um...” Herbert fumbled for a diplomatic word. “Enthusiastic. So what happened to him, anyway?”
  1059.         Seymour leapt to change the subject as if putting out a grease fire in the kitchen. “Hey! What should we sing next! My vote is for Camptown Races!”
  1060.         His father gave a mock-salute into the rearview mirror and began counting “a one, a two…” to jumpstart the old-timey melody. Seymour relaxed back into the leather seat and basked his parents’ good cheer. He whispered towards his brother, “Let’s not do anything to bring them down. They’ve been so happy lately.” He paused, putting a dash of something into his expression which made him seem slightly maniacal. “And it’s all thanks to you, Herbert.”
  1061.         Herbert looked faintly nauseated. The remark confused and irritated him. Before he could ask for a clarification, Seymour had turned to contribute his boisterous vocals and suspect harmonics at the lyric, “All the doo-dah day!”
  1062.         Herbert redoubled upon the poor fiction in his lap. He had nothing in common with his current travel mates, and was dumbfounded to think he shared any genes with them at all.
  1063. From what he could decipher about the book, through the copious CIA-style omission of certain names and items, it was about children. The children in the book tended to be adopted orphans, and though they were all harrowingly one-dimensional, cliché-spouting nitwits, at least they were free from the bondage of family lunacy. And for this, Herbert envied them with all his heart.
  1064.  
  1065. The phone was back on its hook. He hadn’t made much progress with his father, and before hanging up in frustration with the faltering mode of communication, he issued the statement, “Ok, look. Can’t talk now. Summer camp is magical deathtrap from hell. Thundleshick lied and picked my pockets. Weird time vortex. Send help if possible. Will talk later. Bye.”
  1066.         The room was silent. Herbert tapped the top of the recording device’s plastic case as he thought about what to do. But something wasn’t quite right in the rec. room. Everyone felt it, but couldn’t place it. Herbert spaced out into the corner of the room. Then he saw what it was. There were now two Vend-O-Badge machines. One of them had a broad, jagged metal grin, and a pair of eyes just above it, spaced far apart from each other.
  1067.         It was Lentil. He stood next to the other machine, smiling quietly, and looking quite pleased with himself. Herbert ogled the pair with a distant look in his eye utterly unique to those who behold unspeakable stupidity.
  1068. He decided the stupid event was not worth commenting on. And in any case, he just realized he had something more important to address. He was mad at Beatrix.
  1069. “Anyway,” he said sharply. “Beatrix, what gives?”
  1070. “Huh?”
  1071. “Don’t you have some explaining to do? I think you know what I’m talking about.”
  1072. “Oh, um…” She was momentarily chagrinned, but then found her own wellspring of righteous indignation. “I could ask you the same thing! That was a pretty mean trick, opening the doll while I was gone. Do you realize you almost got all of us killed?” She overemphasized the word to wring the literal meaning from it.
  1073. “Well, sorry. I just wasn’t sure if I could trust you. What, are you stalking me or something? What do you want from me?”
  1074. “I wanted to tell you…” She trailed off. Her handle on the situation was unraveling.
  1075. “Tell me what? Where did you get that info about me?” Herbert was hiking up his volume with each inquiry. Grant and Carmen traded askance looks of discomfort.
  1076.         “It was hard to come by. I finally got it from a place that had extensive archives on kids with sketchy documentation.”
  1077.         “Sketchy documentation? What the hell does that mean?”
  1078.         “I was going to tell you everything, Herbert. I really was.”
  1079.         “Tell me what? What are you talking about?”
  1080.         “Well, for starters…” Beatrix took a breath, and blew a strand of hair from her face. “You’re adopted, Herbert.”
  1081.         Herbert’s face drew from a great pool of emotive possibilities, but came up empty.
  1082.         “$*©#@.”
  1083.         The others looked around, wondering if the Singe Vilain had been reassembled and wound up.
  1084. It had not.
  1085.  
  1086. Are you sure you want to do this? It’ll probably be dangerous. Not to mention a lot of hard work.”
  1087.         “Yeah, J.” ‘J.’ was how Beatrix referred to her older roommate, Jamal.
  1088.         “It’s that important to you? Guess it must be. It’s all you seem to talk about, finding this kid.” Jamal did not take his eyes off the notepad he was writing in.
  1089.         “So where is it?”
  1090.         He paused his pen-work, and looked up at her from his slouched position against the wall in their attic room of the North Jersey Orphanasium. It was a franchise on the rise, with branches sprouting up all over the tri-state region. They were being filled to capacity at an alarming rate, largely thanks to marketing brass’s ground-breaking Refer-an-Urchin® Bonus Points program.
  1091.         “Nearby. Why don’tcha write this down.”
  1092.  
  1093. Beatrix stood outside the bleak warehouse on a raw winter afternoon. She uncrumpled a sheet of loose-leaf paper containing Jamal’s directions, on the back of which she’d earlier scrawled a few notes in haste.
  1094.  
  1095. Wizardy(SP?) Herbert
  1096. summer camp?
  1097. Tristin Sheath Sheeth
  1098.  
  1099.         A high pitched voice made her jump and recrumple the note back into her pocket all at once. She recognized the faces right away, and gave them a bright smile. “Hi, guys. Long time no see!”
  1100. “Beatrix! Yay! Hi!” Simon beamed.
  1101. “What have you been up to lately? Are you still, um… living on the streets?” She wasn’t sure what the best way to phrase that question was. Luckily, she’d found conversing with simple-minded orphans wasn’t exactly a diplomatic minefield.
  1102. “Yes. But it has been ok,” Samantha said. “We have fun adventures sometimes. Did you find a home yet?”
  1103. “I… sort of. I guess you guys are here for the same thing as me, then?”
  1104. “The word is that this is a warm place to stay with things to eat. And maybe, if we are lucky, a place to be adopted by new parents. If you don’t mind doing some work first. That is what the other orphans are saying.”
  1105. “I guess we’ll find out. I suppose this place must have information on all sorts of kids like us, wouldn’t you say?” Beatrix rhetorically posed.
  1106. Simon nodded vigorously, though it could just as easily been in response to the question, “Do you think puppies should be given the right to vote?”
  1107. “I’m so happy to see you, Beatrix. It has been such a long time!”
  1108. “Yeah! We haven’t seen you much since…” Simon though about it. “That really weird and sad day.”
  1109. “Simon!” his sister hissed. “Inxnay on the eirdway… um… dayday.”
  1110. “Wasn’t it on Christmas? A bunch of Christmassesses ago?”
  1111. “Shh!”
  1112. Beatrix laughed. “Shall we go inside?”
  1113. On the other side of a chain link fence, a man in a trench coat watched them from a distance. The trench coat reached the ground, concealing his feet. He had a gray, prickly moustache. His lips curled upward at the children as they departed. He twitched his proud, substantial nose.
  1114.  
  1115. The Rubicund Wayfare rocked gently in the dim light of Level 37. Nemoira was tying a knot somewhere, likely in keeping with the onerous maintenance regimen for the ship’s preposterous plethora of bright sails.
  1116.         She paused midway through a knot so complex, it could only be executed magically. (One of the very few tasks actually warranting a magical merit badge, which ironically, was not rewarded by one.)
  1117. “I know you are there.”
  1118. [What?]
  1119.  “I can feel you. Poking around in my head.”
  1120. [Silence, boat woman. (chomp chomp) I command it. (chomp chomp)]
  1121.         “I can hear you chewing too. Really, must you make chewing noises in your mind as you eat?
  1122.         Elsewhere in a dark corner of Fort Crossnest, Pycroft sat up from his meal, startled, as if being spied upon. He snorted, wiped the blood from his lips, and delved back into the masticated snoogerfitch carcass.
  1123. [You should mind your own business. (chomp) Why don’t you go back to doing uninteresting things with rope on the Rubberband Wafer?]
  1124.         “The Rubicund… never mind. I don’t see why I should correct you.”
  1125. [You are ugly. And you are dumb.]
  1126.         “And you are up to no good. I’m going to find you and stop you.”
  1127. [I command you to shut up forever.]
  1128.         She said nothing. This response made Pycroft nervous.
  1129.  
  1130. It was another quiet afternoon in the attic. The only sound was that of pens on paper. It was as if the two writing implements were conversing with each other in a hushed, scribbly tongue.
  1131.         Beatrix interrupted the conversation with a mildly exasperated sigh. Jamal stopped writing. “Something wrong?”
  1132.         “I just can’t seem to draw anything good today. I should get out with the sketchpad more often.”
  1133.         “Know what you mean. I’d get out myself. It’s cold out there, though.”
  1134.         “I wonder if any art schools would let me in with work like this. Of course, it’s not enough just to get in. I’d need a scholarship.”
  1135.         “Can I see?”
  1136.         “I don’t want to distract you. Aren’t you pushing a deadline?”
  1137.         “Right. As if people are camping out in lines around the block to read it. Lemme see.”
  1138.         “Well, I want to read it. I don’t suppose you’d let me sneak a look before it’s done?”
  1139.         “Not a chance,” Jamal said, taking the sketchpad. He brushed a few dreadlocks over his shoulder, settling in to evaluate the art. He made the face of one who’d just received a terrible insult. “You’re insane. These are all awesome, as usual. What’s really buggin’ you there?”
  1140.         She shrugged.
  1141.         “You still looking for that guy? Wizard-what’s-his-name? You haven’t really mentioned it for a while. I’m starting to worry.”
  1142.         “Sort of. I know his name, and that’s about it. I just can’t find him. He’s not listed anywhere.”
  1143.         A Xeroxed sheet of paper slipped out of the pad has he flipped through it. He squinted at the photo of Herbert. “This is him?”
  1144.         She nodded.
  1145.         Jamal’s look of puzzlement did not fade. It cemented into one of concern. “I’m pretty sure I know this guy. Or met him, some time ago.”
  1146.         “What? Really?” Beatrix hurried to his vantage, as if his recognition could some how rub off on her, like a form of contagion.
  1147.         “Yeah. The eye patch kid. I knew his brother, years ago. At least I thought he was his brother. I wasn’t actually sure if they were related. He was an odd kid.”
  1148.         “Do you know where he lives?”
  1149.         “I know where his brother lives. Or at least used to. I haven’t heard from him in ages. Louis Eggwood. Another odd kid, sort of an aspiring writer, you could say. Really… enthusiastic.”
  1150.         “Eggwood?”
  1151.         “Yeah. This says this guy’s last name is Herbert. Maybe that’s why you couldn’t find him.”
  1152.         “Must be.” She looked at Jamal. She didn’t need to ask. Her look said it all.
  1153.         “Alright, let’s go. I’ve already missed two deadlines. What’s one more.”
  1154.  
  1155. Herbert leaned forward, groping for a way to summarize, almost as if cognizant of his duty to brief any tardy invisible listeners. “So this guy named Sheeth basically said you should be looking for me? And that I’m the key to everything you want to know? Was he more specific?”
  1156.         “No,” she replied. “I don’t think he was sure if he’d be able to meet me here at all. He might have been in some sort of trouble. I honestly don’t know why he wanted to help me.”
  1157. Grant crossed his leg in a compellingly casual manner. “Do you have any idea who this Sheeth fellow is?” ‘Fellow’ was a compellingly casual word.
  1158.         “No. Someone from here, I’d guess. We were cut off before I could find out more.”
  1159.         “What, so this was a phone call?” Herbert asked.
  1160.         “Uh… sort of.”
  1161.         “I don’t want to alarm you, but have you considered the possibility that this guy just wants the Slipknot?” Grant said. “And as long as we’re on the subject, we probably ought to be looking for it before it falls into the wrong hands.”
  1162.         Somewhere in Herbert’s mind, he knew Grant was right. The portentous warnings of the puffy shirt episode, the mysterious window into what was possibly his future self’s demise—it all added up to something disturbing, a call to action for a reluctant hero. But Herbert wasn’t thinking about any of that. He was casting a wistful look at Beatrix.
  1163.         “So, you’ve really been looking for me all this time?”
  1164.         She replied with a demure nod.
  1165.         “You should have said something.”
  1166.         Herbert’s reprimand was disrupted by something akin to déjà vu. Elsewhere in the room, the two orphans giggled as Lentil hopped around on peg and coaster feet, spitting out badges. He blurred his vision in Simon’s direction. There was something familiar about this.
  1167.  
  1168. The omnipresent din of the suburban Newark-area shopping mall seemed to help Jamal focus on his writing. He was glued to his pad, mostly managing to tune out the ridiculous clandestine spy games of the others sitting at the food court table. Beatrix craned her neck to see around a large potted plant, getting a view of the Office Depot’s entrance. Samantha and Simon mimicked her effort, fiercely striving to earn the sidekick badges awarded to them on good faith.
  1169.         “See him in there?” she asked.
  1170.         “I stopped watching,” Jamal replied, not lifting his pen. “The thrill of observing someone shop for office supplies was too much for me to handle. I’m afraid if he buys some printer ink cartridges I might pass out.”
  1171.         “Well, you followed him all the way here with us. Aren’t you a little curious to know about him?”
  1172.         “I’m not the one with the weird pseudo-crush on this kid. If you really want to go out on a date with him, why don’t you just go ask him?”
  1173.         “You’re such an ass, J.”
  1174.         “Maybe you could fashion a bouquet out of manila envelopes and Post-It notes.”
  1175.         “Beatrix, there he is!” Samantha blurted, ecstatic to provide critical intel. “It is the one-eyed boy!”
  1176.         “I see him. Thanks, Samantha.” She watched the boy, who was examining a shopping list. He picked up a clipboard from a bin, and gave it a bored inspection for a price tag.
  1177.         “Why does he wear an eye patch?” Simon wondered. “Is he a pirate?”
  1178.         “Haven’t you ever read any spy novels?” Jamal replied. “In the world of espionage, you’re bound to run into rogues like him. They frequently wear eye patches, tattoos, or even prosthetic limbs. I bet he reeks of bourbon, and perhaps the sea.”
  1179.         “He is a rogue?” Samantha said with a look of wonder.
  1180.         “Will you say hi to the rogue boy, Beatrix?” Simon asked.
  1181. “I don’t think I’m ready to talk to him yet. He’s supposed to know something about my sister. But I don’t know anything about him, or if he was involved with her death. I don’t know if he knows who I am, or what.”
  1182. “Do you know who you are?” Jamal said while dotting the end of a paragraph and turning the page. Beatrix wasn’t listening.
  1183.         “Simon, why don’t you go talk to him?”
  1184.         “Me?????” Simon’s mouth looked like it was preparing to catch an egg.
  1185.         “Yeah. I’m sure he wouldn’t know you. Maybe you can try to get some information. Especially about the summer camp. Simon? Wait…”
  1186. Simon was already sprinting toward the store as if they’d just announced a drastic sale on pie filling, and he was a famished boy made of dough.
  1187.  
  1188. Russet bumped into a teetering heap of garbage, causing it to bend like a willow yielding to a stiff breeze. It toppled, releasing every bit of its pent-up potential for noisy commotion on the stone floor. Russet spat a curse into the darkness.
  1189.         He was sure this must be Thundleshick’s castle. Except by some mishap, he’d been transported to this musty dump of a spiderhole rather than his prestigious royal chamber. If he’d been thinking more clearly, it would have occurred to him that wise old magicians weren’t actually kings, and didn’t sit on a throne. And if he could see more clearly, he might have noticed the wise old magician himself smiling at him through a small window in the wall.
  1190.         Russet found an open bottle of scotch on a messy table. He lifted it to his nose and flinched at the fumes.
  1191.         “I’d had designs on a drink myself,” the melodious voice spoke. “The soft palette’s been mighty dry today.”
  1192.         “Aah!!” Russet was startled.
  1193.         Thundleshick remained motionless, beaming at him through the window. He seemed serene, at peace, just as Russet pictured wise old magicians to be. Only less hygienic.
  1194.         “Thundleshick? Wow. I hope you’ll pardon my intrusion, sir, but…”
  1195. “Have patience, good boy. I’ll entertain your concerns in a moment, once I stand up from my throne. ”
  1196. “Wait… sorcerers have thrones?”
  1197.         The question was answered with a flushing noise, and the sound of swirling water.
  1198.  
  1199. Herbert knew he was being watched by the young boy standing approximately eighteen inches from him and looking right at him, but chose not to acknowledge it. He simply went about his casual shopping, considering whether the pocket calculator was cheap enough to put into his basket.
  1200.         Simon was holding something he hadn’t looked at yet. He made his best effort to initiate unsuspicious banter. “Hi, um, hey! Do you know anything about these…” He looked at the item he was holding. “Office deep pot brand… recky leed… leether-etty… um. This thing here?” He asked, regarding the Office Depot® Brand Recycled Leatherette Twin-Pocket Portfolios, Teal Pack of 10. Simon had only begun to learn to read recently. He was a sharp boy, and Beatrix was a decent tutor, but some of Office Depot’s retail products were a mouthful by anyone’s standard.
  1201.         Herbert looked down at the boy, and after a moment, dealt him a smirk. “Hey, kid. Are you stocking up for Accounting Camp too?”
  1202.         “What’s a Counting Camp?”
  1203.         “Hmm. Guess you’re not as big a sucker as me then.” Herbert reached for a red-brimmed visor from a bin, marked at a discount. “What do you think. Should I get one of these, just in case?”
  1204.         “Yes!”
  1205.         “What the hell are these things for, anyway. What do they even have to do with accounting? Are we going to be crunching numbers on the beach?”
  1206.         “I have never been to the beach before.”
  1207.         “Yeah, I’m sure you haven’t kid.”
  1208.         “Do you like the beach? Is it fun? Also, can you really ‘crunch’ numbers??”
  1209.         “Hey, kid, what do you want from me?”
  1210.         Simon’s resolve instantly crumbled. He was sure the jig was up. He looked back at his food court HQ for visual assistance. Beatrix quickly covered her face, ducked down, and ran away. Jamal looked up from his work.
  1211.         “Do you know those people?” Herbert asked. “Why’s the black guy with the dreads looking at me?”
  1212.         Beatrix was already out of view. But not taking any chances, she ran all the way to the restroom corridor and turned the corner. She’d hardly had a moment to reflect on her silly overreaction when she nearly bumped into a tall man in a trench coat. With his moustache and silvery hair, he looked dignified. With his coat that was so long, it covered his feet completely, he looked creepy and somewhat deranged.
  1213.         “Ah, little girl! I smelled that you would be here soon.”
  1214.         “Excuse me?”
  1215.         “My name is Burt Hastings, and your name is Beatrix Tipplepot, is it not? Yes, it is. It is a pleasure to meet you.”
  1216.         “Uh… yeah…” Out of kneejerk formality, she offered a handshake, but quickly regretted it. Caught in the act, she had no choice but to leave it there, a proposition which seemed to momentarily stymie Hastings. He considered the hand, approaching it like a riddle to overcome, like a dog with a towel over its head. Beatrix noticed his hands were firmly stuffed into his coat pockets, unmoving. On closer inspection, she saw that the sleeves were actually sewn into the pockets.
  1217.         Hastings finally stooped down, bringing his rosy cheek to her hand. He smiled, and nuzzled against it affectionately. It appeared that in his mind, this was a serviceable substitute for the gesture. Beatrix recoiled in revulsion.
  1218.         A startled Hastings hissed through his nose, but regrouped, keeping his head at her face-level. “Young lady, if you come with me, I will show you a land of magic and wonder and…” Beatrix was already winding up for a punch.
  1219.         Her ring-fingered fist planted squarely on his nose. It gushed with blood. He gasped, hobbled backwards a bit, and vanished into vaporous smoke. His trench coat flattened on the ground, and a yellow piece of paper followed it, floating downward. She picked it up.
  1220.  
  1221. MAGICAL SUMMER CAMP
  1222. It really “spells” fun for your child!
  1223. •     Enchantments
  1224. •     Camp Quests
  1225. •     Friends for a lifetime
  1226. •     “Other things as well!” …
  1227.  
  1228. Depart from Greyhound bus terminal at Newark Penn Station
  1229. The fun begins June 3, 2004!
  1230. Call (201) 555-2328 (leave message for Elwin)
  1231.  
  1232.  
  1233. “Hello? Hello? Are you there, Mr. Marlevort? Confound this technology.”
  1234.         After a moment, the voice in Hastings’ ear spoke. “I’m here, Burt. Do I really have to explain about the time differential each time we speak?”
  1235.         “Yes, that’s right. The time whatsit. Anyway, how are you, sir?” There was a pause. “Hello? Sir?”
  1236.         “Oh, Jesus.”
  1237.         “Ah, there you are. Anyway, I have located the youngsters. The boy, who I’m sure as you know was recently persuaded into a journey by Mr. Thundlesmell. Or, that is, Thundshick. And now, the young lady as well.” Hastings again mistook the ensuing pause for displeasure from his boss. He frowned beneath his moustache. “… Mr. Marle—”
  1238.         “Still here. Nice work, Burt. And it only took you what, several decades? I’m busy, so I’m not going to wait for your reply to this remark. I’ll trust they’ll be here shortly. Of course, the others will need to be rounded up as well. I’ll have Terence work on it.”
  1239.         “Very good sir. And may you have a pleasurable evening.”
  1240.         Hastings twitched his nose.
  1241.         “… Sir?”
  1242.  
  1243. Grant entered the room and froze. Although the suite was dense with furnishings and esoteric knickknacks beyond most people’s ability to keep track of, Grant recognized something was different right away.
  1244. On the highest floor of the hotel was a room referred to as “The Cloudspindle Suite”, according to the guestbook Grant had found in the lobby. The book had last been updated around the same time which Grant surmised the hotel ceased to function, and which he also presumed the building spontaneously found itself in the middle of the ocean for reasons he couldn’t begin to fathom.
  1245.         He enjoyed the solitude of the suite, at least the relative solitude compared to sharing an entire desolated hotel with one other boy. As far as Russet knew, this room was still locked, or “magically sealed”, a property most will agree makes a door more definitively unopenable. Grant enjoyed more than just the quiet time, though. It presented an opportunity to piece together a puzzle about the room’s former resident. The dust-covered globes, the arcane tomes, the specimens of unusual dried flora; they stirred visions of a well-traveled man of sparkling intellect, and judging by the charmed items lying about, of some magical acumen.
  1246.         Today he would not contemplate the man who was probably named Cloudspindle, though. His eyes were fixed on a new development on the desktop. It was the bright red Russian doll. Someone had taken it from him and placed it there.
  1247.         The charred remains of the knobbed device remained on the desk, as it had been when he last saw it, including its cracked tubes and burnt wiring. Soot covered much of the desk’s surface, and a trail of small tracks lead from the soot to cross over a fresh white sheet of paper. They were small footprints, and quite numerous, in a scuttling pattern as a crustacean might leave behind. On the paper was a note, written with a handsome flourish.
  1248.  
  1249. Come to the camp at your leisure. The girl will be there. I know you are looking for her.
  1250.  
  1251. T. Rothschild
  1252.  
  1253.         Beneath Mr. Rothschild’s signature sat the red doll. Grant picked it up, regarding it with wonder. And then, with a sense of profound excitement. Could it really be that after all these years, the doll finally worked again? It seemed whoever possessed its counterpart had finally closed it, and furthermore, used it to come here and leave this note. It was the only explanation he could think of.
  1254.         He had a strong impulse to try it right now for fear that the window of opportunity might pass quickly. But he dared not use it until he was ready. It was time to let Russet know they were going on a trip.
  1255.  
  1256. “Look, there.” Beatrix was pointing to the open vent in her dorm room. Positioned underneath it was a chair. “Whoever took my locket found that vent, which I guarded with an illusion.”
  1257.         Herbert offered his take on it. “Well, I haven’t seen Russet around at all. Maybe he took it.”
  1258.         “It’s hard to believe he would,” Beatrix said. “That doesn’t sound like him.”
  1259. “What does this thing do, anyway? Why’s it so important?”
  1260. Grant was at the bedside table, looking at the doll. “If Nemoira was right, it has some effect on the memory. I’d be able to get a better idea if I got a look at it.” He put the doll down. “Anyway, I think Beatrix is right. I don’t think Russet would have stolen it.”
  1261. Herbert eyed the doll. Something occurred to him. “Wasn’t that doll a different color when I left it here?” He picked it up and weighed it with his hand, as if he was a pawn broker assessing its value. “Hey, this thing should lead right back to Thundleshick. That jackass stole it from me. I’d almost forgotten, I wanted to go back there and yell at him some more.”
  1262. Without hesitation, Herbert twisted the doll. There was no result.
  1263. “Why do those stupid things never work when you need them to?” Beatrix said.
  1264. “Tell me about it…” Grant muttered.
  1265. “I’m going to keep looking for it.” Beatrix moved toward the exit. “Maybe Carmen found it.”
  1266. As she exited, Simon ducked behind a turn in the corridor, hoping not to be seen. He was curious to know what all the concern was over. Concern evidently important enough to exclude younger children from. This was always the most fascinating kind of concern.
  1267. “You’re wasting your time!” Herbert yelled after her. But she was already down the hall. “It was Russet! Trust me. That kid’s got problems. He took it out of the vent, then probably escaped using the doll. Now he’s probably wandering through that disgusting castle with the doll open, so we can’t follow him.”
  1268.         “I really think you’ve got Russet all wrong, Herbert. Sure, he’s got his problems, but he’s a great guy.” Grant was earnestly trying to clarify. It seemed to Herbert that Grant took this issue to heart more than anything else he’d heard him talk about, so he decided to stifle his sarcastic retort this once. “In spite of how surly he can seem, he’d really do just about anything to help someone out. You’ve just got to give him a chance.”
  1269.         Herbert shrugged as he lifted the doll to his nose. “Why does this thing smell like my dad’s nasty liquor?”
  1270.  
  1271. The two scotch-filled halves of the blue doll clinked together for another toast. Russet threw back his third shot with little worry over any result that might follow mixing alcohol with powerful antidepressants, and without a thought given to his singular prior experience with booze, a spectacle that would come to be known as “The Mini-Fridge Incident”.
  1272.         Thundleshick coughed as he blustered out some more liquor-buoyed mirth. “Son! This swells my heart to learn of your grand times had. The purpose of my camp is to capture the romance of boyhood, just as you’ve described. It’s the reason I lift this old bag of meat out of bed and dress it in a robe. I am sorry to admit, on lonelier occasions I seldom summon energy for the latter.”
  1273.         Russet was too drunk to thank God that today was not such an occasion. He slurred his way through another obsequious remark. “Anyway, I jus wanned to espress my… deep appreciation for what you are doing for chilren. It’s… it’s so beautiful, really. So tha’s all I wanted to say.”
  1274.         Thundleshick smiled, waiting patiently. After a moment, Russet reached for the severely depleted scotch supply.
  1275. “Are you sure that’s all that is on your mind, boy?”
  1276. Russet’s eyes darted beneath lazy lids. Thundleshick went on with a tone of compassion. “Concealing a heavy heart is much like stowing an expensive chandelier beneath your smock, suspecting none the wiser.” He neglected to mention he’d once attempted this, leading to a series of events which made it presently difficult to set foot in the state of Maryland.
  1277.         “Oh. I’m that tra’sparent, am I?” Russet laughed to himself. “I guess I have my lonely occasions as well.”
  1278.         “Go on.”
  1279.         “It’s my friend. He’s jus this… incredible guy.” His loose body language seemed to convey how remarkable Grant was more than his slurred speech was able to. “So smart and… though’ful and… I dunno. I don’t know how I really feel sometimes. I’m not sure how he feels. I think if he knew the things I thought about him sometimes, it would scare him. Hell, it scares me!”
  1280.         “Naturally, boy. Naturally.”
  1281.         “And now… And NOW.” Russet became animated in a way specific to the inebriated. “Isso complicated. With this girl. I like this girl…”
  1282.         Thundleshick nodded sagely.
  1283.  
  1284. “For the record,” Grant said to Herbert as they strolled generally toward the rec. room, for lack of a better destination. “I think you’ve been right not to totally trust Beatrix. Seems like you’ve got a good head on your shoulders.”
  1285.         “Yeah? Why?”
  1286.         “The Slipknot isn’t safe with her. I know she thinks she owns it and has to protect it for some reason. But she can’t. Her motives still seem unclear to me. There are a lot of very nasty individuals trying to get it. And if it’s as powerful as it’s said to be, the result could be disastrous.”
  1287.         “Nasty individuals? You mean Marlevort, or whatever his name is?”
  1288.         “Yes.” Grant looked surprised. “I didn’t know you were aware of him.”
  1289.         “I’ve started to figure a few things out. I didn’t really want to, but …”
  1290.         “You’re lucky to have had as few encounters with Fort Slurpenook’s drones as you’ve had.”
  1291.         Slurpenook. Herbert wondered why that word sounded so familiar. He reassured Grant. “She seems nice, and all that. I can’t account for her weird fascination with me. But I’m only trusting her, or anyone for that matter, as much as I need to. I’m looking out for myself here.”
  1292.         They listened to their own footsteps echo through the dim corridor for a moment. Herbert looked at the doll in his hand, which he’d taken from Beatrix’s room. He put it in his pocket. Herbert again assured, perhaps more to himself than anyone, “I’m really just trying to get home.”
  1293.         “I’m sure.”
  1294.         “But…”
  1295.         “But what?”
  1296.         “I hate to say it, but I’ve got reason to think I’m going to be here for a while longer. Like, maybe a lot longer.”
  1297.         “What do you mean?”
  1298.         “Hey, do you know if time travel exists? Like, is it real, or is it impossible?”
  1299.         “Time travel? I don’t know. Why?”
  1300.         “I think there’s something you should probably see. Actually, Beatrix should probably take a look too. I mean, if that’s alright with you.”
  1301.         Grant paused, considering. “Fine. But I think we’re in agreement here, yes? If either of us finds the Slipknot, we should probably keep it from her this time.”
  1302.         Perhaps it was their engrossing discussion, or an orphan’s natural ability to sneak around unseen. Either way, Simon was shadowing them unnoticed by either. With each corner he snuck around and piece of debris he ducked behind, he caught another snippet of the mild conspiracy being hatched against his friend. Not merely friend, but one he considered a second older sister.
  1303.         He didn’t look happy.
  1304.  
  1305. Grant entered the hotel room, pushing into the customary blaze of the Home Shopping Network aired at near-maximum volume. Russet was chuckling at something, perhaps the stupidity of a recent caller.
  1306.         He noticed Grant’s smile, which appeared to him likely to precede a funny remark. He lowered the volume, and spotted the object in his hand. Some sort of red doll.
  1307.         “Hey, buddy. What’s that?”
  1308.         “Pack your bags, Russet. Looks like we’re leaving.”
  1309.         Grant noticed the eyes of his friend, for whom emotion would never have to make a long journey to surface. They were already filling with tears of joy.
  1310.  
  1311. The empty scotch bottle rested on its side, as if the recent draining of its fluid had compromised its equilibrium. Russet snapped together the two booze-tinged halves of the doll, and put it in his pocket.
  1312.         “I guess why I’m really here…”
  1313.         His remark broke the silence, causing Thundleshick to snort out of his drunken doze.
  1314.         “I don’ know how to put this.”
  1315.         Thundleshick’s eyes offered a grandfatherly twinkle. “Tell me, boy. Speak your mind.”
  1316.         “I was hoping… you know, what with you an your limiless wistom, do you by any chance know of…”
  1317.         “Yes?”
  1318.         “Do you have… a ‘cure’?”
  1319.         “A cure, boy?”
  1320.         “… for… ‘it’?”
  1321.         “It? What, boy? If you’ve a stubborn rash of some kind, a blight of the skin…”
  1322.         “No. These feelings I have. They feel so wrong. I’m tortured by them and don’t know what to do.”
  1323.         “Ah.” Thundleshick produced a stern look behind the tangled, fibrous crisis on his face. It was the demeanor of one charged with forming a grave diagnosis. “You know, my elder brother struggled with this very challenge. Attraction to flesh of one’s kind, it’s a troubling demon.”
  1324.         “I was jus hoping you might have, like, a magical cure for it. Jus make it go away.”
  1325.         The old magician stroked his beard, as one might do to ameliorate a high-strung shaggy dog. “I will see what I can do.”
  1326.  
  1327.  
  1328. JERRY
  1329. I... I can't wear this puffy shirt on TV! I mean, look at it! It looks ridiculous!
  1330. KRAMER
  1331. 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!
  1332. JERRY
  1333. They're making these?
  1334. KRAMER
  1335. 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!
  1336. JERRY
  1337. But I don't want to be a pirate!
  1338. Herbert stood up and turned off the portentous sitcom. Beatrix sat on the couch, still casting a vacant expression at the screen while fidgeting with her ring. Next to her, Grant looked as if he’d seen a ghost, and during the encounter, the ghost had taken the opportunity to share with him compelling photographic evidence of the Loch Ness Monster.
  1339.         “There you have it,” Herbert punctuated. “Beatrix, what you mentioned a little while ago reminded me of the tape. I guess for reasons that should be obvious to you now. I’d been meaning to show you for a while.”
  1340.         “What I mentioned… you mean about my sister?”
  1341.         “Yeah. Right. ‘Sister’. Anyway, I just wanted to get your take on this thing. The whole ‘future selves’ thing.”
  1342.         “Didn’t you say time travel doesn’t exist?” Beatrix asked. “I thought it was one of those weird rules.”
  1343.         “Yeah, well, that’s what I want to know. What do you make of all this, Grant?”
  1344.         Grant remained motionless. He then shook his head with a kind of fervent shell-shocked refusal, much like Jerry would upon being offered a meal prepared under questionable sanitary conditions.
  1345.         “Huh? What do you mean? What kind of answer is that?” Herbert was understandably confused.
  1346.         “I don’t like it at all.”
  1347.         “Come on. How can you not like the Puffy Shirt episode?”
  1348.         “That’s not what I meant.”
  1349.         “I know, man. It was a joke.”
  1350.         Beatrix’s quiet rumination subsided. She spoke softly. “Herbert, you seem to be taking this very casually. Doesn’t it bother you?”
  1351.         “It’s freaky. I’ll give it that. I admit I felt kind of sick when I first saw it. But now I’m not sure what to think. I guess the bottom line is, I have no idea what it is we just watched. At this point, I don’t see why it should bother me.”
  1352.         “Because,” she concentrated, and said with a greater sense of imperative than he could recall seeing from her, “if those people are us, unless we do something about it, we are going to die.”
  1353.         Her face again met the blank TV screen. Her thoughts turned to her sister, of what little she recalled. It was becoming clearer to her by the moment. She’d had it all wrong.
  1354.         There was a dull rumble. Dust unsettled from above. Somewhere in Fort Crossnest, there was an explosion.
  1355.  
  1356. Christmas Day of 1998, though perhaps the most important day of Beatrix’s life, was one she couldn’t remember very well. She was nine years old, though she couldn’t remember her ninth birthday. She couldn’t remember Christmas Eve, for that matter. And she could not remember how she came to be in the passenger seat of this speeding car.
  1357.         Simple forms in her field of vision seemed cold to her. Alien, hostile. The gray dashboard. The grimy mat beneath her shoes which she did not recognize as hers. The inscrutable surge of lines and shadow outside the passenger window. A similar surge in the opposite direction, lensing through the side mirror. Everything made her feel uncomfortable. It was all subtly loathsome through unfamiliarity.
  1358.         Someone coughed. Someone next to her.
  1359.         It was an older girl, perhaps in her late teens. She was driving the car. And she was speaking. Was she speaking to Beatrix? It seemed so. She was in the middle of telling her something to which Beatrix had tuned out, only now to tune in again. Something that sounded urgent.
  1360.         She had a terrible hacking cough. It swept her short black hair across her pale face. She swept it to the side, away from her eyes, which looked sunken, surrounded by darker yellowing circles.
  1361.         The fit of coughing waned. “I’m sorry, Beatrix. I’m sorry to have to tell you this, to throw so much at you all at once. I’ve been where you are myself, once. I just have so little time. It’s important you try as hard as you can to remember what I’ve said. Do you understand?”
  1362.         Beatrix turned to the left with a calm motion.
  1363.         “Who are you?”
  1364.         The car slowed. It almost seemed like a physical expression of the girl’s mind slowing, faltering in the marathon it had been running for a long time. Her features relaxed. She knew then that she’d burdened the young girl in her delicate condition with too much, too fast. She had to simplify. And trust. This was not going to be in her hands much longer.
  1365.         “I…” She managed a smile. “I’m your sister.”
  1366.         Beatrix nodded.
  1367.         “Do you remember any of what I just said, Beatrix?”
  1368.         “Yes. You’re my sister.”
  1369.         “Good. I’m going to tell you some things. Not many things, but they are important. Can you try to focus on them?”
  1370.         “Yes. I think so.”
  1371.         Her sister coughed again.
  1372.         “Are you ok?”
  1373.         “I’m very sick. But I’ll be fine. Thank you.”
  1374.         “Where are we going?”
  1375.         “I’m taking you somewhere safe to hide.” Without taking her hand off the wheel, she slid the ring from her finger and gave it to Beatrix. She then brought the ribbon for her locket over her head and handed it to her as well. “Take these. Wear them. Protect them. Don’t let anyone have them, especially that locket.”
  1376.         Beatrix slipped the locket’s ribbon over her head. She examined the ring before putting it on. It had a large pink stone. There appeared to be a scratched-out engraving on the interior of the silver loop. As she watched it, it stood now in her awareness as the most familiar thing she’d yet seen. It made her feel more alert. Just a bit more human.
  1377.         “Later, my hope is you will reunite with two other kids, two boys, both your age. One of these boys will have an eye patch. You’ll know him when you see him.”
  1378.         “An eye patch?”
  1379.         “It is important that you find them. From there, you’ll begin to understand things better. Why you are here. Why this is so important. But now, just hide. Stay safe.”
  1380.         “The car had been regaining speed as she spoke. Her steering was becoming more erratic. She was sweating. She glanced at a sweaty hand, on which something was written and beginning to smudge. She muttered to herself angrily, repeating words Beatrix couldn’t make out. She began to address Beatrix again through an outburst of coughing.
  1381.         “You need—” Cough. “You need to—” Cough, cough. “You—” Cou—
  1382.         Her eyes were wide, bloodshot. Her last words were spoken with a chilling, monotonous voice.
  1383.  
  1384. SUPREMACY TO THE HEIR, BEARER OF THE ARDORSMYTE TINE.
  1385.  
  1386.         She collapsed to the side, letting go of the wheel. Beatrix instinctively grabbed it. She guided the car up on to the curb, through a chain link fence and into an empty lot. The fence’s meshing bunched beneath the car noisily, slowing it. She put the car in neutral, pulled the brake, and soon it came to a stop.
  1387.         She was quickly around to the driver’s side. She dragged her sister from the car. There was no pulse. Her skin was pale and yellow.
  1388.         Beatrix touched her own face to discover it was wet. She was crying. She wasn’t even sure why. The memories were slipping. She struggled to hold on. Keep locket safe. Boy with eye patch. Hide.
  1389.         She noticed the writing on her sister’s hand.
  1390.         “Is she ok?”
  1391.         Beatrix turned to see two young kids standing in the empty lot. A girl and a boy, no older than six and three respectively.
  1392.         “She’s dead.”
  1393.         The girl looked heartbroken at this news. “Oh no. I’m sorry. By the way, I’m Samantha and this is my brother Simon. I want to help you.”
  1394.         “Thanks,” Beatrix said with a little sob. She lifted the limp arm and read the sweat-smudged marks. They were numbers.
  1395.  
  1396. 14.151
  1397.  
  1398.         “Who is she?”
  1399.         “She was my older sister.”
  1400.         Simon’s lower lip began quivering at the very notion of harm befalling older sisters in general.
  1401.         Beatrix reread the numbers. She had a feeling that if she remembered anything from today, it should be this. She repeated them in her mind, again and again. 14.151… 14.151…
  1402.         A few short police siren blips, sort of like hiccups, broke her recitation. In front of the lot, a squad car came to a stop with its lights whirling. She knew she’d have to answer questions soon. She knew she’d be taken somewhere else. She just had to focus on remembering. It would slip through her fingers if she let it.
  1403.         Locket. Boy with eye patch. 14.151. Locket. Eye patch. 14.151.
  1404.  
  1405. “Stop! You are very, very bad! Go back to your cage this instant!” Carmen stormed down the corridor in her heavy boots and eclectically pattered attire. She carved a trail through her own clouds of thin, dispersing smoke from magical assaults—warning shots—slung moments ago from her peacock quill. She brought back the feather, as if about to cast a fishing line from it, and lashed the glowing tip against her fleeing pet’s rump.
  1406. [You disgust me, Carbon Purpleskinner. I will never return to your chamber of torments.]
  1407.         “It’s Pearlskipper! Bad dog! Bag dog!”
  1408. [I command you to stop whipping me with the quill of a colorful pheasant. I—OW—command it!]
  1409.         Pycroft’s mess of scrambling paws skittered around a corner. His claws dug into the floor, bringing him to a halt. Standing in his path was a girl holding a telescope. She was tapping it patiently into an open palm.
  1410.         “I told you I’d find you.”
  1411.         The lens came about to point at Pycroft’s creased, perspiring brow. The luminous shockwave knocked him a dozen yards down the hall, just past the rec. room’s door.
  1412.         Herbert exited the room. “What the hell is going on out here?”
  1413.         His eye followed the midair trail of smoke to the wretched form struggling to its feet. Or paws, he noticed. Though he observed an abundance of pink, bruised human flesh dominating the torso, little about the creature he would classify as human. From the waist down, it had the hind quarters of a canine. Its upper body was human enough, with the head of an agitated, ornery, and battered bald man. Its wrists ended not with hands, but dog paws.
  1414. Pycroft sniffed. He leered malevolently at Herbert. [I don’t need your pity, ugly kid. At least I can see from both eyes, Windsor Tea Hurt Bird.]
  1415.         “What?”
  1416. [If I did not have to run away, I would kill you.]     
  1417.         Herbert drew his gun and aimed it at Pycroft’s head.
  1418. [Er…]
  1419.         The lines in Pycroft’s face deepened. He bared his gray, rotting teeth. His yellow eyes flickered with a swelling, bestial energy. He growled.
  1420.         Herbert lowered the gun slowly and shot him in the leg.
  1421.         “AUGH.”
  1422.         Beatrix stepped out of the rec. room. “Herbert, what’s…” She stopped at the sight of the wounded mutant. Pycroft’s glance connected with hers. With a terse sniff, he wrapped his wiry arm around her waist and threw her over his back. He made off in the direction opposite the two counselors, colliding with Herbert, knocking him to the floor. The pistol slid down the hall. Pycroft, securing Beatrix with a free arm, left a trail of blood behind a frantic three-legged hobble.
  1423.         Nemoira and Carmen quickly took up pursuit. Herbert picked himself up and followed. Grant now stood in the corridor, trying to figure out what had just happened. Even Lentil, in his hulking Vend-O-Badge form, had poked out to inspect the commotion. They listened to Beatrix’s receding pleas for help.
  1424.         “It looks to be a damsel in need of rescue is what it looks like,” Lentil said. With that, he began a thunderous march on peg and coaster feet down the hall. Grant ran after him, but couldn’t squeeze around the wide vending machine’s frame, which plodded steadily, no faster than an old woman with a shopping cart.
  1425.         “Excuse me. Hey. Could you please get out of the way?” Grant had his sward drawn, prepared to aid the damsel in question. There was little daylight between the walls and either side of the brainless former soup can.
  1426.         “This way! Adventure awaits is what is waiting for us.”
  1427.         “Please… just… MOVE!” Grant pounded on the back of the machine. There was a squeaky metallic grinding. Lentil came to a dead stop. He was firmly lodged between the walls at a narrowing in the corridor, with little space above.
  1428.         “Oh, come on!” Grant pounded again on the rear of the machine. He heard pounding on the glass on the front of the machine. It was Herbert.
  1429.         “Hey, get this damn thing out of the way. I left my gun back there. You hear me, Lentil? Move it!”
  1430.         Grant backed up, already looking for a different route through the maze-like bunker. He took off in another direction.
  1431.         Simon snuck around a corner, still shadowing him. He kicked something. He looked down, spotting the handgun by his shoe.
  1432.  
  1433. “So when this is through,” Russet nervously grasped for assurance. “I won’t have these feelings and urges anymore, right?”
  1434.         “On that I stake my good word.” Thundleshick Rummaged through a drawer. His deliberateness helped soothe Russet’s concern. He appeared to know just the thing for it, as if he’d treated other boys to this “cure” in recent memory.
  1435.         “Ah! Here, my young friend.” Thundleshick gave him a piece of chalk. “Now, draw a door with it. On that wall right there.”
  1436.         Russet looked at the white implement. “You mean sort of like they did in the movie Beetlejuice?”
  1437.         “Perhaps!” If he’d seen the film, it was decades ago, a recollection long since obscured by an unaccountable stream of female athletics footage.
  1438.         Russet drew the door. “And the knob!” Thundleshick reminded him. “Don’t forget the knob!”
  1439.         “So I presume this doorway shall take me to another realm? Like, a… a lan of the dead, or something?” Russet asked, still battling the haze of inebriation.
  1440.         “But of course! Not of the dead, mind you, but a realm of rugged masculinity and conventionally-adjusted libidinous impetus!”
  1441.         Russet was about to ask what “conventionally-adjusted libidinous impetus” actually meant, but his question was stifled by an outrageously smelly burlap sack placed over his head.
  1442.         “I can’t see…” Russet swooned from the awesome, overpowering fervor of the stench, but kept his balance. “Is this how it’s supposed to go?”
  1443.         “Yes, yes. Now point yourself at that door. Like this.” He modified his posture for him by the shoulders. “Now, boy, fill your mind with manly thoughts. Visions of burly clout. A roaring motorcycle. Professional wrestlers clutching each other’s muscles for dominance. A friendly lady fitted with a swimsuit. Oh, yes, yes.”
  1444.         “Um, ok.”
  1445.         “Now, through the door with you!”
  1446.         Russet drew a breath. His feet felt welded to the floor. He knew the strength was in him to run. It was in his faith. His faith to let go and trust God, to set everything right. Soon it would be over.
  1447.         He ran as fast as he could toward the chalk door. There was the sound of bone against brick. Russet bounced backwards and dropped to the floor unconscious.
  1448.         The fat old Campmaster stooped over the boy and proceeded to pick his pockets.
  1449.  
  1450. The distant noises of skirmish taunted Grant, flitting this way and that through the perplexing channels of Crossnest. It was like identifying the source of mocking laughter in a funhouse, designed to deliver your money’s worth in aggravation. He followed the trail of blood, and the scrambling footprints smeared within it.
  1451.         There was a sound behind him. A small person crouched out of sight too late.
  1452.         “Simon? Is that you?”
  1453.         Simon emerged sheepishly.
  1454.  
  1455. The Beatrix-saddled Pycroft was backed into a dead end. Carmen feather-whipped her pet senselessly, unmindful of any collateral lashings to the hostage. Beatrix flinched with each strike.
  1456.         “Bad! Bad! Bad! Put down Junior Camper Beatrix at once! No treat! No treat!”
  1457. [I’d prefer to subsist on my own stool. Get out of my way!]  
  1458.         Through the fog of Carmen’s relentless masochism, Beatrix saw something approaching from down the hall. It was lentil, who’d managed to dislodge himself.
  1459.         “Hey!” she shouted. “You! Lentil, is that your name? Please help!”
  1460.         Lentil was beside himself with delight, and added to the gusto of his clomping approach. It sounded like a dumpster fitted with low riding hydraulics.
  1461.         “I’ll even answer one of your riddles. I’ll answer two if you can get her to stop whipping me!”
  1462.         After a moment, Lentil produced with his lyrical voice something in keeping with his new theme.
  1463.         “A glittering cache a lad’s valor inherits”
  1464.         “Collects ‘pon a sash the boy boasts with aplomb.”
  1465.         “They litter the stash of a youth seeking merit…”
  1466.         Lentil stopped. He was lodged between the walls again. Beatrix slapped her forehead.
  1467.         Pycroft took the opportunity to bowl over Carmen and run. He leapt over the badge machine, thinking himself scot-free of the harpy and her damnable feather. Nemoira, however, was waiting for him on the other side.
  1468.         He eyed her extended telescope, and swallowed. A blade of stable pyrotechnics grew from the lens. She lopped his head off.
  1469.         Beatrix, along with the head and torso leaking from the fresh incision, fell to the floor.
  1470.         But she was not eager to spend any time lounging down there with the body parts, as both began to twitch. Fresh organic matter bubbled from the planes of decapitation.
  1471.  
  1472. “Hey, I’ve been wondering where you went. You didn’t see where the others went, did you?”
  1473.         Simon shook his head slowly.
  1474.         “What’s the matter? If you’re scared about all this noise, don’t worry about it. I’m going to take care of the troublemakers. Stick with me and you’ll be safe,” Grant said with the most confident big-brotherly tone in his arsenal.
  1475.         Simon was silent. He frowned.
  1476.         “Why don’t you help me look for them? You’re one of my sidekicks, remember?”
  1477.         Simon bobbed his head and looked off to the side. Grant was puzzled by the uncharacteristic melancholy from a boy who would get excited if he received a series of bee stings in the shape of a funny face.
  1478.         “Hey… what’s that behind your back?”
  1479.         Simon suddenly sounded angry. “You’re going to take it from her, aren’t you!”
  1480.         “Huh?”
  1481.         “From Beatrix! You’re going to take her… the thing! Her thing! I know you are. I heard you say it!”
  1482.         “Oh. Simon, you don’t understand. That thing is really powerful and dangerous. I have to…”
  1483.         “No! It’s hers! Beatrix is my friend!”
  1484.         Behind him, Simon squeezed the pistol’s grip, which seemed oversized in both of his small hands. He let go for a moment with one hand, wiped sweat from his palm on Donatello, posing amidst the fading Ninja Turtles on the front of his shirt, and quickly returned it to the grip.
  1485.  
  1486. Pycroft’s headless body staggered to its canine feet. Something was sprouting from its neck hole, something at which Nemoira made a face suitable for greeting ancient and unidentifiable leftovers in a warm fridge. It was a gooey, boney structure with teeth. It clenched shut, elongating into canine jaws. The rest of the head followed, flushing itself out with a coat of soft gray fur and pointy ears.
  1487.         The abject severed head was busy with its own transmutation on the floor. Great knots of knitting bone and mending musculature flailed about from its neck. Soon the head rose, supported by its new body, the opposite of its wolf-headed counterpart. It had a pair of human legs, a canine upper torso, and human hands which it strategically placed in front of a part of its male human anatomy.
  1488.         The two composite doppelgangers did not appear to enjoy each other’s sudden company. Sniffs were issued.
  1489. [So you’re here. If you had come to free me from that kennel, this might have been avoided.] 
  1490. {You still don’t seem to understand the nature of our relationship. It really isn’t that hard to grasp.}
  1491. [You should have let me out of the ugly girl jail.]
  1492. {If you believe that experience was unpleasant, you should try being imprisoned within your revolting genetic material as non-sentient mutational potential.}
  1493. [I am taking the girl. The other ugly one. You have no claim on her.]
  1494. {You’d probably better let me handle it.}
  1495. [You will take her over my dead body. Which conveniently now belongs to you.]
  1496.         Pycroft’s new head lifted one of its sagging dog lips, revealing a large white tooth. His mouth opened. A furious tongue of flame consumed his bald counterpart and caused surrounding metal fixtures to wilt from the heat. What remained was something black and twitching, like a scorched roast beef hooked up to high voltage.
  1497.         Beatrix was tiptoeing away. Pycroft’s eyes, deep yellow and black marbles, rolled to follow her.
  1498.         Before a scream could escape her mouth, she was draped over his back again, blistering deep into the fort at quadruple-speed.
  1499.         Herbert, turning the corner, was again knocked to his feet, relegated to the role of the bystander in the high-speed chase, a class stocked by the melon vendors of the world, and street merchants prone to handling chickens. “Hey! Enough with the shoving already!” He muttered to himself, “I gotta go get my gun…”
  1500.         Carmen gave Nemoira a purposeful look. She swirled her feather about in graceful motions, like a long banner waved by a Chinese dancer. “Counselors unite! By the Zenith of Mercury and the sprite’s quickened pulse! Bring to our soles swiftness, the celerity of a nude Grecian!”
  1501.         The feather’s enchantment and the (likely superfluous) incantation produced sharp new footwear for Carmen and Nemoira, into which their boots fit snugly. Sneakers, vividly colored and energetically patterned. The girls matched Pycroft’s speed in his direction, grinning along the way.
  1502.         While Carmen zoomed down the hall, Nemoira stopped. She paused to help Herbert up.
  1503.         Herbert gawked at the girl in her funny pirate clothes and silly hat. He was particularly struck, for no reason he could explain, by the glass vial filled with dirt she wore around her neck. She watched him for a moment. Her silent appraisal felt intense to him.
  1504.         “Hey. Um… have we met before?”
  1505.         She said nothing, turned and ran.
  1506.  
  1507. The floor trembled beneath Grant’s feet. Somewhere below, the fort was being torn apart. They needed his help. More importantly, he couldn’t let them take her. But standing in his path was a young boy holding a gun.
  1508.         “Simon, where did you get that?” On reflection, he didn’t care where he got it so much as where and under what circumstances he would put it down.
  1509.         Simon was still. The berretta was suspended by a limp, noodly arm, pointed at the floor. The look in his eyes had a sort of immovable quality, somewhat robotic. It, perhaps more than the sight of the powerful weapon itself, held Grant in his tracks.
  1510.         “Sorry, Mister Grant. You shouldn’t take it from her. I can’t let you.”
  1511.         “Simon. Take it easy now.” He raised his hand as if to lower it on Simon’s shoulder. He quickly pulled it away. Simon’s perimeter bled into a crimson aura.
  1512.         “Mister rogue horsey-crab was right. You are a liar.” He lifted the gun, aiming it at Grant. As soon as it became steady, this seemed to ignite thrashing tendrils of fire around Simon’s arm, and then wrapping about his body. His eyes, whites and all, pooled into wells of livid red. His voice changed in tenor. “I see who you really are.”
  1513.         “In a swift reflexive motion, Grant grabbed the boy’s wrist and redirected the gun. His arm was hot, and surprisingly difficult to move. “Put it down, Simon. Can you hear me?” He struggled with the boy, whose possessing conflagration only intensified.
  1514. “Put it down!!!”
  1515.         BANG.
  1516.         A roaring boulder of fire flew by Grant’s ear and howled down the corridor. Grant flinched to his side. When he relaxed one of his eyelids to look, all at once, the fire was gone. It became sucked into Simon’s body, as if snuffed out in a vacuum. Simon’s face was still, his mouth open a bit.
  1517.         Grant looked at the boy’s shirt. A trickle of red dripped from a hole Leonardo’s sneering face. Stuck in the hole, Grant found, was his sword, piercing clean-through the other side of the shirt.
  1518.         Grant drew a short breath and quickly removed it the blade. Simon dropped the gun and fell.
  1519.         “Oh God.”
  1520.         He heard something. Like a suppressed whine. He turned around and spotted Simon’s mortified sister. He stood with his stained sword, rigid, unable to say anything. She fled in the other direction.
  1521.         He looked down again. Simon wasn’t breathing.
  1522.         “… oh God…”
  1523.  
  1524. The peacock quill yielded to the great momentum of the hot missile, then deflected it with a cracking noise. The seemingly alert projectile arched through the lofty volume of Level 37, and came about towards Nemoira. She stood at the ready on the docking platform, striking a batter’s stance. She knocked the sphere towards her ship, on which Pycroft stood. He ducked. A mast splintered behind him, dragging an entire circus tent’s worth of bright sails into the water. Nemoira brought a gloved hand to her mouth at the blunder. The vessel, her pride and joy, seemed as much a hostage to Pycroft as the girl slung over his shoulder.
  1525. {I don’t actually want to harm you youngsters.}
  1526.         “Well you sure could have fooled me! Put me down!” Beatrix’s ring crackled with blue forks of electric current. She planted her fist in his furry neck and shocked him. He growled and snapped at her hand. He wondered how she knew precisely what would bother him most. Perhaps he was too good a telepath. Or perhaps it was just that he too closely resembled a badly misbehaving dog.
  1527. {You don’t even have it, do you?}
  1528.         “Have what?” Though she knew what he meant. She found there was less room for misunderstanding when the conversation took place entirely on the stage of her own mind.
  1529. {This is good. It’s better you not know where it is. It will keep him searching.}
  1530.         “Then why are you kidnapping me?”
  1531. {It can’t be said I failed to do what was asked of me.}
  1532.         Carmen was swirling her feather over her head. “Nymphs of Olympus, hear my plea!” Vicious winds twisted in the chamber, causing the water to prickle with foaming white crests. The ship slowly turned within the dawning whirlpool.
  1533.         Nemoira bit her lip at the sight. She gently halted Carmen’s whiling motion with the kindly patience of a caregiver in a psychiatric ward. “Perhaps we should not bother those nymphs just now?”
  1534.         It was too late though. Wind dragged across the raging water. Both girls crouched, holding fast to the platform. The boat turned faster.
  1535.         Pycroft aimed his open jaw at the high ceiling. A missile punched a hole through to daylight. Large slabs of concrete tumbled down, splashing into the water. The waves crashed against the ship, and swept the girls off the dock into the turbulent stew.
  1536.         With the momentary distraction, Beatrix reacted quickly. She held up her ring and focused. The hole vanished, replaced with the appearance of smooth concrete. The hole reappeared several yards away. The deception was her last hope.
  1537.         Pycroft’s powerful haunches expelled him from the deck toward the ceiling. He was not aiming for the phantom hole, however. He grinned as he sailed through the illusory concrete veneer, and took to the sky.
  1538. {A valiant try.}
  1539.         “Darn.”
  1540.         Nemoira surfaced in time to watch the Rubicund Wayfare’s final moments above water. She looked skyward at the hole, though it may have doubled as an excuse to curse the heavens for her misfortune. She swam to rescue her flailing, feather-toting ally from drowning.
  1541.         Grant stepped on to the precipice above the dock in time to witness the mayhem subside. Herbert stepped in behind him, fastening the M9 into its holster.
  1542.         “Looks like we’re too late. What happened? Is Beatrix gone?”
  1543.         Grant didn’t reply.
  1544.         “Hey,” Herbert lowered his voice. “Sorry to have to tell you this. We took a casualty back there.”
  1545.         Grant turned. Herbert didn’t notice in the lighting how white he was. Or that he was shaking slightly.
  1546.         “They got the kid. The boy. What was his name?” Herbert touched his forehead trying to recall. “Anyway, he’s gone. Poor kid.”
  1547.         Grant nodded.
  1548.         “You ok?”
  1549.  
  1550. Russet sat upright like he was a steel trap just sprung. He was soaking wet, and marinating in chilly sludge. All around him, fog crept low to the water. It was a swamp. In the distance, the silhouette of Thundleshick’s castle quietly shifted its shape.
  1551.         He felt his pocket. The doll was gone. Had he misplaced it? He couldn’t remember.
  1552.         His head hurt.
  1553.         With a sudden panic, he felt beneath the back of his vest, under his cape. He was relieved. The locket was still there.
  1554.         He couldn’t recall how he got here. Thundleshick… where did he go? Did they really drink that much? There was something about…
  1555.         The cure. Had it been…?
  1556.         The weak sun behind the overcast sky became blocked out by something. Russet was enveloped in a tall shadow.
  1557.         “Master Thundleshick?”
  1558.         Russet turned to find it was something only slightly less hell-bent on the misfortune of children, and considerably less frightening. It was a ten-foot tall, black-boned, green-entrailed skeleton.
  1559.         The skeleton held its abdominal cavity and began to rhythmically convulse. A dribble of green phlegm stretched from its mouth. Even someone without expertise in diagnosing skeleton discomfort would probably be able to tell you the monster was feeling a bit under the weather. It doubled over the soggy boy.
  1560.         Russet drooped. “Oh…”
  1561.  
  1562.  
  1563.  
  1564.  
  1565.  
  1566.  
  1567. Part 5
  1568.  
  1569.  
  1570.  
  1571.  
  1572. On an autumn afternoon, a flash of light flooded the bedroom, followed by a crack of thunder followed. Louis Eggwood, one many would describe as “enthusiastic”, especially when otherwise at a loss for words, rarely kept a heavy mood. Today though had been unusually trying.
  1573.         He lugged his storm-soaked frame across the room and sank into the bed. It was an imposing frame for a fourteen year old boy, and had always been, even more so than his younger brother who wasn’t exactly shortchanged. He smothered his face in his meaty hands and listened to the raindrops hammer at the glass.
  1574.         It seemed a kind of prayer, his head bowed in supplication to the hobgoblins of self-doubt. It released them from a confining realm as if something of occult tradition, like a shaman rapping a sick man’s chest with a painted feathery pipe. They responded to the invitation with their typical boons, vesting him with thoughts of futility. What was the use? Why did he continue to pour his creativity, his heart, into an empty sieve? He’d deluded himself into believing he could produce anything of worth. He was surrounded by those who ignored him at worst and humored him at best, and even on reflection he wasn’t sure if he’d placed those in the right order.
  1575.         His shallow gaze found his bookshelf collection, and then an old Rutherford Trick pinup. Volume 10, Smirk of the Feckless Vagabond. Trick was a handsome rapscallion, clever to the point of vice with a wit more savage than his magic assaults. Louis would give anything to “sport” with him for treasure, as Trick referred to the activity. To be at his impetuous command, to be held in captivity by those fiery, intelligent eyes…
  1576.         He stopped himself. The thoughts only brought him loneliness.
  1577.         These authors were masters. With a deft hand they invigorated the objects of his fascination—magic, youthful adventure, camaraderie. He felt like a feeble parasite to their craft, their accomplishments, or at best benign, something limp and vestigial on an otherwise evolutionarily acute specimen. The feelings of inadequacy particularly circled in the shadow of his close friend, who’d already found his work in print. How he admired that work. At least he thought he was a friend. It was something else he didn’t want to think about right now.
  1578.         No one could possibly understand what he was feeling now. And no one, it seemed, could mend the breach in his confidence, his natural good humor which buoyed every moment of his life until today. No one, he thought to himself with a note of dry humor, but those of his own creation. Those who lived in his mind. Those who knew him best because they were of him.
  1579.         The somber rumination was just the sort to nourish a craving for a sign, for something awesome to happen that would forever change his life. It was ironically the same sort to cloud his perception enough to miss that very sign when it presented itself, as it did just now on his desk. He hadn’t noticed it when he walked in, and now, as he looked up, was too surprised by it to recognize it as such.
  1580.         His manuscript, volume one, rested there opened. He hadn’t touched it or any of the other six volumes in some time. Had Seymour been in his room?
  1581.         He loomed over the exposed pages. He wouldn’t let a breath escape. He cautiously appraised the words, once weary with his own familiarity, but now different somehow. Something wasn’t right.
  1582.         One particular passage caught him, and he methodically dragged his focus across the letters, and that was the moment everything changed. The paper became warm. His bedroom again became brighter, but not due to the lightning outside.
  1583.  
  1584. In the flickering light and muggy haze of the Oval Office, if anyone were around to listen, few things could be heard. The flapping of moths. The hostile clicking of cockroaches, frustrated over the cessation of the comforting darkness, once decades undisturbed. And the soft beeping of a digital timer.
  1585. 02:00:01… 02:00:00… 01:59:59…
  1586.  
  1587. There was nothing to see in the hole punctured from beneath through the mud and tangled tree roots. Level 37 was too far below and too dark. Grant traced upward the imaginary path through the sky on which the flying mutant had made off with Beatrix.
  1588.         “You know what this means, right? We’re going to have to go save her,” Herbert said.
  1589.         Grant looked at him quickly, and again at the sky. He didn’t seem ecstatic with the idea. Herbert may as well have invoked their duties as young Samaritan volunteers in the geriatric colonic ward. Herbert watched the young man of whom he knew little, and had little plans to ask. He seemed tired, and in some way he couldn’t describe, maybe more tired than anyone he’d ever seen.
  1590.         “It’ll be dangerous. Slurpenook is well defended.”
  1591.         “So I’ve heard.”
  1592.         “Plus, we still have no idea where the Slipknot is. I’m sure Beatrix didn’t have it. We still need to find it.”
  1593.         “Right. Well,” Herbert assumed the role of a practical tactician. “I still say Russet took it. And who the hell knows where that fruitcake is. So either I’m right, in which case it’s likely he’s keeping it out of the hands of Marlevort for a while, even if he doesn’t actually know what he’s doing. Or, it’s just plain lost, in which case it’s just as lost to Marlevort too. Either way, there’s nothing we can do about it right now.”
  1594.         “Russet… damn you,” Grant cursed to himself quietly.
  1595.         “What I do know is Beatrix was just captured by a weird shape-shifting asshole. Beatrix is our friend, and she needs our help. That feels like a good enough reason to me. Anyway, that is what this summer camp is all about, right? Friendship?”
  1596.         Grant gave him an askance look. “Didn’t you just want to go home?”
  1597.         Herbert let out some air, exhaust fumes from lingering exasperation, and paused.
  1598.         “I’m not going anywhere for now. It’s pretty obvious. Thundleshick is completely useless. No one can help me. A little while ago I left another message with my dad, but that’s about it. That’s all I can do. The only thing to do now is to make the best of things, and look out for each other.”
  1599.         “You’re right.” Grant said, and appeared mentally to flip forward to Herbert’s page of resolve. “But this really isn’t going to be as easy as you think. Marlevort’s fleet is stationed in a sea of…” He stopped. “I know this sounds stupid.”
  1600.         “Don’t worry. I’m used to it by now. What is it, lava or something?”
  1601.         “Yes, actually.”
  1602.         “Ok. Makes sense. I mean, they are all really evil, aren’t they?”
  1603.         “We could sail there on a ship equipped for that kind of travel. I’d guess the sailor girl’s boat could do it, but she’s busy getting it above water and repairing it. It’ll be a good while before it’s seaworthy, I’d say.”
  1604.         “Couldn’t we fly somehow? We might be able to use that office chair I flew here, but I think it’s probably almost out of fuel. Not to mention we probably wouldn’t both fit on it. Our surprise attack would probably look pretty retarded with you on my lap…”
  1605.         “Chair? What?”
  1606.         “Forget it.”
  1607.         “Actually…” Grant said, suddenly more alert. “I may have an idea.”
  1608.  
  1609. The brig was like an iron sauna, broiling in the bowels of the carrier formerly named the U.S.S. Forrestal (and since renamed something more fittingly haunting and in keeping with its captain’s preferences). Beatrix was sure it had to be at least 130° Fahrenheit in the small prison into which she’d been dumped unceremoniously. Her clothes pined for one of Russet’s laundering spells as they became increasingly snug from sweat.
  1610.         She passed the time studying her ring and contemplating its power. It appeared, through magical means at least, that escape was nonviable. She even struggled with the simple task of cooling the room down a bit. Grant seemed to have no trouble wielding a variety of “elemental” invocations, including frosty attacks. She wondered why she had trouble with it. She thought about the events surrounding her capture. The moments of distress and anger brought from within her a certain type of energy. As if all the electrons in and around her raced like a kind of breath, a particular life force bent to a primordial will in her. She lilted her hand to and fro, watching the little blue orbs sizzle, dance and pop. Magic sure was a fickle mistress, she thought.
  1611.         The door opened. A black, bony claw dropped a boy in the room like a sack of potatoes. Appropriately enough, the boy’s name could appear on such a sack without alerting even the most curmudgeonly grocer’s suspicion.
  1612.         “Russet.”
  1613.  
  1614. Grant adjusted the knobs on Zoe’s walkie-talkie as he and Herbert crossed the tarmac. The volume on the gadget decreased slightly. The antics piping through the speaker were a little much, and it had been a long day.
  1615.         “I didn’t really follow much of that. Who’s talking through the radio? And what was going on in there with that crazy old lady?”
  1616.         “I can still hear you, young man!” Zoe said through the speaker.
  1617.         “Oh. Sorry.”
  1618.         Grant disabled the device briefly. “Yeah. It can be pretty confusing at first. Let’s just see what’s in this hangar.”
  1619.         “Now you will want to take a few more paces and take a left,” Zoe’s voice crackled. “You mean right, Ms. Z. They must go right. What? Oh, my sweet lord. No, Ferris. It is to the left. Are you sure?”
  1620.         Herbert looked back at the cabin they came from. Through the window was the little robotic doll named Dott, who he found a bit creepy with her large camera lens eyes. She was indeed gesturing to her left.
  1621.         “Yes, I am sure. I am directing them from our vantage point, from which the turn is a left. I know you love to run that wonderful mouth of yours all the time, but it would help if just this once the only voice you allowed from it was mine. Do you understand, silly boy? Yes, roger that Ms. Z.”
  1622.         “Hey, is that it over there?” Herbert asked. “I see another one of those robots. It’s waving at us, and standing in front of a hangar-looking thing. Why don’t we just go there.”
  1623.         “Yes, that is me. I am waving at you now. Hi, it is nice to see you. Oh, good, then. Go right in. The boys have taken great care to restore Banditsknife, and I think it marvelous that she should be put to noble use.”
  1624.         VociFerris was similar in design and identical in size to his sister. As Grant had already imagined, he lacked the big perpetually focusing lenses, but had an active mouth, somewhat like a ventriloquist’s doll.
  1625.         “Welcome, I am pleased to have your company. This way.
  1626. His manners are splendid, aren’t they? That is, when he is not being too clever. Why, thank you, Zoe. I work very hard at my mannersssSSSCREEE—(click.)”
  1627.         Grant turned off the walkie-talkie to end the feedback noise from the other one, which hung around Ferris’ neck.
  1628.         Inside the great space of the hangar the dust suspended in the air was sliced by bright, slanted columns of light from rusted holes in a porous ceiling. Waiting for them was the robot’s brother sitting on the floor quietly.
  1629.         “This is Graham. He does not say anything, but he is really smart.” Graham perked up as his sensitive hearing detected his name. Unlike Ferris or Dott, he lacked even a trace of a mouth. His eyes were simple, like Ferris’, but what really commanded the admiration of a new acquaintance was his pair of ears, two sizable satellite dishes. His little hands busied themselves with adept motions of sign language.
  1630.         “Hee-hee-hee! Pardon my brother. His sense of humor is sort of weird.”
  1631.         “That’s fine. I couldn’t understand him,” Herbert replied. “So where’s the plane… the Hoboknife?”
  1632.         Zoe broke in through Ferris’ mouth, a heavily taxed employee working double-overtime for two demanding bosses. “What was that? Ferris, what did my ears say? Never mind, Ms. Z. I have everything under control.”
  1633.         Graham was already leading them to the aircraft, and it was soon visible before traversing much of the sprawling hangar floor. It was the lone gleaming wonder amidst a graveyard of rusting scrap.
  1634.         “Whoa. An F-16?” Herbert held his advance, regarding the jet with a sort of inward obeisance. He could be exposed to a kaleidoscopic buffet of stunning magical wonders dredged from the most enchanted crevices of the cosmos, and greet them with a blunt yawn. It was not merely boredom. It was a fertile shell of malaise which, with tender care and steady incubation, would only hatch contempt. Weaponry however, great machines of war, their details, contours, schematics, measured analysis of destructive capacity, they would have his stubborn spirit arrested with the all the protest of a monk rapt in righteous peace.
  1635.         Banditsknife struck Herbert as something of fable. Something not assembled, but chiseled from something unknown, born of living ore. The Fighting Falcon jet still wore some old parts, exhibiting traces of a once humbler existence. It now stood refurbished, lovingly maintained, and plated in lucid silver absorbing the hot spears of sun into liquid-like reflection. Herbert thought for a moment of his gun, plated judiciously in silver, and the latent ferocity it concealed. But considered more palpably, that is was meant for him—it spoke to him in a silent animal tongue. And he was being spoken to again.
  1636.         “It’s nice,” Grant said. “It should get us there. We won’t be subtle about it, exactly, but it’ll work. So can one of you guys fly it for us?”
  1637.         Graham and Ferris looked at each other with a flurry of signs and whispers. “Ah… I do not think it would be right if we left our mother alone here. She needs us very much.” Graham was nodding vigorously in support of the claim. “What? Now don’t be ridiculous. You boys are excellent pilots, and it is time to put aside our selfish ends to help these young men, particularly if it means finally delivering justice to that repugnant counselor.”
  1638.         The little robots slouched expressively. “Ms. Z, you are right. But I am a little scared.”
  1639.         “I think I can fly it,” Herbert stepped in. He reached to feel the belly of the plane. “I’m not sure how, but I think I can.”
  1640.         Grant studied him. He knew it sounded silly to let a suburban boy with no flight training or even a driver’s license attempt it. But for some reason, he knew Herbert would back it up. “Alright. Let’s get her in the air.”
  1641.  
  1642. The Secretary stole a nervous look at his watch and walked a little faster down the carpeted hall. With the other hand he inspected his immaculate haircut, assuring that no strands had fallen out of place, which of course they had not.
  1643.         Caspar Weinberger had been called to the Oval Office at the urgent request of the President. Could this be it? The Secretary of Defense wondered to himself, slightly audibly, was this the big one? He swallowed. It could only be the Russians. He heard it in his Commander’s voice. They had to be attacking.
  1644.         He picked up his pace. His composure lapsed into a restrained, gracefully-aging white man’s jog.
  1645.  
  1646. Banditsknife zipped and corkscrewed agile patterns through the thin, high air at Mach 3. Atomized in its supersonic wake were puffy clouds, pink in the wash of a setting sun. Grant tensed every face muscle he was aware of and then some, as if concentration alone was holding himself together under the g-force brunt of yet another one of Herbert’s reckless and flagrantly unnecessary barrel rolls.
  1647.         “Maybe you should take it easy on those controls, since I guess in the most strictly technical sense, you’ve never, ever flown a plane before. Like, ever.” Dizziness seemed to activate Grant’s sarcasm center of the brain.
  1648.         “Hey, relax. Try to enjoy the ride. Anyway, this thing practically flies itself. I mean, I’m flying it, but it’s more like loose suggestion than direct control. Like it’s got a mind of its own. Kind of like riding a mythical mount, like a gryphon. Only cooler.”
  1649.         “A gryphon, you say?”
  1650.         “Like the sorority girls did one time. In… you know what, never mind.”
  1651.         “I wouldn’t have pegged you for someone who’s into that kind of literature.”
  1652.         “Well, no, but I mean… they ride gryphons around in pretty much all those books, don’t they? Or at least some kind of hideous beast like that long shaggy puppet-dog in The Never Ending Story. They’ve always got all this, like… enchanted wisdom.” Herbert spat the contemptible phrase.
  1653.         Grant couldn’t offer a rebuttal on the volatile subject if he wanted to. His stomach was left about a thousand feet over his head. Herbert pulled up, leveling off to a view of sharp, toothy snow-capped mountains to the north. Not far beyond them were marshlands, presided over by Thundleshick’s castle. Titling the jet to the east, he found the forest concealing Fort Crossnest. He looked above, but the spinning holographic icon was nowhere to be found.
  1654.         “Hey, what happened to the beacon?”
  1655.         “Huh? What beacon?” Grant asked, stroking his stomach tenderly as if he’d just found out he was a mother-to-be.
  1656.         “I guess maybe the computer got shut off with all the commotion.”
  1657.         “I’ve been meaning to ask,” Grant switched subjects. “What’s with the gun?”
  1658.         “Nothing’s with it. It’s just some magical berretta I found. Or it’s supposed to be magic. The only thing I can make it do is shoot bullets, stupid me. I’m pretty sure my future self left it for me to—”
  1659.         “No, no,” he stopped him. “I mean the other one in your belt. The one that looks like an antique.”
  1660.         “Oh, that. I thought it looked cool, so I took it. It’s not loaded, and as far as I know it’s not magic either. Of course I’m not exactly a reliable source on that. For all I know the damn thing is so magic it would make a unicorn weep. Oh, yeah, I also found it in this bizarre old replica of the Whitehouse, if you can believe that.”
  1661.         “Hmm. Yeah, actually I can believe that.”
  1662.         Herbert yanked the jet to a ninety degree tilt and whipped it south, dipping low to the ground. He encouraged the burners just a bit, and the aircraft kicked forward, the seat padding slapping the backs of their heads. The jet put even further distance between itself and the howl of its outrageous velocity. The landscape seared beneath them, an incomprehensible slideshow of rushing trees. The trees gave way to increasingly barren land, and then to ancient crumbling structures. It was all uniformly coated in a gently undulating surface, warmly colored by the reflected light, and glittering. The glittering was a frenetic dance of redirected light caused by their quick movement in the jet, as they caught the sun-spiked angles of countless tiny crystals.
  1663.         “What is all this?”
  1664.         “It was Fort Funnelbunk.”
  1665.         Herbert tried to get a better look at the strange sand carpeting the landscape. “And what is that stuff?”
  1666.         “Sugar.”
  1667.  
  1668. Both were a little dazed, and not much had been exchanged other than the basics of how they got there. Though maybe there was a greater impediment to words besides the oppressive heat and the rigors of capture. In any case, Russet broke the silence.
  1669.         “What’s the matter, Beatrix? Aside from the obvious, of course.” He gestured to their enclosure, an oven in which one might not too badly undercook a chicken.
  1670.         “I lost it.”
  1671.         He didn’t need to ask. He brought the locket from beneath his cape and dangled it in front of her.
  1672.         She smiled, suddenly feeling silly for being the least bit surprised. And then, she was happy.
  1673.  
  1674. The desert of ancient sugar had soon frittered away into the dusty land situating airport from which they took off, and then frittered again into real desert. Grant recognized it as the arid stretch just south of Jivversport he trudged across days ago. Before scorching over the city and across its northern bay, Herbert hooked a left over plain lands and then beyond to a northwestern forest. Sprouting from the middle of the forest was a structure which could be seen for miles. It was a very thin metal tower reaching several thousand feet above. Circling around its pinnacle was a wide metal ring the diameter of a major sports arena. Locals referred to it simply as The Mast, though this was not a term Grant bothered with as he satisfied Herbert’s curiosity.
  1675.         “A silo?” Herbert repeated.
  1676.         “Yeah. Though technically the silo part is underground. The tower is a shaft, serving other purposes, like creating the dimensional opening. There used to be a lot more of them a long time ago, I believe.”
  1677.         “An opening??” Herbert jumped on that point. “So you mean it opens to another dimension, like Earth? Hell, why don’t we fire it up and fly through there?”
  1678.         “Trust me. You do not want that thing to be ‘fired up’ by any means.”
  1679.         “Oh, right. The missiles. These would be the magic nukes, then?”
  1680.         “Right.”
  1681.         He flew closer to the tower and swung around it. Aside from the improbability of the great floating ring platform which looked quite precarious, there was nothing fanciful about the construction. It easily looked like something that could have been commissioned by the federal government. Herbert was quite engaged by the thought of this unspeakable weaponry, of this military might veiled to the public. He’d been so busy trying to get home, he never paused to consider that this land guarded a rich and mostly inscrutable history, or that it harbored depth beyond superficial boyhood antics and absurd magical escapades. Stuff that was for other kids, not him. He never fueled speculation that legitimate, responsible agencies of the world might have invested this realm with their serious affairs. Still, he wondered why even the serious affairs found ways of being so downright silly.
  1682. It was cut and dried. Magic just ruined everything.
  1683.         He guided the jet south of The Mast, skirting along the coast until coming upon a bleak, dilapidated marina, pointed out by Grant as the Slurpenook mainland docking site. He jerked a hard right over the ocean into the setting sun. Below, the blue water soon became black, hardened-looking, and then blossoming pools of red and orange here and there. The incandescent pools became more abundant as the ocean gave way to molten rock.
  1684.         “I don’t quite get it. What exactly does a magic nuclear weapon do?”
  1685.         “Pretty much what an ordinary one does. Though in some cases more destructive. And other cases, less, I suppose. They can wipe out a city, or even a small nation. But… magically.”
  1686.         “You don’t say!”
  1687.         “Unfortunately, yeah. It’s true.”
  1688.         “I sort of gathered that. I mean, how does it differ from a normal bomb? You know, one that blows stuff up with atoms. And science.”
  1689.         “Well, rather than wiping things out with a big fireball from a chain reaction, the blast does magical stuff. Like turn everything into sugar. Or butter. Or gingerbread. Stuff like that.”
  1690.         “So in other words, the full gamut of things found in a bakery? The versatility is breathtaking.”
  1691.         “No. Or… anything. Come on, Herbert, cut me a break. It could be toadstools, or feathers, or bat wings… You know how magic goes.”
  1692.         “Yeah, I hear ya.” Herbert slowed the jet as he nursed a train of thought which rankled him by the moment. “So why did they even bother making the nukes magical anyway? How stupid is that? The result is the same. They both destroy stuff. Why bother with the ridiculous charade?”
  1693.         “I don’t know, Herbert. I’d just consider it a rule of thumb. Sort of like a government. If it can spend money on something, it will. Just like if whatever powers that be can make something needlessly magic, they will. I mean, why bother having an ordinary doorknocker shaped like a lion’s head, when that lion can talk to you! It’s exciting. It’s fun. It’s whimsical, I guess. It all abides by its own internally consistent logic.”
  1694.         “Ha! Yeah, right on, man! All that stuff is such bullshit. Who cares about talking lions??”
  1695.         “Anyway, maybe the thought of being turned into butter strikes more fear into the heart of the enemy. I know I wouldn’t want to be turned into butter. Also, a magical bomb can be engineered for a lot of different purposes. Even non-lethal ones, theoretically. You could make one where everyone in the blast radius would… I don’t know. Magically grow a mustache.”
  1696.         “I don’t suppose there are mustache bombs buried in that silo?”
  1697.         “I sincerely doubt it.”
  1698.         Herbert picked up the dark rectangular forms littered on the fiery horizon. It was a horizon now burning equally from bother ends, in sky and in sea. He gently tilted the plane, beginning a wide, tentative circle around the combat zone before heading in.
  1699.         “So what actually happened? I’m still not clear on this. When was the war?”
  1700.         Grant didn’t mind going on, since it seemed to keep Herbert’s flying less erratic. “Most of it took place in the 1980’s, by Earth time.”
  1701.         “Huh. It all seems like such ancient history. All this went down before I was born.”
  1702.         “In a way, it is, when you consider the time scale of this realm. It was almost two hundred years ago. Then, as my understanding of the history goes, something terrible happened. Some kind of disaster that caught both sides off guard. It left the armies decimated and the land in ruins. It seems it never fully recovered.”
  1703.  
  1704. Secretary Weinberger sat in front of the President’s desk, rigid with nerves, but patient. He listened to the gentle scratchings of a pen on a sheet of Whitehouse stationery. The pen put the finishing flourish on a crude cartoon horse, its third such creation on the page.
  1705.         “What do you think, Cap?” asked President Reagan.
  1706.         “They’re beautiful, sir,” Caspar said with genuine admiration. “But I have to confess, sir, I was under the impression that there was something urgent to discuss.”
  1707.         Reagan calmly rested the pen on his desk and brought his hand to his chin. The atmosphere of the storied elliptical room seemed to change along with the man’s mood, as if in deference. “It’s the war. I’ve been dwelling on ways to end this awful conflict all afternoon.”
  1708.         “It’s troubled me as well, sir. Candidly, sir, recent Soviet activity has me more than a little spooked.”
  1709.         “Well, now, Cap, no reason to take their mischief to heart. The Russians will do as they’ll do. I’m thinking of the big picture. You’ll recall Star Wars?” he said with a coy turn in his lip, addressed to the very man he’d charged with implementing the bold vision.
  1710.         “Of course. Damned stroke of genius, Mr. President. Infallible bulwark against annihilation. Only in America!”
  1711.         “Well, yes. Thank you, Cap. But I’ll have to confess. I was never so much interested in its efficacy as I was in the power of its statement.”
  1712.         “Statement, sir?”
  1713.         “Oh, it’s no secret, old friend. I cut my teeth in Hollywood. I’ve always been a great proponent of the magic of image. Of illusion. That’s where real tactical power lies. It’s been my fond hope since I was a young man to breathe some magic into this stubborn dry soil. This obtuse rock, our home, planet Earth.”
  1714.         Cap’s mouth hung open just a bit, as if it was about to dispense a ticket. He was starting to think he’d need a cigarette soon.
  1715.         “That’s why I went into film, Cap. And that too is why I became president. To bring magic into the world. And with it to defend all that is good, as much as nature permits within its limits. Because, friend, of course we both know there’s no such thing as real magic.”
  1716.         Dear God, Cap thought. Did the President just wink at him? He cleared his throat. “Sir, if you don’t mind my saying, at times I’ve thought your economic policies are pure magic.”
  1717.         Reagan produced a humble smile. “Well, thank you. You know, the two subjects are far more closely related than you might suspect. But I digress.
  1718.         “I’ve been accused of many things, and one charge I don’t protest is being a dreamer. I’ve tended to this dream for years. I remember like yesterday working with Mr. Lucas to put a face on the idea. To christen it with fantastic and frightening displays of military might, only cinematic though they be. But this statement, Cap. Its power was such that by the time our whisperings of the Federal Star Wars program reached Russian ears, by George we had their attention. Who among their paranoid ranks could divine the fact from the fiction?”
  1719.         Caspar’s forehead complained with wrinkles. “It would explain why one of our operatives was interrogated for the details of the Death Star’s construction. We actually thought it might be some sort of espionage-oriented April Fool’s jape.”
  1720.         Reagan shifted in his chair somewhat uncomfortably, squeaking the leather. Cap cocked an eyebrow. “Wait… sir, they were fictional films, weren’t they?” The President merely emanated his typical charismatic glow in response. His Defense Secretary’s perspiration was a little more noticeable.
  1721.         “Well, now, don’t be silly. Of course not, Cap.” Cap exhaled.  “But that’s not here nor there. Though it’s been a fine campaign if I say so myself, it’s essentially run its course. This Space Race has pushed outward the frontier, and both we and our enemy have staked our claims. But all symbolism aside, I fear henceforth there will be little return to the enterprise. As a nation we must forge on.”
  1722.         “What do you have in mind, sir?”
  1723.         “Well, I’ve been dwelling on a new frontier to claim. Though in truth, not new at all. Ancient, timeless, steeped in legend hidden to history’s recollection. One over which the Russians have scarce foothold yet, and will be quick to seek once prompted. And now that by God’s good grace you-know-who has been subdued, it will be open season. If we can beat them out there, they’ll surely start to destabilize. It’ll be the beginning of the end, Cap.”
  1724.         Cap leaned forward. “Sir… who is you-know-who?”
  1725.         “Best to let sleeping dogs lay, friend.” Reagan swiveled his chair and eased open a drawer. He bathed in the sentimentality of the items his hand caressed. Several frayed, weathered badges. A copper telescope and a compass. An assortment of Indian arrowheads. And an antique flintlock pistol.
  1726.         “Today I was thinking. Recent events drew out bittersweet memories. I was reminded of something from my youth. I never told anyone in the administration of course. But at this critical juncture in history, now’s the time. Time to revisit it.”
  1727.         “Revisit what, Mr. President?”
  1728.         “Summer camp.”
  1729.         Caspar allowed for a stoic half-minute to pass while he pondered the exact nature of his duty as the President’s immediate counsel. He finally spoke with a leaden tone. “Shall I get Mr. Lucas on the phone?”
  1730.         “No, thanks, Cap. That’ll do. We need to begin recruiting. Recruiting young.”
  1731.         His Secretary was incredulous. “Mr. President… I hardly know what to say. I’m afraid this is about to eclipse my field of expertise by some margin.”
  1732.         “Well, rest your worries, Cap. Leave everything to me.”
  1733.         Cap looked as if his chest were fit to burst with pride and admiration. “Sir, may I just applaud your astonishing bravery and leadership. We’d all be lost without it. God bless America.”
  1734.  
  1735. “Anyway, you can probably gather what happened after that,” Grant said, growing accustomed t raising his voice over the jet engine. “The Russian government couldn’t take the losses, and in the chaos of the aftermath, it collapsed. The U.S. held on and won the cold war. That would have been around a hundred and fifty years ago. Marlevort came on to the scene later, but his domination really threw a wrench into the reconstruction process.”
  1736.         “What I’m wondering is,” Herbert said while calibrating a dial whose purpose was utterly mysterious to him. “Was it always a summer camp? Even during the war? I mean, was this magical war between global superpowers just a glorified series of capture the flag tournaments and s’more making competitions?”
  1737.         “Who knows for sure. The way I understand it, by some time-honored tradition of the realm, it’s always sort of existed as a structured entity for childhood activity, whether the emphasis was on recreation, combat or what have you. I’m sure it’s taken many forms over the centuries. Marlevort distorted it all into something of his own design, for reasons probably beyond his control, I suppose.”
  1738.         “Huh?”
  1739.         Grant was silent. He looked off to the side, out of the cockpit glass and through the sulfur haze, where the ghostly fleet simmered in red. Herbert didn’t follow up on the point, though. He’d found something else lodged in his craw. “Another thing. Does this place have a name? Most magical realms have funny names. I’ve never heard anyone mention it.”
  1740.         “The realm? I don’t think so. Look at it this way. Does our universe have a name? We just call it ‘the universe’, because it doesn’t occur to us that there are others. Our planet has a name. So does this one. Lots of names, probably, depending on who you ask and who’s still alive to call it that. I’ve always known it by its governmental classification, and a lot of locals seem comfortable with it too. Pretty dry stuff.”
  1741.         Grant felt his head press into his neck as Herbert pulled up. “Ok, looks like we’re coming up on ‘em. Get yourself ready. I’ll approach from above.”
  1742.         Banditsknife pointed straight up, punching through the plateau of volcanic smog into the clear twilight sky.
  1743.  
  1744. “I hope you’ll forgive my snooping. I had to take it, Bea. I had to keep it safe for you because someone was after it. Someone quite unfriendly.”
  1745.         “I know, Russet. Thank you.”
  1746.         He scooted back on their cot against the wall. He was still considerably hung over, and his face openly spoke to the condition. “Whatever else may be true, at least it’s with its rightful owner.”
  1747.         She held the artifact, tilting it, catching light in its etchings. She’d guarded it for years, but now beheld it as something strange. Had she ever really looked at it? Truly been with it, feeling for its meaning and the power inside it? Whatever its purpose, that had only been of peripheral relevance to her life. It seemed to her in retrospect more emblematic of her secrecy. Her fear. Every worry she’d ever had. It had become part of herself, and it was a part she didn’t like anymore.
  1748.         “I want you to keep it.”
  1749.         “You do?”
  1750.         “Keep it safe, Russet. I trust you.”
  1751.         He took it with a little smile. “I’ll do my best. Though I wonder what it’ll matter if we can’t get out of here.”
  1752.         Beatrix was hesitant to ask. His posture regarding their captivity seemed enough to suggest he wasn’t up to using magic. He did look off his game, perhaps due to the medication. It was as if he read her thoughts. “Nope. No ‘majyyks’. Sorry.” A sarcastic dazzle of his hand punctuated ‘majyyks’. He ran the hand through his sweaty hair. “The friggin’ booze isn’t helping things much.”
  1753.         She had thought she smelled something on his breath. “So, um… how have you been feeling? Did your medication help?”
  1754.         “Eh. The pills do their thing. You know, I’m sort of humming a long.”
  1755.         “I’m sorry I forced you to take them. That was stupid. I was…” she trailed off.
  1756.         “You were right to be upset with me. I was behaving like a total jackass. I’ve just been so hopelessly confused.”
  1757.         “Confused about what?”
  1758.         “About everything. My whole life. About myself, and why I’m always so miserable. You probably think it sounds quaint, but honestly I feel like a horrible sinner.”
  1759.         “A sinner? How so?”
  1760.         His features clouded over with his troubled thoughts. His pupils twitched under narrowed lids. He said nothing.
  1761.         Beatrix found herself alert, and rested her own emotion. Something was in Russet that ought to come out. Just maybe she could just listen, provide the space for it. Anchored in her clarity, she spoke. “Remember my dream? A few nights ago?”
  1762.         “Yeah.”
  1763.         “It already feels like a long time ago.”
  1764.         “I know.”
  1765.         “Well, anyway, wasn’t it you who said the only real sin is not knowing who you are?”     
  1766.         “Oh, God, I was so full of shit!”
  1767.         She stifled a laugh at the outburst. She didn’t mean to find it funny. Why was it so easy to see through the absurdity of someone else’s problems? Was it patronizing to think so? Perhaps it became easier when she found a bit of distance from her own. In any case, her mild release of levity seemed to put the smallest crack in his shell. His mouth broadened slowly.
  1768.         “You know, the silly thing about this is…” he said, pausing, his tone softened. “I was always so fond of you from the start. I never mentioned this to you, but I cannot remember ever actually meeting a girl before. I was so excited, and I thought you were so pretty and interesting and fun. It’s so completely insane that I made you feel sad and rejected. I’m really sorry. Honestly, from the first moment I saw you, all I really wanted to do was to kiss you.”
  1769.         He looked down with the meek bow of confessor’s remorse. She ducked down a bit to catch his eyes, and for the moment, their glances met, stabilized in each other. She drew closer. Her pink lips separated, and hovered near his. They closed against them softly, joined by the slick of lip balm, the taste of sweat, and the hint of scotch.
  1770.         Shortly, she pulled back. He didn’t move. Her smirk became a smile. She asked playfully, “Hey, what kind of lip balm is that? Strawberry?”
  1771.         “I think I’m gay.”
  1772.         She blinked twice. And then again.
  1773.         “©#@%.”
  1774.         Russet looked around the cell to see if she had brought along the Singe Vilain. She had not.
  1775.         The walls shook. Somewhere, heavy artillery was being fired.
  1776.  
  1777. In Bel-Air, California, on June 5, 2004, All was quiet in the Reagan family home. Nancy sat by her husband’s bed and sensed a stirring.
  1778.         She stroked his hand to let him know she was there, even if he wasn’t fully aware of it. Though his mind was locked away from her, imprisoned by the disease, she always knew her beloved husband’s spirit was strong. And from it, she drew strength too.
  1779.         There was a whisper from the bed. “Mommy…”
  1780.         “Ronnie?”
  1781.         She could hardly believe what she saw. He looked at her warmly, his eyes alert and lucid. He was her old Ronnie again for the first time in years.
  1782.  
  1783. Spinning beneath Herbert’s corkscrew nosedive was the heat-scorched naval fleet, comprised of aging vessels once the pride of American and Russian forces alike. Anti-aircraft fire thundered from many flashing sources, rising into the dusk sky, finding no intersection with Banditsknife’s nimble evasive path.
  1784.         “Let’s see what she can do.” Herbert’s raised voice instructed Grant from the front. “You ready back there?”
  1785.         “Yeah. I think so.” Grant looked at the controls in front of him. Though they weren’t controls so much as they were stationary handles made of silver. They were mounted to a silver panel, central to many silver wires and filaments spreading through the craft like a nervous system. He wrapped his palms and fingers around them gently.
  1786.         “And hey. No butter bombs, ok? Let’s keep it simple. Just straight up, honest to God ass-kicking magic.”
  1787.         “Roger that,” Grant said as if he’d taken that order from superior officers on a routine basis. The metal parts he held glowed. It was pulling energy from within him and multiplying it. He was dealing with a serious weapon, his raised eyebrow seemed to note.
  1788.         Herbert didn’t wait for the small cruiser to pass through any crosshairs. There weren’t even any crosshairs to be found. He had a feeling he wouldn’t have to aim. He pulled the trigger.
  1789.         The modified gun barrels fulminated with violent bursts of light, an almost continuous, jagged serpent of white daggers. The swath lashed across several boats which were about as helpless as bathtub toys. They were explosively punctured. They spat lava upward through fresh holes and eased beneath the red.
  1790.         Several nearby ships took to the air, as if great wasps spurred to flight by threat to the hive. Dripping from the underbellies was bright molten rock, gritty from a cooling and darkening cracked surface.
  1791.         “Oh, awesome. The boats can fly. Hey, Grant, tell me, what the hell is the point of a flying boat? Why can’t they just stay put?”
  1792.         “I’m trying to concentrate.”
  1793.         As Herbert flew by, he noticed the decks were manned by a netherworldly crew, an assortment of the demonic, the skeletal, and the captive, a group comprised of understandably frightened Junior Campers.
  1794.         Meanwhile, from the deck of the carrier a string of aircraft deployed efficiently into the sky. If Herbert were forced to guess at the appearance of the piloting parties, he’d probably have envisioned a smaller skeleton fitted with goggles of some sort, worn to protect the eyeballs it didn’t have. This would have been a pretty good guess.
  1795.  
  1796. He held her hand. His grip was weak, trembling slightly.
  1797.         “You can’t go, Ronnie. It’s been so long since we could talk like this.” A tear escaped her blink.
  1798.         “I have to go, Mommy. It’s time again for me to defend lives and preserve freedom.”
  1799.         “What do you mean? What lives, Ronnie? Where will you go?”
  1800.         “It’s ok, Nancy. It’s ok.”
  1801.         “Can’t you just stay? Just a little while longer?”
  1802.         The former President relaxed his face, forgiving a bit the creases of his longevity. “Well, it’s my duty. I’ve taken an oath. And I know in my heart man is good, that what is right will always eventually triumph and that there is purpose and worth to each and every life.” His gaze drifted up, just over her head, and into the distance. “I love you, Nancy.”
  1803.         His eyes stood still. They remained open. But she knew he was gone.
  1804.  
  1805. 00:30:25… 00:30:24… 00:30:23…
  1806.  
  1807. The swarm of jets was like a living, roaring showcase from one of Herbert’s military aviation books. He named each one with a sort of quiet ritualistic respect before gunning it down.
  1808.         There was the stylish Russian-made MiG-31 Foxhound. And now it was glittering sheets of scrap metal fluttering through the hot air currents. And there, the American F-20 Tigershark, terror of the open blue. Though it performed in a marginally less terrifying manner once its wings were made to resemble cheese graters. The MiG-29 Fulcrum, a jewel of the Soviet air force. Moments later, Herbert wondered retrospectively if perhaps it had been filled with an unusually combustible type of fuel. He looked off to the side and flipped a mock salute to an F-18 Hornet spiraling below, whose function had been reduced to that of a multi-million dollar lawn dart.
  1809.         He eased off the trigger, momentarily pensive as he barrel rolled under the hull of a lumbering airborne battle cruiser. “I hope I’m not shooting down too many of these miserable kids.”
  1810.         “I somehow get the feeling you’re the only kid around here who can fly a plane,” Grant reassured.
  1811.         “How’s it going back there?”
  1812.         “Good. I think I’m getting a better feel for it.”
  1813.         “Ok. Keep the wicked magic coming!” Herbert couldn’t believe the words from his mouth. He would have stopped to wonder if he was under the influence of another sort of toy monkey, but it was unlikely there existed a charm with such frightening power.
  1814.         Grant closed his eyes. Banditsknife brightened, then spent itself on Herbert’s trigger. A missile hissed from the wing, ambling almost lazily, towards a battleship mingling with evening clouds.
  1815.         The missile’s form hiccupped, in a way, and became ten missiles. Those missiles in a blink became one hundred. The U.S.S. Ghost in the Shell took the brunt of the volley and began its slow, smoldering descent like an ailing dirigible.
  1816.         Two more missiles left the jet and spun downward to a patch of lava buoying a cluster of ships. The missiles vanished in the red soup. Following moments of loaded silence, the surface of the lava sunk to a concave shape a thousand feet in diameter. The ships drifted down the valley not long before a depth charge-like eruption pierced the center, claiming the ships in a furious orange-yellow consumption.
  1817.         “Wow. Nice. Might be overdoing it a bit, though,” Herbert suggested.
  1818.         “Right. Sorry. Try it again.”
  1819.         The jet spat another three missiles at the fleet nearby the carrier. Again, the lava swallowed them, but now it rapidly blackened, cooling and perspiring steam. Ice crystals sprouted and spread, immobilizing ships. Others were pushed upward by large faceted peaks of ice, and vanishing into the geysering steam bath. The ice slowly grew around the carrier before ceasing its radial advance.
  1820.         Herbert swooped low to the bed of ice, honing in on the carrier. He got a better look at its hull, which had been repainted to read “U.S.S. Neon Evangelion” in a less than official naval font.
  1821.         “God, this guy’s just a huge dork, isn’t he?”
  1822.         The dork in question had emerged from below. He strolled along the deck clicking a black staff on the runway with each step. In his other hand, a silver Zapper was drawn, swaying at his side.
  1823.  
  1824. 00:00:02… 00:00:01… 00:00:00…
  1825.  
  1826.         The small box above the booth-like glass chamber beeped several times and exhaled long-sealed pressure. Insects scurried away in protest.
  1827.         The underside of the box opened, dropping a small red figure the size of a maturing fetus. It was featureless, without feet, hands or a face, and smooth, a consistency like clay.
  1828.         It landed on the head of the similarly featureless statue in the chamber below. It clambered on to the shoulders, and then in front of the circular hole in the statue’s chest. It melted into a formless blob and entered the hole, sealing it flush.
  1829.  
  1830. Herbert’s finger twitched by the trigger. “That’s him? That’s the guy?”
  1831.         “Yes. But I wouldn’t fire at him yet. Not head-on like this. I think we need a better plan.”
  1832.         “What are you talking about? This is the plan. We’re here in a plane shooting stuff. I’m taking him out.”
  1833.         “I don’t think you understand how dangerous he is,” Grant said, his voice drowned out by the roar of the very volley of missiles he hoped to dissuade. “I’m not sure why I’m even bothering,” he muttered. No one ever understood how dangerous anyone was, it seemed.
  1834.         Slinus raised his staff and quickly the incoming missiles changed shape. It was a spindlier, bonier shape, with considerably more flailing motions than their previous blunt forms had sported.
  1835.         Behind him, Gilbert cleared his throat. “Why are you always turning things into skeletons? I guess they’re pretty cool and scary or whatever. But doesn’t it ever get old?”
  1836.         No one seemed more surprised at the sudden presence of airborne skeletons than the skeletons themselves. They reached their target and shattered against an invisible force field.
  1837.         “I do what the Tine wills. It’s a fickle stick. Speaking of…” He pitched the staff to his subordinate. “Hold it for me a minute, won’t you, Gil?”
  1838.         Gilbert bobbled it awkwardly, then held it at a distance from himself. “Do I have to? The thing kind of creeps me out.”
  1839.         “Yeah, me too. But I can’t damned-well leave it on the floor, can I?” Slinus said while kneeling and taking aim with his Zapper at the renegade F-16. Herbert making a wide circle for another pass at the carrier. “Also, you might want to brace yourself.”
  1840.         The high-powered laser salvo ignited the air like ground zero of a major fireworks display. The great heft of the Evangelion slowly tipped to its side against the mounting recoil. Banditsknife flitted this way and that with the spry maneuvers of a housefly. The torrential spray proved too much though and clipped a wing. Smoke streaked from the gash.
  1841.         “This was such a bad idea,” Grant bemoaned.
  1842.         “Hold on,” Herbert said, fighting with the controls. “I think I can keep it in the air.”
  1843.         The Evangelion gently tipped back to its upright position, relieved from subsiding gunfire. Slinus appraised his target. He squinted beneath his large, unfashionable frames, exaggerating the harsh lines sunken into an otherwise youthful face. “Gil. Raise the Tine, ok?”
  1844.         “I beg your pardon?”
  1845.         “The staff. Hold it in the air. And then wave it around a little, I guess. And try to look a little menacing, if it’s not too much trouble.”
  1846.         “You want me to cast a spell? With this thing? I’m not your flipping familiar, Slinus. I wouldn’t even know where to begin.”
  1847.         “Just hold it up. It’ll know what to do.”
  1848.         “I hate my life,” Gil muttered while stirring the air with the grim artifact in an almost facetious manner.
  1849.         “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
  1850.         From the surrounding uncooled portions of the sea, dozens of magma globules rose. Each became hotter, brighter, faster and more fluid. They all revolved about Herbert’s axis, getting faster and faster. They each sharpened and smoothed their forms into burning fighter jets. They’d soon prove to be quicker, less destructible, and far more copious than any Herbert had just shot down.
  1851.         Worry took over his face. Even for a slow study like Herbert, the experience was long overdue; he was finally in over his head.
  1852.  
  1853. The Eggwood household’s television set was tuned into the round-the-clock coverage of President Reagan’s passing on Fox News. William hunched in observance, pitching in his quota to the solemn national consciousness of today’s armchair mourners. He lifted his glass from a spot on the coffee table recently vacated by a ceramic frog of dubious resale value.
  1854.         “Guess you’ll be ‘trickling down’ from heaven now, eh, buddy?” This struck William as stinging political rebuke, in spite of how little it actually made sense. “I wonder what your boys up there will think of the Iran Contra thing.” William’s accountant would never find himself swamped in stubs for donations to the Republican National Committee.
  1855.         He raised his glass in front of a wry smile. “All water under the bridge, Ron. I’m sorry to see you go.”
  1856.         “Will!” Donna yelled from the kitchen. “There’s another message from Herbert here. Are you sure he’s alright?”
  1857.         “Yeah, he’s having a blast!” he replied, impervious to the question’s merit.
  1858.         “It doesn’t sound like it.”
  1859.         “You know how he is. Man, what I wouldn’t give to be in his shoes. Lucky son of a gun.”
  1860.         Sean Hannity’s grief-shaken voice filled the conversational gap. “… courage, strength, conviction, leadership… it just goes on and on, what comes to mind about this man. This… this noble, compassionate American. A great patriot. A beautiful man. He stood up to the scourge of communism, the blight of tyranny, the disease of liberalism. He gave us everything. Can we ever thank him enough? No, I don’t think so, Alan. What we owe this man… this… patriot. This true gentleman. A class act. A legend. What we… words can’t… Alan, I just…”
  1861.         Sean struggled to keep his composure. He broke down and wilted into Alan Colmes’ arms, sobbing into his tie. Alan pursed his lips, briefly darting an eye at the camera, and gingerly stroked Sean’s soft gunmetal hair.
  1862.         The casket passed down the street below through the hallowed silence. Men saluted. Rifles clapped. But the casket was empty.
  1863.  
  1864. “Herbert, it’s a lost cause. We can’t shoot any of these things down, let alone all of them,” Grant said of the self-repairing, gelatinous fighter jets.
  1865.         “Hang on.” Herbert grappled with the controls as if trying to subdue a live cobra. “I can save the plane. If I can just avoid fire long enough to land…”
  1866.         Banditsknife left strands of smoke from its various projectile-punched injuries. The multi-threaded trail extruded from its moving source, twisting and curling like a ribbon falling through a livid swarm of wasps.
  1867.         The rear of the cockpit broke open with Grant’s sudden ejection. The noise shocked Herbert. “Hey! Come on, man!”
  1868.         He dragged the jet out of the fray toward the dark mass in the sea he guessed was a craggy cropping of land. As he drew closer and leveled out, he could see more clearly it was a small black island on which sprouted crude, stout buildings, possibly old barracks.
  1869.         Herbert swept a low arc to the lava, angled the nose up, skipped once on the surface and dredged a rocky gash in the soil from the shore inland. He unbuckled and spilled out of the smoking cockpit, plopping in exhaustion to a seat nearby.
  1870.         He shook his head at the parachute in the distance, floating to the deck of the Evangelion. The fiery fighter jets were gradually returning to the lava. He wasn’t sure whether to spite his copilot’s cowardice or admire his practicality, but the thought was displaced by an odd presence in his mind. His eye wandered to the barracks. Was it coming from there? It was a chilly feeling, and vaguely animalistic. The thought of a frost-covered table entered his mind. Pink, frostbitten hands. The keen smell of old frozen meat residue. A plant?
  1871.         “Wizardy Herbert.”
  1872.         He looked up. Slinus stood over him. The Zapper was drawn to steady aim between his eyebrows.
  1873.         Herbert’s expression suspended itself in a sweaty grimace. He appraised the counselor, the dark nemesis of his future self. His attire was ridiculous, yet vaguely sinister somehow. The black shorts, the black sash festooned with merit badges—they were the gaudy emblems of military decoration in this realm, it seemed. The long black hair was a dashing complement to his motif when gauged within the scope of some gothic nerd’s self-indulgent reverie. The thin framed aviator-style glasses would have rocked the fashion scene at a computer engineer’s convention in the 1980’s. His face looked scarred, stretched and textured, evidence of heavy and long-healed deformation. His eyes were motionless, matte-black, without spark. Behind them Herbert envisioned a boundless void, expanding and impossible to disturb. Like a growing, implacable illness, bleeding through its medium as ink dripping on tissue paper. Herbert’s death wouldn’t touch it. It wouldn’t even pause to notice.
  1874.         “Marlevort.”
  1875.         “So this was their plan to stop me. And it took a meager half-century to come to fruition. It’s kind of sad when you think about it.”
  1876.         “What are you trying to do? Why do you want the Slipknot?” Herbert baited him with curiosity as his hand crept toward his gun. A voice took his mind’s stage.
  1877. {Don’t.} It was a feeling from the barracks again. His eye flirted with that direction again briefly and paused his hand.
  1878. Slinus didn’t budge. His reply was flat. “I’m not going to tell you. I’m just going to kill you.”
  1879. {Get away while you can. I’m taking care of this.}
  1880. Slinus’ finger hugged the plastic trigger. The sound of a spring depressing made a toyish “pop” inside the Zapper. In one motion Herbert took the doll from his pocket and turned it. The zap passed through the phantom of Herbert’s vanishing mass and melted a stone.
  1881. Slinus reholstered neutrally, unmoved, as if he’d narrowly missed the opportunity for nothing more than a tantalizing spam promotion. He turned to his side and sneered. The parachute had landed on the deck of his ship.
  1882.  
  1883. On New Year’s day following the Christmas of 1998, the ink on the adoption papers had barely dried. Herbert couldn’t remember his former life, nor was he cognizant of the thought that one existed. He drifted through the well-kept domestic spaces of the second floor seeking a quiet moment to himself, an aim he’d pursue not infrequently in years to come.
  1884.         He entered his older brother’s room, the brother on which his sparse recollection had nothing to offer. Seymour, though, had culled a place in his awareness as a brother through several days prior of casual interaction; simply existing in proximity as a new brother was enough to convince Herbert’s passive sponge of the reality, and the same went for his new parents. But no one had spoken of his missing older brother, so for Herbert, he effectively didn’t exist. Yet here, Louis’ room, kept the way it had been for months, spoke the contrary.
  1885.         The bedroom’s walls and furnishings boasted the telltale articles, the reclusive fascinations of—barring less flattering terms—a hobbyist. Pinups of severe-looking wizards (sic) battling through pose power alone great foaming crests of the sea lashing against his elements-ravaged perch. Or less direly, dropping a wistful gaze into a glowing orb which either imprisoned his most vile nemesis, or exhibited stubborn residue from a price tag which he couldn’t seem to scrape off completely with his fingernail. The bookshelves packed themselves tight with similar fare, and action figures stood atop guarding the library, soldiers so fearsome-looking, you almost wouldn’t suspect their one weakness was in easily being shattered on some patio pavement.
  1886.         The desk held its own sort of mess, speaking to various forms of productivity. To the side there was an old Texas Instruments word processor. More central was a motley cabal of semi-painted Warhammer 40,000 models. They were painted so badly and so gaudily, the orcs resembled a band of savage clowns.
  1887.         Herbert slid the drawer open. There was only one thing in it, and proved to be the only thing in the room that commanded more than a second of his interest (aside from a novel called “Vera Valera and the Secret Sorceress Sorority” once he finally gave the book a chance). For that matter, it would consistently prove to be the only thing in following years that felt meaningful to him. And divining the meaning of something so intrinsically stupid would prove to be the greatest challenge of his life.
  1888.         He picked up the manuscript with the blacked-out text on the cover.
  1889.         “Sweet Zombie Jesus…”
  1890.         He looked at the doorway. It framed the chubby boy who called him his brother. He was pale and worried, which was beginning to strike Herbert as his signature look. Herbert flipped through the pages and said nothing.
  1891.         “What are you doing in here again, Herbert? After…” He lowered his voice to a croaking whisper. “After you made me help you bury that guy in our yard??”
  1892.         He was unresponsive. Seymour was incredulous at his new family member. “Are you still acting spaced out? Man, you have no idea what’s going on, do you. You haven’t… you still haven’t seen yet, have you?”
  1893.         “Seen what?” he said, suddenly more conscious of the blindness in his left eye, and the subtle black field which shared fifty percent of his cumulative visual experience.
  1894.         “The book you’re holding. Do you even know what it is? Honestly, it’s a blessing the other six disappeared. Good riddance.”
  1895.         Herbert rolled up the book and slipped it in his pocket with nonchalance. He left the room.
  1896.         “You shouldn’t read that, Herbert. It’s nothing but trouble!”
  1897.  
  1898. “Does Grant know you feel that way about him?”
  1899.         “I doubt it. I mean, how could anyone else know if even I was unsure myself?” Beatrix might have pointed out that in retrospect certain clues could have made it obvious even to those who were spoon-fed porridge and easily flummoxed by mittens. But she wasn’t about to call that kettle black.
  1900.         “Um… is he…?”
  1901.         Russet shook his head. He’d liked to have held out optimism, but his friend’s jocular attitude towards female gymnastics footage didn’t leave much doubt.
  1902.         Beatrix watched the metal floor. It no longer blurred the air with radiating heat. She allowed the silence to sink into awkwardness unprotested. She noted a felt sense of dejection, though muted. Perhaps it was tempered with clarity. It all sort of made sense now.
  1903.         “It’s really cooled off, hasn’t it?” Russet motioned cordially for the change in subject. “Do you think we’ve sailed out of the lava?”
  1904.         She shrugged. Russet fidgeted his feet beneath the cot.
  1905.         “So will you tell him?” she asked.
  1906.         “Good God, no. I’m not sure how I’m going to look him in the eye again, to tell you the truth.”
  1907.         There was a squeaky report from a metal latch. The cell door opened. Grant stepped into view. Russet smiled with half his face and treated him to a self-conscious wave.
  1908.  
  1909. Louis had used the whole summer of 1996 to write his book, and on this balmy evening on his back patio he was tuning it with the final touches. It would be just a few decisive edits before he’d begin typing the manuscript. It was an editorial process that was, putting it charitably, rather cursory.
  1910.         His younger brother Seymour joined him at the patio table drawing a diligence pulse from the Olympics games in Atlanta on the portable TV set. His saucer eyes took in every gazelle-like turn of finesse in Kerri Strug’s sculpted musculature, and they misted over in dewy admiration on witnessing her selfless gimpy-legged landing.
  1911.         “Gosh. She’s so pretty. Do you think she would go on a date with me and let me hold her hand, Louis?” This was the best approximation of romance his young mind’s cipher would yield.
  1912.         “Dream on, Seymour. She’s like a rich multi-millionaire or something, and you’re just a clueless little kid!” Louis dispensed the brotherly wisdom without leaving his notebook. His rounded frame, heavyset for a twelve year-old, hulked over the writing instruments which seemed small in comparison. He was never much for the female gymnastics part of the competition anyway. Though he was always eager to be reminded when the men’s wrestling matches began.
  1913.         “There. I think I’m done.” Louis popped a knuckle and deflated in relief from the mounting exertion. He assuaged his weary mind with the thought that it likely wasn’t a typical breed of author that would spend all summer on a project.
  1914.         “Cool!”
  1915.         “I’m pretty proud of it. I mean, I don’t think it will sell as many copies as one of the Trick books. Well, not at first, anyway.”
  1916.         “I love Trick! He always gets the treasure, and it’s great when he does. I bet your book is just as good though. Maybe better! I believe in you.”
  1917.         “Thanks, little brother. Here, why don’t you find out for yourself?” Louis slid the pad across the glass table, while trying to resist getting too distracted by the sudden onscreen presence of a taught young man doing a backflip.
  1918.         Seymour eagerly dove into an early excerpt.
  1919.  
  1920. The new campers were so amazed on what they saw they couldn’t even believe there eyes. The forrest was full of rope ladders and bridges with a lot of logs tied together and a lot of straw hut looking kind of houses like treehouses. it was kind of like an ewok village but cooler. There were so many wizards it was amazeing. The best wizard of all was the camp master and every one looking at him just new right away he was so old and wise.
  1921. The camp was so magical but every one new that day that the greatest magic of all was the power of friend ship.
  1922.  
  1923.         “It’s…”
  1924.         Seymour’s speechlessness consumed him. He new (sic) right away his brother had not created something ordinary.
  1925.         “It’s incredible.”
  1926.  
  1927. Beatrix and Russet crept through the lower decks of the carrier while Grant tailed them closely. The sounds of battle subsided, and in spite of their immersion in molten rock, it was now actually chilly. There was little sign of activity aside from now and then a young Slurpenook member/captive cowering behind a bulkhead.
  1928.         “Why is it so cold in here all of a sudden?” Beatrix whispered into her own cloud of faintly visible breath.
  1929.         “Probably the ice,” Grant replied, who’d as a matter of practicality had thus far skimped on a number of details leading to their rescue.
  1930.         “Huh?” she asked inattentively, peeking around a corner. She tiptoed ahead and down the hall, while Grant fell back and gestured to Russet.
  1931.         “Hey, buddy,” he said softly. Russet didn’t meet his look and nodded a bit. “You don’t by any chance know if Marlevort got the Slipknot yet, do you? Has anyone found it?”
  1932.         “It’s safe. I’ve got it right here, actually.” Russet kept his voice down too, following suit.
  1933.         Grant showed relief. “Great. That’s great news, Russet. But it’s not safe as long as we’re stuck in this ship. Better let me hang on to it, ok?”
  1934.         Russet hardly thought about it before handing it over. He was getting a pretty good eyeful of everything around him, the walls, their feet, the ceiling—all but his friend’s face.
  1935.         “Yeah. Here.”
  1936.  
  1937. Scribe-Babies!® Creative Writing Summer Workshop (for KiDz!) was an institution humbly situated in the urban gutters of North Jersey. It was a fine way for poor inner city kids and troubled youngsters alike to get away from day-to-day struggles and gauntlet therapy sessions while flexing some imaginative muscle on paper. Jamal had won admittance non-deliberately through an essay which found its way on the right desk, and encouraged by his mother, took the bus from Harlem every Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. It was there he would finalize a project he’d been working on for the better part of a year, and it was there he met a kid who would become his biggest fan in the world who hadn’t given birth to him.
  1938.         Today was the final session, and Louis brimmed with the good news.
  1939.         “What do you mean? You finished the whole book?” Jamal tentatively accepted the manuscript thrust at him.
  1940.         “Yeah! And since you’re…” There was a bashful pause. “Well, you are like my whole inspiration I wanted you to have the honor of being the first to read it.”
  1941.         “Wow. I’m… I don’t even know what to say. Wow.” Jamal fanned his face with the breeze of flipping pages. “Usually something like this takes, like… longer.”
  1942.         “I was just so excited and inspired. Once I started, I couldn’t stop! I was blown away by what you were doing. You know, at your age and with all the stuff you’ve been through. So I thought, hey! Why can’t I do it too! I don’t think it’s as good as yours by a mile, but I think it is probably still pretty good! I’d love to know what you think.”
  1943.         Jamal already had it folded open to a passage. Although he’d already been familiarized enough with samples of the work in preceding summer weeks to issue a pithy verdict regardless of what he might find now. It would be the same pithy verdict he’d issue in a moment.
  1944.  
  1945. He said with an air of arragance some more things about the summer camp. His arragance would probably be his down fall, thats what a lot of people said about him. “Ha ha you silly fool, don’t you know the summer camp is divided in to 4 forts. Their’s the one that values freind ship above all else which is fort Crowsnest. which calls upon the power of the mighty crow. And there is fort Serpenook the fort of the mighty serpent or some times called snakes. They are the best one’s and relie on cunning and trechory to…
  1946.  
  1947.         Jamal’s reading hastened to skimming after a point while he concocted a gracious response. He raised his eyebrows high and made long, slow nodding motions to denote the appearance of pleasant surprise.
  1948.         “Wow… wow, Louis. This is really… enthusiastic.”
  1949.         The pithy verdict filled the large boy with tingles of glee.
  1950.         “And,” Jamal continued, “I guess, if I had to make one little …” Louis was earnestly receptive, craving the wisdom. But Jamal stopped, deciding to give up once and for all the hope of impressing on him the importance of striving for originality. It was time to let the youngster have his moment.
  1951.         “Never mind. I think you made your momma proud.”
  1952.         “I knew you’d love it! So hey, how’s your work going, man?” Louis accented the question with an awkward fist-to-shoulder expression of brotherhood.
  1953.         “Oh, you know. Lookin’ to get it published, if I can. I’m not holding out a lot of hope, but you never know.”
  1954.         “That’s great! I really hope you do. I want everyone to read it.”
  1955.         “Yeah, thanks. We’ll see.”
  1956.  
  1957. Thundleshick’s startled hands dropped the tray of freshly-thawed toadloaf on the floor. Sitting there in his path was Herbert, smoking and ash-covered, clutching a recently twisted doll. The nervous sage took a small step back.
  1958.         “Relax,” Herbert said, separating the doll into halves. “I’m not here to shoot you. Don’t get me wrong. I’m still pissed off at you. I’ve just got bigger fish to fry now.”
  1959.         Thundleshick’s rigid posture eased, and he quickly seemed more paternally compassionate. He’d gotten really good at promoting that appearance, even if the only form of sympathy he tended to feel was for those heavily burdened by chronic robe-rash.
  1960.         “I see. Tell me boy. Say… you haven’t by chance collected more badges to show me, have you?” He blinked his wide eyes quickly with the playful exuberance of a baby dear in a cartoon.
  1961.         “No, I sure as hell damn-well haven’t.”
  1962.         The Campmaster shrunk slightly.
  1963.         “It’s one of your counselors. Marlevort. You are aware of this guy, right? And what he’s up to?”
  1964.         He dipped his head in stern accord. “Yes, yes. Afraid so.”
  1965.         “Aren’t you concerned? I know you love to wallow in all this disgusting moldy trash all day, and rifle through kids’ luggage and lord knows what else, but it is your camp, isn’t it? Can’t you do something?”
  1966.         Thundleshick caressed his whiskers in a way that looked thoughtful. This was another look he’d mastered to mask feelings of guilt and overwhelming incompetence. “I suppose I should set the record straight, my gumptious young friend. The counselor and I… you see, he is in truth at this ship’s helm, while I keep loftier burdens, observing from above. In… you know, in the thingy you sit in above a ship, on which squawking fowl might perch. You might even consider my duties as that of a subordinate.”
  1967.         “What? You mean you’re just a crony? You spineless son of a bitch.”
  1968.         “Hmm. Perhaps not a crony inasmuch a fee agent? Free in spirit, irrepressible, like a frolicsome wind, perchance finding its way to fill and billow the ruffledress of a plump-chested dairy maiden?”
  1969.         Herbert made a face suggesting this semantic revision didn’t sit well with him. Thundleshick made a face suggesting his nonexistent collar was getting a little snug.
  1970.         “Er… yes. That is, it was I who was recruited at his behest. It was many years ago to help the Counselor establish this wondrous camp. And increasingly since, I have enjoyed privileged autonomies for my service.”
  1971.         “I guess I should have realized that. It’s pretty obvious you do just about dick-all for this camp. He seems to be the one with all the firepower. And ambition, for that matter.”
  1972.         Thundleshick nodded, finding it hard to object. Though it nearly hit a nerve facing the insinuation that his seven acre fungus atrium was not a darned ambitious undertaking.
  1973.         “Speaking of which,” Herbert remembered. “That’s what I’ve been meaning to ask. Why is Marlevort so hell-bent on this Mobius Slipknot? What does it actually do?”
  1974.         Thundleshick perked up with nearly the enthusiasm he typically reserved for the topic of fungus. He scurried to a bookshelf.
  1975.  
  1976. The stone fist exited the glass booth to the sound of clinking shards. Small creeping vines dissolved from the statue’s coarse surface. The sleeve became cloth. The hand became flesh.
  1977.         What was inside stood up.
  1978.  
  1979. Thundleshick leafed through the delicate pages of the old book. It was comparable in size to an unabridged dictionary, and filled with runes and dark iconography possibly serving as occult disclaimers. It appeared to Herbert to be solely devoted to the mysterious charm. There was an abundance of diagrams, some he glimpsed exhibiting its completed form, the locket clasping a sort of medallion in its central hollow. In others, the Slipknot appeared to be used in conjunction with open books.
  1980.         “… in books?” Herbert partially echoed.
  1981.         “Yes, the device can ensnare an unsuspecting bystander in the pages of a book, albeit with a variety of caveats.” Thundleshick busied his fingers with the pages forward and back in search of material supporting his narrative. Herbert labored to follow the magician’s circumlocution. The book wasn’t much clearer to him. Its pages were byzantine and dense.
  1982.         “Once his essence is caught in the fictional stratum, he entirely dons the identity of the literary entity he assumes.”
  1983.         “Assumes?”
  1984.         Thundleshick continued scrambling through the brittle pages, flaking off trace amounts of stained yellow confetti from the probably very rare volume. He flipped ahead through a large section of worksheet-like pages complete with exercises. There were illustrated samples demonstrating how to use the locket, even with some in-book drills. There were indented story excerpts with some conspicuously blacked-out blocks of text.
  1985.         “This thing has worksheet pages?”
  1986. Thundleshick answered with a nod. Toward the back, the volume became even more cryptic, with lengthy, fine-printed appendices and what seemed like hundreds of pages of tables jammed with tiny numbers and accounting statistics.
  1987. “Are those spreadsheets? What the hell does magic have to do with accounting?”
  1988. Thundleshick looked surprised, almost taken aback by the question. “Why, everything, boy!”
  1989. “Magic is so retarded,” Herbert grumbled to himself. The tutorial was somehow becoming more exhausting than his recent dogfight. “Anyway, go on.”
  1990. “Very well. Take for instance this case. The device through its hidden intelligence brings you into a book. Let us say the book is Peter Pan, and it brings you into the story’s realm as the titular character, Peter Pan himself. Within that dimensional cleft, you will believe you are, indeed truly will be Peter Pan. But your given name will supplant his, naturally. I would be read about as Elwin Pan, and live the tales of this rascal of eternal adolescent vim and woe to pirate kind! Ah to dream. Ah, anyway, and you… you would become… Wiz… err, um… Herb…”
  1991. “Herbert Pan? I think I get what you’re saying.”
  1992. “Yes, and upon releasing a character from the book, whether he was once a real person entrapped there, or was always fictional to begin with, the device will dispel him of all prior memories, whether experienced within the fictional plane or otherwise. All that remains is the basic notion of one’s identity, such as a name.”
  1993. Herbert was silent. He absorbed the details while ambling through his own mental tangent. He felt as if he was on the cusp of glimpsing some cosmic whole. It was an emerging insinuation of a great puzzle he was for much of his life never aware needed solving. Still, discovering the existence of a critical puzzle was a short-lived gratification. Discovering it had ten thousand pieces and most were still missing had a way of sinking in quickly. Lingering thoughts troubled him.
  1994. “And what about time travel?” he asked, steeling himself against further revelation.
  1995. “Time travel, boy?”
  1996. “Does it exist? Can the Slipknot bend time somehow?”
  1997. Thundleshick considered it carefully, as it calculating which block to remove in the late stages in a heated match of Jenga. “It’s a powerful talisman. I would not put many feats beyond its capability. The years spent in the halls of this persnickety palace have taught me that the nature of time is fluid, and it needn’t flow only through familiar veins. It flows just as readily through the canals of thought itself, and certainly, the pages of literature as well—”
  1998.         Thundleshick’s discourse went on at some length, and Herbert was surprised to find himself arrested by it. He thought the old mage sounded uncharacteristically introspective and thoughtful. Maybe this was a topic on which he truly did have insight, and just maybe there was more depth to the man than he’d credited him with.
  1999.         His philosophically waxing spiel was broken for Herbert, though, when he felt something moving. It was the doll. Had it accidentally come back together in his pocket, and was now being activated by someone from afar? Herbert gulped and looked down.
  2000.         There was a fat spotted hand burrowing in his jeans. Thundleshick was picking his pocket again.
  2001.         “Oh, for Christ’s sake.” Herbert pulled his gun.
  2002.  
  2003. Seymour felt his brother’s plump, blue-tinted wrist for a pulse. He felt nothing, confirming the worst. He’d never actually taken a pulse before, and he was doing it wrong. But rest assured, Louis was dead.
  2004.         Seymour dragged on asthmatic gasps as he became acquainted with the feelings of grief and panic. It wouldn’t be the last time he’d encounter death, or even very long before it reared its head again. In just a few months, for instance, on a bleak Christmas day, he’d help a confused boy bury a strange man in a cape behind his shed. By then, he’d be well on his way to developing something of a rapport with mortality. It would prove a suitable primer for his own disappearance. Now, though, the flabby middle school student’s universe had been effectively rocked.
  2005.         “Sweet Zombie Jesus…”
  2006.         Louis’ rigid sprawl on his bedroom floor was not the most dignified final freeze-frame. But in the sobriety of afterthought, Seymour might have been grateful he hadn’t dropped dead while cosplaying at one of his conventions as some sort of damnable Elf Jedi Mage. His twisted torso warped the Mystery Science Theater 3000 print on his XXXL t-shirt. Beneath his limp, deli meat loaf forearm was trapped a copy of his manuscript, opened to a part in the middle. Seymour gently removed it, pausing briefly, for a moment thinking he heard a noise from behind the life-sized cardboard cutout of Kevin Sorbo as Hercules in the corner of the room, but dismissed it as a fabrication of stress.
  2007.         He found a passage conspicuous on the page through its peculiar defects.
  2008.  
  2009. ______ weilded the ______ ________ and could’nt believe how powerful it was.He said some brash things. “you fools don’t even stand a chance against me, my bloodline is pure and now I am un stoppible, he said arragantly. But some thing was wrong...........................
  2010.  
  2011.         “Sweet Zombie Jesus… Sweet Zombie Jesus…” Semour descended into delirium, losing any regulation of the idiosyncratic outburst.
  2012.         He left the room with the book. He had to tell his parents. But they wouldn’t be home from work for a while. He couldn’t bear the thought of watching them find their dead son on the floor.
  2013.         It wouldn’t be an issue. When he would return, the body would be gone.
  2014.  
  2015. “You really need help, you know that? You’re mentally ill. Anyway, I don’t have the time or patience for your kleptomania today. Give it back.”
  2016.         Thundleshick upset his brow as he considered the silent yet compelling argument the gun was making a short distance from his face. “You wouldn’t bring yourself to harm an old man, now?”
  2017.         Herbert laughed. “Old man? You act like a child. You’re probably not even that old. What are you, in your late fifties or something?” He hadn’t received the memo that Thundleshick was no fewer than ten thousand years old, we are to believe unwaveringly.
  2018.         “Also, I’d like to borrow that Slipknot manual, if you don’t mind.”
  2019.         Thundleshick hugged it as if it was his pillow and he was being told a scary story at a slumber party. “Oh, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
  2020.         “What? Come on, just give it to me, you idiot.” Herbert grappled at the old tome with his free hand while the sage put up a pedantic flustered resistance. “Just… let… GO.” BANG.
  2021.         Herbert tore a slab of pages from the book as the two separated from their fracas. He looked up at the hole in Thundleshick’s soggy hat. The garment responded to the bullet more like a kind of custard than cloth. Thundleshick held the kind of expression reserved for when a cranky bee lands on your nose.
  2022.         Herbert shook his head, reaching down for loose pages freed from the book. “God damn wizards…”
  2023.         Thundleshick whispered something to himself. Herbert barely picked it up. “Sweet Zombie Jesus…”
  2024.         Herbert squinted his eye. He poked a glance up at him from his stooped position. “What did you say?”
  2025.         Thundleshick toyed with his beard looking off to the side. Herbert took a closer look at him. He scoured the campmaster’s face, probing behind the grisly, dishwater-gray mane, beneath the slick, tanned leather of his face. The eyes…
  2026.         “Seymour??”
  2027.  
  2028. Terence Rothschild scuttled up the slope of a mountain, vanishing into a shallow snowdrift and then out of it, shaking snow from his equine head and spitting it from his agile, rubbery lips.
  2029.         He clambered to a dry patch on a rocky plateau and halted in a shadow. The shadow belonged to a well built man in a suit, with an American flag pin on his lapel.
  2030.         “Oh. It’s you.” Terence sagged.
  2031.         He was crushed by a well-polished shoe. The shoe twisted, grinding crustacean shell against rock. The man crouched as if to take flight, and disappeared with a boom, signaling the starter shot for several avalanches nearby.
  2032.  
  2033. Herbert’s pistol sank to his side. Feelings of hostility and suspicion directed at the scurrilous magician gave way to feelings of pity and compassion for his long-missing older brother. The feelings were short-lived, though. Like a tiny fly which takes to the sky for only moments to mate and deposit its sticky eggs beneath a leaf. Its brood soon would hatch, ushering a swarm of disbelief and irritation directed at the, in truth, non-blood-related overweight kleptomaniacal con artist.
  2034.         “So you’ve been here this whole time? Since you disappeared?”
  2035.         He answered with silent contrition.
  2036.         “I can’t believe I bought into this. My stupid older brother posing as this horrible, nasty… wizard. Yeah, I don’t care if that’s not technically what you are. To me, you’re just an old wizard.”
  2037. Thundleshick gave him a judicious nod. He could summon no objection.
  2038.         Herbert holstered the gun and relaxed on to a stool by the table. He rolled up the slab of paper and batted it into his palm as he thought.
  2039.         “So what was the whole act about? All this…” he gestured vaguely, trying to surround and contain the gross fraudulence in the abstract with his hands. “You know. The ‘my boy, this’ and ‘my dear lad, that’ and that sort of pompous nonsense? It was all such bullshit. You were never wise.”
  2040.         Thundleshick harrumphed a stab at justification. “Yes. Er… I’ve done my best to suit the role. I believed I’d finally found something at which I excelled. My only true aim was to perform in a way that might make my mother and father proud.”
  2041.         “Yeah, well you sure did a number on them! Do you have any idea how sad they were when you vanished? That was two sons missing in, what, like six months?”
  2042.         Thundleshick withered in chagrin. After a few moments, he drew a heavy breath. “Yes. You are right. Though for many years, I was indisposed.”
  2043.         Herbert nodded. “Right. Marlevort, I guess?”
  2044.         His quiet melancholy spoke an affirmative. Herbert had plenty of questions. Now that Thundleshick had aged into relative autonomy and seemed to come and go from the realm as he pleased, Herbert wondered why he wouldn’t have reunited with his family. He didn’t want to push it, though. Enough spoke for itself, and he thought plenty could be explained simply by Seymour’s gradual, savage affliction with twisted old man-itis. Plenty could happen in almost fifty years. And in this realm, plenty always did.
  2045.         “I guess I was on the money, then. You’re, what, fifty-something now?”
  2046.         “Fifty-nine today, actually. I was just about to celebrate with a jubilatory helping of toadloaf when you entered. Why, I supposed we might scrape much of it from the floor with a spade or a trowel and still enjoy. I trust it has remained chilly.”
  2047.         “No thanks, I’ll pass.”
  2048.         Awkward moments lumbered by.
  2049.         “So are you going to give me that book, Seymour, or what.”
  2050.         His brother lit up with an idea. “Ah, but I have something which is even better, my boy… er, Herbert. Sorry. Long lost dear brother!”
  2051.         “Just Herbert will be fine.”
  2052. His hand plunged into his cloak and noisily molested its concealed unspeakables. Herbert perked with interest. The hand reappeared with a fistful of something. That something was quickly hurled into Herbert’s wide-open eye, bursting into a powdery puff.
  2053.         “Arrgh!”
  2054.         He blinked his searing eye. Through the blurry filter of tears he gave an embarrassed-looking Thundleshick a poisonous look.
  2055.         “Er… I believe I withdrew stock from the wrong pouch.”
  2056.         “Were you supposed to disappear just now? You suck, Seymour.”
  2057.         “Ah, here it is.”
  2058.         Herbert received another face-full. He disappeared in the cloud. When the eye-stinging subsided, he found himself standing in a different part of the castle.
  2059.  
  2060. Finding the surface of the carrier, Beatrix and Russet crept among the burning wreckage on the deck. Aside from the whipping and popping of flame, it was unsettlingly quiet.
  2061.         “I think we’re in the clear,” she said softly. “I don’t see Marlevort around. Maybe we can sneak off this thing in a plane. Or a boat, maybe?”
  2062.         “Agreed,” Russet said. “Though a plane will possibly be too noisy for any proper sneaking, I think. And a boat will have a hell of a time navigating through that ice, though on the bright side it does appear to be melting. But dash it if we don’t give it a try!”
  2063.         “Shh.” She tried to calm his nervous blithering. “He might hear us.”
  2064.         “I’m right here.” Slinus stood behind them with his hands in his pockets.
  2065. Beatrix made a startled noise. Her expression was the kind used by spectators of the humorously tragic, like an obese person involved in a scooter accident. Russet slouched.
  2066.         “There are no planes for your daring escape, anyways. You can thank your pal Wizardy Herbert for blowing them all up. The guy is a rescue mission ace.”
  2067.         She looked around at the aftermath of the incomprehensible pandemonium dealt to the fleet. “Herbert did all this?”
  2068.         “He’s out of his mind, Bea. I’m telling you!” Russet hissed from the side of his mouth.
  2069.         Not about to be out-staged in the department of mental illness, Slinus flashed his gunslinger’s quick draw, shifting to the ‘erratic madman’ gear in his psyche’s transmission. “Alright, shut up. Let’s go for a stroll back down to the brig. Not that I have much use for you, since neither of you have what I need.”
  2070.         Beatrix winked at Russet, believing their conspiracy intact. He cringed.
  2071.         She put up her fists like a boxer. She felt a little odd striking the pose in preparation for a magical duel, but it seemed like the fallback for one whose weapon was tiny and attached to a finger. She guessed Green Lantern probably did it all the time, not that she knew for sure.
  2072.         “Hey,” she wondered suddenly. “Where did Grant go?”
  2073.  
  2074. Herbert rubbed his watering eye and brushed the insidious powder from his hair. He was having a hard time deciding whether he found Thundleshick’s antics more infuriating now that he knew it was just Seymour all along, or somewhat less so due to being just plain pathetic. He would deliberate on it later, and his older, older brother would just have to sweat out the final verdict authored by the hanging judge.
  2075.         It was a particularly unstable part of the palace. The long, gloomy hallway stretched and buckled and swayed. Patches of wall became insubstantial, permeable. Buttresses, stairs and such architectural interjections poked into visibility, and pulled back like shy turtles.
  2076.         He held his portion of the manual pried from the stubborn magician. He opened it and lighted the text in the vacillating glow of a not entirely stationary wall torch. The manual was a steep read, and the technicality of the diagrams was hard to penetrate. One set of illustrations addressed the way the Slipknot itself interfaced with books. Supporting text indicated the locket was able to trap itself into literature the same way it did with people, as Thundleshick described, swapping its own moniker with that of a key item in the fiction. This was pictorially demonstrated through examples such as Prynne’s Letter, Poe’s Heart, Yorick’s Skull, and most contemporarily, Rutherford Trick’s talking brass pocket watch he called Sassafras (or Sassy for short, a brand which the ill-tempered timepiece loathed). Furthermore, if arcane cartoons were to be trusted, when a passage is read depicting a character employing the item in question—Hamlet’s soliloquy, for instance—this activates its power, drawing the locket and its fictional operator out of the book.
  2077.         Herbert stopped, walked several paces to catch up with the torch which had been escorted down the hall by shifting brickwork, and resumed his haphazard study.
  2078.         But this was not all there was to the story, he thought, as any idiot could have told him who’d had a gander at the tome’s thickness. Once sprung from the book, the locket left residuals of its power in the fictional object it possessed. Thus any character using the object later in the tale could still be pulled from the book once that passage was “activated” by a reader, even absent the presence of the Slipknot in the book. These key passages were known as “plot slipknots”, mysterious places in the book marked by the charm’s subtle whim. Once the locket or character is pulled from a book, their instances in the full text are blacked out, never to be recovered from the story again.
  2079. In reading on, he gleaned that there was however a loophole to this rule (sometimes called the slipknot loophole by those who wanted to be deliberately confusing). The charmed potential of unread passages (or unslipped knots) was preserved in duplicated copies of the book. In any copy, triggered plot slipknots would release characteristically dumbfounded duplicates of the characters. Such was the reach of the charm’s power in fact, its fiction-animating properties even extended into all subsequent volumes of a book series if the locket was embedded in an earlier volume. The only thing that was not able to be duplicated through this loophole, as was impressed upon the reader with caveats of lumbering academic gravity, was the Mobius Slipknot itself. It would always ensure itself as one of a kind.
  2080.         Herbert closed the book fragment. He was understandably overwhelmed, while the content of the manual, in stark contrast, was not overwhelmingly understood. But enough had been absorbed to jog something in him. A picture flashed in his mind, like a critical slide in a presentation blinked to its audience prematurely. But just as soon as it offered its tantalizing promise of revelation, it was gone. Nonetheless, he could see how all the moving parts, ever slowly, might start fitting together. The manuscript. His missing older, older, older brother. The camp. His future self. It was beginning to make sense.
  2081.         His surroundings had become lost on him in the reading. He was sitting against the stone wall, moist with moss in spite of its ever rolling stone-like nature. The torch had drifted, and finally was swallowed by the wall snuffing out visibility. Gray, muted light from an indeterminable source let him see, barely. He looked down the black undulating throat of the hall into a chilling void. There was a distinct feeling to this castle when dwelt on, felt mostly in the chest. It was a feeling of deep sickness, nearly intolerable. He thought he heard his name whispered.
  2082.         He traipsed down the hall, hands feeling forward, feet tentative on the slithering bricks. There was something ahead, sitting and slumped. He came closer and kneeled. It was a skeleton. Not the terrifying undead kind, but the sad, non-undead kind, a dried husk once armature to flesh. It was still clothed, in rags, though the XXXL t-shirt it wore had a deteriorating Mystery Science Theater 3000 image on its front. Herbert liked the show and smiled at the recognition. But he didn’t know who this was. Just another poor sap, deceased for decades in this lurching sewer.
  2083.         Something spilled from the skull’s eye socket. An oozing black tar, though on hitting the floor, it became more like clay. It formed into a small, featureless figure without hands or feet, about the size of a maturing fetus.
  2084. It danced aggressively and erratically, threatening Herbert with quick fake-out lunges. He tried shooing it with the manual. It leapt to his head and clung. Herbert thrashed, yelling things, he wouldn’t remember later if there were words or noises. He felt an invasive, powerful sucking in his right ear. There was momentary deafness to all but ringing. The figure vanished completely into his ear.
  2085.         He thrashed more wildly, bowing and swatting his head as if he was in a headlock by an invisible pro wrestler. The violation caused him to make strange whining sounds and spasms, though the spectacle was cut short when the floor beneath him twitched and then disappeared, dropping him in the dark.
RAW Paste Data
We use cookies for various purposes including analytics. By continuing to use Pastebin, you agree to our use of cookies as described in the Cookies Policy. OK, I Understand
Not a member of Pastebin yet?
Sign Up, it unlocks many cool features!
 
Top