Under The Stars Of Faerie: Book Three

Chapter One

It was a November day that felt like one from December, dry but overcast with a strong cold breeze. That, combined with the usual Monday blahs, had driven Michiko Koyama—known to her friends as Michiko and her foes as the Monkey Queen—to ask her roommate and best friend, Beth McGill, to join her on a late afternoon trip to the Dew Droppin’ Coffeehouse, the source of their favorite hot caffeinated drinks. Since Beth had never turned down a cup of coffee in her life, she quickly agreed, and the two were taking the short walk from their apartment to the coffeehouse.

“What are you getting?” Beth was asking. Even with the cold, she was wearing a Nimona t-shirt and, over that, her green army jacket, mostly because among the many enchantments on the jacket was one to keep her warm in cold weather.

“I was going to have an espresso,” Michiko said, fidgeting with her yellow sweater. “They’re yummy!”

“Really? I’ve never had one.”

“I’ll let you have a sip. But I always make mine a triple shot.”.

Beth raised an eyebrow. “Am I going to have to pry you off the ceiling?”

“Maybe.” Michiko grinned impishly as they reached the corner. They were across the street from the coffeehouse, and a woman with wild red hair and a purple dress who was toting a guitar case was in the crosswalk, walking towards them but not really looking where she was going. “Beth?” Michiko said. “Isn’t that…?”

Beth looked at the redhead, stared past the surface using her second sight, and saw the purple butterfly-like wings that her seeming was concealing. “It is,” she said. “Mandy! Hey!”

The pixie looked up and saw Beth and Michiko. She picked up her pace as she crossed the street to meet them on the corner. “Hi,” she said softly.

“Hiiii!” Michiko said. “We were going to get some coffee! Want to join us?”

Beth glanced at Mandy’s guitar case. “I think she’s been there already,” she said.

“Auditioning?” Michiko asked the pixie.

“Yeah,” Mandy said.

“Did it go well?”

“No. Got turned down again.”

“Awww. Sorry to hear that,” Beth said. Michiko pouted.

“Thanks.” Mandy shook her head. “I can’t figure it out. The manager keeps saying I’m still missing something, but he can’t tell me what it is, and if he can’t tell me, how am I supposed to change it?”

Mandy stared at the sidewalk. “I can’t play at Wonderland, even if I work there, because they only have music in the tavern, and I’m still two years too young to get in there. The faeries don’t want me to perform at the encampment because I play the ‘wrong kind’ of music. There’s no other Emigre place to play at, so I wind up auditioning at the human venues, and the only place that doesn’t have a minimum age just turned me down again.”

“Well, I think your music’s really good!” Michiko said. “I’d love to see you play!”

“Thanks. I just wish more people felt like that.” Mandy picked up her guitar case. “I should go. Mec was going to talk to Cog again.”

“Hope it went well,” Beth said.

“I doubt it.” Mandy grimaced “Cog is such a sourpuss.”

They said their goodbyes. As Mandy walked away, Michiko scowled. “I feel so bad for her!” she said. “She works so hard!”

“Sometimes,” Beth said, “it’s not enough.”

“Yeah. Are we still getting coffee?”

Beth knew what Michiko meant, but she also knew that the coffeehouse had the best coffee anywhere near their apartment. “Yeah,” she said. “But we won’t leave a big tip this time.” Michiko giggled again as they started across the street.

* * *

Mec stepped out of the back room, and as usual, his eyes had to adjust to the darkened store. It had been like that even before Mec had started working there—paper over the windows, dim lighting inside, disorganization and dust everywhere. And behind the long and cluttered counter was the gremlin who insisted on keeping things just the way they were.

Cog was an elderly gremlin, with a close-cut white beard that matched his bushy eyebrows. His face was wrinkled and compact, with beady eyes and a narrow jutting nose; it looked as if it had imploded while Cog had been sucking a particularly sour lemon. He had shown up on Earth as part of a wave of gremlin and pixie Emigres fifteen years ago, and had opened up a shop to sell and repair the gadgets that seemed to be ubiquitous among his kind. Four years ago, a promising young gremlin who had been born on Earth showed up at his door, and since then Cog and Mec had been master and apprentice.

It was an arrangement that barely worked, for they were opposites in more than just age and appearance, old versus young, light skin versus dark, short hair and beard versus long hair and clean-shaven. Cog seemed to have nothing but criticism for Mec, even when it was evident to everyone else that the younger gremlin had skill and talent to burn. And every time that Mec made a suggestion, be it about a new technique or making the shop a more pleasant place to visit, it would be rejected with the terse explanation “That’s not how we’ve always done it.”

Mec had bitten back every retort every time. He held out hope that he would get the shop when Cog retired, and he knew that many elderly gremlins preferred the old ways. Still, he thought of all the great inventors and innovators, on Faerie and on Earth, and how they would have rejected Cog’s message without regrets, and he would quietly sigh and get back to work.

“Master Cog?” Mec said as he approached the counter. He was carrying a small box full of power crystals, the core of many a gremlin gadget. “I’ve finished sorting and checking the latest crystal shipment. These were the duds; I’ll set them aside for return.”

Cog nodded. “Make sure that you double-check them before sending them back. Returns are costly, apprentice.”

“Yes, sir. If you have a moment before I go…”

“For what?”

“Well…I wanted to discuss the possibility of selling my work here.” Cog raised an eyebrow, which Mec knew was a bad sign, but he continued, “On consignment, of course, and we split the proceeds. I have a few designs that I think—”

“No,” Cog said. “There’s no room here to display them.”

“I can find room!”

“It’s not your time yet.”

“When, then?” Mec pushed down his disappointment, keeping his voice level. “Other gremlin apprentices have the right of consignment. I think I’m at that stage in my apprenticeship.”

“And I think,” Cog said, “that though you are progressing, you’re not ready for that step yet. There are some things you must still learn, and one of them is patience. Someday, and perhaps it will be soon, it’ll be your time.”

Mec nodded. “Goodnight then, Master Cog.”

“Goodnight, apprentice.” Cog stared at the counter again. Mec left the shop, somehow managing not to slam the front door behind him.

* * *

The apartment was small and furnished in thrift shop chic. The couch sagged in the middle, the computer desk had scratches all over, and the television wasn’t even Wi-Fi compatible. Next to the desk were several guitar cases lined up neatly against the wall and an electronic keyboard on a wobbly stand.

Mec was sitting on the couch, watching TV without really paying attention, when the front door opened. Mandy walked in, dropping her backpack by the door and carefully setting her guitar next to the others. “Hi,” Mec said as she hurried over to the couch.

“Hi yourself.” Mandy kissed her boyfriend. “So…”

“So.”

“I’ll go first. Got turned down again,” Mandy said with a sigh.

“That sucks.” Mec patted her back, between her wings. “You’re good enough to play there, and I know you will someday.”

“Thanks.” Mandy mustered a smile. “You?”

“Shot down again.” Mec shook his head. “The old sourpuss wouldn’t even look at my work.”

“Oh, sweetie.” Mandy pouted and sat down next to Mec. “I’m sorry.”

“Thanks.” Mec grabbed the remote and turned off the television. “It’s just the same thing over and over again, isn’t it? For both of us.”

“I know.” Mandy took his arm. “It won’t be this way forever. I know it won’t.”

“But when?” Mec scowled. “When do things change?” He jumped up from the couch. “Maybe in two years for you, when you can get club and bar gigs. But what about me? I’ll still be stuck working for Cog, tuning up gadgets and checking crystals. No future.”

“You’ll get the shop someday,” Mandy said.

“I don’t even know about that. Cog might sell it to someone else out of spite. And then what happens to me? To us?”

“We’ll get by.” Mandy moved behind Mec and wrapped her arms around him, laying her head on his shoulder. “We have before.”

“And for what?” Mec growled. “A future lived day by day? No goals except saving for retirement and hoping there’s something good on TV tonight?”

“Mec—”

“Maybe I was meant for bigger things!” There was a gleam in the gremlin’s eyes. “Maybe I could be the next Skyward, the next great inventor! But I’ll never find out as long as I’m being held back! As long as there are people in my way!”

“Mec?” Mandy said in a small voice. “Am I holding you back? Am I in your way?”

Mec broke away from Mandy and spun towards her, his face twisted into a snarl by anger born from frustration. Mandy gasped and ran into the bedroom, closing the door behind her.

The anger left Mec as he stared at the bedroom door. “Mandy,” he said softly. Then, he grabbed his jacket and toolbelt and fled the apartment, possessed by a different anger, loathing directed at himself for hurting the girl he loved.

* * *

The shed deep in the woods that bordered the town on three sides was double-locked and booby-trapped. As Mec approached it, he pulled a remote control from a pocket and pushed a button. He walked inside the shed without any trouble and closed the door behind him, pushing the button again.

Inside the shed were shelves and cabinets and bins, filled with odds and ends, spare parts and experiments that Mec preferred to describe as “incomplete” instead of “failures”. A huge workbench dominated the center of the room, attached to a rack loaded with tools. A large looming figure, covered by a dropcloth, stood by the back wall.

Mandy had always insisted on a neat apartment, not wanting to clean up incomplete experiments after long waitressing shifts, so Mec had found and claimed the empty shed. He jokingly called it his “secret laboratory,” even though everyone knew where to find it. He used it for his special commission projects, including the gadgets he had made for Beth, and for his personal research. But that evening, he used it as a refuge, a place he could hide to get away from the problems of the day.

He knew that later, he’d have to face Mandy again, to explain and apologize. But here, all he had to face were his tools and materials, his ideas and inspirations, without any interruptions, anyone blocking his way. He grabbed an object from his workbench, a wooden rod with penciled patterns, and got to work.

* * *

It was dark in the cell. It had been built well below decks, and the corridors were only lit by torches, so what little light there was crept in through the cracks between the cell door and its frame. There was one prisoner there, a faerie, and she was shackled in place, arms chained to the wall and legs to the floor.

She had been sleeping when the door was unlocked and opened. A faerie walked in carrying a bucket of water. He stopped just inside the doorway and threw the bucket’s contents at the prisoner, chortling as she woke up.
“Cantwick,” she muttered, blinking as the light from outside hit her eyes. “How charming.”

“Are you ready to talk, pirate?” Cantwick said.

“Perhaps,” the prisoner said as she wiped water off her face. “But you wouldn’t like what I’d have to say.”

“Duke Wrexham wants answers, pirate. Where is your ship? Where are your cohorts?”

“Had I not been imprisoned in this cell for the last two days, I might actually have answers for you.” The pirate half-smiled.

Cantwick stormed up to her and grabbed her by the collar. “You’ll regret your smart tongue!” he shouted.

“Someday, perhaps,” she responded. “But I know that Wrexham loves his show trials. He’ll want to hold one for me, and my crewmate, before we swing from his gallows. And that’s why you won’t hurt us. You’re a faithful little lapdog.”

“Go to Hell!” Cantwick spat. He pushed the prisoner against the wall and stormed out of the cell, slamming the door behind him.

“At least the food would be better there,” the prisoner muttered. She settled back in as best as she could and closed her eyes.

 

Chapter Two

And so, Beth thought as she spun the steering wheel of her airship, having thwarted the plans of the impertinent Baron Von Spotnick, it was onward towards their next adventure! He had put up a challenge, but with the help of her loyal crew and the dark and brooding masked rogue she knew only as Starling, she had triumphed.

One of her crew hurried up to her, pausing only to preen her whiskers and munch on a stalk of celery. “Wheep?” she asked Beth.

“Where are we going, Snootles?” Beth told the guinea pig. “Wherever the wind and sky take us!”

“Captain…” A slender masked young rogue dressed all in black strode up to her, his dark hair drifting dramatically in the breeze, guinea pigs swooning in his wake. “You had mentioned a reward?”

Beth felt her heart race as Starling spoke. “I may not have much to give,” she whispered, “but there is one thing I would gladly offer you, you dark and brooding rogue.” She pressed close to him and looked up into his dark and brooding eyes, which were all she could see through his bird-like mask.

“My dearest Beth…” Starling reached down and stroked her cheek. “I am not who I seem to be.”

“Not dark and brooding?”

“Not that.” He pulled the mask off and cast it aside. Beth was surprised to see who it really was underneath, and astonished that she still closed her eyes, eagerly awaiting the kiss—

* * *

“Good morning!” Michiko said cheerfully as she shook Beth awake.

Beth sat up in bed and held her head in her hands. “Great timing, Michiko,” she grumbled. “I was having another airship dream.” And she woke me up right in the middle of that kiss, she added to herself, trying not to blush.

“You’ve been having a lot of those lately.” Michiko took Beth’s glasses from the bedside table and handed them to her roommate.

“Thanks.” Beth put her glasses on, blinking in the bedroom light. “You know I’ve always loved airships. I can’t stop thinking about them, especially since you went to Faerie last month.”

“Were the guinea pigs there?”

“Yeah.”

“How about Starling? Did he finally take his mask off this time?” Michiko grinned.

I have got to stop telling her about my dreams, Beth thought. “Never mind that,” she said. “What time is it?”

“2:00 AM.”

“Do I want to know why you’re waking me up so early?”

“The hobgoblins called,” Michiko said with a sigh. “There’s another problem in their warehouse.”

“And they had to get us out of bed to help, huh?”

“You’re still in bed.”

“Details.” Beth threw the covers aside and scooted out of her bed. “Is there coffee?”

“I just started a fresh pot.”

“Thanks.” Beth smiled as she walked over to the door to her private bathroom. “Give me ten minutes to get ready.” She stopped in the doorway and looked back at Michiko. “By the way…”

“Yes?” Michiko said.

“It’s your turn to wake up Gregor.”

Beth closed the bathroom door, but she could still hear Michiko’s anguished shout, “Nooo!”

* * *

Tuesday mornings at the Wonderland Diner and Tavern, the preferred choice for hungry and thirsty Emigres, were very much not like weekends. Those, especially Sunday mornings, were as crazy as it got in every conceivable way. Tuesdays, on the other hand, were pretty much quiet, which made it a good day to give an inexperienced waitress her first solo shift.

Bianca’s feet and legs were starting to hurt two hours in, but the faerie didn’t let it show as she refilled coffee for the dwarves and cleared Sam’s table. She did pause to catch her breath and adjust her apron, glancing over as the front door opened. Her eyes widened as the Monkey Queen walked in. “Good morning, everybody!” Michiko said.

Beth came in behind her, smiling and nodding at the regulars. She glanced around and saw the waitress. “Bianca?” she said.

Bianca hurried over. “Michiko! Beth!” she said to them. “Good morning! You’re here on a Tuesday?”

“Surprise!” Michiko said with a grin.

“Let’s get you seated.” Bianca led Michiko and Beth to their usual table in the center of the diner. “Did you need to see the menu?”

“Nah,” Beth said as she sat down, setting her backpack on the floor next to her chair. “Just the usual for us.”

“All right,” Bianca said as she pulled out a smartphone and checked the screen. “That’s…a big stack of pancakes with fresh fruit on the side for Michiko?”

“Yep!” Michiko said.

“And for Beth, ham and cheese omelet with a sourdough English muffin, and then a short stack of pancakes?”

Beth nodded. “Mandy wrote that up for you, didn’t she?”

“She did. It’s been very helpful.” Bianca put the phone away. “Coffee, right?”

“Please!” Beth grinned.

Bianca smiled back and headed into the kitchen. “He’s working today?” Michiko asked.

“He usually takes Mondays and Thursdays off,” Beth said, “and it’s Tuesday, so any second now…”

The kitchen doors swung open, and a tall male who, with his bat-like wings, fiery red eyes and purple skin, could have been mistaken for a demonic monster were he not wearing a chef’s hat and apron strode into the dining room. “You two!” he said in his deep voice as he hurried over to Michiko and Beth’s table.

“Good morning, Aloysius!” Michiko jumped up and hugged the chef.

“Told you.” Beth grinned as she hugged Aloysius in turn. “Good morning, big guy.”

“Good morning to both of you!” he said. “Is it Sunday already?”

“Still Tuesday!” Michiko said as she and Beth sat back down.

“We just needed a sanity break,” Beth said.

“Rough day already?” Aloysius asked.

“Rough week.”

“We’ve had to clear up problems at the hobgoblin warehouse four times in the last five days.” Michiko grimaced. “And the last one was at two this morning.”

“And,” Beth said, “my TAs seem to be competing with each other to see who can treat me worse.”

“And Gregor,” Michiko said.

“And Gregor.” Beth sighed.

“Is he being difficult again?”

Beth glanced over and saw a tall blonde faerie dressed in black walking up to their table. “Good morning, Scylla!” Michiko said.

“Hey,” Beth said with a smile. “We had to wake him up at 2:00 AM, and he’s still mad about it.”

“He does like his sleep,” Scylla said.

“How the heck do you get along so well with him anyway?”

“Maybe it’s because they have something in common,” Michiko said.

“Misanthropy?” Scylla smiled.

“You said it,” Beth said as Bianca set coffee cups in front of her and Michiko. “I didn’t.”

Bianca glanced at Aloysius. “I thought you were supposed to be in the kitchen,” she said. “You should go back to work.”

“That’s our Bianca!” Aloysius said. “Even when she has to tell me off, she’s so sweet about it.”

“She’s doing great so far!” Michiko said with a big smile.

“And not a mean bone in her body! We’re going to miss her when she goes back to Faerie to open her pizza place!”

Bianca blushed. “Thank you,” she said.

“But she needs to know how to get tough,” Beth said. “Let me show you.” She pointed at Aloysius. “Get back in your kitchen, you!”

The chef rolled his eyes. “Meanie,” he muttered as he walked away. Michiko giggled.

* * *

“What are you looking at?” Beth asked, taking another bite of pancake.

Michiko glanced up from her smartphone. “Grandmother Fox just sent the latest list of Thanksgiving invites.”

“I’m still on there, right?”

“Just as long as you don’t decide to spend the day with your parents instead!”

“Oh, please.” Beth frowned. “Even if I wanted to, the airfare is way too much.”

“You don’t want to be with your parents for the holiday?” Michiko asked.

“No,” Beth said firmly. “Their idea of celebrating Thanksgiving is to argue about where to get the precooked turkey. My senior year in high school, they took too long to decide, and we wound up having to eat tofurkey.”

“I like tofurkey!” Michiko said.

“You would.” Beth grinned and took the last bite of her pancakes.

“Mandy?”

Beth and Michiko looked over at the front door. Mec was standing in the doorway, glancing around desperately. “Is she here?” the gremlin asked.

Bianca hurried up to him. “Mec?” she said.

“Bianca! Where’s Mandy?”

“I haven’t seen her. I’ve been here all morning.”

“She has to be here!” Mec waved his hands. “I’ve looked everywhere! She has to—”

“Mec.”

He turned and saw the Monkey Queen, standing and looking at him. “Michiko?” he said, startled.

“It’s me,” she said, her voice calm and firm and compassionate. “Come over here. Sit with us.”

Mec walked slowly to Michiko’s table and pulled out a chair. As he did, Beth caught Bianca’s eye and whispered, “We’ve got this.” The waitress nodded.

“What happened, Mec?” Michiko asked.

“She’s gone,” the gremlin said as he slumped down in his chair.

“Mandy?”

Mec nodded. “I was working late in my lab, and I fell asleep at my workbench. I went straight home when I woke up, but she wasn’t there. And she didn’t leave a note or send a text.”

“Did you try calling her?”

“She didn’t answer. I checked some of her favorite places, but no sign. I knew it was her day off, but this…this was the last…”

“Why were you at your lab?” Michiko asked. Mec stared at the table, saying nothing.

“Mec?” Beth asked. “Were you two fighting?”

“We…” Mec took a breath. “Both of us have been under a lot of stress lately. I got mad about Cog and took it out on her. She hid in the bedroom, and I walked out, and now…” He covered his face with his hands.

“Oh, Mec,” Beth said. She laid a hand on his shoulder, trying to comfort him.

“Mec?” Michiko asked. “Was anything missing?”

He looked up. “Her favorite acoustic guitar was gone,” he said. “And its case.”

Michiko nodded. “That could mean a lot of things, but I don’t think waiting around to figure out what they are is a good idea right now. Beth? Are you finished?”

Beth gulped down the last of her coffee. “Now I am,” she said.

“Mec? Do you mind if we search your apartment?”

Mec raised an eyebrow. “Everything’s where it should be there, except for the guitar.”

“Maybe,” Michiko said as she stood up, “but I’d rather be sure.”

“Michiko?” Scylla set down the old book she’d been reading. “Could you use an extra pair of eyes for your search?”

“You bet!” Michiko grinned.

“Some misanthrope,” Beth said as she reached for her backpack.

Scylla smiled. “I’m out of practice.”

* * *

The old apartment building had been slated for demolition at one point, and to all eyes, it had been; there was nothing there but a vacant lot behind a tall, imposing brick fence topped with barbed wire. However, those who knew the trick knew where to slip past the complex seemings and what path to take to get inside the renovated building that housed pixie and gremlin Emigres.

The search went quickly, and Michiko shook her head as she and Scylla finished up. “I couldn’t find anything,” she said. “Did you notice anything missing besides her guitar?”

“No,” Mec said. “Everything else was there.”

“And you’re certain that she didn’t leave a note or anything?”

“Positive. No texts, either. I’ve been checking my phone every few minutes.”

“Okay. Let’s try another approach. Beth?”

Beth nodded and began to look around the living room, not in the same way Michiko had, but looking past the surface, checking for any illusion spells that might be disguising a clue. Seeing through seemings was Beth’s rare talent, what they called “second sight”, and it was what had led to her first meeting with Michiko and their subsequent partnership.

Her search came up clean until she glanced at the front door. She blinked once, twice. “Michiko?” she said. “There’s something going on here.”

“With the door?” Michiko asked.

“Yeah. There’s some sort of seeming in place, but I can’t see past it or dispel it.”

Michiko scowled. “How does that happen?”

“I’ve heard,” Scylla said, “that there could be devices crafted by gremlins that could have that effect. They regenerate the seeming the instant it’s dispelled.”

Michiko examined the door. “Beth, are you sure?”

“Positive.” Beth stared and blinked. “I can barely see something, maybe for a fraction of a second, before it goes away.”

“But we’ve already searched the apartment,” Scylla said.

“Not all of it.” Michiko opened the door and stepped into the hall, followed by Beth. She looked up and said, “I think I found it.”

“Where?” Beth asked.

“There’s something at the top of the door frame.” Michiko squinted. “I can’t quite see it.”

“Try knocking it down with your staff.”

“I would, but breaking it could be a bad idea.” Michiko grinned. “You can get it down.”

“How?”

“With a boost. Stand over here.”

Beth moved close to the door; Michiko stood behind her and took hold of Beth’s hips. “Careful with those hands!” Beth said with a smile.

Michiko giggled as she lifted her partner up. “See anything?” she said.

Beth spotted the flat gray metal casing right away. “Yeah, there’s something here,” she said. “And it’s not dusty, so it hasn’t been here long.”

“Can you get it down?”

“The catch is doing it safely.” Beth shook her arm, and the sleeve of her jacket slid over her right hand. She touched the casing gingerly with the cuff, her left hand hovering near the top button of the pocket on her right arm, ready to activate her emergency force field. Nothing happened. She gently took the device in her jacket-covered hand and said, “Got it.”

Michiko carefully lowered Beth back down. “No traps?” she asked.

“Not yet.” Beth held out the device as Scylla and Mec joined them in the hall. “Looks harmless enough.”

Michiko looked at the device. “Mec? Scylla? Thoughts?”

“There is some magic about it,” Scylla said. “Not sure what, though.”

Beth flipped the device over. “What’s that symbol?” she asked. It was a small engraving on one corner on the back, an ornate “G” set in the middle of a gear.

Mec looked at the symbol. His eyes narrowed. “Lord Gimcrack’s mark,” he said.

“Gimcrack?”

“One of the greatest of all gremlin craftsmen. This isn’t his usual style, but I’d know that mark anywhere.”

“Doesn’t Mandy have some…history with him?” Michiko said.

“That’s the polite way to put it.” Mec gritted his teeth.

“Why is that?” Beth asked.

“Five years ago, he met Mandy by chance and was smitten on the spot. He made some rather creepy moves on her.” The gremlin grimaced.

“How old was Mandy?”

“Fourteen.”

“And Gimcrack?”

“Seventy-eight.”

Beth shuddered. “Yeah, that ranks pretty high on the creepy scale.”

“She rebuffed him quite thoroughly, and Gimcrack didn’t take it well. Her family had to emigrate here for her safety.”

“I never knew that,” Scylla said.

“She doesn’t like to talk about it much,” Mec said. “I think she’s still a bit worried about him finding her here.”

“He may have.” Michiko took the device from Beth. “Scylla? Should I just smash this?”

“Please don’t,” the faerie said. “Gimcrack does enjoy his traps.”

“Got it.” Michiko set the device on the ground and backed away. Beth and Scylla moved next to her. Mec knelt by the device; Scylla gestured, and a protective shield went up around him. The gremlin took a screwdriver from his tool belt, popped the casing open, and went to work.

A few minutes later, the device was in pieces, the power crystal had been safely tucked away, and Mec was putting away his tools. “No traps?” he said. “Gimcrack’s getting soft in his old age.”

“Or he didn’t have time to build one in,” Scylla said as the shield vanished.

“But the door still looks the same,” Michiko said.

Beth faced the door, looked below the surface, and blinked. “Not any more,” she said as the seeming vanished. The doorknob had clearly been broken out of the door and clumsily repaired, with wood that didn’t match.

“Would Gimcrack have stayed on Earth?” Michiko asked.

“No,” Mec said. “He hates being here. He’s probably back in Faerie by now.” He gathered the pieces of Gimcrack’s device and stood up.

Michiko nodded. “No time to waste, then.”

“So when do we leave?” Mec asked.

“Mec…” Michiko looked sadly at the gremlin. “It’s probably best if you stayed here.”

“What?” Mec’s jaw dropped.

“We need someone to let us know if we’ve gotten things wrong and Mandy comes home. If anyone can come up with a way to do that, it’s you.”

“You’re saying I’m not good enough?” Mec shouted. “You’re saying I can’t handle this?” There was a gleam in the gremlin’s eye.

“No, I’m—”

“That’s what Cog would say! He’s wrong, and you’re wrong! I’m not going to let you—”

“Mec.” Michiko stared calmly at the gremlin. “Stop and listen to yourself for a moment.”

The hallway fell silent. Finally, Mec nodded. “I understand,” he said. “I just don’t like being told I can’t help when Mandy’s in trouble.”

Michiko laid a hand on his shoulder. “It’s for the best.”

“If she’s not back soon—”

“I know,” Michiko said. “But we’ll do everything we can to get Mandy home. I promise.”

Mec exhaled. “I know you will. Thanks.” He went back into his apartment, softly closing the door behind him.

“Let’s go,” Michiko whispered. She moved quickly down the hall, the other women following.

* * *

“Wow,” Beth said as they left the apartment building. “I’ve never seen him so upset.”

“Me neither.” Michiko sighed.

“Are you two familiar with ‘gremlin madness’?” Scylla asked.

“I’ve heard of it,” Michiko said, “but I’ve never seen it.”

“I think we just have.” Scylla glanced around as they passed through the hidden door in the fence, whispering to activate her human seeming before she continued. “Sometimes, when gremlins are stressed or working on a difficult project, or both, a certain anger-fueled obsession takes over. You did a good job of diffusing it, Michiko, but I worry about it affecting Mec again.”

“I just hope he doesn’t do anything rash.”

“So what’s next?” Beth asked.

“We need to go back to our apartment,” Michiko said. “Scylla? Can you watch Gregor for a few days?”

“My pleasure.” The faerie smiled. “I just downloaded a few smartphone apps that will hopefully keep him from complaining too much.”

“Wait,” Beth asked. “Aren’t you going with Michiko?”

“Too risky,” Michiko said.

Scylla nodded. “If either of you get caught, at least you might be able to escape before they collect the bounty. But Wrexham’s standing orders are to kill me on sight.”

“Wait a minute. ‘Either of you…’?” Beth stopped, her eyes slowly widening.

“She finally figured it out,” Scylla said with a smile.

“Yep!” Michiko grinned. “Beth, you’re coming with me to Faerie.”

Beth nearly sprained an ankle jumping for joy.

 

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

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

 

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