Michiko Koyama was grinning as she started up the winding trail, a smile that spread to her brown eyes. "The rain's finally gone!" she said, snapping her fingers. The seeming with the yellow sweater and the black jeans vanished, revealing her "Monkey Queen" outfit, the black t-shirt and leggings, the yellow karate jacket, the red pillbox hat with the long matching scarf that snapped in the morning breeze. It had been a quiet morning, and Michiko treasured it; being a hero meant that there weren't too many of those.
"Yeah," Beth McGill said as she walked alongside Michiko, brushing back her brownish blonde hair with her fingers and pushing her thick-lensed glasses up her nose. "So, of course, I'll be stuck inside all day." She pulled her green army jacket shut against the February chill, covering her MST3K t-shirt. She was wearing a heavy backpack and holding a canvas shopping bag with the top of a thermos sticking out; though her jacket's pockets had been enchanted to hold much more than even the biggest purses, she still had to carry anything that was too wide to fit into them.
Beth was a sophomore at Cooper College, located in the center of the nearby town of Nortonville, and it had been there on a Friday night the previous October that she had met the Monkey Queen. Michiko had shown up in time to rescue Beth from an ogre, just as Beth had discovered that she had second sight, the ability to see through and dispel seemings and other illusions. They had worked together to rescue Puck, an Emigre from Faerie who was an English professor at Cooper College, after he had been kidnapped.
They quickly become roommates and best friends, and Beth had joined Michiko as her partner in adventure. They worked together to help keep the peace among the various hidden communities of faeries and other Emigres in and around town, and deal with any threats from within the communities and from outside—"saving the world," as Michiko put it. They had spent time in Faerie for several days on two recent occasions, and Beth had been trying to catch up and get ahead on her studying ever since.
"All day?" Michiko asked.
"Yeah. I got stuck with two hard-nosed professors this semester." Beth shook her head.
"So that means..." Michiko glanced up and down the trail, checking to confirm they were alone. "I'll have to wait until tonight to do this again!" She leaned over and gave Beth a quick, soft kiss on her cheek.
"You big doofus." A warm smile spread across Beth's face. She reached down and took Michiko's hand in hers with an affectionate squeeze as her bright blue eyes sparkled.
Michiko felt her heart race as she smiled back at Beth. She had fallen for her the day they had met—"The first time I saw you smile," Michiko had said—and she still couldn't believe that Beth had come to feel the same way, even as they held hands while they walked, even with the sweet embraces and kisses on the cheeks when they could steal a few minutes alone. They were small steps, tentative ones, but they thrilled Michiko like nothing else.
They rounded a bend in the trail and saw the top of the old barn, overgrown and abandoned to all appearances. They knew it was anything but; the Wonderland Diner and Tavern was shielded by seemings that even Beth couldn't see through. With one final squeeze, Michiko let go of Beth's hand.
It had been a mutual decision to keep their growing feelings for each other private, and not the easiest one. Michiko had wanted to share the news with everyone at first, because she had been so overjoyed, but Beth had pointed out that it was still early, and they were taking things slow anyway. And although Nortonville was liberal, and most Emigres were accepting of same-sex relationships, there was always the concern about a backlash if they went public. Michiko went along with Beth's wishes, though reluctantly.
Michiko knew that, deep down, there was another reason why Beth had wanted to keep their budding romance a secret. Beth hadn't decided if she was ready to commit to a relationship with the Monkey Queen, if she wanted to spend a good part of her life helping to save the world. Still, Michiko had a hunch which way Beth was leaning, and it grew stronger with every smile from her, every kiss on the cheek, every lingering embrace.
Michiko loved those moments, and wanted more of them. Deep down, she longed to take the next small step, to kiss the lips that smiled so warmly...but she didn't want to pressure Beth. She feared, even if she knew deep down she was worrying needlessly, that if she were to press the issue Beth would pull back, and their relationship would collapse. So Michiko let Beth set the pace, and treasured what time they could find to be alone together.
"Just a quick stop?" Michiko asked as she walked up to the door of the old barn.
"It had better be." Beth shook her head. "My TA will kill me if I'm late again. Thanks," she added as Michiko held the door for her.
"You're welcome!" Michiko said, smiling as she followed Beth inside.
* * *
Thirteen courts ruled Faerie.
This statement did not apply to the lands that the creatures that were not faeries called home, the dwarven holdings in the north and the Hoblands to the south, the misty Spriteling Isles and the sprawling and slightly crazy city of Cloudsoar, and many more. And it did not apply to the Far Lands on the other side of the world, which the Courts tried on principle to ignore as much as possible.
But the thirteen Courts were always there, a looming presence. From the somewhat progressive House Astrida to the infighting of House Montague, from the sullen dictatorship that marked House Travian to the cult of personality that was House Wrexham, every faerie was bound by blood and tradition to one of their courts—except for those that had abandoned them to come to Dawnhome.
It was once a smallish city, a popular stop for river traffic. Then a gremlin inventor named Skyward had arrived with his prototype airship, and the city leaders saw the potential immediately. Within a few years, they had built the first and largest airship terminal in all of Faerie, and over the last century Dawnhome had grown faster and become more prosperous than any of the Courts. The Dukes and Counts and Earls all snarled and gnashed their teeth, but they knew how important Dawnhome had become to Faerie as a whole, so they curried the favor of the city's leaders while they built their own terminals and secretly planned their own aerial armadas.
There was one other thing about Dawnhome that drew the Courts' attention, and that was the auldgate. It had been sealed for centuries, but had reopened three decades ago. It led to Earth, where magic had been slowly starting to return, and a college town with plenty of untouched land nearby.
The auldgate was a magnet for Faerie's disgruntled and disaffected from the moment it reopened. There were faeries who had attracted the ire of the Courts, dwarves looking for retirement property, pixies and gremlins drawn by the lure of the new, and others, and all of them went through the auldgate to new homes and lives. Publicly, the Courts complained loudly. Privately, they were glad to have a place to send malcontents to, and some had also used the auldgate's back side on Earth to surreptitiously visit the Far Lands, so they did not take any action beyond forcing Dawnhome's leaders to post guards on the auldgate.
Dawnhome responded by hiring a private security company that recruited trolls to do the work. In theory, this was supposed to keep traffic through the auldgate down. In practice, the troll guards let almost everyone through, though the bribes some collected supplemented their pay nicely. And so, over the years, Emigres from throughout Faerie had passed through to Nortonville, California to find new homes and new lives.
* * *
It was early morning in Dawnhome as the family walked down the Avenue of Discovery. The faerie husband held his wife's hand and carried their sleepy young daughter.
They approached the auldgate, halfway between the port and the airship terminal along the Avenue. The square that surrounded the auldgate, which was filled with food carts and their customers later in the day, was deserted at that hour except for three troll guards. One of them, older than the others, leaned on his halberd as he tried to stay awake, while the tallest one had wandered away from the auldgate and was noisily eating a leftover pirogi.
The troll nearest the auldgate, who wore sergeant's stripes, looked down at the faeries. "Names and purpose?" he said.
"Marcus," the male faerie said as the woman handed the guard some papers. "My wife is Claudia, and this is Juno, my daughter. We're going to visit my in-laws at the encampment."
"This early?" The sergeant glanced up from the papers, raising an eyebrow.
"Juno couldn't wait to see her Aunt Libby. She spoils her rotten." The faerie grinned.
The tall troll lowered his pirogi and stared at the faeries for a long moment. "Aren't we supposed to be looking out for a family of three?" he said.
The sergeant glared at his subordinate. "Those are two pixies and a gremlin!" he snapped. "These are faeries!" He handed the papers back to Claudia.
"But—" The tall troll fell quiet as the sergeant glared at him. He quickly stuffed the half-eaten pirogi into his mouth. The sergeant rolled his eyes as he stepped aside, holding out a hand.
Marcus dropped a small pouch into the troll's hand. "Have a good day," the faerie said as he and his family faced the auldgate, the black marble frame with the center swirling with silver and white energy and a touch of hope.
* * *
The faerie family stepped through the auldgate onto a stone platform, glancing at the giant sequoia trees that surrounded them, inhaling the crisp winter air as birds chirped their morning songs. They moved off the platform, the auldgate vanishing from sight as they did. "Lords and Ladies be thanked," Marcus said. "We've made it."
"They won't follow us?" Claudia glanced back nervously at the platform. "That one guard seemed suspicious."
"That bribe should keep them from asking more questions." Marcus looked around. "We're supposed to find the old barn nearby. It's a restaurant, a gathering place for other refugees."
Claudia nodded. "I think we can get rid of these seemings now." She snapped her fingers, and the illusion that concealed her true appearance vanished. Her pink pixie wings fluttered in the morning breeze.
Her husband snapped his fingers in turn. He straightened the bowler hat on his head, between his high and pointed ears, and adjusted the heavy backpack he wore. "Julia?" the gremlin said to the girl he was carrying. "You need to snap your fingers now, punkin, just like me and Mommy."
The girl nodded nervously and snapped her fingers. Her seeming vanished. "Where are we going, Daddy?" she asked as her tiny wings, which were pink like her mother's, fluttered.
"To get breakfast. Maybe they'll have pancakes!"
"Yummy!" Julia said. For the first time in what seemed like weeks, her father smiled. They walked into the woods as the morning sun rose, seemingly to greet Nortonville's newest Emigres.
* * *
It had been another quiet Wednesday morning at Wonderland until the gremlin and the two pixies had come in, cold and nervous and, even though they were in the right place, lost. Mandy, the pixie waitress who worked morning shifts at the diner, had had experience with new Emigres before, so she sat them at a table near a window by the front door, brought coffee for the adults and hot chocolate for Julia, and made a phone call from the kitchen.
The young pixie had started to wander around the diner, her mother following at a discreet distance, when the faerie in extravagant clothing arrived. He spoke briefly to Mandy, who pointed to the table by the window. The gremlin who had sat there, his back to the door, was staring at the tabletop, holding his derby hat in his hands.
The faerie walked over to the table and stretched out a hand. "Clockwise?" he said.
The gremlin looked up at the faerie. "Purple?" he said. "I'm assuming you're not one of Wrexham's men."
"Far from it." The faerie smiled. "I'm Windsor. Welcome to Earth."
"Thank you." Clockwise shook Windsor's hand.
"We do have quite a bit to discuss. Perhaps your wife and daughter should join us?"
Clockwise nodded and looked around the diner. He saw Julia in the back, standing by a very large padded armchair and staring at the larger reptilian creature who sat in it, the daily newspaper in his lap as he sipped from a quart-sized coffee cup.
Sam looked down at the little pixie girl. His face wasn't built for smiling any more than his voicebox was for speaking English, but he still tried his best as he waved "hello" with his right hand. The girl's wide-eyed expression did not change. Sam set his coffee down and waved with his left hand, with the same result. "Come along, Julia," her mother said as she took the girl's hand and led her away. Sam continued to wave until Julia sat down with her parents at Windsor's table.
* * *
"At some point," Windsor was saying, "one or both of you may have to seek a job among humans. When that happens, you'll need more than a seeming. You'll need a human identity. I can connect you with someone who can set that up, but there will be a fee."
Clockwise nodded as he took another bite of his veggie scramble. Windsor had insisted on buying breakfast for the Emigre family, though there had been a minor ruckus before Julia finally agreed to eat her fruit before her pancakes. "Hopefully, it won't come to that," the gremlin said.
"Also, you may need to convert your Faerie coins into dollars, the currency humans use here." Windsor leaned forward in his chair. "I can assist you with that, though again, there will be a fee."
"We do have some money left," Clockwise said. "Not as much as we would have hoped, though."
"We spent most of it getting out of Faerie," his wife added, keeping one eye on her daughter, who was rolling her last grape around her plate with her fingertips. "We had to pay for seemings and identification papers, and the airship flight out of Cloudsoar."
"And a bribe for the auldgate guards." Clockwork scowled.
"A necessary evil," Windsor said with a slight smile, "when dealing with those trolls..."
His voice trailed off as the door opened. Beth hurried in, glancing around quickly and nodding at some of the regulars seated near the door. "Hey," she said to Mandy as the waitress walked up to her.
"Good morning," Mandy said. "Here for breakfast on a Wednesday?"
"If only." Beth pulled the thermos from her bag. "But could you get Briella to fill this up? I'm going to need all the coffee I can get today."
"Got it." Mandy took the thermos and headed for the pastry counter.
Beth walked towards the back of the diner, where Sam sat in his big chair, reading his newspaper. "Sam?" she said.
The reptilian lowered his paper and glanced over the top. He set the paper aside and took a battered and worn lift-and-erase board from the wall where it hung. He wrote carefully on it with a talon and showed Beth what he had written: Good morning, Beth.
"Hey," Beth said. "The order came in." She reached into her canvas bag and took out three lift-and-erase boards, all brand new but otherwise identical to the one Sam held. "I'll ask Mandy to find a place to store the extras," she said as she set the boards on the table by Sam's coffee cup. "Do you need me to open one up for you?"
Sam slowly shook his head as he picked up one board. Using a talon, he carefully sliced through the shrinkwrap and cut the cardboard apart. He took the board out and scrawled on it with a talon. He lifted the cover with a satisfied grunt, wiping out the scrawl. He wrote on the board and held it up for Beth to see: Thank you, my friend.
Beth smiled. "Any time, big guy. Let me know if any of them are defective. I can talk to the seller I got them from on eBay—"
There was a crashing sound from a table near the window. She glanced over and saw Michiko standing there, picking up a chair and talking to a gremlin and a pixie as Windsor watched. A little pixie girl was also there, happily slicing pancakes, and Beth's jaw dropped when she saw her. "Got to run," she said to Sam as she hurried away.
* * *
Michiko stretched as she waited by the door, watching Beth walking over to Sam. She checked around for some of the other weekday regulars. Scylla hadn't come in yet, and Mec was running late as usual, but the dwarves were gathered at their table, busy with hearty breakfasts and conversation punctuated with boisterous laughter. Ulbricht spotted her and waved; she waved back with a grin.
She looked over at the table near the window where Windsor usually held court. He was there with a gremlin wearing a derby hat and a pixie with pink wings; Michiko guessed they were new Emigres, getting help settling in.
Michiko saw there was another pixie at the table, a young one with pink wings who was pouring syrup on her pancakes. Michiko's eyes widened as memories flooded through her of an airship voyage gone wrong, of a sacrifice she had almost made and the adventure that had ensued.
The gremlin glanced over his shoulder. He jumped to his feet, so quickly that he knocked over his chair. "Monkey Queen?" he said as he gaped at Michiko.
"Oh my gosh." Michiko hurried over to the table and picked up the chair, setting it upright before the gremlin could react. She then stepped back and stared again at the pixie girl she had rescued on that day in November.
The gremlin took off his derby hat as Beth approached the table. "I am Clockwise," he said slowly. "This is my wife, Eveline." She nodded as Clockwise continued, "The girl is my daughter, Julia."
"Hi," Michiko said. "This is my partner, Beth McGill."
"Hey." Beth took a quick breath. "I hope I'm not being rude, but I do need to run if I'm going to get to class on time."
"Of course," Clockwise said.
"Don't hit Latte's pastry cart first!" Michiko said to Beth.
"Maybe just a scone," Beth said with a smile. "See you tonight." Michiko nodded and smiled back, trying not to blush, as Beth walked away, taking her thermos from Mandy as she headed for the door.
Michiko's smile faded as she turned back to Clockwise and his family. "You've emigrated?" she said softly.
"We have, and not willingly." The gremlin shook his head. "Sometimes, the workings of Fate seem to develop a stripped gear or two."
"Do you mind if I ask what happened?"
"Not at all." Michiko sat down next to Windsor as Clockwise began his tale.
* * *
"It started with that airship trip. I'm a timepiece craftsman and salesman—rather, I was one, traveling frequently back and forth between Cloudsoar and Dawnhome. I usually traveled alone, but I had brought Julia on that trip because Eveline had business meetings.
"I hadn't expected trouble when I brought Julia up on deck to see the faerie warship. But then Wrexham's men found out you were on board, and they tilted our ship to try to capture you, and..."
Clockwise gripped his hat tightly in his hands. "I still remember Julia letting go of the bench. I remember you grabbing her, throwing her to me, telling me not to let her go even as you fell off the airship. I...I still have nightmares." Michiko nodded, a sad look in her eyes, as Windsor watched quietly.
"I knew everything had changed even before we landed," Clockwise continued. "The other passengers started spreading the story, telling anyone who would listen about your sacrifice, about how reckless and heartless Wrexham's men were. Then Eveline and I heard the rumors that you had survived and escaped, that you defeated and humiliated Wrexham with help from a band of pirates.
"The newspapers in Cloudsoar tracked me down and interviewed me. I told them what had happened, how you had saved Julia's life, and when they printed the story, the trouble began. Wrexham's opponents, both in and out of the Courts, held us up as a symbol of his cruelty and ruthlessness. His supporters dragged my name through the mud."
"There are many pixies and gremlins," Eveline added, "who loathe Wrexham and the Courts. Unfortunately, many of our 'friends' were not among them."
"And they didn't back us," Clockwise said, "when the threats began. When Eveline was pressured to leave her job, when we had to pull Julia out of school. And then I was fired, from a job I'd had for fourteen years, with no explanation or apologies.
"Then, we found out what Wrexham had planned next. We were told, by a member of the Forest Guard, that there was arson planned, that our house was to be burned down as we slept. This was two days ago."
"The Forest Guard?" Michiko asked.
"Yes. I never did get her name, though."
"I can guess who it was." Michiko smiled slightly.
"Of course." Clockwise shifted in his seat. "We knew someone who knew someone, and that's how we got seemings and fake identification papers. We boarded the first airship we could get for Dawnhome and hid in a hotel room until we could risk slipping through the auldgate. And now..." He stared at the table. "At least we made it here."
Michiko nodded. "Clockwise, Eveline...I'm sorry."
The gremlin lifted his head. "Sorry?"
"It's my fault that Wrexham ruined your life. If Beth and I hadn't been on that ship, if we had hidden below decks, if we weren't caught by Wrexham's men, none of this would have happened to you." Michiko blinked. "I took everything you had away from you. I'm sorry."
Clockwise stared at Michiko. "You...believe that, Monkey Queen? You really do?"
"I do." Michiko looked down, her face red, not reacting when Windsor gently laid a hand on her shoulder.
The gremlin swallowed. "You didn't take anything away," he said quietly. "It was all Wrexham and his supporters. You gave me something back. You saved my daughter, my beautiful little girl, and I never thought I'd get the chance to say this..." Michiko looked up at Clockwise as he started to cry. "Thank you," he whispered as Eveline put her arm around his shoulders. Michiko nodded, knowing that she would also be crying if she tried to say anything.
Julia looked up from her empty plate. "Daddy?" she said. "Why are you crying?"
"Because he loves you very, very much, punkin," Eveline said softly. Clockwise nodded as he wiped his eyes.
"Okay. Could I have some more pancakes?"
Clockwise smiled. "You may, punkin." Eveline glanced at Windsor; he nodded and turned to wave down Mandy.
"You like pancakes?" Michiko said to the girl.
Julia nodded. "They're my favorite!"
"Mine too!" Michiko smiled. "They're so yummy!"
"But you have to put lots of syrup on them."
"That's what I do!"
"And you also have to use fresh baking soda," Julia said. "That makes the pancakes fluffier. Could you pass the syrup, please?"
Michiko glanced at Julia's parents as she handed the girl the syrup bottle. "Don't look at me," Eveline said. "I'm a fashion designer."
"We always say she got it from her nana," Clockwise added.
"Well, Julia," Michiko said slowly, "if you stay on your best behavior, maybe the next time you're here, the chef will let you see the kitchen!"
"Okay!" Julia said with a smile. Michiko smiled back.
* * *
"Blargh!" Gregor said as he stuck his head out of Michiko's shoulder bag. "Why do you always have to tell me those schmaltzy stories?"
"Because you're a big softie deep down inside!" Michiko said cheerfully as she walked through the woods. There had been several muggings in town lately, and reports from the faerie encampment of ogre activity nearby. She thought the two might be connected, and had brought Gregor along to help her investigate.
The guinea pig snorted. "The only thing soft about me is the fur." Gregor had been a powerful but selfish sorcerer a millennium ago, and when he was offered reincarnation for a chance at redemption, he eagerly accepted. However, being brought back as a small, fuzzy black and white rodent had reduced his skills and sharpened his temper.
"I know!" Michiko grinned. "It's part of what makes you so cute!"
"Sometimes," Gregor muttered, "I think I'd prefer going back to Limbo over—"
"Hold that complaint." Michiko's smile vanished as she climbed over a tree that had fallen during a recent storm. She could see a clearing nearby, where the higher branches of the surrounding trees wove together to form a makeshift and somewhat leaky roof. The ground there was covered with fast food wrappers, dirty clothing, and two oversized sleeping bags.
"Not that concerned with tidiness, are they?" Gregor said as they reached the clearing.
"Or their health!" Michiko pointed at the wrappers. "All that fried food will take ten years off their lives!"
Michiko set the shoulder bag on the ground. "You start searching for clues."
"And what will you be doing?" Gregor said as he crawled out of the bag. "Writing up diet plans?"
"Nope!" Michiko turned her back to the clearing and dropped into a crouch, her staff tucked under her right arm. "Kicking the butts of the two ogres who've been following us for the last few minutes!"
"What ogres—" Gregor stopped as a loud roar came from the nearby trees. Two monstrous figures that could only be mistaken for humans from a great distance smashed through the woods and ran towards Michiko, clubs raised. They were easily two feet taller than her, dressed in castoff clothing that was at least one size too small, with pale skin, thin hair, and yellow eyes that matched their pointed teeth. "Monkey Queen?" the guinea pig said.
"Search the lair!" Michiko jumped high in the air, somersaulting over the ogres' heads. She landed behind them and ran off, just slowly enough for the ogres to follow.
"You're in charge," Gregor said, shrugging as best as he could with guinea pig shoulders. He began to dig through the trash-strewn clearing.
* * *
Michiko stopped in front of the fallen tree and waited for the ogres to catch up to her. "Wow, you guys are out of shape!" she said to them. "All that burger grease is slowing you down!"
"Any more jokes?" one ogre growled.
"Besides your onion breath?" Michiko made a face. "Not really, no."
"Enough mockery!" The ogre raised his club.
Without looking, Michiko jumped up and backwards. She landed on her feet on the fallen tree. "But I've got mockery I haven't used yet!" she said with a pout. The side of the fallen tree was surprisingly smooth and level, and it was easy for Michiko to keep her balance. She was still careful, moving slowly as the ogres closed in. One jumped up onto one end of the tree, near the roots.
"Ha!" Michiko turned and saw the other ogre climbing onto the tree, near a clump of branches. "You were foolish, Monkey Queen!"
"Were?" Michiko said.
"You're trapped!" The ogre pointed up with his club. "We have you between us, and if you try to jump, you'll crash into those low branches!"
"Oh, no," Michiko said in a flat voice. "I am about to be charged at by two ferocious, clever ogres. I am surely doomed."
The ogre who had spoken grinned as he approached Michiko, club raised. Michiko looked over her shoulder and saw the other ogre running at her from behind. "Die, Monkey Queen!" he shouted.
She lowered her staff and waited until both of the ogres were almost upon her. Then, she jumped off the tree to the ground below. Ogres, she thought as they ran into each other.
Michiko turned and saw that one ogre was staggering back, while the other was spinning his arms around, trying to stay upright. She jumped back on the tree and struck the off-balance ogre on the head with her staff; he tumbled off the tree and hit the ground with a thud.
The other ogre was almost on her, but she easily dodged the first swing of his club. Before he could swing again, she had leaped in the air and kicked him twice in the head. As he reeled, she landed and unleashed an uppercut punch at his jaw; it connected, and he slumped across the tree, out cold.
Michiko took a quick deep breath, but as she exhaled, she felt the fist hitting her in the back, knocking her off the log. Ouch, she thought as she slid head first on her stomach across the muddy ground.
Above and behind her, she could hear the ogre chortle. "Any last words, Monkey Queen?" he said.
Michiko rolled on her back. She saw the ogre's club coming at her head, and she quickly raised her staff. The club shattered as it struck her weapon.
The shocked ogre stared at what was left of his club. "How about these," Michiko said as she drew her legs back. "Mix in a salad or two!"
She kicked up, connecting with the ogre's solar plexus, sending him spinning into the air. As he started to come down, Michiko jumped to her feet. She swung her staff at the ogre, hitting him in the side. He flew through the air, smashed into a nearby redwood, and dropped to the ground, unconscious.
Michiko grinned as she caught her breath. She looked down at the ogres, and her grin faded. "Oh, great," she muttered. "Now I have to drag them back to the campsite." She pulled the one ogre off the fallen tree by his collar, grabbed the other's jacket, and set off through the forest.
* * *
Gregor looked up from a pile of refuse as Michiko reached the campsite, towing the ogres behind her. "That didn't take long," the guinea pig said.
"I got in some butt-kicking and gave them some healthy eating lessons!" Michiko grinned. "I could host a talk show!"
"The one thing that could get me to swear off television for good," Gregor muttered.
"Everybody's a critic." Michiko dropped the unconscious ogres to the ground. "Anything?"
"Not much." Gregor tapped a piece of white paper next to him. "But I did find this receipt from the sporting goods store for the sleeping bags. It dates back to Sunday, and they paid in cash."
"And that's when the muggings started."
"To get money for food?"
"It may be more than that." Michiko scowled. "If they were buying sleeping bags and greasy burgers, they have to have had human seemings. But who did they get them from?"
"And they wouldn't be the first ogres with seemings we've seen recently," Gregor said.
"Good point." Michiko reached into a pocket. "Get a barrier spell up around them. I'll call Linden at the encampment to send some—"
She stopped as she heard the fluttering wings. She saw a pigeon swooping down through the trees. It landed on a branch and stared unblinkingly at Michiko and Gregor. "What does he want?" the guinea pig asked.
"Sorry, birdie," Michiko said cheerfully, "but I forgot to bring bread crumbs—"
With a loud flapping of a wings and a threatening collective coo, several dozen pigeons flew out of the trees at her and Gregor. Michiko raised her hands to cover her face as the birds pushed into her, staggering her. She heard Gregor curse loudly as she tried to keep her balance.
The assault ended as suddenly as it began, the pigeons pulling back from Michiko and taking to the skies. "Gregor!" she said, lowering her arms. "Are you okay?"
"I am," the guinea pig said. "It took me a moment to get a barrier spell up. Are they gone?"
Michiko glanced around the clearing as she brushed feathers off her jacket. "They are," she said, "and so are the ogres."
"So the pigeons were a distraction?"
"And someone had to have sent them. Pigeons are urban birds, not forest birds."
"There's someone who works with ogres and pigeons?" Gregor asked as Michiko bent to pick up him and the shoulder bag.
Michiko frowned. "I should know this," she said. "I keep thinking there's something in the back of my head I need to remember, but it's not coming to me."
"Give it time," Gregor said.
"I just hope we have time to give," Michiko said as she started out of the clearing. "I need to figure this out before someone else gets hurt."
* * *
"I'll get you!" The thin bald man in the dark robe struggled in the automaton's grasp, glaring at the pixie in the purple jumpsuit. "All of you! I'll have my revenge! Release me at once!" he snapped over his shoulder at the automaton. It stared straight ahead, its clockwork copper gears poking through the gaps in its ceramic body, as it continued with the task it had been magically programmed for, the physical restraint of prisoners.
"Blade Buskin," the pixie said calmly, "you are under arrest by the Bureau of Interdimensional Policing for various offenses." Her orange wings, which jutted through twin slits cut in the back of her jumpsuit, fluttered in the afternoon breeze. "A list will be presented to you upon arraignment. You have the right to—"
"I'll destroy you!" Spittle flew as Buskin ranted. "You and your precious BIP! The streets of a hundred worlds will run red with—"
"Remain silent." The pixie sighed as she pointed at her prisoner and gestured. His shouting stopped, though he continued to rant wordlessly.
The red-haired human in the green blouse and black slacks shook her head. "I think that's a procedural violation, Twy," she murmured.
"You of all people pointing that out, Theresa." Twy grinned and pushed her black hair out of her eyes. "Besides, his ranting might draw someone's attention."
"A valid point," Theresa said. She knew that the concealment spell that had been cast would keep most of what was happening hidden from curious passersby, but those spells never worked too well with loud noises such as Buskin's screaming. "Back to HQ with him?"
"Right. The higher-ups have been waiting for a long time for this." Twy pulled up the left sleeve of her jumpsuit, revealing a silver arm guard that was engraved with faintly glowing runes. "By the way..."
"I know what you're about to ask, and the answer is still no. I'm happy here."
The pixie sighed. "I know. But after the string of idiots the Bureau keeps sticking me with, I've realized that I could never have asked for a better partner."
Theresa looked over at the crowd gathered near the front door to the apartment building down the street. There were three men and two women there, along with a small furry creature hiding behind a trash can. Her gaze settled on one of the men, young and skinny, with brown hair and eyes and a nose that seemed too big for the rest of his face at first but fit in fine when one got used to it. "Neither could I," Theresa said as the man she had glanced at fussed with his bomber jacket and pretended he wasn't listening.
"Had to try." Twy smiled as she ran a finger along the runes on her arm guard. "Take care, Theresa."
"And you, old friend." Theresa waved as she returned the pixie's smile.
Twy gestured. She, her automaton and her silently ranting prisoner all vanished, gated back to BIP headquarters courtesy of the transport spell encoded in her arm guard. The concealment spell disappeared as well, and what had been a BIP crime scene was just another street in San Francisco on a surprisingly sunny December afternoon.
Theresa turned to face the others. "So what's the plan?" the man in the bomber jacket asked.
"Well..." Theresa stopped and covered her mouth with one hand as she silently belched. "Charlie, I...think I need to...go inside for a few minutes."
"Are you okay?"
"I'll be fine." Theresa sprinted past Charlie and the others and into the building.
"I need to get going too." The tall man with the dreadlocks and the green trenchcoat turned to face Charlie, the winter sun weakly reflecting off his wraparound sunglasses. "I wanted to check in on Linnya."
"I thought Jake was watching her," Charlie said.
“Really!” one of the woman exclaimed. She had dark skin, black hair, a knee-length blue dress with a good deal of matching jewelry, and glasses with very thick lenses. "How sweet!”
The other woman rolled her eyes. "Like that's going to help her get better." She was tall and pale, with long straight red hair, wearing a white blouse, a black vest and knee-length skirt, and floppy black boots.
"Henrietta," the woman in blue said softly, with just a hint of reproach.
Charlie nodded. "Thanks again, Pierre," he said to the man in the trenchcoat.
"Not a problem," Pierre answered. "Hitchcock?"
The bawson that had been in hiding stepped out from behind the trash can. "You rang?" he said in a voice that sounded as if it were fueled by helium. He was brown-furred with stubby limbs and a black-tipped tail. The white rings of fur around his eyes contrasted with the baggy black shorts he wore, and the big red bow tie that adorned his neck.
"You're coming with me," Pierre said. "We need to try to find Dobrenyi after we're done at the hospital."
"And see Linnya!" Hitchcock straightened his bow tie. "Need a lift?"
"No, I brought my car." Pierre raised a hand and walked away as the others waved goodbye.
Hitchcock's eyes lit up as he hurried after Pierre. "Can I drive?"
"I won't crash it like last time!"
"The answer is still no, rascal," Pierre said as he and Hitchcock rounded a corner.
"Sounds like business as usual," said the man standing next to Charlie. His hair was black, wavy and collar length, and he wore an immaculate black pinstripe suit with a matching fedora.
"More like, business as unusual." Charlie grinned.
"So no big victory dinner?" Henrietta said.
"I've got an idea!" the woman in blue said. "Maybe we can have a backyard barbecue this weekend!"
Henrietta shook her head. "Duncan, we don't have a grill."
Duncan smiled."We can borrow one!"
"You're a vegetarian!"
"I found some great kebob recipes."
"We don't have a backyard!" Henrietta said.
"I'll figure something out," Duncan said firmly.
Henrietta shrugged her shoulders and glanced over at Charlie and his friend. "We'll talk about it later," she said in a tone of voice that told Charlie there was likely to be be grilled food in their future. "See you guys!"
Charlie and his friend waved as the women hurried off. "Are we taking the broom?" Duncan asked Henrietta.
"Nah. I can tell you've done enough riding today."
"I am rather sore."
"Like I need an excuse to give you a massage, toots," Henrietta stage-whispered, ruffling Duncan's hair. Duncan chuckled as she took Henrietta's hand.
Charlie turned back to his companion. "Looks like there's still one thing that's not business as usual."
The man in the suit nodded. "It was bound to happen, my friend."
"If you need a place to stay or something..."
"Not necessary. I'll be heading to Nortonville. I have...acquaintances there."
Charlie raised an eyebrow. "Are you sure they won't turn you over to the Courts?"
His friend grinned. "The community there has even less love for Wrexham and the others than I do. And my reputation might come in useful, with all the Emigres settling there."
"I've heard about Puck," Charlie said. "Need a lift?"
"On that old scooter of yours?" The well-dressed man chuckled. "I'll pass. Besides, Theresa might complain about you going on another road trip so soon."
"Yeah." Charlie grinned. "Hitchcock's taking you, then?"
"He is. He owes me a favor. We're leaving tomorrow morning."
"Good luck." Charlie straightened up.
"Thank you." They shook hands. "If you ever make it up north, look me up."
"Will do. And Windsor?" Charlie paused. "Thanks for everything.
"You're welcome." Windsor smiled. "I just hope things quiet down for both of us."
* * *
Charlie locked the apartment door behind him as he said, "I'm back." He looked around the living room, but it was empty except for him, the furniture and the stacks and boxes of trade goods he had amassed over the years, the toys still in their packaging, the vinyl records in their pristine covers and sleeves, the old and well-worn hardcover books. He had been buying and selling the collectibles for years, and made a small living at it, but he wanted to expand, and there was a new site where people sold stuff over the internet that he wanted to try.
He glanced at a box wrapped in a narrow black cloth bag that teetered on top of a stack of board games. He had stumbled on it in a small shop in Chinatown during the hunt for Buskin. I wonder what the deal is with that, he thought. Emeralda the Enchantress was so eager to get her hands on it, and things got so crazy that we haven't even had time to look inside.
Charlie picked the package up, and the bag opened slightly. He saw that one end of the box was loose, and there was a faint sparkle of red inside. He slipped one finger underneath the box flaps and lightly touched a smooth, faceted surface. A...gem or crystal of some kind? he thought.
A flare of red light burst from inside the bag.
As it faded, Charlie's eyes clouded over. He closed the box flaps, tightened the cloth bag and carried it to a closet near the front door. He opened the door, pushed aside some old clothing on the top shelf, and carefully placed the bag on the back of the shelf against the wall, covering it with the clothes.
A toilet flushed as Charlie closed the closet door. "Charlie?" Theresa said from down the hall.
Charlie's eyes cleared. "In here," he said as he shook his head to chase the mental fog away. What did I want over here? he thought.
Theresa walked into the living room. "How's Windsor?" she asked.
"He'll be okay," Charlie said as he took off his coat. "He's heading for Nortonville. I hope he's ready for it." He hung the coat on a rack by the door, next to a motorcycle helmet and a Viking-style helmet with big, curved horns.
"I hope they're ready for him," Theresa said. "Charlie...there's something I need to...discuss with you."
"In a way."
"Huh?" Charlie blinked.
"Charlie, my love, I...didn't want to tell you this until we were finished with Dobrenyi."
"Tell me what?" Charlie felt a faint twist in his stomach.
"Well..." Theresa blushed. "I must say, I never expected to have morning sickness this late in the day."
"Morning...sickness?" Charlie stared at Theresa.
"Charlie..." Theresa smiled, the dazzling smile Charlie had fallen in love with. "I'm pregnant."
"Pregnant?" Charlie whispered.
"I'm afraid you're going to have to finally clean out the spare bedroom. Maybe we can have a garage sale."
"We don't even have a garage. How far along are you?" Charlie asked, not quite believing what he was hearing.
"Six weeks. So you have some time yet...Papa." Theresa smiled again, a sweet sparkle in her green eyes.
"Dad," Charlie said as everything finally sunk in. He took Theresa in his arms and kissed her joyfully, feeling the tears in his eyes, happy beyond words.
* * *
The night had been cold, as winter nights usually were at the western end of Golden Gate Park, where the man and the imp had found a place to hide and sleep in the shadow of the old windmill. They had escaped with their ATM cards and pockets full of cash, but not much else beyond the clothes on their backs.
The man hurried down the trail, through the early morning fog, pushing past the trees. He was tall and red-haired, with a permanent scowl and a touch of madness in his blue eyes. He pulled his old leather jacket around him as he juggled two paper bags and two large cups of coffee.
He slipped into the hiding place and handed a bag and a coffee to the imp who was sitting there. "Here," he grumbled. "It's a good thing that place serves breakfast."
"You didn't need to, boss!" the imp said. He had bumpy green skin and pointed ears that seemed to take up half the room on his head, and wore blue overalls, big clunky boots and a worn baseball cap.
"We have money."
"But there's all sorts of bugs—"
The man rolled his eyes. "Ruckhorn? Shut up and eat."
Ruckhorn nodded and pulled a breakfast croissant from the bag. "So what's the plan?" he said as he took a big bite.
The man sighed. "We can't stay in San Francisco, not any more. Not after what happened to our apartment."
“But where do we go?”
"I was thinking Nortonville."
Ruckhorn froze. "Boss, no," he said softly. "We can't go to Faerie. Count Montague still has that warrant open for me!"
"Calm down. We're staying on Earth."
"So why there?"
The man sat down and opened the other bag. "I'm hearing that exiles from Faerie have started to settle there. Dwarves, pixies, gremlins, all that. And some ogres also showed up." He pulled a burrito from the bag. "Someone needs to take those ogres in. Find them a home. Train them. Hire them out for...odd jobs."
“Good plan!” The imp munched on his hash browns.
“And then...” The man's eyes lit up. “Then, we can prepare...for our revenge!”
"I will destroy him!" Valentin Dobrenyi jumped to his feet and shook a fist towards the sky. "Do you hear me, Charlie Main? I'll get you someday for ruining me, you prevaricating peddler! Vengeance will be mine!"
Ruckhorn sighed. "Sometimes I hate my job," he said softly.
* * *
The doctors had been there, day after day, caring for Theresa as she rested and recovered at the hospital. The healers had slipped in quietly, at night, with their herbs and rituals, led by Grandmother Fox as the Council of Eight set aside their rivalry with BIP. Everyone there knew what Theresa had done, what she meant to all the people she had helped, and they did everything they could for her and the baby she had given birth to seven weeks prematurely.
Charlie watched the baby every day as she lay in her incubator, when he wasn't by his wife's side. Their friends were with them when they could, and their kind thoughts and prayers gave them needed strength. It had been a difficult birth and though the doctors and healers wouldn't say it, Charlie knew that they thought the baby's chances were slim, that it would be a miracle if she survived.
But their daughter was a fighter, something she had in common with Theresa. She struggled for every breath at first, but grew stronger with each day. And, to everyone's thankfulness and joy, the time finally came when the baby was lifted from the incubator and given to her mother to hold for the first time.
Theresa gently stroked her baby's head, tears on her cheeks. "She's beautiful," she whispered after a few minutes. "And I think she has your eyes."
"They're—" Charlie swallowed and started over. "They're hazel. She has both our eyes."
Theresa smiled. "It's your turn to hold her, my love."
Charlie nodded and took the baby from her mother's arms. He could feel the joy and relief surge through him as he carefully cradled his daughter. My little miracle, he thought as he started to cry.
The baby looked up at her father and smiled.
"Hello, Abby," Charlie said, smiling back at her. "I love you."
* * *
"Charlie was traveling between worlds before you adopted me twelve years ago!" Michiko said to Grandmother Fox. "Wow!" They were in the study of Grandmother Fox's Victorian house in Nortonville where the young Monkey Queen was being raised and trained to be a hero. They sat at desks facing each other, the only furniture in the room except for the bookshelves that lined the walls.
"As far as we can tell," Grandmother Fox said as she straightened the stack of papers on her desk, "he was the first person on Earth to do so extensively after the auldgates reopened."
"So what happened to him and Theresa?"
"Theresa tried to retire from the Bureau," Grandmother Fox said, "but she was persuaded to stay on as an on-call agent. Charlie became a top eBay seller. And they still live in San Francisco, raising their daughter."
"What's her name?"
Grandmother Fox shook her head. "So many things I've remembered, and you would ask about one of the few that I've forgotten," she said with a half-smile.
Michiko giggled. "You said Windsor knew him?"
"He did. Perhaps the next time you see him, you can ask him to tell you some stories about Charlie."
"I will!" Michiko smiled.
Grandmother Fox rose from her desk. "Lessons are over for now, then. Time for lunch."
"Tofu chow mein?"
"Yay!" Michiko's smile widened as she jumped to her feet and followed Grandmother Fox out of the study.
* * *
Charlie Main scowled as he squinted at the laptop screen, checking his eBay seller feedback as he sat on the couch in his living room. He had gained a few pounds and a few wrinkles over the last eighteen years, and he was starting to suspect that contact lenses might be in his future. Overall, though, he was quite content with life.
He looked up from his laptop and across the room at the large leather recliner. The woman in the green sweater and black slacks curled up there was very familiar to him, with the sharp green eyes and the long straight red hair with a few strands of gray showing. But even after almost twenty years of marriage, the sight of his wife still brought a smile to his face. "What's up, sweetie?" he said.
"You seemed lost in thought." Theresa Drake cocked an eyebrow. "What's on your mind, my love?"
"Random stuff." Charlie tapped the laptop screen. "I just sent an order to Nortonville last week."
"To anyone we might know?"
"Nah. Someone named...McGillicuddy or something like that."
Theresa smiled. "Are you actually forgetting the name of one of your customers? That's a first for you."
"They say the memory is the first thing to go," Charlie said. "But all this Nortonville stuff reminds me..."
"Aye." Theresa got up from her chair. "It's time we had that talk," she said as she left the living room. Charlie nodded and closed his laptop, setting it on a bookshelf by the couch.
Theresa walked down a short hall and stopped in front of a bedroom door. She knocked on it. "Abby?" she said. "Conference time."
"Be right out," a voice shouted from inside the bedroom. Theresa returned to the living room and sat on her recliner.
A minute later, the bedroom door opened and a somewhat stocky young woman in black jeans and a plain green t-shirt stepped out. She looked a bit like both her parents, much to her occasional consternation, but had avoided getting her father's nose. Her hair was red and wavy, her face was rounded except for her slightly pointed chin, and her eyes were a striking hazel. "What's up?" Abigail Main-Drake asked as she entered the living room.
"You all set for tomorrow?" Charlie said.
"Almost. I just need to finish packing. I've been reading up some more on Cooper College and Nortonville. Seems kind of...dull."
"Well, there's something else you should know."
Abby raised an eyebrow. "You're getting a referral fee? How big a cut do I get?"
Charlie glanced at Theresa. "She didn't get that from me," she said with a shrug.
"Shhh!" Charlie held a finger to his lips. Theresa smiled as her husband looked over at their daughter. "You're familiar with auldgates?"
"Stable passageways to other dimensions, right?" Abby said.
"Right. And..." Charlie paused for dramatic effect. "There's one on the outskirts of Nortonville."
"Get out of town!" Abby said slowly. "Where does it go to?"
"It leads to Faerie," Theresa said, her eyes sparkling.
"Wow." Abby's eyes widened. "I take it that it's well hidden?"
Theresa nodded. "Very."
"How long ago did it reopen?"
"About thirty years ago."
"Has anyone actually used it?" Abby said.
"Aye. There are several small hidden Emigre communities, and a number of Emigres have chosen to live in disguise among humans."
"So even with seemings, why aren't there tabloid papers and reality TV shows covering their every move?"
"All the land surrounding the town," Theresa said, "is actually part of a native American tribe's holdings. They're only paying attention to one stretch of land, along the freeway that runs by the town."
"They're trying to get approval for a casino there," Charlie added. "They're on their fourth round of dueling lawsuits."
"A casino?" Abby shook her head. "Aren't there enough already?"
"One of the reasons we're bringing this up," her father said, "is because the person we'll be meeting on campus is an Emigre. He's a professor there."
"His name is Puck," Theresa added. "He's very well respected in the Emigre community."
Abby nodded. "Are there any of your BIP contacts there, Mom?"
"Nay," Theresa said. "The Council of Eight has a representative there. Grandmother Fox."
"Her adopted daughter keeps the peace in and around town," Charlie said. "She's known as the Monkey Queen."
"Monkey...Queen?" Abby smiled. "Sounds bananas, if you ask me."
"They're actually going ape over her." Charlie grinned.
"And that's why I'm glad you two are going away for a few days," Theresa said with a scowl.
Abby chuckled. "So what's this Monkey Queen like?"
"She's rubbed some people the wrong way, I hear," Charlie said, "but she's also done some heroic stuff."
"Keeping Emigre groups from fighting, and helping to work out peace deals. Stopping ogres, trolls, rogue wizards and monsters. Rescuing lost kids and kidnapped friends. And lending a hand whenever and wherever she's needed."
Abby whistled. "She sounds awesome. I wonder if I'll get to meet her."
"I hope not, because that'll probably mean you're in trouble." Charlie grinned.
* * *
"The Tim Malloys?" Theresa scowled as she closed the bedroom door. "What sort of band name is that?" Charlie was busy packing, not his suitcase for the trip but orders for his eBay customers, and she had decided to have a quick chat with their daughter.
"Hey, look at the bands Dad likes," Abby said as she clicked on her mouse, shutting off the music playing on her computer. "They've got names like 'Camper Van Beethoven' and 'A Flock of Seagulls'."
"And 'They Might Be Giants'," Theresa added.
"I kind of like those guys, too," Abby said.
Theresa chuckled as she sat on the bed. "Are you ready for tomorrow?"
"I still haven't finished packing, if that's what you meant."
Abby nodded. "It'll be great getting away with Dad, but I wish you could have come too."
"One of the drawbacks of my job, I fear." Theresa glanced around her daughter's bedroom at the Doctor Who posters, the stacks of paperbacks and card games, the red guitar and the stand with the sewing machine in one corner and the old practice rapier with the dented blade in another. "This would be the weekend I'd be on call."
"I'll bet Dad's happy, though." Abby swiveled in her chair to face her mother. "A road trip where he can eat all the greasy burgers and drink all the coffee he can handle!"
"Do get him to mix in a salad," Theresa murmured.
"Right. So...an auldgate! To Faerie!"
"Dawnhome. It's a nice city. There's an airship terminal there."
Abby's eyes widened. "You've been there?"
"It was a work-related trip," Theresa said.
"Did you get to ride on an airship?"
"That's a shame." Abby pouted. "It would have been something to boast about. Do you guys know anyone up in Nortonville?"
"Well..." Theresa paused. "There's Windsor."
"The faerie? Didn't he get Dad out of trouble a couple of times?"
"Yes, and it was usually after he got your father into trouble." Theresa shook her head. "He ended up in Nortonville after the lords of three different Courts of Faerie put bounties on his head. They say he's changed, though. Now, he works with Puck to help people who've had to flee Faerie settle in."
"There can't be too many of those," Abby said.
"More than you might think."
Abby nodded. "I'll bet Dad's looking forward to seeing him."
"He is," Theresa said. "But I think he's...going to be a bit sad too."
"Sad? About what?"
"About what this trip means." Theresa looked down. "About you going away to college, leaving here. He'll miss having you around, talking to you, the smiles and laughter..."
Abby eyed her mother for a moment. "And by 'Dad'," she said softly, "you mean 'you'."
Theresa nodded. "And maybe we'll grow apart, and I'll never hear from my beautiful, smart, darling daughter..."
"Mom..." Abby jumped from her chair, sat on the bed next to her mother, and hugged her. "That's not going to happen," Abby said. "You and Dad mean too much to me for that. You'll stay part of my life, no matter how far away I am."
Theresa returned her daughter's embrace. "So you'll be calling us even when you don't need us to send you money?" she murmured.
Abby laughed as she pulled back. "Dad told you to say that, didn't he?"
"He might have." Theresa smiled.
"Figures." Abby grinned. "You'll hear from me. Promise."
Theresa kissed her daughter on the cheek. "Finish packing," she said as she stood up.
"Slave-driver!" Abby said with mock anger. Theresa chuckled as she left the bedroom.
Abby smiled as she got up from the bed. Nortonville sounds way more awesome than I knew! she thought. Wonder if that's why Mom and Dad want me to go to college there...instead of maybe joining BIP.
Her mother had told Abby all the stories. Theresa had been born on another world, Annwyn. Almost from birth, everyone could tell that she had great magical potential, and she started her training in her teens. But she had always been close to her brother, Nicholas, and when he had disappeared, she left school and her family to search for him. This drew the attention of the Bureau of Interdimensional Policing, a shadowy group that tried to keep watch on the bad eggs of a hundred worlds, and Theresa was soon hired as their youngest agent.
On Earth, magic was slowly starting to return, and a young collectibles dealer named Charlie wound up in possession of a certain coin that was also sought by agents working for the dreaded sorcerer Kraimorg, by faeries in the employ of Duke Wrexham, and by the crazed and crafty Wizard of Nob Hill, Valentin Dobrenyi. Fortunately, Theresa and her BIP partner, a bawson named Hitchcock, found Charlie first.
It had been love, maybe not at first sight but soon afterwards, between the quick-witted trader and the sorcerous agent, even if they didn't admit it right away. As time went on, they were joined on their adventures by a group of friends, who didn't always get along with one another but were united in their affection for Charlie and Theresa.
And finally, the day came when Kraimorg was defeated and Nicholas was rescued. Theresa was permanently assigned to Earth as an on-call agent, and she married Charlie. Soon after that, she became pregnant with Abby.
Abby had been told about how difficult the pregnancy had been for her mother, and how she had been born prematurely and kept in a ventilator to start her life. She had shown signs of magical ability early, and she'd already had some training in swordplay and sorcery with her mother, her Uncle Nico, and family friends. But she knew that there was an unspoken conflict between her parents; while Mom approved of Abby following in her footsteps, Dad wanted his daughter to find a safer career.
She glanced behind the red guitar and the sewing machine in the corner, where she had placed a narrow black cloth bag. Abby had no idea where it had come from, and she couldn't believe that she had found it in the front closet, or that Dad hadn't sold it to someone else. But as long as she was going to Nortonville, she was bringing it, and the clothes she had bought or sewn to go with it.
Abby had heard the voice in the back of her head for the first time the day she found the bag, the voice that had told her to hide it in her bedroom and not tell anyone else about it. The voice spoke to her again, raw and raspy, part motivational speech and part nagging thought. Are you really ready? it asked her.
You bet! Abby thought. I'm looking forward to this. Maybe it'll be my chance to be what I want to be.
And that is? the voice asked.
A hero. Abby smiled. I can't wait.
* * *
The two ogres winced. "But boss," one said, "she was on to us! She knew—"
"You blew the mission from the start!" the voice shouted over the intercom. "You spent all your stipend on sleeping bags!"
The ogres looked at each other. "But it gets cold in the woods this time of year!" one said.
"And the bags were warm and fuzzy!" the other added.
"Warm! Fuzzy!" the voice snapped. "You're ogres! You don't do warm and fuzzy! You're grounded for a week!"
"One more word and it's two weeks!" The ogres nodded sadly as the intercom was switched off with a loud click.
* * *
"Imbeciles," Valentin Dobrenyi muttered as he turned away from the intercom. Time had been cruel to the wizard; he now had wrinkles on top of wrinkles, and no one dared to point out that his long red hair had been touched up with dye. "Ruckhorn!"
The imp pulled himself away from studying his computer and hurried over. "Yeah, boss?" he said. Age had deepened the green of his skin, but aside from that, he still looked much the same as the day he had come to Nortonville.
"Tell Hortense to cut their rations," Dobrenyi said. "They've put on weight from all that fast food. Mix in a salad or two."
"Got it, boss. Anything else?"
"Yes. Tell Bertrand to get set up for the pigeon ritual."
Ruckhorn groaned. "What for, boss?"
"These offal-headed ogres I keep getting saddled with can't even watch themselves, never mind the Monkey Queen!" the wizard snapped. "And I need to keep the ones with functioning brains here to hire out! Like the two who showed up yesterday...did you get their names yet?"
"Not yet," the imp said. "Just their nicknames."
"And those are?"
"Sunshine and Lollipops."
Dobrenyi stared at Ruckhorn, his eyebrows nearly bumping against his hairline. "Is this someone's idea of a joke?"
"Yeah. The Monkey Queen's."
Dobrenyi rolled his eyes and sighed. "Get their real names ASAP. I hate cheesy sixties pop music. And get ready for the pigeon ritual. We'll have to rely on those birds for observation for now."
"Do we have to?" Ruckhorn said.
"Focus on the big picture, Ruckhorn! That Monkey Queen is getting too close to finding our base, and we need to watch her! And we are going to stop her! I'll show that half-witted half-pint that Valentin Dobrenyi means business! Come along," the wizard said as he opened the door and strode out.
"Easy for you to say all that," Ruckhorn muttered as he followed Dobrenyi. "You're not the one who's allergic to pigeon poop."
© 2015 Robert Dahlen. All rights reserved, except for those covered by “fair use” laws where you live.