"I have to help them. All of them. It's why I do this."
Michiko, the hero known as the Monkey Queen, and her partner in adventure Beth McGill thought it would be easy. They've become good friends since they started working together, why not become roommates? Of course, that was before the kitchen fire. And the broken bedroom door. Not to mention the cranky guinea pig.
But they have bigger problems ahead. A shady real estate deal has left two new groups of Emigres arguing over a meadow. Other Emigres are vanishing without a trace. And enemies old and new lurk in the woods, in the shadows, even in dreams.
Can Michiko and Beth stop the darkness...or will they be the next victims?
Here's the completed, and gorgeous, cover art by Willow!
And below the cut is the first chapter! Enjoy!
"Is that her?" Michiko asked.
Beth heard the footsteps on the stairs as she peeked out of the apartment window. "No," she said, "but she's usually very prompt. It won't be long."
Michiko nodded. "Are there any boxes left to bring up?"
"Looks like Mec's driving his van off, so I think Aloysius is—"
Beth stopped when she heard the knock on the door. Michiko hurried over and opened it, and a very tall, very tan, well-muscled man in a sleeveless t-shirt and tight jeans stepped in, setting a stack of boxes down on the floor. "Last load," Aloysius said. “Mec will be up once he finds a parking space.”
"Great!" Michiko smiled. "I'll get these in the bedroom later."
"I'm just glad I didn't have to move Beth," Aloysius said. "That would take all day, with everything she's got." He gestured at the bookshelves and DVD racks that lined the walls of the small living room.
"And her bedroom's stuffed with stuff, too!" Michiko said. "I'm worried about what she may have hiding in her closet."
Beth stuck her tongue out at her new roommate. She had gone through quite a string of them since she had enrolled at nearby Cooper College the year before; her previous one, in the capper to a bizarre string of events, had moved out while trying to land a TV show after faking an alien abduction.
It had been shortly afterward that Beth had first encountered Michiko, the Monkey Queen. Michiko had gained that nickname at a young age, when her adoptive mother, Grandmother Fox, had jokingly compared her to Sun Wukong, the legendary Monkey King (though they weren't related). Michiko was a skilled fighter, and had been tasked with helping to keep the peace as magic returned to Earth.
Beth and Michiko had met several weeks back, when Beth learned she had the rare ability known as "second sight"—she could see through and dispel illusions, including those that people used to disguise themselves, which were called "seemings". She and Michiko had teamed up to rescue a mutual friend from a kidnapping conspiracy that involved Wrexham, a duke at the Courts of Faerie, and Muirin, a dark sorceress, and by the time that was done, they had become partners in adventure and good friends.
Michiko had become concerned about Beth's safety, and she'd been spending most of her free time in Beth's apartment anyway, so she had eagerly agreed to move in with Beth when she had made the suggestion. It was what they both hoped would be a perfect match.
There was another knock at the door. "It's her!" Beth said. She brushed dust off her faded blue jeans, tugged at her Doubleclicks t-shirt and pushed her glasses back up her nose.
"Places, everyone!" Michiko said. "Beth, remember—don't look at the lamp!" She quickly smoothed down her black hair and adjusted her yellow sweater. Aloysius sat on the couch and tried to make himself inconspicuous.
Beth nodded as she opened the door. "Good morning, Mrs. Culbertson," she said.
A middle-aged woman with dyed hair and well-tended wrinkles walked into the apartment. She was wearing a matching blue blazer and skirt, with what some would call a bit too much makeup and a bit too much skin showing, and she carried a manila folder under her arm. "Good morning, Beth," she said, her eyes sweeping the room for potential lease violations before settling on the new tenant. "This would be Michiko Koyama?"
"Hiiii!" Michiko said, extending a hand. "I'm so glad to meet you, Mrs. Culbertson!"
"The pleasure's mine," the landlady said as they shook hands. "Did
you get settled in yet?"
"We just got the last boxes upstairs," Michiko said.
"That's good. Now, here's the revised lease; just sign or initial where I've marked.” Michiko nodded and flipped through the folder as Mrs. Culbertson said, “You know, Beth never did tell me how you two met."
"Okay!” Michiko said as she started to sign the pages. “There's this coffeehouse, you know? And I run into Beth there, and we start talking, and she says she needs a new roommate because her last one is being sued by a major book publisher. So, I say that I need a place to stay because my roommate is kicking me out so she can use the bedroom to breed attack cockatoos, and that's why I'm here!"
"Of course," Mrs. Culbertson said, crooking an eyebrow; Beth, standing nearby, managed not to giggle. "By the way, is that your lamp?" The landlady gestured towards the lamp on the table by the couch. It was over two feet tall, finished in shiny gold, and topped with a shade covered with gold sequins.
"Yes," Michiko said. "It was a going-away gift from my great aunt."
"No doubt it was going away to the nearest thrift store otherwise." Mrs. Culbertson turned away from the lamp.
"I know," Michiko said with a sheepish grin. "The things we do to keep our relatives happy." She handed Mrs. Culbertson the folder and the pen.
Behind her, Beth found herself wondering why Gregor had to use a seeming that looked like the purse that, much to his dismay, he had been carried in at one point. She glanced over at the lamp. She then remembered that she wasn't supposed to look at the lamp, but she figured that it would be fine as long as she didn't blink.
As Beth thought that, she blinked. Her second sight kicked in, and the lamp seeming wavered and vanished.
In its place was a small cage that held a guinea pig, black and white with a sour expression. Gregor had once been a powerful sorcerer who had squandered his talent. He had been given a chance at redemption after a millennium in Limbo, but the cute and furry form he had been reincarnated in had not improved his temperament. He glared at Beth, slapped his forehead with a paw and muttered under his breath.
"My dear, Elvis would have kicked that lamp out of Graceland," Mrs. Culbertson said. She started to turn back to the table, but by then the lamp seeming had reappeared, concealing the cage. Beth sighed quietly as she moved by the table to minimize her chance of repeating her mistake.
"Well, if this is your biggest flaw, you're well ahead of some of Beth's former roommates," the landlady said. "You're not likely to elope and move to...Beth, was it Tonga?"
"Fiji," Beth said.
"Of course. Michiko, it was good to meet you; I'll have a copy of the lease for you later. Beth, a word outside with you before I go?"
Beth swallowed and nodded as she followed Mrs. Culbertson out the door. "Byeeee!" Michiko said with a wave.
Mrs. Culbertson closed the door and turned to face her tenant. "Beth," she said, "I needed to ask you about something I noticed inside."
Oh crap, Beth thought as she tried to control her expression. If she saw Gregor... "What can I help you with, Mrs. Culbertson?" she said in a mostly-steady voice.
"Who was that young man on the couch?"
Thank you, God, Beth thought. "He's a friend. He helped move Michiko in."
"No! I mean, he's just a friend friend, not a boyfriend."
"Good." Mrs. Culbertson reached into her purse and pulled out a card. "Could you pass this along to him? I may need his help with some...heavy lifting myself." She smiled.
"Will do." Beth pocketed the card.
"Thank you, Beth." Mrs. Culbertson started down the stairs. "Good luck with Michiko."
"Thanks." Beth ducked back inside, closed the door, and exhaled loudly.
"All clear?" Michiko asked.
"All clear." Beth sat down next to Aloysius on the couch. "She seems to like you," she said to him.
"In what way?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.
"In that special way that some lonely widows like well-built young men."
"Well, I can think of three ways she's got the wrong idea." Aloysius snapped his fingers as he spoke. His human seeming vanished, revealing his true form, which was over seven feet tall, purple and bat-winged. "Is that why she dragged you out into the hallway?"
"I thought she might have seen Gregor."
"Did Beth look at the lamp?" Michiko asked.
"And she blinked," Aloysius said. Beth felt her face redden.
"Of course she did!" Everyone turned to the table by the couch. The lamp was gone, the cage could be seen again, and Gregor was sticking his head out through the top. "We all told her not to look at the lamp!" he shouted. "She could disrupt the seeming! And then the landlady would see me, which you were all desperate not to have happen, because if it did, she would raise your rent, and that would mean you might have to cut out cable and not get to watch Doctor Who!"
Beth hid her face in her hands. "Are you quite done, Gregor?" she asked. "Because if you are, I'd like to crawl off into a corner and die now."
"Don't do it, Beth!" Michiko said.
"We haven't ordered pizza yet!"
"There is that," Beth said, lowering her hands. She nudged Aloysius. "Staying for pizza, big guy?"
"It's Hawaiian!" Michiko said with a grin.
Aloysius shook his head. "I have to get up early tomorrow. Weekends are always busy. I need my sleep." He rose from the couch, careful to not bump into anything with his wings. “Besides, Mec will eat it all anyway.”
"Shucks." Beth stood up and hugged him. "Hey, thanks for helping."
"Glad to, sweetie," he said.
Aloysius had barely let Beth go when Michiko wrapped him up in a bearhug. "You're the best," she said.
"Awww." He untangled himself from Michiko. "See you guys Sunday?"
"Wouldn't miss it," Beth said.
"Pancakes!" Michiko smiled.
"Of course." Aloysius opened the door and started out.
"Aloysius!" Beth stage-whispered. "Your seeming!" She could hear a cat outside, probably a neighbor's, yowl in surprise.
"Oops," came the reply.
* * *
Beth stirred in her bed and half-opened her eyes. It was still dark, and it was still Saturday morning. She closed her eyes again and smiled; Saturday was her one day to sleep in, and she was going to take full advantage of it.
There was a loud crash from the kitchen. Beth sat straight up in bed and thought, I should let Michiko handle this. She found herself grabbing her glasses, getting out of bed and hurrying out of the bedroom, pausing only to stick her feet into her pink bunny slippers. "Michiko?" she asked.
Her new roommate was in the kitchen, wearing gray sweatpants and a dark green Totoro t-shirt—Oh my God, I want that t-shirt! Beth thought—and picking something up from the floor. She looked back, saw Beth, and blushed. "Did I wake you up?" she said.
"Kind of,” Beth said, trying not to yawn. “What happened?"
"I keep forgetting how small this kitchen is," Michiko said. "So, I stretched like this..." She swung her arms out. "...and knocked my coffee mug off the counter."
"Coffee...what time is it, anyway?"
Beth raised an eyebrow. "What on Earth are you doing up so early?"
"It's my new morning routine.” Michiko ticked things off on her fingers as she spoke. “Six days a week, I'll get up early, have a quick cup of coffee, jog over to Grandmother Fox's, practice for an hour with Master Zhang, meditate in the garden for a bit, and jog back here, picking up muffins and fruit salad for breakfast because we still haven't gotten groceries. Wait, that last one was supposed to be a surprise." She slapped herself on the forehead.
"You're making it very hard for me to be cranky with you," Beth said, trying not to smile and failing.
"Yeah. Sorry I woke you up," Michiko said.
"You're forgiven, as long as they're not out of blueberry bran muffins." Michiko grinned as Beth said, "I'm going back to bed. Remember—" she held her forefinger to her lips. Michiko nodded.
Beth went back to her bedroom, closed the door and got back under the covers. She smiled as she snuggled against her pillow. She's getting breakfast, she thought as she started to fall asleep. Michiko is so—
There was a loud thud from the living room. Beth sat straight up in bed and grabbed her glasses. As she did, Michiko opened the bedroom door. "Sorry," she whispered. "I dropped a bag of Gregor's food pellets. Sorry."
She quickly closed the door. Beth fell back in bed. She's your roommate, she thought. She's your friend. Don't strangle her until she's back with the muffins.
* * *
Beth hurried over to the apartment door when she heard the knocking. She glanced through the peephole, unlocked and opened the door, and moved aside. "Thanks!" Michiko said as she stepped inside. She had been carrying half a dozen canvas bags stuffed with groceries, mostly produce; she quickly set them down and took off her sneakers.
"You carried all that back from the store?" Beth asked as she closed and locked the door.
"Yep! Good exercise!" Michiko picked up the bags again and carried them into the kitchen. She began to unpack them, spreading the groceries over all the available counter space.
"That's a lot of stuff," Beth said as she joined her roommate in the kitchen.
"Well, there's lots of room in here!" Michiko said as she opened the refrigerator.
"Yeah," Beth said. "I finally cleaned out all the ex-roommate stuff the other day." All that was left in the fridge was strawberry and blueberry jam, a jug of milk, and the leftover pizza they had managed to hide from Mec the night before.
Michiko started to fill the fridge. "That's good," she said, "because some of this is for you."
Michiko looked back at Beth and grinned. "We need to get you to start eating healthier!"
Beth raised an eyebrow. "Hey, I already eat the four basic college student food groups."
"Yeah. Ramen, pizza, burritos and coffee." Beth grinned.
"You left out 'beer', girl," Gregor said from his cage.
"I don't drink," Beth said.
"Beth." She looked back at Michiko. "I'm being serious. You've been getting your self-defense training from Master Zhang, and I know that Scylla and Gregor are working on something for you, but we need to work on keeping you in shape."
Beth glanced down at her not-exactly-slender body. "What, this shape?" she said.
"Good shape," Michiko said. "It's okay to be a bit chubby, but I want you to be healthy. Not just for what we do, but because I want you to be around for a long time."
"Awww." Beth blushed.
"So, I'm making salad for lunch!" Michiko pointed at the counter.
Beth looked at the bags and piles of fresh fruits and vegetables, some of which looked like they had been imported from Atlantis or maybe Mars, and felt whatever zeal for healthy living she might have had start to evaporate. "Maybe I'll just finish off the leftover pizza," she said.
"Come on, Beth!" Michiko said. "It'll be yummy!"
"I'd feel more confident about that if I knew what half that stuff was."
"But I know you'll like it if you tried it!"
"Why do I feel like I've stepped into a Dr. Seuss book?" Beth said.
"That's fine, then. You don't have to eat any now," Michiko said, pouting just a little. "But I'll keep making it, and I'll keep leaving some in the fridge for you. And one day, you'll be running late for class, and you'll need to grab something for lunch, so you'll bring this and eat it, and I bet you'll like it."
"We'll see," Beth said.
"Just wait! You'll be eating healthier! Just like me!"
Beth reached into a bag and pulled out a package of dark chocolate squares. "Just like you, huh?" she said, trying not to grin.
"Well...chocolate is supposed to help lower cholesterol," Michiko said meekly.
Beth shook her head. "This stuff is bad for you. You can't have it. I'm going to have to hide it." She started towards her bedroom with the chocolate.
"Noooo!" Michiko cried in mock anguish.
"Kidding!" Beth said, hurrying back to the kitchen.
"I knew that," Michiko said with a smile. "I bought that to share with you anyway."
"Thanks." Beth smiled back. "I could use some antioxidants." Michiko giggled.
* * *
"This is starting to smell like a bad idea," Gregor said as the aroma of cooked onions and garlic filled the apartment.
"'Smell'?" Beth asked.
"Yes. Trust me."
"You're just being cranky!" Michiko shouted from the kitchen. Her yellow apron had already picked up a few stains. She was stirring sliced tofu and vegetables in a large saucepan on the old gas-burning stove; a colander filled with noodles sat in the sink.
"Realistic," Gregor said. "You've never cooked before!"
"I've watched Feng do this," Michiko said. "His tofu chow mein is really yummy!"
"Well, I'm glad she's doing this," Beth said. "It's very thoughtful and sweet of her."
Michiko smiled happily as she stirred. "And I'm glad you're willing to try some!" she said.
"I'm glad I won't have to eat it," Gregor said. "At least tell me it'll be done soon."
"Almost!" Michiko said.
"Good," the guinea pig grumbled. "Maybe then my nostrils will unclog."
"I just need to add the noodles," Michiko said. "And a little more soy sauce." She grabbed a bottle from the counter without looking and poured the contents into the saucepan; some of it splashed over the side and down to the open-flame burner.
"Michiko!" Beth said. "That's the cooking oil!"
A ball of fire shot up from the saucepan. Michiko lifted the pan off the stove, then shrieked as she realized what she was holding. Black smoke and a loud series of beeps filled the apartment.
"Don't put water on it!" Beth shouted as she threw the windows open.
"At least the smoke alarm works," Gregor said, shaking his head.
Michiko grabbed the saucepan lid and dropped it on the pan. The fire quickly died out; Michiko turned off the burner and set the pan back on the stove. As she did, Beth used one of her textbooks to fan the fumes away from the smoke alarm. The beeping stopped, and she hurried into the kitchen. "You okay?" she asked Michiko.
She nodded. "I'm sorry, Beth," she said, looking sadly at the burned mess that would have been their dinner.
"It's all right," Beth said. "At least it wasn't my good saucepan. And maybe we can save it with a good soak and lots of scrubbing."
"I'll take care of it when the pan cools down."
"So what are we doing for dinner?" Beth asked.
"Crispy chow mein?" Michiko said with a smile.
"Cajun blackened chow mein?" Michiko asked.
"Takeout burritos?" Michiko said with a sigh.
"Chicken super burrito, no sour cream or hot sauce," Beth said. "Don't forget the chips."
© 2014 Robert Dahlen. All rights reserved, except those permitted under fair use laws. Feel free to repost, but all copyright notices must be included.
Art © 2014 Willow. All rights reserved. Used by permission. http://willow-san.deviantart.com