A Tiding Of Magpies: Book Four

Chapter One

“It’s always about the stories, isn’t it?”

Beth McGill raised an eyebrow as she and the hobgoblin standing next to her waited near the entrance to the maze of hallways and rooms that took up the back of the converted warehouse. In front of them was a public square, with actual grass and trees, lit by skylights when the sun was out and overhead lights at night. During the day, it was crowded, but that evening it was deserted except for them and a handful of guards.

“Stories?” Beth asked as she pushed her glasses back up her nose and stuck her hands into the pockets of her green army jacket, which she wore over her faded blue jeans and her Space Cats t-shirt. Beth had been chatting with Glien about their mutual friend, Puck the faerie Emigre, while waiting for him, Michiko and the others to finish their meeting; to Beth’s surprise, the hobgoblin was actually better-read and better-spoken than many humans she knew.

Glien had a headful of floppy black hair, a rather large nose, and a plain black outfit with matching sunglasses to go with the red skin and taloned fingers common to all hobgoblins. He had once been in charge of rooftop maintenance in the abandoned warehouse that the hobgoblins had rebuilt and now called home, but an unfortunate incident some weeks back had caused him to ask to be reassigned. He was now an administrative assistant, and thankful for a job that might be more stressful but was absolutely less dangerous.

“Think about it, Beth,” Glien said. “Everyone has a story, even if they never tell it, even if nothing really happens in it. Consider those birds.”

He pointed towards the rafters, and Beth could see half a dozen birds, flying from beam to beam or resting in their nests. “Magpies?” she said. “They’re not that common around here, are they?”

“No, and that’s where their stories begin. Why did they settle here? Did an Emigre bring them? Did they have to fight off any pigeons? Why do they keep out of the trees? Who feeds them? And…” Glien stared at one beam. “Is that my hat that one of them used to feather its nest?”

Beth found herself smiling. “Isn’t there an old rhyme about magpies?”

“One for sorrow, two for joy. And, apparently, fifteen to steal my favorite hat.”

Beth shook her head, more with wonderment than disbelief. “Promise me,” she said, “that when I’m old enough, you’ll let me listen in to you and Puck during one of your tavern chats.”

“Commitments. Schedules. Disputes such as the one that Puck is tending to right now. All the things that can keep friends apart.” Glien stared into the distance. “Let us hope that this can be resolved,” he said. “Then, Puck and I will retire to Wonderland and tell the old stories once more.”

“Stories,” Gregor grumbled as he stuck his head out of the shoulder bag Beth carried him in. He was a small black and white guinea pig, with an annoyed expression no amount of cuteness or fuzziness could conceal. “Is that all you can talk about?”

“Ah. The guinea pig who was a great sorcerer. Centuries in limbo after the yak incident. Reincarnated to seek redemption, but in a manner he curses every day. Quite a tale.”

“Point proven,” Gregor said as he ducked back down.

“And the quiet girl,” Glien said to Beth. “Never knowing what was around her, what she could do. Now, her eyes are opened, and as she tries to better herself, her story becomes entwined with another’s.”

“Michiko’s?” Beth asked.

“The Monkey Queen. Raised to be a hero, but still all too human underneath. A magnificent fighter with a marshmallow heart. And then she meets you. Two people, brought together by need and happenstance, weaving two stories into one. And that’s how epics are made.”

“Epic?” Beth said. “More like a comedy sometimes.”

“Life can be a comedy,” Glien said. “The trick is knowing what’s worth laughing about—”

“Hold that thought. There’s something happening by the front door.” Beth pointed across the square. Near the entrance, two guards were having a heated discussion with a gang of hobgoblins, five young males wearing brown tunics.

Gregor popped out of his shoulder bag again. “Have we seen them before?” he asked.

“I don’t recognize them,” Glien said. “Perhaps they’ve just emigrated.”

“Or…” Beth glanced at the gang and looked below the surface. Oh boy, she thought, realizing the guards needed to know what they were really up against. She blinked, and her second sight kicked in.

The seemings that had concealed the true identities of the bullies vanished. The hobgoblins, and Gregor, could see what Beth had seen—five ogres, tall and muscular, with pale skin and pointed teeth, dressed in castoff clothes and carrying clubs. Beth tried to keep calm, but inside she was starting to panic.

The ogres turned to face Beth and Glien. “You!” the biggest ogre roared as he pointed at Beth, lifting his club. “You’ve ruined everything!” The guards reached for their weapons as the other hobgoblins in the square ran for cover.

“Gregor,” Beth said as she set the guinea pig’s shoulder bag down, “restrain them until reinforcements get here. Glien—”

“Powerful big rats!” the hobgoblin shouted. He spun away from Beth and ran into the hallway maze. “Powerful! Big! Rats!”

“That works too, I guess,” Beth said as she dug into a jacket pocket.

* * *

The tension was thicker than molasses in the conference room. “What are you saying?” Councilor Vrech finally asked, breaking the uneasy silence. He was an older hobgoblin, with a full gray beard and piercing black eyes, wearing a black tunic with red trim and matching trousers. He had come from the Hoblands, on Faerie, to help the hobgoblin Emigres with a crisis.

“That some hobgoblins are engaging in criminal activity against other Emigres.” Puck pointed to the pile of papers in front of him. He was dressed the same way he always was, black vest over white shirt, jeans, socks and sandals. “We have at least five documented incidents in the last two weeks. One of them led to a witness being assaulted. Her injuries might have been worse had the Monkey Queen not rescued her.”

Windsor, dressed in his ornate purple coat with matching hat, leaned forward in his creaky chair. “The faeries in the encampment are concerned for their safety at night,” he said as light reflected off the pommel of his rapier. “I can’t blame them.”

“And why would a scoundrel like you care what happens to them?” Vrech snapped.

“Things change.” Windsor shrugged and smiled.

“But this proposal!” Amitya, the mayor of the hobgoblin warehouse, tapped the paper on the table. Her long hair was done up in a bun, and her red robe rustled as she gestured angrily. “Armed guards! A curfew! This will affect hobgoblins with jobs outside the warehouse!”

“We’ve already written in provisions to cover that,” Puck said. “And we can discuss easing the restrictions once the incidents stop.”

“Singling all of us out for the actions of a few is hardly fair.” Vrech had anger in his eyes.

“I know.” The other four all looked back at the Monkey Queen as she stood. Michiko was wearing her “costume”, as Beth called it, her yellow karate jacket covering a black t-shirt and leggings and her red pillbox hat with the long matching scarf. “I don’t like this myself, Councilor. I know it singles an entire community out for the actions of a few. But everyone else is worried. They think they’ll be attacked next. And it doesn’t help that we haven’t been able to catch—”

The door flew open. Glien ran into the room and hid behind a file cabinet. “Powerful big rats!” he shouted, trying to make himself as small as he could.

Windsor raised an eyebrow. “He’s not handling your pest control, is he?”

“Hellrats?” Amitya shivered.

Michiko glanced out the door. “No, but there are rats out there,” she said. “Come on, Windsor.” She pulled her shrunken staff from her pocket; it grew to its normal size as she ran out of the room. Windsor drew his rapier as he followed.

* * *

Gregor gestured. As he did, one of the ogres took two steps towards Beth. His third step was stopped short; Beth could see, with her second sight, the barrier spell Gregor had cast that was invisible to everyone else.

The ogres began to beat against the barrier. “Better get the Monkey Queen, girl,” the guinea pig said. “I won’t be able to hold them for too long.”

“Michiko should be here in a moment,” Beth said. “They won’t break through before then.”

“Intruders!”

Beth turned and saw a hobgoblin in a blue robe, with a matching triangular hat and a crazed look, aiming a glowing brass rod at the ogres. “Krexx!” she shouted. “Don’t—”

The hobgoblin sorcerer pushed a button on the rod. A bolt of magic force shot from its tip. It struck Gregor’s barrier in the spot where one ogre had been relentlessly pounding it. There was a flash of white light.

Beth could see that the barrier spell had collapsed. So has Gregor, she realized as she glanced at his shoulder bag; he had been stunned by the magical backlash when the barrier went down. The ogres pushed the hobgoblin guards aside as they turned towards her.

“Beth, get back.” Michiko ran out of the maze that was the hobgoblin living quarters, passing Krexx as she headed towards the ogres, Windsor on her heels.

“Monkey Queen!” Krexx hissed. “You brought the ogres here! You will pay!” He raised his rod.

“Krexx!” The hobgoblin turned towards Beth. Her right arm was stretched out shoulder high, and in her right hand she held her new magic wand. It was made from a branch from a redwood tree, curved slightly in the middle to fit into Beth’s hand. There were one large blue crystal and two smaller ones set into the wood near one end and a copper tip at the other, and brass inlays running along the surface, connecting the crystals to the copper and each other.

Beth had been discussing ways to defend herself with Michiko, and Beth admittedly came up with the idea after one too many Harry Potter movie marathons, but Michiko thought it was sound all the same. Mec the gremlin craftsman had started to design and enchant the wand weeks ago, but the process had been delayed when he had taken over running the gadget shop where he worked. He had finished it a few days ago, and Beth hadn’t used it yet beyond some quick testing and training, though the scorched walls of Mec’s secret laboratory showed that it worked well.

“Put the rod down,” Beth said slowly. “We don’t want you to hurt anyone.”

“You would say that!” Krexx shouted. “You’re working with them!”

“No, I’m not. We’re trying to stop the ogres—”

“You’re trying to stop us! Lock us in this warehouse until we starve!”

“That’s not—”

“We will be free!” Krexx pointed his rod at Beth and pushed the button.

“Zap!” Beth shouted. The trigger word activated her wand, and as the crystals glowed a brilliant blue, a bolt of magical force shot from the tip. I really hope this works, she thought in the split-second afterward.

The bolts from Krexx’s rod and Beth’s wand smashed into each other and exploded. The light, bright as day, filled the warehouse for a moment. The floor below was scorched, but no one was hurt.

“Earthling!” Krexx yelled at Beth. “Now you will pay!” He pushed the button on his rod again.

That wand trick won’t work twice, Beth thought as she slapped at the pocket on the right sleeve on her jacket, touching and holding down the button as she held her breath. A glittery force field sprung up around her, one of the tricks that had been enchanted into the jacket by Gregor and the faerie Emigre Scylla. The bolt struck the force field, with enough strength to knock Beth over, and dissipated.

“What does it take to get rid of—” Krexx started to say. Before he could finish, his rod was knocked from his hands.

“Krexx.” The hobgoblin looked up and shuddered as the Monkey Queen stood in front of him. “Remember what I told you the last time you threatened Beth?” She struck the rod with the tip of her staff, shattering it. Krexx fell to the floor and curled into a ball.

“Thanks,” Beth said as Michiko helped her up.

Michiko glared at Beth. “Didn’t I tell you to get back?” she snapped.

Oh boy, Beth thought. “There wasn’t time. And Krexx went crazy when he saw you.”

“Gregor could have handled that.”

“I could use some help,” Windsor said loudly. Three of the ogres were already down, but the faerie was being pressed by the other two, who were driving him back as he dodged and parried their attacks.

Beth pointed her wand past Michiko, at one of the ogres. “Gregor was unconscious! Zap!” The magical bolt hit the ogre just as he was starting to swing at Windsor; he lost his balance and toppled over.

“That’s why you should have stepped back!” Michiko said as she threw her staff past Beth, at the other ogre, hitting him on the head.

As the ogre the staff hit fell over, out cold, Windsor slashed the one Beth had zapped in his hand, disarming him, and knocked him out with a hard punch to the jaw. “Perhaps this could wait?” he said. Michiko glared at the faerie and nodded.

Beth bent down and picked up Gregor’s shoulder bag. “How is he?” Michiko asked.

“Either he’s still unconscious,” Beth said, “or he wanted to stay out of our discussion.”

“Wise choice on his part either way,” Windsor murmured. “Do you think these might be the troublemakers?”

“Their seemings did match the descriptions,” Beth said.

“Go get Puck and the others,” Michiko said to Windsor. “We may have to do some rewriting.”

* * *

By the time that Glien had been coaxed out of his hiding place and brought with Puck, Vrech and Amitya to the square, Gregor had recovered and was able to provide a full description of the ogres’ seemings. “So it was them all along,” Vrech said, shaking his head. “Making trouble and blaming it on us.”

“I’m wondering how they got their seemings,” Windsor said as he watched two dozen hobgoblin guards tie up the ogres. “If it’s someone local who cast them, it’s questionable activity at best.”

“All the same…this agreement?” Amitya held up the papers Puck had prepared and tore them in half. “Not needed.”

“Absolutely,” Puck said as Michiko nodded. “Windsor? Perhaps you could help me escort Glien to Wonderland. He’ll need something stronger than milk this time.”

“With pleasure.” Windsor put an arm around Glien. “I just hope he doesn’t get too philosophical until the third ale.”

“Powerful big rats,” Glien said amiably as he and the fairies left.

Beth looked over at Krexx, who was cradling his broken rod in his hands as two guards stood watch over him. “What about him?” she asked.

“We’ll have to talk to him,” Amitya said. “Calm him down. Get him to apologize.”

“Apologize?” Beth gave the sorcerer a dirty look. “He tried to kill me!”

“I know. But we need him. He’s the only one who understands how all the magic he’s set up keeps us running and safe and undiscovered. That’s why we put up with him.”

Michiko nodded. “I feel sorry for him.”

“Sorry?” Beth said. “Even with what he tried to do?”

Michiko glared at Beth. “Humans aren’t the only ones who suffer from mental illness,” she said sharply. “Let’s go home.” Beth felt her face redden as she and Michiko headed for the warehouse door.

* * *

“Wow,” Beth said, glancing at the clock as Michiko closed the apartment door. “I didn’t realize it was so late.” Michiko nodded silently as Beth put Gregor back in his cage; the guinea pig was already asleep.

“Good thing it’s Saturday,” Beth added. “For a few more minutes, anyway.” She forced a grin. “At least we can sleep in a little tomorrow before breakfast.” She glanced over at her partner, who was watching her impassively. “Michiko?” Beth asked.

“Yes?” Michiko said.

“Is…is there something wrong? Something you wanted to talk about?” Beth swallowed. “Did I do anything?”

“Beth…”

“Why have you been acting like this?” Beth said, trying not to plead. “Why are you being so critical? So mean?”

Michiko sighed. “Let’s not get into this right now. We’re both tired.”

“But what’s wrong, Michiko? What did I do?”

“Later!” Michiko snapped. She turned away from Beth and headed into her bedroom, closing the door behind her.

Beth stared at the door for a moment, feeling her cheeks redden, her breathing shorten, her anger rise. “Fine!” she screamed. “Go right ahead! Treat me like dirt!” She stormed into her bedroom and slammed the door for emphasis.

* * *

Beth fumed as she waited for her computer to warm up. She couldn’t understand what was going on with Michiko. They had been best friends almost since the day they’d met, and had been growing closer as time went on. Beth was happy to be Michiko’s roommate and partner in adventure. She treasured the early morning coffee and chat, the impulse all-night bingewatching, the pep talks and the silly faces.

That’s what made the last few days, since New Year’s, hurt even more. Beth could tell that Michiko was trying to push her away. As far as she knew, she hadn’t done anything to cause it, but deep down inside, she couldn’t help but wonder if it was her fault, agonize over what she might have done wrong. And she wanted to apologize to Michiko, regardless of whose fault it was, just to make things right, just to see her smile and hear her laugh again.

Beth saw that her computer was finally up and running; she opened her browser and logged on to Facebook. More nervously than she expected, she checked her friend requests, and pouted when she didn’t see any changes.

She clicked on one name and stared at the page that was brought up. One of the photos there was of a young woman, about Beth’s age. She was tall and skinny, almost gangly, with black hair and a wide smile that tweaked her high cheekbones and offset her dark, brooding eyes. Her name was Anneliese.

Beth remembered her from her freshman year in high school. Anneliese had been enrolled there by her parents, who had moved to Beth’s suburb after being transferred there by the German conglomerate they worked for. Anneliese had trouble fitting in at school, with her awkwardness and the language barrier, but when she met Beth, who never fit in anywhere anyway, something clicked and the two became friends. They grew more and more inseparable as the school year went on, the clumsy foreigner and the quiet geek girl.

It had ended suddenly, on the last day of class, when Anneliese’s parents were recalled to Germany on short notice. Beth had gone to Anneliese’s house to say goodbye, and it had ended with a tight, lingering, tearful hug as her parents waited in the car. Anneliese had finally let Beth go, given her one last sad silent look, and gotten in the car for the trip back home and out of Beth’s life.

It had made for a long, lonely summer for Beth. Things got better for her over the next few years as she made new friends at school, worse as she left them behind to go to college in California, and better again when she met Michiko. Anneliese had drifted from Beth’s mind, but the memories had been stirred again when she noticed that Anneliese had friended some of her old classmates on Facebook. Beth had sent her a friend request, along with an email summarizing the last few years of her life with the Monkey Queen parts left out.

Beth was hurt that Anneliese hadn’t responded, but not surprised. After all, she thought as she closed her browser, the way things have gone lately, they should just stamp “reject” on my forehead and be done with it.

She shut her computer down and went to bed. As she pressed her head against her pillow, she found herself thinking, I just wish that I could get used to rejection, that it hurt less the more it happens. Instead, it hurts more. It hurts like Hell.
 
* * *

As Michiko turned away from her bedroom door, she could hear Beth yelling in the living room. She couldn’t quite make out what her roommate was saying, but there was no mistaking the sound of Beth’s bedroom door slamming.

Michiko sat on her futon and hid her face in her hands. It’s not working, she thought. It’s not working, and all I’m doing is hurting her. I was stupid for even thinking it would work.

She squeezed her eyes as tightly shut as she could. I don’t know what to do. If I tell her, if she finds out, it’ll be over. But if I don’t…it could be over anyway.

Michiko lowered her hands and stared blankly at the floor. It’s all my fault. I should have never let it go this far. But I did, and now I’m paying for it. And so is Beth, and I never should have let that happen.

I need to say I’m sorry. Before it’s too late.

 

Chapter Two

It was windy on the mountain, windy and cold, and Michiko’s long red scarf danced as she looked around the narrow peak. What is this place? she thought. Why am I here? Where’s Beth? She could see four other mountains in the near distance, all of them tall and slender.

A piece of paper, blown by the wind, landed at Michiko’s feet. She picked it up and saw writing on it, in gold letters, in a script she recognized as Sanskrit. It seemed familiar to her, but she couldn’t quite place it.

There was loud, mocking laughter behind Michiko. She slowly turned.

Squatting on a ridge above her was a monkey. He looked like he could pass for human from a distance if one squinted, but he had a monkey’s face and tail, brown hair growing everywhere, and deep brown eyes. He was dressed in red and gold, and he carried a heavy iron staff with ease. “Little pretender!” he said with a chuckle and a teeth-baring smile, jumping off the ridge and pointing at Michiko.

“You?” Michiko reared back.

“Who else?” the monkey roared. “Who but the Great Sage, Equal of Heaven! The Victorious Fighting Buddha! Sun Wukong! The mighty, masterful, handsome Monkey King! And I—”

He stopped as Michiko ran up to him. “Oh my gosh!” she squealed. “I’m so glad to meet you! I just wish Beth were here! It’s an honor! It’s…”

Her voice trailed off as the Monkey King glared at her. “Little pretender,” he hissed. “I did not bring you here for inane chatter!”

“Does this mean I shouldn’t ask for your autograph?”

Sun Wukong gritted his teeth. “Young fool! I bring a warning from Heaven!”

Michiko raised a forefinger. “If it’s about the leftovers we found in the back of the fridge—”

The Monkey King grabbed Michiko by the throat. “Quiet!”

“Yes, sir,” Michiko said.

“I don’t know what the Gods were thinking!” He released Michiko and continued, “The True Millennium is coming! We needed a hero! A chosen one! And what do we get? An impudent slip of a girl with a martyr complex!”

“But I’ve done a good job so far!” Michiko said defensively.

“Compared to who? Not me! I defeated demons and monsters! I held the Gods to a standstill! I am a legend! What have you done?”

“Rescued some kidnapping victims and lost kids?”

“Is that all?” the Monkey King sneered. “I’ve eaten the Peaches of Immortality! I have mastered the 72 Transformations! I can soar through the clouds! What about you?”

“I’m cute,” Michiko said meekly.

“Enough.” Sun Wukong plucked a hair from his head, held it to his mouth, and blew.

There were a few more Sun Wukongs at first, then dozens, then hundreds. The Monkey Kings raised their staffs as they surrounded Michiko. “Do you think you can beat us all?” they said as one. “You wouldn’t even be a match for one of us!”

“But I have no quarrel with you,” Michiko said. “Why should we fight?”

“What if there were something worth fighting for?” The Monkey Kings smiled grimly. “It would be so easy for us to go next door, so to speak.”

“Beth?” Michiko whispered, her eyes widening.

“She’s so vulnerable to us.”

Michiko dropped into a defensive crouch, staff under her forearm. “Not while I draw breath,” she snapped.

Sun Wukong laughed mockingly, a laugh that spread through his duplicates. “Try something, little pretender! We’ll crush you like a leaf!”

“The only way you’ll get to Beth,” the Monkey Queen said, “is through me. I may not be able to stop you, but I’ll make you sorry you tried.” Her hand tightened on her staff as she stared down the horde.

The Monkey Kings nodded, and all but one of them vanished. “You have spirit,” the remaining one said.

Michiko loosened her grip on her staff and straightened up. “You said Heaven sent you with a warning. Tell me what this is about.”

“Very well.” The Monkey King pointed his staff at Michiko. “You will soon face a great challenge. I am here to tell you to prepare yourself. You carry a secret, little pretender. A secret of the heart.”

“But how—”

“Nothing is out of the sight of Heaven! And no secret is forever! Soon, everyone will know!”

Michiko trembled, turning pale. “But—but—”

“And what is more,” Sun Wukong said as he stepped towards Michiko, “to triumph, you will have to do something that even I, the Great Sage, Equal of Heaven, could never do!”

“What would that be?” Michiko asked.

“I have already said enough! Do you think Heaven gives away the future?”

Michiko nodded. “Thank you, then.”

The Monkey King turned to go. “Just remember, little pretender,” he said, “your greatest weakness is also your greatest asset.”

“What do you mean?”

He turned back and pointed at Michiko’s heart. “Your compassion. Your capacity to care. Your love. I had to be taught all that, but you were born with it, and it guides you. It gives you strength. It’s what makes you a hero.” Sun Wukong smiled, without a hint of mockery. “Farewell, Monkey Queen.”

He gestured with his staff, and a cloud swooped out of the sky. He jumped in the air, somersaulting and landing atop it. As it sped away, Sun Wukong reached back and grabbed the mountain. He pulled hard and tore away the peak, the skies above him, and the ground Michiko stood on, leaving only a white, empty void. As the Monkey King flew away, laughter trailing behind him, gravity overtook Michiko and she plummeted—

* * *

Michiko woke up with a gasp. She glanced around her darkened bedroom, making sure everything was how it should be as her breathing and heartbeat returned to normal. Wow, she thought. Now I know how Beth feels after one of her airship dreams.
 
She glanced at the clock by her bed. Speaking of, she thought as she threw her blanket aside. Time for coffee. And for apologies, I hope.

* * *

The sun was losing its fight with the morning overcast as Beth got of bed, put her bathrobe on over her pajamas, and stuck her feet into her pink bunny slippers. She opened her bedroom door and stepped into the living room, making her way towards the kitchen.

Michiko was there, already showered, wearing a plain black t-shirt and matching jeans. She was staring at the wall and holding a mug; Beth could smell the fresh coffee. “Hey,” she said to Michiko.

“Hi,” Michiko said, moving slightly to make room.

Beth grabbed her favorite mug and started to fix her coffee. “Michiko?” she said.

“Yes?”

“I…” Beth paused, trying to arrange her thoughts. “I just wanted to say that…well, it’s a little thing, but thank you for making the coffee.” She concentrated on her mug as she continued, “I know I thank you for this every day, but I really do appreciate the time you take, and your thoughtfulness. Thanks.” She set the pot down and hoped the icebreaker would work.

“You’re welcome,” Michiko said, still staring at the wall. “Beth?”

“Yeah?” Beth tried to not sound nervous, but her hand shook as she picked up her mug.

“Beth…I’m sorry.” Michiko lowered her head. “I know I haven’t been treating you well lately. I’ve had things on my mind. Personal stuff. And I’ve let it get to me. I’ve taken it out on you.”

“Michiko…” Beth swallowed.

Michiko looked at Beth, the faintest hint of tears in her eyes. “I’ve hurt you, Beth. And I’m sorry. I really am.”

Beth saw the sadness and regret in Michiko’s face, and even with all that happened the last few days, her heart went out to her friend. She set her coffee mug down to keep from dropping it. “Is this personal stuff something you feel comfortable talking about?” she asked.

Michiko shook her head. “It’s something I have to work out on my own.”

Beth reached out and took Michiko’s shoulder. “Okay, then,” she said. “But you don’t have to shut me out or push me away.”

“I know.”

“You’ve put up with all my complaining. I’ll do the same for you any time you want to talk. Okay?”

Michiko nodded, blushing. “Thanks, Beth. And I am sorry.”

“Yeah.” Beth stepped back. “And I’m sorry I yelled at you last night.”

“I probably deserved it. It’s okay.”

“Thanks.” Beth smiled and picked up her mug.

“Blargh!”

Michiko and Beth looked over to the living room and the cage on the end table by the couch. “You had to wake me up with this schmaltz?” Gregor snapped. “‘Oh, I’m so sorry!’ ‘Oh, I’m sorry too!’ What a way to start a Sunday!”

“Sounds like someone’s got the crankies,” Beth said to Michiko.

“We need to cheer him up!” Michiko walked over to the cage and pulled Gregor out. “Poor little Mr. Crankypants just needs a hug!” She lifted the guinea pig up and nuzzled him happily. Beth watched from the kitchen, sipping her coffee and trying not to giggle.

“Put me down!” Gregor shouted. “How dare you treat a mighty sorcerer like this! Put me down!”

“In a second!” Michiko smooched Gregor on the cheek. He grimaced and made a retching noise.

Michiko put the guinea pig back in his cage and turned away. As she did, Gregor caught Beth’s eye and winked. She had to cover her mouth to keep from laughing.

* * *

Sundays for Michiko, Beth and Gregor always meant breakfast at the Wonderland Diner and Tavern, the favorite hangout for the local Emigre community. Their walk there was quieter than usual, but at least the tension between the two friends had been broken, and Beth was willing to settle for that for the moment.

Breakfast was also quieter than usual, or at least as quiet as things got at Wonderland on Sunday morning. All the regulars were there, and Michiko and Beth were kept busy enough chatting with their friends and acquaintances until the food arrived that there wasn’t much time for talking to each other anyway.

They were sipping coffee after eating; Gregor sat in his high chair next to them, still munching his sliced strawberries. “So, Michiko,” Beth asked as she brushed crumbs off her Totoro t-shirt, “do we have any plans for today?”

“Plans?” Michiko said.

“Yeah. Errands? Fun stuff? Unexpected last-minute things we should have seen coming?”

Michiko shook her head. “I hadn’t thought about it.”

“Quiet afternoon at home, then?” Beth said.

“We’ll see.” Michiko stood up and tugged at her baggy Pikachu sweater. “But I have one thing to take care of.”

“What’s that?”

“I was up pretty early this morning. All that coffee finally caught up to me.” Michiko smiled sheepishly as she headed for the restrooms; Beth giggled.

At least she can still joke around, Beth thought as she glanced down at her coffee. She had already gone through a dozen worst-case scenarios in her mind, everything from blackmail to serious illness to having to move. None of them answered the question of what was going on with Michiko, and every last one made her feel worse. If only she’d open up! If only she’d tell me—

“Hey!” Beth looked up, her reverie broken. Mandy, the pixie waitress who held things together at the diner, was staring at her. “You are so out of it today!” she said.

“I know,” Beth said. “Late night again.”

“How do you guys do it?”

“Coffee helps—”

The door flew open, and everyone stared at the woman who ran inside. She was a faerie, young and slender, dressed in a white skirt and wraparound top, gold trimmed with a matching sash; a crest with two intertwined phoenixes was sewn on below her left shoulder. She had long black hair, held in place by pearl-tipped pins, and deep brown eyes. She reminded Beth of Grandmother Fox, but much younger. Two fans hung from her sash, bouncing off her legs as she stopped near the doorway.

The faerie glanced around the diner as the door closed, visibly surprised by the surroundings. “Greetings?” she said nervously.

“Hi,” Mandy said as she walked up to the visitor. “Welcome to the Wonderland Diner and Tavern. What can we do for you?”

“Am I in the right place?” the faerie said slowly. “I was trying to find—”

The visitor fell quiet as the door started to open again. Mandy held a finger to her lips and pointed at the pastry counter by the door. The visitor nodded and ran behind it, ducking out of sight.

Seven bearded faerie warriors stormed into the diner. They wore armor made of small leather plates knotted together over red tops and pants, and they had swords already loosened in their scabbards. “Good morning,” Mandy said calmly to them. “Welcome to the Wonderland—”

“I am Liao Po!” one of the warriors shouted. He was taller than the rest, and had a fierce beard, a fiercer expression and a shield emblazoned with crossed swords. “My men and I serve Lord Hong!”

“Long life to Lord Hong!” the other warriors exclaimed.

“You will tell us where she is!”

“Who?” Mandy asked.

“The Princess!” Liao Po glared at the waitress. “We saw her come in here!”

Mandy shrugged. “We’re not that high-class a joint. No princesses here.”

“Tell us where she’s hiding!” Liao Po grabbed Mandy’s arm. “If you don’t, we’ll tear this place apart!”

“Like Hell.” Mec, who had been sitting and chatting with Puck, jumped to his feet and dug into a pocket. “Get your filthy hands off her,” the gremlin hissed, a gleam in his eyes. Puck grabbed his arm and pulled him back.

“You’re new here.” The warriors turned to face Windsor as he leaned back in his chair. “We have rules,” he continued. “This is a no-conflict zone. No fighting allowed.” His hand grazed the pommel of his sword.

“Right.” Beth stood up and folded her arms. “Take it outside.” Gregor looked up from his plate as his forepaws started to glow.

“Do you think you can tell Lord Hong’s elite warriors what to do?” Liao Po said.

“We can do more than that.” A dark-haired faerie in black rose and faced Hong’s men, setting her book aside as she stood. “Much more.” Beth could see the fury in Scylla’s eyes, and she trembled for a moment.

“Aye.” Ulbricht pushed his chair in as he and the other dwarves got up. “Let’s take it outside. We haven’t had a good scrap in weeks.”

“Right.” Aloysius was standing in the kitchen doorway, his wings flapping, and for the first time that Beth could remember, the chef was genuinely angry. “Out,” he growled in his deep voice, pointing at the door as his red eyes glowed. “Now.”

“Lord Hong’s finest warriors do not fear…” Liao Po glanced towards the back of the diner, and his voice trailed off.

Sam had been sitting in his favorite spot, by the back wall in the one chair in the diner that could hold his monstrous reptilian frame, reading the Sunday paper. He was now standing, his head just short of the ceiling. His tail swatted back and forth, and he roared a shout of challenge as he took a step towards Lord Hong’s men. Steam drifted from his nostrils.

Liao Po snorted as he pushed Mandy down to the floor and reached for his sword. “If you stand with the Princess,” he said, “you will—”

“That does it!”

Hong’s men gasped with fear as the Monkey Queen charged out of the restroom, brandishing her staff. “You heard these people!” she shouted as she ran at them. “Take it outside!” Liao Po and the others tried to back away, but Michiko turned her staff sideways and swept them along in front of her like lost and naughty sheep.

As they neared the door, it was opened from the outside by a woman of a certain age with curly gray hair and a purple sweater. “Good morning, everyone!” Mary Crimble said. She noticed Michiko shepherding Hong’s men along just in time and moved aside, holding the door open as they tumbled out.

Beth jumped up from her table and ran after Michiko. “Thanks,” she said to Mary as she hurried past.

The visitor sprung from her hiding place behind the pastry counter and followed Beth outside. “Have a great day!” Mary said cheerfully as she stepped away from the door and headed in.

As the door slammed shut, Mec pulled free from Puck and ran to Mandy’s side, just beating Aloysius there. “You okay, sugarplum?” the gremlin asked as he helped the pixie up.

“I’m fine, sweetie,” Mandy said as she brushed herself off. “But they’d better come back soon.”

“Those jerks?”

“No, Michiko and Beth. They haven’t paid yet.”

“That’s not all they forgot,” Gregor snapped.

Sam took his lift-and-erase board from its spot on the wall. He wrote on it with the talon of his forefinger and held it up: Should we help?

Windsor chuckled. “There’s only seven of them, my friend. Michiko may not even break a sweat. In fact—” He pointed towards the window. “Maybe we can pick up a trick or two by watching her at work.”

* * *

“Okay!” Michiko shouted as she moved away from the door. “You bozos have caught me on the wrong end of a bad week, and that woman you pushed around is a friend of mine! Time to get your butts kicked!”

“We outnumber you seven to one!” Liao Po snapped as he and his companions circled her.

“I know.” Michiko smiled. “This is gonna be fun!”

“And it’s actually seven to two!”

As Michiko’s smile widened, the warriors gaped and Beth watched in awe as she stood by the door, the princess did a backflip over Hong’s men, landing next to Michiko as she pulled the fans from her belt. “Surrender!” she shouted.

“You’d fight us with fans?” Liao Po started to snicker. “Just like a spoiled royal brat!”

The princess snapped the fans open, and Beth could see they were iron and brass, decorated with the same phoenix motif as the crest she wore. “I am the granddaughter of the Great Tactician!” the princess said. “I have studied under the Imperial Masters! Underestimate me if you will, but the Monkey Queen and I will…what did you say?” she asked Michiko, glancing over her shoulder.

“Kick their butts!” Michiko grinned.

“Thank you.” The princess smiled as she raised the twin fans. “Shall we?”

“Yep!” Hong’s men started to draw their swords, but Michiko swatted two of them in the hands. As they winced, she parried a swing from a third and caught him in the side on the backswing.

As he toppled over, two more charged the princess. One swung at her, and she brought her fans together in front of her. The sword clanged off them and bounced back; as it did, the princess brought up her knee, getting the warrior below the belt, in a place his armor didn’t cover properly. He sagged to the ground.

The other warrior swung at the princess, but she jumped to one side to evade the blow. She snapped her fans shut and struck her foe on his helmet with one, then the other. He reeled, and a kick in the back of his knee brought him down.

The princess turned towards Michiko, who had disposed of four of the warriors and was facing the last one standing, Liao Po. “I will not surrender, Monkey Queen!” he shouted as he raised his sword. “My Lord Hong—”

Michiko parried Liao Po’s swing hard enough to knock his sword out of his hand and send it flying. She poked him in the stomach with her staff. As he doubled over she kicked him, not hearing the faint tearing of fabric. The warrior tumbled ten feet along the ground, smashing into a nearby wood bench. “Never lay a hand on my friends again!” Michiko shouted.

Liao Po scrambled to his feet. “Retreat!” he yelled as he ran off into the woods; the rest of Hong’s warriors jumped up and followed him.

Michiko turned towards the princess. “Oh my gosh!” she said, smiling joyously. “It’s so good to—”

“Michiko,” the princess said, “we don’t have time to spare. We need to return to the Far Lands at once.”

“Why?”

“Lord Hong’s men are preparing to execute my boyfriend.”

Michiko gasped with surprise. “You have a boyfriend?”

“Not if we can’t get there in time to rescue him,” the princess said with a stern glare.

“Right! You go ahead; we’ll catch up.”

The princess nodded and ran, heading in the direction the warriors had taken. “So how long are you going to be gone?” Beth asked.

“You mean, how long will we be gone!” Michiko picked Beth up bridal style and ran after the princess.

“Michiko!” Beth said. “What are you—”

“There’s no time!” Michiko said. “We need to help my friend!”

“And all it’s going to cost is my dignity.”

“We’ll laugh about this later. You should—”

“Get my smartphone out and text Puck and Grandmother Fox that we may be gone for a couple of days?” Beth was already tapping the screen of her phone.

“Yep!” Michiko said as she caught up to the princess.

She glanced back at them and raised an eyebrow. “I thought we needed to travel light.”

Michiko smiled. “This is my partner, Beth McGill.”

“Hey,” Beth said with a nod.

“Do you always carry her everywhere?” the princess said.

“You said we had to hurry,” Michiko said.

“And your…partner?”

“Yep!” Michiko’s face lit up. “We’ve been working together for about three months now. She’s smart, she thinks quickly—”

“She’s portable,” Beth said, trying not to blush, as they veered off the trail and pushed through underbrush.

Michiko giggled. “And she’s saved my butt more than once. She’s my best friend.” Beth smiled; after what they had been through, she was glad to hear Michiko getting back to her old self.

They stopped near the auldgate. As Michiko set Beth down, the princess said, “I’ve rarely heard Michiko speak so highly of someone.” She bowed to Beth.

“You’re forgetting something!” Michiko grinned.

“Of course.” The princess nodded. “I am Jiao, Princess of Nui.”

Beth bowed. “I am honored, Princess.”

“Please call me Jiao. Michiko, we do need to hurry.”

“Right!” Michiko and Jiao ran up to the stone platform; as they did, the marble gate came into view.

“This Nui,” Beth said as she followed them. “I’ve been to Faerie through this gate, but it takes you to Dawnhome.”

“A lesson I once learned, Beth,” Jiao said as she stepped to the other side of the platform, “is that all doors have two sides.” Beth followed her and saw that while the auldgate was the same on the other side, the energy inside was different, red and pulsing instead of swirling.

“They’re called the Far Lands for a reason,” Michiko said to Beth. “If we had a globe of Faerie, you’d see that where Faerie itself was, Nui and the other kingdoms would be on the other side.”

“Wow,” Beth said.

“And it’s summer there, and the food is awesome!” Michiko said. “Let’s go, Jiao!” The princess nodded and led the way into the far side of the auldgate.

Art © 2015 by Willow. Design by Alchemy Book Covers.

Art © 2015 by Willow. Design by Alchemy Book Covers.

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