Monday, September 17, 2007


In reaction to Enlightenment's cult of Reason, Romanticism highly prized the supernatural, tradition and imagination, together with the age in which they were supposed to rule - Middle Ages. These traits readily borrowed traditional elements of the fantastic. The Romantics invoked the medieval romance as justification for the works they wanted to produce, in distinction from the realistic pressure of the Enlightenment; these were not always fantastic, sometimes being merely unlikely to happen, but the justification was used even from fantasy.[10]

One of the first literary results of this fascinations was Gothic novel, a literary genre that began in Britain with The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole. It is the predecessor to both modern fantasy and modern horror fiction and, above all, has led to the common definition of "gothic" as being connected to the dark and horrific.[6] Prominent features of gothic novels included terror, mystery, the supernatural, ghosts, haunted buildings, castles, trapdoors, doom, death, decay, madness, hereditary curses, and so on. The fanastic, dream-like atmosphere pervaded the genre at this point.[11] Gothic tales permited, but did not require, an element of the supernatural. Some stories appeared to contain such elements and then explained them away. The genre straddled the border between fantasy and non-fantasy, but many elements from it, particularly the houses of particular import, being ancient, owned by nobles, and often endowed with legends, were incorporated in modern fantasy.[12]

Of particular importance to the development of the genre was that the Gothic writers used novelistic techniques, such as Defoe was using, rather than the literary style of the romance, and also began to use the landscape for purposes of expressing the characters' moods.[13]

The Enlightenment

Literary fairy tales, such as were written by Charles Perrault, and Madame d'Aulnoy, became very popular, early in this era. Many of Perrault's tales became fairy tale staples, and influenced latter fantasy as such. Indeed, when Madame d'Aulnoy termed her works contes de fée (fairy tales), she invented the term that is now generally used for the genre, thus distinguishing such tales from those involving no marvels.[8] This would influence later writers, who took up the folk fairy tales in the same manner, in the Romantic era.[6]

Following somewhat in the footsteps of Don Quixote, Gulliver's Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift used satire in the form of fantasy to parody many of the political and social conventions of its time, and can be considered the earliest work of modern-style fantasy. Swift's use of fictional countries and other lands was likely a major influence on what would later become the fantasy genre.[citation needed]

This era, however, was noteably hostile to fantasy. Writers of the new types of fiction such as Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding were realistic in style, and many early realistic works were critical of fantasical elements in fiction.[9] Aside from a few tales of witchcraft and ghost stories, very little fantasy was written during this time.[6]


With increase in learning in the middle of the medieval European era, there appeared beside earlier myths and legends also literary fiction. Among the first to appear was the genre of romance. This genre embraced fantasy, and not only simply followed traditional myths and fables, but, in its final form, boldly created new marvels from the whole cloth.[2]Romance at first dealt with traditional themes, above all three thematic cycles of tales, assembled in imagination at a late date as the Matter of Rome (actually centered on the life and deeds of Alexander the Great), the Matter of France (Charlemagne and Roland, his principal paladin) and the Matter of Britain (the lives and deeds of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, within which was incorporated the quest for Holy Grail).

The romances themselves were not entirely believed, but such tales as Valentine and Orson, Guillaume de Palerme, and Queste del Saint Graal were only the beginning of the fantasy genre, not fully removed from belief.During Renaissance romance continued to be popular. The trend was to more fantastic fiction. The English Le Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory (c.1408–1471), was written in prose; this work dominates the Arthurian literature, often being regarded as the canonical form of the legend.[3] Arthurian motifs have appeared steadily in literature from its publication, though the works have been a mix of fantasy and non-fantasy works.[4] At the time, it and the Spanish Amadis de Gaula (1508), (also prose) spawned many imitators, and the genre was popularly well-received, producing such masterpiece of Renaissance poetry as Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando furioso and Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata. Ariosto's tale, with its endlessly wandering characters, many marvels, and adventures, was a source text for many fantasies of adventure.[5] With such works as Amadis of Gaul and Palmerin of England, the genre of fantasy was clearly inaugurated, as the marvels are deployed to amaze and surprise readers.[1]

One English romance is The Faerie Queene of Edmund Spenser. The poem is deeply allegorical and allusive, Leaving allegory aside, however, the action is that of a typical knightly romance, involving knightly duels, and combats against giants and sorcerers. That is probably the first work in which most of the characters are not men, but elves (although the difference seems to be rather little). There are mentioned also the wars between goblins and elves, which were destined to have a great future in fantastic fiction.

The tale of Don Quixote deeply satirized the conventions of the romance, and helped bring about the end of this time of romance, although assisted by other historical trends in fiction.[6] Nevertheless, large subgenres of the field of fantasy have sprung from the romance genre, either directly or through their imitation by latter fantasy writer William Morris.[7]

Differences between fantasy and earlier fantastic works

Modern genre fantasy postulates a different reality, either a fantasy world separated from ours, or a hidden fantasy side of our own world. In addition, the rules, geography, history, etc. of this world tend to be defined, even if they are not described outright. Traditional fantastic tales take place in our world, often in the past or in far off, unknown places. It seldom describes the place or the time with any precision, often saying simply that it happened "long ago and far away." (A modern, rationalized analog to these stories can be found in the Lost World tales of the 19th and 20th centuries.)

The second difference is that the supernatural in fantasy is by design fictitious. In traditional tales the degree to which the author considered the supernatural to be real can span the spectrum from legends taken as reality to myths understood as describing in understandable terms more complicated reality, to late, intentionally fictitious literary works.[1]

Finally, the fantastic worlds of modern fantasy are created by an author or group of authors, often using traditional elements, but usually in a novel arrangement and with an individual interpretation.[1] Traditional tales with fantasy elements used familiar myths and folklore, and any differences from tradition were considered variations on a theme; the traditional tales were never intended to be separate from the local supernatural folklore. Transitions between the traditional and modern modes of fantastic literature are evident in early Gothic novels, the ghost stories in vogue in the 19th century, and Romantic novels, all of which used extensively traditional fantastic motifs, but subjected them to authors' concepts.

By one standard, no work created before the fantasy genre was defined can be considered to belong to it, no matter how many fantastic elements it includes. By another, the genre includes the whole range of fantastic literature, both the modern genre and its traditional antecedents, as many elements which were treated as true (or at least not obviously untrue) by earlier authors are wholly fictitious and fantastic for modern readers. But even by the more limited definition a full examination of the history of the fantastic in literature is necessary to show the origins of the modern genre. Traditional works contain significant elements which modern fantasy authors have drawn upon extensively for inspiration in their own works.

The history of French fantastique literature is covered in greater detail under Fantastique.

The Enchanted Garden of Messer Ansaldo by Marie Spartali Stillman (1889)

Though the fantasy genre in its modern sense is less than two centuries old, its antecedents have a long and distinguished history. Elements of the supernatural and the fantastic were an element of literature from its beginning. The hallmarks that distinguish the modern genre from tales that merely contain fantastic elements are the logic of the fantasy workings, the acknowledged fictious nature of the work, and the authorship of the elements, rather than their source in folklore.

Works in which the marvels were not necessarily believed, or only half-believed, such as the European romances of chivalry and the tales of the Arabian Nights, slowly evolved into works that showed these traits. Such authors as George MacDonald created explicitly fantastic works.

The publication of The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien created an enormous influence on the writing of the field, establishing the form of epic fantasy and also did much to establish the genre of fantasy as commercially distinct and viable.

Work is Hell by James Steimle


Everyone applauded when the bell rang like a terrified bird flapping around in a cage. They cheered and laughed and patted Mr. Kovach on the back. And they hated every second of it.

Work is Hell. I can attest to it. I didn't even bother raising a voice of praise. I know what this is. So does everyone else, but like fools they try to pretend this afterlife is not much different than the world we once knew on Earth.

Now Earth is the playing field. We are the masters, each fighting for higher status and horrified at the thought of getting canned.

"Congratulations, Mr. Kovach," I said as the old bugger passed my desk.

He grit his teeth at me. It was supposed to be a smile, I guess. He didn't say anything, but went toward the super's office with the file report in his hands. The super liked to see the details. Generally, they gave him reason to demean us. In this case, Mr. Kovach would receive another promise for a vacation that would never arrive.

That's hell for you: all work and no play-ever. One goes from bad to worse, hoping to stay with bad and make the best of it.

I am pretty sure I experienced the same thing while in the mortal body. Corporate America makes a lot of promises. Organizational skills are prime meat for discussion. And everyone holds a knife behind their back to stab their neighbors in the chest when the lie or the cheat or outright theft seems most profitable.

I hated Kovach, and that was okay. We all hated each other. No one loved this job or found pleasure in being here. If anyone even pretended to love anything-their success, their daily tasks, their routine-we hated that person. It was an active hate, real hate, and it was acceptable to hate in this tower of offices because this was hell and love flat out didn't belong.

Mr. Kovach hated me right back. He sneered over his shoulder before pounding the door of the super's office with his file.

The door opened and the super yelled as Kovach entered. Kovach let the door slam behind him. I didn't need to see what was happening in there. We all knew.

Kovach slammed his file on the super's desk. He smacked his hand down on top of it and said, "I got you another one. He's a dog-top dog, to be exact. And though he may start on the bottom floor doing the grunt work, keeping the machine alive, he'll rise quickly, this one. He'll make supervisor on one floor, then the next, then the one above that. He'll be here before you know it. Don't look sad-poor baby-after a few more of these cases, I'll displace you before this man will."

The super screamed every curse in the book as he shoved Mr. Kovach out of his office. We heard that clear enough when the door opened and thundered shut again.

He smiled at us-I knew it-but we were all working hard at our desks again. We shouted to the board masters handling the monitors lighting the far wall. We waved our pages in the air, made our calls, pointed fingers, gave hi-fives or crude hand gestures, each of us pretending to love the work, when we knew it was hell.

In other words, everything was normal ... until a new devil was promoted to our floor.


"Call me Mr. Big-I'm the new dog in town!"

We hated him from the moment he stood there introducing himself with arms widespread. Truth was, we learned later, his name on Earth actually had been Eugene Anatoli Big, or Mr. Big for short.

"I'm a killer," he said with pride seeping. "If any of you don't like me, you are free to go downstairs. And I got that piece of wisdom from the Black Prince himself."

"Oh goodie." I turned to see Mr. Kovach standing behind me with a new file already held in his twitching hands.

An alarm blared from the far side of the office. The board masters huddled fast in a circle over handwritten notes. Then with hell's equivalent of cell phones to their ears-squid-like organic machines that clung to one's face without ever letting go, despite the peeling skin and obnoxious pain-the board masters spoke and began a cascade of numbers, which few of us could ignore.

"Let's do this people!" The super had appeared with fists on his hips as he stood before the door to his office. "Look alive! We have a full-scale war in effect, and you know what that means. Brotherhood! Bonding together! Shifting economies! A rising number of church attendants! Even the people who get splattered won't be any good to us if they die in the act of noble sacrifice."

I put my hands in my desk. It was a disgusting act when I had first arrived from the previous floor. The desk looked normal: flat, scattered with papers and notebooks, a monitor fixed into the wall. Crunch time in this office, I learned, was really that. Two mouths opened in the desktop, each filled with jagged teeth, which were dull from overuse and made it all the more painful. Thrusting my hands inside each mouth activated the squid phone stinging the side of my face. I heard a buzz, felt the shock, and the crunch over my hands and the lapping tongues inside the desk all in the same instant.

I could expect to be there, scrambling over figures and calculations, plotting, reporting, shouting commands, laughing and cursing for a good 84 hours. There were no breaks in hell, and while we no longer had bodies, we constantly felt the need to relieve our bladders and our bowels. The excrement built up in our pants, oozed down our legs, and built up around the floor where the constantly roving janitors who managed the entire building would get to it eventually.

I couldn't stand it. But there were no options, no vacation days, no sick days, no mealtime free from my desk. I ate a pencil once-that wasn't a pleasant experience. Yet when have I ever had a pleasant experience in hell?

Today, however, proved different.

Secretly, I have always enjoyed a show. And in a place like this, entertainment only comes when employees decided not to go along with the rules.

"We are at war, here!" the super shouted at Mr. Big.

Mr. Big stood with hands in his pockets, a queer peace in his smile, like he owned the place or something. I only noticed with a glance at first, then did a double take. Was I really seeing this? I wanted to laugh, but that would only prompt a smack in the back of the head. The super liked hitting people.

"My name is Mr. Big. You must be the super."

"Your name is Stupid and Canned if I say so!" said the super, stalking forward.

Mr. Big was about to get a beating, the sort that lasted a good three hours.

But the new guy didn't look the least bit afraid. I even saw him sigh as if this was boring him, as if he expected this to happen, as if he had experienced the same encounter before and come out on top.

"What a nitwit," Kovach said. Nitwit-there's a word I hadn't heard in a while. Kovach had come to hell long before I showed up, and he still carried with him the vocabulary of earlier Earth years.

"You get back to work!"

"I already handed you a win today," Kovach said, trying to keep his head up like Mr. Big.

The super whacked him in the head. With his hands stuck in his desk, Kovach couldn't protect himself. It was unwise to do so anyway. In hell, we take the beating and keep on working. There are worse things than corporate life.

Waiting patiently, his arms crossed now, Mr. Big sat on the edge of a desk. The desk's current occupant pretended not to see him. This was Mr. Plien. Plien kept his eyes glued to his view screen. He nodded to the voice on the other side of the phone as he gathered information and transferred it into his desk via the sticky tongues we were all feeling now. "Mmm. Right. Three of them? Is there a woman? Good, good. What? Well that's not what I want to hear! Get her over there! These men are married!"

The super stuffed his face right into Mr. Big's. They were close enough to kiss, but of course kissing is punishable by one year of flogging. He sneered at Big and spat when the word came out. "You know, I actually gain pleasure from having arrogant fools like you on my staff."

Mr. Big didn't lose his smile. Instead, he almost laughed out loud. His body jerked with joyous emotion.

The super glanced left and right. Everyone but a very sweaty Mr. Plien had stopped to watch, even the board masters with their squid phones buzzing. "Work!!!"

We returned to work. Still, I watched with one eye and listened with my free ear.

The super squinted at Mr. Big. "Did you hear me?"

Mr. Big lifted an object between their faces. I had to turn my face a little to see more clearly. It was a small sheet of paper folded into thirds and sealed with black wax.

The super pulled back in shock. I guess he saw the stamp in the wax. He literally ripped the paper out of Mr. Big's grasp. I watched Mr. Big start to laugh again.

The super broke the seal and held the page under Mr. Plien's desk lamp. It was no secret that the super's sight had left him for the most part, which was another of those peculiar abnormalities with these bodies we didn't call bodies. Everyone had a serious physical ailment of some sort. Mine was a debilitating neck pain. It only went away enough to make me really suffer when it started again. Mr. Plien had no teeth. He was hungry all the time, and the super-who managed our meals, among other things-only let him eat granola bars with bits of sand mixed in (some people claimed it was their favorite, just to make us hate them, I suppose).

That was the first time I ever saw the super's face turn white. He stood for a while looking at nothing, holding the small sheet before him. Then his face turned red and filled with twisted rage. I thought he would blow up and swear to can us all. He didn't say a thing. He stared into Mr. Big's eyes for a few minutes-ten or twenty, to be exact, which you can't really do here in hell; time doesn't run in the same directions or with any consistency comparable to Earth time. It seems linear to us, but as everything by law must be grueling, we never have enough time to accomplish our tasks and anything tied to real suffering lasts much longer than it ever would on our home world.

Mr. Big smiled through every second of the silence.

I laughed.

Kovach growled at me, fearful he would be blamed for the outburst.

The super ignored us both. He let the paper drop from his fingers, turned around, and didn't look at anyone on this floor. Tears of rage hung in his eyes. To his door, he marched with his head jutting forward from his body. He slammed the door behind him, and the cheers began.

A few minutes later, Mr. Sanders from operations ran full speed into the super's office. He was saying, "Yes, yes," and holding a hand to his wiggling earpiece as if the volume drilled a hole into the side of his head.

Almost as soon as he shut the door, the portal opened again. Mr. Sanders walked straight to Mr. Plien's desk, where Mr. Big still sat with a grin and his arms folded. He spoke words I couldn't quite hear, then pointed at me.

I held my breath and concentrated on the figures glowing before me. "What's the word on that girl?" I said. "Are there drugs at the party? No drugs? Do I have to do this all by myself? Not all people lose control when a pretty girl enters the room. Get drugs in that room, and I mean right now, Sod Head!"

"Hello there," said a voice by my right arm. I looked up, but already knew what I was going to see. "I'm Mr. Big."

"Buenos dias," I said, a little terrified to be honest. Beyond the arrogance and the note we had already seen, it was obvious there was something very odd about this new man in the department. I never could have guessed how odd.


"The super wants me sitting right here next to you." Mr. Big tapped the desk touching mine.

Mr. Kovach, who also sat too close to me for comfort, grumbled. "Isn't that just the icing on the cake." He swore for three minutes or more, every expletive he could think of, every creative way of saying them, and then he said them all over again, maybe three or four times. I didn't bother to pay attention.

Big sat down. The chair creaked under his weight. It wasn't that his size matched his name, but he was tall and all muscle, I think. He shoved a hand at me. "Pleased to meet you. I'm going to rock this joint. I love this work."

I don't know if he was trying to make me miserable-that was usually the reason we spoke that way, to show we were on top and loving this while the rest of the peons suffered-or if he was testing me. I have come to decide the latter, based on what ended up happening.

Our conversations remained cordial for the most part. He boasted a lot. I boasted some, only to follow hell's unwritten protocols of misery. Just before the war ended on Earth, which was actually about ninety hours for us-we would face this war again someday; hell is repetition-Mr. Big said something I couldn't believe.

"I like you." He nodded as he spoke.

Mr. Kovach said he was going to vomit, so Mr. Big leaned closer to me.

I tried to pretend I wasn't there.

When next Mr. Big spoke, the whispered words were for my ears alone. "Hey. I'm ... getting out of here."

In attempting to pretend that I didn't hear what he said, I failed. My head jerked. My eyes met his.

Mr. Kovach also heard, but I didn't know that until later. He always was a dangerous, secretive backstabber. Anything to get ahead; it was a rule some people in hell lived by. Choose your place: predator or prey, either you hunt and starve at the same time like a thin wolf in frozen mountain passes, or you run for your life-your eternal life, in this case.

I never quite knew where I stood.

"What did you say?" I didn't mean to speak. It was more foolish than anything I had done in ... well, I don't know how long I've been in hell. As I said, time doesn't have the same meaning here. Years, decades, centuries? Oh, I hope it hasn't been centuries.

"I'm getting out of here." Mr. Big glanced at Kovach and lowered his voice more. He spoke slowly. "Do you want to come with me?"

"You're kidding, right?" I chuckled, but whispered all the same. Of course I wanted out. That's why I was in this conversation. Otherwise, I'd keep my trap shut, keep running my fingertips over the tongues in these horrible mouths in my desktop, and keep talking to the demon on the other side of my squid phone. Yet my heart spoke for me. A way out? To where? Did he mean a way off this floor ... or a way out of hell? Was it possible? Or was the hope itself just another never-ending nightmare?

He yanked against the dull splinters making up the teeth in the desk-mouth holding his right wrist. The mouth bit down harder. He grimaced, then yanked again. A few teeth shattered and like wet pebbles ticked over the edge of the desk. The mouth opened, actually spitting out Mr. Big's hand. A few red tongues lapped at the nubs where the teeth had broken away, then the mouth shut and the desk grew flat and normal again where that portal had been.

I could see Mr. Big's hand was torn and bleeding, but one got used to that sort of pain down here. He reached into his jacket pocket, removed an object hidden in his fist, and held the closed hand before me. The knuckles turned white as he clenched. His eyes shot to Mr. Kovach to keep the man minding his own business.

Kovach growled, and began working at a more feverish pace.

"I'm getting out," Big said again, then opened his hand. "You can come with me if you want."

I tried to swallow when I saw the treasure. My throat was too dry. Instead, I felt my face grow warm and then intensely frigid. "Oh my gosh."


In the hand was a ring. It didn't belong to Mr. Big. I recognized the symbol in the black metal. This ring belonged on the hand of the Black Prince. It never came off.

"How did you get it?" I said.

"Does it really matter?"

"Of course it does!" I lowered my head to wipe the sweat into the sleeve of my right arm. "Shut up," I told the demon on the other side of my squid, then gave the command for my phone to mute my conversation until I was ready to continue. "Wait a minute," I told Mr. Big. I commanded the squid to reactivate. "Are you still there," I asked the demon. What ever happened at that party? Drugs? Fine, fine. What about the girl?" I waited for the answer. "That is excellent news," I said, but for the first time in a long time, I felt a pang of guilt for the cascade of negative events I had just accomplished on Earth. "Go back to the two brothers. Let's see if we can get them to kill each other over war issues before it's too late."

"Only three minutes left!" the super bellowed from where he paced around the board masters. He didn't pay Mr. Big or myself any attention. His eyes were drawn to the figures and names on the board. Time was short, and this war would mean promotion for some of us, demotion for others, and worse things for anyone lazy enough or sad enough to fail completely at their responsibilities.

"Either you stole the ring," I said, "or the Black Prince gave it to you to pull some kind of trap. You could be White Ops, setting me up."

He smiled at me. "You then need only ask the question, why you? Why not Kovach or the super or Mr. Plien or someone else in this department? Why anyone in this department at all?"

A thought passed through my mind: The Black Prince is dead.

That couldn't be right. It couldn't be. Of course, who here had seen him recently? Who had ever seen him? We saw his seal, but what did that mean. Mr. Big currently owned the thing ... and no one had announced the theft of the ring.

"How did you get this?" I asked again, a little louder now that the hand had closed over it, and a little more nervous and skeptical and hopeful at the same time.

Mr. Big leaned back and smiled at me again. He placed the ring in his pocket, his hand back in the biting desk, and then whispered, "After the war ends, I'm moving on. You don't have to come."


We had a party after the war, the sort of party one can only have in hell. No one wanted to be there. No one liked the company. Everyone bragged, waved their files, rang the winner's bell, laughed, and shouted false praise to their neighbors as if they didn't mind the success of others minimizing all their hard work. Even the super gave a smile.

No one was happy. But I had never felt this way before.

Through all the hoots and hollers, Mr. Big gave me a look. Are you coming.

I stood still for a few seconds-a few seconds only, like a mortal, like a man who didn't want his confidante to suffer-and then I nodded.

Mr. Big wrote up six small letters, poured black wax, and sealed them all with his stolen ring. When the party came to an end, Mr. Big spread his arms wide as he had on the day he arrived. "I have terrible news everyone." He laughed as everyone looked at him. "I have received word that I am moving on."

"Wait just a minute," the super said. "Your work was good." He shook his head. "Not that good."

Mr. Big walked right up to him and handed him the first note he had written during the party.

The super just stared at it. "You've got to be kidding me."

Mr. Kovach, I noticed, was giving me a dirty look. I had no idea why. Mr. Big was once again the show of the hour, not me ... not yet anyway. Had Kovach been watching us all along?

Minutes later, after Mr. Big yawned three or four times, the super snatched the letter, popped the seal and read the letter.

Then he looked through the crowd at me.

Mr. Big's face suddenly went numb, a loss-of-control countenance I had never seen on him before. He followed the super's gaze to me and stared until the super spoke.

The super shouted my name. "Pack up your desk!"

Mr. Big snatched the letter back and read the words as if he had not written them. His face, intense at first, returned to normal by the time he was halfway through the words.

"You too, Mr. Big," the super said with disdain. He slammed his office door again once on the other side.

Without winking, Mr. Big looked at me. I got the message anyway.

While we packed our things, Mr. Big bragged about standing in the limelight of the Black Prince's favor. I simply congratulated all those who had ranked higher than I where it came to work done in the war. They all hated us, I knew, but would go back to work and remember the adage was very true: Work is Hell.

Before we made it out the door and into the elevator, I caught sight of Mr. Kovach running into the super's office. He was looking at me with a face that said, I know what you two have! I know what you did! I know you plan to get out of hell! And I won't let you!


"Are you going to tell me how you got that ring?" I said as the floors blew by us. At varied points, the doors opened and White Guards stepped in to examine our papers. Mr. Big handed them two of the letters he had written. They let us continue climbing.

"Nope," said Mr. Big. "What you don't know can't hurt you." He kept his eyes on the ceiling or on the numbers above the elevator door as they climbed and climbed and climbed.

"In hell? I beg to differ."

He smiled at me. "Tell me this," he said. "What do you think is out there?"

"Out where?"

"Come on, man. We're dead! We have shuffled off the mortal coil, as the old bard said. We can't go back. And what is heaven anyway? Singing every day? Sitting next to the same people every year? Or is it kneeling? And singing? And singing? And singing? Forever? If they don't have an infinite number of hymns up there, it's going to get old fast."

"Got to be better than this," I said, words hardly perceptible as my lips didn't move.

"Compare heaven to hell then." He folded his arms, but kept his eyes on the numbers. "Here we can't enjoy what we are doing, we have to lie all the time, pretending that we love work just to tick off our neighbor, get one up on him, that sort of thing. In heaven you probably have to think peaceful thoughts all the time. You have to love singing forever, kneeling forever, sunlight-or brighter!-forever. You have to get along with everyone. You have to tell the truth. You have to sincerely love it there. You get no challenges whatsoever. You get no adventure at all. You don't even have a bit of entertainment other than the sound of the person who has been singing on either side of you for the last billion billion billion years."

"That might not be true," I said. "There are hundreds of religions on Earth and throughout the planet's history. Most of them disagree one way or another about what it's like in the afterlife. Not a single one I ever heard of said hell would be a corporate environment."

Mr. Big nodded, his eyebrows upraised. "If that's where we end up, I just don't want to have my bubble burst is all. Why do you suppose there aren't any women in hell? Have you thought of that?"

I hadn't. I hadn't even realized I hadn't thought of it until now. Then I laughed. "Maybe hell for a woman is becoming a man. Becoming a man and living that way with unfinished appetites and constipated emotion for all eternity."

He chuckled again. It felt good-warm-to laugh so honestly. It felt like breaking a law.

"Maybe," I went on, "some of us were women on Earth, and we just don't remember anymore. Maybe the departments couldn't function if romance had even the slightest possibility of blooming. Maybe one ugly woman plus one stupid man still-too easily-adds up to true love."

"There's a dire thing," Mr. Big said looking at me. "At any rate, these passes won't get us far, I imagine."

"What do you mean?"

"They bear the mark of the Black Prince. How much authority will they measure up to at the gates of heaven? Besides, do you think they would let us in anyway? We left Earth as hell-bound souls. No one wants a muddy dog roving, however politely, in an all white house. We wouldn't fit in. Do you know any hymns anymore?"

Slowly, I shook my head. "Then where are we headed?"

Mr. Big looked up at the racing numbers. His eyes rose and stared at the ceiling. His eyes shut.


When the last White Guard stopped us, he looked at the papers for a long time. Then he stared for six or seven minutes at Mr. Big.

Mr. Big did as he always had. He sighed. He yawned. He leaned against the elevator door and smiled at the White Guard as if the reaper held no authority at all.

I could barely take the eyes of the White Guard on me. He stared for twelve minutes at least, possibly fifteen minutes, possibly even twenty. I pretended to be Mr. Big. I didn't know how else to act. I yawned, but the yawns were completely fake as I couldn't get the muscles in my chest and stomach to relax. I sighed, and that was fake too-it no doubt looked fake. I smiled for as long as I could, then gave in to the misery and just sat against the wall with my face as depressed and unfeeling and cold as stone. Eat me, I thought. Devour me if you will and spit me out on the bottom floor. I don't care anymore.

But he handed the sheet back to Mr. Big and waved us on up. The elevator doors closed. I stared at Mr. Big in shock.

"Good work," he said to me with a grin.

The doors opened a few hours later.

Outside ... we were outside!

It wasn't heaven, but it wasn't corporate hell either. In every direction, a desert land stretched. Small scraggly bramble bushes looked dead on the ground. The dirt was cracked in places, which meant rain had once soaked it. I don't know how long ago. I didn't have any idea what the passage of time would be like here. In the distance, I saw mirages, though there was no sun in the sky. I saw rolling dunes blowing in the wind. I saw the curve of the world, but was sure we were not on Earth.

"Have we ... left hell?"

Mr. Big nodded as if he had been here before. "We are outside, all right. This is existence, I guess we might suppose, above hell and under heaven." He looked back at the elevator behind him. It stood, a black rectangular box, like a monolith with one giant open mouth. The red velvet walls of the interior looked warm and inviting compared to the dusty landscape in which we now stood. "This is as far as the elevator goes."

"Do you think there is an elevator to heaven?" I said. I hadn't quite decided if they would let me in, or if I would feel comfortable there at all. Maybe this was as good as it gets.

"Angels fly, don't they? I'd be looking for a plane, if I were you. Or something along those lines. We're the ones from the sinkhole, remember."

"So which way do we go?" I turned to him, hoping he still had the answers but fearing he had exhausted them all in getting us out.

Instead of speaking, he handed me the fourth and final letter. I took it, feeling the hard wax of the stamp. I looked at the curves and cuts of the impression made by the Black Prince's ring. "I figured you might want this someday."

"What's this one for?"

He turned around and stared at some distant mirage or water on dunes-an impossibility, of course. "I'll go this way. You go any other direction you want.

"Wait!" He was walking and meant to leave me behind. "I thought we'd ... stay together."

He stopped and turned. I saw him fiddling with the black ring in his hand. "Two hellions like us? Forever? We would drive each other insane. We'd destroy each other. No. It's best we take separate paths."

I didn't say anything. For-how long?-a very very long time, I had known my place. I hated it, but I knew exactly where I was supposed to be, what I was supposed to do, how I was supposed to act, and how I was going to get along. I despised hell and every single individual in it, especially my super on any floor. Mr. Big only confused me. I felt so thankful to know him, though I had only known him for a short while, especially by hell's standards. And he was the closest thing to a friend that I can even remember.

"All right?" he said.

When I didn't reply, he turned and started hiking, and a warm east wind lifted the back of his jacket, making it flutter like a hand waving goodbye.

I felt tears on my cheek. Instinctively, I blamed him for my pain. This was the lesson I learned in hell: blame others for anything that happens to me, even if it was a blessing of one kind or another.

The elevator doors closed behind me and I heard a small bell chime before the pull of the car dragged it back into the depths of hell. I saw a glowing call button, red and beckoning to me.

Then I froze. Someone had called the elevator.

It wasn't that no one used the elevator. It was used all the time, relatively speaking. But I remembered Mr. Kovach eavesdropping on us when Mr. Big produced the ring and talked of escape. I recalled how Mr. Kovach had looked at me as he ran into the super's office while the elevator doors closed. Why hadn't the White Guard stopped us on the way up? Had they not received a call in time? Was this just another hellish trick? Was I about to be hunted through the desert by the White Ops? Would my hope only add to my eternal suffering? Was this all a set up?

Mr. Big was a small spot in the distance now and growing smaller fast.

I turned and ran in the opposite direction.


I don't know how many months or years passed. The white guard never came, or they never found me. If I really was outside of hell, maybe the limbo environment limited their powers and I had finally escaped.

Nights came and went here, and the temperature dulled to winter degrees necessitating a shelter at one point. I built it and drank the rain when it fell. Without a mortal body, I found myself hungry and thirsty at times, but never physically weakened or mentally deprived by my exertions and suffering. When the night grew darkest, a pale circle of light crossed the sky like moon behind a thick haze. All of this fascinated me, amused me, and inspired me to travel. I built new shelters and continued on and on and on.

I spent my own eternity in that place. As I said, it may have only been months or years. I will never know. One thing I learned about time and the afterlife is that memory is affected. I suppose one might go mad if one remembered everything and lived forever. Either that or one would gain all knowledge inevitably and become a god or a black prince.

One morning, I found myself holding a letter in my hand. The seal was black, the mark of the Big Man himself pressed into the wax. I no longer remembered how I had come by this note at first, then recalled my escape from hell.

Carefully, I peeled the wax away from the paper just enough to allow the letter to open for me. I read the words:

By order of the Highest Command, All who see this paper shall allow this man free passage to the office of the Black Prince

It was signed by the Black Prince.

I warmed the wax back of the seal on a hot stone and pressed the wax back against the paper until it stuck. No one would ever know I opened it.

I remembered Mr. Big. He had written this. He had given it to me before he left me. Why?

To tell the truth, I grew weary of this desert waste. There was nothing out here. In time, I lost the feeling of peace I had in solitude. I looked long and hard for Mr. Big. I never found him or any sign of him.

Perhaps this was a suicide note. If I was brought into the presence of the Black Prince, he would can me-that's permanent, and worse than death.

I thought again of hell, how I knew my place, how I knew the people, how I was entertained by the new fools who came into the department. I feared so much. I hurt so much.

In some way, I felt I suffered more now.

It did not take me long to find the elevator back to hell.

I pushed the call button, and waited.


When I met the first White Guard, I handed him the letter. He popped the seal and looked at me for very long time.

I could not help but smile. It was so good to see another living-if one can call it that-entity, someone who spoke with a voice different from my own, someone who moved with unpredictability. I grinned as he took me by the arm and commanded in a steel voice: "You will come this way."

He led me through high-rise corridors I had never seen. All the walls were black. There were no windows, but I knew I had come so very high in the building. Dim blue and green ambient light appeared as we entered each new hall. And at last we came to black doors lined with intricate gold illustrations and symbols.

The doors parted.

The White Guard lifted an arm, indicating I should enter. He did not follow me into the room, but shut the doors by staring at them.

The room, also all black, glowed with blue and yellow lights as if from giant aquariums set in the walls, though I saw none. A wide, half-moon desk curved across the room and a high-backed chair spun around as the Black Prince stood.

"Mr. Big," I said, the words catching in my throat. Some part of me knew it would be Mr. Big. But it wasn't Mr. Big at all. It was the Black Prince. I was about to be canned.

"Wrong!" said Mr. Big in the same jovial and arrogant tone he had on that first day I saw him. "You are up for promotion!"

"I ... don't understand."

He laughed-same laugh, but this time it boomed with power and shook the room. There was no lie in the laugh. It was perfectly sincere. "Why did you come back to hell?"

"What?" I said. I think I couldn't get past the fear that I was about to be destroyed.

"You were out! You were out there! You were out there a long time! Man, do you have to make me suffer so much?! But you came back!" He inched around the desk as he spoke and laughed until he stood before me. "Tell me why."

"I ... I don't know." Truth was, I couldn't speak. I counted each breath, fearful they would be my last in this sphere of existence. I worried about death after death-spiritual death, as Mr. Kovach called it with a snicker of glee.

"Sure you do."

He was putting his arm around me. His arrogance was all-mighty. The sense that he was in control of the situation was as constant as it ever had been in the department I once thought of as home. I wanted so badly to be there now. It was what I knew, what I knew how to handle. It was a place where I was never alone. It was horrible, but only in the same way that life on Earth had been horrible too. It was terrible, stressful, painful, but I had seen another side. I wouldn't make it to heaven. I didn't even know how. I just wanted things to be the way they once were.

"Exactly," said the Big Man. "But you can never go back, right?"

He was reading my mind, I realized. Oh-my-gosh, he's reading my mind.

"That's what I always liked about you. You were meant for bigger things. You put up with what you have to, and you're ready to take those terrifying steps to improve your situation." He pulled away, leaving a hand on my shoulder. He squinted at me. "I gave you a letter that would send you straight into the office of the Black Prince from a world where he had no power at all. You were free. And instead of staying gone, you turned and walked straight into the president's office! Think about that! That's bravado, man! That's serious stuff! You didn't do it for promotion in the business. You didn't do it for benefits, really. You didn't do it to outdo your coworkers. You did it because you were meant to be the big dog."

"You're not going to eat me?" I said.

He laughed. When he stopped, he said, "I don't eat people. I leave that for crackpots and men-who-aren't-men-anymore. No, I'm promoting you. Congratulations."

As he walked back to his chair, I noticed the black ring on his hand. He wore the ring on his middle finger, and as he sat, he twirled the ring around that finger with the fingers of his other hand. The ring twisted easily. Too easily.

The ring was far too large for Mr. Big.

He smiled at me. He was reading my mind again. I knew it.

"Don't ask how I got it," he said. "You don't want to know."


That's how I made Senior Chief.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Work is Hell. It really is. But you have got to love it.

Unless ... of course ... you have a stamped ticket into heaven.

Tar Heel Dead

I'm a Tar Heel born and a Tar Heel bred,
And when I die, I'll be Tar Heel dead.
- William Starr Meyers, Hark the Sound
Up until last week there were two things he'd never done.
He'd never killed anyone, no matter how hungry he was.
He'd never missed a home game, not one in all of ninety-six years. Not even if they were during the day, no matter how difficult it was to get there.
Now there was only one thing he'd never done and Nat was darned if he was going to leave in the middle of the final regular season game just because some vampire hunter was on his case.
The crowd roared and all around him people jumped to their feet as the leading freshman player, Mark Guntry, slammed a one-handed dunk into the basket. Or so the coliseum announcer on the loud speakers informed him. Nat had been too busy looking over his shoulder for the hunter and he'd missed it. Darn it all to heck. He looked back at the court, but it was a media time-out and the cheerleaders and dance team had swarmed the floor. "Give me a 'C'" they yelled and the crowd responded.

He'd known better than to lose his temper. He'd kept it tight for all ninety-six years of his current existence. But man, oh man, to dress in rival colors, to paint your face that particular hated shade of red, and then to sit in the very middle of the home team's bleachers and talk trash. Now that was asking for it, Nat figured. He'd kept his cool through the talking. He'd kept it even when the State fan had booed during Cathedral Mount's foul shots. But when the asshole had applauded as one of Cathedral's injured player was carried off the field, yelling, "Good job! Hope it's broken! Hope you're through playing for the rest of the season," well, that was when he'd flipped. And Cathedral lost, which only made the guy even more unbearable.

Following the guy outside had been easy. Watching him run from the crowd threatening to beat him up had been fun. He'd stalked him straight down Franklin Street in the middle of the post-basketball crowd, through the main quad of campus, and waited until the gates of the Arboretum. The Carolina night tasted like disappointment and the early blooms of dogwood trees.
State fan tasted delicious! If he'd thought about it clearly, which Nat hadn't, he'd have just done him like usual. Take a taste, let the magic cloud his mind, and leave him in the woods with his pants down, wondering what he'd drunk the night before. But even when the guy was down with a skinny, gawky, former-basketball playing vampire on his chest, he'd still had to get his word in. "I bet you're a faggot just like your team," he'd said. The world had flared blood red around Nat and that had been it. There wasn't even time for him to hide the body for later disposal--traveling party of coeds still gleeful from the game and looking for a place to party had caught up to him.
Coach had always told him his temper would get the best of him, and look, Coach was finally right. Well, now he was right twice.
The first time he'd lost his temper, he'd ended up a vampire. Now he was going to end up dead if he wasn't fast.
"Thou shalt not kill." The hoarse whisper came right from behind him and Nat immediately fled to the other side of the coliseum in a blur of motion.
Where was he? Whoa, stop making gender-based assumptions, Nat sternly told himself. This is a different era, and you can't let how you were raised blind you to new dangers. He mentally corrected and reset. Where was she? Or maybe there were many hunters. He let his eyes drift over the crowd in the cheap seats with him, high up at the top of the giant curve of the stadium, with the multitude of winning banners hanging just above them. From here, the basketball players were tiny toy figures scrambling up and down the court in their uniforms of light blue and dark blue.

"Get it, get it, get it!" Nat yelled, finding himself on his feet screaming with the rest of the crowd as a loose basketball hit the floor.
The man behind him shrieked at the top of his lungs, "Are you blind, ref? Do you need glasses?" The crowd booed at the ref as a Cathedral player shrugged and jogged back to the bench where a weary coach started lecturing him. Even from way up here Nat could see Coach's red face.
Ah man, the score was tied. The other team was evil incarnate, Nat thought. Even though he'd met some evil things, when anyone played against his team they might as well play for Hell itself. Of course, some of the kids down there might very well one day. One opposing player in particular looked like he'd sold his soul for a good three-point shot. Nat could see the grimy aura coming off him even at his distance. It was one of the things he'd gained when he'd become a vampire. The ability to see auras, the ability to move swiftly. Those were nice advantages, but it still didn't make up for never seeing blue sky again.
How had they found him? And why now, with only one minute, 37 seconds left of regular play in the biggest game of the year, were they coming for him? He knew the answer to the question. He'd killed, for the first time in either of his lives, and boy, did he regret it.
He knew at least one of them was here by the trickle of sweat forming at the back of his neck, the constant urge to look over his shoulder. He wouldn't leave the game, that was for sure. Not that he could - it would still be daylight for another half an hour. As usual, he'd snuck in the coliseum the night before, easily scaling the walls and coming in through a roof vent, like he usually did when there was a day game.
It had been harder at the old cramped gym. The smell of socks and sweat embedded in the floorboards, the way the place bounced with the students hopping up and down, the shivering the old building made when the home team won. The way his teammates, short things all of them compared to the players of today, worked together. He missed the scramble for the ball and the coach yelling and the drills and sneaking cigarettes and beer into the Forest Grove parking lot.
He liked this new coliseum, though it was more palace than basketball court, but he still missed the old one. He missed playing basketball. He missed a lot of things, though it was easier to feed these days. Frat parties and bonfires on the quad provided perfect feasting opportunities. And there were girls on campus now!
He switched seats again, moving as fast as lightening through the crowd to the other side, directly above his team's basket. He held his breath while Lucas Ford made both his foul shots. Well, he would have held his breath, if he'd had any to hold. Back when he was playing on the first Cathedral Mount team of 1910 he'd done that and the ritual had stuck through all these years.
Of course, he'd only added more layers of rituals as the years progressed. Crossing his fingers. Tapping five times on his thigh every opposing free throw.
Up by two now. He jumped to his feet again as a Cathedral player intercepted a poorly thrown pass and raced down the court and dropped the basketball off to his following teammate. Slam! "Yes! Whoooo!" he yelled at the top of his lungs.
Ah shoot, there was the tingle again. Couldn't they leave him alone? Jeez, he made one little mistake in all this time. Course, those were the rules. He snorted. Rules, just like basketball rules. Wasn't there some cosmic referee who could make the hunters look the other way, just this once? Just like the zebra down below had looked the other way for a flagrant push? Still, he'd killed someone. He hadn't really meant to--hadn't been thinking clearly through the red of his temper, but dead was dead. At least until that guy rose again sometime tonight.
"Ten, nine, eight," the crowd chanted as a Cathedral player dribbled the ball way outside the three-point arc. "What the hell are you waiting for!" Nat shouted. Variations of what he said came from all sides. Darn it. Shot clock violation. The ball switched possession and evil incarnate took it rapidly down court.
"Guard him, you moron!"
Unfortunately, his player didn't listen. The grimy aura player stopped just past the half point, looked, dribbled, and tossed the basket up.
Darn it. They were up by one.
The tingle grew into an electric shock running down his back, just like the vampire who'd made him warned him it would.
"Don't kill," he'd said, before he walked into the sunlight. "They'll come after you if you do."
"ho will?" Nat had asked, still shocked from the events of the night.
You'll feel them," the vamp had said, ignoring his question like he had every other that dark night, the beginning of only dark nights.
Well, he'd been right. Nat could feel them, him, or her now.
Nat still regretted having lost his temper that night long ago, but it had just about devastated him when Cathedral lost the game. And then a vampire had gone and killed him for talking trash about the opposing team.
"No, no, no!" The Cathedral player missed his second free throw. "You gotta make those! Free points!" The player shook his head. Nat knew how he felt. He himself had missed a couple of important baskets in his time and it always had left him feeling furious with himself.
Dag nab it, the score was tied again with only thirty seconds left in regular time. As the buzzing increased he made to move again. He could see an empty seat down in the lower level. Criminal that someone had not only not shown up for this game against their arch rival, but hadn't even given the ticket to someone who could appreciate it.
"Don't move," the voice behind him said, just as he started up from his seat.
Wat could feel the point of the sharp wooden stake at the center of his back and he stiffened.
"You broke the rules," she said.
He risked a glance over his shoulder. The hunter looked just like a student--perhaps she was. Dressed in team colors with a foot painted on her face, hair pulled back in a ponytail, she was the epitome of the Cathedral Mount University girl.
He shrugged. Thank goodness it was a time-out, and a full media one. He had a couple of minutes before the game resumed. "I know," he said. "I don't suppose it will help if I say I didn't really mean to." Of course he hadn't meant to--the last thing he wanted was an immortal State fan. Any more than he supposed the vampire who made him had wanted an immortal Cathedral fan.
"You broke the rules and the punishment is death," she continued as if she hadn't heard him at all. He risked another glance at her. The hunter's face was set. "We can't have vampires killing people. Every person you take rises from the dead. If we didn't keep you in check you'd spread across the earth like a virus on humanity. But still, you were human, and for that we let you live as long as you obey the rule. Thou shalt not kill."
He groaned to himself. It didn't sound like there was any way she was going to let him go, but he had to try.
"Look. I don't suppose there's any way you can forgive me." He twisted around to look her in the eyes and the stake pressed harder into his back, the thick muscles of her arm flexing underneath her sleeve. She was certainly built, he thought. Women in his time had never looked like that. "I didn't think so," he said as her expression remained flat. Well, he couldn't forgive himself either. "Look then, at least let me finish the game," he begged. "I haven't missed one. Ever. Not one home game. I used to be on the team, did you know that?"
She shook her head.
"Yeah, I was on the first team. 1910. Woody Cartmell was our coach. Man, he had a temper." He shook his head with recollections of Coach's snits. And a gambling problem too, he thought, but didn't say. There was no need for him to bring up old dirt.
"Really," she said and for a moment he saw her face light up. "That's pretty cool." The pressure in his back eased slightly. "So you went to school here?
"Yes ma'am," he said. He couldn't help it, he was raised to be polite and in times of stress he still was.
"I haven't missed a game this year," she said. "Did you get to see...?" She stopped herself. "Of course you did. The 1987 season finale. Wow, it must have been something to be here. When the students swarmed the court. I watched it on TV."
"It was," he said. He gave her a smile. Enemies they might be, but at least she was a fan. It counted for a lot in his book. He wished he could kill her, but knew he couldn't. She didn't deserve to die, he did.
Goodness, he wanted them to win this game. He said it every game, but it was always true. "It'd sure be something if we win today, wouldn't it? Can you believe this team?"
She shook her head. "I know, I know. No one expected them to win this season, all these freshman."
The game had restarted while they talked and they both turned their attention back to the court.
"Aw, come on ref! Call the charge!" He screamed. He'd leapt to his feet without realizing it and was glad to see she'd done the same, although the spike was still firmly against his back. Was there time for him to do his fast move to the other side again? He must have tensed in anticipation, because the stake pressed harder.
"No way," she said. "Try it again and I'll do you here and to hell with the crowd. I'm sick of following you all over this place. I want to watch the end of the game. If you stay still I'll let you live to the end."
Nat thought about it for only a moment. He'd never heard of a hunter not succeeding eventually. And he really wanted to watch this game, so he nodded agreement.
Another time-out--this one taken by the opposing team. Again, it was going to be a full one. As Nat reckoned, his team still had one full time-out and one thirty second one left. It still amazed him how long thirty seconds of basketball time were translated into real time.
Game play resumed, the Cathedral players tossing in the inbounds pass and streaking down towards their basket. The point guard, another freshman, expertly dropped the ball behind him to the one senior on the team, David Carol. David stopped and without dribbling threw up the three-point shot.
Swish. A perfect basket if ever there was one. The coliseum vibrated with the happy roar of the crowd. Up by three with twenty-five seconds to go. Shot clock was off.
Twenty-five seconds of life, such as it was, left for Nat to live. He'd resigned himself to the fact of his death. Didn't see any way he could really escape, not without killing her, and he couldn't, just couldn't do that. She didn't deserve it. And he was over it all, anyways. He was sick of drinking blood, he was sick of night. The only thing he had left was basketball--the only time he felt himself was during the season. The rest of the time he was one with the darkness, skulking in the corners, exiled from human contact and life.
The ref's whistle blew.
"Oh my god," Nat groaned, along with the other twenty thousand people at the game, and countless others watching it on televisions across the nation. A stupid freshman foul and on a three-point attempt. Coach was shaking his head by the bench and the freshman in question looked like he'd been hit over the head.
"Maybe he won't make them," the hunter said behind him. Prayer and hope rang in her voice and Nat crossed his fingers.
The crowd shouted in an attempt to distract the player. Swish. It hadn't worked.
They tried again. This time the ball bounced off the backboard and rattled around the rim, the sound clearly audible in the quiet as everyone tried to will the basketball out.
"Oh, I can't stand this," she groaned behind him. The stake was still firmly jabbed at his back and it made his shoulder blades itch.
Swish. Game tied once again.
Time-out Cathedral. The players regrouped around Coach and he could feel the hunter take a deep breath.
"You hold your breath too?" he asked.
"I don't know why," she said. "It's like maybe I can influence them. Change events."
"I know the feeling," Nat said.
The thirty second time-out was quickly up and the team re-entered the court, inbounding swiftly and dribbling past the half-court. Nat knew the other team would want to foul them and he found himself crossing his fingers.
The ref didn't call the first foul and the seconds ticked away. The crowd chanted in time with the clock, "Ten, nine, eight."
"Oh, I can't watch," she said. "This is killing me.
"Seven, six."
Mark Guntry grabbed a sloppy pass out of the air and looked for some help from his teammates. Finding none, he tried to dribble his way out of the trap, backing away even further from the basket. Somehow, he twisted free, dribbled three steps and let the ball fly with two seconds left. The buzzer sounded while it was in the air and the coliseum was deathly quiet as the ball flew through the air.
Swish. A perfect three-pointer. Game over, Cathedral had won!
The crowd roared its approval and Nat relaxed for a second. He knew now what he wanted to do, how to atone for his guilt.
He let out a yell with the rest of the crowd, startling the hunter behind him with the volume so she stepped back. Not much, but enough. He flew through the air, not caring if anyone saw him, figuring no one would be looking up at this point, but looking down at the students swarmed the court. Cathedral had won the last regular game of the season, at home, and on senior day, against their arch-rival. As far as perfect days go, it didn't get much better than this, but there was one more thing he wanted.
Nat's last glimpse before he hit the air vent was one of ecstatic faces, his last sound the roar of the crowd's victory. Then he was out into the light for the first time in ninety-six years. His last thought before he exploded into the brilliance and let go of his guilt, was "Thank god, the sky is still Carolina blue."

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Indian Killer "Sherman Alexie"

I've always been fascinated by Indian culture. Perhaps it was a result of my grandfather's stories about his grandmother (full-blooded Cherokee), or maybe it was because I always wanted a little Paint war horse when I was growing up. The sad thing is, I grew up on a glamorized, TV version of Indian lore. My childhood stories never once mentioned the homeless Indians that populate the streets of Seattle and the pages of Sherman Alexie's Indian Killer.An Indian serial killer is terrorizing Seattle, hunting and scalping white men and kidnapping small children. As a result, a complex group of people are thrown together as the city attempts to understand and stop the Indian Killer.

John Smith, a full-blooded Indian, was adopted at birth and raised by a wealthy white family. As the rest of Seattle wages a war against the Indian Killer, John wages his own private war, constantly reinventing scenes of his birth and struggling to understand his Indian heritage. Marie is a young Indian activist who shuns her family on the reservation and devotes her time to helping feed the homeless Indians in Seattle. Outraged by Jack Wilson, a white mystery writer who claims he is part Indian, Marie encourages her classmates to stop perpetuating misbeliefs about Indians and Indian culture. Finally, Truck Smith, a famous radio personality, whips the city into an Indian-hunting frenzy with his racist slurs and updates on the latest actions of the Indian Killer.

Alexie tells his story in the form of a mystery, although none of the characters eventually add up all the clues and figure out who the Indian Killer is. In fact, the resolution will probably spark quite a bit of conversation as each "suspect" is weighed and considered. Despite the constant finger-pointing at each character as the Indian Killer, Alexie treats them with compassion without becoming cloudy-eyed.

Where Alexie really shows his stuff, though, is in the disturbing truths about Indian/white relationships (from American history to the present) and racism in general. Alexie's prose is knife sharp, with a keen eye for pacing and sardonic humor. Each character is fully developed, with sometimes haunting inner struggles and clear motivations. Alexie manages to balance the twisting and complex stories of each character without sacrificing suspense or movement. Indian folklore also plays a large role in the story, with many of the scenes (espcially between John and the priest) taking on mythic proportions.

Sherman Alexie is known as a poet and author of humor and lyricism, but Indian Killer raises the stakes and shows readers that he is capable of dealing with issues that hit close to home in a universal and highly talented manner. Few Native American authors have Alexie's ability to deal with alienation and justice not in Indian terms but in human terms.

Mistletoe Man "Susan Wittig Albert"

Mistletoe Man is the new novel in Susan Wittig Albert's series featuring China Bayles, the owner of an herb shop in a small Texas town. I've read several other books in the series and found them quite enjoyable, and this one was no exception.

One of the things that sets Albert's series apart from many other of the village "cozies" is her sense of place. Although I've not yet been to Texas, Albert evokes the landscape, climate and culture in a way that distinguishes her series. may be set in New England or even Wisconsin, there's not a lot to differentiate them from similar tales set in English villages. While this is not a flaw per se, I enjoy reading books that take me to different locations. Albert's evocation of the weather, specifically, is excellent; when I read one set in the Texas summer I feel warm even when it's winter outside, and this one, set in winter, brought shivers.

The most characteristic aspect of this book, though, is China's integration with her community. This is both a strength and a weakness. Albert writes the various people very well; each has a distinctive voice, and she subtly inserts enough background for each of them that tells or reminds us of who they are, and what relationships they have. I read a lot and appreciate it when an author can do this; I need reminding from book to book of who is who, since there have been a number of other books in between those of any one author. Albert does this very well, and without the awkward paragraphs of explanation that can bog down the narrative.

One of the reasons we read ongoing series is to get the next installment in the lives of the characters. Mistletoe Man does not disappoint in this; much of China's time is spent involved in her network of relationships. Her concern for her best friend Ruby, who is withdrawing from her and won't say why, preoccupies her for much of the book. Friendships are very important, and it's nice to see one between adult women given the importance it deserves. I suspected the reason for the withdrawal long before China did; in this area, Albert set up the background for the explanation perhaps a bit too well, making China look a little dim for never having even considered the true reason. From Ruby's point of view, though, her behavior made perfect sense under the circumstances, as did China's if one overlooks her obliviousness.

The ongoing involvement with the people in the community, while interesting in itself, can be a problem with this sort of mysteries, though. When it's an established series, one can be quite sure that new characters appearing are involved somehow in the mystery; with the reduced cast of suspects, it can be too easy to figure it out prematurely. This happened here; without giving too much away, I think I can say that there was the victim, the red herrings who were involved with the victim, and another person who had little to do with this thread in the book but who was the guilty party. It would help if the mystery plot were more integrated into the community as a whole (although that's one thing suspension of disbelief is good for). Additionally, I don't appreciate the rather crude tactic of having the characters read something that makes all clear, but not disclosing the contents to us at the time; this leaves the reader feeling manipulated, and not subtly.

While that was an annoyance toward the end of the book, it's a minor one. Mistletoe Man was a very enjoyable read. I particularly liked the mistletoe lore that headed each chapter, and while it does occur during the Christmas season, the plot is not strictly Christmas-related, making it a pleasurable read even in July (when the cold of the weather depicted might be welcome). This book, and the series, are well-written and entertaining stories in the modern cozy vein. I'll continue to read the installments, and plan to pick up the few that I've missed.

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe "Douglas Adams"

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe begins where The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy left off, only Zaphod Beeblebrox's idea of stopping for dinner at the aforementioned restaurant is delayed a bit (or an incredibly long bit, depending on your upcoming temporal location). Having escaped the legendary planet Magrathea without having been killed by intergalactic policemen or, in the case of Arthur Dent, having his brain sucked up and studied for the inherent Question of Life, the Universe and Everything that is undoubtedly hardwired into it somewhere, the hoopiest cast of space travelers in the galaxy thought their troubles were over, or at least greatly lessened.
They were completely wrong. The Vogon ship that destroyed the Earth shows up to destroy the last two remnants of that now-dead world, namely Arthur Dent and Trillian McMillian.Unfortunately, Arthur's increasingly strident demands for a cup of real tea have the entire computer system onboard the Heart of Gold focused on that task rather than anything as silly as escaping imminent destruction.
This is just the beginning of this particular set of adventures. Other highlights include a visit by Zaphod's dead great-grandfather, a night of drinks and food at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Zaphod's experience inside the universally feared Total Perspective Vortex, a trip in the mega-rock band Danger Area's stunt ship into a sun, a meeting with the real Ruler of the Universe and a return trip to Earth -- sort of.
Nobody crams as much comedy per page as Douglas Adams. While The Restaurant at the End of the Universe isn't quite as amazing as its predecessor, that is only because its predecessor was so amazingly original and different from everything that came before it. The satire Adams employs, often quite subtle, is as brilliant as always; anyone who reads this book will laugh, but only some will realize that he or she is really laughing at himself and the absurdity of human life that Adams is playing on. These characters are more real to me than many of the people I know in real life. Best of all, they don't change: Arthur Dent remains the rather bemused, clueless soul he has always been; Ford Prefect is just Ford, only more so; Zaphod -- well, Zaphod's just this guy, you know; and poor long-suffering Marvin the Paranoid Android is still the most depressing (yet hilarious) robotically engineered life form in the galaxy. If these crazy characters and Adams' brilliantly comedic narrative don't make you laugh, you would be well advised to don a pair of Joo Janta 200 Super-Chromatic Peril Sensitive Sunglasses because you are headed smack dab into big trouble indeed.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy " Douglas Adams"

I don't like Thursdays.

They're miserable, exhausting almost-weekends. Deadlines loom, pressures build, children whine. Disastrous as they may be in my opinion, my challenging Thursdays can't compare to Arthur Dent's.
On one especially dismal Thursday, the highway department bulldozed Arthur's house, the Vogon's disintegrated his planet for an interstellar bypass, his friend Ford Prefect turned out to be an alien, and he was forced to endure a hyperspace jump, which is unpleasantly like being drunk. (For any readers who are as confused as Arthur was, "Ask a glass of water.") After 20 years, it seemed like time once again to cruise the universe with Arthur, Ford, Zaphod Beeblebrox and Trillian. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adam's first foray in his five-book "trilogy," is funny sci-fi for the hyperactive. The rapid-fire images careen off each other, splashing absurdities across the pages. It's great fun, even on the fourth, fifth or forty-second read!
Zaphod, the flashy President of the Imperial Galactic Government, exudes irresponsibility charmingly. These are the precise characteristics which make him a great president, but he also knows something -- something so covert he mutilates his own brain rather than allow himself to know what it is. Zaphod isn't known for being trustworthy, which explains his tendency to steal things.
Trillian, who Zaphod picked up on a brief stopover in London, provides much of the logic in a book that relishes chaos. She also supplies the brains of the team, toting along a pair of white mice, one of the three most intelligent species from the recently obliterated Earth.
Ford, delighted to be freed from his 15-year stranding on Arthur and Trillian's mostly benign and really boring planet, resumes his career as a field researcher for that "wholly remarkable book," The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The novel is interspersed with humorous, friendly entries from The Guide and provides countless insights regarding Babel fish, Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters, space ("vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big") and other universal truths all travelers should know.
Arthur Dent, the usually clueless earthman, appreciates The Guide because it states "Don't Panic" comfortingly on the cover. An everyman with a heart and conscience and somewhat astounding luck, Arthur usually manages to stumble across solutions and a cup of tea. He might put his brain toward asking the great question regarding life, the universe and everything. (The answer's been provided, but the question is tricky.)
And who can forget Marvin, a supremely depressed artificial intelligence with a brain the size of a planet and a tendency for paranoia.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. If you haven't read it lately, it's time. Maybe it will brighten your Thursday.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

N. D. Hansen-Hill: Elf

He jogged along in the mostly dark. The infrequent orangy streetlights didn't do much to brighten his path, but they suited his mood. He'd spent the last three hours stocking shelves with cans of dog food and boxes of cereal, and his day had been spent running lab tests. Night job, day job.His eyes ached from the fluorescent lights of the supermarket, and his nose burned from all the chemical scents in the lab. Here, he had the illusion of being away from it all. He smiled, and sucked in a deep breath of clean air. This might be the industrial section, but after midnight it was the quietest place in town.The day-drudge buildings were empty shells at the moment. In a few minutes he'd get clear of the factories and loop past the old city cemetery.More empty shells.The moon was rising and it was as fat and yellow as he'd ever seen it. The wind ruffled his hair, and touched him briefly with an icy breath. Autumn was coming. The rustle of scattering leaves was loud in his ears. Yellow moons, yellow pumpkins. Children's laughter and costumed invaders at his front door. His smile widened.He'd outgrown his fear of all things dark a long time ago. His eyes were keener than most, and he'd found that what was bleak and black to others was seldom fearful to him. He was certain he'd left all his childhood fears behind.He was nearing the graveyard now, and he could smell it on the wind. Old flowers, new blossoms, stagnant water, fresh-turned earth. None of these bothered him. What snagged him was the light.Little flickers of dancing light were hovering in the windswept night. Maintaining themselves against a wind that was tearing at his clothes now, and making his eyes stream.What the hell?!Not mere light - flickers of flame. Scattered across the cemetery and beyond - buried in the shrubbery landscaping and rising from the shadowed skeletons of cross and stone.Oh, God! His breath caught and he missed a step.The fitful clouds ripped apart, and moonlight etched the staring figures on his vision - confusedly silhouetting vacant buildings, angel wings, and snarling beasts.Teeth and claws and flaming eyes.In that moment, an eardrum-shattering howl hit his sensitive ears. It was both obscene and mournful, carrying with it the scent of rotten meat and ordure. At his back...Some part of him recognised the sound, the stench, and his body broke into a sweat.No mere memory - something worse. They say the smell brain never forgets...Hunters. Hounds.And in that moment, he was suddenly certain they'd been waiting for him...
Quist picked up the phone reluctantly. "I'm not here," he said, with a sigh. "This is a recording. Call back next year." He added sarcastically, "Maybe you haven't noticed, but it's the middle of the night -"But it wasn't the damned fool he'd thought - it was his damned fool of a brother instead."Have you seen Zander?" Mac's voice was worried.Quist smirked at the phone. "What - no 'hello'?" he retorted. "What's this sudden fascination with Zander?" He sniggered. "'s there something you're not telling me?"No joke, Quist!" The concern in Mac's voice made Quist frown. "He's in trouble.Quist shook his head, still unwilling to accept it. "What kind of trouble? Have you been sniffing something nasty again?" he asked kindly."Find him," Mac ordered. "Now.""I've got company. I can't just go off and abandon a beautif-"Mac cut across his blathering, to say harshly, "If we don't find him - soon - he's going to die."Quist ripped out of his driveway with a squealing of tyres. This kind of night affected him much the way it did Zander. Truth be told, he was happier being out on a windswept evening, than cloistered in the so-called safety of his house.
He wondered, briefly, whether he should be worried about Mac. He'd had these premonitions or whatever they were, before, and they'd always proved out. If he said Zander was in trouble, chances were he was. Shame Mac couldn't be a little more specific, though. It would be nice to know whether Grocery Man was facing the long end of a knife, or the short end of a gun. Things that might make a rescue a little more difficult.He glanced around. Who the hell would mug somebody in a place like this? Maybe ol' Zand had changed his route, and was now jogging through the red light district.I would, if I worked nights...Mac sometimes acted like Zander was his kid brother as much as Quist. Maybe he felt that way. Both Zander's parents had died when he was sixteen, and Mac had been watching out for him ever since. It had been years now, but Mac still kept tabs on him. They'd never lived very far from Zander, either.
Quist raised his eyebrows. Mac had always seemed flamboyantly heterosexual to him, but there was no accounting for tastes. Maybe Mac did have a thing for Zander. He thought about it: my best friend and my brother. And grimaced. How totally unappealing. Appalling, even...
He was still silently berating Mac when he reached the locked gates of the supermarket loading yard.
No Zander - and stupid Mac was supposed to have met him here. He felt like a fool for chasing down a grown man, who'd no doubt elected to spend the night at some lady's house. And I'll be damned if I'll ask him where he's been! he thought. Mac could be a real dumbass sometimes.
It was obvious there was nobody here. Quist's eyes were as keen as Zander's and it was easy to scan the parking lot. For thoroughness' sake, he climbed off the motorcycle to make a better search.
He'd no sooner lifted the helmet than he heard it. Gooseflesh danced along his skin at the long, drawn-out howl in the distance. His nostrils flared and his gut tightened. Some part of him recognised the sound.
He also knew what it meant.Mac was right...He listened for a moment longer - his keen ears picking up the direction. Then he hopped on the bike and tore out of the lot, as though the hounds of hell were at his back.He ran. The wind whistled in his ears, but it couldn't tune out the pounding feet at his back. The running pace that matched his heartbeat. The howls were louder now - practically on top of him, and his eyes wept in terror. Streaming, not crying, with the wind and the salty sweat and the strain of his exertion.It was one thing running home and another pounding flat out across the paving. He was beginning to feel the strain. He'd worked all day.
He couldn't run all night.
He needed an advantage - any advantage. They'd have him in seconds...
He dove off the sidewalk, tripped and rolled, then swung onto a flimsy tree branch, and in that second, they lost him.
It was enough. It told him what he needed to do.The park. He needed the trees...
He dropped, and was toppled off his feet as a heavy body plunged into him, jaw-first. Shark-like teeth gouged into his thigh - slicing muscle and tendon. His blood poured between locked teeth. He could see the glitter in the dark.
Blood? Glitter? No, that wasn't right...He screamed, and pounded on the head that was deadlocked on his leg. Pounding, pounding. Hard bone and eye hollows. He socked and pummelled and poked and pounded till the brain box should have been mush.
He'd lifted his arm to hit it again, when teeth locked on his raised arm and dragged him back, so his head went crashing against concrete.They'd be at his throat next.The trees. I need the trees.He fought. Fingers in eyes and up nostrils and gouging into ears. Kicking and punching, snarling back, fighting back. He was coated in saliva and blood and hair.Then, it got worse. At the point of the bites there came a burning, that traversed his nerve endings in an agonising frenzy of pain, that was nowhere and everywhere at once. He arched his back and howled, as loudly as the beast that was now at his breast.It was coming. His ears filled with a roar that came not from without but within. His eyes widened as a growl issued from his lips.The hound - the one whose saliva was dripping in his eyes - froze.At his core, where the burning of the bites formed an escalating pyre, a shard of ice jagged and seized. Like a seed crystal, its surface grew, layer on layer.The frozen mass weighed him down, but as it spread, it must have made him unpalatable. One by one, the hounds spat him out and shook their heads, spraying him with a splattering of saliva and blood. Zander clasped his ripped arm against the gouge in his chest. Rolling onto his stomach, he managed to push himself up and stumble to his feet.
He looked back - a dozen flaming eyes were watching him hungrily - padded feet moving restlessly.They were eager - anxious - desperate, even - to taste him again.
The tree...
Zander limped away in a stumbling, tumbling run - trying to put as much distance between them as he could. Panting, he kept his eyes focused on the big tree in the distance.
He was halfway there, when the howling broke out again.
The howls were broken by the roar of a powerful engine, yelps, the squeal of tyres, and a scraping of metal. Zander twisted, and saw Mac's car go side-sliding into the pack. Hounds were jettisoned across the road, and one ploughed into Zander, tossing them both back on the ground. The hound continued to writhe, and Zander, panicked, rolled away.
Mac's car was still in motion. It slammed into a curb, which sent it rolling over and over. The whining squeals of the hounds were drowned by the clanging bang, the crunch and shrieks of torqued metal and shattered glass. As the car came to a shuddery halt, upside down, there was a hissing sigh, as though the engine had given its last breath.
Mac...Get him out. Zander hitch-crawled across the paving toward the car, as fast as he could. He was in a shocky daze, filled with glittery blood spots and whining canines with glowing eyes. With cars that sighed out a last breath, and fetid panting at his back.
At his back...
The last things he remembered were the now-familiar teeth tearing into his shoulder.
Quist roared into a scene from hell. He was on his phone to emergency services before he'd even slowed the bike. There was Mac's car upside down, and there was Zander, being savaged by a massive black dog. As Quist drew closer, he saw the giant beast lift Zander off the ground and shake him. In his headlight, froth and saliva and blood flew everywhere. Quist felt sick.
And angrier than he'd ever been in his life. He opened up the throttle and gunned the engine. As the dog turned flaming eyes his way, Quist ran it down, in a satisfying crunch of meat and bone. The teeth were yanked free of Zander's skin, and in his periphery, Quist saw Zand linger briefly on his knees, before toppling over, onto the asphalt.
hair-standing, gooseflesh-dancing wave of revulsion. His nostrils flared in a sneer at the dark-haired mass now crushed beneath his feet. Lips curled in aversion, he leaped off the bike, then moved swiftly to haul Zander's bleeding body out of contact with that vile form - and away from the now-slackened jaws.
Quist lifted Zander up, and balanced him over one shoulder. He could feel the warmth of his friend's blood pulsing down across his back. It was in such contrast to his centre, which felt abnormally chilled. For a moment, Quist tensed, scared, until his keen ear picked up the irregular thudding of Zander's heart.
Still alive. But for how long?
"Mac!" he yelled worriedly at the car.
"Still," came a mumbled response. "Zander?"
"Not good. You?" Quist heard a low rumbling growl, and squatted next to the broken windscreen, his back to the crunched metal. Around him, there was a shifting in the blackness, and his eyes searched their surroundings warily. The hounds were coming back for more. He was beginning to wish he'd left his bike running. "Can you get out?"
There was a grunt, and a thud, and Quist flinched. He had a feeling Mac had just landed headfirst on the roof. "You okay?" he asked again.
"Yes," Mac replied, but his voice sounded strained. "I'm coming out."
There was a warning snarl to Quist's left, and he felt a tremor as a heavy body bounded onto the car at his back.
Near Zander's head.
"Negative," he hissed to Mac. "Move over! We're coming in!"
The next few seconds were something out of nightmare. Quist had no sooner shunted Zander in past the broken windscreen, than he felt the first jab in his side as the canine to the left lunged. Teeth, clamping down on his hip. At the same time, the hound above decided to take advantage of his bent position, to come in for the kill. Quist was halfway in, halfway out of the window now, and he knew he didn't stand a chance. Mac was tugging and grunting to yank him in through the gap; Quist was yelling and shrieking as the slavering jaws snapped at his face and neck. He jerked sideways, and thunked heads with Zander, who gave a low groan. Mac, meanwhile, was stuck - caught by the crunched seats and Zander's limp form. He was panicking at the thought of his brother becoming dog chow, and was beating and pounding on any exposed flesh he could find. Some of it was Quist's.
Zander was roused by the hollow thudding of Quist's head against his own, and dazedly opened his eyes. It took him a moment to figure it out - it was all snarls and howls and ows and yelps and thuds and curses as Mac added his bit. In the distance, there was another sound - the whine of an ambulance.
It wasn't going to make it - not in time. Quist was in the position Zander'd been in only minutes before, but the hounds were here for the hunt, and they wouldn't be satisfied without some kind of reward. Quist was about to provide it.
Quist squirmed onto his stomach and tried to pull himself inside. Zander's keen eyesight caught the panic in Quist's eyes as he was tugged backwards out of the car. Mac was clinging to him, yelling, with tears running unchecked down his face. Quist's fingers were white at the effort to hang on. And then, the dogs had him. They yanked him back and pounced. At the first snarl, Zander felt something inside him snap.
It went beyond rage, or horror, or outrage at the bestial brutality. It was something else - something he'd felt just a short while ago.
A chilling resolve. Mac, sobbing, tried to hold him back as he squirmed out of the car. Zander stilled him with a look.
The dogs would want him. Him - not Quist. He didn't know why or how, but the knowledge was there. Innate. He cleared the car, somehow pushed himself to his feet - and whistled.
It was a shrill whistle, a demanding whistle, and the dogs froze. Zander's flesh crawled as they dropped Quist's squirming form and turned - as one.
The chilling resolve had a home - in his gut. Cold, implacable purpose. The most terrifying thing of all was that he suddenly wasn't afraid.
He felt the cold move, filling him up, and he wondered in the back of his mind if he was going into shock. Shock numbs the pain, so you don't even feel it...
Then this wasn't shock. Because he felt every gouge, every slice. But what hurt him most of all was that terrible cold. It was like a freezer burn that makes you flinch and sting. Like the icy ache behind your eyes that made him want to double over with the pain. When it reached his throat he was choking. The frost was blocking his throat, occluding his airway. As the first padded foot stomped on his, he opened his mouth in a silent scream...
Only, it wasn't silent. It was a shrilly horrifying banshee cry, and Mac slammed his hands against the sides of his head - forgetting all else as he sought to cover his ears. He only hoped his little brother was doing the same.
The echoingly hollow screech went on and on. Now that the chill was thrusting out of him, Zander couldn't stop it.
The dogs howled, turned tail, and ran - but they didn't get far. Zander's eyes were squinted nearly closed, he was gripping his middle, and he knew the dogs were in retreat - but he couldn't stop it.
Nor could he avoid seeing the outcome.
The flaming-eyed monsters were writhing in agony as they ran - and at the last, one of them turned back with a snarl, desperate to demolish the instigator of this pain. As it clamped down on Zander's calf, the shrill song went up a pitch. The dog released him, jerking in spasms.
But it was too late - for that hound - for all the hounds. Zander flinched in pain and horror as the flames in the eyes suddenly expanded, and the closest canine burst into flame. One by one they ignited in masses of yellow and blue flames, that seethed sideways in the breeze, flared - before imploding into a splaying of wind-driven ash and pale grey smoke.Zander's song died, and in the end, it sounded as though he was choking once more.
He dimly heard Quist mutter "hot dogs", and Mac call his name, but he wasn't hearing too well right now. He could feel a trickle tickling his neck, and he guessed that It was running down his throat, too. He gagged and choked and dropped down onto the asphalt.He never heard the ambulance arrive."Dog pack." It was all the man - Maculley Craigen - would admit to. Nothing more. He'd been driving along (at one am?) and seen a friend of his, Alexander Brody, being savaged by a pack of dogs. His brother Quist had been following him on a motorcycle, and had been brought into the fracas, too.No medical records - on any of them - so they'd had to do a work-up from scratch. Quist Craigen, who'd been more garrulous than his brother, had openly admitted he'd never been to a doctor. "Never been sick," he'd said, as though it were the most normal thing in the world. Apparently, he'd never needed immunisations, either.Well, he was sick now. He and Brody had some infection from the dog bites that Dr. Benjamin Lowry had never seen before. Foul smelling and invasive - and nothing seemed to work on it.It was driving the older brother out of his mind. Maculley had some internal damage - Lowry was sure of it - but he'd refused tests. They'd set his leg and stuck him in a bed, but he was unwilling to stay there. He also seemed desperate to avoid further exposure of any kind. No x-rays or imaging, no blood tests, no police reports, no interviews with the local paper. The nurses were starting to complain because he was never in bed - always either in his brother's or Brody's room.
Watching, listening.It would have made Lowry angrier, if he hadn't seen the fear in the other man's eyes.Maculley had good reason to be fearful, and the paramedics had been the first to point it out. They'd been startled by the extent of blood loss, and stunned by the quality. By the oddly luminescent glitter.Ben Lowry hadn't believed it until he'd seen it for himself. Then, he'd used it. After an initial clean-up, he'd hauled the Craigens and Brody into dark rooms to find further tears in tissue. Convenient.But scary as hell. Who were these men?Not normal, though Quist Craigen seemed to think he was. His ears were attenuated, as were the others'. There was also an odd slant to their eyes that Ben had at first attributed to some Asian forebear. But wherever their forebears derived from, he'd decided now it wasn't Asia.
No records, so no idea of allergies. Ben had nearly killed them with an antibiotic infusion this morning. It had been mild - an attempt to get the infection under control - but both Quist Craigen and Zander Brody had gone into anaphylactic shock.
t had been close. Maculley had refused to leave the room since.That was the other odd thing. It wasn't his brother's room he'd refused to leave. It was Brody's. Ben couldn't figure it out.He poked his head in the door, and glanced at Maculley's bed, already knowing he wouldn't be there. He detoured to Brody's room. Supposedly, Zander Brody wasn't having visitors, but that didn't stop Maculley. Hadn't stopped him all day. Somehow, he was getting in, cast, nurses, orderlies and all. The man was there now.He was asleep in the chair, the casted leg up on the bed. He looked sick and exhausted. There were bruised marks under his eyes, his foot was swollen, and he didn't stir when Ben laid a hand on his shoulder. Concerned, Lowry checked his pulse, then shook him, gently. "Maculley!" he hissed.
Mac opened his eyes blearily. As awareness seeped back in, alarm replaced the pained look. "Zander -" He jumped, and let out an unwilling groan.
"He's fine." Ben looked at the bed, checked the monitors, and sighed. Mac's sharp ears picked it up.
"No, he's not," Mac said raspily. "I'm not going."
"Room's off-limits," Ben told him curtly. "If you don't like hospital policy, you can leave."Mac shook his head. "No," he said quietly, and in that moment, Ben guessed how desperately he wanted his bed. The man was sick, and worn, but for some reason, he couldn't let go."It's not going to help either of you to stay," Ben told him reasonably. "You know," he added almost conversationally, "I'll have to discharge you soon anyway - if you won't agree to treatment. Whole lot less trouble for everyone.""Covering your 'ass'ets?" Mac growled. His eyes grew distant and he turned to the window. His attitude told Ben he was listening, to something beyond Ben's hearing.A chill went down Ben's spine."They know where Zander is now," Mac whispered. Ben knew he wouldn't have admitted it, unless he'd been desperate. His eyes were pained, and Ben could tell he was scared. Maculley Craigen didn't know how he was going to cope. "They'll be coming."Zander woke in the dimly-lighted hospital room. He was shivering, and his chest was on fire. In that moment he wished he could return to sleep. He didn't want to think - didn't want to feel. Didn't want to remember.Maybe it was all one with his restless dreams. Anything so he wouldn't have to recall the way it had felt. That icy slough in his guts, his limbs. The ear-splitting notes of his own screams.How he'd killed, incinerated the dogs so easily, without lifting a hand.Only by lifting his voice.He was terrified. Horrified that anger could bring him to this. For that's what it had been: fury, at the damage to himself, to Mac, to Quist. Fury that the pain was being visited on someone he cared about.But he couldn't forget the stench of roasted dog hair, or the anguish in the beasts' eyes.Some things you should remember...It was a voice from the past. Six years past. From the day Mac's dad had died. He'd said it solemnly, seriously, but sadly, as though he'd known what was coming.Maybe he had. Maybe he, like Mac, had been a victim of dreams. All Zander knew was that Mac's dad, nearly as close to his heart as his own father, had driven away like a madman. His body had turned up a thousand miles away, in a wild stretch of forest.He'd been savaged by some animal...Zander went cold, and for an instant, he felt as chilly as he had the night before.Brian Craigen had been killed by a wild beast. Too big for a dog, they'd said. Possibly a bear or a cat of some kind. It had been a terrible end for a good man; a horror story for family and friends. They'd never talked about it much, but that day had marked a change in Mac's behaviour. He'd gone from playing annoying "big brother" type to Quist and Zander, to even more annoying self-proclaimed protector. He'd been doing it ever since. For the most part, Zander had been able to ignore it - to build his own life and ignore Mac's warnings and worried expression, but now he wondered.
For he knew how it felt to be savaged by wild beasts. Those black hounds hadn't been domesticated puppies gone bad. They were bad to begin with. And it was too much of a coincidence to have two attacks like that to people he knew. People he'd lived with.
He lay there, wondering what had wakened him. It seemed he'd arisen from the depths of a near-comatose slumber, and he guessed Ben Lowry had drugged him. Whatever had stirred him, had penetrated those depths.It was then he saw it. One of the windows was open to the night - the glass missing and the frame bent and mangled. He'd been awakened by a tapping, a banging. A strong wind had risen and was slamming some of the metal framing back against the wall. The chill he'd felt - the iciness that was beginning to invade him - was real. His blankets were gone, and he lay there in his hospital gown, exposed and shivering. One of his sheets was halfway out the window hole, and he wondered confusedly how the hole - the sheet - the mangled frame - had gotten there.Outside, a storm was brewing. Thick clouds roiled just beyond the glass, and the dangling metal slammed harder, in loud, clanging bangs. There was no way to keep the cold out now. He shivered, so hard it hurt.Have to get warm...where it had been pinned to the sheet, within easy reach of his hand. The search became a little desperate when he realised it was gone, too - and horror set in when he saw that it had been yanked out of the wall.Outside the window, lightning blasted the night. His breath came in panicky gasps as he saw the impossible - the black clouds, thick with mist, were slither in hand.He watched as the machines ticked merrily on, though all connections with his own body were severed.There'd be no nurse, no doctor. No help.He slid out on the side nearest the door - and took a lurching step before he noticed the chair - or what was left of it. The mangled metal legs had been ripped off, and jabbed into the floor. Four legs, four spikes behind the door, to act as barricade.There was only one exit, and it was by air.Zander froze, hearing something over the wind. It was a sound he was sensitive to now, after last night. It would be a long time before he'd forget the scratch and click of claws. Unwillingly, his eyes seemed to turn of their own accord toward the window - and he saw the sheet tugged and stretched, as some heavy weight sought entry from below.The sheet was snagged in the metal. Rip it loose. Toss it out...Almost as though the climber could read his thoughts, the tugs on the sheet became more vigorous.Too late...As much as he wanted the light, instinctively, Zander now sought the dark. He slammed his fist hard into the nightlight, shattering it. Then he stood unsteadily in the darkness, buffeted by wind, and waiting as the night sky poured into the room. "He's restless," Steven Kern told him.Ben nodded and looked at Mac's chart. "What about the other Craigen?"Kern grinned. "Ya mean, is he a pain in the ass like his brother?" He nodded toward the monitor. "Sleeping like a baby. Same with Brody."Ben stood there for a minute, watching the monitors. Quist Craigen's showed some normal variation from movement, but Brody's remained constant. No ups, no downs, no jags, just a regular rhythm.Too regular. "When'd you last look at Brody?" he asked."Thirty minutes. Why?""Just a hunch." He was halfway up the hall, heading towards Brody's room, when one of the monitors started to scream."Craigen!" Kern yelled.Ben tore into Quist Craigen's room.Only to find him out of bed. He had an ear - one of those weirdly attenuated ears - against the wall, and he was agitated, panicked. He ignored Lowry entirely and slammed a fist against the plaster. "Zander!" he bellowed. When Ben tried to grab his arm, Quist shrugged him off. "Help him!" he yelled.Something in the other man's eyes told Lowry this wasn't hysteria. "Stay here!" he ordered. He tore out of the room, and pushed against Brody's door - stunned when it wouldn't open. Some of Craigen's panic had hit him now and he latched onto Kern's arm as he came by with the crash cart. "Help me!" he said, and the two of them thudded shoulders against the door."Brody! Open up!"They can't get in.Quist saw the whirling black clouds outside his window - the ones that must be outside Zander's as well. He didn't know what it was - all he knew was that he couldn't sit here and calmly listen to his best friend die. He grabbed a chair and slammed it into the glass.As Lowry came running back in the room, he was just in time to see Quist Craigen disappear out the window.
Cp 2
He smelled the thing before he saw it. As it neared the windowsill, Zander caught a whiff of mouldy rot as the wind swept past his head.
Death had come calling...
His eyes were tearing now, making it difficult to see. Gritty dirt swirled in anticipation of its master's coming, nearly blinding Zander with the swiftness of its strike. And the wind was being mastered. Weather as foul as the Thing that drove it. The storm, the clouds; the wind tearing at his hair, the dirt in his eyes - they were all part of this. Zander's twenty-first century self wanted to deny it, to tell himself this was just a bad trip - another reaction to the medication. But some part of him, that had roots in a time long past, warned him that he wasn't going to get off that easily. The stench, the scrape and scratch of claws, the fetid breath - they were real. Marks. Signs. Indicators. Things his body knew well - and his body was already reacting to centuries of conditioning.
The creature was bringing the bad with it. Using it. The chilling gusts were whipping into a whirlwind now, and Zander was being slapped, pummelled, torn by its force.That was the plan. Blind him, render him impotent, render him dead.
What's not as important as where...
No. No light. If he'd stood here, highlighted in the glow, he'd be dead already. He shivered, and took a step back.
that had filled him at the sight. Time to wonder later - right now, it could be used. He ripped back the bandaging on his arm and tore at the clamp. Blood poured down his arm, and it was just as he remembered...
He gulped and nearly gagged.
But somewhere, in the dark, he heard a gasp of anticipation. The thing had seen it - smelled it.And it couldn't wait.The beast's charge came out of a cloud - just one more movement in the swirling mist. Zander used it, letting himself be toppled backwards, then smearing his opponent with blood from his arm. It sickened him to see how well it worked - how the creature snapped and licked at the stuff now coating its face.It was a face that belonged on a rooftop. A distorted visage with a giant head and a bat-like curl of lips and nose. It was all Zander could see before the long tongue snapped out, and lapped the blood delightedly from the face.
He'd had no trouble seeing the blood-drenched teeth or misshapen scalp.
It had the hairy shape of a near-human form. Genetic accident? Hunchbacked human? The pity had barely formed when it was wiped by a spiky slash from a well-hooked tail.
Zander dove to one side, his heart pounding. Not human. Not canine. Not like anything he'd ever seen before. He was shaking in terror now, his senses quickening.
There was a grunt and snuffle and rapid shuffle. The beast was eager - now that it had tasted him. But things were a little different this time round - because now Zander could see where it crouched.The last of his logic vanished with the first slice from a sharp-tined claw.A weapon...His hand snatched his dinner tray from the floor, to use as a shield.The beast laughed - a cackling rattle that shook its body and made those glints of Zander's blood jiggle in the darkness. Of all the sounds that had terrified Zander this night - the lashing wind, the scrabbling of claws - that laughter frightened him the most. For this wasn't a hyena's mindless mirth, or the parroting action of a trained bird - it was amusement, cold and simple.

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Buy the ebook - read it all now! The feeling of cold - that chilling purpose - was coming back to haunt him. There was a tingling in his head, and for a moment, Zander thought he was going to pass out. It was a buzzing, and an ache, much as he'd experienced the night before. He gripped his forehead and fought to stay alert, but he knew he was out of control. He snarled, and felt the ache centre behind his eyes.
The beast's laughter stopped abruptly, but Zander was scarcely aware of it. He reached for the bed, to steady himself, and fell to the floor, as the bed jerked away.
What the hell?!The monster pounced, claws first, and Zander threw up his hands to shield his face. The creature was jettisoned backwards, while Zander did his own backwards slam, to ram his head against the linoleum.
Repulsion, he thought, dazed. I'm repulsive...The beast was circling him again now, awaiting its chance.Zander didn't give it one. He rolled onto his stomach, then crept forward, advancing on his opponent, hand outstretched. He was hit with cloud and rain and ripping wind as the beast fought his advance. Zander was thudded into the wall, the wardrobe, the mirror, but he didn't let it sway him. He came at the beast again.
But the creature still had some tricks - some weather wiles to manipulate. Zander gasped and choked as a spearpoint of wind tore down his throat.
Can't breathe...His world was fading when another figure came lunging through the dark. It dove at the misshapen beast and knocked it to one side. As the creature reacted, in its own burst of adrenaline, a dark wind caught both Zander and his saviour, and tossed them head over heels into the wall.
Quist...Zander stretched out a hand to his friend, then yanked it back in a panic. The force was still with him - he could feel it. There would be no rest until the shape, the stench, the horror, was gone. Something had happened inside him - and it had triggered his reaction. He was no more in control now than he'd been moments before. The buzzing was building again, throbbing at his temples.
And the beast was heading towards Quist now - payback for that attack. Zander braced himself against the built-in wardrobe, then lifted his arm once more. In a voice he didn't recognise as his own, he bellowed, "Be gone!"
At the end of his arm he could feel the dense weight of the intruder's mass, as it was pitched backwards against the window hole. Backwards and out, into the night beyond.
The storm went with it, in a horrifying vacuum-like jettisoning that took half the room. Lamps, newspapers, books, sheets, food, trays, blankets, IV stand, monitors, clothing were swept from the floor and tossed out, into the night. Anything that had been scattered across the room, anything loose, anything not secured to the wall was set in motion.Zander was flipped forward, onto the bed. The wheeled bed rolled toward the gap, its mattress sliding forward, inexorably, toward the space beyond.
Three storeys! Zander fought for purchase.The wind rushed past his face, whipping his hair into his eyes, stealing the bandaging off his chest, his thigh, and sending a trail of glistening drops sailing through the window.
The last of the storm was fleeing now, and Zander was caught in the suction. It was a mini-cyclone, chasing its master out through the gap, and Zander was snagged mid-centre.
A last effort to win back what had been lost?Drenched and battered, Zander clung to the mangled window frame, as he was yanked across the mattress, and into the black night. He no longer had the strength to fight it - that was going with the seemingly endless trail of glistening droplets that was whirling away in the darkness. Halfway out the window, he could feel the blackness clamping down. His last conscious thought was of something else clamping down - on his ankle. A hand.
Quist. Zander relaxed and let the blackness come.There was no mistaking the thudding and jarring - the snarls, whines, and then - yes - laughter, spilling from the room next door. Ben Lowry was on the phone to the police, security, maintenance. He put out a call for staff to help him with the door.
Impatient with the delays, he ran back into Quist Craigen's room, and leaned out, trying to peer into the room next door. There was a mass of dense black fog - so dark, he thought at first of smoke. But it was too moist; too clammy. Ben's face was wrapped in the stuff, and he stretched out his hand toward the sill next door. Somehow, Craigen had made it across into Brody's room.
Hell of a jump...It was a wonder they weren't peeling Quist Craigen off the ground.
There was no light in the next room. Ben ran back, to borrow a flashlight from one of the maintenance men.The fire department was cutting through Brody's door now, much to the interest of a number of patients and staff from other floors. Ben raced back into Craigen's room, closing the door to shut out the zoo behind him. The less they knew, the better.Should have thought about discretion before you called the fire department...He shrugged off his doubts, grasped the window frame, and flicked on the flashlight. At that instant, a vortex snagged him, and jerked him up, off the floor. He dropped the flashlight and latched onto the framing, digging his fingers desperately into the warping aluminium and scrabbling with his feet to brace himself.
The flashlight dipped, then went sailing away. As Ben clung there, unable to move, he could see the flashlight wasn't the only casualty - nor was he getting the brunt of it. Papers, plates, trays, monitors, and God-knows-what-else were still sailing out the window next door - all of it travelling with a horrific whine that made his ears ache.Vacuum.The first of the glistening droplets chased the hospital equipment through the portal. Oh, shit! Ben thought, realising what it meant. In the next moment, he could see a man fighting to hang on, much as he was, as the wind tried to Ben yelled - bellowed - for help, but the wind stole his voice away. Hauled it out and down the black throat of the vanishing vortex - the whirlwind that had swallowed gear and was now trying to consume people as well.
Ben thought the man'd had it. He was dangling half in and half out - his blood spiralling away on the wind. There was nothing he could do. Ben couldn't help him, any more than he could help himself.The next moment, Steven Kern was there, helping him to his feet. "You okay?" he asked in concern. Ben's hair was standing straight up, his clothes were ripped, and he had little glass cuts all over his hands and arms.
"Are you in?" Ben asked abruptly.
Kern nodded. "Yeah. Came to tell you -"Ben didn't wait any longer. With a slightly dazed look, he pushed past Kern and tore back out of the room. "It was a cyclone - hurricane," Ben told reporters wearily. They'd caught him on his way to his car. It had been a hell of a day. He felt exhausted, and more than a little sick."Tornado?"
Ben nodded. "Yeah." "Centred on that one room? Isn't that a little weird?" "Not one room - two," Ben retorted ruefully, holding up his bandaged hands. Keep it low-key. "Freak of nature. We're just lucky it wasn't worse.""Can you describe it?"Ben had thought about this one. He'd known they'd be asking. "Like those pictures you see of a waterspout," he replied seriously. "Black. Swirling." And in that moment, he could see it again.Ready to suck a man down."Dr. Lowry, are you okay?"Sure," he said. He leaned against the car and tried to fight down the black swirling in his vision. He'd seen people pass out, but it had never happened to him. He had a terrible feeling this was what it felt like.
Not here. Not now. Not in front of all these people - reporters, for God's sake...
The swirling was getting worse and he couldn't even hear them now. He buried his face in his arm. "Please," he whispered. "Just go -"
They never heard where he wanted them to go. The next moment, he was passed out on
"Where's Lowry?" Mac asked abruptly. It was the first time one of his dreams had included a near-stranger. Usually, it was only family, or close friends.
But he owed the man. He'd saved Zander's life, the night before. Refused to give up when Zander'd been nearly bled out. Covered up queries about the "tornado", and stopped Quist from rambling in delirium. He'd covered for Zander, for Quist, for them all.
For himself?
Probably, but that wasn't the gist of it. The man was only human, after all.
But you're not. The thought crept in, and Mac banished it, at once. I'm as human as the next man...
Did the next man have veins that bled shimmery liquid, pointy ears, or a metabolism that wouldn't quit?
Don't think about it.Zander wasn't the only one who'd been remembering Brian Craigen's death. It hadn't been far from Mac's thoughts, either. He'd never really taken his dad's warning that seriously. Quist and Zander were grown men - had been grown men for years. His father's terrible end had been a singular event - he'd thought. He hadn't wanted the responsibility for guardianship.
For guardship over a man who was grown and independent and didn't need it But the incident with the hounds had hit him hard. Brought back his father's cruel death and his own doubts. There'd been a scent to that scene, a feeling, a sound, which was more than a little familiar. And something inside him had quickened in reaction.
Last night's attack was like a nail in his coffin. Mac had a terrible feeling he'd never be his own man again.
He was only three years older than Quist; two years older than Zander. He wanted a life, a destiny, of his own. He didn't want servitude or solitude. He wanted to leave his father's coffin behind and move on. Instead, the coffin nails were being driven into his feet, to pin him down. To tether him - and Quist - to Zander forever.
He'd tried to save Quist from it. He'd shouldered the burden and endured his brother's cries of "fool" and "dumbass". He hadn't wanted Quist's freedom squelched. Mac knew how irksome it could be. He wasn't built for quiet or complacency. The thought of being trapped for life was anathema to him.
But it was too late. His father was here, standing beside him, the warning on his lips. Mac could see it - could still recall how his insides had rejected it. How his father had looked at him sadly, because he could understand the spurning of duty. He'd done his best to spare his sons, but then, as now, there was nothing to be done.
It was Zander. His father had thought he was keeping the burden light - that little mention would keep Mac from dwelling.
Did he know me so little?
Or did he just have no idea how ghastly his death would be - and how it would affect us all?
"They will come, and if they fail, they will return, again and again. Their success will be measured in Zander's death."
Mac remembered thinking sarcastically, How cryptic, Dad. He would have forgotten the message entirely if his father hadn't picked that day to die. Mac had been annoyed because his father was usually pretty reasonable, and Mac had other places to be. Work, plus a date with his then-girlfriend Susan. He'd sighed with obvious impatience and asked, "So when all this happens, how do I stop it?"
"Believe in yourself, Mac." Brian had sounded almost like himself then - a pep talk from a father to a son. Then, he'd ruined it. "And your gifts."
"Great help. I'll do that. Now, if we can get off the topic of death and dismemberment -"
Brian Craigen had interrupted to say seriously, "Only Zander can end it."
"How?" Mac had asked flippantly. "By dying?"
His father had looked slightly taken aback and not at all amused. "That's one way," he'd said sternly, in a voice Mac had never heard before. "There's another." He'd grown agitated, then, and Mac had realised his dad was actually afraid. "If he does the research," he'd mumbled, "it might clue them in."
"Okay - so what?"
"So you'll have to play it by ear!" his father had retorted, annoyed. He'd flicked Mac's upper ear. "God knows, yours are big enough!"
"Gee, Dad," Mac had said sarcastically, but with a grin, "next time, invite Quist over for one of your little talks. He loves dark and desperate shit."
"Yeah," his father had replied with attempted lightness, but the sadness was back in his eyes. "Since you know him so well, I think I'll leave that to you."
What Mac remembered most, though, was the hug his father had given him. He'd squeezed him, released him, then grabbed him close and held him again. "I love you, Son," he'd whispered, under his breath, but Mac's keen ears had picked it up.
He'd had a flicker of foreboding then. Too much, too late.
"Believe in yourself." His father's words.
Great advice, Mac thought, almost angrily. How could he believe in himself, when he was beginning to wonder who - and what - he was?The kids started pouring in after school, bearing gifts. Mac greeted them with a smile, but there was a shadow behind it. Zander had crashed last night, bigtime. He was in Intensive Care, and the prognosis was bad. Mac had heard the whispers - the ones they didn't think anyone could hear. They were worried about the fever, and brain damage, and the words "no heroics" had been bandied about. Mac had jumped halfway out of bed at that, until he'd heard the argument; the "wait and see".
Where was Ben Lowry? He, at least, had pulled out all the stops. Maybe too many. It seemed to Mac's keen ears that the discussions were riddled with anger. Against Lowry, or on his behalf? Mac couldn't tell.
Mac had sneaked in to see Quist, but it had used him up. He felt weak and sick and more than a little hopeless. Despair was beginning to creep in, but it would never do to let them see it. The kids - his students - were coming to cheer him up. They didn't need to know how very cheerless he was.
He smelled it the moment they entered, but his confirmation came in the hastily suppressed giggles, the snickers, the phoney smiles. They were up to something, and they expected him to appreciate the gesture, if not the gift.
He'd never felt less like joking around, but he donned the expected smile. "What's that stink?" he asked, wrinkling his nose distastefully.
"Smells like -" Mac sniffed, stuck out his tongue and pretended to gag, then sniffed again. He groaned and looked woeful. "Chocolate-coated garlic!" He hesitated, his eyes sweeping the group. He sniffed once more, then settled his gaze on Charlie, who was standing inconspicuously at the back. "Or is that your roll-on, Charlie?"
He'd done it. Pegged the one holding the loot. "I don't get how you do that!" Charlie grumbled as the others shoved him forwards. Then he grinned good-naturedly and plunked several packages down on the bed. "You have to eat that one, right away."
It was a dare. They knew he hated the smell of the stuff. Knew he could sniff out the student who'd had it on a pizza or bread two nights before. He'd always toss them a breath mint and plead for mercy.
Now, it was payback.He undid the wrapping. "Garlic ice cream?" he verified woefully, giving them the expected pained look. There was a spoon with a big bow taped to the top, and he stared at it in horror.
"Just a few bites," Jake goaded.
There was nothing for it. It was a joke, but they'd pooled their money on this. He had a feeling the other bottle was garlic wine. Neither one came cheap.
"We know how you like to eat," Samantha coaxed.
Mac flinched theatrically, pinched his nose, and dug the spoon into the ice cream. He forced a bite, worried that he might disgrace himself. They had absolutely no idea how much he held garlic in aversion. It stood somewhere between a physical repugnance and a gastro-allergic reaction. Quist and Zander had similar responses. Right now, he didn't need any reminders of their similarities, if it was about to see his brother and lifelong friend dead.
He played it out - held the bite in his mouth, and pretended to swish it around in delight. "Yummy!" he said loudly.
And suddenly, he realised it was. He took another bite, and another. "This stuff is really good," he said in stunned surprise.
They stood there and watched him eat. They'd brought chocolates, too, but Mac was absorbed in his ice cream. "Great!" he kept mumbling.
His kids thought it was hilarious. At the end, he'd scraped the carton clean, and was waiting only for them to leave so he could lick it. "Thanks!" he said, gleefully. He felt better than he had in days.
Jake made the parting gesture, but Mac knew it was on behalf of the class. He tossed Mac a pack of peppermint gum. "Please, Mr. Mac," he said, a little desperately. "Before you come back -?" he hinted loudly, rolling his eyes.
Mac threw it at him.
He could hear their rowdy, raucous laughter till they were halfway down the hall.Mac didn't waste any time. By the time he'd swigged some of the garlic wine, he'd figured it out. It took him a while longer to come up with the "uncut" version. When he had the smelly stuff in hand, he went straight to Quist's room. "I want you to eat this," he told Quist sternly. Quist opened one eye and peered at the garlic clove distastefully. "Go to hell, Mac.""It'll help -""Better still," Quist interrupted. "You eat it. That oughta gag you.""Do you know what trouble I had to go to?!" Mac asked him angrily. "I'm not exactly mobile!""So go be immobile somewhere else -"They were falling into the same patterns as always. His father had wanted him to go with his instincts. Garlic was usually abhorrent to him, but now that he was sick, he was craving it. He couldn't get enough. It might just be the placebo value, but Mac could swear he was already feeling better.Quist opened his mouth to argue some more. He felt sick as a dog, and as grouchy as hell. For the first time he was really beginning to wonder whether he and Zander could beat this infection. The doctors were all optimistic, but he could read them. They were stumped. "You have a room, don't Mac shoved the garlic clove in his mouth bastard -" he began, then stopped. "Damn, that's good," he whispered. "Got any more?"Mac grinned, and shoved a dozen cloves into Quist's hand. Quist popped two in like candy. "I can't (chew) believe (chew) this!" The last time he'd eaten garlic, he'd thought he was going to die. "We need to get some of this to Zander," he said seriously."No kidding. Any ideas?" Zander was in"A few," Quist replied. He gave a shiver and broke out in a sweat. "End of fever," he said, surprised. He looked at the garlic clove and smiled. "I'll stick some in his IV if I have to."
Mac just grinned.Four days later and it was just like old times, when they were the only ones in the world up and about. It had been that way for as long as Mac could remember. Zander worked two jobs and jogged home nights to wear off his excess energy. Quist was a musician by trade, and a security guard four nights a week. Mac? Teacher during the day, and painting fool at night.
Crazy metabolisms. Another thing that made them "different".Mac decided not to think "Lowry's sick," Zander whispered. "Hate to suggest this, but I overheard something in the ICU. Seems he may have picked up something nasty from yours truly." He looked both guilty and concerned.
"You bastard," Quist said calmly. "Or, considering the original source of the infection - you dirty dog."
Mac rolled his eyes. "Garlic in his IV?" he asked. It had worked for Zander.Zander shook his head. "Nope. I've smelled garlic on his breath." Quist grimaced. "If it was going to help him, he probably has enough residual in his system to last him for years," Zander added, with a trace of amusement. He'd noticed that for him - and, apparently, for Quist - the scent of garlic was losing its appeal. Must be a sign of returning health. "You still on the garlic, Mac?" he asked casually. "Yeah. What "And stay in bed for a while," Quist ordered. "I'll be your dealer - strictly garlic, that is." He saw the stubborn look on Mac's face and added, "Don't worry - I won't let Zander fall out any more windows."
Zander looked uncomfortable. He pulled himself up on the crutches a little jerkily. "I'll take care of Lowry." He limped silently to the door, peered out, then, with barely a squeak from the crutches, vanished through the gap."Quist, we need to talk -" Mac began earnestly."Not now, you fool! How am I supposed to watch Zander's back, if you're blabbing at my front?"Quist shook his head impatiently, then followed Zander out the door. Mac grinned, and for the first time in days, actually relaxed. In seconds, he was asleep, the smile still on his face."Where have you been?!" Quist asked. He'd spent the last two hours searching, and he could swear he'd visited every room on this floor. He was feeling better, but he wasn't that much better. "If I'd keeled over in the Ladies, it would have been all your fault," he hissed.Zander snorted, and leaned the crutches against the bed. "Go away. I'm tired." He flopped back on the pillow.Quist propped Zander's bad leg up on a pillow. "You're never tired. You've been up to no good.""Yes. And no. Go away," he repeated."This have to do with Lowry?" Zander's eyes were closed, but Quist knew he wasn't asleep. "Will it work?""I hope so," Zander said seriously. Quist could tell he was worried. "It should, if I read my chart right.""And if not?""He's dying, Quist.""What the hell did you do?!""Made a decision. Now, please," Zander said tiredly, "just go away and let me sleep."Quist stood there looking at him for a moment. He did look tired. What had he been up to? Suddenly worried, he dug around in his pocket and pulled out a couple "Have some garlic."Zander took one and popped it in his mouth. "Needed that," he said, chewing. "Thanks."Quist stood there uncertainly. "Just don't do it any more, okay?" Zander re-opened his eyes wide enough to see Quist's face. He smiled. "Wouldn't dream of it," he said.Quist prowled through Zander's house, disgusted with himself for complying with Mac's paranoia, and wishing he were doing any one of the half-dozen things he had lined up for the evening. He looked at the array of books on Zander's shelves and shook his head. Texts and journals and theses - crap and more crap - on botany and plant physiology and fungi and viruses. Not an interesting book in sight. He knew Zander had better taste than that. On a hunch, he opened the cupboard beneath the bookshelves and grinned as a mass of books and magazines spilled out onto the floor. They'd been crammed in there so tightly it was a wonder the doors could close.He pocketed a detective novel and a couple of game mags, then slammed one of the doors and shovelled things back in behind it. The house was pretty tidy, considering this was Zander. Quist was lucky enough to come up with a clean shirt and a semi-clean pair of pants for him. It'd do for the ride home.He walked through the room one last time, snatching up several of Zander's DVDs as he went. A couple of movies and a game or two tonight sounded just about right. He wasn't up to an abundance of exercise quite yet.He glanced around, then sighed. He and Mac would have to have this out. There was nothing here for Mac to worry about. No psychopathic killers, no freak tornadoes, no black dogs. Just Zander's messy house, and a lot of silence.Quist left, locking the door securely behind him.
"You loaned me some of your DVDs," Quist told Zander the next morning. "Oh, and a trashy detective novel, too.""How generous of me. Tried out any of those cheats?" Quist tilted his head to look at him strangely. "'Cheats'?" "In the Gamestar."Quist grinned. "I don't need any stinking game rag to -" "Which issue'd you borrow?"Zander nodded. "When will I get them back?""June and September.""That's what I thought." Zander grinned.Quist looked disgustedly at the huge pile of gifts. "I'm a sick man. How do you expect me to get all this shit home?""Why? Are we on your bike?" Zander frowned. "How'd you get your own loot home?""Zabu took pity on me." Zabu was a cellist, but he was built like a football player. He'd collected Quist from the hospital two days before."There are such things as 'taxis'.""Not a chance." Quist steered the wheelchair out to the parking lot. "Actually, I was planning on using Mac's car, but it doesn't steer very well on its roof. So, I stole your car instead.""Let me guess: Wednesday, right?"It was Friday."Had to practice driving it," Quist told him. "What? You think it's easy to go from two wheels to four? Besides, in my condition -" Zander just looked at him darkly. Quist chuckled.They pulled up in front of Zander's house, and Quist's keen eye picked up something odd. A curtain in the living room twitched. He didn't say anything to Zander but "Wait here. I'll open the door."A draft. An overdose of Mac's paranoia. Quist crept around to the back of the house and silently unlocked the rear door. Moving swiftly into the living room, he went into a crouch. Then, he just froze there, gawking in awe.
The room was filled with shrubbery. Plants, in an array of autumn colours. Bright berries, scarlet leaves, twining vines. Floor to ceiling. Like outside coming in. His eyes searched the room, and he listened, trying to detect the scramble of an intruder.He couldn't see, couldn't hear, couldn't smell anyone.But, there was an overpowering odour of "clean". Totally unlike Zander. Totally unlike the night before. No underlying stink of dirty dishes. No mouldy hint of old laundry. Just the overwhelming moist soil and fresh-running sap scent of the severed fronds.
He'd gone through the kitchen so swiftly that he hadn't really seen it. Now, Quist took the time to look. No shrubbery here, but no dirty dishes, either. Weird. He searched quickly but cautiously through the house.But all he could see were the garlands, the wreaths, the shrubs. Hundreds of them. Stacked and piled and twined through every clean room.The next moment, Zander had the front door open. "I thought you were opening the door," he began impatiently. Then, he stood in the doorway, gaping open-mouthed, and staring at the room. "Quist, you didn't have to -!" he began.Quist's eyes met his and a tremor of gooseflesh danced across Zander's skin. Quist looked solemn, and more than a little frightened."The thing is, Zander - I didn't. I was here last night, an-and, this -" he gestured to include the vines that wound all the way to the ceiling, "- wasn't." Quist didn't give himself time to think any more. He grabbed Zander's arm and half-lifted him, half-dragged him out of the house. Now was not the time to explain about the jiggly curtain. There'd be plenty of time to scare the hell out of themselves later.
Quist pulled up in front of his own house a few minutes later with a sense of relief. A narrow escape. He had this terrible feeling there was danger at their backs. He could feel it crawling between his shoulder blades. He unlocked the door, hustled Zander and his crutches in, then busied himself with latching and double-locking the door. "Go sit down," he ordered.But Zander just stood there. "Quist!" he hissed, shocked.Quist turned around, only to stare at his living room, stunned and appalled. Distraught, he tore from room to room. "An hour. Only an hour," he kept muttering, over and over. It was gone, all of it. His house was empty. Vacant. Devoid of everything.Almost everything. In the centre of the living room was a small pile of foul-smelling fungus."Dictyophora," Zander whispered. "Thanks," Quist retorted sarcastically, but in the same hushed voice. If this was a theft, why had they taken his old couch? His ancient running shoes? He squatted next to the fungus, head buried in his hands. "Hell of a week I'm having," he muttered, near despair. "My music - my violin - everything -"Zander sensed he was near tears. He laid a hand on his shoulder. "Time to call the police," he mumbled. "It's the same ones," he said. Quist looked at him quizzically. "As what? Your house?" he scoffed. "Not likely.""You know those DVDs you told me about? The ones you borrowed?""That's all you're worried about?!" Quist bellowed, not quite believing Zander could be so callous in the face of his disaster. "Hate to tell you," he said bitterly, gesturing at the empty room. "No, they're not," Zander told him solemnly. "When we were leaving my place? I saw them sitting on the table, right by the door."
Quist drove like a maniac to Mac's house. He was stern and stiff-lipped as he slammed back Mac's front door; relieved when he found the place the same as always. He hastily checked the locks on windows and doors, then, satisfied, he hauled in Zander's stuff.
"Where are you going?" Zander asked him."To make a police report," Quist growled. "So, lock the door." He hadn't mentioned the twitchy curtain to Zander and he didn't intend to. Time to have it out with whoever was doing this.
Zander grabbed his arm. "Not alone."Quist shrugged him off. "I'm not alone. I have people coming over tonight. Lots of people!" he said, tossing his arms in despair. "I'm gonna stand there, in my empty room, and try to explain why someone ripped off my dirty undershorts!" Zander shook his head. "None of this makes sense." Tired, he hobbled over to Mac's overstuffed chair and sat down."You're right," Quist agreed. He pulled a couple of garlic cloves out of his pocket and looked at them dismally. "My only possessions. Here -" He tossed one to Zander.
"Thanks." He chewed thoughtfully. "Neighbours might know something. I'll start with them.""Good idea, but, you're the one who needs to hide. Not me. You know damn well the police won't do much more than search for prints, and ask for a list of what's missing." Quist scratched at his hand, then rubbed the back of his calf. "Feel like I have fleas," he complained. He scratched some more. "I'll have a nosy with the neighbours.""Why?" Zander's face looked like thunder."What do you mean, 'Why'?" Quist returned impatiently, beginning to squirm now. "You suggested it. Figure it out.""No, you fool! Why am I the one who needs to hide?" "Let's be stupid, shall we?" Quist said sarcastically. He pulled up his shirt and looked at the red blisters beginning to form on his stomach. "It was you after work, and you in the hospital. You Mac said to watch out for.""But it was your house that got the brunt of it -" "Don't you get it?" Quist asked, and there was an anger in his eyes Zander had never seen before. "It's a punishment - for ripping off your car, and stealing your DVDs. You get gifts, and I get shit." "That's crazy! You're my best friend! Hell, you're family! If they were after me, like you claim, why would they punish you? Think about it -" "You think about it. Whoever's doing this is playing games! Screwing with our heads, just to show they can get away with it! And I'll be damned if they're gonna do it any more!" He spluttered, "Aren't you even listening to me?!"Because Zander wasn't looking at his face - he was staring at his neck. "Quist," he said, through stiff lips, "you know that medal: th-the one from your dad?" It was a disc-shaped amulet. Quist had worn it as long as Zander could remember.Quist's eyes filled with alarm and his hand went to his throat. "You mean the medallion?!" he asked, panicked. "Don't tell me they took that, the bast-!" He never finished. As his fingers closed on the medallion's etched surface, a humming sound filled the room.Zander's eyes widened, and he came to his feet. Mac's TV suddenly came to life in an eye-filling clash of colour and sound, that escalated as the humming grew louder. The microwave in the kitchen began a horrendous whining roar. Overload..."Duck!" yelled Zander, launching himself onto Quist's startled form as the TV exploded behind him. Glass and metal blasted across the room.Zander lay there, facedown on the floor. I came home for this?! To Quist, he said sarcastically, "Yeah, the medallion. I was gonna tell you it was glowing."Quist wandered into the kitchen, peered at the microwave, then came back in, scratching, and glared at the molten TV. He repeated (for what must have been the tenth time), "I did that...with this?!" He held the medallion warily, dangling it between two fingers. "No and no and no.""What do you mean, 'no'?""It was a surge, you fool. The metal must be the same as what's in the microwave."
"Yeah - kinda like the way I heard you 'surge' at those dogs -"None of them had mentioned the incinerated canines. Zander had wanted to keep it that way. "You're dreaming," he said, turning away."At least I'm not singing," Quist retorted.Zander poked warily at the medallion. "Sure it's the same one Brian gave you?"
"Quit picking at it!" Quist took it off and looked at it closely. Then, he closed his eyes and fingered it. "Yeah," he said. There was a trace of sadness in his voice as he added, "After Dad died, I used to sit there for hours -" He stopped abruptly, embarrassed. "Never mind."Zander grinned at him. "Hey, I miss him, too." He looked at his ring - the one from his own father. Like Quist's medallion, it was quite elaborate - heavy and antique. He'd sworn first to his father, and later to Brian, that he wouldn't take it off. Now it occurred to him how weird that was. "Quist -" he began, but he could see Quist wasn't listening.He was looking at the back of the amulet and poking a little gingerly at some of the recessed surfaces. "What d'you think? Lasers? Some form of EM?""I already told you what I think."Quist nodded. "Obviously combines with my mighty mental wavelengths." Grinning, he added, "It's a wonder I didn't do any damage before. Have to learn to pace myself."Zander snorted. "If you're gonna brag to Mac that you blew up his TV, you'll have to pace yourself pretty fast. Where'd your dad get that thing, anyway?"
"He said it was an heirloom. But it may have been first-generation, if you know what I mean.""'Here's my heir - watch him loom'?"Quist shrugged. "Something like that. You know what he was like.""Liked history but not the past.""Yeah." Quist smiled. "Wouldn't talk about his own past, but big on all of us 'making' our future."Quist was still scratching, and Zander remarked, "You're getting a ra-" He froze mid-word, remembering the plants that had filled his rooms. He'd been so shocked at the time that he hadn't stopped to consider what types of plants - till now. "Uh-oh!"
Quist dropped the medallion abruptly, and jumped back. Then, when he noticed Zander's distraction, he complained, "Don't do that! I thought we were about to blow up again!""Puff up," Zander corrected. "Quist, did you touch any of those plants?" "In your house?" Quist stopped mid-scratch to look at him darkly. "Why?""Because they were poisonous. Toxicodendron diversilobum and radicans. It was all the autumn colours," he explained distractedly. "And the shock of seeing them there. I didn't think -" He shook his head, distressed. "And this means...?" Quist prompted."That you'd better strip. It's probably too late, but maybe you can stop the spread of the urushiol.""Urushiol?" Quist looked scared."From the poison oak. If you're itching already, this may be bad." Quist stared at the red patches on his hands and forearms. "You're telling me," he said.It was nearly eight o'clock before Zander could convince Quist to leave. "Mac will be wondering where you are."
No kidding, Zander thought. Mac was still in the hospital. Ever since he'd discovered they weren't answering their landlines, he'd been coming unglued. He didn't mind either of them staying at his house, but he did mind that they found it necessary. During the last two hours, he'd been on the phone four times, trying to force the truth out of what he called "Quist's worthless hide".
It didn't seem to dissuade him that he had lots of company, either. Apparently, he'd decided to coerce as many of his well-wishers as he could to swing by and check on his suffering "brothers", because there was now an unending string of his friends at the door. Add them to Quist's friends, who were coming by to commiserate on his losses, and Zander's own co-workers, who were stopping by after the lab (or before going on to nightfill duty) - and the place was a zoo. Zander had finally given up, dossed down on the sofa and thrown a blanket over his head. He yawned. "Mac says he's bored out of his mind."
"Bullshit! He'll have so much company he won't know if I'm there or not.""If you don't tell him, somebody else will -" He smiled at Zabu, who took it as a sign he needed a tenth Coke and brought one over. "Thanks, Zabu," Zander told him. To Quist, he said, "Mac's freaking. If you don't go see him -" "You didn't go visit him tonight?" Zabu interrupted, appalled. "Do you know how worried he is about you?"Quist buried his face in his hands, and Zabu chuckled. "I'll take you, Quist. Then, we can go by my place. There's the sweetest little Hungarian violin I just picked up. Made in Budapest." He added temptingly, "You might want to give her a try -" Quist lifted his head eagerly and Zander saw the longing in his eyes. Of all the things the"Will you be okay?" Quist asked him quickly. He was obviously itching to leave, and Zander knew it wasn't to visit Mac."With you gone?" Zander grinned. "Never better."At the doorway, Quist hesitated.Zabu gave him a tug. "C'mon, Music Man. He'll be fine." He chuckled as he saw the big glass of juice Jack Freedman was trying to force on Zander. "And if he's not, Quist, he's got lots of help."Zander didn't remember dozing off, any more than he remembered his company leaving. When he jerked awake, it was to a momentary panic that bore shades of hellspawned hounds and fiend-driven winds; all the things his nocturnal mind couldn't dismiss with logic or denial. His heart pounded as he fought to remember where he was. For days now, he'd been waking up in different beds: first, the hospital; then, ICU; then, back to another bed. Now, he wasn't in a bed at all.He'd had a dream - or maybe it was a memory. About his mother.He wiped moist eyes and cursed himself for a fool. He'd been a man these ten years or more. Why tonight? Because he was in Brian's - now Mac's - house, and she'd always talked to Brian when she'd had a problem?Or was it because Zander's own life had just been turned upside down, and there was no Brian, no Dad, no Mom to talk to?That was a big thing he remembered from his childhood - how much both his mom and dad had relied on Brian. Like family. Only, they weren't family - had never been family. Then why the hell were they so close?Because they'd grown up together?But that answer was too trite; too easy. That's what he and Quist and Mac had - but it was balanced by a healthy dose of separate lives, and separate friendships. It hadn't been that way with Brian, or Andrew and Meg - his parents. They'd lived like hermits - kept to themselves.To their own kind.The last thought slipped in, under his guard. He'd never been big on self-analysis, and even less on parental blame. His parents had gone their own way, but they hadn't expected him to live their lives. They'd given him a freedom they - for some reason - didn't possess.He'd spent his childhood learning to downplay anything that would make him subject to mockery or rejection. Only now, when the cloak of night had somehow stripped away his camouflage, could he look at things baldly. It was stupid to think he could have lived so long without openly acknowledging the differences - those things he shared with his family, that distinguished them from the people around them.he things that he and Quist and Mac could disguise, or play down, because they'd grown up here. He had a feeling it wouldn't have been so easy for Meg or Andrew; for Brian. Too many ingrained habits, and too much history. Too few reference points.It was only now that Zander realised how much of his parents' background had been garnered from his experiences. How the visits from all the neighbourhood children and school friends had given them substance - a role to play. For years, in the community, it was enough. Zander's parents. "Those are Zander's parents." Credibility."What do your parents do?"They'd studied. Weird, really. They'd been study-a-holics. Studying human history and folklore. He could remember his mother's laughter, as she'd read him the classic fairy tales.His father had been different. Almost arrogant at times, and too often frustrated. Brian had taught him to use his hands in crafts. Things like glass blowing and sculpture; metalwork and carving. More study. His mother had found a similar outlet in music and painting. Her pieces had begun to sell rather well - toward the end.Artists could be excused much. His parents and Brian had made their way along a path strewn with eccentricity.Each piece they'd produced - whether metal sculpture, or oil painting - had been inspected. Brian had approved each one before it had gone out for sale, to ensure it was "up to standard". Now, Zander wondered if he'd been checking whether any of the pieces would be too revealing. Too telling about the artist or his background.Maybe one of those pieces had given away his parents' lives. They'd died on one of their rare trips, to a distant city, during an exhibition of his mother's paintings. A freak explosion caused by an electronic surge. A lightning strike, Brian had murmured.They weren't the only victims. But theyHe suddenly knew that's why he was awake. There'd been a freak explosion today, in this very room. A freak accident...No, though the "freak" part fit. Their pointed ears, their tilty eyes. All the things they'd discounted in order to make their way.
The abnormally keen hearing, the refined sense of smell.
The speed, the agility, the strength.
The metabolism that wouldn't stop.
he time in the hospital? First time any of them had been there. First time any of them had been sick.During their school years, they'd been given "holidays", three or four times per year. Days when they'd been kept at home. Then, the return to school with the obligatory note.Zander's heart was still pounding. His reflections hadn't done much to calm him down.What am I? What are we?The conclusions were unmistakable. There was a preponderance of extraterrestrial life dotting the TV screens, and movies were full of them. Maybe aliens weren't little green men. Maybe they were average-sized people, with pointy ears, tilted eyes, and unnaturally strong singing voices.Andrew's art. There were some pieces his dad had locked away - pieces that had been fashioned to fail Brian's inspection. Pieces that held too much of the artist's soul - too much of his past.Zander flung back the blanket, and reached for his crutches. There were some things he needed to do.He needed a wander through his systematics texts. There was something about the fungus in Quist's house that was bothering him. He'd recognised it, for one thing. Yet, it wasn't one he'd seen in the lab.Then, he needed to find the box. An ordinary cardboard box that was stacked away somewhere in the attic. No ornate chest, no elaborate hiding place. Just your Andrew and Meg - his parents - were lying entombed in a city far away. Brian had made it seem sensible not to bring home their broken bodies, and Zander had been too distraught to question it. Now, it was just one more odd circumstance in a long list.
Since Zander hadn't been able to bury their bodies, he'd buried their personal possessions instead. Locked them away, so he wouldn't have reminders. Too much pain to remember his mother wielding the brush, or his father's pride in the remaking of stone. He'd put the pain aside, until he was able to deal with it. Now was the time. Time to face it whether he wanted to or not.
A chill scattering of gooseflesh danced across his skin. He could almost hear Brian's voice in his ear, urging him to act. He'd always taught them to respond on a moment's notice. "When that moment comes, you'll know it -"
It had come in the shape of hounds, with flaming eyes. With contorted bat faces and cyclone breath.
"- and it's time to act. Don't think. Go with your instincts."
Act. Don't think.Zander shrugged into a warmer shirt, pulled himself up on his crutches, and silently limped out the door.It was easy to be wary in a generation of barred windows, padlocked doors, and alarmed everything. Walks were taken with mace, and guns were commonplace. Sadism was entertainment on TV, and murder was as expected as the next morning's headlines.
Brian had been wary, and now Brian was dead. Zander knew he hadn't been wary, or even very watchful, and it was a wonder he wasn't dead, too.

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Buy the ebook - read it all now!Mac would be in a frenzy if he knew Zander was back on the streets. But, it was the shade of Mac's dad who was urging Zander on. Brian had been insistent about a lot of things. Part of that had extended to seeing things through. If the means wasn't clear, then it was necessary to "hone your vision."The vision that had sprung up at Quist's words was not a happy one. It meant that, in some obscure way, he was responsible for Quist's and Mac's injuries. He would have undertaken similar efforts in their defence, but that wasn't the point. If Quist was right, their peril was no accident. It was because Zander Brody was their friend. And Mac, who loved taking things in his stride, wouldn't be going nuts unless he feared it was going to happen again.He had good reason. Someone had stripped Quist's house and re-decorated Zander's. This was one time where ignorance was inexcusable - because it could well get someone killed.Zander didn't hesitate. His dream had been every bit as valid as one of Mac's. He had much to do and very little time to do it. The only way to take charge of his destiny at this point, was to create it. His eyes glistened. Not Brian's words - his father's.
It was time to discover what destiny his father had been at such pains to conceal.He parked his car a block from his house, and stared at the distant building with bleak eyes. How many times had he walked this path? How many times had he run in that back door, or opened it to a friend? Despite the poison oak festooning , the intrusion by unknown visitors, this was still home, and he'd always equated "home" with "safe". This was the house where he'd been born - the neighbourhood where he'd grown up. He knew people in every house along the way.
Which is why it made it all the more difficult to accept the shudder of dread that shook him when he reached for the door. Now, that he was here, he no longer felt "safe"He realised it wasn't only the dark doorway that was scaring him - it was the solitude. Zander didn't own any pets because he didn't need to - he had everyone else's. Normally, he couldn't move even a few steps without having some feline or canine rubbing against his legs, jumping up on him, or trailing him down the road. Birds divebombed him, sang in his face, and frequently landed on his head, or his shoulder.It was one of the things that had frightened him most about those hounds. Unlike other dogs, those flaming brutes had had no use for him, except as an entree. It was the first time Zander had ever been looked at like luncheon loaf.Tonight, no dogs had barked a greeting. No cats had prowled his way. No night birds had sung in warning. He was alone.Like the night I went running. All his companions had fled then, too. That last trek towards the cemetery, had been a solitary one - until he'd encountered the hounds.He was suddenly angry, with a fury that was rapidly displacing his fear. The intruders had taken away his safety net - his security. They'd persecuted his friends, then made him dependent upon them. They'd violated his privacy and trampled his memories. His parents' personal possessions, their art, their tender reminiscences, the bits and pieces of their lives, were all snagged within these walls. Memories, trapped in notes and photos, drawings and carved stone. A childhood, their young adulthood. All here.Act. Don't think.He used his anger to get himself through the door, being careful not to brush against the bright autumnally foul foliage. There were rustles in this shrubbery, but he refused to listen. His job was to get upstairs, to the attic. He was stricken with a sense of urgency, as though his parents' stuff were already being dismantled. The feeling that if he didn't act now, it would be too late to act at all.Determinedly, and as quietly as possible, he hobbled up the worn steps."I'm busy, MacFart. Try bothering Zander." Quist felt more relaxed than he had in days. Zabu Morris knew his weakness for lemon anything, and had pulled a lemon meringue pie out of the fridge. Quist was so far gone he could barely hold the violin bow. He'd been mucking around with Zabu's flute, too, until his lips went too numb. Now, he was just plain happy."Damn you, Quist!" Mac yelled at him. "You've been at the citrus!""Not Thitrus, MacFart - just lemon." He licked his lips, then picked up the plate and ran a finger over a leftover lemon ridge.Zabu chuckled and grabbed the phone. "It's okay, Mac. I'll see him home -""To my house," Mac interrupted hurriedly."No point in taking him to his," Zabu pointed out practically. "Quist, you wants you should stay here?""No!" Mac bellowed."Sure!" Quist said cheerily. "Got any more pie?""There's a tangelo in the cupboard." Zabu'd never gotten over how Quist reacted to anything citrus. It was hilarious. Once he got started, though, there was no stopping him. He'd lemon or orange or kumquat himself into oblivion."Gotcha!" Quist snorted, and wobbled towards the kitchen.Zabu could hear him banging cupboard doors, and then, "Ooh, come to Papa, you little beauty..." There was a loud slurping sound, a bang and a thud.Mac was still yelling, something"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Zabu replied, finally getting annoyed. "Maybe there's a good reason," he suggested pointedly. "Like peace and quiet." Mac confined was a real pain-in-the-ass. Mac went silent."Excuse me," Zabu went on, and Mac could hear the amusement in his voice, "while I pick up ol' Quizzical off the floor. Think he's had his limit." Zabu clicked off the phone.Damn Quist! Mac tried to make excuses for him, but he was just too angry. They all had the same fool weakness for citrus. This wasn't the time for Quist to be eating himself into oblivion. Not with Zander essentially unprotected.
But what protection would Quist be? Mac wasn't willing to sacrifice his little brother, any more than he was willing to sacrifice Zander.
Besides, Quist was still recovering from injuries himself, which is probably why he had no willpower when it came to lemon confectionery.
Hell, Mac admitted, if someone stuck a lemon tart under my nose right now, I wouldn't be able to resist, either.
Zabu was right. Maculley Craigen was making both a pest and a fool of himself.
Zander's failure to pick up the phone? If it were me, I'd have unplugged the phone hours ago. Mac leaned back against the pillows, wishing he could sleep. Uninterrupted sleep... As much as he needed it, though, his subconscious wouldn't let him drift off. He was too afraid he'd dream, and then he'd have to act on it. Act on something he was scared to believe in, just because he couldn't afford not to let the fear in.All day he'd been trying to set things up so he wouldn't be afraid any more. That was the problem: he was terrified. It wasn't only Zander's fate that was in question - it was his and Quist's. The citrus incident had brought it home. The three of them had similar origins. Bonds that, in this instance, were closer than blood. Bonded by their differences...Mac liked to be in control. He enjoyed teaching - the lesson plans, watching the development of a faltering student. This was one time when there was no plan. All he had was the memory of his father's death, and his father's words. The warnings, that were too vague to be taken seriously. Vague, because taking them seriously would focus too much attention on them. His father's mumbled, "If he does the research, it might clue them in."
Them? Who? What research? About their backgrounds?There'd been another thing that Quist had found unforgivable, but that Mac had been unable to explain. The vow. The promise.They'd known Brian Craigen was dead because they'd seen it in a newspaper. His body had gone unclaimed. There'd been a photo of an unidentified man, and a write-up about his horrendous death. The one article, and then nothingIt had torn Quist up, and he'd planned on driving out there, to claim the body.But, Mac had promised. It had been an easy promise - foolish, really - because it had dealt with a far-future event. The "when I die, I want my ashes scattered to the wind" kind of thing. His dad had made Mac swear that if anything should ever happen to him, he wouldn't bring the body home. At the time, Mac had guessed it would be incriminating - a way of dragging his sons into some past debt or criminal activity he'd long since left behind.Quist hadn't cared about the nearly-forgotten vow, but Mac had. As the elder son, he'd insisted on "leaving Dad to it", the way he'd wanted. Quist, thinking of his father lying alone in a strange city, had claimed it was heartless.But Brian did the same with Zander's parents...And Quist had yelled, "Don't you know how much that hurt him? Dad was wrong! We need to do right by him - for our own sakes!"But they hadn't, and Brian was laid to rest alone; abandoned, though not unmourned.Recrimination. Secrets. Mac felt as alone in that moment as Brian in his grave. He didn't know what was happening, and had only a vague idea of whom it was happening to. He didn't want to lose anyone else he cared about. He just didn't know how to stop the losing. He had a terrible feeling that the hundreds of people, who called Quist, Zander, and himself "friend", could do nothing to stop the disaster that was coming. The spectre of death was tapping at their door.His house was full of rustling, unlike anything he'd ever heard before. Zander squelched down the shivers that made him jerk around on his crutches, and mounted the stairs. One flight, two. The stairwell, like the rest of the house, was dark, but there wasn't much he could do about it. He suspected the mains breaker had been flicked off, but he didn't have the nerve to go out and check. It had taken everything he'd had just to step inside the door the first timeThere were streaks of pale streetlight through curtained windows, that helped illuminate individual rooms, and gave some relief to the hall's eerie length.A tickle against his neck made Zander jump. With shaking fingers, he plucked the intruder off his skin and tossed it away. He scratched the spot where it'd been, swearing he could still feel the scraping of its tiny cerci. Yuck.Earwig.He hated earwigs. Many of the eighteen-hundred or so Dermaptera species had the same affinity for his form as mammals. Once, as a kid, he'd woken up with a mass of earwigs running that little twitchy dance all over his face and chest. It had been horrible, and his keen eyes had picked up every detail from the prognathous head to the brownish-black (and sometimes winged, God help him!) thorax to the segmented abdomen with the forceps-like cerci at the end. He had this terror they were going to run into his ears, and munch on his brain. He'd been stupid enough to research them in order to reassure himself, and found out most of them were omnivorous - they'd eat anything. They preferred to hide in warm and humid places, and ears were as likely a place as any.Supposedly, they would neither lay eggs in your ears nor munch on your brain, but it was awfully hard to believe that when they were running around on your face, and scuttling towards your earholes.There were more earwigs on the stairs. He could hear the occasional crunch under his feet, and once, the crutch slipped on bug slime and nearly sent him toppling down the steps. The poison oak must have been loaded with the things. Thoughtless thugs, to have brought contaminated poison plants into his home.He'd become distracted, and he realised it now when he heard a thud from the landing below. Whoever it was, was bound to be faster than he, and he hunkered along as fast as he could on one crutch, with the other gripped firmly as a weapon. If he went down, he was going to do his damnedest to take his opponent with him.Maybe it's one of the neighbours, his practical mind asserted, checking on the house. Then where were their flashlights?He reached the attic door and fumbled with the key. C'mon, open! It was difficult to turn the key in the lock, but that, in its own way, was reassuring. He hadn't been up in the attic for several years. It didn't appear anyone else had, either.Zander practically fell in through the creaky door. The squawk gave him away, though, and as he slammed it shut, and leaned his weight against it, he could hear the swift judder of running feet. His hand was still on the knob when it began to turn.Zander grabbed it, desperately trying to keep it from rotating, but it was too late. Something rammed the door and it bashed against him. Zander braced his good leg against the attic stairs and his back against the jolting door.Oh, God...The door slammed back once, twice, into the jamb. Zander fought to push in and twist the button; to lock the door.Such a feeble mechanism against such a strong force.He stood poised. There would come a moment, in the knob's jiggly rotation, when he could set the lock. Sweat poured off his brow and he fought to keep his shaking fingers tight on the knob. When the instant came, it happened so fast he was stunned.But his opponent was just plain mad. The scrabbling of claws around the door became a scratch and rip. He heard the screech of extruded nails as the doorjamb was torn away.At the same time, the earwigs were pouring under the door. Zander had been stationary long enough that they'd arrived - en masse. It wasn't all bad, though: outside the door, there was the splishing thwack of a heavy body, as door demolisher slipped on earwig splat.The earwigs were still coming, and Zander could feel them beginning their crawl up his legs. He hopped and slapped and wriggled and scraped.Then froze as his eyes caught a glint of movement.Something was wriggling beneath the door. It had a weak bioluminescence that required no additional brightness for Zander's sensitive eyes. At first, he thought it was some kind of serpent or worm - until he realised it was a tongue.A tongue that was now slurping greedily at the escaping earwigs. Slurping, lapping, curling, coiling and sliding them back under the door. Then, the tongue was on Zander's wounded leg, and the glitter of his blood outshone the bioluminescent squirming of his vile antagonist. Minute, razor-sharp ridges were slicing his skin - tasting him.Zander tried to jerk away, but the muscles in the tongue were horrendously strong. His leg was yanked backwards, and he toppled, nearly onto his face. In desperation, he lunged for the banister, then slammed the crutch down on the writhing tongue.Hand on the banister, he strained against those almighty muscles, tugging himself up, onto the lowest step. The tongue was stretched now, as it sought to hold him. Zander pulled the rubber stopper off the bottom of the crutch, exposing sharpish metal. Then, he rammed it into the tongue.The tissues tore, and a spurt of silvery liquid shot across the steps. It hissed and sizzled in the air; hopping like water droplets on a hot grill. Zander scooted backwards up the stairs, while silvery rain spattered all around him. Panting, he crawled up, step by step. The earwigs, which had been chasing him, had now turned, and were wallowing in those bubbling droplets; latching onto the leaking tongue.Where, seconds before, they'd been eaten, now they were eating. The food chain, taking a one-eighty Zander didn't stop crawling, until he'd reached the attic The door was holding - for the moment. Zander wrapped his throbbing calf with a rag, and tried to still his shaking hands. His brain felt petrified with fear, and his reason non-functional. His mission here, to discover something about his father's background, suddenly seemed like an incredibly foolish risk. Stupid. Unnecessary.
But, it had somehow been necessary to his sanity. He'd wanted to reclaim his house - and his heritage - from the fear that was keeping him a prisoner. It wasn't only his fear; it was Mac's, and to a lesser extent, Quist's. Quist's reaction was blended with a healthy dose of resentment, whereas Mac's smacked of confusion.Zander had preferred his fear mixed with denial, and a strong belief in the power of bullshit. Someone was screwing with their heads, just as Quist had claimed. Only, it wasn't limited to the break-ins - it was also a distortion of everything they'd seen. It had been a real pack of dogs, and a bizarre weather event. Zander Brody hadn't sung their salvation, or played Repulsa Man.And he was neither the cause nor the end to their troubles.The police had been through his house and Quist's, this afternoon. There was nothing here, and less at Quist's, and the investigating officer had seemed to think the poison oak more of a joke than a threat. Zander could see it from his perspective: if you wanted to threaten someone, you used a gun, or a knife. Something with lethal value.Poison oak just didn't make the grade.And assailants didn't usually clean a victim's house, before doing him in.It had all sounded so reasonable, and his fears so foolish, that Zander had jumped at the chance to prove himself wrong. Even this quest - his so-called attempt to unmask his parents' past - had been a quixotic effort to fulfil a single-minded impulse. He just hadn't seen it that way until he was sitting here, weaponless, in the dark. He'd followed his instincts, all right, but his instincts were on the verge of getting him killed. Instinct hadn't even warned him to bring a flashlight.He crawled across the attic floor, and began to sift through storage. It didn't help that with the power out, there was almost zero visibility. But he was the one who'd packed the box, and it was his effort to forget that had engraved the memory so clearly on his mind. As silently as possible, he pulled up the flaps - terrified when the cardboard resonance caused a stir from below.Newspaper. Why'd I have to pack it in newspaper?Because I didn't know noise was going to be an issue...It was impossible. Not only was he blind, but the damned Friedelkrieker below wasn't deaf.Friedelkrieker. He realised that, unconsciously, he'd named it. He flinched in horror as he recalled the razor-clawed fiend from one of his mother's fairy tales. There'd been no laughter, he recalled, as she'd spoken of Friedelkrieker and Gefdil, Fyodor and Kaituku.With shaking hands, Zander tried lifting the box, but it had no handholds. Awkwardly, he fished around till his hand brushed wicker.His cradle. He felt a momentary pang at the poignancy of it, then cursed himself for being a sap. This was no time to be selective. With a Friedelkrieker ripping at his door, he could ill afford time for reminiscing, and his father would have been the first to tell him so.Zander dumped the boxload into the cradle, newspaper and all. Across the attic, there was a small source of light - the vent, that allowed for circulation of air. He sincerely hoped the gap would look larger close up.He hauled the cradle recklessly across the big room. He knocked over stacks, tripped over rubbish and fell into boxes. Desperately, he crushed, flung, and mutilated his way across the distance.His journey had not gone unheeded. The Friedelkrieker was at the door once more, rapping, clawing and ripping.Zander panicked. He reached the vent and pounded on the small grate. It jiggled, and he yanked it out and flung it to the floor. With a pawing motion, similar to the one his adversary was using below, he clawed the mementos out of the cradle and sent them flying through the hole. He heard the unfortunate clunk and clatter, but he didn't let it sway him. It was now or never.Friedelkrieker tracked mostly by sound and smell - or so they said. Dim-sighted...And you're dim-witted! Use your head! That's fiction. A myth!They'd outwitted it with cunning...You can't outwit what isn't there!The beast was after him. Tracking him. Chasing his sound. Was it also chasing his scent? Zander unzipped his pants and let the cradle have it. A miniature steam cloud arose as his liquid mingled with the chilly night air.The Friedelkrieker had broken down the last of the barricades, and was moving awkwardly up the stairs. Zander hoped the beast wasn't wise enough to realise the escape hole could ill fit Zander's frame.There was a growling slurp as the monster ascended the last of the steps. Panicked, Zander flopped down, flattening a box.He held his breath as It passed by. It had lost his scent to the stronger stench of the urine. Zander froze as It stumbled across the messy jumble, much as he had.Zander shoved the flattened box forward, and did a reckless sledding down the stairs. As he tumbled through the fragmented doorjamb, he heard an angry bellow from above. Zander pushed himself up, then hopped the length of the hall, slid down the banister, then hopped and slid some more. There was a massive rumbling crash as the beastie also made an unexpectedly rapid descent.Zander tore out the kitchen door, slamming and locking it behind him. Maybe the Friedelkrieker would have as much trouble with inward opening doors, as it did clambering through wayward boxes. He scrambled across the grass, tearing off his outer shirt as he went. He hastily tied the sleeves, then used it like a sack. When the glass in the kitchen door shattered, Zander was halfway to his car. Sweat streamed down his face as he upped his movements to hop-sprint. Seconds later, he fell into his front seat, gunned the engine, and fled fecklessly into the night.
Quist didn't find him till nearly eight o'clock the following evening. Zander was in his lab, head down on the bench. He jerked awake when Quist's hand shook his shoulder. Panicked, he flailed, till Quist caught his arm."Zander! It's me!" One look at Zander's face and Quist swallowed his anger. He held onto his friend's shoulder, almost as though he feared Zander would slip out of sight if he released him, and one-handedly punched in numbers on his phone. "Mac, I found him." He listened, then said curtly, "Later." His eyes met Zander's. "Yeah, he's alive." Zander could hear Mac yelling on the other end but Quist cut him off. "Later!" he repeated."Quist," Zander said hoarsely, "I -""Don't! Like I told Mac: 'later'. You ready to go?"Zander nodded. Bracing his hands on the bench, he pushed himself to his feet, then turned to pick up the shirt-bag. His good leg gave out from under him and he would've toppled if Quist hadn't caught him.need you, Man. We're upstairs." He listened, then cracked a smile. "The same way I did. I already broke in, you parasite. All you have to do is stroll inside." He clicked off the phone and squatted next to Zander's leg. "What happened here?" he asked, pointing to the crudely-wrapped bandage. There was a glimmer of crystalline blood oozing through the rag."Friedelkrieker," Zander told him.Quist thought he was joking. "Sure, Zand. And I'm a troll.""At least, I think it was a Friedelkrieker," Zander mused. "Big, bad eyesight, claws like razors, a tongue you wouldn't believe. Tongue was what got me," he said conversationally, "until I got him back." He yawned, and his head started to sink back down on the bench.Almost automatically, Quist extended an arm to catch him, but his expression was one of blank horror. When Zabu arrived, Quist was still looking as though he'd seen a ghost."I'll take him," Quist said, taking Zander's arm."No way, little Man. Leave him to me. You get his stuff." Quist still looked argumentative, so Zabu grumbled, "Somebody has to re-lock the doors.""A glorified locksmith. I'm everybody's tool," Quist grumbled."Better than being everybody's fool," Zabu replied. "Now, hurry up." He hoisted Zander a little higher, and headed for the door.The lights were out when they reached Mac's house. Quist drove Zander's car there at his usual breakneck speed. He roared into Mac's driveway and slammed on the brakes. The shoulder belt practically strangled Zander, but it kept him from slamming the dashboard. He jerked back, cleared his throat, then remarked hoarsely, "Why bother with a Friedelkrieker when I have you?""Just putting her through her paces. You oughta have these brakes adjusted." Quist peered through the windscreen at the dark house. "Could o' sworn I left some lights on." He started to climb out of the car.Zander grabbed his arm. "Wait -""You wait - for Zabu." He shook off Zander's hand. "I'm gonna check this out."Zander climbed out on the other side. "It's the mains breaker." He added a little lamely, "Probably."Quist asked derisively, "From whence does this 'spout of wisdom' spurt?""My house. Lights were out.""Not when we were there." His eyes met Zander's and he lowered his voice. "Is that where th-the 'Friedelkrieker' was?"Zander nodded and opened his mouth to explain, but Quist cut him off."And you let me go searching for you there?! I could have been Friedelkrieker chow! What the hell weren't you thinking of?! Obviously, one of those things was me!" He slammed the car door, muttering "Poison oak...Friedelkrieker...thought of him like a brother..."Zander interrupted him. "What are you moaning about? The Friedelkrieker wasn't there.""How do you know? He could have been lying in wait. If I hadn't been so swift and sure of foot, he probably would've tackled me, too -""Quist, he wasn't there." Zander, leaning heavily on the hood, limped determinedly forward."How do you know?" Quist rolled his eyes impatiently, sighed loudly, then came around the car and pulled Zander's arm over his shoulder. "Before you fall down, you fool," he complained.Zander pointed to a splatter of silver droplets across the grass. "Because he's here.""Zabu, you'd better leave," Zander told him, as he stepped out of his car. "This could get nasty."Quist frowned and said angrily, "He's my friend! I'll tell him when it's time to leave." He bellowed, "Zabu, you'd better leave. Nasty stuff is afoot.""If you're planning on killing each other," Zabu chuckled, "I've seen it before." He came over and took Zander's weight. Quist wasn't strong enough yet to be lugging people around."Maybe it'd be good to have Zabu on our side," Quist said. Then he realised how stupid it must sound to Zabu, and his annoyance flared again. Not only had he wasted his day away, searching for Zander, but now the idiot was spouting rubbish, about childhood fairytales. Stupid stuff, and gullible Quist had fallen for it."It's not strength, Quist," Zander was telling them quietly. "It's cunning - and it's not his problem. Zabu, you'd better go." He pulled away, and told Quist firmly, "It's not yours, either.""This is Mac's house," Quist reminded him. "That puts Mac in danger, too." But the way he said it told Zander he really didn't believe it.Zander realised Quist was humouring him. It made him feel like a fool, but at the same time, he had to convince him the danger was real. They couldn't go into this lightly. "Nope." He pulled Quist aside. "He's tracking me. How many times have I jogged over here, Quist?""A few too many -" Quist began, then saw Zander was serious, and sobered. There were tingles of fear running up and down his spine, but it was for Zander's mental state, rather than any fear of a "Friedelkrieker".He'd had time for some rational thinking today, and he'd pretty much concluded Zander was having some weird reaction to his pain medication. Being at Zabu's had changed Quist's perspective, and he'd re-thought their "close encounters". Zander's little revelation about the Friedelkrieker had momentarily thrown him, but he was back to reality now. They'd had a freak encounter with a dog pack, and maybe some accidental ingestion of citrus, or a whiff of some industrial gas that had given them an altered perception of the other incidents. God knows, he and Zander had had enough problems with that antibiotic at the hospital to skew their outlooks. Neither one of them had mentioned the tornado, so how did Quist know what Zander had seen or experienced?He flushed slightly as he recalled his own babbling about laser medallions and Zander's logical "electromagnetic" theory. Well, the roles had been reversed. It was Quist's turn to be reasonable, and Zander's turn to listen to the reason he spouted. Quist's eyes met Zabu's over the top of Zander's head and he smirked have a drink - on me. Isn't Spastic at The Chronic?" More musician friends. Zander rummaged for his wallet, pulled it out and handed Quist a twenty."About all you're worth," Quist retorted, pocketing it. "Don't argue, Bu," he ordered. "Allow the man to save some face for acting like an idiot."Zander said tiredly, "I have to get my head on straight. Think I overdosed on the pain pills." He looked embarrassed, and it wasn't feigned. Quist and Mac were family. He didn't know why all this was happening, but there was no reason for them to be involved. Look what it had cost them already. And Zabu? Strong as he was, he was no match for razor-sharp claws.Are you?Think cunning. Aloud, he said lightly, "Thanks - for everything."Zabu went over to his car and pulled out the crutches. He handed them to Zander. "Found these in the attic." He looked at Zander thoughtfully. "That was some mess you made. What happened to the doorjamb?"Zander shrugged. "That's what happens when a Brody loses a key," he joked. "Determined t Quist started to grab Zander's gear out of the back, when Zander stopped him. "Later. Go see Mac, and tell him you found the madman.""Giving me orders now?" Quist was still smouldering over all the trouble Zander had put him through, and he recalled he still hadn't heard any "thank-yous" from Brody. "I'll just get the lights for you," he said obnoxiously, then jogged around the side of the house. He came back a few seconds later. "So much for your theory," he remarked, and there was more than a trace of sarcasm in his voice. Before Zander could stop him, he'd opened the front door and flicked on the light. "Maybe we should've just tried the switch?"Zabu beckoned. "I think Zander can handle it from here," he said, wanting to spare the man further embarrassment. "He'd better handle his way inside and into the bedroom," Quist warned angrily, recalling all the trouble he'd been through that day. Tearing around town, checking with Zander's friends, calling the hospitals, checking with the police. He could've called. "And, just in case -" Quist reached in and pulled Zander's keys out of the ignition.It was insulting, and ordinarily, Zander would have bitten his head off. This time, he didn't say anything. He merely nodded, and hobbled toward the door. He didn't even turn around when Zabu started his car.Zander tried to recall the words from the fairy tale, about the Friedelkrieker. The way the hero had defeated it It had been a long time before, when he was very young. The re-telling had dropped off as he'd grown up - a case of natural attrition, he'd thought - but he wondered now if it had more to do with his parents' increased confidence in their surroundings. They'd no doubt decided years before that the Friedelkrieker was a past problem. Nothing to trouble their present. Certainly, nothing to trouble their son.Why me? In that moment, knowing what was awaiting him inside, he couldn't help but wonder why he was the focus of an enmity he hadn't generated. What was it? Some ancient family feud? Who had the power to rouse such horror from the past and visit it on the present?There were some folktales - old wives' tales regarding herbal cures, for example - that had been found to have some validity in today's medicine. Was this "fairy tale" that his mother had told him similar to these? Like tales of the Yeti, or Loch Ness, that might have some basis in as-yet-undocumented organisms?That, in this case, had some special affinity for Brodys?That's ridiculous. As he stepped into Mac's cheerful living room, he suddenly saw himself as Quist had.You're losing it, Zander. He'd not only believed in the impossible - he'd tried to rationalise it. He took the bottle of pills out of his pocket and shook them, wondering how much of his reality had been chemically induced. Tomorrow, I get another prescription, he swore.There was a panicky knock at the door, and Zander, with his new resolve, showed only the slightest hesitation before he flung it open. The man standing there was oddly familiar, but Zander was so tired, and he'd seen him under such weird circumstances, that it took a moment to identify him. "Lowry," he said.Lowry gave a frightened glance over his shoulder, then pushed his way into the room. He grabbed the front of Zander's shirt. "I want to know what you did to me!" he demanded, through gritted teeth.But, Zander wasn't listening. He'd heard a thud from the back of the house, and a scrape and jingle from the front, as something brushed against the windchimes on the porch. He shoved Lowry aside and hastily locked the door. Then, he swivelled, to face the squeak and thud of the dining room door.Lowry looked terrified."Have a gun?" Zander whispered."You kidding? I heal 'em, not hole 'em," the man retorted. "What is it?""You'd better leave," Zander told him. "Out the window.""I can't!" Lowry hissed. "It's after me! I want to know what - you - did!" he demanded grimly.Zander was aghast at the implications. "I never thought -!" he whispered, dismayed."Apparently not. Now, tell me!" He latched onto Zander's shirt again and shook him. "I swear I'll toss you out that door -" Zander's eyes met his. "It was the only thing I could think of to save your life." He gulped. "I transfused you - with some of my blood."
chair toppled in the dining room, and was followed by a heavy crunch of wood.If it's in your way, just eliminate it, Zander thought hysterically. The thing that had chased him up in the attic had relied more on its snout than its eyesight. Otherwise, it would never have been drawn to the strong scent of urine.Zander yanked the rag off his leg. The cloth was coated with blood, but it didn't seem to be bleeding any more. Here was something he could use. His actions had stirred the bloodlust of the creature in the next room.Poor eyesight or not, the thing couldn't help but see him and Lowry in this bright light. Zander's eyes frantically searched the room for a hiding place - somewhere he could tuck Lowry away while he figured this out. "Get up there! Now!" he hissed, pointing to the stereo cabinet.Lowry looked at him. "What about -?""Do it!" The man was still hesitating, and Zander guessed that some of that humanitarian feeling was making him over-ride his fear. "It's my fault!" Zander lied. "Science experiment!"In that instant, Lowry believed him. Wayward science was so much easier to accept than mythical beast. Zander would have laughed if his lips weren't paralysed.Lowry clambered up to the top of the cabinet, and drew up his arms and legs as close as he could. Zander could see his lips moving in silent prayers. He wondered whether ancient prayers had any effect on ancient horror.On impulse, he tossed paper and bloodied rag into the fireplace. Then he hobbled to Mac's painting corner, and grabbed the bottle of turpentine. He was hopping now, impatient with the crutches, as he lifted the votive candle off the mantelpiece. His fingers were fumbling nearly uncontrollably as he fought to light it.All the movement of the blood-soaked rag had stirred the flesheater's bloodlust. It was a creature of the dark, hesitant about coming into the light, but it didn't hesitate any more. Zander was still crouched there, in front of the hearth, when it moved into the room. At his back, he heard Ben Lowry's howl escalate to a scream. Zander would have screamed, too, if his lips hadn't been so numb.The Horror bore down on him, claws extended. It was his first real look at the Friedelkrieker, and it was one he would carry with him forever. This was the Friedelkrieker - there was no more doubt. His mother's voice had held the same shade of stilted horror that was now filling his limbs.Cunning? He had never felt less so. The beast was an uneven mass of sparsely-haired, blotchy flesh, that jiggled and wriggled as it moved - like a misshapen tumour on legs. There was nothing humorous about it, or its knobbly head that sported two too-many eyes. The mouth was like a bear's, with jagged teeth and slathering jaws.Then, there was the tongue. It curled and coiled in Zander's direction as the Friedelkrieker thundered across the room. The hands, so like distorted stumps of ill-formed human flesh, sported long, curved razors, that made a whistling sound as they slashed the air."Move, Brody!" Lowry screeched.The monster thundered toward Zander; the floor shaking under its weight. Zander unscrewed the plastic cap on the turpentine, with barely discernible movements. As the Friedelkrieker reached the hearth where he was crouched, Zander let him have it.He squeezed the plastic bottle of turps so it splattered directly into the beast's eyes. Shaking the bottle, he let turpentine fly willy-nilly across the creature's exposed skin. There was a twitch in the arm muscle, and Zander rolled backwards off the hearth. The razor claws swept the place in fury, and, in-between roars, the jaws clacked at the empty air.Zander was choking on the stench of the turpentine himself now. Nose and eyes running, he jabbed his good leg into giant, flabby, hairless butt. The Friedelkrieker flopped forward, headfirst into the fireplace.Zander slammed the same leg down on one deformed forearm; kicking the candle into the paper.It caught, but the first lick of flame sent the Friedelkrieker scooting backwards. Flames were licking at its turpentine coating as the stink of burning Friedelkrieker filled the room.At that moment, there was a screeching of extruding nails and rent timber that Zander recognised. He turned, from the horrifying spectacle of frying Friedelkrieker, to the even more terrifying sight of claws ripping the front door out of its jamb.This Friedelkrieker didn't hesitate. It tore into the room, bent on dinner. The smell of its burning brethren had excited its tastebuds. Zander tried to crawl out of the way as the damaged tongue wriggled eWhatever enticement Zander held for it, was now secondary to the aroma of roasting meat. With something resembling impatience, the incoming Friedelkrieker scooped Zander up and flung him out of the way. Zander went flying into the wall, and Lowry heard the booming thud of his landing, even over the roars of the beasts. He watched as Zander toppled to the ground and lay there, unmoving.In that moment, the second Friedelkrieker hesitated. His dripping snout sniffed the air, as he caught the scent of fresh blood - the blood-scent he'd been trained to track down. He sniffed again, and took a step in that direction. Lowry, realising Zander's blood was drawing him, began flinging CD cases in the monster's direction like ninja stars - aiming for the eyes, the nose, the roiling flesh of the abdomen, the groin - any place where it might hurt.The first Friedelkrieker was now roaring and writhing in agony. The burst of appetising meat smell tapped the second Freidelkrieker's hunger, to overcome his bloodlust. In a roar of conquest, it tore teeth first into its unfortunate brethren."I can't do this," Quist complained. It was all Zander's fault. He, and his crazy rantings, had robbed the evening of its promise. Add it to Mac's misplaced blame for Zander's escapade, and Quist was ready to spit fire. "Let's go back," he told Zabu. "I'm gonna give Zand a piece of my mind.""So long as you leave some for yourself," Zabu retorted.Quist could hear the commotion two blocks away. There was a series of hellish roars, and he urged Zabu, "Step on it."The house was on fire. Zabu was still climbing out of the car when Quist jumped onto the porch, to stare in frozen terror at the horror in Mac's living room. Two gigantic monsters were wrestling in the flames - trying to consume each other as the fire consumed their flesh. They were like nothing he'd ever seen before, but there was no mistaking the long, horrifyingly jagged claws dangling from their charred hands.
Where was Zander?! Over the thunderous roars, Quist caught a higher-pitched yell. His sharp eyes focussed on Lowry who was gesturing wildly at him to get out. The man was coming his way, dragging Zander behind him.
Whatever he did attracted the beast - or maybe it was just the overdose of Zander's blood, Lowry thought later. For, the second Friedelkrieker - the one whose jaws were already dripping with his brethren's juices - turned on Ben Lowry with a roar.And Quist reacted, but not as he'd ever planned on doing. In all his preconceptions, he would have jumped into the fracas, and yanked Zander and Lowry out of the way. Instead, he stood his ground, and latched onto the medallion. Unwavering, as the beast swung one mighty arm back, to take out its victims, Quist focussed on its nearly hairless hide. He felt the surge growing within him. It shook him - vibrating him so his teeth were chattering. He was controlling it, purifying it, bringing it down to a single, concentrated blast...Zabu put a hand on his shoulder.There was a massive boom, and Quist was flung backwards. He landed, flat-backed on the porch, with Zabu just beyond him on the grass. Within, there was only silence now, and a dull crackling of flames. The distant wail of sirens, and exclamations of "something blew up!" and "what the hell was that!" from frightened neighbours filled the background.Quist crept back into the room, half-afraid of what he was going to see. It was all smoke, but very little flame. Most of the fire had been concentrated in the Friedelkriekers. Wherever they'd gone, they'd taken the fire with them.As the smoke cleared, carrying away the stench of fried Friedelkriekers, Quist searched for Zander. The room was fragmented, with furnishings every which way, and Quist was suddenly terrified he'd fragmented Zander, and Lowry, too.Lowry's voice answered him. "Here!" Zander was lying in a mess of broken CD cases and tipped-over end tables. At the question in Quist's eyes, Lowry reassured him. "He's alive." Lowry was trying to apply pressure to the re-opened gouge in Zander's leg. "I wouldn't move him, if I -"Quist knelt down, and yanked Zander up in his arms. His eyes were wet. "I'm so fuckin' sorry, Zand. I should've believed you."Zander's voice was faint, but Quist's keen ears caught it. "You'll be fuckin' sorrier, Dumbass," he groaned, "if you don't put me down.""Hi, Mac," Quist said cheerfully.Mac jerked awake. After fretting about Zander for the last twenty-four hours, he'd finally dropped into a deep sleep. "Didn't I see you earlier?" he asked drowsily."Yep. Couldn't come without telling you the news. Are you coming home tomorrow?""I would hope it'd be fixed in your brain a little more firmly than that," Mac murmured dryly, "considering you're bringing me there." He finally focussed on Quist, taking in the ripped shirt and flyaway hair, smoke smudges and glistening smears from Zander's blood. "You okay?" he asked huskily. He sniffed. "Smoke. What happened?"Quist's eyes had brightened with something like glee. "Me. Moi. Explodaman." He grinned.Mac groaned. "Do I wanta"He'll live. Pretty bunged up, but non-munched, thanks to yours truly."Mac knew he shouldn't ask, but he also knew Quist. The hints would get more and more blatant; either that, or Quist'd tell him enough to drive him crazy then abandon him for the night to dwell. "I'm listening."Quist lowered his voice to a whisper that he knew Mac would have no trouble picking up, but would be inaudible to the rest of the ward. "Friedelkrieker," he said. Mac's eyes widened. "You don't mean the ones Meg told us about? The fairy tales?"Quist's face had sobered. "The same - in the flesh." He gave a shiver, that had nothing theatrical about it. In that moment, Quist looked chilled to the bone. Mac took the blanket off his bed, and tossed it to Quist, who wrapped it"Thanks." He sat back in the chair. "They're horrible, Mac," he whispered. "Every bit as terrible as Meg claimed. All flesh and fat, glubby carcasses. Four eyes. The claws? You wouldn't believe the claws." His eyes met Mac's. "They came after Zander. He told me, but I didn't believe him," Quist admitted. "Left him there, to face 'em alone." He sniffed."What happened?""I came back. Zander was down, and Lowry was trying to drag him out.""Lowry?" Mac asked in surprise. "He stopped in here yesterday. Seemed to think there was some kind of collusion going on, and that he was being victimised." "What did you say?""Told him he'd better stop the self-medicating - that it was making him stupid."Quist snorted. "Bet he took that well. Just so you know, Zander did victimise him - but only a little." He grinned, and the glint in his eyes told Mac how much he was enjoying this. "He transfused Lowry with his blood -""He did what?!" Mac bellowed.There was a loud "Shut up!" from the next bed."I'll keep him quiet," Quist assured the unseen figure behind the curtain. "Poor man's in"Easily enough, I understand. Now, shut up, so I can -" He lowered his voice to a barely-heard whisper.Mac had to shut up or he couldn't hear. He nodded angrily at Quist to continue. "It goes like this: the Friedelkriekers couldn't decide which victim to follow, Zander or Lowry. So when Lowry came, so did the second Friedelkrieker.""More than one?!" Mac looked appalled.Quist nodded. "Only, they decided to eat each other, instead." He cracked a smile. "The Friedelkriekers - not Zander and Lowry." At Mac's expression, he chuckled. "Zander set the F-team on fire to save his and Lowry's asses, but it only slowed them down - didn't stop 'em." He blew on his fingernails and buffed them against his smoky shirt. "I did that.""How did 'you' do that?""With this -" Quist lifted the medallion almost reverently out of his shirt. "Blew the fuckin' shit out of the suckers." His voice was awed."Glad you're so impressed with yourself," Mac told him dryly. "How?"Quist shrugged, and looked a little embarrassed. "I'm not sure. Probably the same way I blew up your TV and microwave."Mac spluttered, but Quist went on, "Mind over matter, maybe - I think." Ignoring Mac's outraged expression, he grinned and deliberately misinterpreted it. "Don't worry. Zander's here, and he's safe. Lowry's going to stay to watch over him." Mac sighed. "What about you?"Quist sniggered, and turned to go. "Home. Just pra-ay I run into some flaming hound dogs on the way." He turned back to add, "In case you're wondering, the fire's out.""Good thing. I'd hate to think you "I'm just waiting for the coals - marshmallows, you know. Love them tiki torches." With a rude flick of his finger, he headed out the door.Three days later, Mac sat in his slightly charred, but still functional, overstuffed chair. The stink in this place was getting to him. He'd rarely used turpentine for his paintings, but had saved it for cleaning his brushes. His sensitive nose couldn't take it. Now, the entire room stunk of burning hydrocarbon and singed hair. Disgusting.That wasn't what was bothering him most, though. It was the safety issue. He'd heard of victims carrying the memory of an assault with them ad infinitum, or at least till it worked through their systems, but this was something else. Repeated assaults. Quist, in his naiveté, had even phoned the police. Now, they had a series of incidents on police books. Dog attacks, single-minded tornadoes, weird thefts, fires, and blown-up rooms. Add all that to the undoubtedly strange medical records (blood that glittered?) which were being gathered on each of them, and they were going to have a visit from someone soon. Even six months ago, they may have slipped through the gaps in the information circuit, but not any more. Not in today's tense atmosphere, where every unexplained incident had the potential for being a terrorist threat. At least one of their "incidents" had involved an explosion of some sort, and Mac wasn't at all certain the fire inspector had been satisfied. Explosions usually had a source, and that one had apparently been heard a couple of blocks away. Even harder to explain were the howls, roars, and growls.More noises without a source. Then, there was Ben Lowry - and Zabu Morris. Ben had seemed inclined to cover for them at the hospital. Why? Because he didn't want to draw attention to himself, and his involvement? So he wouldn't be associated with them, or caught up in an inquiry?There was a thump and thud as Quist climbed in through the window. A heavy piece of plywood had been tacked over the ruined front door. "Easier than going round the back," he told Mac, grinning."Lucky we still have a window," Mac remarked.Quist grabbed Mac's arm and glanced at his watch. His own had fizzled with the microwave and TV. "Lowry should be here soon." Ben was driving Zander home from the hospital.Mac looked glum. "I can't think of one"Gratitude," Quist supplied. "For the transfusion.""Why? Did Zander transfuse kindness into him, too?" "Aren't we being the dickhead?" Quist said kindly.Mac listened as Lowry's car pulled up in front. "BMW," he murmured."Does that mean he has your approval?" Quist asked cheerfully. "No? Well, in that case you'll be glad Zander's back. He'll bring his contingent of livestock along to warm your heart.""I'll start with the earwigs," Zander yelled."Window or back door!" Quist bellowed.Mac looked distressed. "We need better security," he said."Don't worry," Zander assured him, as Lowry helped him in through the window. "Quist told me it's high security plywood. Fitted with all the latest hardware."Lowry actually knocked on the windowsill before following Zander into the house. Mac looked annoyed. He muttered some stuff about morons and over-educated fools under his breath, but forced a smile when Lowry's head poked through the curtain."Hypocrite," Quist whispered. "I heard that."Lowry climbed in the rest of the way, then turned to look directly at Mac. "Unfortunately," he admitted angrily, "so did I."
At his words, Zander frowned, and limped toward the bedroom."Use the crutches," Lowry ordered sharply. "Do you need some help with that stuff?""That 'stuff' is my father's artwork," Zander told him abruptly. "I can manage." Ben Lowry had never experienced so many conflicting emotions at once. He was furious as hell at Zander Brody for transfusing him, and therefore risking his life. At the same time, he was grateful to the man for his quick wit in saving it. Those Friedelkrieker things? Brody had assumed they were fiction. And when it came to a confrontation, he'd put Ben's life before his own. The flip side was that he wouldn't have had to, if he hadn't given Lowry his blood in the first place. It was both illegal, and damned unethical.The changes in Ben's body had certainly made his life more difficult, and at first he'd prayed they were temporary. The truth was, he felt better than he ever had before - not only more energetic, but stronger. He was willing to bet his stamina had improved, too. He'd lost some weight, and firmed up. But his medical tests were all over the place. He was scaring the hell out of Terry Davies, one of his closest friends. Davies didn't know whether all the enzymatic changes and blood titres of near-toxins were killing him or debilitating him or merely affecting his mental state, but he'd all but confined him to bed. He wasn't willing to let Ben go without a fight.They still hadn't identified the infective agent that had nearly killed Ben, Brody, and Craigen. Their quick recovery to full health from a moribund state had seemed almost miraculous, and all of them were exhibiting test results that were so far off the scale that they should have been dead. Maculley Craigen had shown similar results, which indicated (in Davies' opinion) the man had either fought off the infection asymptomatically, or was suffering from a low-grade chronic problem with the infective agent.For Ben, it meant he was facing a wall of pity and concern at work. Except, since he wasn't allowed to work at the moment, he was just another patient left out of the loop. The entire thing would have made him sick, if he hadn't been feeling so great.His hearing had improved. He'd occasionally experienced a slight tinnitus as a result of chronic ear infections he'd suffered as a kid. That was gone, and he could pick up sounds rooms away. High-pitched noises offended him, and he'd heard more sympathetic comments than he was intended to, simply because he wasn't supposed to hear them. He'd picked up a few not-so-sympathetic remarks, too, but he was generally a forgiving man. Why make a big deal about what he couldn't possibly have heard, anyway?It had been a pretty good philosophy to adopt - until he'd reached Mac Craigen's house.Now, he felt cursed. He was linked in somehow with this group of misfits. Freaks, who were probably possessed of some mutant DNA or alien strain. There had to be something to account for their characteristics - and abilities. For the way they healed - for the way he healed. Craigen's broken leg was nearly repaired, in less than two weeks. Quist Craigen had been coated with poison oak, yet now his skin was clear.Incredible, as in unbelievable.Ben would never forget the explosion, either. Those monsters had been real - he was sure of it. Yet, they'd disappeared."Beam me up, Scotty."It hadn't been a simple disappearance, though. It had been more like a black hole passing through the planet. The Friedelkriekers were sucked away, gone - and furniture knocked over and splayed every which way. Some force, that could also transmit fire. It had transmitted the fire clean out of the house.Be grateful. Imagine how difficult Friedelkriekers would have been to explain...That was the problem. He was both grateful and resentful, happy and furious, on a physical high, but dreading the upcoming low. What had come to him so easily must surely come "undone", just as simply. That meant the strength, agility, stamina, keen hearing...GoneIt was that, perhaps, which made him angriest of all. Ben was beginning to wonder what it would be like for him to once more be subject to the vagaries of human health, a human metabolism, and human stamina
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Quist grabbed the shirt-bag out of Zander's hand, then set it down carefully on the couch. Zander grinned. "Now you handle it decently.""Hey, before I thought it was yours! It was an -""- understandable mistake," Zander and Mac supplied."Story of his life," Mac added. "Bet our mother said it, too, every time she looked at him. Speaking of mistakes, is Zabu coming?" "What's that supposed to mean?" Quist flared. Zabu was his best friend, next to Zander. Things had been a little strained between them since he'd exploded the damned Friedelkriekers. No Zabu, no violin. Quist relied on a daily dose of camaraderie, music, and malice to get along. Zander had been back in the hospital, Mac was acting worried as hell, and Zabu was nowhere to be seen. So much for camaraderie. Music came in the form of his violin, which had vanished with his furnishings, and he wasn't allowed back at work yet, so there went the malice. A pacifist at heart, he enjoyed being the tough-guy security type four nights a week. My life has gone to hell, he realised. It was only fair he share a little of it, especially with Mac. Angrily, he blurted, "You realise I have been without for three days."Zander snorted. "Didn't know you and Zabu were that close."Shut up, Zander."Zander ignored it. "From what I heard, that explosion oughta hold you for a week at least." Ben Lowry was staring suspiciously at Quist. "Been without" smacked suspiciously of substance abuse. Was Zabu his boyfriend, or his supplier? Could some of these characteristics actually result from chemical addiction? "Is there something I should know about?""No," Mac said abruptly. "Nothing I want you to know about.""He thinks I'm evil," Quist complained, after seeing Ben's expression. "Nobody trusts me."Zander was grinning as he dug carefully through his father's possessions. He lifted out a flute, carved from bone. "Here, Quist." Andrew had made it for Zander, but he'd never been as gifted with music as Quist. Zander could play it, but Quist could play it the way it was meant to be played.
Quist sobered, all his anger fading. His face lit up with something like awe as he examined the intricate workmanship. The flute was carved with animals, entwined in the Celtic manner, so it was difficult to tell where one began and another left off. "Wasted on me," Zander admitted. "Remember what you said about the medallion?" He nodded toward the flute. "Did the same with that after Dad died.""At least mine was around my neck," Quist remarked. "If you're gonna be playing with things, I mean.""Shut up, you moron." As Quist lifted the flute to his lips, Zander said quietly, "Consider it on permanent loan."Lowry couldn't understand it. According to Zander, Quist had been unaware of the medallion's "power" till a few days ago - they'd all been unaware of it. Yet, here were Quist and Zander, discussing theWeren't they frightened? Wasn't Quist worried about wearing it? Of what he or the medallionIf it were me, I'd've taken it off and locked it away, somewhere secure, where I wouldn't have to look at it - or touch it.Mac was observing him. He'd noticed the direction his eyes had taken, and was watching for signs of avarice. The medallion was valuable in itself, but if it did the things Quist had claimed (and Mac was still a little doubtful about its exact role in the Friedelkrieker banishment), then it might well be something a power-hungry type might covet.Not so Lowry, though. If anything, his face showed signs of aversion. For the first time, Mac felt something akin to pity for the man. I was so defensive I didn't think how all this must be affecting him. Most people would have run the other way."Ben!" Mac said quietly. Quist was trying out different notes on the flute now, getting a feel for it, and Mac didn't want to interrupt him.Ben hadn't been expecting anything but a terse "Lowry!" out of Maculley. He looked at him warily. "What?""You don't understand," Mac told him"'Safe'?" Ben argued. "Maybe he didn't know -"Mac's eyes met Zander's, and he saw his own apprehension mirrored there. "Oh, he knew," Mac said. "Furthermore, I think he gave it to Quist because he realised he'd be able to use it."
Cp5Zabu Morris had been sitting in his house for nearly three days. He'd missed rehearsals, he'd ignored calls, and he'd refused to think about Quist or his crazy family.He wasn't really a "Zabu" at all. He'd been born Amos Albert Uriah Morris, but thanks largely to Quist Craigen, he had become Zabu. It was just one of the things for which he was forever grateful. The rest had to do with his music.His family had wanted him to go into professional sports. They'd claimed he had the build and brains for a football player. Football players made big money, if they worked at it hard enough. Their consensus was Zabu would make a great quarterback. Only, Zabu wasn't into the money. He'd discovered quite early (again, thanks to Quist) that he had a gift for music. It could transcend what he saw around him; take him places money alone never could.Only, his family hadn't seen it that way. They'd been long-time have-nots, and to them the "having" was synonymous with happiness. His father's answer to the old "Money can't buy happiness" was a standard "Then it can buy an awful lot of what comes in-between."Quist might raise hell with his own family, but compared to most people, he was unflappable. Imperturbable. Mr. Congeniality. He, Zander and, to some extent, Mac, were so damn cheerful they could drive lesser beings out of their minds. In Zabu's opinion, this was what Quist had done to his family - driven them insane with his cheerful, unrepentant opinions about what was best for their son. They hadn't been willing to pay for lessons, so Zabu had been taught by Quist and Zander, on Quist's violin. Maybe it was the way they taught him, or their vision being transmitted to him, but what had begun as a talent exploded into a rare gift. Zander might not have Quist's or Zabu's ability with an instrument, but he had a musical spirit that recognised how a song should be played. With Zander there, they'd had no choice but to play up to standard - his standard - because he'd look almost pained when they failed him.Zabu found himself smiling at the recollection. Zander could make it seem as though they'd failed not only him, but themselves. Zabu didn't know how he did it. He had a year on Zander, and two years on Quist, yet it was always Zander who made the call.The first time Amos-not-yet-accepted-as-Zabu had played for his family, it had been in the middle of a row. Just the sight of him with a violin had stirred tempers, and his father had bellowed out, "You fuckin' gaybo!" His dad had never ascribed to kinder terms like "gay", and he'd always equated symphonic quality with homosexual inequality. It hadn't mattered that his son wasn't gay - it was enough that with the violin, other people would think he was.It was Mac who'd warned Zabu to expect the worst - disowning, ridicule, blasphemy, accusations. He'd also told Zabu not to go psycho, when the moment came. "Show them. Stand there and play. Don't let it faze you." Mac had further assured him that he was a musician, no matter what happened, and his parents could either revel in his success, or turn away - but they couldn't stop him. It was too much a part of him. Anyone who could take music to the kinds of places Zabu could would never be stopped. Because whenever, wherever he played, people were always going to listen. With that thought, Mac had told him again that the best method of tackling his father was to make him listen. So, they'd yelled. His father bellowing, his mother screeching at his father, his brothers picking up on his dad's accusation, and adding some colourful terms of their own. His father had renounced him ("You're no son of mine"), which had made his mother even angrier. And into the muddle, the roars, the accusations, and ridicule, Zabu had played. only silence to the accusations that had somehow included him as well. At a strained and stilted squawk in the music, Quist had grimaced, delicately jiggled a finger in his ear, and given Zabu an amused expression of horror that was a perfect parody of Zander's. Zabu had relaxed then, smiled, and let the music take him. It exploded out of him, with all the angst, all the anger, all the fear of confrontation. Then it became joyful, because Mac was right, and there was no way anyone could stop this. Whatever his father said, Zabu had just confronted him as a man, and his parent was a blind fool if he couldn't see it; deaf if he couldn't hear it.When the music had ended, so had Quist's silence. He said cheerfully, "See? I told you he was a musician."Zabu's father was crying. He stood there, tears running down his face. Then he came over to Zabu and kissed his son's cheeks, before taking his hands to stare at them, as though unable to believe such a gift could have sprung from his loins.As Zabu had strolled away, a few minutes later, Quist had told him, "You never played better, my Friend." He sniggered then, grinned, and jiggled his finger in his ear again. "Or worse.""We're not pawning our info till Zabu arrives," Quist said stubbornly. He still had the mouthpiece in, so it sounded more like "Er ought pawing our inf-fo ill abu awise.""I said you could play it - not drool all over it. If you chew on it any more," Zander threatened, "I'm taking it back.""I think you should go," Mac told Ben. The pity he'd felt a few minutes earlier had vanished. They'd already exposed themselves enough - the hospital, the lab, the police, the neighbours. Revealing anything more to Lowry was like setting themselves up for a fall. There was no reason to trust him. He'd saved Zander's life at the hospital, but that merely indicated he was good at his job, and that his heart was in the right place. It didn't mean it would stay there. The man was obviously angry, and angry "I'm staying.""This is my house," Mac growled."And this was my body - only now I'm"What do you mean?" Quist asked, curious. "My hearing's changed," Ben told him. Taken by itself it sounded stupid. He flushed. "So have my lab results.""And you"I think some traits were somehow transmitted in the blood. I just have to figure out how."Quist's eyes widened with alarm. He looked at Zander. "Do you think he's got the Heenie?" he asked. didn't think...""Damn it!" Lowry looked nearly frantic. "What's a heenie?"Mac shook his head and said kindly, "Don't worry about it unless it happens, Lowry. Plastic surgery will nip that sucker off like -"Zabu Morris poked his head through the curtain. "You're fucked," he told Lowry solemnly. Then his face split in a grin. "If you listen to this lot." He shook his head. "Time for a little self-examination, Lowry. You sure you want to be here?"It was the first time Ben Lowry had responded without that undertone of anger and suspicion. He looked at Mac, and then at Zander. "I've got problems now, and I don't think it's fair that I face them alone. Since they all seem to stem from the same source, I'd sure as hell like to find out what that 'source' is."
Zander carefully drew out the newspaper-wrapped pieces of his father's life. In a way, this was a private moment. No one offered to help, and no one rushed him.There were specially patterned glass stones, and long, twisted glass spires. Ben Lowry had never seen anything like the workmanship. What eyes had the man used to fashion such things? Where did he get his ideas? The metalwork was so fine and the subject so frightening in one tableau, that Ben flinched.At first glance, it resembled a man. He appeared hollow - pallid; an empty shell. Until you looked at his eyes.They were filled with sadistic glee. That one hint of hidden malevolence led you to look more closely. It was then Ben had realised this wasn't a man at all. He was clawed, much as the Friedelkrieker had been. And in his taloned feet, were strips of carrion. The dark mountain on which he stood wasn't soil and rock - it was flesh and bone. Like the Celtic markings in Zander's flute, it was hard to tell where one person's bones left off, and another's flesh began. Intricately intertwined, as though the creature had tugged and pulled out choice pieces, which tangled the rest.But the creature's triumph was hollow, which was, perhaps, why the artist had chosen to depict it that way. The tension, the eager attitude, the tilt of the head as it sniffed out its next victim - this was an endless hunger; an insatiable appetite. Despite the ample pile of carrion at its feet, this beast was like an unwormed feline. It was being consuIt "Bit grim," Mac remarked. "I never saw this one."Zander looked distraught. When he'd packed this stuff away, he'd been too grief-stricken to give it more than a glance. He'd never recalled his father's creative energies being this dark. "Not in his usual style."Quist was staring at it, and it was Mac who first noticed his silence. His brother's hands were clenched, and he was white as chalk. "Quist?" he asked worriedly.Ben moved quickly. He grabbed Quist by the arm and shoved him into a chair. "Take deep breaths," he ordered.Zander tossed the sculpture onto the couch and crossed the room. "Sorry," he said worriedly. "I didn't know it'd affect you that way."It-t's wrong," Quist whispered."Obscene," Zabu agreed. "Sick. Don't know what your dad was thinking of, Zander."Zander didn't take offence. How could he? He agreed with him. "I don't know, either.""No! I mean it's wrong," Quist argued. "He didn't put in the wings."Zander went over to the couch, picked up the sculpture, and hauled it over under the light. Gone was the reverence with which he'd originally handled it. He was ashamed that his father could have depicted something this grotesque.His fingers found what his eyes had missed. With a shaking hand, he traced the line of the head, down to the junction of shoulder and back. The wings were there - delicate, membranous, transparent. He could see them, now that he knew where to look. They were beautiful; as though the creator had tried to balance the malevolence with magnificence. "How did you know?" Zander asked huskily.The night the tornado cut through your room?"Zander hesitated. He wanted to argue the "tornado", but this wasn't the moment. "Yes?" he asked slowly. He felt his gut tighten. He had a feeling he already knew.Quist looked more terrified than Mac had ever seen him. "I saw it," he said.Things had fallen apart pretty quickly after that. Quist, for once, had nothing more to say. He'd gone to his old room, cranked up the music and flopped on the bed. He couldn't get past the nightmare imagery of that winged demon.Zander had sat on the couch, pale and withdrawn, lost in his thoughts. He'd looked like he needed his bed, but Mac didn't say anything. If Zander suspected, as Mac did, that he'd been the fiend's intended victim, then the last thing he'd want would be solitude.Zander had been planning on handling the Friedelkriekers himself. When Quist had failed to believe him, Zander had encouraged him to go. He'd no doubt decided the Craigens were better away from whatever curse was stalking him.Mac watched Zander now, well aware that the man would rather face this alone, than expose his friends to it - a noble gesture that could get him killed. Zander was sitting there, blind toWell, he wasn't going to be dealing with anything tonight. All the stuffing had gone out of ol' Zand, and he looked hollow, like the creature in the sculpture. Exhausted, and worn down. When he nodded off, Mac hastily cleared the couch, then covered him with a blanket. Zander might think he had to deal with this alone, but that wasn't the way it was supposed to work. Brian had said as much, though he'd been a little obscure at the time.
Zabu had found an excuse to leave when Lowry had. Apparently, neither man fancied going out in the dark alone. The last time Zabu had considered the Craigens hazardous to his health had been during those angry days with his dad. He didn't know how to take this latest development - he might have a quarterback's build, but he wasn't equipped to battle the Craigens' demons. Zabu needed to be sure of himself before he could guarantee anyone else's safety. At this point, he wasn't certain what he'd do if some winged hellion came swooping in after his flesh. He had a feeling he'd run like all get-out. He didn't know whether he had anything to offer Zander or the others. They didn't need more fear.Ben Lowry had a different worry. He couldn't help but remember the way the Friedelkrieker had come after him. It had haunted him, then hunted him. After he'd become aware of its presence, he had sensed it was heavy on his tail. When he'd gone first to see Mac, and later, Zander, he'd been terrified. Now, there was a chance this winged creature would recognise the "Zander" in his blood. He could picture climbing out of his car, or opening his front door, to those flesh-slicing claws. Bad news, whichever way you looked at it. He was torn between keeping his distance, to thin out the amount of weird DNA on the airwaves, or mingling, so his own wouldn't be nearly as noticeable, and certainly less potent. He had this fear that if he hung out with Brody and the Craigens contact with the creature would be inevitable.But his fear was equally strong that avoiding them would make the creature find him.Quist turned off the music and lay there in the dark. It was impossible for him to sleep - not with the window so close to his bed. Even though he'd seen the Friedelkriekers with his own eyes, and had battled them in a way he couldn't really understand, there was an element of fiction to those encounters. Things like this didn't happen to people - at least, not to anyone he knew.Andrew Brody had made it real. He'd sculpted a vision Quist had convinced himself belonged to some kind of delirium. The problem was, Zander's father had been dead for years.Maybe I saw it, when he was working on it. When I was in the workshop with DadIt had the kind of grotesqueness that would make an impact on a child.The impression of it was so strong that it came back to haunt me, in a moment of stress...It gave him the courage to walk to the window. He resented so much the fear that bubbled inside. He, like Zander, loved windswept nights, full moons, and traipses through the trees. Were his nights to be suffocatingly restricted from now on? His eyes glinted with anger.He rested his forehead on the glass and splayed his fingers against the chilly surface. He had a longing to be outside - to work off the stupidity of angst and fear with a sweat-stirring race through the night. And yet, here he was, locked in by glass walls. He was afraid to open the fuckin' window, because he might let the damned monsters in.If they wanted in, they wouldn't let the closed window stop them...Gooseflesh danced across his skin. He remembered the way Zander's hospital room had looked, once they'd forced open the door. He hadn't realised till then that the door was barricaded - sealed with the spiked legs of a chair.Why hadn't those spikes been driven through Zander's heart? If they'd wanted to kill him - for whatever reason - why hadn't they just stabbed him and been done with it?And why the poison oak? It was both stupid, and ineffective. What were they thinking of?Quist was standing there, unseeing, but a movement without brought his eyes back into focus. He squinted, to see more clearlyIt was a sifting line of white vapour drifting across the yard. No, not drifting. Quist frowned. That "vapour" had substance. It was moving sneakily from shrub to tree trunk in an effort to remain hidden. It had just sneaked around to the front yard...Quist felt for his medallion, then tore through the house. Mac looked up sharply, as did Zabu, who'd apparently returned. Quist didn't stop to visit, though - with a finger on his lips for silence, he raced to the window and slid it open.He leapt off the porch, then sniffed the air, catching intangible traces on the breeze. He moved, every bit as stealthily as the creature ahead of him.Mac would be having a shitfit, and struggling to climb out the window, cast and all. Zabu was probably out already, searching in the blackness.It wasn't black to Quist. Ahead, he saw a wisp of white dart behind a tree.The frightened movements did much to boost Quist's confidence. His adrenaline had been pumping on anger, but the memory of their other encounters was beginning to shake his self-assurance. Now, he was gripped by a certain cocky conceit. The wraith had good cause for running. Quist the Conqueror was on its trail.He raced silently, leaping over noisy obstacles in his path. He tore around the tree, and dove at the figure in white .Ground, the wind knocked out of him. At a soft whisper of sound, that spoke suspiciously of laughter, Quist rolled over, and pushed himself up on his elbows. Then, he just staredThe mist was reforming. His eyes widened, as the contours assumed female form. got an eyeful before the figure was discreetly draped by a filmy white gauze. At Quist's expression, she turned bashfully aside, obviously embarrassed.Quist attempted to make her feel at ease. He did the gentlemanly thing, and pretended to look away, while clambering quickly to his feet, and ogling shamelessly from his peripheral vision.Once she was robed, he turned to face her. She tilted her head to study him seriously, and one hand reached up to trace the contours of his face. Her fingers were like a soft, cool breeze against his skin. He closed his eyes briefly, then reopened them.She was solidifying further, but Quist could tell it was an effort. There was a sheen across her forehead, and her eyes were pained. In that moment, though, Quist could see traces of soft skin and lush lips; eyes that sparkled with laughter and hair the colour of amber-gold. He'd never seen anyone like her, and when she smiled at him, he realised what it was about her: the smile was unreserved. This was no social gesture - her smile was an escape for the unremitting joy that lurked within her spirit.She was grinning unabashedly now at Quist's expression, and watching eagerly for his response as she slowly lifted her hair on one side to show him her pointed ear. Quist sensed that she felt shy at the gesture - as though she doubted whether, by whatever standards he was accustomed to, she would measure up.Quist's mouth dropped open in shock. Then, he realised he was gawking and snapped his jaws closed. She gurgled again with that amazing sibilant laughter.Quist couldn't resist. He reached out a hand and tangled it in her soft hair - lifting it gently to look at those smaller versions of his own pointy ears. It seemed a natural thing, then, to carry the gesture through. Quist pulled her forward, lowered his head, and kissed her gently on the lips. Under his touch her lips warmed, and for a moment, she was there, warm and living, in his arms. Then, with a sigh, she was gone.
Quist fingered his medallion, and stood there, staring at the spot where she'd been. His eyes were dilated, and his lips curved in a smile.Quist the Conqueror had been conquered by a kiss.He was only halfway across the yard when someone tackled him. The creature ploughed into him, sending him flying. Quist groaned, then bellowed loudly, "Damn it, if your father wasn't right, you elephant! It's me!" He struggled to his feet. "Are you blind?!"Zabu was glaring at him. "Are you stupid?!" He gave Quist a one-handed shove that landed him on his butt. Storming, Zabu turned around and stomped back up to the porch.Quist glanced up. Things didn't look much better there. Mac was apparently waiting to brain him with a crutch."Well, we're all fellowship and good will, aren't we?" Quist said sarcastically. The next second, his bad temper had evaporated like the misty lady he'd just kissed, and he said enthusiastically, "You'll never believe what just happened!""Probably not," Mac said dryly. "I'd prefer to make up my mind about it after we're inside -""Hi, Zabu," Quist said belatedly. "What're you doing here?" He grinned irreverently. "I thought we'd scared you off."Zabu gave him a wry smile. "You got nothing on the info we just pulled up off the Net," he said. "It'll be enough to scare even you shitless."Zander was only half awake when a crash nearly shattered his eardrums. Panicked, his heart pounding, he rolled over - and promptly fell off the couch."Oh?" Quist said innocently. "You awake?" Zander lifted his head. Mac, Quist, and Zabu were there, and it was obvious they hadn't slept. Mac and Quist were good for several hours yet, but Zabu looked worn. His laid-back nature had been affronted by some distressing news."Good morning, Zander," Mac said, glancing at his watch. "Or should I say 'afternoon'?"Zander looked at his own watch. It wasn't quite six am. "Did I miss something?" he asked mildly."Mac dropped the tray," Quist told him. "Actually, he flung it at your back. You know how he loves Frisbees.""Like a golden retriever," Zander agreed, rubbing his eyes to clear them. "Okay. Fill me in.""We started with the medallion," Mac said brusquely. "In shape, it resembles pendants found in Gotland in the fifth century, but it also contains elements of the Borre -""Perfect for Quist," Zander interrupted. "Unless you mispronounced it?" he asked innocently. Mac frowned, but there was a glint of amusement in his eyes. "Possibly," he said. He turned back to the monitor. "- elements of the Borre style, a Jellinge motif, and some Urnes ornamentation thrown in. Much later than the Gotland stuff -""How interesting," Zander said amiably. "You three spent all night writing an essay. Are there any footnotes?""He was always slow in the mornings," Quist told Zabu. "Needs a cinnamon stick."Me, too," Mac sighed. "Sounds great. Want one, Zabu?"Zabu rolled his eyes. Kicks from cinnamon sticks. "Only if it's liberally surrounded with coffee and milk. "D'you have any coffee, Mac?" Quist asked."If Zander didn't fry it - and you didn't blow it up. Microwave's out," he said pointedly, "so you'll have to make it on the stove.""Gotcha." Quist was whistling as he strolled through the kitchen door. He was back a few minutes later with a cup of coffee and three cinnamon sticks.Zabu took a big gulp and nearly choked. "You're supposed to take out the grounds!" he complained.Quist looked surprised. "Thought it was instant." He reached for the cup. "Want me to make -"Zabu yanked it out of Quist's reach. "I'll strain it through my teeth," he growled. "Tell Zander what we found out," he said impatiently."The medallion may be some modern conglomerate of Viking art, but -""It's not. I had it cleaned once, by a jeweller." Quist looked amused. "Poor man didn't want to give it back. Kept it for nearly a month.""So, it's old," Zabu prompted."Damn right. Ancient. We're talking Urnes style a thousand years before the style was ever invented."Mac looked thoughtful. "Typical for new styles to arise out of older artforms. The Renaissance artwork had its origins in the cultural activity of the Middle Ages. Some art historians feel that Cubism can be attributed as much to Cezanne's influence on Picasso, as -""Mac?" Zander interrupted."What?""You're digressing." Zander lifted the curtain to peer outZabu snorted."Why? We have company?" Quist came to join him at the window. "Oh, him." He sounded disappointed.Zander looked at him strangely. "Who were you expecting?" Quist lowered his voice. "Last night, there was this 'girl'."Zander looked worried. "'This' girl as opposed to 'a' girl?" Quist sighed, his eyes distant. "I've never met anyone like her.""Where'd you meet her?""In the yard." He saw Zander's expression and said, "I know, I know. Definitely a smoky situation. You can't even begin to guess how much," he added, as he gave Zander a helping hand out the window.Zander wasn't sure what he was getting at. "Elusive?" he asked.Quist nodded. "I was going to tell Mac, but changed my mind," he admitted. "He wouldn't understand, and if she comes again, I don't want him to scare her off." He gave a reminiscent smile. "Not all things that bump around in the night are nasties." At Zander's expression, he added virtuously, "Remember, somebody cleaned your house. A saint, if ever there was one.""Did you ever think it could have been someone I worZand, I was there. The night before. Okay - what about the DVDs?" Quist was warming to his theme. His eyes glinted. "If there are Bads looking for you, why not Goods? Only, the Goods want to kiss your ass - clean your house, protect your stuff. The Bads want to eat you - after cheerfully mutilating you first, of course.""Of course," Zander repeated. Goods. Bads. Only, the Bads had found him first - tracking him by scent, or blood. Then, where were the "Goods" when the Friedelkriekers had him and Ben pinned down in Mac's living room?He was quiet as he limped toward Ben Lowry's car. Finally, he said, "What made her different?""She had ears like us."Zander looked shocked.That's not all. When I first saw her, she looked like a ghost - all white and smoky."Zander had to choke back his comment"I chased her, and cornered her behind the oak.""What happened then?" Zander asked tensely."She coalesced - became nearly as solid as you and me. A whole lot better looking than you, though.""What did you do?"Of all the responses Quist could have given, his next words were the furthest from what Zander might have expected.Quist grinned. "I kissed her, of course."A few moments later, Ben Lowry was sitting in the living room, sipping his lumpy coffee, and hearing the latest on Quist's medallion."I'm interested in how it channels light," Ben said. "It was glowing blue-white before you blew up those Friedelkriekers. The light didn't shoot out of it, either. We're talking blue-white, then boom!" He sipped again, grimaced, then sucked on the cinnamon stick Quist had given him. "Hm-m," he muttered.Mac's eyes met Zander's, but he didn't say anything."Psychokinesis. Mind-over-matter," Quist offered airily."A shrill wind blowing through. Running between his ears and out across the metal," Mac corrected."And what good are you?" Quist asked him. "Oh, I know: you're the king of worry. You predict our deaths and scare the shit out of us." "I'm sure he's good for something more than that," Zander said blithely. "Think of his essays. "They rank down there with fungus as far as I'm concerned: 'rank' being the operative word. I have this little token," Quist bragged, peering admiringly at his medallion, "and you have your charming singing voice -""He blew up the dogs," Mac murmured calmly. "What about the 'tornado', Zand?"Zander shrugged, and glanced at Quist. Too bad; he was listening. Zander frowned, already anticipating what Quist's reaction would be. "Repulsion," he admitted."I've always found him repulsive," Quist hissed to Lowry. Zabu just chuckled."Repulsion?""It was -" Zander hesitated, and looked slightly sheepish. "- awkward." He grinned. "I don't know how it started, but I was out of control. Everything I touched went flying, or if it was nailed down, I did."Zabu burst out into big guffaws. Quist, recalling bits and pieces of Zander's flopping battle, was laughing so hard he had tears running down his face. Mac rolled his eyes. "Glad I'm not as gifted as you, Brody." "Not gifted at all," Quist saidt was Zander's turn to laugh. His eyes met Mac's and he saw his own amusement mirrored there."What?!" Quist was frowning now. He had a feeling the joke was on him. He lowered his voice and told Ben, "It's his farts. Could be lethal in the wrong hands. He's a natural - in one direction, anyway."Mac went into the other room and came back with a dagger. It was in a scabbard decorated much the same as Quist's medallion. "Dad entrusted this to me. 'Entrusted' being the operative word."Quist's frown faded. "I remember.""Watch." Mac set the dagger down on the coffee table and stepped back. Quist started to reach for it. Mac flicked his hand, pointing towards the wall. In the blink of an eye the dagger had fled across the distance, and embedded itself in the centre of the wall. Quist just stared. Zabu went over to pull the dagger out of the wall, but Mac stopped him. "Not necessary." He lifted his hand. The dagger shivered, shook, and in an unseen tug came free. It roared back towards Mac, and Quist, panicking, tried to shove him out of the way. They both toppled onto the floor. When they got up, the knife was held firmly in Mac's hand. "It won't hurt me, Quist," he said, grinning."Can I try it?""Can I try the medallion?" Mac countered.Quist's brow furrowed. "How long have you known about this?" he asked."Years. I used to do target practice with Zander.""Nearly killed me once or twice," Zander admitted. "Good thing I have quick reflexes.""Why didn't anybody tell me?" Quist looked really put out.Mac gripped his shoulder and sighed loudly. "Didn't want to make you feel badly, little Bro. I thought you'd never develop any talents of your own."Zabu started laughing again - those deep, husky guffaws that rattled the "No, you fool - Zander. If that was no tornado -""No tornado," Zander said firmly."- then I want to know why those spikes weren't driven through your heart. No offence, but you would have been an easy target.""Dad warned me," Mac said solemnly. Reluctantly, he quoted, "'They will come, and if they fail, they will return, again and again. Their success will be measured in Zander's death.'" Mac sighed. "Sorry, Zander." "Why the hell didn't you tell me?!" Zander was angry. "So I could deal with it? Be prepared for it?""I'd want to know who 'they' are," Ben put in."Because Dad"That's a losing proposition," Quist said caustically. "Might as well fall on Mac's knife right now.""Shut up, Quist! This is serious! Dad wanted me to trust in myself." Mac buried his face in his hands. "Been having a bit of trouble with that"I always put that knife trick down to mind-over-matter, and hoped you'd never be angry enough to really focus on me," Zander told him."Glad it's not you with the knife," Quist commented. It was obvious Zander was still angry, and with good reason. If Quist had been a potential victim, he'd have wanted to know it.The smile Zander gave him had no trace of humour in it. "I've been having a few identity problems myself. IBen frowned. "How'd you do that? They wouldn't even let me see mine." "Probably"I get around," Zander said calmly. "Very little about me fits the norm, and we're not"Don't forget the eyes," Zabu said."Always a help," Quist said sarcastically."I wanted to think the incident with the dogs was some isolated weirdness, like one of those moments when you're in peak physical shape, and you pull off things you've"But it wasn't isolated. There was the bat creature.""'Bat'?" Mac asked."As in Batman?" Quist added."I wouldn't talk, Mr. Sees-Evil-Winged-Fiends," Zabu said"'Kaituku'," Quist corrected. "That's what the 'winged fiend' was. Fairy tale," he told Ben airily. Ben returned his look doubtfully. "Not like any 'fairy tale' I've ever heard."Zander frowned, and said impatiently, "If someone wanted to get at us, they would have been smart to stick with natural phenomena. Things that would be products of mental instability. They may've even been able to pass off our weird looks -""Speak for yourself," Quist said softly. This time it was Lowry who booted him, then nodded at Zander to continue.Our peculiar appearance could have been considered an indicator of a genetic anomaly, characterised by hallucinations. Enough damage, and they could have had us locked up." He limped around, trying to puzzle it out. "But they were stupid. There's now another kind of physical evidence. Quist's place was robbed, and mine was 'decorated'.""Don't forget 'cleaned'," Quist put in."I don't "Believe me, it needed it," Quist added. Ben ignored him. "Why the hell would they use poison oak? Unless you're hypersensitive, a rash isn't that big a deal. Not like a three-storey drop.""Maybe they realised you were getting suspicious, and they didn't want you looking through your father's stuff.""It would have been easier to empty the attic," Zander said practically, "rather than festooning the rooms.""You're not sensitive to it, are you, Zand?" Quist asked.Zander shook his head. "You broke out in hours." He held out his arm. "Not even a blotch."Quist was staring at Zander's"Maybe you needed some Prednisone," Ben commented. "The thing is, we've been going on about medallions, and knives, but there's something else we haven'tZander held up his hand so Ben could see it.
"I remember hearing Dad telling you never to take it off, no matter what. It sounded so out of character for Dad to fluff on about a ring that it stuck in my head. I think they used PO because they wanted your hands to swell, so you didn't have a choice." Quist tilted his head, recalling the whirlwind in the hospital room. "Could be they didn't kill you because they can't take it off you. If you're dead, you can't exactly hand it over, can you?" Mac shook his head. "Dad never mentioned the ring to me. Sounds a little ridiculous that something that powerful couldn't just yank it off him." "Or take the hand and remove it afterwards.Zander looked at Ben disgustedly.Ben "Good. That was in really poor taste," he said, shoving his hand protectively into"Charming," Quist remarked.Zabu had been silent long enough. "It's magic, you fools!" he bellowed. "What are you - blind, deaf, and stupid?"Mac looked doubtful. "I don't think -""Damn right, you don't think," Zabu told him. "Think about it: the medallion, Zander's 'singing', the dagger. What about the music, and your paintings, Mac? What about those? Zand, have you ever shown them your sculpture?" Zander shook his head. Mac lifted an eyebrow. "Your looks, your parents' looks. The way you 'know' things, Mac! Didn't you ever wonder why you could see things differently from everyone else? Why things that would daunt everyone around you just makes you freaks laugh?""I take exception to the 'freaks', Amos," Quist said angrily.Zander flushed slightly as he joked, "I did wonder if I was actually born in Roswell.""That's not it," Zabu told him. "I wondered for years, and finally did the research - the way you three should have. You're not aliens.""Thank heavens for that!" Quist said in a falsetto. "I was getting ready to phone ho-"Zabu interrupted him. His expression was serious as he confessed, "You're elves."