paulmundane

General and somewhat random story things

Archive for the tag “fantasy”

Khell doodle.

So, sometimes when I’m not writing, I’m doodling. I don’t consider myself great at it, though I also don’t consider myself to be that bad at it either. I find though, so long as I’m creating something one way or another, I’m pretty happy.

I drew Khell a few days back, just to get my brain back on her story. I figured it turned out ok, so I’m willing to share.

This is her on my Deviant Page

That’s all. I’ll have another chapter up in a few days.

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Khell 08

Khell had stood adamantly until Fenway had answered her, and had immediately felt foolish about how little the answer meant to her. A Principal, it turned out, worked directly for the King, and answered only to him. Principal Valen was the Principal of this area.

Principal Valen was one of several Principals, though Fenway had only heard of a few others. In other words, Principal Valen was a very important man that Khell had never heard of before. Dejected, Khell accepted the description with a slight nod, and let Fenway and the crew lead her to the small café.

Fenway sat Khell and Sprogs together at a table near the back of the café. He ordered Khell a drink that he called Juiji berry, which smelt like bananas, and tasted like passion fruit. Fenway reminded Khell to keep her hood up, and left the girls together.

Khell stared at her drink, not wanting to look up. Sprogs sat across from her, smirking at Khell. If Sprogs did have anything to say, she hadn’t said it yet. She hadn’t said anything since they’d sat down. She hadn’t touched her drink (which was a white milky substance served in a shallow bowl). Sprogs had just stared and smirked and made Khell very uncomfortable.

Urrah and Fenway sat at a booth closer to the front door. Khell snuck a glance at the two from beneath her hood. Urrah took the entirety of the booth’s cushioned bench, while Fenway was perched on a tall stool. Both of them looked to be relaxed and casual, but there was a tension underlying their relaxed poses and whispered conversation.

“Don’t you want to know what we do?” Sprogs asked suddenly. She ran her fingers in a slow circle through her drink, and sucked the milky fluid from her thick black claws. “You question everything, but you don’t seem to care who we are, or what we do.”

“I don’t…”

Sprogs leant over the table, and stopped Khell mid sentence. “I’d ask,” she whispered. “I think it’d be the first question I’d have.” Sprogs cleared her throat, and spoke in a perfect mimicry of Khell’s voice. “Who are you people? Where are you taking me? What are the stakes?”

Sprogs switched back to her own voice. “You heard us talk about selling you,” she accused. “You know we work for Principal Valen, and yet you don’t ask what we do, or what we intend to do with you.” Sprogs leant back across the table, and resumed staring at Khell.

Khell wasn’t sure what she was being accused of, but Sprogs suspicion was thick in the air. She did have a point. Khell had been quick to trust Fenway, and had never questioned the intentions of the Copper Cicada’s crew. It occurred to Khell that she was, in short, being kidnapped. She felt a sudden cold dread in her gut; a feeling that didn’t go away as she looked into Sprogs black eyes.

Khell took a deep breath. “You talked about selling me,” she accused Sprogs. “No one else: just you. Fenway said that he wouldn’t sell me.”

“And that was good enough for you?”

“Yes,” Khell replied. She tried to hide the doubt in her voice. “I trust…”

“An absolute stranger with your life,” Sprogs interrupted. “You trust someone that you have no reason to trust, simply because he smiled and told you everything is going to be fine.”

Khell bit her lip and looked about frantically. The panic leapt to her throat. Sprogs grabbed Khell by the wrist before she could rabbit out of the café. Khell pulled against Sprogs iron grasp futilely.

“I did ask who you all were.” Khell muttered feebly.

“And we gave you our names.” Sprogs replied; venom hidden just beneath her calm tone. “That was enough for you?”

Khell tugged at her arm again, and looked up at Sprogs. “I…” she swallowed hard, and tried to calm down. “What do you do?” Khell asked in a small voice.

Sprogs smiled coldly, and let go of Khell’s wrist. She ran a finger through her drink again, and let the question float in the air for a moment. “We’re Jacks,” Sprogs answered finally.

Khell rubbed her wrist. “I don’t know what a Jack is,” she admitted.

Sprogs’ smirk twitched, momentarily exposing her oversized canines. A low growl formed in her throat before she composed herself. “Of course you don’t,” she replied in a calm even tone. “Because you don’t know things.”

“I don’t,” Khell mumbled, mostly to herself. Sprogs ignored her, and went on.

“A Jack takes jobs for money,” Sprogs explained. “Any job,” she verified before Khell could ask, “so long as it pays well. No questions asked.”

Sprogs dipped and licked her fingers again; her claws made a scraping noise against her course tongue. “If a client is willing to pay us to break into The Library, and find an item of interest there, than we’d go find the item, and bring it to the client.” Sprogs sneered at Khell. “We would bring the client whatever that item turned out to be. That’s what Jacks do. We do the job we’re being paid for. No. Questions. Asked.”

“But,” Khell replied desperately. “But Fenway said he wouldn’t.”

Sprogs let out a bitter chuckle. “He won’t,” she stated accusingly. “Fenway has a clear set of jobs he won’t do, and kidnapping is right there with killing on the list of don’ts.” Sprogs thought a moment. “Normally, with any other client, you would simply be a deal breaker.”

“But not with Principal Valen,” Khell acknowledged. “Who is he, really? Fenway said one of the Principals, and that they only answer to the King, but there’s more than that, isn’t there?”

“Oh you’d like that wouldn’t you?” Sprogs barked sharply at Khell. She lowered her voice as Fenway and Urrah stared over from their booth. “You’d love to hear me badmouth the Principal, wouldn’t you? Catch me talking treason?”

Khell stared confusion at Sprogs. She got that Sprogs didn’t believe her, but Khell wasn’t sure what Sprogs was actually accusing her of. “I don’t understand,” Khell managed. She considered adding more, but really, I don’t understand summed up Khell’s entire day.

Sprogs growled again, not bothering to try and control her anger. She opened her mouth to respond to Khell, but whatever she had to say was lost when the doors exploded off their hinges, and flew through the café. Two Cogstables stormed in through the destroyed portal, and scanned the room.

Where the Cogstables in the library had looked like they’d been built out of woodstoves; these two Cogstables looked to be made from old trucks. They were a similar mess of metal and cogs as the other Cogstables, but much bigger. Their bodies were dark green, but the paint was cracked, and peeled in places as if it was trying to escape the fire that burned white behind the double grills on the Cogstables’ chests.

The café shook as the Cogstables marched through. Everyone hustled to get out of the way of the two metal behemoths, and several patrons made straight for the door.

Fenway watched with calm disinterest as the two Cogstables stomped towards his table. Fenway pulled out a new cigar as they towered over him, and lit it with the heat from one of their chests. “So, I take it your boss was too busy to come in person,” Fenway observed.

The Cogstables both tooted sharply; an ominous sound similar to a fog horn. They stepped away from each other, and opened their hands. Thick cables sprouted from their palms and grew together. Cogs and metal sheathing blossomed from the cords as they intertwined to create a large hoop between the Cogstables.

Khell watched in amazement as the center of the circle rippled like a soap bubble. It flickered slightly, with old television static, and the image of a man formed in the middle. He was thin and tall, with sharp facial features and long pointed ears that swept back behind flowing white hair. His body was a spring of tight muscles under robes draped and cut to show off his bare chest. There was a symbol painted on his torso; a series of smaller circles orbiting inside four larger ones. Khell gasped as she stared at the paint on the Principal’s chest.

Sprogs grabbed the front of Khell’s hood and yanked, nearly smacking her head on the table. “You don’t ever look directly at a Principal,” Sprogs told Khell in a whisper. Her normal snide was missing, and Sprogs stared wide eyed at the table.

“I didn’t know,” Khell mumbled. She dared another peak from beneath her hood at Principal Valen. There was no mistaking it; the symbol painted on his chest was the same one that had been on the front of the book!

Khell 07

Sprogs and Cogs piloted the Copper Cicada up to one of the long wooden walkways that jutted from the side of Fobiah. It looked like an ordinary dock to Khell at first, only there was no water holding up the wooden docks. Instead they seemed to float out in the open air.

Several other ships were docked at Fobiah as well. There was a huge steamer that Khell thought looked like a Mississippi riverboat; complete with a giant paddlewheel. There was a large black square of a ship that leaked orange light from its seams in a way that made the whole ship look hot to touch. There were a pair of ships that looked like clockwork swans, and another that looked like a lopsided house built onto its own small island. Compared to most of the other ships docked at Fobiah, the Copper Cicada was quite small.

Sprogs waved over the deck of the Cicada to a group of green men with long strong arms, short stout legs, and sharply pointed noses. They waved back to Sprogs, before they used gaff sticks to pull the Copper Cicada closer to the deck, and tying the ship down.

Khell watched the whole of the docking with unhidden awe. The floating docks were amazing, and should have been impossible. The same was true of the ships around them.  Fenway fluttered up behind Khell, and placed a paw on her shoulder.

“You’ve never been on a Beetle class ship during closing, have you kid?”

“No,” Khell admitted. “I don’t even know what that is.”

“Yeah, I thought that might be the case,” Fenway said. He motioned for Urrah to join them. “She’s never been part of a ship closing,” Fenway told the large bear-man.

Urrah gently picked up Khell by the shoulders and moved her to the center of the deck. “Do not move,” he told her. “Is safe if you stand still.”

Cogs pulled some final levers at the bow of the ship, and made a sharp steam whistle noise. The wood under Khell’s feet rumbled as machinery below deck came to life. The rigging went taut, and was reeled in by wheels hidden beneath them. The sails groaned, and pulled in towards the deck.

Khell stood rigid as spars and sails folded around her. She watched as the crew of the Copper Cicada preformed an intricate dance between the moving parts. They pushed, pulled, and lashed down the sails as they folded into the ship; all with practiced ease. Finally, the copper plates from the side of the ship latched overhead, and clicked down over the Copper Cicada’s body like a carapace.

Cogs whistled again, this time a series of short toots. The grinding machines in the bowels of the Copper Cicada stopped. Cogs dropped open a door that doubled as a gangplank, and gave an almost sarcastic salute as he stepped aside.

Khell was the last to get off of the ship. She stepped gingerly onto the dock, uncomfortable with how it bobbed under everyone’s weight. Behind her, Cogs pulled the gangplank closed from inside the Copper Cicada.

“Cogs has to stay on the ship,” Sprogs told Khell sharply.

“Oh,” Khell replied. She hadn’t thought to ask about Cogs really. She wasn’t thinking about much more than getting off the dock and on to solid land.

“C’mon kid,” Fenway offered, leading the way. “We’ll show you around.”

Fobiah was a farming town, Fenway explained. He pointed to the fields of wheat that grew along the edge of the floating island, and told Khell of the orchards of fruit that dominated the other side of town.  The first thing that Khell noticed was the tower in the center of town. It looked somewhat like a windmill, with a giant fan spinning slowly in Fobiah’s breeze, but with huge copper pipes jutting at random intervals from the body of the tower, and vanishing into the ground. The windmill was the tallest building on Fobiah, towering high over the timber and plaster houses that made up the town.

Even from the docks, Khell could already see life on Fobiah.  A bear in overalls shoved a plow in the field, while another, wearing a sundress, watched some cubs running nearby. Three flying pugs chatted with a raccoon boy as he did maintenance on some farm equipment. A pair of giant lizard men stalked past the crew, wings wrapped like cloaks around their shoulders. They spoke in their own hissing language, and laughed as they purposely shoved past Urrah.

Khell watched the lizard men pass, and waited till they’d made a good distance before she spoke. “What are they?” Khell asked.

“Slaadas,” Urrah replied, rubbing his shoulder with annoyance. “Is not always most friendly people.”

Fenway nodded his agreement. “It’s not nice to judge a whole people but, yeah; the Slaadas are a piece of work.”

“Slaadas,” Khell repeated. “What about the green guys that helped at the dock?”

“Those were Gooblyns,” Fenway said. “Good workers; really know their way around a dockyard, but you’ve got to watch your wallet around them.”

“Now who is judging whole people?” Urrah chided.

Khell just nodded. Slaadas. Gooblyns. The world may not have had a name, but the people did. Khell looked at her companions. “So, what is everyone else?”

Everyone shared a look as though Khell had asked them to eat a kitten. For a moment, Khell thought they might not answer her, and she considered apologizing for what might have been a rude question.

“I’m a Pupkin,” Fenway said with an awkward smile, starting everyone off.

“We were called Borras,” Urrah added, pointing to himself. “But we changed it after we lost our home.” Urrah raised his chin proudly. “We are Crueshians now. We will never forget.”

Fenway and Urrah both looked at Sprogs. Sprogs just stared daggers back at them. “Sprogs is an Arcune,” Fenway explained, never taking his eyes off her. “They’re not known for their manners.”

Sprogs gave an annoyed chitter. “Why are you humoring her Fenway?” she snapped.

“I’m not humoring anyone,” Fenway replied. “Khell asked a question, and I answered it.”

“Khell asked a stupid question,” Sprogs corrected.  “She’s asked hundreds of them, and you’re acting like it doesn’t faze you.” Sprogs sucked her teeth at Fenway. When she spoke again, it was with a perfect mimicry of Khell’s voice. “Where are we? Who’s the King? Where’s the ground? What is everyone?”

Khell’s anger at Sprogs’ comments was overwhelmed by her amazement of hearing her own voice come out of Sprogs’ mouth. “How are you doing that?”

Sprogs pointed both hands irritably at Khell as though she’d just proven Sprogs’ point.

“I’m not from here,” Khell snapped. “Why can’t you get that?”

Sprogs snarled and advanced on Khell. Khell hadn’t noticed Sprogs sharp canines before, but she sure noticed them now. “I can’t get what you’re playing at, that’s what I can’t get,” she growled.  “Where could you possibly be from that you don’t know what the Cogwork-Kingdom is?”

Khell tried to step back, but Sprogs just kept up, and kept face to face with Khell. “I’m from Canada,” she started, already sure this wouldn’t mean anything to Sprogs. “My dad and I just moved to Quarry Town a few days ago; so I guess I’m from there.”

Sprogs shook her head. For a moment, her anger was replaced with shock. “You’re not from Quarityn,” she accused uncertainly.

“Quarry Town,” Khell corrected, “and, yes I am.”

The fury returned to Sprogs’ features. “No you’re not!”

Fenway flew between the girls, and made Sprogs to take a step back. “Yes, she is,” he stated calmly.

Sprogs stared a mix of shock and surprise at Fenway. “So that’s what this is about?” She threw her hands in the air. “You think she’s actually…”

“You didn’t see what I saw,” Fenway interrupted with a growl. “You don’t even see what’s right in front of you.”  He pulled down Khell’s hood. “What is she Sprogs? You have all the answers.”

Sprogs stared hard at Khell. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “She looks a bit like an Alfyn I guess.  Ears are too short, and way too round but…”

“She’s not an Alfyn,” Fenway interrupted. He tugged Khell’s hood, causing her to stumble a step closer to Sprogs. “Look harder,” he ordered.

Khell tugged the hood from Fenway’s paws. “I don’t know what an Alfyn is,” she said. “I’m human, ok?”

It felt weird to say out loud. Khell couldn’t have imagined before being a place where she’d have to tell people she was human. Her declaration was met with a moment of silence; broken suddenly by Sprogs sharp bark of a laugh.

“You’re a Yuman?” Sprogs declared with disbelief. She looked incredulously at Fenway. “Is that what you believe?” Sprogs looked back at Khell. “You. A Yuman from Quarityn.” Sprogs stood on one paw, and shoved the other at Khell’s face. “Go on,” she said, still laughing. “Pull the other one; I’ve got two.”

“I am human,” Khell replied hotly. “Why would I lie about something like that?”

“Because there’s no such thing as Yumans!”  Sprogs snapped.  Her shout caught the attention of some passing Pupkins, but Sprogs shot them a look that caused them to quicken their pace. “There’s no such thing as Yumans,” she repeated with forced calm.

“And yet, here she is,” Fenway added. He lit a cigar and inhaled deeply. “The question is; what do we do now?”

“We get rid of her,” Sprogs answered quickly. She looked at her companions, surprised that it wasn’t as obvious to them as it was to her.

“Is not answer,” Urrah said. He shrugged his huge shoulders. “Maybe is Yuman, maybe is not. But we do not sell people, not to client, not to anyone.” He looked down at Sprogs. “And we do not turn back on people that need help.” Sprogs crossed her arms angrily, but muttered an agreement under her breath.

“I don’t get understand,” Khell admitted. “I don’t understand what’s going on.”

Fenway turned a smile to Khell, ready to answer. Sprogs cut him off with an angry chitter. “Fenway thinks you’re the Yuman from Quarityn that’s supposed to bring a vaguely explained big change to the world. Because of the prophecy.” Sprogs snickered like she was sharing some inside joke. No one else laughed. “He’s hoping that you will somehow stop the Cogwork-Kingdom.”

Khell looked from Sprogs to Fenway. She shook her head in disbelief. “Me?”

“You,” Sprogs agreed with a roll of her eyes. “Our great Yuman savior.”

“Me?” Khell repeated. She had about as much belief in this as Sprogs had.

Fenway shot Sprogs a dirty look. “What we do or don’t believe doesn’t change our afternoon does it?” He pointed to a small café. “We’re meeting our client there, and he’s going to be expecting us to have the merchandise.”

“You,” Urrah verified for Khell. “Is good sign that he believes the prophecy, no?”

“Or a good sign that you guys were wrong,” Sprogs offered, “and she’s not what you were supposed to retrieve.”

“Guess we’ll find out,” Fenway finished. He flew towards the café, expecting everyone to follow.

Khell stood still, and shook her head when Fenway looked back at her. “Who is he?” she demanded. “Who is the client?”

Sprogs made an amused noise. “Oh, go ahead and tell her Fenway,” Sprogs insisted. “It’ll be great.”

Fenway huffed. “Alright,” he relented, motioning for everyone to keep their voices down. “We were hired by Principal Valen to find something off in The Library; all very hush hush.”

Sprogs smiled and motioned to Khell. “Well, go on,” she urged.

Khell bit her lip. She knew what Sprogs wanted to hear, but she had to ask anyways. “Who’s Principal Valen?”

Khell 06

Khell did not get the answers she wanted. Not right away at least. It wasn’t that the crew of the Copper Cicada didn’t try to answer her questions, but instead it seemed that the answers weren’t there in a way that Khell would like.

When she’d asked where they were, Fenway told her quite straightforward that they were on the deck of the Copper Cicada. He even mentioned that they’d just left The Library; in case Khell had somehow forgotten. When Khell pressed further, he told her that they were on their way to a small village called Fobiah, on a floating rock with the same name.

At first Khell was frustrated with Fenway’s vague answers to her question, thinking that he was purposely being aloof. She wanted to know where they were in general; and no one had a name for that. Each floating island had its own name, and the earth below them was simply called the ground. There was no name for the whole of the area, or for a country. No one knew what a continent was, much less what it would be called.

“Everything is owned by The King,” Fenway offered finally. “I suppose if it makes you feel better, you could say you’re in the Cogwork-Kingdom.”

Khell nodded. The Cogwork-Kingdom did feel more solid. Still, she couldn’t help notice that the whole crew of the Copper Cicada soured at the name. “What’s the Cogwork-Kingdom?” she asked. “Who’s The King?”

There was a solid moment of silence as the crew stared at Khell. “How can you not know who The King is,” Sprogs finally asked with a snort of disbelief. “Everyone knows who The King is.”

“I don’t,” Khell retorted. “I don’t know who The King is, and I don’t know what the Cogwork-Kingdom is!”

“Ok kid, settle down.” Fenway flew between Sprogs and Khell. He looked about as though someone might have overheard Khell, and spoke with a lowered voice. “The King is… Well he’s The King. I’ve never met him; doubt I know anyone who has.”

“The Cogwork-Kingdom though; it’s everywhere.” Fenway pointed up towards the clouds. “There’s a huge island up above the clouds. That’s where the Kingdom is technically; but really, they control everything. Absolutely everything” Fenway cursed under his breath.

“And you don’t like that,” Khell summed up. “Does anyone?”

“Well, I’m sure the Kingdom likes it fine,” Sprogs commented offhand. “Anyone else would be a short list. Real short like.”

“But then, why doesn’t anyone do anything about it?”

Khell’s question was met with looks of mixed horror. Fenway looked about again as though someone could have heard Khell. Sprogs actually took a few steps back to distance herself from Khell; and action mimicked by the silver Cogstable that stood with her. Urrah only shook his head, and sighed low.

“Cruesha,” Urrah said, as though the word was answer enough. “Cruesha was beautiful city. One of biggest cities ever.  It was my home.” Urrah looked off to the sky as he spoke. “When The King told us we must pay tax, we said no. When he sent his Cogstables, we threw them over the edge. And when he sent his clockwork army, we fought them.”

“Was glorious battle,” Urrah continued. “For days, they tried to take the city, and for days, we pushed them back. As word spread of our fight, of how we were stopping clockwork army, others joined. This will be where we make stand, they said. This is where we stop the Cogwork-Kingdom. A huge army; all the races, all opposed to the Kingdom. ” Urrah slammed his great fists down on the edge railing of the Copper Cicada. His shoulders slumped at the memories.

“What happened?” Khell finally asked.

Urrah looked at Khell, and smiled sadly. “Tragedy,” he told her. “We thought we had won. The Kingdom had drawn back; left Cruesha. We should have known better than to celebrate victory so soon.” He looked back to the sky. “Was over there; Cruesha,” he explained, pointing to a large gap between the floating islands.

Khell stared at the open sky. “The Cogwork-Kingdom destroyed an entire city?”

Sprogs chittered annoyance. “They didn’t just destroy the city,” she corrected. “They grounded it.” Sprogs waved over the side of the Copper Cicada. “One minute it was floating, the next minute it wasn’t.” She shook her head. “No one understands how it happened. The islands have floated where they are forever. If the Cogwork-Kingdom can make that stop, then there’s no telling what they can do.” Sprogs shot Khell a look. “That’s why no one does anything anymore,” she finished.

Khell looked down through a gap between ship and sails. “I don’t see it,” she admitted. Far below them was only green, that Khell had assumed was a field.

Sprogs followed Khell’s gaze over the side. “How would you see it?” she asked sardonically. “You can see through The Fog now?”

“That’s fog?” Khell questioned. Knowing what she was looking at, Khell could now make out the shifts and swirls in the green canopy below. It was like looking at a smooth green cloud. Being aware that it wasn’t solid land beneath them made Khell feel dizzy. “How far below that is the ground?”

“Real far,” Sprogs replied. She narrowed her eyes at Khell. “How can you not know that? How can you not know about the Cogwork-Kingdom?”

“This is a dangerous conversation,” Fenway interrupted. “It’s never a good idea to talk long about anything involving The Kingdom. You never know if, or how, they could be listening.” Fenway looked about again. “They have bugs everywhere,” he explained.

Khell at first thought Fenway meant bugging devices, like a spy would use on TV, but he motioned with his paws in a way that made Khell think of actual insects. She wondered how a bug could listen to conversation.

“Sometimes; it is bugs,” Urrah added to the conversation. “Sometimes, is Cogstables.”

“They’re everywhere too,” Fenway agreed. “The Kingdom parks Cogstables in all the cities and towns. It’s supposedly to keep the peace,” he explained for Khell. “But it’s really to keep folks in line. Those damn robots don’t do anything more than scare people.”

The silver Cogstable with the red stripes looked indignantly at Fenway.  It gave a sharp whistle noise, like steam from a kettle, and huffed off towards the bow of the ship.

“Oh, c’mon Cogs,” Sprogs called after it, “Fenway didn’t mean you.” Sprogs shot Fenway a dirty look. “You know how sensitive he is,” she snipped before following after the Cogstable.

Fenway chuckled as he watched Sprogs and Cogs storm off. “Well, that’s as good a conversation break as any,” he admitted. “We’ll be docking at Fobiah soon, and we need to find you something less conspicuous to wear before then.”

Finding clothes for Khell was easier said than done. Nothing of Fenway’s or Urrah’s was going to fit her, as Fenway was too small, and Urrah was much too big. Sprogs was the only person on the ship close to Khell’s size, and she didn’t like to share. This was likely fine, Khell decided, since Sprogs didn’t wear pants anyways. In the end, Urrah was able to turn a wool blanket into a passable cloak that hung long enough to hide Khell’s clothing.

Khell gave the cloak a twirl. It was a thick forest green, and Urrah had given it a deep yellow trim of intricately corded knot-work. The hood was so deep that Khell thought she could get lost in it. Khell wasn’t sure what was more amazing; that Urrah could make such a beautiful garment with giant bear paws, or that he’d done it in under twenty minutes.

“Is not best work,” Urrah commented, pulling a few final knots along the bottom hem, “but it will do,”

“It’s perfect,” Khell argued. “I love it!”

“Great,” Fenway commented. “Glad it’s to taste kid.” He tugged Khell’s hood over her eyes as he flew past. “Now, stay under it, and stay close, ok? We’re here.”

Khell 05

Fenway’s small bombs didn’t explode as Khell expected. Instead, they burst upwards as pillars of white fire between the Cogstables. Only a few of the Cogstables were caught in the waves of heat; they toppled backwards and clattered to the floor. The others backed away from the explosions, and from their falling comrades. Fenway grabbed Khell’s hand during the confusion, and pulled her back towards the center of The Library.

“This is where we came from,” Khell protested. She heard the yell from the distance again, this time in the form of a dull roar, followed by a grinding of metal. “Are we going to your friend?”

“Nah. He’s coming to us,” Fenway replied, still pulling at Khell’s hand. “But we couldn’t stay where we were.” Fenway looked over his shoulder; the Cogstables had recovered from his attack, and were close behind. “Never let ‘em pin you down,” he explained. “Never get cornered.”

It seemed like good advice, Khell thought, though she hoped to never need it after today. She couldn’t imagine a time when she’d need to worry about dozens, if not hundreds of people trying to surround her. Khell wondered what type of world this was that made Fenway need rules about multiple attackers. The same sort of world where you take advice from flying talking dogs with bombs in their pockets, Khell decided.

Khell was shaken from her thoughts as a Cogstable closed its metal fist on her shoulder. She gave a shriek, and waved back at the robot in an attempt to brush it off. The rings on her fingers glowed white, and her bracelet spun around her wrist. There was a loud bass drum thud, and a wave of blue energy fired from her outstretched hand. It knocked back not only the Cogstable that had grabbed Khell, but all the ones behind it in a domino mess. The concussion also threw Khell forward. She tumbled to the Library floor, taking Fenway with her.

Fenway stared wide eyed surprise at Khell, though he reined it in quickly. “That was something,” he commented in strained indifference.

“Yeah.” Khell stared at her hands in shock. “I don’t know what that was,” she replied.

Fenway fluttered back into the air, and brushed himself off quickly. The closest Cogstables had been battered beyond repair by whatever Khell had done, but the others were getting shakily back to their feet. The Cogstables didn’t advance on Khell and Fenway. The gauges in their eyes wavered uncertainly as they looked at Khell, and they seemed wary that she’d bash them again.

“They won’t hold back for long,” Fenway muttered. “Whatever it is you just did Kid, you may want to do it again.”

Khell didn’t know what she’d done. The light was fading from her rings, and she had no idea how to make them flash again. Still, surrounded by grabbing robots didn’t seem the time for doubt.  Khell thrust her hand purposely towards the Cogstables and gave a determined yell.

Nothing happened. Khell tried again; this time flaring her fingers out wide. Still nothing happened. The gauges in the Cogstables eyes pointed suddenly outward like angry eyebrows as the robots stormed forward. Fenway and Khell turned to run deeper into the library, but there were Cogstables there too; blocking their escape.

Khell jutted her hands out at the advancing Cogstables, and let out a cry somewhere between terror and frustration. Still there was no flash. Fenway tossed a few more of his bombs into the crowd, this time making alternating pillars of fire and ice, but still more Cogstables piled towards him and Khell. There seemed to be endless numbers of the robots.

“This doesn’t look good,” Fenway admitted while shoving a small bomb through the chest grate of a Cogstable nearby. Another grabbed him by the coat tails even as its comrade exploded.

Khell didn’t reply. A Cogstable had grabbed her by the arm, and she was trying to kick it away. She agreed though. This looked pretty bad. She didn’t know what the Cogstables would do to her or Fenway, and she couldn’t find her voice to ask.

Even over the clicking and grinding of the nearby Cogstables, Khell could hear the sound of tearing metal nearby, and the inhuman roar. The Cogstable that had her arm let go suddenly; as did the one that had Fenway by the coat. All of the Cogstables looked up with wavering gauges towards the noise.

Fenway flew close to Khell. “Look, kid,” he said. “You’re going to need to put your hands at your side, and go limp when I say, alright?”

Khell nodded, but only before she thought on it a moment. “Why?”

Fenway didn’t answer. He flew above Khell and the Cogstables, and pointed down. “She’s coming with us,” he yelled.

The grinding metal noise grew louder, and Khell could see Cogstables being tossed through the air. The robots in front of her parted in attempt to clear a path for whatever was rag dolling them. Khell understood why they wanted to be out of the way.

The thing charging through them looked something between a man and a grizzly bear. He was covered with thick brown fur, and wore a hardened leather breast plate. Long rope like braids hung over his shoulders like a mane, and Fenway hung tight to one of the braids.

Fenway waved at Khell, even as the big guy batted a few Cogstables aside. “Now!’ Fenway yelled. “Now!”

Khell stood stunned in the path of the oncoming monster. She watched as it tilted a shoulder towards her without losing speed. It reminded Khell of a football player going in for a tackle. The reason for this of course is that was exactly what was happening. Khell, in her bewilderment, almost forgot that Fenway had warned her to go limp. It took everything for Khell to will her arms to stay at her sides as the beast slammed his shoulder into her.

Even with precautions, the wind was knocked clean out of Khell. She gasped for a breath as she was shoved up to the giant beast’s shoulder. Despite his size, and the fact that he was still fighting Cogstables away from the trio, the big guy had a very gentle touch.

“My name is Urrah,” The bear-man introduced with a thick accent. “Is nice to meet you.”

“I’m Khell,” Khell gasped. “Thank you for saving us.”

“Don’t thank him till we’re actually safe,” Fenway stated. He tugged Urrah’s braids like reins, and pointed at ahead. “Quick exit,” he suggested.

With the way she was held, Khell could only see over Urrah’s shoulder to the mess of Cogstables he’d left in their wake. Bigger, meaner Cogstables were joining them now; and these ones were carrying large ornate looking rifles. She was quick to mention this to the others.

Fenway nodded. “We’re almost out,” he assured Khell. He smiled as he added: “Hey, you’re not afraid of heights are you kid?”

“Heights?” Khell questioned cautiously.

Urrah shifted Khell further up his shoulder, and held her tight. “Do not listen to Fenway; he is trying to scare you.”  Urrah grunted as he shoved a few more Cogstables aside. “We are professionals,” he continued. “We do this sort of thing all the time.”

Khell wanted to know what sort of thing they were doing, but she didn’t want to distract anyone with conversation at this point. Already, the big Cogstables were readying their weapons. She could feel Urrah twist his body, as he put his un-Khell-burdened shoulder forward. There was a loud crash as Urrah smashed through the window, and leapt into the sky outside.

Khell watched as The Library flew away from them, or more correctly, they fell away from The Library. Like she’d thought earlier, it was on a floating island of rock like the ones Khell had seen through the window earlier. Chains thick as houses hung off its side to the ground somewhere far below. With the way Urrah was holding her, Khell could only see up. She wasn’t upset not seeing the ground rushing up to greet them.

Fenway held one of Urrah’s braids in one hand, and his cigar in the other. He smoked casually; as if they weren’t falling out of a flying building. “You doing ok, kid?”

“Don’t worry,” Urrah yelled over the wind. “This thing; we do this quite often.”

“This is the second time!” Fenway corrected.

“Don’t worry,” Urrah repeated to Khell. “We’ll get it right this time, you’ll see.”

“How will this be right?” Khell yelled. “We’re falling!”

“Yeah, but not as far as you think,” Fenway replied. He rolled a paw, suggesting that Urrah spin to show Khell.

Khell didn’t want to look, but she forced her eyes to stay open. Beneath them was the kilometers of open sky that she’d expected, dotted with a few low floating islands. Her view was partially blocked by a small flying boat.

The ship’s deck looked somewhat like that of a sailboat, only with sails coming out from the sides instead of from the deck. The bow was covered by a large copper plate with rounded windows. Two rounded copper shields jutted from the sides of the deck as well, covering half of the sails. In all, the ship resembled a beetle in flight.

“That’s the Copper Cicada,” Fenway introduced. “If we’re lucky, we can land right on the deck.” He gave Urrah a knowing look. “But we can’t land like this,” he added.

“No,” Urrah agreed. “We need slight change for landing,” he told Khell.

“A slight change?” She repeated. “A slight change of what?”

“Position,” Urrah replied. He gently shoved Khell away from his shoulder, letting her to freefall alone.

Khell flapped her arms madly, uncertain of what to do. She screamed at the sky around her, but that did little to help. Fenway tried to yell something to her, but Khell couldn’t hear him over the rush of the wind. She watched as he let go of Urrah’s hair, and with the help of his wings, easily glided over to Khell.

Fenway gripped the back of Khell’s shirt, and flapped his wings frantically. He didn’t stop her freefall, but he did slow Khell enough for Urrah to reach her, and scoop her to his chest like a baby. Khell gripped madly to Urrah’s chest plate. She wanted to be mad at him, but couldn’t find the energy yet.

“Ok. Next bit is little tricky,” Urrah declared, as though the last bit had been easy. “Don’t worry though,” he added for Khell’s benefit.

Khell could feel the sudden jolt as Urrah touched down feet first on the deck of the Copper Cicada. He folded himself around Khell, and rolled along the deck. It was a rough landing, and though he kept her safe, Urrah lost his grip on Khell in his second roll.

She tumbled along the deck, coming to a stop at the feet of a silver Cogstable with red piping. It looked slimmer than the ones at The Library, and pretty beaten up.  Khell backed away from it quickly, and bumped into a girl that had been sitting in the captain’s chair till recently.

The girl didn’t look to be any older than Khell. She wore a vest made entirely out of tool filled pockets, but nothing much else. Though she looked the most human Khell had seen all day, the girl was different. Her ears were long, and ended in black tufts of fur. She had thick black paint around her eyes, and black leathery lips. From navel down the girl was covered in course grey and brown fur. Her legs bent weird behind her knees; like an animals hind quarters, and ended in black over sized paws. The girl had a bushy black striped tail that swayed lazily as she stood staring at Khell.

“Range is with us,” The raccoon girl stated with a thumb jerk towards the silver Cogstable. She gave Khell a scrutinizing look. “Who are YOU with?”

“Sprogs: this is Khell,” Fenway introduced. “We found her in The Library. She seemed very out of place.” Fenway put a very heavy emphasis on ‘out of place’.

“Wait,” Sprogs contemplated. “Are you saying she’s what we were paid to find?”

Fenway rubbed his temple in aggravation. “Yes Sprogs; that is exactly what I was saying. Only I was trying to say it a bit less conspicuously.”

Urrah looked at Fenway in shock. This was news to him as well. “Is supposed to be item. Like book or something,” he complained. “Is not supposed to be little girl.”

“You think I don’t know that?” Fenway snapped. He paced, or at least he flew in a tight circle. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this.” Fenway looked at the crew of the Copper Cicada. “What am I supposed to do here? You know what’ll happen if we don’t deliver!”

“I don’t understand,” Khell interrupted.

Sprogs smiled wide. “Fenway’s thinking about selling you,” she stated matter of fact.

“No I’m not,” Fenway barked at Sprogs. He turned an uncomfortable smile to Khell. “I’m not,” he repeated.

“Then what’s going on?” Khell demanded. “Who are you people? Where am I?”

Khell 04

The library was a maze of giant bookshelves; all carved out of thick grey. The ceiling was a massive slab of the same grey stone; and was held stories above Khell’s head by massive pillars. The shelves seemed to go on forever in every direction, and each was full with thick leather-bound books.

Khell wandered cautiously amongst the bookshelves. She considered calling out for help, but couldn’t find her voice. The silence of the library was infectious, and Khell felt weird about breaking it. Besides, Khell hadn’t seen anyone in the library yet, and she wasn’t sure who would come looking for her if she yelled.

Though Khell hadn’t found any people in the library, she had passed several odd metal statues. All of them had round cauldron bodies of thick black metal, with a wide oven grate door on the chest. Their arms were a spindly mix of cogs and rods, ending in oversized black bracers and equally oversized hands. Their legs were a similarly thin, with giant cogs for knees and big black iron boots. The statues all had stovetop heads, with round steam gauges for eyes. There was one at the end of every shelf; all identical save for a different symbol on each of their shoulders. Khell wondered if the symbol was a type of number.

The statues were odd, but Khell found the shelves of the library to be even stranger. They were made of the same grey rock as the rest of the library, and had been carved to look like they’d grown from the floor.  Khell had tried a few times to touch the books, but her fingers had always stopped a few inches short. It wasn’t that there was anything solid stopping her, just a strong urge to keep her hands to herself, and a mental conviction that whatever book she was reaching for wasn’t the book she needed.

Khell walked the aisles of the library, keeping her hands to herself. Khell had begun to think the shelves went on forever when she finally found the edge of the library in the form of a wall made of windows.  Like the shelves, the window seemed to spread out forever in both directions.

Khell looked out the giant window to blue skies and lazy clouds. The library was high enough that Khell couldn’t make out the ground below. In the distance, Khell could make out a few islands of floating rock; topped with towers, and hooked by great chains to the unseen ground below.  Khell imagined that the library was the same; a building on an impossible floating rock island.

Khell put her hand against the window. The rings from the book were still on her fingers, and the bracelets on her wrists. Khell tried pull them loose, but had no luck.  She only noticed now how badly her hands were shaking.  The shock of being transported to a strange library was fading, and being replaced bit by bit with panic. Khell breathed deep, and tried to ignore the shiver running through the whole of her body. She had somehow been taken from her home, and dropped in a giant silent library. She stared out the window again. “Where am I?” she asked out loud.

Despite being no more than a whisper, Khell’s voice shattered the silence of the library. Somewhere nearby, Khell could hear the sudden sound of books dropping, followed by light cursing. She didn’t think twice as she rushed towards the sound. At this moment, Khell just needed to see another person; any sign that she wasn’t alone.

Khell was not prepared for what she found as she turned the corner. Hovering around the dropped books was a pug; held aloft by a frantically beating pair of small wings. It was wearing a fine silk shirt and soft leather pants under captain’s coat that draped long past its feet. The dog chewed on a stubby cigar, and stared bug eyed at Khell.

The pug seemed as surprised to see Khell as she was to see it. “Look,” the pug offered in a thick gravel voice. “It’s going to be hard to believe, but I swear there is a good explanation as to why I’m here.”

Khell stuttered without producing words. She doubted there was any good explanation for a flying, coat wearing, talking dog. “Where is here?” she managed. “Where am I?”

“You don’t know?” The flying dog raised a sceptical eyebrow. “You’re in The Library, Kid.”

“A library,” Khell repeated. “I kind of guessed at that.”

The dog scoffed; thick cigar smoke escaping from its jowls. “Not a library,” it corrected. “The Library. The Great Library of the Cog-work Kingdom.” It looked Khell over carefully. “I guess you’re not with them then?”

“I don’t even know who they are,” Khell admitted. She stood there, staring awkwardly at the flying pug. “I’m Khell,” she introduced finally.

“Fenway,” the dog returned. He slid some of the books back onto the shelf before offering a paw to shake.

Khell shook Fenway’s paw politely. “How are you doing that?” Khell asked. She meant the flying and the talking, and even the smoking a bit. Fenway assumed that Khell was talking about the books.

“Bit of a trick I figured out,” he admitted proudly. “You see, the repulsion field keeps you from picking up a book you’re not supposed to have, right?”

“Right,” Khell agreed. She had no idea what a repulsion field was.

“Well, The Library knows what book you want because you know what book you want.” Fenway tapped his temple with the butt of his cigar. “So all you have to do is really believe that you need all the books. Convince yourself; and The Library will let you take whatever book you want.”

“Oh.” Khell looked around them. “Why would you need all the books?”

“I don’t,” Fenway admitted. “I’m not even sure I need one of them.”

“I don’t think I understand,” Khell said. “If you don’t even need one book, why bother thinking about having all the books?”

“Because that’s the job, Kid.” Fenway huffed, shuffling a few books around. “We were told that something would be amiss in The Library; and we’d know it when we see it.” He chuckled. “So here I am, thinking real hard about wanting all the books until something pops out.”

Fenway stopped messing with the books suddenly.  He chewed his cigar, and muttered to himself. “Something out of the ordinary,” he mused. “Something out of place.” He looked Khell over with a scrutinizing eye. “How did you say you got in here kid?”

Khell began to tell Fenway that she didn’t know how she’d appeared in The Library, but she was interrupted by a sudden rumbling, and the sound of rock rubbing against rock. She watched with fascination as the stone floor bled upwards along the front of the shelves, forming a thick lattice. “What is that?” she asked in awe.

“That’s bad,” Fenway replied. He gripped Khell’s shoulder, and gently pushed her down the aisle. “We need to get moving,” he explained.

The air of the once silent library was now a cacophony of grinding stone, as the shelves protected themselves from intruders. Over the din, Khell could hear a sharp noise of creaking metal, and the thud of iron boots on the stone floor. The metal statues were shifting and coming to life.

Khell followed Fenway’s prompt, and walked quickly away from the moving statues. “What’s going on?” she asked. “What are they?”

“Cogstables,” Fenway answered briskly. “They think we’re stealing from The Library.”

“But, can’t we just tell them that we’re not stealing anything?” Khell suggested.

“The Library would know we’re lying,” Fenway replied.

“But…”

“I can explain it all later,” Fenway interrupted. “But right now, we are in big trouble.” Fenway’s gentle push on Khell’s shoulder became a frantic shove. “Run,” he insisted.

Khell ran, Fenway flying close behind. They dodged through the shelves, avoiding the statues as they shuffled to life. Khell could hear them gathering behind her and Fenway; a steady rhythm of metal beating on stone. Khell ran until she nearly dashed against the giant window.

Fenway cursed in his gravel growl. “Ok,” he accepted, “this could work. We just follow the window till we reach…” He looked both ways, finding their path blocked by Cogstables in all directions.

The Cogstables surrounded Fenway and Khell. Their glass eyes glowed red, and fire flickered in their bellies. White steam poured from their stove pipe heads. They reached forward in unison, giant grasping hands flicking open and closed as they moved towards Khell and Fenway.

“We’ve got a situation over here!” Fenway at the top of his lungs. Somewhere far off in the library, a deep voice yelled a response, but Khell couldn’t hear what it was.

Fenway nodded at the sound of the other voice, and reached into his coat. He pulled out a handful of matte black balls with long wicks. “Alright,” Fenway said, moving between the Cogstables and Khell. “We just need to hold out a minute.” Fenway lit the bombs with his cigar, and threw them liberally at the approaching metal men.

Khell 03

By the next morning, Khell had convinced herself that Old Snapper had been a figment of her imagination.  A heck of a convincing figment, but a figment nonetheless.  She woke in the library again, and though the sleepwalking left her concerned, Khell refused to dwell on it. It was likely just part of the stress of a major move, she decided. By tonight, her room would be set up, she’d be sleeping in her own familiar bed, and that would be the end of waking up in the library.

Dad was in the living room, building forts out of the boxes in an attempt to sort them. He’d cleared enough space to hook up the television, because essentials are essential.  Khell poured herself a bowl of cereal, and had no trouble convincing her dad that a short cartoon break would make the rest of the work easier to bear.  It was Saturday after all.

After a couple hours of ponies and super heroes, Khell and her dad began the heavy lifting.  More, Khell’s dad heavy lifted, while Khell did some moderate lifting, and pointed out where all the heavy stuff should go. The movers had done a pretty good job of putting boxes in the rooms they belonged in, but there were always some mistakes.

Spread out, Khell and her father’s boxes and furniture were pretty sparse. This wasn’t that surprising, as they’d moved from a small two bedroom apartment to a huge two-story old house. Still, having their stuff in, even if most of it was still packed, made the house feel a little more like home. It smelt more like home, if nothing else.

By lunch, Khell and her dad had lost much of the little steam they’d had. They idly rifled through boxes, and sorted random knick knacks into random drawers. Dad finally went to set up his new office, while Khell went to sort her own stuff in her room.

Khell didn’t really have that much to unpack. Mostly, she owned clothes and books, with a few of her old toys scattered in as decoration. Instead, she spent much of the afternoon shoving furniture back and forth, trying to find the perfect set up. When she was interrupted by a soft knock on her door, she’d expected her dad to tell her it was dinner.  Instead, she was mildly surprised to see Ana standing in the doorway.

“Your dad let me in,” Ana explained, inviting herself into Khell’s room. “He said you’d be up here, unpacking and stuff.  You want some help?”

“I’m mostly just shoving things,” Khell admitted. “There’s not much to do really.”

“Are you going to paint in here?” Ana asked, looking around the room. “I could help.  I painted my room recently.”

“No,” Khell replied. Khell would have liked to paint her room, but she had doubts that her dad would let her just because. “It’s ok the way it is.”

“You sure? Now’s the time to do it; before you finish unpacking.” Ana smiled. “I’ve still got half of bucket of red; it might do one wall at least.”

“You did your room red?” Khell couldn’t hide her surprise. “Like dark red?” Dark colours were a pretty big on the not allowed list. They were not allowed in apartments at least.

“More of a fire engine red,” Ana corrected. “Red with a black trim.” She flicked her bangs. “I’ve got sort of a motif going on.”

“It must be nice,” Khell replied; a little bitterly. “I’m pretty sure my dad wouldn’t let me dye my hair.”

“Yeah well, my grandpa didn’t really let me,” Ana said. “I just did it, and he grew used to it. I mean, it’s just hair, right?” Ana sat down heavily on Khell’s bed.  She idly wiggled her big toe; sticking out of a hole in her striped socks. “I figure he was more worried ‘bout what folks would think,” she continued. “I figure folks can’t think worse, so why not have my hair the way I want, right?” Ana saw the confusion in Khell’s eyes, and answered before she could ask. “I’m trouble. Ask anyone in town.” She struck up a pretty good yokel accent, and snapped a pair of imaginary suspenders. “That Ana Hickory; she ain’t nutin’ but a bad egg.”

“But why?” Khell pressed. “What’d you do?”

Ana shrugged.  “Nothing.” She admitted. “Not yet at least.”

“But that’s not fair,” Khell insisted. “If you didn’t do anything wrong…”

Ana rolled her eyes. “Welcome to small town living Khell,” she declared. “Everybody knows everybody; and everybody knows everybody’s business.” Ana paused a moment. “If your parents messed up somehow, everyone would just expect you to do the same, right? Well my folks messed up bad; bad enough for me to live with my grandpa. People talk.”

“Oh,” Khell replied. She wasn’t really sure what else to say.

“It could be worse,” Ana assured Khell. “At least I’m not going to spend the next few years being called the new girl.”

Khell made a face.  “Is that what I’ve got to look forward to?” She frowned as Ana nodded.  “Great.”

“Hey, the offer’s still on the table,” Ana reminded her. “If you want to, you can come with me when I move to the city.”

Ana didn’t wait for an answer.  She stood up, and stretched cat like. Ana pointed at a stack of boxes in the corner near the door. “So, do you want some help with those,” she asked. “Or are they some sort of secret boxes?”

“Nothing secret,” Khell replied. She gently prodded the pile of boxes with her toe. “It’s just books,” she explained  “I can’t decide if I should set up my shelves, or if I should put them all in the library.”

Ana’s eyes lit up. “You have a library?” Her tone was almost too eager.

“You didn’t see it?” Khell replied slyly. “I mean, you must have passed it in the hall.”

Ana made a show of avoiding eye contact. “Yeah, I saw it,” she admitted finally. “I didn’t go in yet. I mean, I figured you’d want to show it off.” Ana tugged on the edge of her arm warmer. “I’d want to show off if I had a library to tell you the truth.”

Khell smiled. It was nice to find someone else excited about books. “I haven’t really looked over all the books,” she admitted. “I’ve just been obsessing with this one.  It’s got some intricate lock on the front, but it’s…”

Ana waved her hands. “Don’t tell me,” she insisted. Her face beamed with excitement. “Show me.”

Khell led Ana to the library, and straight to the strange book. Ana went right to playing with the rings on the cover.  She chewed on her lower lip as she shifted them about the page, and seemed only slightly surprised when they refused to leave the front of the book.

“It’s like one of those magician tricks,” Ana said after playing with the rings for awhile.  “Like; the rings are linked, and you think they can’t be pulled apart? And then someone waves a hand over them and voila!” Ana gave the rings a bit of a different tug, and opened her hands in a full ‘ta-da’.  The rings, however, stayed together.   Ana frowned.  “You just need to figure out the trick is all,” she insisted.

Khell watched as the rings slid back into place as soon as Ana let go of them. “They keep doing that,” Khell commented. “They keep going back to their starting position.  I wonder how they’re doing that?”

“Magnets Maybe?” Ana guessed. She shook her head almost immediately. “They don’t move right for magnets.  It’s more like they just know where they belong.”

“What, like magic?”

“Hey, we got attacked by a giant ghost turtle yesterday,” Ana reminded Khell.  “I’m not ruling out anything.”

“No; I guess not.” Khell watched Ana worked the rings. She hadn’t wanted to admit, but Khell had been mentally calling it a magic book since she’d found it. Khell was happy to find someone who evidently didn’t consider that to be crazy. “Do you think you can open it?”

“Maybe,” Ana replied.  “I got a thing for puzzles,” she added. “Bit of a weird obsession I picked up as a kid.  I figured it as a skill I’d need; in case I ever had to open or close a puzzle box super fast.” Ana looked expectantly at Khell, and was disappointed by the lack of response.  “You and me watch very different movies,” she muttered.

Ana pushed and pulled at the rings, finding that there were set ways that they were willing to move. She nodded towards the book in the end; not having opened it, but at least having catalogued the rings, and the movements they were willing to do.

“Ok,” Ana explained with a flourished wave. “There’s four major rings, and then twenty minor rings.  Five little rings in each bigger one. The little rings will move about, but only inside whichever major ring they’re in.  The major rings move about, but only until they’re blocked by a minor ring.  Everything goes back to their starting points if you let go of them.”

“Ok,” Khell said. She pulled five of the lower rings along the cover, finding it easier to do by hooking them one to each finger of her hand. They put up a bit of resistance, like she was pulling them across water. They made a small click as they met the edge of their major circle, and buzzed slightly. “It feels like they’re spinning,” Khell commented. “It’s sorta weird feeling.”

“Don’t let go of them,” Ana pleaded.  She tilted her head, and smirked at the book.  “I think you’ve got it.”

“I do?”

Ana didn’t answer right away.  She mimicked Khell’s hold of the minor circles, but in and upper corner.  This time, as Ana wrangled the smaller circles under her fingers, the click was more audible.  There was a quiet humming coming from the circles now, and the ones under Khell’s hand were vibrating.

Ana smiled triumphantly.  “See,” she explained. “We’ve got to move all the circles at once; that’s why I couldn’t get it.  No one person ever could; it’s a four hand job.” She put her fingers in the other circles on her side, and clicked them into place.  The book buzzed angrily. Ana looked expectantly at Khell.

Khell frowned at the book; her hand hovering over the last of the circles. She wanted to know what was in the book, and she wanted to solve the puzzle. Still, there was a very cautious voice in her head reminding her that books don’t have magic circle locks.  Books don’t vibrate like ignored cell phones. In the end, curiosity defeated caution.  Khell pulled the small circles under her finger tips, and clicked them into position.

Together, the girls slowly slid the four major rings apart.  Unlike before, they didn’t slide back into position along the front of the book.  Instead, the rings shot free of the book.  The small rings ran up the girl’s fingers like rings, and the larger rings flew up their arms; hula-hooping on their wrists like eighties bangles. The band that ran the width of the book sprang open, and slapped on the table with a heavy thud.

There was a moment of ominous silence before the book split open.  Its pages flipped madly, and light shone from the center of the book. It was so bright that it hurt Khell’s eyes, but she couldn’t look away.  The sound of the turning pages reminded Khell of bird’s wings, and deep beneath that, she swore she could hear chanting. Khell strained to hear the words, even as she strained to see the pages flipping past.

Even over the light, and the chanting, and the self turning pages, one thing stood out as particularly strange to Khell.  All the pages that fluttered past were empty.  There was no weird scribbles or strange pictures. There were no spells, and no arcane scripture.  In fact, the book had nothing at all.

“Blank?” Khell commented after the book was finished its light show. “Who’d go to that much trouble to seal up a blank book?”

Khell looked up to Ana, searching for an answer, but Ana wasn’t there.  The library wasn’t there either; at least, Khell’s library wasn’t there.  Instead, Khell was standing alone in a vast room of stone pillars and huge bookshelves.  The room seemed to go on forever in all directions. Khell looked back to the book in a panic, but both it and the table it had been on had vanished.

Everything was gone, and Khell was alone.

Khell 02

Originally, Khell and her dad had planned to sleep on inflatable mattresses in what would be their new bedrooms.  After some exploration though, it proved to be less of a great idea.  The entirety of the old house hadn’t been lived in for the past few years, and needed a good sweep at the very least. In the end, dad and Khell set up camp in the basement, near the fireplace.

Though Khell would never admit it, she was happy that they’d ended up sleeping in the basement.  Without her own bed and her own stuff, her new room was just another strange place in a strange house.  Khell wasn’t sure she was willing to sleep there alone just yet.

Not that Khell was getting any sleep here in the basement.  It was far quieter in the country than it had been back home.  There were no cars; no people walking around outside.  There wasn’t a neighbour’s radio playing, or even neighbours for that matter. Instead, Khell lay on her inflated mat listening to the sound of the wind, and the crackle of the fire.  There were various creaks and groans as the house settled, and somewhere upstairs, there was a dripping faucet.  Khell had never known quiet could be so loud. It was when dad started snoring that Khell accepted that she wasn’t getting to sleep any time soon.

Khell snuck out from beneath her covers, and crept up the stairs to the main of the house. She’d expected the old house to seem creepy at night, and was amazed at how bright the rest of the house was in comparison to the basement.  Even without the lights on, the night stars shone through the many windows, and lit the house adequately.

Systematically, Khell tracked down each noise she could hear.  She found the dripping faucet in the second floor bathroom that she didn’t know existed till now.  She found a part of the window plastic was loose, and flapping in the wind; though there was nothing she could do about it right now.  There was, in fact, little that Khell could do about most of the noises the house made; she hoped that just finding them would let her sleep though.  Rattling vents, loose floorboards, squeaky window panes; Khell catalogued them all.

In the end, Khell found herself standing in the middle of the library.  She’d been certain that she’d felt a breeze come from the otherwise cozy room, but after checking the large round window, she’d found none.   She could still hear the wind in the library, but it didn’t seem to be coming from outside.  Khell did a few circles, and came to the conclusion that the draft was coming from near the central table.  She checked the ceiling, and she checked the vent in the floor, but neither seemed to be the culprit.

Khell shook her head.  The breeze was stronger now, and carried the crisp smell of winter.  It seemed to be coming from the center of the table, but there was nothing there but the book she’d found earlier.  Absently, Khell picked it up, and played a bit with the moving circles on the cover.  She ran her hand along the edges of the pages, and nearly dropped the book in surprise.  The breeze was coming from inside the book, as was a slight whispering sound.

“That’s not possible,” Khell told absolutely no one. She tried the latch again, but it still held the book tightly shut.  Khell felt the edges, and still there was a breeze.  Deep inside the book, the wind whispered sounds that nearly made words.  Khell stared at the book a long time before finally holding it to her ear.

“Khell,” the book whispered.

Khell awoke with a start, and looked about.  She was sitting in a large leather chair in the library; and from the ache of her back, she could guess that she’d been sleeping in the chair for hours.  The book was on her lap when Khell looked down; and was still sealed shut. There was no wind escaping its binding, and there was no whispering.

Khell put the book back on the table, sure that she’d just dreamt the whole thing.  After all, books didn’t have their own weather; and books didn’t whisper your name. She tucked the last of the night to the back of her mind, and went to find her dad.  She could hear dishes and movement in the kitchen, and was certain he was there preparing breakfast.

“Why didn’t you wake me up?” Khell demanded as she stormed into the kitchen. “I was sleeping in the library.  I mean…” The rest of Khell’s complaints dried in her throat as she looked around.

Khell’s dad wasn’t in the kitchen. Instead, sitting at the table, was a girl about Khell’s age.  Her hair was coal black with fire engine red tips; the same colors as most of her clothes. She wore old striped socks of the same black and red, and had transformed a second pair of striped socks into arm warmers.  The girl smiled at Khell’s confusion, and ate a bowl of cereal.

“Your dad’s outside,” the girl offered finally.  “My grandpa’s digging you folks out.”

“Oh,” Khell replied quietly. She wasn’t sure what else to say.

“I’m Ana,” the girl added. “I guess I probably should have started with that.”  Ana thought on it.  “Hello, I’m Ana, and your dad is outside,” she tried. “Yeah, that would have been better.”

“I’m Khell,” Khell introduced. She rubbed her arm nervously. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t expecting guests.”

“Yeah well, we sorta surprise visited,” Ana explained. “Grandpa saw you folks pull in yesterday, and saw that your car was still at the bottom of the hill this morning.  He figured he’d come and dig you out.” Ana nodded. “Neighbourly, and all that.” Ana took another spoonful of cereal.  “Same idea of neighbour and all that, he said I should show you around town today, if you’re up for it?”

Khell nodded her agreement.  She wanted to get dressed and eat some breakfast first, but seeing town with someone was better than seeing it without.  Besides, she really didn’t want to be around when the movers arrived. In less than an hour, her and Ana were outside, ready to go to town.

“This has got to be a big change for you,” Ana commented with a gesture to the property. “I mean, you’re from the big city, right?” She didn’t wait for Khell to answer.  “I’m going to move out there.  You see if I don’t.”

Ana continued on, as much to herself as to Khell.  “I’ll finish high school, cause I’m already in the midst of it, but I tell you girl; first chance I get after that I’m out of this town.” Ana looked Khell over as though measuring her up.  “You can come with, if you like,” she offered.  “I mean, coming from the city; you can’t be that impressed with Quarrytown, right?”

Khell shrugged.  “I haven’t actually seen the town yet,” she admitted. “We just got here yesterday.”

“Are you kidding?”  Ana trudged through snow drifts as she walked around the house.  “You live up here on King’s Rock, and you haven’t even seen the town yet?”

“King’s Rock?” Khell repeated, following behind Ana.  “Why’s it called that?”

Ana didn’t answer right away.  Instead, she waved an arm towards an outcropping of stone; prompting Khell to look over. Khell edged up the rock, and stared down the hill.

Khell gasped as she looked down.  “I can see the whole town from here,” she said. “I mean; the downtown at least.” She looked back at Ana, and rolled her eyes. “And that’d be why it’s called King’s Rock,” she noted.

“Yup,” Ana replied.  She walked back to her grandpa’s truck, and pulled a long wooden toboggan from the back.  “Nice thing about being up here is that you have the best route to town as well.” Ana thought about it. “Well, during the winter at least.”

Khell stared at the toboggan uncertainly.  “I don’t know,” she replied slowly.  “Isn’t that a bit…”

“…Childish?” Ana smirked at Khell.  “Sure. Probably is.  It’s certainly unladylike; if you care ‘bout that sorta thing.  You know what prim and proper gets you around here though?” Ana pointed at the town below, then off to the other side of the hill towards the road.  “It gets you an hour and a half walk to town.” Ana patted the seat of the sled.  “This is much faster.”

Khell looked at the hill.  What she was actually going to say was ‘isn’t that a bit dangerous’, but felt it’d just sound foolish now.  Ana was already setting the toboggan down on the edge of the hill.

Khell looked at the trees along the hill, and thought about the random rock cliffs that grew around her driveway as she sat behind Ana on the wooden toboggan.  “You know a safe path down, right?” she asked.

“I know a path down,” Ana replied.  “Least I’m pretty sure there is a path Gravity has a lot to do with finding it.” She looked back at Khell, and gave a half shrug.  “I’d probably hold on tight, if I were you girl.”

They managed to make it down the hill without impaling themselves on a tree, though Khell was certain that they’d come close to two separate occasions.  They did manage to flip the toboggan a few times, and actually ramped it over a large rock once.  In the end, the girls were covered in snow, and giggling with the adrenaline rush. Ana dragged the sled behind them as they walked into town.

Khell looked about.  The downtown looked the same as it had on her pamphlet, save for the flowers being replaced by large drifts of snow.  The streets were quiet; seemingly devoid of life. There were a few people here and there, but not many.

“Where is everyone?” Khell asked.

“School or work,” Ana replied with a shrug. “Almost no one is in town during the day.” She pointed off down the road. “Factory up there makes cement; or packs cement; or whichever. If you don’t work there, it’s because you don’t work in town.”

Khell nodded.  “I forgot that there’s school still,” she admitted. Holidays were coming up, so there was little reason for Khell to start a new school quite yet.

“I wouldn’t sweat it,” Ana said. “I forget there’s school sometimes too.”

Ana led Khell down the quiet streets to a little coffee shop called The Steamer.  It smelt of fresh bread and ground coffee, and Khell liked it right away.  Plus, it was warm, and Khell was not. The woman behind the counter smiled friendly at the two girls as they entered The Steamer.  Her smile faded immediately as she recognized Ana.

“You turn right round and walk back out that door Ana Hickory,” the woman commanded as she picked up the phone.  “I’ll be calling the school right away; you see if I don’t young lady.”

Ana put her hands up in a mild surrender.  “Relax, Ms. Lois,” Ana insisted.  “My grandpa knows I’m not at school today.”  Ana pushed Khell forward, using her like a shield.  “This is Khell,” she introduced.  “Her and her dad just moved into the old Allens place.”  Ana smirked.  “Grandpa’s digging out their driveway, and I’m playing tour guide.  Figured I’d start her here.”

Ms. Lois narrowed her eyes dangerously at Ana, but she put the phone back on its cradle. Her scepticism was replaced with a wide smile as she looked from Ana to Khell.

“Well of course,” Ms. Lois agreed happily.  “Where else would you start?  Welcome to town,” Ms. Lois beamed.  “Kelly was it?”

Khell rubbed her arm.  “Just Khell ma’am.”

“Well.” Ms. Lois’s smile faltered ever so slightly.  “That’s interesting, isn’t it?” She rolled Khell’s name around her mouth a few times, as though trying out a foreign language.  “How do you like some coffee, Khell?”

Khell sat with Ana at one of the large booths near the window.  From here, Ana was able to point out most of the interesting places in town.  The bookstore was directly across the road; looking sad with its papered over windows. There was a hardware store beside it, and a second hand clothing store beside that. Down the road was a restaurant, an ice cream parlour (that was closed for the season), a sports outlet, and a few knick knack stores.

“That’s about it,” Ana announced, finishing her virtual tour of the town. “Nothing that you’d find in the city.  No mall, no McDonalds.  Nothing much at all.”

“I think that’s what my dad likes about it,” Khell agreed.

“Yeah; it’s an old people’s paradise,” Ana agreed.  “What about your mom? Is she looking forward to moving here?”

Khell fiddled with a napkin. “It’s just me and my dad now,” she admitted quietly.

“Ah, sorry,” Ana said. She shrugged. “I understand what it’s like,” Ana told Khell.  “It’s just me and grandpa, which I guess is the same really.”

Khell looked over at Ana.  “Are your parents…” she wasn’t sure how to politely finish the sentence.

“Nah.  They’re both alive,” Ana said.  “Alive and well; I guess.”  She sipped her coffee, and poured another healthy portion of sugar into it.  The two girls sat in silence for a few minutes.

“Hey,” Ana asserted suddenly.  “You haven’t seen the quarry yet.” She grabbed Khell’s hand, and dragged her out before she could protest.

The quarry was a good ten minute walk out of town. Khell and Ana took turns pulling the other in the toboggan once they’d left the main road, which made the walk take all the longer, and yet made it feel that much shorter. Before Khell knew it, they were leaning on a small fence, staring at the ice covered quarry.

“It’s over 100 meters deep in some areas,” Ana explained with a wave towards the rock pit.  “It’s pretty deep every part though.  Some say that there’s still work equipment at the bottom; you know, pumps and generators and stuff.”

“Does anything live in it?”

“Oh yeah, tons,” Ana replied.  “frogs, turtles, and fish.”  Ana shrugged “Don’t honestly know how the fish got into there, mind.  I mean, the lake’s landlocked right?” she thought on it a moment.  “I guess someone dropped the fish off, and then they, you know, however fish do it.” Ana mashed her hands together, to suggest fish ‘doing it’.

Khell giggled, and gave a nod. “typical lake stuff though,” she commented.

“Well, all ‘cept for Old Snapper of course,” Ana replied. She smiled slyly at Khell’s look of confusion.  “Old snapping turtle,” she explained.  “Older than me; maybe older than even my grandpa.”  Ana leant in as if sharing a secret.  “He’s been there forever really; or at least as long as there’s been water right?  Folks say he’s at least the size of a motor boat.” Ana held her hands out wide, to suggest size.  “He could be bigger.”

Khell looked over at the quarry, then back at Ana, then to the quarry again.  “Nah,” she said finally.  “It’s not possible.  I mean, what would a snapping turtle that big eat?”

“Well,” Ana offered. “There’s always a few kids that go missing every year.  Tourists mostly.”

Khell shook her head again. “You’re having me on,” she insisted.

“If you say so.” Ana laughed. “No pulling the wool over your eyes, huh city girl?” Ana stepped over the small fence, onto the ice. She motioned for Khell to follow.

Khell stepped onto the ice reluctantly.  “Is it safe?” she asked.

“Sure,” Ana replied without a second thought.  “It’s been real cold lately, so the ice is good and thick.  You don’t want to go too far out, mind, cause it never freezes completely over, but so long as we stay to the edge here, it’s safe.”

Khell slipped and slid as she followed Ana out onto the quarry.  She watched her feet as much as she watched her new friend, and listened for any ominous cracking noises.

“Do you think it’s weird that folks like walking on the ice?” Ana asked suddenly.  She ran a bit, and slid along the lake surface.  “I mean, when you think about it, it’s really just walking.  Heck, if you don’t have skates, it’s walking with difficulty.”  Ana spun an amateur pirouette, and laughed as her feet slid out from under her as if to prove her point.

Khell helped Ana up, nearly falling over as well in the process.  This really was just difficult walking, but it was still fun.  “I’ve never really thought about it,” she admitted.  “I guess it’s just different, right?”

Ana brushed the light snow off of her pants.  “You know what I think?” she asked rhetorically.  “I think it feels just a little forbidden; just a little wrong.  I mean, walking on a lake?  You shouldn’t be able to do that.  I know it’s ice, and I know that’s just part of winter, but I think deep inside, your brain thinks you’re doing something impossible.”  Ana kicked off into another slide.  “Tiny winter magic, right?”

Khell nodded a quick agreement, but didn’t take her eyes off of the ice.  She was certain that she’d seen something move below them.  “We should get back,” Khell suggested suddenly.

Ana looked over at Khell.  For a moment, she looked like she was going to argue, but it faded as she followed Khell’s gaze to the ice.  A dark shadow slid beneath them as something huge shifted.  It was easily the size of a bus, but rounded off.  The monstrosity moved slowly; lazily, but it was steadily moving towards the girls, and certainly getting bigger as it came closer.

“No freakin’ way,” Ana said.  “It can’t be.”

The ice groaned and buckled as the huge shape scraped against it beneath them.  Its head was visible, though blurry, as it chewed at the ice beneath the girls.  Khell could easily have fit in the monster’s mouth if it were to get through.  She slid and fell as she tried to run.  The whole of the quarry seemed to shake.

“Old Snapper!” Ana screamed.  She grabbed at Khell’s hand; nearly falling herself as she dragged Khell to her feet.  The girls ran and slid as they desperately rushed to get off the shifting ice.  The ice bucked, and shattered as Old Snapper surfaced with a train roar of a hiss.  The girls were flung forward, and landed with a crash in the snow bank at the edge of the quarry.

Suddenly, everything was quiet. Khell and Ana laid in the snow on the bank for a good few minutes before daring to look back at the quarry lake.  The ice was untouched, save for their footprints.  There was no break; not even the slightest crack. There was nothing suggesting that a giant turtle had surfaced.

Ana stood up, and brushed herself off. “Well,” she said. “That was new.”

“That was new?” Khell stared at the ice.  She screwed up enough courage to tap it with her foot, but drew away immediately as if it were lava.  “That was impossible. We were attacked by a giant turtle!”

“Giant ghost turtle,” Ana suggested. “In that it didn’t break the ice.” She rubbed her arms, and stepped a good bit away from the ice.  Finally Ana shrugged. “I’m going to state the obvious, and suggest we don’t mention this to anyone, right?  I mean; who’d ever believe us?”

Khell stared at the ice. It had broken with enough force to throw them through the air, and yet it was untouched.  “Yeah, who would?” she agreed. She’d been part of it, and even she wasn’t sure she believed it.

That night, Khell dreamt cracking ice and giant turtles. The whole of her dream played to a soundtrack of flipping pages, and singing books.

Khell 01

Moving sucked under normal conditions. Khell had moved from apartment to apartment hundreds of times in her fifteen years, and could attest to that. Still, all of those moves had been in the same city. Khell had only ever had to change schools once. She’d never really had to say goodbye to friends, and she’d never really suffered more inconvenience then having to pack and unpack (which admittedly is a big inconvenience).

It was different this time. This time she was moving to a place called Quarrytown; four hours north. Her grandparents used to have a house and a bookstore there, and now, due to wills and ownership and legalities, she and her dad owned a house and a bookstore. Goodbyes had to be said, and new schools had to be planned. There was still packing and unpacking, but now it involved a truck that would show up in Quarrytown a day after Khell and her dad. Moving always sucked, but this felt different. This felt much worse.

Khell read the brochure for the hundredth time, hoping to find something to be excited about. The front page was a wide shot of Quarrytown’s main street. All the downtown buildings looked like they were carved from slabs of limestone, and were drab to look at; even decorated as they were with flags and flowers. The picture tried to look all summery and fun, But driving up the snow covered highway, Khell was having trouble picturing it.

Quarrytown lived up to its name only by default according to the pamphlet. After all, it had a quarry. In fact, Quarrytown had one of the largest quarries in the area, and had been a real rock mogul in its heyday. Quarrytown still had a major cement production company, and a thriving tourist industry, but the quarry was no longer in use. Left abandoned, it had flooded, and was now considered one of the greatest swimming holes in the area.

Khell wasn’t sure what it took to be a mover and shaker in the world of granite stone sales, but she could understand why anyone who wanted  to be one would set up shop in the area. Looking out the passenger window, she could see nothing but rock on either side of the highway, and hadn’t for the past hour. Giant wind blown cliffs that looked to be made from misshaped bricks rose up on either side of the road; topped by great pines that seemed to be clinging desperately to the rocks. Rocks, and trees, and snow. Tons of snow.

“There was never this much snow back home,” Khell commented, breaking nearly an hour of silence. It wasn’t that she didn’t talk to her dad normally, but after a few hours alone in a car, conversation can run dry.

Her dad rose an eyebrow. He’d been humming tunelessly to the radio for awhile, and seemed surprised to hear Khell’s voice. “You get a lot more snow this far north,” he agreed after a moment. “A lot more of, well, a lot really. More snow, more stars, more animals. And not just more racoons and pigeons either,” he added. “Deer, and coyotes, and owls. Things you’d never see in the city.”

“Wolves? Bears?” Khell thought a second. “Wolverines?”

“We’re not far enough north for wolverines,” her dad muttered. He chuckled quietly, and Khell was pretty sure he was making ‘snikt’ noises in his head.

“So just wolves and bears,” Khell verified. “Great.”

“Well,” Her dad said. “We’ll try to keep them out of the house.”

“The house,” Khell echoed. Her dad said that they’d spent numerous summers in her grandparents old place, and Khell had been hoping that she’d remember it during the ride, or see something that sparked a memory. None of the continual rock cliffs were looking familiar so far. They’d stopped coming north when Khell was very little; back when mum had originally become sick; back when they’d all stopped doing anything.

Dad mistook Khell’s silence for despair. He patted her knee. “I know this seems tough,” he offered. “Moving always does.  But I promise, you’re going to love it.”

Khell forced a smile. “Yeah, dad,” she said. “This’ll be great. I’m sure.” Khell hid back behind the brochure, and let her smile fade. She was sure of a lot of things, but this tiny rock town being great wasn’t one of them.

The trip to the house didn’t bring Khell and her dad through the majestic streets of Quarrytown, or even near the famous quarry.  They instead pulled off the highway onto a series of small country roads that led to their new property.  Dad parked the car at the bottom of their new driveway, and whistled low as he stared up the rock hill to their new home.

Khell hopped out, and trudged through the calf deep snow to stand beside her dad.  The driveway wound all corkscrew up the hill; or at least the parts she could make out did.  The whole of it was under the same thick layer of snow that the rest of the area was. She couldn’t even see the house from here at the bottom of the driveway.

“How are they going to get the moving truck up that?” Khell asked.

Her dad shook his head.  “That’s what we pay them the big bucks for,” he offered with a chuckle.  He smiled at Khell, but she didn’t return the favour.  Dad sighed.  “We’re likely going to have to shovel it,” he admitted.

“The whole thing?” Khell looked up the driveway with disdain.

“It’d be silly to only shovel half of it,” her dad replied.  His ambition faded somewhat as he looked again up the hill.  “Tell you what,” he offered.  “Lets just get up there, warm up the old place, and see what we can see.  Maybe we can find the number for a plowing company that’ll dig us out by tomorrow.”  He shrugged.  “Snow like this, someone in town’s got to be cashing in, right?”

“Right.”  Khell agreed. She wanted to be helpful, but shovelling a mile of snow was pushing her limit.  Khell watched her dad unload the trunk of the car, and took some of the lighter bags from him.

It was a slippery walk, and Khell almost lost her footing on several occasions.  The driveway winded around rock outcroppings, and through a small forest of great pines, which together did a fine job of hiding the house until Khell and her dad reached the top of the hill. At the end of the driveway was a small clearing with a snow covered picnic bench, a forgotten truck, a tiny shed, and of course, the house.

Khell wasn’t sure what she’d pictured the house looking like, but she was sure this wasn’t it. The old house was made of limestone bricks of varied color and varied size.  It had two floors, but it looked as though the first floor was only grudgingly accepting the second.  The windows were round, and placed at random intervals on either floor. A stone chimney jutted from the side of the house, and carried up over the top floor in a lazy zigzag.  In all, the house looked like it had been built by someone who had a lot of rocks, and little time for planning. The only thing of the house that looked new was the closed porch that ran around the front of the house.

Dad looked expectantly from the house, to Khell, and then to the house again.  “So?” he asked.  “What do you think?”

“Why are the porch windows Saran wrapped?” Khell asked.

“The windows.”  Dad rapped on one of the thick plastic covers.  “It’s to keep the heat in,” he replied matter of factly.  “In the spring, we’ll take them all down.”  Dad looked expectantly for Khell to answer.

Khell looked hard at the lopsided house. “We should get inside,” she said finally.  Her feet were getting cold.

“Yes,” her dad agreed, sounding a bit crestfallen.  Still, he smiled as he fumbled with the keys.  “See the whole place, then decide what you think.”

Inside didn’t impress Khell much more than outside did.  The house had a thick dust and age smell to it, mixed with stale air, and a hint of rotten wood and oil.  Old furniture was covered by thick white sheets, which in turn were covered with a second sheet of dust.

The light gave a dull yellow glow when dad finally found a switch.  He led Khell down the hall to the kitchen, and then to a set of stairs going down to the basement. Khell pulled back, and stared at her father sceptically.

“You’re going to start the tour in the basement?” she questioned.

“It’s a finished basement,” he assured her.  “Not a, you know, creepy old house basement.  Besides, we need to warm the place up before we can get comfortable.”

“Warm the place up?” Khell couldn’t imagine why the heat wouldn’t be on already. After all; the lights were working, albeit barely.  She followed her father down the stairs.

Her dad said nothing until he’d led Khell past more covered furniture, and shelves of random boxes, to the far end of the basement.  “The old place has a woodstove,” he explained, pointing to an ancient cauldron shaped stove.  “We need fire to heat the house.”

Khell put her hands on her hips.  “You don’t know how to make a fire,” she stated with a smirk. “You can barely handle the ordinary oven.”

“Oh ye of little faith,” her dad replied, mocking hurt. “I can make fire.  Heck, people start fires by accident all the time; it can’t be that hard to do on purpose.”  He opened the gated mouth of the woodstove, and began to jam flammables from the pile nearby into the opening.

Khell watched over her dad’s shoulder.  He stuffed the woodstove with a full week of old newspapers, as well as a small tree’s worth of twigs.  Two giant logs crushed the whole mess down.  It looked like a pretty good start to a fire, though really Khell was just guessing as she’d never made fire exist before.

Dad nodded at his work.  He patted at his pockets, and looked up at Khell.  “Hey, you haven’t taken up smoking have you?” he asked.

“What?  Dad, no.”

“Good,” dad said.  “It’s a terrible habit. Never start.”  He stared into the open wood stove.  “Of course, if you were smoking, or if I was, one of us would have a lighter.”

Khell watched as her dad patted his pockets again; as though a lighter would magically appear there.  She giggled despite herself.  “Maybe the fire will start itself accidentally,” she offered.

Dad made a face at Khell before he stood, and began to search the shelves.  “There’s got to be some matches or something, right?” he said.

Khell watched her dad rummage for a while before standing up as well.  “I’ll go check upstairs,” she offered.  “Maybe the kitchen?”  Khell took her father’s grunt and dismissive wave as  a yes, and went back upstairs.

Khell searched through a few kitchen drawers, finding silverware, dishes, and a particularly large collection of elastics.  She did not find a lighter though, and decided to see what the rest of the first floor had to offer.

The main floor was all connected by a long central hallway; capped on either side by the living room (at the front) and the kitchen (at the back).  There was a bathroom; with a large claw footed tub, and flower printed tile walls.  There was a small sitting room that Khell was certain would be called a study, though she wasn’t sure.  There was an even smaller room that didn’t hold any purpose that Khell could see.  She named that the cloak room because why not? The living room had a pair of couches, and a piano, but no T.V. Finally, there was the library.

Khell had always been a fan of books, and would be lying if she told anyone she wasn’t interested in the library.  It was nearly the same size as the living room, and full ceiling to floor with shelves of books.  There was a large table in the middle of the room, lost under a stack of books waiting to be sorted, and a small nook near a large round window, perfect for just sitting and reading. Khell ran a finger over the spines of some of the books as she walked through the room.  She supposed that it shouldn’t be surprising that her grand folks had liked books enough to have a library; they did own a bookstore after all.

Of course, the library also seemed the least likely place to find a lighter.  Books and fire were never big friends after all. Khell sighed, and made a mental promise to come and check out the books soon. She was just about to close the library door, when she heard a soft thump from inside.

Khell held the doorknob, but didn’t look back in right away.  She was neither an easily frightened, nor superstitious girl, but this was a new unfamiliar house, and strange noises could really spook anyone.  Khell listened for a good few seconds for any more noise before she screwed up enough courage to look back in the library.

When she finally did look back in the library, she found that one of the books had slid from the table, and was lying on the floor. Khell mentally chastised herself as she picked up the stray literature.

Khell stared at the book.  It was older than any book she’d ever seen.  The cover was coated in a rusty red leather; worn thin along the edges.  The book’s spine was a thick brass hinge, and the corners had gilded brass protectors hammered on.  The title of the book was a series of markings Khell had never seen before, made of inlaid iron.  Below that was a large curled symbol of interwoven circles atop a thin metal band that ran the width of the book, and held it closed.

Khell squinted at the title of the book with a strange feeling that the markings would make sense if she stared at them long enough.  She ran a hand over the circle symbols, and found them to be warm.  The circles of it felt loose, like they could be moved about. Khell wondered if they had anything to do with the band sealing the book.

Khell’s heart skipped a beat as her dad’s shout broke the silence.  “I found one!” he yelled from the basement.  “Little magnetic box on the side of the pipe!  Ingenious really.”

“Alright dad!” Khell yelled back.  She put the book down on the table, and headed back towards the basement stairs.  Already the house was filling with the thick black smoke of her father’s first attempt to start a wood stove.

Lovely Angel-Pocalypse 15

Gashkoro roared its high pitched screech, and chased after Lance, Sarah and Kei.  The road cracked under Gashkoro’s feet, and buckled under its fists as it tried to smash the fleeing truck.

Sarah leant out the window, and hurled balls of water at Gashkoro.  She cursed a lot.  Kei preformed a complex series of staff spins, stopping occasionally to fire Steel Slashes over the roof of the cab.  Unlike before, Kei seemed much more sure of her footing.  She didn’t even stumble as Lance fought to keep the reversing truck on the road at full speed.

Lance tried not to pay attention to the girls, and focused primarily on driving.  Driving in reverse took a bit of concentration.  Driving in reverse while chased by a giant skeleton took even more.  Still, the whole of the situation was surreal.  It didn’t help having both girls yelling their attack names over and over.  At least Sarah had the decency to punctuate her announcements with creative swearing.  Kei yelled her Spinning Steel Slash with no real emotion.  It didn’t seem like she was slightly moved by the monster chasing them.

Gashkoro leapt at the truck again, and brought both fists down, barely missing the vehicle.  The road rose like a wave under the truck, and ramped it through the air.  Lance spun the wheel as the tires connected again with the road, and bootleg spun the truck around.

“Right,” Lance stated.  He didn’t have much to add to that, but he was glad to be driving forward, and figured ‘right’ was the right word for it.

“Not yet,” Sarah replied, misunderstanding Lance’s choice of word.  “Just keep straight for a few blocks.  There’s an alley up ahead, we can turn there.”

The back of the truck glowed bright orange, and Lance looked back just in time to watch Kei throw a large ball of fire at Gashkoro.  The monster screamed as the flames licked across its chest, but didn’t slow down.

“We can turn ahead,” Kei agreed, “then we can stop and face Gashkoro.”

Sarah leant out the window, and threw a geyser of water at Gashkoro.  She caught it at knee level; bowling the monster over.  Gashkoro toppled into the ruins of an outlet mall, and took a moment to regain its feet.  It was immediately after them again.

“No,” Sarah called to Kei.  “We turn ahead, and lose Gashkoro in the side streets.”  She smiled at Lance.  “I don’t think it can keep up in the alleys.  It’ll barely fit.”

“We have to face Gashkoro,” Kei insisted.

“No, we don’t.”  Sarah rolled her eyes.  “Damn it Kei, we barely beat Gashkoro last time; and that was all five of us!”

“We are all five of us now,” Kei replied coldly.  “I have all the power of the Guardians except for yours.”

“No,” Sarah stated finally.  “Just no Kei.”  Sarah pointed at the turn up ahead.  “Lance, up there.”

Kei reached in the back window, and placed a hand gently on Lance’s neck.  The cab filled with the smell of rosewater and cherry blossoms.  “Slow down,” Kei suggested quietly.  “You stop the truck and then we can stop Gashkoro.”

Lance nodded, and eased up on the gas.  It made sense.  If he slowed down, then maybe they could fight off the giant skeleton.  A small voice in the back of his mind screamed about how ridiculous that was, but it was a small voice, and Lance had no trouble ignoring it.

He had more trouble ignoring Sarah’s voice.  “What the hell are you doing?”

Lance shook the cobwebs out of his head, and went wide eyed.  “I don’t know!” he admitted.  Lance jammed his foot back down gas, but it was too late.  Gashkoro had cleared the small distance between them.

Gashkoro caught the back of the truck with a wide sweep of its hand, and spun the truck wildly out of control.  Lance gripped the steering wheel, and tried fruitlessly to get the vehicle to follow his commands.  The truck spun a few more times before tipping onto its driver side.  Sparks flew as the truck skidded along the road, and thudded to a stop against the side of a building.

Sarah grabbed the frame of the passenger side window, and vaulted out of the truck.  Lance followed close behind, and she spared him only a quick glance.  His left arm was torn up pretty bad, but didn’t look broken.  Sarah turned her angry gaze to Kei.

Kei stood on the side of the truck bed, and Sarah had the impression that she’d ridden out the crash there.  She had her staff holstered between her wings (her wing and a bit, really) and had her hands up in front of her.  Kei raised them like she was maestro-ing an orchestra.  Pale green light seeped like mist from her hands, and Gashkoro struggled against a small orchard of vines.  It wouldn’t hold the monster long.

“The hell Kei?”  Rampaging monster or not, Sarah was struggling against the urge to smack Kei.  “You Flower Talked Lance?  You crashed my truck?”

“You weren’t going to stop.”  Kei didn’t look over.  She just stared at Gashkoro with her regular indifference.  “But now we have.  I can’t hold it back for much longer; we’re going to need to take it down fast.”

Sarah growled, but recognized the situation Kei had created.  She flicked her hands out, and water formed into gauntlets around her fists.  “Fine,” she accepted.  “But after this, we are going to have a hell of a conversation.”

“After this,” Kei agreed.  “Get ready, Lovely Angel Water Guardian.”

Sarah frowned, unhappy with her full title.  “Get ready for what Kei?” she asked.

Kei didn’t respond.  She drew her staff, and twisted her body into dance.  Great chunks of asphalt rose like glaciers around Kei.  Branches tore from the broken road, and vines whipped about in a circle around her.  Nearby cars ripped like paper and spun violently in the air like jagged spears.  Fire burst from the sky, and joined the elements surrounding Kei.

Gashkoro tore free from the forest imprisonment, and howled at Kei.  It lurched forward a step, but didn’t charge.  Gashkoro swayed and roared at Kei’s display, evidently cautious of whatever she was doing.

Rock, vines, steel and fire combined above Kei in a vortex of power.  “Mother Earth’s Rightful Vengeance!” Kei announced with more emotion than usual.  She pointed at Gashkoro victoriously.

Nothing happened.

“Mother Earth’s Rightful Vengeance!” Kei yelled again.  The mass of power glowed bright white, and throbbed angrily over her head.  Kei looked down expectantly at Sarah.

Sarah just blinked up at Kei.  “I don’t know what you’re doing!” Sarah screamed.  “What am I supposed to do?”

Kei tilted her head, and stared at Sarah with a mix of confusion and disappointment.  The collected energy above her imploded with an ominous click, and then detonated with a sonic boom.  Lance and Sarah were knocked off of their feet.  Kei was thrown violently, bouncing between the two.  Gashkoro was pushed back a step or two, but beyond being a bit stunned, the monster seemed fine.

Lance was the first to stagger to his feet.  He offered a hand to Sarah, but she got up on her own.  Kei didn’t move at all.  Her Lovely Angel uniform flickered and evaporated from her, leaving Kei with her sweater and jeans.  Gashkoro was already recovering from the explosion.  It growled a high pitched whine at Lance and Sarah.

Lance looked from Gashkoro to Kei.  She wasn’t moving, and was certainly not turned back into a Lovely Angel.  “I’m thinking that’s not what was supposed to happen?” Lance suggested feebly.

“Oh, you think?”  Sarah sighed, and turned full attention to Gashkoro.  “Pick up Kei,” she commanded as she balled water in her hands.  “I’ll try to hold off Gashkoro.”

Sarah thrust her hands forward, and called for Neptune’s Trident.  Water geysered from her outstretched hands at Gashkoro.  The giant skeleton growled, and blocked with its arm.  It swatted the water spray away, and howled at Sarah and Lance.

“Or not,” Sarah said, barely keeping the panic from her voice.

Sarah continued to pour Neptune’s Trident at Gashkoro, but it was having little effect.  The monster put its hand down, and allowed the water blast to disperse along its ribcage.  It roared its nails-on-a-chalkboard roar as it walked slowly against the geyser towards Sarah, Lance, and Kei.

Lance didn’t pick up Kei.  He stood instead beside Sarah, and flicked his knife in his hand.  Lance remembered vaguely the rifle he’d left in the back of the truck, and wished he’d grabbed it.  Sarah gave his knife a sideways glance that made Lance sure that she was thinking the same thing.

The crack of a gunshot rang from the rooftops, and Gashkoro reeled backwards, clutching its eye.  A second shot hit the monster’s shoulder, spinning it back another step.  Lance looked up to the rooftops.

There, siloetted against the purple sky, was Barrowman.  His rifle looked twice the length of this body, and his tattered cloak was blowing like a cape.  If Lance didn’t know better, he’d swear that the old man was posing.  Lance didn’t care even if the man was showing off; his timing was impressive enough to earn him the right.

Sarah was less impressed, though at least thankful.  “Twice in the same day,” she muttered.  “We’re setting Barrowman records here.”

“Something something rhyming,” Barrowman called down from the roofs.  “Are you going to deal with this, Blue, or what?”

Sarah made a choking noise at Barrowman, but didn’t answer beyond that.  She put her arms out, and began a swift kata routine.  Water poured from her hands like ribbons, and twisted around her as she danced.  The water solidified as Sarah pointed her hands towards the flailing Gashkoro.

“Salachia’s Grip!” Sarah called.  The tendrils of ice flew from her hands, and circled Gashkoro.  They spread quickly, and sealed the giant skeletal monster in a glacier of ice.

Lance stared unhidden awe at the ice cocoon that held Gashkoro.  “Why didn’t you do that before,” he asked.  It was a fair question.

“Because most monsters don’t give you the time for a full dance routine,” she replied.  Sarah sighed.  “It was easier when there were five of us.  Four run distraction, while the fifth jazzes up some big guns.”

Sarah didn’t look over as John Barrowman leapt from the rooftops.  “Or we’d just wait for Kei to screw it royally,” she continued for Lance, “and our Deus Ex Distraction would come riding in.”

“Won’t be the first time one of you girls has accused me of being a distraction,” John commented as he walked over to the pair.

Sarah turned to John, and gave him a curt nod.  “Barrowman,”

“Lovely Angel Water Guardian,” John replied with a smirk.

“Don’t,” Sarah warned.  “Don’t call me that.”

“Been a while since you put the get up on,” John continued.  He lit a smoke, and inhaled deeply before continuing.  “You look ridiculous.  You know that, right?”

“Says the old man in a cape.”

“Says the old man in a cape,” John agreed.  He looked Sarah over critically.  “It’s a hell of an improvement over the jack boots,” he admitted.   “I’ll give you that at least.”

“Jeez.  Thanks,” Sarah muttered.  She waved at Gashkoro impatiently.  There was an ominous cracking noise as it struggled against the ice.  “That’s not going to hold for long,” Sarah stated.  “We need to get the truck back on its wheels, and we need to get out of here.”

John jabbed his thumb at the frozen Gashkoro.  “You just going to leave that thing?”

“You think you can finish it off?”  Sarah put a hand on her hip, but didn’t wait for an answer.  “Me neither.”  She pointed at Kei.  “How about you pick her up while Lance and I flip the truck back over?”

John scoffed.  “You sure you wouldn’t rather me help with the truck?”

“Wouldn’t want you to hurt yourself old man,” Sarah replied.  She gave Lance a light shove towards the truck.  “We got this,” she said.

Lance pushed himself between the roof of the cab, and the wall it had hit.  He reached under, looking for a good hand hold.  Sarah took the back end of the truck, and worked equally hard at keeping her skirt under control as she did finding a good grip.  Water flowed from her hands, and pushed up from beneath the truck.  Lance gave his all, but he suspected that Sarah and her powers did most of the work.

Lance brushed his hands off, and banged on the large dent in the roof of the truck.  “That’ll buff right out,” he said. Lance wasn’t sure what it meant; he’d just heard his grandpa say it in the past.

Sarah nodded at Lance, but she wasn’t really listening.  She watched as John stood over Kei.  He hadn’t picked her up yet.  Instead, he just seemed to be standing there, staring at her.  The ice around Gashkoro was cracking dangerously, and Lance was sure he could see the beast moving in its prison.

“Just pick her up Barrowman,” Sarah called over.  “We don’t have forever.”  She chuckled, mostly to herself.  “C’mon John.  It’s not like this is the first time you’ve had to carry her about.”

John nodded, and chuckled as well.  Still, his hands shook as he knelt to pick up Kei.  “My God,” he whispered.  “She hasn’t aged a day.”

Barrowman looked up at Sarah with wet eyes.  He forced a smile, but it wavered.  “You and the other girls at least had the decency to pretend to get older,” he said to Sarah, “but Kei…”

The steel in Sarah’s voice faded.  “Just get her in the truck John,” she offered softly.  “I’m sure she has a story behind it.”

John put Kei down gently in the bed of the truck.  He took his jacket off, and slipped it under her head.  “A hell of a story, I’m sure,” John agreed.  “Maybe I’ll get to hear it later.”

John looked at his hands, and then down at Kei.  “I’m not coming with you,” he said.  “I don’t want her to see me like this.”

Sarah shook her head.  “Don’t be an idiot Barrowman,” she began.  She was cut off as the ice on Gashkoro’s arm shattered.

“Go,” John insisted.  “I’m going to distract gruesome here; try and lead it away from the Night Posts.”  He hoisted his rifle, and waved off any complaints before Sarah could make them.  “I’ll be fine,” he stated.  “Just get yourselves to safety.”

Sarah considered arguing, but hopped into the truck.  She motioned for Lance to start driving, and only looked back as an afterthought.  “Don’t get yourself killed Barrowman.”

“You wish, Water Guardian,” John called back.  “I’ll be fine.  You’re going to need someone there for you when you screw up again, right?”

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