Home » , , , , , , , , , » The Box Series Bundle 1 (The Man in the Box, The Note in the Journal, The Magic of the Sword) By Christina G. Gaudet

The Box Series Bundle 1 (The Man in the Box, The Note in the Journal, The Magic of the Sword) By Christina G. Gaudet


I check one last time to make sure Mom is still working on supper downstairs before closing the door to my bedroom and crouching next to the cardboard box in the middle of the floor. The thing looks completely at odds with the super clean white carpet, light pink walls, and matching white dresser, bed and night stand. Other than a couple of paintings, the dance trophies displayed around the room, and the few Taekwondo medals I’ve managed to put up without Mom noticing, every other object is tucked neatly away in dark pink containers, making the cardboard seem much grimier and much more interesting than it might otherwise.
The Box Series Bundle 1 (The Man in the Box, The Note in the Journal, The Magic of the Sword)
The Box Series Bundle 1 (The Man in the Box, The Note in the Journal, The Magic of the Sword) By Christina G. Gaudet


I stare at the folded flaps covering the top for a long time without doing anything.

I should put it back and leave it alone. It’s what Mom would prefer. When she set the box in my closet a week ago, she made a point of telling me she wanted to be the one to go through the contents, but she needed time. I doubt it will stay in my room much longer. As upset as Mom is about Gran’s death, she’s already starting to come to terms with it, which means the box of stuff Gran had at the hospital will be organized and most likely tossed out soon.

Although I know from the weight of the thing there isn’t much inside, I can’t help being curious about what Gran chose to keep with her up until the end.

I pull the flaps apart and peer within. The space is almost entirely empty except for a few folded articles of clothing. Set carefully on top is Gran’s watch and a small wooden box I’d never seen before. Just to make sure there’s nothing else, I take everything out and carefully spread it over the floor. A pair of cotton pants, two blouses, underwear, a comb, and then the watch and the box.

As I put everything away exactly as I’d found it, I can’t help feeling disappointed, though I’m not sure why. What did I expect? Her collection of toenails? And if she kept it with her, would I want to find it?

I smile and shake my head. I should be relieved there’s nothing else in here. I’m sure her house is going to have enough odd objects to sort through to make up for the lack here.

I’m about to set the box back on top of the clothes when I stop. Why a box? At the size of my fist it can’t hold too much. Maybe some jewelry, but that doesn’t seem likely since this is Gran we’re talking about.

After glancing back at the door and considering my options, I make a decision. Instead of putting the wooden box away with the other items, I set it on my bed and then return the rest to the back of my closet. After quickly examining everything to make sure the room looked exactly the same as before, I flop down on my bed and reach for the box.

I twist it around in my hand, lifting it above me as I lie back on my pile of pillows. It’s actually kind of pretty. How have I never seen it before? I visited Gran every weekend with Mom after she got sick. My sister Cindy, on the other hand, went once and then refused to go back. She said it made her uncomfortable or something equally selfish.

My hand tightens in anger at the memory and my thumb jerks across the front of the box. Seriously, who does Cindy think she is? Couldn’t she take one day out of her busy schedule of getting drunk and making out with boys to visit our dying grandmother?

And in the end, Gran still decided it would be a great idea to give her car to Cindy. She doesn’t know anything about responsibility, and completely ignored Gran and yet she’s the one who gets rewarded.

Without meaning to, I flick the latch and the lid flies open. I scramble to keep it from dropping out of my hands. Something about the size of my thumb falls out onto my stomach and gets lost in the folds of my salmon-colored top.

Damn it. What would Gran leave in there that would be so small? It wasn’t shiny like a ring. In fact, it kind of looked like a...

Movement. I saw movement. Don’t tell me a spider was living in that bloody box. I hate spiders. Especially the kind that climb into your ear and lay eggs on your brain. I’ve heard stories.

Every muscle in my body is tense and ready to spring, but I hold myself in place. No need to freak out. It’s only a spider, after all. More afraid of you and all that. And if I start flopping around like an idiot, it might get mad and bite.

Slowly, I reach down to the hem of my shirt. Even more slowly, so as not to frighten the thing into doing something rash like bite me or run for the excellent hiding spot of my ear, I pull the material down, flattening out the folds.

My heart flutters as I finally catch sight of the thing. I’m about to flick it off me and throw myself in the opposite direction when I notice the bug is staring straight at me with a look more horrified than my own. Not only that, it seems to have only two legs and two arms, not the eight I’ve been expecting.

When my ears start to ring I realize I’ve been staring at the thing on my stomach for a very long time without breathing. I gasp and it takes in a similar breath.

A human. An impossibly tiny human crouches on my stomach.

No, it must be some sort of figurine. It was a trick of the light, my imagination that made it move. It’s well made, very lifelike, but it’s just a figurine.

It straightens a little and runs a shaky hand through its shaggy blond hair. It scans the room, taking in as much detail as it can before quickly returning its attention back to me.

Finally it speaks, and despite the fact its voice is a little shaky with nerves, I can tell the thing is male. He’s much louder and has a deeper tone than I would have thought possible from something so small. Though, to be fair, I’d never imagined something as tiny as him being able to speak in the first place. Even so, he sounds like a full-sized man.

“Hello.” He bows his head a little, his eyes never leaving mine.

“Hi?”

This cannot be happening. He did not just bow at me and say ‘hello’ as though landing on a giant person’s shirt is an everyday occurrence for him. I want to say something else to let him know that none of this is right, but I can’t squeeze any more words from my tightened throat.

“Might I say, right away, before there’s any confusion, I’m sorry.” This time his bow is deeper, and his eyes break from mine as though he realizes it’s rude for him to stare. “Very sorry. Words don’t express how sorry I am.”

His longer speech reveals an accent. It’s not strong, but his punctuation is crisp.

“Okay,” I squeak. “Why are you sorry?”

“For anything. Everything. Whatever I did to annoy you.”

“Okay,” I repeat.

It would help if I could breathe properly, maybe then I could form full sentences, but there’s no way I’ll be able to with him on my stomach.

Out of the corner of my eye, on my bedside table, I see my clipboard where I keep all of my notes for dance. It’s the same pink as my walls, the cover decorated with a pair of ballet slippers. Much like the rest of the room, Mom chose it. Without twitching my stomach muscles, I reach over, grab the clipboard, and place it a few inches away from him.

He gives it a nervous look, but makes no move to get on.

I want to say, “Please step onto the board so I can safely set you on the nightstand beside my bed before I flip out for a couple of minutes,” but only a strangled choking sound comes out. He must understand, though, because he quickly makes his way onto the board, and I gently set it and him onto the table. The second I let go, I fling myself off the bed, body shaking in violent shudders. My hand repeatedly brushes off the area of my shirt where he’d been standing as if there’s something sticky on the fabric.

No matter how much I tremble or wipe, I can’t get the uneasy feeling to go away. After I don’t know how long, I find myself on the floor with my arms wrapped around my knees.

He watches the whole outburst with wide eyes. When I’ve calmed down enough to stop shaking, he speaks again.

“Better?” he asks.

“Nope.”

He smiles for half a second, catches himself, and forces his face back into a concerned frown.

So there’s a tiny person on my nightstand, and he’s laughing at me. Great. I’m completely insane. I had no idea it could happen so fast. I thought insanity happened over time. I mean, I know I’ve been under a lot of stress lately, what with rehearsals and practices and school and Mom and Cindy, but I didn’t realize I was so close to cracking.

Miniature person.

Really never saw that coming.

“Have I told you I’m sorry yet?” he asks.

“Yeah. Um, why are you sorry again?” He opens his mouth to answer, but I interrupt. “I know, for anything and everything. But what exactly did you do?”

“I...uh.” He swallows and stares at me. “I’m sorry. I’m not sure what I did. But it must have been something bad for you to put this spell on me.”

“Me? I did this?” I let out a nervous laugh. “No. Wrong. You did this. I opened the box and you...” My eyes flick to the box lying half open on my bed. “The box!”

In one fluid motion, I’m off the floor and on my stomach on the bed. My hand wraps around the box and I lift it up in triumph and smile like a maniac at the miniature guy. He’s not as happy. In fact he looks more terrified than before. His hand reaches for something on his thick leather belt while he positions himself into what I know well to be a fighter’s stance—legs spread apart with his balance distributed evenly between them, his weight is on the balls of his feet, ready to move in any direction.

Without thinking, my muscles respond and I’m up, ready for the attack. Great, now I’m preparing to fight someone I could squish with one finger. Things can’t get any weirder.

“The box,” I say again. “You came out of it, right? You can go back in and everything can go back to normal.”

I flash him another wild-looking smile and then rest the box next to the clipboard so he can climb inside.

His stance relaxes a little when he realizes I don’t plan to attack, but otherwise, he doesn’t move.

“Let’s go.” I resist the urge to shove him forward, but only barely. “I’m so over this mental breakdown.”

“The thing is—“

“There’s a thing? Why does there have to be a thing? Why can’t you go into the box and I’ll go back to my life. Why can’t we do that?”

He holds himself away from the box, almost as though he’s more afraid of it than of me.

“It’s not that I don’t trust you.”

His hesitation is slowing everything down. Why won’t he get inside so this moment of insanity can end?

“Then what? Why won’t you get in?”

He examines me for a moment as though deciding how truthful to be.

“I don’t trust you.”

I open my mouth, but he stops me from arguing by adding, “I’m sorry. I really am. I simply don’t want to die of starvation while locked in a box.”

Starvation? Can hallucinations become malnourished? Possible or not, my conscience won’t let me take the risk.

”Fine. Get in and I’ll leave it shut for ten seconds before opening it back up. Like resetting a computer. Everything will go back to normal.”

“Rewhating a what?”

“You know. A computer. One of those big boxes with the internet and...you have no idea what I’m talking about.”

Sigh. You’d think my imagination could have created someone with a bit more knowledge of the world. Though, I have to give myself points for creativity. Plus, he’s adorable.

No. Wrong. I need to get rid of the guy, not admire him.

“Get in the box.”

“Honestly, I think I’d rather be squished. Less drawn-out death.”

I feel a little sorry for him. It can’t be easy being so tiny. Still, I’m definitely at an advantage for size and I need him to do what I say. Now.

“That can be arranged,” I say.

I raise my thumb menacingly, or that’s what I am going for at least.

“In the box?” He’s already moved to it’s side.

He rubs his face while eyeing the thing with apprehension. His expression is pleading when he returns his gaze my way. In an instant, the emotion is gone and his face reveals nothing of what he’s thinking. Still, the one moment of vulnerability makes it impossible for me to continue threatening him.

“Please?”

He looks puzzled, as though he wants to say something, but changes his mind at the last moment. After another bow, he climbs in and I close the lid as soon as I’m sure his tiny hands won’t get caught. What I should have done is set it aside and never thought about it again. Instead, I count to ten, slower than I’ve ever counted to ten before and open the lid.

The miniature guy stares up at me.

“Shit.”

“Bugger.”





Chapter Two





“He’s not real. He’s not real. He’s not real.”

I glance back over at the table where the tiny man paces back and forth, his eyes always on me. No matter how I say it, I can’t make the words true.

I can’t stay here. Not with my adrenalin racing through me, telling me to move.

“I’ve got to go,” I say.

His eyes widen in alarm and he stops in his tracks.

“Go? Go where? Why do you have to go?”

“I’ll be back,” I promise. “I’m going to get Mom. She’ll figure this out.”

“Great,” I hear him grumble as I leave the room. “She needs her mother’s help.”

I run down the stairs with no thought in my head other than the need to get away from my bedroom. Reality hits me when I get to the main floor and I’m forced to stop. What am I going to say? How can I possibly explain this to Mom without sounding crazy? Maybe I want to tell her and have her say I’m insane. Then this will all be over. It might take some therapy, but I can live with that.

“Hello, Lou.”

I jump and spin in the same motion, my arms automatically moving up to block an incoming punch. My eyes focus on a tall slim man who would almost be attractive if it weren’t for the dead look in his eyes and a more cruel than pleasant smile. I play off my crazy reaction to his greeting by moving my hands up and through my long black hair. He makes no sign of noticing my strange behavior.

“How are you doing? Still breaking hearts?”

The anxiety I thought would disappear once I found someone to help only increases as he stares. I have to force my hand to stop shaking. For whatever reason, I feel like I can’t let him see how worked up I am.

“I’m fine,” I say.

Mr. Anderson, or Stewart as he prefers to be called, is Mom’s ‘special friend.’ He’s been coming over a lot lately, ever since Mom and I had a talk where I cheerfully told her I was fine with the whole thing. Never mind what I actually wanted to tell her was, “He’s creepy and we should move so he can’t find us.” But he makes Mom happy, which is what matters. It’s weird though, Mom never mentioned he was coming tonight. Usually she gives me a bit of warning.

“Ah, Lou, there you are.”

I don’t jump when Mom comes up behind me, but I’m only barely able to stop myself. She puts a hand on my shoulder which feels cool through my shirt.

She must notice the difference in temperature too because she asks, “Are you well? You’re not getting sick are you?”

“What? No. I was doing some stretches. Just worked up a bit of a sweat I guess. Hey, is supper done? I’m starving.”

“Supper is almost done, yes. Would you mind helping me?”

The expression she makes as we walk back to the kitchen tells me she’s as surprised as I am to find him here. Though, her reaction to his visit is much happier than mine. She keeps fluffing her short, curly hair and adjusting the wide belt around her small waist in nervous excitement.

I set the “good” dishes Mom hands me, and take my seat. My foot taps nervously on the dark tile floor until the others finally come in. Stewart sits down in his spot at the round table while Mom hurries to serve the food.

“Where’s Cindy today?” Stewart asks in a tone I can only assume he believes is friendly. “Off on some wild escapade, I suppose.”

I ignore the crawling feeling running down my spine while he talks and force a smile of my own.

“I don’t know.”

I never know unless she’s home, then the shouting between her and Mom is a pretty good indication she’s here.

Mom sites and gestures for us to start. Part of me wants to be excited about the honey glazed chicken on my plate since it’s my favorite, but all I can think about is the guy on the nightstand upstairs. I need to ask Mom about it. She has to know how to fix this.

“Mom.” I interrupt the conversation she’s having with Stewart. They both turn and look at me expectantly. “About the box of Gran’s stuff...”

No. I can’t do it. I can’t reveal how crazy I am, not in front of her boyfriend. I look first at Mom who’s startled by the subject and then at Stewart who stares at me in undisguised interest. Why is he looking at me like that? I thought there was something off about him before, but this is unnerving.

“I’m going to move it to the other side of the closet so I have some room for my costume when I get it at rehearsal tomorrow.”

Her expression relaxes as she says, “Of course, sweetie. Whatever you need.”

My forced smile drops the moment I hear a noise upstairs. At first I think I’m imagining things until Mom grits her teeth and glances up at the ceiling.

“Cindy must be sneaking in,” Mom says. “That girl has never figured out how to use the front door.”

“Excuse me.”

I leap to my feet and rush back up the stairs.

Cindy sneaking into the house isn’t anything new. Usually I don’t care, even though it’s my window she crawls in through. There’s no simple way up into her room and there’s a huge tree next to mine, so I can understand why she does it. And it’s easier to ignore her than fight every time, especially since she would never stop.

This time’s different. What will she do if she sees the mini man? Worse, what if she doesn’t see him and throws her purse onto the table, squishing him instantly? I have to move faster.

My eyes are instantly drawn to my sister’s short, bright red, spiky hair as I burst through the door. Last time I saw her, it was green, so I’m thrown for a couple of seconds. Then I realize her tongue is down some guy’s throat while his hands are all over her.

I should have known. Cindy would never make so much noise sneaking in on her own.

Cindy’s guy breaks away from her mouth and gives me an accusing stare. “Ya mind?”

What does she see in him? It’s not like he’s hot, especially not with the tattoos covering his arms and the big wonking bar through his nose. Mom would hate him instantly, of course. Was there any other type of guy Cindy would bring home?

“My little sister, Lou,” Cindy says. “Don’t worry about her, she likes to watch.”

My face goes bright red. I’m only a year younger, and I do not like to watch. I have no interest in watching. In fact, if they weren’t in my room where I’m hiding a miniature man...

Table. Miniature man. Without thinking, I throw myself forward, placing myself between the couple and the table. The move brings me uncomfortably close to them.

“I think she wants to do more than watch,” tattoo guy says. He looks me over from head to toe with an appraising smirk. “I’m game if you are, Sin. I’ve never done a cheerleader type before.”

“Ew.”

Usually Cindy would react with some rude joke and lead the guy off to her own room, but she doesn’t say a word. She stares at me while reading my face, which I keep down.

“Hey, Jazz,” she says after a minute. “I’m going to have to cut tonight short.”

She pats his chest more like she’s shoving him back toward the window than being affectionate.

He laughs. “Come on Sin, I’ve heard you’re many things, but never a tease.”

She doesn’t seem bothered by what he’s insinuating, even though she probably should be. I know I would.

“I’ve got to deal with family stuff. Sorry, man. Next time, all right?” Not waiting until he leaves, she turns back to me and glares. “What are you hiding?”

I glance over at Jazz who stares at Cindy for a minute while he tries to work out what happened. For a second I’m sure he’s going to be pissed enough to refuse to leave, but finally he snorts, calls her a few names and climbs out the window.

“Seriously, Lou. What the hell is wrong with you? You look like your head’s about to explode.”

“It’s nothing. Just go.”

I grab her shoulder and start to guide her toward the door, but she knocks my hand away.

“Screw that. What are you hiding? Did you steal something from me? Is that what this is about?”

She tries to peek around my left side, but the second I lean with her to keep myself in front of the table she dodges to my right and tries to push past me. I manage to stop her from getting by, but I can’t stop her seeing. Since I don’t keep anything on the table the guy can hide behind, there’s no way she doesn’t spot him.

“Holy hell,” she whispers in awe as her thickly lined eyes widen to almost perfect circles. “It’s a miniature person.”

I try to shove her towards the door, but she doesn’t budge. If I push hard enough, I can probably move her, but I’m afraid of hurting her. I don’t think she’s ever been to a gym, so I have no doubt I can out muscle her if I treid.

“It’s not what it looks like. He’s a figurine I found. It’s plastic or something.”

“You’re a real, miniature person,” she says while completely ignoring me. “How are you here?” Before he has a chance to say anything, she turns on me and jabs a finger into my shoulder. “What did you do?”

“I didn’t do anything. Why does everyone keep blaming me?”

I’m not used to people assuming I’m the one at fault. Cindy gets in trouble, not me. She has no right to be accusing me of anything.

Cindy pushes past when I stop fighting her. There’s no point anymore. Besides, she doesn’t seem to be taking it at all like I expected. She seems completely calm, almost excited. It’s as though she anticipated something like this would happen.

She leans down so her face is even with the table and looks closely at the guy. He follows her every move with one hand resting cautiously on what I now realize is a sword strapped to his hip.

“This is so crazy. You’re a real live person?”

“Usually,” he replies much to her delight.

I haven’t seen her so excited about anything since she got the car.

“You can talk? So awesome. Where did you come from? What’s your name? How did you get here? Are you always this small? Seriously, Lou, how did you do this? I’ve never seen anything like this. Gran showed me some cool tricks, but never magic. Not like this.”

It takes me a few seconds to realize that the person who sounds like they’re hyperventilating is actually me. I force myself to take a couple of even breaths before attempting to speak.

“Gran showed...”

Too much. Way too much to handle. I don’t know if my legs give out or if I make a move to sit down. Either way, without any conscious thought, I’m suddenly on the floor with my arms wrapped around my knees. Again.

“Pathetic,” Cindy says with a roll of her eyes. She kneels back down next to the table and leaves me to my frantic rocking. “Do you have a name, or should we give you one?”

I look up in time to see him turn away from me. A name. Why didn’t I think of asking that? Oh wait, because I want him gone, not to become best friends with him.

“Aldric,” he says.

“Riiight,” she laughs. “We’re going to call you Al, kay?” She winks and makes a gun with her fingers.

“Whatever you prefer.”

“Ahh.” Cindy groans and falls back dramatically. “Best three words out of a man’s mouth. And with the accent, it’s extra hot. Tell me Al, what brings you here?”

“I honestly don’t know.” He hurries to add, “But I’m sure it was my fault. And I’m sorry.”

“Sorry?” Cindy scoffs. “For what?”

“Anything and everything,” I answer for him. “Yeah, it’s all he says to me too.”

“Explain exactly what happened.” Cindy moves to sit on my bed so she can see both of us without having to twist.

“It was the box.” I point at it on my bed. “I accidently opened it and he fell out.”

She reaches over and grabs the hunk of wood, twisting it around in her hands until it’s upside down. “Gran gave you this? When?”

“She didn’t. It was with her stuff.”

“You have some of her things? Why didn’t anyone tell me? I should have been the one to find this.”

I can’t believe what I’m hearing. She has the nerve to think she has any right to Gran’s possessions after the way she acted? Besides which, why would anyone want something like this to happen to them? Even Cindy can’t be so crazy.

“The box is magic,” she says. “You see the writing on the bottom? That’s a spell engraved into the wood. I can’t read what it says, but Gran showed me something similar before. She wanted me to be prepared. Just in case, you know.”

“Just in case of what?” I ask.

Cindy groans at my idiocy and pointedly looks at Al.

“All right, let’s say I accept Gran told you about this stuff. So explain. How does it work? How is he here? Does every box have magic and this one happened to do something while I was watching? Should I be worried about an army of mini-men running around on my night stand?”

I stop rhyming off every question in my head when I notice Cindy’s expression has changed to a familiar look of boredom. I bet she’s not even listening anymore.

I decide to keep it simple. “How does magic exist? Magic isn’t real.”

“No, of course not.” She gestures toward the mini-man and shakes her head at me. “There’s no magic here. You really are slow aren’t you? And you don’t have to worry about how it works. Accept it does and let me deal with the rest.”

“Fine,” I say while waving my hand in a ‘go ahead’ motion. “Fix it, if you know so much.”

“Can’t.”

“Can’t or won’t?”

“Both. Seriously, Lou. Why are you freaking out so much? You can’t tell me this isn’t the most interesting thing to ever happen in your entire life. Look at how cute he is. With his little leather tunic and knee high boots like they wear in pirate movies.”

“I’m flattered, really,” he says. “And I don’t mean to offend you, but as fun as this is, I would like to go home.”

“See,” I say while I point at him. “He wants to go home. You should give him what he wants.” She doesn’t say anything. “Cindy, please. I need things to be normal again.”

She jumps to her feet and takes several steps away from me before spinning around and throwing her arms up in defeat. “And what’s so great about normal, huh?”

Normal is good. Normal is what everyone strives for. Everyone but Cindy of course. Normal means not sticking out in a crowd for being weird or having a bad reputation or having acted in some stupid way. And most of all, normal means no strange men falling into my lap out of a box.

I must look pretty desperate, because for the first time in my life, Cindy actually takes pity on me.

“Fine. Have you tried putting him back in the box?”

“Of course.” I rub my hands against my head as I pace around the room. If all she can suggest is the obvious, then I’m going to be stuck with this guy forever.

“Yes! No need to try again. No need to shove me in a box.” Al watches us with a hand permanently attached to his sword. He shifts his weight back and forth between legs while keeping his stance loose and ready to fight.

The moment he notices I’m watching, he stops and grows rigid. I can’t help but stare back, and as I do, I notice his stance shift until he no longer looks terrified, but curious instead. He’s so tiny, and though I hate to admit Cindy could ever be right, he really is cute.

“Did you keep him in for long enough?”

His attention falls from me and he begins his nervous shifting again. His anxiety reminds me of my own and I can’t help feeling frustrated at how useless Cindy’s being.

“Come on, Cindy. You said Gran...” it feels too weird saying the words, especially when a huge part of me doesn’t believe what I’m saying. “...taught you magic. Do whatever only you can apparently do and fix this.”

“No, I said she prepared me for stuff like this. She couldn’t teach me magic, because I don’t have magic to use.”

Something about her casual attitude makes me even more anxious. How can she be so calm at a time like this?

“Logically,” I say, though her words are anything but. “There has to be something you can do.”

She seems to ignore me while continuing to study the mini man. I’m about to say more when she steps back.

“Fine. But you’re going to have to do everything I say, no matter what Mom would think.” Cindy pokes me hard in the shoulder to make her point.

I swallow, forcing a lump down my throat and look over at the table. The mini man, Al, glances up at me with a pleading look in his tiny eyes. I swallow again and nod to Cindy.

Cindy’s grin makes me instantly regret my decision as she says, “Great,” she says. “Let’s go to Gran’s house.”





Chapter Three





“What?” My brain is moving too slowly, especially for Cindy who’s already hurrying around the room grabbing stuff, examining it, and tossing it onto the bed. “What? No! Cindy, Gran’s house? Are you serious? It’s a six-hour drive. Six hours. I thought you could fix this. Why do we need to go to Gran’s?”

“You agreed. Do as I say or else you’re stuck with Al forever.”

My mouth hangs open as I watch her dig through each of my drawers only to slam them shut and move on to the next. If she’s trying to pack my stuff for the trip, she’s doing a terrible job. Not like it matters because I’m not going. There’s no way.

Yet, if I don’t trust her, I’ll have to deal with the guy on my own.

Gran’s house. Mom is not going to be happy. I highly doubt she’ll let us go. Besides which, I have a rehearsal tomorrow at 7 a.m. and I cannot miss it. Not if I want to keep the lead in the show in two weeks.

Except of course Cindy won’t care if Mom lets us leave. I can already tell, she’s not even going to ask. If I want her help, I can't even protest.

Cindy tries to shut the top drawer on my desk and it gets stuck as it always does. Instead of shifting it carefully until it slides in, she shoves it with all her strength, forcing it in at a bit of an angle. I cringe at the resulting cracking sound and jump into her path before she destroys anything else.

“Maybe if you tell me what you’re looking for, I can find it for you.”

She shoves past me. “I don’t know.”

“How can you not know what you’re looking for?”

I follow her as she makes a full circle around of my room.

“I don’t know specifically.”

I place myself in front of her again and this time I don’t let her push past. She makes a sound more like a growl than a sigh and steps back.

“I’m looking for something we can fit Al in. It’s not like we can shove him in a pocket after all.”

“Why not?” I ask while considering his size. He’s certainly small enough.

“He’d get crushed,” she says with another roll of her eyes. She has a knack for making me feel like an idiot.

Her gaze must have landed on something useful, because instantly her sneer turns into smile. She reaches around me and grabs one of my lipsticks. She tosses the actual lipstick back onto the dresser after pulling off the top.

“You don’t expect me to get inside, do you?” Al asks.

“Think you can?” She moves closer to him so he can better see inside the cover. I still don’t completely understand how she thinks she’s helping. What I do know she’s removed the top from my favorite lipstick and it’s going to get all dried out and filthy if she doesn’t put it back soon.

“It’d be tight. Uncomfortable for sure.” He looks the container over and his frown deepens. “I doubt I can sit in there.”

I can hear the refusal in his voice, but obviously Cindy can’t. Or else she doesn’t care. She’s already headed across the room focused on one of the paintings on my wall.

“We’ll let you out as often as we can, promise,” she says with only half her attention on what she’s saying.

Cindy pulls the painting down and sets it on the floor. Before I can tell her to stop, she yanks the hanger nail out of the wall, dusting it off on her pant leg.

Too late I realize what she’s doing. She twists the nail into the plastic lipstick lid and manages to create a hole, rendering it completely useless as an actual cover. I clench my teeth together, but stay quiet. There’s no point shouting at her now, the damage is already done. Not that shouting ever works with Cindy anyway. She always manages to be louder, which means ‘instant win’ in her mind.

Cindy blows away the dust, checking her handiwork before rifling through my jewelry box and pulling out one of my necklaces. She opens the clasp and lets the tiny pink heart slip off the chain and clatter onto the dresser. The chain easily goes through the hole in the lid, leaving it to hang upside-down so the open end points up.

She holds the container against the table and gives the mini-man a look clearly indicating he should get inside. Now.

He leans further away and says, “I’d...rather not.”

“Well, I’d rather not squish you.”

“You two truly are sisters, aren’t you?” he says.

He makes a face, but after a single drawn out exhale, he walks over to the lid Cindy’s holding. When he’s lifting his foot to step inside, her hand slips a barely noticeable amount on the table, and I suck in a gasp. I take a step forward to help the little guy before he falls to his death, but his balance is admirable as he steadies himself. In an instant is safely within the container.

I don’t know what I expected Cindy to do next, but it is definitely not wrap the chain around my neck and lock it into place.

“I’m not wearing this.” I touch a finger to the lid softly enough so I’m sure I don’t jar him too much. “You’re the one who wants to carry him around, so you can be the one who wears him.”

“You probably want to be careful climbing out the window,” Cindy says, ignoring my protests. “If you fall, you’ll probably break a leg. If he falls, he’ll probably die. Just saying.”

My hand instinctively wraps around the lipstick tube and I stare at Cindy with huge, frightened eyes. Of course she put him on my neck. She doesn’t want the responsibility of his life. Not surprisingly, Cindy doesn’t check to see what kind of reaction her warning gets from me. Instead, she grabs her purse from the floor where she dropped it and stretches out the window, reaching for the closest branch.

As she grabs hold of the tree, she calls back, “Don’t forget the box. We’ll need that.”

I stare at the window for a few seconds, then at my bedroom door. A large part of me wants Mom to suddenly burst through and stop us before this goes any further.

There’s a soft thud outside as Cindy drops the last couple of feet to the ground. She doesn’t call back to me, but her impatience is there in the silence. One more glance at the door. This is really happening. I’m going to sneak out of the house. With Cindy. And a miniature man.

I can still go to Mom. Get her alone and beg her to help. But Cindy is already outside waiting for me. Despite everything I know and loathe about her, she didn’t freak out when she saw the mini man. That has to mean something.

There’s no choice, not really. I grab my purse and stuff the box inside. It fits easily since the bag is huge, though there’s enough junk in there already, I don’t know how easily I’ll be able to find it again. Then I lean out the window to find the same branch Cindy used.

Climbing down the tree is harder than I expect. The bark is rough and rips at my hands and clothes. Tiny branches keep poking me, especially around my eyes. Plus, I’m climbing one-handed since my other is wrapped securely around the necklace with my thumb covering most of the top to keep the little guy safely inside while leaving enough room for air.

I dangle from the lowest branch for a couple of seconds and then drop, landing easily on the balls of my feet and bending my knees to absorb the impact. I hope I made the landing light so he doesn’t get too banged up.

“Are you okay?” I ask.

“I—um...” He seems surprised I asked. “Yes. Still miniature, and a little bruised, but it could be worse I suppose.”

“Good.” I attempt to think of something else to add, something reassuring like a promise everything will be okay, but I can’t find the words. Instead all I say is another, “Good.”

I follow Cindy’s shadow as she expertly dodges around the lights from windows of ours and the neighbors’ houses. We make it to the car and close the doors as silently as we can. Cindy does a quick check of the mirrors, then in the same moment starts the car and guns it out of the driveway. I lurch in my seat and desperately fumble with my seatbelt.

“Are you trying to kill us?”

“Can’t give Mom time to come out and stop us by being slow. She always comes running out the door the second she hears the car start. See, there she is.”

I glance first at the mirror, and then twist around in my seat. She’s right. Mom has run out the door and is staring at the car with a look she’s never given me before. Disappointment. We turn a corner with a screech and lose I sight of the house and Mom. Before we do, I see Stewart step out of the house, and could swear he smirked at us. It must be my imagination.

I turn back around and we drive in silence for a while. Well, as silent as a car can be with Cindy’s music blasting away. I can practically feel myself going deaf. And the car smells like cheap cologne.

Suddenly there’s a weird sensation from my lap and I would have jumped if I weren’t strapped in. I look down in fear. It’s the box. It has to be. And it moved.

My purse gently vibrates again and I relax. Of course it isn’t the box. It’s only my cellphone. I always keep it on vibrate so it doesn’t go off during a recital to embarrass me and annoy everyone else.

I turn down the music and answer my phone without checking to see who it is. Before I can say more than “hello” Cindy grabs it and smashes her thumb against the ‘end’ button. Does she not know how much the phone cost?

“Hey!”

“Are you an idiot?” Cindy says. “We’re running away from home, and obviously Mom is calling to tell you to come back. What were you planning on saying? ‘Oh, yes, of course. I’ll be home in a minute. So sorry I left without asking. Please ground me for three months for my disobedience.’”

“First, I do not sound like that. And second, you don’t know it was Mom.”

“Yeah I do.” Cindy says as though it’s so obvious even a child would know.

“How can you possibly? I didn’t have time to look at the caller display, so how could you have seen it while driving.” I stroke my phone and attempt to rub away the thumb smudge on its otherwise shiny case.

“Oh please. Who else would it be? It’s not like you have any actual friends.”

She nods toward my hands as though cleaning my phone is proof she’s right.

I sit there with my mouth gaping open for a few seconds before turning away to stare out the window. I have friends. I have lots of friends. I mean, they might not call all of the time, but only because we see each other almost every day at recital. I might not have a reputation like Cindy, but I’ve even had a couple of boyfriends.

Grade seven there was Casey. We held hands every day at break for a week. And last year Pete—or Pirouette Pete as the girls in my advanced ballet class call him—and I went on at least half a dozen dates. Kissed a bunch of times and everything. Of course now he’s going out with Sean, but not because of me. He was always gay; he just didn’t realize it until after we went out.

But because I don’t need to spend every waking moment with my friends, Cindy has the nerve to say I don’t have any. Yeah, we’re always competing with each other for the lead in the next show or for the first place trophy in the latest competition, but we get friends.

Friends who don’t talk much. Or hang out. Or like each other.

“Hey Al, how old are you?” Cindy asks over the music, which thankfully she left down.

“Nineteen.”

“Hot. College student?”

“Cindy!”

I pull a face. Really? She’s going to hit on a guy the size of her thumb. That’s messed up.

“College.” He repeats the word carefully, as though there’s some hidden meaning behind it. “I don’t think it’s the same thing here as in my world.”

“Your... world.” Cindy mulls over the idea for a minute while I very carefully try not to. Miniature men are hard enough to deal with. Add in magic and now other worlds, I’m surprised my brain hasn’t exploded. “Of course!” She slams her palm against her forehead. “It explains the clothes. And the accent.”

I turn back to my window and pretend the conversation between my sister and the man in my necklace isn’t happening.

“Gran would sometimes tell stories about another world, remember Lou?”

I do, but I don’t acknowledge the fact. I tried to block those stories from my mind a long time ago.

“Another world,” Cindy says more to herself than either of us. “Where all the things from myths and legends are real and life is dangerous and exciting and amazing. Gran told us she was from another world, remember? I wonder if it’s the same one.”

“Gran wasn’t exactly in her full mind,” I say. “Mom said Gran has always been a little strange. She should have been on medication.”

“Of course you’d believe Mom over Gran,” Cindy says. “But I remember when you were a kid you used to love her stories. You’d act like an idiot, running around her house with a cardboard sword saying you were a knight on a quest to save the princess. Until Mom convinced you to be the princess instead.”

I watch the buildings flow past, and don’t argue. It wasn’t only Mom who wanted me to be the princess. I did too. Mostly.

“Please tell me you’re a knight,” Cindy says. “Or a pirate. I love pirates. Especially the Johnny Depp kind.”

“I’m not sure what you mean, but I’m not a pirate.”

“So you’re a knight?”

He hesitates. “No.”

“Okay, so you don’t go to school, you’re not a knight, and you’re not a pirate. What do you do?”

He doesn’t say anything for a long time, until Cindy makes an irritated sound and honks her horn at some poor pedestrian who has the right-of-away.

“Sorry,” he says, though he sounds more worried than sorry. “I work in the field with my father. It’s kind of embarrassing.”

“Ooh,” Cindy smiles and gives him a sidelong glance. Or actually, she gives my necklace a sidelong glance since she can’t actually see him inside the container. “A farmer. Sexy. Bet you have awesome abs.”

So wrong.

“You sure you know where you’re going?” I’m pretty positive she’s headed in the right direction, but I want her to stop flirting, so a subject change is necessary. “I could set the GPS guide on my phone, you know. If you didn’t break it.”

“I remember the way to Gran’s house. It’s only been a week since she died after all.”

She adds something else under her breath and turns up the music. Ten minutes in and I already have a headache. This is going to be fun.





Chapter Four





My eyes flutter open as my brain tries to remember where I am. I’m in a car. The car is stopping. Okay, I can deal with that. Wait, why am I in a car again? And then I remember. Every. Tiny. Detail. I glance down at my chest and instantly have to look away to keep myself from squirming. He still kind of reminds me of a spider.

It’s then I notice we’re in the middle of nowhere. It’s also completely dark. There’s hardly any other traffic on the road and the only thing in sight are trees.

“Why are we stopping?” I ask, unable to completely hold back the panic in my voice. It’s not like I’m afraid of the dark, but I do usually leave my ballerina nightlight on, just in case.

“Pit stop.”

“Why here?” I look out the window, trying to see through the shadows to find the bears and coyotes and whatever else is out there waiting to eat us. “Can’t you wait for a proper rest stop? There’s got to be a gas station coming up.”

“You want to go inside a public place carrying him?” She pulls off her seatbelt before I have a chance to answer, and climbs out the door. “You’d better squat now. I’m not stopping again, and there’s still a couple more hours left at least.”

It’s not only the darkness keeping me in the car as Cindy clambers down into the ditch. We’re on a main road. Anyone could drive by and see. However, now she’s mentioned it, I can’t help but cross my legs. I groan and climb out of the car to follow Cindy.

The grass down to the ditch is wet and the slope is steeper than I originally thought. I end up sliding part of the way down on my butt, completely ruining my good jeans. I dust off my backside as much as I can while picking my way past Cindy and into the tree line.

“What are you doing?” she says. “Just go here.”

“No way. If I have to go in the woods, at least let me be in the woods and away from perverts driving by.”

“Fine. But don’t say I didn’t warn you when an axe murderer comes out of the shadows and kills you while I easily run away.”

I stare at her with wide eyes as she completely ignores me and climbs back up to the car. “I hate you,” I shout.

Nothing to it. I can do this. A little bit farther and no one will be able to see a thing. If someone or something tries to attack me, I can fight them off. I’ve been taking Taekwondo for over a year after all. No problem.

There’s a problem. I can’t go here. Not with someone attached to me.

“You can set me down, if you like,” Al says as though reading my mind. “I could use some relief myself.”

I gently unlatch the chain and while using my cell for light, I set the whole thing on a mossy bit of ground. I hope he’s safe in this spot.

“You’re going to have to talk to me,” I say. “So I won’t lose you.”

“Of course.” He’s silent for a minute. “I don’t know what to say.”

“Anything,” I tell him as I step behind a tree. “Tell me about your family. Have any sisters? Are they as awful as mine?”

“One sister,” he admits, but doesn’t say any more.

“Oh.”

I can’t think of anything else to ask and he doesn’t volunteer any information, so I finish up in silence.

“You done?” I ask.

“Yes.”

I sweep the light of my cell over the moss a couple of times before I find him. After a few seconds of struggling with the latch of my necklace while holding my phone in my mouth, I start toward the car.

“Is magic common where you come from?” I ask both out of curiosity and also to fill the awkward silence.

“Yes,” he answers simply. “Did you hear something?”

I start to tell him I hadn’t, when a grinding sound startles me. No, it’s not grinding exactly. It’s more like a whine or growl with a bit of a clucking undertone. And it’s coming from the direction of the car. When I look up, I notice two things at once. There’s an old, beat up red truck parked behind Cindy’s car, and there’s something like a cross between a lion, a snake and a goat pacing and sniffing around the passenger side.

I think I make a squeaking sound, though it might be a full out scream. Either way, the thing hears me and turns its heads—because one head isn’t bad enough—and looks directly at me. All of those lessons kick in and I react without thinking, pirouetting on my right foot and bolting as fast as I can into the darkness of the trees.

“Bad bad bad,” I say as I run.

“What?” Al’s voice is tight with fright. “What is it? What’s happening?”

“Creature.” I gasp. “Bad.”

It’s gaining on me. I can practically feel the heat of its breath. A glance over my shoulder and I see it’s not breath I feel. The bloody thing is shooting fire. From one of its mouths. I am so dead.

As I’m turning to face forward again so I can pick up speed, I notice at the last second the creature’s muscles are tensing. It’s preparing to leap. I stop and spin around to the side, my arms guiding the huge beast past me as I’ve done a hundred times during normal human attacks in practice. The difference is, most people don’t have teeth and claws to rip at your skin as they pass. With the creature facing the wrong way, I run back in the direction of the car. The size of the thing, I should have a decent head start before it can turn all the way around. Plus, I should be helping Cindy. I guess.

I’m wrong. It’s fast. Faster than anything its size has the right to be. This time when I turn to meet the attack, I do a spinning kick my master would be proud of. My foot lands hard on one of the heads, knocking it back for a second. The problem is the kick only seems to surprise the creature rather than hurt it. When I kick again, it easily dodges out of the way and sweeps its snake tail around to whip the back of my legs.

I fall to the ground and attempt to scramble away, but it’s no good. Holding the lipstick container hard against my chest, I wait for the inevitable pain and death.

“Sorry Al,” is the last thing I say.

It doesn’t bite.

No scratching either. It freezes. With my eyes closed, I wouldn’t have known it was still there if it weren’t for its hot, stinking breath and deep growls.

I force myself to inhale. And out. Then another. Why isn’t it killing me?

“Why isn’t it killing me?” I ask Al. Good thing he’s inside the container or else he’d be long since crushed in my sweaty palm.

“It was sent to find you, not kill you,” he tells me. “Not many can control a chimera. Those who can aren’t people you want to meet alone in the woods.”

“Great. Thanks.”

Ok, maybe I should have been more grateful for the information, but what I really wish he would tell me is a way out.

“You should run,” he says as though once again reading my thoughts.

Not as helpful as I was hoping.

“Tried. Didn’t work.”

“You have to understand,” Al persists. “This thing can only kill you. The people who sent it will do far worse.”

“Far worse how?”

I feel my heart rise in my throat. Al sounds scared. He didn’t sound nearly as afraid when he first fell onto my shirt. Somehow this creature has him shaking like a leaf. His fear makes me terrified.

“Trust me. Run.”

Before I can move, crunching footsteps warn me of the arrival of someone else.

“Good girl, Farah,” a man says to the monster like a normal person would say to their pet dog. “And she’s still alive. Very good work.”

I swear, if he starts scratching it behind the ear...

“Lou?” Cindy asks.

She sounds fine, though maybe a bit grumpy. I manage to peek around the two-headed creature—Had Al called it a chimera?—and find Cindy with her arm gripped tight by a man wearing a long dark leather trench coat and brown cowboy hat. His face is scruffy like he hasn’t shaved in a few days, and there doesn’t look to be a piece of him not covered in filth.

I answer her question with a whimpering sound. I think she gets the message.

“Try running again and Farah here’ll rip you apart,” the man warns. “I don’t get paid if you’re dead, so I’d prefer if you don’t run.”

“Yeah, she gets it,” Cindy says in her most unimpressed voice. “Who’s this boss of yours anyway? What does he want with us?”

“Shut it.”

He pushes the creature off me and lifts me to my feet with his empty hand. His grip digs into my skin, leaving bruises. Still, the pain he inflicts is nothing compared to the feeling of revulsion left where he touches my skin. He drags us back to the car. With a warning look, he lets go of my arm in order to open the passenger door and flick the seat switch causing it to flip forward, allowing people into the back. He moves aside and whistles. The chimera bounds into the car, happy as can be to go for a drive.

“Oh, no. Dude. So not cool.” Cindy gives the car a despairing look. “There goes the upholstery.”

“Farah’ll ride with you. Decide not to follow or lose sight of me, and she’ll kill you. Got it?” He sounds bored as he threatens our lives.

“But does the thing have to destroy my car?” Cindy asks.

“Move.”

He grips her arm so hard it turns her skin white and forces her to take a step forward.

I want to help her, or do anything but get into a car with a killer beast, but the guy doesn’t give me much of a choice when he tosses me inside. Cindy wrenches her arm away and climbs into the driver’s seat with a little more dignity. She waits for the truck to pull out and follows him. We drive in complete silence. Other than her music, of course.

After only a couple of minutes of driving, I notice a noise coming from the back seat that isn’t part of the song. I glance over my shoulder while doing my best not to move fast enough to spook the creature. Its teeth on both heads are bared, and I can tell the sound it makes is a warning.

“I think it wants you to turn down your music,” I say.

“Well, it can bite me.” She sounds more annoyed than worried, which makes me even more afraid. She’s not taking any of this seriously.

“Pretty sure that’s the plan,” Al replies.

Instantly Cindy perks up. “Oh hey, little guy. How you doing’ in there? Still in one piece?”

“So far.”

“Don’t worry, this is a minor setback. We’ll be back on track to getting you all normalified in no time.”

Her smile shows all of her teeth, as though she hasn’t got a care in the world.

“Minor setback?” I force myself not to start hitting her. As made as she makes me, the creature breathing down my neck scares me more. “Do you know what’s going on? Who is this guy? What is the thing behind us? Why is someone looking for us?”

“Chill,” Cindy says. “You’ll give yourself an aneurism. I’m guessing it has something to do with the box. Gran warned me there are people always on the search for magic and if we use any, they’ll come after us.”

“Oh, well then. I guess everything’s okay.” I attempt to mock her relaxed attitude, but I fail pitifully as my voice cracks.

“Wow, your sarcasm needs some work, Lou.”

I glower at her, though the effect is probably lost because I keep glancing back at the creature in case it decides to eat us.

“Did Gran at least tell you who these people might be?”

Cindy shrugs. “Just ‘bad people.’ You know Gran.”

“No, apparently I don’t.”

An unexpected surge of guilt builds in me. It’s not like it’s my fault Gran kept secrets. Still, I can’t help feeling as though there was something more I should have done. Why hadn’t she trusted and confided in me the same way she had Cindy?

“Wizards,” Al says. “They’re the only ones who can control a chimera this way.”

“As in old men with white beards and funny hats?” A nervous giggle escapes my lips. “This is all a weird dream, isn’t it? I’m going to wake up in my room and have a good laugh about my crazy nightmare.”

“Wizards are men who suck the magic out of sorceresses, leaving them in a state worse than death.”

I look down at my necklace and I can see Cindy is doing the same out of the corner of my eye.

“Do I detect some firsthand resentment there?” she asks.

He doesn’t say anything, which I take to be a yes.

“When you say suck...” I start, but am unable to finish, shuddering instead.

“The trap you’re cheerfully walking into isn’t one either of you will come out of.”

“What do you suggest we do?” Cindy asks. “Not like we can escape Farah here.”

“Better if you die now then have wizards capture you.”

Cindy makes the sound of a buzzer from a game show. “Wrong answer. Sorry. I don’t do dying. Besides, once these guys realize we have no magic, they’ll let us go.”

“Unlikely.”

“Well then, we’ll escape. I’ve dealt with guys like this before, it’s no biggy.”

I stare at her for a few seconds in horror. “Oh yeah. We’re going to die.”





Chapter Five





“He’s turning,” I say while pointing out the window at the truck. The turn signal flashes and he’s clearly slowing down. “Don’t lose sight of him, remember? Go go go.”

“Yeah, I see. Shut up.”

“Well, maybe if you got a little closer...”

“When you get your license, then you can criticize my driving. Wait, no. You can never criticize my driving, now shut up.”

I clamp my mouth closed as she takes the turn a little too fast and squeals the tires on the driveway. Despite how dark it is out, I can see there’s a house at the end of the dirt road, along with a few old barns that should have fallen down years ago. Weeds and grass have overtaken the field off to the right and trees block in our left. As we get closer to the house, the chipped and faded paint job and electrical wiring not attached to the side of the building tell me no one’s lived here for a long time.

The man in the trench coat climbs out of the truck as Cindy puts the car in park. He pulls our door open and tells us to get out and follow him with a single jerk of his head.

“Relax,” Cindy says. “Guys like this are all show.”

I think she’s actually trying to be calming, but it’s not helping. All I want to do is run and scream and hide under the covers of my bed. I clutch my necklace as I get out of the car, both to keep Al from being jostled around too much, and for comfort.

“He said he’s working for someone,” Al says quietly enough I don’t think Cindy hears. “He shouldn’t do anything to you until the other person says so. You should be safe for now.”

Instantly I feel a little better. It’s stupid since he’s not telling me everything will be okay, only we might have time. Still, it’s better than anything Cindy has said so far.

We’re led toward one of the barns rather than to the slightly less frightening house as I expected. The wood walls stink of mold, mildew and other smells I don’t recognize and don’t want to think about. Is this where the creature has been living? It seems comfortable as it goes directly to a corner of straw, circles three times and curls up into a ball. I would say it went to sleep right then and there, except the eyes on one of the heads stay open to stare directly at me.

I shudder and pretend the thing doesn’t exist.

As I look around the old barn—at least what I can see in the light of the three lanterns strategically placed around the open space—our captor walks over to a workstation where a bunch of rusted tools and a few waterlogged cardboard boxes rest. He reaches into one of them without seeming to worry at all about it being full of rats or spiders and digs out some rope.

Something hard and a little bit sharp presses into my hand and I have to force myself not to scream. Cindy makes a face to tell me if I utter a sound, she’ll beat me to a pulp. Although I doubt she can. Then again, she does fight dirty.

“Why’d you—”

A punch to my arm later and I shut up, clenching the object in my hand hard to keep myself from punching her back in reflex. Once it’s pressed into my skin, I recognize the shape to be her keys. She barely moves her head toward the door, but I get what she means.

“Going to tell us who this client of yours is, or leave us in suspense?” As Cindy speaks, she walks around to casually examine an old stall. Trench coat guy doesn’t seem to pay any attention to her, though the chimera follows her every movement. “I’m all for foreplay, but I’m starting to think you’re leading us on. Is there anyone else, or are you some sort of perv getting his kicks from kidnapping teen girls?”

“Sit against the post,” he says. “Both of you. Back to back.”

“Nah, I’d rather stand.” She makes a show of stretching out her arms and cracking her neck. “Long trip, you know? Still working out some of the kinks in my legs.”

She gives me another look and indicates the door again as if to say, ‘What the hell are you doing? Move your ass!’

That can’t be right. No way she expects me to leave without her. But from her expression it’s clear it’s exactly what she wants. I have to trust she has a plan. Even she wouldn’t be so calm if she didn’t have a plan, and one she’s sure will work.

I start to edge toward the door, my eyes constantly flicking back and forth between the chimera and trench coat guy to make sure they don’t notice anything.

“Nice jacket, by the way,” Cindy says when she’s satisfied I’m leaving. “I’ve been looking everywhere for one. Where’d you get it?”

She’s positioned herself so they can’t watch both of us at the same time. Since she’s the one talking and moving around so much, the chimera is keeping an eye on her. Our captor still has his back to both of us as he wraps the rope around his hand and elbow to make a loose circle, untangling knots as he goes.

“Most leather out there is too shiny. The worn look is the only way to go.”

“Wait!” Al warns in a harsh whisper. I stop and nervously look around to make sure no one else heard, my hand frozen as I reach for the latch.

Without looking back, our captor says, “You can’t get out the door.” He tugs at the rope. “Well, you can try, but you might not like what it does to you. Like I said, the guy who hired me would rather I deliver you alive.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Cindy asks.

“Your sister is about to put her hand on some powerful magic that will burn her to a crisp in about thirty seconds,” he says as he finally turns around to face her. “And I got the coat off the last guy who tried to outrun Farah. You’ve no idea how much magic it took to get the blood out. Now sit against the pole.”

Cindy makes a sound as if she’s getting ready to spit and then sighs. “Fine. Let’s do this your way.”

She reaches into her pocket, and pulls her hand out again. It’s clenched around something, but I have no idea what. She raises her hand to her mouth and then kisses the space between her thumb and forefinger, all while trench coat guy watches with no readable expression.

For a second I don’t think anything is going to happen. I have no idea how she thinks kissing her own hand will change anything.

Then it does.

The air shifts and grows heavy, pressing against me until my head pounds. Everything looks different too. Wispier. Scarier. Cindy’s the worst. I can’t look at her without being overwhelmed with a need to scream. She seems to fill the room as she towers over our captor, never mind he’s nearly a foot taller than she is.

When she speaks, her voice blasts both in my ears and mind. “Who are you working for, and what do they want from us?”

He says nothing.

“Tell me!” Her voice booms and forces me to cover my ears with my arms while I clutch the back of my head to keep it from exploding from the pressure. “Who are you working for?”

“A child’s trick,” he says.

I don’t see his hand move, since I’ve got my eyes squeezed shut, but I hear the impact as he slaps her across the face. Instantly, the pressure is gone and my head stops pounding.

When I open my eyes, Cindy stands off balance with her hand clutching her face. She moves her hand away and looks down at it, eyes widening at the blood on her shaking fingers.

“Son of a bitch,” she says, but there’s no force behind her voice. “Real manly, hitting a girl.”

“Enough.”

He grabs her arm and easily tosses her toward the post he’s been telling us to sit against. Since she was already off balance, she stumbles and falls hard on the wooden floor. She tries to pull herself up, but his foot strikes her stomach with a thud. Her face twists in anger and pain as she doubles over, clutching the spot he kicked.

I want to kill him for hurting my sister, but I can’t move. I can only stare with tear-blurred eyes as he forces her back against the pole and starts tying her hands behind her.

“You too,” he says with a glance at me.

I want to refuse and fight him. I can’t remember how. The only thing I can think of is a balançoire. Real useful, if this was a stage fight in a ballet. I must have hesitated for too long because he stomps over to me and grabs my wrist the same way he grabbed Cindy’s and tosses me to the ground next to her. Cindy’s keys are forced out of my hand and thrown onto the worktable beside the chimera.

While he starts to tie us together, I touch my wrist where he held me. His grip had been tight, sure, but again there’s something else about his touch. It makes my entire arm feel numb and itchy and achey all at the same time. It’s like my skin is allergic to his.

“It didn’t work,” Cindy says so quietly at first I’m not sure I hear her right. “How could it not work? It always works.”

I want to say something to calm her down, or make her feel better, or simply ask her if she’s okay, but I can’t find the words. I feel like crying. Every part of my body wants the release of full out gasping sobs, but for some reason, the tears don’t come.

“Hey Al,” I say while barely moving my lips. It’s a miracle he wasn’t noticed before. I’m not about to give him away now. “You still alive?”

Nothing.

“Al?”

Still nothing.

Despite the fact I don’t want to draw attention to him, I have to look down to see if he’s still in his container. He’s not. His warning at the door was the last time I’d heard from him. Did he fall out when I was forced to the floor? Was he stepped on?

My heart beats faster and faster as I picture his tiny flattened body on the bottom of my shoe. I couldn’t have. I would have noticed. I would have seen him fall or heard him crunch.

Imagining the sound of him under the weight of my heel makes my stomach turn. I need to move. I need to check my sole even though if I see him there, or what’s left of him, I don’t know what I’ll do. I need to not be sitting here anymore.

My muscles all tense and instantly begin to cramp and shoot pain. I need out! I need out now! I pull at my bindings, yanking harder than I mean to.

The ropes give way and I expect and I have to scramble to pretend nothing’s wrong. The chimera lifts it’s sleeping head to stare at me, but it doesn’t attack. Even our captor turns to look curiously at what grabbed the creature’s attention. I drop my head and shoulders to appear defeated and more importantly, still tied up.

It doesn’t work.

Trench coat guy starts toward me and I desperately go through the attacks I can remember in search of one that will work at this angle.

Before he reaches me, the door to the barn slams open causing bits of hay and who-knows-what-else to fall from the loft onto my head. I shrink in on myself and wait for the whole building to collapse. Doesn’t whoever entered realize how old the barn is? Slamming doors will get us all killed.

But the roof doesn’t collapse and gradually I’m able to open my eyes to the most delightful sight in the world. I never thought I’d be so happy to see someone in my life.

We’re saved! Who would have ever guessed Mom’s boyfriend would be the one to rescue us?





Chapter Six





“You got here faster than I expected,” trench coat guy says with an uninterested glance at Stewart. “Thought you were conserving your magic.”

Stewart gives me a look unlike any I’ve seen before. I feel uncomfortable around him at home, but this is something completely different. One look and I’m terrified. Wasn’t I relieved to see him only seconds ago? When he turns away to talk to our captor I notice Cindy hasn’t stopped swearing since he walked through the door.

“...lying prick-face bastard,” she says.

“Cindy? What’s going on?” I start to twist around to look at her, but remember at the last second not to pull the ropes too much.

“You never were the sharpest, Lou,” Stewart says in a dry tone. “Like your idiot mother.”

Did he really say that? I stare at him with my mouth hanging open and looking exactly like the idiot he called me.

This can’t be happening. After all, it’s Stewart. Mom’s boyfriend. I must have misheard him.

“Stewart, please,” I say.

“Do not speak.”

Suddenly he’s too close, though I have no idea how he could have moved so fast. His face is only inches from mine, his fingers wrapping around my neck, with his too long nails digging into my skin.

“I should have known it was you since day one, the way you’re able to convince everyone around you how innocent and perfect you are.” He squeezes my face with one hand, forcing my lips to pucker. “Disgusting.”

He releases me and I attempt to wipe the parts of my face he’d touched on my shirt, but I can’t get rid of the crawling feeling in my skin.

“But...Mom loves you.”

I know I sound pathetic and I’m sure I’m not helping anything since his reaction to my pleading is to look even more disgusted.

“Tell me where it is, sorceress, and I may let your family live.” His voice crackles with an energy that reminds me of lightning.

“I don’t know.” My eyes fill with water while my lips refuse to stop quivering. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“The portal. Your grandmother was the guardian and she passed the title to you. Now, where is it?”

His voice is too calm and his cruel smile never wavers. His fingers tighten on my throat as I shake my head and tell him I have no idea what he’s talking about.

“Want me to break her legs?” trench coat guy offers.

Stewart’s smile widens. “Is that what you want? To never walk or dance again?”

“Please.” It’s all I can manage.

“Let go of her right now,” Cindy says, clearly regaining a bit of courage.

“I have a better idea.”

Stewart releases me and steps away to pull something seemingly out of thin air. At first I have no idea what I’m looking at, especially since my eyes are blurred with unshed tears. Slowly the colors and shapes start to fit together until I recognize he holds a blue silk bag, smaller than his fist. It takes a couple more seconds for me to realize it’s not the first time I’ve seen the bag.

“Where did you get that?” My voice cracks as I ask the question.

“It’s amazing what your grandmother kept in her house.” He casually tosses the bag up and down a few times. “It wasn’t hard to find this or figure out exactly what it is.”

With Cindy at my back, she’s unable to see what he’s holding “What is it?” she asks. “What’s he got?”

“It’s nothing,” I say to both of them. “It’s a bag Gran used to keep some toenail clippings in. Weird, yeah, but I don’t see—“

“I’m going to give you an option,” Stewart interrupts. “A very good deal, which I suggest you take. I’m going to give you this bag and allow you to open it. In exchange, you will tell me where the portal is.”

“No,” Cindy says firmly before I can say anything. “Do not open the bag, Lou.”

“I don’t plan to. I don’t know why I’d want to.”

“You don’t know?” Stewart says, fake charming smile replacing the cruel one from earlier. Somehow, seeing him more like how I used to every day around Mom makes the whole situation so much worse. “Has no one ever explained to you what’s inside this bag?”

“Leave her alone,” Cindy says.

“It’s gross old toenails,” I say again, though this time I feel a lot less sure. Why is he dangling it in front of me like a prize to be won, and why is Cindy so afraid I’ll take it?

“Those might be the physical contents,” Stewart says, “But not all it holds. You, much like your sweet old grandmother before you, were born a sorceress.”

“Don’t,” Cindy warns, though this time she’s speaking to Stewart rather than me.

“What?” I laugh since the very idea is ridiculous. “I don’t have magic. I didn’t know magic existed until tonight.”

His smile widens and he moves half way around the post to get a better look at Cindy, and so both of us have a perfect view of him.

“Of course you don’t,” he says. “Your family has done a particularly good job keeping it from you. They went so far as to strip the power from you before you were able to wield it. Ooh, not what loving family members are supposed to do, is it?”

Nothing he’s saying makes sense. Born with magic? Me? “I don’t understand.”

“They took your magic, child,” he says slowly, face revealing his frustration. “They took a part of you and they bound it inside this bag.”

I stare at the object he dangles in front of me.

Cindy starts in on another string of swear words and warnings I ignore, while focusing on the object in his hand. There is something about it I can’t quite figure out. It’s almost like being a kid again and seeing someone else with my favorite toy. The bag is mine, and I need it back, right now.

“Why doesn’t he take the magic?”

I almost jump out of my skin at the sound of Al’s hushed voice. He’s alive! I haven’t killed him. But I’m also not sure where he is. His words seem to be coming from inside my own head, not from my necklace. I can’t look for him without drawing attention, and worse, I can’t ask him any questions.

I want to know where he’s been or if he has any ideas about how we can free ourselves. And while it’s the least of my concerns, I want to know what he means by taking the magic. Is it possible?

While it might not be on the top of the list of things I want to know, it is the only one I can ask aloud.

“I don’t understand,” I say again to Stewart while my voice quivers with nerves. “If it’s full of magic, why don’t you take it for yourself?”

“Unfortunately, it’s not so easy,” he says with his usual false smile. “This magic is connected directly to you. You’re the only one who can use it in its current state.”

“And you’re offering it to me?” I’m starting to realize what’s made Cindy so mad. He’s too determined for me to open the bag. There must be some benefit to him. He’s just using me to get what he wants. “Why? What’s the catch?”

Stewart looks all too pleased with the way our conversation is going, and I feel like he’s playing me with every word flowing from his lips. “No catch. You tell me the location of the portal you’re protecting and the bag is yours.”

Even though I know better, part of me still believes he’ll actually help once I give him what he wants. It’s that part of me which blurts out, “I don’t know about any portal.”

His amusement fades. “This is your one chance to regain your magic. Without it, you will have no way of stopping Borin here from killing your sister. Painfully. In front of your eyes. Do you understand?”

“Don’t listen to him,” Cindy says. “He’s messing with you. Don’t let him.”

“If I had any idea what you’re talking about, I’d tell you,” I say. “Please believe me.”

Stewart takes a step back and rubs his eyes with two fingers. “We’ll do it your way. Borin, if you would.”

“She’s telling the truth,” Cindy says. “You think Gran would have taken away her magic, but then leave her with the responsibility of looking after something as important as a portal?”

“I think that’s exactly what happened,” Stewart says and walks to the other side of the post to direct all of his attention to Cindy. “She probably thought she had more time. Thought she could find another sorceress to become the guardian so she wouldn’t have to place her poor, precious granddaughter in danger. But her time was up the moment I found your mother.”

No. No he couldn’t have...

But when had Gran started to get sick? Only weeks after Mom met Stewart. It came on so suddenly, and no doctor was able to figure out what was wrong.

Knowing what Stewart did causes something in me to switch. My fear is shoved aside by an anger I’ve never felt before. My mind becomes unusually clear and calculating and I start to scan the room a little more closely. It’s still dark, but I can see through the cracks in the door the sun is starting to rise. Between it, the lanterns, and the constant low glow coming from the chimera’s noses and mouths, I can see pretty much everything in the room.

My eyes pass over my purse sitting on the table for the third time. I’d thought nothing of it at first. And then I remember what’s in there. The whole reason why we’re here. The box. It brought Al here like a portal would, hadn’t it? Could it be what Stewart’s looking for?

I don’t notice Borin watching me until it’s too late. He follows my gaze and strides over to grab the bag. After rummaging around for a moment, he pulls out the box and shows it to Stewart.

“Look at the symbols.”

He tosses it to Stewart who carefully examines it, running his grimy fingers over every inch of the wood.

“Amazing,” he says. “The magic is so well disguised. It’s no wonder I didn’t sense it before. It’s almost as invisible as your sister’s silly little spells.”

“Silly?” Cindy chokes out the word. “My spells are not ‘silly.’”

“Tell me what you know of it,” he says. “How does it work?”

“My silly spells are a lot more powerful than you’re giving them credit.”

I can feel her tug at the ropes and I know she’s struggling to get her hand into her pocket full of magic dust. Stewart doesn’t appear to notice as he focuses on me, his face twisted into a snarl.

“Tell me about the box and I’ll consider killing your sister quickly.”

I should be frightened by his words. Be terrified by the way he stares at me as though my life is in the palm of his hand, but all I can think about is the loose ropes and Cindy’s movement, as if she’s ready to act.

“You have no idea what I’m capable of!” Cindy shouts. Her anger is emphasized by whatever power she possesses.

This time, since her back is to everyone in the room, the magic isn’t focused on anyone in particular. Instead it affects the very walls of the barn. Everything seems to be brought to life. Warped faces and limbs appear and pull themselves away from the walls and stall doors, creating shadow monsters that twist and bend forward and back at the same time. Every piece of wood, every strand of hay melds together in strange, horrifying ways to become creatures bent on attacking every living thing in the room.

Stewart and Borin barely acknowledge the spell; their attention focuses entirely on the chimera. With rolling eyes and skittering feet, it tries to attack every vision Cindy’s created at once. Both heads snap and hiss while its snake tail whips out, knocking everything nearby to the floor.

“Calm it down,” Stewart says.

The creature snaps at Borin as he tries to walk toward it with his arms open. At first I’m too concerned about using the opportunity to squirm out of the slackened ropes to think about why they are so worried about the chimera.

Then it starts to spit fire.

Once the old dry hay catches, there’s no chance of getting the fire under control. Flames rise and lick at the old wood of the barn walls and smoke fills the air. I can’t pry my eyes away. It’s beautiful and terrifying at the same time.

“Let’s go,” Cindy growls at me while pulling at my arm.

She’s already gotten herself free, leaving the ropes to dangle off me. I push them aside and let her pull me to my feet.

“Al?” I ask while desperately looking around. If he was on my shoulder, the movement of me standing up could have easily knocked him off.

“Don’t stand around,” he warns while sliding down the chain to my necklace. “Go.”

Out of the corner of my eye I notice the chimera has gone completely mad, charging at Cindy. Even Stewart and Borin seem desperate to get out of the thing’s way. I call out, but my voice is lost in the roar of the fire and the shouts and growls of the others. Somehow, Cindy sees Farah in time and spins to face it. I don’t notice her put her hand in her pocket, but I do see the dust as she blows it into one of the creature’s faces. The offended head hisses and yelps as the powder flutters around. Both heads now in agreement, it runs.

Not just runs, but bolts out of there, tail between its legs. It doesn’t hesitate at the door as it smashes through the wood, splintering beams as though they are nothing more than cellophane.

With her back turned to the rest of us, proudly watching the chimera flee, Cindy doesn’t see Borin and Stewart turn their attention back to us.





Chapter Seven





Borin is the first to move. He tries to step around me either in an attempt to block our escape or attack Cindy directly. Neither is going to happen, not if I can help it.

The guy is bigger and heavier than I am and it makes me wish I’d been pitted against some of the bigger guys in Taekwondo occasionally, but there’s nothing to be done about it now. I move two steps to bring me face to face with him, knowing a direct bit of confrontation like this is going to set him on edge. I can only hope he swings at me rather than use some sort of crazy mind-melting magic.

He swings. With his weight and strength fully behind the punch, I know if it lands, I’m out cold. But it also means all of his balance shifts forward, making it easy to duck under his arm and grab hold of his elbow. As I straighten from my dip, I push him forward to throw his balance completely off.

Before he has a chance to right himself, I use our combined momentum to spin all of the way around and land a hard kick to the back of his knee. Not hard enough. He doesn’t go down as I hope and so my next kick lands lower than I expect. Worse, when I realize it won’t hit where I want, I end up pulling the kick and it strikes with less strength than I’m capable.

Even though I know I should attack again while he’s still somewhat disoriented, my focus is pulled to Stewart. There’s no reason why I need to pay attention to him right now. He’s not an immediate threat, but my gut screams to watch out.

The weird thing is he’s not paying attention to us, not really. His eyes are on the box in his hands while the fire reaches ever closer to engulf us all.

Borin’s arm wraps around my chest and throw me at the barn wall. It’s far enough away the impact isn’t particularly painful; still, I feel the wall shift as I hit. The building weakens every second, and if we don’t get out, there’s no doubt the whole place is going to collapse on us.

As Borin comes after me to finish what he started, she manages to laso the rope he used on us around him. It catches his neck, and when he rushes forward, he chokes himself.

His eyes bulge both from the lack of air and from anger as he turns to Cindy. The second he does, my attention is back on Stewart. It’s as if my disgust from him touching the box earlier has increased to a point where if I don’t stop him, I’ll never forgive myself. I have no idea why, but he can’t hold it for one more second.

When I see he’s already flicked the latch and lifting the lid, I snap forward. He notices me only as my foot flies up to knock the box out of his hands. It lands hard on the ground and I cringe as it teeters upside down with its lid wide open. If there’s another mini-man in there, there’s no way he would have survived the fall.

Stewart’s and my eyes lock for half a second before he raises a hand as though to throw something at me. In the same moment, I fling myself to the ground and somersault, grabbing the box as I roll. I don’t know how quick Stewart will be with his magic, and I’m sure he’s going to use it against me since brute force seems to be more Borin’s specialty, so I keep moving and give him no chance for an easy target.

The air is chokingly hot as I move several feet closer to the door. I glance back at him. He’s not looking at me. He’s staring at something on the ground, more or less where the box landed. I turn to the door and escape, but something about him draws my attention again. Another peek and he hasn’t moved. At all. It doesn’t even look like he’s blinked.

I drag my eyes away from him and turn to Cindy for answers. She’s the same. And Borin. It’s like they’ve been frozen, mid-step, as they stare at the same spot. My instinct is to follow their gaze, but I manage to stop myself.

The fire is getting worse. My lungs feel as though they’re about to collapse. I crouch in order to keep out of the worst of the heat. Why aren’t the others doing the same? I want to run, but there’s no way I’m going anywhere without Cindy. So, why isn’t she coming?

“What’s happening?” Al asks. “Why’ve you stopped?”

“No one’s moving.” Speaking comes with uncontrollable coughing.

Al on the other hand doesn’t seem to have any trouble with the smoke. “Why?”

“They’re staring at something,” I croak. The heat’s too much. “I don’t know what.”

“Don’t look!”

“Guessed that,” I say while forcing myself to gaze everywhere except where my eyes are drawn. “What do I do?”

Everyone is still completely motionless. The fire is so close to Stewart, it’s starting to char the bottom of his pant legs. Bits of flaming pieces of old hay and boards crumble from the loft and fall around all of us, causing sparks to spread and the fire to grow. I duck instinctively as a piece comes within inches of hitting Stewart in the head.

“Get out.”

“Not without Cindy.”

He sighs. “She’s not moving either I take it.”

I answer with another coughing bout.

“There must be some sort of spell capturing them. Probably something requiring the target to maintain eye contact with an object. Whatever you do, don’t get between the wizards and the object.”

“An object?” I ask, with another glance around the room.

This time when my eyes pass over the others I notice the keys on the table. Fire is already eating away at the table’s legs, and I’m betting the shiny metal is going to be extremely hot. Unfortunately, it’s also our only way of escape.

“It probably came out of the box.”

“What did?” I ask while distracted by the keys.

“The object.” Another chunk of wood falls, the largest yet. The smash and spray of flames causes Al to pause for a second. When he speaks again, it’s in a rush. “You knocked the box to the ground, did you not? When it fell, it must have dropped out.”

Through the portal. It makes sense.

Another coughing fit. The heat makes my skin feel as though it’s going to shrivel and rip. There’s no more time.

“You said to stop the spell I need to break their eye contact, right?”

“Correct.”

“Perfect.”

I dash forward, grab the keys and instantly shove them and the box into my purse, which I also grab off the table. The heat’s done its number on it, turning the off white leather a dirty brown and making the metal clasp next to impossible to touch, but it’s better than holding the keys directly. Plus my cell’s in there. When I turn to face Borin and Cindy, I know there’s no way I can block the view of one but not the other. I’m going to have to make this quick.

Something else catches my eye and at first I look away, thinking I’ve somehow gazed at the very item I’ve been trying to avoid. Little by little my brain processes what I’ve seen, and I realize it is the blue bag Stewart taunted me with, not whatever froze everyone. He must have dropped it along with the box.

Above me something snaps and the entire roof on Stewart’s side of the barn succumbs to the fire and collapses. I have seconds before the rest falls, if I’m lucky. I dash forward, dip down to grab the bag and without any hesitation slam myself against Cindy, full force.

All I can hope is whatever magic is on her doesn’t leave her prone to broken bones.

The hit knocks her back and breaks the spell. Without waiting for her to regain her balance, I pull her toward the exit. A coughing fit slows her down enough I know we won’t be able to outrun Borin, who is also now free.

I spin around, using the motion to force Cindy forward through the door and giving Borin no time to react to my next move. As he reaches to grab my shoulder, I kick. Low and hard. He doubles over in pain and I know it’s going to take him more than a second to recover.

Without another glance at the two wizards, I follow Cindy outside to the amazingly cool fresh air.

“Keys,” Cindy says between coughs with her hand stretched toward me.

“I’ve got them,” I tell her while racing to the driver’s side of the car.

“Great,” she says. “Give them to me.”

There’s no time to argue, and there’s also no way I’m giving her the keys. After standing still in the heat and smoke I know she’s not going to have the reaction time and clear head needed to keep the vehicle going. Plus, with my adrenaline as high as it is, I need to be actively doing something to get us out of here.

Without another word, I jump into the car and dig for the keys. If only I’d taken a smaller purse.

“You said you had them,” she says once she’s in the car and realizes what I’m doing. “Where are they?”

I ignore her and keep searching. I hear her slap down the lock on her side before she reaches across to do the same to mine.

“Now would be good.”

She cringes away from the window and a loud thump follows. I force myself not to look up and instead focus on the keys. There. I shove the right one into the ignition, missing a couple of times because of my shaking hands.

Whoever attacks the car gets one last hit in as the engine turns over and I throw the vehicle into gear. As I squeal out of the driveway, the tires digging up dirt and grass as I go a little onto the lawn, I look back to see Borin holding a large piece of wood he must have been using against the window. Stewart walks calmly from the burning building and watches us with a smile on his lips.





Chapter Eight





“Breathe, Lou,” Cindy says once we’re well away from the barn.

There’s no sign of anyone following us, but I’ve changed lanes and taken so many turns, I don’t know where we are. It’s no wonder they haven’t found us yet. I look out the mirrors and then glance over my shoulder just in case.

“Jesus Christ!” Cindy shouts while grabbing the wheel to put us back onto our half of the road. “Stop before you kill us.”

“They’re coming.” I tighten my hands around the steering wheel to stop from shaking. It doesn’t help. “I know they’re coming and they’re going to find us and then the animal is going to eat us and...” gasp “I can’t...” gasp “do this.”

“In and out. If you need to puke, do it out the window.” She even goes so far as to reach over and wind my window down. “I am not cleaning that shit up.”

I put my hand over my mouth and hold it there. I hadn’t thought about throwing up, but now my stomach feels like the entire contents of the past week want out.

“Think about something else,” she says.

But I can’t. All I can think about is the fire and the creature and being tied up and was there a red truck behind us?

Cindy catches the wheel again. “I know! You could put all of your concentration into DRIVING. Seriously, Lou. I thought you got your permit. Can’t you at least stay on the pavement?”

“No, this is good,” Al says. “Don’t do anything predictable. It’ll make it harder for them to figure out what your next move is.”

Cindy shifts the wheel a bit more. “Not helping, Mini-Al.”

“Do we have a next move?” I ask.

“It would help if we live long enough to get to a next move. Lou!” She slams her foot down as though she’s trying to stomp on the brake. “There was a car in that lane.”

I’m shaking so badly and my hands are so sweaty I can hardly keep them on the wheel. I don’t know how Cindy expects me to drive any better under these circumstances. Plus this car sucks. I don’t know why I ever wanted it for myself. Mom’s car is way easier to drive. Or at least it was the two times she let me take it the six blocks to the grocery store with her in the passenger seat.

“Good work with the ropes,” Cindy says after I’m able to steady the vehicle, more or less. “I still have no idea how you got us out of them, but it was a pretty sweet move.”

“I didn’t do it,” I say. “I thought you must have.”

“I was talking to Al. You keep your eyes on the road.”

There’s a little hesitation before Al replies with a shy, “Nice work with the dust. I’ve never seen it used before in such a way.”

“You’re the one who told me what to do,” Cindy reminds him. “And do you see how good I’m being at not asking how you know so much about magic?”

Al remains quiet for a second, which is way longer than I can take right now.

“We nearly died, and there’s all this crazy stuff happening and you guys are treating it all like it is some game.” I use my hand as a puppet while imitating them. “‘Oh, good work.’ ‘Yeah, you too. High five.’ ‘Hey, why don’t we go out for pizza now to celebrate?’ ‘Sounds great, because whatever happened is so five minutes ago.’”

“I could go for some pizza right now,” Cindy says. “I don’t like pizza, but I’m so starved I’d happily eat at the greasiest diner.”

“CINDY!” I slam my hand on the wheel and without meaning to, my foot smashes down too, pushing the old car up to an alarming speed before I hit the brake a little too hard and jerk us back to something more manageable. “What is going on?” I demand.

Neither of the other two says anything for a few seconds.

“Jeez, relax, Lou.” She rolls her neck to work out the kinks from my erratic driving. “And you know I go by Sin now.”

“Cindy!”

“Fine, fine. But I don’t know much more than you.”

“Don’t give me that.” I reach over and smack her shoulder. Not hard enough to actually hurt her, but hopefully it’s enough to convince her to stop stalling. “What was with the dust?”

“It isn’t anything special.” The pride in her voice says something else entirely. “It’s a combination of a few different things. Ground together they can cause hallucinations and enhance fears.”

“Yeah, except stuff like magic dust doesn’t exist in real life.”

As I say the words my eyes drift down to Al. I don’t need Cindy’s next comment to know I’m being ridiculous. If he can exist, why can’t magic dust?

“Obviously it does, since you saw me use it.”

“Most people can’t make it work,” Al adds. “Only someone who can manipulate the magic the powder holds can force people to see and hear things like you did. A sorceress, for example. Or a talented witch.”

“I’m not a sorceress,” Cindy says as though she wishes she were.

“I know,” Al says.

“About that,” Cindy tone turns suspicious. “Are you going to explain how you know so much about all of this? Or am I going to have to beg?”

She’s right. He knew about the chimera and wizards and the magic on the door and he even mentioned something about the box. I didn’t have time to ask then, but since we’re relatively safe I want to know what he was trying to say. Except now he seems intent on staying silent.

“Please,” I say. “I need to know what’s going on.”

“I don’t know much either,” he says which makes Cindy growl with annoyance.

“Anything will help.” I sound as kind as possible to counter Cindy’s anger. Hard to do when my voice is shaking from nerves. “You said something about the box before. What were you talking about?”

“It was something the wizard, Stewart, said,” Al says. “He was looking for a portal and said your grandmother was the guardian of one.”

“So what?” Cindy snaps.

“This isn’t my world,” he says. “Combined with the fact I don’t remember being inside the box for more than a second, and it’s the only conclusion I can come up with.”

From Cindy’s snort, I can tell she gets what he’s talking about right away. My brain, on the other hand, is too busy driving the car and watching out for anyone tailing us to be able to figure out what he means.

“I don’t understand,” I admit after a moment’s silence.

“I’m not sure,” Al says. “But I think the box is what Stewart was looking for. The box is the portal.”

“Portal in a box.” I check the rear-view mirror in order to avoid processing the information for a little longer. “Why not?”

“It makes sense,” Cindy grudgingly admits. “I’m betting the rock with the holding spell on it came from your world too.”

“A rock,” Al says. “Thank you for telling me what held you. Not knowing was frustrating.”

Cindy grins. “Good call about the chimera, Mini-Al.”

“What call?” I ask.

Were they ever going to start explaining rather than talking around me as though I don’t exist?

“When he cut our ropes, he told me to concentrate the dust on the creature. It doesn’t have the magical immunity the wizards have.”

“Al cut the ropes?” I imagine him climbing around us, hacking at the rope like a lumberjack. It doesn’t seem feasible. “They were as thick as he is tall. How is that possible?”

“My blade can cut through anything,” Al says simply as though it should be obvious. “It was a gift from my sister. She was always good at choosing gifts.”

“Yes, of course,” I say. “A blade that can cut anything. Fear and hallucinations caused by powder. A portal to another world inside a box and a bag full of toenails and magic.” I laugh at the absurdity of my words. “Yup, I’ve gone completely insane.”

“You can’t ever open the bag,” Cindy says. “Never. You hear me?”

“But, I mean, it doesn’t really hold my magic.” I laugh at the absurdity of the idea, but quickly realize no one else is laughing. “Can it?”

“All you need to know is not to open it. Ever. It’s what Gran wanted.”

“Stewart said...” I can’t believe I’m going to say the words aloud, they’re so ludicrous. “He said I’m a sorceress. Like Gran.”

Cindy stares out of the passenger window without saying anything.

“He can’t be right. Gran wasn’t... and I’m certainly not...” Silence. “Cindy, why won’t you look at me?

“Gran was a sorceress,” Cindy says in a matter-of-fact sort of way. “She was born with magic and could use it to do pretty much anything she wanted.”

“Like you?”

After what I’d seen in the barn, I wouldn’t doubt her if she said she could fly.

“No, don’t be an idiot. Do you think I’d spend so much money fixing this damn car if I could do the same with magic?” She brushes my words away with a wave of her hand.

“But, the dust...”

“A manipulation of pre-existing magic.” She sounds disappointed in her own abilities, though her tone turns wistful as she talks about Gran. “Gran, and others like her, can create magic on their own.”

I’m terrified of the answer, but I have to ask. “Others, like me?”

“Just, don’t open the bag, hear me?” Cindy says by way of an answer.

After a minute I finally have the nerve to speak again. “Are you a wizard?”

“Who me?” Cindy laughs. “No way. Wizards steal magic from people and twist it into something sick. I’m all about using what’s available naturally. Anything I want to do with magic requires time and planning.”

“She’s a witch,” Al says when it’s obvious Cindy would rather tell me everything except a straight answer.

“A witch!” I laugh. “Of course. Actually explains a lot. Wait, can you really fly? On a broomstick?”

She rubs her forehead and refuses to answer the question.

“Al,” she says. “You still haven’t explained how you know so much about all of this.”

As interested as I am in his answer, I’m more curious about Cindy right now. “I want to know more about you being a witch. What does that mean exactly? Where’s your hat and green skin and...”

Cindy interrupts. “Shut up, Lou.”

“I’m serious.” I move my hand in a ‘calm down’ gesture. “What is a witch and what else can you do?”

She considers her answer for a minute. Her hesitation makes me think she’s going to refuse to answer.

“We work with spells, generally. It takes us a lot longer to prepare even a little bit of magic compared to sorceresses, and everything has to be organized in advance. I can’t instantly cast magic if I haven’t readied the spell in advance.”

I’m about to ask more questions when she continues.

“It’s all a matter of balancing different aspects of the elements. It’s easier to show you than tell, but right now I’m more interested in Al.”

I would interrupt again, but something about the look Cindy’s giving Al keeps me silent. It seems to have the same effect on him.

“Tell me how you know so much about magic or I’ll remind you how much bigger than you we are.”

I doubt he actually feels threatened, but he makes the decision to start talking.

“My sister,” he says. “She’s a sorceress.”

“Your sister...” I never thought I’d see Cindy be too shocked to finish a sentence.

“Is a sorceress,” Al finishes for her. “Was. I guess.”

Always the one to be blunt, Cindy asks, “She’s dead?”

“I’m so sorry,” I say quickly to cover up her insensitivity.

“She isn’t... not entirely.” His voice is cold, as though he’s separating himself from the event and ultimately the emotions he doesn’t want to express. “A wizard found her. He took her magic and left her...empty.”

I expect Cindy to say something rude, or disrespectful, or stupid, or something along the lines of ‘shit. That sucks, dude.’ But she doesn’t say anything at all for a long time. Or at least a long time for her. When she does speak, it’s a quiet, “Sorry.”

“Yeah.” He clears his throat. “Well, one thing I’m sure of is wizards never give up when they find something they want.”

“You mean, you think they’re following us?” I look at each of the mirrors and turn my head to look out the back window, but there’s nothing there as far as I can see. The screech of the tires brings my focus back to what’s in front of us.

“I swear, if you get so much as a scratch on this car, I will kill you.” Cindy lets go of the wheel when she’s sure I’m paying more attention. I focus on where I am on the road. Even so, I can’t stop my eyes from flicking to the mirror more often than necessary.

“I don’t see them,” I say when Cindy’s a little less angry.

“They might not be right behind you,” Al says. “But they will come after you. You have something they want.”

“The box,” I say.

“It’s not the only thing,” Al says.

“What else is there?” My eyes are drawn to my purse and the bag inside.

I already know the answer when he says, “You.”





Chapter Nine





“He wants you to open the bag,” Al continues. “He can’t take the magic directly, so he needs you to regain your power so he can strip it from you.”

“Lesson is, don’t open the bag,” Cindy adds.

Her irritation at Al for telling me about the bag is obvious, so neither Al nor I say anything more in hopes of her cooling down. It makes for a long drive, especially once my adrenaline starts to wear off and exhaustion takes over.

“The turn’s coming up,” Cindy says after a long silence. I’d almost fallen into a stupor while staring at the pavement ahead of us. “A few more minutes and I’ll be safe from your driving forever.”

I take in everything around me for the first time in a while and realize we are only minutes from Gran’s house. It seems unreal we’re so close to our destination. Soon we’ll be able to figure out a way to get Al back home and everything can go back to the way it was.

Exactly what I want.

Isn’t it?

“Thank you,” Al says, interrupting my thoughts

“For what?” The heat of a blush warms first my face and then creeps down to my chest. “I haven’t done anything yet.”

“You’re trying.”

I shake my head at the misplaced gratitude. “Anyone would try to get you home. But most people wouldn’t nearly get you killed in the process.”

“Most people would have put me back in the box and left me to die.”

I shift uncomfortably as I remember the idea had crossed my mind. The only reason I’m doing anything at all is because of Cindy. If not for her, I’d still be sitting in a corner of my room, rocking back and forth while staring at him on my night table. I glance at the clock on the dashboard and notice it’s after six in the morning. Well, I suppose right now I’d actually be at rehearsal.

“Rehearsal,” I groan.

“What?” Al asks.

“Nothing, it’s stupid.” I sigh. “There goes the lead, that’s all.”

Before Al can ask what I’m talking about, Cindy cuts in. For once I’m actually grateful. I’d have felt like an idiot explaining to Al about dance. He’d probably lose respect for me, like all guys do.

“There,” she says while pointing out the window to a carved wood community sign. “Don’t forget to slow down for the turn this time. And maybe signal. Or not. Whatever.”

“Shut up,” I say while turning my signal on a little too late. “I’m not so bad.”

I switch lanes and pull into the suburban area extra carefully to show how awesome a driver I am. As soon as we’re inside the development, however, I get lost. There are too many side roads and similar-looking houses to remember the right directions.

Cindy takes over navigation without a single snide comment, a miracle in itself, until I finally spot Gran’s house. It’s well back from the road, completely at odds with every other home in the neighborhood. Row after row of residences, all with perfectly manicured lawns and meticulously maintained exteriors, make up the subdivision. All of the buildings are new and there are only half a dozen designs repeated in an irregular pattern.

Gran’s house on the other hand is old, and not afraid to show its age. Mismatching grey paint covers the outside of the house in patches, and the pavement of the driveway is broken and starting to grow overrun by weeds and grass. It looks like one of the neighbors must have become frustrated with the hay length front yard and cut it back. Otherwise the place looks completely untouched since the last time I visited several months ago.

I shift the car into park and stare up at the house for a minute. We’re actually here. I should be ecstatic. So, why don’t I want to get out?

As soon as the car stops, Cindy leaps out and runs around to my side. Before I have a chance to unbuckle myself, she throws the door open, reaches around me and takes the keys from the ignition. Without a word, she shoves them into her pocket and heads toward the front door.

“I’m really not so bad a driver,” I grumble while getting out of the car. “We’re still alive, aren’t we?”

There’s a tiny chuckle from Al, but when I look at him, he carefully keeps his face, and smile, hidden.

When I reach the door, Cindy’s still there, though I have no idea why she hasn’t gone in already.

“You remember there are potentially people following us, right?” I tap my toe nervously on the overgrown stone walkway. “If they happen to drive by they can see us standing here.”

“They’d be able to see our car either way,” she says as though it’s not a big deal.

I contemplate moving the car into the back yard and hiding it behind the house before I’m distracted when Cindy kneels down and pulls a bobby pin out of her hair.

“Really? You know how to pick a lock?” I’m impressed. Until I remember we’re not in a movie. “Who has those kinds of hobbies?”

“Shut up, I’m concentrating.” She straightens the hairpin and shoves it into the lock. “Besides, I’m not the criminal you and Mom seem to think I am. I’ve never actually done this before. Usually I leave lock picking to my date.”

“Of course you do.” It wouldn’t surprise me if she wasn’t joking. “Don’t you have a copy of the key to this place? Couldn’t you have thought things through for five seconds and have grabbed Mom’s key? But no, you never think anything through. You do whatever you feel like.”

She ignores my rant and absently says, “Don’t see you with a key either, princess,” while continuing to fiddle with the lock.

I look back at the road to make sure the bad guys haven’t caught up. No sign of Stewart, but there are a lot of cars around in the driveways along the street. Kids are out playing in the morning sun while parents fuss over their lawns and gardens and take their dogs for walks. All we need is one of those people to grow a little too suspicious of a couple of teenagers hanging out at an empty house and the cops will be here in minutes.

“Didn’t Gran keep a spare?” I ask a bit louder than necessary. I’m half hoping people will overhear and realize we aren’t actually thieves or hooligans or whatever they’re thinking.

“Shh. Concentrating.”

“Wait! No, there is a spare.” I glance around the front yard, trying to picture the time Gran showed me the extra key. “I can’t...remember...”

“Under the roof of the well.”

I look down at Al who pulls himself half out of the lipstick lid to stare at the house.

“The well?” Right, the old wooden structure in the back yard. It was filled in years ago when the whole area made the switch to the city water line, but Gran left the wooden structure surrounding the old hole. She said it was as much a part of the house as the roof, so it stayed. It’s completely useless except as one thing; a perfect hiding spot for spare keys.

I take another look back toward the road before jogging around to the back of the house. There it is, half hidden among the long, scratchy grass. I reach my hand underneath the rotting roof and pull the set of keys off the rusted nail hidden in the shadows.

Cindy steps aside as I open the lock on the front door and enter Gran’s house.

“Yes, I’m sure you could have gotten it eventually,” I say to her when I notice the look she’s giving me. No, not me, Al. “What is it?”

“How did he know where the key was?”

I hadn’t thought of that. How had I not thought of that?

I lift the necklace so I’m eye level with him. For the first time since he fell onto my shirt, I can see his face and every expression he makes clearly. He glances at Cindy first, as though he’s afraid to meet my eye. Which I can kind of understand. I must be humungous to him.

Finally, he turns back to me. “I know this house. I’ve been here before.”

“What?” I say.

“What?” Cindy says a little louder. “I thought you weren’t from this world. How could you have been here before?”

“It doesn’t make sense to me either.” He rubs his chin and stares off in the distance while he thinks. “I’ve been to this house, but not to this place. Those other houses, those roads, the machine you travel in, none of it exists where I’m from. None of it except for this house.”

He sounds too freaked out to be lying. I glance at Cindy to see what she thinks but she’s stopped paying attention and is headed toward Gran’s study at the back. I hurry to follow her since I don’t know what to say to Al and there’s nowhere else I can think of to look for answers.

“Why were you here?” Cindy rifles through some papers in the sturdy wooden desk. “At this house.”

“Exploring,” he answers after a second. “Kid stuff.”

I expect Cindy to growl at him and demand he tell us more, but instead she moves to one of the many bookshelves lining the walls of the room. She checks a few old book covers before shoving them back into place. They’re all so old if there were ever titles on the spines, the words are long gone.

“What are you looking for?” I ask.

“This.”

She pulls out a book and opens it to reveal its handwritten contents, though the cover looks like every other old book in the room.

“A journal?”

Cindy nods. “Gran never let me read it before. She said it was stuff I didn’t need to worry about.”

“What’s in it?”

“I don’t know,” she says while giving me a look like I’m a moron. “She never let me read it.”

I roll my eyes and walk over to the shelves. Maybe I can find something useful on my own. Although I have no idea what I’m looking for.

“Here,” Cindy announces with a smack of her hand on the table. “Bring him over here to look.”

I go over to the desk and carefully unlatch the necklace, setting it down so Al can climb out. When I’m sure he’s safely on the desk, I turn my attention to the page Cindy’s so excited about. It looks like an old map. There’s not much on it, a few blobs with scratches beside each labeling them as things such as mill, blacksmith, and tailor. At the top, there’s a bunch of symbols a lot like the ones Cindy pointed out at the bottom of the box.

“What is that?” I ask, pointing out the symbols. “Some sort of magic spell?”

“I’ll show you,” Cindy says before turning to Al. “Step onto the book.”

“Are you sure it’s safe?”

I bite my lip while examining Al. It would be bad I managed to not hurt him this far, only for a spell to get him at Gran’s house.

Cindy gives me a puzzled look, which quickly shifts to something more like disgust.

“Of all guys for you to get your first crush on,” she says.

“What?” I half laugh. “I don’t have a...” I laugh again to cover up the fact I can’t say the word. “He’s the size of my thumb. I don’t know him.”

I don’t know why my heart started racing when she said that, or why I’m so flustered. It’s true he’s tiny and I don’t know him. But when my eyes flick over to him and I catch him turning away from me, I feel the heat rise in my cheeks.

“Fine, whatever,” Cindy says. “It’s a harmless illusion spell. He’ll be fine.”

He glances up at me at the same moment I sneak a peek at him to see how he’s reacting to Cindy’s accusation. As soon as our eyes meet, he turns and climbs onto the book, giving me no chance to read what he’s thinking.

“Off the blotches,” Cindy tells him. “There. Don’t move.”

She pulls enough dust from her pocket to cover the tip of her finger, and blows it so it spreads out over both Al and the book. Slowly the ink splotches on the page shift and grow and take shape until they’re no longer pen marks but ghostly tiny versions of buildings. Between the buildings are roads and grass and trees and everything else you might find in life-like perfect detail. It’s as though a real village was shrunk to match the size of Al.

He turns in a circle and takes in everything around him. The grass shifts as though blown by wind and something like a cross between a butterfly and a bird unfolds from a flower and flies upwards until it vanishes. His face turns ashen as though he’s staring at a ghost.

Cindy points to a familiar building. “That’s Gran’s house. But what’s with the rest? I don’t recognize anything else.”

“I do,” he says. “It’s my village.”





Chapter Ten





“This is your home?” I study the map a little more closely.

Al nods. “At least part of it. There are a few more buildings than this, including my parents' house, but this is more or less home.”

“How new is your parent’s house?” Al and I both turn to give Cindy a confused look and she continues. “Was it built within, say, the last thirty or so years?”

He considers her question before saying, “They built it before I was born, twenty years ago I guess.”

Cindy nods. “The date on this journal is well over thirty years ago. Things change. They definitely have here.”

“So what are you saying?” I try to touch one of the buildings, but when my finger goes through, I pull back. “Gran was in this other world thirty some years ago and happened to draw this map?”

“Probably. Maybe she was there a few times since.” Cindy seems a little too pleased by the idea. “You know how she used to get out of touch for weeks at a time. She probably says in her journals, but it’ll take some time to read them.”

“Great. So your amazing plan is to read Gran’s journals until you find a spot where she happens to mention her magical secret to jumping between worlds?” I pull a face to show just what I think of such a plan, or lack thereof.

Cindy smiles at me. “Pretty much, yeah.”

“Can’t you do some sort of spell to move things along faster?” I pick up one of the books and wave it in her face to force her to pay more attention to me. “If Al’s right, it’s only a matter of time before Stewart and Borin come for us.”

She swats the thing away and glares. “I’m not a sorceress, Lou. I don’t have magic coming out of my ass. I happen to know a few spells, and they’re simple perception tricks.”

“So, no to using magic.”

She yanks the book from my hand and stuffs it under her arm before heading toward the door. “I think I remember Gran keeping her more recent journals upstairs. I’ll be there, being useful. Why don’t you try doing the same?”

I glare at the door for several seconds after she’s gone. Once I can no longer hear her footsteps, I turn away.

“I can’t wait until this is over,” I grumble. “I’ll never have to talk to her again.”

I realize what I’ve said and turn to Al with an apologetic smile. He’d probably give anything to argue with his sister. He runs his fingers through his hair as though he’s attempting to brush away some feeling of remorse, and then half-smiles up at me.

“You two normally don’t talk much?” He’s careful to sound as though what I said doesn’t bother him, but I can tell it does.

“I’m sorry, about your sister.” I want to touch him, or pat his shoulder. But when I start to move my finger toward him, I realized what a dangerous idea that is and drop my hand. “I don’t know if I said as much already.”

He shrugs my words away and turns as though to study the map a bit more closely.

“We weren’t close either,” he says unexpectedly. “I hardly knew her; I spent most of my life...elsewhere.”

Since he’s obviously uncomfortable talking directly to me, I start rummaging through Gran’s stuff, and pretend I’m not interested in what he’s saying. “What do you mean? You didn’t grow up at home?”

“I went to this place, where they sort of trained boys like me.”

“Like a boarding school? Really?” I get a little too excited as an image of Al dressed in a tiny school uniform pops into my head. Adorable. I clear my throat and force myself to calm down. “Was it all boys there, like in books and stuff?”

He looks at me for a moment and appears to be about to say something before he stops himself. When he does speak, it sounds like a half-truth, though I have no idea what he’s hiding. “It was only boys, yes.”

“Mom used to threaten to send Cindy off to one.” Maybe if I talk a bit more about my family he’ll feel more comfortable saying more. “I always wished I could go.”

He seems genuinely interested when he asks, “You wanted to leave home?”

Now it’s my turn to pretend to be busy in order to avoid looking at him directly. I don’t usually talk about my family. Not even my friends know about Mom’s threat and my wish to get away. “I don’t know. I guess. With Cindy and Mom always fighting, it was up to me to be the good little daughter.” Reliving the fights and bickering again is not something I’m interested in doing. Instead, I remember the early morning practices and all day shopping trips to find the perfect, preppy outfits. “I would help with all the cleaning and I would join the ballet lessons and do everything a normal girl would do, because Mom wanted it so. She was so afraid of becoming like Gran.”

He gives me a curious look I see out of the corner of my eye. “What was wrong with your grandmother?”

My mom and sister fighting is one thing. There’s no way I can talk about Gran to a total stranger. Who knows how he’ll react, and I can’t help but care what he thinks about me. Still, there’s something comforting about him, as though he actually wants to know, and not just so he has something to laugh at and judge me for later.

“Not exactly all there,” I say against my better judgment. “Never mind the magic, I never knew about that, but there was all this other stuff. Such as why would anyone fold old chocolate bar wrappers and place them into a drawer underneath a pile of papers?” I pull out a wrapper and hold it up for him to see while touching it with as little of the skin on my fingers as possible.

He grins. “Fair enough. But I’m sure there are worse things people have kept in their drawers.”

Something about his reaction sends warmth through me and spurs me on.

“Oh, but it’s not only things like the wrappers. Gran would have rituals for everything. If we wanted canned peas for supper, we’d have to spin around three times and spit in a bucket set aside in the kitchen specifically for the occasion. Every time we used the toilet? Click your heels once and pull your ear.” I demonstrate the ear tug with a mocking smile before giving him a desperate look. “Have you ever heard of any of those rituals before? Please tell me it’s some sort of spell to ward off demons, because I would feel so much better about everything if it is.”

His laugh isn’t cruel like when some of the kids in my class found out about Gran’s rituals. In fact it was infectious. For the first time ever, I actually find myself laughing about the whole thing. Mom always worried about what people might think, and after my so-called friends’ reactions, I did too. I never thought about laughing.

“I can’t say I’ve ever heard of those spells,” he admits.

“And I’m not going to get into the whole toenails in a bag.”

I continue laughing until I notice Al’s become silent. He stares at my purse as though it contains the answer to a puzzling question. I follow his gaze to the bag thrown onto the chair when we first came into the room, though I know it’s the blue bag inside he’s actually thinking about. “A container used to trap a sorceresses power,” Al thinks aloud. “I’ve never heard of it being done before.”

It’s obvious he wants a closer look, though he’s too polite to ask. I’d usually be too embarrassed to even think about showing someone a pouch of my old disgusting toenails, but I can’t help being curious too. Besides, the same urge to touch it I’d felt in the barn is back, and this time it’s too strong to resist.

My arm reaches out and, before I know what I’m doing, I have the blue bag in my hand.

“You said they’ll never stop chasing us,” I say with my attention on the bag. “We’ll never be safe. Not really.”

He doesn’t answer at first. “I suppose.”

“There’s been a lot of magic thrown around me in the past few hours. Powerful stuff. While Cindy’s completely outmatched, at least she’s able to fight. She got rid of the creature after all.”

From his hesitation, it’s obvious he knows where my line of thinking is headed and he doesn’t approve. “Maybe, but it’s not like you’re helpless. I’ve never seen anyone fight a chimera like you did.”

“And I still lost.” My fingers find the ends of the string binding the bag shut. I tug so gently I’m not at all surprised nothing happens.

“Maybe this isn’t such a good idea,” Al says. “Remember what your sister said.”

I can’t take my eyes off the bag and the urge to open it is so strong I can’t think of anything else. Cindy’s warning is in my mind somewhere, but it doesn’t matter. All that matters is the pouch.

“All of these books, this house, will any of it help? Even if we find a way to get you back, Gran was a sorceress. She could do things none of us can.”

“Magic might not be the solution.”

“Maybe not this time,” I admit. “But without it, I’ll never have a chance of defending my family from Stewart or wizards like him. It was luck we got out of the barn. With magic, we’d be on equal fighting ground.”

I test the binding again, this time yanking at the knot much harder. Nothing. It doesn’t budge. I need to cut it open. A search of the table uncovers old silver scissors stuffed into a container full of pens and pencils. Even though the scissors seem sharp and open easily, no matter what I do, they won’t cut the string. I try cutting the bag itself. Again, nothing.

“But it can’t be. What if I...” I use the scissors to cut a small hole into the bottom of my shirt, no problem. “So why won’t the bag cut?”

“Maybe it’s for the best,” Al says.

“Your sword.” I’m almost ashamed at how obvious the solution is. “You said it would cut through anything.”

I hold out my hand to him, but he makes no move to pass me the tiny blade.

“Please?”

When I realize he’s still not going to give it to me, I lean over the desk and bring myself face to face with him. From this close, I can see how worried he looks. It doesn’t make sense. Shouldn’t he be happy? He must not understand.

“If it works, then I’ll have the power to send you back home,” I say.

“Lou.” He shakes his head in refusal. “Don’t do this.”

Hearing him say my name with so much sympathy and worry, it makes me need to help him that much more.

“Please,” I say again.

His hand slips around the hilt as though he’s about to draw the sword, but he stops before actually pulling it free. The need to open the bag is so strong his hesitation has me almost in tears.

“Please.”

A single nod. No words. He draws out the sword and carefully sets it onto my index finger. It’s almost impossible to hold without touching the blade and I end up cutting myself on its edge. Once I have it held between my fingernails, I slice it against the side of the bag. The blade cuts through the fabric easier than I expect and I end up making a hole much bigger than I intend. The contents of the bag spill out around me. While I scramble to keep everything inside, I drop the whole lot.

I groan. “I’m not cleaning that up.”

“Any change?” Al asks.

I think about it for a minute and shake my head.

“I don’t feel any different.”

But as soon as I say the words I look at Al and I realize how wrong I am. He’s there, same as before, but there’s a strange net surrounding him he doesn’t seem to notice. Every move he makes, the net moves with him, pressing against his skin. But it isn’t made of string or rope or anything I’ve ever seen before. I lean in until my nose is almost touching him to get a better view of him.

“What is that?” I ask.

He looks down at himself and nervously brushes nonexistent dust from himself before returning his focus to me. “Um... my clothes?”

He shifts nervously, but he doesn’t step back, though I can only imagine how intimidating I must be right now. I’m glad he doesn’t move, and not just so I can see him better. There’s also something about being so close to him that causes my skin to tingle in the best way.

I ignore the feeling and concentrate on the stuff surrounding him.

“No, it’s all around you. Can’t you feel it? Some sort of pattern of light and dust and shadow and I don’t know what, and it’s pressing down on your skin, like it’s trying to...” I take in a frightened breath when I realize exactly what it’s doing. “Like it’s going to crush you.

“What?” There’s a panic to his voice I’d only heard once before; when Cindy forced him inside the lipstick container.

His fear justifies my own alarm. “I have to stop it.”

“Please do.”

I point his sword at him and say, “Don’t move.”

He doesn’t, not even to agree with me. Probably he’s too afraid to speak. I know I can’t say anything encouraging like ‘I promise not to kill you,’ because any distraction and the sword I have pressed against the magic web might slip. If the blade can cut anything, it could easily kill Al. I drag it down, careful to slice only the web and not his skin. I hope.

Once enough of it is cut, the net gives away and falls from him. I laugh in triumph as the stuff curls away from his body, shrinks into itself and disappears.

But then something odd happens.

No longer is my nose almost touching a tiny person, but smashed against something solid and warm and smelling a whole lot like dirt and leather.

I take a small step away from the table with my hand rubbing my face and peek to see what hit me. Some new spell, perhaps? Or let me guess, with my luck, it’s probably another chimera.

Or a full grown man.

I take another step back as he climbs down off the desk to stand in the space between it and me. Since I’d moved back such a small amount, he hardly has any room, leaving him pressed up against me. The tingling I’d felt before has intensified until my skin seems to be pulsing in reaction to him.

My breath catches as his fingers briefly brush against the hair on my shoulder until he seems to think better and lets his hand drop.

“Lou?” a familiar voice says when after several moments I still haven’t moved.

Familiar, but completely different. Like talking to someone in person for the first time after only speaking to them over the phone. It’s the same, but somehow this feels so much more real.

And having his full sized body practically pressed up against me makes it that much more intense. My hand moves to touch him to see if he’s as solid as he looks.

Cindy’s voice calls while thumping down the stairs, “Hey, I thought I heard...”

She stops at the door and I shove myself away from the man in front of me. I stare at Cindy as her face shifts from anger to confusion to surprise and then all the way back to anger again. She, on the other hand, isn’t looking at me at all. Instead she’s staring at the man who now has his back to me.

She opens her mouth a couple of times to speak, and when she finally does say something, it’s only one word.

“Al?”





Chapter Eleven





“What? How? What?” Cindy very cleverly asks.

I can’t blame her, especially since my vocabulary is reduced to a single nervous laugh when Al spins to look at me for a moment before turning to Cindy. With him actually human-sized, I can see so many more details such as the fact his nose and mouth are little too wide for such a slim face. And he’s in need of a shave. Not in a ‘is he growing out a beard?’ kind of way, but in a ‘he probably hasn’t shaved for days and that’s all he can grow’ way.

He has a fighter’s body. Lean and entirely made of muscle which his light shirt and tunic show off very nicely. I catch myself staring at the part of his shoulder connected to the back of his neck while nibbling on my bottom lip and I take another step back.

“Lou! What did you do?” Cindy’s demanding question gushes out when she’s able to gather her thoughts.

“It’s not her fault.” Al positions himself as though he’s protecting me from Cindy. “She was trying to help.”

“Don’t you even start,” she says. “I’m not...I can’t...I’ll deal with you later.”

Al turns and gives me an apologetic look that offers a perfect view of his chest, since it’s more or less at eye level for me. His shirt and tunic are both ripped, all the way down to his belt, and the skin under is red and spotted with blood.

“Oh,” I manage to force out. I touch his skin for a fraction of a second before pulling my hand back. Although the contact was brief, I’m hit with an embarrassing rush of heat leaving me flustered. “How did...”

He makes a face and guilt smashes into me, knocking away all other emotions.

“Me? I did this?” My voice is at least an octave higher than normal.

“The blade’s sharper than it seems,” he says to excuse the fact I nearly killed him.

My eyes lock onto the cut and follow it down his chest, where the material of his clothes has shifted enough to show a good portion of skin, down to his belt line. I don’t realize I’ve been staring until one of Al’s hands grips my shoulder as the other forces me to look up at his face. I can feel the blush spread all the way down my neck, while the tingling where we touch has me trembling.

“I’m fine.” His voice is as smooth and warm as his touch, and I can’t help leaning toward the sound. “It’s just a scratch.”

“Oh this is awesome,” Cindy groans. She grips the arm he’s using to lift my face and digs her nails into his flesh. “Hey, you. Not-so-little Al. If you’re not dying, then how about you make yourself useful by checking the doors? I thought I heard something when I was upstairs. I’d rather not get a surprise visit from a couple of wizards.”

He doesn’t move for a minute and instead checks on me. “Thank you,” he says.

“Move!” Cindy forces him around her out of the room.

When he’s gone, Cindy cautiously approaches me. The way she moves is almost as though I’m a stranger, not her annoying little sister.

“What have you done?” she asks again, but this time a lot of the bitterness is gone, replaced with sadness. “Are you this stupid or did he trick you into it?”

The idea of her blaming Al hits harder than her insult to me. “He didn’t do anything. I opened the bag on my own. He told me not to. And why are your pockets glowing.”

Her hand goes to her head and she rubs her palm into her eye.

“Are you kidding me?” She shakes her head until she notices the bag on the floor. She picks it up and shoves it into my face. “Do you have any concept of what you’ve done?”

“I’ve taken back the magic you said I was born with.” I take a step away from her and turn so she can’t see the worry on my face. Have I done the right thing? “And now we have a chance against those wizards when they do catch up to us.”

She doesn’t back down as she follows me wherever I try to hide. “You don’t have all of your magic. It wasn’t all kept in one bag, you stupid moron.”

“Unlike those smart morons, huh?” Not the best retort, but it will have to do.

“What do you expect to do when they come? Do you know anything about magic?” Her hand goes to her hip while the other waves the now empty bag in the air. “Have you ever done a spell?”

I try to sound confidence when I say, “I made Al big again.”

“By using his own knife and almost killing him, something you could have done without opening the bag.”

“What’s the big deal?” I throw my hands up in defeat. I hate getting yelled at, especially when I haven’t done anything wrong. “Maybe you’re worried now I’ll be better than you at magic?”

Her expression is somewhere between pity and a glare. “All you’ve done is given them an easy target.”

“They’re here!” Al shouts from the hallway.

Neither Cindy nor I move. We’re too busy scowling at each other. When Al bursts into the room, he takes one look at us and slams the book closed on the table, surprising us out of our stare-down.

“We have to go.” His tone leaves no room for argument. “Now.”

“Go where?” Cindy asks. “I didn’t find anything helpful in the books, and if we run, they’ll simply track little-miss-perfect here’s new power.”

Yeah, alright, maybe it was a mistake. “Well, maybe if you explained any of this before leaving me in a room with mystical powers in the first place then I wouldn’t have opened the damn bag.”

“None of it matters right now,” Al says. “We know this building is connected to my world somehow. If we can figure out how to get there, they might not be able to follow.”

“But we have no idea how,” Cindy says. “The best we have is a box, and even Al won’t be able to fit inside now.” She crosses her arms while staring directly at me. “Thanks to someone.”

I get it, Cindy. I was wrong. Time to move on.

“There has to be another way.” I rush over to the shelves and pulling out book after book without actually opening any. It’s like I hope to simply know if I’ve found what I’m looking for. “If Gran was travelling back and forth regularly, there has to be something bigger. Maybe an object?”

I switch from the shelves to her desk and pull items out by the handful.

“It’s too late,” Al says.

From his tone I know exactly what I’m going to find when I raise my head from the desk. Stewart’s smile is bigger than ever, though the rest of him is disheveled and singed. Borin stands behind him, watching us and carefully cracking each of his knuckles. Around both of them is an eerie glow, similar to the net and Cindy’s pockets. Except where the net had been neatly constructed of beautiful, terrifying bits of energy, the light around the two wizards is blotchy and fraying around the edges. I can’t keep my eyes directly on them for more than a few seconds without feeling nauseated.

“Hello, Lou,” Stewart says in his fake sweet voice. “My, how you’ve changed.”

Al’s hand slowly reaches for the weapon no longer strapped to his belt. I follow his lead and go for my own weapon, fingers slipping around the keys in my pocket so when I make a fist, the sharp metal edges point out between each finger.

“And look at the stray you’ve picked up,” Stewart’s amusement increases as he notices Al for the first time. “You’re a long way from home, boy. I suppose we have you to thank for releasing her magic. But I’m afraid you aren’t going to get to enjoy your first taste today. Her magic is mine.”

“Son of a bitch,” Cindy says. “I knew it. I knew there was something off about you.”

“It’s not...” Al starts to say, but stops. Instead he keeps his focus on Stewart. “You’re not going to touch her.”

“Oh, I think I will.” His amusement grows as he examines Al a little closer. “Do you truly believe you and the witch have a chance against two full wizards?”

While Stewart and Al talk, my focus goes to Borin. At first I thought the sun must have been hitting him at an odd angle to cause him to shine. But as I watch, the glow intensifies as layer after layer of light gathers around his body until he glows as bright as Cindy’s pockets. Whatever he’s doing, I know I need to stop him before he finishes.

I lunge forward, determined to stop him however I can. With my attention completely on Borin, I don’t notice Stewart’s the only one not surprised by my attack until it’s too late. My body stops mid-stride as the air leaves my lungs. He doesn’t touch me, but the magic slammed into my stomach is worse than any kick I’ve ever received.

Worse, I can’t double up in pain or clutch the hurt area. I can’t move at all. Stewart’s light engulfs my entire body in an instant, paralyzing me. And then the pain begins.

It starts at my toes and is so excruciating I don’t know how I’m able to continue standing, but his magic won’t let me fall any more than it will let me attack him.

I notice movement out of the corner of my eye, hear Borin call out a warning. It’s too late. Al’s fist lands hard on Stewart’s jaw, followed by his other fist against his temple. An impressive hit. It looks practiced. And it sends Stewart to the ground.

As soon as the first strike lands, the pain stops and my muscles loosen enough I’m able to move once again. I want to drop to the ground in relief, but Al’s hand on my arm forces me forward.

“Come on!”

He starts toward the front door, but Borin is ready for us. At the last second I’m able to drag Al out of the way of a blast of a patchwork of magic I’m sure was meant to knock us out, if not do something worse. I pull him toward the stairs and am relieved to see Cindy’s right behind us.

At the top we separate. Cindy rushes to Gran’s room and Al searches one of the two spare rooms. I spin and face the stairs, my keys ready in my fist.

Stewart leisurely climbs to his feet and wipes the corner of his grinning mouth with his thumb, his eyes never leaving me. Borin doesn’t move from his spot between the front door and us, though I can see he’s building up another spell much like the last.

As important as the danger is, and as much as I know I need to keep my eyes on Stewart as he calmly walks up the stairs, I can’t keep my attention from drifting down to my own hand. Since Gran’s keys were left outside under the rotten well roof, they are dull and dirty. But one is so dark it blends with the shadows of my hand. It’s unlike anything else I’ve seen today, and yet, I’m positive it’s shrouded in magic.

Cindy bursts from Gran’s room shouting, “The window’s stuck. We need another way.”

My attention finally torn from the keys, I look over at Cindy, but it’s not her I see. Right behind her is a shadow completely at odds with the rest of the hallway. The edges blur and shift, making the shape hard to figure out at first, but as my eyes adjust to the strange cloak of magic, I’m sure she’s standing in front of a door.

But we’re on the second floor. And that’s an outer wall. A door there would lead to...nowhere.

I start walking toward the dark area, determined to figure out what I’m seeing.

“What are you doing?” Cindy demands.

Her voice snaps me out of the trance I’ve fallen into and back to reality.

I stare down at my hand in confusion and realize I’m reaching toward the space in the wall with the strange shadow key between my fingers, as though I’m going to use it to unlock the door.

“Lou, my dear, I don’t believe we were done talking.” Stewart is calm as he walks up the stairs, as though he knows exactly how all of this is going to end.

I shake out the creepy feeling Stewart’s fake kindness leaves me with, but otherwise ignore him.

“Behind you,” I whisper to Cindy. “A door. I think...” and I hope I’m right or else we’re in even more trouble. “It’s the portal.”

“On it,” Cindy says without a glance at the wall or any other motion to tip Stewart off to what I’ve found. She steps forward to put herself between Stewart and me. “It’s the box you want? Well, you can have it. Just leave my sister alone.”

When she offers Stewart the box, my hand goes straight into my purse where I dig around for a second. My fingers tap the smooth wood, and I have to force myself not to give anything away.

I pull my hand out and stare at the object Cindy holds. It looks identical. I almost want to check my purse again to be sure.

“No!” Al shouts from next to the stairs. “You can’t give it to him.”

She ignores him and continues to offer the fake box to Stewart. “This is my only offer. Take it and go.”

Stewart considers her for a moment before his gaze shifts to me. I recognize the challenge as he smiles, baring all of his teeth, but I have no way of responding. Although I can see magic, using it is still impossible. Opening the bag changed nothing.

He raises his hand and magic flows from it to wrap around Cindy’s throat. I watch helplessly as it lifts her off her feet. She gasps and coughs, struggling to breathe while Stewart’s attention never leaves me as though he barely registers she exists. He’s killing her, and he’s acting like she might as well be a fly.

I barely notice when Borin blocks Al as he lunges at Stewart, other than for it to register he’s not going to be able to help. My blood pumps too hard to properly think about anything other than attacking the grinning bastard.

I rush over and swing at Stewart. He blocks, but it breaks his concentration on his magic. Cindy drops to the floor where she stays, coughing and gulping air. Not exactly ready to help fight, but at least she’s still alive.

As fast as I can, I swing again, but again he blocks me, this time with enough force to make me take a step back. It isn’t simply flesh and bone I’m up against; he’s coated himself with a layer of magic like a brick wall. A kick lands on his shin and as though in slow motion, a sharp pain spreads from my foot up my leg. When I step back to regain my balance, the entire left side of my body goes numb and I sink to the floor in pain and shock.

Stewart smashes my hand against the wall behind me and I instantly drop my makeshift weapons, the keys jangling to the floor.

Cindy struggles with her pockets, managing to pull out some powder and blow it at Stewart, but her breath comes out as a wheeze and he easily bats away the dust.

With a flick of his hand, he lifts Cindy again and throws her against the wall. Her head hits hard and she crumples to the ground.

Seeing her body go limp knocks the adrenaline out of me and leaves me with a spinning head and weak muscles. She can’t be... There’s no way he... She’s still alive. She has to be still alive.

“Lou!” Al shouts from too far away.

The one brief second where his eyes meet mine is all the distraction Borin needs. A punch to Al’s ribs and a kick to the back of his knees and I hear the sickening thud as Al tumbles down the stairs.

Stewart forces me up with a hand to my throat. I suppose I should feel privileged he’s willing to touch me directly rather than through his magic. I have no strength to stand as he pulls me to my feet, the pain too much, only growing worse at Stewart’s touch. This time the pain moves up my body from my feet more rapidly, as though he learned his lesson last time about working too slowly.

My entire body is being crushed, like every nerve is pinched starting at my toes and working its way up to my throat where he holds me at eye level. I feel like I’m a tube of toothpaste, my contents squeezed up from the bottom to come spilling out the lid, or in my case, my mouth.

It hurts. It hurts so much I want to scream. Or maybe I’m already screaming.

All I can feel is pain and all I can see is the bright shine of magic as Stewart’s face fills my vision. I can’t think, can’t fight, can’t do anything but watch as he lowers his head and presses his lips over my mouth.

And then...nothing.





Aldric





Chapter Twelve





“She didn’t have her full power.” The words filter through my fuzzy brain, though at first they don’t make any sense and I don’t know who’s saying them. “You should have waited to take her.”

“Waited for what? For her to learn how to use her magic and become strong enough to defend against us?”

The voices grow louder and gradually, too gradually, I realize they’re actually getting closer.

And then I remember. Cindy. Lou. I need to get up and help them before they take Lou’s magic. I need to move. I need to do something. Yet when I try, I can’t find my legs and the floor seems to be not at all where it should be.

Even if I could fight, it’s too late. I know this as well as if I was the one who took her magic. Her body is empty. There’s nothing there, not even the glimmer of magic her grandmother left her with. She’s an empty shell.

“Is he alive?” One of the wizards asks as the other bends over me to get a better look.

“Yes. I’ll deal with it.”

“Leave him,” Stewart says. I can sense Lou’s magic on him now. “He’s one of us after all.”

“He tried to stop us,” Borin says.

Stewart’s laugh is a single sharp, dangerous bark. “Of course he did. What’s the first thing potential wizards are trained to do? Make the sorceress believe you’re on their side.” Stewart leans over me, the stench of his breath and sour magic causing my stomach to turn. “Better luck next time, boy.”

I’d like nothing better than to break every one of the fingers he uses to pat my cheek, but I still haven’t quite remembered how to use my arms.

It takes a minute after he walks away for Borin to do the same. But he doesn’t leave before kicking my side. The pain is good. It means I’m alive. Better yet, it helps me find my limbs again. Though I’m not too steady on my feet, at least I’m able to stand. My sight’s still blurred and my head’s pounding, but nothing’s broken. I shake the stars out of my eyes and force myself back up the stairs Borin shoved me down.

Cindy lies limp against the wall at the top. When I put my hand over her mouth and nose she swats it away.

“What are you doing?” she says.

“Calm down, I’m checking to see if you’re breathing.”

She tries to get up, but isn’t quite able to make it to her feet. “Where’s Lou?”

Neither of us wants to look, but we’ve got no choice. She’s a heap on the floor, as I knew she would be. Her eyes are still open and staring at the ceiling, but there’s nothing behind them. Her chest rises and falls, the only sign she’s alive.

Cindy crawls over to her sister, pulls her against her chest and starts rocking back and forth. Tears roll down her cheeks though she’s obviously fighting them. “You stupid moron. What the hell did you have to open the bag for?”

There’s nothing I can say to make this better, so I head back down the stairs. Before anything else, I check the front door to make sure Stewart and Borin are gone. No sign of them. It’s almost like they were never here. Almost.

The study is next. When she broke the spell keeping me small, she must have broken the same spell on my sword. My mouth curls into a weak smile when I first sense the magic and then see the blade on the floor behind the desk. I scoop it up and sigh my relief at the extra bit of weight in my hand. I might as well have been naked without it.

“This is your fault, you know.”

Cindy stands at the top of the stairs, her arms wrapped around her chest and her shoulders slouched, all confidence gone. Darkness lines her eyes, the result of crying mixed with the layer of makeup she has slathered over her face. She looks about how I felt after I lost my sister. No, she’s handling it much better.

I take the stairs two at a time, now my head and legs are starting to feel a little stronger. She doesn’t bother moving out of the way when I reach the top, forcing me to angle myself to slide past her.

“You gave them the box,” I say. “They got everything because of you.”

I make my way over to Lou and kneel down next to her. It’s hard not to picture Loraine in the same position, though she was smaller at the time, and of course her hair’s straight and blonde as straw compared to Lou’s black waves. I catch myself about to run my fingers through it and instead reach for the keys next to her.

“You think I’m stupid?” Cindy says. “The real box is in Lou’s purse. All they got was an empty jewelry box and a heap of illusion dust. Now give me those keys.”

“Sorry,” I whisper to Lou, as though there’s some chance she can hear me. And then I boost her up and over my shoulder.

“What are you doing?” Cindy dips her hand into her pocket to pull out some dust, but her face pales the second her hand is inside. Although she tries to play off the reaction, it’s too late. I already know the truth. She’s out of magic. “Put her down and give me the keys.”

I do neither. “If what you say is true, then they’ll be back. Soon. An illusion won’t trick them for long. We have to get out of here.”

After a frightened look at the stairs as though they might already be on their way up, she frowns at me. “She’s not going anywhere with you.”

“Are you going to carry her?” I can tell she’s already thought about this and is frustrated by her need to trust me, at least a little.

She crosses her arms and scowls. “Fine. Where are you going to take her? You don’t know how to get home.”

There’s something about the way she says the words. It’s as though she knows something I don’t and she won’t give up the information unless I beg. I finger the keys in my hand and think back to the minutes before Lou was taken. She’d been ready to fight, but then something changed. She started to walk away as though her life wasn’t threatened.

“Why don’t you give me the keys and then we’ll get her to a hospital or something,” Cindy says.

The keys. Lou had been holding one out toward the wall. And now Cindy’s determined to get them back. She might as well have told me outright they are important. What magic had Lou seen?

“It’s the portal, isn’t it?” Lou figured it out after all. Good girl.

Her silence answers any doubt lingering in my mind.

I reach for the section of the wall Lou focused on.

“You can’t take her with you,” she says.

My hand touches something hard and invisible. When I trace it with a finger, I realize I’ve found a door handle, which would mean underneath should be the lock.

“She needs to go to a hospital,” she continues. “She needs help.”

“I’ll give it to her.” I manage to sound more confident than I feel.

“Like you helped your sister?”

I close my eyes to shut out her words, but it’s too late. My guilt takes a hold and starts piling on the thoughts haunting me since that day. It’s my fault and there’s nothing I can do to make it better.

I turn the key and push the door open.

Sun suddenly hits my face and warms my skin. I open my eyes to see the best sight in my entire life. Home. I breathe in the grass, animals and magic. So unlike the smoke, metal and staleness of Lou’s world.

I’m about to take a step forward when my instincts kick in. I stop mid-step and look down. Nothing. There’s nowhere to put my foot. I’m so focused on getting back I didn’t think about where I am; the second floor of a house, stepping out of a door to nowhere. There’s no landing in front of the door, and nothing I can easily use to climb down, especially with Lou draped over my shoulder.

I shift her weight a bit and to get a better look at the side of the building. There has to be some way to get down not involving falling and breaking something, specifically Lou.

“What? What is it?” Cindy tries to get around me.

Luckily I’m able to keep her from toppling out the door while allowing her a good look over my shoulder. She goes completely still and I assume she’s noticed the lack of a way out of the house, but when I glance at her, I see she isn’t looking down at all but up and out.

“Ho...ly...shit.”

I follow her gaze and notice nothing unusual so I return my attention to the problem at hand.

“That’s...” she swallows. “That’s not a bird is it?”

I glance up again and see the gold feathered creature she’s staring at. It’s too far away to see his large horse-like body or silver curved beak, but I’ve seen enough of the animals to recognize one in the distance. “Nope. Griffin.”

There has to be a way down. If I had some rope, I might be able to lower Lou and then maybe Cindy as well. It wouldn’t be too hard to climb without my burden.

Wait.

My head snaps back up toward the griffin and I squint into the bright sky.

“See,” Cindy says as though she’s won some sort of argument. “Not normal.”

“You’re right,” I say. “Griffin’s don’t usually wear armor. Not unless someone’s put it on them. We need to find a way down, now.”

In an instant, her amazement over the creature shifts to fear. “Why? What’s going on?”

I reach around the side of the house in hopes of finding a drain or something else I might be able use to shimmy to the ground. “The only people who can put armor on a griffin are sorceresses and wizards.”

She immediately reacts as she should, eyes widening as she sucks in some air.

“Right.” Her voice remains completely calm. Impressive. “Then we need to get out of here.”

“There’s nothing to stand on,” I tell her. “Nothing to use to climb down.”

She leans around me and scans the ground, walls and then up toward the roof. “No prob. Be easier with Lou’s tree, sure, but still, doable. Move.”

I step back into the house so she has the full doorway to herself. I half watch what she’s doing and half watch the griffin. It’s still quite a ways away, and it doesn’t seem to be headed directly toward us, yet. It’s also far enough I can’t quite tell if it has a rider.

Cindy’s legs dangle in view for a second before disappearing along with the rest of her, but in the wrong direction. I lean out the door and look up to find her.

“We need to get down, not up.”

She appears all too pleased to have figured out a way down before me. “There’s a lower roofline over the front door. It shouldn’t be hard to drop to it and from there to the ground.”

It’s a good plan, and it might work, but... “You seem to be forgetting my climbing and dropping abilities are limited right now.”

I shift Lou’s weight a little on my already exhausted shoulder in order to draw her to Cindy’s attention. She notices and her eyes narrow as she tries to think of how to make her plan work.

“Maybe you could lift her up.”

“She’s dead weight, there’s no way...”

I realize what I said and stop before I make it worse. Immediately the calculating look in Cindy’s eyes turns to darkness at the foolish choice of words.

“Would a ladder help?”

Both of us look down and a smile lifts the corners of my mouth before I remember everything from the past day. But still, the sight of long curly red hair and big green eyes are enough to make me feel a little glad. Of all the people living in the village, there are only three I had any hope of helping me in a situation like this; my parents and the girl standing below us.

Rose flashes me a shy smile before lifting an old wooden ladder almost entirely buried by the long grass surrounding the house. She positions it under the doorway so it touches the side of the building under the threshold. The perfect length. It must have been made for situations like this.

“Who’s she?” Cindy asks.

“A friend,” I say.

Rose makes a gesture for us to hurry up. “They’ve been doing sweeps all day. If they see you climbing all over the house, they’ll be here in seconds.”

I don’t have to ask who ‘they’ are; it’s in her voice. The griffin has a rider. A wizard. Without any more hesitation, I climb onto the ladder, shut and lock the door, and shuffle my way to the ground. The extra weight of Lou makes me awkward and forces me to take an embarrassing amount of time getting down. When I’m at the bottom, I look expectantly at Cindy. She glares at me, clearly not impressed by the fact we aren’t following her plan. But another glance at the griffin and she’s down the ladder in a fraction of the time I’d taken. She doesn’t bother with the last few steps, choosing to drop the rest of the way.

“We should get undercover,” Rose suggests while eyeing Lou. “They’ll be circling this area soon.”

As usual, she doesn’t ask any questions or demand I explain what’s going on. She simply does what needs to be done to keep us all safe. Her trust in me is appreciated and completely undeserved.

She’s trying not to show it, but I know exactly what she’s thinking. It’s too similar to last time. But she’s not looking at me with the fear I know she’d have if she thought the worst. Of course she doesn’t. She was the only one who never blamed me for what happened to Loraine. Why would she start blaming me now?

“Come on,” Rose says with another quick look at the griffin. “They aren’t checking the trees very closely. We can wait there until they pass over.”

I nod my agreement and then think to check with Cindy. She still seems annoyed, and I can tell she doesn’t want to follow, but she also doesn’t have a better plan, so she nods too.

The trees around the house have been left to thrive, creating perfect shelter for us. We find an area where the branches are thick above, leaving little light to reach the ground. I settle Lou as carefully as I can against a tree and hope I haven’t bumped her any more than necessary.

At some point between lifting her off my shoulder and setting her down, a lock of her hair falls out of place and across her face, over her eye. I reach to brush it away, but Cindy’s faster. She gives my hand, half outstretched toward her sister, a scathing look before focusing entirely on Lou. I drop it to my side and turn my attention to Rose so as to hide some of my embarrassment and anger. Carrying her is one thing, showing affection with other types of touching is another altogether. I can’t make a mistake like that again.

Rose pretends not to have noticed anything and focuses on peering through the branches to watch for the wizard. Her fingers nervously brush the velvet pieces wrapping her wrists.

I settle beside her and ask, “What’s this about? What are they looking for?”

It’s not normal for them to come to our village. It’s too small and with my sister gone, there’s nothing of interest for them here.

So I’m all the more surprised when Rose raises her eyebrows as though she’s shocked I have to ask.

“You. They’re looking for you.”





Chapter Thirteen





There’s a screech from above and we all look up. It’s impossible to see much through the tree branches, but the griffin and wizard are definitely there. After a few breathless minutes the animal screeches again, this time further away. It’s passing by. For now.

My eyes slide down from the branches and over to Rose. She nods and without a word we both stand. I hesitate before picking Lou up, not because I don’t want to carry her. In fact I can’t help feeling a little thrill from the thought of holding her. What bothers me is I have to toss her over my shoulder rather than cradle her in my arms as she deserves.

When I’m sure the griffin has flown far enough away we won’t be heard, I ask, “What do they want from me?”

“I was hoping you’d know,” Rose says.

“Did you talk to them? Has anyone?” Rose makes a face clearly showing what she thinks of the idea. I nod. “No, of course not. But then why do you think it’s me they’re after?”

“Because,” she says, “they arrived only hours after you disappeared.”

“And everyone assumes I brought them here.” I exhale deeply and glance back where we’d last seen the wizard. It isn’t surprising everyone suspected me, not after what happened with my sister. Still, it would be nice if Rose didn’t agree with them. “So why are you helping? Why were you at the house when they’re out searching? Shouldn’t you be home?”

“I figured it was the best place to start looking for you.” She turns back, eyes alight. It’s the same look she always gives me, like being with me is some sort of adventure.

She wasn’t wrong about the house either. When we were kids we used to spend a lot of time exploring the area. It wasn’t very different than the rest of the houses in the village, other than no one ever lived there, but I was drawn to it day after day, and I’d dragged Rose along on more than her share of visits.





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