Beth McGill tapped the screen of her smartphone. “Go!” she said.
Abigail Main-Drake nodded and raised her rapier, pushing a stray red hair off her forehead, fixing her hazel eyes on her foe. She wasn’t dressed for a fight, in her Sherlock t-shirt and gray sweatpants, but she was ready for another round of practice against the Monkey Queen.
Michiko Koyama leaned on her gold-tipped wooden staff and waited. She was short and slender, and she wore what Beth jokingly called her “Monkey Queen costume,” her yellow karate jacket over a black t-shirt and leggings, her red sneakers and pillbox hat with the long matching scarf. Her brown eyes took in all the rooftop they stood on, but Beth knew Michiko’s main focus was on her opponent.
The wind blew Beth’s blond hair out of place as she watched; it stung her blue eyes, and she had to wipe the water away. She wondered how Michiko and Abby were able to block out the cold of a spring morning in Nortonville as she shivered in her green army jacket and Meri Amber t-shirt; even if one of the many enchantments on the jacket helped keep her warm, the wind still got into the parts it didn’t cover.
“Come on,” Abby said to Michiko, shuffling her old sneakers across the gravel surface as she waited. Michiko eyed her silently, standing completely still. Her face was expressionless as her long red scarf floated in the wind.
Abby circled Michiko, edging ever closer, holding her sword high. “The silent treatment this round?” she said with a grin. “You’re usually so chatty—”
The staff lashed out. Abby stepped quickly out of its way and spun to one side, moving behind her foe. “Tag!” she said as she thrust her sword forward.
Michiko swung around, parrying her thrust and snapping her staff towards her foe. Abby jumped out of its way, landing on her feet and pointing her sword at Michiko. “Not down yet,” she said as Michiko dropped into a crouch, her staff under her right arm. Abby spread her arms. “Come on. Try me.”
Michiko snapped up and swung. Abby twisted out of the staff’s way, raising her swordarm as she moved behind Michiko. “Ha!” she said as she started to strike. “Got you at—”
The Monkey Queen reached behind her with her staff and parried the blow before the sword tip could touch her back. Abby’s eyes widened as Michiko turned towards her. She slipped a foot behind Abby’s ankle and yanked it back.
Abby toppled over. Michiko stuck the tip of her staff into her stomach. Abby looked up at her foe’s grim face and rolled her eyes. “I yield,” she said. “Again.” She opened her hand, sighing as her sword fell to the rooftop.
Michiko smiled. “I win!” she said cheerfully as she pulled her staff back. “Yay!”
She bent down and stretched her free hand out towards Abby. “Thanks,” Abby said as Michiko helped her up. She looked over to Beth and asked, “Did I do any better?”
Beth glanced at her smartphone and the stopwatch app it was running. “Just past thirty seconds this time,” she said.
“So?” came the voice from the shoulder bag Beth was carrying. A black and white guinea pig stuck his head out and continued, “It doesn’t matter how long or short the time is, it’s still the same result. Monkey Queen wins, new girl loses.”
“You never saw all those old movies, Gregor,” Abby said. “I’m trying to work my way up to three minutes in the ring with the big wrestling guy. I win the prize if I do.” She grinned.
Gregor shook his head. “Another fool with her eyes glued to a screen,” he muttered.
“That coming from someone who’s hooked on reality TV?” Beth said.
“Don’t listen to him, Abby.” Michiko had taken a towel from a gym bag and was wiping off her face. “You are getting better. All the training you’ve been doing is showing results.”
“I know.” Abby stared at her rapier and shook her head. “I wish I had a better sword, though. I know this is a good one, but the balance feels off and the hilt is just a bit wide for my hand.”
“You need to get one custom made for you,” Michiko said.
“I’ve dropped hints to Mom and Dad about a graduation present.” Abby smiled slightly. “What I really wish is that I could have my…old sword back.”
Abby saw Michiko tense up a little. “I…”
“I know it’s too much to ask for.” Abby’s face turned red. Her “old sword” had actually been a powerful relic, but a sorceress had used it to control her and then steal her body; it took everything Michiko, Abby and their friends had to stop her. “It’s probably been tossed in a dumpster by now anyway,” Abby said.
Michiko nodded and raised her staff. “One more round?” she said.
“What about breakfast?” Gregor grumbled.
“I hate to say this,” Beth said, “but he has a point. We should go in.”
Michiko held up the gym bag. Abby took out a scabbard, slid her sword into it, and put it back inside. Michiko tossed her towel on top and zipped the bag up. “Let’s get downstairs. Beth?”
Beth nodded and stared at the seeming that Gregor had put up around the roof before Michiko and Abby had started their practice. Her second sight, the ability she had to see through seemings and other illusions, kicked in, and she blinked. The seeming vanished.
She headed for the locked door that led to the stairs. She dug into the pocket of her green army jacket and pulled out a skeleton key trimmed in brass wire, a magical gadget crafted for her by Mec the gremlin. She tapped the lock once with the key, and the door popped open.
It was the final day of spring break, and Abby’s last day as Michiko and Beth’s house guest. Abby had met the others several weeks before, when things got slightly out of hand during a recruiting visit Abby took to Cooper College, where Beth was in her sophomore year. By the end of that visit, Michiko and Beth had learned that Abby had some training in both sorcery and swordsmanship; Abby had enrolled in Cooper for the upcoming fall term and, more importantly, had agreed to work with her new friends on protecting Nortonville and the Emigres who had settled in and around the college town. She had spent the break with Michiko and Beth, getting to know the area.
The role of protector was just one of many Michiko had. She was the Monkey Queen, prophesied to be Earth’s great hero and trained from a young age in combat. She joked about how her job was “saving the world,” and that she was starting small. She had adventured in other worlds, but most of her time was spent practicing and keeping an eye on the many communities of non-humans in and around Nortonville, Emigres from Faerie and other worlds who had come seeking better lives on Earth.
Michiko had rescued Beth from an assault some months back, when Beth had learned that she had second sight. She had joined Michiko as her partner, and the two had become good friends at first and, over time, more.
“So we’re heading to Wonderland?” Abby asked as she followed Michiko downstairs.
Beth stepped through the door, reached back and tapped the lock twice with her key. “Same thing we do every Sunday.” She pulled her arm back as the door slammed shut and followed the others.
“Pancakes!” Michiko said with a grin.
“It sounds like a good plan,” Abby said.
They stopped in front of the door to the apartment that Michiko and Beth shared. “Shower first?” Beth asked.
Michiko nodded as they stepped inside. “And change!” She ran into her bedroom, coming out a moment later with an armful of clothes as she headed for the bathroom.
Abby sniffed. “I think I need one too,” she said.
“You can use my bathroom.” Beth grinned. “But I wasn’t going to say anything.” She walked over to an end table that had a guinea pig cage and pulled Gregor out of his shoulder bag.
“You didn’t have to,” Gregor said. He made a face. “The new girl worked up a sweat.” He had been an an amoral sorcerer in a previous life, and hadn’t been told about the catch when he consented to be reincarnated. He worked with Michiko and Beth, but he took every opportunity to remind them that he wasn’t all that thrilled about the arrangement.
“Tactful as ever.” Beth shook her head and set Gregor in the cage.
* * *
The Wonderland Diner and Tavern was just outside of Nortonville, built inside an abandoned barn covered with seemings. Under the guidance of Aloysius, the chief chef with the looks of a demonic monster and the cooking skills of a culinary angel, Wonderland was not just a place for a good meal but one of the hubs for the many Emigre communities nearby. Faeries, dwarves, pixies, gremlins and many others showed up for food and chat every day.
It had been a typical Sunday morning breakfast; Michiko had her pancakes, Beth her omelet, and Gregor his strawberries. “How’s your food?” Beth asked Abby, who had ordered the Hungry Ogre Special, with huge portions of half a dozen items crammed onto a plate that seemed to groan from the weight.
“Big.” Abby stared at her half-filled plate. “I think this is going to be breakfast and lunch. I’m stuffed.”
“I can help you with that,” Beth said.
Abby glared at her friend. “Back off, McGill,” she said. “It’s all mine.” Beth giggled.
“Aloysius will be disappointed if you don’t finish it, you know.”
The women all looked up at the gremlin with the goggles and the grease-stained t-shirt as he approached their table, a grin creasing his face. “Mec!” Michiko said with a big smile. “Hiiii!”
“Good morning. Mind if I join you?” Mec asked.
“Just squeeze your way past all the bags,” Abby added.
Mec sat down carefully, managing not to kick the suitcase next to his chair. “Right. This is your last day here. Is Hitchcock taking you back to San Francisco?”
“He is. If he ever gets here.” Abby shook her head.
“Maybe he won’t show up,” Beth said, “and you’ll have to stay another few days.”
“That’ll give you time to finish that food,” Mec said.
“And more practice!” Michiko said.
“And more bingewatching,” Beth added. “We still have a lot of Doctor Who to work our way through.”
Abby smiled. “I could have Mom and Dad scan my homework and send it to me.”
“That blasted bawson had better get here soon,” Gregor muttered. “If I have to hear the words ‘timey-wimey’ one more—”
“Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow!”
Everyone in the diner glanced over as the door opened. A bawson with a white dress and a cross expression walked in, pulling another bawson by his ringed tail. He wore black shorts and a red bow tie, and was yelping in pain as he was roughly dragged across the floor. All eyes were on them as Constance approached Michiko’s table. “Is this yours?” she said to Abby, holding Hitchcock up in front of her.
“Never saw him before in my life,” Abby said, her eyes fixed on her cup as she refilled her coffee. Michiko barely held back a giggle.
Beth sighed. “Constance…what happened?”
“Well—” Hitchcock started to say.
“He is the cheekiest, freshest bawson I have ever met!” Constance snapped. “All those magic tricks he’s learned have left him touched in the head!”
“I knew you liked me!” Hitchcock grinned, then winced as Constance squeezed his tail hard.
“Constance…” Beth looked over at the young spriggan in the blue dress and resoled boots, with eyes like cherry stones, who was standing near the door. “Everyone’s staring at us.”
“Jill! Hiiii!” Michiko smiled.
“Hey, Jill,” Beth said. “So…”
“What happened?” the spriggan said. “Hitchcock decided to see Constance while he was here to pick up Abby. We walked here from our meadow, and they were getting along fine until we got here, and he tried to steal a kiss.”
“Oh, it’s my fault!” Hitchcock said.
“Spot on,” Constance muttered.
“I hate to say this…” Beth tried not to smile. “Constance, let him go.”
Constance released Hitchcock’s tail and marched to the door. She flung it open and spun back to face Michiko’s table. “Next time,” she said as she pointed at Hitchcock, “no funny business.”
“Straight to the smooching, then?” Hitchcock grinned.
Constance snorted and stormed out of the diner. Jill followed her friend to the door, stopping long enough to glance back at Michiko and Beth, shrug and smile.
“I like Constance!” Hitchcock said as he sat down. “She’s got spunk.”
“And a good left hook,” Mec added with a grin.
“She doesn’t seem to like you, fuzzy,” Abby said.
“Give her time.” Hitchcock glanced at Abby’s plate. “Are you going to—”
“Touch my food and you’re a dead man,” Abby said.
* * *
The group had gathered just outside Wonderland. Michiko had carried Abby’s baggage out, and Hitchcock sat on the stack of luggage. “Just a bite?” he said to Abby, who had a death grip on the bag with her breakfast leftovers.
“You already ate,” Abby said as she turned to Michiko and Beth. “I guess I’ll see you guys again in June.”
“It’ll be sooner if there’s an emergency!” Michiko grinned.
“Bite your tongue.” Beth smiled and hugged Abby. “Stay in touch, okay?”
“Of course.” Abby hugged Michiko next. “Thanks for everything.”
“It was good to see you!” Michiko stepped back.
“Gregor?” Beth glanced at her shoulder bag. “Be polite.”
“Only because she paid for the strawberries,” the guinea pig muttered as he stuck his head out of the bag. He waved with a forepaw and an exasperated sigh.
“See you soon, Gregor.” Abby smiled as she walked over to her luggage. “Time to go, fuzzy,” she said to Hitchcock.
“Not even your English muffin?” the bawson asked.
Abby rolled her eyes as she laid her free hand on Hitchcock’s head. “Bye!” she said, waving as best as she could with the hand holding the doggie bag.
Michiko and Beth waved back. “Tell your mom and dad we said ‘Hiiii!’,” Michiko said.
“Just a nibble!” Hitchcock said.
“Hush,” Abby said. She held the leftovers even tighter as she, Hitchcock and the luggage all vanished in a puff of smoke.
* * *
“So Constance has a boyfriend!” Michiko said as she and Beth walked back to town.
“I’m not sure she’d agree with that term,” Beth said. “Hitchcock is a handful.”
“You know,” Michiko said thoughtfully, “that reminds me of Jill’s mom.”
“The spriggan queen?”
Michiko nodded. “Wryn. I’ve been asking every recent Emigre from Faerie and every visitor if there’s any news.”
“Nothing?” Beth said.
“Not a thing.” Michiko pouted. “We know she’s being held in Wrexham’s court, but that’s all we have.”
“If she were dead,” Gregor said, “Wrexham would have boasted about it by now. She’s alive.”
“I hope so.” Michiko stared into the distance. “I did promise Jill I’d find her mom,” she said softly. “I hate not being able to keep that promise.”
Beth took Michiko’s shoulder. “Give it time,” she said. “You’ll find her someday.”
Michiko looked over at Beth and smiled. “Thanks,” she said. Beth returned her smile as they crossed the narrow road that separated the woods from Nortonville.
* * *
The tall, slender faerie ran blindly through the woods, his panting breaking the afternoon silence. He wore a bandolier and a belt that held a deadly assortment of knives that shook and clanked as he ran; one slot on the belt was empty. He clutched a purple cloth bag tightly under one arm. We knew it had to be done, Samoyar, the voice in the corner of his mind whispered. We knew it.
“No,” he said. “No. She didn’t deserve it.”
Yes, she did. She would have turned against us in the end. Left us here on this backwards world while she collected the reward for our hard work.
“But that scream…Lords and Ladies…” Samoyar swallowed. “I’ve killed before, but always in a fair fight. Never like this.”
We did what we had to do. Are we far enough away from the cabin?
Samoyar stopped and looked back. “Yes, we are,” he said.
Good. Let’s summon the facilitator. As Samoyar pulled the card from his pocket, the voice continued, I hope she won’t make us wait too long. We have a contact to meet.
A few minutes later, when the flashes of light and gusts of wind had faded, silence returned to the woods, broken only by a hoarse cawing and the flapping of wings.
Michiko closed the apartment door as Beth returned Gregor to his cage. “I hope you two hadn’t been planning to watch television,” the guinea pig said. “There’s a Divorce Court marathon on.”
“Actually…” Beth glanced at Michiko, who nodded. “Michiko and I need to discuss our plans for the week. Your bedroom or mine?”
“Yours!” Michiko grinned and tried not to blush.
“We know you need your beauty sleep anyway.” Beth smiled and headed for her bedroom.
“Fine by me.” Gregor reached out of his cage and tapped the remote control lying next to it on the end table. As he did, Michiko followed Beth into the bedroom, softly closing the door behind her.
* * *
“I’ve been waiting all week for this!” Michiko said, setting her smartphone on the nightstand next to Beth’s bed as Beth hung her jacket on her closet door. “Yay!”
“Just one more thing…” Beth said. She crossed the room to her desk and tapped the screen of her tablet. As the music started, loud enough to give them some extra privacy, she grinned and said, “Now.”
Michiko ran to Beth and took her in her arms. They kissed, over and over, and before Beth knew it they were lying next to each other on her bed. They held one another, kissing and caressing, pressing together tightly. Beth could feel every breath Michiko took, and she knew Michiko could feel hers, as she tried not to gasp or pant too loudly.
After one long kiss that left Beth woozy, Michiko lifted her head and looked at her girlfriend. “Happy?” she asked, smiling tenderly.
“Very.” Beth’s heart raced as Michiko snuggled up to her, resting her head on Beth’s shoulder.
They had talked about whether or not they should take the “next step”. Beth had decided against it, at least for the time being, and it wasn’t just because of concerns over Gregor listening in. As much as she cared for Michiko, she still wasn’t quite ready to make the commitment to being in a relationship with her. Doing so would mean she was also committing to help the Monkey Queen for as long as they were together, and Beth still wasn’t sure that was what she wanted as her life’s work. Until she was ready to commit, she didn’t think it was fair to take the “next step”, with all its meaning and implications.
Beth looked down at Michiko, smiling with her eyes closed as she lay in her girlfriend’s arms, and felt the warmth and softness of her body. She does make it hard to decide, Beth thought. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Michiko opened her eyes and looked up at Beth. “So what are our plans for next week?” she asked.
“Well…” Beth stroked Michiko’s cheek. “I go back to class, you go back to saving the world.”
“Good plan!” Michiko pressed her face up to Beth’s. “Discussion over,” she whispered just before their lips met.
Beth smiled warmly as the kiss ended. Michiko blushed and glanced away, and as Beth looked at Michiko, her sweet smile and her beautiful brown eyes, she wished this moment, this little bit of bliss, could last forever.
The opening notes of a song Beth hadn’t heard before broke the mood. Of course, Beth thought as Michiko took her smartphone from the nightstand. “Who is that?” she said.
“The Monkees!” Michiko grinned as she sat up. “It’s called ‘Me And Magdalena’.”
“I meant, who’s calling,” Beth said, pretending to be annoyed. “You big doofus.”
Michiko giggled as she answered the call. “Hello?…Grandmother Fox! Hiiii!”
Beth smiled, but she also started to worry. Grandmother Fox was Michiko’s foster mother, but she was also on the Council of Eight, the group that kept track of sorcerers, magical occurrences and Emigres on Earth. As Michiko fell silent, Beth knew it was more than a social call.
“Okay,” Michiko said after several minutes. “We’ll be there soon. Bye.” She ended the call, the smile gone from her face.
“What’s going on?” Beth asked as Michiko stood up.
“We’ve been called in by one of the Council. Basil Gray.”
“Grandmother Fox said she’d fill us in when we got to her place.” Michiko helped Beth to her feet. “She did say it would involve an overnight trip.”
“Just one night?” Beth headed for her closet.
“Play it safe. Pack for two.”
“Got it.” Beth put her jacket back on and started digging for clean t-shirts, tucking them into the jacket’s enchanted pockets.
Michiko pouted. “So no more kissing and all that today.”
Beth took Michiko’s shoulders and leaned in towards her. “Well…” She kissed Michiko. “For good luck,” she said. Michiko smiled as she left the bedroom.
* * *
“I’m glad you could be here on such short notice, Monkey Queen,” Basil Gray said. He was a tall, lean man in a black suit and power tie. His face was clean-shaven and gaunt with age, and his eyes were almost obscured by his sloping brow and large nose. “I hope I wasn’t taking you away from anything important.”
Michiko took a seat across from the councilor at the table in the meeting room. “It’s been quiet this week,” she said as Beth sat next to her. “It usually is this time of year.”
Gray nodded. “The first days of spring. A holiday for most of the Emigre population.” He leaned forward. “I assume this means you can be spared for an overnight mission.”
“Well…last year, there were a few minor issues. Some parties got out of hand.”
“I think that the agreement you worked out with the Emigre leaders recently comes into play, does it not? The one where they help each other?”
“I suppose,” Michiko said, a hint of doubt in her voice.
“Good,” Gray said. “I wouldn’t be asking for this if it weren’t important. This is a matter that has the entire Council of Eight concerned.”
Grandmother Fox, who was watching quietly from the doorway, nodded. “It has to do with magical relics,” she said, “which falls under Basil’s area of expertise.”
“Quite.” Gray smiled. “Our seers and researches are 97% certain that a relic of great power has been found in the woods in the eastern part of this state, near the Nevada and Oregon borders.”
“What do we know about it?” Michiko asked.
“It’s called the Crown of Kylthena.”
“She was the queen of one of the Lost Lands. When they vanished, her crown was left behind.” The councilor slid a sheet of paper from the stack in front of him across the table. “Here’s an artist’s rendition.”
Michiko and Beth studied the drawing. It showed a crown with a crescent moon mounted on the front and two five-pointed stars on the sides. “It’s pretty,” Michiko said softly.
“The Lost Lands?” Beth asked.
“A group of countries that was closed off by the ritual that stripped magic from Earth,” Gray said. “This crown is reputed to give great magical power to the wearer, but information on what that power might have been is lost.”
“So how did it wind up in a forest in California?”
“Many relics were misplaced during the aftermath of the ritual or hidden for safekeeping,” Gray said. “They keep turning up in the oddest places now that magic is returning and we’ve been able to research their whereabouts.” He looked at Michiko. “I heard that you had come across one such relic, in the possession of your friend Ms. Main-Drake. A sword that belonged to Baba Yaga and her protege Lyssa.”
“We did,” Beth said quickly, shifting in her chair. “It was damaged beyond repair in a fight recently.”
“Pity. I would have liked to study it.” The councilor idly tapped the table. “We need you to retrieve the crown and bring it back to us for inspection and, if needed, neutralization. It is to be returned intact and undamaged. I have the coordinates from the seers and will text them to you.”
“How are we going to get there?” Michiko asked. “Neither of us have a driver’s license.”
“I have enlisted an acquaintance named Danielle to drive you there and back. She may be of assistance if you encounter trouble along the way.” Gray rose from his chair. “You’ll meet her at five PM in front of Wonderland. Good luck.”
“Thank you, Councilor.” Michiko jumped to her feet. “Let’s go, Beth.”
“Got it.” Beth stood up, taking the sketch of the crown off the table.
“Monkey Queen?” The councilor fixed his gaze on Michiko. “Could I have a word with you in private?”
Michiko glanced over at Grandmother Fox. She nodded and moved out of the doorway as Beth left the meeting room, closing the door behind them. “What can I do for you, Councilor?” Michiko said.
“Grandmother Fox has spoken to you about our…concerns on the Council?”
“She has. I am doing my best to keep things under control.”
Gray walked over to Michiko. “Yet, over the last few months you’ve spent several days in Faerie on two separate occasions, abandoning your duties here.”
“I have.” Michiko’s face started to redden. “But in both cases, a friend needed help. I couldn’t ignore that.”
“And there is also concern about your working with the daughter of a BIP agent and a woman who relies on magical gadgets to defend herself.” Gray stopped in front of Michiko. “They seem like unfortunate choices of companions.”
“Councilor…” Michiko’s blush deepened. “Abby’s loyalties aren’t with BIP, but with helping people. That’s what she wants. And Beth is smart and clever, and I’d trust her with my life.”
“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.” Gray stared at Michiko, and she had to hold back a shudder. “I expect there will be no problems with retrieving the Crown of Kylthena. If there are, we may have to…take a fresh look at our working relationship.”
“I understand, Councilor,” Michiko said softly.
“Very well, then.” Gray walked over to the door. “Best of luck, and do be there by five. Danielle can get impatient.”
* * *
So how’s the trip?
Beth read the text from Abby as she bounced in her seat, trying not to wince as the ATV drove over a pothole. It would be boring, she typed, except for Danielle. She’s making things…interesting.
“You okay back there?” the driver of the car Beth and Michiko were riding in shouted. Danielle was a middle-aged woman, with uncombed black hair jutting out from underneath her horned Viking helmet. The collar of her black leather jacket was unfolded, pointing upward, partially covering her rune-inscribed brass neckguard. The jacket was bulging in several places from the impressive assortment of weapons she was carrying; Beth assumed it had also been enchanted.
“I’m fine,” Beth said.
“Good. We’ve still got half an hour until the next pit stop.”
“Um…” Michiko squirmed in the front passenger’s seat. “Are you sure it’s that long?”
“Too much coffee, huh?” Danielle chuckled. “That’s why I stick with energy drinks. Lets you hold it in longer. Wanna hear a little trick?”
“Well…” Michiko said.
“I always add a little garlic juice to mine. Helps protect against vampires.”
“Vampires?” Michiko said faintly.
Beth saw the message from Abby on her smartphone screen: That weird?
“Can’t be too careful.” Danielle tapped the steering wheel for emphasis. “Never trust a bloodsucker.”
“But it’s been centuries since there’s been a confirmed vampire sighting on Earth,” Michiko said.
“They’re out there. Didn’t you fight some hopping dead in the Far Lands a couple of months ago?” Danielle glanced over at Michiko and chuckled. “Oh, come on, Monkey Queen. I read your report.”
“But those were magically reanimated,” Michiko said meekly.
“And all it could take is one necromancer with the right spellbook and a grudge, and we’ll be up to our jugular veins in vampires! They don’t want you to know that, do they?”
Beth shook her head and tapped on her smartphone screen. She smiled as she checked her text message to Abby—Let’s just say I’m glad Michiko called shotgun—and pressed “send”.
“They?” Michiko said.
“They,” Danielle said. “They don’t want to cause a panic. Especially since they’re also covering up the sasquatch scandal.”
“Just imagine if they got the idea to combine the two! Vampquatches!” Danielle patted her jacket. “I’m ready for those guys too.”
Beth felt her smartphone vibrate. She glanced at it and saw the text from Abby: Dad’s met her. He says she probably lines that helmet of hers with tinfoil. Beth barely stifled a chuckle.
“You sure you’re okay back there?” Danielle yelled.
“Sorry,” Beth said quickly. “Michiko’s not the only one here who needs to pee.” Michiko giggled.
* * *
The forest they were driving through was different than the woods that surrounded Nortonville. The trees there were mostly redwoods, but the ones that Beth saw around them were lodgewood and ponderosa pines, tall and spindly. “We’re almost there,” Danielle said, glancing quickly at her smartphone as she drove.
“You’re getting a cell signal out here?” Beth asked.
Danielle shook her head. “I downloaded a map before we left. I’ll park here and we’ll hike the rest of the way.”
“What about park rangers?” Beth said as Danielle pulled the ATV over.
“They never come out here. Budget cuts.” Danielle jumped from the car. “Stay alert, just in case.”
Beth glanced at Michiko, who nodded as they got out of the ATV. “We should stick together,” the Monkey Queen said. “We don’t know the area, or what we could run into here.”
“Looks like we should be going this way.” Danielle pointed to an opening in the trees; the damp grass there had been flattened by earlier visitors. “Seemings up!” She made a faint clicking noise with her teeth, and her outfit was replaced by a tamer version, neck guard and Viking helmet gone. Beth looked beneath the surface, with her second sight, and saw all of Danielle’s accessories still in place.
Michiko whistled a four-note pattern, and her Monkey Queen clothes were covered up by a yellow sweater and black jeans. “Did you want to take the point?” she said to Danielle.
“Right. You bring up the rear.” Danielle headed down the trail. Beth followed her; Michiko trailed behind them, scanning the trees as they walked along.
The sun was setting, and as they headed deeper into the forest, it was getting darker and darker. The birds had fallen quiet, and the only sounds Beth could hear were the wind and her footsteps. “Should I get out a flashlight?” she asked as she and the others rounded a bend in the faint trail.
“You can use mine,” Danielle said. “It runs on stored sunlight instead of batteries.”
“In case of vampires?”
“Good guess!” Danielle grinned. “The tight beam setting can ruin a bloodsucker’s night—”
She stopped and tilted her head. “You hear it too?” Michiko said quietly.
Danielle nodded. “At least three of them, and a campfire. Which way?” Michiko pointed off the trail; Danielle set off, the others following.
A few tense minutes later, they came to the edge of a clearing. There was a small fire burning near the center, and four men sat around it, trying to stay warm. They looked like middle-aged campers, dressed in flannel and furry hats. Beyond them, in the light of the campfire, Beth could see a small wood cabin. “Looks harmless enough,” she whispered.
Danielle gritted her teeth. “That’s where the crown is,” she said quietly. “I’m sure of if. We need to—”
One of the men glanced over at the women. He jumped to his feet. “What do you want?” he growled as the others stood.
“We’re here—” Danielle started to say.
“Hiiii!” Michiko said. “We’ve been walking for a while and I had a lot of coffee this morning…” She blushed.
Beth remembered that Michiko was the world’s worst liar. “She really needs to use the bathroom,” she said quickly. “Is there one in that cabin?”
The men glanced at each other. “Well,” the one who had spoken earlier said, “if you can get in there…”
“Wait a minute.” One of the men pointed at Beth. “I know that girl. She made me drop a big rock on my head. It still hurts.”
“Drop a rock…” Danielle raised an eyebrow as she glanced at Beth.
“That is McGill,” the man who had spoken first said. “So what’s she doing here?”
Oh crap, Beth thought. She stared at the men, looked below the surface and blinked. Their seemings vanished, and Beth could see they were ogres, probably ones who had escaped when their cabin complex had been cleaned out a few weeks earlier.
The ogres reached for their clubs. “I hope you’re ready for a fight,” one of them snarled.
Michiko snapped her fingers. “We are!”she said as her seeming disappeared, pulling her miniaturized staff from her pocket.
“Monkey Queen!” an ogre shouted as the staff grew to its normal size.
Danielle snapped her fingers. “Remember,” she said as she took two long pointed stakes out of her pockets, “non-lethal force.”
“Right!” Michiko snapped into a defensive stance as the ogres closed in. “Beth, stay back.” Beth nodded and moved behind a nearby tree.
“We’ll crush you, Monkey Queen!” one ogre said as he lifted his club. “Crush you like a snail we just stepped on!”
“Ew.” Michiko made a face as she raised her staff in both hands. “Poor snail.” The club bounced off the staff, pulling the ogre back. Michiko kicked him in the ankle, and he fell to the ground, his club flying from his hand.
Michiko spun in time to parry a swing from the second ogre. He threw a punch at her; she leaned back, but he had readied his club and was bringing it down towards her head.
“Zap!” The blue magic bolt struck the ogre in the hand. He dropped his club. Before it could hit the ground, Michiko had kicked him in the stomach, then chopped him in the back of the head, knocking him groggy. She glanced over and smiled at Beth, who was holding her magic wand. Beth grinned and twirled the wand in her fingers.
“That’s enough!” Michiko turned to see another ogre advancing towards her. “You’re not so tough!”
“Really?” Michiko said. “I’ll bet I can stop you without using my staff or lifting a finger.”
“Oh, yeah?” the ogre said.
“Yep!” Michiko folded her arms.
The ogre stopped and glared at Michiko. “Try it,” he growled.
He started to lift his club, but stopped as Danielle hit him with the blunt end of a stake on the back of his head. “See?” Michiko said. “I didn’t have to move.”
As the ogre toppled to the ground, Danielle pulled her other stake free from the shoulder of the last ogre as he writhed in pain in the dirt. “Quit crying!” she snapped. “It’ll heal. Someday.”
The ogre Michiko had knocked over jumped to his feet. “Let’s get out of here!” he yelled. He ran into the woods, away from the cabin and the campfire, as the others followed.
“Should we go after them?” Beth asked.
“When it’s this dark?” Danielle snorted. “Ten bucks says they’re leading us into an ambush.”
Michiko nodded. “We still need to check inside that cabin. Danielle? Stand watch. Beth, you’re with me.”
“How you gonna get in?” Danielle shouted as the other women walked up the hill. “Kick the door down?”
Beth reached into her jacket pocket. “Only in a metaphoric sense,” she said with a grin as she pulled out Mec’s key. She tapped the lock once, and the cabin door popped open. She put the key away and pulled out her flashlight, switching it on as Michiko entered.
The cabin was small, designed for shelter more than comfort, with a screen in one corner that Beth guessed concealed a toilet. She started to follow Michiko inside. “Wait,” Michiko said.
“Why? What’s—” Beth looked down and gasped.
There was a person lying face down on the cabin floor. They were reptilian, with scales covering their body, leathery wings, and a long narrow tail instead of legs. A dagger had been buried to the hilt between their wings. “Oh my God,” Beth said softly as she saw the blood pooling on the floor.
Michiko knelt by the body. “I don’t think she’s breathing,” she said softly, taking the victim’s wrist. “No pulse.”
Beth swallowed. “Who…”
“A wyrdra.” Michiko shook her head. “Who would do this?”
“I don’t think it was the ogres,” Beth said. “They said they couldn’t get in here.”
Michiko stood up. “I think we have a clue as to ‘why’,” she said, pointing back at the door.
Beth saw that there was a display case next to the doorway, broken glass covering the floor around it, looking quite out of place in the rustic cabin. It had been covered with a thick layer of dust, but some of it had been knocked off when the glass was shattered. “Do you think that’s where the crown was?” Beth asked.
“Probably,” Michiko said, taking a flashlight from her pocket. “I’ll check the body. Look around the room. See if you can spot anything.”
Beth nodded and swept the room with her flashlight, grateful for something to take her mind off the sight of the dead body. She examined every crack in the floor, every gap in the wall. “Here’s something,” she said as she pointed the flashlight at a corner.
“What?” Michiko said.
“This card.” Beth picked it up from the floor. There was no text on it, just a drawing, a stylized butterfly in a vaguely Celtic pattern overlaying a four-pointed star.
Michiko glanced over and scowled. “That looks familiar, but I can’t quite place it.”
“Maybe Grandmother Fox knows? Or Danielle?”
“I have an idea. Can you bring the card over here?”
Beth joined Michiko next to the body. Michiko took out her smartphone and snapped a picture of the card. She then knelt by the wyrdra’s body and took a photo of her face, then the dagger sticking out of her back. “You’re getting a signal?” Beth asked.
“Remember what Abby said about enchanting her smartphone so she could always contact her parents?” Michiko tapped on her phone screen as she spoke. “I had Mec set the same thing up with my phone and hers.”
“Not hers and mine?” Beth raised an eyebrow.
“You two text each other enough as it is.” Michiko smiled slightly as she finished her message. “We’ll set you up soon.”
“Okay.” Beth looked away.
Michiko moved over to her. “Are you okay?” she said softly.
“I’ll be fine. It’s…” Beth swallowed. “I’m…just not used to seeing dead bodies. And she died alone….”
“I know,” Michiko said, taking Beth’s hand.
“Do…” Beth blinked. “Do you ever get used to seeing things like this?”
“I hope I never do,” Michiko said softly. “It’ll mean that I’ve started to forget how important all lives are.”
Beth nodded. “At least we can try to lay her to rest—”
She fell quiet as “Pleasant Valley Sunday” echoed through the cabin. Michiko answered her smartphone with, “Abby! Hiiii! Anything about those photos?” She fell quiet for a minute. “I see,” she finally said. “Thanks for the help! I will!” Michiko glanced at Beth and said, “Abby says ‘Hi!’”
“Hey.” Beth smiled and waved.
“Beth says ‘Hey!’” Michiko said into the phone. “Bye!”
“So?” Beth asked as Michiko hung up her phone and put it away.
“Abby checked with her mom. This—” Michiko pointed to the card Beth held. “—is the emblem of Alasdair Sterling.”
“He’s a wizard, a gadgeteer and a bit of a rogue.”
“What about the victim?” Beth asked.
Michiko pointed at the wyrdra. “She’s a professional thief known as Skaye. She’s been wanted by BIP for years.”
“A pro?” Beth asked.
Michiko nodded. “Never got caught until now. She was based on the wyrdra homeworld of Aloc.”
“Why would she have come to Earth?”
“Abby and Theresa think she was offered a deal too good to turn down.”
“What about the dagger?” Beth asked.
“Faerie,” Michiko said. “You can tell from the carvings in the hilt.”
“Is this Alasdair a faerie?”
“He’s a human, but he’s been to Faerie more than once…and he lives on Aloc.”
“So,” Beth said, “he would have been working with Skaye on the heist, and they had a falling out, and he killed her and took off with the crown.”
“Too easy.” Michiko frowned. “Why would he have left the card?”
“As a warning?” Beth said.
Michiko shook her head. “That’s not his M.O.,” she said. “Alasdair has never killed anyone that BIP knew of. That’s why they’ve marked him as a low priority. And he never mentioned anything about that to me.”
“You?” Beth’s eyes widened.
“We…worked together once on Faerie. Sort of.”
“I needed to get something Mec needed for a special project from one of the Courts. Alasdair helped me get in, but he tried to take something else with him when we left.” Michiko scowled. “We nearly wound up in a dungeon before I made him return it.”
“Charming,” Beth said sarcastically.
“Among other things. Even so, it’s the only lead we have.”
“Extended road trip, then?” Beth said.
Michiko nodded. “It’s a good thing we packed for an extra day. I’ll ask Abby to contact Puck and Scylla.”
* * *
Michiko and Beth had left the cabin and moved near the ogres’ campfire, where they were filling Danielle in. “So you don’t need me for this?” she said.
“We can handle it,” Michiko said. “And we need someone to get word back to Gray and Grandmother Fox.”
“Okay.” Danielle stretched. “Traveling between worlds makes me puke anyway. Anything else?”
“I’ll take care of it. Cremation. Don’t want her to be turned, and there’s already a fire going.”
Michiko nodded. “Thanks, Danielle. Let’s go, Beth.”
“Don’t let the bloodsuckers bite!” Danielle grinned. Michiko and Beth smiled back and waved as they walked away.
They stopped after a few minutes when they reached another clearing. “Ready?” Michiko said.
“Ready.” Beth pulled a business card out of the inside pocket of her jacket, holding it up to her face. “Olig?” she said. “This is Beth McGill. We need to get to Aloc in a hurry, and we could use your help. I understand and accept your terms, on behalf of myself and the Monkey Queen.” She tore the card in half and set both pieces on the ground in front of her, then backed away.
“Remind me that we need to get a receipt?” Michiko said. “We’ll have to expense this.”
Beth glared at her girlfriend. “Michiko…”
“We’ve discussed this. ‘Expense’ is not a verb!”
“Beth…” Michiko tried not to smile.
“You can’t mess with language like that!” Beth folded her arms.
“Is this what happens when you date an English major?”
“Yes.” Beth grinned. “You need to promise not to do that again.”
Michiko finally smiled. “I promise—”
She stopped when the humming started, low-pitched, more felt than heard. The clearing was filled with white light, as a wind blew past Beth and Michiko.
The light and the wind faded and Beth saw someone there, smiling as he picked up the pieces of the torn card. He was reptilian, but that was where the similarities to the wyrdra ended. He was smooth skinned, green and purple, and hairless, with a long tail that poked out from under his black robe. He pushed his hat, which looked like a fez that had lost its tassel, back up on his head and squinted through his glasses with the large round lenses. “Beth McGill!” Olig said. “It’s good to see you again.”
“Same here.” Beth smiled.
“And hello, Monkey Queen!”
“Hiiii!” Michiko grinned.
“Beth said you two needed to go to Aloc?” the fippian facilitator asked. “What city?”
“Cham. We need to visit someone I know there.”
Olig nodded. “Any particular neighborhood?”
“Somewhere near a hotel,” Beth said. “I think we need some sleep and a decent breakfast first.”
“And maybe a tour guide,” Michiko added.
“I have just the place. You know how it’s done.” Olig moved behind the women, closed his eyes and set one hand on top of Beth’s head and the other on Michiko’s neck. As he did, Beth took Michiko’s hands in hers with a smile. Michiko grinned back as Olig’s face wrinkled in concentration.
There was a gust of wind and a flash of light.
When those had faded, the interdimensional facilitator and his passengers were gone, with no trace that they had ever been in the clearing.
* * *
“Aloc, you say?” Gray said into his smartphone as he sat on the edge of the hotel bed.
“Yeah. Sorry I wasn’t able to tell you right away, boss,” Danielle said. “Took me a while to get somewhere with a good cell signal.”
“I understand. Where are you now?”
“On Highway 299. I pulled over to call you.”
“Good. Return to Nortonville. I’ll need you nearby for a few days.”
“Got it.” Danielle hung up.
Gray stood up and turned off the bedside lamp. The room was still lit by the television, which cast odd shadows and left one corner in total darkness. He walked over to a table by the dark corner and took a quill pen and a small piece of parchment from his pocket.
The councilor wrote on the parchment. He rolled it into a scroll and set it in the corner, tapping the parchment and speaking under his breath.
As Gray watched, the scroll began to fade. It turned into smoke and shadow, melting into the darkness of the corner, vanishing from sight.
Gray had written two words on the scroll: “It’s time.”
© 2016 Robert Dahlen. All rights reserved, except for those granted by “fair use” laws.
Thanks for reading! Don’t forget that you can get The Crown Of Kylthena at Amazon, or wherever fine ebooks are sold!