Story no. 49. THE ADVENTURE CONTINUES. The last three weeks have involved two new jobs, a housing search (now concluded with a one-year lease signed), and a lot of existential dread, thus the delay. I am mildly optimistic that things will get more regular soon. I made good progress on the illustration for part three when I had a friend over for a painting party this Saturday, so you can check out some WIP photos on my Instagram.
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In Lathustra, a door hidden in the wallpaper would almost certainly lead into an even smaller world—a fold inside a bit of lint shoved in your coat pocket, if you will. The most notorious of these is a cubby behind a mirror Mr. Jenkins has over his dresser, which can tip you into a fragment of reality where everyone you know is sitting in a train station wearing a bowler hat and eating a jelly donut.
In this pocket world, however, the dusty passage beyond the little door didn’t seem particularly magical. I could feel spell fragments stuck to the boards here and there that must have fallen off previous users of the corridor, but the wood itself smelled perfectly ordinary, if a bit rotten.
The scent trail of the cousins turned to my left after another fifty yards of walking. I guessed from the changes in the level of the floor that I’d crossed through twelve extremely narrow houses. I stopped in the stale, whispery darkness and cautiously extended my claws into the empty space where the trail led. The passage went on there for one pace—two—three—and then it stopped at a blank wall.
I took another proper sniff, and the smell of brick and new mortar hit me. Right. So the cousins had covered their tracks on this end. I did a cursory perusal of the blocked-off epassage, enough to decide that I wasn’t going to put myself out trying to knock it down, before I backed up and continued on down the dark corridor. I didn’t particularly fancy going back to the parlor with the floral wallpaper; the upholstery been well-worn and smelled of recent sweat. There was always a chance that the secret passage I was using wasn’t a secret to the magician, and he might be waiting at the other end of it with a torch (which is, incidentally, the proper way to kill a hobknob), but if it branched every fifty yards, he’d have a hard time knowing where I’d pop out.
Seventy yards and change on, my hind claws hit on an echoing floorboard. I paused, tapping my feet over the area until they caught in a small hole, clearly intended for an even smaller key.
Jimmying this lock made a whole section of the lower wall and the floor fold away downward. A gust of cold air blew my tie over my shoulder, and I leaned downward, sniffing. This new branch descended rapidly into someplace that was cold and stony. I went down the steps thus revealed on all fours, ready to jump backwards. There was a lot more magic down this way—some reinforcing the wall structure, some keeping the tunnel hidden, and some doing things I couldn’t quite pick out—and while it felt old, it also didn’t have the random spell threads unraveling from it that I’d expect from an abandoned structure.
The stair went straight down for a bit, turned, went down a bit more, turned the other direction, and finally ended in a proper human-sized door.
I didn’t smell anything magical or living through the door. So, of course, the moment after I popped the lock and stepped through, a hand grabbed me by the scruff of the neck.
“What are you,” a voice over my head said sternly.
“A hobknob,” I said feebly. The abrupt transition from utter black to sunny stone courtyard had left me dazzled. The bits I could see were wallpapered in ivy and espaliered fruit trees. I wondered if I was still in the same pocket world. “I’m looking for some murderers. Perhaps you’d better put me down.”
“Did someone step on you?” another voice asked. The first voice had been gravelly and granite-inflected; this one was mammalian.
“Grabbed me,” I said. I jerked my head around as far as I could to see what was pulling my shirt collar so tight and came nose-to-nose with a stony snout. I let out an involuntary yelp. Humans love the idea of gargoyles—you can barely take a metaphorical piss in any human-occupied world without hitting an animate bunch of rocks that some jackass magician has tried to spell up as a butler. This specimen, however, was unusually good—it looked like a proper dragon, with spiraling horns, three pairs of glowing red eyes, and an impressive rack of teeth, all done in a tasteful igneous mineral.
“I can squash him,” the gravelly voice said.
“No,” said the mammalian voice. “Someone already tried that, and I’d like to know why.”
The gargoyle spun me around to face the other voice, and I saw that it was another of the pale-faced humans of this pocket world, wearing another black robe buttoned up to its chin. Unlike the crowd I’d seen around the magician who’d tried to unmake Aunt Thompson, this one’s head was shaved, and there was a glimmer of humor in its dark eyes.
“What are you looking for, little beast?” it asked me.
There is a great deal to be said for the truth, especially when the person you’re talking to has no idea that it is the truth. “I’m looking for a piece of the green cabochon that fades into the darkness which is held by the Lady in the oak tree on the cliff by the ocean,” I said, doing my best at sing-song. “Or its brother, or its cousin, or its mother, or its grand-nephew.”
This sort of thing is usually enough to irritate the shit out of your average human, but this one just narrowed its eyes and smiled.
“How long have you been searching, small creature?”
“No one can tell,” I said. I certainly couldn’t. The weird gray territory between Lathustra and here had bludgeoned my sense of time into a bloody coma.
“What will you give me if I help you, tiny being?” it asked.
“Whatever wish it is within my power to grant,” I returned. If a fairy ever says this to you, don’t agree to whatever deal they’re proposing. Most of us can’t do shit, and the ones who can will fuck you up.
The human’s eyes narrowed even further, but it kept smiling and nodded. “Where shall we start looking for your jewel, petite tetrapod?”
I wiped my claws across my brow. The gargoyle still hadn’t put me down, and I was starting to sweat with nerves. I had not planned to spend so much of this excursion suspended in midair. “It was taken by thieves,” I said. “Murderous thieves. I may have already mentioned this.”
“You may have,” the human said absently. “Hansel, your shift ended five minutes ago, didn’t it?”
“It did,” the gargoyle said. “I didn’t want to leave you in the lurch.”
“Consider me navigating the lurch with all due alacrity,” the human returned. “Have a lovely evening.”
Hansel gave me a Look with all six of its eyes before setting me on the pavement and launching itself into the air. It took a moment before the magic in its wings caught the wind, and then it was sailing toward the clouds.
But not toward any rooftops. “Are we still in the same world I just came from?” I asked suspiciously, forgetting to do the nursery rhyme voice.
“Hmm,” the human said.
“Because I just left Aunt Thompson fighting with some sort of magician,” I went on. “Looked like he could be your uncle. Brother. Father. Am I narrowing this down at all?”
The human’s lip curled up. “No.” It rummaged in its voluminous sleeves and pulled out a little book that pulsed with magic. “Are the murderous thieves also fairies?”
“Nah,” I said. “They’re sand goblins. Very spiny. Very toothy. Can’t miss ’em.”
This is not, strictly speaking, true, but it’s true enough for government work.
The human flipped open its book, and the magic around it pulsed harder. I flinched backward. Scarlet and white bursts flickered off its hands. It turned a page and traced something on it with a long, knobby white finger; the bursts intensified and cascaded over the edges of the book. Its eyebrows, already extremely arched, leaped toward its hairline.
“Bantam beastie,” it said. “Who did you bring with you into this world?”
“Aunt Thompson,” I said. “I already mentioned—”
“The shadow lord,” the magician interrupted me. “Yes. But who else came with you?”
“Aunt Thompson is more of a shadow lady—”
“It is a class of beings, not a gender. Did you two come alone? Could something have followed you through the door you used?”
I scratched my nose, keeping a nervous eye on the continuing shower of sparks. They were magical, but that didn’t mean they wouldn’t burn me to a crisp. “Didn’t see anyone. What sort of following are we talking about?”
“An ancient and, dare I say it, eldritch power from somewhere else is currently conversing with the—hrm—the seat of power in this world,” the magician said, somehow sounding both delighted and horrified. “It is not a thing the Book has seen before, and the Book has seen a great deal.”
“Power source?” I repeated uneasily. “Do you mean . . . like. . . a jewel of some sort, or . . .?”
The magician coughed and shut the book with a sharp slap. “Not precisely. I’m afraid giving you my assistance will have to wait, diminutive fellow. This is extremely pressing.”
“Well, if they’re just having a chat, then—”
“Some conversations end worlds,” the magician said very dryly. “You may come along if you wish, but I must attend to whoever – and whatever – this visitor is immediately.” It turned away and started up the garden path, toward a foggy-looking house that had only just into focus.
I thought for a moment, and a very obvious thing occurred to me.
“Do you mean—well, surely you don’t mean—”
“Who?” the magician demanded, spinning to face me in a dramatic swirl of robes.
“You can’t mean Bill,” I said weakly.